Rise of the Narco, Fall of the Vocho
AN ELEGY FOR THE TWILIGHT YEARS OF MEXICO’S LATE PARTY DICTATORSHIP
As a writer born on the cusp of the 1960s and 70s, I’ve never been considered part of the wave of authors born in the 70s, nor of those who came up in the 60s. As a result, I think I’ve lived all my life with the feeling that the best of everything had already come and gone by the time I arrived. To think about the Mexico of my youth, the country of late revolutionary nationalism—whose time lasted from, let’s say, 1970, when Mexico hosted the World Cup for the first time, to 1994, when NAFTA took effect—is to consider a world blistered by the simultaneously ridiculous and endearing form of the Volkswagen Bug, nicknamed “el Vocho” by the Mexican people.
I used to have a memory that Lenus, one of our neighbors in the apartment building in Mexico City where I grew up, owned one. When we headed out to visit some part of the city inaccessible by public transit (my mother belongs to the last generation of Mexicans who enjoyed the luxury of not driving), I remembered Lenus cramming us all into her Vocho.
In 1973, I was four years old, and one of the hit songs of the day was “Un gato en la oscuridad” (Cat in the dark) by Roberto Carlos, which we kids sang in the car at the top of our lungs. I still know it by heart. At that age, my sister, La Nena, and I still traveled standing up in the little storage space that separated the backseat from the Vocho’s rear window. Latin America’s history tends to be seen by our neighbors in the United States as a continuum of violence and abuse. Our stories can be told that way—all stories can be crafted to suit the narrator’s needs—but our fateful year, the one that changed everything because various governments began dispensing wanton violence in a shamelessly mechanical way, was 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in a coup d’état famously supported by the CIA. All I remember about that year, however, is the cozy feeling of riding around Mexico City inside a Vocho, singing with my sister.
In the Mexico of those years, there was a genuine provincial peace, even if it was a peace imposed by the totalitarian regime of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (or the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party). It was a party dictatorship that could be gentle in its ways, if one respected the rules and stood in line with the silent majorities that accepted the regime as the best possible government we could expect to have. The government knew how to be ruthless and was essentially antidemocratic, but throughout the immensities of Latin America it was clearly the most tolerant regime, and the one least prone to violence.
We had Vochos, we lived in a land protected by the mantle of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we were told that we were “the great Mexican family”: la gran familia mexicana. We were happily feeding a monster, never suspecting that when things went wrong, we would find ourselves devoured, too.
* * * *
In his 1969 review of a series of concerts the Doors performed in Mexico City, cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis inscribed a phrase that marked the national conscience for decades. The Doors played their gigs at a rather chic and expensive dance club called El Fórum from June 27 to June 30, and, Monsiváis said, the young people who attended these shows were “the first generation of pure Americans born in Mexico.” It was a loaded precept: America’s cultural influence could complete what its army had left undone in the Mexican-American War.
I was born a little more than a month after these concerts, which would place me, according to Monsiváis, among the second generation of “pure Americans born in Mexico.” I’m not so sure if my siblings and I were really part of this group, though. My parents, who were in their mid-thirties in 1969, grew up without the glitz of Elvis Presley, so for most of my childhood the record collection I listened to included folk songs by José Alfredo Jiménez and Chabuca Granda, boleros by Agustín Lara, the sounds of the Trío Matamoros and Beny Moré from Cuba, and the Brazilians Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Rock-and-roll records showed up later for us, around the late 1970s and early 80s, thanks to my father’s youngest brother, who lived with us for three years after moving from Guadalajara to Mexico City. I still recall my father’s horrified face as he heard Janis Joplin’s soulful wailing and the Sturm und Drang of Led Zeppelin.
Perhaps Mexico City was the last large Mexican city to become globalized. Or perhaps we were an exception, but another review of the Doors’ shows there reveals that “the first generation of pure Americans born in Mexico” was, in reality, absolutely unfamiliar with the by-then-international rituals of rock. The teenagers who attended the concerts watched Jim Morrison sing while seated at tables served by waiters, sipping fruit juice and Coca-Cola with their parents. The article about the concerts published in El heraldo de México opened with this lead: “The mental health of young Mexicans triumphed over the sordid and anguished performance of Morrison and The Doors.” That sentence nicely sums up the pusillanimous Mexico City I grew up in: the puritan capital of the small empire in which revolutionary nationalism held that providential worth was the beginning and end of all that we were.
It was a country where the governmental propaganda always included the phrase “the great Mexican family,” where the TV program all children watched at eight o’clock on Sunday morning was called En familia con Chabelo (Family Time with Chabelo), and where the program with the largest broadcast audience, Sube Pelayo sube! (Up Pelayo Up!), featured various families competing against one another in contests of physical skill. The show opened with Luis Manuel Pelayo saying: “I hope that you’re all gathered together, with Grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody happy.” Mexico was the great big happy family of the dictatorial Institutional Revolutionary Party, which shamelessly embraced South American exiles from 1973 onward, as long as they wrapped themselves in the Guadalupan mantle. Requirements were light: keep radical left-wing ideas at home, look and act white, buy a Vocho. Mexico City was never more Latin American than during the 70s, the decade during which, curiously, Mexico became an increasingly insular nation. What irony: the same party dictatorship that had received all the leftist Latin Americans exiles who had come seeking refuge from the military rulers down south repressed, with delirious brutality, the local student movements of 1968 and 1971.
* * * *
One year before I was born, during the summer of 1968, a number of public high schools in Mexico City went on strike in order to demand the freedom of a group of students they considered political prisoners. Soon their colleagues at the National University and the Polytechnic Institute helped to unite the movement and organized demonstrations that reached proportions never before seen in the capital. Twenty days before the start of the Olympic Games, the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered the Mexican Army to open fire on one of those demonstrations. The number of casualties is still unknown. Hundreds of the surviving students were detained, judged, and jailed under charges of disrupting public peace.
In El cuerpo en que nací (The Body Where I Was Born), Guadalupe Nettel considers one group of buildings in particular—a so-called “habitational unit” (a label with functionalist airs), the Olympic Village—to be emblematic of that period, writing:“…a peculiar aspect of our habitational unit is that it served to house the Olympians in ’68. As everyone knows, that year and those Olympics symbolize the worst political massacre committed in Mexico, one that heralded the wave of oppression that characterized the continent in the 1970s. Nevertheless—however paradoxical this may sound—those buildings were full of leftist South Americans who had come to Mexico to avoid being murdered.” The fact that a great many exiles from South America have settled in the Olympic Village that once hosted the athletes while the students were still in jail is akin to the fact that Buenos Aires installed Mexican guerilla fighters around its naval engineering school, the detention center emblematic of the Argentine dictatorship. Nevertheless, the paradox that Nettel points out is circumstantial: the Olympic Village is situated alongside the National University, and the South American exiles were largely intellectuals whose arrival would benefit the university.
These immigrants were members of a white, well-educated middle class, and the 70s was a decade when families with a certain purchasing power and European blood made a great migration toward the southern part of Mexico City—Argentines, Chileans, and Uruguayans naturally moved to live among people like themselves. But it’s also a revealing contradiction: never did the PRI regime repress—with such bald-faced cunning and indifference—the left that had opted for the socialist revolution in the face of the disastrous, idiosyncratic Mexican Revolution as it did in the 70s; and never did Mexico so style itself, as it did in that same decade, as a land of opportunity for the leftists who were flocking up from the south. It was a peculiar, mostly sad, form of cosmopolitanism.
* * * *
My parents, Jorge and Maísa, participated in an earlier, less-conspicuous migration. They were part of that long, silent invasion of Mexico City that began when the last shots of the revolution were still echoing in the air. They were members of the modest middle class from the provinces who sent their children to study in Mexico City. My mother is a refugee from the Spanish Civil War, but she arrived in Veracruz at the age of three, a fact that makes her a Veracruzan more than any official papers do. Like so many others, my parents graduated from college, married, and found work in the capital. The Mexico City of those quiet, provincial migrants was different than the one that bloomed near the National University. It was a brown city where all the families went to mass on Sundays, where I had to hide the fact that my mother had been born outside of Mexico or suffer unbearable scorn at school.
It wasn’t until I reached university that I could sit in classes and not feel ashamed that my grandfather had been a European communist who’d arrived in Mexico after spending a year in a French concentration camp. It was in university, too, that I discovered that the fact that the respectable library in my family’s apartment was not an eccentricity. Both of my parents were readers, Maísa mainly of literary novels, Jorge of nonfiction, but his collection of Latin American poetry books is noteworthy because of its organic quality: it contains an amusing number of first editions of modern classics that had been nothing special when he first bought them.
Mexico City in the early 70s was a town in which all the newspapers echoed the voice of the president (I don’t understand why my father read them, but I’ve never gotten up the nerve to ask him), and where no one discussed the forced disappearances in the southern part of the country or continent, but instead wondered whether Señorita Sinaloa or Señorita Sonora was going to become the next Miss Mexico. It was a city in which the well-known South Americans were singers or professional soccer players, and the only migrant children who appeared in the classrooms were Lebanese. (We thought that being Lebanese was a way of being Mexican, and so we never felt like they were foreigners; maybe we were right.)
Juanito Rodríguez, the Chilean son of the center forward for Atlético Español who lived in our building, would stage performances of the radio broadcasts covering Pinochet’s coup d’état: some kids told jokes; others played the organ; Juanito reenacted the fall of Salvador Allende. Everyone applauded them. Dante and Sergio were the sons of Morocho Juárez, the Argentine captain for Club Necaxa. In the games we played on the building’s patio, we recognized them for being fabulous ball handlers, not for having fled from a reality that had become unlivable. We all met up, hair neatly combed, in dress shoes, at the five o’clock mass at San Antonio church, also attended by the Karham girls, who were inseparable from my sister. Then everyone went over to the Karham house to watch television, to confirm that we were part of the great Mexican family.
The Mexico to which Chilean exiles arrived was, above all, deaf, dumb, and blind in relation to its own reality, an almost perfect system for crushing dissent. It was a country ruled by the behavioral norms of a brutally racist middle class that considered itself, absurdly, white—though nowhere else in the world would it have been seen that way. When I called my mother to confirm the story about our rides through the city in the Vocho, she told me that, no, our neighbor Lenus hadn’t owned one; it was her friend Estela.
“So where were we going?” I asked.
“Almost always to Mexico Park. Estela and her mother,” she explained, “liked going to the La Condesa neighborhood because they said that the Jewish children were nicer.”
“What do you mean,‘nicer’?”
“Oh, Álvaro,” she said, exasperated at my incapacity to understand certain codes of her generation. “They were white.” Estela is my mother’s childhood friend from Veracruz, a woman who in any other country would be proudly black. In 1970s Mexico, however, it seems she felt obliged to socialize with lighter-skinned people because she was affluent enough to own a Vocho.
* * * *
The world was changing in ways we had never suspected it would. How could we? Pampered as we were by a regime that insulated its citizens through a stranglehold on the media while supplying just enough consumer goods to make us feel that the middle class was still growing, we never learned that in 1971 the president of the United States had declared a war on drugs, and, in 1973, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was replaced by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which would eventually bring Nixon’s war into our homes. We didn’t know that growing marijuana and selling it across the border in the United States was our nation’s newest and fastest-growing industry, under the control of a few businessmen who were tolerated by the federal government as long as the drugs were not sold in Mexico. We didn’t know that those businessmen would eventually partner with the Colombian cartels to move cocaine through their tunnels in northern Mexico into the United States, generating an unprecedented, undeclared economic power, a sort of para-state—nearly a third nation—with endless resources to protect itself against any intervention, from either the government or citizenry, through psychopathic methods of administering violence and money. I don’t even think we knew that cocaine was a drug consumed by anyone besides Sigmund Freud: it was an abstraction. My father’s all-purpose assessment of any rebellious youth was that he was a marihuano (a marijuana smoker). That was enough to single out that person as an outcast and a loser, a bad Mexican, someone who had it coming because he—it was always a he—had chosen to turn his back on the great family of revolutionary nationalism.
* * * *
In the six years I spent in primary school, I remember only two comments about international politics spoken on the playground. The first was from El Pollo Castillo, who told another boy that Ronald Reagan would surely win the 1980 American presidential election. He won it a week or two later by a landslide, and what shocked me were not the next four nightmarish years that came crashing down on Latin America as a result, but that El Pollo had called the election so perfectly. During my senior year in high school, I ended up developing an easygoing friendship with him: in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake, the two of us volunteered together in the barrio of Tepito on one of the civil search-and-rescue teams that, in response to the government’s lack of action, rushed to aid the endangered population. We both lived in Coyoacán and I didn’t own a car, so El Pollo took me around in his parents’ VW van, which he called, predictably, “la Polloneta” (“the Pollomobile”).
One day after school, we were drinking a Coke with some other friends at his house when his mother came home from work. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I realized that she was a gringa. El Pollo and I had been kicking soccer balls back and forth for the last twelve years, and until that moment I hadn’t known that his mother was also a foreigner, like mine.
Being the son of a Spanish woman made me, in the recalcitrant Mexico City of the 70s, a conquistador son of a bitch, just as being half-American made El Pollo an imperialist piece of shit. If we never discussed the truly banal differences between our parents’ places of birth, it’s not difficult to imagine what people thought about unconventional sexuality, about political experiences other than revolutionary nationalism, about the Indians (who were acceptable only as laundry-room workers), or, especially, about the goddamned South American Marxists that kept arriving in droves.
The one other comment about international politics I heard during recess repeatedly over the years concerned the arrival of Chilean exiles who, in a Catholic school, represented a rather cinematic abstraction: they were like the Nazis, some external threat hovering about, waiting to snatch away our ham sandwiches and guava juice at lunchtime.
* * * *
It was often said that President Luis Echeverría was purposely flooding the country with Chilean communist exiles who had survived Pinochet’s coup d’état, and that he had them all working in customs. There wasn’t any particular explanation for the rumor other than people expressing their frustration by trashing the most recent wave of immigrants. My father, now retired, worked for many years in the treasury, and for the majority of those years in the directorate general for customs. I phoned to ask him if my memory was accurate.
“Absolutely perfect,” he told me. “The people hated Echeverría because he was minister of the interior when the student massacre happened in 1968, and because no one could openly discuss it, they blamed everything else on him, including that stuff about Chilean communists working in customs.”
“And is it true?” I asked.
“It’s absolutely false: as far as I recall there wasn’t a single Chilean employee in the whole directorate of customs.”
“How do you know?” I insisted.
“I was the director of personnel, the worst job I ever had in my life.” My father’s cross to bear was us, his four children: his true calling was as a professor of international business theory, a job that he practiced only a few hours a week, sometimes at the National University and sometimes at the Polytechnic Institute. The rest of the time he endured his highly aggravating job as a bureaucrat because he had to put food on the table.
I also asked my father-in-law, the economist Cassio Luiselli, if he’d ever heard the rumor about the Chilean communists in customs. “Of course,” he told me.“It was a xenophobic reaction. There were never more than 3,000 of them in the country altogether, and Mexico had a population of 48 million inhabitants.” The teachers at my Catholic school must have known that the Chileans were neither communists nor government employees, but they helped to spread the rumor that Chileans had been imported by Echeverría, a president who assassinated students; they were Marxists and fanatics; they were going to take everything away from us; they had to be stopped because they were just like the Nazis.
* * * *
By the late 70s, the idea of a transition to democracy was already an essential ingredient in political conversations. Not that it was clear how to get there, but the legitimacy of the PRI regime was clearly fading. In those same years, the Mexican government’s ever-ambiguous position with respect to the Cold War was replaced by a clear leaning toward the nonaligned nations. Democracy was an American value, and so we, champions of anti-communism, ended up supporting socialist countries—as long as they were smaller and would not support guerrillas at home in exchange for our help.
In 1979, the treasury put my father in charge of assisting with the reconstruction of the Nicaraguan government in the wake of the Sandinista triumph. From then on, his vocation as a theorist and his post in the government experienced a happier convergence. He traveled back and forth to Managua as if to another world, always bringing us presents when he returned. There were records by the Hermanos Mejía Godoy or traditional toys, but his suitcases also contained unique objects brought back from the wild side of daily life during a revolution, which for us were no more or less exotic than the key rings stamped with pictures of the Eiffel Tower that he’d brought home from Paris or the Tango soccer ball he’d bought us in Buenos Aires shortly before the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.
There was a record of Sandinista songs, one of which explained how to break down, clean, and reassemble an FAL semiautomatic rifle. I had a T-shirt imprinted with the image of an exploding powder keg, which declared ¡Nicaragua! I wore it to my Catholic school without worry. For many years, on the wall next to the bunk beds where my older brothers slept hung a red-and-black laminated poster with a photo of Augusto César Sandino under the slogan “Patria libre o morir” (“A Free Homeland or Death”), and next to that another poster, also laminated, of Robert Plant whipping his long blond mane in front of the microphone and, in a red and blue frame, an autograph from Johan Cruyff, the legendary captain of FC Barcelona. If one could remember the future, we would have realized then that we were becoming globalized or, at least, that we were very ideologically disoriented.
* * * *
Recently, I asked my sister, La Nena, about the trips we took in Estela’s Vocho: she confirmed that we belted out “Un gato en la oscuridad” as we drove through an already enormous metropolis that still boasted only two or three expressways. I wanted to know about our visits to the Parque México, in the Colonia Condesa neighborhood, which I’d since blanked out. She said that the children who played there were, in fact, white. La Nena has a brutal sense of humor: “I don’t know if they were Jewish kids; I was really little. But their community later moved to the Polanco district and the boutiques sprang up, making life impossible there, so then they all moved again, up to Tecamachalco, taking their synagogues and schools and everything else along with them, and then the narcos showed up there—such unlucky souls.” There is something revealing in this very disturbing story about a couple of mothers taking their kids to play in a park, miles from their home, where the children are whiter.
In 1925 the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos published a long essay claiming that our mestizo nature made us the so-called “cosmic race,” one called to lead humanity to a sort of progress through tolerance. His book La raza cósmica became a matrix for national revolutionary ideology, but it didn’t make us a color-blind society, only one that never discussed race (we were all equal under the rule of the PRI) and one that never acknowledged the direct relationship between skin color and income that still plagues the nation. It was not until the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 that we began to wrestle with the fact that we were a country that pretended to embrace difference just as long as the different people weren’t Indians. We had to learn—we are still learning—that we are a racist country.
My first memory of the Colonia Condesa—nowadays a very chic neighborhood, still mostly white—is different from my sister’s. For a time we stopped attending mass at San Antonio church, near our house, and we switched to a church with modernist architecture located on a corner of the Parque España, in La Condesa. The church was still under construction, and the priest talked more about politics than about the love of God. He never called Jimmy Carter by name. Instead, he disrespectfully called Carter “El cacahuatero! El cacahuatero!” (“the peanut farmer”).
“That’s the Church of the Coronation,” my sister said, and she explained to me the story of our abrupt change in where we attended mass. “Papa met Ernesto Cardenal when they sent him to Nicaragua, and he came home as if enlightened.” Ernesto Cardenal is an extraordinary poet and priest, and a key figure in the Latin American church’s turn to the left after the Second Vatican Council.After the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, he was named minister of culture of the revolutionary regime. La Nena concluded: “The church at Parque España must have been a church that preached liberation theology.”
Neither my sister nor my father remembered that the Church of the Coronation was a place of worship in which American presidents were referred to by nicknames. In any case, Reagan came to power in 1980 and an entire world collapsed, whether for better or for worse I still don’t know.
* * * *
For me, Mexican president José López Portillo’s spectacular visit to Havana, Cuba, at the beginning of August 1980, represented the discovery that poetry has a practical use. It was summer, and as my mother had already returned to her job as a hematologist in a public hospital, we spent our mornings watching television under the loose supervision of our neighbor Lenus. On the public TV channels we could watch cartoons imported from the Soviet republics, which were cheaper than the ones from the States. On one of those mornings, the four of us saw the speeches given by Fidel Castro and López Portillo in a national transmission: in PRI Mexico, when the president talked, everyone listened in silence.
Our household in those years saw technological advancements and sonic experiments: my brother Juan recorded news snippets off the radio using a Fisher stereo, which had replaced the monumental Philips console that had once dominated half the living room. Juan could superimpose those sounds over a song on a cassette, generating unexpected rhythms, as if he were a disc jockey. He selected a presidential phrase from López Portillo’s speech that moved with a stunning, near-perfect cadence :“Traigo de México la mano franca del amigo sincero” (“From Mexico I extend the honest hand of a true friend”). López Portillo was, at the very least, a controversial president, but the man could deliver a speech like no one else: he was the last convincing politician Mexico has produced. My brother laid the president’s words over the Blondie song “Call Me.” When my father heard the mix, he commented that the line seemed to paraphrase José Martí’s poem “Cultivo una rosa blanca” (“I have a white rose to tend”).
It seems clear to me that Juan’s tinkering demonstrated greater literary sensibility than political intuition. We Enrigue Soler brothers must be the only ones who remember López Portillo’s trip to Havana vis-à-vis the poetry of José Martí, especially since the phrase that has become burned into the popular memory was much bolder and, of course, directed at the United States: “Whatever they do to Cuba, they do to Mexico.” As if that mattered.
In 1980 my father-in-law, Cassio Luiselli, was the director of the national food production program known as the Sistema Alimentario Mexicano (SAM). It was an ambitious governmental program that distilled the faint smell of Maoist economics as it linked the production and consumption of certain basic products in order to deal with domestic demand, thereby increasing both consumption and farmers’ earnings. I called Cassio at his house in the San Jerónimo district, in Mexico City’s mountainous suburbs, to ask him if he had been present at López Portillo’s Cuban apotheosis.
“Of course I was there,” he said. “It was Mexico’s moment of glory: the country had been growing at an average of 6 percent annually since the end of World War II, and oil was giving us the big push we needed.” Another one of López Portillo’s signature phrases, following the discovery of the oil fields in Cantarell, was “We’ve got to learn to administer our abundance.”
“So what happened?” I asked Cassio.
“It all ended with the crisis in ’82,” he said.
“I was thirteen then,” I replied. “I don’t remember anything beyond the fact that at a certain moment we stopped taking vacations and dining out in restaurants on Sundays.”
In addition to being a highly respected economist, my father-in-law is a professor, so he can outline with exceptional clarity a picture of the crisis as it was seen from within the government. As the United States entered a recession, the Reagan administration raised interest rates and reduced spending. Margaret Thatcher did likewise, so that Mexico’s interest payments in dollars increased sixfold while the squeeze on the major world economies reduced the price of oil. López Portillo had to devalue the peso even though he had promised to defend it “like a dog.” Among many other things, the president was a notable victim of his own rhetorical skills.
On December 1, 1982, newly elected president Miguel de la Madrid took charge of a country with nothing left to lose. His austerity program brought the unthinkable to a citizenry accustomed to a controlled economy and heavy governmental subsidies. During his first year in office, de la Madrid increased the gas price from ten to thirty pesos per liter: a staggering jump of 200 percent that is still hard to believe. The next year the price rose to forty pesos, another 33.3 percent. Our only unalienable right, the right to drive a Vocho as long and as far as we wanted, suffered its first historical mishap. It was maybe then that everything changed forever.
In 1985, President de la Madrid was faced with the additional, unprecedented challenge of trying to rebuild the capital after the most devastating earthquake in modern Mexican history. In 1987, without any national recovery, oil prices dropped even further.
In Mexico, the 80s were not merely a lost decade; they were a cataclysm.
My memory of Mexico in the years before the 1982 crisis is not of a country in the midst of an economic bonanza but of one where there was a scarcity of everything. Perhaps that’s how our world was then, but what I remember most are the shortages and the rationing. Cassio says that things didn’t come to this in Mexico, but he does acknowledge some moments when there might have been certain shortages, and that perhaps I remember them with such intensity because memory, especially a child’s memory, is selective. It might be true, but I’m absolutely certain I remember a period when, for example, water and electricity were rationed, at least in Mexico City. Every night, at seven or eight, the city government shut off the power to our neighborhood. The water stopped flowing through the pipes in the building shortly after eight in the morning, and you had to fill up pots and pans to cook, because the cutoff could last all day.
Like Cassio, my father, Jorge, doesn’t recall water and electricity rationing either, perhaps because both of them were at the office all day and worked for the government, which certainly wouldn’t cut off its nose to spite its face. My mother, however, very clearly remembers them occurring right in the middle of the oil boom: “It was when your uncle Eduardo lived with us, between ’79 and ’81. I used to send him out with your brothers to fetch water.”
I spoke with my oldest brother, Jordi, who lives in Barcelona, and he confirmed both memories. “Mom told me that she sent you all out to fetch water,” I told him, “but I think that the whole business of buying water in jerry cans came later.” He told me that at the end of the street there was a fire hydrant that had been partially opened by the people where the neighbors lined up to fill their empty containers, “sort of like the hydrants in New York City in the summertime”: it was illegal but tolerated. Jordi also recalled the lights being cut off regularly “at eight o’clock.” Before the longer days of summer, eight o’clock was always nighttime in Mexico City.
* * * *
There were milk shortages, too. My mother sent us out to look for delivery trucks to buy milk from directly because the stores ran out of cartons of milk right away. Jordi told me that he remembers that story well because it was my family’s first confrontation with the demon of large corporations. Our mother grew up in a very small city in Veracruz, where raw (unpasteurized) milk was delivered by burro. In Mexico City she distrusted the milk that came sealed in laminated cartons, so she signed up for deliveries from a dairy farm, made by a certain Señor Nicols—“a blond farmer who must have been a Mennonite”—who came every day to drop off milk in one-liter glass bottles at our doorstep. One day, Señor Nicols announced that he had sold his dairy to a larger company, Leche Lala.“It took years,” Jordi told me,“for the industrial bottlers to be able to match the rhythm of the small, family-owned businesses.” So we chased Leche Lala trucks all over the neighborhood for who knows how many years.
I also remember, with particular intensity, a sugar shortage. The neighbors kept an eye on the supermarket and spread the word whenever a truck arrived. Customers were limited to buying one kilo per person, so my mother placed us all in different lines so that we could each buy one kilo. During that shortage it became my father’s job to deal with sugar smuggling through customs in southern Mexico.
“The government,” he explained, “unilaterally raised the price of a ton of sugarcane to benefit the sugar farmers’ union: a kilo of Mexican sugar cost five times more than one from Guatemala. The problem with black-market sugar became so great that talk arose about opening the Mexican economy, which had remained resolutely closed because of the economist dogma of ‘replacement of imports.’”
I asked what that meant.
“A method for stimulating a country’s industrial growth that worked wonderfully in the postwar era, but had since then become pure, cancerous protectionism.” The closing of borders as a strategy of political patronage was a classic move during the golden years of the PRI.
“You can’t imagine what things were like in those years,” my father said.“The amount of smuggling was horrifying: millions of cars, articles of clothing, basic products. López Portillo made inquiries to investigate the possibility of Mexico entering the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (an international accord for unifying customs tariffs) and decided against it. Smuggling and corruption continued. At last, in ’86, President de la Madrid signed us on to the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] without telling anyone. It was no ideological matter; it was simply practical. Like legalizing drugs.”
Mexico really changed during the government of Miguel de la Madrid. It changed because Ronald Reagan was chasing a madman’s vision of winning the Cold War, and that could not be accomplished without suppressing and crushing many countries’ independent wills, among them Mexico’s. The hammer that the United States wielded against its neighboring economy was the financial aid that followed the crisis in 1982, but the wedge it pounded to crack the whole country open was the war on drugs.
In his book ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano suggests that the event that catalyzed global mafias establishing an alternative power to the United States was the murder of the American DEA agent Kiki Camarena in Mexico. His killing represented the first open challenge of the new antisocial world power to the empire of the United States. It also generated a Christological figure that permitted a universal consensus around the urgency of declaring drug trafficking a problem of national security and, with that, a deployment of resources for open police interference throughout a large part of Latin America.
I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Mexico’s full incorporation into the worldwide capitalist system occurred simultaneously with the emergence of the sinister phantom state generated by the largest drug traffickers; after all, narcotraffickers occupy ground zero in the liberation of commerce, the dystopia of global capitalism.
But there is the private, domestic side of the story, too: what we knew and kept to ourselves. Corruption was accepted as an unavoidable mechanism for negotiation in a society that was more or less solving most of its challenges, apart from entrenched economic inequality, on its own. The police, however corrupt they may have been, were a part of a national project that was never conceived with bloodshed in mind. We addressed the policemen formally as “usted,” but we also called them “poli”—a term that is partly affectionate, partly familiar. Giving money to them in order to avoid a fine, or to a bureaucrat in order to smooth the passage of some procedure, was seen as an alternative mechanism for wealth distribution, not as a seed of a war.
My own point of view changed drastically in September 2014, when we learned the news of the 43 students massacred by municipal policemen and petty drug dealers because the mayor of Iguala assumed that their activism would interfere with a public speech his wife was scheduled to deliver. This news story, which no one has yet really been able to properly digest, because of its incredible brutality, broke at the same time as a scandal about a construction company that had benefited from public contracts that had served to finance luxury houses for the president’s wife and the treasury secretary just before they took office. It was our tolerance for corruption, our everyday minuscule collaboration with its machinery, that had brought us to the national crisis we were now confronting.
Being Mexican has always been a complex issue, but it was never a source of pain or shame. We knew that we were not growing up in the best of countries, but we never thought we were brooding a clutch of viper’s eggs.
* * * *
By the time I was old enough to drive, the Vocho, the star of our emblematic middle-class Mexican cars, had already been eclipsed by the Tsuru, a more spacious, less polluting, and notably more economical car. The Tsuru is probably the car with the most boring design in history—a Japanese car that looks Soviet— but our red Tsuru happened to have a great personality thanks to the name La Nena christened it with the day we picked it up from the dealer: “the Tomato.”
I never owned a Vocho, but I did have a girlfriend who had one. One day, when she was trying to get home after her classes at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the National University, her Vocho didn’t start up, so she called me for help. I didn’t know a thing about motors, and I didn’t want to know, so I went to pick her up in the Tomato, accompanied by a mechanic from the corner garage. The man opened up the Vocho’s hood (the motor was in the rear, one of the prehistoric peculiarities of the VW sedan) and in five minutes he handed me a part.
“What is it?”
“The gasoline pump,” he said. “It’s shot.” I told him that we’d have to go to some repair shop approved by the insurance agency because we had no money. He just laughed.“It doesn’t cost anything.”
“So where’s an auto-parts shop around here?” Now he looked at me like I was a Martian. “This isn’t a car,” he said, “it’s a Vocho: they sell spare parts for them at the hardware store.” It was absolutely true. Some time later the bumper on the same Volkswagen got crushed in a fender bender; this time we didn’t call the mechanic: we bought a replacement bumper at the corner hardware store and attached it using a crescent wrench.
A car that confers such a sense of loyalty and simplicity could not survive the system of cannibalistic capitalism that Mexico joined with unusual joy and an almost-general consensus after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It bothers my father to think there might be a relationship between the rise of narcotraffickers as a de facto world power and the establishment of international commercial agreements. He belongs to a generation that learned the hard way that open commerce brings open societies, and as much as I dislike his ideas, it is true that it was NAFTA that made the PRI irrelevant enough to produce a natural transition to democracy in Mexico. I asked him about Miguel de la Madrid’s sudden about-face in 1986. “He had to open Mexico, to sell in dollars what was being produced, and then enter the North American market full bore.”
Though it was particularly traumatic for my generation to visit the corner store one day only to discover that our favorite Lunetas had been replaced by M&Ms, I recently bought a liter of Lala milk in an Arab deli on the way home to my apartment in Harlem, New York, confident that it contained at least a few drops from the descendants of Señor Nicols’s cows.
My father’s life as an intellectual trapped in public administration offers a perfect thumbnail sketch of the end of the 20th century: the international-business theorist who in the 1970s had helped the Sandinistas to design a closed, socialist customs system, and who in the 90s formed part of the delegation that negotiated, inch by inch, in endless meetings between Mexico City,Washington, and Ottawa, the commercial hyper-opening of NAFTA.
For my father’s generation, NAFTA was the Virgin of Guadalupe’s revenge, a lance thrust deep into the heart of Texas. During one of Jorge’s and Maísa’s many visits to my home in New York City, my father and I walked to the supermarket at Broadway and 146th Street to buy some lemons. He smiled broadly as he stood before the shelves of salsas, where the bottles of Valentina and Huichol easily outnumbered the local barbecue sauces. “This would never have happened without the Telecán.” My father was pronouncing the treaty’s initials in Spanish: el Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte, TLCAN—and if you refer to NAFTA by its Spanish name, your age and ideological standing are instantly revealed.
I spent the night of January 4, 1994, in the Hospital Angeles Pedregal in Mexico City. My first wife had suffered a cerebral blockage, and she was admitted to help prevent the hemorrhage from spreading and turning into an embolism. On January 1, 1994, Mexico, the United States, and Canada had joined into the world’s most powerful economic bloc, and, simultaneously, the Zapatistas had risen up in a remote region in Chiapas. This was a very important lesson for those of us who believed ourselves queued up nicely for hyperdevelopment, but especially for the gringos and Canadians, who suddenly had only a few minutes to figure out what kind of a mess they’d gotten themselves tangled up in. In Mexico everything is symbolic. On January 2, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos—another famous victim of his own rhetorical skills—had pronounced, in a statement broadcast round the world, that if the Zapatistas negotiated, they were going to do so in Ajusco, the extinct volcano that encloses the southern extension of Mexico City and marks the geographical frontier of Central America. In Mexico even the geography is symbolic.
The Angeles hospital is located in the southernmost area of Mexico City. On the afternoon of January 4, 1994, I stepped out to smoke a cigarette on its highest terrace. In one direction I glimpsed the stone bulwark of Ajusco, which, for the first time, looked menacing to me instead of beautiful. In the other direction lay the endless expanse of the city and all the good things that could come from the North: industry, richness, democracy. Honestly, I couldn’t recognize on which side the conflict lay: I preferred that Mexico cease to be a party dictatorship in which access to consumer goods depended on each person and not on another group of nationalist revolutionaries, but I couldn’t stop sympathizing with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, the Zapatistia National Liberation Army). If Marcos became a global figure, it was because he was the first to understand that the internet is a political tool and not just a means of communication, but also because the Zapatistas simply and flatly were right: the great Mexican family had many accounts pending with its Indian peoples, who were also the poorest of the country’s miserable minorities.
Things have not improved after twenty years of NAFTA and a sustained fight against discrimination in the country. After the massacre of students from Ayotzinapa, the media published testimonies related to the night of September 26, 2014. The students who survived, the police officers who shot them, and the gangsters who burned the bodies of those who were missing all expressed themselves in the same uncanny, archaic Castilian. Spanish was their second language; their voices carried the living memory of a language that the rest of the nation stopped using centuries ago. The best of them were trying to become teachers, some became police, and the worst joined gangs. All of them were trying to leave extreme poverty behind, and now they were dead or in jail. That’s what global Mexico had to offer to them.
I’ve already said that the greatest design flaw of the human mind is that it is not trained to remember the future. Up on that hospital terrace in January 1994, in that supremely sad hour that comes with the sun setting over Mexico City, I couldn’t know that I was facing the paradox that was going to mark my children’s youth with a horrible brand: what came down from the North in the following years was a handful of opportunities, but mostly weapons, sorrow, and an unimaginable violence unleashed by the ambition of making the greatest amount of money in the shortest amount of time—an all-too-familiar theme.
The Chileans who arrived in 1973 were not, as the children in my Catholic school believed, the Nazis of our own film. They were our teachers, and they soon became our friends, and they happened to play soccer much better than we did. Our Nazis are the narcos. We invited them in and set places for them at the table.
Translated from the Spanish by Brendan Riley. Riley’s many translations include Álvaro Enrigue’s Hypothermia, (a Times Literary Supplement Best Book of 2013), as well as Juan Filloy’s Caterva and Carlos Fuentes’s The Great Latin American Novel, both due out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.