I have never before thought of myself as an exile. All my life I have traveled between Mexico, where I was born, and Los Angeles, my home since I was 6. What do I, whose parents freely chose to leave their country for the United States so many years ago, have in common with Vietnamese, Cubans, Iranians and Iraqis who were forced to flee their homelands, never to return?
The headlines tell the story: “Mexico Under Siege,” “Deadly Drug Violence Claims Hundreds of Lives,” “U.S. Warns of Danger in Mexico as Violence Increases.” Or the one about the 14-year-old who matter-of-factly told authorities he had killed people by chopping off their heads and then added, as if exonerating himself, that at least he “never went and hung the bodies from bridges or anything like that.”
That story is particularly chilling to me because many of those bodies were hung from bridges in Cuernavaca, the city where my mother’s family lives, where I spent summers visiting from the United States. Friends there tell stories of shielding their children’s eyes from the dangling corpses that seem to be falling from the sky.
In Cuernavaca, and in Mexico City, our friends do not leave their homes at night. Conversations in restaurants are whispered — no one wants to be overheard saying so and so was kidnapped or that so and so is a narco. You never know who is sitting next to you. Many people we know have been kidnapped. The 2007 death of Silvia Vargas, a highly publicized kidnapping, hit close to home. Her dad was once my summer swim coach.
That 14-year-old killer is part of a new generation in Mexico that is being called los ni-nis, the “neither-nors,” lost boys and young men who proclaim they neither study nor work. They have found plenty to do, however, acting as the cartels’ killers, mules and torturers. Usually, the reports say, they are so doped up, they don’t even recognize or feel the carnage they are inflicting.
I know that, as with most countries, Mexico has always had a dark and wild side. My own mother and aunt were kidnapped by a powerful cacique in the 1960s. He thought my 14-year-old aunt, with her green eyes, white skin and black hair, was so beautiful he had to have her.
Fortunately, my nervy and intelligent mother (also a great beauty) was with her, and she was able to figure out an escape: opening the door of the moving car, grabbing her little sister’s hand and running against traffic down Mexico City’s largest boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma.
For several months after the kidnapping, my aunt was escorted to school every day by a friend who was a general in the army. The issue was resolved quietly by my grandfather, a military doctor, when he met privately with the cacique. Nobody knows what was said, but the dirty old man never bothered my aunt or mother again.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, there were always stories of crimes. During the summers I spent with my cousins in Mexico, we were trained to give a cop his bribe and never allow them to take us in. Somehow, the crime stories always had a twist of kindness or mercy to them that made them almost comical. In his early 80s, my step-grandfather was mugged every week after depositing his money in the bank at the same time on Fridays. But the muggers were always polite and apologized for having to take his money. A friend who was carjacked was given bus fare.
There is nothing funny in the stories being told today. There is only fear and lament. And yet, life goes on. My cousins, aunts and uncles will all spend Christmas in Acapulco. They will dance, eat, swim in the sea. I hear the sadness in my grandmother’s voice when I tell her we won’t be visiting this year. I feel my voice catching as I think about her, 90 years old, sitting in her living room holding the telephone. I remember how beautiful Christmastime is in Mexico, everything decorated in the crimson hues of the season. I can see the poinsettias, noche buenas, blooming in the languid gardens in Cuernavaca, a place the Aztecs called the City of Eternal Spring. The Mexico I like to remember is about love and warmth and family.
I know I am giving in to the media frenzy that sensationalizes the crimes and only covers the horrors in Mexico. But now I have children of my own, and having children makes one a coward.
If my family were to make the trip, most likely, the worst wouldn’t happen. After all, the majority of the violence is occurring between drug dealers and their henchmen. Crime rates in general are much worse in Brazil and Venezuela, for instance.
But what if we were to drive under one of those bridges on the wrong day? How would I explain the sight of those hideous, lifeless bodies hanging from above? Or what if our cab driver happened to work for a narco? Or what if we got caught in the crossfire of a shootout? There is no more negotiating, as my grandfather likely did more than 40 years ago. Just ask Silvia Vargas’ parents or the family of the National Action Party, or PAN, leader Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, who has been missing since May.
It is an ugly, ugly time in Mexico. So now I too have joined the ranks of so many immigrants, exiled in fear, who dare not go back. To be honest, we cannot — because the place and the time we seek no longer exists.
Lorenza Muñoz is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer who has completed her first novel, “The Weight of Flight.”