John Ross: The damaged spine of America

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I am on a low-rent book tour with my new cult classic El Monstruo - Dread & Redemption In Mexico City.  For the next three months, I will stumble across this land from sea to stinking sea probing the underbelly of Obama's America.  The findings will be posted on these pages.


LAS CRUCES N.M. -- The snow was already dusting the Organ Mountains fringing this high desert town, promising a hard winter further up the spine of Obama's America. I ride the Mexican bus (officially doing business as the El Paso-L.A, Limousine Express) when I ply the back roads of the southwest. Greyhound, with its stern rules and regulations and surly drivers who threaten their cargos with summary expulsion for minor infractions, doesn't much inspire me these days.  

 


With notable exceptions, Greyhound passengers are a harried and haunted bunch, riding the Big Dog from trouble to trouble, often with all their possessions stuffed into plastic garbage bags. In the cruelest of gestures, the Greyhound management has recently banned garbage bags as an instrument of luggage.  Zombie passengers on the Big Dog stare out at the distant horizon submerged in their worries or stab music into their ears to sever all human communication. No one talks to their fellow travelers anymore.

By way of contrast, the Mexican bus bubbles with chatter.  "Platicame!" ("Talk to me!") my seatmates insist. The chitchat often gravitates towards work -- where they have recently toiled, the job towards which they are headed. Wistful nostalgia for their families and pueblos down in Mexico are common ground. Rancheros belch from the speakers and the taste of tamales flavors the ride. It feels like going home.

Bus rides are an opportunity to reinvent oneself. I am usually the only gabacho on these long hauls through the rugged mountains and barren deserts of the southwest, but I speak colloquial, unaccented Mexican and who I really am excites curiosities. These days, my kuffiyah wrapped around my scrawny neck, I pass myself as an Arab from Mexico City hawking books from tank town to tank town, a plausible story -- back home, Arabs are often stereotyped as itinerant peddlers.

North of Las Cruces, the Mexican bus is pulled into a Migra shed and the conversation modulates real quick. A blonde woman agent jumps on board and demands to see everyone's documents. She studies the passports and green cards under the glare of her flashlight and then shines it into the eyes of the passengers to see who will blink first. One young man -- he looks like a university student - is pulled off the bus and is never seen again. When the Mexican bus slides out of the shed, the chatter resumes -- but with one less voice in the mix.

Clayton, a young Wobbly who used to run a bookshop down by the rail yards in Albuquerque that was mostly frequented by hobos looking for a little warmth in a cold winter world, is now teaching at a troubled middle school. Patrol cars are often parked out front and half the kids - 99.99% of who are "Hispanics" (read Mexicans) - have juvenile police records. Clayton asks me in to talk to the students, who have never seen a real author in the flesh.  

We hunker down in the library and I step into my Grandpa persona and tell tales of the Mexican revolution while Clayton projects portraits of the Great Zapata and Pancho Villa on the audio-visual screen. I recount how the two men met in a rural schoolhouse in Xochimilco, now a borough of Mexico City, in December 1914. For an hour the two sat in frozen silence until Zapata, unable to contain his bitterness, declares that Carranza, their rival, is "un hijo de puta!" The kids fall off their little library chairs in gales of Mexican mirth. Clayton frets for his job but the librarian apparently doesn't understand Spanish.  

I show the kids my books. Helen, a boisterous tweener, grabs "Iraqigirl" from Clayton's hand and announces she is taking it home. The next day, she returns it with a review: "this is the best book I have ever read." Two boys sit at the round reading table with copies of "El Monstruo -- Dread & Redemption In Mexico City" and "Murdered by Capitalism -- 150 Years of Life & Death on the American Left" spread before them. They pour over the subversive pages all through the lunch hour. When we prompt them that we have to leave, they hide the books under their hoodies.

 "I don't have it -- check me out!" Salvador (not his real name) challenges. The librarian rushes over and promises the boys that she has just ordered the books on line for them. They will be here Monday morning.  "But this is only Thursday," protests Manuel (not his real name.)  

Garfield middle school is the best stop so far on this monstrous book tour.

Attendance at public events in Albuquerque is sparse. A vegan spread at the Catholic Worker House drums up a dozen hungry souls, a presentation of "Iraqigirl" at the Peace & Justice Center eight, including an Iraqi woman who leaves early. I show "Corazon del Tiempo" ("Heart of Time"), the new Zapatista movie (it was previewed at Sundance) in a small room at the university - Weather veterano Mark Rudd and the remarkable investigator Nelson Valdez and a handful of starry-eyed students ("Corazon" is a love story) show up.  

 

I sorely miss my old pal Tilda Sosaya who fought doggedly for prisoners' rights in the nearly wholly privatized New Mexico prison system for decades after her son was imprisoned for ten years for some dumb teenage caper. Last March, I wrote Tilda that I had been diagnosed with liver cancer and she wrote back that she had it too. The cancer took her quickly and now she is gone and her son is back in prison. We fight for justice but life in this lane is not very just.

I catch the day train up to Santa Fe to visit with the writer Chellis Glendinning. Chellis has lived for the past 18 years on a tiny plot in Chimayo, the land of miraculous dirt and a key distribution point for black tar heroin from Sinaloa and Nayarit -- see her "Chiva - How One New Mexican Town Took On The Global Heroin Trade." Now she is pulling up stakes and throwing in with Evo Morales. Her jeep flies a Bolivian flag and she is rushing to be in Cochabamba for the tenth anniversary of the landmark struggle against the privatization of that city's water supply by the Bechtel Corporation. Adios companera -- la lucha sigue y sigue y sigue!

I am back on the Mexican bus heading towards Denver. The riders get off at whistlestops like Las Vegas and Durango and Colorado Springs where they will do the dirty work of this country -- walloping pots, washing cars, cleaning motel rooms, milking cows, shoveling their manure, keeping Obama's America spic and span for the next paying customer at minimum wages if indeed they are not cheated out of them by unscrupulous contractors.  

When the guy across the aisle gets curious, I revive my new identity as an Arab peddler. "Donde esta tu mujer?" he asks ("Where is your wife?") and I lie that she is in Iraq taking care of her people. "The Yanquis invaded her country and bombed her neighborhood…"  "Pobre gente," he sympathizes.  Santiago (is that his real name?) is from Hidalgo de Parral, Chihuahua and says he is on his way to work the Colorado ski resorts where so many Mexicans slave for Senor Charlie these days. He knows all about exile.  

I am invited to deliver a pair of lectures at Denver University, Condoleezza Rice's alma mater (her father was provost.)  Doug Vaughn, also a DU grad who went left at an early age, notices that I will be speaking at the same time as Cindy Courville, Condi's roommate who followed her to the National Security Council and then became U.S. emissary to the African Union.

My talks are programmed for the Josef Korbel Center for International Studies. Josef Korbel was Madeline Albright's father, to give you some assessment of my chances of winning converts here. Indeed, the students are polite and well-groomed, models of future CIA assets -- in tracking down the announcement of Courville's talk on a Korbel Center bulletin board, Doug encounters a CIA recruitment leaflet. The grad students have been forewarned they will be visited by a representative of the lunatic fringe and busy themselves with their e-mail under the pretext of taking notes.  

Academic acrimony flourishes in the Denver- Boulder axis.  Everywhere else in this land where my father croaked, the trials and tribulations of Ward Churchill and his ill-timed assault on the "little Eichmans" deconstructed in the Twin Towers conflagration went out with the fish wrap the next morning -- but here in mile-high city, mention of Ward and Colorado AIM can still start a prairie fire. Although such Churchill accusers as the governor and the Colorado U president have long since resigned due, in fact, to other scandals after successfully silencing Ward, his detractors' thirst for blood remains unsatiated.

Infused with the venom of the dearly departed Bellencourts (who Churchill once dissed as "Nebraska wigmakers"), Ernesto B. Vigil, author of an action-packed bio of Corky Gonzalez, the Denver-based Xicano founder of the Nation of Aztlan, is still brandishing the long knives. Ward Churchill is a fake Indian, Ernesto obsesses, a white guy whose claim to indigenousness is backed up by white people because white people only listen to white people.  White people think they know everything, he scoffs in a heated e-mail in which he disparages my whiteness a dozen times in as many lines.

Actually, I don't give a rat's ass if Ward Churchill is one/sixteenth Cherokee or not (the tribal government recently expelled all its black members) -- Churchill remains the most lucid writer on American genocide in this benighted country.

Boulder is said to be the most over-regulated city in North America although white liberal enclaves like Madison Wisconsin and Arcata California could give Boulder a run for its money.  I accompany Joe Richey, a local alternative radio sleuth, to the Boulder dog pound to bail out his black lab "Yanqui" (as in "Yanqui! Go home!) "Yanqui" has been adjudged guilty of illicit dog-like behavior i.e. nuzzling a neighborhood garbage can.  

After Joe pays off the authorities and the mutt is released to his custody and properly admonished, we drive past a local dog park.  In a paroxysm of charitable intent, the Boulder City Council permits the homeless to encamp at night amidst the dog turds but they must be gone by daybreak when the pooches of the city's housed residents take possession or risk a $100 fine. How the homeless, forced to bed down in dog shit nightly, can afford this astronomical sum is unclear. Such is what passes for compassion on the underbelly of Obama's Amerikkka.

 

On my final day in Denver, Hank Lamport, a local schoolteacher who favorably reviewed "El Monstruo" for the Post, today the only daily in this formerly two-newspaper town, drives me out to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Rehabilitation Area. Until a few years ago, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal manufactured and stored deadly nerve gas, chiefly Serin -- an occasional lost canister still spooks the wildlife.  The displays at the Visitors' Center feature photos of workers filling "Honest John" missiles with the stuff. Napalm was also cooked up here. I study the glazed eyes of taxidermied foxes and coyotes and bald eagles and hastily bid adieu.

On the way out of town, we stop to worship the victuals in an Aurora, Colorado taco shop. Hank laments that when he first became a devotee of "Tacos y Salsas," the clientele, uniformly Mexicanos, would greet him with a "buen provecho" ("good appetite" -- a universal courtesy in the Spanish-speaking world) but now the customers have become so gringo-ized that the salutation is a lost art. Nonetheless, when we polish off our orders and head for the door, two working stiffs at the next table wish us each "buen provecho."
  
It warms the cockles of my contused heart to know that such cultural resistance still percolates out here on the damaged spine of Obamalandia.

Next stop: the frozen, melancholy flatlands of the Great Midwest.  

John Ross and "El Monstruo - Dread & Redemption in Mexico City" ("gritty and pulsating" - NY Post) will be visiting Traverse City and Grand Rapids Michigan in the final week of March. You can catch them at the Headland Café in Chicago's Rogers Park March 31st, Toronto's Hoggtown April 1st-4th, and St. Louis Mo. April 7th.