Don Andrés (1910-2011)
By Al Giordano
Your correspondent was four days off the airplane in July 1997, a 37-year-old gringo navigating Mexico City with a Spanish-English dictionary in one hand and a map in the other and arrived at the city square, El Zócalo, at the six p.m. hour. From there, the Todo Para Todos (“Everything for Everyone”) caravan would leave for somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, and I had signed up to go with them to Zapatista territory in Chiapas.
The chilangos (Mexico City dwellers) in charge of the caravan, like many urban folks all over the world, talked fast, very fast, and communicating with them in my barely existent Spanish while having to consult the dictionary, I’m sure, was as much a pain in the neck for them as it was difficult for me. I was quickly reassigned from the main bus carrying most of the caravanistas – heading to the indigenous rebel town of Oventik, to conduct work projects in solidarity with the then-three-year-old revolution – to a covered pick-up truck. The driver, an older man named don Miguel, welcomed me and my dangling cigarette with two words, which he spoke in English: “No Smoking.”
The folks in the truck were not chilangos, they were country people, from the provinces of Mexico, and thus spoke slower and more understandably for this gringo and his dictionary appendage. They did not seem as bothered as the city slickers by their new companion’s difficulty with the language and his foreign ways, and seemed to view me as, at least, a source of entertainment and someone to laugh at during what was then a 22-hour trip out of Mexico City through the states of Mexico, Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and its Isthmus of Tehuantepec and finally winding through the mountains of Chiapas to get to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where we would receive training and instructions for how to conduct ourselves on Zapatista lands. Today, there are new highways and the same trip takes just fourteen hours, but the old route offered a much better look at the towns, flora, fauna and humanity along the way than any highway can possibly reveal.
My efforts to steal a quick smoke during every pit stop made my pickup-truck hosts uproarious with laughter. We’d pull into a PEMEX gas station and don Miguel would make hand gestures with the sound of a big explosion to portray what would happen if I smoked near the gas pumps, and so I would trot over to the roadside to light my cigarette. It was an all night drive and I barely remembered that there was also an elderly guy who was sleeping in the back of the truck while I was doing my best to communicate with, and not be an annoyance to, don Miguel and don Tacho and other solidarity volunteers in the front two rows of seats of the truck.
In the mountains of Oaxaca the winding road went through various tunnels and at one point a rainstorm made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Don Miguel stopped the vehicle inside one of those tunnels and I quickly jumped out in need of nicotine. While fumbling through what was then a 45-cent pack of Faros cigarettes, the truck suddenly began to pull away, and I went running after it yelling, first in English, then in bad Spanish. Miguel quickly realized he had left the gringo behind and put on the brakes as I ran to catch up. When I got back in, Miguel and Tacho and the others were laughing their asses off. As we emerged from the tunnel – the rain had already stopped – Miguel smiled and said, “You’ve just been through the tunnel of time!” And they laughed some more.
Daylight hit somewhere along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and during a brief pitstop this curious little man – about four-feet-eight-inches tall – emerged from the back of the truck. He inspected some banana trees by the side of the road and looked at them with big eyes, motioning to me and saying something I didn’t understand while touching the long green leaves. That was my first encounter with don Andrés, who then invited me to the back of the truck with him, where I could chain smoke with his gracious permission.
In trying to talk with this seemingly ancient being I kept apologizing for my bad Spanish. He put his finger over his mouth and said not to worry, that it was his second language, too. Empathy was not something I had yet experienced as a gringo newly in Mexico. I thought it inspiring that an eighty-something farmer from somewhere North of Mexico City would want to make this long voyage all the way to Chiapas to be with the Zapatista rebels, but I didn't yet know why.
For the next three weeks I followed don Andrés around like a puppy dog while everyone around us – about fifty caravanistas, and a village of a few hundred indigenous Tzotzil men, women, children and elders – made regular comments about the old man and his “gringo son,” usually while laughing, which I never knew if it was at me or with me.
One day don Miguel came to me and said that he and don Andrés were heading down the mountain into San Cristóbal for a meeting with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and would I like to join them? The Bishop – one of the pioneers, since the 1940s, of the Liberation Theology movement, and the one that historians wrote had invented its branch of “Indigenist Theology,” was one of the major personalities of the saga between the Zapatista rebels and the “evil government,” as they called it, of Mexico, often a mediator and a big part of what had been signed, two years prior, as the San Andrés Peace Accords for indigenous autonomy.
Bishop Samuel received my new friends warmly, and treated don Andrés with great deference, like a visiting head of state. When we left the meeting I asked don Miguel, pointing to don Andrés, “Who is this guy? The Bishop seemed in awe of him.” Miguel just smiled. Returning to the pickup truck, Miguel reached for a large overstuffed envelope and pulled out a series of press clippings, with photos of the founding of the Indigenous National Congress which had don Andrés at the side of the Zapatista Comandanta Ramona and other native leaders in the rainbow colors of distinct traditional clothing of their peoples.
And so I finally realized that this very old guy whom I had been with for the past three weeks, the one who was nicest to me and least bothered by the ways in which I was different and foreign was also apparently a big fucking deal in the modern history of Mexico. And yet, to me, he was already something else: my first real friend in a new and unfamiliar country.
When after almost a month it came time for Miguel, Andrés and company to return home while I would remain behind in Chiapas, I had to fight tears while saying goodbye, worrying that I’d never see this special old man again, and we parted ways. He was 87, after all, and how much longer could he possibly live? Two hours later, walking through the streets of San Cristóbal, I turned a corner and there he was again! Don Andrés, with Miguel, still collecting rations for their long trip ahead, and there I got the idea that “goodbye” just wasn’t something to be said yet with the elder. I considered it a good omen that we would meet again.
Over the following years, don Andrés and I traveled together – usually with don Miguel and his truck – through a dozen Mexican states, stopping to visit elders of indigenous groups who were part of the Congress with him: Otomi-Nañu, Mazahua, Purépecha, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Huichol, Amuzgo, Maya and of course the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol of Chiapas. Around 1999, don Andrés took me to Jalisco for a peyote ceremony led by Emerson Jackson of the Dineh (Navajo) peoples of the American Southwest, where I was pressed into service as a translator between the English-speaking indigenous leader and the Spanish-speaking attendees; a task in which the physical and mental effects of the ceremonial and hallucinogenic cactus seemed to make easier, not harder, interestingly, and, besides, my Spanish – which don Andrés so patiently had shepherded in its earliest days – was much more fluent by then.
Don Andrés ninetieth birthday was celebrated in November of 2000 in my home which was then in an indigenous town of Central Mexico. It was in that little house that Narco News was born. Some leaders of the Indigenous National Congress trekked many hours to be there and salute to the health of their eldest member. There, I read him my first poem in Spanish, “Mi General,” the term with which I addressed him so many thousands of times over these years.
In 2003, don Andrés was a professor at the first Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, in Mérida, Yucatán and on the isle of Isla Mujeres. There, don Andrés met and chewed coca leaf with the Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe – El Mallku, or Great Condor – as well as Alvaro Garcia Linera, now vice president of Bolivia, as well as students and professors from many other lands. He invited one of the students, Ava Salazar, back to his town of San Bartolomé, Guanajuato, who would later marry his grandson, Juan, and have two of don Andrés’ great grandchildren, born in the USA.
When don Andrés and I would travel together, people would tend to stop and stare at this little man, on the street or in the markets, and when those passersby were of the “hippie” or “New Age” tendencies they’d usually say something like, “Oooh, look at how his eyes shine! He must be a shaman!” And while it is true that don Andrés knew encyclopedias worth of things about medicinal plants and ancient healing practices, and he would indulge the strange philosophical and even self-help questions that strangers often asked him, Andrés never once claimed to be a “shaman” or “medicine man” or anything like that. To the contrary, he disliked such terms, almost revealing a fear of them, as if they carried the connotation of “witch” and anyone defined as such might be hunted down by an angry mob and burned at a stake. I had always guessed that he had lived long enough to see that sort of thing. From that, and from my experiences watching so many hucksters and fakers sell themselves to dewy-eyed tourists as such, usually with a fee or financial transaction involved, I concluded: Anybody who tells people he is a “shaman,” by definition, can’t possibly be one. Thank you, don Andrés, for that lesson, too.
At the end of so many days, in so many parts of his country, don Andrés loved more than anything to talk politics and strategy. We would sip mescal and speak late into those nights of the country’s social movements, their strategies, their tactics, often with other elders from other ethnicities, who seemed so much to enjoy the same. That was, I think, his greatest passion, formed by a lifetime of experiences, some of which you can read about in Erin Rosa and Fernando León’s profile of don Andrés on his hundredth birthday, a month ago.
A Mexican anthropology student, who had once witnessed some of these adventures, said to me, “Do you understand what access you have? Everybody in my school would die to have this kind of access.” I found her question both funny and sad. “What you call ‘access,’” I replied, “I call friendship.” And I remembered an afternoon in 1988, in the suburban Boston home of the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes where he had granted me an interview about ethnobotany that ended up lasting eight hours. Schultes had “discovered” for the academic world various hallucinogenic plants and had lived with Amazon tribes in South America, one of which had inducted him officially one of its own, through a ceremony that involved pricking his finger and “sharing” his blood with that of the finger of a tribal elder.
Schultes told me, on that day, “A botanist or a zoologist has a big advantage over an anthropologist when among native peoples. The anthropologist is always asking silly questions like ‘Why do you braid your hair that way?’ And people generally respond to them, ‘Because we’ve always braided our hair that way.’ The anthropologist is always looking at these people as something ‘other’ than them. But a botanist or a zoologist shares an interest – plants and animals – with people in the jungle. And in the course of studying these things alongside of these people who are also interested in them, eventually it is the botanist – and not the anthropologist – who casually finds out, also, why the natives might braid their hair a certain way, along with so many more important things to learn.”
Between don Andrés and I, his “gringo sidekick,” as some mutual friends liked to say, I never saw him as an object to be studied. I just genuinely loved him and being with him and those long night sessions of talking politics, organizing and strategy. That was our “botany,” in Schultes’ terms, our shared interest, upon which our friendship grew.
Seeing don Andrés last November 30, on his hundredth birthday, was not easy for me. This great man – the littlest giant! – could no longer see, or hear. One had to shout in his left ear and then only sometimes he would understand what was said. At that moment he did know that there were young people around him so he sat up straight on what this first morning of 2011 would be his death bed and began making a speech to the young people, who he seemed to think were Mexican and seeking his counsel about migrating to the United States. He told stories of when he had worked picking cotton near Pecos, Texas, and the mistreatment of the migrant workers he had experienced, and issued stern warnings and dos and don’ts about how to behave “on the other side” of the Rio Bravo.
At one point, don Andrés asked the group around him, “Do you know my friend Alberto? Do you have news from him?” His son Pepe, his daughter Carolina, grandaughter Lupe, and don Miguel took turns shouting in his ear, “He’s here! Alberto is here!” But don Andrés didn’t hear them and kept asking for me as I sat there helpless to establish my presence. He soon grew tired and fell asleep, and we went out with his family to celebrate his birthday while he napped.
Hours later, he awakened, and we entered his room again. This time he could hear a little bit more when I shouted in his ear. This time he recognized my voice, said my name, and his eyes, already blind, got that big childlike stare that I first saw on that roadside in 1997 as he looked at the banana trees.
“Alberto,” he said, grasping my hand firmly, “I think it will be very difficult for us to see each other again.” And then he launched into a litany of questions about the Zapatistas of Chiapas, about other friends in other movements in other parts of the country. When I answered him, he was unable to hear my responses. I was glad he was unable to see my tears. Just as quickly, he fell back asleep.
A while later, don Miguel approached me to report that Andrés was awake again, and would I like to have my photo taken with him? No, I replied, I don’t want to remember him like this, so weak and helpless: we have so many other memories from when he was strong and sharp and ready to take on and defeat the entire establishment. And then I confided in Miguel that Andrés, in his way, had said goodbye, and that I didn’t expect him to survive the year. And we looked at each other helplessly, knowing there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Well, once again don Andrés has proved me wrong. He did survive all of 2010 and hung on until the earliest hours of 2011, when he checked out of this hotel called earth. He chose the seventeenth anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion to be his final moment among us. I would have so liked to have been able to tell him of the people’s victory, yesterday, in Bolivia, where after the social movements mobilized to repeal an 82 percent rise in gasoline prices, where President Evo Morales (and don Andrés old friend Alvaro) acquiesced to an organized people’s demands. But, in a way, yes, I’m quite sure don Andrés was there. Like Joe Hill, where people fight and organize, it’s there we’ll find don Andrés.
Goodbye, mi general.