Robert Joe Stout is a journalist and freelance writer living in Oaxaca, Mexico. His Hidden Dangers (Sunbury, 2014) details obstacles facing Mexico and the United States on various fronts, including drug commerce and immigration. His most recent book of poetry is A Perfect Throw (Aldrich Press).
With twenty or thirty others in San Juan Chijuqui’s stone-walled communal center, Cruz Vilchis and I listened to residents of that isolated mountain pueblo enumerate what porros of the neighboring village had done. There being no electricity and no windows the room was dark excerpt for an elongated strip of sunlight coming through the open doorway. Above it a grimy portrait of Benito Juàrez peered past JUSTICIA, LIBERTAD, VIVA MEXICO printed in faded gold on a wide wooden plaque. Most of the women on the far side of the room had wrapped shawls over their heads and around their shoulders; they shuffled awkwardly against each other as though trying to disappear into the shadowed recesses away from the sunlight.
The cabrones broke into the Casa de Gobierno, twenty or thirty of them; the caretaker fled, they ripped open the files, burned everything, every document, every proof we had of possession...
The speaker wiped his closed fist across his forehead. Beside me Cruz murmured something in Mixteco to one of the women. She pulled the corner of her shawl across her mouth and nodded as the speaker continued
...they went through the pueblo, every house. A few of the men tried to stop them but they were too few. The women, the children, tried to flee but the porros grabbed many of them—thirty, forty. They forced them in here, into this building, and barred the door...
Cruz’s fingers around my arm momentarily diverted my attention. One of the women had jerked away from her companions but they’d grabbed her and pulled her back towards them.
...but not all of them. Some—a few—they, they...
Lips clamped together the speaker peered directly at Cruz and me
they violated, raped. They said it was a lesson for allowing their men to go away.
“Those of us who could came back as soon as we heard,” Francisco Javier explained as Cruz and his driver, three men from the pueblo and I gathered on makeshift benches and a couple of folding chairs behind the patio kitchen of a house adjoining the communal center. Cruz hunched forward, nodding; tall by Oaxaca standards, his torso twisted by the fact that one leg, shorter than the other, forced him to walk with a cane, he was the head of what had become a one-person human rights NGO. He understood how the feud between the adjoining pueblos had started and had invited me to accompany his visit some forty or fifty kilometers from Tlaxiaco, explaining that my presence could make the sanjuaneros feel that someone outside the closed circle of government was willing to listen to them, provide some kind of support.
For generations they had been farmers but with the recent droughts and lack of government support they no longer could produce enough from their hillside plots. At first just a few, then almost all of the men left to seek work in the United States. Some of the first to leave wound up in North and South Carolina. Soon almost all of the men who could work were emigrating but each year a few of them remained in the pueblo to care for the houses and land. Those working in the Carolinas paid them equal to what they would have earned so remaining in the Mixteca did not disadvantage them economically.
The neighboring village, Miagua de Crespo was lower and had access to deeper wells. Like their community it was poor but had several more stores and a health clinic that was open the first three days of the month. At first, Javier explained, those from his village went there for treatment but always there were more people crowding into the clinic than could be accommodated.
Those who didn’t get the care they felt they deserved included the aunt and cousins of the neighboring pueblo’s mayor. He and several young ruffians forced those from Javier’s pueblo to leave. The following month they blockaded the road to prevent anyone from San Juan from coming to the clinic. A brouhaha followed; half-a-dozen persons suffered cuts and broken limbs. Spokesmen from Javier’s village protested to state officials “who of course did nothing” and ruffians from the pueblo with the health clinic permanently closed the road.
“It was stupid,” the man next to me contradicted Javier’s use of blasphemies. His bony features had that migraine look that Mixteca farmers develop after years of struggling against drought and debt and hardship. “We could have negotiated. But no, we started shouting, demanding. They shouted back. Every time something like that happens we make it worse.”
“The problem,” Cruz intercepted Francisco Javier’s retort, “is too little for so much need. Three days a month, sometimes a doctor comes, sometimes just a nurse. They come with hardly any medicines. Thus the resentment, the anger. Everybody scrapping like street dogs for what little there is.”
The man with the migraine look nodded. Javier bit at the corners of his mustache. Whether or not they agreed with Cruz they would not contradict him. Although he was not from the government he could influence the government, he was San Juan’s contact with the world of laws and procedures. “A builder of truces,” Cruz called himself, “truces but not solutions.”
“We would leave but there is no place to go,” the man facing Cruz fisted saliva away from the corner of his mouth. Gray-haired, diabetic, his left arm twisted from a harvesting accident, he placed his palms on an imaginary table in front of him. Without land, without money, we would become beggars, thieves, the women prostitutes, he said. The younger men like Javier could leave, they could work, but the women...
His voice trailed off as one of the women appeared beside him balancing plates of empanadas in her small, chubby hands. She served first Cruz, then me then the man with the twisted left arm. Cruz spoke to her in Mixteco and she twisted her shoulders as though in agreement. A younger woman brought plates for Javier and the others, acknowledging their murmured “gracias” with barely perceptible shrugs. Cruz gestured towards their retreat, a you see how it is sort of admonishment.
“The women,” he said softly. “They do not live in the same world as Javier. How many of them speak only Mixteco?”
Javier picked at his mustache; the man with the twisted arm murmured “Marí’lena, Lorena some español...the rest, pues, no...”
“There is no school?”
“In Miagua. The girls don’t go. Only the boys.”
“Now some of the girls,” Javier interrupted.
“It is hard for girls to learn,” the man with the twisted arm countered.
“It’s like an earthquake ripped a huge crevice through the land.” Cruz chewed on his empanada, facing me but intending his words for the others. “The men like Javier leaped across it but the women, no. Javier’s traveled thousands of miles, been to cities, flown in airplanes, eaten hambourguers. The women no—or only a few. The men know both worlds. The women know only this one.”
“For them it’s better here,” a squat bear of a fellow who’d come back from the Carolinas with Javier grunted.
The squat bear shrugged.
“There I am nobody. A pig. A dog. Worse than the niggers. For the women, fígate! they are like refugees, lost, frightened, life’s horrible for them.”
“And here? Kidnapped? Raped?”
The squat bear tore at his empanada with glistening teeth. “Too many of us were gone. There weren’t enough of us here to fight.” Pieces of empanada caught in his throat and he pounded his chest to force them down. “Here everything is familiar. They wear San Juan the way they wear clothes. There everything is strange. They weep. They don’t sleep. They are afraid of everything.”
“It’s changing,” Javier insisted, “there are more women there now, they are learning.”
“Has changed,” Cruz corrected. “It’s as though that earthquake ripped out fifty years of time. It’s different in the cities, there’s transition, one absorbs changes slowly. Not easily, but slowly. You, Mecánico,” he gestured towards the squat bear, “are happy here? Javier? There you are worse than niggers and here? You eat well? Have money? Buy boots, rings, automobiles?”
“Jodidos. Screwed wherever we are.”
“No!” Mecánico spat around a mouthful of curses directed towards the man with the twisted left arm, “a nigger that fights back! I work! Send money! Here, my house! Concrete blocks! Real beds! It will be here like they have there...”
His voice trailed off and he lifted the empanada to his mouth again, then dropped it onto his plate.
“I—we,” he jerked his closed fist towards Javier, “it is hard but there’s no other way.”
“Stay there. Build there. Forget the Mixteca.”
Eyes half-closed Mecánico glared at something none of the rest of us could see.
“The women,” he murmured. Then, “You have to be there to know. Feeling like garbage. I do not walk with my head down but I see how people—the gringos—look at me. Here, I get off the bus, ‘There goes a man,’ I see in the faces, ‘a good man, successful man, one to be admired.’ I feel good. I do not feel beaten. I do not feel jodido.”
“And the women?” Javier glanced towards the thatch-covered kitchen behind us. “Our leaving makes life better for them?”
Before Mecánico could answer Cruz interrupted.
“That’s the dilemma. The men leave, they work, send money. For cement blocks, for clothes, stoves, food. The women? Ask them? They become pseudo-men, they plant, weed, grow corn, clean, build. We would like San Juan to be a Mexico North Carolina but can it be? Of the men who’ve gone, how many have not returned?”
Javier seemed about to answer but picked at the tip of his nose instead. The man with the migraine look palmed one hand upward as though counting his fingers. Mecánico and the man with the twisted arm glared at each other, then nodded.
“It is not easy,” Javier said quietly. “The coyotes. The migra. One has to be careful. Many who do return to the Mixteca don’t go back to the Other Side. Their money gone they can’t pay a coyote. They become useless—”
The man with the twisted arm grimaced, a smile that was an acknowledgment of inner pain.
“You’re not useless. You work. You have your melons, your corn, your chickens. Sometimes you don’t sell the eggs just give them—”
“Children need to eat.”
The younger woman who had helped serve reappeared to take our plates. As she turned to go back to the patio kitchen Cruz’s driver stopped her and said something in Mixteco. She stiffened, glancing sideways first at Javier, then at Cruz. With a slight twitching of her shoulders she backed away, then answered. Cruz’s driver translated into Spanish.
“She says she looks at the mountains. Past the trees at the mountains and past the mountains at the sky and wonders what it out there beyond the mountains, beyond the sky.”
“That’s not what she said,” the man with the migraine look countered. “She said she feels stupid when she looks at the mountains.”
“Do all the mujeres look at the mountains?” Cruz interrupted.
The young woman shrugged. “We talk about what’s beyond them,” Cruz’s driver translated for my benefit. “That’s where the men go.”
Cruz’s driver laughed—mockingly, I thought—but Cruz, balancing his cane in front of him, pushed himself out of the folding chair in which he was sitting. “This is interesting. Ask the other women to come in.”
At first, seated together facing us, the seven women could have been schoolgirls anticipating reprimand. Obediently, but with conviction, they responded to Cruz’s questions. Without the men—the younger men who left to work on “The Other Side”—San Juan wasn’t the same, they agreed. It
was tilted, one of them explained, out of balance, like on a steep hillside, everything was more difficult, life wasn’t normal. Instead of family groups like before—grandparents, parents, children, each with its own center—now the women bunched together, shared cooking because it was easier—y más barato—cheaper, one of them added.
“We want to be ‘guerreras’—warriors—another ascertained, “but we don’t know how.” Another said they were “guerreras” but they didn’t know who to fight against. Their time was taken up with their children, with trying to raise chickens, goats, melons, corn. The men who could not migrate and the few who stayed behind tried to keep San Juan like it had been but there was less laughter, less energy—“less fights!” snapped a slender woman whose missing incisors gave her face the appearance of a snarl. The others laughed, briefly, tersely. The woman with the missing incisors complained that instead of taking over more of the governing, the choices about land and houses and money, she and the other women became “a nunnery,” bunched together, day after day absorbed in identical routines.
“We need each other,” the young women who had helped serve hid her words behind cupped hands.
“We need each other to be strong,” the woman who’d said they were guerreras countered.
“It’s just that we can’t do it all,” the older woman who’d prepared the empanadas murmured.
Cruz tied to get them to say more, to be specific, but they demurred, glancing from one to another, shrugging, picking at threads on their rebozos.
“If our country had more people like you we wouldn’t have the problems we have,” Cruz complimented. Mecánico grunted an agreement, then turned towards the rest of us.
“It has to be here. Build here, it’s our land, where we belong!”
“Never again will it be like it was,” Cruz’s driver squinted towards the departing women. For a few moments, like him, I watched them trundle across the patio, arms around each other, heads bent in quiet conversation.
“Nothing is like it was before,” Cruz assented. “We can’t go back. What was is gone. The Mixteca has changed. North Carolina has changed. We are in the middle of a river and can’t go against the current. We have to—”
“—get out of the water!”
“Go to the bank where the women are? Isolated? The land beneath them giving way?”
“Build a pinche dam!”
“No,” Cruz shook his head. “We must teach the women to swim.”