Macho Men

Posted on October 16, 2016


Macho Men  by Robert Joe Stout

From The Vehicle, Spring 2016


Oaxaca, Mexico, 2006

With the military/police takeover the historical district has become somnambulant. Despite sunshine everything seems gray, buildings and people slightly distorted, as though being photographed by out of focus cameras. The authorities have blocked auto and pedestrian access to the Zócalo with metallic barriers. Heavy plexiglass shields line the curbs behind the Robocop-disguised federal police bunched in groups of three and four at the narrow passageways through which those entering the Zócalo have to pass. The Robocops examine purses, backpacks, briefcases; they open packages, they harass women. Many of the businesses behind them have closed, some because of the soldiers, more because tourists don’t want to vacation in a militarized compound.

It was different before the takeover when thousands of striking teachers occupied these same streets and plazas. The teachers were noisy: There was music, laughter, declamations, children squabbling, soccer shouts, dogs barking, the clatter and bang of cooking pots, the smells of taco grease, charcoal smoke, bananas frying.  The teachers were Oaxacans, they felt at home with the surroundings despite sleeping on cardboard and eating off of paper plates. The soldiers, though Mexican, are foreigners. They have no money to spend and nothing interesting to do except polish their boots and clean their weapons and tell dirty jokes.

From the Zócalo I walked to the Santo Domingo cathedral five or six blocks through what traditionally has been the tourist district. The streets were as deserted as one might expect them to be at four or five o’clock in the morning, not on a pleasantly crisp November afternoon. Unlike the street the patio in front of the cathedral was jammed as demonstrators, predominately women, bustled together, some shouting instructions, others hoisting banners, still others herding their children together or sharing plastic cups of chopped up fruit. After several abortive attempts to get the group aligned the march began. I’d been warned, because of my gringo appearance, not to take part in demonstrations but I wanted to be supportive so I edged along the sidewalk, an observer but not a participant. I saw dozens of upraised cameras as press photographers and bystanders snapped photos.

When we reached the metallic barriers a block from the Zócalo the marchers confronted a row of armed militarized police with shields lifted and touching to form a glittering plexiglass phalanx. Among the demonstrators I saw upraised fists and “Go home soldiers!” and “Down with URO!” banners—“URO” being the state’s corrupt governor Ulisés Ruíz Ortiz. The protesters in front of me peeled away to let several women clamor forward toting a huge rectangular mirror that they hoisted in front of the phalanx. At first glance I couldn’t make out the lettering then realized the words SOY UN VIOLADOR (I AM A RAPIST) were written backwards on the mirror in what must have been thick red lipstick so the federal police facing it would see those words written across their faces and shields. Hundreds in the crowd applauded and I heard skyrockets explode above us.

“Oaxaca’s not a whorehouse! Get out, PFP!” (Policía Federal Preventive) the women chanted, repudiating sexual molestations that had become commonplace since the arrival of the soldiers and federal police. Cries of “Putos!” and “Pendejos!” emerged from the crowd behind the women facing the barricade. At the sound of a bugle’s tremulous reverberations half-a-dozen women in long skirts carrying skillets and cooking pans skittered out from the crowd and pantomimed busying themselves with household chores in the space between the barricade and the protesters. A shout—very feminine—ordered them to stop and another half-dozen women costumed as PFP stomped towards the amas de casa wielding what looked like plastic billy clubs. They shouted obscenities and pretended to swing at the long-skirted women, who faced off with them, shouting accusations of their own- Brandishing the skillets and pans they charged the mock PFP, who dropped their clubs, shielded their faces and pleaded for mercy, then turned tail and scampered away.

The crowd applauded, bugles bleated, people pounded on car fenders and streetlight poles. “Get out!” “Get out!” shouts accompanied laughter. It many ways it was like a party, enthusiasm generating high spirits as earlier marches had done, the togetherness of shouting “Shoulder to shoulder!” and “We will succeed!”  giving potency, belief that if more emotional than rational nevertheless was belief.

The mirror, the pantomimes, seemed to embolden others. Several young women—university students from their appearance—sprayed VIOLADORES in huge letters on the street in front of the Robocops and waved banners in their faces. Through the transparent visors I could detect gritted teeth; fists clenching anti-riot shields and meter-long clubs showed blanched knuckles. At an order given somewhere behind them the police moved slowly forward, forcing the women to back away. But individual women stepped forward to reprimand the phalanx. By holding my tape recorder above the heads of those in front of me I could catch what the protesters were saying. One demanded that those who’d committed sexual abuses be punished. Another shouted that the government not only had stolen the people’s money but also their right to be heard. A third woman—older, gray-haired, I judged her to be in her late fifties—faced the invaders and in a clear, occasionally quavering voice, shouted:

“If I could strip you of all of your armor, your weapons, your ugly uniforms, the world would see that in your naked being you look just like us! I hope someday your mothers are able to say to you that they are proud of you for having decided to throw those uniforms aside so your futures are not as gray as your vestments and so the bread that you bring to the table you’ve earned by the sweat of your brows, not by spilling blood! I feel sorry for you and your mothers for the way you’ve profaned my land with your boots and tanketas. I am positive that we will win, that we will triumph, that we will build a better world for our children and even for yours. This will be our revenge!”

Most of us crammed onto the sidewalks and in building entranceways shouted approval. Again skyrockets burst above us. Abruptly the phalanx opened and a dozen Robocops charged toward us. The crowd, stumbling and bumping against each other, retreated. A news photographer who collided with me as he tried to avoid getting trampled told me the militaries were spraying the women with chili powder dissolved in water. Slowly the PFP pulled back behind their barricades and didn’t pursue the demonstrators, many of whom were crying and daubing their eyes. I found out later than quite a few of them had eyes that were so badly burned by the pepper spray they had to be rushed to hospital emergency rooms.

Though the protest had ended many of those involved remained in the area. Some skirted the barricades facing the tourist district north of the Zócalo and tried to enter from the west. I tagged along. Theoretically the sixteen-square-block area sealed off by the barricades were open to the public but at each intersection one could enter only through a narrow passageway, one person at a time, after one’s backpack, purse or packages had been opened and inspected by the Robocops. I’d seen the way they forced women—or least attractive women—to squeeze between them as they got their jollies by pawing breasts and rumps so I wasn’t all that surprised when a nicely attired women—mid-thirties perhaps—touched my arm as I joined a line of eight or nine people sifting through the check point.

“Habla español?” she asked.

“Sí pues.”

Favor de escort me through,” she slipped her arm through mine.

The Robocops inspected her purse, my backpack but other than sideways glances at each other made no suggestive remarks or attempts to fondle. As we paused in front of a gated doorway she thanked me. “Not that I really did anything,” I demurred.

A frown tightened her expression.

“You’re a man. It’s all part of the macho code. You’re a man, I’m with you, I’m your possession. A woman alone, a single woman, isn’t possessed so she can be taken, she’s nobody’s property.”

Before I could compliment her perspicacity a thin wail, a mixture of anger and despair, interrupted. A boy, shirt two sizes too large for him, black hair tousled over his eyes, was pawing the sidewalk, picking up what appeared to be wrapped penny candies, lollipops. A tray with a broken strap, the kind ambulante candy vendors use, lay beside him. The woman approached and knelt, asked what was wrong, what had happened. The boy clenched his teeth, refused to answer, then kicked the curb.

Pinche soldados! Me robaron Me robaron de todo.”

Coaxed by the woman he explained that two soldiers had tried to take half-a-dozen candy bars from his tray without paying and when he jerked the tray away they grabbed him, confiscated what they wanted and threw the rest aside. The woman smoothed his hair, I gave him money to cover what he’d lost and he hunched on the curb, still feeling too violated by the experience to thank us.

“They had no right, they had no right…” he mumbled and the woman, through gritted teeth, corrected.

“It’s we who have no rights. They’ve taken them all away.”