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Of Marx and Quixote: John Ross, D.E.P.

18 January 2011

Self-described “Investigative poet”, chronicler of the forgotten, and maker of myths, John Ross died early Monday in Tepizo, Michoacan.  Ross spent the last twenty-five years living in Mexico City’s Hotel Isabela writing and publishing his interpretations of the changing Mexican political and social culture.  If that is a quixotic task, perhaps it accounts for Ross’ growing resemblance to the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha as he grew older.

John Ross was often described as irascible, or — more politely — “difficult”.   He wrote brilliantly, angrily and wittily of our imperfect world, one he could not change, but only resist.  In one of the small publications that he favored (The Rag Blog), Ross wrote of the U.S./Mexican border:

We went to visit the Wall where Hidalgo Texas fronts up Reynosa Tamaulipas across the bends of the Rio Grande (it’s called the Rio Bravo on the Other Side.) In Hidalgo, the Separation Wall is built around a restored pump house and bird sanctuary and resembles one of Richard Serra’s hideous installations. The aluminum cylinders that form the wall have enough room between them to allow a snake to squiggle through but the jabalis and other mid-sized mammals whose habitat this is are caged up north and south of this man-made North American monstrosity.

Down here where even dogs and their fleas are subject to deportation (the fleas were born here), everyone carries two sets of picture I.D. and flies multiple Stars & Stripes from their front porches.

At the time, Ross was already debilitated by the liver cancer that killed him Monday morning.  Typically, he didn’t describe himself as a “cancer survivor” or “cancer patient” or “fighting cancer” but as a “cancer resister”.  Resist he must (he was one of the first, if not the first, recognized Vietnam War resister, and “resistance” — and resistance to San Francisco police cost him an eye, resistance to a prison dentist several of his teeth, resistance to editors, most of his readership in all but the most obscure of publications.  A shame… the man could write!

Ross, born 11 March 1938 was not only one of the last of the “beats”, but one of the last of the 1930s “red-diaper babies”. His friend Frank Bardacke nicely limns a remarkable (and quintessentially) American life story:

Born to show business Communists in New York City in 1938, he had minded Billie Holliday’s dog, sold dope to Dizzy Gillespie, and vigiled at the hour of the Rosenberg execution, all before he was sixteen years old. An aspiring beat poet, driven by D.H. Lawrence’s images of Mexico, he arrived at the Tarascan highlands of Michoacan at the age of twenty, returning to the U.S. six years later in 1964, there to be thrown in the Federal Penitentiary at San Pedro, for refusing induction into the army.

Back on the streets of San Francisco eighteen months later, he joined the Progressive Labor Movement, then a combination of old ex-CPers fleeing the debased party and young poets and artists looking for revolutionary action. For a few years he called the hip, crazy, Latino 24th and Mission his “bio-region,” as he ran from the San Francisco police and threw dead rats at slumlords during street rallies of the once powerful Mission Coalition.

When the not so ex-Stalinists drove him and others out of P.L. (“break the poets’ pencils” was the slogan of the purge) he moved up north to Arcata where he became an early defender of the forest and the self-described town clown and poet in residence. From there it was Tangier and the Maghreb, the Basque country, anti-nuke rallies in Ireland, and then back to San Francisco, where he finally found his calling as a journalist. “Investigative poet” was the title he preferred, and in 1984, he was dispatched by Pacific News Service to Latin America, where he walked with the Sendero Luminoso, broke bread with the Tupac Amaru, and hung out with cadres of the M-19.

In 1985, after the earthquake, he moved into the Hotel Isabela in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, where for the next 25 years he wrote the very best accounts in English (no one is even a close second) of the tumultuous adventures of Mexican politics.

There are  many Mexicos — and many Mexico Cities.  Anyone, especially a foreigner, who claims to have pinned down THE  “real Mexico”  is either deluding themselves, or their readers.  John Ross was the best at describing  HIS Mexico — that of the frustrated (and often doctrinaire) Marxists who  quixotically (there’s no other word for it) try so valiantly to shoehorn in the Mexican experience into that particular 19th century economic theory.  Not that Ross and his cronies at Café la Blanca were wrong in their analyses of contemporary events (not always anyway).  The Marxists, in recognizing the strong communitarian sense that runs through Mexican history from the earliest cultures to the present, made more sense than others who rely on other theories (like liberalism or capitalism) which equally reduce the human experience to the merely economic.

Photo: Con Carlitos (concarlitos.wordpress.com)

Unlike in his native United States, in Mexico Marxism has not be relegated to the trash heap of history, but remains an essential implement in one’s  intellectual tool-kit.  Ross could, and did, elegantly dissect Mexico City’s complex politics and social milieu in avowedly Marxist terms, as in his 2006 essay (on the protests following the disputed presidential election), “Class War in Mexico City’s Gridlock“:

The car wars here are a codeword for class war. Poor people scrape by on public transportation: tens of thousands of effluvia-spewing tin can microbuses complimented by a clean, low-priced and over-saturated subway system, the Metro. But the first car is often the first step up the class ladder and lower middle class Mexicans spend a lot of time in their vehicles. In an effort to curb the killer smogs that such an egregious fetish for the internal combustion engine generates, the city has long enforced a one (sometimes two) day don’t drive ordinance but the middle class and the uppers just buy second and third cars to drive on the off days.

Indeed, when leftist presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who insists he has been cheated out of victory in the July 2 elections here, was mayor of Mexico City he catered to the motorist class by putting a second deck on the Periferico ring road freeway that encouraged even more citizens to congeal the capital’s thoroughfares.

But despite AMLO’s zeal for internal combustion, when on Sunday July 30, before 2.4 million followers, Lopez Obrador encouraged his disenchanted supporters to establish 47 camps, many of them strung along one of the city’s most elegant boulevards in a move to impress upon a seven-judge panel the historical importance of ruling in favor of a vote by vote recount, Mexico City’s motorist class and the media that panders to it, rose up as one fist in mass indignation.

The class struggle IS alive in well in Mexico (and throughout the world), but to see the world in those narrow terms can lead one astray.  Witness Ross’ very wrong essay (from 2008, and also published by Counterpunch) on the outbreak of violence against the “emos”:

Underlying the hostilities between the Emos and rival urban tribes is the class divide which yawns wide in Mexico City. The Emos spring from the loins of affluent families and are often enrolled in private schools and the high school system of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in a country where only 17 per cent of young people will have a chance to go to college. The UNAM rejects 100,000 would-be students a year.

As it developed, the attacks on the “emos” (not nearly as wide-spread as Ross reported — none occurred here in Sinaloa, for example) were only loosely ideological, and had little to do with “class struggle”, except that the attacks were fomented by neo-synarchists associated with the Opus Dei and Legionaries of Christ student movements.  No particular social class is associated with the various “urban tribes” — the emos being picked on simply because they tend to be younger, and appear more vulnerable (including a perception of the emos as effeminate) made them an easy target for bullies.  While some of the attackers were university students, so are many of the other “urban tribe” members, from punks to goths to emos (although, of course, “emos” tend to be younger teens).  The violence had little or nothing to do with university admissions, and it’s hard to see what it had to do with emigration (especially with the Mexico City “underclass” which in Marxist analysis should be the source of urban tribalism, being largely immigrants from rural Mexico, not potential emigrants to the United States).  Some of the attackers were urban tribesmen with political agendas — but were right-wing skinheads, not anarchist or apolitical punks.  Ross, and the Café la Blanca critique on this issue, like several others, falls apart when non-class issues, religion, cultural norms or sexuality, are thrown into the equation… as they always are in Mexican social and political events.

Ross was of the theory that the 1910-20 Revolution “didn’t count” as a “real” revolution… apparently because it didn’t follow the scriptures laid down by German theorists in the 1840s.  I rejected this interpretation, but it was important to me in understanding one “mainstream” critique.  What John Ross’ reaction to being seen as a “mainstream” thinker on Mexico is anyone’s guess.

Don Quixote — in his single-minded pursuit of justice based on his own faith — often looked foolish, or was neglected by the “mainstream” of his world.  He was “mad”.  John Ross was mad only in the sense of anger… or perhaps, “mad” in the sense that he was out of step with his times, with the “mainstream” that failed to see the underlying nobility of his struggle to resist the loss of faith in his own Marxist faith.

Marxism, like Chivalry, are easily mocked, when the values they espouse are no longer those of the elites.  And so are those, who resist giving up these values. The very real, very human John Ross, like  Miguel Cervantes’ fictional Don Quixote, holding on to their stubborn faith in the values of a by-gone era, and stubbornly refusing to acquiesce in the tarnished values of a duller, less-heroic present, force us to rethink our own values and conceptions, and lead us to a  fuller understanding of the world and our place within it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. mazbook permalink
    18 January 2011 8:30 am

    Superb, Richard!! You’ve outdone yourself.

  2. Bear permalink
    18 January 2011 9:11 am

    Great stuff indeed.

  3. Rita the dog permalink
    18 January 2011 11:04 am

    Nice piece. See also:
    http://missionlocal.org/2011/01/author-john-ross-dies-in-mexico/

  4. skippy permalink
    19 January 2011 12:12 pm

    John Ross was a great man.

    Mr. Ross’ life and times were a keen awareness of the impermanence and suffering inherent in this world, a subject he frequently wrote of. Many owe much to this man. He drew on wells of compassion, generosity, intuition, and justice, often camouflaged by the more complicated, bristly, and prickly parts of his personality. Yes, he could be difficult, intolerant, touchy, and loud. Nonetheless, he inspired profound feelings of connection and gratitude in many people and his generosity and writing touched many more. He was legendary in Arcata, Ca., where he lived before moving on to the Bay Area and the larger world of injustices beyond.

    There’s far more to Mr. Ross. I encourage you, the dear reader, to please view the local Humboldt County, CA. link, below. It contains an excellent article he authored on a pertinent subject of racism here in 1982.

    You may leave a personal comment if you like about John; I humbly encourage you to do so. Mr. Ross, our traveling Humboldt ‘investigative poet’ and first rate journalist, would have liked that.

    http://humboldtherald.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/john-ross-passes-on/#comments

    peace, Mr. Ross. skips

  5. skippy permalink
    25 January 2011 5:54 pm

    Finding a quiet place to study in Nelson Hall at Humboldt State University in the early 80’s, yours truly was nearly booted out by an out-of-the-area special interest group coming in to lecture– but allowed to stay “as long as I was quiet.”

    The group encompassed a small gathering of 40-50 year olds, looking very conservative in their attire and outlook. This national group, Accuracy in Media (AIM), led by chief-fat-cat Reed Irvine suspiciously dressed in a tailored three piece suit and looking rather out of place, was here not only to collect his hefty salary and per diem expenses but to present their premise: setting the record straight on important news and media issues that have received biased, slanted coverage. Mr. Irvine and AIM called onto citizens to contact newsmakers, reporters and news corporations to end perceived and deliberate liberal media bias, giving a few examples.

    A voice from the back of the room immediately questioned their intent and agenda.

    “Who are you, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed asked.

    “I’m John Ross,” the voice answered.

    “And, Pilgrim, what do you do?”

    “I’m an Investigative Poet and Journalist!” came the reply.

    “Oh, do you write Letters to the Editor, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed condescendingly asked.

    John Ross boldly stood up. He wasn’t about to take this sitting down. Nor be referred to as ‘pilgrim.’ His voice thundering, John laid down his qualifications. Without missing a beat, he then thoroughly peppered AIMs connections to its own bias and slants in the media, questioned their funding from right wing conservative groups ranging from the Republican Party to John Birchers, having unfavorable editors fired and forced reractions made, and AIMs deliberate role in massacre cover-ups in El Salvador and other incidents leading all the way up the ranks to the Reagan Administration. John Ross knew his details, facts, and questions… and his direction.

    Like a train wreck, AIMs meeting came to a grinding halt. Mr. Irvine was at a flabbergasting loss to shut Mr. Ross, Investigative Journalist, up. John continued until Mr. Irvine threw down his ace card in final exasperation.

    “I’ll have you arrested!” Mr. Irvine roared, “for disturbing the peace! Call the police! Call the police now!”

    Mr. Ross roared back, “I’ll have you arrested– for violating civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press, and of assembly! AIM is a sham, a front group for propaganda, and you’re deceptively telling lies to everyone! You’re not revealing your right wing ties and agenda to our citizens here, even when asked! AIM won’t– and doesn’t– allow free speech! What kind of fairness and accuracy in media is this? Go ahead, have me arrested!”

    The campus police were called. They refused to arrest Mr. Ross once both sides were explained, or, vociferously argued and yelled over. AIM and Mr. Reed, his three piece suit and his supporters, promptly packed up and left town unceremoniously. They’ve never returned. After that kind of welcome, would you?

    Pleasantly amazed and shocked over this drama unfolding before my very eyes and ears, Mr. Ross stood up for a righteous and just cause; he wasn’t merely a journalist, he was a complete fire-breathing tiger– as thin and diminutive as he initially appeared.

    At that moment I knew Arcata was a very special and unique place– and this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of Mr. John Ross.

    Rest in peace, my friend. Many owe much to you.

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