Jan/Feb 2012 Travel

El Infierno

by N.T. Arevalo

"Turus, is that really happening?" I whispered in the dark of the theatre, searching the faces of the audience for signs of incredulity.

He passed the popcorn with salsa, a taste that was beating out butter. I asked in English, and he answered in English. "Yes."

The light off the gorge that hugged Guanajuato—a Central Mexican town sculpted in honor of Don Quixote and still shaped as the Spanish colonials left it—made it easy to confuse the place with heaven. Yet that night we were seeking out Hell. Or rather, El Infierno—the controversial film released during Mexico's bicentennial.

After years of increasing violence amidst border drug wars, the film poses a tag line and nagging question to many Mexicans: "What do we have to celebrate?" Turus had gone back to see the movie twice to check his reply to the question, and coming from the U.S., I had my own questions.

I used to live a mile from the border near the towns of Reynosa, Rio Bravo, and Matamoros, where we'd ignore the dried up creek of the Rio Grande and cross freely to see one another, share meals, or watch Tejanos come down for cheap meds. Now, nearly ten years later, I was back in Mexico, in a section of the country where friends still lived but drug lords dominated headlines and lives—and the word "Mexico" could cause a sucking in of breath by even the strongest patriots and fans. I was having a hard time aligning the macabre of this new Mexico spilling out of the shadows with the swirl of life I once knew.

Turus was 21, amongst the many admirers of my belly-dancing hostess, Nadia, and I had wrinkles older than he. I'd been in the city for three days, wandering its vibrant steps, swaying to the sounds of the Cervantino Festival's kick off, and staying up all hours with Turus, Nadia, and a string of Mexican salsa lovers. I'd yet to dip beyond bookstores, tortillas, or dance halls—or to ask about the headlines that rested in the back of my mind. Turus sensed my burgeoning questions and asked that I wait for him atop the steps outside the cinema by the Universidad de Guanajuato—at the gates of El Infierno.

The cultural beats of films in other languages can be poles apart or synchronized perfectly. Depending on the number of visits you've had, you can feel like you're in on the jokes, but you will most certainly leave with blanks. (Imagining the Hollywood films that inundate the planet, I wonder how viewers from other countries fill their blanks.) I was left with revision, with the past as I knew it erased, and a feeling that coming to the surface was a new monster within us. The soundtrack was the norteno—Mexican country music—I knew well, but gone were the innocent quinceneras and pachangas. And the pictures of survival that remained had twisted into more devious shapes.

El Infierno spins tales from a new collection of modern Mexican history:

The familia announcing itself by dropping severed heads on a dance floor.

Priests blessing and taking the money of cartels.

Drug kings running for office.

The film is a modern day western—full of saloons and whores and people out to make money, with no sign of an honorable sheriff or a safe place to hide. It is a satire of Mexico—not true but not entirely false. While the slang invites its audience to laugh and relate, the cinema forms pictures of the truth.

The pictures crept into the back of the minds of the Mexicanos, and I watched them sit stiller as the film progressed. I began to understand why Turus needed to see it again, to understand who he was, the world he was in, a picture of life as he knew yet didn't know it. Unsure of whether it was a vision of a past, a future, or an imagination.

As he walked me back through five-century-old steps, I began a barrage of questions, all of the same American flavor—How is this going to get fixed? Turus didn't hesitate and answered in half time—and half expletives—with our steps.

"They have more power... than even the government. They're intermediaries now for the Colombians." The church, the politicians, and even former military had joined in. An economy fueled by the world, we agreed.

"Mexicans hate this..." and here he used the most expletives of all. "But they'll say, 'If it doesn't bother me, I'm not doing anything about it.'"

An All-American light bulb went off, my forefathers or the residue of election 2008 channeling through me. "Then you'll try politics?"

Turus laughed, waving me to our final steps. "No. Life is too short for politics. I love to cook." He said it with such enthusiasm that, as Nadia opened the door, she invited him in to make our midnight meal.

I couldn't shake the insistance that he should have an answer. That I couldn't leave the country again without an answer, without a different picture or hope. I stood over the pan as he began the to and fro dash with the cutting board. The chilis and avocado were working hard to distract us. "Then what do you think it will take?" I prodded.

He shrugged, calmly adding peppers to his omelet.

I answered for him. "People like you, Turus, to run or to vote!" I bent toward his face for a response, my hope and heart open wide. A vision of free crossings once again at the border. He saw it in my aged eyes and smiled. He wasn't going to answer, to hold himself accountable in words that were beyond us both.

I went on, some gringa's or brochure's plea: "It can't just stay this way. Mexico is such a beautiful land and people." Then I sold the American Dream. To see if it was still worth something, somewhere. "It could be better in your lifetime."

He turned to me, plates full of a homemade reply. "Bienvenidos! Welcome... to Mexico."

I reached for my plate and received his kiss on my cheeks, then watched Turus and Nadia return to the Mexico that was my long lost neighbor and friend, that lived up to its shape and light resembling heaven. That didn't strive for American dreams. That was the descendant of impossible dreams.

Off the screen and off the page, Mexico gave me its answer—in late nights with salsa aficionados in the quiet affection of one-a.m. omelets.


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