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Facing a crisis

30 April 2009


The  ex-pat message boards are full of discussions on the value — or lack thereof– of the tapabocas that the health authorities are encouraging people to wear… in Mexico City.  Out here in Sinaloa (where “Cartel Flu” — aka airborne lead poisoning — caused by the AK47 strain of virus  is a more common ailment) there is less public pressure to wear one’s tapaboca, though it’s not at all unusual to see people wearing a mask.

Where I’ve been seeing them has been in places like farmacias (which makes sense… sick people go there) and restaurants — but then, food prep people often do wear face masks… for the same reason they’re being recommended in Mexico City.

Because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control poo-poos tapabocas as a means of avoiding the flu, it doesn’t mean here in Mexico there isn’t a good reason to wear them.  If I wore a mask, it wouldn’t be so much to protect myself from your germs, as to protect you from mine… not all people carrying the flu virus get sick, and just breathing can expel the germs.  So can sneezing and coughing, which the tapaboca at least keeps out of other people’s.  And, though I don’t pick my nose, I might be tempted to scratch it, or stick my finger near my mouth… another transmission route for viruses, and one less likely to happen wearing a tapaboca.

It’s only a first line f viral defence, but the tapaboca serves a deeper purpose.  The Aztecs spent the “useless days” — the leap-days left when the 360 day calendar turned over — much as today’s Chilangos are spending the time during the “sanitary contingency”:  staying home and avoiding all unnecessary activity.  The “useless days” were  fraught with uncertainty.  The cycle of life and nature — represented by the circular calendar — was out of kilter, and until the cycle restored itself, people were at the mercy of the malevolent forces of nature.

During the “useless days” , the people people went “masked/ with maguey leaves” as Chilango poet Juan Jose Tablada wrote.


Mexico City, the navel of the Universe, is at the mercy right now of a malevolent force.  Perhaps swine flu is nature’s — or Tezcatlipoca’s — vengance.  Perhaps the natural world is out of whack, and the best thing to do is wait for it to return to the cyle.  Perhaps it is best to go masked.

Octavio Paz wrote in 1951:

The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself:  his face is a mask and so is his smile.

Perhaps, but self-protection does not mean self-abnegation.  the disappearance of personhood.  One can, as T.S. Eliot (not a Mexican) said, “prepare a face to meet / the faces that we meet,”  — masked — preserve our own nature (of the mask we wish to show the world) through the useless days.


(Guanabee,  “Pimp My Swine Flu Mask” includes more examples of creative tapabocas… and a few impractical, but ingenious, substitutes)

One Comment leave one →
  1. 30 April 2009 7:57 pm

    They should began to wear bandanas like the Zapatistas…

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