She was seventy-four years old, bright, quick, well-read, the mother of a friend. Alicia lived in a neighboring town, a small farm town. My friend understood we might have something in common. Alicia is a reader and a student of history. Perhaps by the time we are seventy-four, we are all students of history. Oddly both our families revered Churchill. Her father, who trekked through the Sonoran Desert out of Mexico to escape the vagaries of history, mine who survived the bombing of London. Our conversation was in Spanish, which is a new language for me. I am sure I missed some of the nuances that all language has, but the bright lines of our personal stories and history were obvious. We both remembered 1968 and Mexico City. She was raised far north of Mexico City and watched the news with horror, as had I sitting in a New York City apartment.
I told Alicia that I would travel the next day to Guadalajara. Her face became pale. “It is election season. You know this, correct?” I admitted I did. She talked about how everything was crazy at election time. We talked about the American elections of November 2020. We had both been shocked by the January 6th insurrection. She said, “Mexico is the same. Please be very careful.” I told her I had grown up in New York City in the ’60s, my tried-and-true bulletproof vest. If I survived the ‘60s in New York City, I could survive anything, I told myself. I understood that Alicia appreciated that New York City was dangerous, but she was not convinced that I would be safe. Frankly, I knew I was trying to convince myself.
I pretended a bravery I did not feel. I understand that the kind of radar that kept me safe in the United States is not dependable in another culture in which I am not fluent in the language or the culture. The subtleties of gesture, attention, and nuance were not the same, even if some of the motives of violence were. So as much as I whistled in the dark to Alicia about her warning, I knew politics in Mexico was as volatile as politics in the United States of America. I appreciated her concern. I was nervous about going to a city of five million in an explosive election season. It is not hyperbolic to say that this election in Mexico is violent. Many politicians have been killed, and the Cartels are fighting for extended power.
When I was sixteen and hugely pregnant, I was active politically, opposing the Viet Nam war at the time the students were gunned down in Tlatelolco. They were not much older than me and more like me than not. As young as I was, I understood the reasons they were killed, and their deaths denied. The police in New York City had waded into the crowds of demonstrators I was a part of, aggressive and violent. Police violence was not a new concept. My pregnancy did not protect me. We were threatening the status quo they were charged with maintaining. In Mexico, the sharpshooters had the same task. It is possible the students in the Plaza de las Tres Cultures thought, “They won’t shoot us. We are in the right. We are protesting conditions that are not correct.” It was weeks before the Olympics were to happen in Mexico City. Despite the eyes of the world being on Mexico, the students were murdered. Many people don’t know that the United States backed the government in Mexico that ordered the massacre. I recently read that the forty-two kidnapped and murdered students from the Normal school in Guererro had said to one another, “They won’t shoot us.” We are always surprised at death.
Two years after the murder of the students in Mexico City, college students in Kent State, protesting the same Viet Nam I had protested, were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard. I imagine at the ultimate behest of the same government. Politics can be dangerous.
And yet, how miraculous to have this conversation with someone from so different a background with such similar insight. A father who understood the dangers of political control and manipulation and the investments of people who were charged with maintaining the rule of the powerful. Who read Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain to his children as an education in the history of the deep south and racism, who understood the plight of the powerless, as my family did.
At twenty-three, I learned my first Spanish. I didn’t even know it was Spanish at the time. My friend pointed out to me a street sign with the word ‘ocotillo’ on it. “Pronounce the double ll like an e.” My first Spanish lesson. Then much later, in my early forties in a Spanish class, the teacher trying to teach me ‘contigo,’ and my struggle to understand, embarrassed and frustrated. Such a simple phrase and such difficulty to understand, it is amazing what becomes apparent with time. Now in my late sixties, it is finally beginning to make sense. In many ways, a lot is starting to become clear.
For almost as long as Spanish has been in the background of my life, so has Mexico. I am always drawn back. No matter how far away I live, the tidal pull of Mexico catches me. Once again, I return.
This time I live in the outskirts of Gringolandia. I did not intend this. I was in Mexico City visiting Casa Azul when the pandemic, looming on the horizon for months, finally hit. I returned to Idaho and lockdown. For months I feared for my life. While my neighbors believed the pandemic a hoax, I knew it was fatally real. I watched the news out of New York City.
In my little corner of the Rockies and in the country, the thinking became progressively more a fever dream. As people died, Trump raged and denied and spoke of ingesting disinfectant. I thought of Casa Azul and my whispered conversation to Frieda, “Let me live through this.” This to a woman who had died young. But thinking of Mexico kept me sane.
As the rage in the United States grew, I became more determined to leave. When it became clear that I could work online and that this would continue to generate income, I packed my car and headed south. Two old dogs, the essential items for an indeterminate time, stuffed in my car, and we were off.
My private joke is to say that I am heading south, an old slang for losing it. What is true is I feared what was happening to my country, and I understood that I could not stop it. Despite donations, writing, and protesting, I suspected that the desire for a big-daddy strongman was inevitable. While I am not sure whether my heading south is a deterioration or a breakthrough, I am comfortable that ‘soy una viajera.’
I live in Mexico, and I have no plans to return, other than temporarily. This is quite a statement. With this choice, I join the many who chose to leave what is known for reasons of survival, economics, violence, politics, or simple preference. The choice is fraught with possibilities. I am learning the language. I know how to say something is cool in Mexican Spanish. As I wander through Guadalajara, thinking casually of what it would be like to live in a big city again, it is both frightening and magical. Generations of dissidents call out to me. I am sitting in a coffee shop that triples as a printing press, bookstore, and printing press, and I suspect a hangout for free-thinking writers. I think of writing full time—no more squeezing in a few hours outside of my day job.
I listen to two men at the next table catching a phrase here and there. They were articulate, intense, and young. I remember being twenty. I remember writing into the night, debating with friends about our politics and our life, I still do. My friend who lives in Portland still writes and breathes politics. We talk regularly.
I love books. I argue with authors as their words roll out in front of me. I am not willing to concede to old age, which I rapidly approach. Guadalajara is a city of ideas, books, and ideas encapsulated in this bookstore/coffeehouse. I am excited here. Full of the energy of a big city, a city of ideas.
The other day I had a conversation with a young man studying engineering in his last year of school. He stated that he is worried about Mexico’s election. This election will have tremendous influence over whether AMLO (the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obredor) consolidates his power. “If he gets in again, I am afraid that we will go the way of Venezuela. People are so easily pursued.” It is easy to persuade the desperate. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” we said in unison. But we are the educated and not desperate. A lot hangs on this election. My friend in Portland argues that the United States, the fat cat to the north of Mexico, will not stand for such a thing. Me, the Gringa innocente, is not so sure for a variety of reasons. Mexico is sick of the dominance of the fat cat to the north, and no one ever accused politicians of caring about ultimate outcomes, only about short-term power. But I understand just how fraught this season is. All over the world, the strongmen are attempting to take over, to wipe out any gains made for the ordinary people. Whether it is Trump and the wealthy of the United States or AMLO in Mexico, the investment on the part of the powerful is to remain in power. About this, I am not innocent. I am saddened because so many pay the price of human greed.
I think of Nuestra Senora of Fatima and realize the gift it is to survive and live long enough to know a little bit of history. I celebrate the gift of the people, who are my tribe, talking to me of their fears for their beloved country. Our countries are our known, our sacred, even if our adversaries at times. We can’t divorce ourselves from where we grew up. We can’t divorce ourselves from our fathers and the dreams, smells, and sounds of our first world. As I enter my second world, my second language, I realize I will always be who I am, a gringa, and a woman who protested. With luck, I am also a woman who is protected by whatever prayers are sent my way.