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.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ghosts And Spirits Of Guns And Tacos

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep." ~ John Milton

The very early mornings in Baja are often full of lovers betraying other lovers when the night is so still, so I sometimes imagine, as a smoky and funky dampness finally manages to hold for a while. Rocio was snoring again, I could lie in bed no longer, and even considered coffee before grabbing a beer instead and reading in the aloneness of my office, the radio accompanies me. This could be any of my early mornings in Baja California; this has been the cycle lately. I wake up and sit here and wonder about betrayal and denial and ponder the lust and greed of humanity.

The ghosts of human weaknesses haunt even the noblest among us.

Sometimes there are gunshots here late at night or early in the morning, it momentarily breaks the silence long before the birds begin to wake up and argue with each other in a nearby, semi-suburban tree. Usually, nothing ever comes from it, there is no news report, no police sirens, and no evidence at dawn of anything other than the passing of another evening. Occasionally, if I am paying attention to news the next day, I find out that there were targets for the bullets, sometimes successful and sometimes not. In such cases, betrayal is usually the pin of the hammer of the gun, and greed is then the ignited primer of the bullet.

Tijuana lies directly in the path of the northwestern corridor of the drug trade. It is an illegal yet lucrative business running drugs through Mexico, much more lucrative than is smuggling people over the border. The narcotics traffickers protect their footholds on their territories with rabid aggressiveness, because competitors are waiting patiently to exploit any perceived weaknesses in the organization. Greed may turn ordinary men into brave opportunists, but betrayal is not tolerated; retribution is swift, bloody, and final. Heads will roll, literally.

But drug trafficking affects the dynamics of Baja so indirectly, that it is probably the most misunderstood aspect of life in this region.

* * * *

In the United States of America, there are often times hazards directly related to geographical location. In the Northeast, there are snowstorms, and along the Southern coast there are hurricanes. On the West Coast there are earthquakes, and in the Midwest there are tornadoes. In fact, just about everywhere, there are environmental hazards in residential commitment to remaining in one place for very long.

Such hazards are not limited to random or intermittent acts of nature.

Any large city has its share of crime. Racism is a problem in many regions, and religious intolerance can fan whatever embers still smolder from fires that burned long ago. Corruption, graft, police brutality, and the incompetence of local government can be a hazard anywhere. In Baja, the added element of the constant battle to control drug trafficking is simply an another collection of ghosts. All of these ghosts can appear quite scary, which is certainly by design, so that they are categorized as hazards to be avoided.

It is Halloween in the United States of America and here in Baja as well. More ghosts. It wasn’t too many years ago that the local governments in Baja outlawed the use of masks in costumes on this day, the criminal element once took advantage of enjoying an evening of permitted anonymity in order to rob stores. Halloween is not widely celebrated in Mexico, it is a holiday borrowed from other cultures. As if Baja needed any more ghosts.

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated on the second of November, preceded by one day with Día de los Inocentes, or Day of the Innocents. These celebrations are perhaps three thousand years old, with roots that far predate the Aztec Empire. As with most celebrations of this type, there are slight regional differences concerning the method of celebrating, decorating, and observing these days. In Northern Baja, a true regional melting pot of Mexican heritage, anything could be happening in any particular household or gravesite.

* * * *

Spirits are real.

Maybe it is the tiniest amount of blood I carry from ancestors that were part of indigenous America. Maybe it was something else. When I was a boy, I climbed up Mount San Jacinto, in the middle of the desert, all alone. The hot wind blew across the mountain and the higher I climbed the more I felt the presence. I would stop periodically, knowing that I was walking on the burial grounds of people who possessed a sense of spirituality that I could never imagine, and I wondered why they chose this place to die. By the time I reached the first burial site, I stopped wondering.

There was grace and nobility in the simple and humble structure, wooden branches carefully chosen and lashed together to form a shrine. The spirits were there, flowing through me, I dared not break their silent presence. I gently touched the wood and felt a chill. I hiked farther up and there were more shrines, similar in their demure majesty. I wanted to stay on that mountain, to be there all night, but people were going to wonder where I was.

As I wandered back down the mountain, it occurred to me then that there was a profound difference between spirits and ghosts.

* * * *

"He was connected," Rick told me yesterday over lunch, we were talking about the latest of the killings in and around Tijuana.

"Obviously. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have killed him," I replied.

"And otherwise his boys wouldn’t have hit back," Rick said.

Rick continued after swallowing a bite of lunch, "He used to be the President of my ejido, then he went to Rosarito. They named the school where my daughter goes to after him. The army showed up there, there was talk of retaliation. She came home scared, I told her that we aren’t going to give in to threats."

"It’s all rumor, Rick. You know how it is in Mexico, the old women talk, they start rumors and then everyone thinks it’s true. It’s all bullshit," I said.

Rick nodded.

His brother used to be a cop. And Rick used to be smuggler, carrying human beings into the United States of America in the trunk, backseat, or other compartment of a car specially designed to be used once and then sold cheaply or discarded. He made a lot of money until he got caught. Rather than to stay in Mexico, he turned himself in. Over two years in Federal prison changed him back from a ghost into a human being again.

A Tijuana cop might make a hundred dollars a week, maybe a little more. That cop can go home every night and put away his gun and take off his uniform and be content to have put his or her life on the line for the good of the community. But the cop knows that other cops are making a lot more. Some build new houses and buy new cars. They enroll their children in the finest private schools. They vacation to wherever they want to go.

They become ghosts.

Growing up in El Florído or Sánchez Taboada or some other gritty neighborhood on the Tijuana outskirts can be difficult. The criminal element thieves and steals to get by, drug addicts clan together and take light bulbs to smoke crack from, everyone knows everyone. Opportunities present themselves, get a fake passport and move some packages. Move up in the organization, make some real money. Buy a black Ford Expedition with tinted windows and slick rims, buy your family a new house.

Defend your territory.

There are ghosts on both sides. Greed and betrayal. Their bullets are meant for each other, they don’t want to be seen. Lawyers can buy the judges, everyone knows how it works. Como corre la agua, how the water flows.

It flows North, a river of drugs, to supply the users in the United States of America.

* * * *

The spirits are urged to come visit us here, starting tomorrow and ending on Sunday. We present candy and fruit and bread and flowers, lighting candles and speaking lovingly and whimsically to our dead ancestors. We decorate their gravesites and tell them about how they have made us laugh and love life over the years. We invite them to come home for a while. We climb that mountain that I climbed in my youth, to feel the spirits run through us.

We let the ghosts here kill each other and hope that one day their spirits will return, exchanging the guns for tacos.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another Case Of Mistaken Identity -or- The Winds Of Change

The Nuevo Perico used to have a bar made out of ceramic tile, back when Armando owned it, and back before a lot of people started to go there. When Joe bought it, he changed the name because it wouldn’t make any sense to own a bar named after someone else. Joe hung a bunch of fake parrots in there and painted the walls green and eventually bought a better pool table. But that ceramic tile bar remained for a very long time.

I was a patron then, every weekday after work I could be found in the Perico, drinking beers and sometimes something stronger. Joe recognized the time of day when people might show up so he created a happy hour and the place started getting busy. Other than the very occasional tourist that wandered in off of the noisy and crowded Avenida Revolución, everyone was a local, and even some of the gringos who lived in Tijuana would show up from time to time. You got about five pesos to the dollar back then, and a beer would run you ten pesos, and during happy hour it was two for one. Those were the salad days of the Nuevo Perico bar.

A few of the regulars could be counted on being there, other than myself. Darren would show up almost daily and we would speak English mostly, which occasionally irritated someone who insisted that we should speak Spanish because, after all, we were in Mexico. Darren would get into the occasional fight with a drunk Mexican over nothing at all, simply that the Mexican decided that he didn’t like Darren for whatever reason. Darren would only take so much of someone else’s mouth. It was difficult to feel sorry for the idiot who pushed Darren’s buttons to the point where we had to stop Darren from killing him.

Jeff would show up there too, every so often. Jody came in irregularly, and Charlie made a stop in there after he finished at the Dandy del Sur, there were usually plenty of gringos in this place. Mostly, we never had any trouble. Mostly, we were always respected for having some ability to speak the language, and our willingness to try and understand Mexico and her customs, and for our love of Tijuana.

Sometimes the Mexicans in the Nuevo Perico enjoyed drinking with the gringos.

* * * *

When the wind changes direction in Baja it shifts from coming in off of the Pacific Ocean as it normally does, to coming from somewhere else, like it’s doing today. It is easy to feel the breeze from a more northerly origin, everything even smells slightly different, and the sun seems warmer than it should. The low pressure that was moving across into the Midwest on the other side of the border has now been replaced by high pressure, chasing the low pressure because apparently nature really does abhor a vacuum. These meteorological anomalies often times cause a wind condition to occur, known as the Santa Ana winds, where dry wind, mostly hot and occasionally cold, comes in from the north or the northeast at great speeds.

We have no autumn here, just the Santa Ana’s through December when we get winter until February. And we have had some Santa Ana’s since Monday, it can be felt in the nose on days like today. In Baja such winds blow dust off of the hard ground and it scatters everywhere, eventually settling on anything. But the hot winds feel good, like something that has to happen in order for something else to happen, so that eventually, in spite of the dust, everything will be just fine.

A couple of days ago, a few hundred miles below, hurricane Norbert was wreaking havoc in Southern Baja California, winds over one hundred miles per hour were coming from any and all directions. And to the north, fires are destroying parts of Los Angeles, and even near Oceanside fires fueled by the Santa Ana winds threaten homes. In Northern Baja, there isn’t much to burn - the stark landscape and dirt roads and cinderblock houses defy combustion in contrast to other places with trees and plants and houses made from wood.

Sometimes in Northern Baja we have it much easier than we wish to admit.

The economy is shifting, too, in an odd and ironic way, to the point where the money exchange houses are overprotecting themselves by using a wide gap between buying dollars and selling pesos. Only on Saturday, when the financial markets were closed, did I get a true idea of what the peso is worth when I took Anna to the supermarket with me to buy some groceries. Friday, the normal machinery used to automatically convert my dollars into a cash register based on the peso was turned off. The store manager was calculating the exchange rate on a case by case basis, because the exchange rate was moving too fast to trust a machine to properly handle such a transaction.

Imagine that!

The fact that the United States of America is going to spend almost one trillion dollars that it doesn’t have in order to prop up its lending institutions is where the irony begins. Printing money that doesn’t exist in reserve should, by all logic and common sense, mean that the money has less actual value. But apparently it doesn’t work that way. The dollar is getting stronger against many foreign currencies, including the Mexican peso. A couple of months ago, you couldn’t find anyplace that would give you ten Mexican pesos for a dollar, and Saturday I received over twelve!

It could be worse, except the Mexican government just spent over six billion of its reserve dollars in order to prop up the peso.

The irony completes itself in the fact that in many foreign countries, and especially in Mexico, investors buy dollars in times of financial crisis much in the same way as investors in other countries might purchase gold. And sadly, my superior purchasing power here will be very short lived because prices will be adjusted in order to reflect a weaker peso. I have been through this quite a few times in my sixteen years here. In a week or so, most prices will jump by twenty percent for most products except where the government controls the price.

Comercial Mexicana, the third largest supermarket in Mexico – and a fine place to shop – is seeking bankruptcy protection, and so its shares on the Mexican stock exchange fell over seventy-five percent. It seems that their debt can’t be paid due to the fall of the peso. Some of the Mexican banks probably aren’t far behind. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Hurricanes, fires, and strong winds are the least of Mexico’s problems.

* * * *

The Mexicans that frequented the Nuevo Perico were the working class for the most part, and during happy hour it was cheaper to drink beer in there than to purchase it from the store. The music was mostly Mexican banda, but the Mexicans also loved some American music. The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Nirvana were regularly played, and they knew all of the words even if they didn’t speak a word of English. Back then, my beard was less gray and in the dark light of the bar the same thing would happen over and over.

I would sit, reading the newspaper, and a beer would appear in front of me. The cantinera would point toward some Mexican gentleman I had never met, who would keep staring at me. Finally, even though I acknowledged his gift with some nice hand gestures, he would have to make his way over and engage me in broken English.

"You Eric Clapton," he would tell me.

I would answer him in Spanish, not only to save him the trouble of attempting English, but so that he would know that, in fact, I was not Eric Clapton. But more often than not, he would insist.

"No, really, you Eric Clapton," he would insist.

"Look, if I’m Eric Clapton, then what am I doing in the Nuevo Perico during happy hour?"

Sometimes this logic worked, and sometimes it didn’t. When it didn’t, then sometimes it got nasty. One time I almost got into a fight over it. How does someone almost get into a fistfight over not being Eric Clapton? It only stopped when, for a few months between jobs in the United States of America, I ran the grill out of the Nuevo Perico. I guess that the very idea of Eric Clapton slinging burgers and dishing out chili beans was enough to dispel any doubts that I was, in fact, not Eric Clapton.

It was simply a case of mistaken identity.

* * * *

Today, I will go again to the supermarket and get whatever I can out of my dollars, until again everything changes and prices increase or else the peso strengthens and the exchange rate returns to where it was a week ago. It won’t be the same though, no matter what happens. In Baja California, these Santa Ana winds might only blow some dust from here to there, but the change is relevant, as all change is relevant.

Joe finally ripped the ceramic tile out of the Perico a couple of years ago, I went there last week in the morning to have a beer and catch up with Jody. Now, the bar top is like any other bar top, some imitation wood and a padded rail in front. The gringos don’t hang out there like they used to, everyone goes someplace else now, and no one is running the grill. The green painted walls are now some sort of red brick, it feels like I’m drinking in a large fireplace.

It seems as though at any minute, someone will throw some kindling inside and light it on fire.

The economy feels that way, too, as if all of these American dollars are just so much kindling waiting for a fireplace. In contrast, the Mexican bills are made out of plastic now. While plastic will burn, it isn’t so combustible as paper can be. Perhaps this is yet another change, subtle in its effect, which might predict a different future for Mexico.

Maybe there will come a time where the average Mexican will learn that the dollar is not all that it is cracked up to be. Little by little, they may come to realize that the dollar is just another piece of paper, and that it becomes worth less and less as more dollars are printed and backed with nothing but debt. Then, at some point, whenever there is a bump in the economic road here, worried investors in Mexico might not turn to the dollar in order to protect their holdings. They might realize that the dollar is not what they thought that it was.

Then they would reach the conclusion that it is just another case of mistaken identity.