Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Arturo, Travel from Jiutepec to Sacramento

"I was really young, maybe five when I went to the United States. My sister was three. My mother was maybe twenty four. There were some problems between my mother and my father. We were living with my grandparents, and my dad knew where she was. I don't know when she decided to leave, but one day she said to us: 'Okay, let's go!' I remember riding in the bus for four or five days, staying in the houses of people we didn't know, who charged us for staying with them and transporting us, polleros, coyotes. It was tough for me, I was uncomfortable. We traveled across the border to Sacramento.

"There's something that always comes back to me when I try to remember this trip. I have no idea where we were, or anything, but we were all hidden in a dumpster. I was carrying a Transformer in one hand, and I dropped it into trash. One of the
polleros must have been an okay guy, because he picked up the toy and gave it back to me. Maybe he wanted to keep me from crying, to keep us from being caught.

"We went through at a place where there were a lot of drainage pipes and ditches. I don't know if we were in Tijuana, or where. I remember going into to these pipes, crossing the border, and they put us in a car and drove us to Sacramento.

"We stayed in Sacramento a year, in a place where people on all sides were immigrants. I didn't know where all of them came from, what countries, but when the patrol cars would come by we would take off running. The adults would put us kids in boxes, close the lids, and put shoes on top. They would say 'Don't move, don't cry, don't breathe.' I remember this very clearly. I also remember going out to look through the trash for toys.

"We were staying in a house with my mother's blood relatives, but they here horrible to us. They'd come from Mexico too, but they looked down on us. There's real trouble with accpetance, between groups of recently arrived immigrants and those who've been in the US for some time. They treated us really badly, no help, nothing. Our own people turned their backs on us. It was so bad, after we came back to Mexico we never spoke to that family again.

"Once my mom tried to get me into a school, but it didn't work out. I stayed with people we knew, but it was pretty tough. They would see my mother off, then say 'Go stay out on the patio, until she comes back.'"

I asked Arturo if he felt like this year in the US made improvements in his family's situation when they returned to Mexico.

"I guess I feel like it was harder. I spoke a little English. But if I'd stayed in the US I think I would have lost my identity, forgotten my town, my community, my sense of tradition. Some Mexicans ho have lived in the US for a long time say to me, 'I don't remember how to speak Spanish anymore, that's why I have to speak English.'

"I don't feel like the US lacks identity, but I wonder if Mexican identity and American identity have anything to do with one another. I know there is some common ground, but sometimes they seem like they don't go together very well. Some people up in the US think of Mexico as a country of poor people, like we're all fucked. I wonder what it would be like if I went there, if I want to go at all, if they'd think of me as an

Arturo is now 22 years old. He is completing the necessary exams to become eligible for admission to the National Center of the Arts in Mexico City. His artistic focus at the moment is drawing, and the sketches I have seen are heavily crafted portraits within large areas of clean space. Arturo's attention to detail and volume in his drawing are both exquisite. He select the image below for inclusion with this text.

Arturo works at the Casa Vecina, helping with the planning and installation of
exhibitions, and he enjoys this work because of the number of interesting people he meets at the center and beneath it, in La Bota.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"Un Barrio De Sombras"

"Yes, yes, she should take him to see Tepito."

Night was creeping in around the table where we were finishing a late dinner and a few beers, and I was beginning to drift in and out of our table's conversation. I hadn't really slept since leaving Olympia four days earlier, and the conversation was roaming wildly through topics as diverse as an apocryphal inner-city cult to Santa Muerte, and the enormous fanzine Siegfried Kaden had drawn in Sharpie all over a local gallery's walls. I lost track, looking out onto the street to a group of young men who were cutting open garbage bags in search of recyclables, under the patient gaze of a policeman. When I listened in again, I realized I was the topic of conversation, and my hosts were saying, "Yes, she should take him to Tepito." They sounded like they were daring one another to do something foolish, their eyes were a little wild. "No, it will be fine if he goes with someone who knows. It won't be dangerous, not really." A moment later I was holding a cellphone, and on the other end a young woman named Yutsil Cruz was saying "Please tell me a bit more about what you are doing, and tell me what you are hoping to find in Tepito." I babbled as best I could, certain that I wanted to see Tepito, whatever it was. The nervous energy in my hosts' voices when they said the name was enough of a reason for me. After a few moments of awkward explanations, Yutsil agreed to meet me at ten, the following morning. Glancing at the clock, I realized that I had less then eight hours to sleep and get ready. "Good," I thought, uneasily, "I won't have a chance to reconsider."


Tepito, I later learned, is the stuff of legend. It is said that Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor of Tenochtitlan, surrendered to Hernán Cortés in a place very near the center of Tepito, offering his own knife to the Spaniards in a request for an quick death, which Cortés eschewed in favor of torture and humiliation. From this point on Tepito's legend has grown.

The market has roots that go back, some say, "to the time of the gods," but during the seventies and eighties it attained enormous economic stature as a source for fayuca, illegally imported goods from the United States and abroad. During the decades when foreign imports were either heavily taxed or completely prohibited, Tepito emerged as the only place most people could afford to buy brand name clothing and electronics, as well as other highly desirable products from the other side of the US-Mexico border. The goods themselves arrived in large truckloads through border checkpoints that were adequately subsidized by smuggling organizations with strong bases on both sides of the border. There is a tale told that during this period the officials in Mexico City wanted to shut down the markets in Tepito, but its commercial allies in Texas were so heavily invested in the illegal merchandise there that they stepped in and prevented the government from enforcing its own trade laws.

Now, under NAFTA, there is no such thing as fayuca, and barely such thing as a trade barrier. Violating copyright law has become the new shortcut to accumulation, and the name for Tepito's bounty has been changed to pirata. Through the crowded pathways of Tepito's markets and stalls the wealth of the world's media production is offered up on stacks of hand-labelled compact discs, stored in photocopied sleeves. Complete collections of obscure anime series, British sitcoms, Scandanavian pornography, and Mexican norteñas lie side by side in neatly categorized piles. Booths sell counterfeit sneakers alongside genuine imports, and their vendors are happy to discuss the minuscule distinctions between the real and fake. In the next stall digital cameras and plasma-screen televisions are sold at cut-rate prices with no guarantee that they are indeed the brand they appear to be. A relatively recent development in Tepito is the sale of used clothing, imported from the saturated thrift-store market in the United States and sold by the pound in Tepito to distributors who resell the clothing in stores and market stalls through Latin America. Meanwhile, the fairy tales and rumours continue apace--that technicians in Tepito were the first to crack the piracy protection software on video games, or that they were the first to design the notorious chip that allows Playstions to run copied video games and play pirated films. As in the days of fayuca, Tepito still owns up to its mythical stature as an unacknowledged but unsinkable contestant in the battle between socio-economic heavyweights.

But Tepito's myth extends into dark places as well. The same corridors that offer a haven from the demands of governments and film studios also offer a place for illicit economies to distribute their product. It is rumoured that deep within the maze of Tepito there is a private firing range, where prospective clients can try out an assortment of weapons before making their final selection. Other booths offer prescription drugs and more "alternative" substances to those who know how to find them, and for every hundred youths shopping for music and clothing there is a bedraggled addict cruising the stalls in search of a stray purse or cellphone which might be traded for a sachet of heroin, only to reappear on the sale racks later as a discount item, a real steal. Some deserted eateries within the markets do not actually serve food, but offer more intimate company in private facilities above ground level. In accordance with the ruthless calculations of the open global market, it is certain that absolutely everything that can be counted, measured, copied, bought, sold, or stolen, there is a place for it in the stalls of Tepito.

Yutsil met me the following morning, and led me to an open doorway where a man was selling fresh fruit juices. We boarded a bus, and as we bounced along she explained that as an artist, she has always sought to create a social field within or around her work. When she was invited by a gallery within Tepito to do some work with them, she decided to set herself as a guide, extending an open invitation to artists and friends for a walk through Tepito, and a chance to meet some of its most prominent citizens.

The streets blurred outside my window, and I was concentrating on Yutsil and finishing my carrot juice. Then, quite suddenly, Yutsil said "Here we are!" and began weaving her way through the crowded bus and and out into the busy street. Blinking in the sun, I sheepishly asked "Is this really it?" After all of the hushed conversations and sidelong glances, stories of cults and freewheeling criminals, Tepito appeared to be pretty similar to the rest of Mexico City. Yutsil led me quite quickly along a wide, crumbling street filled with speeding buses and taxis, lined on both sides with awnings and racks of cheap merchandise. The most apparent danger was from taxis shouldering past within inches of my feet. Still, I was nervous, and I slid my backpack underneath my shoulder in some vain effort to protect it from being grabbed by an opportunist. Perhaps I was being needlessly cautious--I later heard a story that Tepiteño merchants are known for actively policing their own stalls, whenever pickpockets begin to have an impact on the pace of business. When they find someone stealing, they chase him down, shave his head, take his shoes, and then send him along through crowded streets to find his destiny.

Yutsil turned sharply, leading me into a maze of shops and bodies, then around a corner into a quiet courtyard. There was a sign on wall that read "Association of Established, Partially Established, and Fully Mobilized Businesses from the Barrio of Tepito." I'm translating pretty loosely, here, especially with the word ambulante, which is specifically used to describe the practice of vending wholesale and pirated goods from a portable stand set up on the side of the road. If one were feeling poetic, ambulante might be translated as "trafficker in the ephemeral".


The office that opened onto the courtyard contained five or six neatly spaced desks, behind each of which was seated an older man, busy with papers and letters. In the middle of the room, a group of uniformed children were eating lunch and listening to a story before returning to their school for the afternoon. We were here to meet Alfonso Hernandez, the founder of the Centro de Estudios Tepiteños and self-assigned historian for the neighborhood. His office is filled with books, in stacks, including several unique editions of a few of Benjamin's lesser known works, photocopied in their entirety and bound with wire. A special note on the cover of these books reads: "Limited Edition, Printer's Guild of Tepito". Alfonso works as a guide and liaison for the various anthropologists and UN fieldworkers who prowl through Tepito's markets, and he has been invited to discuss his work at conferences in London, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Bogotá, and elsewhere. "They all want to know how we do it," he told me, "How we can exist without becoming part of a larger governmental structure."

In conceptual terms, Tepito has persisted for decades as an working space wherein Mexico's governmental authority has almost no direct control over the lives of Tepito's citizens. The state's principal modes of expression, from the administrative to the carceral, are either ignored or denied entry into the complexity of Tepito's economy, warded off by the dynamism and efficiency of its rhizomatic self-organization. The expansive reach of its reputation for danger and lawlessness is a good signal of Tepito's success as an alternative to the societal structures beyond its outer edges--that which is incompatible with the fabric of established institutions and orders appears within those orders as unapproachable, inadvisable.

The men seated in neatly spaced desks outside of Alfonso's office, I can now presume, were a few Tepito's sixty-two prominent lideres, who together form something like a council of representatives for the merchants and residents of Tepito. Their posts are awarded according to their experience, success, and prominence, and the degree to which they defer to the best interests of their constituency is not clearly defined. There are many in Mexico who suggest that this system of government is more closely based on a Sicilian model than an Athenian one, but they are not acknowledging the genuine complexity of the situation.

Between 1972 and 1982, in turn of militaristic city planning that united twelve governmental agencies, the city's "Plan Tepito" was unveiled. In essence, the plan eliminating all existing structures and rezoned the area for the light commercial and low-density apartment residences more in tune with the modernizing image then being encouraged by Mexico's dialog with the World Bank. The residents of Tepito, recognizing the threat levelled at them, petitioned alternative plans from student architects and international artists. These invitations resulted in a much elevated visibility of the community as it stood, winning design prizes and inspiring sympathetic civic projects as far away as Lyon, and succeeded in putting a stop to the city's plans.


Today, along the main street of Tepito's markets, a long stretch of elevated shops has been built over the ground level, doubling this area's capacity. As we walked past, Yutsil pointed these structures out, saying "They built this, the merchants did, with their own money, and their own plans. They never got permission from anyone. It shouldn't be here, but it is." When I asked how the construction of this structure was related to the sixty-two lideres, Yutsil confirmed my suspicion that they would have been instrumental in the planning and execution of this project. When I pushed for details, she told me she knew almost a little as I did. The structure of Tepito's preferred administration, it seems, is a bit more nebulous than its dominant counterparts.

I asked Alfonso about child care, hoping to find out about a specific example of community organization. Alfonso shook his head, saying, "Look, here all networks are informal. Our past experiences have taught us to atomize our organizations, in order to prevent any sort of political control. Having an identifiable hierarchy would simply attract the attention of the police." He hadn't really answered my question about childcare. I remembered the table full of uniformed children eating lunch and listening to a story, and behind them the row of leaders planted in their desks.

"Here, you won't encounter illiteracy. In Tepito we are in contact with the greatest technologies of the entire world. But in the schools they are teaching unnecessary things. They are preparing the children for a kind of life they will never have." When Alfonso said this to me, I was immediately struck by the conflict between the two models of citizenship available to a child in a neighborhood such as this. One, the white-collar, mortgage-paying worker who fills their apartment with laptops, hybrid cars, designer jeans. The other, a technology savvy, freewheeling entrepreneur thriving within the blinding pace of business in a world of piracy, cloning, and informal rent agreements in neighborhoods on the edge of legality. The prior struck me a fantasy justification for the advance of neoliberalism, the latter as its unmistakable reality. Illegal, improvised, opaque, according to unwritten agreements and unmistakable necessity, the citizens of Tepito have crafted a new form of government for themselves. The challenge they face is to retain their hard-won position, in the face of transnational accords and corporate development schemes that, by dearth of positive effects, appear to simply be the most successful form of organized crime in North America.

"Tepito's identity is found in a balance between its charisma and its stigma," Alfonso said. "It has a history of being the barrio that fights for its place, that defends itself in a city that would like it to disappear. We have learned from the example of cities like Los Angeles, where the process of urban renewal shuffles the poor from one place to another according to the whims of real estate speculators. But in Tepito we have never raised political banners. We have defended ourselves with artistic and cultural expressions, which exist outside of the criteria used by our government. Our charisma is in our culture of poverty, and it overcomes the stigma of our marginality, organized crime, and addiction. To one another we say 'A barrio without shadows instills no respect, and so we spread rumors, we make our shadows darker.'"


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Conversations at Casa Vecina

In the mid-eighties, the historical center of Mexico City was fast becoming a ghost-town. Low property values were fueling a massive takeover of the center's storefronts and houses, while the long-term families from the city's venerable streets began an exodus to the suburds and newer residential areas in distant parts of the city. The results were easy to see: throngs of day-visitors came in to fill the franchises and fast food restaurants, and in even the early evening the streets were empty, shutters closed and locked tight.

In an attempt to counter this, the Fundacion Centro Historico was established to recuperate the center as a living space for families and small businesses. Backed in part by the enormous and controversial power of Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim, the foundation embarked on a multi-faceted project to recover the historical center's community. Initially conducting psychological studies and establishing child-care centers, the foundation later decided to divide the city center into thematic corridors, in order to specialize its involvement in specific neighborhoods. It developed a technological corridor, an entertainment area, a small business area, and it selected a set of intersecting alleyways as the site for its "cultural corridor." Seeking to foster an artistic community, the city cooperated with the foundation in offering affordable lofts to young artists, renting spaces to galleries, establishing a small museum, and linking all of this to a nearby university. Also, the planners created a youth hostel for visiting art students called La Señorial, which is running and available to all.

Casa Vecina was conceptualized as a space to support community-focused art programs, and as a project to strengthen the relationship between long-term residents and newer arrivals. It aimed itself at a different audience other than existing consumers of conemporary art, seeking to draw in the grocers, restauranteurs, tailors and other full-time residents of te historic center. After a year of remodelling and planning, the Casa Vecina began its projects, opening its spaces to local and foreign artists, and to the community around its doors.

I spoke with Iván Edeza, the Casa's artistic director, about some of the strategies the center is using to make their programs available and accessible to the people of the surrounding community.


In the year since its opening, the Casa Vecina has been offering a variety of art classes to the children of the community. They decided that rather staying within traditional genres of art teaching, they would offer thematic classes like puppetry, pottery, and theater. "We gave workshops without specifying what kind of 'art' we were doing," Iván said. This summer, they are planning to offer a course in making movies to neighborhood adolescents, and then to exhibit their films in a community film festival held at Casa Vecina and nearby locations.

Initially, these classes were offered to the community free of charge, but the center began to sense that parents were sending their children to workshops simply so they would be out of the house, rather than out a genuine enthusiasm for making art. Children were arriving without focus, goofing off, and making it difficult for instructors to ruin their workshops. "Adding a small fee," Iván told me, "made all the difference," and since this time they've had a drop in attendance but a great deal of improvement in the interest level of the students who attend.

"The important question to ask," Iván said, "Is whether art is really for everyone. In truth, I don't think it is for everyone. But I don't think this distinction is made according to one's affluence, but according to the level of one's interest. I think my job is to make a new opportunity available, and to put it out there for people to enjoy, if they wish. Museums are so cold, they require so many codes just to get through the front door. We are making a few minor changes, to try to make art more accessible."

El Callejon

Out in front of the Casa Vecina is a patch of freshly lain tiles and paving stones, embellished on one side by some iron stumps to stop cars from passing through. When the Casa Vecina was first opened, this alleyway was a throughfare for taxis and speeding motos, lined on both sides with trash. One of the center's first projexcts was to collec siognatures and arrange funding to stop traffic through the tiny street. It led the community in a series of work parties to clean the street, tear up the old asphalt, and intall the new pavement. Their hope was to make it a place where children could play, and on most afternoons there is are at least a pair of kids kicking a ball back and forth. On the afternoon that I was visiting, Casa Vecina's director Antonio Calera Grobet was standing outside, locked in conversation with several other members of te center about how and where to install a bicycle rack. In a city reknowned for its pollution and pettty street crime, the amount of cycle communitng that occurs is negligible, but their plan is wonderful in its optimism and assertiveness.

"Un Espacio Convivencial"

Recently, the center has begun projects dedicated to creating a shared sense of space in the street, and in collective activities. They have begun setting up community gatherings around the neighborhood, and leading thematic walks through their streets. "We're thinking about things like assembling a group of cyclists for a ride around the community to visit cycle repair shops, in order to meet with cycle mechanics and talk with them. Later, we could hold an exhibition of interesting bicycles in the center, and have a screening of Vittorio De Sica's film The Bicycle Thief!"

A related strategy has been to arrange neighborhood outings to other parts of the city to see exhibitions that ordinarily would escape local notice. The center is organizing just such a visit to see the Gabriel Orozco retrospective at the Palace of Fine Arts, about ten blocks away, followed by a group stroll and a visit to the comissioned installation Orozco made in a nearby library.

"Now, more than being a place people come to for art lessons, we are hoping to become a place people can move outwards from, into other parts of the center. Our goal is to assist people in recognizing the vibrancy of their own community, seeing their own lives with interest and excitement, and enjoying the vast amount of heritage we have aound us here. We want people here to appreciate their own houses, because in a community as old as this one it is often said that the houses are ugly, they are falling down. When you watch the telenovelas you see modern houses, suburbs, and we want to redirect everyone's attentions to the beauty we have around us."

La Cascarita

Casa Vecina's newest staff member is Victor Ibarra, who has lived within the center for his entire thirty-nine years, working for the last ten as the manager of a bar called La Cosmopolitana. He will be working with the center to further improve the relationship between the budding art community and its neighbors, taking advantage of his vast network of family, friends, and aquaintances in the area. When I was in Mexico City, Victor hadn't yet begun his new job, and over a drink at La Cosmopolitana he told me how he'd made the transition from bar manager to cultural liason.

"We were all pretty aware of Casa Vecina, because it took a year to restore the building, and we'd pass by. One day a friend of mine came into La Cosmopolitana and said 'Hey, what's up wit that new place around the corner?' They'd built a bar into the bottom floor, called La Bota. I liked to go and get a drink there, because it was a quiet place.

"One day I noticed a little poster advertising art classes for kids upstairs, and when I got home I told my wife about the classes. I have a daughter who is ten and a son who is six. We signed them up for a drawing class and some acting lessons. So, a few times a week, I'd bring them over to the Casa Vecina, and while they did their classes I'd have a beer at the bar. I got along right away with Antonio, who owns the bar [and is also the director of Casa Vecina]. It was great, there was some art for the kids and some downtime for the grown-ups.!

"Well, last summer the Fundacion Centro Historico was encouraging small community events, for families, to take place in different parts of the neighborhood. Antonio told me about it and I decided to really get involved. I invited my brother's family, and we all started to make some plans. We thought it would be a great thing if all of us played a few games of football, in the street. When we play out in the street we call it a cascarita, when there's no referee, no real firm rules, and someone's always shouting to everyone else 'It was out! It was in!'

"We had six teams: two for young kids; two for chavos, fourteen to sixteen; and then on one side we had a bunch of us from La Cosmopolitano against the guys from La Bota. You know, it was more to play for the joy of the game than to win or lose, especially for us older guys."


"La Cosmopolitana"


La Bota

"It turned out that a whole bunch of my family showed up to watch the games. My mom and dad were there, and the families from everyone at La Bota came down as well. So we played football all morning, and then we all ate together. We brought some steaks and stuff, and Antonio brought a case of beer out from La Bota. It was the day of the World Cup Final, so we all sat down together and watched Italy beat France.

"That's how I got to be friends with Antonio and Casa Vecina. Later on, I was telling Antonio how tired I was, how my ten years in the bar were catching up with me, and he said 'Why don't you come work with me? You know everyone around here, you've lived here your whole life, we need your help.' I thought about it, and I thought, 'Sure, I'll be coming from outside, with my own perspective, and without a really fixed idea about what "art" really is.' I see this as my first chance to really work for my community. It's tough, because so many people say 'Oh, I don't have time,' or they want to go to the movies, or the domina hall, or the cantina. Yeah, it will be really difficult, but I'm thinking it will be really great.

"We're even using La Cosmopolitana for art shows. We just had one here, called Acerca de la Lucha, which was a set of paintings of boxers. You know, lots of people who own shops around here, they don't have time to go home for lunch, so they come in here. They saw the show, and now a lot of them are asking, 'Where are those paintings?' We're thinking about putting up a group show. We're even talking about showing documentaries or film projects on the television in here, instead of music videos, but we'll need a lot of them so it doesn't get repetitive. So, even though I'm moving over to Casa Vecina, there's a really great relationship between these two places, and we can keep working together."


I'd only intended to spend the afternoon at Casa Vecina, but after several long conversations I found myself still fixed at a table in La Bota, hoping to find someone to else to talk with, more perpsectives. I looked out at the alley Casa Vecina had restored a few months earlier. It extended a few yards past the front door of the center, then sharply changed into a hard packed dirt street that may, at one time, have been paved. Past that point the alley darkened, and I wondered when, if ever, the warmth within La Bota would expand out into the far reaches of the community, now shrouded in darkness. The security guard employed to keep watch over the block, not an uncommon sight in Mexico, strolled past the open walls near my table.

Once, in conversation, Iván interrupted me to point out a group of street kids who had pulled open the garbage can across the alleyway, and were hunting methodically through soda bottles and fruit rinds for something of value. As night fell around the bar, a pair of teenagers paced nervously back and forth in the alleyway. They were carrying a bag of fireworks, and occasionally would light a really loud one somewhere out of sight. I noticed that as I spoke with Iván and Antonio, their eyes would drift over my shoulder to the alleyway outside, where the teens leaned against one of the iron stumps the center had installed. Then, just when all of us were deep in conversation, a huge bang sent me out of my seat, and it was clear that the firecrackers were beginning to be a little too close to La Bota to be an accident. When I looked outside, I saw Antonio lecturing the two culprits, gesturing with one hand. When he came back I went to stand at the window with him, where we looked out to where the boys were still leaning against the stump, looking sour and insulted.

Antonio's mind seemed to be racing, working to produce a solution to this dilemma that worked for all parties. He looked at me, as if to ask what I would have to say about this incident. He said "You know, we're not the bad guys, here. We made this for them. We are doing this, and we aren't going anywhere. They have to respect us."

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Lost and Naked in El Paso

The Greyhound arrived in El Paso at 3.30 in the morning, dumping us in a poorly-lit courtyard surrounded by the crouched forms of ramshackle buildings, broken bits of wall, and the sound of engines roaring through the orange night. I pulled my bag out from under the bus and walked into the station lobby, where a long line of people were waiting to be searched by a group of security guards. Half-asleep, one man muttered, "Guns, knives, mace, pepper spray, drugs, alcoholic beverages, needles, I'm looking for these, okay?"

I sat down on the bench. After forty-eight hours of coffee, energy bars, and little sleep, my nerves were bare. Conversations on the way from Pendleton to Salt Lake City had focused on the benefits of mixing methamphetimine with ecstasy, several reasons why buying a car on eBay is a bad idea, and the cultural highlights of prisons in the Boise area. One woman had just had her thumb broken by her boyfriend's brother, and just outside of Tucson she began having hallucinations that the man was on our bus, trying to get to her. When an ambulance came for her it was discovered that she was diabetic and in the first stages of a hypoglycemic coma. I'd made things worse by spending most of the trip reading a book about institutional violence in Guatemala between 1954 and the late nineties. When I tried to sleep, my head filled with images of the Kaibil's disinterred victims, open pits filled with skeletons wearing rubber boots, voices calling out in terror. Now, seated on a bench in the lobby of the El Paso bus sation, I found myself unable to stop staring at a scar that cut cleanly across the face of a young father who stood in line, holding his gurgling child in both arms. "Guns, knives, mace, pepper spray..."

Turning away, I saw a boy, maybe seventeen, leaning against the doorway of the gift shop, next to a pile of toy parrots and children's books. His eyes were hollow, and one of his cheeks was covered by a deep bruise that must have only recently stopped swelling. I surveyed th room, flinching at every stain on someone's jeans, every fleck of dirt as though it were a scab. I couldn't escape the naked sense of my own skin, like it was a blank sheet awaiting the inscription of some violent act. Under my clothes, I could feel a blade drawn lightly along the soft curve of my stomach.

An hour later we were called to board a bus to Juarez, and after loading my pack underneath I sat in the dark cabin of he bus listening to mariachi tunes and advertisements for used cars. In the darkness I felt safe, invisible. I took out some cash from one backpack, transferring it to my wallet so I would be able to change it when I arrived in Juarez, and as I slid a thin stack of bills into my wallet I looked behind my seat to meet the same deep eyes I'd seen in the bus station. Defensive and embarrssed, I forced myself to smile, saying "Is it cold in this bus?" He shrugged, as if this question were irrelevant.

His eyes were so wide they seemed to shine in the darkness of the bus, and when he spoke it was so quick and soft that I could only catch some of what he told me. He repeated himself often, punctuating his sentences with a jab of his chin and a widening of his eyes. His name was Luis. He told me he came from Veracruz six months earlier, with several friends. They'd found work in El Paso, working in construction and demolition. The contractor he worked for didn't always pay his employees on time, and was involved in moving drugs north from Texas. Sometimes the contractor would pay his employees with drugs, or give them drugs to make up for not paying them their wages. The group of men who worked for this contractor lived together in a small house, and spent their time off together as well. They liked to go dancing. Luis started becoming involved with a girl who had dated another of his co-workers, and this began to cause some tension. There had been a fight the left Luis with the bruises he had on his face, and others he indicated along his ribs. He was forced to leave the group of workers and to stay with other friends in El Paso. His boss paid him, and gave him a handful of drugs as a parting gift. Luis never said exactly what sort of drugs they were, but he explained that while we spoke he was coming down from four days of being high and confused, wondering what to do and where to go next. He decided he would return to his home in Veracruz to heal, rest, and in time he would try to return to the US at a different spot than El Paso-Juarez.

His voice was afraid, wounded, and also intensely threatening. As he spoke he would sway towards me, then lunge a little, to emphasize his point. Every time he lunged, I would fight my urge to flinch, countering by consciously leaning in towards him, towards his face. Softening, he would tell me how difficult life was, how frightened he was, how badly he needed help. Then, fierce again, he made it clear to me that he was still carrying drugs, and he began pressuring me to buy some from him. When he said this he would nod towards my backpack, as if to say "That's where you keep you money." I decided I needed to leave the situation, and so I forced the conversation to drop, feigning distraction in the process of readying the bus to depart for Juarez. My skin was prickling with sleeplessness and fear, and the horrible clarity of my situation. After a year of study and talk, I'd travelled south to encounter the reality of immigration, to speak with the men and women who were crossing the border, and to learn about the illicit economies that thrive in the interstices between Mexico and the United States. Now, I was sitting next to Luis, who had survived some of the cruelest truths of immigration, who smelled of exhaustion and fear from life in a world my books could never actually describe. I stared into the darkness outside the window of the bus, hearing again the sound of engines roaring in the night. I felt unprepared, vulnerable, and ashamed.

In the bus station in Juarez I found Fulgencio, who I'd met in Colorado. We struck up a conversation, and I began to feel calm. I watched a little boy put a quarter into a robotic horse, swaying easily in his saddle as the sun began to creep into the waiting room of the station. Although Luis travelled with us in the bus all the way to Queretaro, I didn't let a conversation with him begin again. I spent most of the morning talking with a farmer from Villa Aldama, and trying to sleep. The bus driver chose movies about arms smuggling, genocide in Rwanda, spousal homicide, and the death penalty. After hours of this, I found myself smiling with relief when a comedy about family reunions came on, and with this feeling of relief I finally fell asleep.

Later, when we stopped in Ciudad Delicias, I saw Luis sitting behind a booth that sold coffee and candy and cigarettes. He had taken his shirt off, laying it out in front of him, and he was staring up into the sunlight with his hands clenched together in prayer. He rocked back and forth, gently patting his hands down onto his shirt and then raising them over his head. When he came back on the bus, he was carrying a large bag of fruit, and he walked patiently down the line, offering oranges and bananas to each passenger. When he came to me he thrust an orange at me, and said "Look, when we get to Mexico City, I can take you to the cathedral, I can show you around." I told him I was meeting a friend, and thanked him. When he offered the orange to me again, I said I wasn't hungry, I smiled, and deliberately turned to look out the window as if there were something fascinating waiting for me there.

When Luis stepped off the bus in Queretaro, Fulgencio smiled to me and said "Well, there goes that young man. He's going to back to Veracruz for a while, to be with his family."