Across the barricade
/ It is close to eleven at night when we arrive into one of the access points of the town of Cheran. We had been driving very slowly across neighbouring towns and the very short strips of road without houses that told them apart. While at the wheel of our light blue Dodge van I had decided that having the cabin lights on was on the safer side as to not having any; a tool of the trade I had picked up in the many times that I, as a child, had to stop at a military checkpoint during the coup-d’état in turn in Chile or Peru. We were in fact approaching one, after all.
I lowered my window and turned the lights off. A guard came out of a booth by the entrance arch made out of stones and several times higher than our van and approached us. It was barricade number three we were at. “Hello, good night to you” -I said. The rest of the party remained silent inside the van; some had dozed off. “Hi. What brings you to Cheran? Replied the guard. The words to be said came out off me fluently as rehearsed with our community contact friend, amidst us in the van. “We are here for a project. We are to get to Coyote Ahumado’s (smoked coyote’s) house in Guerrero street, in front of the Granitos field.” The guard listened to me, but by the time I finished my lines, I noticed his nodding to the voice he had actually been hearing along, which was now speaking from inside the booth. It had gotten what was needed out of our conversation and was instructing him to let us through. I stepped on the gas-guzzling pedal and went thought the arch. It was somehow baffling that as we entered our guide and contact friend got lost for a while. I wondered how long ago had he been in the community then.
Hot cocoa welcome
We got to Coyote ahumado’s home. We greeted him. We were welcomed with hot chocolate and home made pumpkin marmalade bread. I treasured the homie feeling; it was a clean cold night up in the Michoacan plateau and we had been driving for nearly twelve hours. We did not talk anymore. It was past midnight and it was settled we were to spend the night as guests there. Our party of seven occupied Coyote’s family rooms, some on beds and others on mats and sleeping bags, as myself.
I woke up well wrapped in my sleeping bag. I had gotten an ample room for myself and there was no door to it so it flowed into the TV room. My window overlooked the Granitos basketball field and the San Miguel hill. 05:15h in the morning it was. the cold seemed to have done away with all noises. Not a single sound out there. I had to talk myself into standing up and walking the yard’s distance to the latrines. Urgency convinced me. I pulled a large sliding window open and walked down a wooden staircase into the yard’s inclined terrain. I was walking on San Miguel’s hill soil. Everyone was asleep in my Buffon S.O.S.ial family as in Coyote’s.
I did as the hill and remained silent. On the way back I stretched and glanced up to the sky. I could not tell any star. This was customary of most of Tulum’s night skies, where I had been living by the Caribbean sea for the last couple of years. I had yet to notice Cheran’s low hanging morning clouds on its forests, hiding the stars from me. As I slid back in the house I got myself to the shower and plugged a heating resistance to the outlet, it’s other end immersed in a large bucket of ice cold water. As I waited for it to warm up, I wondered about the two very small wooden stools laying on the shower floor. Were these of the children at home? Did they have visiting forest elves – as we had aluxes in Tulum– ? I suddenly realised these were meant to be seated on while taking a bath. There was no shower head, nor faucets. I sat on one of the stools, naked with a bar of green soap in my right hand and a vacillating left hand holding a bowl of water from the bucket. I stared the minuscule blue face-towel I had brought with me to dry off all of my body and emptied the first bowl on my head. I finally woke up. Water had just lost the ice in ice-cold.
As I dressed up in the room I listened to the sporadic singing of birds as San Miguel’s hill silhouette started to reveal itself through the window. Dawn’s first light took the street lamps by surprise, still lit in their halogen yellow or mercury green glows along the walkway and on the basketball field by the house. Some very late roosters sounded off.
The birds concert was interrupted by the manly voices speaking downstairs in the street. Somebody seemed to be briefing Coyote the latest on checkpoints, only this time it was not theirs but some other’s, where “one was forced to exit its vehicle for inspection”. Checkpoints in this area can be military, autodefensas‘ and drug cartels’. Sometimes these three are but a few kilometres apart.
A young man approached and entered the room I had slept in. It was in fact its owner. Hi! What’s your name? A fifteen year old replied “Chigua”, back, grinning. Are you the son of… “Of Coyote’s…” he finished off the phrase for me. “Yes, I am”. He took something from the shelf and went downstairs. Chigua was the basketball fan in the family and the lonely trainee up in the neighbouring field every early morning. A James LeBron drawing hanged on his room main wall.
My friend Nano walked past, still asleep like in trance. He was off with Alberto, our town contact friend, to see a house the family would be lending to us, for the next two weeks we were to stay. Nano mumbled “8:30am” to me, as he went by. I took his utterance as the time we were to gather as a group and be ready. He was no longer there to confirm. Actually, no other sign of life from the rest of our party had manifested just yet.
The absence of astray or house dogs barking at night or early morning called my attention. I found it to be a pleasant contrast to that of Tulum’s dog overpopulation I had gotten fed up with. A donkey’s bray not far ended up settling Cheran’s difference. I was in no Tulum.
A circular saw was given away by its wood-thirsty mechanical sound as it started its shift on a neighbouring shop. I was in a wooden furniture manufacturing zone, of course. Forests and wood have had everything to do with this town in the recent years and many many decades before.
An arts teacher at a public school in nearby larger town, Paracho, she was the wife of Coyote’s and the lady of the house. She is part of the brave women that, since april 2011 decided to put an end to the tree felling ran by cartels. Teaching had been a risky trade for years now. Those recent days had not been any different for her, prior to us meeting in her kitchen that very morning. Drug related street shootings – two, just that week – had already taken their toll in nearby town, Paracho: one licenciado (referring to any university degree professional, but most commonly used for lawyers in Mexico) down and five collateral damage deadly victims – two children and three adults-, one of which was a pregnant woman. All innocent bystanders. But at least this school had an arts teacher and a facility to teach those still attending, at. In a Cheran town bonfire (Chupiri in P’urépecha language) I was to hear from another woman teacher days later, how abandoned are the schools not even an hour away from Cheran, like in Turicuaro’s sierra (high mountains), where being a teacher is probably similar to being a saint. At Irma’s school, attendance varied of course according to shootings. School children, specially girl teens, 14 and up, had been the target of cartels in Tepalcatepec, Michoacan, where autodefensas formed originally back in 2011, precisely to stop them being kidnapped and abused by sicarios and other cartel scum.
“They have gone to fetch your almuerzo” (a hefty breakfast or a mid morning snack), she told me, referring to us all in my party. She was not tall nor short, had long black hair coming out of a blue sweatshirt with a hood that covered her face partially, the rest of it she covered with her hand, concealing it. The light in the kitchen was dim still. She addressed me concerned “I apologise not having been able to greet you last night. I had an accident”. Irma extended her forearms towards me so I could see her skin burnt. Most of her face also was. “I was cooking and the oil was too hot so it sprayed me all over”. “I’ll be fine but cannot go outside for a few days”, she added. I told her not to worry at all, and I thanked her for having had us in her house. The silence outside settles in the conversation paused. ”Why me?” she asked. “Well I do not believe this was not something against you or meant to punish you. Maybe it happened to protect you and have you home some days”. I said to my own surprise. “You should pay attention to the signs and listen. Your life, even the doctor’s you sought treatment with, might change out of this. Who knows. Maybe it was just for us to meet. Come on, sheer up”. As I sipped out of the cup of hot coffee that she had laid in my hands, she mentioned just having watched a TV show that a father Pio had and pointed out to the devil behind temptation, having been mentioned. Such a brave woman, a teacher and suddenly “the devil”. What a contrast. Not an uncommon one, in our countries, though.
We spoke about our kids. Irma’s Chigua is the eldest, then there are Mariana and Israel. The youngest two play violin and Chigua, the viola. Irma came from a family of musicians and as we chatted I learned she played the saxo. It was her father that taught her to. Her brother is a composer. She is not for Cheran originally. “there are many women playing wind instruments in the town’s band” she said with pride. Israel and Mariana came down the staircase and got their lunch boxes from their mother. They greeted me and left for school. Irma told me Israel, the youngest at eight, is about to travel to the USA with a Mariachi band. He had been rehearsing at the Casa de Cultura (the town’s cultural and civic centre ) and was totally for it. Irma and Coyote have supported him in having the tour made. This school year ending has been the kids’ first in a public school. It was not easy for Mariana who was a victim of bullying as a result of the lead girls feeling their popularity challenged and because Mariana came well prepared from the private school she had been attending. Again, it was Irma and Coyote’s family united that brought Mariana out of it and helped her to overcome it.
Coyote? Well, he is a very kind man. Irma answers to my question and adds: just a few days ago he gave the only $100 Pesos note he had on him, to a person that needed it. I called on him, as he does this often. “It is no problem woman, you work as well. God and good people will do the rest”.
As the children left for school, Coyote came into the kitchen. The man I overheard him talking with was no longer there. “Good morning”, he says. He is a tall strong man, his face shows him relaxed and content. He is wearing an army style uniform and is about to leave to patrol the forests. He used to be a leader of the barricades’ long nights during the conflict climax; he is now a ranger. Communal watches organised into rangers and town security, including traffic. “You can leave cars open in Cheran; nothing will be stolen”, he says.
He tells me felling continues, that the wood cutters use light trucks of which they managed to run a fleet of 200 just before the crisis exploded in April 2011. Back then municipal authorities were paid to play blind and illegal timber was processed at a clandestine saw mill at the nearby village of Etaraco, where illegal lumber came out as legal planks. Now, with the town under communal administration, this cannot happen anymore. A Communal Property office issues permits and inspects any illegal tree cutting in their zone, now. The problem is that illegal felling involves people from neighbouring communities climbing the hills facing Cheran, from behind. “They carry weapons and you cannot reason with them. They shoot at you instead”. Coyote adds, “these men have families too and we do not want to shoot at them, but we have to in self defence”.
Coyote’s uniform logo shows a woman with long hair made into two braids, her arms embracing A forest with a village at it’s centre and a pond. A mother protecting her people and Mother Earth. The colours in the logo are the P’urhépecha flag ones. Coyote is part of this vision, everyday.
Family almuerzo and values
Coyote’s parents and sister came in with the almuerzo: ranch eggs, local corn tortillas, beans puréed and sausage. Shortly after, Nano and Alberto came in followed by Sami. They had brought green juice in several plastic bags with straws attached, for all of us. Gabo – our group’s musician -, Nadine – friend of Sami, both Argentinian girls from the city of Cordova and Nat – a Mexican young woman – seemed to have smelled breakfast and arrived promptly downstairs. We all sparked into a hearty conversation full of meaning.
I found corn tortillas somehow sweeter than I remember having. Coyote told us of the Citizen’s Council decision not to use industrial corn flower which could include GMO corn, like they suspect of the Minsa brand (Gruma group), but rather their own grown creole corn mix, which is sweeter indeed. Town people only utilise this corn and you can see women in the streets heading to the mill early mornings with their buckets of corn by their arms and later walking with their buckets of masa (dough) ready to clap them into tortillas and through them on top of a comal (grill plate) heated by the embers of burnt wood, when the time is right. I had not tried tortillas this good in a very long time. The fields around Cheran are mainly corn, specially south, towards one of the main water springs: the iconic “La Cofradía”, where women drew the line and stopped cartels’ felling.
“We prefer home made tortillas. My mother makes them at [their] home” he told us. “In fact, there’s no dinning table there, like we have here; we seat around an open fire, we look to each other and we talk. This tradition has been lost. We have lost the meaning of the parangua (P’urépecha for the place where family meets at, has it meals and where the open fire is) and with that our families have become fragmented. In most households today, kids seat at the table only to get distracted with cellphones or other forms of technology, while their mother cooks for them. Sometimes it is better not to have any of these, not even tables”.
I asked him on the town’s self sufficiency and Federal assistance programmes in place. Coyote made it clear. “We have all the [Federal] government programmes here. We have not refused to receiving these since there are many people in need that benefit from them. Yet we want the government to recognise somehow how much their assistance-based paternalist model has damaged society, including our town in the past. Federal government utilises these programmes to break up people into groups, as those benefited fight to get the aid among them; it is everything but solidarity and unity what gets caused”.
How can this much already accomplished, be carried on? I asked Coyote. He looked at me and replied back in a blink of an eye. “By awakening our people, children specially. In the meantime I’m content with the responsibilities that I got: to make our people conscious of what can be made differently and how it benefits us all. This is a direct result of my dealing with citizens on a daily basis, something the Council cannot do everyday and will all citizens. First thing people need to understand fully, is how it was us – the people – that actually rescued our town back from cartels and corrupt officials. The people for the people.
To defend this cause is to defend my family. I would not go and fight for the town of Paracho with the ame enthusiasm than where my family lives in.
Summing it up
It had not taken more than a day to realise the Cheran was a model of many things that work well for its citizens and at the same time, of just one: that of people united around a single ideal of bettering their way of life. They have done this by resorting to their ancient traditions and core values, keeping their families together, taking care of their forests and water springs- which they also consider the World’s and Mother Nature’s and give them this importance -, performing reforestation while having a rational timber and furniture manufacturing activity, working the fields to attain non GMO food self sufficiency, organising themselves into task forces that undertake town maintenance and construction works, providing their citizens with security they can trust and rely upon, considering education – at home and school – with the passing on of core values, art and sports key to improve their children’s chances, minimising the importance consumer society gives to money and wealth – having, as opposed to being -, and even promoting bartering.
Cheran people might well be igniting the first fire, that of a new dawn, that of the much needed awakening of our people.
As our party walked downtown later that afternoon towards Casa de Cultura, I saw children carrying musical instruments up and down, swarming the street around the market in groups. A communal guard waved hello to us; we waved back. A large group of school kids walk past, all in the same uniform, laughing and chatting. None were wearing earphones. Actually, very few people in the street, if any, are wearing these.
Cheran is a quiet town, surrounded by soft hills still covered by dense forests, quite chilly early mornings and evenings, with low puffy clouds hanging from a deep blue sky. It is the feeling of ranches here, people riding horses or donkeys, men in hats, kids with red apples for cheeks, women their hair covered by robes (rebozos), all smiling back, welcoming even after what the’ve gone through to regain their smiles, open, willing to tell the world about them.
This is the amazing Mexico I remembered from the 70’s, with the experience of four decades assimilated. A place rescued by P’urhépecha ancient wisdom, today manifested in a citizen’s council made up of twelve k’eri (tatas, abuelitos i.e.: elderly), protected and enforced by community watches made out of their own citizens (not “guards”, not a policed society) that act under a reconstruction ideal that includes regaining the 20,000 hectares of rain forests done away by their indiscriminate, ilegal and irresponsible felling under the collusion of earlier municipal authorities that were thrown out April 15th., 2011.
A town free of litter in the streets, of street advertisement void, lacking any taste, aggressive and absurd by the numbers as in most large cities, with few TV sets turned on, at least in public spaces, nor any loud music. It is rather a place where background noise is the hum of birds in trees, atop a silence that prevails, so that sounds have meaning. There is no pollution.
It is peace that one breathes in, here. The irony is in experiencing it inside self imposed barricades. What is right and what is wrong -this elusive definition in our contemporary Mexican society – is very sharply defined here: Right, is inside the line that at night lights up in bonfires by which brave citizens take care of their families and tradition, their face illuminated by the glare of flames, as they keep their watch.
Across the barricade (Cheran) by Juan Ayza M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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