The evening began a little after eight in the bar at Sanborn’s on Revolución where eight poets gathered for drinks and chisme (gossip). Around midnight one of them suggested we move on to El Lugar del Nopal, a café near Guerrero Park. When we arrived, the poets waded into the crowded, smoky room where, on a small stage surrounded by candles, a ponytailed folksinger strummed his guitar and sang in a throaty voice about love. People craned their necks to see the poets, some applauded, others rose from their tables to greet them as if they were celebrities. The poets slapped backs, kissed cheeks, shook hands. They ordered beer and red wine and plates of salty white cheese. It was difficult to talk above the music, but at the table beside mine two poets huddled close. They were discussing death, in particular that of a famous Tijuana poet who died some years ago of aids. I recognized the poet’s name and said I didn’t know he’d died of the disease. The two poets looked at me and smiled.
“It was,” said one of them, “an open secret in Tijuana, but we never mention it out of respect for him and his family. He was a great man. A tremendous talent. He doesn’t deserve to be spoken about in that way.”
I suggested that perhaps there was no shame in dying of aids.
“Maybe,” said the poet. He sipped his glass of Chilean wine. “But in Mexico we still believe in secrets.”
Tijuana’s literary society is small and incestuous and, like all small, incestuous societies, doesn’t keep its secrets for long. Unless you are de afuera, an outsider. If you are an outsider you may be treated with caution, but even then, it’s only a matter of time before the web of allegiances and jealousies — who was married to whom, or who slept with whom, or who denounced whom as an “embittered has-been” and at which drunken party this happened — is revealed to you. If you are de afuera, you learn these secrets piecemeal, over the course of many evenings, over many nights at El Lugar del Nopal, over many glasses of wine, and during long walks through the city at night.
“You still have manners” is what I told poet Francisco Morales when, during a long walk through the city at night, he asked what I made of the Tijuana poets I’d met. “You’re what Americans must have been like 30 or 40 years ago.”
I was referring to the poets’ reticence, their modesty, their reluctance to divulge personal information immediately, their hospitality and generosity, and their need to divide themselves into close-knit, antagonistic groups and cliques. The level of animosity was striking and seemed another kind of old-fashioned formality — the poets didn't think of themselves as a "family" or "community."
"Well," sighed Morales, "we aren't, after all, barbarians."
Morales sighs often. Fifty-nine years old, he’s concerned with health and mortality. His prostate bothers him. He’d pulled a muscle in his thigh while tamping down the earthen floor of the Rosarito beach house he’s building with his 80-year-old father. Early that day, Morales and his father had watched the Coast Guard try to save a fishing boat that foundered in heavy surf a hundred or so yards offshore.
“The boat capsized. My father and I watched the whole thing happen. The Coast Guard kept trying to turn the boat over. They threw out many lines. But the surf was too rough. They tried and tried. When the boat finally washed ashore, it was empty. But where were the fishermen? Drowned. The boat was completely empty. The fishermen must have died within sight of the shore. Imagine that.”
Morales tightened the blue wool scarf around his neck. A poet should always be conscious of death. Always. And you, young man, should always wear a scarf. it's the cold damp air that makes people sick."
Morales often wears a scarf and always a hat. He is a small man, thin, his mustache shot through with gray. His eyes have a certain intensity. He drinks only beer, never wine, because the sulfites in wine, he says, are “very bad for the prostate.” He has spent much of the past 20 years walking around Tijuana.
- I’ve sighed so often
- On the paths that form
- Your skeleton, O city,
- That you could recount my biography,
- Betray all my excesses,
- My disillusion, my anxiety, my pretension.
- — La ciudad que recorro, 1986
Morales chose the city as his subject because one day he found himself without a car, and so he began to walk. Of course, back then, Tijuana was much smaller. It had only one centro, or downtown. Its urban life was concentrated in a compact area, which Morales came to know well. Little by little, the city began to reveal its patterns and discontents. Morales became interested in the “gray people,” the average, workaday men and women he saw on the street, waiting at crosswalks, at bus stops. He wondered what thoughts and stories lived behind the weary faces.
“When you walk, you see the world in detail. In a car, the people you pass are a blur. You can’t really see or smell or hear or touch anything.”
To emphasize his point, Morales paused on the sidewalk and plucked a leaf from an orange tree growing in front of a small blue house. He crushed the leaf in his palm and held it to my nose.
“See what I mean?”
It was rather late, the streets were deserted. As we strolled along we came across four small children, laughing and talking as they dragged enormous suitcases into a dark alley.
“Did you hear them? They weren’t speaking Spanish. It was Nahuatl, or Mixtec, or some other indigenous language.”
Farther on, a stubby dog passed us carrying a rag doll in its mouth, and a little farther on we began to hear drums. Many of them. Following the sound we came to Guerrero Park, abandoned at that hour, except for under its large gazebo where a drum-and-bugle corps stood thumping and bleating in the cold night air.
Morales gestured, palm up, toward the noisy men as if to say they were precisely the sort of strange, serendipitous sight one encounters on foot, open and vulnerable to the world as only a pedestrian can be.
We walked the empty park, accompanied by the snappy drums and plaintive, out-of-tune bugles. Morales told me that his father, a builder by profession, was a talented singer of Argentine tangos. These songs about love and betrayal were, Morales said, his introduction to poetry, to the way words and rhythm could be used to tell stories. His father sang tangos all the time, every day, even continues to sing them now. But Morales’s mother, for much of her life, was deaf. She could hear neither her husband’s songs nor the voices of her eight children. Her frustrations, her family’s frustrations, made Morales all the more sensitive to language and prepared him for poetry’s discipline. From earliest childhood Morales faced the question, “How can I make myself understood?”
He said his greatest literary influence was an Italian writer, Cesare Pavese, who died in 1950, a suicide, at the age of 42. Although considered one of this century’s greatest Italian writers, Pavese’s work is not well known to Americans. To the extent that Pavese is known here, it is usually for his aphorisms — “One ceases to be a child when one realizes that talking about one’s troubles doesn’t make them any better” — that turn up in the “Quotable Quotes” features in newspapers. Morales says Pavese is better known in Mexico, that the Spanish translations of his works are “marvelous.”
Morales admires Pavese’s view-from-the-street realism, his use of colloquial language, and, above all, his devotion to Turin, a provincial city, culturally unimportant, far from the Renaissance glamour of Florence, or Venice, or Rome. Pavese loved Turin, wrote about Turin, wrote in Turin.
“You don’t have to live in a great city to be a great writer,” Morales said. “You can find everything you need to know, learn everything you need to learn, find all your subjects in one simple city. It doesn’t have to be the capital.”
“Capital” in Mexico has specific associations. All power is concentrated in la capital, Mexico City, the seat of the nation’s highly centralized government and home to its most important government-funded cultural institutions. The government controls almost all paper Mexico imports for the printing of newspapers and books. Almost all contemporary poetry published in Mexico today is published by one of the government’s cultural agencies. Scholarships, grants, and publication all rely on money that flows, sometimes circuitously, from the capital.
This concentration of culture and power in one city, and in one political party, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or pri, which has governed the country since the 1920s, has politicized the country’s arts and letters in a way incomprehensible to most Americans. To review a roster of Mexico’s most famous poets is to review a roster of diplomats, well-placed attorneys, economists, political analysts, activists, and even guerrilleros. Octavio Paz may be known to Americans as Mexico’s most famous essayist and poet, but to Mexican poets he was someone who either did or did not “sell his pen,” as Francisco Morales put it, to the PRI.
Paz — a “petty bourgeois” according to Morales — was the son of a political journalist and served 20 years as a diplomat in the Mexican foreign service. He was ambassador to India from 1962 to 1968 when he either did or did not, depending on whom you believe, resign from his post in protest over the government's slaughter of student protesters. (Morales believes Paz didn’t actually resign.) Jaime Sabines — a “bourgeois” according to Morales — was considered by many to be Paz’s unofficial successor. For a long time, Sabines was called Mexico’s “most beloved” poet. In the year before his death, however, he was more often referred to as an “odious political animal” and a “man blinded by official adulation.”
In a “caustic” interview Sabines gave on Mexican television in February 1998 he savaged the Zapatista uprising in his native Chiapas state. “Perhaps President Salinas is to blame for leaving any of [the rebels] alive,” Sabines said. He went on to attack Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, the Roman Catholic leader in the Indian regions of Chiapas, accusing him of providing guns and financial support to the guerrillas. The Mexican intelligentsia, who saw the Zapatistas as heroes battling the corrupt PRI, reacted with shock. It was hard to understand why: decades ago Sabines served two terms as a federal lawmaker for the PRI. In the early 1980s his own brother was governor of Chiapas and ruled the state, according to people on both the right and left, with an “iron fist.”
These facts, these stories, these allegations come to mind when Morales, or any educated Mexican, thinks of poets and poetry. These things are generally known. Politics is woven into the fabric of Mexican literary life. Rosina Conde, Tijuana’s best-known woman poet, now lives in Mexico City. Her family’s name is famously associated with radical politics and union activism. Morales himself spent much of his young adulthood as a left-wing political activist. Communist? Socialist? He refuses to say. He says only that he was anti-government. Back at El Lugar del Nopal, the romantic ballads sung by the ponytailed singer are of a distinct political cast. They derive from a 1970s style called nueva trova or nueva canción, popularized by Silvio Rodriguez, a Cuban singer-songwriter who has long used his art in the service of the Castro regime, who has even served in the Cuban government. (“The success of Silvio is the success of the revolution,” Castro announced in 1984.) Rodriguez’s songs are sung routinely at El Lugar del Nopal, and at El Perro Azul, another café frequented by artists and poets. One night as I sat outside El Perro Azul with Morales, a young singer inside the café recognized him and dedicated one of Silvio Rodriguez’s songs to “Morales, our great poet.”
Even writers too young to remember the Cuban Revolution come equipped with a political past. Generalísimo Francisco Franco was a real presence in the childhood of Alfonso Garcia, a 36-year-old poet who teaches communications and Mexican history at the Autonomous University of Baja California (uabc). Garcia’s maternal grandfather was one of 20,000 communist and Republican intellectuals who found refuge in Mexico after the Spanish Civil War. In 1963, Garcia’s grandfather opened El Dia, a bookstore on Sixth Street in downtown Tijuana. For decades El Dia was one of few bookstores in North America where you could dependably find a copy of Soviet Woman or China Reconstructs. Nowadays, out-of-date issues of these magazines gather dust on a low table near the store’s entrance. Handsome Spanish translations of William Bennett’s Book of Virtues sit beside the cash register.
“My parents and my Uncle Alfonso, who took over the store, weren’t particularly politically active,” says Garcia. “They didn’t have the convictions my grandfather had, but they did try to carry a broad range of political literature, and of poetry. They had more poetry than anyone else in Baja California. The bookstore became a meeting place for intellectuals, writers, poets. Rosina Conde used to go there a lot. So did Roberto Castillo and Francisco Morales, and when I was older and began writing poetry in a serious way, they helped me learn the craft. I grew up surrounded by books and writers. I loved reading. When I was little I loved Jules Verne, I loved The Three Musketeers. For my family it seemed natural that when I grew up I would work in the bookstore.
“My grandfather didn’t want me to be a poet. He said, ‘Outside of four or five people in all of Mexico, no one lives off their writing. Not even journalists.’ He was afraid my interest in poetry was self-indulgent, which it was when I was an adolescent. I imagine a lot of people first start writing poetry that way — you’re alone and nobody understands you; you write a love poem for your girlfriend. My parents, too, wanted me to do something more practical. They wanted me to study accounting, which would help in my running of the bookstore. But I kept writing poetry because it felt good. I never knew it was so hard.
“The 1980s were a very exciting time for the arts in Tijuana. The federal and state governments were spending lots of money on culture. The Centro Cultural opened. uabc started its humanities program, the first in Tijuana. Before, if you wanted to study literature, you had to go to Mexico City or Guadalajara. There was a great deal of literary activity in the city. It was very encouraging for a young poet like myself. In 1983 I entered a contest sponsored by the municipal cultural department and won my first poetry prize. My grandfather said, ‘Uh-oh. Now he’s really going to think he’s a poet.’
“He still thought of writing poetry as an excuse for doing nothing. He didn’t want his grandson to lead a bohemian way of life. He finally said, ‘If you’re going to write poetry, take it seriously.’ He played an important role in how I thought about my life as a writer. Despite everything that was going on culturally in Tijuana, I think I felt that the real world was elsewhere. I grew up with my grandfather’s stories about Spain, about Barcelona, about Europe. To me these seemed like fantastic, almost mythical places. In 1991 I went to Europe for the first time and finally saw the things my grandfather had described. I was finally able to compare the real thing with my grandfather’s dreams and memories. Spain was like this important relative I’d heard about all my life but never met.
“I don’t want to be romantic about the trip, but it did change me. In Europe you’re surrounded by history and you can see how things — culture, architecture, art — developed over time. Surrounded by all that, I began asking myself about Tijuana, the place I was from. I realized I didn’t know much about its history, about its writers. At that great distance I discovered that I thought I knew about this place, Tijuana. At that great distance I discovered I really didn’t know much about it at all. I came back from Europe wanting to know more about my birthplace. I wanted to learn more about the story of the city.
“I took many notes during my trip and from them I wrote 13 poems that were published in 1991 as a collection, Recuento de viaje, which I really don’t like anymore. But the collection did give me more of a sense of self-confidence. I felt less and less insecure about my poetry, and I had this new appreciation, this new interest in Tijuana. I began work on my master’s thesis at Iberoamericana University, which was essentially a literary history of Tijuana from the early 19th Century to the present. I also helped edit a book with Roberto Castillo, La Revolución tambien es una calle…, which was a collection of essays about the history and culture of Revolution Avenue. I thought at that time sociology would be a good tool for investigating the city, teaching myself about the city. But doing that book gave me a whole new idea of what might make potential subjects to write about in poetry.”
- The city hides from itself.
- Its true center
- Is concealed in odd turns, labyrinths,
- In flowery private patios
- Where time,
- a curious visitor,
- Stops for a while to rest,
- To sniff at the geraniums,
- The olive branches, the young green cactus.
— Tijuana entre la luz y la sombra, 1997
“I’m writing again about the city. Poems about the city, but I don’t know how I’m going to weave them all together. I’m interested in the city as a place. The street life. It’s like a dance. It’s like a festival. When I speak of myself in the text, I could be anybody. I’m trying to express what anyone might see — the way people on the streets speak, what they say, how they move. I feel a great deal of love for my city. For all the stories in my city. There are certain parts of town where you can see it from above, and the sight of it moves me. On the road back from Las Playas, or driving down from uabc, you can see all the city’s lights. Looking at it is like when you listen to a wonderful piece of music, and you think ‘Oh, how lovely. Oh, how beautiful.’”
I was interested in Garcia’s reference to “all the stories in my city.” His 132-page thesis had covered just about every poet and writer Tijuana had produced. When I ran into him one night at El Lugar del Nopal, I told him that I’d heard about the poet who’d died of aids. I asked him if it was true.
“Yes, it’s true. And it would hurt the poet’s family if you were to name him. Everybody knows he died of aids, but just because everybody knows something doesn’t mean they’d enjoy seeing it in print. It’s a question of privacy and respect. I’m not telling you what to write. You should write the truth. But you should remember that there is truth and there is truth, and maybe not everything that’s true needs to be said.”
Not long after I spoke with Garcia, a woman identifying herself only as a “very good, very old friend of Francisco Morales” called to say she’d heard I was interviewing Tijuana poets and that it was “imperative” we meet. She had “important things” to tell me about Morales, things neither Morales nor his fellow poets were likely to say. Would it, I asked, be easier to speak over the phone? No, she said. It would be better to meet in person. She suggested a day and a time and gave me directions to a park near her home in Bonita.
I found her, a trim, pretty, middle-aged woman, sitting at a concrete picnic table beneath a pepper tree. Despite the weak late-afternoon light, she wore large sunglasses, and as I approached the table she was carefully applying skin lotion to the backs of her hands. She asked me to please sit down.
Glancing at her watch, she began to tell me about herself. She had, she said, degrees in philosophy and literature. Her children, too, were well-educated. All three had studied at American universities. She worked for several private and governmental programs in Mexico that promoted literacy among the “working class.” She spoke in clear, rapid Spanish. Her articulation was precise. Words rolled off her tongue with great speed, each syllable given an emphatic little tap.
“But I didn’t invite you here to talk about myself. I wanted to tell you about Francisco. The only reason I told you some things about myself was so you would understand that I know what I’m talking about. I read. I read a great deal. I read a great deal of poetry. And Francisco is a real poet. Some of the others, well…”
She fluttered a hand in the air as if shooing away gnats.
“They’re not bad, you know. But they’re not really serious. And as far as the good ones are concerned, Francisco has edited and helped and influenced them. That is what I wanted to tell you. Unfortunately, Francisco would never tell you this himself. He’s too shy. He’s too modest. He doesn’t like to attract attention to himself. It’s a kind of claustrophobia, I think. I’ll tell you a story that nobody else would tell you. Several years ago a professor at San Diego State University made a video about, well, I don’t know precisely what. But the professor used three of Francisco’s poems, translated into English, as part of the video’s narration. When the video was finished, the university wanted to have a formal dinner in Francisco’s honor. Even the president of the university was going to come. Francisco was very nervous. He didn’t want to be the center of attention. I was told that for days he went back and forth on whether or not he was going to attend. Right up to the morning of the day the dinner was to be held. At the very last minute Francisco called the professor and told him he couldn’t come to the dinner.
“So, now that you know a little of what Francisco is like, you can understand why I wanted to talk with you. Francisco is a very, very fine poet. He is, as you say in English, ‘the real thing.’ And he has helped not only famous poets in Tijuana, but he has edited the work of some of the most famous writers in Mexico, like Federico Campbell. Most of them are too proud to tell you this. But they call him and read their poems to him and ask for his advice. He has a fantastic grasp of Spanish grammar and syntax. Even Roberto Castillo, who’s a very well-known Tijuana poet, gives his poems to Francisco, although I don’t know if Roberto would tell you that. His ex-wife, Rosina Conde, who lives in Mexico City, would tell you that Francisco has helped Roberto. She’s very honest.”
I said I didn’t know that Roberto Castillo had been married to Rosina Conde, that no one, not even Castillo, had ever mentioned it to me.
“Secrets, secrets,” she laughed and patted my hand. “Everybody has secrets. Francisco doesn’t tell you what an important and well-respected poet he is. Roberto doesn’t tell you he was married to Rosina Conde. There are probably many things people don’t tell you.”
I had, in fact, sat through a three-hour breakfast with Roberto Castillo in the restaurant at Sanborn’s on Revolución. Alfonso Garcia had accompanied him, and while the two sipped Bloody Marys, we spoke about poetry, but only in a general way. It was difficult to carry on a conversation. Every few minutes someone — a journalist, a professor, a student — interrupted us to greet Garcia and Castillo, to shake their hands. They congratulated Castillo on his new book of poems. They invited him and Garcia to parties. They spoke with enthusiasm about Castillo’s upcoming reading at the Centro Cultural.
Castillo’s scraggly beard, grimy John Deere cap, blue jeans, and denim vest give him a certain American redneck je ne sais quoi, which is, I think, Castillo’s point. Like people with a hand-washing compulsion, Mexico City’s literati have an obsessional fear of American culture. They suspect Mexican writers along the border of being contaminated by the United States, by English, by “Spanglish,” by rock and roll, by border life in general — by the sorts of influences Castillo loves.
“I come from the generation that grew up with the blues, with Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones,” Castillo says, drawling the word “Stones” with a grin.
Born in Tecate in 1951, Castillo writes poems about things that, by Mexico City’s standards, a “serious poet” shouldn’t write about. He writes poems about Tijuana’s Zona Norte and about the midgets and prostitutes and transvestites he sees there; he writes poems about cholos and graffiti and border slang; he writes about sex. (“Come closer,” says a female voice in one poem, “I want to drown in your arms. Come on! Enter my garden that’s the promised land, free the honey from my body, offer hickeys to my neck, suck my breasts as if they were peaches, melons.”) For English speakers familiar with Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse" ("They took you up, your mum and dad") or Anne Sextion's Ballad of the Lonely Masterbator," Castillo's poems may not seem shocking. But in Mexico, where AIDS deaths are "open secrets," blatant poetic references to hickeys and peach sucking can still raise eyebrows.
The Chicago Bar
- Between beers
- The woman dances
- With sweaty, bad-breathed men
- (The Norteño music
- Under the tables
- And escapes through the curtain
- That tries hard to be a door)
- An enormously resentful midget
- Approaches the woman
- And shatters a bottle in her face
— Blues cola de largato, 1985
Castillo’s most recent book, Menu rockero para compas y compitas, a collection of poems about the “hundred best rock-and-roll records,” is another example of Castillo turning his back to the south. Like Francisco Morales, Castillo asserts his independence by focusing his attention on the particular, the regional.
- Last night
- Along with the December rain
- The memory of Felipe,
- One of my grandfathers,
- Came into the house.
- Felipe, the one with the eternal garden.
- And I dreamt of him
- Thirty years younger
- Smiling, his face scarred by smallpox,
- His long lizard’s tail.
- And I dreamt of his
- Telling me about his political exploits,
- His arrival at the border,
- Journalism’s development in Tijuana
- His job as a bartender,
- His first wife, the adopted child,
- The interminable tequilas.
- This morning the dawn leaked blue
- And I don’t know how to explain to my daughters
- That they, too, are part of my grandfather.
— Cartografia del alma, 1988
For 37-year-old poet Elizabeth Cazessus, born and raised in Tijuana, the city’s proximity to the United States and American culture, its distance from the tradition and ritual in states farther south, placed her, she felt, in a cultural void.
“It took me,” she says, “a long time to find my way.”
Her father was a telegraph operator in Cabo San Lucas, at the very tip of Baja California. Toward the end of the Second World War, the company he worked for transferred him to Tijuana.
“At that time it was very, very easy to immigrate to the United States. America needed Mexican labor. Someone even offered my father a job as the manager of a large ranch in San Diego. The job even included a house. But my father turned it down. He was very proud of being Mexican, felt it was important to live here, and, anyway, he didn’t like the American way of life. He quit his job as a telegraph operator and started his own business, a cleaning business. He did pretty well. I’m one of seven children. He provided for us all. We had a pretty conventional, middle-class life.
“But my father wasn’t Catholic, and my mother was only nominally so. We weren’t raised with any Catholic traditions. We never went to Mass. My father felt it was important to expose us to many different things, different religions. He’s an interesting man. We were constantly being exposed to one religion or another. We even went through a Mormon period. Some Mormon missionaries came to our home and they loaned us this little movie projector so we could watch a movie about the Mormon religion. I don’t think any of us took the religion part very seriously. We kids were just excited to have this fantastic machine in our house. It was very exciting.
“While my father was open-minded about many things, he was the first person in my life who told me I couldn’t be a writer. Even when I was very young, I knew I wanted to write. He said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re going to starve to death! You’ll never be able to support yourself as a writer.’ Of course, later on, when I was in my 20s and started attending workshops, there were teachers, usually men, who told me that I couldn’t write. I had absolutely no self-confidence, and it was extremely difficult for me to even bring my poems to a workshop. The criticism in those workshops was very harsh. Many of my poems were about emotion, and Mexican men, even writers, can’t bear emotion. Mexican machismo makes men feel too little and women feel too much. Men here are terrified of female emotion.
“It was about this time in the early 1980s, when I was attending these workshops, trying to get a sense of myself as a writer, that I became involved with Afro-Cuban dance. The Mexican government sponsored a famous Afro-Cuban dance troupe from Cuba to travel throughout Mexico, giving workshops and performances. I loved it. Afro-Cuban dance is all about ritual, about myth, about religion. It gave me a sense of those things — things we didn’t have up here in northern Mexico. People here have left their traditions behind in whatever state they came from. Even the Indians here don’t keep their traditions. Afro-Cuban dance made me realize how you might incorporate many different things into art. I realized that I could incorporate poetry into dance and that by using them together I could say things that would be impossible to say using dance or poetry alone.
“Around 1985, I became involved with Colectivo Xochiquetzal, a feminist group named after the Nahuatl goddess of flowers, the first feminist group in Tijuana. It was a 12-woman collective, everyone participated in decision-making. Our purpose was to raise the public’s awareness of women’s issues. We held conferences and workshops. We organized the first women’s protest march ever held in Tijuana. We called for the nationalization of the pharmaceutical companies. It was a wonderful thing because it gave an opportunity for all kinds of women, not just intellectuals, to talk about their lives and the problems they encountered. Many of the 12 women who founded the collective later went on to hold important positions, government positions, and in cultural institutions. My experience with feminism was important to me because it gave me the means to defend myself, in my personal relationships and in my professional life — I was an elementary school teacher. In some ways feminism helped form my identity as a writer. There was no magic to feminism, and at this time I was looking for magic and I found it in poetry.
“I really didn’t consider myself a writer yet. I wasn’t ready for criticism. The workshops I’d participated in were too harsh. I decided to shut down, take some time off from writing and just read. Read and live my life. For several years that’s what I did. I lived my life and I read — Virginia Woolf, Octavio Paz, Sylvia Plath, Mexican women writers.” I also began reading the works of Fernando Benitez, a Mexican anthropologist who’s written extensively on Mexico’s Indians. He goes into great detail not only describing their customs, their rituals, their clothes, but the areas in which they live, the landscapes, even what the rocks on the ground look like. I was especially fascinated with his writings on the Huichol Indians in Jalisco State. In 1989 my boyfriend suggested we travel to Jalisco for Holy Week — an intense period of Huichol tradition.
“There I was, this essentially bourgeois girl, living a bourgeois life. I was an elementary-school teacher. I liked to go out dancing. On weekends I’d go out disco dancing with my friends — John Travolta–style disco dancing. And all of a sudden I was leaving to spend Holy Week with the Huichol Indians in Jalisco. It was an incredible thing to do. The Indians have their own territory, something like the Indian reservations in the United States. They have their own government. Their own laws. You can’t just show up and say, ‘I’m here to watch your rituals.’ You have to get permission from the Indian ‘governor’ to enter the reservation, you have to take him a present. We took him tequila.
“It was like entering into another world, but it was Mexico. I am a Mexican, but I’d never before been exposed to the things I was seeing. I was from the north, from Tijuana, where there were no rituals or traditions. On Holy Saturday we went to a church in a town called San Andrés Cohamiata. I don’t know what the church is named now, but long ago it was called La Gran Madre, the Great Mother. We entered the church at around sundown for the Easter Vigil. Everyone was singing. People were dancing before the altar. Indian songs. Indian dances. This went on for what seemed like hours. I lost track of time. At some point I became aware that someone had led a bull into the church. A bull. The Indians led it before the altar. Everyone was still dancing and singing, but the activity was becoming more intense. All of a sudden, they sacrificed the bull. They slit its throat open and the blood gushed out onto the floor.
“The Indians smeared the blood on their faces, on their mouths. Others took feathers and dipped them into it and went around to all the statues and pictures in the church and anointed them with a little bit of blood.
“I just stood there. In shock. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever witnessed. And it was then that it all came to me, this understanding of what I was seeing. This mixture of death and life. The Resurrection. The Sacrifice. Death and life intertwined. One of the greatest themes of Mexican culture. I understood it, really understood it, for the first time. And I understood that it was part of me, that, as a Mexican, this ritual and tradition were mine. These were my roots that I was seeing and experiencing. This was where I came from.”
Staggering out of the church at 2:00 a.m. on Easter morning, not quite sure how so many hours could have passed so quickly, Cazessus felt, she said, that she had at last found her way as a poet. For the next several years she worked to put what she’d seen and experienced into words. In 1994, Cazessus published the result, Ritual y Canto, an unbound folio of prose pieces and poems about Holy Week with the Huichol in Jalisco. She went on to develop a program of dance and music around Ritual y Canto, which she performed at cultural centers and universities throughout Mexico and at the Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe, Arizona. The success of Ritual y Canto encouraged Cazessus. She wrote more poems and gained broader recognition. She won prizes in the states of Baja California, Sonora, and Morelos. She was invited to New York and Arizona to read her work. Tijuana’s literary foundations awarded her more prizes. In 1998, Baja California’s Foundation for Culture and the Arts gave her a year-long grant to write a series of poems about migrant women in Tijuana.
“I interviewed about 30 women who’d come to the north from all over Mexico. I found them in bus stations, on the street, at centers for migrant women in Mexicali, Tecate, and Tijuana. I listened to their stories, transcribed what they told me. I tried to get a real sense of what they’d seen and felt. I’ve attempted to turn their experiences into poetry. It’s been a long and difficult project. I’m near the end of it, but I don’t know when it will be published.”
- I don’t know if this is called madness
- I’ve never come across these places before
- For three months I cried out and no one answered
- I ate what I could find in empty jars from beggars’ shelves
- Life has lost its contours
- I don’t know if I’m dead or alive
- I no longer distinguish between human ferocity and misery
- And the faith that one day brought me to the border
- I’m alone and have lost my footprints
- I don’t know if I should go out and search for myself
- Or return to all I’ve lost
- My hometown is called Zamorra
- When night falls I hope
- It takes with it whatever is left of me.
Eduardo Arellano’s arrival in the north was less arduous. Unlike Elizabeth Cazessus who went south, deeper into Mexican history, to discover her way as a writer, Arellano felt more creative in the border region, a place where a “certain lightness of being converges and overflows with forgetfulness and curiosity.” He found at the border a sense of hope he lacked in his native Zacatecas. Tall, thin, bearded, Arellano has angular features and dark, deep-set eyes. His is the kind of face El Greco painted. He looks like a Spaniard: Zacatecas is very much a colonial city. But in Arellano’s Return to the North by Another Means, an impressionistic essay published in 1992, he doesn’t discuss what he left behind — his hometown’s history and traditions, its majestic colonial architecture, its libraries with their collections compiled over several centuries. He talks only about what coming north meant to him. He stands with his back to the past, which, at the border, seems like “useless treasure.” After all, he says in his essay, a poet needs only small influences from the enormous past — “a conversation, a confrontation, an act of love, a poem, a lazy afternoon.”
In Full Desert
- Still water yields images,
- Blurred memories,
- Pure Gold.
- Water crushed in earth
- Without breath
- Without depth’s capacity for disturbance
- Almost dead
- Almost a mirror’s hard surface.
- Water gazes upon red circles
- An intensity of dust and light
- Blending without end
- In waves of all-conceivable space
- Heat’s aura,
- Rising over things and beings,
- To abolish them
- In a white burst of reflections —
- Nothing moves — They collide with glances,
- Escape the skin’s touch,
- The taste of lips.
- The body vanishes behind its senses.
- Only sorrow allows sight to survive.
- Raising its handful of figures,
- Silhouette of silhouettes Solitudes
- Take flight in flames
- Not an engulfed pyre:
- Fire of an embrace that is master of its impulse,
- And I direct it toward life’s great mirror.
- All the illusions of air,
- Always farther,
- Understand us,
- Allow us to see we aren’t the constant space
- Through which we wander.
- And if space should desire continuance
- And expansion,
- So as to know itself in another dimension,
- With a vane of light,
- Spun by color.
- Now there is no refuge in space —
- It’s no one’s fault in the end —
- The body with its night
- Loses itself in the hall of mirrors.
- Lost in thought, the y lieave with whatever shadow.
The body learns to burn above the sand.
— Un camino de hallazgos, 1992
In the apartment near downtown Tijuana that Arellano shares with his girlfriend Rebecca, books stacked seven and eight volumes deep cover the dining room table. More stacks crowd the floor of his small office. Books in Spanish, French, and English. Poetry, philosophy, literature, political and literary theory, history, science. Jean-Paul Sartre. Roland Barthes. Cervantes. Hemingway. Faulkner. Paperbacks, hardbacks, and several volumes of Thomas Mann, printed in Madrid and bound in soft leather — gifts from Arellano’s father’s own library in Zacatecas. Arellano teaches literature at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Tijuana. The university included three of his poems in an anthology of 20th-century Baja Californian poets it published in 1992. He works six days a week, teaching five classes, grading papers, and tending, as all professors must, to the administration of his department. Arellano and Rebecca can’t afford a telephone.
In the United States, someone who reads Sartre in the original, who speaks knowledgeably about Latin American, Spanish, and American contemporary poetry, who has read almost all of 20th-century Europe’s greatest novels, is, generally, someone who can afford a phone. In Tijuana, professors like Arellano, like Roberto Castillo, like Alfonso Garcia, make four to five dollars an hour. For most of Tijuana’s poets, a Thursday night at El Lugar del Nopal — a bottle of Chilean wine, a plate of cheese — is an extravagance. Alfonso Garcia teaches 36 hours a week. Almost all his remaining time is spent grading papers, preparing lectures, and meeting with students. Roberto Castillo manages a similar schedule. While traveling to and from work, if Castillo has an idea for a poem he scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. The actual composition has to wait until he can cobble together enough free time to sit down and write. On holidays, on three-day weekends, Castillo will work around the clock writing and revising poems. He’s produced entire books of poems in 72 hours.
Alfonso Garcia says he writes at night if he’s not too tired, after he gets home from work, which is usually after 10:00 p.m. He says it’s quieter then. He appreciates the silence. And while it’s not unusual for a poet or a writer to seek solitude, whenever I thought about what these Tijuana poets told me of their lives, they seemed particularly isolated. “We have no idea,” Roberto Castillo said, “of what other poets are writing in Yucatán or Chihuahua or Quintana Roo.” There’s no Mexican equivalent of Poetry or Poets & Writers or American Poetry Review or the New Yorker. Unlike America’s Pushcart Prize anthology and the annual Best American Poetry, Mexican anthologies are often as not published by universities and tend to be regional. The only Mexican publications that can expose a poet to a national audience are Nexos and Vuelta, literary magazines published and edited in Mexico City by zealous partisans of, respectively, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. They serve the interests of the capital’s well-connected literary elite.
This state of affairs is unlikely to change in our lifetime. The Institutional Revolutionary Party may someday be deposed, but Mexico City will always remain the capital. Unknown to the capital, Francisco Morales, wool scarf knotted at his throat, will continue to wander Tijuana’s dusty streets searching, like the other poets, for the poems concealed in this small corner of the world. The poets will meet on Thursday nights at El Lugar del Nopal and drink Chilean wine. Eduardo Arellano, in his fortress of books off Seventh Street downtown, will stay up till all hours with Cervantes and Neruda and Antonin Artaud. Time will pass. To live and write far from Mexico City, away from its diplomat-poets and cultural bureaucrats, is, for a Mexican poet, to live and write in secret.