Digging into the nota roja

When I am out and about during field research, I invariably have a roll of papers under my arm. If I don’t have a roll of papers, it is only because I’m en route to raid one of the local newsstands. The roll of papers is usually a mix of weekly or monthly political magazines, and daily newspapers and tabloids – the mags and the rags.

I started poring over the mags and the rags to get a feel for the media landscape and style of reporting in Mexico. Media archives were my main source, in putting together a database of narco-messages, so I wanted some context for the sources I was using. Over time, however, digging into the papers has become its own activity. In this I have been inspired by ethnographers like Lisa Wedeen, who talk about coming back from the field with boxes of material to continue picking through. I’ve never kept track of how much of this material I work through, but on this current trip, I am spending at least an hour a day in the mags and rags.

This time around, I arrived with a different priority for this print ethnography (or whatever we’re going to call it). On past trips, I dipped into the nota roja – the notorious tabloid papers that show graphic photos of crime scenes on their front covers. I quickly learned not to open these over lunch, and made a point of not picking up these rags more than once or twice per week. This time around, however, I decided I was missing something important by not digging deeper into the nota roja. So I have started picking up Extra, one of Cuernavaca’s local rags, every day (despite the protestations of the vendor at my local newsstand).

Why focus on these pages full of blood and violence (and football)? In previous interviews with journalists, I heard that Extra is less dependent on the government than most local papers. Extra has a huge circulation; it funds itself. A lot of the other papers depend on government funding through purchase of advertising space and similar, in order to stay in circulation. I already knew that the nota roja published material that other papers didn’t, but it was through the interviews that I realized Extra publishes material that others cannot, rather than just what they will not.

A second reason arose while I was reading Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Pachirat argues against the idea that if we could only see violence or injustice, we would turn against and reject it. He sees a more complex tension; our disgust or outrage are only sustained by distance from an objectionable thing. With proximity and familiarity, we lose our ability to be shocked. In the case of his work on slaughterhouses, Pachirat doesn’t think a more open or transparent meat industry will lead to mass conversion to vegetarianism. Or even to much complaint with industrialized killing. This got me thinking; the nota roja brings exposure to violence to anyone passing by a newsstand. Have I underestimated the desensitizing, normalizing effect of rags like Extra.

Finally, not long before I returned to Mexico, the arresting image of Óscar and Valeria Martínez, drowned on the U.S.-Mexico border, was reproduced again and again across media outlets and feeds. Outraged commentary claimed that such an image would force action, that finally people would see the truth about U.S. migration policy. Other commentary noted the limits to the galvanizing force of such images, and that the circulation of the image could be more dehumanizing than compassion-provoking.

So this is one of my current research missions. Read the nota roja every damn day (but never over lunch). Don’t try to exclude it from my study of the media as something grotesque but unimportant. Don’t pretend to understand violence without looking carefully at one of the primary ways that violence is mediated and circulated here.


Swimming in the ruins

On my last couple of trips to Mexico, one of my first orders of business has been to find a swimming pool. In New York I am spoiled by the availability of free outdoor pools during the summer, and almost free indoor pools for the rest of the year. In Mexico, the best I have been able to do (without presenting three original birth certificates and fifteen certificates of health) is joining a gym with a pool.

In Cuernavaca, I found a pool inside a gym inside a mall. In the early afternoon, with the lanes virtually to myself, I turned laps in the cloudy water, gasping for breath in the humid, high-altitude air. The empty pool was refreshing, but the mostly empty gym and mall felt a little off. I thought perhaps that they were newly constructed and opened, but one of the trainers told me that the gym had been open for about five years – and the mall for longer than that. It wasn’t that the mall felt new, then, but rather that it felt not-quite-finished. Most of the indoor shop fronts were unused. Most of the outdoor cafes had only one table of customers at a time.

When I got out of the pool and on with my research, I kept hearing about the devastation of public space in Cuernavaca. The historic city center is choking on traffic. The shady ravines that divide up the town are filling with garbage. Time and again, people traced this devastation back to the demolition of the Casino de la Selva.

The casino was built in the 30s, but for most of its history was a casino in name only. It is mentioned in the novel that first drew me to Cuernavaca. The locals that spoke of the site remembered it as a sprawling complex of hotel facilities, murals, gardens, and swimming pools. Locals could pay for access to many of the facilities, and the swimming pools and other parts of the complex were central gathering and socializing spots, a kind of public space on private ground.

The facilities began to fall into disrepair, as they changed hands and were eventually seized by the government. Then in 2001, the complex was sold to Costco and a local supermarket chain. Protests against the planned demolition of the site were aggressively put down, with some protestors sent to prison. The site was leveled, although some of the murals were removed and preserved.

It didn’t take much investigation for me to realize that I had been swimming in the ruins of the Casino de la Selva. The demolition of the complex provided enough space for an oversized Costco, and an oversized Mega supermarket, and a never-quite-finished mall. The demolition also deprived the city of a place rich in history and memory, replacing these with utterly generic, utterly anonymous consumer space. A few rusted relics of the casino stand behind a gate on the side of the highway that plows between the supermarkets and the mall.

I came to Cuernavaca to investigate the impact of crime and insecurity on public life, but the sense of loss of public life – not just of loss, but of the life of the city being sold off by the government – predates the surge in violence associated with organized crime in the city.

And in my swimming trips, I found myself in a place that was completely at odds with getting to know the city and its people. Where once families had mingled and splashed in outdoor pools, now solitary figures turned laps, one swimmer to a lane, in a cloudy indoor pool in a gym in a mall.

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 project 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.

Returning to Cuernavaca

Since moving back to Mexico to conduct research, I realise again and again just how much my dissertation research is grounded in earlier, pre-academia memories of this place. My years living in Guadalajara first put the questions in my head that years later I finally have the tools and means to examine.

I have spent most of this return trip in Mexico City. The capital provides access to government (very limited access as it turns out), journalists and the media, activists and NGOS, academics, and endless events (I finally met Oswaldo Zavala, a professor at my home institution in NY, at his book launch here). As is regularly affirmed by the people that I talk to here, however, Mexico City is very different to the rest of the country. To get a full picture of the phenomenon that I am studying, I need to get out of the capital.

As I dig into my data, and cast about for cases beyond the capital, I find the city of Cuernavaca often catching my attention. There is good reason for me to notice that name: I visited the city, during my years in Guadalajara, and have friends there. The more I find Cuernavaca in the data, the more I realise how formative that prior visit was.

That first visit to Cuernavaca took place in mid-April, 2011. It was a stop on my spring vacation trip. The driving motivation behind the stopover was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a novel set in Cuernavaca during the Day of the Dead. If I had been reading the news instead of novels about the city, I wonder if I would have visited at all.

Quite by chance, I arrived in Cuernavaca at an important moment. A few weeks earlier, the son of a well-known local poet, Javier Sicilia, had been killed. The son’s body was found in an abandoned car, along with six other bodies, and a message from a criminal group. While such murders were increasingly common (especially in Cuernavaca at that time), Sicilia’s social standing meant that the case could not be ignored or dismissed by the government. Sicilia’s public grief became a rallying point for many others that had known personal tragedy, or were tired of living in fear. When I arrived in Cuernavaca, I found the state government building festooned with banners and placards bearing the phrase Estamos hasta la madre (which politely translates as “we’ve had it up to here”).

In the following weeks, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity was be born. At the beginning of May, Sicilia led a caravan of marchers on foot from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. The protest spread, and the caravan would later visit other parts of the country, linking up with grieving families and victims’ rights movements. Sicilia met with President Calderón, and remains an authoritative, critical voice in the call for more humane security policy.

The coincidence and experience of that first trip to Cuernavaca still informs my understanding of Mexico. I have made three return trips to Cuernavaca, as part of my field research, and plan to make more. I link together the snapshots of memory from that initial trip, get to know the city as a living place with deep memories of that terrible period in 2011. In a small city in a small state, everyone I meet seems to have some connection to the Movement for Peace. Everyone recalls what they were thinking and feeling around the time of my first visit.

If years spent living in Mexico gave me my current research questions, those few days in Cuernavaca gave me a way to start addressing these questions.

Three billboards outside Cuernavaca

Soon after arriving in Mexico City to commence field research, I paid a trip to the rather magnificent Cineteca Nacional, a grand cultural complex that brews coffee, sells books, and screens recent films. I went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and was pretty surprised to find just how closely it connected with the research that I am doing (when I’m not at the movies).

At the beginning of the film, Mildred Hayes commissions three billboards along a quiet strip of country road. Seven months have passed since Hayes’s daughter was raped and murdered, and with no progress being made to bring the perpetrator to justice, Hayes uses the billboards to call out the local police chief (note: I haven’t spoiled anything yet, but it’s all spoilers from here).

My dissertation project looks at the appearance of public messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas) in Mexico over roughly the last ten years. Whether or not these messages appear at the scene of a crime, they almost always refer to crimes past, present or future. Often they call out specific state officials for not doing their job, or for doing it too well. With these rough similarities clear from the opening scene of the film, Three Billboards also got me thinking about some other shared themes with my project.

Going public will have a profound effect. Hayes doesn’t know exactly what, or how, but she recognises that the billboards will force attention, will force a response, and that at least something will happen. She is introducing a little uncertainty, a little chaos, to an otherwise quite rigid social setting. The billboards do indeed bring chaos, and the whole arc of the film is about just how much chaos ensues. Whether the billboards achieve much else is another question. The thousands of narcomensajes displayed in Mexico have had similarly chaotic, uncertain effects.

Hayes opts to shake things up, because of the perceived impunity at work in her community. The murderer of Hayes’s daughter is at large, somewhere. The police department – or at the very least, certain members of it – has a record of racist abuse and violence. In the former situation, it appears that the police cannot solve the case; in the latter, they have little interest in any resolution. Faced with these limits to the law, people find other ways to provoke action, and to pursue their version of justice. This includes the police. Vigilantism is one way that people take matters in their own hands. Displaying public messages is another.

Ebbing may be a small town – and the film draws laughs by lampooning close-minded small town life – but it is also a complex social world. In studies of violence and conflict, we often take the town as a unified, homogenous whole, with perfect access to local information. Ebbing is anything but this: it is a riot of open secrets and half truths. No one can make sense of the crime at the center of the story, but everyone knows all about the police brutality, and a bunch of other truths never officially divulged. Once the billboards go up, any pretense of local unity or perfect knowledge is lost. People act on hunches, are often (usually) proved wrong. There is no final resolution, to restoration of truth or justice.

P.S. Why Cuernavaca? It just happened that I was looking at early 2010 when I wrote this – a time when control of Cuernavaca was being hotly contested by rival groups, and messages were appearing throughout the city.