You come face to face with…a chicken.
It is fluorescent purple, and stuffed with candy. Its face is pert, smiling, expectant. As you come up on a slight rise you see that riding beside it is an old man, hunched down against the truck’s cab to keep his sombrero from flying into the wind.
He waves. You wave back.
Elena Poniatowska writes, “I have always wanted to lose myself in others, to belong to other people, to be the same as them. It is always the others who are right, who hold the key to the enigma.”
At five am, in Totontepec, a tiny pueblo in Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe, a band is playing in front of the church. Inside, women hand out flowers: red and white gladiolas. You retire to one side, behind a pew, then notice and greet a friend you met the day before.
He is an old man, short and stout, with big eyes. Each time he sees you – and you see each other many times, because this is a small pueblo and everyone congregates around the church and the basketball court – he tells you to remember to start from the very beginning.
Your friend is sitting in the pew but stands and retrieves two long stalks of gladiolas for you. He hands them to you, and says, “Carry them. The red is for blood, and the white is for the sacrifice.”
Outside, the band is playing Las Mañanitas, the Mexican version of Happy Birthday, to the town’s patron saint, San Sebastian Martir.
Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David,
Hoy por ser día de tu santo, te las cantamos a ti,
Despierta, mi bien, despierta, mira que ya amaneció,
Ya los pajarillos cantan, la luna ya se metió.
Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte,
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte,
Ya viene amaneciendo, ya la luz del día nos dio,
Levántate de mañana, mira que ya amaneció.
This is the morning song that King David sang
Because today is your saint’s day, we’re singing it for you
Wake up, my dear, wake up, look it is already dawn
The birds are already singing and the moon has set
How lovely is the morning in which I come to greet you
We all came with joy and pleasure to congratulate you
The morning is coming now, the sun is giving us its light
Get up in the morning, look it is already dawn
When the music finishes, a group of men will carry the saint from the church, and the people of Totontepec will follow them with flowers and candles in a procession through the streets. They will walk the saint through the sunrise of his birthday.
As you are waiting for the procession to begin, a hunched old man, a full head shorter than your 5’3, asks how much it is for a candle. 2 pesos for the smallest, 14 pesos for the medium, and 22 pesos for one that is nearly the height of a small child. The smallest, he says.
It is thin, the width of a reed, hand-dipped in the weeks preceding the fiesta. The man makes his way forward, through the people waiting in the church for the procession to begin, until he is swallowed up. The sun has not yet risen. The mountains are black textures, layers, imagined and yet unseen. Roosters are raising their jagged cries in small gardens of sour orange trees. Roses the size of baby’s fists are hunched into themselves against the cold.
“The candle,” your friend tells you, “is your presence when you are not here. When a migrant goes to work on the other side, he leaves a candle, he asks the saint to protect him. That is his light when he is not here. The light is his grace.”
He explains this calmly, patiently.
“Okay,” you say. “Did you light your candle?”
“Oh, I don’t light candles,” He says. “I use oil. It lasts longer.” He grins, a devilish grin.
Yesterday a friend sent you the story of a neo-nazi in Arizona who recommended putting land mines along the border, and who is running for governor.
An old, old man, whose right arm no longer worked, gestured for to you to sit beside him at a fiesta. He was sitting on a hand-carved wooden bench, on a terrace made of hard-packed earth, in front of a three-room adobe house. In the house lived a family. That family had spent nearly a year saving up in order to provide food and drink to the bands visiting for the fiesta, and to anyone else from the pueblo or elsewhere who showed up, including you. All in all, in that tiny three-room house with its earthen terrace, more than 1,000 people ate and drank during the fiesta del pueblo. No money was exchanged. For four days, the señoras cleaned chickens, and cooked, and made giant pots – pots that could fit you and your husband and both of your dogs in a stew – of coffee, mole, and beans. When you showed up, you were invited inside, asked to eat, to drink, to dance. You had never met these people before. Several had been to the United States. One had nearly died in the desert. He and his wife had wandered for two days before they gave up and walked down a highway in Arizona hoping migration would find and deport them. Finally a Cuban immigrant stopped, took them to his house in Phoenix, and gave them food, water, and clothes.
He told you his story and then said to you, “Come to my house anytime, it is your house.”
Before you could pass into the tiny room where the señoras were serving the village roasted chicken, rice, and beans, the old man called to you. You sat beside him.
“Guerita,” he said. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” And you said, “Claro que no,” and he said, “Where are you from?” and you replied, “The United States,” and he said, “Well, you are a sister. We are all brothers and sisters, after all.”
You step out of your house. There is a clown waiting for the bus. On the street corner a few blocks down a simple, handwritten sign, no bigger than the word it contains, reads “CLOWNS.” Beneath that is a phone number.
You are riding in the back of a pickup with ten kids, going to a river and a sixteenth century church. The girls whisper about Alan. One of them asks, “Where are you from?” You say, “The United States.” One of the older girls, almost a teenager, shouts “Los Angeles!” like she’s gotten the answer right. “Ohio,” you say. They stare, baffled. The little girls look to the bigger ones for help. They resume talking about Alan, who plays the trumpet. A few minutes later one offers you Fritos. The truck winds and winds through shadow and sun. “Frio!” The kids shout when you pass into the mountain’s shade, which smells rich and earthy and dark like a cave. Waterfalls plummet through the pine forests, slip unseen under the road, and come out the other side. “Calooooor!” they shout when you come back into the sun. “Frio!” they squeal, when the truck twists again under a granite precipice, and “Calooooor!” when it remerges into the heat of midday. Coffee is drying on rooftops, and dogs, at the last moment, with just a few lazy and unconcerned steps, move out of the careening path of the occasional vehicle, then return to curl up in the middle of the road.
The kid who plays the tuba vomits over the side of the truck. From then on, you will not be able to watch him play the tuba.
His smile is full of silver. He has a cargo, a job assigned to him by the community: to guide the band from Tepatlali. He leads them to the houses where they will play music in exchange for food and drink. He communicates with the authorities to decide where they will be needed: beside the rodeo ring, during a mass in church, on the basketball court, heading up a parade. He does not sleep for four days.
You have learned to follow the band. You tune your ear to the sound of a tuba blurting its fat notes from a dirt path, and pursue it to bowls of mole amarillo scooped up with hand-pressed tortillas. In the process, you befriend him. Whenever you ask him what there will be to eat at the next house he shrugs and says,
“Pues….pollo.” And his slight smile is almost apologetic. Your curiosity is befuddling to him. But when you talk about driving in the United States he lights up and says, “They really protect the little deer there, don’t they.” This has never occurred to you as a point of cultural uniqueness.
“If you don’t slow down when you see the sign you’ll get in trouble.”
He says this solemnly.
“But sometimes one passes all of a sudden, at night, and there’s nothing you can do.”
“Qué tal los patitos?” There, in the United States, he says, there are signs with a mama duck, and five or six little ducklings trailing behind her. He laughs: it is an incredulous laugh, but endearing. He describes how on the sign the ducklings walk in a straight line, right behind their mother. They cross the road like that, and you must stop for them. There, the ducklings are protected.
You and your husband play punch bug. You are bruised. A red one. A blue-and-white one. An ancient one that sounds like a World War II aircraft taking off as it plods at 20 miles an hour up a hill. A green one. A whole family inside of a white one. Punch, punch, punch, punch, you wound each other. You fight over whether or not the newer VW models merit a punch. You say yes, he says no, so you punch him and he punches you back. In the meantime, three punch bugs pass.
Around the city, posters have begun creeping up. They are stapled to telephone poles, pasted on the crumbling walls of historic buildings, used as sun blockers in the rear windshields of cars, draped as banners from the balconies of stores on Independencia. Help us find her. Help us find him. And a phone number, a picture, and a description. A foreigner is robbed by state police outside of a popular club. A teacher is shot on the main pedestrian street.
Violence creeps onto the city’s watercolor, dissolving it, blurring its edges so that it is hard to tell where normal life ends and that netherworld begins.
Two men are playing music in the street. One plays the guitar; the other, the accordion. Around them a group has gathered, drinking small bottles of Corona and talking and laughing. You join them, are offered a beer, stand in the sunlight listening to the music. You begin to talk with a migrant who has just returned from twenty years in the United States. He is drunk but intelligent and funny. You talk about lots of things. He says, slurring a little, that there in the United States you would not find anything like this, people giving food and drink for free in the streets.
After eleven years working in laundromats –he says that most of the people who come to L.A. from Oaxaca and Puebla and Guanajuato work in laundromats – he was offered a position in sales.
“What did you sell?” You ask.
“Cocaine,” he says. You gape.
“Really?” you ask.
“No!” he laughs, and says, “Just marijuana, and a little crystal meth.”
“Really?” you ask. You are envisioning the stories you will write.
“Yes,” he says, somber. He gets slightly defensive.
“Really?” you press.
He bursts out laughing. “Do your eyes always get like that when you’re surprised?” he asks.
“Damn!” You say. “It would’ve made a great story. A narco tale of intrigue.”
“You were seeing millions of copies, weren’t you.”
“Yes, un best-seller.”
“So what did you really sell?” You ask.
“Utensiles de cocina,” he says. “Cookware.”
And you both laugh and laugh.
On your first night back, you arrive late at the airport and have only 45 minutes to catch your bus. By the time you have gone through customs, you have less than fifteen minutes for a thirty-minute authorized taxi ride. You explain to the driver that you need to get to the TAPO station by 12:45, and it is currently 12:32. He whistles through his teeth, and says, “Let’s go.” He takes you and your husband at 90 miles an hour through the backstreets of D.F., where virgins pray from nooks carved out of cement walls, and the Misceláneas are lit by single bulbs. Christmas decorations, tiny lights and Spanish moss, hang above the peppermint and royal purple houses. You nearly crash at 90 miles an hour into a concrete barrier but halt at the last minute. You fly past policias on the side of the road. You are so happy to be back that your heart, the physical muscle, is palpable in your chest. You show up at 12:43. A boy, nine or ten, piles your luggage onto a rusted red cart. You and your husband sprint with him through the lime-colored tunnels beneath the TAPO. You arrive at the door to your bus at 12:44. Feeling sentimental, you give the boy all the remaining money in your wallet: three dollars. He walks back to the dusty island before the station, sweating, panting. You board the bus and it leaves, winds you six hours south through the night to Oaxaca. You don’t sleep, your eyes hurt, your belly hurts, you smell, you are exhausted, and it is as if the spirit has returned to your body.
El día en que tu naciste nacieron todas las flores
En la pila del bautismo, cantaron los ruiseñores
Quisiera ser solecito para entrar por tu ventana y darte los buenos días acostadita en tu cama
Quisiera ser un San Juan, quisiera ser un San Pedro
Para venirte a cantar con la música del cielo De las estrellas del cielo tengo que bajarte dos una para saludarte y otra para decirte adiós
The day you were born all the flowers were born
On the baptismal font the nightingales sang
I would like to be the sunshine to enter through your window
to wish you good morning while you’re lying in bed
I would like to be a Saint John, I would like to be a Saint Peter
To come sing to you with the music of heaven
Of the stars in the sky I have to lower two for you
One with which to greet you and the other, to wish you goodbye.
You and your husband go to eat mariscos. He has a giant soup full of squid and mussels and prawns; you, shrimp a la diabla. You watch people stream by the windows as you eat; watch them look at a folding table of plastic dinosaurs; at pirated DVD’s, Adidas bags, hats with the logos of sports teams; at orchids; lucha libre fighter dolls and sunglasses and fish riding in cars that race around miniature tracks. A man passes squeaking a fuzzy monkey on his arm. “Changos,” he says. “Changos.” When you leave it is the blue hour, the hora azul. You walk through the Zocálo and there is danzón. All of the old couples are dressed in white, dancing with light but careful steps to an orchestra. A crowd has gathered around them. Every once in awhile an old man makes the rounds of the crowd saying “Arriba Oaxaca! Arriba el Oaxaqueño!” and “Aplauso!” On the raised platform before the cathedral kids mock sword-fought with giant balloons, balloons the size of totem poles and ancient columns. The balloon seller asks, “Balloon? Dora the Explorer? Dalmations? Bob Esponja?” When a balloon deflates it soars up into the violet sky and dwindles in tightening circles until it looks like a sperm wiggling its way into the canal. Finally it plummets, reduced to wrinkled spent rubber. Kids clap their hands in delight. Your husband’s chin is on the back of your head where a baby’s soft spot would be and the light is pink and blue on old stone. A young guy comes around looking nervous, passing out fliers for the local anarchist movement.
You move on, to the pedestrian street. A man is playing “El Feo” on a street organ. A bulldog sits in front of Burger King and you go to pet it. It is eager for your caresses, its tongue lapping over its oafish underbite. Its owner emerges from Burger King with a vanilla ice cream cone. She squats down, holds out the cone to the bulldog. His sausage-like tail wags back and forth. He grins. “I am the ugly one,” the organ grinder sings, “The ugly one who knows how to love.” The bulldog licks the ice cream cone until his whole body is shivering, giddy. When it is done he looks expectant. “That was all,” says his owner, “Now let’s go.” The hora azul has turned the tops of the buildings purple. It is the hour when everyone’s expectations are high, the hour of release, of anticipation, of grace. The elote carts rumble to their positions on the corners. Teenagers are frying bacon-wrapped hot dogs beneath bare yellow bulbs at the hamburger stands.
Elena Poniatowska writes, “How much of me there is in these faces that don’t know me and that I don’t know, how much of me in the subway, in the steps that pile up, one on top of the other, until they finally come out into the great, white spout of light, how much of me in the last, weary steps coming out, how much of me in the rain that forms puddles on the pavement, how much of me in the smell of wet wool, how much of me in the rusted steel sheets, how much of me in the Colonia del Valle-Coyoacán buses that rush along until they crash and form part of the cosmos, in the graffiti on the walls, in the pavement, in the earth trod on a thousand times. How much of me in those worn-out benches, their paint flaking, how much in the hardware stores, in the little corner stores, how much in all those testosterone shots on those dusty pharmacy shelves, in those syringes that used to be boiled and that spread hepatitis, how much of me in the signs that used to hang all along San Juan de Letrán: ‘All types of venereal diseases treated,’ how much in the newspaper stands, in the Fountain of the Little Frogs, in the shoe-shine boxes, in the rickety trees – just like little sticks climbing up to the sky – in the man who sold electric shocks, in the old people’s wrinkles, in the young people’s legs.”
“In Venice, California,” he says, “They had the most tattooed men and women in the world!”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. You point out the tattoo of a puma on his arm and he grins, sighs.
“The things we do when we are young,” he says.
He recites, “Hammer, pick, shovel, drill.” He knows all of the tools. His boss from Michigan taught him, and he still remembers.
It is New Year’s Eve. You are walking around the Zócalo, walking aimlessly as it is natural and okay to walk here, around a public space. Kids are smashing confetti eggs over one another’s heads. Firecrackers smack and pop from every direction. Mariachis serenade a pair of diners. People cluster around massive metal pots of ponche, illumed in their huddles of friends and family by the punch-seller’s small circle of of yellow light. Everywhere, people are holding out sparklers, looking dazzled by their sizzle, their silver and gold. You buy a handful: try, and fail, to write 2012 in gold. The year is blurred, confused, lost in trails and whirls of light. A young indigenous girl, in a brightly colored silken blouse, with a baby strapped to her back, asks if you would like to buy sparklers. “I already have some,” you say. “Will you give me one?” she asks shyly. You give her one, light it with the glowing end of yours, and watch as she steps back. Her face lights up. The baby leans around her, grabs her sleeve with his small hand, to watch this miracle. She does not write her name, or the year, or run or wave. She just watches the light spark and burn, until it has burnt out. And then she walks on, and lays it in a pile of spent sparklers on the old stone of the town square.
“It’s very practical there,” the migrant with the U.S. Marines hat says.
You are drinking hot chocolate at a comedor on the side of the road in the mountains.
“It is never too hot or too cold. When it’s too hot, they have air conditioning. When it’s too cold, they have heat. There is always some sort of air.”
In the towns, there are signs painted on the sides of buildings. “Learning to read and write is progress!” they read. You are careful not to ask people to write their names and addresses in your notebook. Outside of your house, the bus criers lean from the narrow creaking doors of their buses shouting “Colonia Estrella, Colonia Volcanes, Colonia Jardines, ISSTE, IEEPO, 27 de Enero!” in case you are waiting for a bus and cannot read the hand-painted letters on its windshield that say where it is going.
On the side of the winding road through the Sierra, a wooden sign, hand-painted in slightly crooked letters, reads: “Wash your hands. Brush your teeth.”
On your first day in Tontontepec, you saw a skinny young man in baggy jeans and a black t-shirt learning how to use a telephone.
You know how to do all of these things, but you cannot wash a chicken, and when you ask the women who are washing chickens in the rock pool at the village center if you may join they laugh but say no, you don’t know how. There is no negotiating or convincing.
They rub the chickens’ goose-bumped skin with their calloused hands, they stir up foam in the chickens’ hollow cavities, and then they place the chickens in a big green bucket full of soapy water.
In the eyes of the migrants here is a restless desire. It is a desire to make known and felt the experience of walking that fringe between belonging and noticing, between becoming a part of another culture and remaining outside of it, remaining alert to all of its textures and details and oddities, both dangerous and benign. These migrants have gone through something on the other side – a journey, an awakening, a shift – and they want and need to share it. I do not know if they want to belong in the U.S. or not, or if they now feel they no longer belong where they did before. But something in them has been wrenched open, altered, in walking that fringe, and they seek recognition of the wrenching.
“My son was in Virginia,” says the man in the New York Knicks cap standing next to you at the rodeo. “I asked him to come back, told him I’d show him how to work here, and he agreed. I was so happy.” The man’s face is burgundy red and round, kind and smiling with squinting eyes. “He came back for a month, and it was okay,” the man said. “And then I called him up one day and asked him where he was.” The man shakes his head. “And he answered and said, ‘Dad, I’m back in Virginia.’”
The man’s son got married there to an American woman, and had two kids. Fifteen days ago, he was detained, and neither his wife nor his family has heard anything from him. He just disappeared, neither here nor there.
There is nothing you can do about the way you feel about the mountains in this place. They are deep green in the morning, cranky and dark under a sky whose blue is as impeccable and uniform as a sound stage. In the afternoon they are ochre and faded pine green, old and rumpled and worn. At dusk they are shrouded in pink and purple, regal, in their finest hour, and they seem to gather you into them when you walk the city’s narrow streets.