Field Notes from the Big OutsideThe town is Nuevo Casa Grande in the Chihuahua province of northern Mexico, 100 miles or so southwest of El Paso. It is an old place with a new name. We are sitting outside a dusty cantina made of mud the color of salmon flesh. The finger traces of its builders streak the walls. The window and door frames are turquoise, the paint peeling off in blue scales.
The waitress has left us dark bottles of home-brewed beer and a basket of chile peppers, poblanos and serranos, little green sticks of dynamite. We eat them until our mouths are enflamed with exquisite pain.
Some ethnopharmacologists swear that you can hallucinate this way. But being novices, and wanting later to amble in a nearly erect manner across ancient ruins outside town, my friend Fremont and I decide to linger on the bright edges of consciousness, here in this beautiful and tragic place, where macaws in wicker cages hang above us like cackling white blooms. These birds of the jungle were sacred to the Anasazi, Hohokam and other people of the northern desert. I have seen petroglyphs of macaws carved into pink sandstone cliffs high above the San Juan River in Colorado, a thousand miles away from the nearest rainforest.
The complexities of these ancient trading networks are astounding to me, but they shouldn’t be. The indigenous culture of Mexico was every bit as advanced as the Egyptians or the Athenians. More advanced in many ways, particularly in its relatively benign relationship to the land.
We are waiting on a man to lead us through Paquimé, the large complex of ruins of one of the most sophisticated cities of pre-Columbian America, located a few miles outside town. For nearly 1,000 years, Paquimé was the ruling cultural and political center of northern Mexico. It was the nexus in a vast web of trade and commerce that extended in a 500-mile radius. Its architecture and agronomy practices were exported north to the Mimbres and Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. So were its macaws. In fact, the breeding and trading of birds may have been the main source of wealth for this city of 20,000.
A wind blows from the east. The fumes from a Pemex plant invade the air. It is a suffocating sensation, with each breath a black clotting of the lungs. Finally, an archaic truck rattles to a halt in front of our table. A small, wiry man climbs out of the driver’s side window. His dark face is fissured with wrinkles. He has a beautiful smile. He has no teeth.
His name is José Lopez. He is a mestizo from Oputo, a small village on the Rio de Bavispe, 70 miles to the west. He has worked many jobs. He says he has logged timber in the Sierra Madre for Champion, International. He has stitched soles on running shoes, getting $2 for a 14-hour day. He worked in the Pemex refinery until he fell and broke his back. It has almost healed, he says. Now he does odds and ends. He leads tourists to Paquimé. He speaks English. He is 78 years old.
We climb in the back, careful not to put too much weight on the truck bed’s thin crust of rust, and rumble down a narrow dirt road, casting behind us a billowing plume of smoke and dust. We watch the chilling disparities between life in rural Mexico and rural New Mexico, one of the poorest regions in the US, unscroll before us: children huddled on the roadside under red, woven blankets; women carrying wooden buckets of water taken from the hideously polluted Casa Grandes River for miles to tin shacks in barrios beside open sewers; men working the dry beanfields under a blistering sun.
Mexico has been called “the land of the perfect dictatorship.” It is a “dictatorship” that has been created, propped up, anointed and rewarded by the US government for nearly a century, ever since Black Jack Pershing busted across the border in 1917, vowing to bring back Pancho Villa “in an iron cage.”
We have logged their forests, drained their oil fields, fixed their elections, threatened to seize their treasury, send them our sweatshops, our drug financiers and maquiladoras. For the last two decades, neoliberal trade pacts have been at work, grinding away at Mexico’s poor and indigenous people. In return, we have sealed our border against the “scourge of brown immigrants.”
José brings the truck to a halt on the crest of a small hill overlooking a sprawling labyrinth of stone structures. The hill itself, José says with a slightly creepy edge to his voice, is a ceremonial mound. The ruins of Paquimé are thirty times the size of the celebrated Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, the largest Anasazi site in the American Southwest. Paquimé once featured condominium-like structures six stories tall, dozens of Mayan-like ball fields, temples, warehouses, marketplaces and plazas. Now it is empty and crumbling, a city of ghosts.
We descend into the ruin, passing down narrow corridors and steep staircases to a subterranean layer, more than 10 feet below the surface. Around 1350, Paquimé was hit by a series of catastrophes: an earthquake, a meteor strike, and finally, a vicious attack by a well-armed enemy, perhaps the Aztecs. The city was abandoned by 1400 and never reinhabited.
José is telling the story of Paquimé in a vault that once stored beans, squash, chiles, peyote, and maize, when we are startled by a hollow buzzing, an insect sound, like the drone of a cicada. José motions us to stay still, while he performs a strange ballet across the floor into a dark corner of the room. Moments later he emerges into the filtered light holding a pure white rattlesnake, its tail twisting around his thin forearms. (Did he keep it here to impress the tourists? A conjuror’s pet? If so, it worked.)
José rubs the flesh of the rattlesnake against our cheeks. This is not a ritualistic act, but an offering of experience. The snake is warm and smooth. I can feel the beating of its heart. Then José places the snake on the cold stone floor. It coils, then uncoils and vanishes into the fractured wall. José lights a cigarette and coughs. “It’s all going to go as it did before,” he says. “First the Indians, then the forest.” Then he leaves us, alone in the deep silence of the sandstone ruins.