8:15 Splendidly beautiful day: intense sun and blue sky.
Big cloud of smoke at town hall.
Nine guerrillas on the corner.
Indigenous Tzeltals all.
Nothing on the radio: “They smashed the station to pieces,“ Dora reports.
They turned the policemen loose: some of them passed this way, freezing to death, without shirts, without shoes, without socks.
Some of them in T-shirts.
“They were treating us like shit in there all night.”
“Seems we saved our skins for now, but they say war is imminent.”
Lots of rumors.
They opened up the IMSS store, and are going to burn it down.2
But first they’re looting it.
They already burned the Office of the Superintendent of Preschool Education.
People pass through the streets with looted products.
A swarming anthill: from the corner, I see people with their cargo heading towards all four points of the compass.
Scores of people with boxes of “Patrona” brand cooking oil.
Children, teens, women and adult men pass by carrying merchandise.
There’s a joyous gleam in their eyes.
Something like embarrassment in their posture.
Those who know each other don’t look each other in the eye, or look at one another as if apologetically.
Or that’s how I read it.
One person’s carrying a cash register.
Another passes by, pushing, with a kitchen stove.
There’s somebody bringing boxes on a dolly.
“Even people with money were stealing a while ago.”
“One fat guy even brought a pick-up truck to carry off refrigerators.”
I’ve returned to the house gate.
Three guerrillas have seen me taking notes, and come over here.
Stop in front of us.
Speak in Tzeltal.3
I stop taking notes.
Surely, taking notes isn’t high treason?
I looked them in the eye, and said, “Good morning.”
Only one answered.
I feel my blood racing.
I want to smile to calm myself down but the truth is that it scares me.
This is helplessness.
The mass of poor people with their boxes never seems to end.
More rumors reach us: now they’ve burned the six cars at Enrique Solórzano’s house.
“Reduced to sheer metal.”
9:37 The crowd of people has somewhat thinned out.
A boy passes by, saying: “It’s all gone already.”
One woman asks another, “Got some stuff, didn’t cha” (mixture of affirmative and interrogative, which is responded to with, “Well, so what, if they’re just gonna burn it all… They’re givin’ it away…”)
The news has spread all morning throughout the family’s small universe: that the Army will come at two o’clock; that you’re not supposed to say so, even though everybody seems to know it.
The news circulated by word of mouth and by telephone.
That Chelo, the tortilla lady, sent them a truckload of tortillas, and gave them coffee; that her husband is a PRD rep.
That she didn’t give it to them; they asked her.
That they also asked the driver to hand out the tortillas to the small group of guard patrols on each corner.
That she agreed to give away all that in exchange for them not ruining her business.
9:46 A call from San Cristóbal.
Saying the city was evacuated at one in the morning.
The EZLN left.
No one’s there.
People are in the streets.
That a young man named Ortega was stopped at a Zapatista roadblock.
He stopped, but after talking, insisted on passing through by force.
They put a bullet in his head.
That traffic on the San Cristóbal-Comitán highway’s cleared up now.
The problem, now, is about Ocosingo.
10:00 Airplane noise.
We peek out and scope the sky.
Can’t see anything.
10:09 We go shopping.
Dora and Génner, aunt Maga and don Pablo already went.
10:29 We return from shopping.
Brought back flour, corn meal, cooking oil and beans.
The store’s called “La Costeña,” and is making a killing.
An adolescent girl, chubby and red-faced, sweaty, can hardly keep up with all the customers.
The owner says he went with a group to pick up the policemen’s dead bodies and put them in boxes.
“They killed the commandant there, at the town hall portico, and since they set fire to the prosecutor’s office next, just as we were going to pick it up the body was already catching on fire. We asked those men’s permission, and they refused, until we spoke with the priest; him they obeyed. That’s how we picked up the dead. This already half scorched kid.”
On the corner, among the people, agitated, we meet up with Gabriel and Isaías.
They’re sons of Mariano, who was in charge of our ranch for many years.
My father sold him twelve acres, and there they live now.
Isaías still works with my father: he drives the pick-up truck and helps with the coffee grinding and drying.
Gabriel now works as a driver for Conasupo, in Oxchuc.4
They look worried.
Isaías says the guerrillas passed through the ranch all night long: “They come and go, come and go.”
They pass through to ask for water, don’t talk, don’t say anything.
They only ask for water.
“They’re nothing but second valley settlers.”
(The ranch lies to the southeast of town, ten minutes from the Virgin River, toward Toniná, in the area of ranches that stretches all the way to the second valley.
Arriving at the ranch of don Ángel Cañas—now deceased: the ranch now belongs to Aladino, his son-in-law, and to Hada, his daughter—you have to follow the clearing on the left; just a little bit ahead lies Coelhá, our family property: 197 acres of cattle and coffee plantations. Plus a hill my father re-forested, and which is the only patch of intense green amid the hills of nearby ranches, all converted to pasture now.
My parents preserve the coffee plantations and the woodland that shades the coffee trees, even though the price of coffee is low.
They’ll never allow the old forest to return to pasture. Even though livestock is a safe business and the price of coffee keeps falling.
There’re people who’ve already chopped down their coffee plantations.
But the forest is sacred, coffee too.)
Smells like smoke.
They set fire to town hall.
10:34 The armed men from the corner went toward the park.
Everybody went down.
I go to the corner, hear the following dialogue:
—And the guys from Public Safety, where were they?
—Holed up there in town hall.
—And why weren’t they shooting, then?
—Because they didn’t have orders from the governor.
—Oh, that’s bullshit; well, then what’d they come for?
We go down to the park.
Stop in at the offices of the judicial state police.
Doors and walls reveal hundreds of bullet marks.
Dora and Carlos Cisneros’ house reveals the abundance of smoke that the burning pick-up truck left on it.
The flames almost got inside.
There’re no longer any rebels here, nor at the school, nor on the next block over.
We arrive at the park.
Spray paint on the municipal building wall overlooking Central Avenue: We be back soon.
More graffiti at the portico: Long live the insurgents.
Blood on the pillars.
I go through the corridor to the extreme left.
In the first office on the left, desks, file cabinets, chairs are burning.
The bonfire is almost consumed.
You can see a water tank amid the twisted metal.
It used to be the prosecutor’s office.
Ash, smoke, glowing embers, blasts of oven heat.
Second office from left to right: fire still burning from desks, huge pile of ash, lamps on the floor.
Remnants of jackets, blankets, rolls of wire, chairs, car license plates, stationery.
Second floor lobby: burning.
Papers, balls, shoes, typewriters, bicycles: all amidst the smoky ash and heat.
Desk supplies, chairs, storage batteries, remains of a very old photo of the park.
People gawk, whisper.
I go back a few steps to the prosecutor’s office once again.
I see the half-dried pool of blood and the line it traces.
I measure it: twelve long paces of dried blood on the park floor tile.
A comment: “It’s the commandant’s. He came out with his hands up but they put a bullet in him anyway.”
Bloody footprints, from bloody shoes.
More graffiti: Z.A. Zapatista Army.
I return through the corridor: oven vapors come out from each door.
Blackened ceiling of the corridors.
The third office, from left to right, like the ones before, is burning.
Here just ashes and briefly glowing embers.
But the last office is intact: the doors closed and untouched.
Only reveals a large-caliber bullet hole in a small announcement display window.
“They didn’t do anything here because it’s the treasury office: here are the names of people and their properties. This way, they can collect the war tax.”
I go down to the park: on the ground a jacket, a T-shirt, tin cans, a crate of soft drinks.
A Public Safety squad car, shot up, in the middle of the street.
On the second floor of town hall everything seems to have been burned: it’s steaming hot.
The glass, first broken by gunfire, ended up being blown out by the fire.
Here, in front of the municipal building, in the center, a pile of equipment: three typewriters, a motor, a machine they make voter registration cards with.
Some pants from the Public Safety uniform and a backpack.
There’re crates of soft drinks scattered about the park, sardine cans, boxes of cookies, tetrapak juice containers.
Another Public Safety truck, blue, with the windows shot out.
And shoes, boots, police uniform jackets.
A man, one of the town crazies, gathers up some shoes, sits on a park bench, takes off his own and puts on the ones he just collected.
Many look at him and laugh.
He seems not to notice.
Church bells toll infinitely gently now.
The small church bell rings tenderly, thinning out the mid-morning air.
I find myself thinking about the bell ringer from Al filo del agua.5
Fifty-five-gallon barrels, tires, people in front of the church.
“There’s going to be a Mass for the Dead.”
People pile up at the entrance.
We go over.
There’s a truck with caskets. They arrange them.
There’s a priest up above.
We’re about twenty paces away when the truck sets off toward the cemetery.
“There wasn’t any Mass,” people say.
To the left of the church and the convent, with its beautiful colonial roof tiles, just across the street, there’s a corner house.
It was donated to the municipality.
It could have been be a charming museum or a lovely house of culture, right in the middle of town, and with all the features of the elegant old construction.
The mayors’ ignorance has stuck everything in there: they’ve used it as a PRI headquarters, and now as judicial offices: Joint Federal District Trial Court.6
Lots of smoke.
The heaps of files are still burning.
I calculate some twenty cubic feet of ash.
As if to wipe out every trace, all memory.
As if to start all over again.
People walk around the street looking, keeping an eye out, asking, wondering.
Suddenly, everybody runs.
The crazed multitude.
I take my wife by the hand.
We run toward the house.
I see my cousin and my sister.
“Let’s go,” we shout to each other, and flee amid the multitude.
Passing the park we halt.
Nobody knows exactly, but it’s all becoming clear.
The guerrillas grouped up at the market.
Someone came to warn them there was a skirmish at La Cumbre, a rural restaurant on the way to Palenque, before you get to Jotolá, where they made the detour to get to the oil well whose steel tower is an eyesore on the horizon.
It lies in the blue ridge mountains, to the northwest.
“What happened was the Federal Army was coming and the guerrillas who were about to take Palenque ambushed them at La Cumbre.”
“They came to warn them about it, or they warned them by radio.”
“We don’t know who won.”
“That’s why the commotion started, and suddenly everybody started starting running like mad when the guerrillas started gathering.”
We just passed the Banamex buildings.7
Windows shot out.
“They took the money.”
Surely, it can’t be so easy to open a safe?
“They blew the bank vault.”
But we didn’t hear that either, and we’re two and a half blocks away.
On the inside you can see disorder, but disorder of minor proportions: papers strewn about, articles rummaged through, but no trace of an explosion.
“They made off with the bills and tossed out the loose change out among the people.”
“You saw them?”
“No, people told me.”
The guerrillas haven’t gone: they’re at the market.
About half left already, but three or four hundred remain.
They’re going to open the big businesses over there.
10:57 Sound of a plane or helicopter.
Can’t see it.
Yep, there it is.
Flies over the airfield, over by the park.
Descends, but not too much.
Has some letters that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
With the binoculars we read CHIAPAS on the green and white helicopter.
Before my very eyes, about a yard away, a blue dragonfly passes by.
“OK now: nothing was left from the IMSS store but now they’re opening La Suriana,” announces a child herald running by.
A while ago we saw a barefoot Tzeltal going down the street.
The man, as if ill, was taking small steps forward.
Was going to the IMSS store.
Some people told him to hurry because the divvying up was almost over already.
The man continued with his slow baby steps.
Now I see him pass by on the way back, up the way, barely walking with his barefoot little steps, clutching his part of the booty to his chest: a box of Kotex.
He doesn’t know what he’s carrying, but that was his share.
And the looting continues: a man comes carrying a swivel chair.
Another carries off two regular chairs.
One boy can barely manage a huge roll of yellow cloth.
Someone carries off a radio.
“There were even VCRs.”
“El Pedro ripped off a TV.”
A boy goes by with a shiny little battle tank, made out of blue plastic: “It’s gonna be my little brother’s Twelfth Night gift,” he says. 8
A young man with a typewriter.
Yesterday’s drunken bricklayers have passed by several times carrying boxes.
Now one of them passes by pushing a green hand truck with tree boxes: two boxes of Bacardi rum and one box of Presidente brandy.
The Jaguar will get a rest.
A woman says: “Rich people shouldn’t touch anything. Us, we’re poor, so….”
“Doggone thieves,” my sister Dora whispers.
Surely, she’s fearing for her own store, “Novedades Teté,” next to whose door we’re standing.
A boy passes by with clothing: denim jackets and shirts: a good-sized bundle, about twenty.
Tittle-tattle in Carmelino’s store.
The customers talk, grouped together on the sidewalk.
I listen and record:
“Ms. Yaya Solórzano went to take don Enrique his pill, and when she saw how they had him all tied up, she sees him and, my oh my, she faints clean away!”
“Miss Toni Trejo wanted to give don Enrique his medicine, too, but they didn’t give her permission. They’re holding them there: don Enrique and his sons-in-law; and Luis Pascasio and his son.”
“They say they tied don Enrique up because his father, don José, used to flog his workers in El Rosario and in the montería.”
“Don José didn’t hardly have no montería.”
“Well, he did anyway . . . I think he had a chiclería, too.”
“But don José, he died back way back when. These Injuns hadn’t even been born.”
(And the name of Pedro de Solórzano comes to mind, sixteenth-century encomendero, commissioned by the then governor of these lands, the adélentado don Francisco de Montejo,9 to pacify the Godless and rebellious Indian, who kept the Spanish advance through these fertile valleys in constant peril.
Pedro de Solórzano was never able to pacify the region: only to hold the indigenous peoples in check.
From here to Tenosique, the jungle was Chol and Tzeltal territory for the remainder of the 16th Century, and remained so for 300 years more, in a state of permanent war.
“Sole libertarian bastion within New Spain,” some say.
The Ladino dominion in the second valley began in the second half of the 19th century, with the first explorers.
Don Juan Ballinas charted the course of the Jataté River and dreamed of a road that might reach Tabasco and enable commerce and communication.
Those who took advantage of don Juan’s efforts were the “woodsmen”: exploiters of the precious woods that were logged via the Usumacinta River.
Traven has written about them in The Rebellion of the Hanged.10
And also Pablo Montañez (don Pedro Vega), in Lacandonia (1961), Jataté-Usumacinta (1971), and La agonía de la selva (1973).11
Traven: the outsider’s vision.
Montañez: the insider’s vision.
Granted the differences between the great writer and the amateur, Montañez’ almost autobiographical novels are illustrative and moving.
Well, then that was don Pedro de Solórzano, the first in this valley where there are now so many Solórzanos, rich and poor.
The “infidels” remained in libertarian turmoil for more than 300 years.
Then they thinned out or were displaced to the north of the state.
“The Indians from there eat people,” was the old wives’ tale up until the era of don Juan Ballinas.
There were many incursions upon Ocosingo.
Now they’ve returned.
The jungle remembers.)
But the looting continues: a man passes by with blankets: six.
There’s a small knot of women on the corner.
—And you Julia . . . what’d ya make off with?
—Whole buncha cunt rags.
—Yep, pure Kotex. But like this, see . . .—and she makes a gesture with her arms indicating a pile about two feet high—so, sue me! . . . It’s just that, poor bugger, she works so hard . . . We gotta to treat her right: I already gave her a pack.
And the woman bursts into shrill laughter, showing her gold teeth.
Everybody in the little group cracks up laughing.
11:15 The looting of La Suriana continues.
People pass by carrying bales of clothing, big bales.
And towels, pants, blankets, shirts, T-shirts.
Everyone’s invited: “Hurry up—everybody’s grabbing stuff.”
And other women, under their breath, in a low voice, or right out loud, crack their disapproving whips: “Why, they have no shame”; “Thieving bitches”; “Why, it doesn’t even bother them to go and steal”; “It’s because they’re from Oxchuc”; “It’s because they’re not from around here”; “Why not, even people from here are stealing now…lots of people are going around bringing their bundle…if only you’d seen them down there: a swarming anthill of thieves.”
“Even Doctor Segundo was in the IMSS store,” “Even people from Morales photo shop,” “The Cocheco family even carried off big appliances in their car,” “Like the big fat guy from Superior brewing,” “Even Ms. Carmen from up the way,” “Ms. Odila carried off a television,” “La Trini,” “El Ramón, La Tosferina’s son.
A young man passes by with a sackful of Nido brand milk containers.
A lady asks him if he’ll sell her a can.
He responds: “You’re kiddin’ me, right, teach?”
“No, seriously, it’s for my little ones. I didn’t get to buy any.”
“Yeah, right…gimme a break.”
We go back to the park.
There’re people and solitude in a strange silence.
They say the rich are being sheltered in humble houses: with their ranch hands or their maids.
We cross the park and the plaza amid the thrown out clothes and boxes, and tin cans, and jars and shoes.
We cross the plaza, headed toward the church.
12:42 We enter the great empty church. Natural light passes through the magnificent arches of the church windows. Illuminates enormous walls of white stone.
I contemplate the imposing beam work of the ceiling and the visible roof tiles.
I look at the altars: the niches and the walls decorated with river pebbles of varying colors.
The Nativity occupying the altar front.
(After the “burning of the saints,” during the period of don Victórico Grajales, the church remained empty.12 My great-grandmother, doña Angélica Ballinas, donated two wooden sculptures, life-sized, by the Guatemalan sculptor Julio Dubois. The Christ Child, also made of wood and life-sized, by the same sculptor, my mother keeps.)
There’s no one in the enormous nave.
We pause to contemplate the great cedar portal and its door latches.
It’s still unvarnished, and smells delightful.
El Beto Gutiérrez made it, bricklayer, carpenter, electrician, witch doctor, pukuj.
He dreamed, he told me a few days ago, that “there was a lot of hanging meat…it was like a huge space…but the meat was beginning to rot…it was already stinking….I woke up sweating. Maybe something’s going to happen.”
Here’s how he recounts his dreams.
He squints his already tiny eyes and speaks slowly, as if looking far away.
We go out to the street.
People descend rapidly upon the looting of La Suriana, which continues.
“There’re about 300 guerrillas at the market. They’ve got don Enrique and the others there. They also have other men tied up, Indians from around here. Who knows why.”
We take the road down from the church, toward the cemetery.
We reach Jorge Ordóñez’ house.
We take a right to return home.
We meet Alfonso Cruz, a friend.
Hugs, joy, conversation.
He’s the son of don José Cruz, brother of Armando, owners of Toniná, the ranch on whose land the archeological site where my wife has worked at the end of the last four digging seasons is located.
Alfonso came from the ranch on horseback because his daughters are here with their grandparents.
“I came to look in on them because gunshots were heard and I was worried. Socorro didn’t let me come, but it’s better to see that they’re safe.”
This afternoon he’ll return to the ranch with Antonino, his cousin and, like him, conservator of the archeological site.
We make plans to go to Toniná on Friday and eat there.
Carlos Espinoza, Alfonso’s father-in-law, chats with us.
Two more people, who aren’t from town but work here, join in on the chat.
One of them reports: “Yesterday there were about 200 of them here in the street. This was all green. We encouraged each other and went out to talk here at the corner door. One of the Central Americans would talk, then answer his radio or shoot a burst of machine-gun fire into the air with his huge weapon. And if only you’d seen it, all the little Indians from around here, ‘cause they brought several squads of Indians with imitation wooden Plano rifles or little .22 rifles, they had them back here, in formation. When he would let loose with the burst of machine-gun fire, they would just cringe with their eyes closed and were shaking like a leaf. Poor bastards, they were scared.”
13:01 I see little old man Martín coming with a roll of cloth wrapped in a plastic bag.
He lives on one of my father’s properties.
Surely he saw us.
I pretend not to have seen him: continue with the conversation.
My wife does the same.
He passes right next to us with his gaze directed at the opposite wall, covering his face with the enormous roll, which he switched from one shoulder to the other.
Weird codes of conduct, these: we don’t look at him so he won’t feel ashamed, and he pretends not to have seen us.
Alfonso interrogates some women: “And that, you…how much did it cost you?”
They don’t answer him.
He harps on it with other people: “You, where’re they selling stuff so cheap…?
“Everybody’s coming away with so much stuff—must be a good sale.”
“You, where’d you buy that…?
“Yes, indeedy—free trade has now begun!”
13:10 They say there’s fighting in Temó, or thereabouts.
A woman dressed in black passes by the corner below.
She’s coming from the church, headed toward the cemetery.
We head down a ways.
There she goes, through the half-deserted street.
“Looks like one of the policemen’s widows,” says a man with a cowboy hat on.
There she goes, alone, young, wailing with grief, along the empty street.
We say goodbye to Alfonso and company.
We go up to the house.
In the street, they ask us if we’re reporters: I haven’t stopped writing and my wife is carrying her camera.
We meet Toño in front of aunt Flor’s house.
Two indigenous types, dressed in civilian clothing, with black hats and radio equipment, have followed us all the way to the corner.
I hadn’t noticed them.
Toño pointed them out to us: someone had told him, a while ago, that they were following us.
Those black hats look Guatemalan.13
My nieces, my cousins go out.
We chat for a little while.
My cousin Eglantine says that today a man came out of her house, which is on the same corner as the judicial state police.
Fearfully, he asked permission to flee from there, telling aunt Flor not to be afraid.
They don’t know if he was a policeman or detainee.
He was hiding there when the guerrillas came in.
They didn’t find him.
We talk about the fighting in La Cumbre.
That, yes, it did indeed take place but that the federal Army won and that they’re already coming this way.
Someone reported it by phone or by radio.
We continue toward the house.
We pause with another group on the corner.
The one with the radio and the black hat plays dumb, sitting on Arístides’ corner.
Someone reports: “The commandant was like this, with his head turned around this way. Just at that moment a female captain from the guerrillas passed by, a big black broad, curly-haired, the one who killed him, and using her big boot straightened out his head with a swift kick.”
14:12 They say there’s skirmishing in Rancho Nuevo.
A chemist, friend of my brother Edgar, just called.
He’s from Villa las Rosas.
His family was going to San Cristóbal.
They came back from Mitzitón because there was fighting up ahead and it wasn’t possible to get to San Cristóbal.
Another call: they looted the San Cristóbal IMSS store.
15:13 Another rumor smoldering through the street: the Army already arrived.
They say they’re coming by way of the High School, at the town’s entrance.
A man comes by the school carrying a big piece of furniture.
I hear Carmelino shouting, “Eric! Eric! And La Enia . . . ?”
And so on: “Hurry up . . . ! They’re coming already! Get inside! What the hell you gonna look for down there?!”
Eric’s married now and lives two houses up.
Has a store on the highway.
The man with the furniture stops at the school.
Peeks out at the corner.
Makes up his mind, finally, and crosses the street with his enormous cargo.
He comes up the street.
People walk home quickly.
Three men pass by and report: “There they come now, two blocks away. They’re coming little by little, so as not to make noise.”
And another: “Ah, so supposedly they’ve come all the way from Mexico City, that’s what took them so long.”
“First they stopped at la Villa to pray; they came on their knees.”
“But . . . well, where are they, the sons of bitches?”
The rumor must have spread through the whole town already.
The man with the gigantic load reached Lety’s corner.
“There they come now! Over there, the soldiers are coming!”
The man crosses the corner, approaches us.
Now we can identify what he’s been carrying with such great effort: an enormous cedar countertop.
And residual furniture and fixtures of looted stores parades before our eyes, amid the haste and alarming rumor.
A few minutes ago a man with a blender passed by.
We saw someone with a fan.
One person with a mirror frame and another with the mirror.
In the last hour the number of people who were carrying shoes, rubber boots, sandals of various colors, increased.
“It’s because they opened Calzamoda and there’s a shitload of shoes. . . .”
“Even ceiling panels from the IMSS store were stolen.”
“Right down to the light bulbs!”
Elías, Lety’s husband, signals to us from the corner and yells out to us that now they’re coming.
The ones on the other corner tipped him off.
Can it be?
The guerrillas were supposed to have left the market already.
“No,” says Génner, “they were going to wait for the soldiers there.”
“They say there’re a lot of them hidden in houses and around town. As soon as the soldiers are in place they’ll be hemmed in, and they’re going finish them off. That’s what some people from the marketplace were saying.”
Shouts suddenly, as if muffled, as if subdued.
At the corner of the highway the first Army truck appears, at a very slow speed.
The soldiers signal. Get inside! Get inside!
We’re all looking out the doors and windows.
Another truck with soldiers and military gear.
And another, and yet another.
Some white buses follow, full of soldiers with arms at the ready.
Ten or twelve vehicles in total, counting the buses.
“Look over there!”
We see soldiers passing on foot through the street where the school is located, advancing from north to south.
“Get inside! Get inside!”, they signal urgently to all onlookers and to the few people still passing through the street.
First shots down below: three, like a signal, small caliber.
We sure go inside now, like everybody on our street.
We close the doors.
Go up to the second floor.
The last troop truck passes by, headed for the highway.
The man with the countertop, who’d remained frozen next to Eric’s house, ten yards away from his cargo, retrieves it now.
Crosses the highway.
From the terrace we see Toño on the roof of aunt Flor’s house.
With his children.
Aura and I are here, on the terrace that overlooks the street.
We scan the horizon trying to see where the soldiers the soldiers will come down from, but can’t see anything.
Only sun on the silent streets that we do manage to see.
Let’s hope the rebels have gone.
They’ve had all the time in the world, ever since the three warning shots were fired.
I’m sure they were Zapatista lookouts alerting their fellow soldiers down below.
But nothing’s happened.
“They’re going to go down by Fitín’s house,” Aura says.
(The town ended there ten years ago: a street that didn’t used to exist before and which now leads down to the marketplace and the air field.)
But the minutes pass and we don’t see anything.
“They took so long. I’m sure they went all the way over to the Beltway.”
(Yet more recent road work: it encircles the town from the gas station, on the highway from San Cristóbal, passes behind the cemetery and between the marketplace and the landing strip. It continues along La Parcela and joins the highway that leads to Yajalón.)
“That’s great: they got out just in time.”
“God willing. . . .”
15:45 The full afternoon sun returns the church to its magnificence.
Sparse gray clouds.
15:50 “Let’s hope they’ve gone,” I think, while contemplating the fleeting transparency and silence.
15:52 The shooting thunders with unanticipated violence!
A bit of smoke, which disappears immediately.
A deafening bang: like exaggerated cannon fire.
Intense exchange of gunfire.
Clacking of machine guns and fainter strafing, as if from submachine guns.
Violent rattling at full blast.
15:53 Cross-fire continues.
Thuds are heard, from a bazooka or an enormous cannon.
Thuds are heard, like bombs, although there’re no helicopters or planes.
Another tremendous and hair-raising explosion.
What sounds like that?
What can it be?
I look out from the inner terrace, fearing the town will have been blown up or that the houses below will be in flames.
I poke my head out through the terrace’s protective railing but everything’s the same, everything’s in its place.
There’re no flames or smoke to be seen.
Nothing’s missing, apparently.
And the deafening shoot-out, uninterrupted, tremendous.
Another thunderous impact.
Another loud bang like a bomb.
Another and yet another.
Like cannon fire.
“Must be bazookas,” my cousin Pablo says.
Machine-gun fire follows, the battle is joined.
Children and adults run through the house seeking refuge.
15:55 Intense cross-fire continues.
You can hear it behind the church, from north to south, in the direction of the marketplace and Port Arturo, over by the air field.
The Army didn’t arrive by air.
15:57 Why didn’t the guerrillas just leave?
More cannon fire!
Minimal silence, broken by sub-machine guns and machine guns.
More and more and more.
All from the same direction, in the eastern part of town, behind the church, from north to south.
Or, more precisely, from northeast to southeast.
15:59 Terrifying impact.
The whole town shakes and sways.
It shocks you, impacts you, batters your psyche, a bang of that magnitude.
I try not to stop writing.
I think the projectiles can’t reach here but I write sitting on the ground, protected by the window wall and, a yard farther away, by the terrace wall.
I think about my mother and her heart.
For the first time I see her truly frightened and breathing with difficulty.
We take her to her room: she was with my father, in the living room, listening to the violent bangs, when the last horrific explosion rang out.
We’re all protected somewhere.
One thinks of a bomb blast capable of destroying the town, of causing irreparable damage.
That’s how the explosions sound.
I want to see.
I peer out very cautiously from the terrace overlooking the street; see two Army pick-up trucks pass by the school.
Another major impact!
But no sign in the direction it rang out from: neither smoke, nor flames, nor dust.
One thinks of bombs dropped from the air but there’re no helicopter or airplane noises.
How I regret my lack of military training.
What can possibly produce that altogether thunderous sound?
A grenade launcher, a cannon, a bazooka?
And the medium-impact bangs?
16:02 The exchange of gunfire continues.
Another loud bang I can only think to call a “blast”!
16:03 As if something ripped through the air.
The bang makes one’s blood curdle.
I see the immovable church tower, and hear the tremendous silence after the stunning, paralyzing reverberation.
I think about Karen, Teté, Oswaldo, Ámbar, Paca, Arturo, and Angélica, children between four and twelve years old, whom I saw a little while ago, face down, beneath the kitchen table.
Very serious: as if they were all eyes.
My nieces and nephews.
In the deep silence the cries of geese, blackbirds and roosters.
Afternoon aches in her infinite beauty.
I hear the clamor.
“War is imminent,” two policemen were saying this morning.
It’s already here.
Flocks of blackbirds pass over the church.
Some lone herons.
A flock of pigeons flies above us.
Another perturbing explosion.
16:07 No one will believe the intense roar of the detonations.
We want to record it, but the recorder doesn’t turn up, or it needs batteries, or there’re no cassettes.
16:10 Shadows run along the second floor of town hall.
I focus the binoculars: soldiers.
16:12 The shoot-out continues in all its intensity.
Will this never end?
It’s lasted about 20 minutes already.
16:17 An Army personnel vehicle comes down our street.
16:20 The gunfire continues.
Total silence, for a few seconds, broken by this raging gunfight.
A strange sound: like a terrifying screech piercing the air.
Like the sound of a jet plane racing at ground level.
What was that?
16:31 The firing hasn’t ceased.
My mother is calm inside her room.
My nieces and sisters and brothers-in-law are also there.
“Here I am like a hen with her chicks,” she says when I appear.
“Don’t be poking your head out, son. Be careful.”
16:33 Another spectacular detonation. Drumfire, intense.
16:38 Sub-machine gun at about fifty yards .
The proximity is all the more chilling, though the burst of sub-machine gun fire seems almost toy-like, compared with the clamor below.
In the silence: the trickle of the water tank.
16:42 Gunfire and silence intermingling.
I’m writing on the second floor.
My wife brings up a tray of food: I put it on the window sill I’m leaning against.
A delicious, steaming hot plate of chicken and rice.
Habanero sauce with lemon and a little red onion.
I’m seated on a bedroll, on the white marble floor.
I eat and write.
I think, now, that I set myself to write as a way of conquering defenselessness.
We all, in the house, do something to conquer it.
16:57 Another loud bang.
16:58 A huge racket.
Abundant submachine-gun fire.
Merciless, the cross-fire continues.
The echo reverberates in the high mountain range.
Cannons, bazookas, grenade launchers?
How to know?
Just the loud bang and the long echo interrupted by ever more submachine-gun fire.
I lean out, once more, over the street-side terrace, behind the part under construction.
Shots are heard very close by.
Elías and his son are at the door, on the corner.
They signal me to get inside, certainly because I’m high up.
I hide myself a bit.
I count the seconds: fifty-seven.
There hasn’t been a single minute without gunfire.
17:00 Three violent reports.
I gaze at palm trees, bougainvillea, lime trees, citron plants, grapefruit trees, orange trees, and tangerine trees in the town foliage.
A rooster crows at length.
Isolated shots of lesser audible impact.
Clouds in the distance, above blue hills.
Fighting of men below.
17:05 More shelling. Then nothing.
17:07 Three isolated shots.
17:09 Other isolated shots from small-caliber arms.
Gunfire seems to have ceased.
17:11 More gunfire and more heavy weapons!
More heavy weapons slicing through the air!
Swallows begin to flutter amidst the loud bang.
Nearby sub-machine gun fire.
17:15 Three loud bangs from heavy weapons.
17:17 Nothing yet.
Gunfire’s become sporadic.
No: another short burst of machine-gun fire rings out.
17:20 Another tremendous reverberation!
17:23 Isolated shots.
Suddenly I’m paralyzed.
Goosebumps: a nearby sound en Arístides’ [pool hall/billiard hall].
Just there, across the patio below.
Fright in the face of muffled noise.
I look out and you can’t see anything.
Suddenly it occurs to me it could be a citron plant.
Yes: a big citron branch fell down on the sheet of zinc.
17:26 Another mighty explosion!
17:28 And yet another.
In the midst of all this, silence nibbled away at by the geese.
17:29 Another thud, to which of the long, drawn out cock’s crow seems to respond.
17:30 Once again the awful thunder.
The shadow entered the first valley.
Now, the sun beats down upon the blue hills now and above the clouds that cap the hilltops.
The blue mountain range becomes a blur to the right, toward the beginning of the second valley, just past the hill of El Paraíso, the estate don Juan Ballinas [laid the groundwork for] last century.
(When don Juan died, El Paraíso was inherited by his children: uncle Cuauhtémoc and my great-grandmother, Mamma Angelica. [EB: para que sepas, también es un giro común entre los morenos del sur de EEUU; por ejemplo, a mi abuela Gertrude, mamá de mi papá, le decíamos “Mamma Gert”; a ella no le gustaba nada el título “Grandmother”; según ella, ese nombre le hizo parecer demasiada vieja.] She ceded her lands from Agua Dulce to our uncle, and came to live in town after the revolution.14 My mother was born in Agua Dulce. Uncle Guatimoc inherited El Paraíso from aunt Consuelo and she, facing land-reform persecution on her homestead, Dolores, and on her inherited property, El Paraíso, began to sell it off.
It was painful, because the family history is safeguarded in the big house at El Paraíso. El Paraíso does honor to its name. In the beautiful foothills lies the orchard don Juan planted and uncle Cuauhtémoc made grow: cedar trees, sapodilla trees, sapote trees, mamey trees, cacao trees and coffee bean trees make up a dense cultivated foliage.
In the midst of which rises a source of purest spring water. The stream runs amid the vegetation, crosses a field of giant bamboo stalks—they form basins with the base of these yellow stems furrowed by streaks of green—and surfaces at the house. A fork from the stream services the kitchen: running water from the clear spring, a sudden torrent, passes nearby the oven and the burners. Then it follows its course through the valley. It flows into more streams and thence to the Jataté River, the father river which is born near El Corralito and cleaves a path through the first valley. And this second valley. And shall so continue gathering unto itself ever greater waters, till such time as it joins with the Lacantun River and flows into the Usumacinta river system. This, at any rate, is the El Paraíso I remember. That’s the way I saw it as a child, when we would arrive there after a twelve- to fourteen-hour day by horseback. It used to said before that aunt Consuelo suffered persecution from the advocates of land reform, who expropriated her land and put it up for sale. The last thing she conserved from El Paraíso was the big house, the orchard, the cemetery: 14 hectares, all told. My aunt Maga bought them when she left the big city. There are so many people in these valleys now. When don Juan came to [lay the foundation for] his house, in the mid 19th century, this used to be the great Desert of the Lacandon People, the Desert of Solitude. Since the Spanish incursions of the 16th and 17th centuries, few attempts had been made to traverse the jungle. Don Juan, with his scant resources wrested from the land, carried out reconnaissance expeditions of the Jataté River, to the extent he was able to travel it. Reached, after several attempts spread out over the years, as far as Flores el Petén, in Guatemala. Named various rivers, lagoons, valleys and mountains. Produced the first map of the area. Wrote a memoir: The Desert of the Lacandon People, whose manuscript Frans Blom15 and Gertrude Duby16 discovered during one of their respites in El Paraíso, before entering the jungle. They promoted its publication, on behalf of the state government, in 1951. Three or four years ago, Rodrigo Núñez reissued it in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. And so it was. The great desert. The desolate valleys, sylvan. But beginning in 1960 people came from all around. The government got out of a jam by parceling out lands in the jungle: people from Veracruz, from Michoacán, from Hidalgo, from Guerrero, arrived in these valleys. And came down from the highlands of Chiapas, and came from the north of the state. And the jungle decreased and the population increased. And the residential areas grew and the communities, and the gunfire and the cornfields and pastures. And the basic necessities. And the noble redeemers who shall carry us off to paradise at gunpoint. Another paradise: that for which they kill down here below.)
17:50 I lost my train of thought.
The din has continued and the gunshots.
And the violent thuds.
And the cry of geese intermingling with cross-fire.
Snatches of silence.
You can see a little smoke near Port Arturo.
The beauty of late afteroon goes on increasing.
I change my observation point.
Sun sets behind Chacashib [hill].
Beams of light beam forth as in ancient engravings.
When I saw those engravings in the Bible, for the first time, at the age of 11 or so, I
“recognized” this image I see again now, amidst silence and gunfire.
I think of Díaz Mirón’s17 verse:
West-setting sun crowns the august pinnacle
Just when it seems calm was restored, the exchange of gunfire worsens.
Another startling roar!
When’s this going to stop?
The light beams’ beauty intensifies as they diminish.
El cannonade continues.
Where’d so many bullets come from?
Did they really have such power as to declare war?
So much resistance is inexplicable.
Yesterday, Alfonso Cruz’ acquaintances were saying, the rebels were showing off their armaments.
“We’ve even got missiles,” they said smiling.
But they must have something to put up such resistance.
A white car passes the corner at full speed.
The shoot-out rebegins below.
The shelling returns.
Intense, though less so than that of a while back.
There was a drunk on the corner.
Looked like Eulogio Trujillo.
I hear a burst of heavy-weapon machine-gun fire nearby.
I look out from behind the wall under construction.
It was heard at the corner, but there’s nobody there.
Nor Eulogio, if that’s who it was.
17:50 There’s no longer light in the hills but the shoot-out continues.
17:53 I see Carmelino on his balcony, barely leaning over.
They called him by phone from down below.
Saying there’re lots of rebels holed up in the empty houses of people who’re on vacation.
That the bulk of the rebels are putting up resistance in the market and near the library.
That they’ve been occupying lone houses since last night.
But we’ve also heard gunshots, though fewer, along the river and along the highway.
17:56 Another brutal explosion followed by a furious exchange of gunfire.
18:01 Intense shoot-out of heavy weapons.
I go down to the dining room and meet nephews, brothers-in-law, brothers and uncles on the stairs, taking advantage of the double wall of protection.
The living room’s big picture windows, which we so enjoy on normal days, now give us a sense of fragility.
Even though beyond the patio lies the concrete wall and then Arístides’ house.
“But a grenade on the patio would finish us all off,” says Rosario with her voice lowered.
Everybody looks for a place far away from the big windows.
Everyone’s on the staircase, seated, very [prim and proper], talking things over and forecasting and flaunting their respective information and education.
Between them they know it all, but each one knows better than the rest.
My father’s sitting by himself, in the dining room.
He shows no signs of change.
He speaks with his usual tone of voice, a little sardonic.
He says, while overhearing the conversation on the staircase:
“There’s gonna be a whole lotta cajol from here on out…”
And with a glance and a slight movement of the head he signals in the direction of the stairs, from which a wall is separating us.
And [me,] I go back upstairs thinking of cajoles from here, there, the jungle, Mexico City, the entire country, Central America and the rest of the world.
The little word is used a lot around these parts.
Cajol: A Tzeltal word comprised of c’ajc: heat, and jol: head.
Two minutes without bullets.
18:04 The streetlights come on.
The shoot-out continues.
Night has fallen.
18:18 Gekkos, geese and gunshots.
I can no longer see.
Just a little clearing in the cloudy sky.
18:20 The houses have their lights turned off.
The gunfire ceased.
18:21 Another burst of machine-gun fire!
A truck comes down the street at full speed.
The rattling of sub-machine guns and machine guns furiously begins again.
18:27 Another hair-raising thud.
Comes a rain-like wind that violently shakes the clumped palm grove that’s grown with impunity on the patio further up.
The royal palm wily growing in productive terrain, now surrounded by automobiles.
Will it rain?
There’s a single star in the cloudy sky.
Another tremendous explosion!
The whole palm grove shakes.
The wind’s cold.
Through the window I see two stars more.
But here I no longer see: I can scarcely write and, nevertheless, one mustn’t turn on the light.
Another violent reverberation: is shakes internally but I begin to get used to it and recover quickly.
I close the curtains. It’s
18:30 Nothing: silence.
18:47 Light in the park.
There’s been no firing.
But now they let loose: eight small-caliber rounds!
Carmelino yells at Eric to shut his door.
Eric was sitting in the doorstep of his house, looking toward the street.
The church towers jut upward, framing the illuminated clock.
18:52 Silence since the last entry.
Five small shots like .22-caliber.
An intense blue space seems to have encroached on the clouds.
Through that hole appears, complete, the constellation of Orion.
19:10 Nearly twenty minutes of crickets and silence.
19:37 Two startling thuds behind the church.
Before, just silence.
19:43 The blessed aroma of night-blooming jasmine wafts up to the inner terrace.
I’ve stayed behind here, alone, contemplating the stars.
I write by the light of the street lamp that shines from aunt Flor’s house.
It passes over the foliage of orange trees and bougainvillea.
Spills a little light over these leaves.
19:57 Machine-gun fire resurfaces.
20:10 Another short shoot-out.
20:34 My children call.
They’re worried within reason: without panic.
We give them information as objectively as we can.
20:49 From town hall a billow of smoke keeps rising.
Seems longer by night.
Denser, amid the partial clarity of the sky and the streetlamp light.
The houses remain in darkness.
As if we’d all agreed.
In the sky you can see the two Ursas and the Great Southern Triangle.
There’s been no gunfire.
20:57 Three scattered gunshots near the church.
It’s confirmed they freed the prisoners from el Cereso, in San Cristóbal.
It’s rumored that the dead here already number more than 50.
23:15 At about nine, we had coffee with pan coleto almost in the dark.
There’re twenty-five people in the house.
Twenty-five points of view.
“It was necessary.”
“There’s a lot of poverty.”
“The central government has been looting our state for hundreds of years.”
“These murderers have combat experience.”
“Nobody kills unarmed people in cold blood like these damned people did.”
“The Indians are very lazy.”
“They’ve gotten very uppity.”
“There’s no equal opportunity.”
“He who works, possesses.”
“There’re lots of rich Indians.”
“There’s no longer any land to parcel out.”
“A lot of foreign people have come.”
“The priests have stirred up hatred.”
“No to weapons.”
“That liver-lipped Cárdenas.” [EB: ¿es decir, “bembo” o “bembón”?]
“The Bible in Tzeltal.”
“We’ve built this town by working.”
“Nobody’s given us anything for free.”
“We all work from sun up to sun down.”
“They take away our petroleum, our fruits, our honey, our livestock.”
“We’re first in the production of corn, beans, coffee.”
“The lazy bums want to take credit for everything.”
“It’s easier to organize people to kill than to produce.”
“All the productive ranches that the Indians invade become dens of poverty: that’s how San José is.”
“Yeah, but . . . where’d the weapons come from?”
We saw the ECO News “special report”: it said nothing about the confrontation here.
Nobody knows anything.
Four hours of intense and continuous and one hour of sporadic gunfire.
There’re probably many dead.
Perhaps we’ll know tomorrow.
More gunshots now.
What’ll happen to the hostages?
They’ve probably barricaded them in.
And the wounded?
How many on each side?
How they upset the family, the presidential candidates’ statements.
Everybody, in the house, rebuffs Aguilar Talamantes, Madero, Cárdenas, Colosio, González
Torres, the women. [EB: endnote?]
They don’t know what’s happening here but they make statements, smile, seek votes, market their brand, make political capital out of blood.
That’s how the press will be in a few days.
There’ve been scattered shots.
23:54 And the gunfire continues.
The market, the library, the local Conasupo, the radio station, the nearby houses: [that’s where they are], according to phone rumor.
They say the guerrillas have taken over more houses: have holed up in occupied houses.
It didn’t rain.
There’s a profound silence beneath the waning moon.
Dogs bark in the unlighted houses.
A soothing gust of night-blooming jasmine rises.
Suddenly, it seems like all this hasn’t happened.
23:57 Three shots.
3. Tzeltal (or Ts’eltal) is a Mayan language spoken in the Mexican state of Chiapas, mostly in the municipalities of Ocosingo, Altamirano, Huixtán, Tenejapa, Yajalón, Chanal, Sitalá, Amatenango del valley, Socoltenango, Villa las Rosas, Chilón, San Juan Cancun, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Oxchuc. As of 2005, it was a living language with some 371,730 speakers, including a number of monolinguals.
4. La Compañía Nacional de Subsistencias Populares.
5. Acclaimed novella by Mexican author Agustín Yáñez. Published in English as The Edge of the Storm by University of Texas Press (1963).
6. A trial court that has multiple-forum jurisdiction over various subject matter cases, mainly civil and criminal.
7. Banco Nacional de México, or Banamex, is Mexico’s second-largest bank.
8. Epiphany, January 6.
10. Berick Traven Torsvan. 1890-1969. US novelist, born in Germany and living in Mexico from 1920. His novels, originally written in German, include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1934); La rebelión de los colgados (1938) was translated into English as The Rebellion of the Hanged (1952).
11. Escritor e historiador don Pedro Vega, más conocido como “Pablo Montañez.”
12. El 20 de noviembre de 1934, la mayoría de los santos y otras pinturas fueron quemados en el parque central con motivo de la campaña anticlerical que realizó el gobierno de áquel entonces . . . [d]urante el gobierno del ingeniero Francisco J. Grajales . . .
13. Chapín es el término usado para denominar a los originarios de Guatemala. . . . Existen muchas teorías de donde proviene el uso de “chapín” para denominar a los guatemaltecos.
14. The Mexican Revolution was a major armed struggle that started in 1910, with an uprising led by Francisco Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz, and lasted for the better part of a decade until around 1920. Over time the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multi-sided civil war. This armed conflict is often categorized as the most important sociopolitical event in Mexico and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century.
15. Frans Blom (August 9, 1893, Copenhagen – June 23, 1963, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico), Danish explorer and archaeologist.
16. Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom (1901 – December 23, 1993), Swiss journalist, social anthropologist, and documentary photographer who spent five decades chronicling the Mayan cultures of Chiapas, Mexico, particularly the culture of the Lacandon Maya. In later life, she also became an environmental activist. Blom’s former home Casa Na Bolom is a research and cultural center devoted to the protection and preservation of the Lacandon Maya and La Selva Lacandona rain forest.
17. Salvador Díaz Mirón (December 14, 1853 – June 12, 1928) was a Mexican poet. He was born in the port city of Veracruz. His early verse, written in a passionate, romantic style, was influenced by Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. His later verse was more classical in mode. His poem, “A Gloria”, was influential. His 1901 volume Lascas (“Chips from a Stone”) established Mirón as a precursor of modernismo. After a long period of exile, he returned to Mexico and died in Veracruz on June 12, 1928.