A Return to the Other Side
The process of making a sign for hitchhiking is akin to casting a magic spell. Like so many things in life, the trick is that it’s all about intent. As you watch cars speed by and fill in the letter lines of your desired destination with thick black marker strokes, you concentrate your energy on getting a ride with the rapidly increasing beat of your heart, and put all that pure intent into the sign and out into the universe. Then you just hope someone with extra space in their vehicle will see you from the road, pick up on that humble desire, and deliver you safely to where you need to go. While you obviously keep your senses sharp for any signs of danger or sketchiness, things are not always what they seem, and it’s pretty much a rule of the road that you are temporarily placing yourself into the hands of fate.
The Spanish language is something that lies dormant in my mouth and mind until it’s conjured up by necessity or inspiration. Two of the prettiest words in Spanish that I know are orgullo and verguenza which respectively mean “pride” and “shame.” These are both things that at some point you realize you must lay aside or at least ignore for awhile if you want to communicate in a language that you do not actually have mastery of. This process of allowing yourself to be thrown into situations you don’t necessarily have control of is not unlike hitchhiking.
Sitting in the shade of the trash dumpster next to the gasolinera at the edge of Ciudad Juarez, under the green and red PEMEX sign, I cast my black sharpie-pen heart beat spell with the name of the city “ZACATECAS” on a piece of scavenged cardboard. I had crossed the El Paso/Juarez border by foot on that warm Texas late morning a couple days before Christmas with the intention of getting down South to visit my old friend Juan Carlos who I hadn’t seen for eight years. The last time I had traveled in Mexico I hadn’t relied on the highways so much because not only was there cheap passenger railroad service, but the freight trains were seen by everyone as the unofficial fourth class travel for citizens too poor to afford the regular service. And I have a long-term love affair with the trains.
If one were to look at a map of the Mexican railroads they might notice that all the main lines run North to South, a reflection of the fact that they were originally built for US business interests and their purpose was to move natural resources from the South up to the North. After the Mexican Revolution the rail lines were taken out of the hands of the foreign elite, officially nationalized, and used for the good of the common working people. Not unlike the nostalgic relationship many older Americans have with the railroads in the United States, ever since the revolution the trains have played an important part of Mexican culture and history, and have been a symbol of pride and patriotism.
On January 1, 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was officially put into effect. Like all the international trade agreements of recent years, the basic idea was that corporate capital could move freely across the border while everywhere workers, communities, and the environment would suffer the consequences caused by unchecked “free trade.” “Free trade” to the powers that be basically means that big corporations can build factories in foreign countries and employ its people for a fraction of what it would cost to hire them in their own countries. Meanwhile, the people from those foreign countries don’t have the legal freedom to be able to cross the borders and look for work in the homeland of the corporations. “Free trade” means that the big corporations are free to sell their mass produced products on the foreign market and undercut local economic opportunities for small scale farmers and artisans. “Free trade” means that those same big corporations are free to not have to worry about the economic consequences of polluting the land and air and water of foreign countries because the environmental laws are nonexistent. “Free trade” also means that private corporations have the right to buy public utilities and resources like telephone systems and transportation infrastructures and water supplies (yes, entire water supplies!) All of these things are considered to be way more “efficient” for the functioning of the economic system but unfortunately don’t take into account the livelihoods, happiness or long-term health of the majority of the people.
Somewhere around 1998-1999 the Mexican government sold off the last of its railroad lines to foreign corporations from Japan and Canada. The corporations promptly discontinued the unprofitable cheap passenger service all together and instituted a more efficient freight service, watching over the trains with armed guards at every station to keep freight from being stolen and illegal passengers from riding on the freight cars. What this meant to the swelling ranks of the Mexican underclass was that they had been robbed of their only reasonable and affordable means of national transportation. What it meant for me as a gringo traveler kid at the end of the year 2003 was that I found myself standing in the central bus terminal in Ciudad Juarez, looking at the prospect of paying 90 bucks to get down to visit my old friend because the fancy bus companies had cornered the market and only offered first-class service complete with little TV screens blaring horrible Hollywood movies with Spanish overdubs. I shook off my disgust, walked out to the parking lot, and in jagged, rusty Spanish convinced the first guy I saw to give me a ride to the nearest gas station and started making my cardboard sign.
It turned out to be a lot easier than I figured it would be. My Spanish seemed to magically reappear, everyone was so much more trusting and open to letting me into their lives than the people in my stripmall fearculutre homeland, and there were streams of caravanning vehicles full of families headed South to visit their relatives for Christmas. My final destination was not actually Zacatecas, but the slightly smaller neighboring city of Aguascalientes, and within two days of adventures and new friends I was knocking on Juan Carlos’ door.
It’s Christmas Eve. Juan Carlos and I have just returned from climbing el Cerro del Muerto, the Mountain of Death, which is at the edge of Aguascalientes. My sweater is covered in spines and desert plant seeds wrapped in burrs, I close my eyes and see cactus -- maguey and nopal, the red and purple rocks we climbed, the red and purple rocks we cracked open on the ground which had quartz crystals buried inside them. Maria, la madre, puts a huge steaming hot plate of tamales in front of me. Lupe, el papa, and I sit on the bed in the tiny brick and cement room half lit by flashing Christmas lights. There’s a gaggle of children and brothers and sisters all around us. Lupe says to me: “Look at this one – isn’t she beautiful! Que chula! Que guapa! Que hermosa! All of these little children are so beautiful! Look how lucky we are to be surrounded by such beautiful children! What a miracle!” I nod and smile, feeling the deliciously rich food rejuvenating my tired and sore legs, feeling so grateful and blessed for everything in my obviously charmed life.
Juan Carlos has seven brothers and one sister. He is the second to oldest at 29 years old. The oldest, Guadalupe, is 31 years old and the only brother who doesn’t still live at home. Jose is the youngest at 16. He has to take medication everyday because he has epilepsy and sometimes gets seizures. His father and most of the brothers do construction work for a living. His mother sells food on the streets outside one of the local factories. Santos, the 22 year old, works as a night security guard. Jesus, who’s 24, is studying at the university. All the brothers share the upstairs room of the house; at night we all share two beds.
Juan Carlos is definitely the freak of the family. All his friends and even his family call him “el punky.” He’s a construction worker like the rest of them, but he also hitchhikes all over the country and works with the Zapatistas. He has lots of tattoos on his chest and all up and down his arms. He has fire in his eyes, a questioning spirit, and a serious and vocal distrust of authority. He brings home strangers like me with funny accents and wild stories from faraway lands. Juan Carlos has friends from all over the world because of the anarchist punk community. I am definitely not the first visitor the family has had from another country. His brother Jesus, the student, stays up late with me one night and tells me how much respect he has for his brother punky. He talks about how kids from all over Mexico will come stay in their room during an anarchist gathering, sometimes 15 guys at a time, from as far away as Monterrey and Oaxaca. He tells me how he wishes he had the nerve to go out and hitchhike around, talk to strangers, life free like his brother.
The barrio they live in is called Loma Bonita. It’s right at the edge of the city. When he was a boy Juan Carlos says it was all big fields of grapevines. Now it’s a working class neighborhood with colorfully painted brick and cement houses. There’s a tortillaria and a butcher shop down the street from their house, little kids playing ball, cacti growing in the occasional empty lot, a family across the street that has a little business selling piñatas. Parked on the streets are lots of older American and Japanese cars, a bunch of Volkswagens, and then the occasional new pickup American truck with Texas or Wisconsin plates. Most of the people take the bus into el centro, the center of town.
Juan Carlos has a crew of friends that he’s been hanging out with since he was a young teenager, and they all still live in the same hood. They call themselves la banda. He and his friends hang out in one of the abandoned lots full of cacti nestled between two houses and on the edge of a dairy farm. They all smoke a lot of weed and drink this fermented drink called pulky made from the water of the maguey plant. They’re a rowdy crew of punks and hippies and freaks. They have an ongoing war with the local cops. They don’t walk alone if the cops are around. Everyone knows la policia are just another gang, ready to chinga honest people at the first opportunity.
Most of la banda have snuck across the border and worked in the United States, sometimes for six months, sometimes for a year or two years. After years of working with illegal Mexicans on farms and urban job sites in the United States, I’m really interesting in hearing the perspectives of guys who’ve made the journey to my side of the world and then returned home. Every one of their stories is from the perspective of someone being treated as a second-class citizen, having to endure ridiculous amounts of racism and danger, sneaking around and trying to avoid the cops and immigration police. Once they realize I’m cool and not the average guero (white boy) they’re all jumping at the opportunity to get the war stories of their chests to someone who’s familiar with the territory and the culture and knows how fucked up and complicated it is. The flipside of those stories is getting the perspective from the guys who’ve never made the journey North, but who see their friends come back forever changed -- the ones who come back with the new trucks and big egos to match the trucks, the men who left their families behind to search after the American Dream and return all wrapped up in the fantasy, el sueno americano.
Juan Carlos and I take the bus into el centro to go hang out with the anarchist punks. The punk scene in Mexico has some of the same roots as the punk scene where I grew up, but the rebel tree branched off in a bunch of different places. Hang out with punks from Mexico for a while and you’ll discover that there are a ton (un chingo) of great political punk bands: from Massacre 68 and Sediccon, to Disobediencia Civil and Fallas del Sistema. And a lot of the Mexican bands have been really influenced by older group from Spain: Eskorbuto, Sin Dios, Guerrilla Urbana, La Furia. There are a bunch of Spanish and Basque ska-punk bands that were influenced by The Clash and the whole British Two-Tone thing that was going on in the late 1970’s. The kids in Aguascalientes I was hanging out with loved ska-punk. Which is really cool, because I have a long-term love affair with ska-punk that pre-dates my aforementioned love affair with the trains.
But it was totally intriguing to me how the world of punk rock in Mexico seemed to be manifesting itself. We went to an anarchist meeting one night in a rented community space, a platica (or “talk”) about vegetarianismo and veganismo – an intense discussion because Mexico has way more of a meat based diet than even the United States due to the brutal legacy and cattle culture of the Spaniards. Afterwards a band played all these classic Spanish and Basque ska-punk songs and everybody was singing along and dancing, big smiles on their faces. It was really beautiful. All over the walls there were black and white cut-and-paste posters for protests and tocadas (tocada means “show” or really “punk rock show.” It’s from the verb tocar: “to play music” but tocar also means “to touch.”) Hanging out with a big crew of kids wearing all black that had CRASS and Amebix and Nausea patches on their clothes, Juan Carlos’ friends looked and acted just like me and my friends in the early 1990’s in New York City. It was actually a little strange, unnerving, like some weird parallel alternate universe or something.
But when I asked Juan Carlos about it all, he took the origins of the punk thing even further. One night over beer and tacos he spent a lot of time trying to convince me that the seeds of the punk movement in Mexico go way further back than the Sex Pistols and The Clash in England, and that the real roots of Punk stem from some group of anarchist artisans in Brazil in the 1920’s. And then there’s the whole phenomenon (those of us punks who’ve traveled down South inevitably know about) of El Chopo: the enormous punk rock/metal market that happens in Mexico City every Saturday and has been happening since the 1970’s. Juan Carlos was telling me it has its roots in old Mayan traditions, that El Chopo started as a barter fair in the communal spirit of the Maya. Whatever the story is, it’s definitely an interesting one. There are un chingo de punks from Mexico all the way down to Brazil, because of the harsh social and economic situations they’re almost inevitably more political then the punks in our neck of the woods, and there are only more of them every year. It’s a thriving subculture south of the border and my humble suggestion is that you start practicing your Spanish and Portuguese.
It’s a beautiful Sunday late afternoon in barrio Loma Bonita, there are desert flowers in bloom, kids playing out on the street, men working on their cars, women (who almost inevitably work harder than their husbands because they’re usually responsible for holding down both a job and ALL the housework) are sitting around laughing and talking. I’m walking back to Juan Carlos’ family’s house after going for a long run by myself through the dairy farm and around the edge of the neighborhood. It’s been two weeks since I showed up in Aguascalientes. Juan Carlos and I spent a week hitchhiking and having crazy adventures all over Zacatecas and the desert in San Luis Potosi around the new year. I’ve been learning all kinds of important lessons that I’m going to be silently taking back with me to the other side. I’m leaving the next day to head home, taking it all in, suddenly seeing everything sharp and magic with my fresh traveler eyes.
Everything is lovely and chill, but out of nowhere in the blink of an eye a black and white police truck pulls up right next to me and there are two cops, tall and lightskinned, with mirrored sunglasses by my side. With their nightsticks waving in my face, they order me to get in the back of their truck. I try to protest – “What did I do? I think you must be mistaking me for someone else!”-- but they make it very clear with body language that they’ll force me in and make me sorry about it if I refuse. Suddenly there is no one out on the street to see us. What the fuck? I take a deep breath and get in the truck.
As soon as they’ve locked me in and gotten back in the vehicle we’ve sped off down the street in a screech of burning rubber. It suddenly occurs to me that the cops are probably drunk. The driver cop is glaring at me through the reflection in the rearview mirror and firing a barrage of questions as he swerves around streets: “What are you doing here?” “Do you have a tourist visa?” “What are the names of the people you are staying with?” “Do you have a passport?” I take deep breaths and answer calmly: “I’m from the United States of America, sir. I have my New York State driver’s license. I’m just visiting your city for the holidays. I’m planning on leaving tomorrow.” The driver cop screams back: “That’s not what I asked you, puto! Do you have a tourist visa and a passport?” “I have a United States drivers licence and I had no idea that in Mexico it was a crime to walk down the street, sir.” He’s furious: “That’s wasn’t my question, puto! Listen, pinche pendejo, we’re going to take you out of town right now and beat you so bad you’ll be sorry you ever came to Mexico. Me eschuchas, puto?” I’m scared but playing it cool: “What have I done wrong? I was just walking down the street, sir. If anything happens to me there are going to be a lot of people on both sides of the border who will be very upset.” It goes on like this for a while. We drive in circles around the neighborhood three times. The driver cop keeps stalling out and almost running into the sidewalk and other cars, catcalling all the young women we pass on the streets and telling me what they’re going to do to me in a flood of profanity.
After the third lap around the neighborhood we start heading out of town. My hands are shaking. I can see the moon outside the window high up in the sky, the only witness to this whole fucked up scene. I briefly contemplate all the ill shit the moon has had to witness over the years. “I don’t know this road, sir. Where are we going right now?” I ask. The cop leers: “Where no one can see what we’re going to do to you, puto. How do you like that?” Deep breath. “I still don’t know what I have done wrong, sir. Like I said, there are going to be a lot of upset people on both sides of the border if anything happens to me.” Silence from the cops.
We pull over on a dead end road just out of town. They’re out with their nightclubs and unlock my door. “Get out! Hands against the car!” They frisk me roughly, make me empty my pockets. “How many beers have you drank today?” They ask. “Not a single one, sir. I don’t drink. I was just going for a run when you picked me up.” He’s drunk and looking at me crazy, lips curled into a snarl, not saying a word. They’re visibly disappointed to find no drugs or weapons and only 50 pesos (not quite 5 dollars) in my wallet. The 50 pesos disappears into the driver cops pocket. But after that they keep their hands off me. They tell me to put my stuff away and without another word the cops get back in their truck and drive away. I’m still shaking. Pigs on a power trip, same the world over. I walk back to town slowly. The sun is just setting over el Cerro del Muerto and the sky is a wash of purples and pinks and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life. I have a big smile on my face, thankful for every step, every breath. The moon is keeping watch up above.
The next day I say goodbye to Juan Carlos and get on the bus. I’ve decided that I’ve earned the twenty-two hour ride back to Ciudad Juarez with the comfy seats, Hollywood Spanish dubbed movies on little TV screens and everything. I’m travel weary and ready to catch up on my sleep and writing. We’re about an hour out of town when the bus stops at a military checkpoint. Two soldiers get on and check everyone’s ID. They pull two guys off the bus: this young Guatemala kid who has no papers, and me, the dirty gringo. Suddenly I have five uniformed soldiers with automatic rifles looking through my pack, grilling me about why I have so much literature from the Zapatistas. They tell the bus driver to continue on, that they are going to hold me for questioning.
On January 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation took over a number of small cities in the southern state of Chiapas. The Zapatistas were different than any revolutionary group that had come before them: they used information more than military strategy, making it very clear to the rest of the world that the path of “free trade” the Mexican government and the multinational corporations had in mind wasn’t going to go down without a serious fight. It was the early days of the internet and the Zapatistas were sophisticated at getting their messages out through email and websites. Their actions inspired thousands of foreigners like me to travel to the poorest state in Mexico and do solidarity work with the indigenous communities in the jungle under attack from the Mexican military. I still have a whole group of friends that are living and working in Chiapas to this day. Juan Carlos and I had originally met at the anarchist library in Mexico City shortly after I finished my work in Chiapas in 1996. Before I left his house this time he loaded me down with tons of more current Zapatista literature.
The soldiers look through every single scrap of it, and ask me dozens of ridiculous questions. Do I know how to use guns? Do I know the “leader” of the Zapatista revolution, Subcommandante Marcos? Am I a spy? The usual bullshit. It takes a while to convince them that I haven’t just come from the tenth anniversary of the uprising new years celebrations that had just happened in Chiapas. The commanding officer seems to have it in for me. But at some point he tells me to pack up my stuff, that I will be allowed to get on another bus and continue on my way. Thank you, senor.
The commanding officer goes off to check another bus and I’m left with the four younger soldiers. As soon as he is gone, one of the uniformed men says to me: “You know what, man? I think the Zapatistas are chingon, I think they’re fucking cool!” He smiles. My eyes are wide. Another one pipes in: “Me too, brother. It’s a just cause, people are hungry and desperate in Chiapas. They’re just fighting for what’s right.” A third one looks over to make sure he’s not being watched by his superior, raises his fist and smiles: “Viva Marcos!” They’re all smiling at me and laughing. My mouth is agape. I remember that important rule of the road: things are not always what they seem. It’s the early days of 2004 and the year is starting off right, not quite what I had in mind, not quite how it seemed, but I’m ready for surprises, ready to make the best of this as yet unwritten story. I finish packing my bag and a few minutes later I’m back on another bus, staring out the window at the desert speeding by, heading back North.