Requiem for a City: Mexico’s Impending Earthquake

For days, the sirens never stopped. The ambulances came screaming down the Paseo de la Reforma, the sound preceded by cars packed with young men waving red flags, honking horns, demanding passage. The ambulances went by in a rush. And then more came from the other direction, cutting across town on Insurgentes, grinding gears at the intersection. In the ambulances you could see doctors, nurses, tubes, bottles, a dusty face with an open mouth and urgent eyes. And then they were gone, heading for one of the hospitals in the great injured city of Mexico.

“Somos los chingados,” a man named Victor Presa said to me, standing in the crowd in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the district called Tlatelolco. We are the fucked. Presa, 41, a tinsmith, didn’t know if his wife and three children were alive or dead. He lived with them in the 13-story Nuevo Leon building of the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco housing complex (one of 96 buildings erected in the ’60s to make up the largest public housing development in the country). When the terremoto hit at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, Victor Presa was coming home with friends. “We were up all of the night. Yes. I don’t have work, you understand? Still, no excuse. I was out, yes, we were drinking, yes … ”

The residents of Nuevo Leon had been complaining for eight months to the project’s officials about the dampness of the concrete, seepage of water, unrepaired fractures, the feeling of instability. The housing bureaucrats ignored them. And at 7:19 a.m., when Victor Presa was still almost a mile from home and thick with pulque, the building seemed to rise up, swayed left, then right, then left again, and all 13 stories went over, reeling down, slab upon slab, concrete powdering upon impact, pipes and drains crumpling, steel rods twisting like chicken wire. Within the gigantic mass, smashed among beds and stoves, sinks and bathtubs, among couches and cribs, bookcases and tables and lamps, ground into fibrous pulp with the morning’s freshly purchased bread, boxes of breakfast cereal, pots of coffee, platters of eggs, bacon, tortillas, there were more than a thousand men, women, and children.

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“Somos los chingados,” said Victor Presa, sore-eyed, his hands bloody, voice cracked, smoking a cigarette, staring at the ruins, as a small army of firemen, soldiers, and residents clawed at the rubble. A woman kept calling for a lost child: Ro-baiiiiiiir-to, Ro­baaaaaiiiii-irrrr-to. The scene seemed almost unreal; surely some director would now yell “cut” and everyone would relax, the calls to the dead and dying would cease, the special effects men would examine their masterpiece. But this was real all right, and Victor Presa stared at the building, summoning whatever strength he had left to join the others who had been smashed by what was being called El Gran Chingon. The Big Fucker.

“This was all we needed,” said an exhausted, hawk-nosed 24-year-old doctor named Raul Tirado. “Things were bad enough. Now this, the catastrofe. Pobre Mexico … poor Mexico.”

Before the catastrophe was the Crisis, always discussed here with a capital C, a combination of factors that were at once political, economic, social. The $6 billion foreign debt. The incredible $30 million a day that leaves Mexico just to pay the vigorish to the banks, never denting the debt itself. The accelerating slide of the peso (for years, 12.5 pesos were pegged to the dollar; last week you could get 405). The collapse of the price of petroleum. All these were intertwined with a wide-ranging cynicism; a loss of faith in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico without interruption since 1929; contempt for the obesity of the state, where almost four million Mexicans are employed by federal, state, and local governments out of a total work force of about 20 million; despair at the monstrous growth of Mexico City and its transformation into a smog-choked, soul-killing crime-ridden purgatory; fatalism about the daily, hourly arrival of more and more and more children; and above and below everything, touching every level of the national life, persisting in the face of exposure in the press and President Miguel de la Madrid’s oratory about “moral renovation”: the rotting stench of corruption.

“There will be a Mexico when this is finished,” said Dr. Tirado. “But if they only clean up the physical mess, then we are doomed.”

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So the cranes will soon arrive to remove the top four floors of Continental Hotel on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, but neither the building nor Mexico will be easily healed. In 1957, when an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale rolled through the city, killing 51 people, the Continental was a year old, a proud new member of the Hilton chain, with a blue-green mosaic mural rising from street level to the roof. That quake split the mural and fractured the building, but repairs were made and business went on. There were only 3.5 million people in Mexico City that year, and the city brimmed with optimism. But Hilton’s name was long ago removed from the building, and the mural torn away, and when I walked around the corner to Calle Roma to look at the aging weather-stained edifice from the rear, the top floors seemed to have been mashed by some gigantic fist. Business there will not go on. Not after El Gran Chingon. Across the street from the Continental there’s a statue of Cuauhtehmoc, the valiant Aztec prince who fought Cortez after Montezuma had failed; Cuauhtehmoc survived 1957 and survived September 19. But his pollution-blackened face now seemed sadder than ever.

“There’ll be nothing there next year,” said a 31-year-old insurance executive named Maria Delgado, staring at the Continental. “Who would build there again? Who would grant insurance? Who would build in many other parts of the city?”

Walking the city in the days after the quake, much of the damage did seem permanent. On the corner of Hamburgo and Dinamarca, a gallery called the Central Cultural de Jose Guadalupe Posada had been compacted from five floors into two; the art work had been removed, the building cordoned off behind a string of sad dusty pennants, but it didn’t matter now: there was nothing left to steal. Across the street, rescue workers combed the rubble of an apartment building: cops, soldiers, doctors in Red Cross vests, university students, men with flat brown Indian faces, all lifting broken concrete, smashed furniture, calling for sounds of life, hearing nothing. Such groups would soon be familiar all over the ruined parts of the city, and they helped compile the statistics of disaster: nearly 5000 dead, another 150,000 hurt, an estimated 2000 trapped in the rubble, dead or alive. Some bureaucrats, afraid of permanently losing tourist business, rushed to minimize the effects of El Gran Chingon; Mexico is a large city, they said (it sprawls over 890 square miles); only 0.1 per cent of its buildings were destroyed. And that was true.

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But you couldn’t minimize what happened to the people who’d been directly affected. On Calle Liverpool, a blue moving van from Romero’s Mudanzas was parked in front of Shakey’s Pizza y Polio, loading furniture from a damaged apartment house; in middle-­class areas, moving vans were part of the scenery, like salvage boats after a shipwreck. A few doors down, the tan cement skin had peeled off the facade of another apartment house, revealing cheap porous concrete blocks underneath. On Calle Landres, two buildings to the right of the Benjamin Franklin Llbrary tilted to the side like drunks in a doonvay; cops warned pedestrians not to smoke because there was gas in the air. At the corner of Landres and Berlin, tinted windows had been blown out of a building, its walls sagged, the street was piled with broken glass and rubble; but in one window you could see the back of a spice rack, its jars neat, orderly, domestic, suggesting life in a place where nobody would ever live again.

The contrasts from one block to another, one building to the next, seemed baffling. Why did this house survive and that one collapse? Of the more than 450 colonial-era buildings listed with the Mexican equivalent of the landmarks commission, not one had been destroyed. But more than 100 new government-owned buildings had fallen, including three major hospitals and many ministries; hundreds of others (including many schools) were mortally wounded. Fate bad never seemed more capricious. But every Mexican I spoke to offered the same basic explanation and it had nothing to do with God, faith, subsoil erosion, fault lines, the Cocos Plate, or the superiority of the 19th century to the 20th. Their answer was simple: corruption.

“Today, more than ever, it has been shown that corruption is a very bad builder,” said the Committee of 100, a group formed last March to combat the environmental disasters of Mexico (its members include writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, artists Rufino Tamayo and Jose Luis Cuevas). “It is no casual thing that the historic center of the city, made to last, has survived the two tremors …”

Senator Antonio Martinez Baez, a professor emeritus of the National Autonomous University, said that corruption was widespread in the building industry, particularly in the 1970s, when Mexico was booming with oil money. Martinez Baez said the corruption involved more than government bureaucrats, who looked the other way when shoddy materials were used; it included contractors, engineers, building owners and their intermediaries, usually hustling lawyers.

“They should not be allowed to clear these areas until a thorough examination has taken place,” said an engineer named Rafael Avellanor. “Concrete, steel, everything must be tested, measured against the original specifications. And then the guilty should be jailed for murder.”

Corruption is, of course, one of the oldest, saddest Mexican stories; didn’t Montezuma first offer Cortez a bribe to go away? But corruption doesn’t explain everything. If the earthquake toppled many modern buildings, if it seemed a horrible act of architectural criticism to enrubble the Stalinoid fortresses of the permanent bureaucracy, well, El Gran Chingon also rolled into Tepito.

And while the camera crews faithfully assembled each day at the Children’s Hospital, at the Medical Center, at the Juarez housing project, where dramas of rescue and redemption were played out with touching regularity; while cameras for three hours followed Nancy Reagan in her yellow jacket and professionally concerned mask; while journalists sought out Placido Domingo, bearded and dusty in the ruins of Tlatelolco, working alongside ordinary citizens, searching for four of his lost relatives “until the last stone is lifted”; while cameras at the airport recorded the arrival of volunteers and aid from 43 countries; while all of that was happening, almost nobody went to Tepito.

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There seems always to have been a Tepito in Mexico City; it’s perhaps the city’s oldest slum, maker of thieves and prizefighters and entertainers. For most of this century, the Tepito poor have crowded into tiny dollar-a-month, one-room flats in vecindades (apartment houses assembled around damp central courtyards, described in detail by Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez). They built houses for themselves too, of scraps of wood, homemade brick, parts of cars, discarded advertising signs. Boys from Tepito became toreros and football players; they went to the great gym called Baños de Jordan and fought their way onto page one of Esto or Ovaciones, the city’s daily sports papers; at least one, Raton Macias, became a champion of the world. Some became musicians and worked in Plaza Garibaldi, not far away, singing, playing horn or guitar for lovers, tourists, and each other in the Tenampa Club or the Guadalajara del Noche; some became cops; a few went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers; many ended up a dozen blocks away in the notorious Black Palace of Lecumberri, the city’s major prison, until it was torn down a few years ago.

The women of Tepito had harder lives. They married young, bore children young, suffered young, died young. Most were faithful to the code of machismo, imposed upon them by the men; those who violated the code often ended up in the pages of Alarma, a weekly crime journal that specializes in the mutilated bodies of the dead. Too many became prostitutes, working in the three famous callejones, or alleys behind the Merced marketplace, alleys so narrow that men stood with their backs against the rough walls while the women sat on stools and performed for a dollar. They started there when young, las putas de Tepito, and many ended up back in the callejones when old. Along the way, perhaps, there were stops in the houses and cribs of Calle de Esperanza (now lost to reform), or if they were pretty enough, smart enough, tough enough, they’d move up to the dance halls on San Juan de Letran, or the more expensive whore houses beyond the Zona Rosa, where the politicians and generals arrived each night with their sleazy cuadrillas. They might hook up with a married man and be installed in a casa chica. Some went off to the border towns. But they were always men and women “de Tepito,” a phrase said with the tough pride of someone from Red Hook or the Lower East Side.

And now, a few days after the earthquake, Tepito was gone. In the cerrada of Gonzales Ortega, all of the houses were destroyed. Vecindades were in rubble along Brasil Street, on Rayon, Jesus Carranza, Tenochtitlan, Fray Bernadina de Las Casas, Florida, and Las Cardidad, all the way to the Avenida del Trabajo. This had always been a barrio whose true god was noise. A mixture of blasting radios, shouts, laughter, rumors, deals, quarrels, jokes, screaming children, imploring mothers, furious husbands. You could hear young men playing trumpet in the afternoons. You could hear lovers careening into melodrama, while dealers hawked contraband radios, hot jewelry, used clothes, drugs.

Now Tepito was silent except for one lone radio somewhere, playing a tinny mariachi tune. A drunk of uncertain age, grizzled and dirty, sat on a pile of broken brick, talking intensely to himself. A tinsmith poked at the ruins of his shop, a small boy beside him looking grave. An old man who had run a small antique record store trembled as he looked at his smashed collection. “I have great treasures here. Jorge Negrete. Carlos Gardel. Lara. Infante. Treasures. Of the old style. Ahora … ”

Ahora. Now. Now the men, women, children, and dogs of Tepito had moved by the thousands to the open spaces around the Avenida del Trabajo. They had improvised tents. They’d formed teams to search for water. Old women had set up charcoal mounds to boil water and cook. Together, they consoled each other, fed each other, cursed at politicians, cops, fate, God. They passed along news: the Bahia movie house was wrecked (“Ay, chico, where will we go now to get fleas?”) and on San Juan de Letran all six stories above the Super Leche cafeteria had collapsed, killing many people having breakfast (“Cuatey the coffee killed more …”) and more than one hundred government buildings had been wrecked, including the Superior Court, with all the city’s criminal records (“There is a God …”). They joked, as most jokesters do, because they are serious men.

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“We want to go home,” said a white-haired wood finisher named Jesus Torres. “But we have nowhere to go … ”

He was standing with a crowd of men among the tents. Someone said that the government estimated the homeless at 35,000. Torres said, “That means there must be one hundred thousand on the street.”

A young man named Eloy Mercado arrived with a copy of Esto. A story in one of the back pages said that Kid Azteca was among the missing. When I first came to Mexico in 1956, to go to school on the GI Bill, Kid Azteca had been fighting since the 1920s. He had been the Mexican welterweight champion for 17 years, an elegant boxer, good puncher, and in his forties he kept having one six­-round fight a year to extend his record as the longest-lasting Mexican fighter in history. Now he and his two sisters were missing in Tepito, perhaps dead. Jesus Torres shook his head: “He’s not dead.” An old man leaned in, his face dusty, teeth stained with tobacco, smelling like vinegar. “You know how to find Kid A’tec’? Go in the street and start to count to 10. Then he’ll get up …” He and Torres laughed, two men as old as the lost Kid Azteca who had managed to remain true to their origins. Somos de Tepito, hombre

So to experience Mexico after the earthquake, you had to go to Tepito too. You had to go to the corner of Orizaba and Coahuila, where seven bodies were spread across the sidewalk, packed in plastic bags of ice, waiting for hours for ambulances too busy with the living. You had to smell the sweet corrupt odor that began to drift from collapsed buildings. You had to hear the sirens: always the sirens.

You could also see Mexico after the earthquake in the baseball park of the Social Security administration, where more bodies lay under blue plastic tents, waiting for identification. In other times, a team called the Red Devils played here. Now a somber line of men and women waited patiently for admission, searching for their dead, while bureaucrats in the third base dugout compiled their mournful lists. The corpses were photographed and fingerprinted and those that were not identified were wrapped in plastic bags and taken away.

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Some were taken to the Cemetery of San Lorenzo Tezanco, and this too was Mexico in the autumn of 1985. Those who bad lost their names along with their lives were given numbers: Cuerpo 127, Cuerpo 128. About 20 gravediggers chopped at the weed-tangled earth. More people came to look at the bodies, and many brought flowers. The unidentified were buried in a common grave. Presiding over this rude democracy was a white-haired, white-bearded priest named Ignacio Ortega Aguilar, who gave the blessings and offered the prayers. On the fifth day after the earthquake be told a reporter: “With this tragedy God bas placed all of us in the same condition. In only a few minutes, while the earth shook, God permitted us to understand who he is and who we are. Today we know that we are owners of nothing.”

And to know Mexico after the earthquake, you had to listen to the sound of rage. There was rage in Colonia Roma, because some cops were demanding a 500 peso mordida to allow residents past barriers with cars or moving vans; rage at unconfirmed stories of cops who had looted wrecked apartments or pried wedding bands off the fingers of the dead; rage at flower sellers who tripled their prices outside cemeteries; rage at tienda owners who doubled and tripled the price of food, and at men who sold water among the almost two million who had none at all; rage at the makers of coffins, who jacked up their prices (some donated free coffins, too). In Colonia Roma I saw a man who had rescued hundreds of books from the ruins of his apartment sitting among them on the sidewalk.

“The rest has no value,” he said, his voice trembling, angry. “Only these. These I love.” He touched the books, some of them in expensive leather bindings. “But when my brother-in-law came to help me take them away, the police said he would have to pay 1000 pesos. I insisted no! I asked for a supervisor. Nothing! So I will stay here. I hope it doesn’t rain. But I’m prepared to die here before paying them anything.”

One morning I walked to Calle Versalles, where I’d lived in a friend’s apartment with my wife and daughters one winter in the ‘6os. The street was blocked at both ends by rifle-toting soldiers, while rescue workers chopped at the ruins of the old Hotel Versalles. Mattresses jutted from the rubble at odd angles. Men used plastic buckets to pass along the broken brick, plaster, concrete to waiting trucks. The house where we had lived was intact, with a lone broken window on the third floor. But the Versalles, across the street, was gone, along with the building beside it and another one at the corner. I showed a New York press card to a soldier who shrugged and passed me through the lines. The smell was then richer, loamier, the sweet sickening smell of putrefaction,

Suddenly everything stopped. Workers, soldiers, firemen called for silence. A body had been found. A middle-aged woman. Her jaw was hanging loose, hair and face bone-white from broken plaster, tongue swollen, eyes like stone. Her pale blue nightgown had fallen open. A man in a yellow hardhat reached down and covered her naked breasts. Mexico.

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Nothing had prepared me for Avenida Juarez. In the old days, this was one of the city’s great streets, a busy hustling thoroughfare. Turning into it from the Reforma, the Hotel Regis was on the left, along with a movie house, a pharmacy, the huge Salinas y Rocha department store. On the right was the Del Prado hotel, with one of Diego Rivera’s finest murals inside. Past the Del Prado was a mixture of shops, both elegant and tacky, silver stalls, handicraft shops, book stores, restaurants. In the distance, there was the great green space of the Alameda park, with its baroque red shoeshine stands, and the Palacio of the Bellas Artes beyond. In the 1950s, I went out with a woman named Lourdes who worked on this street, and for years afterwards I thought that one form of heaven would consist of the Avenida Juarez on a Saturday afternoon, with a new book or a newspaper in hand and a shine on my shoes and a nap in the grass of the Alameda park.

On this day, the old avenue was a shambles. It was as if some brutal general, bored with the tedium of a firefight, had called in an airstrike. The Salinas y Rocha store was now a giant shell, blackened by fire. Across the street, the Del Prado was closed (a Mexican reporter told me the Rivera mural was intact) and so were all the shops and restaurants. Three huge buildings leaned at a precarious angle. The street was packed with soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, reporters, and all attention was on the Regis.

The old hotel lay in a huge jagged mound; all 367 rooms had been destroyed. And I thought about the novel of Mexico City written by Carlos Fuentes in the 1950s, called (in English) Where the Air Is Clear. This was another city when he wrote his book, but Fuentes had premonitions of its ferocious future. One of his major characters was a revolutionary gone bad, an industrialist named Federico Robles.

But not he, he moued straight toward what he saw coming: business. 
the spot which will remain the center of style and wealth
in the capital: the ‘Don Quixote’ cabaret of the Hotel Regis …  

They were still at the Hotel Regis when I was there in the ’50s, the models for Federico Robles eating with Fuentes’s other great character, Artemio Cruz, laughing and drinking with all the other “robolutionaries” who came to power with President Miguel Aleman in ’46. They sat in booths or at small dark tables, heavy-lidded men dressed in silk suits and English shoes, graduated at last from tequila and mezcal and pulque to good Scotch whiskey, while their chauffeurs parked outside and the blond girls waited in the casas chicas on Rio Tiber. They were the men who made the present horror: the choked decaying capital, the failing banks, the greedy cement companies, the porous hotels. They invented Acapulco (with Aleman their leader), added Zihuatenejo, Cancun, Ixtapa, providing oil and shelter for the pampered bodies of the north. They were men who were all appetite. They ate the forests, they swallowed the rivers, they sucked up water from beneath the surface of the city and the regurgitated cement. In the end, under presidents Echeverria and Lopez Portillo, they ate Mexico.

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But even in the ’50s, when they still could be seen at the Hotel Regis, there were some who sensed what was coming. In Fuentes’s novel, a journalist named Ixca Cienfuegos says:

“There’s nothing indispensable in Mexico, Rodrigo. Sooner or later, a secret, anonymous force inundates it and transforms it all. It’s a force that’s older than all memory, as reduced and concentrated as a grain of powder; it’s the origin. All the rest is a masquerade …”

In a way, that secret anonymous force arrived at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, fierce and primeval. And now the Regis, along with so much else, was destroyed. Most of the men from the Don Quixote bar are gone too, dead and buried, the profits of old crimes passed on to their children; they stand now only as examples to the hard new hustlers of Mexico. There will never be statues of these men on the Paseo de la Reforma, but there are monuments to them all over the city: mounds of broken concrete and plaster, common graves in Tezonco.

And while many of the dead remained unburied in the week after the earthquakes, jammed among the slabs of the fallen buildings, everyone talked about the future. Mexico will never be the same again: the phrase was repeated over and over again in the newspapers. There were calls from the left and right for investigation of the corruption that led to the faulty construction of so many new buildings; there were demands that Mexico decentralize the government, sending many ministries to other cities; there were suggestions that the ruined sites be converted into parks, to allow some green open spaces for Mexico City to cleanse its lungs. Some insisted that Mexico would have to postpone its payments on foreign debt until after reconstruction.

And there were a few published reminders of another eartliquake, far to the south, that had led to the eventual overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. That 1972 earthquake killed thousands too. And when the generosity of the world sent money, supplies, medicine, clothes to Managua, Somoza and his gang stole it. The great fear of some Mexicans is that the same massive robbery will happen here, that the endemic, systemic corruption will absorb most, if not all, of the money that should be spent on the people of Tepito and Colonia Roma, on the survivors of Tlatelolco and the Juarez housing project and all the other ruined places of the city. If that happens, Mexico will not require agents of the Evil Empire to provoke the long-feared all-consuming revolution. ♦

From The Archives Immigration THE FRONT ARCHIVES

America’s Border War Gets High-Tech and Nasty

Finding Freedom in a K Mart Lot
May 30, 1989

TIJUANA — Scrambling up the steep slope, you reach El Bordo, or the ledge, across the top of a concrete-lined flood control levee. Against a hot, dusty afternoon sun, you can make out the red K Mart no more than a football field away.

Although the official border gateway is to the east, with its flags and customs queues, in the world of el bordo the K Mart sign is the Statue of Liberty, the beacon of safe haven for many of the illegal aliens who cross into the United States along the San Diego border each year.

Journalists and other political tourists come from far away to see el bordo. Some say it’s the Wall, some see it as the DMZ. Others say it is a new version of the Maginot line.

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El Bordo begins a few blocks from the levee in Tijuana’s red-light district, where immigrants, or pollos (chickens), on their way from the despair of the Mexican interior or the wars in Central America, stop for the night in one of the cheap hotels to meet coy­otes (guides) who will take them north to relatives in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York.

Here — amid the broken-down cars, families having dinner on the sidewalk, and, wonder of wonders, the teenage Vietnamese whores — in a hole-in-the-wall cantina, can be found El Salado, the unlucky one. He’s a big, burly fellow, 46 years old, who picked cotton and peaches in the U.S. before becoming a coyote four years ago.

Salado is one of several hundred coyotes operating out of Tijuana. Every two weeks he gathers up a covey of 15 pollos and heads north for Los Angeles. Some of the pollos find him on their own. Others, most likely the Central Americans, already will have been picked up and shaken down by the Mexican police, then sold to him for $30 each. The coyotes themselves enjoy a tenuous relation­ship with the police, who extort bribes from the smugglers whenever they get a chance. Salado gets along with the police because he always pays them off. Still, he tries to avoid them when crossing the street, anticipating yet another shakedown.

Salado charges Mexicans $300 a head for the trip from Tijuana to Los Angeles. Pollos from Central America or the Middle East must pay $500. While the Mexicans still out­number Central Americans two to one in Sala­do’s operation, the number of people from south of the isthmus is fast increasing. Still more exotic immigrants are charged according to what the market will bear. A group of Germans recently paid $1500 each for the trip to San Francisco.

For those who can’t afford the cost, a coyote will guide you from el bordo to the K Mart parking lot for anything from $70 to $120. Since most pollos are poor, already extorted many times over by the police or by train and bus drivers, Salado, like other coyotes, will accept payment on delivery from relatives in the United States.

Led by Salado and accompanied by two experienced scouts, the convoy will set out to cross at the westernmost and of el bordo, taking its chance during a change in Border Patrol shifts or at a moment when the patrol is occupied elsewhere. They plan to run down the levee, cross the dry bottom, and clamber up the other side into the K Mart parking lot. Some may cross the freeway’s speeding traffic to be picked up by a car, which was likely stolen in San Diego, for a quick drive deep into safer territory.

Salado himself never drives, to avoid prose­cution if caught. Tonight, the car proceeds up Route 5 through San Diego, stopping one-hour north, just outside Oceanside, where the Bor­der Patrol has a checkpoint. While the pollos wait in the brush beside the road, a scout drives through. If it is manned, then the group will walk around it, to be picked up again farther along the road.

In Los Angeles, Salado delivers the pollos to their relatives and receives his money. If the relatives don’t pay, Salado claims to be philosophical, writing it off as a routine cost of doing business. Other coyotes hound their pol­los, putting them on a payment plan, threat­ening to turn them in. Still others strip the embarrassed pollos nude and dump them in the middle of the Los Angeles freeway.

Salado says he makes $1500 for each trip north. He doesn’t carry drugs because, “I don’t want to go to jail,” although some of his friends do traffic in cocaine. In general, coy­otes trafficking in aliens seem to be a separate breed from those dealing drugs.

About a mile from Tijuana’s red-light dis­trict, in the hills on the U.S. side of the border, half a dozen men wearing radio headsets hunch over wildly blinking computer screens in the Border Patrol command center. They watch as groups of immigrants set off Vietnam War–era impact sensors buried in the ground. When a sensor goes off, they radio the news to one of the 700 Border Patrol agents stationed along the San Diego sector, a 66-mile-long stretch of border. Outside, a by­-now ancient Vietnam War–era artillery spotter steadily circles the area, watching for a break in the defenses. At night, the command center dispatches an innocuous-looking van into the hills, where it takes up station, sliding back the roof to send up an infrared scope for surveying the border.

The Border Patrol is the most visible arm of a mixed and largely uncoordinated police op­eration set to mimic here at home the futile forms of counterinsurgency warfare tried un­successfully in Asia and Central America. The components of low intensity conflict are scat­tered around the border for anyone to see.

In addition to its uniformed force of offi­cers, the Border Patrol maintains its own tac­tical squad — which has been sent on missions as far away as Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America as part of Washington’s war on drugs. Undercover agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service have operated in­side Mexico, penetrating major coyote mafias that smuggle aliens into the United States. Recent changes in federal law have made it possible for police on the border to receive intelligence and surveil­lance data from the military.

In recent years there have been efforts to combine the competing local, state, and federal police into a coherent force. Thus, Border Patrol agents joined with members of the San Diego police force in a special tactical group called the Border Crimes Prevention Unit, ostensibly aimed at protecting illegal immigrants from gangs of bandits hiding in the brush-filled canyons that groove the ter­rain hereabouts. The Border Patrol has worked with the California Highway Pa­trol, stopping cars and searching for ille­gals all across the state. In recent months Border Patrol agents have been stopping individuals they think might be illegals from Latin America or Europe or Asia at San Francisco– Bay Area BART subway stations.

A few years ago the pretext for height­ened police power along the border was the threat of terrorism — every illegal im­migrant was a potential communist agent. Now it’s drugs, even though in San Diego drugs from across the border can’t begin to compete with the area’s own homegrown methamphetamine indus­try — and even though it’s widely agreed that the coyotes guiding immigrants don’t mule drugs. Border Patrol agents double as Drug Enforcement Administra­tion officers, and they are linked together with customs, the DEA, and the Coast Guard in Operation Alliance, which pur­ports to be a unified police command aimed at cracking drug smuggling along the border.

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Units from the California National Guard, which have picked up experience flying air missions and conducting ma­neuvers in Central America over the last decade, are now helping U.S. Customs agents inspect vehicles at border cross­ings. In an effort to help law enforcement throughout the nation, state National Guards will provide radar, aerial photog­raphy, equipment, and transportation. In addition to California, Guardsmen have been assigned to points of entry in Texas and Arizona as well.

The current deployment breathes new life into Operation Border Ranger, an air surveillance program scotched last fall af­ter a Guard chopper crashed, killing five sheriff’s deputies and three Guardsmen. The original plan called for the National Guard to work with local police and the Coast Guard in searching abandoned landing strips and ships for drugs.

While federal law bans the use of the military as local police, conservatives in Congress want to amend the Posse Comi­tatus Act to permit use of Special Forces A-teams for drug interdiction. Since the state, Army, and air National Guards are increasingly regarded by the Pentagon as active duty components of the nation’s armed forces, their current deployment is an end run around the law. The Califor­nia Air National Guard, for example, has plans that make the counterinsurgency in El Salvador seem almost restrained. It wants to equip three C-130 transports with advanced radars so they fly up and down the coast providing aerial surveil­lance. Then it wants to obtain 20 of the Army’s most advanced Apache attack he­licopters, equipped with low-light TVs, that can sweep up and down the border. Once they locate a potential drug opera­tion, the Guard would dispatch double-­rotor Blackhawk choppers loaded with officers for the hit. “We are not trying to take over the law enforcement agencies’ role,” a National Guard spokesman told the Los Angeles Times last year. “Our job is simply to assist them. Say, for exam­ple, a drug-smuggling Cessna darts under our Apache, we can get a Blackhawk — loaded with law enforcement officers — up in the air safely, quickly, and in pursuit.”

In addition to the troops, the U.S. is also digging in. A line of fortifications, including a long ditch along a mesa top­ — to block the cars that until recently bar­reled straight through to the land of op­portunity — is still on the drawing boards.

This hodgepodge of American cops is more than equaled on the Mexican side, where seven different police forces vie with one another in shaking down the arriving immigrants.

Along with the police buildup on the border comes a hint of nascent paramili­tarism, most visibly in two young white supremacists who took matters into their own hands earlier this year, shooting two Mexicans as they walked along a highway outside San Diego.

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On the top of both sides of the le­vee, small knots of people drift back and forth, cutting deals with coyotes, buying pork rinds and sopes from ven­dors, doing drugs. Below, in the dry, con­crete-lined riverbed itself, banditos lie around a small fire. Four kids stoned on glue wander along the ditch. Down the middle of the channel runs a shallow, surging stream of human and industrial sewage, crossed by means of a plank — ­after paying a toll of 40 cents to its owner.

On the American side, the hills are scarred with trails made by the aliens. Off in the distance, you can make out the artillery pieces of this war, the pale green vans of the la Migra, as the INS cops are known, strategically placed at vital inter­sections, their occupants watching the scene through high-powered binoculars.

Some days more than 500 people will fill the ditch, hanging out at the edges of the fence, taunting the migra, trying to feint them into making a move, waiting for the shifts to change so they can make a run for it. At night, choppers with light arrays hover overhead.

As the police and military operations along the border have grown, so too has the violence. There have been 44 shoot­ing incidents over the last two years. Eighteen people have died.

Violence is random. In early January, Border Patrol agents assigned to the Bor­der Crimes Prevention Unit shot and killed from behind two coyotes who were 500 feet over the border. Efforts by the dead men’s attorneys to seek prosecution of the officers were rejected by both the San Diego D.A. and state attorney general.

According to the mythology of the U.S. government, aliens carry dope. So a few weeks later the Border Patrol and Mexi­can police engaged in a joint pincer oper­ation at el bordo, rounding up more than 400 individuals. No one found any dope. Most of the prisoners were turned over to the Mexican officials, who removed them to a private lot to shake them down.

Everyone remembers the time four years ago when 12-year-old Humberto Carrillo went to the aid of his brother, Eduardo, who had gone over the border to buy a hamburger at a Jack ‘n’ the Box. On his way back, a Border Patrolman accosted Eduardo and began to beat him with his truncheon. Humberto yelled at him to cut it out, and grabbed a stone to throw at the cop. The migra promptly shot Humberto, who by some miracle lived. As with every other case, his attor­neys asked the San Diego district attor­ney and then the California attorney gen­eral to prosecute the Border Patrol agent for shooting Humberto. They refused.

When Jim Bates, the San Diego con­gressman, sponsored legislation in 1985 to make federal law enforcement officers (including members of the Border Patrol) more strictly accountable for their ac­tions, he ran into a wall of protest from the police lobby and the amendment was dropped. Still, Marco Lopez, Humberto’s attorney, persevered, and in 1987 a feder­al judge awarded the boy $574,000 from the government for the incident.

Since Humberto’s shooting, things have gotten worse on el bordo.

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On March 28, Evelyn Castaneda de Ruiz , 21, left home in Tijuana for a quick trip across the border to the K Mart to get some candies for her two daughters. Leaving her husband Francis­co on the Mexican side, she walked across the drainage ditch and up the side of the levee with a small knot of Mexi­cans toward the K Mart. A Border Patrol van, which had just pulled away, sudden­ly made a U-turn and came toward the group. The members of the group began to run, but Evelyn, six months pregnant, lagged behind and was cornered as the van pulled to a stop. Getting out, the Border Patrolman grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the ground. Alarmed, Francisco, still on the other side of the border, began to run to his wife’s aid, yelling at the officer to let go of Evelyn. Instead, the Border Patrol agent placed his foot on her stomach and warned Francisco to get back. Thorough­ly enraged, Francisco picked up a rock. The migra went for his gun. The first slug hit Francisco in the stomach, spin­ning him around so that the second en­tered his buttocks.

Both of these Mexicans were brought to justice: a federal judge in San Diego sentenced Evelyn Ruiz to six months in prison for illegal entry, but dismissed the charge of resisting arrest. She served three months in an Arizona prison, and was released; her baby is due any day. After a lengthy recuperation from his wounds in jail, Francisco is being held on $15,000 bond in San Diego, awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer. The sen­tence could be as much as three years.

The growing tension along the border has led to the creation of a special human rights commission of peace and religious leaders from both sides. The violence has gotten so bad that even the legislators of Mexico and the U.S. have created a bi-national commission to improve human rights.

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El Bordo absorbs despair. It’s 1 a.m., and a bandito in the ditch has just stabbed another, slashing his jugular. This time the migra watched, .357 mag­nums in their holsters. After it was over, the Border Patrol called their Mexican counterparts, who in due course hauled the dying man off.

A member of the Border Patrol stands by his van at the end of a road that abuts the border fence, its headlights aimed at the small clumps of people perched on the levee behind the fence. Fires dance across the concrete causeway, their flames lighting the constantly shifting groups of people like a flag rippling in the wind.

The migra won’t say his name, but he’s plenty pissed. Sensors are going off all over the place. Sensor 54, sensor 55. Everyone knows these are trails for dope. But nobody moves off to make a bust. His orders are to hold the levee.

In a stroke of luck, Border Patrol agents caught nine men muling 900 pounds of cocaine in burlap sacks just the night before.

Operation Alliance is a joke. They only go out one night a week. Everyone knows where the dope comes through. But the chief won’t let the agent move. Hold the levee. What’s he supposed to do?

Look, he gestures at the dark. You can just make out silhouettes of three men moving through the border. He can’t do anything. There’s no agent in the K Mart parking lot, or for that matter, to the north of it. If he sees a family, well, he looks the other way. Wouldn’t you? That’s how his family got here. Didn’t yours? ■


Natalia Sylvester’s Immigrant Song

When I ask Natalia Sylvester why her family chose to immigrate from Lima, Peru, to Miami in 1988, the 34-year-old writer laughs. The reason, she says, “changes depending on who you ask in my family.” Sylvester was four years old when her mother and father (a medical administrator and a doctor, respectively) chose to leave with Natalia and her older sister. Her mother has always been vague about why they immigrated, suggesting, in some ways, a question that is impossible to answer.

This same silence would help to inspire Sylvester’s first novel, Chasing the Sun, which follows the disruption of one man’s unhappy marriage after his wife has been kidnapped and held for ransom. Sylvester’s own grandfather, a successful businessman, was kidnapped shortly before her family left for Miami, but she didn’t learn of the abduction until she was twelve years old. It was a jarring revelation for Sylvester, even though the rest of her family seemed to know. “Everyone I asked, like my mom and my dad, would say, ‘Oh yeah, we kind of talk about it, but not really.’ ” Chasing the Sun would go on to be named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and would be chosen as Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club.

Sylvester recently published her second novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, which traces the trauma several generations of a Mexican American family face as they try to cross the border and settle into comfortable lives. When Martin and Isabel decide to get married on Día de los Muertos, Isabel knows his family history is fraught. But the appearance of Martin’s deceased father, Omar, and arrival of Martin’s teenage nephew from across the border help the family reconcile with their past. The premise, of a spirit helping to shed light on lost history, has been compared to that of Coco, but Sylvester’s work is less interested in revelations and happy endings. Her characters are marked by happenstance and ignorance, a testament to the devastating effects arbitrary laws can have on the lives of everyday people. The novel has been hailed as timely in the wake of increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, commentary Sylvester has explicitly rejected as well-intentioned but flattening. Like her parents’ reasons for immigrating, Everyone Knows You Go Home revels in uncertainty and refuses easy answers.

How would you classify Everyone Knows You Go Home? As I read it, I realized I had been thinking of it as a kind of ghost story/romance.

I don’t know that I was thinking about classification. I didn’t think of it as magical realism even though I feel it was very much influenced by magical realism. What people would term fantastical elements in this book is really an actual cultural tradition. It was a reflection of the way that your ancestors are always with you. That felt very natural to me. This is our truth in the real world, and maybe you can’t [illustrate] that when you only stick to what’s right in front of us. To me, that’s the point of fiction.

I did think of it as a love story, actually. You write to sort out your obsessions and maybe find answers to them. Looking back at my parents’ experience coming to the United States and everything they left behind, I always wondered, “How bad did things have to get in order for you to leave everything you know and love?” I ended up working that out through this love story between Omar and Elda [Martin’s mother].

Omar’s the catalyst for undoing so much shame in his family, but he’s also a ghost, so his ability to affect the story is limited. What does he symbolize in this narrative, and how did you craft his appearances?

I didn’t think of him so much as a ghost than as a spirit. In Western culture we often think of ghosts as associated with scary hauntings. It’s not in line with Día de los Muertos, or even how a lot of cultures similar to mine think of your dead. It’s not a terrifying thing. The fact that they’re with you can be very comforting.

There was a moment where I felt like Omar wasn’t doing enough, and I had to consciously push back against that. The way we teach craft in fiction is the idea that your protagonist has to be proactive. It’s often taught in this literal way that needs to be external as well as internal. Omar is the epitome of the internal force. It seemed like a very privileged way to teach craft, because not everyone in the world has the same amount of power [to act externally], but that doesn’t mean their story isn’t worth listening to.

If we decide to only tell the stories of those who have power, then what does that say about whose stories are being told? I had to embrace this idea that, though there’s not much he can do in this physical space, Omar is still a force. His story still matters.

I was struck by how these characters affect one another so far down the line. Did you always know these stories would be interconnected in this way?

I moved around so much when I was younger. This idea of “Where is home?” always stayed with me. I kept thinking about how, when you have an experience that deeply impacts you, a shared experience with others, then no one can take that away from you. How is that not a sense of home? I thought of migrants, the time and place they occupy as they’re together, which is this very in-between space, and everything they go through together. It’s something they would carry with them, always. It makes sense to me that they would go their separate ways in life, but at a root level still be intertwined.

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Depending on your definition, the sacrifices made by Omar and Elda were either worth it or not. Not everyone gets a happily every after in America. Is the ending of the novel a triumph or something more complicated?

I think it’s more about never knowing if it was worth it. My parents were the same age that I am now when they left. It was unimaginable to me. It’s something I felt I couldn’t grasp, those sacrifices. These days, I’ve been feeling it in a much more concrete way because I ponder that. I ponder, sometimes sitting in my own home, looking around, “None of this can come with us.” Or thinking, “How quickly do you know when it’s time to go?” There’s a big history of people having to flee their countries when they were being persecuted and it’s sometimes very sudden. I used to contemplate those things from the hypothetical, but it’s becoming less so.

The other question that comes with that is, “With everything you gave up, was it worth it, if we’re ending up in the same place?” When I wrote my first book, I learned about the politics in the Eighties and the Nineties that led to my parents leaving Peru. Even at that time I thought, “This sounds familiar.” Now more than ever it is familiar. It’s really heartbreaking to see what we’re going through right now. Almost every immigrant family can tell you, “Yeah, we’ve seen this before,” because they fled similar regimes. And here we are again. Where do you go next from that? We don’t know if it was worth it.  

I read your Writer Unboxed essay about people calling your novel political, or not political enough. How do you avoid the tokenization the publishing industry can sometimes foist on writers or color?

There were a few editors who said, “You know, I really love this, but we need to see less of the everyday things, it slows down the plot.” My agent asked, “What do you want to do about this? Tell me what you want to do.” I told her, “If this were a white man just writing about everyday experiences, it would be seen as talking about the human condition. No, I don’t want to revise it.” I didn’t want to take away the everyday joys and triumphs of these characters, and reduce them only to their suffering. She was 100 percent behind me on that. I think it’s important to find people who will hear you out and back you up.

To go back to the question, I try to embrace the ordinariness of my characters. You hear this narrative with immigrants sometimes. “Look at all these amazing accomplishments and contributions to U.S. society that immigrants have made.” The other extreme is, “Look at all these criminals.” What gets lost in the middle is the fact that the vast majority wants an ordinary life with access to food, love, and protection. If we can’t say that, then we’re not painting people as fully human.

That’s what’s so frustrating to me about the way we talk about the immigrant experience. The idea of what’s authentic is often just tied to how much they hurt. I didn’t want to write to that.

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With this anti-immigrant administration, there’s so much talk about art saving us in this political climate, but you didn’t write this novel to teach anyone about immigrants. Who did you write this for?

When I look back on my childhood, what defined it was seeing my parents try to navigate this new life, and the immigration system imposed upon them, and the uncertainty that came with it. There was always this feeling that you have to do everything right, or else any small misstep could ruin everything. We’d get sent back. My parents tried to protect me from that, but I would see so much of that anxiety. This book became an act of witnessing all that.

I saw how unfair it was that there were others within my family and community who, as hard as we had it, weren’t as lucky. How is it that they didn’t have the same opportunities that we did? What was the difference between us? It was nothing. All chance, whatever it said on a piece of paper. Contrived things. I was trying to say, “I see this.”

Everyone Knows You Go Home has been out for a few months now. How has it been received? Were there any reactions that you were surprised by?

One of the most beautiful aspects of it has been having people share with me what meant the most to them. It’s always something different. It’s not just Latina immigrants. There is no such thing as “The Immigrant Experience,” and we tend to talk about it as if it’s a singular thing. But even within those experiences, the fact that we have all these commonalities is wonderful. It’s something that I was hoping to celebrate.

I had a friend once tell me, “When you think of your audience, don’t think of it in a marketing way. Think of it as who would you offer this as a gift to.” When we were younger, we all had books that felt like gifts the world was sending over to us at the right time. I just hope that it will find the people who will feel that way.


What Is a Diamante Tequila?

Let’s talk tequila. Even casual drinkers of the agave-based spirit should be aware of its basic categories: blanco — or silver — is unaged white liquor, straight from the still; reposado rests in the barrel between two months and one year before bottling; and añejo meets oak for one to three years. While these classifications have been recognized for decades, the recent explosion in craft tequila has led to some slight modifications. It wasn’t until 2006, for example, that Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council officially qualified “extra añejo” as a certified distinction for anything aging more than three years. And what do we make of the diamante category?

In 2008, Maestro Dobel introduced its Diamante onto the market. It was the first aged tequila with a clear appearance — most have a familiar caramel hue. Today, there are several brands offering a so-called diamond-level tequila, and they’d all like to see the category officially recognized. But let’s examine the original diamante to better understand what makes it unique.

Blending reposado, añejo, and extra añejo into a single spirit, Dobel’s flagship tequila utilizes a special filtration process to remove the color. The flavor and aroma is left fully intact, however, as Diamante hints at a complexity rarely detected in its un-aged counterparts. This is the nuanced interplay between oak and agave, wood and soil. It ought to be discernible, as a portion of that liquid has spent up to five years in the barrel — a rare claim for a bottle priced at $45 per 750 milliliters.

I found it to be a superior sipping spirit, enjoyed neat — though that hasn’t stopped several high-end bar programs across the city from exploring its mixing potential. At Nobu, for example, the staff has combined the spirit with pear liqueur and cactus purée in a prickly-pear margarita. There’s a solid backbone to the cocktail that a blanco would fail to deliver.

Beyond the aesthetics, the makers of Dobel, including the eleventh-generation owner of Jose Cuervo, will have you believe their proprietary filtration imparts a certain crispness as the color is removed. It’s difficult to disprove, as you’re unable to sample Diamante prior to that process. But to me, the spirit’s true significance stems from the artful blend of different aged tequilas, arriving to the bottle in sensible harmony.

Dobel does offer a standard blanco, which packs more of a peppery spice and would be better equipped for a paloma or a margarita. The brand’s standard reposado and añejo products are also easily distinguishable thanks to more pronounced caramel notes in the finish.

But Diamante truly occupies its own space. Whether or not it’ll succeed in establishing its own official category remains to be seen. What is clear, aside from the spirit itself, is that Diamante is expanding the boundaries of the world’s fastest-growing spirit.


Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty Shares a Compelling Look at a Mexican Cartel

Jesus Christ was the only muthafucka who couldn’t be bought, and they crucified him,” says one of the interview subjects in Angus Macqueen and Guillermo Galdos’s compelling but ultimately unfulfilling documentary on Mexican drug cartel legend Joaquín “Shorty” Guzmán.

The interviewee’s succinct blend of reverence and blasphemy speaks to the depths of official criminality in Mexico, underscoring what journalist Anabel Hernández terms “a stew of corruption” that has no bottom. For over 30 years, Guzmán ran a global drug empire that generated hundreds of millions of dollars.

Much of the violence that now racks Mexico has roots in his bloody rise to power — a rise that many in the film (especially the kickass Hernández) say was aided and abetted by government and law enforcement figures in both the U.S. and Mexico. Macqueen and Galdos structure the film around their efforts to garner an interview with Shorty, a quest that has them dart across both the U.S. and Mexico, interviewing dozens of people (cartel figures, lawyers, DEA spokesmen) along the way and piecing together Shorty’s blood-splattered narrative. (His mom, of course, thinks he’s a misunderstood good guy.)

Energetically edited, the film makes smart use of crime scene photos, old Zorro film clips, and narcocorridos – the popular folk-style ballads that glamorize drug lords. The film’s abrupt ending leaves many crucial questions unanswered, but that weakness doesn’t detract from its overall power. Hernández’s telling of the story of the young woman brought to the imprisoned Shorty to be his pass-around sex slave is especially haunting, crystallizing as it does the human cost of the drug trade in a single ill-fated body.



Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is certainly Mexico’s most macabre holiday, but also it’s most colorful. Food and drink abound, making it a culinary celebration as well. Let your taste buds do the celebrating as downtown taco joint Tacombi teams up with Mex and the City to present this feast. Chef Jason DeBriere and Margarita Carrillo Arronte design a special menu for the occassion, and all guests receive a copy of Arronte’s Mexico: The Cookbook. Mingle with a tequila in hand and check out the altar by Melissa Godoy Nieto and performance by Cristina Kaminis.

Sat., Nov. 1, 7 p.m., 2014



The Affordable Art Fair takes the experience of buying art away from Upper East Side showrooms and into the Tunnel, not far from the Lincoln Tunnel. But don’t let the proximity fool you. The previews alone — which feature an xogram of a rabbit in a magician’s hat and a cluster of glowsticks in a serene, screensaver-y landscape — promise arresting works of art from 50 local and international galleries. The Affordable Art Fair has gained enough traction since its founding in 1996 that it also takes place in Stockholm, Singapore, and Mexico City, among other cosmopolitan hubs, and has grown to include workshops like Collecting 101 and personal shopping sessions. Parents trying to decorate a new home can join their kids on a tour with the Art Fairy. But whether you’re ready to purchase a piece of art from $100 to $10,000 or not, the wares are ripe for browsing, and it makes for one sophisticated way to kick off fall.

Fri., Sept. 26, 11 a.m.; Sat., Sept. 27, 11 a.m.; Sun., Sept. 28, 11 a.m., 2014


The Undocumented Need Not Apply

Cinthia Gutierrez is well on her way to becoming a New York City police detective. The 18-year-old aspiring investigator just completed her first year of studies in the honors program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and she already has undercover experience — though not exactly the kind favored by the NYPD. When she was 12, smugglers bringing her family into the United States from Mexico gave her a fake ID and a cover story to get past the border guards.

“They told me, ‘If someone asks you what you’re going to do, say you need to go to the mall to buy new clothes,'” Gutierrez recalls. “I didn’t even know what the mall was.”

Gutierrez spoke no English when she arrived in New York in 2007 with her mother and younger brother. Six years later, she graduated near the top of her class at Staten Island’s Susan E. Wagner High School. Under normal circumstances, she would have had her pick of colleges, but as an undocumented immigrant, her options were limited. She is barred from receiving state or federal financial aid and is ineligible for student loans. And when Gutierrez graduates, she will be unable to work legally for most employers — including those in law enforcement, the career she desires.

“I still have to find a way to fix my status,” Gutierrez says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. There hasn’t been any legislation passed that will help me.”

With comprehensive federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, promising students like Gutierrez are stuck, waiting for states to enact their own measures that expand access to higher education. In the meantime, undocu–mented students are forced to rely on scholarships and a cobbled-together support network of family, teachers, mentors, and other allies.

“My parents don’t earn that much, I didn’t have a job at the time,” Gutierrez says, recalling her high school experience. “All I could think was that I wanted to go college. I just didn’t know how to do it.”

Gutierrez eventually found a way, obtaining a scholarship and stipend from John Jay and becoming one of the first recipients of a new, private scholarship specifically reserved for undocumented immigrants and first-generation citizens graduating from New York City schools. But she is more the exception than the rule.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, roughly 65,000 undocumented people graduate from U.S. high schools each year, including an estimated 3,600 students annually in New York. Nationally, only 49 percent of undocumented high school graduates move on to college, versus 76 percent of immigrants with lawful status and 71 percent for native citizens.

“A lot of students end up feeling hopeless,” says Jessica Rofe, a former New York City public school teacher and recent graduate of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law. Rofe cites the case of one gifted former pupil who “basically stopped going to school” after being discouraged from applying to college. “They end up leaving school because they’re told by guidance counselors — or by their parents, even — that college probably isn’t an option because of their immigration status.”

Nearly 5,500 undocumented students are currently enrolled at colleges in New York, which is one of 17 states that allow undocumented students who meet certain residency requirements to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. (Other states either expressly ban undocumented students or charge international tuition, which can cost more than triple the in-state rate.) But the state still denies undocumented students the financial aid that makes college attainable for many middle-class and low-income families.

States that have opted to help fund higher education for the undocumented have shown that even modest investments can pay significant, long-term dividends. A 2012 Fiscal Policy Institute study found states that granted in-state tuition to undocumented students experienced a 14 percent decrease in college dropout rates and a 31 percent increase in college enrollment. College graduates earn an estimated $25,000 more per year than their high school-graduate counterparts in New York state and pay about $3,900 more per year in state and local taxes. (New York’s undocumented residents currently pay nearly $700 million annually in taxes.)

“The more educated they are, the better it is for our workforce,” says State Sen. Jose Peralta, a Democrat from Queens. “It’s better for the city’s economy, it’s better for the state economy. It’s better for everyone.”

Peralta was a prime sponsor of the New York DREAM Act, voted down 30 — 29 by the state Senate earlier this year. Peralta blames two moderate GOP legislators — Sen. Phil Boyle and Sen. Kemp Hannon — for failing to appear at the Capitol when the votes were cast.

“They mysteriously disappeared,” Peralta says. “I’m pretty sure [Republican Party] leadership asked them to take a walk. ”

Hannon did not respond to messages requesting comment for this story. Boyle says he was attending his uncle’s wake at the time and would have voted no, regardless.

“I’m very sympathetic to the plight of the dreamers,” Boyle, who represents a swath of Long Island’s South Shore, says. “I know they’re in this situation through no fault of their own. But I have concerns about the use of taxpayer money in this regard.”

The State Education Department estimated that the annual cost of expanding the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to cover undocumented immigrants would be $627,428 per year. (The Fiscal Policy Institute, anticipating higher enrollment, predicted the figure would be closer to $17 million annually.) By comparison, the California Department of Finance estimates that approximately 2,500 undocumented students qualify each year for $14.5 million worth of state education grants.

Without access to financial aid, Cinthia Gutierrez works three days a week at a Mexican restaurant near her family’s modest home in Staten Island’s Port Richmond neighborhood. Her father earns decent money working construction, and her mother works as a housekeeper. All members of the family are undocumented.

Gutierrez’s father, José Manuel, explains in Spanish that he brought his family to the United States to provide a better future for Cinthia and her brother, a high school junior who wants to become a computer engineer. “The people who came here illegally, the majority work in construction, in restaurants with a minimum salary,” he says. “We can’t pay for college with the cost that high. If you have three kids, that’s a lot of bills.”

Easing the burden on the Gutierrez family is a $5,000 scholarship Cinthia received from the Ascend Educational Fund (AEF). Co-founded in 2012 by Julissa Arce, a former undocumented immigrant who gained legal status and ultimately landed jobs at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, the crowdfunded program distributed $63,000 among eight graduating high school seniors this year.

That was out of 350 applicants, and Arce laments the fact that dozens of qualified candidates who didn’t make the cut are left with little recourse when it comes to financing their education.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” Arce says. “I wish we knew of other [resources] we could send them to, but frankly we don’t know too many other scholarships where undocumented kids can apply. Other kids have more options, from financial aid to loans or a million other scholarships they can apply to.”

Arce dreams of eventually expanding AEF to cover all of New York state or perhaps other major cities with large immigrant populations, but for now, only residents of the city’s five boroughs qualify for the scholarships. Arce says the scholarship committee focuses on awarding money to students who might otherwise not be able to attend college.

“That’s something we’re very mindful of,” Arce says. “A lot of kids might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go part-time or take a year off and work and then go.’ Then life happens, and those things don’t end up happening.”

Though invaluable for some, private scholarships such as the AEF cover just a small percentage of the undocumented high school graduates who could potentially afford college if not for their immigration status. The only real remedy, Arce says, is federal immigration reform, and the DREAM Act has been stalled in Congress since 2010, when it was filibustered by Senate Republicans. The measure has the support of President Obama, multiple national education groups, and most top universities.

Gutierrez and other young, undocumented immigrants say that though they are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, they consider themselves American and share a common desire to make the most of life in their adopted homeland.

“Being American is not about where you are born and not even what papers you have,” says Jin Park, an 18-year-old undocumented student from South Korea, who was raised in Queens and will attend Harvard next year. “Being American is the desire to make something better of yourself and willing to be accepting of a lot of views and values and beliefs.”

For Gutierrez, who arrived in the United States a few months too late to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — President Obama’s 2012 executive order granting a temporary work authorization and reprieve from deportation for people who immigrated illegally as children — the risk is very real that she or her parents could be deported back to Mexico. Her parents say they abide by the laws and diligently pay taxes “to be right with the country” if a path to citizenship ever becomes available. Her father says half-jokingly that if Gutierrez does eventually become a police officer, he will be less fearful about receiving a traffic ticket that could set him on the path to deportation and leave the family without their main breadwinner.

“I guess if I put myself in the shoes of the people who are against immigration reform, I can see some of their points of view,” Gutierrez says. “But at the same time, a lot of the people here as undocu–mented people, we can do so much for the country if we are given the opportunity.”


You Will Cry, But The Amazing Catfish Is More About Finding Family Than Losing It

Claudia Sainte-Luce’s semi-autobiographical indie has a knack for subverting stereotypes without making a big deal about it.

Like the one that depicts HIV as solely the affliction of gay men, various needle-type junkies, and hard-living urbanites, or the other that suggests there’s no stable middle class in cartel-dominated, border-wild Mexico.

The diagnosed-positive individual here is Martha (Lisa Owen), a suburban single mother of four, and her progressing disease is very much a family affair. During one of her regular, intermittent hospital stays, she meets Claudia (Ximena Ayala, whose reserved performance is enchanting), a clever but directionless twentysomething of the combat-boot-wearing variety.

The bond between the women develops when Claudia moves into Martha’s home as a glorified nanny-cum-surrogate mother to her children, a heartbreaking foreshadowing of a role made increasingly clear as the matriarch’s health continues to deteriorate.

But Sainte-Luce primes the story with enough comedy to avoid total doom and gloom, like the scene in which the prepubescent Mariana (Andrea Baeza) gets drunk for the first time in a Wal-Mart–like superstore, and young Armando’s (Alejandro Ramírez-Muñoz) habit of taking his pet fish out for walks.

Make no mistake, The Amazing Catfish is a tear-jerker, but ultimately it’s more about finding a family than losing one.


How to Watch and Think about Alejandro Jodorowsky

Is it time, or will there ever be a time, to reevaluate Alejandro Jodorowsky? The appearance of his new film, The Dance of Reality, along with the doc Jodorowsky’s Dune, is spurring a rash of Jodo appreciations and reconsiderations (including, in all places, the Miami Beach Cinematheque, where I’m hosting a Jodo talk in June), and since at 84 the notorious charlatan has probably ejaculated his final mytho-anima warhead at us, the least we can do is attempt to account for his presence, and his perennial appeal. A unique cultural figure for almost a half-century, always dancing on the psychotropic fringes of cinema culture, Jodorowsky has never garnered a serious reputation as a filmmaker, but he’s never compromised his unmistakable arsenal of manias, either, and he’s never completely disappeared from view (despite distribution extinctions and industry skullduggery that would’ve buried someone less obsessive).

His remarkable career as a counter-culture provocateur and midnight-movie legend need not be revisited now, and neither, I think, do we need to shred his seven movies all over again for their very politically incorrect outrages, from strangely guileless exploitation of the handicapped to pure mucho-macho misogyny to the blithe butchering of hundreds of Mexican animals. (The rabbits alone…) Jodorowsky stands no chance of ever satisfying contemporary cultural norms in any broad sense, which is probably why those who love him love him dearly. He is a professional apostate, and has been from his first Panic Movement days. That has always been part of the problem – once you outgrow the need to shock your own mother, and break social taboos simply for the adolescent thrill of doing so, you naturally look upon those emotional strategies as being unsophisticated and juvenile. Which is a way of saying that I remember conceiving and outlining film and theater projects as a young teenage basketcase that were quite Jodorowsky-esque in nature. I recall them now as fondly as I recall the epic acne that mutilated my face.

Nothing can spell death for an artist quicker than having his work remind critics of ideas they themselves entertained as snot-nosed pre-adults. But perhaps this is also Jodorowsky’s grace note: He’s been the one cinematic voice who’s dared to retain what William Blake called “the auguries of innocence” – albeit spiked with freakshow giggles and buckets of cows’ blood. Is there no room in film culture for one unapologetic, megalo-mythic Ever-Teen? Formally, Jodorowsky’s films have always been stodgily assembled and sleepily paced, like pagan temple tableaux of limbless dwarfs, circus big tops, and baby hippos. But could their lack of narrative fluidity not also be a patience-demanding syntactical choice meant to ritualistically frame the movies’ totemic materials? Is Jodorowsky unable to make a dramatic narrative, or has he chosen instead to make films, like Kenneth Anger, that stand as mythopoetic objects in and of themselves?

Looking El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973), and Santa Sange (1989) this way doesn’t make them easier to watch, but it does reveal in their litanies of lumbering, Gomorrahic imagery an authorial strategy. You can see what he’s trying to do, even if it rankles you. But if that’s too rich for your blood, there’s still plenty of Jodorowsky set-pieces to reckon with, of a kind that moviemakers just don’t seem to have the walnuts to attempt anymore: just reconsider the section of The Holy Mountain depicting Conquest of Mexico as a public carnival show using live frogs and lizards (in costume), miniature pyramids, and very real explosives. That film proceeds through a lacerating takedown of Euro-Christian colonialism, ending up in a forest of ten thousand life-size plaster Jesuses and on the street, where the dynamic of occupying army vs. native peoples is played out as grotesque pantomine, under a platoon of crucified animal carcasses.

From there The Holy Mountain simply goes groggily, wearily bonkers, leaving the political symbology behind, but Jodorowsky has always been, amid his self-aggrandizing messiah scenarios and gratuitous everything, good for the occasional juggernaut movie moment. You may not treasure the full experience of Santa Sangre, say, but you remember the elephant’s funeral march. Even so, Jodorowsky’s world is all of a piece, and it has always seemed to me to be a hellish place to visit, a nightmare vision of Mexico (and by extension all of the Third World) as a post-civilized wasteland of cripples, corpses, fruitless rituals, and primal ruin.

As his films became more magical-realist and less apocalyptic (this includes 1980’s Tusk, an ostensible children’s film made in India that begins with one of its era’s most spectacular traveling shots), Jodorowsky’s imaginary landscape still retained a creepy After-the-Fall feeling, poisoned by human decadence and waiting to be swallowed by the abyss. I’m pretty sure this was not the filmmaker’s intention – Jodorowsky has always been on a mission to create new myths, and expand his audiences’ consciousness, and imagine new Christs and Buddhas, and save modern society from itself. He cast himself as a shaman time and again, and that’s what he wanted his film work to be, too – a path to enlightenment, to be employed alongside dope and Tantric sex and meditation and crazy costumes. But instead his films, including The Dance of Reality, are dreams of a world gone terribly wrong. El Topo remains famous as a stoner mind-fuck party movie, but it’s actually incredibly grim and disquieting; The Holy Mountain may be the most unpleasant movie ever made about salvation. Decades from now, that may be how Jodorowsky’s career is remembered – as one long, drunken, nauseating Day of the Dead parade.