The Road to Mexico

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Paul Theroux


To the Border

The Mexican border is the edge of the known world, only shadows and danger beyond it, and lurking figures - hungry, criminal, predatory, fanged, fanatical enemies – eager to pounce on the unwary traveler. And the Policía Federales are diabolical, heavily armed, stubborn and sullen one minute, screaming out of their furious congested faces the next. Don’t go there! You’ll die! But wait - deeper in Mexico (floppy sombreros, mariachi music, blatting trumpets, toothy grins) are the safer salubrious hot spots you can fly to for a week, to get drunk on tequila, fall ill with the squitters, and buy a woven poncho or a painted ceramic skull. And also, here and there, sunny dumping grounds for American retirees - permanent settlements of gringos on the coast, in gated communities and art colonies inland. The fat cats in Mexico City – thirty listed billionaires, including the richest man in the world, Senor Carlos Slim; and certain states in southern Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas, that in terms of personal income are poorer than Kenya or Bangladesh, languishing in an air of stagnant melancholy, but with seasonal outbursts of fantastical masquerade. Famine victims, desperados, and voluptuaries, all more or less occupying the same space. And huge, seasonal settlements of torpid, sunburned Canadians, as well as the remnants of fifteen colonies of polygamous Mormons who fled to Mexico from Utah to maintain large harems of docile, bonnet-wearing wives; and isolated bands of Mennonites speaking Low German in Chihuahua and Zacatecas, herding cows and squeezing home-grown milk into soft cheese (queso menonita). Baja is both swanky and poor, the Frontera is owned by the cartels, Guerrero state is run by narco gangs, Chiapas is dominated by moralizing Zapatistas, and ─at the Mexico margins─ the spring-breakers, the backpackers, the crusty retired people, drop outs, fugitives, gun runners, and over there an old gringo in a car squinting down the road, thinking, Mexico is not a country, Mexico is a world, too much of a mundo to be wholly graspable, but so different from state to state in extreme independence of culture and temperament and cuisine, and in every other aspect of peculiar Mexicanismo, it is a perfect example of thatness. I was that old gringo, driving south in Mexican sunshine along the straight sloping road through the thinly populated valleys of the Sierra Madre – valleys, spacious and austere, forested with thousands of single yucca trees, the so-called dragon yucca (yucca filifera). I pulled off the road to look closely at them and wrote in my notebook: I cannot explain why, on the empty miles of these roads, I feel young. “Behind us lay the whole of America and everything Dean and I had known about life, and life on the road,” Jack Kerouac writes of entering Mexico in On the Road. “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.”

Photography by Pablo López Luz, Baja California-Imperial County VI, 2014

It was four and a half days from Cape Cod to the border. I had left home in a hurry, mid-afternoon on a sudden impulse the day before I’d planned to go, impatiently emptying my refrigerator into a big box to shove into my car, to eat on the way. I made it to Nyack, New York, by nightfall. Six hundred miles the next day through the mild Dixie autumn, the sadness of southern scenes, melancholy for being overlooked, I was deep into North Carolina. Five hundred miles on my third day had me outside Montgomery, Alabama, microwaving noodles in my motel room late at night and watching a football game. Through the supine, somnolent Deep South, to the Gulf, past Biloxi and Pascagoula and New Orleans, puddled with bayous, to Beaumont Texas, where every motel, big and small, was filled with people who’d lost their homes in the recent hurricane –idle in the porte-cochere, shirtless youths and families sprawling in the lobbies, smokers conferring in the parking lot, not desperate, but lost, pathetic, fatalistic, like Doomsday refugees, a glimpse of what the end of the world will look like: poor hungry people hunkered down in overcrowded motels with nowhere to go.

Nearer Houston – the wide spot of Winnie - well off the main road I got a room and a drunken lecture from a motorcyclist who’d ridden there from Billings, Montana. “You say you’re going to the border? I was in Laredo once. Took the wrong damn road. Saw a sign up ahead ‘To Mexico’ and just swung my bike around – a U-turn on a one way, the hell with the cops. I ain’t goin’ near that fucken place. Mexicans would steal my bike and fuck me up. No way am I going to cross that border – “ All but toothless, tattooed, greasy hair, round-shouldered from riding, leaning on his Harley and swigging a beer in the motel parking lot, he was the toughest-looking man I had seen all week, but he left me with the thought, “Driving into Mexico? You gotta be out of your mind, man. Don’t go thar. You’ll dah!” Another lesson: It’s a mistake to disclose that you’re passionate about going anywhere because everyone will give you ten reasons for not going – they want you to stay home, which is what they’re doing. I heard that refrain again in Corpus Cristi, the following day, bleary-eyed from the scrubby desert past Victoria and Refugio, having taken a wrong turn and asked for directions to McAllen at a filling station. A stout squinting man, another tough guy, but sober, gassing up his monster truck whooped in discouragement, saying, “Do not cross at Brownsville. Do not cross at all, anywhere. The cartels will eyeball you, they’ll follow you. If you’re lucky they’ll strand you by the side of the road and take your vehicle. If you’re unlucky, they’ll take your life. Stay away from Mex.” “They’re only killing ten people a day,” Jorge (“Call me George”), the waiter, dead-panned at the hotel breakfast in McAllen. “That was in Juárez,” I said. “But I know it’s calmer there now.” At that time, in the first ten months of 2017, there were 17,063 murders in Mexico, and Juárez had recorded an average of one a day – more than 300 now, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels vying for dominance in a turf war to control the drug trade. But outsiders’ tales of bloodthirsty Mexicans are as old as its earliest chroniclers, such as Francisco López de Gómara in his Historia de Mexico (1554), quoted by Montaigne in his essay “On Moderation,” mentioning how “all their idols are slaked with human blood.” “And that lady who crashed,” Jorge added, wagging his finger, “because the corpse hanging from a bridge fell on her car.” “I get the point, George. But anyway, I’m crossing.” “Mucha suerte, señor.” The nearer the border the shriller the warning, until on the border itself the US Immigration Officer answered one of my questions by saying, “I have no idea. I don’t have a clue. I have never been there” – and raised his blue arm and the yellow nail of his hairy finger to point across fifty feet of sunny road to Mexico.

Photography by Pablo López Luz, San Diego-Tijuana IX, 2015

Over the Border

I left my car on the US side and walked across the border from McAllen to Reynosa to solicit information about obtaining a Vehicle Importation Permit. Bring your car and your papers tomorrow, they said, and we’ll help you. “Business is bad, but at least it’s quiet here,” Ignacio said to me in the plaza at Reynosa, painting goop on my shoes. “How old do you think I am? I’m fifty-eight, a grandfather. Black hair, because I’m an Indian. And see, Indian eyes – they’re green. Look. What’s that?… “Yes, the roads are dangerous. Maybe you’ll be all right. But if you have a pick-up truck [camioneta] it’ll likely get stolen. Notice there are no gringos here? They don’t come anymore. No more gabachos!” Reynosa has a terrible reputation for cartel violence. But Reynosa’s two large hotels on the plaza were inexpensive and pleasant, and I had a good meal at the restaurant La Estrella. “And on calle Dama there used to be many chamacas,” a man named Ponciano told me, using the local term for young girls. “Many gringos used to come here looking for them. Not many these days. Now we make seat-belts.” School children hurrying through the streets, in school uniforms, hugging books; old men selecting red peppers and women buying tortilla flour; a youthful population, some of them in identical T-shirts canvassing for votes for their candidate in a coming election; parishioners going in and out of the cathedral on the plaza, and on the back streets and the pedestrian mall people shopping or chatting at taco stands. Nothing could have looked more peaceful. Curio shops and boot shops and hat shops, but there were no American buyers: the gringos of McAllen stayed at home, knowing that the Zeta Cartel controlled Reynosa. But the criminal activity was nocturnal and cross-border, mainly drugs – crystal meth and “monkey water” and weed; and the trafficking of desperate migrants; and the rounding up of girls and women for brothels in Texas and farther north.

The next morning I drove across the border at nine, over the Rio Grande – green and narrow at this point, worming its way to the Gulf. I was apprehensive for my being conspicuous: no gringos visible, either in cars or walking. I paid a deposit of $450 and some smaller fees for my Vehicle Importation Permit, about an hour of paperwork, the back and forth generally friendly – but there was no line, no one waiting, I was the only person being processed in this building full of clerks and policemen. “You will drive out of here and on to Monterrey – lovely Monterrey,” the parking lot security guard crowed, as he affixed my permit to the proper place on the windshield, making a business of it, in expectation of the tip he saw me chafing in my fingers. “A beautiful day for a journey, sir!” And within ten minutes the reality of Reynosa, no longer the sedate Plaza Principal, but the broken roads and back streets and the shacks of Reynosa proper, the scary town scattered on both sides of a stagnant canal, suddenly shabbier and bleaker than what I had left behind. I saw how the pretty plaza near the border was misleading for being unthreatening and decorous - with its church and narrow streets of shops and taquerías. The full horror and hodge-podge of Reynosa was hidden from the pedestrian who’d wandered across to buy Viagra or a discount dental procedure; it was, deeper into the town, the disorder, the shabby buildings, the litter, the donkeys cropping grass by the broken roads. Reynosa was not its plaza, but rather another hot, dense border town of hard-up Mexicans who spent their lives peering across the frontier, easily able to see - through the fence, beyond the river - better houses, brighter stores, newer cars, cleaner streets, and no donkeys. Within minutes I was out of Reynosa and headed into open country, the same sort of Texas landscape of mesquite and cactus and browsing cattle, the other side of a river that, owing to an 1836 treaty, and a war ten years later, turned this river valley into two countries which has lately reverted to its earlier condition as a war zone, of fence-jumping, of Mexicans splashing madly across the river, of human trafficking and the drug trade and of random killings, the cartels contending for dominance.

Photography by Pablo López Luz, San Diego County-Tijuana VII, 2015

My head was buzzing with anxiety – it was all those warnings - but relief came in the form of butterflies. I was not prepared for them, the weird intrusion of them, first the small crippled clusters of fluttering bits of yellow, toppling forward across the road, looking uncertain and slow, and then gouts of them, a straggling mass of buttery beating wings, and after a while clouds of butterflies so thick they blinded me briefly and smeared my windows and left powdery streaks of scales on the hood of my car when I smacked into them. And for miles the rabble of butterflies batted along the road to Monterrey, funneled through the passes in the valley in a mass migration, borne by the soft air and the sunlight. This wilderness of preposterous confetti continued to tumble, keeping low to the ground, but never falling far or flying straight, an interrupted progress that made their onward flight seem like a struggle. Long ago I had read of this butterfly migration, the seasonal movement of monarch butterflies, but it had slipped my mind, and only when I saw them sprinkled everywhere, and emerging in shredded yellowness from between the mesquite trees did I remember how they came annually from the northern US states and converged in Texas and fled through this part of Mexico. It was my luck to be crossing their path at just the right time, and the sight of them cheered me. “Many cultures associate the butterfly with our souls,” I later read. How some religions regard the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection, and how some people “view the butterfly as representing endurance, change, hope, and life.” The undulant butterflies did not cease; they fluttered and bobbed all the way to Monterrey – and Monterrey was another surprise. Butterflies prettified the oil cracking plant, sprinkled themselves among the Monterrey steel mills, and the campus of Tec de Monterrey, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM). This school (the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education), Mexico’s most important technical university, is the reason for the city to have transformed itself from an industrial hub to a leader in software development, with 400 IT companies in business and still expanding And this is why Mexicans feel belittled and misunderstood, because Monterrey is Mexico’s third largest city, and it’s a mere hour or so from the nearest town in the US, which would be Roma Texas, or its bigger neighbor, Rio Grande City, where the schools are struggling and there are no technical colleges and nothing to compare with Monterrey, hidden and still growing behind its saddle-back mountain. The demand for workers in Monterrey has created a housing crisis and meant one end of this mountain valley to the other is crammed with cubicular two-story houses, side by side, of whitewashed stucco; from a distance like a mass of dusty sugar cubes, and up close mute and unadorned like orderly mausoleums in a graveyard of subdivisions on the lower slopes of Cerro de Silla on one side, and the pair of mountains on the north, the Sierra El Fraile y San Miguel, neither of them looking like a friar (fraile) or a saint but more like a stupendous pair of slag heaps – treeless, stony, sharp-featured. But even with the five star hotels and the tall buildings, Monterrey had the stung and wounded look of a Mexican city that had blasted its way into existence in a rocky landscape.

Yet the desert of broken stones and stinging dust in Potosí state, that extends into the state of Guanajuato is relieved by the dramatic heights of the Sierra Madre, the wasteland flanked by magnificent mountains of sharp shining granite peaks, some like shattered knives and others like fractured black bones, or marked with odd inky splashes of obsidian. I had reclaimed my car from the hotel parking lot and set off in the morning from San Luis Potosi; and at Santa Maria del Rio, where the good road ended, I was traveling south in sunshine, euphoric again, on the open road. It was Saturday, market day, and so I turned southwest into some side roads and came to the huddled town of San Diego de la Union. After the big city of Potosí, I was attracted by its smallness, surrounded by the deep green meadows of Guanajuato state. I stopped simply to look around, in the idle curiosity that is available to any person with a car in Mexico, and no particular place to go. The image that dominated – dazzled – in the main street of the town was that of small girls, nine or ten years old, dressed in shimmering white dresses, with veils of white lace, their black hair neatly coiffed, some wearing white gloves, their faces whitened with powder, too, mascara on their dark eyes, their lips reddened – little brides in full make-up tripping down the cobblestone lanes. They were hovered over by adoring attendants, older women – mothers and aunts – and obvious bigger sisters as chaperones in humble street clothes, made humbler in their proximity to the exquisite princesses. Fascinated, I followed them, and chatting on the way with the admiring townspeople, learned that they were headed to their First Communion at the twin-spired church in the center, the Parroquia de San Diego de Alcalá, named for the patron saint of the town.

Smooth sailing, sunny days, good roads – especially the country roads of Guanajuato, the green pastures of browsing cows, the old timber corrals and tiled roofed ranchitos; the wild flowers, the butterflies, the hawks drifting in the cloudless sky. This is Mexico by day. But it is a delusion for anyone who travels in the country to believe this to be the whole story. From the whispers and allusions and the guarded warnings, I became aware – as anyone would – that there is a substratum of criminality in even the prosperous Mexican places – especially in the prosperous places; and it takes unexpected forms. San Miguel de Allende is fussily picturesque, tastefully restored in parts, well-preserved in others and beautifully maintained in its cuteness and its culture, the refuge of artists and weekenders from Mexico City and throngs of tourists both Mexican and foreign. In most respects the town is the apotheosis of highly colored Mexicana –a lovely plaza with trees, El Jardín, a baroque cathedral, many art galleries and souvenir shops, concerts most evenings, excellent restaurants, friendly bars, and some four and five-star hotels, botanical gardens. All this and a well preserved city center, a town hospitable to eaters and drinkers and strollers and shoppers, as well as thousands of retirees, most of them gringos. “The gringos came in large numbers after the second world war,” Lupita, the manager at my hotel told me. “They had the GI Bill and they liked the ambience here and the good weather.” It was easy to see, from the energy and enthusiasm of this eventful town, why people wanted to come here. “Reposado, tranquilidad”, my landlady said, praising the place. But I was not looking for repose or tranquility. This weekend of jollities was an aberration. I had not come to Mexico to rest. I upped and left, in a mellow mood early on a Monday morning, heading to Mexico City, sticking to country roads, in order to by-pass the big city of Queretaro, but after fifty miles, found myself back on a race-track toll road, rolling into the outskirts of the city of 23 million. Half of this huge number are classified as enduring dire poverty, many enjoying extreme wealth, and an estimated 15,000 children live on the street. Driving into the sprawl, the low hills of houses, the dusty air, the blur of distant buildings, the city seemed immense and daunting, visibly ramshackle and overcrowded, an almost unimaginable farrago of the nastiest version of urban life. The sign Buenavista stayed in my memory, not only because the view was unpleasant, but because it was near that junction that a policeman on a motorcycle drew next to me, indicating with a leather gloved hand and a fat finger that I should follow him. In the heavy traffic – trucks, buses, speeding cars – this was a challenge, and what made it peculiarly difficult was that he led me to an off-ramp of stalled vehicles, and then beyond it, to a side road, and bumping in front of me, into a sequence of slummy streets, where he came to rest, waving for me to park behind him. Some startled pedestrians – poorly dressed, looking seedy - gaped at me and then at the policeman and hurried away, ducking behind fences and into alleyways, and it was clear to me that they had a better idea of what was about to happen than I did. When the policeman dismounted, swaggering to my car, I could see he was short, but bulge-bellied, his face almost level with mine, and I was seated. His helmet framed and seemed to squeeze his face, concentrating the fury in his muscly cheeks, the reptilian glint in his black eyes, but by then – even as he approached, pigeon-toed in big boots – he was shouting at me. I rolled my window down and said, “Good afternoon, sir.” His screams drowned me out, and at first I had no idea what he was saying. I said, “My Spanish is poor. Please speak slowly.” Interrupting me, he shouted, “What I am saying is that your plates are illegal. Do you understand? You are breaking the law by driving on our roads.” “I have a permit,” I said. He had now worked himself into a froth of spitting rage, and as he screamed I saw that he was wrapped in belts, a holstered pistol in one, hand-cuffs in another, a truncheon, a phone, chains, and his uniform was tight against hard fat body as though in his fury his body – in the way of some panicky animals – was swelling to add to his threat posture. The hot stink of this decaying part of the city stung my nose as he leaned and put his darkening face closer to me, shouting, “Do you know what I can do to you? I can take you over there” – he flapped his hand in the direction of the alleyway where the slum-dwellers had fled. “I can take your car. I can do anything.” I can do anything, spoken by a policeman in Mexico is a statement that gets your attention. Fear is a sense of physical weakness, the certain knowledge that you are trapped and helpless and in danger. And what made this sense emphatic was that all this time, as the policeman was screaming, the local people – slum dwellers, barefoot children, women with bundles – were passing by, glancing at me and moving on. They knew what was happening, and so I was also alarmed by their reaction – their fear was added to mine. “I can take your car to the corralón.” I did not know this word, which he kept repeating. I should have figured it out – corral is clear enough, implying an enclosure. I later found out that corralón is a car pound, or tow-yard. But you do not pay a fine and pick up your car. You must first prove that you own the car, and this requires notarized papers, a lawyer, visits to various offices, and then a fine of up to $500 for inconveniencing the police department and the car pound. Being berated by an infuriated cop in a side street of a slum, I did not know how serious that threat of a corralón could be. But I was still alarmed. The accepted way to broach the subject of a bribe in Mexico is to say “¿Cómo podemos resolver esto?” But I was too numb to remember this delicate proposal, so I said bluntly in Spanish, “What do you want?” “Give me three hundred.” His teeth were square and stained, his fat face pitted with acne scars. “Three hundred pesos?” “Three hundred dollars.” “What’s your name, sir?” I had found that sometimes that works to lower the temperature in a confrontation. He screamed, “Antonio! Three hundred dollars!” “Thank you, Antonio. I’m Paul” – he had not seen any of my papers, nor asked to examine my license – “I am visiting Mexico. I have a visa and a vehicle permit. I am a pensioner. I don’t have a job. I’m an old gringo – a gabacho. I’m not rich. I don’t have three hundred dollars to give you.” “You have cards in your wallet. “Use the ATM machine.” “Not possible.” He was breathing hard. “Go to a bank!” “I can’t do that.” And the very idea of finding a bank in this squalid corner of Mexico City seemed laughable. This provoked him to shouting untranslatable rage – and I thought: he has the gun, the cuffs, the truncheon. He is the law. He can arrest me on any charge, or invent one; he can plant drugs on me. I can be locked up and lose my car. “Excuse me.” I got out of the car. He did not back away, he hovered, and now the bystanders who had lingered at gape hurried off a little distance and eavesdropped on the scene from the piles of rubbish and the tenement fence. I went to the trunk of my car, and concealing my movements, slipped a fifty-dollar bill out of an envelope in my briefcase, and locking the trunk, handed him the fifty, the twenty, and some smaller bills. “I said three hundred!” “I don’t have it.” Why did I not hand over the three hundred? I reasoned that if I gave him three hundred he would demand more. Nor was I smart enough to figure out that his shout of taking my car and putting it into a corralón was a common threat, often acted upon. Of course, “I can do anything”, was worrying, but for the moment in the dullness of fear, my numbness of mind, I was too slow to react and I suppose it seemed like stubbornness. About fifteen or twenty minutes had passed – not a long time, normally, but a tortuous length of time in an intimidating interrogation endured near a back alley in a Mexico City slum. Finally, in frustration, he screamed, “¡Su billetera!” I produced it. “Open it!” I opened it, and as I did he reached and put his stubby fingers and took it all – the ninety or a hundred dollars, the thickness of pesos, perhaps $200 altogether. He jammed it into his pocket. I was trembling and a bit breathless as I drove away. Stunned, in my delirium, I took the wrong road. I kept driving, to calm myself, and I ended up two hours later on the road to Toluca beyond the western edge of Mexico City. Because the cop had taken all my pesos I could not use the toll road (cost: forty pesos) that would speed me back into the city. So I followed the line of dawdling cars in the traffic jams that led to my hotel, La Casona, in the Roma district, arriving six hours late. “I’m so ashamed,” the hotel owner said, when I arrived and told him my story, which he listened to, clucking. His named was Rudi Roth, from a Swiss family, but born and educated in Mexico. “But this does not happen very often. You must be careful, Don Pablo,” he said. “Mexico is surrealistic.”

Cover Image: Photography by Pablo López Luz, San Diego-Tijuana IX, 2015.