The Fumes of Empire

by on April 26, 2009 · 5 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, San Diego, War and Peace

70-year old Marta.

By Rocky Neptun

Otay Mesa, Tijuana, Mexico……Juanita couldn’t hold her balance. The policemen pursuing her were waving guns and shouting. She tried to re-tie the shawl that held the baby to her breast while darting through the moving traffic, but her six month old fell forward, skidding across the filthy asphalt, his lower lip ripped by the jagged edge of a pothole.

From a village among the hilltops of Oaxaca, where her family of Mixtecs have lived for millennium, Juanita grew up peacefully and traditionally. From infancy to youth; without formal education, household chores became her life. From tending brothers and sisters to caring for a husband and six children; her life, like her ancient maternal ancestors, was a comforting seam of trust that would, she thought, stretch into eternity.

She was ill-prepared for the abrupt, jolting forces that would lead to displacement from the primal homeland, abandonment by husband and the desperate struggle to protect and feed her children. Like Steinbeck’s Ma Joad she would be forced into a journey of bewildering and tragic proportions by powerful, profit driven economic forces far beyond her control or understanding.

Just a few short miles, walled away from million dollar homes and restaurants that dump hundreds of pounds of food into dumpsters each year; she would join starving, homeless women and children who roam dank city streets and slog through suffocating, toxic fumes at border traffic lanes to earn enough money to eat each day.

Racism, once the scourge of places like Johannesburg and Selma, is alive and well in Mexico; particularly the spaces that abut the United States. Like Michael Jackson surgically coloring his skin, many Mexican norteños go to extremes to fit in or to pretend they are members of the dominant culture. The class arrogance, middle-class selfishness and almost brutal economic determinism of the north, hidden by its media masked illusions, is laid bare here, in the border region.

Like a sore turning in on itself, festering, attacking the weaker cells; northern Mexican civil society assails its weaker elements, the poor and marginalized. Indigenous people represent a frail past; peasant economies in an age of Wall-Mart, cultural simplicity in an age of canned “reality” television. Juanita, in her bright red and blue clothes, dragging ragged children must be persecuted so the “image” of modernity will attract the American and Japanese fábrica owners.

Once tolerated as diversions for dim-witted North American tourists, looking for something different, a cheap “cross-cultural” photo-op; indigenous broods and their tiny boxes of chiclets for sale are under siege as tourism dwindles to a trickle. Yearly visitors to Tijuana are off by 90 percent since 2000. More than a million tourists have quite coming each year due to the “yellow” journalism of U.S. papers and their cheap tabloid exploitation and exaggeration of border violence.

Casa Indigenista: A Haven Among the Concrete

At the turn of the new millennium, Marta was operating a small roadside restaurant on her property near the San Ysidro border crossing into the United States. Every evening, hungry women, carrying or lugging their infants, unsuccessful at bagging a few coins from the tourists at the border, would beg for work so they could eat. By 2001 compassion and solidarity with these discarded women compelled her to open a house of refuge. Her restaurant, her garage, sheds and even her own house became places of shelter at night, children packed the safe spaces away from dangerous streets and she began soliciting donations to pay for school books and supplies.

Ah, the children! The infants are blissfully unaware of the changes, their half-culture; but the middle-ones from the villages wander about dazed. Strangers in a bizarre land, speaking a different language, facial features pronounced; they are targeted by both police and criminals. Like jackals on the edge of the Savannah, they must sneak and forage for the tidbits of life. They grow, mature; half-wild, permeated outsiders, without education, without possibility.

But like the economic forces of corporate-owned capitalism and its ideology of dog-eat-dog determinism which began the destruction of historic Mexican rural life; Marta would soon feel the neo-liberal knife. Millions of compensino families displaced, a modern Diaspora; hammered between treaties such as NAFTA which guaranteed U.S. domination of agricultural crops and the destruction of protected communal ownership of land which was now sold to Mexican lackey corporations to grow crops for export.

Juanita and her husband, six kids, two cousins and a nephew all traveled north two years ago when the bank seized their small hillside acres. Encouraged by President Zadillo, Washington D.C.’s economic pawn; they had shared in a community low-interest expansion loan only to be battered by falling corn profits. After NAFTA, the United States’ heavily subsidized corn products flooded the Mexican market devastating the countryside. The village’s communal land, the Ejido, was broken-up and each peasant family was on its own.

Juanita’s family like most Mixtecs have lived in the hilltop settlements of northeastern Oaxaca for thousands of years. They call themselves “people of the rain” and their language of Nuudzahui is tonal, full of words that have the exact same sound, but different tones. Likewise, their ancestral lives have been nuanced by shifts of migration by offspring. First, was the slow movement into the adjacent valleys and then the great valley of Oaxaca. Alignment with village or community became more important than a tribe or larger group; culminating today with 57 different languages within the Mixtec linguistic group. Joining the Zapotecs in the early 1500’s they managed to fight off Moctezuma Ithuicamina’s imperial army; but the dead Montezuma got his revenge several years later when 400 Aztec warriors helped Spanish General Francisco de Orozco take possession of all Mixtec lands.

Oaxaca’s corrupt politicians, particularly within the PRI, and the brutal, powerful ranchers had for years sought the elimination of protection for communally owned village land guaranteed under the Revolution’s constitution and, finally, in the early 2000’s, under pressure from north American investment interests and land speculators, federal authorities sold out the heart of rural Mexican life.

Their farm, cut away from the security of communal ownership and protection, like a cookie outside the jar, was vulnerable to any nearby greedy hand. Alone, isolated, bewildered; they found themselves landless and on the road to the only conceivable alternative – a job “otra lado.” Jobs nearby were out of the question – 80 percent of the households in Oaxaca make less than the pitifully low Mexican minimum wage standard of$10 a day. Oaxaca City, the state capital, was reeling from poverty and rebellion; while Mexico City was overcrowded and unemployment was rampant.

Tijuana: Where Dreams Hit a Wall of Fear

Here in Tijuana, Marta would see them night after night; shadows of once proud people; without work, without hope. The men, once great farmers and hunters; wounded by their loss, ashamed, impotent providers and fathers, would work a few hours cleaning over-flowing toilets, cleaning spit-soaked walkways. Their few pesos earned going to cheap tequila sold in plastic cups from trunks of cars; soothing the soul, addling the brain, forgetting, soothing the pain of lost personhood. Finally, the anger, the hurt, so overwhelming would thrust the energy forward. A drunken fight, someone injured, prison. Or others would run head-long into the bright sun of the distant desert, without direction, without water, never to be heard from again.

The women, like Juanita; alone, non-Spanish speaking, without past or future, abandoned, like all pre-modern mothers, lioness or human, would draw her young close, find a lair and forage for food. Indigenous women, with strong backs and maternal fierceness; they have fought sickness and floods, machismo and discrimination. They are tough, resilient, acclimatize on the run.

Here on the border, where the 19th Century meets the 21st, where peasants are ground into urban dust, migration has always been primarily male and only the toughest survived. Yet today, women and children face the structural violence of market capitalism without familial support or the structures of rural social supports. While millions of U.S. dollars are funneled into anti-drug programs for mostly men; there are no government agencies or personnel to support migrant women or their families.

Like the families she supports, Marta’s home was destined to be attacked by powerful forces beyond her control. Tired of continual streams of destitute women and children, a fancy hotel across the street, determined to close the Casa de Indigenista. After a campaign of harassment and intimidation didn’t work, someone bribed a judge to declare Martha’s ownership invalid and turned the property over to a corporation which built a parking lot on the land.

Marta moved to a small house near the Otay Mesa border crossing in 2007 and opened a “crisis center” in an underused brick office/retail complex near the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River that connects the San Ysidro crossing with the downtown area. While not providing sleeping facilities, the “day center” allows mothers to get in out of the elements and provides a safe place for infants to stay while their mothers beg for coins or sell trinkets along the walkways. Also, the center provides Spanish lessons and helps the older kids with access to schools. The women are trying to form a sewing cooperative, reverting to their native instincts of sharing, and are looking for a full-time sewing instructor. Also they are hoping a computer instructor will step forward to teach their children 21st Century skills.

Recently, however, with the failing economy, donations are off and Marta has been unable to pay the $200 a month rent for the slab concrete building. There is hope that the state government will allow them to move next door, near Calle El Campo, to another unused building that the government of Baja owns; but knows one knows when or if the bureaucrats will approve it.

Marta, almost 70 years old, with her daughter Fernanda’s help, receives no salary and depends on her life’s meager savings to survive personally. She says that she will continue her fight to secure places where children do not have to idle time away next to border crossing cars, inhaling fumes all day, to be safe. Of the 20 to 30 kids who use her center each day, she says each child must be educated, allowed to integrate, attend school. Otherwise, she points out, the young girls have no option but the prostitution of the Cahuilla District and the young boys – running drugs for the cartels.

Empire’s Dustbin of Extraneous Lives

The border region of northern Mexico is much more than just a geographical space, a reference point for the movement of people and goods; it is an emerging unique culture. It is the codification of economic and racial discrimination; a reflection the new neo-liberal economic order, like the newly built Jerusalem wall, where wealth denotes rights and poverty leads to prison and death.

The Chicana, lesbian poet Gloria Anzalua calls the U.S. – Mexico border region “herida abierta,” an open wound,” where the Third World grates against the First World, “and bleeds.” Her words speak of the “spiritual transformation and psychic processes of exclusion and identification” that is the fallout of the great shifting, clashing trans-culture in the region. A geopolitical space where country people meet city brutality, where communalized, family notions are crushed by capitalism’s built in software of selfishness and indifference and where natives are given marginalized identities and voice.

Each morning, in summer heat or winter’s chill, women and young children crawl out from under collapsed beams of vacant buildings, passing the incoming Norwegian rats, fat and tired from a night of foraging, to go out and beg for food for their own families. Others, more fortunate, roust their children from under cardboard shacks, perched on the edges of ravines, in the distant hills, in barrios so poor even criminals will not trudge up the steep pathways. They carry small boxes of gum or simple trinkets, perhaps a few plastic dogs or cats whose heads bump about when moved. They ride for hours on cheap uncomfortable buses, sucking in diesel fumes, packed tightly, carrying, dragging their infants, worrying about the younger ones, lamenting the loss of the teenagers to the drug infested city streets and jails. A generation of Mixtec lost to the under-belly of market driven capitalism; where profit is more important than a child’s life. So little time to try and understand why…….mothers, who must fight like hell to save the children they can.

Of Juanita’s six children that came north, one died of sickness right after her husband left, one was kidnapped by a North American couple and the eldest boy, 11 years-old, was shot in the temple trying to steal a McDonalds Cheeseburger from a drug dealer’s car. She could not go to the police, who she feared more than criminals. Tears of utter helplessness flow down her cheeks as she tells a translator all she can do is protect what is left of her family.

As Marta struggles to keep the Casa open, to offer a small beacon of light to these desperate women and their children, she is optimistic that secure, well-off North Americans will one day come to her aid. That if they are given the facts, told the heart-breaking stories, they will not only send financial support but find refuge personally from the cold-blooded corporate-owned world where everything and everyone is bought and sold…like the misty slopes of the Oaxaca rain people and the displaced Mixtec women and children who roam Tijuana city streets alone, desperate and without hope.

Silently, like shadows, they forage through life; identity and culture peeled away like burnt skin. Each day, each hour, each grate, each hassle; they feed their children, find refuge for the night, instinctually struggling to nurture and protect. Yet, they know, as country women intuitively comprehend, there is little hope. No future, no possibility

……Is this the new world order we want?

To Help Out: you can send a check made out to Helen Villines, 2260 El Cajon Blvd. Suite 907, San Diego, Ca 92104; with Casa Indigenista in the memo section or donate women or childrens clothes by calling (619) 450-9804.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mr fresh April 27, 2009 at 8:46 am

wow! powerful stuff.


Dave Gilbert April 29, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Man, I’m absolutely devastated after reading that. And now with this Swine Flu pan-ic-demic even less people will spend their money there.

God bless the “people of the rain”


Judy Lemon May 10, 2009 at 8:51 am

This is a great article! I have spent time with the Mixtec people in various places: their pueblos in Oaxaca, Tijuana, and also here in San Diego. I was part of a program at Bayside Community Center in Linda Vista where the Mixtecs can go to get help, as well as learning both English and Spanish. The women that came to my English classes told me stories similar to what I read here. These are some of the hardest-working people I have ever met. If they were lucky, they held not one, but two or three very low wage jobs, working more than 12 hours a day. Despite that, some of them managed to find time to drop into the center, knowing that in order to survive, they needed to learn Spanish and English. The young children that accompanied the mothers were almost all trilingual, happily bouncing between Spanish, English, and their native Mixtec tongue. I could go on and on, but Rocky has already painted an excellent picture of their ordeals. I know the readers of this rag are globally conscious. We can all take small steps towards ending racism and proming unity. We are indeed all one, are we not?


Frank Gormlie May 14, 2009 at 6:51 am

Thanks Rocky for your contribution to our understanding of the border region.


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