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for people who care about the West

The afterlife of cotton

Through the present and past of a border town, on the trail of literary legend José Revueltas.

 

 1.

Between 2010 and 2012, the Zetas cartel turned the Piedras Negras prison into a factory of uniforms, bulletproof jackets and desaparecidos, the Mexican journalist Diego Osorno claimed, not too long ago.i Near Piedras Negras, in the norteño state of Coahuila, lies the Don Martin Dam. The Zetas transformed it into an underwater narco-grave. Constructions are haunted spaces, anthropologist Saiba Varma once said in an animated talk about infrastructures. There are soft infrastructures, like hospitals and factories, and hard ones, like highways and bridges. Like dams. Hard, indeed. The dam is an amphitheater, solemn and noble. You can’t forget the bodies that constructed them, insisted Varma. Nor those that died there. You can’t forget, she kept on insisting. There is an underwater mass grave in the middle of the desert, near the Mexico-U.S. border. I insist. 

2.

Construction on the Don Martin Dam officially began in January 1927 — only 10 years after the drafting of the Mexican Constitution officially ended the armed phase of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Located in the Juárez municipality in the northernmost corner of the state of Coahuila, very close to the border with the United States, the dam came to occupy the riverbed between the Salado and the Sabinas rivers, right in the midst of a ranch owned by one Martín Guajardo, hence its name. Engineers hired by the post-revolutionary regime believed that, with a reservoir of 1.13 million acre-feet of water, the Don Martin could irrigate some 73,155 acres of land, amending the ways of a climate always harsh and a sky determined to hold back rain. No clouds. No shade. No mercy. The dam was to turn vast tracts of land perceived as useless into veritable fields of agricultural production, or so voiced the engineers, the federal authorities, and the wandering farmers in constant lookout for a place to settle.

3.

In the beginning was water, and water was with the dam. The magic gift of the water with its secret drops of light, its hidden stars.

Water, however miraculous, was not enough. It never was or is. If farmers were to settle this zone and laborers to come by the hundreds, they needed more. They needed lands, and titles for those lands, as well as credit with which to acquire tools and seeds. Knowing better, the post-revolutionary cadre proceeded to open up the legal channels to facilitate both. Honoring the Colonization Law of 1926, the federal government began the land-distribution process around the Don Martin dam, establishing Irrigation District Number 4. Instead of ejidos — community-owned land recognized by the 1917 Constitution — however, the Mexican government supported an agrarian reform based on the distribution of small holdings of private property. They favored colonists, those members of an emerging middle class among farmers, over ejidatarios, peasants tied to communally based production, which, in their view, arrested the incursions of modernization in the northern fields.

Becoming a colonist, however, was not easy. Each potential colonist had to provide a down payment, 5 percent of the cost of the land, never a small feat for landless, unemployed and nomadic workers. And yet, the population of Estación Camarón, a campsite first developed in 1882, soon multiplied, thanks to the construction works of the Mexico-Laredo railroad in the neighboring state of Nuevo Leon. News of the land distribution and availability of credit from the Banco Agrícola quickly reached the sensitive ears of deportees from the United States and repatriated workers already living in Mexico, many of them experienced cotton pickers of southern Texas ranches. Agricultural laborers and landless peasants from southern Mexico also swarmed to the banks of saltpeter rivers, looking for a better life — a place they could call theirs.

That’s how my grandparents — an errant mine worker from San Luis Potosí who married a much younger woman who knew how to read and write — came to the region: Looking for land they could work and own, looking for their first real home. José María Rivera Doñes. Petra Peña. They had heard, like many others, of the promises of the Agrarian Reform and, although incredulous and mistrustful, they came. They had nothing to lose. They had land, and a new life, to gain.

Aqueduct in Chihuahua, Mexico, c. 1904.
DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
 
Irrigation in Zacatecas, Mexico, c. 1900.
Mary Agnes Chase Photograph Album 1898-1903, Smithosinian Institution Archives

4.

But true stories are not to be told. True stories live before articulation and beyond hurt. They linger and survive precisely because they are hardly told — a gasp, the proverbial foot in the mouth, the slippage of drunkards. Or else because they are shared only in little pieces, filaments, sharp splinters flying through time. My family never sat down to talk about this. This story of cotton and work on the threshold of the desert was never intended to be known in that way — a foundational legacy, a well-structured source of pride, or a set of sentimental lessons for the future. Every now and then, at times by mistake, my father would say something over dinner, to which my mother would react, albeit briefly. A wince. A hint of a smile. The eyelid, when it closes down. Every now and then, at the end of a party, among alcohol-induced disorderly confessions, an uncle would say something, to which an aunt would retort, in code. No more comments added. As if protecting the rest of us — the younger ones already born in cities, far away from cotton fields — from that knowledge; or rather, as if protecting that knowledge from us.

We were at war, and in different armies. They knew that truth ought to be withheld from the enemy. Modernization was the name of this war. In its midst, our parents and grandparents lovingly looked at us as we ate or ran errands and they knew it: Upwardly mobile children would betray them. Parents who worked hard for their children would see in time how these same children, these apparently innocent children, would give them away.

They knew we’d leave the fields, this way of life, to become strangers or, worse, naive, perhaps even well-meaning, adversaries.

So hush.

True stories may only be told within other stories, and then only obliquely.

5.

A historic harvest of cotton in 1932 settled the question: The lands watered by the Don Martin Dam were to become cotton fields. The machinery of the state turned its wheels soon afterwards, striking deals with U.S. investors and employing the full power of the nascent post-revolutionary regime to break up long-held large estates. Cotton soon dominated the horizon in Mexicali, Baja California; in Delicias, Chihuahua; and in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Some of the arriving cotton pickers were lucky.  They got their acres of land and settled in, leaving their nomadic mores behind. Some had to try harder, and while waiting for an opportunity hired themselves as farmhands, creating a new, and eventually conflicting, hierarchy in the cotton fields. The latent antagonism must have been felt in the wind, wind from the north, as it battered the tents in the campsite. Pieces of ephemeral architecture. The night vault pierced by the light of a thousand stars.

The cotton fields dreamt of cities and, soon, cities emerged out of the white. Designed by engineers to ease the flow of goods, these cities materialized the dreams Jorge Luis Borges had not yet dreamt: circular ruins. On May 5, 1933, colonists around the Don Martin Dam founded Anáhuac City, with total support from both the federal government and the National Commission of Irrigation, in lands overlapping with Estación Camarón and, on the other side of the tracks, Estación Rodríguez. There are few things sadder than the remnants of sudden and ephemeral opulence. Concentric, ample avenues envelop rounded plazas in whose centers once rose the legendary obelisk indicating the four cardinal corners of the world and the three vectors of time: past, present, future. The future above all.

José Revueltas came by horse to Estación Camarón in 1934. It was late March.

“The land in the north is whitish and hurtful,” he wrote in a letter he sent to his family in Mexico City while he remained in norteño lands. “Plains and deserts yet untamed, fierce, brimming with wild shrubs and sandpaper trees, with cactus that torment, torture our flesh, a symbol of all the Mexican land, Indian and in pain. Wild, wild is the wind, with no belay. Wind from the north.” ii

As he rode, Revueltas must have thought about the farmworkers’ strike he had heard about and immediately longed to join. The wild wind from the north, swirling around his head. The acacias. He was 19 years old. The sandpaper trees. You could see all of it from the window of our rental car: the shrubbery and the wind and the light like a dagger and Revueltas’ relentless gallop.

 

6.

This is what it’s all about: following in your footsteps 82 years later, comrade. You had not yet written, much less published, the novels and short stories that gained you a reputation as a revolutionary writer. You had not yet been a member of, and had not been expelled from, the ranks of the Mexican Communist Party. You had not become a detainee at the Islas Marias federal prison or, years later, after hundred of students were killed in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, at the Lecumberri jail.

Two women follow in your footsteps, retracing them, to find you or to lose you. Forever.

A car. A lonely highway through the desert threshold. A small story of climate change.

 

Workers harvesting cotton in Torreón, Mexico (date unknown).
Eugene V. Harris, Clarence W. Sorensen Collection, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

A man harvesting cotton in Torreón, Mexico (date unknown).
Eugene V. Harris, Clarence W. Sorensen Collection, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

7.

In the beginning was unrest, unrest with the meek, who would inherit the earth.

Outside the full control of the post-revolutionary state, the land around the Don Martin Dam had been an ambiguously defined zone. Properly known as a steppe, but described by locals as a desert, it became a priority in the agenda of president Lázaro Cardenas — a champion of Agrarian Reform and labor organizing between 1934 and 1940 — as he tried to establish a clear border with the United States while taking back the autonomy of the region. There, those 15 hectares per family or that loan from the Banco de Crédito Ejidal were meant to uphold the fringes of the Mexican nation. A matter of national identity and national security, nothing more and nothing less. Impossible to walk through Anáhuac City without thinking about José María Rivera Doñes, picking cotton and taking his time every now and then to have a smoke. Impossible to walk through Anáhuac City without making out the figure of Petra Peña, working and giving birth to a child who would die in a year, and giving birth to my father afterwards. Impossible to walk through Anáhuac City without mulling over cotton and the Don Martin Dam, and those men and women looking into each other’s eyes.

This is the moment I believe in: José Revueltas meets the eyes of José María and Petra over a cotton field in the midst of a strike.

There are moments that reverberate over the earth. And they stretch. Until they catch us. On a highway.

 

8.

Revueltas explored much of his key experience in Estación Camarón in El luto humano, his second novel, which was published in 1943 and translated into English twice.iii The agrarian experiment has already failed when the novel opens: A small group of impoverished peasants witnesses the death of a child, and death — the presence of death, the bitterness of death, the sweetness of death — impregnates their surroundings. Repeated flashbacks let the reader see and feel the cotton fields, especially the labor that transformed tracts of dry land into meadows of white gold.

Revueltas did not miss the buzzing of tractors or the dignified demeanor of strikers as they quietly sang a melody while blocking the waterways. He documented the farmworkers’ demands for fair wages and fulfillment of those promises of landownership. Urgent telegrams exchanged between local and federal authorities and, later, between unions and other leftist organizations and the government itself, not only confirmed Revueltas’ participation in the strike, but also showed the lively nature of rural communism in northern Mexico and its volatile, conflictive relationship with the state. Using two or three adjectives in a row, and more if the situation called for it, Revueltas made patent the individual and social drama triggered by cotton as it established a paradoxical yet utterly productive alliance with the post-revolutionary regime. For cotton is generous, and cruel. Cotton is cruel.

 

9.

Cotton has been as fundamental in the north of Mexico as corn in the center and south of the country. Many norteño cities are, in fact, the offspring of cotton. Both the drastic demographic increase and the remarkable economic growth of northern Mexico are historically related to the expansion of cotton fields. As much as in the American South, cotton marked the economy, the landscape, and the social mores of the Mexican side, albeit in very different ways. Rather than producing plantations based on slave labor, norteño cotton, distributed in small private landholdings under the supervision of the state, meant both social mobility and adherence to the post-revolutionary regime. Resilience, resourcefulness and hard work, characteristics norteños are prone to associate with themselves, all appear in the ways in which farmers first approached the state, often instigating agrarian reform initiatives rather than merely responding to them. Indeed, even though cotton production was state-controlled along the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, collaborative work practices generated by communities themselves, as well as a deep attachment to the land, were central to the high yields of those early cotton harvests.

But as forensic architect Eyal Weizman has argued, “shifting the climatic threshold is also shifting the ‘nomos of the earth.’ ”iv As the colonization project evolved, the land, exhausted by monoculture, eventually gave up. By the 1960s, soil erosion, excessive use of fertilizers, and a range of invincible plagues had brought the cotton experiment to a trepid end. Sorghum replaced cotton, then maquiladoras replaced sorghum, in rapid succession.

And then drug trafficking. And now pure violence. Numbers tell a terrifying story: About 80,000 desaparecidos nationwide in 15 years of the so-called War on Drugs. Many of them in the same lands where cotton once bloomed.

You can’t forget those that die here, Varma, the anthropologist, had told us in a conference far away. Infrastructures are sacred spaces, she insisted. There are bodies under the water. There are rotting bodies under the water. A dam.

The letter “Z” (for Zetas drug cartel) is seen painted on a hill next to the toll booth at the freeway between Monterrey and Torreón, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. 2010.
Tomas Bravo/Reuters

Women take part in a search for missing relatives near the village of La Union on the outskirts of Torreón in the Mexican state of Coahuilla. The Zetas cartel, which arrived here in 2007, has made Torreón one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
Daniel Becerril /Reuters
 

10.

Living only by a miracle is what we do here, says the man who guides us towards the center of the plaza of Anáhuac City. One step. Another step. A foot doesn’t walk alone, it joins other feet. … No one remembers anymore, he says when the question is about cotton. Plough. Sow. Water. Weed. Harvest. What is that all about? The man smiles when he points out the dam in the photographs hanging from the green walls of the library. The dam is an amphitheater, solemn and noble. In Human Mourning, cement trucks disrupt, hammers speak a precise language. Everything is covered in iron music.

Engineers, contractors, masons, mechanics, carpenters, they fill everything with an intense, vibrant murmur, as if it were more than a dam, as if instead of a dam, it was a statue, or something just as beautiful, chiseled to adorn the gray landscape.

Something just as beautiful.

The dam has feet, and a dark skeleton. The dam is draped in curtains like clothes. Full of bodies, the dam is a hyper-body now. An aquatic cemetery. A dejected Atlantis on acid.

 

11.

But Estación Camarón doesn’t exist anymore, the man insists. Affected or delighted, it doesn’t make a difference.

The strike disrupted the irrigation system ... in an instant everything died.

Estación Camarón is a pile of nothing over nothing. A strike is at the margin of silence, but still silent.

Rubble, that’s what you’d find there. Less than rubble.

12.

The census shows that Estación Camarón has had between 12 and three inhabitants throughout the 21st century.

The most intimate of the ruins are our bones.

 

13.

We got to get out of there. Out of here. The decision is made abruptly. Two stateless women, two women without an army, maybe without a country, drive back fast. We got to get out. Two women suddenly alone. Fear is a herd of wild boars that roots around on the earth’s surface. Fear is in the voice, in the hands gripping the steering wheel, in the unease. A black pickup approaches in the rearview mirror. A state of emergency: the fear of being in a car on a highway that literally goes nowhere. The fear of being closely followed by history. Natividad — one of the main characters in Human Mourning — had a vision of everything that was to happen. Did Natividad see us then? On the trail of those that worked the fields, and joined a strike no one remembers, and then escaped? Did he see José María and Petra right when they tucked their children and belongings in a horse-drawn wagon and took the road?

 

José Revueltas.
General Archive of the Nation; Brothers Fund Mayo; and Ediciones Era

14.

Natividad, José Revueltas wrote, had a vision of all this. He did. José María and Petra had a vision of this. They did. Two stateless women alone on a highway in front of an advancing army. A surreal atmosphere, marked off and secret. We have to get out of here. The silence of the underwater mass grave — interrupted by the delicate bubbles of the dead. 

Cristina Rivera Garza is a distinguished professor of Hispanic Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and the author of No One Will See Me Cry. Recent works include La imaginación pública, a poetry book, and Los muertos indóciles, essays on writing at the crossroads of violence and digital technology. 

This story is based on documents found at the Archivo Histórico de Nuevo León, located in Monterrey, Nuevo León, México. Roadtrip with Claudia Sorais Castañeda. Phrases in italics belong to José Revueltas. Human Mourning in translation by Aviva Kana with Suzanne Jill Levine. Some sections of this text were written originally in English, while some others were translated from Spanish into English by myself, and still others by Aviva Kana with Suzanne Jill Levine. 


FOOTNOTES 

i. Diego Enrique Osorno, “En Piedras Negras un penal se transformó en campo de exterminio,” Vanguardia, Feb. 11, 2016.

ii. José Revueltas, “Sabinas Hidalgo,” in Las evocaciones requeridas I, Obras Completas (México: Era, 1987), 63.

iii. José Revueltas, The Stone Knife, translated by R.H. Hays (New York: Reynal and Hitchcok, 1947); Human Mourning, translated by Roberto Crespi (University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

iv. Eyal Weizman, “The Desert Threshold: George Prochnik Interviews Eyal Weizman,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Oct. 18, 2015.