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 but 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 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, CC 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 Giron 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 Cardenas, 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. “Que 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 binocularsif 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. Dofia Teresa Garcia 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 Dona comforted Norma and 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/16 /04
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