The Custom of the Country
William S. Burroughs noted in the 1940s, “It would not occur to a Mexican to expect criticism from a stranger, nor to criticize the behavior of others,” it is as strangers that we do not criticize, nor expect criticism. But a stranger is — by definition — “not one of us”, and to our community, irrelevant. And, ironically enough, the quote is from a book written about a community … of “expat outcasts” in — but not really OF — México.
The community, even if it is of outcast expats, is however, essential to Mexicans and Mexico … even in the most ephemeral of communities. Riding the Metro, I am a member of the fourth car on the blue line between Chilpancingo and Chabacano village. In our village, there are a set of rules (no different really than those of any other Metro car) that we live by, if only for those three or four minutes, and a sense that we are all in it together. My building, my street, my neighborhood, has its own unwritten rules by which we all live… more or less in harmony.
As a foreign migrant, in some ways I am free to chose my community. I am not born into the traditional community of the extended family, nor are there expectations of adhering to certain economic and cultural values simply because they conform to those of the community and family in which I find myself. I can see the strength in those bonds (unchosen though they are) in equipping the community (and, on a larger scale, “la raza”) to weather difficulties and to thrive even under the worst of conditions.
Much as I may accept that I live in a much more communal culture, I was programmed to accept another more individualist one, with all its advantages and faults. What if you don’t find yourself outside your culture, even if it is not by choice, or though any fault of your own? It is part of one’s being, and one’s sense of one’s self, and cannot simply be rejected, even if it rejects you.
Miguel Ángel Léon Carmona, in the Veracruz-based Blog Expediente MX, meets NOT a stranger who is immune to criticism, but one cast out by his own community… and his family… NOT for breaking the rules by his own volition, but for not fitting the pre-ordained unwritten rules by which the rest of the community believes it lives.
“A punta de madrazos te quitaré lo puto” (my translation)
In Tlanecpaquila, Veracruz, set in the central mountainous Zongolica region, the word has come down. Not one is to speak to Eduardo Xóchitl, the only homosexual in the community of 236 inhabitants. The elders warn their offspring to stay away, less they contract a horrible disease.
“I am not welcome in my own home. My own mother wants to run me out, and I’ve been told to live somewhere else. I’m afraid to go out, and have been kicked in the balls, told the the bruises were to keep me from turning into a faggot.”
Eduardo, 32 years old, is alone and depressed. He agreed to an interview, held at the only clinic in the community, visibly nervous about being recognized. His hands shook as he began to discuss a life suffering under homophobia.
A campesino, he leaves every moring at six to till his fields. He waves at his neighbors out of good manners. No one waves back. He spends entire days never saying a word to anyone.
He discovered his preference for his own sex when he was sixteeen — the worst of it being he was in a school room at the time. “The other kids jumped me, one pulled my hair, another stabbed me with a pencil in my ass. As soon as we were outside, they beat me.”
It was not easy for him to understand, let alone accept his penchant for me. The rules of life in Tlanecpaquila are simple and clear, learned if necessary, by the application of the sole of a huarache1. One lives as God intended.
Finish secondaria2. Dedicate your life to wheat and hay. Harvest coffee from November to February. Find a woman or two. Have children in abundance. Drink pulque. Wear a hat. Obey your mother. Beat your enemies to the ground. Believe in God.
The rules are simple enough for the 127 men in the community. All but Eduardo Xóchitl. He cannot look another man in the eye, or shake his hand, or hold a conversation. Love between men is punishable by exile or absolute rejection.
He has heard of other homosexuals in the Zonoglia, in San Sebasian, a two hour walk. But a relationship seems out of the question. “My mother told me she wants to die in peace, and not see me doing ‘dirty things´.”
Two years ago, Eduardo invited a gay friend from Emilio Zapata3. The visit had to be secret, timed to occur at eight in the evening while his family would be out at a festival honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The friends held hands, commiserating on their situation.
— “We need to go to another city, Lalo. Far from this god-forsaken town.”
Eduardo trembled in fear. The dogs began to bark, and the door opened.
— Who the fuck is this guy, son?
“My father started hitting me. It was December, and my friend was chased out into the night. My mother was screaming at me to move out as soon as possible.”
His brother, doing what he could, bought him five square meters of land for 6000 pesos. “’There, you can do what you want,´ he told me. I felt horrified that my family had thrown me out, and screamed all night. I thought of killing myself, but I’m not capable of that.”
So, he lives in a secluded hamlet. His house of four brick walls, with a dirt floor, without electricty or running water sitting on hill is a morbid local attraction. The sinful leper of the Bible according to Tlanecpaquila, has only the rocks for neighbors, the desolation of his room relieved only by with four religious prints, an old serape, a teddy bear, and a sharp machete.
Eduardo Xóchitl was destined to do field work, and its the only work he knows. Doing seasonal contract labor he says “The contractors don’t know I’m gay, but I have to keep quiet and just do my job.”
“On the big farms, during harvest season, when I have to work with the others, they don’t work next to me, saying ´Don’t stand near the faggot, it’ll rub off on you.’ I never talk to anyone, but when I get home, I just want to scream.”
Field work is natural tor Eduardo, with his hands rough and his feet calloused. He tops his father’s quota, picking 70 kilos of coffee a day, earning 140 pesos. Half he gives to his mother, in return for allowing him to eat in her house.
Work days end at four in the afternoon. Eduardo is the last to leave. People speed up to avoid walking with him, not wanting to be mocked. Sometimes, they throw stones at him.
Going to his mother’s is the bitterest part of the day. The family will not eat with him, nor will his mother, as she does with his brothers, serve dinner and heat up hot water for their baths. “They just give me food, and let me take a bath there.”
“We always have tamales with mole for her birthday. I brought 20, but they had the party without me. Niether a hug, nor a gift. I spend my time here in the hills. I’m not afraid of being alone, nobody bothers me here.”
In a small community, hidden in the mountains, there is not only hunger and a lack of basic services. The customs passed down through the generations deprive people of the ability to think freely, to be different, like Eduardo.
“I’d like to go to a place where no one would stare at me, or see me as an animal. But I don’t know how to use a telephone or a computer, and I can barely read or write. And, I’m afraid to talk to people. The furthest I’ve ever been is Cordoba and Oriziba, about three hours by bus.”
The interview comes to an end. The time is passing, and people might notice. Leaving the doctor’s office, Eduardo Xóchitl comments, “I would like to know what I can offer to men. I wish my family would accept me, but I know that will never happen.”
The men in the waiting room, look down at the muddy boots with glassy stares. The women, cover the eyes of the children with bloated bellies, lest they absorb the evil in their midst.
1Beating children with a shoe.
2About 9th or 10th grade in the U.S. System.
3Another community in the Zonoglia, with a population about twice that of Tlanecpaquila. The Zongolica, has among the highest illiteracy and poverty rates in the Republic, and is mostly indigenous.
The story is heart-breaking, though it’s hopeful that several commentators stepped up to assist in any way they can, leaving e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.
But, as Eduardo said, he doesn’t know how to use a telephone or computer. I would love to send him a laptop, then realized he doesn’t have electricity, and would need to learn how to use it. And it would likely be stolen, or his electric service cut off, just as he has been cut off from contact with his own family and culture. And, much as foreigners (or even outsiders who have by their own choice “turned Mexican”) think we can … or maybe should… be the ones to try to alleviate his situation, I don’t think we are. Much as we care, and much as we think we “know better”, any intrusion is going to be seen as not just an intervention on behalf of Eduardo, but an intrusion into the community. For the better, we’d hope, but how we’d do that without uprooting the entire cultural framework is something I don’t know, and it’s not up to me to decide what needs to be changed, and what doesn’t. And how to go about it.
This one I’ll leave to those Mexicans who have been through the same situation, and who might have a workable solution. But, if I do find “those Mexicans” can use a bit of practical gringo assistance, you’ll be the first to hear about it.