Tucson Weekly

Un Gringo Chilango

Tucson-raised songwriter and author Dan Stuart on life in Mexico before and after the U.S. election

Dan Stuart Feb 16, 2017 1:00 AM

I had just come out of Mexico City's Hospital de Jesús Nazareno where Hernán Cortés' remains are surreptitiously stashed in the adjacent templo when something happened that had never occurred before in my six years of living in Mexico: I got called a gringo. The remark came from a man lounging on a low tezontle wall who wanted some money to buy something to eat, although he didn't look particularly poor or hungry. I replied politely no tengo cambio and continued on my way, but I did wonder if the U.S. election results of a few weeks before had influenced the man's choice of words. That night, enjoying a beer and peanuts at La Bota amidst their wonderful collection of Hispanic kitsch, an earnest young thing approached me and wanted to know why I had voted for someone who hates Mexicans. Por qué asumes que voté por él? She shrugged her shoulders and smiled in relief, I had just been racially profiled.

There is a saying throughout Latin America: tan cortés como un mexicano (as polite as a Mexican). It was one of the first things that I noticed and loved when I arrived in Oaxaca after fleeing a broken psyche and marriage back in New York City. My first evening was el grito, and I was welcomed with smiles and mezcal in the crowded zócalo then mesmerized by a towering castillo of spinning fireworks that showered ash like a benediction upon us all. Come morning, I was greeted with singsong buenos días in the cobblestone streets of San Felipe del Agua, a once traditional Zapotec pueblo now overrun with expensive homes of wealthy divorcées, politicians and less savory types that's perched like a bird's nest above one of Mexico's most beautiful colonial cities. In the comedores that serve cheap yet hearty comida corrida meals, families would look up from their plates of chicken mole or stuffed tlayudas and wish me buen provecho, which I quickly learned to repeat upon entering or leaving any eatery. Drifting through the local markets and tianguis I was called güero (blondie) by the jovial and sharp-tongued women sellers, but never gringo, which is much more pejorative in Mexico than north of the border. After moving to Mexico City, things became a bit more impersonal like in any megalopolis, but still the basic grace and manners of Mexican society could be found in the dozens of minute social interactions that one experiences daily. So although I took it like a champ, being called a gringo by a complete stranger was a bit of a shock. No matter, I'm willing to be a sin-eater for the beast of the north if I can only stay just a little bit longer. Ojalá.

There has always been a deeply held resentment in Mexico against so-called "America": a term that infuriates many in Latin America for its exclusion of every country except the good ol' USA. Even "The United States" is problematic because Mexico technically is Estados Unidos Mexicanos. I soon learned to avoid this confusion entirely by referring to the U.S. as el otro lado, but not until informed that el norte is too hazy since that could be anywhere north of Durango. This simmering anger, routinely overlooked by tourists and diplomats alike, historically comes from losing half of their territory to los gringos (I'll leave the debate about where this term comes from for another day) during the Mexican-American War, which locals refer to as La Intervención. Whether the land was stolen or given away by that one-legged chameleon Santa Ana can be debated, but it's telling that alcoholic-in-chief Ulysses Grant thought the military invasion of Mexico an utter disgrace. One country's Manifest Destiny is another's great betrayal, it's hard to stay neutral.

The son of an immigrant, I have been an expat off and on all my life. I went to fourth grade in Sweden and turned 16 in Sydney where I learned to surf, saw Radio Birdman, and was called a septic-tank yank everyday at school. In Sweden, I was reminded weekly of the napalm being dropped on innocents and the slaughter of Native Americans and really had no adequate response outside of a deep and lasting shame. As an adult, I shivered through months in London and got strung out in Spain before eventually arriving in Oaxaca and now el D.F. The one rule I live by is to avoid other extranjeros like the clap, there is always something wrong with them, expat know thyself. Language is key of course, and although I managed in Australia and the U.K., my Spanish is of the survival variety and nothing to be proud of. This forces me to be someone else here, a listener and not a talker. To understand a conversation is different than to participate in it as an equal with the quips and puns so beloved by Mexicans. Fortunately Mexican Spanish is like American English, free and funny with an open ear. In Oaxaca I had a few T-shirts made that said por favor corrige mi español that always made people smile. When you're the other, a little humility goes a long way.

I adjusted to Oaxaca smoothly, feeling more comfortable after a few weeks than my previous eight years in New York City. After all, I'm from the Southwest, which has never really stopped being Mexico, culturally and spiritually. Touring with a band as a kid, we used to say that everything east of the Mississippi was Europe and I truly disliked the Northeast with its provincial ignorance disguised as urbane snobbery. In Mexico I could lick my wounds in peace, no one told me to "get over" anything or to start a new life. I was constantly reminded of the two constants of Mexico: fe y paciencia. To have a specific plan is fruitless, flexibility and improvisation are key. Like Japan, people don't say no, they say tal vez, or ahorita, or the devastating mañana. This sort of vagueness drives some foreigners mad but there are positives such as when invited to a party or event it is rude to decline but you don't have to actually show up. Shit happens, life intervenes, the dog got the flu, whatever, but really no explanation is necessary. Obviously, if one continues in that vein the invitations stop, but the freedom to be honest when deciding to attend something or not removes any stress and foreboding and one winds up going to a lot more things than under the old WASP rules of social engagement, just bring a small gift to show you care.

Predictably, when I tell people I live in Mexico they want to know about La Violencia. Roughly 100,000 people have died and 25,000 vanished since the military was unleashed internally a decade ago and no, the victims weren't all involved in the drug trade. The idea itself of a separation between narco business (from counterfeit goods to gold mines nowadays) and the political establishment is absurd; it's an obscene tapestry woven together by money and power. Above all else, Mexico is a class society and they say 20 families still run the country, many of their names can be found on the Forbes list of billionaires. Crimes are seldom reported, there is no trust in the police or the judiciary; still the rule of law exists but does not derive from el estado. There is the law of family, clan, colonia, pueblo, church, to name a few. It's hard to judge any of this as a self-righteous gringo when one sees how the criminal justice system has been so subverted in the U.S. Sure, there are several Mexican state governors currently on the lam or being investigated, not to mention the 43 murdered normalistas students in Iguala buried who knows where (maybe check the local military base?), but how many Wall Street ladrones have ever gone to jail, not to mention the outright thievery of asset forfeiture laws or the incremental criminalization of black folk from sea to shining sea? In 2015, the U.S. averaged a mass shooting every day. As for the cartels and los politicos, they continue to wash billions of their dollars in the U.S. like everyone else ... la misma mierda de siempre.

As a middle-aged gringo living alone in San Felipe, I was originally viewed with a mix of suspicion and pity; maybe I was a pederast, kidney swiper, or, even worse, DEA? That all changed when my then 12-year-old son visited, suddenly I was a father with un guapo hijo que habla español perfecto! Things got even better after my elderly Dad came down to check up on me, un australiano no menos! I was now a real person with a father and a son, and from then on most interactions with neighbors, store owners and the like began or ended with questions of and good wishes for both. Family is everything in Mexico, I would never be a comunero, but at least now I was an avencindado to be if not outright protected then at least looked after as a neighbor and friend. I have never genuinely experienced that anywhere else, and even here on the border of Centro Histórico and La Merced in one of the largest cities on earth, I cannot walk a hundred steps without saying hello or stopping to chat to someone I know only as mi vecino. For someone who lives a mostly solitary life, this acceptance keeps me connected to myself and the world. When I had a large sign made that said ¡No Use Claxon! and put it up on a street light my neighbors thought me quaintly quixotic. It has since been stolen but locals will now whistle or even shout at drivers to stop their incessant honking. I like to think that I helped embolden them at least a smidgen with my idealistic display.

Of course there is a long tradition of artist types fleeing to Mexico to save, inspire or destroy themselves: Ambrose "Bitter" Bierce, anarchist novelist B. Traven, Dadaist poet/boxer Arthur Cravan, lunger romantic D.H. Lawrence, inebriate genius Malcolm Lowry, the odd couple of mama's boy Kerouac and wife-killer Burroughs, amongst many others. Wanting in, I told myself I was a writer now and sure enough finished a false memoir and saw it published. I also disinterred a nom de guerre from my musical past and used it as a second passport to confuse and contrive audiences around the world. I lost my fear of the future after internalizing sin muerte no hay vida, and no longer felt guilty about anything at all except maybe the occasional mezcal hangover and any vicious emails sent the night before.

I collected Mexican history and travel books to devour before bed, and many mornings I would put a change of clothes in a ten peso sugar bag and take off to discover for myself what I had just read about the night before. This led to crazy adventures, like flying in and out of Cancún just so I could take a three-day bus ride over the Sierra Gorda to Veracruz then circling back for a week through Chiapas upon my return. I missed my son and La Española too much to be happy, but I was free of the constraints of a conventional life that had delivered me to a rubber room on Staten Island. Lowry said that Mexico is "the most Christ-awful place in the world to be in any distress" but I've found the opposite to be true. Something strangely wonderful would happen everyday but you couldn't chase it like a drug or a career, it happened when you least expected it, when you needed it the most. I knew God didn't exist and Christ was just an overachiever but maybe Guadalupe did, or Juquila, or Soledad, hell all of Tonantzin's disguises that intrigue, inspire and shelter us from el mal. I fell in love with life again but without the fear of death, which will be here soon enough. Relax gringo ... cuál es tu prisa?

Growing up in Tucson, a town where Mexican families can have names like Ronstadt and Prezelski, I thought I knew a bit about Mexico. We vacationed regularly in Bahía de Kino and Puerto Peñasco and once took old Pullman sleeper cars down to Mazatlán from Nogales to enjoy Easter on the beach. When my son first saw the country as a grade schooler he had the same reaction I had so many years before, a delight in the difference of it all but also a fear and dread of the poverty. As one of my few gringo friends in DF pointed out thinking of his own first experiences "there is nothing to be afraid of, the poor just have no money."

Still, there is a huge divide between northern and southern Mexico, almost as great as between the two countries. Cattle culture started in El Bajío a few hours north of Mexico City, indeed so many of the customs, practices and folkways of cowboy life are distinctly Spanish and Mexican.

Driving up to Tucson recently with that same friend, I was struck how much of Zacatecas and Chihuahua mirrored our own existential fantasies of the American West: surely so many of the dreams, struggles and nightmares were the same. South of Durango it's a different story, ancient civilizations (Mayan, Zapotec, Mexica) that rivaled any on earth. On my many bus trips between DF and Oaxaca, I would gaze at the terraced hills of Puebla and think of similar scenes in Southern Europe, but how many schoolkids are taught that what occurred here (the first domestication of corn only one example) was truly magnificent. Sure life could be brutal, but around the same time as the Aztecs thousands of people were routinely hanged in England every year for minor offenses and no one paints that society as being especially barbaric or cruel. One only has to read the first few chapters of Foucalt's Discipline and Punish to learn of "Old World" torture that rivaled any barbarity ever. The Aztecs were defeated not because they lacked horses and steel but because the Totonacs and Tlaxcalans hated the relative newcomers from the north and helped the Spanish invaders defeat them. Later in a flash, all suffered from the European germs and culture that infected the body first and then the mind if one survived. Mexico has been juggling with the results ever since.

After a few years in Oaxaca, I finally moved to Mexico City to be closer to its international airport and to hang out with some musicians and artists who were mostly younger than myself. I made a record with a band that routinely plays festivals around the world, everywhere that is except the United States with its prohibitive and costly visa requirements. This infuriates me, the idea that the EU welcomes Mexican artists and intellectuals but the U.S. does not. Throw in the fact so much of value in the Spanish-speaking world, from its poets and novelists to its photographers and painters, are routinely ignored in the U.S. and one can understand the frustration and hopelessness so many Mexicans feel about ever being truly respected as equals. Not a week goes by where a stranger who has spent time on el otro lado doesn't want to tell me that he knows my country, that he met many good people there and loves the Cowboys or Red Sox, chicken fried steak and Seinfeld, but wonders why our government persecutes Mexicans who only want to work hard and take care of their families. The coal country of West Virginia and Eastern Ohio are full of angry whites who ask where the jobs went yet refuse to migrate, while in La Mixteca and the Sierra of Oaxaca the men have all but vanished to find work wherever they can, often thousands of miles away. Now you tell me, who is more noble and brave, more "American"?

The towering Oaxacan intellect José Vasconcelos coined the term la raza cósmica and surely there is something new and transcendent about Mexico. It is here that so many experiments are happening on both large and small scales, humane and otherwise. The late Charles Bowden described ultra-violent Ciudad Juárez as "The Laboratory of our Future" but that also applies to the more sanguine Mexico City, which of late has become an it city like Berlin or Shanghai, a place where a downtown art scene still exists and anything is possible. That's not to say that chilangos aren't worried that la burbuja is bursting, hip neighborhoods such as Roma and La Condesa have gentrified like everywhere else and the word is one has to pay outsiders protection now to run businesses there. Yet social media has become a great equalizer with the wealthy ladies and juniors of Polanco routinely mocked on viral videos for behaving badly against those they consider their social inferiors. Young tatted and pierced güeyes, sporting Tin-Tan or Che tee-shirts can be seen carrying their infants now in slings or pushing their toddlers in strollers, something unheard of just a decade ago. Mexican women, led by the past examples of Sor Juana and Frida, are finding their voice and the courage to confront entrenched paternal oppression; often at great risk with femicide still rampant, especially in rural areas.

My Mexican friends think I'm crazy to feel so upbeat about their country but I can't help it; I see a new meritocracy emerging poco a poco despite the best efforts of the oligarchs to keep the old boy's club going. Back "home" I feel the opposite, the American Century has a rusty fork in it but still I dream of a new siglo de las americas that us gringos can play a significant part in, but this time with the humor, grace and humility, of well, a Mexican.

Since the election, I've asked a few Mexican friends their opinion on it all, what has changed if anything. Diego, age 32, the owner of a hip burger joint, feels gringos are spoiled children who live in a protected shell and "no tienen cultura, Hollywood no es una cultura." He's soon to be a father and longs to get away from the political insecurity and crushing economic realities of Mexico (gasoline had just gone up 20 percent) but does not want to live in the U.S. even with the help of family in L.A. and Minnesota. He mentions Europe or Canada instead but when I ask if he is personally happy he smiles and says "por supuesto." This is common, Mexico has a very high "happiness index" despite all the endemic problems.

Blanca, retired in Oaxaca and who has lived in Germany and the U.S. took a longer view. "I have always made a distinction between the two. Mexico has always suffered from the foreign policy of the U.S. government, doesn't matter who's the president. With the people, I prefer to have an opinion on a personal level, most of the times it's favorable." This is also very common, the "we like you gringos but not your government" line.

Javier, an award-winning book designer who also teaches graphic design at a university went a little deeper. "We see you as bullies but in general we like gringos. We are a non-racist people with the foreigners, the white foreigners that is. That's the malinchismo, but we tend to be racists with our own people."

I asked him what gringos don't understand about Mexicans. "Our tendency to understand or expect catastrophes, the innate belief in the supernatural as something that is real and happens. This is true for almost every Mexican. El desmadre, the chaos, look at the recent gasoline riots. We are an inch away from mayhem." Married with a young son, Javier also dreams of foreign locales but he left me with this: "I am optimistic, Mexico is the people, la familia, and nothing is stronger than la familia mexicana. It's a bond that has lasted for centuries. You see when you are in a familia mexicana you are safe. I have always thought that in México the real tragedy is to be an orphan."

So that would be me, a "dryback" orphan, but it's no tragedy. Mi familia is the country itself, a mysterious darkness and sobering light forever intertwined. I tell myself that this year I will finally conquer the language, gamble on love one more time, hell, maybe even pick up an accordion and squeeze out a note or two. If not I can continue as is, un gringo chilango who hides behind borders real and imagined, una máscara para cada ocasión. I've learned that reality exists only in the plural and that nothing can stop a mother's love or a father's revenge, that we're all gloriously screwed but no pasa nada. This is the country where I wish to be buried, cheaper than cremation, can you believe it? Come los muertos a calendita would be nice with a giant puppet or two, free mezcal for all. If not I understand, see you on el otro lado amigo but no need to hurry, we'll all be there soon enough.

* * * *

In 1979 Dan Stuart founded The Serfers, a band that came up in the first wave of Tucson punk rock, playing Pearl's Hurricane Bar and Tumbleweeds, among others. The group became Green on Red, signed to major labels, released critically adored albums and carved out a huge overseas following. (Stuart's songs have since been covered by everyone from Manic Street Preachers to Richmond Fontaine.) After Green On Red, Stuart released a number of albums, both solo and with others (including 1993's Retronuevo with Al Perry).

His 2012 solo record The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings is also the title of his "false memoir," published to critical acclaim in 2014.

After living on the American coasts, and in Europe, Stuart now calls Mexico City home.