A Country of Heroes
The extraordinary courage of ordinary Mexicans.
I think maybe Mexico is a country of heroes, only I don't really know much about them because they're not publicized.
Last month, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Company in New York City hosted Marisol Valles and her immigration lawyer, Carlos Spector of El Paso, at the debut of a play based on her life. It was called (in all lower-case) "so go the ghosts of mexico, part one," by Matthew Paul Olmos.
Marisol is the young woman who in 2010 took over the police department in Práxedis G. Guerrero (a small Chihuahuan town named for a Revolutionary leader), one of the embattled towns along the Rio Grande east of Juarez, after the former police chief was decapitated.
International media called Marisol "the bravest woman in Mexico." She re-modeled the department, hiring several women and training them in social work. But in March 2011 she got a phone threat and immediately fled across the border with her baby boy and other family members.
Marisol is really terrific, but I think the attempt of Americans to make her Mexico's hero distorts the situation there, just because she isn't unique.
There are other brave people in Mexico I've heard about.
I talked to Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House in El Paso last fall. Since 1978 the House has taken in people with economic and immigration problems — undocumented Mexicans at first, Central Americans in the 1980s, and Mexicans fleeing violence for the past five years.
I told him about Maria Lopez, who became mayor in Palomas in October 2009 after Tanis Garcia was brutally killed.
"I have met many amazing heroic individuals like Maria Lopez," he told me. "They've been gifted with a moral compass, a sense of conviction, and the courage to stand their righteous ground. And the world is always a better place because of them."
Award-winning actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel, Bad Education, Y Tu Mamá También) says he's been impressed by the courage of church workers he's seen during this crisis in Mexico.
There's the Mexican woman who has published a website called Blog del Narco and has a book out called Dying for the Truth. She claims she's had to move several times because of threats by narcos and could be killed at any moment. Some believe she's for real but others don't.
Then there are all the activists who have lost their lives in the conflict, like the six members of the Saul Reyes family of Juarez who have been buried in the last few years. There are too many of these people to mention.
I don't doubt there are many other unsung heroes throughout Mexico.
The hero closest to me is Maria Lopez. I'm going to tell more of the story that I only alluded to before out of fear for Maria's safety. She insists she doesn't worry about danger now. Most people in Palomas feel the town has been peaceful for about three years.
When Maria took office, the state of Chihuahua offered her an escort of eight police. But after a few days she refused their help because, as she put it, she "felt uncomfortable" with them.
I saw her once holding hands with her husband as he accompanied her to work. She introduced me to him as he bent down to the open window of my car. He held my hand closely for a second — letting me know the tenderness and pride he felt toward her.
For some reason Maria was not afraid when she was at home (I'm not sure exactly why), but she was afraid at work. After a few months she had a special stand in her office for a Bible opened to the 91st Psalm ("He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty…"). When I first met Maria, I sensed immediately her seriousness of purpose, but I didn't realize she was so religious until then.
Maria was in danger a couple of times, but I didn't learn about this until after her year in the mayor's office.
She told me that at one point she had fired the local chief of police because he had levied an extortionately high fine on a poor farmworker family. Because they had parked their car carelessly, he was asking $100 a week from them. A single farmworker often earns less than that per week.
During Maria's discussion with the police chief, he used a very vulgar phrase. "Bajo mis huevos (literally, under my balls), I'm going to stay," he said.
She countered with "Bajo mis huevos, you're going to leave." She is a courteous church-going woman, but handy at times with the argot of her campesino background.
The police chief invited Maria to dinner at a restaurant with a couple other guys at 9 p.m. She was scared to go, but more scared of what narcos might do to her family if she didn't go. She said she walked into the restaurant as if she were walking "on sponges" or "on air." She told them she wasn't afraid, but she was. She didn't back down, and the chief eventually left his job.
Another time Maria's courage was tested was when a woman reported that a car had been stolen by three local policemen. Ironically, it turns out that the woman had actually been taking care of the car for some narcos. (This is just part of the murky, ambiguous nature of law enforcement in Mexico these days.)
Maria fired the policemen. One day, as she was being driven by her assistant Tere to the doctor's office when she wasn't feeling well, their car was intercepted by narcos on a street next to the plaza. This was the same area where Tanis Garcia had been kidnapped.
They told Maria to get into their van. Her husband and brother were watering the trees on the plaza, as city employees, and she didn't want to endanger them, so she got into the van without calling for help.
The men drove her as far as the old site of Palomas about seven miles south of town. They had large weapons she couldn't identify. After questioning her for a while, they turned around and brought her back.
When they let her out, she ran. She saw Tere in her car with her hands still on the steering wheel, crying. "She was in shock," Maria said.
On Maria's last day as mayor in November 2010, I happened to come by the office. It was just at the moment she was carefully putting her hat on to leave, as if adjusting a crown on her head. I heard her say quietly to herself something about "mi triunfo."
I myself never suspected there was such nobility in dusty old Palomas. But there was, as it turns out.
These people are rare, but everywhere, like the grass.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.