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.

The magic of Tecozautla

Mexico City is a great base for doing field work (and also for not getting any work done), but is very much its own bubble. I had to take at least a peek beyond the bubble, during my weeks here.

Tecozautla, in Hidalgo state, is a pueblo magico. Back when I first lived in Mexico, I vaguely remember there being a bit more than one pueblo magico per state – which in some cases seemed to mean that the Secretariat of Tourism had to really dig to find some magic worth advertising, especially in less romanticised states like Hidalgo. More and more magic must have been found, however, because now there are over 100 pueblos magicos scattered across the country.

In the case of Tecozautla, all of the advertised magic seems to take place outside of the pueblo itself. The town is a jumping-off point for the many hot springs scattered among the valleys and crags of the region. The magic of the hot springs – the curative properties of the waters are frequently touted – tends to locked away behind fences and ticket booths, and to be channelled through pipes, down waterslides, and among cement pools.

El Geiser is probably the premiere attraction in the region, and correspondingly, is part of the largest waterpark complex, which features a hotel, a bunch of cabins, a whole series of pools and spas, a zipline, as well as the geyser itself. Unlike other geysers, however, Geiser does not erupt sporadically, in a fountain of water and steam. Rather, Geiser has been tapped, and sends forth a constant billow of scalding vapour, into which brave bathers can plunge, and from which this researcher had to scamper.

The tapped, constantly-flowing magic of Geiser is barely accessible to the people of Tecozautla. Talking to people in the town, it is clear that most had been to the site once at the most, and even then, in much earlier days, before the water park was quite so developed. A strange kind of magic, then, attributed, but unavailable, to the town. A magic that flows at the turn of a crank, but never flows very far. That never overruns the fences and ticket booths and signs warning of the dangers of cholera (yep).

And while this particular regularised, privatised magic is available for the price of admission, there is other magic about Tecozautla, which costs nothing, and yet is barely noticed. Magic in the cobblestone streets and in the crooked windows, in the distinctive curve of the mysterious bovedas that occupy street corners throughout the town. Magic, too, in the pomegranate bushes that overrun fences and drop clusters of gems on the side of the road. Magic in the women presiding over mounds of figs and avocados at the market stalls in the town centre. Magic in the searing blue sky, the furious storms, and the hillsides covered in incongruous thickets of organ pipe cacti, eucalyptus, and cypress trees. Magic that can’t be tapped, or contained behind fences and ticket booths.