Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ricardo Flores Magón

History is time’s invention and time is humanity’s invention and humanity is often a big ugly liar. Other times, humanity is drunk and has no recollection; or else, a faulty one, changing both time and history to suit its needs, desires, and so on. History is often written with the pen of a hangover, making research difficult or impossible for accuracy’s sake. Where humankind is involved, mistakes are bound to happen.

Researching the casinos that once sprang up in Tijuana after the turn of the century is a great example of how humans seem to want their demise to be remembered differently than it actually occured. The big casino, Aguas Calientes, either burned down, flooded out, or both, depending on whom one wishes to believe. Countless other rogue casinos also confound matters, by their ignored illegality during that era and by the confused historian that might use an inaccurate account of an incorrect location. My best source indicates that the same flood that destroyed the original racetrack also destroyed most of the casino.

Daniel flails me for it, but it isn’t my fault. It isn’t his fault either. Our references are tipsy, at best.

Even the origin of the name of the city of Tijuana is told in various ways. The most popular is from Tia Juana, or Aunt Jane, as having owned a friendly ranch here in the early days before anyone bothered to name the region. I have also read about three different indigenous tribes (depending on the story), that have some inebriated historians placing the name of the City of Tijuana as originating from the word Ticuan or Tihan or Tiwan and so on, all of which have some meaning to do with being near the ocean. But actually, no one really knows, the historians were all drunks back then I reckon.

In nineteen hundred and twenty-five they even changed the name of the city of Tijuana to Zaragoza; too bad it didn’t stick or the point would be moot. Then again, the Dandy del Sur might be one-half block east of Calle Olvera instead of Avenida Revolución if it weren’t for the second Mexican revolution. Of course, had anarchist Flores Magón succeeded in ruling the Tijuana area from inside of the United States of America, where he was in exile in nineteen hundred and eleven - until the Mexican troops that Magón once supported finally came and drove his fellow anarchists into the United States of America or else killed them, then Baja California might even have become a communist country.

Ricardo Flores Magón died in Leavenworth, by the way, after being arrested in 1918 by the United States of America for "obstructing the war effort" in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, and received twenty years in prison. He didn’t make it out of there. Kurt Vonnegut’s moral hero, Eugene V. Debs, was also arrested in 1918 by the United States of America in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. Small world. Debs made it out of prison though. At least Magón has a street named for him here, I have no idea about Debs.

The worst thing I can think of to say about Debs and Magón is that they were men who truly wanted to make the world a better place, they just used the wrong tools.

* * * *

There was a time when Mexico would shine for me on days like last Saturday did, when the newness and the difference of everything I had ever come to understand about people and culture were as freshly plowed fields in my vision. I would swivel my thoughts like so many moving pendulums, they would miss and collide and sometimes fly free and disappear completely, and at some points I often had to reel from the dizzy mess I made with my perceptions. The simplest things, taken for granted elsewhere that I had ever been, are the things most special here. Mexico won’t let anyone take anything for granted; She’s a jealous mother tediously tending to her children.

Mexico now shines for me every day, especially on days like last Saturday, because my perceptions have been saddled, harnessed, and reigned.

A simple walk is a precious thing, especially on the tenth of May, Dia de las Madres. Small fiestas are everywhere, gently blending into the warm afternoon, sweet music and extended families spill out onto their front patios, it feels like a holiday. The streets aren’t so mean and people seem slower and happier. I strolled to the market and realized that just the trip was the shine, and that step by step is how spices are added to flavor anything that tastes good. In this way traditions are added to cultures like the shine I sometimes feel and the spices I sometimes taste and it all glistens and simmers and for years until I finally come to realize how good all of it really is.

And that the whole world should be just this way, always. That was my last Saturday.

We ate posole, from two huge pots full of it, and I was the only one who dared to sling dashes of habanero into my bowl. The gifts were beautiful picture collages of motherhood, from beginning to now, history lessons so simply arranged as to convey the idea of matriarchal necessity. Some people played games while others sat content for the opportunity to share the afternoon. More collages.

These are things that history can never change, no matter which drunk is in charge of writing the particular chapter. The great thing about Saturday was that it will never have any relevance to politics or religion or whatever else makes written history swerve outside of the lane, because such events threaten no one on any level. Saturday made no statement, it only provided everyone with the great sense of hope and beauty and love.

Ricardo Flores Magón wanted to provide the world with hope and beauty and love, too, but he wanted everyone to live in communes and outside of the control of a government. This is certainly not very comfortable for the government that doesn’t appreciate anyone wishing to live outside of the sphere of its ability to control. Magón’s movement was certainly powerful enough to affect the second Mexican revolution to the point where, after infecting Zapata’s peasant army with enough reason to fight to the impossible fight, Madero felt that he had no choice but to quell it even here in Tijuana.

Even now, the Zapatistas in Chiapas embrace the Magónista movement from the turn of the twentieth century, it drives them toward whatever goal of autonomy that they feel they might be able to achieve.

Yet, if Mexico City had thought enough to go after John Frémont, then Alto California might still belong to Mexico, imagine that. Or, perhaps, if Frémont had been a communist, then maybe either Mexico’s troops would have been dispatched in the most rapid manner possible; or else, again, Alta California might would have been a communist country.

And then Magón would have been spared Leavenworth and then a suspicious death while in prison there.

* * * *

Cultural misconceptions are another source of inaccurate history. Duly, on Sunday, Mother’s Day in the united States of America, I called my mother and we talked a lot about a lot, and I shared one conversation that I had recently enjoyed with a young lady from the United States of America. This young lady was very nice and mentally sharp, and upon learning that I lived in Mexico she teased me with jokes about Mexico and Mexicans. But then she looked at me, and changed expression, serious as a nun in a habit.

"Is it really true that in Mexico they eat beans with every meal?" She asked innocently enough.

"Every meal. Even with corn flakes."

The young lady looked at me, and only when I finally grinned after waiting a moment did she laugh.

Sunday was lazy, too. Juan washed his car and drank my beer, I watched him while we continued to devour yesterday’s posole at random intervals.

"The other day, I crossed into the United States and the customs guy was asking me a lot of stupid questions. Finally, I had enough. I told him that I was a United States citizen with a valid passport, and that I had already showed it to him. What else did he want from me?" Juan said.

"You told him that you served in the military, I assume," I said.

"I told him that it was how I got my citizenship," Juan told me.

He scrubbed away at the motor with a rag that looked like it deserved to be a rag scrubbing a motor.

"Finally the guy looked at me, and he asked me why I lived on Mexico. ‘Simple,’ I told him. ‘When I want a beer, I just go down the street and buy one. No one asks me any questions. No one cares who I am. I don’t have to get into my car and drive anywhere. I just go buy a beer.’ And then the guy looked at me, and he said, ‘Really?’ And I told him how it is here in Mexico."

I grinned.

"And he let you pass?" I asked sort of knowingly.

"Of course!"

My guess is that Flores Magón passed through the border with relative ease in the years of the second Mexican revolution, that there was really no point at the time in controlling border traffic. At any rate, he spent half of his time in jails and prisons in the United States anyway, because the Mexican government had a price on his head. Again, anarchy certainly isn’t an easy path to follow. Neither is communism, because communism is basically anarchy, except that someone is in charge of everything so that people who supposedly aren’t repressed but really are repressed, can’t challenge the concept of anarchy.

So, there are people who feel that Magón got what was coming to him, and it’s difficult to argue that point.

* * * *

The wobbly route-cab held only me for the longest time. The driver tried at everyone, every person in view, no one needed anything at the moment. I was patient for him, early and entertained by wandering pedestrians and graffiti-ridden cinderblock, wondering who would bother to tag illegible scrawl onto the face of a mortuary. I wasn’t in any hurry to get anywhere in particular.

"No hay nadie," he said, and there really wasn’t anyone, at least anyone that needed to get somewhere else.

"Es Lunes, como las cuatro," I reminded him, Monday at four o’clock is a bad time to drive a cab.

Many cab drivers just go home and take a nap.

"Son las cuatro?"

He didn’t have a watch. Finally we picked some people up, avoided striking other vehicles through what had to be divine intervention, and I found myself in the Dandy del Sur again, saying hello to old acquaintances. Scott showed up, we were catching up on life while watching the Cubs hammer the Padres. The quirky jukebox spun eclectically behind us, and lesbians crowded our space and then left, we moved over and took their seats.

"No tacos tonight, he’s taking the night off," Scott reminded me, as I came back from checking, hopeful that somehow he would be wrong.

Monday night in the Dandy del Sur, evidently, means that there will be many lesbians and no tacos. This would make for a great title to a short fictional story: Lesbians Without Tacos. Or maybe not.

I was hungry. Scott left, and Daniel came in and we drank. There was even tequila. And then I began to inquire to anyone within earshot if there was a Chinese restaurant nearby that was any good at all. Fourth Street, on the other side of Constitución.

We drank some more and then walked over there and the food was pretty good. Daniel had read what I wrote about Charlie and told me about my style and so on, but this is tantamount to telling a dog about its bark, the dog can’t change it even if it wants to. It was good, that Monday evening, especially when the Mexican waitress came over and asked us if we were brothers.

"Brothers? No. We’re lovers," I told her, and Daniel actually had to get up and go over to her and tell her that I was kidding.

The waitress didn’t take her eyes off of me after that, for the entire time that we were there. I guess I can’t fault her for assuming that Daniel and me are brothers; I reckon that white people all look the same. Maybe anarchists all look the same, too, maybe that’s why Ricardo Flores Magón was lumped in with Eugene Debs and all of the others who were locked up for being in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.

So far as I’ve been able to research for the last week, Ricardo Flores Magón didn’t even speak English.

So, either history is lying, or history has lied.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle, 1963

* * * *

It was finally cold yesterday, at least colder than it had been, which was almost hot not more than a few days ago. The taxi was a colectivo, filled and emptied and then filled and emptied again. Doctors, schoolchildren, cooks, shoppers, and so on - even a gringo. The station wagons have been replaced with large passenger vans, they’ll cram in as many as will fit, stopping for anyone who looks like they're waiting for anything.

We chugged along and stopped at practically every stoplight.

Nine miles and nine pesos later, I waded through schoolchildren in their uniforms, parents wandering aimlessly, early morning maintenance workers. Through the gates, with a buenos dias, I suddenly realized that I had no idea where Anna’s classroom was. I went to the last one that I remembered was hers and recognized the teacher, who was already addressing the parents, and here I was actually late for once.

"Entra, señor, sentirse," she invited.

I felt relieved that she recognized me, I sat at the small cramped desk in the back, and she continued as I stared out the window. Anna’s school, a Federal Secondary school for somewhat elite students, rests on the ruins of the old casino, destroyed in the early nineteen hundreds by the same great flood that destroyed the original Caliente racetrack. All that is still standing are a few small buildings, converted to storage, and one of the chimneys that were once used to burn trash.

The teacher went on about whatever, evidently cell phones are being confiscated for having pornographic content; it’s a different world than when I was last in school. Forty minutes later, she was handing out report cards by calling the students’ name, but Anna wasn’t called. Fifteen minutes after that, I finally had a chance to ask why – it turns out that I was in the wrong classroom, the correct classroom was, evidently, way over there. I was playing in the wrong sandbox.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to sit through another meeting, I just got the report card and got out of there.

* * * *

David Kirshstein just pissed me off, that’s all there was to it, he used the company I worked for to suit his needs and his pocketbook, I considered his company to be a bad client. When me and Elvin started planning the Chargers job, all of the field walls at Qualcomm Stadium, I was sure that we would fall on our ass. I’ve never done a stadium, neither had Elvin. And Elvin’s work ethic was never exactly stellar, I got along with him because I liked him, but there was never any urgency in anything he did once he became the art director.

But what drove me, was imagining that Kirshstein had lost the bid to us, and that on opening day he would be watching the game to see how the treatment came out, and that he would have a fucking coronary when he saw how great it all was. And then, perhaps, we could consider ourselves as competition, we were sure that the Miami Dolphins were going to need new field wall banners. So I learned Adobe’s Illustrator as I went along, planning the construction, the dimensions, four different measurements, hours and hours of painstaking calculation and planning.

In the end, I drew it all up, and Elvin dropped the art into the construction drawings, and we printed it, finished it, and installed it, and it looked beautiful.

And with one week to go before my last day, there was Kirshstein, sitting in our conference room with me and my boss, offering us some work on the Padres. We were on our ass, there wasn’t anything coming in, a lot of people had been laid off already. So, even though I wanted to tell him to go pound beach-sand up his tight ass, I pretended to be a hungry vendor.

And he played us, he played my boss, and he got over.

"We need to put something up on the barbecue shack, we’re thinking of signage all around the top of it," Kirshstein offered.

We had a rough sketch, a sixteen-foot by seven-foot square box.

"We’ll have you print graphics and lay them up on the sides, after we attach it to the roof," he continued.

Then he looked at me.

"How’s your carpentry skills," he asked.

"Well, I’m not going to try to build you a dresser, but I can build this, it isn’t complicated," I told him.

My boss didn’t say anything, even though later she insisted that she offered me a way out of having to do it. This is pretty funny to me now, considering that we really had no business turning down anyone who wanted work from us. The other funny thing is that after I prepped all of the half-inch medium density overlay, I built it in the middle of the shop floor while the sewers look on, entertained. I sat in the middle of the partially constructed box, fitting the hardware.

"You know what that looks like? It looks like you’re playing in your sandbox," Shari told me.

Kirshstein’s final design was almost twice as large, and twenty times more complicated and detailed. He called out bracing with hardware that wasn’t commercially available, so I improvised. And then he decided that someone else was going to print the graphics, which was the entire point of fabricating the sign face. The last week I worked there, I spent it fabricating that goddamned box. I did it by myself. I digitally routed every piece to size, hand routed forty-five degree chamfered edges on the braces, hand-installed the hardware. It was disassembled with assembly instructions, driven to Petco Park, and installed in less than two hours.

There is a piece of me that wants it to fall apart, but it won’t. Fuck you anyway, Kirshstein. Fuck you and fuck your sandbox.

* * * *

I left Anna’s school and caught another cab, a sedan this time, and the driver didn’t seem keen on picking up anyone else. He even drove me right to the spot I wanted to get off, away from the route, and there I was in my own sandbox for a change. Another four miles and nine pesos later, I was having a coffee with Jody, the overcast last day of April was appropriate for Baja. I bought a paper and walked across the street and me and Jody talked for a while. I drank Cuban coffee and walked around all over the place, I sat and read the paper while drops of water occasionally made their way onto the sports page.

By ten, I was in the Perico, and by eleven, Jody showed up again. We laughed at the picture in the San Diego paper, the one that showed all of these soldiers in Tijuana to fight the drug trafficking violence. There they were, maybe two hundred soldiers in the heat of the Baja morning, and one lone ice cream vender offering relief from the heat. He was pushing his cart along, offering his goods, and I bet he sold a lot that day.

That was his sandbox, and he had a captive audience.

People sometimes ask me if it’s dangerous what with the cartels killing other cartels or each other in a power struggle, but the smart people aren’t worried about it. After all, so long as they keep it in their sandbox and stay out of ours, what’s the difference? None of it bothers me in the least. It might as well be a million miles away from here.

I drank all day and wandered around and when Jody found me again in the Dandy del Sur, we were both about finished for the day. We were shaking the sand from our shoes and having one more drink, watching the Padres come back on the Phillies, planning our next toast.

Friday evening, same sand box.

Tomorrow, I have to go to the United States of America and pick up the last check from the place I used to work. Tomorrow, I have to visit someone else’s sandbox one last time. And then, afterward, I’ll come back here with my pail and my shovel and build sandcastles the way that I want to for a while.

And my sandcastles will be however I want them to be.