Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Streets of San Cristobal (excerpted from a novel)

Note: This is the second installment of a story I posted on La Bloga March 19. If you are stuck at home, as most of us are, this story of Anthony Reza might be a temporary distraction for you. The story is set in 2013. When we last left him, Anthony, suffering a bout of emotional distress, decides to take his wife Serena's advice and travel, for rest and to clear his mind, except Anthony chooses Mexico City, against his wife's better judgment. She thinks Mexico is too violent. He promises to stay in the Mexican capital and rest a week before he must return home to the start of another semester teaching college. When he arrives at Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City, Anthony is enticed by the sign "Tuxtla Gutierrez." He has always wanted to visit Chiapas, particularly San Cristobal de Las Casas. There are no flights this late in the evening, so he hops in a taxi to explore travel options at the bus station. He knows he is breaking all the rule he and his wife discussed. When we last see him, he is in the back of a taxi cab.
     Inside of twenty minutes, the taxi drops me off at the Terminal de Autobuses, Sur. The driver places my suitcase on the curb. It’s now dark outside. I enter a large, modern, domed structure. The buses here are headed into Mexico’s southern regions. I walk toward the first-class bus line Exclusivo. I know from experience that any bus-line other than first class in Mexico is a crapshoot.
     My first bus trip into Mexico’s interior was in the mid-seventies, and, yes, it was the chicken express, a difficult but necessary trip to the Zacatecas backcountry, an area called the Canyons of Juchipila. I was a 26-year-old divorcee, a graduate-student researching the Mexican Revolution, using Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo, as my compass.
     The people of the Canyons helped me expel Southeast Asia from my mind, at least for a while. I’d hidden the pain behind a quickie marriage, booze, drugs, and yes, education, losing myself in the immensity of knowledge itself. As a child of the working-class, I was naïve enough to think a university education held the answers to life’s deepest questions.
     I'd arrived in Juchipila during the annual fiesta, color and music everywhere. I watched roosters kill each other and men on foot slay massive, fighting bulls. Friends took me hunting for mountain goats, butcher and barbecue them afterwards. Three brothers invited me to saddle up and herd cattle in the high country, rocky, mountain crags at our fingertips, following trails few human footprints have ever touched. Three days later back in town, I broke out in a fever. It raged for five-days. An old couple rented me a room in their adobe home. They nursed me back to health.
     I wait my turn in line then step to the ticket counter. “What time does the next bus leave for San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas?”
     “To Tuxtla-Gutierrez, at 8:00 PM.”
     It’s nearly 6:30. She gets to the point. “It arrives at 9:00 in the morning. From there, you can arrange transportation on a shuttle to San Cristobal, arriving, mmm, about 10:00 AM.”
     I hand the woman my credit card. She gives me a $70 ticket, one-way, to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. I take my luggage and check it in at baggage, where a handler puts it with other bags and hands me a claim ticket. I pass through security into a glass-enclosed waiting area, reserved only for ticketed passengers who crowd the coffee shops, cafes, newspaper stands and souvenir stalls, everything new and sparkling. I take a seat where I can I can see the new Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes powered buses enter and depart the station outside. A pre-recorded female voice announces various destinations, “Oaxaca, Merida, Villahermosa, Quintana Roo.”
     My mind calms as I become focused on physical tasks, saving my ticket stubs, keeping schedules, even ordering from a menu—simple, everyday tasks. I can’t explain it. Dr. Evans says there is a word for it in psychology. I can’t remember it right now. Then, my educator’s mind takes over, and I begin to survey and analyze everything around me, trying to find meaning in my surroundings. I recall the poet William Carlos Williams’ line, “No idea but in things.”
     I didn’t need a government psychologist to tell me I was suffering from survivor’s guilt, even if I couldn’t remember much of the actual killing. Still, the knowing doesn’t make the understanding any easier.
     The first time I went to the Los Angeles V.A. was in ’83, when no one used the term PTSD, and many doctors rejected our symptoms as combat related. They blamed it on our wild lifestyles, drugs, sex, rock ‘n roll, all our irresponsible behavior. It wasn’t until a vet drove his car through a plate-glass window and into the lobby of the West Los Angeles Veterans’ Hospital that they began to listen.
     They offered me a few meetings with an older, stern shrink, who kept fingering his Brooks Brothers tie throughout our sessions. I still remember his first question. “What’s it like?”
     “I can’t explain it, that’s why I’m here.”
     He snickered. “That doesn’t help me much."
     I reached out to grab him by his shirt collar. He pulled back and fell off his chair. I was standing over him. He said, in a tranquil voice, “Son, I’m sorry. Really. I am sorry I didn’t mean it like that.”
     He got up and smoothed his tie. I looked him right in the eyes. “I’m too old for this shit, Doc. I’ve got a kid to raise. In a bar a few weeks ago, a guy, a stranger, offered me pills. I didn’t even ask what they were, except, I remember they looked beautiful, different colors, you know. I chugged them down with a shot of bourbon. After I passed out, a friend drove me home and dropped me into bed.”
     “Did you want to die?”
     “It’s more I didn’t care.”
     I was lucky. He didn't call the cops or report me to the medical staff. He let it slide. At the time, I was closing in on 40. The community college where I’d been teaching part-time offered me a tenure-track position. I tutored at two or three high schools, published a few articles about the border in academic journals. I thought the worst of the war had passed me by. It hadn’t.
     I got help from friends at a neighborhood Vet Center. The helped me sail over some rough seas, until the storms raged, too much for me to control.
     Teaching helped, kept me focused. I wanted to be well. Then, I met this vet who lived in the Mojave Desert where it hits 110 degrees every day, spring to autumn, then jumps to 120 during heatwaves. He told me it’s damn near unbearable. You cope, you survive, you learn to live with it. That’s us he had said--learning to live with it.
     I wear my California professorial garb, well-worn blue jeans, a slightly faded coral Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt, an old gray blazer, and comfortable sneakers. Before I left home, my wife, Serena, forced me to cut my long, unruly hair and trim my mountain man beard, for fear the Mexican police might hassle an older left-wing, Chicano hippie professor who asks too many questions.
     The bus terminal bustles, folks catching connections to all parts of southern Mexico. A young woman takes a seat opposite mine. She could be 30-ish, definitely crema, an upper crust Mexican. Behind her, through the large windows, I see the buses entering and exiting outside, their engines muffled by the thick glass that separate us.
     She’s attractive in a fresh, simple way, prettier when she smiles. She takes out an I-pad from her bulky handbag. In Mexico, folks, even strangers, greet each other, either with a “good day,” a smile, or a nod of the head. Of course, Mexican women are careful, preferring to keep their eyes downward. In small towns, especially, you don’t pass anyone without some acknowledgement, a recognition of each other’s humanity, a custom we’ve lost in the U.S. I’ve had some of my most intriguing talks standing with strangers on sidewalks.
     Overhead, the recorded voice continues calling out, Yucatan, Cancun, Campeche, and Coatzacoalcos. I nod to the young woman who is looking at me as if she recognizes me..
     Though I promised Serena I’d rest, she knows, for me, that’s nearly impossible. Now that I’m travelling, maybe I can make sense of the material I’d gathered for the first story, even though it happened back in 2001, right after the World Trade Centers, so it got lost in the news.
     Mexican authorities were adamant it had been an accident and occurred as they reported it, an older, drunken American aficionado fell from the bleachers, splitting his head on the concrete below. He was a friend who helped me thought some tough times. None of it made any sense. So, I traveled to Mexico on my own dime, interviewed people present that day, and I uncovered something much different than the official report.

                                                                       An Act of Contrition 
     The crowd had been restless that day from the boredom of the first two bulls. The toreros were playing it safe. None wanted to suffer serious injury in a border town. 
     The true aficionados began to stomp their feet and holler, just as the third animal rushed into the arena, kicking up a cloud of dust and hooking its horns wildly at the hot afternoon air. With nothing solid to attack, the animal retreated to the toril, the red wooden gate from which it entered. 
     A slight movement captured its attention, a gray shadow at the other side of the ring. In seconds, the beast homed in on the lone figure entering its territory. The man moved forward, taking small, measured steps. The red-shirted monosabios swooped in to stop him. They scampered through the callejon between the barrera and the bleachers, cursing the intruder who stood inside the arena just beyond their reach. A hefty security guard entered the ring and carefully moved towards the man. But before the guard could reach him, the man moved closer to the bull, away from the safety of the barrera. 
     The intruder stood some 20 feet from the animal. The crowd quieted. The security guard stopped. The bull turned to face the man. Everything slowed. The portly guard retreated, slipped through the opening in the barrera, and took his place where the bullfighters, authorities, and recently medical staff watched and waited. 
     Nobody knew what to make of the man. An espontaneo, a spectator who leaps into the ring during a bullfight, was usually a desperate, raggedly dressed local teenager seeking instant glory and a chance to impress an agent or impresario. Usually, the monosabios would grapple with the espontaneo, and the police would cart him off to jail; or worse, a bull would drive a horn into him. But for a poor Mexican kid, what did it matter? It was either that or head illegally across the border to pick fruit, work the gardens of the rich, or wash dishes in a dank U.S. restaurant. 
     But what of this older man, Raul Armenta? He sported brown Ralph Lauren chinos and a baby blue John Ashford dress shirt. He wore top of the line Rockports. His year-old Range Rover was parked right across the border in a 24-hour San Ysidro parking lot. He must have felt an exhilaration he could barely fathom as he walked towards a bull in front of 4,000 strangers in the bullring known as El Toreo de Tijuana or what American aficionados called the Downtown Tijuana Bullring. 
     It had all been easy. First, he bought a $50 ticket in the shady section, primera fila and took his seat among Tijuana’s elite. When the third bull came roaring out of the toril, Raul dropped from his concrete seat into the callejon. He hadn't hit his head, as reported by El Sol de Tijuana. 
     No one noticed the disturbance until he stood in the ring. A short cry came from the fans closest to him. He moved to where a bullfighter had draped a capote over the barrera. He swiped the cape from the thickly painted red wall, turned, and walked toward the center of the ring before anybody could react. 
     The stiff, unruly canvas in his hands wouldn’t cooperate. What should have been an act of grace and beauty was the awkward movement of an older man tripping over a heavy piece of fuchsia and gold-colored material. 
     The beast put its snout to the ground and stayed close to the toril. Raul must have noted the animal’s reluctance to engage. Did he think--a manzo? In his home library, he had a 1932, first edition copy of Hemingway’s classic Death in the Afternoon, so he had to have read the description of a manzo. A manzo was the most dangerous kind of animal. A manzo was cowardly, unpredictable, and edgy. Bullfighters hated fighting manzos and dispatched them quickly, after performing a few ceremonial capotazos to satisfy fans needs for some action. 
     The ring attendants, monosabios (wise monkeys), stood anxiously around the barrera and looked for the right moment to rush into the ring, tackle Raul, drag him from the arena and take him to jail, where they would learn he was a Vietnam veteran, and university vice-president, whose salary exceeded $150,000 a year, and on track for a university presidency somewhere. 
     As the absurd spectacle unfolded, the fans sensed danger, possibly death. Their whistles and jeers ceased, except for a group of college-aged drunk Americans, shirtless and tanned, in the Sunny Section, upper level, where they raised their extra-large cups of beer in a mock salute. They cheered Raul, encouraging him onward. They had paid to see blood, and, one way or another, they would get it. 
     The bull raised its head. Raul balked. He had to have been repelled by the pungent odor of hay, feces, and urine? What went through his mind as he saw blood streaming down from the bull’s shoulder to its front leg, soiling the sand beneath it? The animal let out a cry, like the sound of a cheap bugle. “Ho!” Raul grunted, beckoning the animal forward.
     Morelos, Puerta Dos! The booming voice jars me. She is watching me read, turning one page after another. We sit alone at one end of the terminal. She smiles.
     “Hello, I’m on my way to Chiapas,” I say, in Spanish.
     It’s always been easy for me to get strangers to talk. Don’t ask me why. Even as a kid I was precocious. It definitely helps in the classroom and in my research.
     “Chiapas,” she says, and looks at me as if she were an American and I’d said, “I’m going to the Ozarks.” “It’s very far from the Capital.”
     “I’m a college professor, interested in the Zapatistas and Marcos.”
     Whenever I use the word professor, I see people’s attitude change.
     “You mean Galeano,” she says, correcting me.
     “Of course, I forgot. He changed his name. I hear he hasn’t been seen in a long time.”
     Marcos, the ex-philosophy professor, cigar-chomping guerilla on horseback, his face always concealed beneath a black ski mask, became the Zapatista spokesperson, a warrior-poet-in-residence, of sorts. In 1994, on the same day the U.S. and Mexico signed the NAFTA agreement, the Zapatistas, mostly poor Mayan farmers and souvenir peddlers, attacked the city of San Cristobal, infuriating rich land owners, and their international corporate partners, fearful of losing one acre of their millions. For the government and world order, the Maya were an obstacle to globalization.
     She answers, “They say he died of cancer, too many cigars.”
     I hear sarcasm in her voice. She raises an eyebrow and dimples dot her cheeks.
     “That’s very funny,” I say. “I have heard the same rumors.”
     “Yes, I wasn’t joking.”
     “What interests young Mexicans today, if you don’t mind my asking?”
     She turns. I can feel her dark eyes on me. She surprises me and says, “I am older than I look.”
     I laugh, “That is a coincidence. So am I. My name is Anthony Reza.”
     She smiles and nibbles at her lower lip. “Happy to meet you. Ramona Cervantes, soon to be doctor Cervantes,” she says proudly.
      “Congratulations, in what field?”
     She nods. “Political Science,” then says, in answer to my question, “and our concerns are much the same as most young people anywhere, the economy and employment. Whether we will have jobs once we graduate from the university. The increasing violence. Corruption. Globalization. Uber vs. Lyft. Twitter vs. Instagram and Snapchat. We’ve little time for failed rebel leaders or political movements. But be careful, professor. Chiapas is complicated. Mexico is never as it appears.”
     “Worse than Ciudad Juarez?” Her smile disappears. She sighs, “Rape, murder, and mutilation are not complicated, except for the sources, which we younger Mexicans know are due to the intrusion of outside forces.”
     “Well, I don’t understand it, I mean, killing the innocent.” The second I say it, I remember an Army lieutenant who called in artillery on a village as his squad was retreating, having found nothing incriminating, leaving the village in cinders.
     She fingers her I-pad. “Your view of our world is clouded by propaganda. To Americans everything is about the war on drugs, violent Mexicans, even femicide. We Mexican women have always lived with it, the evil side of Iberian machismo.”
     “Macho is a European concept. Oh, we know the Indians sacrificed women, and men, but for a purpose.”
     “To make sure the sun rose the next day?”
     “Sacrifice is a purpose. We have no documents of femicide among Mexican Indians, abuse, yes, but no mass murder, not like what is now taking place. It’s new, this killing of women. It was unheard of before your so-called drug wars and the rise of the maquiladoras.”
     I raise an eyebrow to show I sympathize. After a few seconds, she asks me questions about the North, my education, about teaching and American students, whether I am married and have children.
     I ask her about life as a Mexican college student. She tells me education gave her a sense of independence. She tells me she lives with girlfriends in an area called Pedregal de Carrasco, in a condominium above the city, not far from Coyoacan, the home of Diego Rivera, Frida Kalo, and Hernan Cortez. I tell her my cousin once lived in Pedregal. She describes how her grandmother’s recent death has affected her. I sympathize. Then she tells me about her boyfriend, a med student in Monterrey, and how they hardly get to see each other.
     I say, “Education is a vocation, not a job. I think scholars should stay single, like priests and nuns.” I laugh. “I mean, we’re so locked up in ideas. When I research or write, nothing else matters. It is unfair to one’s family.”
     “No Mexican woman wants to end up an old-maid.” She used the word solterona. “You see how manipulated we are.”
     “You know, I’ve been to Mexico City many times but never visited UNAM.”
     She reaches into her bag, pulls out a card, and hands it to me. “I would love to give you a tour of the university and introduce you to some students and professors. Maybe you can lecture to a class.”
     I take the card, thank her, and tell her I am on a whirlwind trip. I must be back in the classroom by next Monday. Perhaps on another trip. I hold out my hand. She takes it, and we shake. Her palm is soft. She offers a light, friendly squeeze. I say goodbye, stand, and move towards the food court. She calls, “Be careful in Chiapas. One can be blinded by the charm.”
     “Thank you. It was nice meeting you, Dr. Cervantes.”
     At one of the food stands, I order two chorizo, egg, and potato burritos, one to eat now and one for my trip. My doctor has warned me already about my cholesterol--the good one. I need to increase it from 24 to 30, at least. The bad one is not too bad. I should be about ten pounds lighter, for my five-nine frame. I’m disciplined and eat healthy foods. I walk two to five miles a day, play basketball, half-court, of course, most Saturdays with some veteran friends. Raul was part of our group. We miss him. Now, we play at a much slower paced game than when we were younger.
     I hear the P.A. system, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Puerta Ocho.

     I find my row, remove a few objects from my carry-on bag and place it on the rack overhead. I slip into my seat and hope nobody takes the empty one beside me. Fifteen hours is a long trip. To stretch across an empty seat would be heaven.
     I settle into the plush seat. A leg rest ejects beneath me and lifts my tired calves and feet. The bus is two-thirds full. The powerful Mercedes’ engine hums. Anxiety mounts as I wait for a last-minute rider to board and steal the seat beside me. The bus begins to slowly pull away from the station. Relief! I have a row to myself.
     The rush begins as passengers rush to fill empty rows at the back. A soldier in uniform sits across the aisle and one row behind mine.
     It’s dark outside. I am aware that anything can happen in Mexico on an overnight bus ride. I stay alert, though my entire body slumps into the shape of the seat. I reach for the manuscript but change my mind. It’s hard to read on moving buses. I take out my cassette recorder and whisper everything I remember about the young woman and our discussion, especially her opinions of Mexico, her education, profession, and boyfriend, anything I can use to understand this changing Mexico, ironically, still struggling, after centuries, to free itself from colonial shackles, a never-ending battle between Cortez and Moctezuma.
     I don’t doubt the young woman wanted to be helpful by inviting me to tour the university with her, but I also understand, a personal connection with an American professor--networking, let’s say, can also be important for her.
     I’ll wait until I arrive in San Cristobal let Serena know my change of plans. She won’t be happy, not even surprised, more disappointed at my judgement, or lack of it. I will just tell her I’ve always wanted to see Palenque. Also, there is much less violent crime in southern Mexico.
     I slip deeper into my seat as the bus pulls out of terminal, through the narrow streets and onto the four-land toll road. From the corner of my eye, I see the soldier glaring at me.

No comments: