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Juan Villoro: Suspicions

The acclaimed Mexican writer explores the paranoia of life amongst cartels.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/untitled-album-5.jpeg
Detail of Spring Mountain by Chuck Simmons. Photo courtesy of Karima Walker.

By Juan Villoro
Translated from the Spanish by Francisco Cantú

For motorists accustomed to the traffic of Mexico City, a drive along the Autopista del Sol feels like therapy and costs about as much as psychoanalysis. Several days ago I became reacquainted with the freedom of the open road and was reminded that it comes with a price.

After leaving the city of Cuernavaca, my companion and I passed the famed Cuatro Vientos Restaurant—renowned for its cured beef cecina—but continued on in hopes of finding breakfast elsewhere.

Our final destination was Ayotzinapa and several tolls still lay ahead, but contrary to most freeways, where taco stands outnumber gas stations, we encountered only one other restaurant, near the town of Ixtla.

We entered a room adorned with colorful wooden furniture and piñatas hanging from the ceiling. The bathrooms were perfectly clean, there was a well-stocked bar, and the menu offered sufficient specialty dishes to make up for the absence of cecina.

Paranoia has many ways of entering the Mexican consciousness.

The man who took our order was tall with dark skin and a thick mustache that highlighted his smile. He brought us complimentary chips and encouraged us to take our time looking over the menu.

I left to wash my hands. When I returned to the table my companion told me:

“They asked where we’re headed and I didn’t know what to say.”

Was it safe to admit we were going to Ayotzinapa? Paranoia has many ways of entering the Mexican consciousness. Traveling to the place where 43 disappeared students once studied opened frightening possibilities.

The business owner returned to take our order. Later he went outside and stood by the road. He looked over my car, took out a cell phone, and made a call. Why didn’t he call from inside? Perhaps the signal was better outdoors, or maybe he didn’t want us to hear.

We finished our meal without incident and I regretted my bout of paranoia. Fear was taking more from me than the freeway tolls.

The man returned to the restaurant and brought us a copy of the Sur newspaper.

“Something to look at while you wait.”

How much longer would we wait? A plot began to take shape in my mind: the man had asked where we were headed and despite not receiving an answer, our destination was obvious because of the ceremony being held later that day at the Ayotzinapa Normal School. He had also inspected my car. Who did he call? Had he lent us the newspaper to justify the delay of our breakfast? Was he stalling to make time for someone to arrive for us? I saw that the restaurant had two doors, placed my car keys on the table, and pushed them toward my companion, telling him to make for the other door if someone suspicious arrived.

Outside, a pickup truck pulled up next to the restaurant. I stood to peer out the window. The recently arrived guests appeared to be neither narcos nor law men, but office workers. When I returned to the table, our breakfast had arrived.

We finished our meal without incident and I regretted my bout of paranoia. Fear was taking more from me than the freeway tolls.

We went to the graduation of the Ayotzinapa students, where I served as one of several distinguished commencement speakers. After a moving ceremony in which indignation gave way to hope, we mingled with the graduates and the same legion of activists that seem to always find their way to unexpected corners of the country, charged with new ideas.

At four in the afternoon we noticed how excitement, just like the sun, was beginning to fade.

We decided to dine at the same restaurant where we ate breakfast. There weren’t many other options on the way to Mexico City, and furthermore, I like to imagine that I have rituals, that in repeating certain acts I confirm the existence of some sort of faith.

The business owner greeted us with even more warmth than in the morning. Free now from the fear that something might happen to us on our way to Ayotzinapa, our meal was enhanced by carefree conversation with our host. He told us he had worked for 15 years as a grill chef in Mexico City, but the stresses of the capital caused him to fall ill. He left the city for Chilpancingo, where he was admitted to a local hospital. Eventually provincial life did wonders for his health. The restaurant belonged to him and his brothers.

The place was idyllic, but this was Mexico. Earlier that morning we had feared something would happen to us here.

As we said goodbye, he gave us some sweets and we promised to return someday.

“We’ll see if I’m still around,” he said enigmatically.

We asked what he meant. He told us the area was firmly in the grip of the cartel and that they exercised strict land use rights. He had already calculated the amount that he could afford to part with:

“If they ask for ten thousand pesos per month, I’ll close.”

So far they had left him alone, but he feared the arrival of the dreaded emissary.

Before returning to the car, we looked out at a landscape of rolling green hills. Rain fell lightly and the wind carried a faint smell of grass. The place was idyllic, but this was Mexico. Earlier that morning we had feared something would happen to us here. By evening, we listened to the owner speak of his own fear, as if ours had been somehow transferred to him.

We had harbored suspicions against a man who lived in suspicion of others, someone who deserved the best of luck in a country where little good fortune remains.

Originally published as “Desconfianzas” in Reforma, 31 July 2015
© Juan Villoro, Agencia Reforma

Juan Villoro is a Mexican journalist and an award-winning novelist, essayist, short story writer, playwright, and children’s book author. He maintains a regular column for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma and his work has appeared in English translation in BOMB Magazine, n+1, English PEN, and Words Without Borders. He has served as a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale, and Boston University. In 2004, he received the prestigious Herralde Prize for his novel El Testigo. An English-language translation of his short story collection, The Guilty, is now available from George Braziller.

Francisco Cantú is a translator and nonfiction author whose work is forthcoming in Ploughshares and Orion. He is a contributing editor at Public Books and a frequent contributor to Guernica Daily.

Chuck Simmons has juggled parallel careers in the creative arts since the late 1960s. As a sculptor, he has installed outdoor exhibits across Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. His stone landscaping work can be seen at the Getty Villa in Malibu, where he rebuilt the rock spring and waterfall grotto. The image included here is a detail from a recent work entitled Spring Mountain, which, like much of his painting, represents the intersection between his dream-visions of Southwestern landscapes and his poetic interest in the proverbial “Southern Mountains” of Chinese art and poetry.

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