Lorna Scott Fox
‘Here, the dead are more alive than ever,’ the ad on the radio said. ‘That’s why I love Mexico.’ I was on my way to Tlayacapan, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, a category invented to promote tourism. Tourism is down in this magic village. Located near the epicentre of the earthquake of 19 September, in Morelos state, south-west of the capital, it experienced the worst impact in living memory. There are husks of adobe homes on every street, most of the churches are damaged, and the town hall clock tower fell; the arches where the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed are still standing, pocked and scuffed as if after a gun battle. I saw a sign flapping taped to a gate: ‘Careful with the wall.’ A woman was organising a tequio, the old indigenous form of community labour, to make adobe bricks. Scrawled in purple all the way across a yellow house, its outbuildings now tidied into piles of rubble, was: ‘Thanks to everyone for your help.’ The state is nowhere to be seen, apparently.
There’s a video online purportedly of the moment last night’s earthquake struck northern Chile. We’re in a small flat, maybe in Iquique. Women scream, a man keeps saying ‘It’ll pass, it’ll pass,’ as the mobile phone, presumably held by a heartless teenager, sways through rooms where everything is bouncing and falling off the walls. The noise is deafening. That’s what scared me most during my first quake, the huge one (magnitude 9.5) in Chile in 1960. I was too small to understand till much later how deadly it was. Apart from the racket – imagine every single object in the house coming to life, banging, sliding, rattling, creaking, and often crashing down – it was rather fun: tiles flying off the roof, the swimming pool slopping from side to side, the cook on her knees, imploring the Virgin at the top of her voice.
On 25 September, thousands of Spanish citizens from students to pensioners set out to surround the parliament building in Madrid, demanding an end to the current political system and the establishment of a new Constituent Assembly. The deputy prime minister dared to compare it to 23-F, the failed coup in 1981 when pistol-popping Civil Guards took the parliamentary chamber hostage. Days before last week’s action, the national police fenced off the whole area. I was in a bar nearby when three cops wandered in for a drink the night before the demonstration. What did they think about it? ‘As police officers, we’ll do our job,’ said one. ‘But we are also individuals in society. I’d be out there with them.’ ‘Yup, 90 per cent of us would be there,’ said another. Maybe the other 10 per cent included the riot police, who in the event did their job with convincing enthusiasm.
On 20 March, a Spanish judge gave prosecutors leave to proceed with a case against an 80-year-old nun charged with kidnapping. According to lawyers for victim groups, as many as 350,000 babies were stolen from poor, single or left-wing mothers between 1938 and the late 1980s. Sister María Gómez Valbuena, who had links with a maternity clinic and put ads in the paper offering help to unmarried mothers, is the first persoas many as 350,000 babies were stolen from poor, single or left-wing mothers between 1938 and the late 1980sn to be prosecuted for it.
Around 1985 I found a badly printed little paperback at Grant & Cutler called De viaje por los países socialistas, by Gabriel García Márquez. It was an eye-opener – the first playful, thoughtful, intimate, non-ideological take on the Eastern bloc I’d read. García Márquez has always called himself a journalist. It turns out that his literary-intellectual formation was nurtured not only by the chatty spirits around his grandmother and the depredations of the United Fruit company, but also by the fabulous variations of Communism he observed on a couple of semi-clandestine trips in the late 1950s.
The book was a trove of weird anecdotes and shrewd assessments. Slightly unpolished, perhaps, but still, why hadn’t it been translated?