In the borderlands of the West – America’s south and Mexico’s north – reality is fluid: much is not what it seems, permanence is an illusion, and culture and language are trafficked as commonly as contraband.
The monied North hungers for labor and drugs and flat-screen TVs assembled at sub-minimum wages; the impoverished South, conquered and corrupted, huddled in tribes held together by blood, fear, and power, feeds the northern beast, both willingly and by necessity.
In this thin, magical novel (2009), Yuri Herrera distills the complexities of the American-Mexican symbiosis into the clarity of a single purpose: self-preservation: the North to keep what it has, the South to survive what it doesn’t.
It is a story set against archetypes: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango; gunmen named Thug .45 and Thug .38 for their favored weapons; the “top dogs,” the caciques, Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, Mr. Q, whose favors carry indebtedness. Two-dimensional places and figures, they are stand-ins for the stereotypical American perspective of the lands to its south: dusty, dangerous, and dismal.
Within this anonymity lives sharply defined Makina, a fierce, independent young woman from the Village, a human switchboard who take calls and passes messages, connecting the North and the South. She speaks the local lingo (an indigenous dialect), anglo, and the latin (Spanish), and “knew how to keep quiet in all three.” Makina enforces a set of rules that gain her the trust of all:
“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats. You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business. You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to not. You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”
Makina’s mother sends her North to search for her brother, and there, on the far side of the river, she finds herself entangled in the amorphous nature of the region and its people, both white and brown:
“They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rapid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of new people. And then they speak. They speak in an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable.”
The story is too compact to reveal more, but the depth of Herrera’s perception is unlimited. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a marvelous ode, lyrical at times, hard-edged at others, to the incessant river of language, ideas, and bodies that flow across “la frontera,” impeded by government, exploited by mafia, but as impossible as the tide to stop.
It is one of the most compelling books I’ve read about trans-border culture – and more timely now than when it was written.
Note: Herrera’s remarkable use of language reflects the supple nature of border culture. He plays with known words and creates new ones. Language becomes identity. Should you read the book, be sure to read also translator Lisa Dillman’s comments following the narrative.
What strikes me when I return to California from Mexico is not the presence of affluence, but the extent of it, the width and breadth of the comforts and conveniences it buys, the immensity of the shopping areas and the efficiency of the paved corridors that connect them, the newness of the cars, the reality of their price tags – a $70,000 pickup! – the proclamation, both boldly advertised and silently intuited, that whatever you wish is available so long as you have the coin or the card of the realm.
There is also money in Mexico. Just two days ago, I watched a black Porsche Cayenne drive with Germanic haste down a 16th century street in Oaxaca. More widely seen are BMWs and Mercedes, parked in front costly hotels, watched with vigilance by uniformed men. But these are uncommon, rare birds in an environment of pigeons and sparrows: used SUVs, ancient VWs, and underpowered motorcycles with a baby on board, as well as a father and a mother. In Mexico, inequality is bottom-heavy; in the U.S., it is top-heavy.
Arriving at home, I see the solidness of my house, the thick redwood beams that anchor it to the hill, the heft of the front door, heavy on its brass hinges, and, inside, the milled cherry planks that support the stuffed chair where I read greet my feet, when I have taken off the thick shoes that bore me through two flights, with a sleek coolness.
Around me is nearly everything I’ve accumulated over the decades, the photographs of Mary Ellen (now gone), the book by Mary Ann (as well), the paintings and the pottery and my own images from Oaxaca, and all the goodies of modern life: stove, fridge, cords that connect to computers and tablets and phones.
I could not tell you how all this came to be. There was no grand plan. Things happened, one after another, one day at a time. But this I do know: I am fortunate, wealthy with friends and family, and possessing enough financially that, while being almost penurious relative to the monied community in which I live, to feel abashed at times for having so much while many others, including the people I saw only yesterday in Mexico, have so little.
Despite being uneasy about my ease, I don’t want to abandon it. Habits of comfort are hard to quit. Spending so much time in Mexico has not made me want to be more Mexican; rather, it has made me more thankful of being American, a tarnished designation these days, to be sure, but still one that affords its bearer the chance of economic success and the right of democratic pluralism, as imperfect as both are in our times.
Before Covid, family and photography took me to Oaxaca. Both still do, but now I am compelled even more by the collision of the calendar, of my waning time, with an opportunity to put to good use what skills and scars I’ve gathered in service of a non-profit dedicated to education (Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, oaxacastreetchildren.org).
I am admittedly late to this game, but apologies for the past don’t accomplish much. Instead, here in the present I say, Thank you – thank you to everyone who brought me here, thank you for believing even when I didn’t, thank you opening doors and inviting me through, thank you for seeing what I needed when I had no clue. I find solace in knowing you are the source of my comforts and in recognizing that my discomforts are of my own making.
As I age, I realize we have a choice – to remain in the past or to move forward, to walk toward the fate that awaits us all. I choose to walk. It is more comforting to be on the move.
Not all at once – although the bullets that breed in poverty will do that. Poverty kills slowly. It grinds and grinds and grinds. Until it reduces whatever hope you had to a dusty smudge of resentment, befouls whatever innocence you had with the daily excrement of your reality, erases completely whatever childhood you had and replaces it with a ten-hour-a-day-ten-dollar-a-day job in a Mexican greasy spoon.
Poverty snatches children from their dreams and sells them to the demons of despair and depression.
Poverty forces adults to decide to choose between their children and their own dignity.
Think about all that, then add in Covid. Schools closed. Studying on cheap cell phones. No socializing. Alone at home with your poverty, watching it suffocate your youth. Two years of this. In a country where public school education is already atrocious, and there is nowhere to go but down.
You know what happens. Kids fail. Kids drop out. Kids stop being kids and take their seat on the merry-go-round of poverty. Spin that wheel. Watch the viciousness of the whirling circle.
A number: After two years of closed schools “71 percent of (Latin American) lower secondary education students may not be able to understand a text of moderate length,” says a new World Bank study.
More numbers: A 13-year-old girl enters middle school with second-highest grade in her class: 9.7 out of 10. Three years later, during the pandemic, she scrapes her way into high school with an average of 7.2.
Last number: One. That is how many high-school semesters she will finish before dropping out. One. In a few weeks, the former brightest girl on the block becomes just another Oaxacan teenage dropout wearing an apron and serving up slop for a buck an hour.
Unless there’s a miracle. I’m not a believer, though.
I have not told you about Oaxaca, the last visit, now a full month ago, because there is so much to say, even though most of it is the same, and so little of it comes out spare you the details and speak only of feelings, or the facts might spatter into a gory mess on the page.
My strength, if it is such, is not to regard the contents of the glass as half-full or half empty, although the latter is my natural bent, rather to ask where the rest of the water is, who has it, and why isn’t it in the glass. These are the questions of a mind that is not so much focused and inquisitive as of one that is restless and anxious, poor qualities in a human being, but nonetheless useful in the practice of journalism, which I practiced, but never conquered, for a long period.
Applying this mindset to Oaxaca, where I’d gone to find what I was missing and then soon began missing what I found, I routinely returned home to my American comforts after visits with mothers and children and meanderings through city streets more saddened by the experiences than heartened by them. As time passed, the only lives that seemed to improve were those of children who were born in the United States and returned there to live with a family friend or a relative. Everyone else continued their slow-motion collision with cultural and institutional walls that kept them encaged in a world with little work, less education, almost no health care, and the absence of long-term hope.
The pandemic made everything worse.
In my eighteen-month separation from Oaxaca, teenage boys stopped going to high school and began working for five dollars a day; the brightest girl I knew, forced to study via her cellphone, sought refuge in a violent video game, lost interest in school, and allowed her grades to drop – on a scale of 10 – from 9.5 to 7.2; another teenager, a girl, one who never showed interest in studying, ran away from home, and her mother hears reports of her wandering drugged on the streets; one mother left her son at home and took up with a guy hoping for love but found he only wanted her womb so he could sire a son, and then kicked her out when he learned she lacked the necessary female plumbing; a teenage boy I’d met years before in a shelter, headed for the U.S., got a woman his mother’s age pregnant on the why, crossed the Texas border, got arrested, and sat in a state prison the day his child was born.
That’s enough, isn’t it? Multiply these tragedies by thousands, at least. The work lost, the classes missed, the families separated as parents left Oaxaca for other cities in search of jobs. COVID arrived in Oaxaca as a ravenous beast and feasted on the poor.
Truthfully, I didn’t deal with it well. After a conversation with a mother who showed me sheets of medical bills for her son, who has had leukemia for several years and is somehow still alive, and then withdrew from a folder another set of papers having to do with the search for her constant pain, I sat in silence in the car of a mutual friend who had driven me to the mother’s house. The friend, too, didn’t speak. We were, I would say, overwhelmed. By the enormity of it all. By the relentlessness. By the incessant march of calamity.
I felt small and impotent. I began blaming myself. I could have done more than I’d done, I thought, which, to be honest with everyone, was not that much. I’d applied a few financial bandages on a sucking chest wound that needs a surgical suite. Even the child I’d most focused on, having pled to some unknown deity, just this one, please, just this one girl, dangled from a gossamer string of hope over an adolescent abyss from which, in Mexico, there is no return. I thought about a woman named Becca Stevens I’d met earlier on the trip who, driven by will and passion, founded an organization named Thistle Farms that throws lifelines to woman who have been abused by men (and by society), and wondered why I couldn’t be more like her. She located the means within herself to focus and to do the work that results in resurrecting hundreds of women. I couldn’t manage somehow get one promising young woman through high school.
Here at home, tucked into the trees on the damp north side of a hill, I realize that what drew me to Oaxaca may no longer be there, and that was the intimacy of the experience, the ability, not my own, but one gifted to me by the families, to witness the scope of their lives – smiles and sadness, joy and tears, hope and despair. The stories of child abuse, rape, and beatings, told to me at kitchen tables, in cafés, or via Whats, were leavened with birthday cakes, new-born babies, grade-school graduations, weddings, baptisms, and long, silent hugs that shrunk the great distance between our lives into a space where we could not tell one from another.
That’s what may be gone. Time claims everything. Another voracious beast, it consumes the terrible and the delightful with equal persistence. All that remains is change.
Old age, or to be more gentle with myself, older age, does not care much for change. It prefers consistency. Clothes it knows well, food it finds agreeable, familiar faces, and well-trodden paths. Change is for the young. In fact, for the young change is obligatory. If they don’t adapt, they get stuck right where they’re born – and for many that isn’t so great.
Once more, I tell myself, do it once more. Molt, shed the skin of current expectations and allow another to grow. Brace for the moment between the old and the new when I am emotionally naked and once again clad only in uncertainty. Preconception shields us from both the world’s harder realities and its more alluring charms. In looking for what we expect, we are blind to the surprising.
The timing is right. The fallen leaves of the red maple litter the patio bricks of the same color. The big buckeye plunks its fist-sized nuts onto the wooden stairs below the street. The mornings are moist, promising chill and, we hope, rain to our parched, fiery north state. Winter and change are close cousins.
This is what I return to, a change of season, a change of reason, a chance to once more begin anew.
México, México, lindo México, ¿por qué me castigas tanto, por qué sigues rompiéndome el corazón?
There is nothing easy in Mexico. There is nothing that once fixed or settled or mended stays that way. The country drifts toward the broken. ¿México, por qué se descompone tanto?
Tell me, mi amigo Mexico, why do you make education so hard? Why do you take the dreams of smart little girls, the one’s with the highest grades in their classes, and toss them like sacks of plastic soda bottles alongside your pot-holed roads? Why do you make teenage boys drop of out of school and work for casi nada selling trinkets on the streets or busting up rocks for their mamas’ ex-lovers? Why is it easier for a teenager to get into the United States than it is into college – or even high school?
I want to know, mi querido Mexico, why do you make poverty so agreeable? I want to know why single mothers who work so much – ten hours a day, six days a week – must tell their children que el dinero no alcanza for their school supplies as they sit in the single room that is their house and make a bowl of oatmeal that is their dinner.
I wonder, mi cielito Mexico, why there are pesos for a Mayan train and a freeway to the beach and a paved road en el medio de la nada, but there no centavos for water that runs clean from the tap, for toilets that flush, for schools whose task is to educate everyone instead of to weed out those who lack the resources to continue.
What can you say to me Mexico – more, what can you do to show the world, Mexico – that you take these questions seriously and do not use the obvious answers para chingar al pueblo every six years?
Do I sound fed up, Mexico, disheartened, saddened, angry? ¿Sueno harto, México, descorazonado, triste, enojado? Then, yes, you hear me correctly. Imagine how the world sees you, Mexico, when I, a friend – y todavia somos amigos – feel this way. What do other people think of your empty promises, your corruption and impunity, and your insane rate of violence?
Oye, Mexico, you cannot break my heart further, because the pieces are already too small. You cannot sadden me more because my soul is full of tears. You can not disappoint me again, because I no long expect anything of you.
Pero no soy de allí, Mexico, I am not from there. I am gringo, extranjero, gabacho. I am not what matters. What matters are the children and their mothers. They are your future, Mexico. Why, Mexico, do you care so little about your future?
A teenage boy dies in Mexico. Tragic, so young, you might say, but also so common. In a land of violence and poverty, the lives of young men meet regrettable ends with common frequency. The story of this boy, though, is special. I will tell what I know of it, but there is much more outside of my knowledge. First, his name. It remains with me. After enduring so much in such a short life, he deserves privacy, as do his parents. In this story, he is Kiki, and they are Guadalupe and Miguel.
Kiki’s troubles began even before he drew his first breath. As he crowned out of his mother’s birth canal, the attending doctor, who was unskilled, grabbed awkwardly, twisting the emerging boy’s head and damaging his spinal column. Kiki’s brain survived, but its connection to his extremities and his organs did not. Kiki saw and heard, but he could not control. His limbs contorted into a permanent S, and his hands and feet curled inward, in retreat from his body. His speech consisted of an array of sounds – sweet gurgles, anxious pleadings, rhythmic mouthing to the music he loved. Stunted in height and thinned by lack of muscle, he weighed no more than a first grader.
Atop this anatomical mess sat Kiki’s full-sized, beautiful head. His face was broad across the cheekbones, full around the mouth, punctuated by an assertive nose, and adorned with a pair of deep, dark, hypnotic, ovular eyes that spoke all the emotions that Kiki’s muted voice could not – sparkles for pleasure, tears for sadness, and long, unblinking stares that could have been inquisitiveness or maybe just incomprehension. From the neck up, he was as attractive as he was grotesque from the neck down.
Kiki lived in a rural village that was near a bigger city, but still remote enough that a visitor from a more developed world could walk the town’s only paved road, smell the fields of garlic that surround it, pass the empty church (closed by an earthquake that cracked its tower), and imagine being in another century. Only the satellite dishes jutting up from rooftops broke the reverie.
Guadalupe, Kiki’s mom, is a short, quiet, doe-eyed woman whose dominant expression is one of permanent suspension, of canceled expectation. Her face is young enough to still hint of the coquettish beauty of her youth, while portraying the weight of caring for Kiki for a decade and a half, feeding, bathing, dressing, changing the bag he needed to empty his waste. A deep, vertical furrow creases her forehead about her broad nose. Miguel, the father, missed most of Kiki’s life. He was in California, working in a restaurant, sending money home, but also indulging himself with dalliances in adultery and drinking. By the time Miguel returned to Mexico, he was rotting from the inside out; diabetes, brought on by the drinking, was dissolving one gangrenous leg and eroding his eyesight.
Kiki outlived his father, who died blind and minus half a leg at age 49, one more victim of a disease that plagues Mexico. In the weeks before his death, Miguel laid in a single, metal-framed bed next to that of his son, to whom he spoke in the rhythmic Spanish of the Mexican countryside. Miguel’s final act of life was to teach Kiki how to say his father’s name. I saw Guadalupe a few weeks after Miguel died. As she sat on her bed holding Kiki in her lap, she told me he was speaking his father’s name. I couldn’t understand it, but she and Kiki did. That was what was important.
When Miguel died, Kiki cried for three weeks. Silently. He had grown accustomed to hearing his father’s voice and feeling his presence in the room with him. He could not have known his father was dying, though I am sure he realized Miguel was his father because he was aware of who people were – his mother, of course, the grandmother who lived with him, and occasional visitors from other places. Three weeks of tears, three weeks of mourning.
The bed-bound intimacy of the dying, diabetic father and his physically crumpled son was, despite the hardship of caring for both of them, a gift of emotional honesty for Guadalupe, who for her entire period of motherhood was ensnared in a web of whispered lies and unspoken truths, the result of the duplicitous actions of her husband.
Kiki was Miguel’s third child. His first was born in California to a woman he met there. A boy or a girl, I don’t know. The mother of the second child was a local woman from the same town as Miguel and Guadalupe. They liaised long enough for her to give birth to a boy, and then Miguel’s libidinous eye landed on Guadalupe, a curvy young woman with lush black hair, a good-looking country girl. When Miguel proposed to Guadalupe, her family balked. The whole town knew he was a philanderer. Who could say if something as fragile as a marriage vow would bind him to monogamy? He persisted, though, and what followed was marriage, pregnancy, and Kiki.
By the economic standards of the village, which border on poverty, Kiki’s family made enough money for a decent life. They had a plot of land, good for growing food. Miguel sent home dollars from California, that enabled them to open a sparsely stocked hardware store. There were even pesos to pay for physical therapy for Kiki. What fortunes they had, though, flagged after Miguel’s return. First hobbled and then blinded, he was limited to simple domestic chores, such as scraping kernels of corn off dried cobs. When money got tight, therapy for Kiki stopped.
As his eyesight retreated into narrow tunnels of vision, Miguel passed hours seated in a plastic chair in front of the hardware store, whose eastern side was shaded from the afternoon sun and faced a vacant lot about the size of a soccer field that bordered the town’s church. On the south end of this land, opposite the front door of the hardware store, Miguel sunk a large wooden pole into the ground, and to the pole he tied a horse. On sunny afternoons, a boy walked over from a nearby house, untied the horse, and rode it up and down the empty field. The boy was Miguel’s other son. Miguel didn’t speak to him, and the boy didn’t know Miguel was his father. Perhaps that has changed since Miguel’s death.
Miguel always wanted a son, says Guadalupe, and he got at least two of them, maybe three. The tragedy of Miguel’s life is that he lost them all. The first – if there is one in California – he gave up because of the realities of immigration and the penalties of his depravity. The second he traded away in exchange for marriage to Guadalupe, a barter that forced Miguel to spectate from a distance as the boy grew. The last, Kiki, watched Miguel die, unable to bid him farewell even from inches away.
A boy died in Mexico, taking with him the dreams of his father.
There is a teenage boy I know in Mexico who once a month or so asks me for money. Not much. Usually about 400 pesos — $20 give or take – enough to help pay the rent on the room he shares with his uncle or on the stall where he sells key chains in the market. Yesterday, it was for medicine because his uncle has diabetes.
Each time he asks, I tell myself I am not going to send the money because I am never sure how he actually uses it. I also know a young mother in Mexico who is a drug addict; she texts me photos of fake medical receipts for thousands of pesos, pleading for money to pay the bills. I wonder if the boy is like her.
I’ve known him for five years, though – he was 10 when his mother took me to visit him in the shelter where he then lived – and he doesn’t strike as the scamming type. He is quiet and polite. His grades were OK when he was in school (but that was before Covid). He helps his mother clean the room they shared before her boyfriend returned and forced his flight to his uncle’s.
But he is poor. Not the day-to-day poor, but the week-to-week poor, and that’s bad enough. When you live that way, what seems to be free money can be hard to resist. I think about that each time, about how he might think it’s easy to Whatsapp me, tell me a sad story and wait for the pesos to arrive.
Then I think about my life, about what I have now, about what I didn’t have years ago, and about how a few people made such a difference for me, not with money but with encouragement and support and tolerance. I look at what I own, my cherished cameras, my piles of books, the big chair by the window that overlooks the water, and the cabin on the hill that shelters me at night and holds a quiet room where blank pages await me in the morning. I see the food in the kitchen, the pricey bag of coffee, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the pungent, spicy whiskey that tempts me more than it should. I hear my wife’s voice and feel her love and know the completeness of my life.
An abundance. What I have is an abundance. More than I need, all that I want.
Each time the boy asks me for 400 pesos, each time I doubt his authentic need for fear of being played, each time he raises his hand and says, Help me, I feel shamed by my momentary hesitation. Each time I send him the money.
I could write at great length about my David Byrne-ish journey to my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my questions about how I got here, but today is Thanksgiving and you can be thankful that I won’t.
For now, I will tell you what I tell myself each day: Be grateful, be kind, accept good fortune with grace, remember the roots of your life and feel their connection to others, and with each step forward reach back so someone else can grab on.
The dead talk to us. They tell us their stories, the tales they carry from this life to the next, the underworld, the upper-world, whichever imagined destination comforts you in the absence of those who are gone.
These are the stories we want to tell; these are the stories worth the struggle of the telling. But we must retrieve them and bring them back to this side, to the world where we, the not-yet-dead, navigate our time under a sky of dim stars, always hoping for a brighter path to where we are going, to what we will become.
In the lospanteones, I walk amid the dead. I listen, I lean in, I strain to hear their voices. I have questions for them: Who were you? How did you live? Why did you die so young? What awaits me when I join you? What I hear in response are the rustle of dry leaves, the murmur of a street cat slinking amid the tombs, the pleadings of someone praying nearby.
I tell the dead: I have come for your stories. Lend them to me and I will share them with those you left behind and those who are yet to arrive. I still myself. I drop into my own silence, erasing every memory of every sound I have ever heard so I can detect the voices of the dead.
Faint but audible, a distant chorus, an eternal echo rewards my patience. The voices answer in unison: “Come closer, come closer and we will tell you everything.”
There is an unpleasant sense of slipping away, an inevitable loosening of what I once held firmly, like a grasped hand sliding from my grip against my will.
Five months have passed in the house, nearly six since I’ve been in Oaxaca, where for the last seven years I poured out all the passion and compassion of which I’m capable (and even that was never enough). A pandemic doesn’t freeze lives, it only alters them. Life continues for the families I’ve photographed. A child returns to the United States. A mother and her children move to a new apartment. A teenage boy lives alone while his mother works. Another teenager leaves home to live with an uncle, driven out by disputes with his mother and her boyfriend. Yet another teenager, a girl, runs away from her mother. The same mother has no work and tells me she is eating air. A wedding is canceled. A quinceañera is celebrated, as are several birthdays.
I am there for none of it. I always missed a lot, but I was also present for many things, for birthdays and births and graduations, for fights with the landlady and night-time moves to new apartments, for visits to gynecologists, neurologists and optometrists, for the killing of chickens and pigs and, once, a bull, for the laughter and the tears, so much more of the former than the latter although the tears dug the biggest hole in me, and for the many goodbyes, said on dirt roads, at bus stops and in doorways, and sealed with hugs and smiles and promises to return, never thinking at the moment that any one of those farewells might be the last, but never escaping the foreboding eventuality of that coming day.
What remains are memories, feelings and photographs. The mental images and emotions are incomplete, as they are by nature. The mind and the heart are unreliable witnesses to our lives. They would never survive voir dire. The digital files portray with accuracy what the camera recorded but they seem to me, in my absence from their origin, sterile inadequacies. They testify to my presence at the time, but they do not assuage my absence at the moment.
In a lifetime, six months is not much (although, to do the math, it is one one-hundredth-fifty-sixth of the average lifespan of an American male), so I can’t validate this sense that Oaxaca is now caught irrevocably in an outgoing tide. If I return next summer, the children I know will be changed. The mothers I photographed will be more worn down. The city and I will need to become reacquainted, like former lovers finding the boundaries of a post-breakup relationship.
The thing that most clamors for telling is the most difficult to relate.
I feel empty. Oaxaca and the children and the mothers demanded so much of me, not in a negative way, not in asking for things or seeking my help, but in an all-engaging, three-hundred-sixty-degree emotional way. I needed to be present every moment I was with them. They opened themselves to me, and I felt obligated to return the trust. I tried to show them the best of myself and to do so I had to demand more of myself than I do at home, where the routine comforts of my American life indulge my tendency to disengage.
It is hard to say what I fear most: losing Oaxaca or losing myself. There are so many people in my life there: hard-working fathers with forearms as thick as tree trunks; mothers who work from dark to dark cleaning houses, cooking meals, and washing clothes; grandmothers who suffer the abuse of drunken grandfathers; cousins that know how to kill a pig with kindness (cradle its massive head in your arms as you slit its throat); aunts who work as seamstresses, cooks, and hair-dressers; uncles who drink, uncles who live in the United States, and uncles who care for their nephews when they run away from home; lovers who lock their women in rooms, lovers who have other families, and lovers who leave teenage girls pregnant. So much intensity and immediacy. So much relentless necessity. So much life. So much more than I ever imagined.
What all of this occupied with me is now vacant.
Oaxaca realized dreams I walked away from. The children became those I never had. The families became the one I lost. The tears and the laughter and the sorrows and the celebrations disinterred what I thought I had buried in myself forever. I have never been able to succinctly explain how I became so involved in Oaxaca nor answer adequately when people ask what I am doing there, but more than anything the photography and the families and all the engagement required to make the pictures and to be with the people gave me what I felt I’ve long been lacking: a purpose.
This is what I fear – losing that purpose. Is that such a selfish thought? I suppose it is. Shouldn’t I be thinking of the mothers and of the children? Yes, and, truthfully, I do think of them – every day. The separation mandated by the pandemic, though, has forced me to see a truth I had ignored or denied until this point: I cannot save them as I once thought I could. The persistence of the poverty, the crappy schools, the dysfunctional government, and a culture of low expectations that neither encourages nor sustains efforts to rise above one’s station of birth will smother their fragile hopes. I saw signs of the suffocation even before the time of the virus, the mothers confronting futures filled with nothing more than the economic instability that defines them now, and the children realizing that the small world in which they live values more the work than can be done today than the rewards more education can deliver tomorrow. I have no control over any of that, almost no influence over their destinies. I can provide short-term relief, but I cannot fulfill long-term promise. I can only save myself, and even that is a fifty-fifty proposition at best given my track record.
Julian Barnes, in his wonderful book, The Sense of an Ending, talks about the revelations that come to us as the years advance, once of which is awareness of the gap between what we expect at that time of life and what realities in fact arrive with it. For example:
“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”
Echoing his words, I say: the encounter of purpose is not life’s business. Simple passage through the labyrinth of time guarantees nothing, much less satisfaction with the journey. The purpose of life is to live. Nothing more. And we cannot live the lives of others. Those who try are destined for disappointment.
Oaxaca gave me more than I ever expected, and in the thrall of that discovery I embraced the delusion of permanence. Revived by the innocence Oaxaca resurrected in me, I grasped at the notion that the families and I and our flush of shared experiences would last forever.
A whole fish – head, tail, bones and all – fried on the stovetop. A goat, butchered and sunk into an earthen oven for hours. Sides of beef and pork, killed just steps from the stove, slathered with chilies and roasted beneath avocado branches. Burgers, thinner than sliders, so light they go down like beef-flavored air. Ham-and-cheese sandwiches drenched in mayo. Refried beans rich with epazote. Carrots, peeled into transparent slices, bathed in lime juice. Chunks of jicama dusted with chili powder. Frosted slabs of tres leches cake, celebrating birthdays and graduations. Half-sized bottles of Corona. Shots of mescal. Tall plastic glasses of sugary soda, bright yellow and deep red, representing flavors not found in nature.
All the food in the Ojeda household passes from the hands of Maria and her daughters, Alberta and Guadalupe, to the mouths of family and friends – some from down the street and others, like a son long gone, from a country far to the north.
The Ojeda kitchen is long and wide and rises to the height of two men. A tall, arched window bounces daylight off its walls, which declare their cultural vibrancy in tones of unabashed pink. At night, the color fades into shadows, penetrated barely by the fluorescence of a single bulb and tinged, deliciously, with the lingering aromas of the day’s cooking.
Alexis, the boy with the million-peso smile, has leukemia. His sister, Emily, lying alongside him in their two-room apartment in Oaxaca, held the key to his recovery: her genetically matching bone marrow. The transplant surgery scared her, though, because she believed it would give her cancer.
A few months after I took this picture, Emily’s love for her little brother overcame her fear. She suffered through the surgery and doctors injected her bone marrow into her brother. She was 14 and Alexis was 11.
All siblings are close to a degree, but those I’ve met in Mexico who live in one room with their mothers or sleep in the same bed for years share an unspoken intimacy that is most palpable in the silences. It is beyond affection, more of a communion borne in necessity and nurtured by dependency.
Too often, its display eludes the camera, breaking before it like a soap bubble touched by a curious finger.
No one deserves a day of recognition more than single mothers who hold their families together through force of love, work and will. Doing so is never easy, and it is even more challenging in Oaxaca, where single women head up at least a quarter of all families.
Many are women abandoned by men who have gone north or moved on to another warm bed. Many are women who have left partners who drank too much or ruled the house with their fists. All of them have learned to be independent, both from necessity and desire, in a culture that in almost every circumstance values men more than women.
These mothers welcome me into their homes. They insist on feeding me; they invite me to graduations, baptisms and birthdays; and they bestow on me the gift I treasure the most: their trust.
They humble me with their work; they inspire me with their dedication to family; they make me laugh with their antics; and, when they are not looking, they sometimes bring me to tears.
Azul is one of four sisters who lived in Hijos de la Luna, a children’s shelter so named because the kids’ mothers supposedly worked as prostitutes at night (under the moon – la luna). A few did, but most were just hard-working and poor. They cleaned houses, washed clothes, worked in markets, making enough to pay the rent but not enough to care for their kids.
Someone told me Azul’s mother was a prostitute, but I never met her, so I didn’t know for sure. What I knew was that Azul lived deep inside of herself. She stared at me like no else ever did or has. In the 10 or so times I photographed her, she never said more than 10 words to me. One day, when she put on a red clown’s nose, her face fell into the closest thing I’d seen to a smile on her.
After the government closed the shelter on charges of abuse, the children scattered. I heard that Azul and her sisters moved in with their mother, who afterward had a baby boy who died in infancy. Before each trip to Oaxaca, I message Azul’s older sister, asking her to ask her mother if I may visit. Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t. She’s never said yes.
In the dry months, after the winter green fades and before the summer rains fall, the city thrums with the sounds of pipa trucks, ungainly vehicles whose oval tanks contain up to 10,000 liters of “water for human use.” Not for drinking, though. Not unless you enjoy a forced intestinal purge. For bathing and washing dishes and cleaning the cement patios.
Gas-powered pumps snort like un-muffled lawn mowers and push the water through corrugated rubber hoses into the cisterns of upscale homes, hotels, and trendy new businesses like French cafés and fusion restaurants that delight those willing to pay first-world prices in a third-world city.
Those without the money to buy thousands of liters, the working class and the poor, go without water for days when the city shuts off the tap. To drink and cook and bathe, they buy a 20-liter jug, a garrafón. Others drop buckets into deep wells and draw up undrinkable water, good enough for cleaning and boiling.
This is the conundrum: There is mescal that costs $10 a shot, there are hotels that charge $250 a night, there are iced frappuccinos from Starbucks, but there is not enough “agua para uso humano” to go around.
Mexico is tough on dogs. They die from starvation on sidewalks. They die on highways, flattened by buses and left as a feast for the crows. The die from poison in farm towns because folks prefer dead dogs over dead chickens. They die from fights with other street dogs, clawed, bitten and infected.
This dog died in a children’s shelter. It ate something toxic, perhaps poison, maybe rotted meat. Death came slowly, performing its last rites before an audience of children. All afternoon they watched the dog lie on a slab of cement and gasp for the breath its flooded lungs could not produce.
When stillness finally came, the children stood over the corpse. A few touched its fur, moist with sweat from the exertion of dying; others, less adventurous, poked the body with their shoes.
This might be the first decent image I ever made in Oaxaca. I had a new Nikon D200 that I’d gifted myself because I wanted to resurrect the photography career I’d abandoned years earlier. I was mediocre when I gave it up and not much better when I restarted, but the instant of making a photograph excited me as much at age 50 as did at age 25.
Mostly then I shot pretty pictures for a magazine near San Francisco. I enjoyed it, and they paid me, which I also enjoyed. Still, I wanted to do something more real, something more journalistic, and that meant I needed to move beyond “pretty.”
I began photographing people on the streets of Oaxaca, but I was too timid to make anything intimate or powerful. This girl was part of a group of students having their class photograph taken near the famous Santo Domingo church. I stood back from the group, hesitant, and made six frames, all of them average. Then this girl turned to look at me and I shot one more.
That was on New Year’s Eve, 2006. Six more years passed until I met Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca and she urged me to photograph with more passion. Ever since then I have.
This is the first photograph I made of Irma. She stands in the afternoon sunlight in the front door of her beauty salon, which was located in the Colonia America Sur, a neighborhood with streets bearing the names of South American countries. Irma’s street was Brasil. She named the salon Michelle after her daughter, Betzi Michelle. Before opening the salon, Irma cleaned houses and worked in a laundry, living week to week on what she made. The founder of a shelter where Irma’s two children lived during the workweek helped her go to beauty school and set up the salon. The business was going to be her ticket out of working-class poverty, but it only lasted a few months, killed by too much competition and too little funding.
When Irma closed the salon, she took its furniture to her one-room apartment. Each time she moved, which was about once a year, she dragged the furniture with her – a reclining chair used to wash hair, a sink that drained into a bucket, a dressing table with a tall vertical mirror, a bright green chair made of mesh, and a pair of plastic tables. For a while, Irma did haircuts and styling out of where she lived, but eventually she gave it up entirely. Piles of clothes, food, cleaning products and toys now cover the furniture.
In a world of uncertainty, some circumstances still guarantee certain outcomes. A hot stove burns and blisters the misplaced hand. An untended garden goes to seed. Water boiled long enough vaporizes. And a child born into poverty withers before maturity if, like the garden, not well cultivated.
The last is not science – like the heat of a stove or the physical characteristics of water – but is the nature of human beings.
Generalization often leads to misconception, yet history helps us recognize patterns of predictable consequences. All things being equal, hard-working people succeed more than lazy ones; more education leads to better incomes; bad habits – such as over-eating, over-drinking or smoking – shorten lives; and abused boys often grow up to become abusive boyfriends and husbands.
Each family, each culture, each moment of time generates its own cycles of behavior, action and consequence.
In Mexico, for example, where I spend a couple of months a year doing documentary photography, the culture and the social infrastructure create their own web of reliable relationships between circumstance and consequence. People born poor and shut out from education stay poor; corrupt government corrupts society as a whole, which, in turn, fertilizes further government corruption; the rising economic tide lifts only the boats of the already wealthy; hard work and higher education are not indicators of eventual economic success.
And teenage girls who get pregnant become middle-aged single mothers. The fathers move on – to the beds of other women, to where there is work in the U.S. or in other parts of Mexico, or to the bottle. The children of these teenage mothers, with few exceptions, are doomed from birth to lives of never-ending work, physical and economic insecurity, and, when the last roseate glow of childhood fades from their hearts, the deflating acceptance of servitude to a classist society that while dependent on their labor considers them easily replaceable.
There are many ways Mexico breaks my heart, but none rends more than seeing the children of the families I photograph arrive at adolescence, drop out of school and lose their way in the toxic labyrinth of poverty that entraps them at their most vulnerable age. For a country that attracts millions of tourists with the “warmth” of its culture, Mexico is shamefully short of compassion for its own children.
The persistent poverty, the insipid public education, and the absence of decent healthcare (especially for women) produce a relentless societal cycle that forgives no youthful mistake. A teenage girl, enamored, offers her body to an insistent boy. She becomes pregnant, he leaves town, and she is enslaved by 60-hour workweeks and an income that buys nothing more than a room or two, often without water or a bathroom. She puts her children in shelters, leaves them home alone while she works, or takes them out to the street with her to beg, raising them with the hope they don’t follow in her footsteps. But she lacks both the education and the time to teach the tools they need to break the cycle.
For boys, it is just as daunting. A teenage boy quits school, hangs out for a couple of years with others who found the classroom too confining or the home life too abusive and then, after hustling day to day to make money and stay out of jail, decides he wants to return to school. But he can’t. Once a child is out of the public-school system in Mexico, he or she is out for good. An eighth-grader in a state boarding school steals another boy’s mobile phone. He has to transfer to another school, so he moves back in with his mother, sleeping on a cot next to the bed she shares with her daughter. He misses the high school application deadlines because his mother works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and has no time to speak with anyone at the school. He starts classes late, lacks the money for books so goes an entire semester without them and starts his second semester so far behind he fails just about everything and drops out.
Every child below the middle class in Oaxaca is at risk. There is no safety net. It’s every family for itself. Impunity by the political class and indifference by the upper classes create a Hunger Games environment that rewards those who have the money and connections to bend the system to their benefit and ignores those who begin their lives with nothing and too often end up that way as well.
Throughout central Oaxaca, and in all of Mexico’s big cities, utility poles and the walls of buildings sport flyers that say “Ayúdanos a localizarla” (“Help us to find her”). Each poster displays the photograph and name of a missing person, most often an underaged girl. In sterile, institutional language, the poster describes the missing person, suggests what she might be wearing, and names the whereabouts of where she lived. There are flyers for men, too, but most of the posters in Oaxaca of missing people are of women.
Here is an example (translated from the Spanish):
Name: (I am leaving out the name)
Age: 16 years.
Was seen for the last time: March 13, 2020, in El Rosario, San Sebastián Tutla, Oaxaca, Oaxaca.
Clothes she normally wears: Blue jeans, short-sleeved blouse and sandals.
Physical description: Strong build; 5 feet 2 inches in height; clear dark skin; round face; large forehead; thick eyebrows; medium-sized brown eyes; medium-sized nose with a wide base; large mouth; thick lips; oval chin; curly, chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair.
I know this girl. She once lived in a notorious children’s shelter in Oaxaca that the government closed after reports of abuse. I met the girl several years ago at the shelter, when she was 10 years old. In the photographs of her displayed on the missing-person poster, she appears a decade older than when I saw her a couple of months ago. She is heavily made up, the tips of her dark hair are tinted yellow and she is puckering her lips in the come-hither pose that is so common these days in selfies taken by teenage girls.
The missing girl’s mother messaged me to tell me her daughter was missing and that she feared the girl was involved in something dangerous, perhaps a prostitution ring. She showed a Facebook post by another woman who was looking for “chicas calientes y sexys” for “trabajo con disfrute e ingresos” (“hot, sexy girls for enjoyable, well-paid work”). The post tagged her daughter’s name.
The news did not surprise me. It was the consequence of all the circumstances I mentioned about Oaxaca – no money, no education, no prospects, no one giving a damn about what happened to this girl other than her mother, who, because of her own lack of education, cannot provide the guidance her daughter needs.
I never made a good photo of this girl. She was always self-conscious and striking a pose for the camera, the Instagram curse. When I last saw her, she was sassy, surly and rebellious, not terribly different than so many adolescents. But Mexico is unforgiving. This girl had left school before finishing the seventh grade, she didn’t work, and she spent hours lying in the bed she shared with her mother and talking on a phone she’d somehow procured. She and her mother fought all the time about money, about her friends, about her not working. The girl began to stay out late at night, coming home at 2 a.m. or sometimes not at all.
Then she was gone. One day while her mother was working, she broke a window to get into the apartment and grabbed the few clothes she had. Her mother told me she had run off. But the daughter has another story. In a Facebook post she wrote after the mother filed a missing-person report, she said: “Hi friends. If you see my photo that says I am disappeared it is not true. In December, my mother threw me out. I had problems and I went to my aunt’s house. I didn’t want to live with her. Thank god, I am OK. Don’t pay attention (to the missing-person poster) and don’t share it either.”
Did the girl really run away? Did her mother throw her out? Does it matter why she’s gone? The result is the same: Another teenage girl on the run, uneducated, without money, angry, loose on the streets in Mexico. These are the circumstances. The consequences will not be good.
Just three weeks ago I was running all over Oaxaca, walking five or six miles a day, climbing hills, carrying bags of cameras and sacks of food, squatting, kneeling, dancing, seeing a dozen people a day, hugging them, photographing them, laughing with them, crying with them, eating with them and cramming into communal cabs with them.
Now, between the virus quarantine and a knee that decided all the activity in Mexico was too much, I haven’t left the house for a week. Other than my wife, who has done the food shopping, I haven’t spoken with another human being in person. The time passes slowly, but inexorably. I read (in English and in Spanish), I edit the photographs I made in Mexico, I chat on the various platforms, I exercise each afternoon with a combination of old-school calisthenics (knee permitting) and new-age yoga, and I spend too much time cruising the news. The mornings seem long, the afternoons short.
In the evenings, my wife and I
make one cocktail apiece, sit on the deck or in the tub, and talk about the
news. Then we make dinner. We eat late so there is only time for one TV show.
Last night it was an episode of “Homeland.”
During the days,the neighborhood is silent. The freeway, visible down the hill from the house, generates a distant, low thrum, barely audible. Two days ago, a helicopter flew over our hill in the afternoon. Last night, a delivery truck, moving quickly, startled us as it passed the house while we talked on the deck. Yesterday afternoon, as I sat outside in the Adirondack chair that used to belong to my mother-in-law, warmed in a sudden burst of spring sun and absorbed in well-reported book about the opioid plague in the United States (Dreamland), a bird screeched from the direction of the massive Monterey pine that stands in the empty lot next to ours. The shriek seemed like one of terror. I wondered if the bird was under attack. Was a hawk after its nest? The screech came again. No, I thought, it’s not a shout of fear but one of attraction. The bird is calling for company. Again it came, and again and again. Maybe eight or 10 times in five minutes. For a moment I thought it was a salutation for me. The bird was alone. I was alone. Why not talk?
This morning when I climbed the stairs to the street to get the papers (hopefully left there by a gloved hand), a man walked by with his dog. He clung to the curb opposite my house, head down, moving with purpose. He never looked up. I said nothing even though I normally would have. That is how we are now, living with purpose, just trying to get through it.
One evening while I was in Oaxaca, I went the gringo library, sort of a club for the ex-pats, to hear a friend read from a book he’d written about his experiences during the war in Vietnam, where he’d done two tours. It was not a militaristic book, nor a nostalgic one. It was more of a yard sale of memories, most of them worn and well-used, but still of value to those who treasure such things. In one episode, my friend, Tom, writes of meeting another vet. The man is battered by the years, but not yet broken. They don’t talk about war. What they talk about are moments – the dead villager, the heat, the insects, the drinking, the girls and what it was like to come home, which at times was harder than being in country. The conversation was neither heartening nor depressing. It was a recitation of what was, an unburdening of truths carried for so long.
It was that conversation that made Tom write the line in his book that most resonates with me. It is this: “The way I see it, we all got through those years, one way or another. We all know what went on.”
In the same period, the late sixties and the early seventies, I felt exactly the same. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I didn’t volunteer and I never got drafted. Instead, I got arrested and I got hooked on drugs and booze. I fought my own war and it led to a lifetime battle. Somehow, though, like Tom, I got through it, as I still do, day by day, winning more often than I lose, which is why I’m still alive.
That’s how I view the virus. It’s war. It’s a battle. Not just the disease, but the isolation, the politics, and the sheer lunacythat infects so many people. However, I’ll get through it. We’ll get through it. Somehow. Years from now, we’ll all know what went on.
I came home from Oaxaca ahead of schedule, something I’ve never done before. After 15 days, I was exhausted. Each day the heat and the humidity sapped me. At night, I’d recover, but not 100 percent, so I started each subsequent day with less than a full recharge. I walked five to eight miles a day. I had a thirst I could not slake, even with a several bottles of water at a time. I lost nearly five pounds. My rented room held the heat and sleep never really arrived for long. The day before I decided to leave, I played basketball with a group of kids for 90 minutes. Afterward, my body barked in loud protest. I answered by changing my flight.
Part of me feels like I gave in, like I allowed a bit of discomfort to drive my decision. That’s my 30-year-old ego talking. Another part of me is soothed by the cool ocean air and the opportunity to stand in the scalding stream of the shower for as long as I want. That is the sound of seven biological decades exhaling in relief.
I returned with a few strong photographs and with memories whose images are even more powerful. Together, they illustrate the great challenge of photography, the effort to preserve with the camera what is seen by the mind’s eye and felt by the soul. I am proud of my photographs, but I am also frustrated by my inability to gather into a frame the vividness, in all its glory and in all its pain, of life in Oaxaca.
When I stand on a Oaxacan street corner and see and hear and smell the chaos around me, I want the camera to vacuum it all in – the noise of the buses, the smell of the sewage and the food vendors, the hunched shoulders of the working men, the wide-bodied grandmothers making passage on the sidewalks with their hips, the sweat and the sun and the steam of the humidity. I want all that in a photograph. That is the picture I have yet to make.
In that sense, I return this time as I always do also with a sense of inadequacy, of lacking either the technology or the skill or both to fill a frame with all that I see and all that I feel. In this image I want the mothers and the children and the dark rooms of dead air in which they live; I want the four Hondurans sleeping on the floor waiting for a chance to sneak into the United States; I want the boy with leukemia being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother between buses on the street because the sidewalks are too narrow to navigate; I want the food – the chicken cooked over a wood fire with tomatoes and chilies, the lentil soup a mother made me before she went to work, the huge plastic glasses of jamaica, the tortas of breaded pork sold on the corner for a $1.50, the smoky, silky mescal that burns and then drains the pain from the body; I want the eyes, dark all of them, bright with laughter, reddened with tears, empty of expectations; I want the nascent beauty of the children and the fading dignity of the grandfathers; I want the conversations – with the taxi driver deported from L.A. who practices his English with me, with the obese sweaty cop and his elegant Belgian shepherd, with the mom who is happy to be pregnant at 35 even though she is without work or husband.
I feel as if I need to make this one picture. I need it to remind me of everything I have done and I do in Oaxaca. I need it to show to people when they ask me why I go there because to explain it with words takes too long.
It is a fanciful desire, to be sure, but still one that nags me.
Some other thoughts from the trip:
* Poverty is relative. For a while, I visited a mother and her two kids who lived high on a dry hill in a tin shack. There was no water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. Electricity was boot-legged off a shared power pole. The road was nothing more than rutted trail that ran thick with mud when it rained. Still, I never felt as deep in the Third World at this mother’s house as I did in Oaxaca’s public hospital, where I went one afternoon with one of my favorite children, who had fallen and was visiting a neurologist to see if she had epilepsy.
Outside the hospital, dozens of people camped on the concrete patio, family members visiting hospitalized relatives, or sick people waiting days for appointments. Many slept on cardboard boxes, others used the cheap, synthetic blanks that are so common here to create seating areas that converted to beds at night, and still others had commandeered a row of chairs, stuffed cardboard into the gaps between them and slept on the hard plastic. Buckets of food, scraps of garbage, empty liter bottles of soda and backpacks were everywhere. The faces of the people on the patio bore the weight of lifetime of acceptance of these conditions. This hospital is in one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Four blocks from this desperation, moneyed Oaxacans buy Frappuccino’s from Starbucks and shop for clothes in fancy European stores.
* A lot of money for someone who has nothing changes nothing in the long term. My generous friends contributed enough money to help the mother of a boy with leukemia live for months without working, which she needs to do after the live-saving transplant she hopes will come. When I gave her the thick wad of Mexican pesos, her face lifted momentarily in gratitude only to return quickly to its resting visage of resignation, a recognition that no matter how much hardship she endures it cannot guarantee her son’s survival in a society where one’s chances of a long life or an early death are determined at birth. Hers is not a poverty that be bought off with a few thousand pesos.
* Two types of Americans live in Oaxaca. There are those, like the ex-community organizer from California and his wife, an attorney, who use their retirement hours and their professional skills to involve themselves in the community and improve the lives of those who have less than they do. They are in the minority. The majority, most of whom seem to be women, live amongst themselves in an ex-pat bubble, don’t speak Spanish and mix with the locals only when it is time for a festival or an art opening, where they show up dressed in indigenous blouses and skirts and are the first to attack the free food and drinks.
* Intimacy and distance don’t play well together. The closer I get to the families in Oaxaca, the further away I feel when I leave. This is not a new sensation, but on this trip, it grew stronger than ever. I return to a life of comfort, and to a personal calendar that holds fewer and fewer pages, and I leave behind young people with a long future in front of them. For some, the years to come will be good ones of education and family and achievement. For others, there will be decades of labor and sorrow. I wonder how much more of them I will see. I wonder if the goodness I wish for them will ever come to be. I wonder what they will be like at my age, when I am a memory to them, if that.