Sometimes when I make a post about my favourite volcano, or mentioning vicious dogs, people comment to say “Be careful,” or “Look after yourself.” And I confess, it irritates me.
Scaffolding supports the main gate of the Tepoztlan cemetery after the 2017 quake.
I’m a grown-up, with no dependents other than the small pack of mutts I care for. My kids are adults, I have no significant other (the position is vacant), and I’ve hit seventy. Preserving myself ad infinitum isn’t my game-plan, and the idea of it all ending in an eruption (totally unlikely), an earthquake (possible but unlikely) or as a result of a gang shoot-out or an extortion attempt (possible, but also unlikely) doesn’t faze me. I’d rather go that way if/when it’s time, than be hooked up to tubes in a hospital bed.
So, when I make these posts, I tend to avoid things that shock people. Consider this your trigger-warning, because I’m writing about stuff that might shock you.
The church here sounds a death-knell when somebody dies. There are eight or ten strokes on one bell, following by two descending notes using both bells. In the past 48 hours, it’s sounded three times, perhaps more; though I’m not certain it’s because more than a couple of people have passed on. But I can hear the band playing now as the coffin goes down to the cemetery for its farewell. A Mexican funeral entails lively music as a send-off.
After I’d been here a few months, back in 2010, we had a shooting at a store I still visit twice a week, one night as the owner was about to pack up. His wife had just gone home to fix a late meal, and (so the tale goes), people connected to someone he’d helped kidnap years before showed up and gunned him down.
The funeral procession of Sofia’s husband pauses at the store they owned.
So, I came to appreciate quickly that life here can end violently, separate from any activity directly connected to the gangs that news media call ‘cartels.’ The widow summoned her son back from the States, and he now manages the store, making bilingual quips to customers like me, and trying to expand the business.
Then today, I learned Victor had died. Victor was, perhaps, forty, and often drunk.
A strikingly handsome man, though sometimes disfigured by cuts on his face after he’d fallen down while wasted, he purportedly had skill as an artist, and lived with a patient girlfriend just outside our village. Some drunks are mean, but he was an amiable one.
That was his problem, since many people (me, for instance), don’t want to be pals with a person who can barely stand. He would often call a greeting to me when I tried to sneak past him in town, or want to talk with me on the combi (microbus). Sometimes, combi drivers refused to let him on in that condition.
Whoever he accosted last week didn’t appreciate the attention, either. He’s now gone.
My actual current concern isn’t with him or whoever’s being buried today, but with a lady I’ll call A. She’s cleaned house for me at times, and lives in a small house a few hundred yards from here. She has a couple of sons, and the eldest and his wife think he should have the place, not her. On New Year’s Eve, he got drunk and attacked her, putting her in hospital. After she got home again, she was afraid to step outside in case she ran into him. Worse, her uncle and brothers think that as a single woman, she should go to live with another son, and not hang onto the old family home for herself.
If I tried to interfere, I’d get nothing for my pains but a minor version of what happened to Victor. Women in rural Mexico still face not just the annoyances of simple sexism, but the threat of actual violence. Things change slowly, year by year, but … slow is slow. A’s daughter-in-law is egging on her husband to brutalise and evict her, so it isn’t just the men who bear responsibility. Since social atitudes shift so gradually, if a woman wants a house for herself, she can be willing to harm her own sex to get what she can.
Understanding all this through a conventional North American lens doesn’t work. For example, taking out drug-gang leaders (“We got El Chapo! Now he’s in jail for life!”) is popular elsewhere, but completely counter-productive in combating the gangs. President Lopez-Obrador is widely mocked for his “hugs not bullets” slogan, but it contains germs of truth. You can’t stamp out systemic violence with systemic violence, however much you’d like to. In the case of the gangs, when they’ve lost leaders they’ve simply found new bosses or split into rival factions; if left alone, they might well have come to a point of self-regulation, like the New York mafia did decades ago.
Now, that’s not possible. Only ‘Mexicanidad,’ Mexican-ness, works on Mexico.
Why, then, do I live here? How do I balance the equation? Well, for one thing, I appreciate the society.
Yes, I did just write that. People are warm, they like to like you, and provided you don’t provoke them, bearing in mind this is a conservative, ostensibly Catholic society, they’ll help you if you need help. The woman that sold two female friends and I the land where I live promptly regretted doing so, and now resents us. This happens a lot, since if you trade part of your patrimony for cash, it’s lost for good. But when the younger of the friends drove her vehicle off the roadway into a rut a couple of months ago, the middle-aged son of the angry matriarch came out to help her push it back onto the roadway. Because in a small Mexican village, you do that.
Another friend lives in an area of Mexico City where one neighbour constantly steals hubcaps, mirrors and other car-parts. He seems himself, I’m told, as a radical recycler, not a thief. But when the 2017 earthquake hit, and people were buried under rubble, he was right there with his largest crowbar, spending hours digging out the homes of people he usually steals from.
To me, in my last years living in Toronto, the city was increasingly losing its sense of human complexity. Here, the people who smile at me when I say good morning might equally be killers if provoked the wrong way, yet somehow the paradox is understood and accepted. I quickly figured out how to dress, act and conduct myself so as not to push the wrong buttons, so I’m apparently looked on as an aging gringo eccentric who poses little threat to the community.
The honesty of human emotion here is challenging for an introverted English-Canadian like me, but nourishing. Add to that the lush beauty of the green mountains around me and the sunshine on 340 days a year, not to mention the lower cost of living, and the advantages are clear.
Living here, I’m close to nature, which is about being on close terms with life and death, both human and animal.
I miss many urban advantages, and at times long for things I can’t have here. But in my final Toronto year, I was nearly struck three times by people texting as they drove. My sense of control and safety of how I live is much stronger here than in Canada, not less.