because the strike was still on. There were a lot of us in that boat. As you can imagine, the aftermath of 1968 had marked everyone in Mexico City, especially the young. 1968 was followed by a period of enormous disillusionment, repression and ‘dirty war’ that, among other things, prepared the ground for the June 10, 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre. I witnessed and was affected by these events more directly than those of 1968, whose powerful moral impact still endured, although their emotional immediacy had begun to fade. On the tenth of June I was in fact a part of the demonstration, but I left a little before the shooting began. It was clear from the beginning that something was going to happen. A few hours later I happened to be at UNAM (where I had a lot of friends and was auditing classes) when some of the marchers arrived carrying the dead bodies that they had managed to recover from the Halcones. It was terrible.
The Halcones were gangs of thugs recruited, paid, armed and to an extent directed by the police and the military, which stood by while they killed at least thirty marchers and wounded many more.
Although we were depressed, there was an atmosphere abroad of protest, a social ease, that I think was in itself a form of disobedience. This was very important at the time, when the counterculture was the only outlet for the young.
Avándaro, which I attended, happened a few months after June 10th. It was a kind of counterpart to those events, and decidedly political. The more rigid leftists condemned the festival; they considered it frivolous, an importation of foreign values, and inappropriate for such a dark time, but it seems to me that it was a manifestation of the excess and rebellion that characterized the early phases of the student movement (something like ‘the more festivals, the more anarchy’). But it’s important to point out that it wasn’t just students and members of the middle class who attended — most of the audience were workers and working class kids.
Musically it wasn’t much, but I think that socially it established a precedent for autonomous power that had never before existed beyond the restricted circle of government. In a country in crisis like ours every social act is by its nature political.
Although Raúl Rincón Mesa and I were in Mexico City by the beginning of the 70s, we never got together then, because even though we at times found ourselves in the same place we didn’t know it. My enduring friendship with both with him and Víctor Soto Ferrel began in 1973, when Raúl had already returned to Tijuana.
The three of us shared intensely the collective experience of the young of that time. This was in fact the basis of our friendship.
I think that all of these experiences are part of the cultural transformation that identifies our generation. You ask me how important these events were. Very important, I think, especially those of 68 and Corpus Christi Day. They signify a rupture, and at the same time the sad expression of a great social disorder, that has not been resolved since, but has become more visible and inexorable. Over time the awareness of these events has nourished the bases of solidarity and tolerance that, despite everything, endure. They are what keep the country afloat.
Out of the energy of that time and the repression that followed came the rebellion in Chiapas, the growth of indigenous movements throughout Mexico, the vast improvement in the lives of middle-class women, the beginning of cracks in Mexico’s ancient caste system, and the overthrow of the PRI (Permanent Revolutionary Party). By all accounts it may well result in the defeat in turn of the PAN (National Action Party) and the return of a leftist party in the next election. And well in advance of the population explosion that continues to overwhelm its cities it produced the modern culture of Baja California.
To understand the few resources that this group of post-adolescents and the very few older poets and contemporaries (among them Francisco Morales, Riberto Castillo Udiarte and Rosina Conde i n Tijuana, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz in Mexicali, and Raúl Antonio Cota, Javier Manríquez and Edmundo Lizardi in La Paz ) had available for building what increasingly seems to me a distinct province of Latin American literature one has to know something of the place and its history.
In 1971, when I first ventured into Baja California, it took ten minutes to pass through Tijuana. Where now there is unbroken development there were a few villages and hotels along the 70 miles of coast south to Ensenada, Ensenada’s streets were largely unpaved, Hussong’s, its famous old bar, now at the hub of a flourishing urban center, sat on a dirt parking lot, and the pavement on Mexico 1, still the only paved road that runs the entire length of the peninsula, ended a few miles south of town — from there almost all the way to La Paz, 800 miles south as the crow flies, and Cabo San Lucas, 100 miles further, was a dirt track. It was so bad that it used to be used for the annual Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas endurance race, one of the world’s toughest off-road events.
In those days and in the 300 years of Spanish, then Mexican, occupation preceding it Baja California had been the wildest part of Mexico’s sparsely populated north, the last settled and the last explored, its equivalent in fact and in myth to the Wild West of the United States. The peninsula’s nine hundred miles snake down Mexico’s west coast. A hundred miles wide at its widest, but for most of its length less than half that width, it is separated from the rest of Mexico by an equal breadth of water. Even now its deserts and mountains (it is almost entirely deserts and mountains) are virtually empty of human life, the population largely confined to several very new cities (by the standards of Mexico, many of whose cities measure their age in millennia): the four border-region cities of the state of Baja California, Tijuana (founded in 1889), Mexicali (1903), Ensenada (1870), and Tecate (1892); hundreds of miles of desert to the south, the resort cities of the state of Baja California Sur, La Paz (1811) and the smaller towns of the cape area; a couple of agricultural regions in the far north and far south; and a scattering of small resort towns, date palm oases, mining towns and fishing ports. One can still drive hundreds of miles of Mexico 1 without seeing any sign of human life except for an occasional gas station or greasy spoon. A beautiful but forbidding landscape.
The road wasn’t completed until 1974. The northern half of the peninsula had only surpassed the constitutionally-mandated population of 80,000 to become the state of Baja California in 1952; Baja California Sur became the final territory of Mexico to achieve statehood in 1974.
Its distant overseers had largely ignored Baja California until then, and they continued to do so as long as they were able. As in the United States, federal aid and representation in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives or Britain’s House of Commons, is proportional to population as determined by a decennial census. The PRI was not amused when the state of Baja California voted in 1958, in its first national election, for the presidential candidate of the PAN, and census figures thereafter have been highly suspect. An educated guess would place Tijuana’s population at something under 2,000,000 (it’s the third or fourth largest Mexican city), Mexicali’s something under 1,000,000, Ensenada’s over 500,000, Tecate’s between 100,000 and 200,000, and La Paz’ at about 100,000.
But the north in general, and especially Baja California, the land of the norteados (the confused) and of Mexico City tabloid reports of flying saucers, has become the tail wagging the dog. After a generation of questionable PRI victories in local and state elections, the PAN won the municipal elections in Ensenada in 1986 and the gubernatorial and legislative elections in Baja California (its first state victories anywhere in Mexico) in 1989. The PAN has been in solid control of local and state governments in Baja California, and in the north as a whole, ever since, and it has been the party’s most important power base. Since the establishment of maquiladora factories (which relieved U.S. corporations of the burdens of U.S. unions and most taxes and customs duties) beginning in the 1970s (and even more since the enactment of NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated whatever tariffs remained on most goods passing between the United States, Mexico and Canada, in 1994), the north, and again Baja California most of all, has come to wield enormous economic power, second only to the capital’s. With the PAN in control (since 2000) of the Presidential palace and the national legislature, one can expect the 2010 census to reveal an extraordinary jump in reported population.
Baja California remains in the Mexican imagination something of a stepchild, and the disdain with which the Mexico City elite has tended to view its citizens persists, as well as the distrust in the other direction, which in the past was expressed in periodic movements for independence. Norteño music, the north’s country music, may have taken over the national airwaves, but Baja California is still seen as different, and not quite ‘Mexican.’ There’s some truth to that view. Mexico is a country of very old regional cultures. The enormous growth of its urban centers in the twentieth century tended, with the obvious exception of Mexico City, to draw on each city’s immediate hinterland. Ties to the regional culture, and proximity to its rural or small town sources, remained. The cities of Baja California, in contrast, have very little in the way of populated hinterlands, and although almost three quarters of the poets in Across the Line were born in Baja California, very few of their parents were, and almost none of their grandparents.
Missing in most Baja California cities, along with a great many other of the givens of Mexican life, is the communal cement of the paseo, the evening stroll of large numbers of townsfolk around a central plaza, that tends to create a sense of exclusivity and belonging. Neither Tijuana, nor Mexicali, nor Ensenada has a central plaza, and the intimate cultural habits, the musical and culinary tastes of all the regions, ethnic and linguistic groups of Mexico, as well as of the sizeable minorities of Chinese, Russians, English and North Americans living in Baja California, create a cultural stew that exists nowhere else in Mexico, which defines for its children a new sense of place, moving to the frenetic rhythms of cities in a constant state of change.
And there is the special circumstance of the border. Readers of Across the Line and of this selection from it will note its frequent appearance in the poems. Attitudes towards el otro lado (the other side), as Mexican border residents call the U.S., are decidedly mixed. Baja California is the crossing point for most illegal immigrants to the U.S., but illegal crossings are far outnumbered by the daily tides crossing to the north in the morning and to the south in the evening of those legally permitted to work or shop in the United States (but nonetheless subject to capricious and humiliating interrogation), and even of U.S. citizens who live in Mexico and commute northwards. The floods of Southern Californians who maintain second homes in exclusively English-speaking coastal enclaves, and the weekend invasion of young gringos intent on a cheap drunk, do little to enhance the local attitudes towards estadounidenses (U.S.ians).
The border crossing at Tijuana is the world’s busiest, and it must also be one of the strangest. Most passages from the underdeveloped to the developed world are mediated by several crossings: one passes, for example, from Syria to Turkey to Greece to southern Italy to Germany. In Tijuana the residents of the hillside communities of shacks that spring up almost overnight to house the newest arrivals can see across the border fence into the well-ordered residential districts of San Ysidro or Chula Vista. The people in those dependencies of San Diego also speak Spanish, watch Mexican television, listen to Mexican radio, and flavor their food as Mexicans do, but they benefit from the most powerful economy the earth has ever known.
The passage from one side to the other, whether legal or illegal, is from one place to another that shares the same name — both are California, and few on the Mexican side ever forget that the other California was once Mexican. And the culture of the other California has a profound impact on the culture of Baja California.
The Mexican border towns and many of those on the U.S. side exist only because of the border and are almost completely dependent on it. Mexicali was founded by the U.S. land and irrigation company that created the Imperial Valley al otro lado, and its twin, Calexico (note the mirrored names), is essentially a supermarket and department store for its much larger neighbor. Tijuana began as a resort and entertainment district for Southern Californians. San Ysidro was and is its market. Ensenada, like its larger neighbors, flourished with the onset of prohibition across the line. The prosperity, and many of the problems, among them the traffic in illegal drugs and illegal immigrants, are entirely responsive to developments in the United States. If U.S. companies decided to move their factories to Asia, as some have done, the border cities would shrink drastically and revert to dependence on local tourism, and if North American tourists changed their taste in beaches the economy of La Paz and the cape region would dry up.
A graphic example is playing itself out as I write. The attack on the World Trade Center has led to a tightening of already very tight controls at the border. The result has been delays that can last three hours for those going north, a crushing inconvenience for those who must cross for work or school, and it also takes its toll on tourism to the south (because potential tourists aren’t eager to face the delay returning) and to retail trade on both sides.
It’s worth noting that for many years border traffic control was casual in the extreme; people would stroll at will across the border in either direction. For awhile in the 1970s the U.S. Navy’s old beach-front Border Field gunnery range, which became Border Field State Park, was known locally as Friendship Field: Mexicans and U.S. citizens would climb the low fence to stroll on each other’s beaches. Now a rusty twelve-foot-tall corrugated steel fence crosses the beach and runs out to deep water to discourage migratory swimmers, and the surf casters who never catch any fish are U.S. Border Patrol agents in transparent disguise.
It should be no surprise that there’s a profound ambivalence towards gringos among those on the south side of the border. That ambivalence has been one of the major themes of the poetry of Baja California. Edmundo Lizardi’s long poem ‘Baja Times,’ for instance, is a disenchanted survey of the tourist culture of the entire peninsula, as seen from the perspective of a native.
The modern literary culture of Baja California begun by the young poets of the 70s developed as the population exploded and the necessary infrastructure developed. There is a state ‘autonomous’ (meaning secular) university in every Mexican state. The Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), the first of Baja California’s institutions of higher learning, was founded in 1957 but wasn’t fully functional until the early 70s. There are now campuses in Mexicali, Tijuana, Ensenada and Tecate. Other universities and research institutions followed, but they have had relatively little influence on the literary culture.
For thirty years after the founding of UABC it was still impossible to get a degree in literature in Baja California. Since 1986, when the Escuela de Humanidades at UABC-Tijuana was founded, degrees in literature have been available, but only in Tijuana. Before that (and still at the other campuses), literature courses were taught under the rubric of disciplines like communications sciences and human sciences (roughly, our social sciences).
The same situation prevails in Baja California Sur. UABCS in La Paz was founded in 1976, but it wasn’t until 1991 that it became possible to graduate with a degree in literature.
No matter the rubric, there is no such thing as a degree in creative writing and no equivalent of our M.F.A. programs there or anywhere else in Mexico. Instead there are informal talleres (workshops), run by whoever can get people to come once a week and offer their work for criticism. Although they are often held at universities they are open to all, there is no course credit, no tuition, no mandatory attendance, and usually no salary for the director. They exist only because of the passion and commitment of their members, which have included most of the poets in this anthology. Some of them have nonetheless lasted for years, with membership as stable as the vagaries of life allow.
Aside from the universities talleres have been (and continue to be) held at Ensenada’s Centro Social Cívico y Cultural, established in 1977, Tijuana’s federally-funded Centro Cultural (1982), the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California (1989) in both cities as well as Mexicali, and at the Casas de la Cultura that exist under municipal auspices in most Mexican cities, where inexpensive classes in cultural subjects are offered.
Talleres are very much like workshops on this side of the border: members submit work for the review of the group and the director. As important, the group tends to retire afterwards to a bar or coffee shop, where a lot of the cultural work gets done: literary friendships are solidified, and journals and small presses are spawned.
The first and historically most important of the talleres was the Voz de Amerindia, which met at UABC-Tijuana. This was the taller of Cortés Bargalló, Soto Ferrel, and Rincón Mesa. From it emerged the first important literary publications in Baja California: the first journal (Amerindia), the first book of poems published in Baja California (Raúl Jesús Rincón Meza’s Poemas de santo y seña para descubrir un rostro), and the first regional anthology ( Siete poetas jóvenes de Tijuana), which included Rincón Meza, Víctor Soto Ferrel and Luis Cortés Bargalló, among others. In the years since four other regional anthologies have appeared: Parvada. Poetas jovenes de Baja California (1985), edited by Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz; Baja California Sur. Otro mar otro desierto (1991), edited by Raúl Antonio Cota; Un camino de hallazgos. Poetas bajacalifornianos del siglo XX (1992), edited by Trujillo Muñoz; and Baja California. Piedra de serpiente (1993), edited by Luis Cortés Bargalló.
Since Amerindia a few dozen journals have appeared in Tijuana, Mexicali, Ensenada and La Paz, and there are weekly culture supplements in all of the local papers, which often include extensive poetry selections. There are, as well, numerous small independent presses and the institutional presses of the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California, Tijuana’s Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura, and the Fondo Editorial de Baja California. Tijuana’s Centro Cultural is about to inaugurate an imprint of its own. Almost all are government subsidized. And Tijuana has become an essential stop on the reading and lecture circuit for intellectuals and writers from all of Latin America.
There are also frequent presentations, a phenomenon I think unique to Latin America. It’s the custom in Mexico for new books to be presented formally, several speakers delivering brief critical introductions followed by a reading. At these presentations, it’s not unusual to have crowds of several hundred. To a gringo this is simply astonishing.
The young revolutionaries who formed Voz de Amerindia remain the only poets of Baja California who can be identified as a coherent group: of those in the present selection these include Rincón Meza, Soto Ferrel, Cortés Bargalló, and the younger poets Víctor Hugo Limón and Gilberto Zúñiga. Despite the audacity they displayed in imagining and helping to establish the literary culture of Baja California, their poetry tends to be conservative in Mexican terms, strongly influenced by the French poets Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud (who have been integral to Latin American literature since Rubén Darío and others introduced them in the early years of the twentieth century), the surrealists and the American objectivists. This group of poets tend to write lyric poems of allusive delicacy and musicality and an aesthetic detachment that is unusual in Baja California, where a great many poets, otherwise very different from each other — Francisco Morales, Rosina Conde, Roberto Castillo Udiarte, Edmundo Lizardi and Heriberto Yépez among them — write poetry that is involved with and in protest against the grittier life around them and tends to employ the language of everyday speech, even the everyday speech of the gutter.
A third kind of poetry, more a way of conceiving the poem than a defined school, is the neobarroco, whose practitioners, beginning with José Lezama Lima, twentieth-century Cuba’s most influential poet, create collages combining the everyday, personal history, the erotic, the esoteric, dialects, languages, professional jargons, and the speech of different social classes, presented without hierarchy. The moment is seen as infinitely complex, a multitude of voices, only comprehensible by means of the accretion of linguistic perspectives and the detritus of culture.
The neobarroco has become perhaps the most powerful tendency in Latin American poetry, and it has had important influence in Baja California, notably on the work of Estela Alicia López Lomas, Elizabeth Algrávez, Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal and Juan Reyna.
One tendency largely missing from the poetry of Baja California is the confessional. As in the rest of Latin America poets are considered public figures, and even those incapable of reading them listen to their pronouncements on all manner of social and political issues. This tends to bring forth a poetry which is always aware of the reader and rarely filled with unmasked personal information. It’s worth noting, for instance, that Rosina Conde’s ‘Mary Kay’ is not based on her own very different life, although one doesn’t doubt its portrayal of the lives of many middle class women and the ambivalence with which the life across the border is met.
This is a literary culture of great diversity and sophistication, partaking of the dominant tendencies of modern Mexican and Latin American poetry. What differentiates it is the greater and easily-recognized influence of more recent poetry from across the border (many of the poets are prolific translators) and the presence of the border itself, as well as an unusually intense, unsentimental investigation of place.
One of the peculiarities of the post-conquest cultures of the Americas has been their constant asking of the questions ‘what is this place,’ ‘who am I in this place,’ and ‘what am I doing here.’ There is a sense of metaphysical nakedness, not just each of us alone within our society, but alone in time as well, a heightened sense of the insecurity of things and of our own transience — abandoned by or having abandoned the former life, we or our near ancestors have built a new one amidst the evident ruins of other, unknowable cultures to which we can have no certain connection.
Mexicans in the past century have come to identify themselves with a dual heritage, unavailable to most of us to the north, as descendants of both conquered and conqueror, indigenous and invader. It’s a dubious and conflicted comfort, but a comfort of sorts. Baja Californians, separated from familiar cultural and physical landscapes, and faced with the inexorable fact of their neighbor al otro lado, across the long scar of the fence that many refer to as ‘the Berlin Wall,’ more radically than most others in this hemisphere experience themselves as displaced, or at best provisionally situated in an unfamiliar place. They live, literally, in a liminal space — a threshold, a border. Here even the native-born experience themselves as exiles, because place exists in the dimension of time as well, and change through time has been so rapid and so extreme that the remembered place appears to have moved from beneath them. All of this enacted as if in an existential landscape, against the background of the great unpeopled, inhospitable territory beyond the cities.
This, I think, is what gives the poetry of these poets, young, most of them, as the careers of poets are measured, much of its edge: Edmundo Lizardi’s restless eye, the reptilian landscape of Elizabeth Algrávez, the uneasy metaphysics of Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal, the social disquiet of the poetry of Heriberto Yépez.
Baja Californians remain orphans of sorts, caught between and on the edge of the two power centers that determine their fates and that tend to render them invisible. Our goal when my coeditor Harry Polkinhorn and I began Across the Line / Al otro lado was to make them visible.
Baja Californians, and Mexicans in general, have ample reason to question the motives of the gringos who pass among them. It has been a long history of belittlement and exploitation. In commemoration of a war that Mexicans have never forgotten and we al otro lado scarcely remember, most Mexican cities have an Avenida de los Héroes — Avenue of the Heroes, the 5,000 teenage cadets slaughtered by the U.S. army in the 1847 battle for Mexico City. Over Tijuana’s version towers a monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln. The Good Gringo.
Despite the thousand acts of generosity that made this book possible we are aware that as outsiders we have inherited this ambivalence. Editing an anthology is not the best way to make friends, and probably none of the poets are in total agreement with our choices, whether to include or exclude. We hope that we have succeeded in representing both the scope of the region’s poetry and its best products.
Part of the task of determining who to include in a place that so many pass through has been determining who to consider Baja Californian. Cortés Bargalló, who settled permanently in Mexico City in1975, put it well in another email message: ‘I don’t think that I ever really left Tijuana — I still live in that same interminable city that never stops moving and changing.’ That commitment to place was our desideratum. As Javier Manríquez, resident in Mexico City since 1971, tells us of the small mining town where he was raised,
There I lived my clarity,
the origin of spaces
beneath the June sun.
Years go by unheeded,
leave their stony geometry
in the corners
but the image burns,
transparency endures and overflows.
My names appear,
— your ghosts
that haven’t aged
that remember me now...
(‘Cuaderno de San Antonio’)