Letter from
The Southernmost Part
Of the Northern Hemisphere

A Man of Few Words

Jorge is a man of few words. When I call to him to ask his help in getting from wheelchair to bed, he lopes into the room and says, "Cosa?" [Thing?] This is a shortcut for "¿Que cosa quieres?" [What d'ya want now?]

If I tell him I hope he is feeling better from his recent hangover, he says, "Poco" which is Jorge-word for "Un poco mejor." [A little better.] Then I ask him when he will be going to the store for some coffee for me, he'll say, "¿Sabe?" which is shorthand for "¿Quién sabe?" [Who the hell knows?]

Laconic Jorge doesn't know who or where his father is, and I've been encouraging him to go search for him. "Everyone has to find their father some day," I tell him, thinking in classic terms, the Odyssey, or Joyce's Ulysses --- Daedalus going through the streets of Dublin seeking his paternity (and finding it in the unlikely form of Leopold Bloom.)

"Where do you think he is?" I ask Jorge.

"¿Sabe?" he says.

"But where did you last see him?"




"How old were you?"


"Your mother would know."

"Tal vez." Perhaps.

"What do you mean tal vez? Of course she knows. They were married, weren't they?"


I think about that for a moment.

"What does she say about him?"

"Nada." Nuthin'.

"Have you asked her?"

"Una vez." Once.


"She don't say nuthin'."

"Will she tell you his name?"

"She doesn't know."


It's so hard for those of us raised in The Middle Class America to deal with a world where parents disappear so easily and never return, where children are often traded among families and friends. It's a world where Aunts and Uncles or neighbors or friends who have something will often take over for those who have nothing.

If a father disappears, the mother doesn't go to the police, or to the courts, or to the social worker. If she runs out of resources --- food, money, clothing --- she turns the baby over to her sister or her brother-in-law or an "abuelita" (grandmother) or the nice lady down the road who has a steady income. After his father disappeared, Jorge's mother was forced to sell enchiladas door to door to support him and his brother until she fell in with the man who is now his "padrastro" --- step-father, a man he doesn't care for at all.

However, all my incantations for an epic father-search mean little to him. In a burst of words not long ago, he said, "Este pinche no me hace nada --- nada. ¿Porqué hay que buscarlo? ¿Eh, Carlos? ¿Eres loco?" That son-of-a-bitch didn't do shit for me, Carlos. Why the hell should I go out and waste my time looking for his ass? Are you crazy?

§     §     §

Tropical Buddhism

I like to think of myself as a Buddhist, albeit not a very good one (I don't have sex near temples, or on nights of the full moon, but I sure do love down-home gossip). When the subject of the gods or fate or morals or the general sadness of the world comes up, Buddha often pops up in my conversations. When my Latino friends are talking about, say, their girlfriends, or money, I say, "¿Saben Ustedes que dice el Buda?" You know what the Buddha says? There is a pause, and I come out with some confection, like, "He says that all money is paper." Or, "He says that love ain't where it's at. It's all delusion." Or, "He says that all of us are gods."

I even wax philosophical, tell them that the followers of the Buddhists worried about whether a dog has the Buddha nature. This usually brings the conversation to a close, at least for a few minutes, especially that one about the dog maybe being god. They go right back to where they were, ignoring my interruption.

At times, too, I tell them about "meditación." "Todo hay que hacer es callate la mente," I say. All you have to do is shut up the mind. [My Spanish is a bit faulty --- but they get the picture, I think.] "Mero mira las ideas." Just watch your thoughts. Whenever they bring up their home-town religion's vision of hell, I tell them that the Buddhist hell is far more artful.

We're in hell right now, I tell them. "Ya estamos en infierno. Viviendo es infierno." Hell is called living. When we die --- I go on --- we stay dead for 49 days, then they send us back to hell again: we get to come back to earth for yet another life. ("Otra pinche vida" --- another fuckin' life.) And then another. We return again and again until we get it right ("Regresemos mil veces hasta que tendríamos bien.")

The one they have the most trouble with is the "we're all god" routine. When they are making fun of the fat lady down the way, or the old drunk across the street, I say, "Sabes que él es dios." [Do you know that those people you're laughing at are all gods. The buddhists say that we are all god.] "Somos dios --- y debríamost acceptarlo." [We are as the gods, and we might as well get good at it.] I suppose I end up sounding like a bit of a prig --- as obnoxious as those eager Christians who try to convert the rest of the world to their specific, bleak god.

The other day I was at the mercado with Vicente and Manuel. We were eating the usual Sunday lunch of molé and tortillas and beans. Like most market eateries, there are a dozen or so of them lined up right next to each other, and the traffic in and out of the market is pretty heavy. People walking back and forth with their string bags filled with chicken, tortillas, dried shrimp, or sausage. We watch the lost babies, the dogs wandering here and there, the balloon man trying to sell us a "globo."

This particular day, a blind hump-back tapped up to us and ran right into my wheelchair. Instead of backing off, he starting feeling around to figure out what he had stumbled over, muttering "I'm blind. Help me. I can't see. I'm poor." The kids started chanting, "Mañana, mañana" [Tomorrow, we'll give you money tomorrow.] I hunched over, staring at my plate, wanting him to go away, being very un-Buddha-like. After he went on down the row of tables, feeling the chairs, I said, nicely, hypocritically, "You know, that man is god. He's god, and we have to be kind to him."

Then I went on eating my tortillas and beans. When I was done, I left a 200 peso note with Manuel to pay for the food, and went off into the market to buy some makings for supper. When he brought me the change, it was 25 pesos shy.

"Shouldn't there be a bit more change?" I said.

"I bought lunch for the old blind man," he said. "Was that OK?"

§     §     §

Departure Time
    On the scorched fields of Râjputâna everything is sad and roasted to a crisp, and the earth's surface is like toasted bread left too long in the oven and crumbling to pieces. Its enormous plains, scorched and sad-looking in their brownish-yellow color, remind one of the Russian steppes: the same dry feather grass, the same frequent mirages on the red-hot horizon. Everything in nature seems dead and congealed, and its activity is revealed only in death or putrefaction....During such days, birds fall to the ground, dying by the dozen. The general silence is interrupted only by the long and sad shrill of the falcon which seems to hover in the hot currents of air; sometimes on a small hillock some vultures, surrounding carrion, stand motionless with their heads down, not even touching their favorite food, content merely to dream about it.
--- From The Caves and Jungles of Hindoostan
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

It's time to leave. One always knows when it is time to leave the southernmost part of the northern hemisphere when the sun comes up flat and mean, and to spend ten minutes in its direct glare is to come away weak and panting. It's the late spring sun, one that brings in a moist heat and strange diseases. In the villages near here, they say, people develop "hongos" (rashes), a combination of bugs, sweat, dirt, and the evil eye.

To stand or sit outside in the late spring sun induces a fainting fit; to run is madness. All one wants to do is lie down, but the hot sheets and hot pillows give no comfort. Fans serve only to muddy up the scorching air in the rooms. I will be leaving my workers here for six months. I'll leave them to the searing heat; I'll be go north to the temperate climate of Gringolandia.

I call them my workers --- but what does that mean? People who not only work with me but who eat with me and talk with me and travel with me. People who teach me their language without charge. People I got to know when they were just starting to work, and now, many of them married, with children --- an astonishing number of children named after me in the local church. (The baptism itself was a noisy mass --- a fifty or more two- and three-year-olds in a hot, echoing church of cinder-block, windows tinted by red, blue, and yellow glassine, walls filled with immense and immensely bad paintings of a cream-faced god, with a billowing cloud for a beard, looking down, strangely slant-eyed, at a bloody, very Aryan, and very pale, Jesus, his body well bloodied, his face turned wrenchingly up to his cloud-bearded father.)

A generation ago there was nothing here but the wasted, infertile red dirt and the always dangerous ocean. Because of this poverty, there is, for the people here, a value system of interdependence between families: mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins. To the north we would call it a "support system," but it seems at the same time to be a network of related people who can't stand each other, and yet, put up with each other.

They need each other, but they never forget a wrong. They sport an interior violence which is born, I suppose, of the sun, the unyielding sea, and the bleak, selfish earth. It's a rage that stays submerged until the dust and heat and the myriad crawly creatures rise up and, for a moment, drives everyone bonkers. The uncles and cousins and fathers and sons, laughing and drinking in the cantinas, will, out of the blue, unsheathe their machetes and go at each other. It must be the sun beating down on the dust of the ravaged land (and on their heads), or the thousands of stinging and biting insects. Or perhaps it is the omnipresent and omnivorous carnisuela --- a bitter ugly barren plant whose wood is sought for its strength, but is almost impossible to get at, protected as it is by long, poisonous-looking, vicious thorns, with an army of nervous fast moving, fast-stinging, ever-angry ants who live in the hot dirt around its roots. That must be what drives these people so mad so suddenly --- an attack of carnisuelas.

That --- and the scorpions, iguanas, beetles, and the great variety of flying and creeping and crawling tropical creatures which hide in the dirt or in the leaves or under the trash (or in your shoes), and, when you least expect it, stab you in the foot, crawl down your shirt and bite you on the back, fall on your head and drive piercing poison-dripping mandibles into your tender cheeks, creating instant swelling and fever and despair. That must be it --- the very unkindness of this land, and its creatures, and the sun, a sun so furious that it seems to be blasting the very soil, blasting with such fury that it comes to be reflected off itself, drives a sane man crazed --- so crazed that he suddenly rises up in a black fury in the "Pariaso" cantina, overturning the cheap scratched metal tables, smashing his glass of mescal on the floor, grabbing at his machete, slashing at everyone within reach.

And when, two or three days later --- if he survives --- you ask him what happened, he'll say, "¿Qué pasó? Nada." [What happened? Nothing...]

--- Carlos Amantea

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