Friday, August 12, 2016

That March in Mexico

The Spanish says: "DEMONSTRATION. March from the Museum of Anthropology to the Monument to the Revolution. Thursday, 16th of March [1978]. 5 p.m. Mexican Workers Party. No to the Gas Pipeline!" The fist constricts a pipeline between PeMex, the nationalized Mexican oil company, and the United States of America.
In March 1978 I marched in a demonstration against American petro-imperialism with a crowd composed of members of various Mexican left-wing political parties, among which the Mexican Workers Party had instigated and sponsored the march. For me, the march was an immersion into the left-wing aspect of Mexico—a heavily suppressed realm within the limited freedoms of the United States. I made many trips to Latin America in a life-long romance with the countries south of the border.

Mexico, as it was in the 1970s—and isn’t now—was my Paris. With Mexicans, Europeans, and Americans I celebrated life and the journey, which took on qualities of a pilgrimage in which every moment was a movable feast and every place was a shrine. Among the intricately carved ruins in the jungle at Palenque, I partook of the Mayan sacrament, the sacred psilocybin mushroom, and there I learned to see.

The sun during an annular eclipse as seen at Middlegate, Nevada, on May 20, 2012.. The ring-like, or annular, eclipse happens when the moon is too far away in its orbit to cover the sun completely.
Photo by Smrgeog. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
When I was 19, I went on a magical expedition to see an annular eclipse in Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. I went as an astronomer, but I came back as a traveler. That first trip was eye-opening because it reached far beyond the narrow horizons within which I had grown up. I had been taught, as most Americans are, that I live in the greatest country in the world, so the implication is that no place is like home, no people as good as Americans, and that the world is filled with inferior places and beings. Most adult minds can think their way out of that xenophobic knot in the American nationalist mythology, but others think like Dorothy—perhaps because they were indoctrinated by The Wizard of Oz (1939):

Ruby slippers from the film The Wizard of Oz displayed at
the National Museum of American History. One of several pairs
used during filming, these size-five shoes are well-worn,
suggesting they were Garland's primary pair for dance sequences.
Photo by Chris Evans. Licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Just as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, is about to send Dorothy home with three clicks of her heels of her ruby red slippers, the Tin Man asks her a question:
What have you learned, Dorothy?
766 Medium Closeup -- Dorothy -- Lion behind her -- she speaks --
Well, I — I think that it — that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em — and it's that — if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?
Dorothy in a visual allusion to a death bed scene signifying
the death of the child and the birth of the woman. ©1939 MGM.
Then, after she returns from her dreamtime walkabout in Oz, she lies in her bed surrounded by her family and the workers Hunk, Zeke, Hickory, and Professor Marvel, the professorial fortune teller, who have Oz analogs, respectively, as The Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man, and the Wizard of Oz himself. She reiterates this idea with 
Home! And this is my room — and you're all here! And I'm not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all! And — Oh, Auntie Em — there's no place like home!

By the Death Bed (1896). Edvard Munch. This painting
provides almost a graphic match to the scene in The Wizard
of Oz
. No matter how director Victor Fleming arrived at this
blocking, Munch provided much inspiration to Swedish
directing genius, Ingmar Bergman, who used Munch's images
less disputably.
The concession that she will never wander again is staged as an allusion to a death bed scene to symbolize the death of the naïve girl—who would wander away from home to save her dog—to the mature woman who will make her stand on home ground. That is the great conclusion, the moral to the fable, the underlying purpose of Dorothy's quest to bring the witch's broom back to the Wizard: Home.

The standard interpretation of death in dreams, especially when the dreamer dreams of his or her own death, isn't really about mortality but about change. This is what Master Aemon is talking about when he tells Jon Snow:

“Kill the boy, Jon Snow. Winter is almost upon us. Kill the boy and let the man be born.” —Game of Thrones, episode 5.5, "Kill the Boy."

Change is how I grow, and I heartily approve of growth as a theme in literature. Yet I cannot agree with the idea of staying in one place as a virtue. I am informed as much by travel as by education. Travel snaps me out of my self-limiting clinging to my own culture. By getting out in the world I get the pride knocked out of me about how I cook food, wear my clothes, or enunciate a word, and I learn tolerance and become less judgmental of people when they look, act, dress, or talk differently than I do. I lose the sense that I am, on my little farm, in the best place for everyone or even the best place for me. Oh do not go gently into that good night! There is even more to travel than merely a remedy for racism and a justification for imperialism. Travel makes me much more reluctant to support war, and instead I seek an understanding of both sides. Many Americans come away from witnessing an act of war against the United States asking, "Why do they hate us?" This is the question of someone who, metaphorically, was raised on the farm in Kansas, the question of someone who "won't look any further than my own backyard."

Travel creates an expansion of the mind at a level so intuitive that it can scarcely be expressed. Those people who have taken LSD or some other hallucinogenic not with an attitude that this is just another way of getting drunk, but with some reverence, experience a sense that the very fabric of the world is the way it is but could, hypothetically, be different, and travel reveals something different. India strikes me as a place where this is particularly true. Wandering the streets of Bangalore or Mumbai often felt like a twenty-four-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week psychedelic trip. I don't mean that in a bad way—I love India—but Americans live on a comfort level, rich in euphemism and denial, high above the ground of reality, whereas Indians walk on the ground itself.

But long before I went to India, I went to Mexico. After the eclipse, I went whenever I had time, and a little money, and sometimes I went when I had neither. Each trip was a variation on a three-chord progression: Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido. A modern Metro system laced together the historical sites, art museums and galleries, and restaurants of Mexico City. Oaxaca allowed me to decompress in a colonial setting and read books by Carlos Castaneda and John Irving, whose books were hip reading at the time. And Puerto Escondido had the most tranquil beach I had ever seen. On one trip I did not withdraw from school until I came back; and on another I did not withdraw at all, and I had the grade-point average to prove it.

One time I ran out of money just north of Veracruz and hitch-hiked back to the U.S., but everyone I met was kind and caring: I did not starve, and I made it home. This kindness, like people passing me hand by hand in the air over their heads at a concert, formed my faith in the culture south of the American border. Just inside the U.S., I stood with my thumb out to hitch a ride at the bitter end of a highway with my long hair whipping the breeze. A trucker passed me by, and although he did not give me a ride, he threw a joint that landed precisely between my feet. When I returned to Austin I was deeply tanned, unburdened of the sulkiness of responsibility, effervescent with poetry, and illuminated with the dancing flame that draws people the way that the moon draws moths.

On that day in 1978 I had seen the poster announcing the march all over the place. Someone, I forget who, got on a bus with me and took me out to the Anthropology Museum—a world class museum, by the way—in Chapultepec Park. With the naïve American's world vision of mobs and paramilitary police fighting in clouds of tear gas, I asked if this march would be dangerous, but he said no, that it would be peaceful. My guide had to get back, so he went across the street to the bus stop for the return trip, and I strode into the crowd of gathering marchers.
The Angel of Independence, or El Ángel, is a victory
column on a roundabout on the major thoroughfare
of Paseo de la Reforma in downtown Mexico City.

Before long we began to march up the Paseo de la Reforma, a broad avenue with traffic circles at regular intervals, and many of those traffic circles have monuments of some kind in the middle of them. Among those, the best known is El Angél. We also walked past the American Embassy, which has always left me with the feeling that my face is in a file of the FBI or CIA somewhere.

Along the way we—or more accurately, they, because I didn't have the Spanish—were chanting the traditional rhyming demonstration chant:

El pueblo
Nunca será

(The people
Will never
Be defeated.)

The guy next to me in our marching mass of people, perhaps twenty abreast, and a few blocks long, gave me a frown, which I interpreted as disapproval in my not participating in the chant. I apologized and mumbled in my rudimentary Spanish that I didn't know the language. But I listened to the chant and begin to chant along, inaccurately at first, but gradually got the sound and cadence of it—for heaven's sake, it was only six words.

From the Anthropology Museum we marched two and a half miles straight up Reforma, and when we finally took a left turn (appropriately enough) downtown, I had phonetically mastered the chant without knowing what it meant. There were just a few blocks more to the Monument to the Revolution, and the man who had frowned at me in the beginning looked at me now and said in perfect English, "Now you are speaking Spanish."

In 1978, this Mexican period produced a chapbook of poetry, The Poetics of Quetzalcoatl, most of which is reproduced in the last section of Counting Stars at Forty Below. Most of all, though, my adventures had produced in me into a traveler who would eventually circumnavigate the globe, and that would have a lifelong love affair with Latin America.

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