The Name of This Land is Hell: Mexico in Literature

A valuable lesson was learned on the treacherous road that led to the creation of this month’s column, a journey that began as a review of Amigoland, the debut novel by Oscar Casares, and ended with the vow that I shall never again attempt to understand Mexico, not through literature and history and scholars, nor through the field and clinical data compiled by sociologists and ethnologists.

The Mexican psyche and character is a slippery beast that defies understanding. Before the 300-year Spanish occupation, the indigenous peoples of Mexico were comprised of the Maya, the Zapotec, the Olmec, the Aztec, and the Mixtec, advanced civilizations that thrived for over 4,000 years before the Europeans turned the nation into their own Extended Stay hotel, bringing along a foreign religion that they were more than eager to share with the native populace.

T.C., a Mexican-American friend of mine, a man immensely proud and aware of his Mexican heritage, put it more bluntly: “How can anyone try to describe the Mexican experience or modality without mentioning the indigenous historic culture and its Spanish medieval Catholic conquerors who, through painful birth, gave the world Mexico and Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, who have influenced so much American culture yet remain, by and large, invisible and misunderstood.”

The majority of Mexicans (60-80 percent according to the latest census figures) are Mestizos, those of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry, living in a federation of 31 free and sovereign states, with each state divided into municipalities. The municipalities can be even further divided into boroughs in many states.

Despite all those tangled bloodlines and administrative divisions in the nation of Mexico, certain collective and nationalistic behaviors can be isolated and explored exhaustively. And one will come away from the experience more confused than when the journey began.

A few days before my deadline, Vaughn Croteau, a New Mexico artist whose work with exotic woods and precious metals has been displayed in galleries throughout the American Southwest, sent along a note of support after I informed him that the topic of my new column had me in a stranglehold and was not letting up.

“Years ago a good friend of mine was an elderly Spanish gentleman – an incredible man of letters – who was a historian,” Vaughn wrote. “His primary study was Spanish colonial history, particularly in New Mexico; we spent many hours discussing the gamut of topics within his knowledge while drinking and eating fine regional meals. I learned an awful lot during our association, but I really came no closer to understanding or being able to articulate anything definitive about Latin culture in the Americas. The history can be incredibly harsh, but without it the world would be a much sorrier place.”

The Plight of Jesus Christ

The nation of Mexico, Malcolm Lowry writes in Under the Volcano, boasts “some extraordinary land… but the name of this land is hell.”

Long before and long after Lowry’s 1947 masterwork, born of his own experiences in Cuernevaca in the ’30s, writers from all points of the globe have fixed their gaze and their miles of bleeding typewriter ribbon upon the murky interior of America’s troubled nation to the south. Many have peered at the interior of Mexico’s dark heart – indeed, American writer Ambrose Bierce literally disappeared in it in the middle of a 1914 revolution led by Pancho Villa – but very few have penetrated its contradictory mazes and chambers.

Book: The Labyrinth of Solitude

Author: Octavio Paz

Publisher: Grove / Atlantic (reprint)

Publication date: 1994-01

Length: 398 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $14.50

Image: is like the dispassionate cantina whore one might encounter in a Cormac McCarthy novel or a Sam Peckinpah western. When you ask her name she blinks her long black lashes, smiles coyly and mysteriously, then she takes you by the hand and leads you to a room above the bar where you will find a bed and a wash basin. The most conspicuous object in the room is a large crucifix hanging by a rusty nail on the wall above the bed.

That crucifix is a big part of the problem.

In The Silver Christ of Santa Fe (Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook, 2008), Charles Bukowski essays his clumsy attempt to sustain carnal knowledge with a friend’s houseguest:

… There on the wall opposite to my sight hung a life-sized silver Christ nailed to a life-sized silver cross. His eyes appeared to be open and He was watching me… His eyes seemed to grow larger, pulsate. Those nails, the thorns. The poor guy, they’d murdered Him, now He was just a hunk of silver on the wall, watching, watching…

According to a 2009 census, 95 percent of the population of Mexico is Christian, with Roman Catholics making up 89 percent of that figure, and 47 percent of citizens polled say they attend church services weekly. One would be hard pressed to find a more theistic, heavily Catholic human population outside the walls of the Vatican.

In Mexican culture, as presented in literary works like Kerouac’s poetic mini-masterpiece Tristessa, and Lowry’s booze-soaked and hallucinogenic novel Under the Volcano, God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary are always watching. One can never escape their punishing or forgiving gaze, not even at home. From Tristessa by Jack Kerouac:

…the mother, the woman, the Virgin Mary of Mexico — Tristessa has a huge ikon (sic) in a corner of her bedroom.

It faces the room, back to the kitchen wall, in right hand corner as you face the woesome kitchen with its drizzle showering ineffably from the roof tree twigs and hammerboards (bombed out shelter roof) — Her ikon represents the Holy Mother staring out of her blue charaderees, her robes and Damema arrangements, at which El Indio prays devoutly when going out to get some junk. El Indio is a vendor of curios, allegedly — I never see him on San Juan Letran selling crucifixes, I never see El Indio in the street, no Redondas, no anywhere — The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels the inexhaustible aid from oru Amida — I smile to see this lovely ikon.

Book: Under the Volcano

Author: Malcolm Lowry

Publisher: HarperCollins (reprint)

Publication date: 2007-04

Length: 448 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $14.99

Image:“The plight of Jesus Christ,” my friend T.C. points out, “is a perfect icon for the Mexican raison d’etre: scorned, tortured, and crucified by his own people, only to rise again and become legendary for over 2,000 years. His suffering mother, in the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe, appeals to all Mexicans as Mother Earth and is maybe even more popular than Jesus himself.”

There is no doubt that T.C. is culturally and theologically correct in his assessment but theology, as the late Roberto Bolano argues in his mammoth masterpiece 2666, can breed not only superstition and paranoia – God is watching you at all times – but also a more than vague suspicion of God’s honesty at the poker table.

In a tangential moment in Book Five of 2666 (The Part About Archimboldi), a German infantryman becomes hopelessly lost in the tunnels of the French Maginot line during combat in World War II. In his sleep, God visits the soldier and tells him that the pathway out of the maze will be revealed if the man surrenders his soul (“Which I already own,” God reminds the man) in a blood oath. The infantryman agrees to the pact and upon awakening he finds his way out of the tunnels and returns to the 79th Infantry Division unscathed.

“Four days later,” Bolano writes, “the soldier who sold his soul to God was walking down the street when he was hit by a German car and killed.”

The anecdote may be about a German soldier but the story’s dark humor and sense of fatalism – not to mention a higher being who is a greater trickster than the slick coyote – is pure Mexican and Mexico, of course, is Bolano’s focus in his final epic novel, a book that rivals James Joyce’s landmark Finnegans Wake for its scope, complexity, and enigmatic narrative, which is no small literary accident.

Like Joyce, Bolano draws upon an encyclopedic range of literary works in 2666, everything from Graham Greene’s 1940 parable The Power and the Glory, set in Mexico during a period of anti-clerical violence and persecution, to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), a nightmarish plunge into the dark side of the Jesuit faith where demons really do exist.

The motivational spark for Finnegans Wake, taken from the 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, is that history is cyclic (Finnegans Wake begins with the end of a sentence left unfinished on the last page). Looping Mexico’s current human homicide crisis around the sins of the Nazis – ghosts of the German war machine appear and merge and disappear in 2666’s 900 pages – Bolano invokes the same philosophy but takes it one step further to suggest that God is a human construct and the cyclic loop of man’s depraved crimes against his fellow man cannot simply be dismissed as anomalies in an otherwise ordered and structured universe.

Chilean-born Bolano – who spent many years living in Mexico – posits that the barbaric, unsolved murders of the factory girls of Ciudad Juarez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, where the bodies of more than 1,000 women, some raped and hideously mutilated, have been found since 1993 (with scores of others still missing) must be seen as incontrovertible proof that human existence is governed by the laws of chaos and that theocracy – the kind of suffocating Roman Catholic theocracy that hovers over Mexico like a dense layer of smog — gets in the way and leads to the sort of perversity it aims to prevent: After all, if God is watching everything you’re doing and you’re going to hell for it anyway, why not descend into absolute deviance in the process and slice off a nipple or torture the genitalia of your innocent victim with shards of broken glass if you’re intent on killing them (for whatever nefarious reason) in the first place?

“Modern man likes to pretend his thinking is wide-awake,” Octavio Paz, the first Mexican writer to become a Nobel laureate with his 1990 prize for literature, writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude. “But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason.”

“A Much Sorrier Place”

Art (partial) Frida Kahlo’s Hope, Stay Strong (1946)

“A Much Sorrier Place”

“To fight evil,” wrote Octavio Paz, “is to fight ourselves.”

Let’s pause here, because this is where one of the colleagues that I often consult for my columns became puzzled and frustrated by what I had written.

My editors at PopMatters are outstanding, particularly adept at spotting a poorly-constructed foundation for an argument. But I also cover my back on all of my projects through the employ of my own editor, Miss L, who not only knows Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style better than I do, but she also possesses the ability to deconstruct my own thinking before I embarrass myself in print (In the interest of full disclosure, she also lives with me, which gives her unique access to my thought processes, for better and worse).

When I read Miss L the first 1,000 words (sans the précis which, presumably, you have already explored) she stared into the distance thoughtfully and instead of proclaiming that it was very good and encouraging me to move forward, she said, “You lost me somewhere.”

Once again I read aloud the last three paragraphs, beginning with the Bolano and Joyce comparison and ending with the “If you’re gonna kill ‘em, why not hurt them too?” premise.

“Are you saying that religion breeds murderers?”

“Not exactly, but if I was, history would back my play with the Crusades and the Spanish occupation of Mexico; the latter was all about the Jesuit evangelization of the native tribes.”

Miss L rose from sofa to grab two more bottles of cold San Lucas Cerveza from the fridge. “I still don’t see the connection between God and the murders of the factory girls in Juarez and the drug killings.”

“Over 8,000 people were killed in the Mexican drug wars in 2008,” I said, “and over 10,000 have been murdered in the narco wars overall since Felipe Calderon became President at the end of 2006. 10,000 lives violently ended in almost three years of free-for-all mayhem. Listen to this –”

She handed me a bottle of beer and I reached for the May 2009 issue of Harper’s on the bookshelf behind my armchair. I flipped through the glossy magazine pages until I found Charles Bowden’s chilling article, The Sicario: A Juarez Hit Man Speaks.

Book: Tristessa

Author: Jack Kerouac

Publisher: Penguin (reprint)

Publication date: 1992-06

Length: 96 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $12.00

Image:, a writer based in Tucson, Arizona, is obsessed with the murders of the young women in Juarez, Mexico. Bowden has published two books on the topic and he has reported on what he terms “the slaughter of the city” for various periodicals since 1995, “when murder in Juarez ran at two or three hundred a year, until 2008, when 1,607 people were killed.”

“And that is only the official tally,” Bowden writes in The Sicario, “no one really keeps track of those who are taken and never heard from again.”

“This kind of shit happens every damn day in Mexico,” I tell Miss L. “It’s a holocaust, as Bolano points out more than once in 2666 – in fact, he hammers readers over the head with it at times. If America’s border states were experiencing this level of gruesome brutality – people being boiled alive in vats of acid, for God’s sake – you would hear a hue and cry from the public like you’ve never heard before. But in Mexico –” I shrugged my shoulders.

Miss L settled back into the sofa with her beer. “It’s not everyone in Mexico who is condoning this,” she insisted. “The mothers of the dead girls in Juarez certainly don’t condone it. The poor and the weak don’t condone it, and they are the majority of the population of Mexico.”

I could not argue with her there: according to the Financial Times, the top 30 percent of income earners in Mexico account for 55 percent of income.

“I don’t think it would be fair for you to imply that there is apathy at the heart of the collective consciousness in Mexico,” Miss L continued. “What may be at play here is mass psychosis at the oligarchy level, that top 30 percent where all the power rests, the church, the state, the industrialists –”

“And the narcotics cartels,” I added. “It’s the great disparity between the rich and the poor in Mexico, according to Bowden’s article in Harper’s, that has created the cartels and their hit men.”

“So what you’re seeing is the shadow side of Mexico’s culture,” Miss L suggested, “a culture that otherwise looks to the Catholic church for social control.”

But where has the Catholic Church and its social controls been hiding while the faithful continue to attend services on Sunday morning and slit the throat of their neighbor the next afternoon?

In the 4 October 2009 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, Sara Miller Llana writes about the slaying of Father Hernandez Benitez on 13 June 2009, the first known church casualty of the drug wars (“Mexico’s Drug War: Priests Speak Out”). Llana writes:

In many ways, priests are brought into drug violence the same way the rest of the country is: Their neighbors are traffickers, and they face the consequences of speaking out or knowing too much. But priests’ leadership in the country’s small communities means they see and hear more than average citizens – things that could make them targets in Mexico’s increasingly brutal drug violence. Now they are forming a more unified voice: at a semiannual bishops’ meeting in November, insecurity and violence – for the first time – are slated to be the main topics of discussion.

“The church’s voice, with respect to organized crime, has been very timid,” says Victor Ramos Cortes, a religion expert at the University of Guadalajara. “They have spent most of their time on moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality, and much less on narco-violence. Hopefully this (meeting) can open up the dialogue.”

In other words, abortion, same-sex relationships, and the right to choose how and when one dies are hot button issues for the bishops of Mexico, but the wholesale slaughter of human beings doesn’t get their attention until one of their own catches a bullet.

“To fight evil,” wrote Octavio Paz, “is to fight ourselves.”

Don Quixote and Macario

Mural (partial) found on

Don Quixote and Macario

The Mexican, Octavio Paz once observed, frequents death “and jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves

In the Mexican culture there is a strange intersection between Catholic faith, with its burning incense and mysticism and morbid fascination with the passion play of Jesus Christ, and native folklore that is as ancient as the sun-blasted landscape itself. The nexus of folklore and death may go a long way toward explaining the acceptance of mass murder in Mexican society.

The Mexican, Octavio Paz once observed, frequents death “and jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves. Of course, in his attitude there is as much fear as there is in one of the others (non-Mexicans); at least he does not hide it; he confronts it face to face, with patience, disdain, or irony.”

Book: Don Quixote

Author: Miguel de Cervantes

Publisher: Harper Perennial (reprint)

Publication date: 2005-04

Length: 992 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $16.99

Image: Two important keys to “understanding and describing Mexicans”, T.C. explained to me, “are the Knight of the Sorrowful Face and his sidekick,” namely Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

“Don Quixote and his wise but pathetic alter ego are to be found throughout Mexico in paintings, sculpture, and other art,” T.C. says. “The two are held up as examples of life’s heroic, but in the end, futile battles against injustice and evil. But it isn’t the results that matter so much as the heart and effort put into the quest; death awaits everyone, after all, and it’s the anima (spirit) that defines the life of an individual.”

Don Quixote is regarded today as one of the greatest novels of all time, ironic since Cervantes only intended it to be a profitable parody of the romantic novels of chivalry that were all the rage in 17th-Century Europe. The fantastic adventures of the deluded, self-proclaimed errant knight portray the conflict between noble idealism and brute, unfeeling practicality. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stand as representative icons for the sense of fatalism in the Mexican people: Yes, go ahead and wage war against windmills, if you must, but know that in the end a cold, dark grave awaits you.

But does fatalism lead to, say, apathy in the face of an epidemic of mass murder in Mexico’s border towns or is fatalism the only sane attitude in an insane society, as Cervantes implies in Don Quixote?

T.C. points to another literary work, the old Mexican folk tale Macario as presented by the mysterious B. Traven (clearly the inspiration for the reclusive writer Archimboldi in 2666) to offer “a source as insightful as any other I can think of in examining the Mexican psyche and cosmology.”

Traven’s life before settling in Mexico in the ’20s has been awash in speculation for decades (some scholars believe he was the illegitimate son of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II). Details of the author’s life in Mexico until his death in 1969 are equally sketchy but it was there that Traven created his invaluable body of work, including the novels The Death Ship (1926) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927); both novels were first published in Berlin, fueling speculation that Traven, like Bolano’s Archimboldi, was a German National by birth.

B. Traven’s most important work, however, was “a series of novels that trace the lives of the impoverished Indians in southern Mexico just before the Mexican Revolution” (Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature).

As T.C. tells it, Macario “probably originated in Spain before it was made popular to the world by B. Traven” in one of his anthropological novels of southern Mexico. The tale goes like this:

Macario, a very poor peasant on the verge of starvation, dreams of having a turkey that he can roast and eat all by himself; through good fortune, he ends up with a turkey that he plans to cook while tending to his goat and sheep in the mountains.

While preparing the bird, Macario is visited by three apparitions.

The first apparition is Jesus Christ, who asks Macario to share his meal and be blessed by God. Macario refuses on the grounds that Jesus has never helped him or his family with their poverty and hunger, while the wealthy never went without.

The Devil appears next and promises Macario wealth and prosperity if he shares the delicious turkey with Satan. Macario turns him down flat, citing the Devil’s never-ending hunger for the souls of the poor and for the misery he brings down on the sinful.

Just as Macario is finally about to enjoy his feast, he is visited by the Grim Reaper, who also requests the opportunity to dine with the peasant. After a short deliberation, Macario agrees to share his meal of turkey with the rationale that even though Death may be miserable and painful, Death visits all without discrimination: rich and poor, powerful and powerless.


Fiesta de Muertos (partial), by Demetrio Garcia found on


One indication that the blood of Mexico may be boiling over can be found in two brief but startling passages in Oscar Casares’ debut novel, Amigoland.

The killings in Mexico will continue as long as the oligarchy (“The wealthy 20 or so families and their lackeys and running dogs who have ruled Mexico since colonial times,” T.C. fumes in an e-mail) can depend on a Quixotic sense of resignation and fatalism from the majority of the repressed citizenry.

But one indication that the blood of Mexico may be boiling over can be found in two brief but startling passages in Oscar Casares’ debut novel, Amigoland.

Book: Amigoland

Author: Oscar Casares

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2009-09

Length: 368 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $23.99

Image: interest in novels set in Mexico is what urged me to request a review copy of Amigoland, foolishly undeterred by the advance praise from Book Page that the novel was “perfect summer reading” (obviously overlooking the fact that the title was scheduled for an August release).

Amigoland, set primarily in a small town on the Tex-Mex border, tells the story of two aging brothers, Don Fidencio and Don Celestino Rosales, who must recognize the fact that the end of their days and nights on Earth are near, and that they should no longer let a long-simmering family feud stand between them.

With the aid of his good-natured lover and housekeeper, a Mexican National named Socorro, Don Celestino liberates his 95-year old brother from the rest home where he has been caged and imprisoned by his daughter (the rest home is the improbably-named Amigoland of the title) and the trio embark on a journey over the poverty-stricken back roads of northern Mexico to prove or disprove the existence of the lost and possibly mythical El Rancho Capote, home of the brothers’ grandfather.

“Think Sunshine Boys go south of the border,” Cristina Garcia, author of Dreaming in Cuban, remarked in her advance praise of Casares’ novel, and she was in no way short of the mark in her assessment.

Amigoland is pure mass market fiction, the sort of engaging but lightweight entertainment one might comes across while browsing the book stalls in airport gift shops. The story, like its characters, is simplistic, shallow, and superficial. In this novel, Casares’ writing (unlike much of his short fiction on display in the collection, Brownsville) is stylistically flat with no diversions or subplots, and the supporting characters, such as the daughter who plays warden to Fidencio’s prisoner, are underdeveloped, if developed at all beyond the role of pawns to move the slim plot forward.

If treated with the corrosive acid of pragmatic criticism (a critical method that judges a work by its success in achieving its intended goal) then Amigoland works if the author’s intent was to examine the horrific indignities of aging and the terrifying degree of neglect, scorn, and condescension that Americans heap upon their elderly.

However, the reader of Amigoland never gets the impression that the Rosales brothers’ sense of ethnic identity is restored or reinforced by the journey to the family ranchito in Mexico, typically the “inspirational” goal of such a stock plot. It certainly does not help that the mechanics of the book are flawed; Casares more than telegraphs the conclusion of the book in the second act – he practically scribbles it in the margins.

Even in lightweight entertainment like Amigoland, though, the ghosts of Mexico refuse to be silenced, appearing in two brief passages that are responsible for the birth of this month’s extensive column, the catalyst that launched a weeks-long mediation on Bolano, Paz, Traven, and the thousands of slain and missing.

The first brush with the dead occurs at a Mexican border town near the US checkpoint:

Don Celestino held open the glass door, and his brother shuffled down the narrow hallway. A large glassed-in bulletin board covered the section of the wall that travelers were most likely to see upon arriving at this northern border. Pushing the walker in a straight line required too much of the old man’s attention for him to read any of the notices or catch a glimpse of the black-and-white photos of dead bodies strewn across the scrubland, one revealing only her face inside the unzipped body bag.

Several chapters later, at a bus station in the northern city of Ciudad Victoria, nestled at the base of the lush Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, Fidencio opens up a newspaper abandoned by another traveler:

In the photos on the second page, a dead teenage girl, her torso wrapped in what looked like a black plastic trash bag, lay on a small sand dune. Another photo showed her wearing a formal dress and a tiara. He began to read about the tragedy, a strangulation, and about the young woman’s distraught mother, then about the possible suspects.

When the author of a sitcom-styled novel about Mexican heritage cannot resist mentioning the carnage in modern-day Mexico, then it is fair to assume that the murders have become a significant part of the national identity.

Ghosts of the River

Exhibit (partial) in honor of the Day of the Dead celebration at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Pilsen, Chicago, found on

Ghosts of the River

“October means ghost stories. For Octavio Solis, that means more rivers to cross in his exploration of the borders between and within nations, ethnicity and personal identity.”

And so we leave the horror to the headlines and bus station bulletin boards and novelists and we return, in closing to folklore.

Octavio Solis is an award-winning Mexican-American playwright and director whose works (The Seven Visions of Encarnacion, Man of the Flesh, Prospect) have been staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Latino Chicago Theater Company, El Teatro Campesino, and the Dallas Theater Company, among other venues.

Much of Octavio’s work, reminiscent of the bold and sometimes surreal theater work of Sam Shepard, is focused on the complex dynamics of what it means to be a Mexican-American with a strong emphasis on the role of family and folklore in the resolution of conflict.

While preparing this month’s column, I thought of my old San Francisco friend frequently, and sought him out on a few online venues for writers that he is known to haunt from time to time, when not racing up to Oregon to fix a play before dashing off to pick up his Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center.

Much to my surprise I discovered that Octavio had written a delightful, folkloric slice of original short fiction, The Jeep in the Water, about the tensions and hostilities on the US-Mexico border, which he had posted online after cutting the story from Ghosts of the River, a well-received shadow puppet play, staged in October of this year at Teatro Vision in Mexican-American Plaza in San Jose, California. From the San Francisco Chronicle review by Robert Hurwit:

October means ghost stories. For Octavio Solis, that means more rivers to cross in his exploration of the borders between and within nations, ethnicity and personal identity. In Ghosts of the River, which opened Thursday at Teatro Visión, Solis ventures across borders with the supernatural and between actors and shadows.

Each tale takes place along the Rio Grande in or near Solis’ native El Paso, the setting for many of his plays from the breakthrough Santos & Santos through his recent Lydia (at Marin Theatre Company).

Octavio ultimately chose to cut The Jeep in the Water from Ghosts of the River, the playwright told me, “because this one was a challenge in that there was no real protagonist, no discernible characters to develop… the Jeep is the real protagonist in the story.”

The Jeep in the Water, Octavio says, “is a true story, tarted up some like all good stories should be, but not hardly by much. It is the first of a series of five stories I’m crafting around the Rio; some (of the stories) play out like kiddie monster stories, some like old ghost tales of La Llorona.”

When I expressed interest in folding Jeep in the Water into my October Deconstruction Zone column for Pop Matters, Octavio approved my request without hesitation, allowing me to end this mammoth undertaking with something amounting to whimsy and charm but always, lurking in the background, is “the ever-worsening War on Drugs that bedevils this region so.”

Enjoy this PopMatters exclusive and accept it as a token of gratitude for accompanying me on this journey.

The Jeep in the Water

Photograph (partial) by Diane Cook and Len Jenshe found on

The Jeep in the Water

by Octavio Solis

The Rio Grande is what we on the US side call it. Rio Bravo is what they call it in Mexico. The difference is the difference. Somewhere in the murky depths of this beleaguered band of water is a demarcation line invisible to all but the respective governments of both nations.

One morning a long time ago, which in El Paso could mean either 50 years ago or yesterday, two Border Patrol field agents on their rounds spotted a brand new cherry-red Jeep parked in the shallow middle of the Rio. It lay unattended right in the center, the brown water coursing half-way up the doors, loaded with kilos of marijuana.

Upon their inspection, the agents surmised that some audacious smugglers from Juarez had somehow got it into their heads that if they had the right vehicle, they could simply drive through the river at its shallowest ebb and safely transport their illicit cargo to its destination. It seemed to work, too, and they probably felt like geniuses as their Jeep easily churned through the water in the dead of night. But right at midstream, where there were no horses to jump to, the Jeep had come to a gurgling halt and mired itself in deep silty sludge.

The trace spatters of mud on the shiny red exterior suggested to the agents that there had been some desperate heaving back and forth of the vehicle. Apparently, at some point during the night, the deflated smugglers abandoned their mission and simply waded back to Juarez, sans Mary Jane.

Pleased with their catch, the Border Patrol field agents notified their superiors and summoned a tow-truck to drag the Jeep to shore. By now, a small crowd of people had gathered on both sides of the river to gawk, alerted to the spectacle by the traffic choppers of the morning radio shows in El Paso. The group seemed harmless enough, more bemused than alarmed at the sight of a stranded Jeep in the middle of the river, so the agents took no notice.

The tow truck appeared on the scene in due time, and the young attendant began running a long tow-line to the Jeep. That’s when things took an ugly turn. Before he could reach the vehicle, the poor man was pelted by the Juarez assembly with stones, slabs of concrete, bottles, and whatever else was handy, and was thereby driven back out of the water. The agents shouted admonitions to the suddenly sweltering mob, but at that moment a tow truck on the Mexican side backed up to the bank and two men charged into the river with their own tow-line. This brazen act afforded some incentive to the Border Patrol tow-man and he barreled back in with his tow-line. An uproar of curses rose from both sides of the river in two languages, sometimes three, as the men sloshed like madmen to the Jeep with their tow-lines. The Mexicans secured theirs to the rear fender of the Jeep while the American tied his to the front. Then the real contest began.

The tow trucks revved their engines, pulled the tow-lines taut, and proceeded to pull on the Jeep in opposite directions. A tug-of-war commenced with great fanfare and cheering from the gathered spectators, many of them already picnicking on the promontories. Back and forth lurched the Jeep, first toward Mexico, then toward the US, then back Mexico-way.

Wagers were taken on who would prevail. Some brave boys even grabbed the line and tugged hard to stack the odds in Juarez’s favor. The Border Patrol fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd and persuade the tow-truck desperados to cease their malignant pulling, but that was to no avail. Nobody could hear the shots above the shouting and the clamor of the news choppers directly overhead. This was now a full-blown international incident.

At long last, a larger heavier-duty tow behemoth designed to haul semi-trucks and tractors pulled up to the US embankment, and its seasoned driver, long in the tooth and short in the saddle, dodging various projectiles, succeeded in attaching his own tow-line to the derelict Jeep. Once ashore, the intrepid man climbed into his cab and set to towing it out of the water.

The crowds fell silent as the steel cable tautened right to the surface. Señor Jeep heaved mournfully for a moment over the loud grind of the overheating engine of the Mexican tow-truck. Then a hideous crunch was heard as the rear fender snapped off and flew into the air like a reeled catfish. To cheers from the Americans, and jeers from the Mexicans, the Jeep slowly taxied northward to America, but not before some daring lads rushed to snatch some bags of pot to keep as mementoes of this mighty trans-American match.

The Jeep was impounded, the marijuana seized, displayed and destroyed, and the story, broadly circulated for a time throughout the Southwest with many a chuckle, was eventually forgotten in the mix of more sensational and bloodier stories of the continuing ever-worsening War on Drugs which bedevils this region so.

But somewhere below the surface of this river, covered over by the silt of years and the lore of the frontier, lies imprinted like the footprints of ancient dinosaurs the tire-tracks of a solitary Jeep which challenged the legitimacy of this invisible line we call the Border.