Bricks and Mortars

Opium fields, thug soldiers and banditos on horseback

By Lawrence Reichard | May 10, 2018

Often missing from the immigration debate is the personification of immigrants, who are mostly normal, everyday people. They live, love, work, raise children and deal with problems. Many are from Latin America, and I hope these Latin America travel stories will help give them a human face.

In early 1997, I was in the chic Mexico City neighborhood of Zona Rosa when I saw a woman selling small framed photos on the sidewalk, and I fell into conversation with her. The black and white photos were primarily of Mexico's wide variety of people, and they were good. They were reminiscent of the great black and white photos taken of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

Her name was Monica. She told me she was going the next day to the state of Guerrero, and she invited me to go with her.

Guerrero is an interesting place. It has never really been subjugated by any government. It's a remote, mountainous and very rural part of Mexico, and it's famous for a long history of outlaws, rebellion and resistance to outside rule, or any rule. Of course I wanted to go.

We rode a bus 350 miles to the Guerrero town of Ometepec, population 50,000, and we arrived on market day. The streets were jammed with vendors of all manner of produce and animals. We spent the night in the home of a local doctor, a friend of Monica who was active in the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD), a social democratic party that has come up short in two questionable presidential elections. The good doctor did his best with the limited resources of the national health service.

The next day we rode in the back of a pickup truck several hours over dirt roads to a small village high up in the mountains. The village had no electricity and no phone service. The government had put in a pay phone that ran on solar energy, but it no longer worked. If a person of northern European extraction had ever been in the town, it had been a while. All the town's children followed us everywhere we went, and they were fascinated by our camping equipment. The villagers let us sleep on the floor of the town's lone church.

A villager offered to show us his poppy cultivation. We agreed, and we walked off into the mountainous countryside. We walked up and down an ancient trail that ran on into the neighboring state of Oaxaca, and eventually we came to a ravine where the man grew his poppy plants. He showed us how he harvested the poppies' thick sap by scraping the outside of the poppies with a common everyday razor. With the collected sap he made little balls the size of ping pong balls, which he sold to a man who periodically came to the village on horseback.

The man told us he regularly moved his operation, hoping to avoid military foot patrols. But the soldiers still managed to find him, and when they did, they would destroy his plants and march him off to jail hours away. But after a while that proved too much hassle for the soldiers, so they switched to simply beating him up whenever they found him and his plants. "But what am I to do," the man said. "I can make five, ten times as much growing poppy as I can growing corn, and I have a family to feed."

The villagers were all quite short, every one of them, and their diet was thoroughly dominated by corn. An egg here or there, a rare can of tuna. I saw no evidence of anything else.

Without electricity, the village was pitch black at night. They used candles, we used headlamps. The first evening a village elder came to see us. A village resident was going blind, he said, and no one knew why or what to do. He wanted me to examine the woman. But I know very little medicine, I said. The man assured me I knew more medicine than anyone in the village and he beseeched me to examine the woman. I agreed.

She was indeed going blind. Her eyes didn't look well — they were fogged over. I had noticed Pepsi for sale in the village's only bodega. "Do you drink Pepsi?" I asked the woman. She said she did. I told the village elder she might be going blind from diabetes. The villagers were all Mixteco Indians, and they had never been exposed to refined white sugar until the pickup truck started bringing in Pepsi. I said the entire village should stop drinking Pepsi, and that the woman should go see a doctor in town. And I told the village elder they should get seeds in Ometepec and grow a wider variety of crops and diversify their diet. He thanked me.

The next day Monica and I walked to a small river and were swimming in it when a shower of dangerously large rocks started reining down on us. Someone was throwing rocks at us from behind boulders on the steep incline that rose up from the river's shores. After a few harrowing minutes the attack stopped and we escaped unharmed, and the next day we rode back to Ometepec in the pickup truck.

On the way back to Ometepec, Monica and I shared the back of the pickup with a few Mixteca women, and at one point the women talked about the pickup truck being robbed by a group of banditos on horses a week before. Banditos on horseback, in 1997. When we got back to Ometepec, I asked the pickup driver why he had never told us about the banditos. He smiled and said, "I wanted the fare."

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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