Going South – Mexico Of The 1980s

articles Travel & Destinations

Jeanine Lee Kitchel

On Mexico’s west coast, few cities lie between Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Looking at a map of Mexico, San Blas sits halfway between the two. Its location is indicated by a red dot as opposed to a blue dot, meaning it is a city of some consequence. It holds its own as far as population, tourists, and marketplaces.

In the post office at San Blas, an unmailed postcard is tacked to the wall. American tourists – gringos ­ had forgotten to put stamps on it, and it was on display as a heads up for others. Similar cards joined this one in reproach. Not only were they missing stamps, some were even missing names and addresses.

The card’s destination was Lake Tahoe. Its message was there for all (who could read English): “San Blas must have been a super spot five to ten years ago, but now it’s crawling with gringos and everyone speaks English. It’s crowded and overpriced. Mexican buses are getting to be a drag. But I’m still searching for that backwards little fishing village with the perfect beach.”

Situated on a dirt road 22 kilometers south of San Blas is Santa Cruz, Mexico. If the American who had tried to send that postcard had only ventured a little ways further, he’d have found a more idealized Mexico.

Santa Cruz sits directly on a point that juts out to the Pacific Ocean. The town is primarily a fishing village. The people of Santa Cruz work the sea for a living, leaving in small motor or row boats at day’s break, and returning to shore around 4 p.m. with tuna, red snapper, shrimp, crabs and the occasional mahi-mahi.

Women and young boys work the oyster trade from the rocky shore, taking hatchets or crow bars and prying the shell fish from the rocks. Those fishers who catch shrimp often leave nets on their boats all day, catching rides to shore with other fishermen. At dusk they return to claim their catch.

Although fishing serves as the major source of income for most of the townspeople, business continues in a usual manner for others who call Santa Cruz home. Small tiendas, family markets, a bakery, a tortilleria, and a restaurant support the rest of this town of 700. Work in the neighboring banana, papaya, and tobacco fields also creates income for Santa Cruz.

It’s hard to imagine how Santa Cruz came into existence. Not unlike many other coastal towns on the Southern Pacific, it offers much to those who live there: the sea yields an abundance of fish, the terrain is the beginning of the fertile, humid jungle, and bountiful crops like papaya and bananas grow in the rich, dark loam. From the outer most point of Santa Cruz’s beach, one can clearly see San Blas. The distance between villages is shaped like a horseshoe, with San Blas at one point and Santa Cruz at the other tip.

El centro, Santa Cruz’s town square, is small and well kept. Roses, bougainvillea, and oleanders are scattered throughout. An open-air gazebo serves as a bandstand on Saturday nights when the town dance livens up the week. Twenty or more marble pews surround the square, all facing inwards towards the flower gardens with faded red and mauve tile walkways meandering through the middle.

Most of the time the square lacks life, day or night, except for occasional children playing, skate- boarders cum surfers, or the local gardener watering the flowers and tending to the weeds. To the first time visitor, Santa Cruz appears to be on a constant siesta. RV’s and campers cruise into town and finding no hotels and one feeble attempt at a restaurant, the Belmar, they continue their drive south. Small palapas (huts made from chit and palm leaves and saplings entwined with string), and tile houses make up the village. To the serious tourist there is little reason to vacation in Santa Cruz. Life is not geared to gala fiestas or the unusual. Life there continues on in a normal Mexican manner.

Santa Cruz’s rocky point discourages surfers and sun fanatics. To the untrained eye, Santa Cruz is a dot on the map with a rocky beach, no place to spend the night, and slim pickings for eating out. But for those who prefer a slice of Mexican life, Santa Cruz stands as a prime example.

Those travelers who are attracted to this town are not typical tourists. Most speak passable or fluent Spanish, most have time to kill, most want to settle into a quieter and slower way of life, if only temporarily. Santa Cruz is just right for those things. It is a perfect escape from the rat race.

Many American transplants stay not weeks but months in Santa Cruz. Writers, painters, even circus performers have found this place comfortable and a space where they can watch time stand still. For life there in comparison to the American way definitely goes neither forward nor backward. It is like a still life done in pastel water colors rather than in more dramatic oils. Life in Santa Cruz is not described in expletives. It’s docile. Life there is as unassuming as the cows that walk the streets ­ unpenned – not domestic, yet agreeable. Yes, life in Santa Cruz is agreeable.

Michael had come to Santa Cruz with his wife Carmen three years before. He called himself an artist and an occasional writer. Carmen and Michael had heard of Santa Cruz and the surrounding area from friends who had traveled there. They decided to go there to birth their first child in the Mexican jungles. This was their primary reason for heading south to Santa Cruz, Nayarit.

After Eden’s birth, Michael stayed on. Carmen left. Rumors spread. It could have been any number of reasons. But even after her leaving, she kept in touch. Carmen would not send letters but she would send objects ­ rings, pictures, trinkets. All were sent to Michael without explanation. Some in the town considered her a bruja, or sorceress, because she would do weird, crazy things.

Michael had an interesting history. His story, no matter what details he gave, always left room for more. He kept you guessing between the lines. What was being left out? My friend from Mendocino, California had told me about him before I left on my trip.

“You’ve got to see Michael when you get down there,” he’d said. “He’s been there in this little jungle pueblo, El Jjano, for three years now ­ never split. He’s real interesting but kind of crazy. He’s got a great library though and a great setup. It’s something to see.”

Michael had jungle fever. He loved it there. Local gossip had built him into a king of sorts – a small scale version of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. To be sure, he was a very scaled down version, but the feeling was there. Michael had hit pay dirt. Life was slow in El Jjano.. No ­ life was slower than slow, and Michael was an American king, “Gringo” had not described him for a long time. He had become part of the society. He was spoken of by the townspeople and store owners as simply Miguel — his name in Spanish. There was some sense of awe in their voices when they spoke of him and even gringos recognized that he was different.

When I arrived in Santa Cruz, I met a writer from Santa Barbara, California. “You’ve got to meet Michael,” he told me. “A real interesting dude. Different. Really into Kerouac and Cassady, You know, the beat writers.”

Twice the invite. They were both right – my friend from Mendocino and this writer from Santa Barbara. I had to meet Michael. My curiosity was piqued. And I was in luck I had an offering to lay on his altar. I’d brought the latest edition of Rolling Stone with me, and in the early 80s, it was the icon of hipness. It had a William Burroughs review of the remake of Carolyn Cassady’s story of Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Carolyn in the 50s. It was a movie called Heartbeat. I decided to bring tequila, too. Michael had caught my interest. Who was he?

Michael’s background may have been interesting but it was far from unusual. He’d been born and raised in suburbs of Milwaukee. He was a precocious child and graduated early from high school at 16. Then he hotfooted it to New York, where every Midwesterner went to make their big break, the big city, later to be coined the big apple. But back in the 50s, New York was still plain old NYC. It was a place where one could lose his or her identity and also a place to find something to identify with. Michael found his niche. He fancied himself a Kerouac clone. He identified himself with what he called the “soon to be found” generation. At least, he explained, it hadn’t been found (or identified) yet. It was the post beat and pre-hip generation – an era of lost souls, Michael said. Perhaps for this reason Michael had created his alter-reality in the form of Mexican jungles and villages, thousands of miles from hometown Milwaukee, thousands of miles from Mendocino, California where he’d lived briefly, and thousands of miles from Carla.

The walk to El Jjano was an easy morning hike. The road curved upward but the incline was barely noticeable. Within a few thousand yards, an incredible view of the Santa Cruz valley spread before us. Various shades of greens pulsated from the jungles. El Jjano was six kilometers from Santa Cruz — a small pueblo with one cantina, nothing else.

We took the back way into Michael’s place following a road that bordered tobacco and papaya fields. Michael lived on the property of a local Mexican family and paid them a small sun for the use of his palapa. We undid the barbed wire gate and walked up the path to the cone-shaped palapa, called a cona, in which Michael lived. It was entirely open air and the roof was made of thatched palm leaves. Tall straight saplings of some local tree supported the structure. There were 16 of them. The circumference of the hut was at least 20 feet wide. It was a spacious area and David had mixed a unique blend of native Mexican and Stateside thrift store funk as décor. Rather than circular, the cona seemed octagonal, due to the 16 saplings that upheld the structure.

Michael was seated when I met him. He was sitting in the only chair in the cona, an easy chair, another North American relic. It didn’t fit the native Mexican style, but it fit with Michael’s style. An oak table, circa 40s, served as a desk. More Americana. Michael’s décor was a mild blend of Mexican-American, as mild as Mexican tobacco.

Various bolsas, baskets and hemp containers were suspended from the ceiling. They contained food, clothing, utensils. In coastal Mexico due to rodents, the locals hung their belongings in this manner.

Michael looked the convincing portrait of a young writer trying to convey the portrait of a young Kerouac style writer in Mexico. Michael had found the niche. His niche. He viewed me from his seated position. He did not look surprised when we arrived.

He was wearing black sneakers, levis, a dark tee shirt. His hair was conventionally 80s punk short, but he wasn’t familiar with punk. He was clean shaven and he wore shades that were prescription lenses. He looked the part of an English gentleman in a Mexican palapa.

“I flashed on Mendocino today,” Michael spoke in his almost English accent. Shades of Lord Jim? Michael’s voice had a strange inflection to it. He emphasized certain words that would not usually be emphasized. It added to the mystique.

“I got a ring that I had given Carla in the mail today. She didn’t send a letter, just the ring. It made me think of Mendocino, and now you’re here.”

We finished the tequila. I made my offering of Rolling Stone. The Kerouac story was well received. It was time to hit the cantina.

Four of us finished a case of Pacificos in an hour. Every time someone would finish a beer, the owner’s daughter would open another. There was no question as to whether you wanted, or even needed, another beer. You just drank it. Michael picked out canciones on the juke box. We all talked.

But I wanted to talk to Michael. I wanted to know specifics. Why had he left the States? To do art in Mexico? To be a major domo on foreign soil? What makes a person leave his native country? What makes anyone leave it all behind and never go back? No media, no cinema, no Sixty Minutes. No new music, best sellers, fall fashions, health food, burgers.

“We came here for our first child,” he indulged me. “I’d met Carla in Hollywood seven years ago. It was one of those strange meetings.” Of course.

“I was in a restaurant; it’s gone now. But it was a hangout. I saw Carla on the street, Hollywood Boulevard, no less. When I saw her I just had to meet her and talk to her.”

One gets the idea that Michael was trying desperately to write his own soap opera­his own novella. Mexico as a location offered dash and flair to the script. Surprisingly he was pulling it off.

The 80s had turned the world’s eyes to reality as the reality. Fifties beat was passé, in America. Sixties hip nostalgia was defunct, in America. The 70s transition, complete with disco, was gone in America. But to Michael in Mexico, it all existed simultaneously. None of it was gone. Not even the memories because there were no memories. Only hints of happenings and events. No family squabbles, no Christmas dinners. No Fourth of July. No apple pie. Just life in a sleepy small town in the middle of Mexico.

In many ways, Michael resembled Apocalypse’s Kurtz. Certainly not in the macabre, but in the way that Kurtz, or the character from the Joseph Conrad novel that he was patterned after, no longer needed a society of equals. Kurtz, and Michael, needed a society of serfs. In this way their story, their lives, their dharma becomes the main dharma. And through this restructuring, their lives become whole.

Michael had the means and the inclination to create his set, write his script, and star in his own movie. Was he really any different from a Robert Redford or a Warren Beatty? Perhaps he was just a smaller version of one of our modern day icons but with a lesser budget. And maybe he found it essential to go south to create his personal myth. More artistic license.

Perhaps the reason we find the Michaels of this world to be intriguing is because they follow their bliss, as mythologist Joseph Campbell said. With no star to guide them they can live the un- conventional life. We vicariously live through them, and our brushes with people like Michael are often voyeuristic. As long as they keep writing their lines, living their lives as they plan, and produce them, we’ll tune in for updates. Be it Mexico, or Nepal, or Madagascar.

On future journeys after this one, I always hoped I would meet one character who could rival Michael. Buenos suerte, Michael. Viva!

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2004 by Jeanine Lee Kitchel © 2008
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