Poverty, inevitability, and synthetic clothing

When I arrived back in Mexico City in January, everyone was talking about the lines for gas. Recently-inaugurated president López Obrador shut down parts of the national oil and gas distribution network to combat oil theft. I enjoyed the memes doing the rounds, but didn’t think too much more about gas. In the days after I moved on to Cuernavaca, however, I found myself returning to the images and language of oil theft – locally known as huachicoleo. In between chasing interviews for my dissertation, I started taking notes on media coverage of oil theft. These notes led to a pitch to NACLA, and eventually to a short essay on López Obrador’s discourse on oil theft.

At the center of the essay is a terrible event that occurred in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan in mid-January. An oil duct in Tlahuelilpan was perforated, so that high-octane gas transported through the duct could be siphoned off. This particular perforation led to a geyser of gas spraying into the air, and a crowd of hundreds gathering around to collect free fuel. The gas vapour caught fire, igniting an inferno that burned for hours. At least sixty died at the site, while seventy more died later from their injuries.

There was one aspect of media coverage of the explosion that I could not find a place for in the NACLA essay. A lot of reporting and commentary on the event made the tragedy seem inevitable. It was inevitable because oil thieves have no regard for human life, and recklessly tap oil ducts. It was inevitable because Tlahuelilpan is a relatively poor area and free gas is a boon (even when there isn’t talk of a nationwide shortage). It was inevitable because in such a crowd of people massing around a geyser of gas, there was bound to be some spark, something to ignite the conflagration.

Article after article also characterized the explosion as inevitable because of synthetic clothing. The thinking was that poor people wear clothing made from synthetic fibers, and these fibers are more likely to produce static electricity, so that many people milling together and wearing synthetic clothing would inevitably produce a spark to trigger the explosion. In the days after the explosion, the popularity of this explanation spread – although always as a possibility, and without any particular evidence to prove that this was the cause of the inferno.

This idea contains a powerful image of the precariousness of poverty. Poverty is not just a demand for cheap or free gas; poverty plays out way down at the level of the fibre in your clothing, and the hidden dangers among these fibres. According to this explanation of the explosion, a crowd of people in more expensive organic cotton t-shirts are a low risk; their threads do not contain the inevitable spark of catastrophe.

There is something more in this discourse of inevitability and synthetic clothing. Commentators and reporters invariably explained that synthetic clothing is what those people wear over there in poor Tlahuelilpan. This casts the tragedy as something that happens in that other, distant Mexico – the same one in which most of the state and gang violence takes place. And it makes clothing the cause of suffering among the marginalized, instead of treating it as an outward expression of that marginalization.

This inevitability of tragedy also feeds back into something that I did mention in the NACLA article. With the threat of catastrophe carried against the very skin of people in poor and marginalized areas, comes easy justifications of intervention to protect the people from themselves. A familiar and patronizing argument where soldiers in uniform are needed to protect people in synthetic shirts. The differentness of the people of Tlahuelilpan, and the fact that they wear the possibility of their own ruin, makes intervention seem so simple, so necessary – despite what these people might themselves say about such a policy.

A month of farfetching

During the winter break, while New York was shivering through a polar vortex, I slipped away to the City of Eternal Spring for a month of research. With Cuernavaca as much as one hundred degrees (Fahrenheit, calm down) warmer than New York, it was a rather good choice.

I equipped myself with fiction and non-fiction for this trip to Mexico. On the way there I started reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and The Spectacular City by Daniel Goldstein. I read the former for pleasure, without marking up the pages, and yet within the novel I found (and hardly for the first time with Le Guin’s fiction) an unexpected resonance – both with Goldstein’s study, and my own attempts at field research.

My priority for Cuernavaca was to conduct interviews, building up a richer understanding of what happened in the city between 2009 and 2011. During that time a military operation killed the most powerful crime boss in the region, leading to a very public power struggle among formerly aligned criminal factions. At times public life in the city came to a complete standstill, but in response to this insecurity a social movement emerged, that eventually marched to the doors of the national palace in Mexico City.

Beyond semi-structured interviews, however, I wanted to get a better sense of the city. Cuernavaca doesn’t get much attention in studies of insecurity in Mexico – these tend to go for the superlative cases, the “murder capitals” – and I wanted to better understand how a less remarkable city could produce the country’s biggest social mobilization against such insecurity.

Le Guin’s novel provided a rather nice encapsulation of this rather vague research agenda.

What one is after when farfetching might be described as the intuitive perception of a moral entirety; and thus it tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor.

Goldstein’s ethnographic study of a town in Bolivia is an excellent example of farfetching research. The study centers on two events: a religious procession, and an attempted lynching. Goldstein posits a connection between these seemingly very different events, through the idea of the spectacle. Residents of the community, which is often rendered invisible to state recognition and support, use spectacles to make themselves visible and to demand recognition from the state.

I kept the idea of farfetching before me in Cuernavaca, as an example of open, exploratory, and intuitive research. I pursued interviews, but tried not to presume to know what I needed to take from those interviews. I read through piles of local newspapers, and kept daily field notes. I refused no invitation, and thus ended up in a first aid course for local journalists, sponsored by the Red Cross. I became a dummy for demonstrating the Heimlich manoeuvre.

Through this approach, I did indeed meet and interview a number of journalists. I learned new things and rethought aspects of my project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the connections between the media and narco-messages came to feel more and more important. The most immediate yield of all the farfetching, however, does not tie directly into my dissertation at all. Throughout the month, the constant focus in newspapers and online was on oil theft, and recently-inaugurated President López Obrador’s aggressive stance against such theft. The discourse around oil theft was so rich and interesting that I ended up pitching and writing a short piece about it for NACLA.

Not directly related, but not completely unrelated either. This is Le Guin’s “moral entirety,” as I understand it: that my research is only as important or interesting as the bigger picture, of which the project is a tiny part. The ultimate idea is not to perfectly encapsulate a topic, reducing it to “rational symbols,” but rather to speak to something so big and so compelling that it cannot be neatly encapsulated. Work that resonates, but doesn’t reduce.