The Dinosaur (of Mexican politics)

Posted on May 3, 2013

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The Dinosaur 

Robert Joe Stout

 

         In 2006 the corrupt governor of Mexico’s state of Oaxaca sent a force of armed police to drive striking schoolteachers out of the city of Oaxaca’s central historical district. The action evoked a citizen response—a “Popular Assembly”—that retaliated and drove the governor and his minions out of the central city. I wrote about these events and the armed federal intervention that followed and several years later began investigating the political maneuvering that had preceded them, including trying to learn more about the workings of the governor’s political party which had ruled Oaxaca for nearly eighty years…    

 

but I didn’t have to look for a dinosaur from the Old Regime. It appeared beside my table in the Bar Superior, a workingman’s drinkery just west of city of Oaxaca’s historical district. It—he—was wearing an open-at-the-collar white shirt and neatly pressed slacks.

         “Debes ser el gringo que busco yo.”  

         “I’m the only gringo in this bar,” I responded in Spanish.

         He laughed. Jovially. Tall by Oaxacan standards, clean-shaven, with a face that could have been carved out of mahogany, he wiped imaginary sweat from his forehead and leaned towards me, voice lowered as if to convey something intimate.

         “I buy you a beer.”

         I spread my hands—the universal gesture of acceptance. He laughed again—a genuine laugh, not forced—and yanked the straight-backed wooden chair next to mine away from the table.

         “You are a periódista, no?”

         “A writer. Not a journalist.”

         “Chingada. Es lo mismo.”

         “I write what I want. Journalists write what their newspapers want.”

         A wink accompanied his “hago la calle” as he gestured towards the bar. “Why is it you want to write about the PRI?”

         “PRI? Partido, qué, Revolucionario Instituciónal, no? Who says I want to write about the PRI?”

         “In Oaxaca one doesn’t say. One knows. Instinctively. The winds speak to us.”

         “Well said. What else did the winds tell you?”

         “Never trust an outsider!”         

         “The winds are smart.”

“And it is smart to listen to them!”

Shots of mescal appeared beside the bottles of cold Victoria that the waiter slid in front of us. I smiled an acknowledgement, noting how practiced, mechanical, the dinosaur’s movements seemed. Lifting my glass I returned his toast and savored the liquor’s aroma, holding it in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.

“Here no one asks about the PRI. Here everyone knows. Everyone understands. The PRI is like God—is God!” He rapped the table with his forefinger. “There is nothing to question.”

“Simply conform?”

“No, pues. Like the Church the PRI includes everything. Divergent opinions. Divergent ideas. Ricos. Pobres. A way of life. Of identity. Soy mexicano. Soy priista. The same.”  

“A way of control.”

He tilted his head, a gesture that might have been acknowledgment.

“Mira. What if there is no PRI? No Church? No control?”

Intimation of a wink.

“No business, no rules, we’re apes in the jungle, no? But communal, no? Pues, so we organize. Rules. Laws. God,” he added, almost a smirk, “but laws, rules, pues, and God are…” He tapped his forehead “…up here. Mire, en el campo…pero, disculpa, you’re a perio-…, ah, escritor, you don’t know about—“

“I grew up en el campo. What has that—“

Bueno, then you understand. To grow things one needs to clear the land, plant, till, water, or no harvest, eh? This is control, no?

“One could say so.”

“The PRI. Prepare, plant, nourish. A way of life.”

“Police. Assassinations. Jailings.”

The tip of his tongue appeared at the corner of his mouth, his carved face’s only hint of expression.

“It is not good to talk of such things.”

A warning? I looked away.

“Nor is it good to keep them hidden, debajo del agua, pretend they don’t exist.”

“It exists. Rape exists. Incest. The invasion of Iraq.”

“Inva-..?”

“It is worse perhaps? Butchering thousands? For what? The oil?”

“I opposed the war in Iraq. But…” I leaned towards him to be heard above ranchero music booming from the jukebox stereo. “Iraq? The campo? Why this talk about other things?”

“Perhaps they are not, como dijiste, ‘other.’”

“Perhaps they are to avoid ‘things it is not good to talk about’?”

“Ah, you perio-..ah, escritores, always trying to stick a pin in some detail. You are a good writer perhaps, but not a good actor. I see in your face…”

“What?”

“You hold a piece of a puzzle in your hand. One piece. Perhaps it is not the PRI you want to know about, just a piece of the PRI? One little piece?”

         “One little piece that you don’t want to talk about?”

         Again the tip of his tongue at the corner of his mouth. The waiter, responding to some unspoken cue, slid two fresh traguitos in front of us. A quick twitch of dinosaur’s finger acknowledged the service.

         “The malfeasance of one priest does not define the Church. A bad priest, you might say. But also one finds bad non-believers, no? Disrupters. Samson destroyed the temple but the temple was rebuilt: Samson was no more.”

         “Samson? You mean the Popular Assembly?”

         Again the almost imperceptible wink.

         “The campo. You don’t get rid of the weeds they take over, destroy the  harvest, you lose everything.”

         “If they really are weeds—”

         “Someone comes in here, a ruffian, loud, vulgar, pushes those sitting out of their place, bangs the table, makes demands. Then his amigos come in, loud, nasty, break bottles, insult women, eh? It no longer is the same bar. The ambiente is ruined. Destroyed. Better right away to throw him out. Keep the bar the way it was: friendly, laughter, singing with the mariachis, watching the TV. You do not want the change.”

         “Muy bien amigo. But Oaxaca is not a bar. It is a state to which everyone belongs. A state in which a few have everything, the rest have nothing. It is not the ruffians who come in, the ruffians are in charge.”

         “Pues, ruffians..?” He lingered over the word, then laughed and tapped my chest. “Sí, escritor, ruffians—us, them. In our hearts, souls, ruffians, all of us: That’s why we have laws. To control the ruffian in us. Yes, like a machine—what is called ‘society’ is a machine, the parts all working together. Some parts larger than others, more essential, ni modo, all working together. Not willy-nilly. One part breaks, the machine breaks…”

         “But if only a small part of the machine..?”

         “Permítame, I finish. This machine needs to have a purpose, no? All machines need to have a purpose. So to keep to the purpose, to do what the machine is designed to do, it has to run according to rules. So it doesn’t, digo, overheat, eh? Go berserk. For its own protection, no? Break the rules you break the machine, entiendes?”

         “Very fanciful, salud! A toast for your, ah, what shall I say? Ingenuity.”     Squint or wink, I couldn’t tell which. He tapped his glass against mine, careful not to spill either’s contents.

         The machine is the PRI?” I persisted. “Many in Oaxaca—”

         “No ’migo. The PRI is, what shall I say? Ah! The motor. The motor to make the machine run…”

         “And the Popular Assembly?”

         “Oye, todos saben que the machine is not perfect. It needs adjustments. But break it apart? Your ‘Popular Assembly’—“

         “Not ‘break it.’ Stop it. Stop it from produc-…”

         “Look around you, mano! Stores closed. Businesses bankrupt. Tourists afraid to come. People angry. Afraid—“

         “They were afraid before. Death squads….”

         “Some—sí, pues, perhaps. But what I say is true. Businesses—I’ve seen the figures—five hundred, maybe more—shut down. Schools? Closed. The periodistas thought everybody was with the ‘As-sem-blea Pop-u-lar…’” Fingers waving as though brandishing a flag he imitated a rally leader, of which the Popular Assembly had had many. “No ’migo, many—good people, solid, suffered. Breaking the machine—“

         “The machine that was stealing millions…”

         With practiced deference he lifted his glass. “Mira, one does not throw out the machine because some human-animal-ape operators—”

         The ‘human-ape-operators’ needed to be stopped. That’s why—“

         “There are laws. Beautiful laws. Not by apes in the jungle. Breaking. Burning. Throwing stones. By laws—”                      

         “That the…operators…

         “The laws are good, the operators, pues, some not. So? You throw out the machine as well? Start over? With what?

         “With—”   

         “No, I tell you: More animal-ape operators. Fighting. Tearing down. Mira, here we know, here in Mexico. The ‘Revolution.’ Ha! We celebrate one year but, oye! the ‘Revolution lasted sixteen years! Everything torn down. Ruined. Until, eschuca! Until the PRI! Organized. Built—“ 

         “Repress-…”

         “Permítame. Built. With laws. The Revolution—all apes, ruffians. But after…no longer. People came together. The machine was good. It produced. Was strong. Resistant. Rose up to defend oil that foreigners—your country—tried to take away…”

         Forefinger against his nose he paused as though reviewing what he just had said, then with a brief, practiced salute acknowledged someone who’d just entered the bar. Lifting my mescal I watched, trying not look directly at him. How much of this does he actually believe? I couldn’t tell for sure: His expressions, his mannerisms, revealed little. Again leaning towards me, lowering his voice as though to confide some great secret, he tapped the table.

         “Having three, four, five  machines fighting for power—that is destructive. There needs to be just one machine. Mexico was strong when it was just the PRI. Now? Mafias. Crime. Mexico is splintered, parties fighting each other, ‘Quiero yo ser el jefe! No! Yo! Yo!” instead of governing, working together. Like a family. One father, not two, three, four.”

         “And if the father is cruel, vicious, as you say, ‘ape-animal-ruffian’—”

         “Mira, fathers die, sons become fathers but the law doesn’t die. What now is happening is like the Revolution. Many different leaders, many different armies. Calles, Carranza, Huerta, Obregon, fighting, killing, destroying the law. Now? Pues, ‘Popular Assembly,’ PRD, López Obrador, the drug cartels, each out for themselves, trying to take away from the others. That is why—“    

         “And the PRI? Trying to take away—“

“No unite. It is the strongest. It has—“

Corruptos. Criminals. Like the ex-govern-…”

He laughed, laughter that again seemed genuine, unfeigned. “Sí. Un pinche cabrón. But the others? PRD? The same. PAN? Worse. The Popular Assembly? Grafiteros. Revolucionarios. Mira, I do not defend, I explain. Ruffians: politicos, drug dealers, impresarios, priests, all the same. But with many parties, many leaders, there is no control. With one party there is control. Even the drogueros are controlled. The ruffians—“ Again he laughed. “The ruffians are controlled. The machine works. You understand?”

I peered into my nearly empty mescal. “And nothing changes. The corruption goes on—one ruffian after another. That is not the way—”       

         “—government should be,” he finished for me. “Ah! Idealists! Democracy! Chingada, cabrón, democracy never has existed except in books written by idealists! “He gyrated his hands above his head as though beckoning some alien force. “Understand, the PRI is not this, this efímero, this thing in the sky. It is dirty, gritty, real. Pragmático. Disciplinado. It is strong. Not like what we have now. Naughty children fighting among themselves.”

         “The father needs to take charge?”

         The intimation of a wink. Hands pressed against the table he pushed his chair back and rose. Instantaneously the waiter appeared with the bill. I reached for my wallet but the dinosaur pressed his hand lightly against my shoulder.

         “My pleasure,” he murmured in nearly unaccented English and laughed again, pleasantly, convivially. Before stepping away from the table he bent towards me and with the almost imperceptible wink, “Ask questions, my friend. Good questions. But—“he touched his forehead with his fingertips “—take care.

         “It always is prudent to take care.”    

 

 

 

First published in RiverLit  #9, January 2013

 

 

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