Art by Marcia Lyons
I had been in Zipolite for more than two months when I learned it was called la playa de la muerte.
I arrived in mid-March from El Salvador, via Mexico City and Oaxaca City. In Mexico City I slept on the airport floor until scolded for uncivilized behavior by a security guard. From Oaxaca City I embarked on what I assumed would be a short bus ride to Zipolite but turned out to be seven hours of mountain curves and speed bumps taken at high speed. My stay in the village was meant to be brief. I was rendezvousing with Marwan, a friend from Lebanon—Mexico being one of a select group of countries that doesn’t make life hell for the Lebanese visa applicant—after which I would continue on to Turkey-Spain-Greece-Albania and a slew of other places, in keeping with my essentially schizophrenic itinerancy since abandoning the United States 17 years ago.
The pandemic brought to a halt any aspirations to motion. Marwan was able to return to Lebanon on a series of flights that the Lebanese embassy in Mexico City assured him was his last chance to get home for the foreseeable future. I had no home but was committed to avoiding the homeland at all cost. I rented an apartment on the main road into Zipolite from the nearby town of Puerto Ángel and prepared myself for what seemed to be an inevitable claustrophobia-induced nervous breakdown after so many years of being constantly on the move.
As if the prospect of having to sit still and deal with myself weren’t awful enough, a coronavirus checkpoint was erected directly in front of my house. It was one of many such checkpoints throughout the region, manned by a fluctuating array of civilian volunteers and policemen. Heavily armed Marines were added later, when it was determined that the first two groups were disproportionately focused on eating and not sufficiently intimidating to aspiring violators of the quarantine. The checkpoint and I got off to a rough start. On the day of its materialization, I was not allowed into my house for lack of a face mask. Numerous futile appeals to logic and a near-aneurysm later, I was taken aside by a policeman, given a disposable mask, and told to wear it within ten meters of the checkpoint, after which the need spontaneously expired.
I was under de facto 24-hour surveillance. An act as simple as lighting the gas stove in the kitchen was liable to elicit loud and teasing speculation from the permanent band of eavesdroppers about what I was cooking for my supposed novio, who although never showing himself in the flesh was a constant source of speculation. Granted, the checkpoint did have its uses, like whenever I needed a jar of hot sauce opened or a wasp killed—a feat requiring two cops, one civilian, and a frisbee—or a coconut sliced with a machete, and despite the initial friction I gradually got used to stepping over a rope every time I went outside, just as I also grew accustomed to the rotation of upbeat songs about the coronavirus with which someone somewhere had decided to inundate radio waves.
On the day of the discovery re: la playa de la muerte, I left my house for my routine excursion to the sea. As well as a sanity-building effort, these excursions were instrumental in the maintenance of a modicum of hygiene because there was no water in the shower and bathing entailed filling buckets with the trickle that emerged from the kitchen sink. I stepped over the rope and saluted that day’s assortment of guardians of the village frontier. Toño, the portly head of the village assembly—where the decision had been taken in March to implement the coronavirus checkpoint regime—looked up from a mound of rice and beans and cracked his preferred joke about wanting me to give him swimming lessons. He warned me to be careful as the sea was more savage than usual that day, and I went on my way.
On the beach I encountered two cops in an all-terrain vehicle, who inquired after the novio and issued another warning about the sea’s wrath. I then encountered Pepe, a carpenter-slash-weed dealer whom I usually crossed paths with at the soccer field, where I ran in frantic circles in an attempt to placate the jinns that had detected an optimal breeding ground in my suddenly sedentary self. I also saw him at the corner convenience store, where we frequently coincided in beer purchases, and I appreciated not being judged for drinking at 8 AM. (Eventually, the coronavirus alcohol ban that had been declared in certain Oaxacan municipalities would creep into the village, as well, and the store—which was called either Abarrotes Vicky or Abarrotes Bety, depending on which side of the building you consulted—stopped selling beer. Thanks to the mercifully half-assed implementation of the ban in Zipolite, however, wine and hard liquor were available in at least two other shops, which was enough for me. Mexico’s decision in April to shut down beer production as a nonessential activity meanwhile meant that there was no shortage of tragic memes on Twitter.)
Pepe confirmed the maritime assessment of my previous three interlocutors and continued his hammock-bound trajectory. I made my way down the beach and into the ocean, where I promptly found myself staring up at what was not so much a wave as a supernatural wall of water bearing down on me, against which it was very clear I had exactly zero defenses. Like a cartoon character allowed a brief midair suspension before realizing they’ve run off a cliff, I felt time stop just long enough for me to comprehend how utterly fucked I was. In the ensuing backwards hurtle—during which were executed all manner of forcible submerged acrobatics—my mind covered important terrain, such as how I would never again have sex since I’d be either paralyzed or dead. I slammed into the shore.
Shockingly, my neck did not break. I leapt up and scanned the beach for potential witnesses, as though this were some humiliating and super gringa thing to happen. Aside from raw skin and scrapes, the physical fallout of the episode centered primarily around the accumulation in every bodily orifice of preposterous quantities of sand. After darting in and out of the sea once again just to prove something or other, I slunk home, donning my face mask en route. Toño reminded me about the swimming lessons as I navigated the gaggle of villagers, cops, and stray dogs that stood between me and the jug of wine awaiting me on the other side of my front door.
I dashed off a note about my near-demise to a friend in the States. He directed me to the book Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, whose wife Aura Estrada was killed by a wave in 2007 in Mazunte, just down the road from Zipolite. And it was in this book that I came across the following line: “Zipolite is called la Playa de la Muerte because every year there are so many fatalities there.”
I immediately recalled an incident prior to Marwan’s departure, when, sitting on the beach, we were approached by a policeman who asked if Marwan was the person who had just drowned. (Given Marwan’s lack of Spanish, I had responded, as one does: “But he’s not even wet.”) At the time, I had written it off as just your typical magical realist moment rather than an indication of some fundamental peril. Now, armed with my new sentence from the Goldman book, I launched into a distinctly realistic sequence of thoughts like: “What if I’m actually dead?” It’s for such crises that jugs of wine exist.
I decided a second opinion was in order. I made the mistake of asking Horacio, a humble and garrulous restaurant proprietor from Mexico City who had resided in Zipolite for more than three decades, whether the playa de la muerte designation was legit. Thus commenced a 45-minute recollection of all the muertes Horacio himself had witnessed over the years. There was that one Semana Santa when he claimed to have counted eight deaths on one section of beach alone. Then there was the Christmas Eve when the niece of so-and-so announced she was going to change into her angel costume for the Nativity play and promptly died. And the newlyweds on honeymoon who went to bid the sea farewell and drowned instead. People being swept away by the current have a very distinct scream, Horacio remarked.
According to the book Hablan los Valientes de Zipolite, by a certain Graciela Barabino, the name Zipolite means playa de la muerte in Mixtec-Zapotec—but for more than the obvious reason. Located at the southernmost tip of Oaxacan territory, the beach was considered “the end of the world, a kind of Mictlán” or underworld for the indigenous Mixtecs and Zapotecs. It had also been a resting place for vultures because of its proximity to the (now-shuttered) turtle slaughterhouse in the village of San Agustinillo.
Barabino’s manuscript purports to tell the history of the valiant struggle in the 1970s via which the inhabitants of Zipolite recovered territory that had been illegally expropriated by an ex-governor of Oaxaca and passed off to wealthy caciques. The battle began when one such cacique refused to part with a small patch of land for a school for the children of the community, and led to the official recuperation of no fewer than 73,898 hectares in the region. Unfortunately, Hablan los Valientes is often indistinguishable from a biography of Gloria Hope Johnson—a Californian who, by her own account, appears to have staged a Columbus-like discovery of Zipolite in 1969. She continues to preside over a spiritual retreat center here called, of course, Shambhala. The book was given to me by a villager named Carlos, a participant in the land struggle—including the bit that involved hiding out in the hills from the military. He told me that, in lieu of returning it to him after reading, I could simply burn it.
When I was a child, I suffered from what I would prefer to think was a disproportionate preoccupation with death. Disproportionate, at least, for the privileged child populations of the world for whom dying was not a part of daily life, e.g. Palestinian youth on the receiving end of US-backed ethnic cleansing or the half a million Iraqi kids sanctioned to death by Madeleine Albright & Co.
Indeed, I’d wager that most of my contemporaries in Washington, DC, where I was born, and Austin, Texas, where we moved when I was seven, did not regularly find themselves lying in rigid petrification on the living room rug imagining themselves inside a coffin while their parents watched the evening news. Nor, presumably, did each birthday come with a calculation of how many years one might reasonably have left. Religion was of no consolation. My Catholic school teachers had taken it upon themselves to announce that my dog was not going to heaven and nipped in the bud any subscription to said ideology.
Adding to the fun was a tendency toward acute hypochondria. I variously developed epilepsy, suffered cardiac arrest, and contracted all manner of life-threatening conditions. As a teenager I was overcome by constant panic attacks, which complicated my schedule of school–synchronized swimming–Irish dancing–gymnastics-newspaper editing–and everything else required of the well-rounded American student. It was difficult to accomplish any of these activities hiding in a bathroom stall. At some point I discovered that heavy alcohol intake could temporarily derail my mind, although the dangers of such forms of self-medication are well-documented. (They would become even more so in lockdown Zipolite. I once caught myself rationalizing that, because I had read something about a woman who drank two bottles of vodka a day, it was totally FINE to drink a liter of mezcal.) The panic attacks weren’t helped by my ever-increasing awareness of the inherent shittiness of the homeland. This was particularly the case after returning from a one-year stint at the University of Rome, which had coincided with the giddy launch of the war on terror. The prolonged panic only subsided when I left the US for good in 2003 for a life of itinerancy and encounters with people who actually qualified as human.
On the first page of his travelogue A Stranger’s Pose, Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma describes driving into Mauritania at sunset during Eid al-Fitr as men are walking home from the mosque in long, loose garments: “I am moved by these swaggering bodies, dressed in their finest, walking to houses that look only seven feet high. I envy the ardor in their gait, a lack of hurry, as if by walking they possess a piece of the earth . . . I want to be these men.” In my own frenetic global meanderings, I’ve taken that sentiment and run with it. Not only do I want to be the Mauritanian men walking home from the mosque, I also want to be the Turkish lady with the cow and chickens who sells me eggs and fresh milk and the Colombian truck driver who lurches gaily along the cliffside as my hitchhiking companion and I cling to the passenger seat and the lively number “No Voy a Morir” blares from the tape player. I want to be the Kyrgyz bread seller, the Omani shepherd, the old ladies of Puglia in plastic chairs on the sidewalk on summer nights, the Iranian picnickers in Isfahan’s Naqsh-e Jahan Square, and the Cuban fishermen on Havana’s Malecón.
In a sense, though, there’s been something distinctly American about my travels—and not just the passport that has enabled them. There are fewer things more American than the idea that you can have it all. But while the US claims more than its fair share of pieces of earth, I myself have never felt in possession of even a coherent identity to call my own. The chances of forging one only decrease as I dart from place to place, endeavoring to conduct parallel lives in different landscapes and envying everyone else their perceived solidity of existence—regardless of the level of precariousness entailed in the individual existences themselves. In retrospect, the past 17 years have constituted a sort of attention deficit disorder in the form of international movement. It’s all been a necessary distraction, perhaps, from the creepy alienation of my place of origin and the inevitability of mortality.
When the pandemic stopped me in my tracks, the suddenly discontinued ability to run away from myself posed quite the conundrum. The initial terror of being stuck was, however, quickly assuaged by a recurring nightmare in which I was deported to America—in light of which all other earthly eventualities became relatively benign in nature. True to form, the US got to work pursuing the most calamitous possible response to Covid-19, prompting even the New York Times to run the headline “Jared Kushner Is Going to Get Us All Killed” (the headline was later amended). This is not to say that the situation in Mexico was at all under control. When I asked one of the approximately two doctors in Zipolite for his assessment of the local response, he replied cheerily that, if I absolutely had to contract the virus, it would be best to do so when there were available hospital beds in Oaxaca City seven hours away. So much for distractions from mortality—especially after rumors surfaced of hospital-bound Covid patients being turned back from checkpoints.
At the beginning of the checkpoint regime I was issued an identity card that in theory permitted me to travel once a week to the city of Pochutla, half an hour away, for groceries and banking. In reality, the length of my leash depended on the whims of those operating the checkpoints at any given time. I once had to navigate eight of them on a desperate excursion to procure yerba mate, without which life definitively could not go on and which was only available at the Super Chedraui of Huatulco, an hour and a half from Zipolite.
There were no reported cases of the virus in Zipolite itself, although Pochutla was said to have between zero and whatever number your interlocutor fancied. The quantity of conspiracy theories, on the other hand, was infinite. These often involved one or more of the following actors: the Mexican government, China, the US, Amazon, and the chupacabras. Among the proponents of the Quédate en casa (“stay at home”) campaign, meanwhile, was the local radio presenter who assaulted eardrums with exhortations to “quédate en tu puta casa, cabrón” and the warning that people who wanted to go out and drink beer at 11 PM were complicit in mass murder. For his part, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) studiously avoided face masks. At the end of July he declared that he would put on a mask and stop talking whenever there was no more corruption in Mexico, i.e., at some point after pigs had begun to fly. The declaration was made just as Mexico surpassed the UK with the third-most coronavirus fatalities worldwide.
Javier, my token companion for the duration of the quarantine in Zipolite, was a staunch defender of the left-leaning AMLO on the face-mask issue and most others, reasoning that it was indeed difficult to wrest a country from the grip of the hijos de la chingada with your mouth covered. In Javier’s view, AMLO could pretty much do no wrong, even when it meant performing the anti-migrant dirty work of the imperial ruler to the north, or attending a midpandemic meeting with said creature in Washington to celebrate the new and improved iteration of the North American Free Trade Agreement that had destroyed Mexican lives and livelihoods. (At the bilateral July encounter, Trump was commended for unusually good behavior.) Some level of presidential collaboration was necessary, Javier maintained, in order to prevent the gringos from constantly chingando.
“An enthusiastic and equal opportunity employer of Mexican curse words, Javier was exceptionally fond of Octavio Paz’s musings on the ‘innumerable meanings’ of chingar. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz writes that it is a ‘magical word’ whose power is ‘intensified by the fact that it is prohibited’—and yet it ‘defines a great part of our life and qualifies our relationships with our friends and compatriots.’”
I met Javier in early April, when the local powers that be decided to experiment with having the police and Marines kick everyone off the beach in Zipolite, which was never very crowded anyway. I was sitting on the sand when my wine bottle and I found ourselves suddenly illuminated by the flashing lights of a police all-terrain vehicle. The driver imparted frantic orders for me to get indoors for my own seguridad. Once I had advanced through the deer-in-headlights phase, a sense of thorough criminalization combined with indignation set in. I felt my entire universe collapse around me as I envisioned myself trapped in an apartment, swarmed by ants and tortured by the sounds of waves 500 meters away that I would never again see.
Clearly, such an existence was unsustainable. I continued to venture to the beach over the next several days, and continued to be chased off by the forces of law and order. Desperate, I approached a diminutive older man with modified mullet and red wife beater seated placidly in a chair by the sea, evidently immune to eviction. He smoked cigarettes, sipped mezcal from a plastic bottle, and wrote meticulously in a notebook he kept in a large Ziploc bag. Javier explained his strategy for dealing with the soldiers and cops with a twinkle in his eye: “I tell them: ‘I won’t stop coming to the beach, cabrón. You can’t deny us this space. I respect that you are doing your job. Pero no chinguen.’”
An enthusiastic and equal opportunity employer of Mexican curse words, Javier was exceptionally fond of Octavio Paz’s musings on the “innumerable meanings” of chingar. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz writes that it is a “magical word” whose power is “intensified by the fact that it is prohibited”—and yet it “defines a great part of our life and qualifies our relationships with our friends and compatriots.” From that night on—much of which Javier spent reiterating that the coronavirus itself could chingar a su madre—I began pitching the blanket I had pilfered from Turkish Airlines next to his chair. Sometimes Javier would read to me a few of the lines he had penned in his notebook, e.g. “Belén vino, con su vino” (“Belén came, with her wine”). It often seemed that we had paradise to ourselves, even though it was soon enough decided that the beach was not closed after all to residents of Zipolite—or that at least no one could be bothered to enforce the closure anymore. But my mind was apparently incapable of accepting my presence in paradise, and chose instead to ricochet between Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, and all of the other places I had been once upon a time and could now not go.
Javier hailed from the central Mexican city of Cuernavaca but had been a part-time inhabitant of Zipolite since the solar eclipse of March 7, 1970—my birthday, coincidentally. He had owned a small piece of land in the village since 1982, coincidentally my birth year. He also ran a small auto parts shop across the street from the soccer field where I engaged in morning jinn expulsions and which was only functional when he was in town. On account of coronavirus and the cancellation of his flight home, his stay would extend from a planned two and a half months to more than seven. During this time, his wife, a sociologist in the state of Morelos, remained generally unimpressed by his poetic, emoji-laden text messages about the seeds they had jointly planted on this earth (i.e. their two sons, also academics) and the intermittent narrated video of waves and sky. His seven-year-old grandson in Mexico City, on the other hand, was most encouraging of Javier’s newfound cell phone prowess, particularly his mastery of GIFs. When after various months of nontechnological communications Javier and I managed to add each other on WhatsApp—thanks only to the benevolent intervention of a neighbor—I also found myself on the receiving end of GIFs in honor of “Hug Your Cat Day” and other occasions.
As a teenager, Javier had been on track to a professional soccer career, but his discovery of Zipolite and mushrooms diverted him from this path. In one of the many animated monologues that came to dominate my evenings, Javier recounted the reaction to the abrupt change of plans on the part of his mother and grandmother, who confronted him one night when he returned home clad in a giant gray coat from Afghanistan. Always careful to highlight the inmensa gratitud he felt for just about everyone and everything in his life, he recalled how the pair had listened attentively to his description of how mushrooms open your mind. His grandmother had declared: “Javier, this will always be your house, but take off that pinche jacket, cabrón.”
Females were accorded a special level of gratitude in Javier’s narrations—including the sea, to which he committedly referred in its feminine form, la mar. During the early years in Zipolite, he told me with his typical expression of wonder at the fact that the life he had lived had really been his, he had so many madres looking out for him. There was Tía Rafaelita, who despite being incredibly poor was always loading him up with bananas and papayas. There was Tía Máxima, who had him grind coffee for a peso. The peso, he specified, was worth much more before former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari nos chingó in 1994. Tía Máxima headed up one of the first families to settle permanently in Zipolite, and was also known for such feats as having saved a youth by the name of Santiago from death by snakebite. This was done by applying eggs to the bite, a remedy that decades later still left Javier awestruck.
Most importantly, there was Doña Susanita, the daughter of Tía Máxima, who was widely regarded as the village matriarch until her death in 1994. In the 1970s, she was the only villager with a shop, and her home was a social hub. She was a protagonist of the battle for a school for the community, thanks to which the 73,898 hectares were ultimately recuperated from the wealthy land hoarders. She also served as a midwife and honorary village medic—performing injections, prescribing herbs and other treatments, and rescuing Javier from many a mishap. These ranged from a simple scorpion sting—sustained while tripping on mushrooms in the hills and treated with lime juice—to malaria, which required cinchona bark and other materials.
The onset of malaria was preceded by a dream, Javier told me, in which he saw himself standing on a pier as a tsunami approached. As he began to flee he came across a girl buying fruit from an old lady, and shouted to her: “Come on, la mar nos va a llevar a la chingada.” Hand in hand they ran for the mountains, and, seeing a church that appeared enormous but was actually miniscule, the girl urged him to go inside; he refused, but she insisted: “No, cabrón, it will save us.” She smiled una sonrisa loca, and Javier woke up. The next morning as he was heading by donkey to Puerto Ángel, from where he would then catch a truck to Pochutla to purchase supplies for Doña Susanita, he passed a shack where he saw—believe it or not—the very same girl with the very same smile. Upon his return to Zipolite that evening he was overtaken by delirium and forcibly installed in the home of Doña Susanita, who acted as his madre protectora and earned herself an inmenso cariño. He never saw the girl with the smile again—although I recalled his dream when, on June 23, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake rocked Oaxaca and a tsunami warning in Zipolite sent villagers running for the hills. It sent me running into the arms of a family up the road, who turned out to be the descendants of none other than Doña Susanita. This was slightly more than a month before I came down with typhoid, and became ever more convinced that playa de la muerte was a foregone conclusion and that I was simply going through the motions.
Sometimes Javier would interrupt his reminiscences to thank me for allowing him to recollect memories he hadn’t thought of in years—like the time in September 1973 that the news had arrived to Doña Susanita’s radio of the US-backed coup d’état against Salvador Allende in Chile. This event had produced an inmensa tristeza in Javier, the antidote for which had been sitting and staring at the sea. More short-term nostalgia was also at play. He would reminisce at length about activities he had completed that very day, such as watering the bougainvillea on his plot of land, or distributing mangoes to the motorcycle repairman and other persons he deemed to be in need of unsolicited mango delivery, or inquiring about the acquisition of a cow, which we had decided could be a rewarding undertaking. In the end, the cow was expensive, and the idea was discarded in favor of more sitting by the sea and coming up with other ideas that were also hypothetically possible. According to Javier, these included the spontaneous cultivation of a more just and equitable post-pandemic world that wasn’t run by hijos de la chingada. Granted, he hadn’t yet sorted the specifics for resolving capitalism, climate change, or the disruptive global machinations of my homeland.
I had been in constant flux for so long that it was difficult to dispel the voice in my head telling me that quarantine was a fine opportunity to unscatter myself and forge a coherent being out of all the disparate pieces. Whenever I felt there might be a looming prospect of serenity in stillness, however, or simple gratitude for sea and stars and wine and maybe-cow, flashbacks to Eat, Pray, Love annihilated any progress in that direction. And while Javier gracefully organized his own past for contemplation, I lurched in deranged fashion between memories, trajectories, and selves.
On one occasion, I woke up sobbing in the middle of the night about a certain escalator in Sarajevo (yes, an escalator) that carries the grocery shopper from street level to the Konzum supermarket one level below ground. On another, I wept uncontrollably at the thought of a chipped step on a staircase in Fethiye, Turkey. This was a town that had been one of my regular stops since 2004, as I endeavored to both revisit everywhere I had already been as well as go everywhere I had not. There were tears for the abnormally heavy door to the bathroom on the Italy-Spain ferry, which nearly crushed me every time. There were even tears for the airport in Beirut, which had in the pre-pandemic era never elicited any sort of fondness and had instead been a source of fairly unmitigated agony.
Somewhat more logically, there were anguished convulsions on behalf of the humans connected to my manic carousel of inanimate landmarks. There was Uma, my 10-year-old Bosnian sidekick and trainer in the arts of the Michael Jackson video dance game. And there were my parents, who, confined to their apartment in Barcelona, were undoubtedly unmoved by my tales of woe re: the coronavirus checkpoint in front of my apartment on a pristine Pacific beach. The woe increased with the deployment of the Marines into the mix, and their preference for stationing themselves and their weaponry directly next to my front door. Practically all of my blubbering was accompanied by intense feelings of guilt over the privilege to be blubbering about escalators rather than, say, the inability to put food on my table on account of Covid-19.
A July NPR dispatch on the existential challenges currently facing the Mexican poor, headlined “If Coronavirus Doesn’t Kill Me, Hunger Will,” pointed out the bleeding obvious: “[L]ow earners have been doubly hit: they make up the highest share of virus-related deaths and lack the funds to stay afloat.” This reality likewise applied to much of the rest of Latin America and the capitalist world. Quoting an estimate that more than 10 million Mexicans could descend into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, NPR went on to cite the advice of National Autonomous University of Mexico economist Rolando Cordera Campos: “To keep people fed, Cordera and his university colleagues said the president needs to send 75 billion pesos ($3.4 billion) in cash transfers immediately to Mexicans struggling with food insecurity.”
When I asked residents of Zipolite about the possibility of food assistance, the response usually involved a cackle about when had the government ever assisted before. In Pochutla the military was charmingly deployed on an intermittent basis outside the Super Chedraui—apparently to protect it from malevolent hungry hordes. The economic ramifications of Covid-19 on the Oaxacan coast were slightly buffered because it struck as high season was coming to an end. Nonetheless they were still acute, and naturally factored into the debate on when to remove the checkpoints and reopen Zipolite for domestic and international tourism.
On May 30, Javier and I attended a meeting of the local assembly, which was chaired by Toño of the perennial swimming lesson jokes. The meeting was held at the outdoor basketball court next to the soccer field, and scores of attendees sat on the concrete, a few of them observing social distancing measures. In his introductory rant, Toño covered such ground as that we technically weren’t even supposed to be having gatherings in times of coronavirus and that we should be brief, which ultimately meant 2.5 or so hours. According to Toño’s calculations, if Zipolite were to open up again in the coming weeks, all of Mexico would swarm here because they had been encerrados while we were still libres. People want to eat fish, he said, like we do every day. (It is important to eat fish and vegetables, he added.) Thus it was up to the pueblo to reach a decision as to the proper course of action.
People lined up to opine. One man stressed that a general lack of income shouldn’t cause a rush to reopen and invite Covid chaos upon the village; another declared dramatically that he would prefer to die of hunger than to die of coronavirus. Others suggested that an elimination of the checkpoints wouldn’t change anything given their porous and arbitrary nature in the first place, while an older woman took to the stage with the uplifting reminder that we could also all be killed by dengue. Javier had brought a small wooden stool to sit on. He viewed the democratic spectacle with satisfaction, retreating periodically to the soccer field to smoke cigarettes. At some point, Toño wrested hold of the microphone again to inform the group that—contrary to what he himself had said—the reopening of Zipolite was not up for debate at the moment, and we were merely talking about reopening taquerías. Although the assembly meetings were meant to end in a vote, this particular aspect of democracy was discarded in favor of a decree that the checkpoints would be maintained. The crowd dispersed.
Javier and I walked toward the sea, and he embarked on recounting yet another memory. This one was of the day the checkpoint had arrived to my front yard and I had run, disheveled, to the beach, bleating about face masks and roadblocks and eternal captivity and the impromptu outdoor urinal into which the space outside my bedroom window had been converted. (It’s possible that I’ve seen more Mexican policemen pee than anyone else in the world.) Javier had taken advantage of the occasion to deliver one of his lingering hugs before being reminded about social distancing, and I had retreated to the water’s edge to stare into oblivion. While I was standing there, Javier said, he had seen two waves collide just in front of me, sending a magnificent splash into the air and letting him know that everything was going to be all right, cabrón.
Now, unearthing the battered plastic bottle of mezcal from his bag, he glanced at me sideways as though expecting a repeat performance in light of the assembly verdict. But I was too busy remembering Zipolite from some imagined vantage point in the future—and missing it immensely.