The naked, the dead and the occasional vision

Mexico mysterioso: A tabloid depicts crime at its most graphic, a corpse wears rather nice Adidas and giant redwoods flourish in the desert.

Published January 5, 2001 12:33AM (EST)

Our regional newspaper, the Imparcial, has a bit of the New York Times and quite a bit of the Police Gazette/Fox TV about it. The New York Times is represented by serious, long-winded editorials shipped in from the north and reprinted in small type with no pictures. None at all. The society pages are Times-like material too, with merry debutantes named Marma de la Cruz Villahermosa or Carmen Sevilliana de Bosco or Adriana Aguilar de Piqon -- complete with merry smiles, white dresses and fine teeth.

The Fox TV/Police Gazette-flavored goodies are hidden away on the last four pages, after the classifieds, in a daily crime section called "Policiaca." In "Policiaca," all wrecks, murders, drug arrests, prostitution busts, sex scandals, exhumed bodies and other malfeasances get banner headlines and extensive reporting -- safely segregated from Maria, Adriana and the New York Times editorials.

It's typical police-blotter stuff. The only difference is the gritty photographs, shots as raw as one could want. Ladies of the night standing in a row, a bit out of focus but clear enough so we can see them glowering at the camera. Males arrested for pimping, pandering and plundering are all given a nice spread -- black-and-white mug shots of sullen members of the cartel, caught with 5 kilos of this or that tucked away in the trunks of their cars.

Above everything else, reality shines through: those startling head-on photographs of the shot, stabbed, garroted, mutilated, drowned and buried alive -- those who have been hurried from this vale of tears by accidents, mayhem or other violent means. Apparently there's no limit to the blood, gore, stained mortuary sheets, bloated faces and rot that the good readers of the Imparcial will put up with.

I have before me yesterday's issue, which features a newly discovered, unidentified, "calcificado" body -- male, approximately 25 years of age -- who recently turned up in a homemade lime pit in the wilds somewhere south of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan. Such is the newspaper's interest in our calcified stranger that we get a distant shot from the back side, a second, closer view -- complete with police clutching notebooks and cameras -- and, as the coup de main, a side shot of the head taken from mere inches away. The photographs are three columns wide, and I found they made a surprisingly rich accompaniment to my bacon and eggs, tortillas, jam and coffee at the Cafe Tia Marma, my usual breakfast nook.

The "calcificado" is not the only showstopper in yesterday's issue of Imparcial. There's a particularly clear head shot of one Manuel Perez Alonso who was, apparently, nailed between the eyes while visiting the community of Zimatlan. We don't know, at least the Imparcial doesn't know, why young Manuel, 18 or so, was wasted. There is, too, Seqor Anonymous, approximately 50 years of age, head and torso shown from his left (or weaker) side. He was done in, we are informed, by El Escuadrsn de Muerto -- "The Squadron of Death."

Next comes Seqor Silvino Juarez, two bullets to the breadbasket (no photo). On the back page we have four young men in regulation black T-shirts, sneering at the camera, arrested in Oaxaca for stealing a radio (two columns -- radio not shown); a very hairy and dirty Edgar Ramirez picked up for beating up on people at a cantina in Zaachila; and a large public notice, without pix, telling us that one Juan Lspez Sanchez is pothering around town, telling everybody that he works for the Imparcial.

They vigorously deny him and his employment. The rest of us want to know why he would ever bother.

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Recently one of my faithful workers, Josi, had a chance to participate in one of these Imparcial police-blotter scandals. It happened last summer, thank God, while I was still north of the border, during my summer hiatus, but it was reported to me as soon as I got back here in November.

Each day, faithful Josi comes to clean and rake the huerta -- the place in the foothills of Oaxaca where, in the winter, I park my trailer, hang my hat and say my prayers that I have been delivered, again, from the madness to the north. Every day Josi walks over the saddleback between his village and this property with its palm trees, its mango trees, its bougainvillea, its clear, cold, flowing creek and my heart.

One Saturday he was crossing the boundary between our land and the neighbor's and he noticed that some dirt had been recently tossed about. He also noticed an unusual number of sopolotes. Sopolotes are turkey vultures -- Cathartes aura -- who turn up everywhere, especially around dinner time, circling lazily on the updrafts, with their vulgar little wrinkled red heads darting back and forth, looking about for the table d'htte.

In this poor country, there is no provision for animal cemeteries to match those to the north (with names like "Harthaven," "Pet's Rest," "Garden of Love" and, I swear, "Final Paws.") A dog, mule or horse that has outlived its usefulness is dumped in the fields outside of town. A few days later, if you were to return, you would find the carcass cleaned to a fare-thee-well by these bone pickers -- putting one in mind of what Faulkner once said about his plans for the next life. He said that he was going to return as a buzzard. Why? "Because they eat everything they want, and no one eats them."

Josi noticed a profusion of buzzards in the sandy arroyo at the edge of the huerta. He stopped to converse with neighbor Raul, who is rebuilding the fence dividing the two properties, a simple fence that befits those who aren't given to fights over property lines: posts hacked from the local trash wood, hung with a couple of strands of barbed wire.

When Josi left, Raul continued working his way up the arroyo and as he was digging a posthole he ran across a rather nice Adidas shoe sticking out of the dirt. He thought it strange because in this part of the world, people just don't throw away good shoes. He dug a bit farther and found the shoe filled with foot, which, he then found, attached to the ankle bone, which was, in turn, attached to the knee bone and so on.

The deceased, come to find out, was a worker for the local Comisisn de Luz -- Mexican Light and Power. He had been laid in the grave several weeks before Raul started fixing the fence, and was, to say the least, a bit rank. After Raul had come across as much of Sr. Luz as he cared to, he hastened off to seek out the "federales" and tell them of his discovery.

There was the usual investigation. Seems that our electrical worker had an unseemly affection for the juice, and not necessarily of the power plant variety. He also had an insatiable affection for a certain lady of the night.

Our locals who have these double affections head over to our local passion pit. I described this to you last year at some length. It's called the Chamisal, and it's a collection of five houses or shops or whatever you want to call them located just outside of town, right across the street from the gasworks.

Chamisal is a place -- similar to those in any respectable Mexican town -- where you can wet your whistle while ogling the merchandise. Our electrical worker, it turns out, was a man who not only liked to ogle the merchandise, but, once fully juiced, developed a bellicose lust and strange fantasies.

The light of his life was the lady known as Lucinda. Not long ago, through the aegis of an overdose of his favorite poison, our light man became somewhat demanding of Lucinda, also known as Lu. He told her that he was going to help her to fly away: He was going to steal her forever from her den of sin, sail with her to the crystalline shores of Lake Paradiso, make her his light and love eternally in some far land.

Lugubrious Lu was not averse to selling her wares to the electrical man for an hour or so -- after all, that was her chosen trade -- but she wasn't quite ready to take off for the golden isles with him. She, a lady of no little experience, suspected that when he awoke the next day, his plan of eternal fealty might be dimmed by the slings and arrows of reality in the form of a "crudo," a royal, head-busting hangover.

The more noisy and demanding Seqor Luz became, the more hesitant she was. When he finally rose up from their bed of joy -- both of them as naked as jaybirds -- and started hustling her out the door and down the stairs, fate intervened in the form of Pistol Packing Pedro, Luisa's plump pimp.

In the altercation that ensued, a .45 went off and Luisa's would-be gallant rescuer fell back to the floor, a slug in his love-filled heart. It was during the week, and very late, and somehow, no one heard when Sr. Luz was wasted by the pop of Pedro's heater. Luisa reluctantly joined Pedro in stuffing our now listless customer into the trunk of their Camaro, and they hauled him to a deserted area -- not far, it happens, from my winter home. With the help of a couple of shovels, they left the now defunct light man, as we used to say, "taking a dirt nap."

That would have been all she wrote if Raul hadn't been doing his annual repair work on the property line. The federales were quick to seek out sullen Luisa and sneering Pedro. They got 20 years each, and the rare chance to appear side by side on the police pages of the Imparcial, along with a blurry shot of the remains -- all that was left of the overweening lust of poor love-filled Seqor Luz.

The GIANT Redwoods of Baja California

Those of us who came of age in the 1960s have a fondness for visions. We often look back on them with great pleasure (and, too, sometimes a bit of terror).

Visions make great conversation pieces, and -- on days when the world seems tedious and careful -- we hark back to the times when we lay there on the sofa, bent out of shape by what were then quite legal mind-expander brain medicines, where we could, for instance (I swear this actually happened) watch an army of Chinese course through the house. There were many of them, although -- being Chinese and all -- they were quite circumspect, even considering the fact that they were marching though my living room without my permission.

They were moving four abreast. I figured out that they were there to prove something I had read years before in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not." It had to do with the fact that if all the Chinese in the world marched four abreast past a certain point, they would never stop passing, for, as they were aging and dying, they would be having their babies, which too, would eventually join the march up the patio, through the living room and out the back door. The march would never end, because there were and would continue to be so many of them. (As far as I know, they are still marching through. It's just that I can no longer see them.)

Now you can see why some of us look back with such fondness on the '60s.

Those of us who went through such experiences never quite lost that ability to have a vision or two every now and again. I have a couple that come to visit me quite regularly as I drive. One comes to me early on a foggy morning; the other, late at night. Promise me you won't tell the people at the driver's license bureau.

The daytime visitations are in the form of stray pieces of the Eiffel Tower that appear on the horizon. It's morning, and my companions and I have risen up much too early in order to make good time to, say, the town of Rosario. If it is early enough, just after sunrise, and with just the right amount of fog, if you'll look over there to the far horizon, you'll see various pieces of the Eiffel Tower rising up at various angles out of the ground, going heavenward.

There is no Eiffel Tower per se -- just a leg over here, a strut over there, a support to the left, a crossbar to the right. They all have that characteristic late 19th century industrial look: the dark supports with the rivets and the crossbars and the heavy lugs.

That's the morning vision, which I always enjoy (and will be glad to point out to you the next time you and I are traveling together just outside of El Dorado). Then there's the evening vision that comes about when we are well outside the lights of the cities, when, perhaps, we shouldn't be driving at all. That's when all the trees appear, thousands of them, towering up on both sides of the road. If another car appears, with its bright headlights, they will disappear. Once we are alone on the road again, however, they reappear, hovering up into infinity in the dark sky above.

The first time the redwoods appeared to me was several years ago when we were heading north from Mzlege. It was 10 or so in the evening; we had been driving for 14 hours; suddenly when we passed into a forest I thought, "This is great. They've finally figured out to grow redwoods on one of the Earth's most barren pieces of land." No water, no soil to speak of -- and here they have thousands, perhaps millions of board feet of pure forest towering over us on both sides of the road.

"Fantastic," I said out loud.

"What's fantastic?" said my companion, someone I had known for years.

"The redwoods," I said.

"The redwoods," he said.

"How do you think they get them to grow here in the middle of one of the most barren pieces of real estate in the world?"

"Right. Redwoods. In Baja. How do they do it?"

"There must be a million dollars' worth of them, right here in the middle of nowhere. Wow."

Well, fortunately, my companion had journeyed with me on several of those '60s flights. We had traveled together to the center of the Earth. We had flown, several times, out to Saturn, to observe the rings firsthand. We had once actually journeyed together into his brain (what a zoo!) Then we got up and went to a supermarket (an epic journey it was, too) to admire the canned pickles and dried chickpeas.

So when my companion heard me muttering about the redwoods, he wasn't tempted to call in the thought police at all. He just considered it a pleasant reminder of pleasant eons we had spent, some years ago, admiring the black holes of space and the Del Monte party pickles.

And soon enough he had fallen back to sleep, leaving me alone in my wet, shady forest of the night, passing by, rapidly, on both sides of us, stretching way into the future.

By Carlos Amantea

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

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