Descent was a mixed media project by Ivan Ruiz-Knott about his journey to discover his family heritage in the south of Mexico. He filmed, wrote, photographed, and illustrated. This is some of his work.
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I look around some days unsure of what I am seeing—unsure of what to make of this, these myriad threads. What is the three act structure? What is the arc—the outcome? What is any of this?
It is knowing to say “bueno” when you pick up the phone, and that if you wait long enough your grandfather might pick up the call in the tiendita.
It is knowing that every day, your aunt in Texas will call to talk to her mother.
It is knowing that her mother often leaves the kitchen faucet running—knowing that her father always takes a break around three—knowing that the parrots will cry every night because they are afraid of being left outside.
It is knowing that the top tortilla always sticks to the inner flap of the paper package—that the fifth gear of la carcacha doesn’t work—that the electricity dips in and out because no one in the village has paid their bill for years.
It is sitting at the table on a dozen late afternoons, watching remembering eyes and quavering lips.
It is hearing that they told their daughters ‘you will not have an inheritance’—hearing that they traded their land for books and school clothes and the intangible futures of all their children.
It is hearing that they sometimes went without eating but their daughters never needed anything.
It is seeing him, working until nine in the evening in his old age, and seeing her, standing for hours as she tries to collect a pension she never gets because she doesn’t come on the Sabbath.
It is you, breaking, as you watch her in that room full of hundreds of ancient men and women—it is feeling sick as names are called and the room empties out—as she becomes the last person still there, and still her name is never said.
It is anger at the meager dividends of an invested life.
It is understanding.
It is thinking—thinking long—of the violence of life.
It is growing up in an instant, and having a grandmother for the first time.
It is being told that you have your father’s smile and your grandfather’s eyes.
It is being a stranger among family, and then becoming family.
It is discovering what you have already known—that you have an inheritance.
A brief guide to Mexican culture in six parts. // 1. The music of Carla Morrison // 2. Chocolitos.com (it’s a Choco thing) // 3. Mexico’s most cherished TV show // 4. The state of Chiapas // 5. This is apparently what the kids are into // 6. Pedro Infante, Cielito Lindo; classic Mexican song and cinema.
My grandfather has just returned from the city. A friend of his had taken him to the Sam’s Club to open an account, and now that he is back at his tiendita he is telling his customers about what he saw. On their way back they ran into traffic. Authorities had blocked off one of the streets. They were swarming a bank. He could see men inside.
One of his vendors comes in to replenish his inventory. They talk for a long time about la situation, the uncontrolled violence in the city. They talk about God. They talk about having an honest work in the midst of this.
The world is ending, my grandfather says.
It’s around two when I wake up. My uncle is standing outside, in the darkness, looking out at the road through the chain-link gate. He says there’s a patrulla out there. Flashing red and blue lights. Something must have happened. He wonders what it is.
I go inside to get ready. My uncle is a taxista in the city, and I’m going to join him on his three to three shift. I wash my face, put gel in my hair, and go outside to wait with him for the taxi to arrive.
The city, for everything I’ve heard, is silent that morning. I return tired after an uneventful morning and sleep.
The next day at breakfast my grandmother tells me that a man was found at the side of the road early in the morning the day before. He had been thrown out of a vehicle, bleeding and covered in torture wounds, his tongue missing.
My mother calls me almost every day. We talk about the family, about my project, and about things we are thinking. Often she tells me about how many deaths there have been in the city, and often I tell her to stop reading the news. There’s a saying here that you can squeeze the newspapers and blood will drip out, and from what my mother knows I’m sure the news sites aren’t much better.
Children and teachers get kidnapped from schools; men are gunned down exiting supermarkets; honest working people are caught in crossfires and sprayed with balas. The city is painted in blood.
And while it’s not half as dangerous as el norte—while the numbers do not reach the numbing heights of the border towns—nobody cares. Because that doesn’t matter. Because everybody remembers the days when this was unheard of in this place.
Late on a Saturday evening, I’m with one of my cousins. He’s in college and is going to be studying for his classes the next morning. Now though, he’s reading the local news, and he tells me about a vigilante group that has recently sprung up. He shows me a picture of dismembered bodies with a sharpied note taped to one of them. It says that anyone engaged in trafficking, assault, or kidnapping will meet the same fate as these. It is signed Pueblos Unidos.
Two of my kid cousins come looking for me. I haven’t come over to play in a few days, and they’ve been getting restless. As we walk to their house, my prima says she’s not as scared now. Because I’m with them.
I ask if she was scared walking when she came just now and she says that she was.
My primo tells me to tell her that he’s come alone without any fear before, right?
I ask her why she’s scared.
She tells me that they steal children for their organs.
Here? In El Once?
But only the pretty kids. So they’ll steal her.
My primo says he’s safe.
My prima says that’s because he’s ugly.
My primo says that there are different sorts of people that steal different sorts of children, so he could still get stolen.
I look at them, unsure of what to say.
The man at the pulpit is talking about the importance of unity. About how everyone needs to live in community. And how a family can’t be a family, how a church can’t be a church, how a people can’t be a people, without unity.
He starts a saying,“El pueblo unido—”
And the congregation finishes,“—jamás será vencido.”
On another day, after another man speaks at the same pulpit, we sit around at a table eating, conviviendo. The talk turns to the violence. And then a story is told, of a wealthy man who was once being harassed by the maleantes.
Every week they would come and ask for their protection money, and every week the man would give his wealth to the violent men, until one day when he told them he wasn’t going to give them any more. And before the five men could lift their guns the wealthy man had shot each of them dead. He had long ago sent his family away under political asylum, sold all of his businesses and properties, and begun practicing his marksmanship.
He boarded a plane to Canada that day and never came back.
We are silent as the man speaks. In two months it will all be over, he says. The government has put together a covert operation. In two months, he says, they’ll complete their work.
The drug-pushers, the opportunist gangs, the corrupt cops, the sold military—everything will be over, he says. The unchecked crimes of law enforcers and their lawless employers will finally be met with justice. The streets will no longer run with blood. Two months and it will all be over, he says.
And though he says it with so much certainty in his voice, we all know—he knows—that it is just another myth. It is just another story for a people to tell themselves—a story of a people who will not be vencido.
The answers to all of your (food related) questions. Month one, in food and parenthetical exposition (an experiment in data collection, writing styles, and responsive web layout).
Inspired by the work of Nicholas Felton, I decided to take obsessive record of everything that I do while in Mexico, with the intent of creating interesting infographics at the end of my journey here. I got as far as “food eaten” before giving up on anything even aspiring to the glory of the Feltron Report. Cockroaches killed, games of soccer played, and time spent with specific people are probably far more interesting as memories and stories anyway. Right?
“I am vegetarian which means I don’t eat. What do I eat, if I do not eat meat?”
As a fact, Mexican sweet bread is magical. Conchas, specifically, are the most magical of all. Warm, moist, fluffy, nutritionless buns that fill your soul with the very essence of eternity, covered in a crust of crumbly sugary goodness. It is one of many breads that has blessed and yet cursed my tongue with its unforgiving commentary on the transience of pleasure, and one of many breads that has been present at dinner conversations that I’ve relished just as much. Viva la concha. For death is no novelty in these parts.
The young and half-Mexican man pondered long. what would he do? How would he stay strong?
I am used to feminism, and the valiant efforts of countless women to not serve lonely second-shifts in the kitchen and in their homes. I’m used to fending for myself, and while I am not the romantic ideal of a gentleman that can cook lavish meals with ease, I am often capable of making myself a really good bowl of cereal. Occasionally, when I feel like treating myself, I will make myself a sandwich, and other times, when I’m trying to cope with particularly difficult circumstances, I’ve been known to bake a mean batch of bread.
I am used to doing things myself. I am used to cooking and washing and cleaning and drying and putting-away I am used to all the many small and great victories of feminism.
That is what I am used to.
I am not used to having every single meal prepared for me. Every single item served. Ever single dish washed. Every single spill cleaned.
But do I throw the women out of the kitchen? Do I, the foreigner, in all my colonizing superiority, begin a revolution to liberate women from domestic labor, into self-actualizing independence and freedom? Is that my place? As a foreigner? As a male foreigner? As a foreigner who will far too quickly leave these women in the throws of a society that is drowning in a machismo that is supported by immeasurable amounts of gel? Is that what I do?
Or do I just sit, and watch, as everything is done for me—as a culture operates as it always has and as it will for long after I leave?
After thinking for days, spending weeks in a fast, “Cheese!” he exclaimed. Cheese he settled, at last.
In a month, I have eaten a lot of food. That’s not all I have done, but it is a lot of what I have done. It is around food that people talk. It is around food that I learn my grandfather owned seven motorcycles, long before the wrinkles crept over his face and his knees were changed for ones that will last much longer than him. It is around food that I talk to my grandmother about her past, and about my future. It is over food that we talk about how she has to stay alive until I get married.
It is through food that, eventually, I win little, precious Pacito over, giving him Globitos until he despairs over how to express all his happiness towards me.
It is around food that we talk about the violence, about this project of mine, about my cousin’s new baby, about my parents, about the letters—and when I leave I know that it will and yet won’t be the food that I miss. I will miss the convivencia, the way we lived together, around this food. The way we lived together, before I went went to America.
‘I tell you, twelve years ago it wasn’t like this,’ my uncle says, as we drive through the city. ‘Fifteen years ago you never even heard about this sort of thing. But things have changed here. Things have changed a lot.’
Fifteen years ago, I came to this same city at night with my family. There were Power Wheels in the city square, and I drove around with my cousins for as long as our parents would let us. My uncle tells me that those days, people would linger in the square until two or three in the morning. The place would be filled with people, enjoying themselves, living life. But these days, the streets begin to empty around ten. By midnight, they’re cleared. By two or three in the morning, if you’re walking these streets, you’re an angel, a demon, or a ghost. Or you’re about to become one.
We came to drop my cousin off for a study group. After taking care of a few errands, we’ve just been driving around, my uncle telling me about the state of things. ‘By day, it’s entirely safe,’ he says, pointing to one of the crowded commercial streets. ‘Everybody lives their lives like normal when it’s daytime.’
Another uncle is a taxi driver in this same city, working from two in the morning to two in the afternoon. And he’s told me just as much. He drove by four heads just over a week ago, right before the authorities blocked off the area. As he drove away, he saw a kid taking a picture with a cell-phone.
‘It’s all between them, though’ my uncle continues. ‘There’s the possibility of stray bullets, but you just have to be careful where you are.’
At one point a few years back, the authorities, unable to respond quickly enough, and with enough force, enacted a curfew for the city, during which they would not respond to any calls, which they did as much for the citizens as for themselves.
But it’s not all between them. Not really. The crimes of taking people’s belongings and the crimes of taking people themselves, that’s a different set of people. That’s the set of people that loots during wartime. That’s the set of people that capitalizes on the suspension of morals
Then again, those sorts of crimes aren’t contained within the city limits, or to certain times of day.
We continue to drive through and around the city, passing through the square, taking the peripheral road, as my uncle tells me about the man who runs the city from a high security prison. He tells me about the wealthy neighborhoods that have been deserted as people have fled to safer areas. He tells me about the groups of citizen vigilantes that have risen up.As we pass through another commercial street on the way back into the city center, he points to the shops lining the streets. ‘I’m sure that every one of those shop owners is paying protection money. Every single one. If you have a business, they’ll make sure they’re getting a cut too.’
‘What they do,’ he says, ‘is that they learn everything about you.’
They learn how much money you make, what your wife is named, where you live, where your kids go to school, everything. And then they tell you to pay them so that you can still have kids that go to school, a wife to love, and use for a house.
A lot of people end up closing down and leaving. No point making money if it all gets taken from you.
We park on a side street near the center, and we walk around as my uncle points out some of the important buildings. We end up at a paleteria near the city square, one I remember from the last time I was here with my family. He orders a paleta de coco.
As he peels the wrapper off, he tells me that this—this peeling back—is what the demons do with the skin of people’s faces.