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A complete chapter from C.M. Mayo's Miraculous Air

Originally published in Fourth Genre, spring 2002. In November 2003 this article was awarded first place in the category of cultural tourism article for a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.

"Why aren't you back in Mexico City?"
U.S. detective to Miguel Vargas (Played by Charleton Heston)
in Orson Welles' "A Touch of Evil"

On Wednesday, March 23, 1994, Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was in La Paz, Baja California, about to fly home to Mexico City when he got the phone call ordering him to go to Tijuana.

Tijuana, the Lost City. TJ, as the Border People call it, Tia Juana say the gringos. Sin city, poor city, city of dog races and discos, gray skies and trash, Tijuana crowds against a 12 foot-high iron wall that runs along the no-man's land north of the border up and down canyons, across fields and marshlands, more canyons, more fields, until finally, at the small park that faces Tijuana's Bullring-by-the-Sea, a public toilet and the La Michoacana ice cream shack, it slopes down a hill of sand and into the water where it slices right through the waves.

People jump the wall, people burrow beneath the wall, they bash big holes in it. Every night, hundreds of people bolt through the no-man's land, darting the search-lights of the helicopters, the headlights of the Border Patrols' Ford Broncos, the infrared nightscopes, and the shouting, billy club-wielding agents. Interstate 5 to San Diego posts warning signs showing not cattle, but running people, a little girl with pig-tails flying. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they get robbed or raped. If they make it into the United States, they will wash dishes, pick lettuce, sew blue-jeans, cut grass, lay bricks. Theirs is quite a story, well told in many books. Among the best of them are Ted Conover's Coyotes and William Langewiesche's Cutting for Sign. I'm going to tell you a different story, which begins four years and a month later, when I drove my big red Oldsmobile into downtown Tijuana and right up the ramp of the fruity-pink Camino Real Hotel. I tossed the keys to the doorman, I rode the escalator up to the lobby, and I strode across the gleaming, marble floor.

"She's rich," is what the last person I'd interviewed had said about me. I didn't think of myself as rich, though I was comfortable enough to be able to travel from one end of the thousand-mile long peninsula to this other. But, for the moment, consider this true.

In the bar I met a Tijuana-born, San Diego-educated multidisciplinary artist named Ana María Herrera, a young woman with glossy raven-black hair and a movie star smile. We sat on a squashy black sofa. We ordered drinks. Flamenco strummed on the stereo, the notes weaving through our conversation like threads of silver. Overhead, the skylight poured down the golden light of a softly waning afternoon.

Three p.m. on the afternoon of Wednesday March 23, 1994: Luis Donaldo Colosio was flying up the Baja California peninsula. By this time, he would have been over the waist of the Central Desert. Brown; the sea on either side blue. He probably didn't bother to look. He'd been flying all over the country for the last four months, ever since his destape, or "uncovering" -- President Salinas' announcement that he would be the presidential candidate of the party that had ruled Mexico since 1929, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or the PRI. Colosio was a man with a lot of energy, however: he was young, only 44 years old. Trim and photogenic, he'd earned a masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania; since then, he'd held his own with the technocrats of the Salinas administration, the PhDs from Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Yale, and Harvard. But unlike his Hermès-tied Mexico City colleagues, Colosio, a middle-class provincial, had the afición of a born politician. He thrilled to wade into the crowds, to clasp the hands that reached for him, touched his back, his arms, his hair. At rallies, he would break free of his bodyguards and allow himself to be carried along, as in a river of love.

Below, along the scalloped coast of Baja California, the brown was beginning to be relieved here and there with broad valleys patched with green: San Quintín, Santo Tomás, Ensenada. And at last, Colosio's plane started its descent towards the Tijuana airport.

Ana María Herrera had brought slides of her work. I wiped my hand on the cocktail napkin, then picked one up. I raised it over my head to view it against the skylight: this one was "La Nena," Little Girl, a banner which was currently hanging in the lobby of the Centro Cultural Tijuana. On one side, a pretty young girl stood wrapped in white, the sky roiling above; on the other, a fat woman photographed from below, all folds of worm-white glob-like flesh.

Next slide: "El Ser," The Being, an installation of 23 tubes, each filled with a substance shed by the human body: hair, skin, blood, urine, feces, mucous, sweat, saliva, semen, ear wax... "The twenty-three tubes symbolize our twenty-three chromosomes," Ana María explained. "At the end I put a fetus."

This wasn't anything like the art I'd seen further south in La Paz and Todos Santos, canvases alive with color and beauty. Like Paulino Pérez's woman floating in the yellow-green water, or the giant red and black figures of the Indian cave paintings, this was art stripped of any pretension to prettiness, to decor.

"It's not about money," Ana María said. She was a member of a group called Revolucion-arte, artists from both Tijuana and San Diego committed to making art more universal -- "not just Chicano art or Mexican art. We want to make spaces for art, put art anyplace. Why not a gas station?" One of her fellow Revolucion-arte members, Marco Ramírez, or "Erre," had just erected a statue of a two-headed metal Trojan Horse -- one head looking south, the other north -- at the San Ysidro border crossing.

Ana María sipped her drink. "Tijuana needs the nurturing of art. It's a young city, and its essential point is to make money, to eat. From all over Mexico, that's why people come here. They work in the factories, they try to cross to the other side. They want a better life."

Ana María passed me one more slide: "Tierra de Oportunidad," Land of Opportunity. I held it to the light: it was of a large glass box hanging on a chain from a meat hook. Inside dangled a crumpled wad of real 50 and 100 dollar bills. At the bottom of the box, Ana María explained, were two black polyester gloves. You could put your hands in the gloves and touch the dollars. But you couldn't take the dollars out.

Shortly after 4 p.m.: Luis Donaldo Colosio shook hands and gave abrazos -- a ritualized embrace finalized with a thump on the back -- to the congressmen and PRI officials who had come to meet him at the Tijuana airport. Many more had turned out than he'd expected. Only three weeks earlier, his campaign had seemed adrift in the doldrums. Mexicans were still in shock from Archbishop Posadas' assassination at the Guadalajara airport and the New Year's Day Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Sub-Comandante Marcos with his ski mask and his pipe had mesmerized both the national and international press corps. Reporters would hike for days into the Lacandon jungle for the chance of an audience with the guerrilla leader, this "Lone Ranger, Batman, and Darth Vader," as one wide-eyed journalist called Marcos, this green-eyed "Lawrence of Arabia" who dabbled in poetry and quoted Fuentes and Monsivaís.

Much as he loved the crowds, Colosio was beginning to look like just another apparatchik offering the same-old, same-old. Worse, Colosio's chief rival within the PRI, ex-Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho, had been named the government's chief negotiator with the Zapatistas. What was President Salinas trying to do? The newspapers openly speculated on Camacho's chances of displacing Colosio.

On March 6, the 65th anniversary of the PRI, Colosio lashed back with a speech calling for justice in Chiapas, clean elections, and an end to authoritarianism. "Declaro," boomed his voice over the 30,000 party members assembled at Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution. "El gran reclamo de México es la democracia," The great outcry of Mexico is for democracy. "The country wants to exercise it fully. Mexico demands, we respond. As candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, I am also ready."

Your typical campaign speech, grumped some pundits. Others argued that it constituted a declaration of independence from President Salinas and the PRI's old guard -- the "Dinosaurs". Either way, Colosio's campaign began gathering steam. On Tuesday, March 22, Camacho stepped aside. And now, on Wednesday, March 23, 1994, at the Tijuana airport, the congressmen and PRI officials clapped loudly, they cheered. As Colosio jumped up on the running board of the Chevy Blazer that would take him to the rally in Lomas Taurinas, Colosio smiled and waved goodbye. Goodbye.

I used to work as a professor of economics at ITAM, a small private university in Mexico City that models itself after MIT. One of the courses I taught was the Seminar on the Mexican Economy. I should say I "directed" rather than taught, because I gave only a few introductory lectures; after that, the students made presentations. They were graduating seniors, most of them already working in Treasury, Banco de México, investment banks, family businesses. They were bright kids, among the best prepared in the country. Every year several asked me for letters of recommendation for graduate school in the U.S.

I let the students choose their topic, maybe something having to with their job, I suggested, something they felt passionate about. They took it very seriously, with their slides chock-full of multi-color graphs and data-bars and pie-charts. I listened to so many presentations over the years, I couldn't possibly remember them all. The variety was astonishing, as was one single consistency: every semester I had a student who made a presentation on Tijuana and its maquiladora industry.

Usually it was a boy in a suit and tie. He'd gotten his data from the government. He'd give a little background, explain that maquiladoras were factories set up along the U.S.-Mexican border under a special 1970 program to take advantage of low-wage Mexican labor. Materials were imported tax-free, the maquiladoras added labor, and then final goods were shipped north again: televisions, stereos, cassette tapes, computer chips, clothes, toys. There were so many hundreds of plants, employing so many thousands of workers --- mostly women. Part of the Free Trade Zone around the border, Tijuana was capitalizing on its "comparative advantage." With NAFTA, more so. The city was booming, high employment, housing starts, highways...

Not once in all the hoopla did any of my students mention what it might have been like to actually work in a maquiladora. Why should they have? This was a course in the Department of Economics, not Anthropology or Sociology. Still, I liked the idea of pushing my students to think beyond supply and demand, cost/benefit, trade theory. Have you read La Flor Más Bella de la Maquiladora? I would ask. It's kind of interesting, interviews with the workers themselves.

Stories were important, I'd said at the beginning of the course. As Donald McCloskey pointed out, "Economists have not lived without stories, not ever." I'd made McCloskey's book, If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise, required reading.

I would say to my student: You were just telling me a story right now. "Once upon a time, Mexico had a lot of low-skilled labor and very little capital, so it made this arrangement with the countries that had a relatively small supply of low-skilled labor and a lot of capital. And then, in some border cities like Tijuana, there was economic development..." Your story may well be nonfiction, I was always quick to say. But: is it true?

In one of the interviews in La Flor Más Bella de la Maquiladora, a woman named Elena tells about working in a factory that made Muppet dolls. Her job was to dress the Miss Piggys as they went by on the conveyor belt -- grab it, dress it, grab it, dress it. She'd forgotten how many dolls she dressed in a day, but, Elena said, "I knew it was thousands, so many that at various times I dreamed that Miss Piggy was attacking and killing me."

Maybe some of my students went and read La Flor Más Bella de la Maquiladora, I don't know. I do know this: I found Elena's nightmare about Miss Piggy infinitely more interesting than any of my students' presentations.

I wasn't meant to teach economics.

From the airport, Colosio's Chevy Blazer sped along the highway fronting the wall, through a landscape of gray dirt parks and warehouses -- mile after mile of maquiladoras. If these were evidence of economic development, they were, at the same time, symptomatic of his country's poverty. Beyond the graffitied metal wall -- too tall to see over -- lay the ordered, red-tiled suburbs of San Diego with their swimming pools and shopping malls. There lived the managers, owners and consumers; here, in Tijuana, the workers.

"Veo un México de trabajadores," I see a Mexico of workers, Colosio had said in his March 6 speech, "who do not find the jobs they deserve. I see a Mexico of workers who have greatly contributed to the productive effort and who should be offered work, with training and better salaries.

"Veo un México de jóvenes," I see a Mexico of young people, "who daily face the difficult reality of the lack of jobs, who do not always have the opportunities of education and preparation... I see a Mexico of women who do not yet enjoy the opportunities they deserve... I see a Mexico of businessmen oftentimes dispirited by the bureaucracy, the oceans of paperwork, the arbitrary decisions of the authorities... a Mexico of teachers and professors and researchers who ask for professional recognition, who ask for better salaries and conditions... I see a Mexico with hunger and thirst for justice. A Mexico of people aggrieved by the distortions imposed on the law by those who should serve it..."

The usual demagoguery? Perhaps. Colosio had made his career in the PRI, as of this writing, the world's oldest ruling party, a corporativist behemoth riddled with mafias. But in Mexico, nothing is as it seems. Like many other members of the PRI, Colosio was deeply, personally committed to social justice and democracy. It was Colosio, when he was head of the party, who went on national TV to concede the 1989 loss of the Baja California governorship to the PAN -- the first loss of a governorship since the party's founding. Local PRI strongmen -- many of them based in Tijuana, skimming the fat off the drug trade, gambling, and prostitution -- were enraged. Five years later, some of them still seethed.

Yet the PRI, in part thanks to Colosio's reforms, continued to work like a well-oiled machine. Nearing the outskirts of Tijuana, the Chevy Blazer passed beneath a billboard with his own name, big as a shout:


In the morning I walked from the Camino Real Hotel to the Centro Cultural Tijuana, "La Bola," as the Tijuanenses called it, The Sphere, after the Omnimax Planetarium at the entrance, which looked like an enormous egg half-emerged from its cracked shell. Behind La Bola spread a plaza crowded with children finger painting on sheets of brown paper. "¡Ven a pintar con nosotros!" called out a clown, Come and paint with us! He shuffled across a stage festooned with balloons, throwing out his arms to disco music. A little girl in a dress-sized T-shirt spattered with blue paint had jumped up and was dancing with him. The plaza felt hot and busy and loud; but through the heavy glass doors of the cultural center itself, the air was hushed and cool. Huge banners hung down from the ceiling, high above. With the burst of air from the doors they swayed, slightly.

There was Ana María Herrera's "La Nena," the vast, gross nude with its fleshy folds of fat; on the flip side, the pretty girl wrapped in white. The slide hadn't done justice to the shock of its scale, its masterfully harsh blacks and whites. I wandered among the other banners, some 40 of them, by artists from all over Latin America, the U.S. and Spain. One looked like lace; another, slick traffic-light yellow with a giant red question mark. Mexican Arturo Elizondo's was a portrait of Cortés transposed over images of the Virgin of Guadalupe; on the back, a native man and a native woman covered with tattoos. "In God We Trust" by Venezuelan Milton Becerra was fashioned of Bolivian bills tied together with string. The banner from Nicaragua by Raul Quintanilla portrayed a gargantuan grape-purple penis with a Barby doll glued onto the tip of it. Its title: "Me Repugna Miss Lewinsky (ugliest dick in the world)." Sophomoric stuff. But I admired the spirit of it all, the unusual form and materials, art broken free of categories -- photography, collage, silkscreen, weaving, oil paint and canvas. Why not glue a Barby doll onto the end of a giant penis? Why not make a glass box and stuff it full of dollars? Or make a mural for a gas station?

It was like breaking out of the straightjacket of economics: suddenly I could make use of, say, a dream about Miss Piggy. I could write not just about how Colosio's reforms might impact the maquiladoras, but what he was wearing when he was killed: Brown pants, beige windbreaker, open-collared blue shirt. I could mention that it was late in the afternoon, nearing 4:30 p.m. Shadows were growing long, the spring air beginning to cool. Ranchera music blared into the crowd of some 3,000 as the Chevy Blazer bumped down the steep dirt hill into Tijuana slum known as Lomas Taurinas.

Tijuana is the most visited city in the world. Fact: there are 72 million legal crossings a year between San Diego and Tijuana. "Border People" make up much of the traffic -- Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Anglo-Americans, and all other kinds of Americans with jobs, property, family and friends on one side or the other of "la línea." Like Ana María Herrera, many are bilingual and cosmopolitan. Some are more limited: a Oaxacan maquiladora worker, say, whose son lives in Los Angeles. They tend to speak "Spanglish," peppering their Spanish with words like apartamento instead of departamento (apartment), trocke instead of camión (truck), waife instead of esposa (wife). A whole paragraph of English may run by, then: ¿qué onda?

The balance of those 72 million crossings are mainly tourists. They walk, they drive, they take buses and taxis into the downtown, the main artery of which is the Avenida Revolución, "a shopping district," trumpets The Tijuana Handbook, "famous around the globe."

Briefly, I had contemplated the notion that I too was a sort of Border Person, but here, in my shorts and sneakers, I was just another gringa. "Tourist!" shouted a tout, "Cheaper than K-Mart!" "Blankets from Oaxaca, pottery, stained glass, leather!" "Amiga! Cheap-o-rama!" Loud drums beat from a record store, muddied with rock-and-roll from the Hard Rock Café (the back-end of a pink Cadillac hanging out of the wall). Tourists jostled down the Avenida Revolución, groups of two, three, five, hugging their purses tight, past the Jai Alai Palace, Chiki Hai, the tables of Tia Juana Tilly's. Get your Virgin of Guadalupe framed in shells, joss sticks, Jack-in-the-Box, KFC, Havana Room Fine Cigars, Aztec Massage. On almost every corner: a donkey painted to look like a zebra.

"Get your photo!" "Photo with the zebra!" "Step on up!" Each donkey stood patiently, harnessed into a gaily painted cart with a backdrop of Aztecs or pyramids or some colorful scene of Tijuana. Alongside the backdrop, sombreros were pinned up that said: PANCHO VILLA; HONEYMOON; TIJUANA; I LOVE YOU. You put one on, they threw a serape over your shoulder, five bucks. It seemed the sporting thing to do.

The donkey's name?


And then, at the corner of 3rd and Revolución, I jumped in a cab. The seats were plush red velvet. A plastic Virgin of Guadalupe dangled from the rearview mirror.

Lomas Taurinas, I said.

Smooth, the ride was smooth, the little plastic Virgin barely bobbled as the cab sped through Tijuana up hills, down and around through streets of apartment buildings, taco stands, shoe repairs, gas stations. The driver cut, he swerved, always smooth even as the streets grew narrower, the houses smaller and shabbier, flat-roofed cinderblocks, many of them unpainted, others dirty-white, cobalt, candy orange. And then down the sharp steep hill of Lomas Taurinas, smooth over freshly laid asphalt.

"Colosio had to die before they'd pave this road," said the driver. He had a voice loud as a buzz saw. His face was too large and pocked with scars. His name was Emilio. He laughed. He'd seen it all: he'd been living in Tijuana for 15 years. He was from Nayarit.

We'd come to the bottom of the hill, to a bricked-over plaza.

"This used to be dirt," Emilio said. He swept his arm across the windshield. "All dirt."

We got out of the taxi. The plaza featured a small library, the Biblioteca Pública Luis Donaldo Colosio, and an even smaller room, a tiny community center named after his widow, Diana Laura Riojas de Colosio. Both were freshly painted mint green. Behind the two tiny buildings was tucked a tiny, tree-shaded playground with a teeter-totter and a swing-set. To the right, wedged into the far corner of the plaza, stood the monument to Luis Donaldo Colosio, a 10 foot-tall statue of the candidate in his open-collared shirt, one arm raised high. A wreath of white carnations lay propped at its feet. LA PLAZA DE LA UNIDAD Y ESPERANZA, read brass letters on the wall behind the statue: The Plaza of Unity and Hope.

"Dirt," Emilio said again. In part, the plaza had been built on top of a ravine, which had been filled in with cement. Before, Emilio said, the plaza was much smaller. When Colosio arrived for the rally, he'd had to walk across the ravine on a wooden footbridge. Below ran a river of sewage. "Oh the flies! The stink!" Emilio laughed a hearty, deep-bellied laugh. "Colosio had to die before they'd fill in that ravine."

A group of teenaged boys was eyeing us from across the street.

"Lots of tourists come here," Emilio said, sensing my concern. Not to worry. "I take two, three a month." Last month was the anniversary of Colosio's death. "Oof!" Emilio waved his hand. "Hundreds of people!" Politicians, newspaper reporters, TV cameras.

It had been more than four years. "Piden que declare Zedillo sobre Colosio," Zedillo Asked to Testify About Colosio, headlined the March 23, 1998 Mexico City Reforma. President Zedillo had been Colosio's campaign manager. What had he seen? What did he know?

This much was known: on March 23, 1994, after having made his speech, at 5:10 p.m., as he waded through the throng, Colosio was shot once in the head and once in the abdomen. Mario Aburto, a 25 year-old maquiladora worker who fancied himself the "Eagle Knight," confessed. There was the video filmed from a rooftop: the tight, bouncing crowd, confetti, ranchera music, then the flash of silver near Colosio's head and pup! a belch of smoke.

But was Aburto Aburto? The man tackled and pummeled at the scene did not resemble the thick-necked, clean-shaven prisoner. Official photographs showed him as having two different heights. Had "Aburto" acted alone? At the scene of the murder Aburto had pointed to Vicente Mayoral, one of Colosio's volunteer bodyguards, shouting that it was him -- "el viejo!" the old man!

Certainly it was strange that on the night of the crime, Sonora Governor Manlio Fabio Beltrones rushed to police headquarters in Tijuana to interview Aburto. Stranger still that President Salinas named as special prosecutor Miguel Montes, a career PRI politician with no experience whatsoever in criminal law, nor criminal investigation.

Montes made a careful analysis of the video, which he presented on national TV, playing the video at normal speed, then slow-motion, little arrows pointing to each bodyguard, each jostle and push: the choreography of a conspiracy, he claimed. Four of Colosio's Tijuana bodyguards, including "el viejo," Vicente Mayoral, were arrested. The four turned out to be police, two of them ex-State Judicial Police who were well-known to the National Center for Human Rights as extortionists and torturers.

On April 28th, in Mexico City, Special Prosecutor Montes recieved an anonymous telephone call about a bomb in the Tijuana airport. Montes phoned Tijuana with the report; Tijuana police chief Federico Benitez left his office to investigate. Two hours later Benitez was ambushed on the Tijuana expressway and pumped full of rounds from an AK-47. Was it merely coincidence that on June 2, Montes ditched his elaborately detailed conspiracy theory and announced that Mario Aburto had, after all, acted alone?

Colosio's widow, Diana Laura Riojas de Colosio, responded with an open letter calling for further investigation into a possible conspiracy. Montes was replaced. But Colosio's widow could do little more than establish a foundation in her husband's name and settle her own affairs, because November 18, 1994, at the age of 34, Diana Laura -- "our Princess Di," as some of the press eulogized her -- died of pancreatic cancer, leaving her two small children orphaned.

Under President Zedillo, who took office in December of 1994, the investigation played on like a farce noire. In February 1995, a third special prosecutor, Pablo Chapa Benzanilla, announced that the bullet that had supposedly ripped through Colosio's abdomen was a plant, that in fact, the real bullet was fired from a second gun. Othón Cortez, one of Colosio's guards at the rally, was arrested, beaten and tortured so severely that when he was brought before the press to be photographed, he fainted three times. But in the video -- that same video that had been played and replayed by Montes on national TV -- Cortez was standing behind Colosio with both hands free. So Cortez was released. According to the next special prosecutor, Luis Raúl González, Chapa Benzanilla had paid witnesses to testify against Cortez. In any case, after having paid witnesses in the investigation of the murder of PRI Secretary General Ruiz-Massieu, among them a psychic named "La Paca" who'd planted her son's father-in-law's body on Raúl Salinas' ranch, Chapa Benzanilla fled the country.

Nineteen-ninety-six, 1997, 1998: the investigation diddled on. Most recently, four agents of the Justice Department assigned to the Colosio case had been detained for extortion and car theft. Another snippet of news on March 23, 1998, these four years later: a video had come to light that "had to do with" the Aburto's detention. The investigators who went to Guadalajara to retrieve it were chased by strange cars for three hours.

"Espero un milagro," I am hoping for a miracle, was what Colosio's father had to say.

Indeed. We will probably never know who told exactly what truth about which detail lost in the 47,403 pages of testimony. As journalist Alma Guillermoprieto put it, "In the frightening nightscape, anyone can be a murderer." Lone assassin Mario Aburto, say some; "intellectual author" President Salinas, insist others -- or his brother Raúl Salinas, or the Dinoasaurs, narcopolíticos, Gulf Cartel capo Juan García Abrego?

Maybe -- just maybe -- Colosio is not even dead, but living the highlife off a secret bank account in Switzerland. That was the theory of a Mexico City taxi driver.

Emilio, he slammed shut the door of his cab. "Nada de eso," nothing of this would have been built -- the ravine filled in, the library and social center, playground, pavement. "The road paved, ha!" He muttered to himself, shaking his head as the taxi glided up the hill, smooth. I leaned back into the plush, red velvet seat. The little plastic Virgin swung towards me, then as the taxi pulled up level at the top of the hill, back. The sky had turned gray. I felt a sadness heavy like a winter coat.

"Tijuana," writes Luis Alberto Urrea in his haunting By the Lake of Sleeping Children, "is the sound of one hand clapping." Maybe that's why I couldn't hear it. I wasn't getting a sense of place as I had everywhere else on the Baja California peninsula. This was no reflection on Tijuana: it may have been a poor, rough city, but it was also a city vibrant with commerce and culture. And the culture of the border should have fascinated me -- after all, I was an American who had spent most of my adult life in Mexico. But it did not. I'd set out on my travels to make my "wheel" turn, and indeed it had, right back to where it was when I started: the squalor, the violence, the corruption.

"What's the nice part of Tijuana?" I'd asked a friend who'd grown up here. She'd looked at me and hooted. "San Diego."

I wasn't dying to get home to Mexico City, either. The smog there had gotten so bad that I often felt short of breath and headachy after just a walk around the block -- if I dared walk around the block. Mexico City had degenerated into a "criminal free-for-all," as Newsweek called it. Many of my friends had been mugged in rogue taxis, punched in the face, glasses broken; one was hauled out right into the traffic and stabbed. Many were led from cash machine to cash machine, until their accounts were cleaned out. Dozens of millionaires were kidnapped by gangs of police, their ears and fingers sliced off and sent to their relatives -- but no one was safe: a friend's seven year-old was pulled from the car at a stoplight and held for the few hours it took to come up with the equivalent of 300 dollars. Everyone I knew, if not a victim themselves, had a close friend or relative who'd been attacked or kidnapped or killed. Crime was the topic of conversation at almost every dinner party, to the point where one pundit quipped, "only three assaults per person per conversation."

As Octavio Paz railed after Colosio's assassination, "Every day they serve us the same dish of blood."

"Why do you want to live there?" my sister Alice had asked me. I was asking myself the same question when I checked out of the Camino Real Hotel. The porter placed my bag in the trunk of the Oldsmobile. And then I tooled down the ramp onto the avenue. North.

So: I had traveled the nearly one thousand mile-length of it, from Los Cabos to Tijuana. This dark denouement was not what I'd expected. But then neither was anything in my travels. It had been like living in a novel, one person leading to another, suspense, surprise -- always the surprise. As John Steinbeck wrote, "we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

Half a mile from the San Ysidro border crossing, the traffic bottlenecked. Street vendors worked the lanes between the idling cars: plaster Tweety Birds and Bugs Bunnys, woolen weavings, a stick-like cactus in a pot. The vendors walked quickly, faces grim, pausing only to hold up their merchandise at each window.

My car crept forward, past a billboard that advertised a U.S. pawnshop: "Los Genios de las Casas de Empeño." More vendors paraded past: a plaster Aztec sundial, a plaster Venus de Milo, Chiclets; window washers with their soapy squeeze bottles and rags; an Indian woman begging, her outstretched hand a welter of sores. I dropped a coin in her palm, I inched forward, braked. Vinyl seatpads, Winnie-the-Pooh dolls, a papier-maché giraffe, sunglasses, roses. A boy walked by playing a wooden flute, two dollars? He stopped at my window and tooted out a few bars of "Happy Birthday." I shook my head no and, without a shrug, he moved on. From the side mirror on my car, I watched him walking, a spring in his step. But what a life, I thought, pounding the hot asphalt, breathing the exhaust of the cars.

A car: fabulous item. Yes, no question, I was rich by the standards of the average Mexican -- immensely privileged. Living in Mexico, this was something I was never allowed to forget. My privilege was always obvious, often awkward. The shock of it -- a shock every tourist feels -- had yet to wear off in all the years I'd been living here. But I'd had time to contemplate that shock, as well as the professional inclination to do so. Yes, I was privileged, but certainly not from the point of view of a Park Avenue matron, say, or the average investment bank vice president. To flip the coin: the average Mexican is rich compared to the average African -- or for that matter, the average Peruvian, Afghan or Philippino. I used to tell my students, go look at the most miserable slum in Mexico City, count the TV antennas, and think of this: Louis the Sun King could not have bought one single television, even if he'd hocked the whole of France.

What is "rich"? What is "poor"? A mountain of literature has been published on the subject without establishing a consensus. Acedamics can fiddle with definitions of "poverty" -- and for public policy, these have their uses. But what disturbs is difference, that the few should have so much while the many have relatively little -- that they could have a TV and do not, that they could have a car and do not. Make your wish-list: healthful food, running water, medical care, employment, education...

With my education, I'd thought I'd learn the answers, something like a list of recipes: mix, shake, bake and voilà: Economic Development. I did learn something at the University of Chicago. I remember Gary Becker chalking up his equations on human capital; lectures by D. Gale Johnson on import tariffs; a workshop where T.W. Schultz -- a rail-thin figure in a gray suit -- argued about the rate of return on primary education. But most of all, I remember Arnold Harberger -- "Alito," as his Latin American students affectionately called him -- talking about markets. "They are like the winds and the tides," he said, making big circles with his arms, "and he who tries to fight that operation is going to have himself one hell of a battle." Which was not to say that markets always worked, or that a market solution would always prove optimal. Diagnosing was not so easy. "Reality --" I noted down his every word -- "is super complex."

In my decade of working as an economist in Mexico, I learned much more. What I learned, boiled down to stock: there aren't any set recipes. The whole question of "economic development" is like a ball of mercury, you press your finger on it and it breaks into more little balls...

And because reality is super complex, as my old professor Harberger stressed, you need a structure to approach it with. A theory.

Which is, in a way, a story. And as Flannery O'Connor put it, "When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story."

I bought a package of peanuts from a woman in a wheelchair. The vendors kept streaming by: more plaster Tweety Birds, ersatz Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls, Jesus on a plastic cross, junk and more junk. The driver in the Winnebago ahead of me bought a sombrero (a tattooed arm held out a bill, the sombrero was handed up): the first purchase I'd seen in half an hour.

Closer to the crossing, traffic fanned into seven lanes, stop and start, stop. In the lane next to mine a beat-up yellow van had stalled. Its two bumperstickers: DEMOCRACIA YA! and JESUS SAVE ME FROM YOUR FOLLOWERS.

On the right, just past a stand of palm trees, appeared Marco Ramírez's two-headed Trojan Horse, its metal flanks gleaming in the harsh light. Nearing the booths, cement curbs with white-washed steel posts divided the lanes. An Indian girl in a filthy red-checked blouse rested against a post. She wasn't begging or selling anything; merely sitting, her bare feet in the gutter, tears rolling down her cheeks.

I pulled up to the booth. I showed my passport.

"Welcome home," the officer said brightly.

Copyright (c) C.M. Mayo 2002. All rights reserved.

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