..First Glyph

March 2
3:35 p.m.

I saw Romeo and Juliet this afternoon. The two characters were playing out their drama on a six-inch television screen bolted to the bottom of a luggage rack. All interstate Mexican busses are equipped with on-board video systems. Sometimes this is a good thing. Today it was. The countryside through which Shakespeare entertained me began about halfway between Queretaro and Guadalajara. It was full of coarse trees and golden thatch and occasional fields of agave. Right now I sit in a Guadalajara Sanborns.

The Spanish subtitles to Romeo and Juliet were obscured by the words "time-set." These words were large and green and blinking across the bottom of the television screen. I may have been the only passenger on the bus to really enjoy the movie, therefore. Between blinks, if you concentrated, you could read the subtitles. But had they been English subtitles to a French movie I think I would have just gazed out the window as most of my Mexican busmates were doing. The subtitles were in miniature, anyway. The screen, again, just some six-inches from corner to corner.

I realized watching that movie how fortunate I am to have been born with an English tongue. I have no doubt some brilliant Hispanic poet has translated Shakespeare brilliantly. But his brilliant translation was not employed for these subtitles. Shakespeare was rendered, in fact, quite commonly. "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" The most famous of lines. The subtitles translated it as, "Romeo, where are you?" And, "Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow." This was interpreted: "I will tell you good night until tomorrow." And that first dramatic confrontation between Romeo and Tybalt. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt. He claims a love for Tybalt that he cannot explain (that being his love for Tybalt's cousin, Juliet). Romeo's long impassioned declamation is summed up in just five dry white words. "I am not a villain."

The subtitles sucked the poetry right out of the work. That antiquated ring of Shakespeare, that elevated feel you get from him, almost scriptural, was absent. All his inspiration was gone. It was hard to watch Shakespeare erased from his own masterpiece and not glower. I sat thanking God for my English tongue.

Between Guadalajara and Queretaro lay two distinct landscapes. The first, as the bus rolls you out of Queretaro, is the Bajío. Rich black earth. Rich black earth studded with haystacks and men in white shirts and flat white hats wielding scythes by hand in thick green fields under blue sun-drenched skies. Women in those fields, too, you see, colorful shawls hanging to their waists. Chance groups among the furrows, crowded about cookfires. Several men in the shade of a pine tree, perhaps.

But your bus has been gradually descending off the Mexican plateau as you've observed this. And with its descent the ambient temperature has warmed. Then, trundling through a small town, La Piedad, and over its thin brown riverlet, you notice suddenly the landscape is changed. Right about here the bus driver plugs in Romeo and Juliet. And as my Mexican co-travelers turn from the frustrating video screens to the windows, they have then this second of the two landscapes to behold.

A rougher earth, more arid. The trees coarse and ash and gray. A brittle golden thatch grows about. Stands of cactus. Chartreuse blooms. The hills become smooth, almost dune-like. The bus wends and climbs its way, brakes its way through the hills. Brown, golden-leaved trees. Wheat-yellow grass. Agave fields, you pass. Plots of agave on hillsides, too. The only green is irrigated green. Everything the hue of ash and sand.

Then the priest's missive misses Romeo. Romeo is not informed of Juliet's temporary "death." And so you begin a long last descent on a wide smooth highway. Before you: Guadalajara. And the bus finally finds its mooring. And Romeo enters the mausoleum.

I have seen Romeo and Juliet on a Mexican bus, but I have never seen a chicken on a Mexican bus. Where do these myths come from? When I tell white Americans I travel Mexico by bus they always say something like, "With all the chickens and everything?" It's almost as common a response as, "Don't drink the water." Anyway, I answer no. No chickens, I say. In fact, Mexican busses are more comfortable and more convenient than American busses. Old American movies, perhaps, are the source of this anachronism. Reechoes, maybe, from the thirties or forties when such chicken transport in Mexico (and in southern Kansas too, by the way) was more prevalent.

I was as blind as anyone to such misconceptions when I first began my journeys. I should confess, in this regard, to suffering an absolute terror of Mexican police officers in my first four or five years of travel. I knew then exactly what Dan from Cincinnati was referring to way back in Xico when he warned of "the cops." What he was referring to was his own paranoia. The corrupt policeman has to be the biggest bogeyman of the Mexican myth. Fear for him will eventually fade, though, if one keeps traveling. After a handful of years, and a hatful of encounters, I came to understand a foreign tourist is the last brand of civilian a policeman will harass. A foreigner will cause a cop more complications than he really wants to deal with. Even a corrupt one. In all my travels I have never gotten anything from police but directions.

The Mexicans have their misconceptions, too, of course. Just today, before I found this Sanborns, I repaired to a nice sidewalk cafe near my lodgings for a meal. As I lunched a shoeshine boy approached a pair of crisply dressed Mexican businessmen. One of them consented. The boy, maybe ten, was full of questions as he commenced his work, as he knelt there on the cobblestone with his bootblack and rags. Had the señor ever been to the United States? Did the señor happen to have any American coins? The boy collected foreign currencies, he said. He had a Spanish peseta, he said. He had a Deutsch mark. But American examples... How much would a beer cost in the United States? he asked. How much would a trip on an American city bus cost? he asked. How much would it cost to go to a movie? The señor answered the boy grudgingly, under his breath. The señor seemed offended at this guttersnipe's impertinence. The boy finished his shine, snapped his rag, and fingered now the American penny and nickel the second businessman had vouchsafed. With a ten- year-old's courage then the boy said, "I am considering my options at the moment. I am considering going to the United States as an option, you see. I am considering going there to work, you know." The boy looked up then with a knit brow. He seemed to search the señnor's countenance. "Someone told me about fifty chamacos who were shot dead by the border patrol," he said. The boy paused. He squinted. "For no reason they were shot dead." The boy seemed to look to the man for a confirmation or denial of this rumor. The businessman handed him two pesos. The businessman turned back to his post-prandial coffee. Pocketing the pesos, the boy kept fingering at the American coins, examining them. He rose from his knees. He left.

We distort them into a people who ride on busses with chickens, into predatory police officers. They distort us into a people whose officials are licensed to perform massacres. One is as true as the other.

I think the Mexican media plays up this image of the U.S. Border Patrol as fiercely aggressive, as rapacious. The image, I think, is used to discourage illegal immigration, to dissuade enterprising young chamacos like this shoeshiner from Guadalajara. I have seen U.S. border patrol agents portrayed in Mexican political cartoons as slavering blood- thirsty Nazis, swastika armband and all. And even Al otro lado del sol is contributing. The telenovela lists two border patrol agents among its dramatis personae--one evil, the other good. Last night the evil border patrol agent was depicted--and this is not an exaggeration--as a rabid necrophiliac executioner. The portrayal was so extreme that I was smitten. I sat stunned, mumbling the word "irresponsible." And the actor is even a white American, one with an ugly gringo accent. The good agent, on the other hand, a warm-hearted Mexican-American, speaks a fine Spanish. He joined the border patrol, he professes, to "help his people," to "show them it is not necessary to leave their homeland." This good agent is resolved to expose the rogue agent. When I realized this I felt a little mollified.

This abusive image of the border patrol is so endemic, though, stories like these so widely circulated and believed that only the most fearless of Mexicans will even attempt to cross to "el otro lado." Mexicans have a clear understanding that their lives are at risk when they attempt illegal crossings. You might say then the border patrol and its reputation serves as much to filter the flow of illegal immigrants as to prevent it. Only those truly willing to confront their profoundest fears--fears of death, fears of leaving all they know, fears of an unknown culture and language--will seriously contemplate crossing. Only those with the greatest desire and hunger then--desire for a new life, hunger for a sharper expression of their will--will actually try to cross. And only those with the keenest ingenuity and strongest determination will then succeed. The courageous, in other words, the clever, the resourceful and the hard-working will make it, while the faint-hearted will not even consider the trek, while the laggards will fail in the undertaking. To put it simply (and at Darwin's expense), only the fittest will arrive.

I rode next to a girl from Mazatlán once on a bus trip from Monterrey to the Mexican west coast. Iliana, was her name. Iliana had difficulty comprehending that border patrol abuses were not an eminent public issue in the United States. She nodded quietly and just blinked at me when I told her this was so. It seemed, according to her eyes, there was little left for us to discuss. She was a student at the prestigious Instituto Tecnologico in Monterrey. An intelligent girl with a soft voice and a pocked complexion. She slept with her head against my shoulder through that all- night bus ride. I, on the other hand, did not sleep. The Terminator was being played on the video screens that night. Over and over again, it was being played. Sometimes the videos are a bad thing. That night they were.

And it hits me now. Juliet was dead but she was not dead. Juliet was alive but she was not alive. A dead body. A live body. It is the difference between these that is life. Obvious, it seems, I know. But by putting it in such stark terms suddenly I see it in fresh light. I picture a dead body. I picture a live body. It is the sparkle, the shudder, the energy of the live body that makes it distinct from the dead. It is that sparkle then, that shudder, that energy that is life. That is what life is. That then must be what the greats capture.

I feel better now. A meal. A dessert of flan. A coffee. These scribblings. I was a little depressed before. I've been preparing myself to appreciate the pretty Guadalajara girls--these famous Tapatias. This means I've been steeling myself to face more pointedly my solitary state. It's uncomfortable. I want to rent an apartment suddenly. I want to take a job teaching English suddenly. I want to marry the first waitress that comes broadly smiling at me suddenly.

Even thinking about last night's episode of Al otro lado del sol turns my stomach. I have resolved to stop watching it. Its pace is unnaturally slow, wrong. It chafes. Shakespeare is to blame a little too, I guess. I always fear or hope the things I read or watch will infiltrate my scribbling. Give me Romeo and Juliet, therefore. Spare me necrophiliac executioners, therefore.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers