The Heart of it All

So I caught the bus to Tucson and then down to the border at Nogales, Mingus’s hometown, crossed over to the other Nogales, sat down on a bench in a little park and snorkeled up a cold Carta Blanca. It was Sunday, and a brass band was playing up in the kiosk. I drew a deep breath out of the turquoise-blue sky and realized I was really on the road.

I caught a train overflowing with braceros through the Sonoran Desert, sweet with sage, rumbling further south through Sinaloa and Nayarit into the heartland towards Guadalajara. I don’t think I have ever felt so free before or since in my life.

Many lurid chapters in Beat history were written in Mexico. William Burroughs plugged his spouse Joan right between the eyes, playing “William Tell” in their Mexico City Colonia Roma apartment in 1950. Kerouac wrote Tristessa and “Mexico City Blues” in a little rooftop room there. Neal Cassidy, the Dean Moriarty of On the Road, and, later, the Benzedrine-chomping chauffeur to the stars on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters excursions, was found dead along the railroad tracks in San Miguel, Allende, circa 1969, putting a macabre Mexican coda on the book of the Beats.

The road I was on took me west from Guadalajara out to Lake Chapala where Lawrence had set The Plumed Serpent. I kept staring at the dark surface, waiting for Quetzalcoatl to suddenly surge up from Chapala’s turgid, ancient depths.

Alex Trocchi, Scotland’s most accomplished junkie decades before Trainspotting, and a fellow barge captain whose Cain’s Book was one of Barney Rosset’s first titles at Evergreen, was hiding out in Ajijic. I bunked with Ned Polsky whose quibblings with Norman Mailer and his “White Negro” thesis were well-published on the Left. But heroin is a lethargic drug and weighty words did not spark much adventure. Ajijic, packed with dissipated gringos, seemed to me a kind of leper colony and I soon bid it adios and grabbed the puddle-jumper down to Puerto Vallarta, still a coastal backwater before Burton & Taylor filmed Night of the Iguana there, and caught a sail canoe out to the legendary Beatnik colony near the south cape of the bay at Yelapa.

Yep, Yelapa was the place. A lush paradise with bone-white beaches and crystalline waterfalls. Whales frolicked at the mouth of the cove, and manta rays catapulted out of the sea. But paradise had fallen on tough times. The year before I showed up, Bryce Wilson, the one-time manager of the all-star junkie trumpet player Chet Baker, had built a beach-side hotel for Beat visitors where substance abuse had been generous, and when the federales showed up everyone ran off into the jungle. Now the Feds were gone, but the hotel was padlocked. Bryce had sneaked back in from the bush and taken up residence on a hill with a bird’s-eye view of the bay. I rented a thatched palapa in a coconut grove down below where the river curled into the shining beach to form an emerald-hued lagoon. The next time I went down to Vallarta, I telegrammed Norma and Dylan and urged them to fly down.

The party on the hill at the Wilsons’ never abated. Bryce had discovered colorful opium poppy plantations back in the hills near Tuito which added a potent ingredient to the general debauchery. The cast of characters was forever remaking itself. I hung out with Jimmy Hines—he had another name then, a bank robber whose mug shot graced post-office walls all over the southwest—and Jungle Jim Dunn, direct from the Coexistence Bagel Shop on Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach, who claimed intimacy with the original Beats.

The rains came in sudden white sheets, and after the rain came insects that sucked your blood and scorpions that could sting you into palsy. And after the insects came the invasion of land crabs, millions of them, deftly scissoring through all our remaining clothes, eating their way through the roof of our house, leaving us naked before the world. Through it all, I sat there, pen over paper as I sit here still, trying to figure out how to write a novel.

Comandante Fidel Castro and the Cuban Miracle finally rode triumphantly into Havana at New Year’s, 1959. The news dawned dimly in the drugged haze of Yelapa, but by the next year, the bucks had run dry and we were back on the Lower East Side. I was working out on the barges and we were putting together a stake to go back to Mexico. The figure of Fidel loomed large.

That fall, he and Che Guevara came to the U.N. and you remember the story—how the Lexington Hotel evicted the comandantes because the roosters for the Santeria sacrifices kept waking up the more civilized guests. So the barbudos moved up to the Hotel Teresa, 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, the vortex of the Harlem whirlpool. Mr. Nikita Khrushchev came to meet with Fidel there, and we stood in the street in front of the Teresa, chanting Cuba Si! Yanqui No! all night long.

By Christmas, we had our boodle together, and I kited a mess of checks and embezzled a Zenith Transoceanic shortwave radio that would keep us in listening range for the next four years, and the next thing you knew, we were crossing the big river at Laredo. First stop was San Luis Potosi where the glittery little vials in the all-night farmacias kept inviting me back for more. We had outgrown the stoned gringos of Yelapa and wanted to live with Mexicans now.

From San Luis, we bussed it south to Cuernavaca where Dylan and Norma, already six months pregnant, would hunker down with a transplanted New York painter, and I stepped down to the Oaxaca coast to hunt out a new sanctuary.

I walked the Oaxaca coast for a month, from La Ventrosa on the isthmus to Puerto Escondido, then just a few thatched huts in the sand. The Zapotec Indians who lived in the villages through which I passed had never seen an American before and took me for a gypsy. I did not disappoint them, tracing love lines in callused palms and predicting the imminent arrival of handsome strangers, in exchange for coffee and tortillas. I met up with armed bandits and was knocked out cold by the amateur middleweight champion of Oaxaca in a hut filled with bananas. I sailed on the Margarita hauling a load of hibiscus leaves up to Acapulco with a raspy-voiced old bracero named “Chicago.” I had many adventures but I never found the sanctuary I had set out to discover: a shrouded inlet named Chacahua where black people raised crocodiles.

We traveled west out to Michoacan and expatriate U.S. communists, Bundy and Walter Ilsley, a civil engineer who purportedly had worked with Mao in China, told us about a Purepecha village up in the meseta, Santa Cruz Tanaco. There was an American living there, they warned, Don Fedrico Esmith, “The Maestro,” who collected pirecuas (Purepecha folk songs) and taught townspeople how to read music, in exchange for friendship and strong drink. Fedrico Esmith had been a resident radical at the conservatory in Mexico City and apprenticed with the U.S. avant-gardist Conlin Nancarrow, also in political exile.

We hiked into Tanaco in March, 1961. The road was chokingly dusty and ran eight kilometers off the Uruapan highway. Norma was big with Tristram. It had been a troublesome pregnancy and she was very tired. I just wanted to get off the road for a while and write my book. Dylan, then six, skipped ahead and urged us on.

We asked for “The Maestro,” Federico Esmith at the bottom of town and small boys escorted us to the house of Pablo Augustin, the leader of one of Tanaco’s two famous brass bands. The Maestro was perched in the patio, a storklike figure in a florid gavan and crushed sombrero. He was very drunk, his eyes rolled up way in the back of his head, but he didn’t seem unhappy to see us. I explained how we had been on the road for a while and Norma needed to lie down and gather her strength back for the baby, and me, I just wanted to write this novel I had in mind, but if he didn’t want us here, well, we’d move on.

“It’s yours!” he hiccuped with a sweeping flourish that took in the thickly forested mountains soaring above us, “All yours!” He was going to Cuba to see the revolution for himself. And in a week, he had packed up and flown off to Havana to join Fidel and Che.

“Well, it’s about time. At last, someone with politics!”

The Maestro never looked back. A few years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, we made up a petition and sent it to Kennedy demanding that not one thin hair on the head of Federico Esmith, maestro of this place, should be harmed.

So we raised our house on the edge of town above the barranca Ker-Cuaro, “where the devil lives.” I danced in the mud to make the adobes that built up its walls. The carpenters fashioned me a wondrous writing room, a cool mossy den that hung over the side of the ravine. I set up rough pine-plank bookshelves and alphabetized the titles I had on permanent loan from the New York Public Library to stock its new Santa Cruz Tanaco branch, 60 volumes from the Bible and the Ancients through James Joyce and Journey to the End of Night. Over the years, I would read each one front to back.

They became my formal education.

In April, we went down to Uruapan where we had settled on a midwife, but while we were waiting for Tristram to arrive, Kennedy and his Worms sailed into the appropriately named Bay of Pigs, and Fidel’s muchachos on the beach at Playa Girón picked them off one by one. We heard the Comandante read the names of the bourgeois pirates that had been captured, on Radio Havana on our stolen radio.

By 1961, Fidel and Che’s audacious revolution had struck a thunderous chord from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego—and particularly so out in Michoacan where the beloved ex-president Lazaro Cárdenas, a native son, was, at that very moment, flying off to Havana to defend the island from the Yanqui invaders. The news broadcasts squalled from every stall in the market and the vendors did not gaze upon us with much kindness in their eyes.

At night, I stood in the shadows off the plaza while young men threw furniture out in the street and set fire to the North American Cultural Institute, a rumored CIA front. “Qué Mueran los Gringos,” they were singing, that the gringos should die. Oh my. I suddenly understood that they meant me.

Mexico was still a literary experience for me then. I had been on the road and now I was going to write the real On The Road in the mossy den above the deep ravine. I looked at Mexico from the wrong end of my binoculars—if I looked at it at all. I was not engaged.

Then my infant son died in his sleep in his first month of life under a crabbed tree on a muddy hillside in the Purepecha hamlet of Santa Cruz Tanaco. His small bones are buried there yet.

I can never erase that moment. Even now, it remains a burnished pain upon my heart. Tristram blue in his wicker cradle, his mother grabbing for him frantically, trying to breathe life back into his tiny lungs, to give him to God before there was no god anymore. She was still a Catholic then.

The news spread like lightning that the gringos’ baby had died, and our neighbors came running to offer solace. Doña Teresa García took charge right away. She counseled us that there was much to be done and that it was better to stay busy. She had organized many funerals. “You had better go see about the coffin,” she instructed me and I went to talk to Tata Trinidad, the town carpenter, and haggle over the price of the box. The Doña comforted Norma and Dylan and put all the women to work gathering flowers and hauling water to prepare Tristram for the grave.

Today, at 91, Doña Tere is still my comadre, a strong old woman who tends her own cornfields at the foot of the Marihuata mountain and slaps out warm tortillas over her kitchen fire in the cool nights.

Tristram’s death was a turning point in a life that has never wanted for twists and turns. I was 21 and a tenderfoot at life—death had never touched me yet except for two old grandparents I barely knew. Death happened in Dylan Thomas poems or at the movies or to others, not to your first-born son. Nana Teresta, Tata Goyo, Tata Santiago, all the others, taught me about death—and about life. That was 43 years ago last month and we are all still tied to each other by the remembrance of our dead children.

As the weeks wore on following Tristram’s funeral, I began to understand that each family in Tanaco had lost many children to the cold and the mud, malnutrition, the absence of a doctor or even a road to transport the sick to the nearest clinic, 20 miles away. Santiago had lost six brothers and sisters, and when he was born, his father, Tata Candido, would not pay for one more birth certificate because this baby would not do any better than the others. “I suppose I fooled him,” Santiago whispered sheepishly the night we sat up with the dead baby.

In the late spring of 1961, not long after we buried Tristram, I heard Fidel Castro pronounce the Second Declaration of Havana on the stolen Zenith in our too-quiet home above the barranca Ker-Cuaro and came to understand the terrible dimensions of infant mortality in Latin America. My personal tragedy became a continent-size one. I became engaged.

This article has been adapted from a chapter in Murdered by Capitalism (Nation Books, 2004) and is printed here with the permission of the publisher and the author—a longtime contributing writer, poet, jazz enthusiast, politically indestructible idealist, and interpreter of Mexico.

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Published at 12:00 am CST