During the year I lived in Mexico, I never got over the sight of heavily armed security guards, of active duty military in full combat gear, of rooftop personnel with sniper rifles in the city square; of those sexless corps members wearing black masks over their faces. I remember spending time with (mostly white, transplant) academics that had spent their careers studying the history of civil unrest and protest in that country, who confirmed for me what I feared most: that the presence of those weapons were intended as a form of intimidation and social control, and that Mexican governments at all levels had very little shame about this tactic. I remember hearing from (mostly brown, local) community organizers that “everyone knew” it was possible that any protest could end in open fire, if it got too specific, too loud, too authentic; that the masks made it impossible to hold anyone accountable for a massacre.
More vividly, I remember, over coffee at the end of the day, arguing with my 70-something year-old host father, Rudi—who would often say to me, “Child,” and switch off his hearing aid before lecturing me on the need for security in a country such as Mexico, on the benevolence of the Marines, on the ever-present danger of the cartel leaders (one of whom was “taken out” in a very public, very destructive shootout just weeks before my arrival, just blocks from where I sometimes shopped for American-style groceries). “They are here to protect us all,” he would say. “They have to wear those masks, so that if they do something good, the cartels cannot retaliate against them. Faceless men cannot be threatened.”
I eventually stopped arguing with Rudi about this; I would wait until he turned off his hearing aids and moved to the couch to watch bull fighting, and I would talk instead to my 60-something year-old host mother, Licha, who had been a teacher for decades. She had been a union leader, who would speak openly about learning, in her 30s, that her vote had been sold to the highest-bidding political party—one she didn’t support—and counted twice. I would cry with her over the frustration I felt, knowing the families I encountered at work would never leave the small, failing tourist town, and that the government would never let go of their control. That this new home of mine would always be alive with fear and oppression.
Rudi would call me sheltered. I would call him stubborn.
“My sweet child,” Licha said to me—in a voice that conveyed compassion, rather than condescension—“We are not afraid when they walk in the square. This is normal, here. We are used to it, now. We can’t spend our days in fear for so long.” As I gained confidence in my language skills and my relationship strength, others would confirm this for me; eventually, you get tired of being afraid. And so you choose not to be. You choose to let the Marines be faceless, and you hope that you are out of the way when the time comes for real fear.
As the year developed, there were more and more opportunities to hear the families of disappeared youth speak out against the president and the government’s failure to investigate violent crime, to pray in public for the souls of those discovered in mass graves—and ultimately, following the murder of a prominent poet and journalist’s son, a murder which was quickly dismissed on the grounds that those young men must have been involved in drug trade—to march on the capital demanding the resignation of the president. The program I was participating in had strict rules against us participating in public political protest. We could sit in the square, but we could not speak. We could pray, but we could not hold signs. We could observe, but we were to move, always, in the opposite direction of the protesters, so that it would be clear that we were other. We were to stay on the outside of large groups, so it would be easier to run if the worst case scenario played out.
I rode the bus from our town of service into the capital, boarded the metro with protesters who were not able to make the physical march between the two cities. My American peers and I intended to ride the metro all the way into the center, to look at the displays and speak to people there, to await the arrival of the marchers so that we might hear the poet speak at the end of the day. When three of my friends revealed they were going to get off the metro with the community organizers from our town, that they didn’t know what the day would bring, but that they felt called to walk a little longer with these neighbors we had come to support, I told myself that I was refusing to go along with them because of principle. Because I would not be a part of a stupid choice that could endanger the program, get us all sent home and the entire project shut down.
I said to them, “Child,” and I switched off my hearing aid.
The truth was that I was scared shitless. That I did not trust those men with big guns and tight masks. That I believed in the danger those protesters had been telling me for months, that I longed to honor the countless dead and missing and invalidated bodies, but I lacked the courage to hold my friends’ hands and walk toward a potentially horrible fate.
Rudi would call me naïve. I would call him ignorant.
“It’s just because America is good,” Rudi would insist, stirring his Nescafe. “That’s why you’ll never understand. North Americans, your police are good, your government is good. There are criminals, but they aren’t like our criminals.”
Rudi was right that I would never understand what it meant to grow up in a place so marginalized, to become an adult in a place so fractured, to survive for decades in a place so contradictory in its approach to safety. I had been raised in a bubble where serious crime was far and distant from my home, and that bubble followed me into Mexico. The bubble meant that I could fly home at any moment I chose, and that if I were hurt or went missing, there would be serious hell to pay. The bubble kept me safe. The bubble meant I didn’t know how to block out the images of those Marines at the Independence Day celebration. The bubble magnified my fears.
I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t spoken to Rudi in years. I don’t know what he would think, now, of our old argument. I don’t know whether he reads about Iguala and thinks that in another time, it could have been Licha; about Michael Brown and second-guesses his opinions on American police departments—though I do feel fairly confident we would still disagree about HRC’s delivery of military helicopters to the Mexican military as a form of “foreign aid.”
And of my fears, what now? Days before the end of this brutal, disgusting, too-long presidential campaign, I’m back on that metro, paralyzed with fear of the myriad possible outcomes: the unknown responses of people trying to protect their own power, the uncertain calculus of dissent/threat ratio analysis. Regardless of which way things go on Tuesday, I can’t help wonder if I am now old enough—now strong enough—to walk down the streets, hand-in-hand with my neighbors, demanding a more compassionate rhetoric? Am I strong enough to choose not to fear the words and the weapons brandished to intimidate me in the name of safety?