Photo credit John Venable

It seems that colors were brighter, deeper, more various when I was a child, and this is way they still are in Oaxaca. It is as if the color itself, along with the city, had not quite grown up.— Larry Levis

 

There’s a park off the zócalo rimmed by fountains and huge blue agave. Other interesting and over-the-top specimens flourish, such as the organ pipe cactus and The Montezuma cypress. There’s even an old man pressing out corn tortillas and using country cheese and squash blossoms to make tacos. A few baroque churches, a place to exchange money, a health food restaurant, outdoor cafes with waiters standing around to take your order, you get the picture. It’s close to my hotel on 20 De Noviembre so it’s easy to come here in the afternoons and jog around the square with my hotel key pressed into my palm. My running shoes are only a month old, but they’re already beginning to stink. And because I can’t sleep, and because John Venable is already three days late for our rendezvous, I have been jogging in the park now so much that locals are beginning to recognize me. Or at least that’s my impression.

We’re doing this as a sort of promise to ourselves that we’d get together after so many years. When I say “this,” I mean two unrelated men traveling together without their significant others. Perhaps you’ve seen other such examples as you’ve gone about the world. And perhaps you’ve glanced up from your menu in the café you walked past three times before wandering in, and wondered: Two grown men together out in the world—what are they up to? There is no word for it yet, but there needs to be. Venable now owns a restaurant in Pittsburgh. He’s a certified cheesemonger. His wife is a sommelier. I am none of these. I live in Wyoming. We chose Oaxaca, because, as we’ve aged, we’ve both become interested in food, and similarly bored with America. Oaxaca is known for its mole′s, seven different types which I can’t seem to remember, except for the Mole′ Negro, a rich, black sauce that I see on all the menus. But, due to a recent breakup, I have no appetite whatsoever. I think of mole′ in a symbolic sense. And there’s another reason we are here.

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

Not yet anteater boot-top-deep in suicide art and esophageal cathedral, the open rush of mole negro alley and chipped abalone shell catching the sun in its drying marine mitt, strange creams and Aztec knives—long-gone virginal—loved, hated, ignored, we ditch, thanks to Juan Pérez’s biscuit-faced generosity, our suitcases behind the Rioja’s front desk for the day—our flight to Oaxaca City only at 9:00pm tonight, and sup from Ciudad de México/Méjico/Distrito Federal, this triple-named beast of a metropolis, its belly heaving with street-scene and food and market and fake snow in 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and Juan Pérez’s patulous hugs (He actually runs his hands over the backs of our heads, kisses us on our cheeks, his lips warm and smooth, his face prickled with graying stubble, rife with effluvium—clove, citrus peel, musk, the back of a grandparent’s closet, the mothballs there and peeling floral shelfpaper, the spice of age and the uncontainable joy that can sometimes penetrate loneliness, calling to my own grandparents long-lost in their Long Island deathbed Yiddish mumblings and sweet neuroses bound to triple-checking the thermostat before bed, and Louisa’s, their quiet passings after being robbed in Johannesburg, handcuffed to their toilet), and stepping from the lobby, our ultra-temporary home, our one-night sanctuary and port in the educational protest deluge, we are naked and stuffed with beating hearts, two turkeys bloated with garlic and apple and breadcrumb and quick pace, heated demeanors, breasts drying out in this city-oven, juices running clear and exhilarated over the haldz and pupik of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and the corners we have yet to turn.

We blow kisses to the Virgen de Guadalupe calendar, the nightstands that once, if only for a storied night, held our books and our beer. The courtyard inhales, inflates its ribcage and we stare upward to its lack of ceiling, the sky washed-out, pale and filthy. We slip sheets of yellow paper beneath our suitcase handles with our Mexican names: Mateo y Luisa Franco. Wheel them behind the front desk. Juan Pérez implores us with a string of ten cuidados, clapping the air between his thick hands in applause or prayer, we can’t tell. We assure him we will be careful, our breaths sick with cheap toothpaste, his with cigar tobacco, leaf-acrid and heady, and step in toward those celestial embraces. He will not be here when we return, his shift over, his forty-minute drive to his ample wife and one daughter who still lives at home (of his remaining seven children, only two reside in Mexico City, and one of them in Chicago! which injects our goodbye with the additional five minute fever of memory and a list of stateside Mexican restaurants; Juan Pérez tells us he has never traveled north to visit. Muy caro,” he laments, rubbing his fingers together, empty of the many dólares he would have to spend to get there, my hometown, his son’s apartment, the last place my parents will likely live). We will retrieve our bags from that reincarnated eagle of a front desk clerk we saw briefly last night. In Juan Pérez’s adiós, the weight of the caretaker world.

We step, again, into the street, carrying with us our own decades in the service industry—my sixteen years in the restaurant trade, my start at age eleven, washing dishes in a fast food chicken shack on the outskirts of Chicago, moving through the worlds of server, busboy, wine grape picker and cantina floor mopper in Italy, line cook, garde manger, sous chef, sommelier, manager, catering business owner; Louisa’s journey including much of the same, though peppered with au pair in Israel, counselor to teenage drug addicts and prostitutes in South Africa (which temporarily earned her the status of nun), laundress in Key West (where she and I met in a Latin jazz bar called Virgilio’s, indelibly earning her the status of Fallen Sister Louie); our lives now in academia and massage therapy and, in Mexico, wherein we step toward the Zócalo, Juan Pérez’s graciousness still clinging to our necks like barbate scarves.

He makes us miss the service industry. We talk of this as we walk, our pace enflamed with our forthcoming evening plane ride, how the past has its sneaky ways to force us to desire it, return to it, even though we know disappointment imminently looms.

“Human nature,” Louisa says, as we pass an old woman playing the xylophone at the street curb, “we always want to be what we’re not, sweeten the things we used to do.”

“Or where we used to be,” I say.

Chicago asserts itself in the distance—some prohibitive force, forever muy caro.

When we emerge from skinny side-street into the behemoth Zócalo, we see at its center, on this 80-degree day, a snow machine spewing its cold manufactured flakes into the air. A team of smocked employees works with inadequate gloves to mound the snow into piles from which children, for a few pesos can pack snowballs for the throwing. The line to do this is obscene and snaking, two hours long at least, but oh, sweet novelty! This is the white sand beach to Siberia! All we can do is stop to watch a seven-year-old girl finally reach the line’s front, fork over her mother’s coins, and build a pathetic eight-inch snowman with the aid of a rigid burlap mold, under the supervision of a beautiful red-vested employee with matching red Santa Claus barrettes.

To her mother’s snapping camera, the girl beams as the barretted employee supplies her with a small pieces of cork and a reusable string of carrot, mounted on a long pin to stick into the molded snow-dwarf’s face, machine-pumped flakes waltzing around her head, collecting like diamonds in her black hair. Though this world is melting quickly, and she’s already being ushered out to allow for the next child, her face, as if trapped in a mold of its own, will not lose its smile. This is a past that may not require sweetening. Louisa and I take each other’s sweating hands. It’s been a strange winter.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

In Mexico City, something’s clotting in the streets—clotting with banners and drums and megaphones, people ripping the clothes from their own bodies, waving them overhead like pirate flags. This is angry unrest, scabs picked, coming to a boil, salt added, running over onto the sidewalks. We have caught up to the protest and it has gained in momentum. Hundreds of thousands are marching, the parade backed up for over a mile. Blood seems likely to spill.

The bedsheet banners, splattered with red and black paint letters and stenciled guns blotted with Xs tell part of the story. Peligroso! Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización! I lean toward Louisa, speak into her ear so she can hear me over the melee.

“Defend public education! No to militarization!” I translate.

She raises her eyebrows. This seems like something we can agree with.

While we were in Chicago, taking care of my sick mother, much happened in the Mexican educational system. The government, passed into law an edict demanding 10.6% of the teachers’ pension fund, raised from 3.5%. President Felipe Calderon apparently sealed this deal with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the National Education Workers Union, promising to use that money to increase retirement benefits and repair a broken health care system. Instead, the protesters allege the money went to pay off Mexico’s debts to the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. In fact, according to a July 19, 2007 article in The Economist, Gordillo may have used some of these funds (perhaps as much as $70 million) for personal reasons, like, say, satisfying her desire for a $5 million mansion in San Diego, California.

Later, after we have safely returned to the Hotel Rioja for our very, very tardy checkout, which concierge Juan Pérez in his infinite graciousness will forgive, he will fill us in on these sociopolitical details, declaring how this pension fiasco is merely the newest offense perpetuated by the government against teachers. He will nod solemnly, almost spitting when uttering Gordillo’s name, clasping his hands in flat prayer when discussing his sister’s involvement in such protests. Luckily she has yet to be injured, or killed.

“Mi hermana es una maestra,” he will say. His sister is a teacher, so she knows, he knows…

When we will tell him we are headed to Oaxaca, he confirms some of what we already know. That the educational protesting and striking situation was much worse there—more violent. The “No to militarization!” portion of the bedsheets refer the fact that police officials in Oaxaca City opened fire on what began as non-violent protests of the local teachers’ union. Certain reports indicate that the police were also instructed (allegedly by Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz) to open fire on paramedics who attempted to remove or administer treatment to wounded protesters.

What began as a plea for a raise in funding for the rural schools of Oaxaca, and, as Juan Pérez speculates, a voice of dissent against the seeds of Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (somewhat akin to the controversial U.S. No Child Left Behind Act, about which Gordillo, via a PR flunky, philosophized, “Education is an opportunity, not a right…”), became, after the police intervention, a demand for the ousting of Governor Ortiz.

Here, Juan Pérez will cough into his hand as if catching some terrible regret like a dove in his palm. Or terrible confusion. He will proceed to tell us of the escalation. How the dissent became blanket. How, after Ortiz laughed off the call for his resignation, various members of Oaxaca’s small towns and unions, families and small businesses coalesced and called themselves Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Juan Pérez will flash his fat fingers into the air twice—first all ten digits, then seven. This is his representation of June 17th, 2006, his thumbs sizzling in the polluted air like breakfast sausages simmered in smog. On this date, three days after the police intervention, the APPO set up camp in Oaxaca City’s Zócalo—fathers, mothers, children, grandsons, granddaughters, pubescent nephews, drunken uncles, estranged nieces, spinster aunts, the horrible lines for the public bathrooms, the little spoiling food and no sleep, the wrapping of howling babies in thin yellow blankets, the dust, the megaphones pounding, the closed stores—and called themselves the new government of Oaxaca. Civil revolution ensued, much of the city choked with barricades, some erected by the APPO, some by the police. Word got out, and other states and cities in Mexico began to express their empathy in protests such as this one in Mexico City. For the people here, this is not after-the-fact. The facts, as to the residents of everywhere, always continue, evolve, devolve. Here, history is present, and the present.

On July 2nd, Ruiz Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party was voted out of power for the first time in Oaxaca in over 70 years. In morbid celebration, the APPO prevented certain festivals from taking place, barring entrance to buildings with heaps of garbage and upended flaming buses. Graffiti declared intolerance for tourists, demanding they return home, packing their ugly capitalism into their already bloated suitcases. The souvenir as Molotov cocktail…

Fleeing Oaxaca, Ruiz Ortiz hid-out in Mexico City for a handful of months before fleeing once again. Though the battles with the state police continued, the APPO declared themselves in control and began to make new laws, commanding radio and television stations, which anti-APPO outfits, along with police in civilian clothes, would blitz deep into the night, spilling blood, smashing broadcast machinery. The casualties escalated, included Brad Will, a visiting journalist from New York, and Emilio Alonso Fabián a professor from Los Loxicha, gut-shot twice by plainclothes policemen.

The Mexican government claims that each was killed by the protestors and not the police, in spite of Will’s recovered photographs, taken moments before his death, depicting the protestors armed merely with rocks against the policemen’s guns. Later, Will’s recovered video footage, according to local news, revealed his killer—Pedro Carmona, member of Ortiz’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional party, mayor of the Oaxacan town Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and newly-crowned soldier in this urban paramilitary.

Boys and girls lay in the streets nursing broken arms, leaking skulls, bullet wounds in their thighs. Old Zapotec women prayed upward, blood pools browning on the stones where they once spread their blankets, sold their weavings to the occasional tourist, before being trampled. It took Will’s death for President Vincente Fox Quesada (who turned over the office to Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa on December 1st of that year) to dispatch the Federal Police to Oaxaca. Nearly 10,000 Federalies and military police forcibly dragged protesters from the Zócalo, backed-up by additional army troops. The still-functional APPO radio stations warned of the raids. As a result, helicopters clogged the sky over Oaxaca City, dropping tear gas grenades. Reports of military police kidnappings ensued. Rumors of body-snatching and cover-up cremations crackled over the pirated airwaves, inflaming the protests. The Catholic Church of Mexico came out in support of the Federal Police. Protestors, academics, and students took refuge Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, an “autonomous” university that barred police entry. Though the police surrounded the University, they were, in turn, surrounded by a larger group of protestors (who were alerted to the location via APPO broadcasts over the University radio station), and forced, if only for the moment, to retreat.

Here, in Mexico City, numerous bombings ensued, one of which destroyed the amphitheater that served as Partido Revolucionario Institucional headquarters, others blowing up portions of banks and restaurants. On my birthday, November 25, 2006, while Louisa and I listened through the bathroom door to my mother vomiting nothing but tapwater, a Saturday (my father still working, their three large dogs dozing in the sun, waning earlier and earlier…), a renewed attempt at a peaceful protest in Oaxaca’s Zócalo was thwarted when the police unleashed a sprinkler of tear gas, rubber bullets, water-cannons, and bulldozers, tear-gassing, rubber-bulleting, water-cannoning, bulldozing people. Protestors answered with rocks, bottles, water balloons, and pipe bombs. Cars and trucks were toppled and set ablaze, buildings were attacked and set on fire, frenzied crowds looted businesses and hotels. On this day, my birthday—my mother sick in the bathroom, Louisa and I rubbing each others necks at the kitchen table, my father stuck in rush hour traffic listening to sports radio, the sleeping dogs, my pregnant sister— the Federal Police succeeded in subduing the APPO, making arrests, forcing numerous leaders into hiding, castrating the Sagittarius, stapling the gargantuan sack to the city gates in governmental warning. The University radio station was once again returned the headmaster, and the conflict, for better or for worse, was once again shoved beneath the surface of everyday life, for the moment contained in its churning. The problem lidded. Unsolved.

Juan Pérez will shrug his shoulders, as Louisa and I flank him in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. He will say something I don’t quite understand about plight. But for now, watching this Mexico City protest escalate, our stomachs digesting the pumpkin flowers of breakfast, we don’t know all of this, haven’t yet spoken about it with Juan Pérez; we merely recall some vague news report about the Oaxacan unrest, stirring worry about our travels in my exhausted mother, ignorant beyond what we can read on bedsheets. “Defend public education! No to militarization!”

Up the street, a great cracking sound. The earth opening up, or a car being tipped over.

“Should we join them?” Louisa asks, “I mean, you’re a teacher…”

I love my wife. I look at my shoes. They are filthy, broken-laced, perfect for marching. As if empathy can reside in simple career choice and dress. Louisa is wearing her blue Israeli clogs. I meditate a few moments on her footwear—how clog-fighting was a traditional method for settling disputes in Europe, drawing such a mass of onlookers, that bets were laid; how they served as foot armor in mines and mills; how, in 18th century France, poor factory workers would protest corporate mistreatment by throwing their protective work gear—especially their clogs (sabot, in French)—into the assembly line engines, damaging the equipment and, via this protest, inventing the word sabotage. Inadvertently, she is well prepared for this. Inadvertently, we are ignorant fucking tourists. Idiots filled with food who, via footwear analysis and the intoxication of overseas, think they can empathize with some real kind of plight. Who the fuck do we think we are?

The thing is: we don’t. We don’t think we are. We don’t think we are anything. We are all dumb impulse and young traveling lover. We join arms. If we had talked to Juan Pérez in that doorway before this, learned of the nature of things, we probably would not have done this. But, you know, we may have anyway. Sometimes dumb impulse, especially when traveling, is a conscious choice. The sky is a drowning blue. The river of protestors continues. We lift our feet, hold, as if on the edge of a high-dive board, our breaths. We look for a way in, and leap. We splash into the center of elbows and noise, wild shards of banner, bare-chests, laser light, bottle, balloon, fists, spit, and the static of mad human chorus. We sink into this pool of cause, try to swallow any reservations about effect, however chlorinated, however Peligroso!

We ooze ourselves from restaurant to street, two thick-ass snakes of toothpaste from a fat-bottomed tube. Husband and wife, bound by fluoride and fullness. Residents hang on the street corners like ornaments, eating their late lunches from the stalls, kissing their girlfriends and boyfriends, playing with wind-up toys in the squares, dropping their ice cream cones to the city ants. It’s almost noon, almost time for us to check out, and we don’t want to abuse Juan Pérez’s kindness. We have a 9:00pm flight to Oaxaca City, our intended destination, but Mexico City, our mere layover is creeping into our blood like plaque, arresting us, seducing us.

We circle a maze of backstreets, hoping to find an alternative route back to the Rioja. We walk quickly, whizzing past the music stores blaring with recorded trumpets and snare drums, rail-thin clerks polishing the speaker-tops with blue rags. We try to make it back by check-out time. We really do. But we turn up a pedestrian alley, paved with ancient gray stone, and see a round old jelly doughnut of a woman, her entire torso hidden beneath the spill of her breasts, silver hair crested with a lace bobby-pinned doily, pressing fresh blue corn gorditas in the street.

She coughs like the proverbial mother hen laying the spiciest of eggs, and my fears are confirmed. I have, indeed, lost all restraint. I am pulled into her orbit, some feeble Millennium Falcon caught in the Death Star magnetism of her spanking the blue corn dough.

“Are you serious?” Louisa asks.

“How can I pass this up?” I say, digging a few sweaty peso coins from my pocket.

“This is all you.”

Soon, we’re in front of her, her face beaming as we take in her chalkboard easel menu. I recognize the names of all of the gordita filling options—carne asada, carnita, barbacoa, pollo, hongos, rajas—except one. The last one on the list, resting like the black sheep underdog of Mexican street food, hiding its deliciousness at the back of the line. Sesos de cerdo. So euphonious. What can this possibly be? The music store trumpets fire away behind us, underscoring the mystery. Sesos de cerdo. I imagine the words crooned by some dime-store romance novel Latin lover, blue corn tortillas stuffed with rose petals, pomegranate, Spanish fly… In these three words, the sky goes emerald green with aphrodisiac blister beetles. Surely this woman hides the ashes of the Marquis de Sade in her pendulous bra. Surely, I must order this final item.

“Hola,” I muster.

“Hoolaa,” she calls, rocking on the balls of bare feet, rectangular as mud bricks.

“Puedo tener una gordita con, uh, sesos de cerdo, por favor?”

And I love saying it, those three words leaking like oil from my mouth.

“Oohhh!” she clucks, “Te gusta los sesos?”

“Sí,” I say.

Of course. How, in the symphony of the word, can I not like sesos?

She curls her lips downward, impressed. This should be foreboding, I tell myself, but somehow, on this dusty stone, Louisa’s eyes narrowing to my left, purposefully deciding to check-out late due to this gordita audible, it’s not. The sky is exactly white, tough to stare into, and Louisa is pulling on my sleeve. I turn to her, follow her eyes to the squatting woman. We watch as she dips her hand into a filthy white bucket marked—in English of all things!—with the words, Pork Brains.

My once excited stomach now recoils into the recesses of my ribcage, all euphony now metamorphosing into some broken dish clatter, hellish and ear-curdling. These words have duped me. Deep into this woman’s cleavage, the ashen Marquis de Sade is surely having his last laugh. Retreating from the bucket, the woman’s fat bare hand bulges with wet, grayish chunks of porcine cerebellum. A few drops of brain juice drip from between her fingers to the stone, and even the ants run for cover. She tosses the gray matter onto her comal and they steam with foul stench, dusty, organic, almost deciduous.

Louisa is enjoying this immensely, my face as white as a sheet. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-brain, but the ingesting of pig brain, as street food, in Mexico, strikes me somewhat…well…hasty, a perfect recipe for a tough day tomorrow in Oaxaca. But I’ve ordered it, told this sweet doughball of a woman that I like it. And I must admit, I’m nervous, but curious.

Louisa mimics a gagging sound.

“Don’t do that,” I beg.

She lights her Winston and wanders up the street, stares into the window of a flower shop. In the distance, somewhere behind the ornate stone of these buildings, I can hear a group of people chanting, “Peligroso! Peligroso!” Dangerous! Dangerous!

Oh shit, what have I done? Haven’t I learned to listen to ghosts by now? With a long spatula caked with charcoal sludge, she scoops the pig brain into a lovely puffed vessel of blue corn and hands it me smiling. I pass her the five peso coin. For a few seconds, all I can do is stare at it, feel the ample weight of it in my hands. In my nose, death and ammonia, mold, blood, earth soured with standing water.

“Te comes,” she says, and my mother, still young and healthy, her arms locked with the boarder, and my giggling little sister, joins in: Eat it, eat it…

And so I do, open my mouth like a drawbridge, the rust of it creaking at the corners, and take my bite. Pig brain squirming in my mouth like a guppy, some intellectual ejaculate, the tofu of the head, I close my eyes and bite down, releasing the penetrating taste of coal-smoke and egg white. This is not good. This is tough. I grit my teeth and try to mask it as a smile. The old woman laughs and kisses her dirty fingers.

“Sesos,” she says.

Yes. Yes they are. Fucking sesos. Swallow and walk away, beaten, bullied, duped again by false euphony. I silently apologize to each pig I’ve ever eaten. Revenge, Sus scrofa, is yours. Good for you.

I catch up with Louisa who knows what my face is saying, and I hers: You asked for it. I run to the nearest trash can, entertaining a capacity crowd of horseflies, turn behind me to make sure the woman isn’t looking, and empty the gordita of its brains. The fresh blue corn shell, in spite of the rank juice that has soaked into it, is so impressive, that I force myself to finish it.

We wake after a rough night of strange noises, mild indigestion, dream-lightning, shadow-ghosts, the Virgen de Guadalupe morphing into a howling wolf and back. This morning she clings benign and glittery to her wall calendar, but last night she was feeding, out for blood and the red meat of our sleep. We wake feeling chewed-up and are shocked the puncture wounds are only spiritual.

In daylight, we can now see that the Hotel Rioja has no roof. What we took, in darkness, for the roof, was really the night sky. Once we step from our room into the courtyard, look down upon the bald head of a different front desk clerk, we can see that, one floor above us is an open-air rooftop garden overlooking the city, the bone spires of the Catedral Metropolitana fingering the polluted bruise of the sky. Last night, the street noise did not cease, and we lay in bed wondering beneath colorful blankets why it was so loud. We thought thin walls, but never expected no roof. Further, the entire building, heaving like a whale’s belly, magnified every cough from below, the mutterings of the night clerk coupling with the walls and becoming bellows. The Hotel Rioja, it turns out, is one big fucking amplifier.

Louisa rubs her eyes red. “Our first day in Mexico,” she says, any excitement swallowed in the rasp of her morning smoker’s voice, which today, here, seems to come straight out of some childhood fairy tale, something with an easy moral at its end.

“Our first day in Mexico,” I confirm, in a voice that flattens the moral like a cockroach before it can be read. Here, our only signpost for living is a still-twitching antenna, and yellow insect guts. In short: just right. We pour like coffee sludge from our room, jonesing for some real coffee sludge. Our footsteps boom along the marble stairs, some marching band percussion section, surely waking the last of the sleepers.

The day clerk, yet another old man in a white dress shirt, runs his fat hands over his gleaming scalp as if waking his brain for conversation. As we reach our final step, about to plunge onto the ground floor, the man clears his throat in a lion’s roar and booms to us, “Hola, hola, buenos días!”

His words break into the courtyard all tongue-tip and hard palate, his obese bifocals threaten his nose and his face, spherical as any globe, fatter than four swallowed oceans, bursts with a sling blade smile. We’re dying for coffee, coffee in Mexico, but I must try to talk with this man. There’s something of the wizard in him, a peace that can come only from good spells. I wave and step toward this man, and he responds by flexing his right bicep, which appears, beneath his stiff white shirt, as soft as a throw pillow.

I laugh and he laughs. He claps his hands and I clap mine. Louisa blows him a kiss and he thumps his fist over his heart in the sound of rocks falling into a bucket of water. I love this. This game of charades. We’re already friends. It happens so fast and wordlessly here. All it takes is the body and the occasional nonsense vocable. Soon, the man breaks our game with a sing-song, “¿Cómo te llamas?”

We tell him our names, and find out his is Juan Pérez, after the composer, not the conquistador, he assures us. For composer he saws at an air-violin with his globe head tilting on its axis, his long-lashed eyes closed. For conquistador, he grits his small teeth, growls and duels one of the hotels weaker ghosts. He wins. I nod and tell him I think I understand.

“What did he say?” Louisa asks.

“I think,” I mumble, “that he’s named after a violin player and not a sword fighter.”

Juan Pérez nods and calls, “Sí, sí,” to the sky, then throws his hands in the air and shouts, “Louisa! Louisa! Este es el nombre de mi hija.”

“Oh wow,” I say.

“Wow,” Juan Pérez affirms.

“His daughter’s name is Louisa,” I say.

“Buono,” Louisa smiles at him.

“That’s Italian,” I tell her.

“Whoops.”

Through the open front doors, people crowd along the sidewalks, balloon salesmen sharing space with families on cell phones. We bid farewell to Juan Pérez, his searchlight face beaming as he coughs, surely trying to dislodge Pangaea from his throat, and soon, we’re in it, the sidewalk parade, elbows in, jostling for space. Somewhere in the distance, the music of horns and drums, the static of meager fireworks, and around us, the orchestra of traffic and voice, street food carts whispering with meat steam and cool salsas. Louisa somehow finds enough room to light her first Winston of the day, her inhale an agitated sigh, her exhale a sigh post-coital. We take each other’s hands. Louisa’s eyes shed the last of their sleep, her lips seeming to lead her, and me, through the bowels of Avenida Cinco de Mayo toward the promise of caffeine and a stunning Mexican breakfast.


This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.