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.

Reflecting on Guadalajara

Before I started doctoral (or even graduate) studies, and before I moved to New York, I lived in Guadalajara. I spent those years as a third grade teacher in a bilingual school (still can’t believe how few contact hours college teaching involves, in comparison), and travelled throughout Mexico.

Returning to the country for presearch last summer, and for proper research (prosearch?) this year has made me acutely aware of just how formative those Guadalajara years were. The research questions that I am pursuing today are the questions that swarmed through my head while living in Guadalajara – they’re just formulated into more methodical, methodological terms now.

I arrived in Guadalajara in 2009, when the main outside concern about Mexico was the so-called swine flu. For an entire school year, face masks and torrents of hand sanitizer were the norm, but beneath this, the deeper preoccupation of my friends and colleagues was the worsening violence in parts of the country. Exchanging news and headlines as we supervised recess and lunch breaks, my colleagues wondered just how bad – and just how close – the violence was going to get. The high walls surrounding the school were supposed to create a safe (if isolated) space within, but these conversations carried intimations of something massive and relentless, that could easily swamp the walls.

I remember the morning commute during which colleagues told me about the massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The conversation quickly turned aside to more positive, we-have-eight-hours-with-a-room-of-children-ahead topics, but I couldn’t follow along. My mind was racing, trying to process the meaning of such violence, but there was little clear sense to be made of it.

At night I would sometimes lie awake. After San Fernando, I no longer believed what many of us told ourselves; that we were safe because we were expats, or teachers, or not involved in crime, or not hanging out in the wrong areas. We certainly weren’t as vulnerable as undocumented migrants, but there was little apparent logic to preying upon them either. After locking the door and turning out the lights, I would lie there and think about just how sturdy those three locks were, and just how flimsy the door.

Over time, our behaviour changed. We stopped visiting a favoured after-school drinks location, because the trucks in the parking lot and the norteña music inside made it feel too much like a “narco place.” With each new instance of violence in or near the city, we reassured ourselves that we were still safe, that the violence couldn’t happen here, or couldn’t happen to us. One of the most intoned notions was that the narcos would never bring violence to Guadalajara, because their kids went to school there. But with each new outbreak, and each new reassurance, the supposed circle of security in which we lived contracted a little further. When a Burger King was shot up, it was hard to find much reassurance that it was a narco place.

We told ourselves that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ but with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that it was already happening there. What we tried to treat as isolated incidents turned out to be connected, and part of a bigger process – one very powerful group asserting control over the city and the region, and doing so with a great deal of violence and intimidation. A recent shooting in the hip heart of my old neighbourhood highlights just how fictive those supposed safe spaces and protocols were. It might also help explain why my research interests and topics have changed so little since I left Guadalajara. I am still trying to peer through the fear and uncertainty and naivete, to understand how so much violence could be hidden in plain sight.