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Meetings and Masks

May 3, 2020

Usually, exiting the barricade outside the village is easy. It’s getting back in when you need to smile your smiliest smile, and be ready with proof that you live here.

But they’ve changed the rules, and yesterday, when three of us went for shopping, we had to stop to obtain a ticket. The new requirement is that we get back within two hours. Which, for the three of us, was pushing it. We were headed into town to take care of a bunch of chores and shopping, and allowing us scarcely more than an hour in town to handle them was not going to be enough.

Robin is the best negotiator of the three of us, and she managed to get us a one-hour extension. So, we went on in, and I got the cash I needed, and the gas for the truck, and a few other things, while the others went off and bought what they needed.

There were far more facemasks in evidence now than there were even a week ago. Tepoztlan officially has two cases of the virus, though one source says three. Either way, to date we’ve dodged the worst of it. Since we’ve had an extended hot spell, with a lot of sunshine, I assume the weather been a major ally, since social distancing happens intermittently, at best.

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My collection of facemasks is growing. The fabric ones were a friend’s gift.

As we headed back, I wondered: would the barricade guardians turn us into a pumpkin and mice if we were late? But we never found out, and they just waved us back in.

In the afternoon, the village was holding an informational meeting, so I headed down to the civic plaza, to learn what I could learn. It was no surprise (this is Mexico) that the meeting started late, but they might have set a new record for waiting time. There was a diversion when a man showed up with a disinfecting unit to spray all round the plaza, and everyone had the sense to move away from him. But otherwise, we sat, a hundred or more of us, most of us in our masks, and waited. It was an hour and a half after the announced start that the community leaders were ready.

While I was waiting, a man came and sat next to me on the wall surrounding the plaza. He was not, unlike most of us, wearing a facemask. “It’s not started yet?” he asked, and I assured him it hadn’t. I inched further down the wall while he chatted with someone on his other side.

After some playing around with electrical supplies and a speaker, the meeting finally began.

There was, as a woman who lives on my street complained, no news. They needed more volunteers for the barricade,we were told, especially on the night shift. This disease can be really serious, especially for older people. And we have to avoid going out if we can. Which, for almost everyone, begged the question: Why then, are we here? It was like an outtake from a bad Monty Python movie. “We’ve called you here to remind you all to stay home as much as possible.”

After fifteen minutes, I became the second person to leave.

The battle here, obviously, is with educational standards and comprehension. The idea that an asymptomatic person could be a disease carrier is hardly ever mentioned, so most people still believe that if they have no symptoms, they’re fine. I saw two men greet each other with a handshake, and on the way to the meeting, passed a half-dozen people coming for a Saturday evening family gathering.

Mexico City, I read, has well over 5,000 cases, and accoding to health ministry staff, probably far more that are unreported. This state, Morelos, has around 400 in total, about a quarter as many as in the main city of Cuernavaca. But it isn’t social distancing and masks that are keeping us safe. I mentioned the warmth and the sunlight as possible helpful factors. But mostly, I think we’ve just had incredible luck so far.

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Embarrassment of Near-Riches

April 7, 2020

A few days ago, there was a ‘scandal‘ in the UK over the fact that Somerset Capital Management, the investment firm founded by cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg in the UK, was advising customers which stocks to buy in the downturn. While I’m no friend of plutocratic investors (at least till my lottery ticket comes up, at which point it’ll be “So long, suckers!”), it struck me that SCM was like the dentist who tells you your molar needs a filling. The dentist makes profit providing the service, but he’s really only doing what he’s supposed to be doing: helping look after your teeth before they decay excessively.

I reflected on this when considering how I’m slightly embarrassed (but only slightly) over the fact that I’m mildly richer now than I have been since I moved back here. The Mexican peso, since 2018, has hovered between 12 and 14.5 to the Loonie. This evening, it’s down at 17.5.

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Not worthless, but definitely worth less.

I took out cash today and the withdrawal was substantially less, when I checked my Canadian bank account, than usual. I have more disposable income than I’m used to having. I also have virtually nothing to spend it on. I did buy extra dogfood, and put some gas and a litre of oil in the car I’m currently borrowing. But I don’t want to go to one of the nearby cities to do more serious shopping, since I’d be around lots of people. My sense of self-preservation told me to head home after dropping off some supplies I’d picked up for a friend. And, after talking with her for a while (in her garden, separated by 10 ft of air), I did so.

Most restaurants locally have either closed for the duration, or are concentrating on home deliveries. I had a sneaky hope while in town that I could stop at my favourite place for a take-out order of empanadas, but it was locked. Maybe the owners are still opening on weekends, but I have the impression they’ve given up for now. Another place I frequent, 200 metres away, was similarly shut.

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Argentine-style empanadas and a glass of vino tinto … now just a memory?

This transitory sense of wealth does bring some guilt, of course. I got myself a take-out coffee at a place I’ve been going to for years, and the owner was there alone. She’d laid off her staff, she told me, since business was almost non-existent. There was just the odd in-and-out person like me, the occasional pseudo-libertarian denialist, convinced that this is all a Chinese/American/George Soros hoax, and a few people who will tell you (sans face-mask) that you only have to beef up your aura or reinforce your chakras with the right mantra to deal with this. But those laid-off waitresses have zero income at the moment, whatever the condition of their chakras or auras.

The market isn’t usually busy on a Tuesday, but I still sometimes need to wait for a customer to finish a purchase. Today, people at the stalls were checking cellphones, to offset the boredom. The guilt/empathy here was double, since technically I’m supposed to have sequestered myself at home, where I grow no veggies and can’t bake my own bread. At some point, I imagine, the police, who have almost nothing to do but look for people to whom they can issue parking tickets, might start harassing older shoppers, but it doesn’t seem likely right now. There are few cases of virus in our state of Morelos, and there’s still the whispering hope that we’ll somehow continue like that. I’m more pessimistic, but I can’t help hoping that will be what comes to pass.

Ah, hope. When Pandora opened her box, hope was the one thing that remained after everything else flew out. But hope can be a tormentor, providing false optimism. Will the lockdown finish at the end of April? Will people go back to work soon? Will the kids go back to school? Will there be a cure-all antiviral medicine soon? How about garlic and turmeric? Hope, hope, hope.

Meanwhile, like a small-time Ebenezer Scrooge, I count my modest but accumulating dollars, shift them to my modest savings account, and wonder just how strange this will get before it’s all over.

And how will we know it’s truly over? The strangeness will stop, I imagine, and I’ll be back to my usual, almost hand-to-mouth existence. However, I think the strangeness will continue for a long time to come. And I’ll be financially semi-comfortable for a while.

Colonels

Emiliano Zapata is an enduring figure in this part of Mexico. Where his northern rival, Pancho Villa, engendered a swaggering, brutal image, Zapata over the years has retained a reputation for integrity of purpose combined with military ability. Both men were key figures in the revolution that broke out in 1910, but where Villa survived until he was assassinated some years after it ended, Zapata was betrayed and murdered close to its culmination. As a commander, he had lost and regained territory, and survived several setbacks. Only a clever deception by a presumed ally snared him, and he was killed in an ambush at a hacienda (plantation) in Chinameca on April 10, 1919.

For the actual centenary, a local history group compiled documents and photos of people who served under him, and mounted it in the square in town. Zapata was born fifteen miles from here in 1879, and this area saw some of the most intense fighting of the decade-long conflict. The effort to sever the rich plantation owners from their control of most of the farmland (and of the farmers) was partly successful, and it reshaped the agricultural landscape. But Zapata’s murder at Chinameca was the hacenderos’ way of ensuring they retained a measure of power, and his dream was never wholly fulfilled.

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The statue over Zapata’s tomb in Cuautla, Morelos. (‘Gral’ is an abbreviation for ‘general.’)

I wanted to write about the revolt when I saw the photo exhibit, but found it hard because it moves me in ways that surprise me. Usually, revolutions and revolutionaries leave me cold, but there was a desperate nobility to the struggle here. Moreover, it WAS here. Going through the photos, I saw surnames I recognised, and references to villages whose streets I’ve walked down. When I first visited here fifteen years ago, two of Zapata’s children were still alive.

Zapata, and his movement, live on today, and not just in the Zapatistas of Chiapas further south in Mexico. On the bus to the nearby city of Cuautla, I pass a couple of tall brick chimneys, the walls below them still standing, that belonged to haciendas where sugarcane was grown and processed, and which Zapata’s men attacked while Europe was wracked by its own more massive war. In the north, the U.S. sent General Pershing to help put down Villa, who learned the hard way what machine-guns would do to his cavalry; while Zapata had to fight against his own countrymen and supporters who switched sides. In my local town of Tepoztlan, citizens fled from the fighting to hide in caves for weeks on end.

Yes, it was bloody.

The photos showed some absurdly young officers, generals and colonels scarcely out of their teens. The forces under their command were modest, perhaps a few score for a colonel and a couple of hundred for some generals. A few of them were educated, like Zapata; others look like they couldn’t write their own names, but were trusted by their troops because they’d all grown up together.

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A photo of a few of Zapata’s colonels, from the exhibit in Tepoztlan, where some had fought.

One time, my Spanish language teacher showed us students a documentary made in the 1990s, featuring interviews with old men who’d been fighters seventy years before. Two of them, I remember, tried to mimic the distinctive cluck-click noise their rifles made when a bullet was loaded into the chamber. A third, who’d been one of those post-adolescent colonels, pulled out his old weapon, and demonstrated the actual sound for the interviewer.

It was a brilliant bit of editing. The fact that these were simple farmers, not fighters, with little weaponry beyond these German-made rifles, was something I never forgot. They’d grown up in a hardscrabble life, with no real civil rights, and were fighting for their children to have something better.

Other men, politicians who’d played their own part in the revolution, tried to complete Zapata’s dream of land redistribution in the decades after the conflict ended. In the end, though, a changing world was what defeated that dream. Today, people round here sell off the land won with blood so that outsiders can build hotels and houses. Trucks roar through small towns that were once villages where half-forgotten battles and skirmishes were fought. And since so many fighters couldn’t write, records of the battles are often sketchy or non-existent.

Zapata, though, since he died before power could corrupt him, remains an admired figure. I try to be coolly cynical about his image, but I can’t be. One thing that ties me to this place is respect for those peasant soldiers who found the strength to rebel against brutality and poverty through the will of a leader who dared risk it all; and how he paid for that with his life in an ambush.

They don’t make them like Emiliano Zapata any more.