Rebellion isn’t something you decide to try on one day, like a new suit of clothes. It pulls at you a little at a time, from the first moment you realize, someone has done you wrong. It can begin as a minor sentiment, a suspicion that the things you have been told and the things you’ve found to be the truth are two different things. These minor disturbances might concern the way you were raised, your religion, your accepted place in society. Maybe you will change your suit of clothes. Maybe you will change your appearance and your habits and listen to angry music, but your rebellion is a small thing; just a statement that you are not in compliance with the norm.
Mexico’s rebellion began with a grumble. That day in 1980, when President Portillo flew out of the country with six hundred million American dollars, pulling the rug out from under an economy that was already teetering on the brink of uncertainty, the people grieved. They knew the significance of changing their pesos into dollars in one lump sum and emptying half the country’s American currency from the banks. The value of the peso would tumble. Over the next ten years it did; at a head-spinning rate that devalued the peso from twenty-three to a dollar to over five thousand before it was dissolved and the current pesote set into place. International markets closed. Jobs were lost in real estate, resource development, factory production, translating and teaching positions.
The first winter was the leanest I’d ever seen. People went out to the streets in droves, hawking, selling, trading, stealing, bargaining anything they thought might have a value and a client. If you had the money, you could buy wonderful items for a bargain; silver, gold, precious stones, perfumes, hand woven clothing. Most people didn’t have enough money to keep food in their bellies. That first winter, they tightened their belts and grieved for the poor they couldn’t help and became like shadows clinging to the walls as they staggered from town to town, searching for sustenance. They grieved for their sons and daughters who would not be going to college that year. They grieved for brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles who had lost their jobs and their home. They grieved for themselves, their own inadequacies and failures to provide.
The second year, we all grew tougher. We didn’t just bend laws, we broke them. A US embargo created a black market for American perfumes, chocolates, clothing, electronics and appliances. Prostitution and drug dealing lost their taboos. At least they brought money into the economy and the perpetrators weren’t stealing from their neighbors. There was only one kind of thief to receive any sort of respect; the ones who stole from another thief.
We learned to fill our bellies primarily on beans and rice and a mountain of tortillas. The standard greeting when friends met who hadn’t seen each other for awhile was, “hello there. You’re very thin to be alive but very fat to be dead.” The return laughter was cut with bitterness and a growing sense of rebellion.
Laws were broken, but arrests were rarely made. An American fifty dollar bill in the back of your wallet was enough bribery to practically get away with murder. This emergency back up fund was not touched for any other reason, no matter how hungry you were. It was your license to carry on your business as long as nobody complained, and if the police sometimes came around to collect their share, it was all part of the general agreement.
Time refused to separate itself after awhile. The days of the week were left alone, the months ran into each other; even the years stopped spelling themselves out. You went to bed hungry. You woke up hungry. You spent your time desperately trying to earn enough money to fill the hollow spaces and forgot what it was like to satisfy your appetites.
I can’t really say how long Victor and I had been drifting from town to town, buying a few things here, making a few items there, bartering for hotel rooms, hitching rides with the big trucks, trading jewelry for a hot meal, before we found Juchitan. I’m not sure what we expected once we found it; perhaps an office building where we could sign up to join the revolutionary army, maybe a recruiter who would take us into the hills. We had not expected this small, tropical town, the scented air, these beautiful women in flowers, the gentle acceptance that folded over us like a fresh, clean bath. Our first night in Juchitan, we ate more than we had eaten in months. We ate until our bellies could hold no more. Each day after that, we ate heartily of the good, smoked fish, farm fresh eggs, fruits and soups, mole, tamales, papitas, and enchiladas. Our trips back to Mexico City were as short as we could make them, while we dreamed of returning to Juchitan and eating our fill again.
The Price of a Feast
We had almost forgotten that we were in rebellion. We invited another of the street artists to travel with us, a young Mayan girl named Lola. Lola was my best friend. She had been a University student before the peso crash, now she sold the handcrafts she and her brother made to try and help the family income. Lola had eyes deeper, darker and wiser than any I’d ever seen on a young girl. She always called me “chiquita” even though I was an inch taller and three years older than her. There was something almost uncomfortable about her laugh, as though beyond being amused at the world’s foolishness, she was chiding those who thought it could be any other way.
Lola was beginning to benefit from the trips as well. She’d actually plump out each time she went to Juchitan, enough that she would purposely starve herself on her way back to Yucatan to visit her family so they wouldn’t be envious of the weight she had put on. We were addicted to Juchitan; to its food, its people, its sleepy ways. We began bringing our extra belongings, piece by piece, from Mexico and storing them with the Senora. She always gave us the same lodgings when we returned and said they were ours as long as we wanted them.
I was prepared to become forever a sleepy, under-sized Senora, making jewelry for an appreciative clientele, and neither Victor nor Lola seemed opposed to the idea. We were beginning to thrive. That was before the first shots were fired.
We had always known that sooner or later it would happen. Even though we were becoming comfortable, we were among a very few. The number of homeless in the City of Mexico was appalling. They slept on door steps, benches, in alley ways, in small plastic tents pinned between buildings. Almost daily, demonstrators marched around the palace while guards stood at stiff attention. The small towns were growing shabbier, the villages shrank away in malaria, typhoid, polio and starvation. We hadn’t thought the first shot would be fired in Juchitan or that we would be there when it happened.
We had just finished selling in the plaza and were ready to settle down with our usual dinner of fish, shrimp soup, beans, rice, cheese, tortillas, and for desert, some sweet tamales, when the air was shattered first by a single report, then a barking ricochet of others. It wasn’t far from the hotel. While we exchanged startled glances, an alarm echoed through the building. The clientele, which had been casually sitting in folding chairs outside the gate to chat with their neighbors, quickly moved inside and the gate swung closed behind them.
Victor was overcome with curiosity. He found Pacifico and dragged him into our quarters, plying him with questions. Pacifico confessed complete innocense of such matters. “I never see anything, do you understand?” He protested. “I never know anything. These things that happen, they are not matters for me to become involved in. Nor for you either, Senor,” he added cautiously.
Victor was insistent. “Let me through the gate. I won’t go far. I’ll bet that little store across the way will have someone in it who knows something.”
“They’ll be closed. They’ll all be closed,” said Pacifico.
“No, nay. They’ll let me in. I know they will. Give me the key. I’ll be out and back before anyone’s the wiser.”
Against his better judgment, Pacifico let Victor out the gate and surrendered the key. He stood there, wringing his hands so miserably, Lola and I drew him into our quarters. As the minutes dragged by, the ritual of comforting Pacifico became one of trying to reassure ourselves. “We should light a candle for him,” said Pacifico. This sounded better than doing nothing at all, and if one candle should light the way, we decided there was no harm in lighting as many as we could find. We soon had a rather admirable array of candles glowing, and cut out the electric, overhead light. It consoled us more somehow, to huddle in their flickering light, with the darkness velvet soft behind us, then to stare in the bright illumination of the single electric bulb. We began to tell each other stories.
Pacifico told of his uncle who worked on a ranch deep in the mountains of Oaxaca where outlaws roamed along a brick road, a magic stairway built two thousand years ago and emptying out into the coast of Veracruz. An anthropologist visited his uncle once. He was intensely interested in everything Pacifico’s uncle did and the uncle was intensely interested in the anthropologist. After his visitor left, he repeated the experience of the exchange for months, complete with a perfect imitation of the anthropologist’s behavior. Taking an empty coconut shell from the table and putting it on his head to show the anthropologist was bald on top, Pacifico proceeded to imitate his uncle’s imitation. Scratching his forehead, then rubbing his jaw, he said, “hmm” a few times, then pretended to write some words in a notebook. Bringing his legs up and clasping one knee, he studied an invisible object intently for a moment, then scribbled again. “Uh huh, uh huh,” he said, making a steeple of his fingers in front of his face, then fluttering them. “And that’s the anthropologist,” ended Pacifico with satisfaction.
We laughed, allowing ourselves to forget for a moment that we were afraid. “We need another story,” said Lola. “Somebody tell another story.”
We told what we could think of, silly little anecdotes and tales. I told of the time Victor had bought two bottles of the most horrible smelling mescal one could possibly imagine. We had planned to spend a couple of days camping in a cave above a waterfall and I wasn’t too happy about having that vile smelling stuff along, nor did I bother to hide my unhappiness. Before Victor had a chance to savor too much of his find, both bottles broke. The first one slipped out of his pack when we stopped at a creek to refresh ourselves, crashing against the rocks. The other one broke after we’d already made camp in the cave. His back pack suddenly and for no apparent reason, turned over, smashing the bottle inside. Victor was so exasperated, he shouted at me, “if you didn’t want me to buy the mescal, why didn’t you just tell me instead of letting me waste my money?” I was astonished. I hadn’t been anywhere near either bottle.
“You bewitched them,” said Pacifico.
“That’s what Victor said. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Of course you would say that,” put in Lola. “You wouldn’t admit to witch craft. But I think you can do it. I think you probably broke those bottles on purpose.”
I was still arguing over the audacity of their statements when the door opened and Victor walked in. He looked about the candle lit room with surprise. “Did somebody die?”
Lola turned on the electric light hastily, and began blowing out candles. “We just thought, you know… a little precaution…”
“A guide for your spirit so you come home safely,” added Pacifico.
“I was worried,” I admitted. “We were just creating a distraction.”
Victor shook his head and blew out the last candle. “You’re a bunch of silly girls. I never would have thought it. I brought silly girls, tweaking and tittering, into Juchitan.”
After several more rounds of chastisement, he told us what he had learned. The provincial government, voted into place by the citizens of Juchitan and the surrounding villages, had been forcibly removed by troops from the federal seat in Mexico City and their own delegates set in place. Earlier in the day, the offices of the unpopular regime had been broken into and ransacked. The police had chased the perpetrators into the outskirts of the town, firing a shot at them. The answer had been a volley of return fire. “It’s safe,” said Victor. “The police turned around and went back into town. But I heard one of them was wounded. They might call for military back-up. In the mean time, they’ve placed the appointed Governor back into office and surrounded him with a guard patrol.”
Pacifico nodded. “That’s how it always is. We vote our governors into place. The federales come along and remove them. We fight. We put our governors back where they belong. It’s always that way.”
We didn’t hear any more about the struggle until the next time we returned to Juchitan. Our sales were no different than usual. Our customers willingly bought up any new design, any new creation we could find along our journey to entice them. They had developed a fondness for ceramic Buddha’s and lucky rabbit foot key chains and bought them up like candy. They were pleased with the garnets Lola and i had chosen, and their painstaking craftsmanship into gold wire earrings. They carefully determined the power of the protective baby bracelets studded with amber. Yet, there was a change in the atmosphere, an almost indeterminable air of secrecy. It seemed that those who bought from us were conspiring with us. While they hesitated over a new piece of jewelry or lucky talisman, their eyes met ours with a certain expectancy. When money exchanged hands, the handshake which had just seemed like a polite formality before, suddenly felt quietly significant.
Evening came and the air of conspiracy thickened. The other vendors packed up their belongings and disappeared into a slowly gathering crowd. The lady who had first told us we could sell anywhere, came over to talk with us. “It’s time to pick up your stand. This is no time to be selling. Go back to your hotel and wait for the night to be over.”
We had no intention of waiting for the night to be over. Not only were Lola and I interested, Victor couldn’t have been dragged away from the plaza with a team of horses. He passed among the crowd, asking questions of friends and strangers alike. “Pick up a stone,” said Lola, noticing women were scavenging among the gravel paths for rocks that spanned the length of their hands. I found a good sized one and slipped it into my pocket.
The gathering at the plaza migrated as one to the governor headquarters located in the zocalo. Someone with a megaphone was leading them. I couldn’t see the speaker, but I felt the surge inexorably pulling me closer and closer to the government building. Victor had pushed his way forward, along with the other men, so that only the women remained within the outer parameters. I looked around at my company. The women were of all ages; young, single women shouting and moving as close to the center of the conflict as they could get, married women, small children clinging to their skirts, grandmothers being assisted with their canes and respectful daughters. They all had one objective; to protest a government that had ousted their electives.
The sheer force of the crowd pushed the megaphone speaker forward, along with a dozen or so of his companions. They pressed the guards against the wall, propelling their leaders to the upper story balcony. The megaphone speaker, lost for a few minutes in the shuffle to reach the inner offices, reappeared triumphantly on the crowded balcony, declaring the people’s right to free assembly.
The soldiers appeared from nowhere. They shouldered their way to the offices, surrounding them, and flooded up the stairs. A fight ensued on the balcony. Bayonets flashed in the lamp light, the megaphone went down. The women below let loose their volley of stones. The distraction gave enough time for the rebel faction to escape. After that, it was chaos.
Shots were fired from both sides. The purposeful crowd suddenly turned and ran in the opposite direction, away from the zocalo. I was still trying to find Victor, when Lola took my arm. “Just run,” she whispered fiercely. “Let’s go back to the hotel. Victor will find us.” I ran.
I didn’t stop until I reached the bridge half way up the road to our destination. Lola was waiting for me, panting. “Do you think he got out okay?” I asked.
She nodded. “Victor’s smart. He’ll be alright.”
The lights were twinkling off one by one in the outskirts, obeying their own safety curfew, before Victor appeared. He was strolling casually, his jacket over his shoulder. As usual, he found amusement in our anxiety and teased us. Lola didn’t take his jokes kindly. “We’d better hurry or Pacifico will have locked the gates for the evening.”
“Pacifico will let us in,” assured Victor.
The gates were locked. Pacifico let us in, his eyes wide, his lips trembling. “Everyone must go to sleep quietly tonight,” he whispered. “There can be no noise. Don’t turn on your lights. Don’t speak or laugh loudly.”
We respected Pacifico’s wishes, but felt a need for the close communion of each other. We lit a candle, and dragged all the mattresses into the circle of light. We sat on them, talking softly to each other as we went over the events of the day. We were still murmuring when we heard a sharp rap at the gate and a voice call out for the Senor of the establishment. We quickly blew out the candle and held our breath, listening. The Senor shuffled to the entrance, muttering to himself. “Who disturbs us at this hour?” He demanded, his voice quavering under a pretense of boldness.
“We are looking for revolutionaries.”
“There are no revolutionaries here,” answered the Senor. “We are all just common folk, trying to earn a living.”
“We need to come in and have a look.”
The keys rattled reluctantly against the lock. “You see there is nobody here except the innocently sleeping.”
We listened, our hearts thudding painfully as we heard the footsteps of the soldiers pause by one door, then another. We laid back on our mattresses, squeezing our eyes shut as the room inspection came closer. “You see,” said the Senor. “No revolutionaries. We don’t welcome trouble makers here.”
The soldiers left without opening our door. We didn’t truly know if we would be classified as revolutionaries, but felt we would be seen as wayward enough to at least cause consternation. The next day, the Senora advised us to leave Juchitan and not come back for awhile. “You have a light skinned wife,” she told Victor. “Some of the soldiers might have seen her in the crowd. They might recognize her in the street. It’s best you leave until they’ve forgotten how she looks.”
We went back to the street gangs, the fights, the block take-overs of Mexico City; the grimy rooms, diesel fumes, the struggles with the police to sell on the streets. We went back, filled with news about the rebellion, our words planting their own tiny seeds. We went back to long marches, stretching all the way from the palace to Lazurus Cardenas and spilling into Juarez Street. Thousands of people protesting their hunger. Thousands of workers without work. A restless, increasing bitterness over the realization that their plummeting, valueless peso couldn’t even keep up with the interest rate of their National debt. Revolution had begun.