Letter 13 From Mexico 

A Mountain, Forest Fires, Burns, Injustice, Autonomous Municipalities, and
The Authoritarian Mind

        Recently I walked to the top of a the highest mountain next to the
lake -- Lake Patzcuaro. It is called "Guacapian," as written by some
anthropologists, but as "Uakapian" with the accent on the last "a" by my
student Ruben (accent on the "e") who is a Purepecha indian and who says
that's the way it should be spelled.
        Its altitude of 3,240 meters or roughly 10,629 feet. The whole
mountain is referred to a El Bosque (the forest). Starting at our elevation
of 7,000 feet, it took me four hours to climb to the top of it, if you
include my half-hour lunch and siesta break half way up.
        I lay on my back with my straw sombrero over my eyes, pretty much
spread-eagle in the middle of a path that cut through a ploughed field.
When I sat up refreshed, I saw a man on horseback with good riding gear,
picking his way down through the loose deep soil at the far edge of the
        I watched him make a complete semi-circle. He had started high up
on the trail I was sleeping on and ended up far below me. I figured he was
1) considerate and didn't want to interrupt my nap, 2) knew his horse would
refuse to approach me, or 3) wanted to avoid the strange behavior of a man
whom he may have been able to identify -- from my exposed pink bald spot
(pointing uphill) -- as a gringo.
        A herd of four horses that had been hanging out in the shade of an
oak tree a half mile below me snapped out of their own midday siesta, with
exaggerated alarm, and switched over into an avoidance pattern. If the
horseman had come to round them up, they weren't going to make it easy for
him. Tails outstretched and their attention fixed on their still slowly
advancing nemesis, they slanted away from him and disappeared into the
forest like mischievous teenagers -- but in the direction, in the distance,
of the old hacienda, the great basin on the dirt road between Erongaricuaro
and Zinziro, at roughly 8,500 feet, where they probably came from anyway.
        Before I continued I studied the forest fire in the distance, on
the other side of the old hacienda basin, burning up the side of another
old volcano. During all of April more than a thousand fires at a time
burned out of control throughout Mexico, and continued into May. The
mountain behind Quiroga (one half hour around the lake by car) had been
burning for days. A thick white almost choking haze lay over the lake,
cutting visibility down to less than a mile sometimes.
        What is the difference? There are no fire-fighting planes dropping
Borate, like in California. No big planes skimming the surface and scooping
water out of Lago Patzcuaro, like in Canada. There are no big red US
Department of Forestry fire engines and trailer trucks with bulldozers. In
fact, one rarely sees anyone at all, even on the ground, fighting the fire.
"Why risk dying for a few peso?" is the general sentiment.
        The television news showed a plane fighting a fire near Mexico
City, dropping water (maybe Borate); the newspaper La Jornada carried a
picture of it, and pointed out that it was the only fire-fighting plane
Mexico had. In contrast, Mexico has at least 73 Huey combat Vietnam era
helicopters (plus 30 more of a different type purchased), given by the US
"to fight the drug war," even while it is widely known among Mexicans that
the Army has a hand in the control of drugs, i.e. control over their
movement and flow of money.
        And so, hundreds of fires burn out of control all over Mexico,
decimating the thin forest cover, killing the new growth and damaging the
older, adding to the global warming, damaging the top soil, which will
erode with the next rain in June and further silt up the lakes that are
        The campesinos start the fires. (In the state of Guerrero the Army
starts the fires to flush out the village supporters of the EPR, the
Ejercito Popular Revolucionario, the Popular Revolutionary Army.) The
campesinos who start the fires are the most desperate ones. They have to
create work. Mexican law says -- at least in Michoacan -- that you can cut
fire-damaged trees (to sell for lumber to the artisans who make furniture
and folk art for tourists), and the only place there are trees left is on
the steep sides of volcanic mountains.
        Plus, there is the belief that fires improve the earth, bring
better grazing grass, and pop seeds for new trees (even though the fires
consume the seedlings). And there are no Smoky The Bear signs, no teaching
going on -- only the pervasive smoke and burning mountains and a sense that
the world is being destroyed, and that Mexico is living just one more
        My goal never seemed to come closer. With each new steep rise I
thought I was on the verge of reaching the summit. I came to an old barbed
wired fence, nailed to trees and an occasional crude post and protected by
a deep ditch maybe three feet wide and four feet deep, dug as a kind of
tank trap to keep cattle or horses from getting too close to the wire and
pressing on through it. Someone had been there just before me and had swept
the flat bottom of the ditch with a broom (I have never seen a rake in
Mexico), leaving not a leaf, and for a distance of maybe fifty feet. But
why?  To monitor the foot prints of animals approaching the fence.? Or of
people? Or out of an unusually advanced sense of neatness? The object of
all the protection was a lovely flat milpa (corn field), and the owner
didn't want any hungry grazing animals getting through.
        The final accent was very steep, up through pine and oak, long
grasses in between, and a jumble of rocks covered with leaves. I kept
checking the advance of the smoke front that was drifting up behind me from
the forest fire. I wanted a view of the lake before the visibility was
destroyed. It was like looking down from an airplane -- seemingly straight
down, because of the volcanic steepness.
        And on top there were holes where someone had been digging
grave-like holes, but larger and deeper. The two full-time gardeners, in
the compound where we live, explained that people were still looking for
the money robbed during the Revolution and buried on various summits.
Smiling -- half believing, half skeptical -- the older gardener Silvestre
told me a story of someone finding "tres cargos de mula" (three mule loads)
of treasure. When I asked him how he knew this, he said, "De los ancianos,"
from the old ones. When I told my English students I'd climbed Uakapian
(with the accent on the final "a"), R. asked me to climb it again with him.
I told him once was enough. What he really wanted was hang out with me, I
think. We played basketball, in front of the big adobe church where the boy
was killed by lightening last summer. Not having held a basketball in my
hands in the last forty-six years and being at seven thousand feet, and not
being forty the way he was, we soon gave it up and walked instead,
conversing in Spanish as we went.
        R. wants change in Mexico but is very discouraged because the
people in the town can not organize themselves and are mistrustful. Grass
roots organizing goes against the whole idea of the PRI top-down
Mafia-structure authoritarianism. My landlord tells me that Erongaricuaro
is a PRD town, but R. says the old PRI structure with all its pressures and
disposable power is still in place.
        As is pretty much true throughout Mexico, the town's books are not
open to the public, and therefore there is no accountability. People see no
evidence of municipal spending but can't do anything about it. The lines
between PRI, police, and government (throw in drugs, military, and crime)
all blur. You can't confide in people. If you start to organize citizen
counter-pressure, you can find yourself marginalized and eventually
menaced. If not worse.
        There are thirty-three municipalities dumping raw (untreated)
sewage into the lake. All taxes flow to Mexico City. The Salinas government
(the one before this one: the Zedillo government) "gave" money to
Erongaricuaro to build a sewage treatment plant. Instead, two speculation
houses were built a couple of towns away, overlooking the lake -- I believe
by the mayor of the town. No sewage treatment plant was ever built.
Eronga's (and the other thirty-two towns') raw sewage continues to flow
directly into Mexico's most beautiful lake.
        It is not surprising that young men would become discouraged and
want to go north (to the US) where there are jobs and the promise of
something better. As we were walking, I saw a huge scare on R's right
elbow, about five inches long and four inches wide. I asked him what it was
from. He said he had a larger one on his right hip.
        They had gotten across the border. That was the easy part. But
getting deeper into the US was more difficult. A friend picked them up. The
floor of the car's trunk had been removed. Five men squeezed in, R. in a
bottom position. The trunk was closed. They drove for an hour and a half,
with R. pressed down against the hot exhaust pipe, unable to move away from
it. A young heavy man was jammed in, furthest forward. He was
claustrophobic and panicked and wept in desperation the entire time. And
the trunk was unbearably hot,  aswirl with choking dust and the smell of
R's burning flesh.
        If you look for them, you will see these burns on men in Mexico. I
have seen them here in Guanajuato. R. was able to earn enough money in the
US to come home and buy a small plot of land -- so he would have a chance
to lift himself and his family a little higher out of the economic
stagnation around him. He is intelligent and extremely hard-working. That
doesn't matter. His wage is frozen at about $3 to $4 a day, and he does not
foresee that changing -- ever.
        One day R. and I walked along the channel leading through the marsh
out to the lake. He told me about a campesino from the next village who
herded cows for his dueno (tilde over "n"). Someone stole one of the cows
one night. The dueno said the cow herd would have to pay for it at a cost
of 1,000 pesos ($118). A cow brings 200 to 400 pesos on the market. The
cowherd protested to the town government. This enraged the dueno had
friends in the government (or among the police or the Judiciales). In the
end the cowherd was forced to work for the dueno for a year without wages.
        I am estimating the cowherd earned 10 pesos ($1.18) for taking the
cattle out to pasture, checking on them several times a day, and bringing
them back in the evening. In one year he would earn 3650 pesos ($430).
        It seems hard to believe (but it's possible, and I have no reason
whatsoever to doubt R.) the town authority (that blend of government,
police, and Mafia) would have made him pay 3650 pesos in wages to pay for
the cow that he didn't even steal. On the other hand, in Mexican law you
are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Also, in real life a dueno with
irrefutable power and backing can make you do almost anything. The
important thing is that R. believes this story, and cites it as an example
of injustice -- of the tyranny of the powerful, the lack of citizen
recourse, the hopelessness of getting ahead.
        Those of you who know your Mexican history know that variations on
this kind of debt servitude were common throughout Mexico up to and far
beyond the Revolution of 1910. Forms of it exist today, and there is
increasing resistance to it, which you see in the growing number of
"autonomous municipalities" in Chiapas and now elsewhere, including the
states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

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