Letter from
The Southernmost
Part of the
Northern Hemisphere
--- Part I
"Andy Tum-Tum"
Those of us who return to Puerto Perdido again and again will often avoid other Americans, not to be snooty, but just to be in Mexico. "I'm not here to meet other gringoes. I can do that at home," I say to my friends. Those few Americans I do meet I judge by their love. If they love Mexico and Mexicans as I do, then they are people I will choose to be around in those rare times when I want to speak English and fly in the easy delights of the mother tongue.

The other day, while I was looking for land to rent, I came across a fine beach front, overlooking Playa Grande, an idyllic area with a cascade of spring water coming down the cliff --- the place where many of the local women go to gossip and do their clothes and watch the Americans offending local sensibilities by swimming nude in the Pacific. This piece of land had a For Sale sign, but I hoped they might consider renting.

There was bald fellow, with an enormous paunch, laying brick in the front yard. I asked him in Spanish if he knew how much it was, and he replied, in English, "We'll sell it to you if you want." He told me the price ($400,000), so I begged off, but I hung around and talked to him about his life and times in Puerto Perdido. He made his fortune in septic tanks, in Albany, NY ("People always gotta shit," he said.) He had first come here in 1968 --- and had watched it grow from a tiny fishing village of a few hundred to a major resort of 50,000. His affection for Mexicans was obvious, and we talked about that, and the town, and about his son who lived in San Diego, who was looking for a house to buy there.

"I don't know what's wrong with the people in California," Mr. Tum said. "They want Junior to pay $200,000 for a shack --- a shack!" I told him that I also lived in San Diego, in a part of town called Hillcrest, and had heard of some nice houses nearby for a bit less money. "Yeah," he said, "I know Hillcrest, but, if you'll pardon the expression, I can't stand queers." I looked at him for a moment and thought, "This is the moment, isn't it?" To preach tolerance, affection for one's fellow man, no matter how different. This is the moment for the speech, I thought, but, in truth, I have to confess to you, I looked at my watch and claimed a pressing engagement on the other side of town and got the hell out of there. This was the moment for a declaration of tolerance, and I swear I would have delivered it forty years ago, with fire and verve. Now, it's lost forever because I no longer believe --- as I once did --- that I have the ability to teach the blind to see, and the angry to love.

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What do we seek most in the southernmost part of the northern hemisphere? Not cars, fast women, nor fortunes. No --- we seek the shade. We're a mere 20 degrees from the equator, and the sun blasts down here with a cruel ferocity. If you stop on the street to chat with a friend, you automatically find yourself drifting over to the shade of a nearby tree, or building --- if there is one --- or, barring that, even the thin shadow of a telephone pole. If there is nothing to hide under, the conversation is bound to be short.

The sun drives us: all major work is done before eleven in the morning, or after three in the afternoon. The only people willing to be caught in the blazing noontime sun are tourists working on their melanoma. Everyone else --- man, beast, birds, bugs --- is well out of it.

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Curzio Malaparte wrote one of the great books on war in the twentieth century, Skin. One chapter deals with the American invasion of Naples --- and the resultant enslavement. No --- not of the Neopolitans. Rather, of the American soldiers by the families of Naples.

Each soldier --- preferably black --- was captured by one of the boys on the street and taken home to mother and father and, of course, a sister, picked out especially for him. If the process worked, the new slave would visit regularly, regularly gift the family with canned food, candy, clothing, and cigarettes. Each family guarded their "slave" with especial care, giving him everything he could possibly want --- for to lose their captive would mean to lose their ability to survive in a war-torn, poverty-stricken city.

In the same fashion, many American expatriates here in Puerto Perdido are taken in as slaves by the local families. Our slave-masters care for us tenderly, give us a place to hang our hats, to eat, even a place to live, if we so choose. We slaves in turn supply them with clothing, watches, food, loans and, often, employment. The best prize is the gift of a child: one or two children not necessarily fathered by us, but named for us.

Since I have been caught up by five different families --- one from each of my five workers who work at the ranch just outside of town --- I now have three godchildren all named "Carlos" (and one more in the oven).

My official title is "padrino" --- which means that I get to go to the local church on an especially noisy Saturday with 100 or so infants in swaddling clothes and participate in a mass baptism, and, thereafter, and for the rest of my life, bring presents to my namesake. The names, you should know, are not bestowed until five or six months after birth. The reason? Infant mortality is very high here, and the giving of a name implies permanance; thus, for the first little bit, the boys are called "junior" or "el bebe," the girls, "la bebe" or "la ni˝a"

We slaves have lost our freedom, but it's a sweet surrender. If I need to go anywhere in my wheelchair --- to the public market, or a trip to the beach --- my owners will transport me there with care and affection. If I want a night out at a local restaurant, my masters will join me for huachinango or sopes. If I need someone to fix my plumbing, or to plant a shade tree, or watch the rent-a-house when I am away, any or all of my jefes will be happy to accommodate me. And all that is required is that I pose for photographs on occasion with Carlos I, II, III, or IV --- hold him on my lap, bring him a toy or two from the north, and admire the fact that my namesake is so smart, intelligent, beautiful, wise, witty, and as loving as his padrino.

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Jorge has worked for me for several years. Like most of the people here, his skin is the color of semi-sweet milk chocolate, and he has high cheek bones and eyes with a slight touch of the oriental. He spent six years of his youth in a Mexican orphanage and, outside of the cruel discipline, the thing he remembers the most are the lentils. Lentils for breakfast, lentils for lunch, and lentils for dinner. When I cook lentils, he always feigns ill.

Jorge has another problem. He has scoliosis --- an S-shaped spine. On top of that, several years ago, he fell in love with his village version of one of the Spice Girls. He was seventeen, she was fifteen --- and her father took a dim view of this rather ominous figure courting what he thought was his innocent daughter.

Jorge was warned away, several times, but love has its ways and Jorge made plans to spirit her away (the local phrase is robar una chica --- to rob a girl) and the father got wind of it. When our would-be Don Juan put in his next appearance, father pulled out a six-shooter and plugged Jorge three times: once in the knee, once in the shoulder, and once in the belly.

In this village, there is no such thing as a doctor-on-call, much less an ambulance to the nearest hospital (the nearest hospital is in Oaxaca city, eight hours away). Jorge had fallen on his girlfriend's doorstep, and was bleeding badly. The nearest commercial "clinica" was in Puerto Perdido, ten miles away. Someone ran to Jorge's house, and his family found one of the six taxis in town, but the taxi-driver refused the fare because he didn't want blood all over his seats. After a half-an-hour of frantic searching, they found one of the few people in town with a car. He wanted 150 pesos --- a fortune --- and demanded that they put blankets over the seats to protect them.

The driver took him to the Clinica Alvarez in Puerto Perdido, but the doctor there refused to treat him because with so much loss of blood he knew that soon enough he would have a corpse on his hands. For a doctor here, a newly-dead patient is a tremendous bureaucratic problem --- there is always the onerous question of responsibility. Finally, the family was able to talk the director of the Clinica Santa Fe into taking on the dying boy if they agreed to accept full responsibility. Jorge got sewed up without benefit of anesthetics and blood transfusion --- too expensive --- and was laid out, presumably to die. (I was 2500 miles away at the time and didn't hear about it until several months later --- so I was no help at all.)

Well, you know about love and youth. Jorge was young and strong and angry, and the combination might have well been a life-saving tonic. He survived, but after the clinic brought him back from the dead, they told him he would have to go to the public hospital in Oaxaca. Again, there is no ambulance service for the poor to go to up to the city, so the only way to get there is by third class bus. Since the bus was full, Jorge had to stand most of the way until, fortunately, he passed out, and they gave him a seat.

Well, he survived, even though he damn near died in the cause of love. When I returned, I found him far thinner, a bit more sober, and far less optimistic about the world. He works and works hard, but he doesn't smile like he used to, and at times, he broods, and says Vengar╚. ("I'm gonna get vengeance.") There come times when he tells me that he believes that he's had a bit more than his share of suffering. He wonders why. I give him my "no-one-suffers-anymore-than-anyone-else" speech, but I believe he doesn't hear me. I tell him that he's very lucky, that he survived, that he has friends, and work. I tell him that most of us can't figure out how he survived, but now that he has, we are all hoping that he will, too, survive his anger.

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"Them and Us"
When I am with Jorge and Jose and Leopoldo and Pedro, I often think how different our lives. They work every day in the hot sun, live for the Saturday paycheck and the "fiesta" --- those noisy well-contained riots that take place in their village most weekends between ten at night and four in the morning. When I was their age, I was in college, studying John Stuart Mill and Euclidian Geometry and 19th Century European history and "The Odyssey." Weekends were time for dates with our peers at Bryn Mawr across the way. In those days, I had this thing about beautiful women. I wanted to be sure that all my classmates knew how good I was as a womanizer, so I would date Clare or Maggie or Pamela --- all very gorgeous freshmen or sophomores, at least gorgeous by the standards of the 50's.

We would have "study dates." They would come over to my room with their books, which we would immediately forget. Then we would go through the peculiar rituals which were those of young intellectuals of the 50's, trying to be in love.

Can you imagine the world before Viet-Nam; before hippie-dom; before pot? We read a great deal of the existentialist writers --- Camus was our favorite --- and brooded on the bombs tethered between the two big nation-states designed solely to destroy them (and us);. We found our lives disaffecting, and, most of all, we felt powerless, for John Foster Dulles and Josef Stalin were set to determine if we would live or die --- and they didn't seem to care for our input at all.

We manifested our angst in strange ways: inflicting on ourselves astounding states of alcoholic stupefaction, inarticulate fumblings in bed, and certain death-defying acts. Pamela, as lovely as any woman I had ever known (she had the long face of a young Virginia Woolf) would stand looking at herself in the mirror over my gray metal dresser. "Do you think I am beautiful?" she would ask me, after we had come back after drinking too many martinis at Bookbinder's. I was lying back on the bed, she had taken off her blouse and brassiere. I was hoping that this was a prelude to passion, so I gave her my Clark Gable line: "Of course you're beautiful. Come here."

"Sometimes," she said, looking at herself, not moving, "Sometimes I want to take my fingernails and just claw my face to ribbons." Then she put on her blouse, unlocked the door, and went out to the living room. "Damn," I said.

After an hour of sulking, I came out and found her lying on her back on my second-hand couch, burning her arm with a cigarette. We were taught to be non-reactive (Fitzgerald, Freud, Camus, Hemingway), so I said to her, "You know, you really shouldn't be doing that." She contemplated her wound with equanimity, and asked if I had a razor blade. I said no, but that I thought it was time for hwe to go back to her dorm. I was angry at her for messing up our evening with what I thought was a much too overwrought dramatic performance.

She got up, put on her coat, and I drove her back. We didn't speak all the way home, and the next time I saw her, there was only the red-purple scar on her arm to remind us of that night. Many years later one of her friends told me that she had been in an automobile accident that had "almost killed her, and practically destroyed her face."

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Vicente's family lived up the hill from place just outside of Puerto Perdido. We had a small well at the rancho, but the neighboring hills were sere and brown, filled with nothing more than scrub, thorns, and wracke. His family needed water for their goats, and for cooking, so they sent Vicente over every day on the family donkey to fill three twenty-gallon jugs. How they survived on their tiny, dry, dusty plot of land (mother; six children; alcoholic father) I will never know.

Vicente was fourteen, but like most of the boys of this area, a daily diet of tortillas and salt made him look to be ten. He never smiled, and he was very reluctant to accept our offer of chicken, eggs, or cheese that we had for lunch. Finally I talked him into taking home what was left over "for the chickens" and soon enough --- with this free lunch --- he began to bloom. His skin lost its pasty color, and I once caught him smiling as we handed over the daily rations.

One day, I was talking to him about this and that and I noticed that he kept his face turned away. I maneuvered around, saw a raw burn on his left cheek. I asked him what had happened, and he mumbled something to the effect that he had fallen in the fire in his house the night before. Shortly after, one of my workers told me that the truth was that Vicente's father had come home drunk, told him to get out of the way; when he didn't move fast enough, he had grabbed a brand from the fire and swatted him across the face with it. (I later learned, in addition, that he regularly beat Victor and his brothers with "un cable" --- a doubled-over, thick wire.) My kind, my never-hurtful friend --- the one who at times would show such a shy sense of humor --- living in a tiny, dusty, waterless hutch with mother, brothers, and sisters was being regularly brutalized by his alcoholic father.

I like to think of myself as a Buddhist. I believe in The Path. I try to shut up my babbling mind. I work on to realizing that everyone is god, and, thus, I try not to judge nor to hurt others. But I have to confess to you that on that day I came up with several ways to handle Vicente's father's cruelty. Spray him with an AK-47. Douse him in napalm. Yank out his eyeballs. Stake him down, naked, in the pitiless sun, and let the buzzards gabble at his liver.

As my friend Elizabeth says, "The trouble with Buddhism is that we read all the books, practice the chants, think on the Good Way --- and then something comes along and our peace goes out the window." It might be a brush with death, a night of panic --- or the knowledge that a bad man is hurting his good and innocent family. We wake up to find kind acceptance a little wanting.

What struck me most was Vicente's sense of shame, for when I finally got him to tell me the truth, he spoke slowly, looking away almost absently: eyes unfocused, speaking in a monotone. I didn't ask many questions. I told him that if there was anything I could do, to please let me know. I knew that if I went over and confronted his father with his deeds, he would wait until I was gone, then redouble his cruelty to Vicente for letting others in on a family secret. One of my friends has lived here for twenty years, and I asked if there was anything I could do, and she said that the system was set up --- as in the United States --- to protect the family. It would mean moving heaven and earth to get Vicente into another home, being involved in horrendous Mexican bureaucracy --- and it would probably fail.

So you ask: what did I do? How did I resolve the problem? I am ashamed to tell you, dear reader: I did it in typical capitalistic fashion. I reasoned that since Vicente's family was living in the rawest poverty, one thing contributing to the old man's violence was the frustration at having no money at all, and seeing the 14-year-old Vicente as a further drag on his resources. Vicente's sin was that he was still a boy, and a dependent, a drain. "If I give him a job," I think, "he will suddenly become a breadwinner." The old bastard might be reluctant to brutalize the golden goose.

The next week, I gave Vicente the task of watering the plants at the rancho. "I want you to be here as soon after school as possible," I told him. "And you should stay as late as you can." (Drunks usually brutalize those who are at hand; if Vicente was out of sight, he would be out of mind.) I agreed to pay him 100 pesos a week, but also told him that he was required to eat lunch with us, since he was now part of the workforce.

"You're a good worker, Vicente," I told him, a couple of weeks ago. As usual he said nothing, but there was a bit of life that hadn't been there before. He was learning to make silly lunch-time jokes with the other workers, and even, like them, on occasion, tell me to shut up when I waxed too long on some dumb subject in my wretched Spanish. Once, after I had explained to him, for the eighth time, how to soak the roots of the pinos and mango trees, he said, ¿Cuantas veces hay que escuchar ese? ["How many times do I have to listen to this song-&-dance?"]

"I hope they are treating you well at home," I said to him the other day. Tal véz, he said. "Maybe." He thought for a minute, then said, "Now my father spends most of his time picking on Sergio." Sergio is a younger brother. "My god," I think, "pretty soon the whole goddamn family will be working for me."

And so it goes. Sergio now waters the plants on weekends.

--- Carlos Amantea