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43 students. 43 young people kidnapped in the night. 43 sons and daughters murdered by the hands of corruption. 43 bodies discarded and burned like household trash. 43 chances for a better future lost. 43 more reasons to mourn for Mexico.
The 43 slain university students of Ayotzinapa died because on Sept. 26 they commandeered several public buses and blocked a highway, a common form or political protest in Mexico, and by doing so interfered with the wife of the mayor of Iguala, one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent and corrupt states. She was en route to give a speech, found the road blocked and called her husband to demand he do something about it. The mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered the local police to attack them. The cops handed them to a criminal gang associated with the narcos who control the region. And the students disappeared.
All this happened with the same impunity on the part of the mayor, the police and the narcos that infects all of Mexico and has quite literally allowed killers of all political and illegal persuasion to get away with murder for years.
Since the beginning of what has come to be called the Mexican Drug War, launched in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderón again the web of cartels who generate between up to $50 billion in illegal drug sales annually and control 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United State, the official death toll of the violence between the cartels, between the government and the cartels and between both of them and the innocent citizens of Mexico – like the 43 students of Ayotzinapa – has reached 60,000. That’s the official number. Unofficially, human rights observers put the estimate at 120,000.
For some perspective, consider that 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War, a conflict that compelled my generation to fill the streets of the U.S. capital in protest and led to vast changes in American society.
Of course, Vietnam was an American war and a draft existed that pulled those who could not dodge the conflict directly into it, but still one might imagine that a war of similar lethality occurring in a country visited annually by more than 6 million Americans would spark a modicum of outrage here at home.
Thus far, the official U.S. response has been little more than a shrug. The Obama administration has described the fate of the 43 students and the insipid response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto as “worrisome.”
That may change. The street protests that began in Iguala after the fate of the students was learned have spread throughout the county and turned violent in Mexico City. Peña Nieto, who ignored the kidnapping for 33 days before speaking publicly about and then left the country for a trade conference in China, has returned to hear a growing number of cries for his resignation (fueled in part by the revelation that he and his wife, a soap-opera star, had a secret $7 million house in a wealth enclave above Mexico City).
American news media are increasingly covering the issue and Mexican-American communities in the United are organizing and marching in the hope of galvanizing more public attention. One of those marches happened Saturday in San Francisco, with 500 people walking from 24th and Mission, once of the heart of the city’s Latino community, to Powell and Market streets. More protests are planned, once in conjunction with general strike set to occur in Mexico on Nov. 20, the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, and another in 43 U.S. cities in December.
What can you do? Many things. From a little to a lot.
Write or tweet your congressional representatives. Tell them you’re outraged, that you’ve had enough, that you want the U.S. government to demand that is second-largest trade partner (U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $600 billion in 2013) clean house.
If you smoke dope or do coke (and why do you?), then stop. Nearly all the coke and much of the weed comes through Mexico. Your high supports the cartels, which in turn corrupt the government further, which engenders a state of impunity, which allows crimes of all sorts, from tax evasion to mass murder, to go unpunished.
March. Walk in the streets with the Mexicans who have come to our country, legally and illegally, in order to escape the very corruption that lead to the deaths of the 43 students. With more than 33 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States (and that’s not counting second-, third-, fourth-, etc. generations of Mexican Americans) this is as much our war at it is Mexico’s.
“You have to come,” she said. “It’s weird. You’ll like it.”
I had been in Reykjavik for more than a week photographing homeless people, alcoholics, Elvis freaks and massive gym rats known as power-lifters. Mary Ellen Mark was leading a workshop and after assurances from her that Iceland offered enough oddities to suit my visual tastes I’d made the trip.
Mary Ellen was right, as usual. Beyond the ubiquitous blondes, behind the unrelenting civility, and underneath the itchy woolen sweaters, there was plenty of weird. I found all I could of it and made some decent photos in the time I had. I was doing what I often do while traveling: looking for interesting people and ignoring the tourist attractions.
That’s all well and good when I am in New York or Paris or Oaxaca, places I have the good fortune to visit regularly, but Iceland might have been an once-in-a-lifetime trip and the people I’d met and photographed could have lived anywhere in the world. After all, an alcoholic who lives in shipping container resembles similarly broken people in the U.S. – even if her name is Sigrun. I had been photographing Icelanders, not Iceland.
The country is a geologic amusement park chock full of glaciers, fjords and fumaroles, none of which I had seen. Nor had I walked on lava, slid on ice or dunked myself in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon.
And that is how, in an 11th-hour effort to fill that gap two days before my return flight to San Francisco, I found myself on a gray, blustery Sunday riding in a small station-wagon being driven by Ellen Inga, one of the workshop’s photography interns. She was taking me on a fast-forward tour of the volcanic landscape east of Reykjavik.
With Ellen’s young son buckled into the rear seat, a serpentine road carried us out from the city through an uplands studded with dark, magenta-tinted cinder cones. A spongy mat of green lichen covered the lower reaches of the rock. The colors, vibrant in then sun, were muted by a heavy mist. For photography, especially the drive-by variety I was doing, the day didn’t look promising.
We stopped several times so I could click off some frames. Even though I doubted the capacity of my computerized camera to capture the natural complexity before me, I marveled at the rawness and freshness of the landscape. The rocks, in geologic years, were newborns. The water, sitting deep in glacial lakes or running rapidly through basalt-rimmed rivers, was untainted by man. The air, moist and moving, quenched a deep pulmonary thirst.
At Þingvellir National Park, where the great tectonic plates of the mid-Atlantic ridge collide, I walked in the mist and followed a boardwalk through the rift valley to a promontory. I recorded the volcanic hills in the distance and the lake below. The gray swallowed the color, but I wanted the photo anyhow, as a memory and as something that might compel me to come back and devote more time to this landscape.
I can’t say I will return to Iceland. I would like to, though. There are good people there I would like to see again. There are amazing places – such as Þingvellir – I want to revisit and many more I’ve yet to see. But as my years accumulate, my promises become fewer. There is less time ahead to keep them.
This day, then, this Sunday drive through the hills, around the lake, past the waterfalls and home again, may be my Iceland day.
Far out on the edge of the Canal, past the blocks crammed corner-to-corner with parked cars, beyond the rows of sagging apartment houses packed with immigrants, on the other side of the new Mi Pueblo grocery, where Mexicans and Guatemalans and Salvordorans shop for sheets of chicharron, fat plugs of quesillo and other foods that make home seem less distant, far the from busy intersection where broad-backed men line up for day labor, not near any of those things, but on the long, low flat of fill that stretches to the Bay and one day will hold some brand of box store if the city fathers have their way but for today, at least, sits empty, they’re building a garden.
The Canal Community Garden, located on a quarter-acre of city land at Bellam Boulevard and Windward Way, is an array of 5-foot-by-10-foot, redwood-rimmed beds that, come next year, will abound with organic, herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers, each plot the labor of someone whose desire to extract bounty from the land overcame the unlikelihood that they’d ever be able to do it in a place as infertile as the Canal.
Work on the garden began in September. Seeds go in the soil in February. When the first harvest comes, the urban farmers and gardeners of the Canal should thank The Trust for Public Land and the Canal Alliance for making it happen.
I was there on Saturday, talking with a Philip Vitale of the Trust for Public Land, the project manager. He filled me in: a budget of more than $600,000; 92 garden plots of various sizes; a greenhouse for sprouting; a storage shed with lockers; a central space for classes and education; and, centering it all, a circular mosaic celebrating the overlap of art, food and community.
The mosaic came together while I watched. Oakland artist Rachel Rodi, the designer, and a half-dozen other women worked shoulder-to-should around a rectangular table, cutting sheets of blue, purple and green tile into shards of many shapes, laying beads of glue on the pieces and inserting them into the unfinished mosaic. It was a jigsaw puzzle with a twist: There were no pieces until someone made them.
The Canal Community Garden is the successor to one that was lost to the expansion of the Pickleweed Community Center in 2005. Since then, said Vitale, The Trust for Public Land has worked on a replacement. Partnering with the Canal Alliance, the neighborhood’s primary social service and advocacy organization, was key to the success of the project and ensures ongoing management of the garden, he said.
Daniel Werner, an AmeriCorps VISTA staffer on loan to Canal Alliance, is the garden coordinator. (To learn more about the garden or to apply for a plot, contact Werner at firstname.lastname@example.org, 415-306-0428.
I showed up at the garden on Saturday to scratch an itch, one that’s festered in the years I’ve been out newspaper journalism — a desire to feel the connection to community I felt when I first fell into photojournalism and, then, reporting.
As many did, I wandered into journalism by accident, but once there found enchantment and intrigue in the stories of ordinary people. I began as a photographer and loved capturing the faces of people with the camera. When I started writing, I became addicted to the interview, the act of questioning and asking why and how and who. I was nosy and I guess was needy and the conversation satisfied both.
Eventually, I let many of those things slip away. I managed people instead of photographing them. I wrote memos instead of stories. I looked far ahead and missed what was in front of me. I’d succeeded in the business of journalism, but I’d stopped honoring the passion that brought me to it in the first place.
Now, I’m, if not wiser, certainly older. I don’t confuse ambition with passion any longer. I recognize the difference between what I must do and what I love to do. I admire more the great storytellers, visual and written, and the work they do to bring those stories to us. And, perhaps with some regret – because we all have just a little, don’t we? – I wish I had made more of an effort to become one of them.
I didn’t, though, so I do this – stop by an empty city lot on a cold fall afternoon to meet a group of good-minded people who are building a garden, an enterprise that enriches the neighborhood, elevates the common welfare and rewards them with the individual satisfaction. I take some pictures, I ask a few questions, I find a small story and I share it. It is journalism with the smallest “J” possible. Not hard-hitting. Not world-changing. Not much of anything really other than a thin slice of truth, a small dollop of daily life, and a healthy reminder to myself that this is who I once was – and who I can be again.