Death Waltz Across Texas

With apologies to Ernest Tubbs


Paranoia stalks the skies. At LAX, flying towards Texas, I am pulled out of the line and the TSA goon swabs my hands for explosives. I figure it must be my kaffiya but a friend who flies into L.A. the next day from Puerto Rico is ordered to remove her skirt. She has to chase down her carry-ons in her tights.

Airports have become deep ponds of fear and loathing in Obama’s America ever since the Nigerian Unabomber almost pulled off his Christmas Day caper. I am putting myself on my own no-fly list.

This is not to say that terrorists are not prepared to assault us from the friendly skies. The morning after I touched down in Austin, a native-born terrorista of the Christian Caucasian persuasion flies a small plane into the local IRS offices 9-11 style, killing himself and one government worker. Joe Stack had a longstanding beef with the revenooers and has since become a martyr for the Glenn Beck vigilantes. Wesley Snipes is probably not going to be invited to Michelle’s White House cultural klatches anytime soon.


Two years nearly to the day that Raul R. Salinas, the Xicano warrior-poeta, passed on to the Great Beyond, I read at Resistencia, the bookstore-cultural center he grew in south Austin. Before the reading, Rene shows clips of the last time Raul and myself and Roberto Vargas, the fine Nicaraguan/La Mision compa, read at Resistencia. Raul blows a poem from the grave for Lester Young and he is Prez himself, the slow blue notes surging out of the bell of his voice.

I read a poem that I had just penned on the flight in (writing poems on commercial flights may soon be a federal felony), “Remission” (I have liver cancer): “I am in remission/ I am on a mission/ To wake up the brain-dead and dying…”

The Journalism Department at the University of Texas houses me in a cheese box motel that seemed to be run by the Corrections Corporation of America. I talk to the brain-dead and dying in one of Bob Jensen’s classes. “You don’t have a career in journalism,” I warn them, “you have a responsibility to seek out the truth. To tell the stories with which you have been entrusted. To protect those who have told you their stories.

“You must go to the place where it happened. They will not like you there but you will learn much from their anger. Write it all down right away in your head. Do not let the details leak out no matter how badly they beat you…”

Some in the audience squirmed. Rigor mortis has not yet set in.


I eschew the big box bookstores that are committing commercial genocide on the independents. Mostly I work anarchist enclaves with names like Monkeywrench and Sedition, tiny emporiums of subversion in Austin and Houston. At the University of Houston, I spoke about impending revolution in a class on the Mexican revolution taught by John Mason Hart, the maestro of Mexican anarchism. The usually brain-dead students seemed measurably animated. “I am in remission/ I am on a mission/ to raise the corpses of comatose students…”


David Carlson, a professor of radical history with a vault of fascinating minutiae running all ’round his brain, and his partner Deirdre, drove me down to the Rio Grande Valley. David first saw me reading Subcomandante Marcos’s latest communiqué from my dim laptop to a roomful of anarchos at the Black Cat Café, a slimy vegan soup kitchen, in a driving rain storm in Seattle circa 1995 and invited me to speak at the UT-Pan American – the university, which graduates 800 members of the Migra a year and through which David avows the CIA washes oodles of greenbacks, did not invite me but we rented a room and I spread my verbal curare anyway to a handful of the undead.

The signs along the highway on the way south told the story of today’s Texas: GUNS! MEAT! PAWN! The paranoia amped up the closer we came to the border. Motorists are stopped and frisked at surprise checkpoints and the nether parts of their vehicles probed in a not-very successful campaign to stop the bales of USD bills and displays of machine guns from pipelining into Mexico. At one point, David’s mobile was penetrated by mysterious red and blue rays radiating from roadside sensors. There were no UFOs hovering overhead so I assume this electronic pat-down was your Homeland Security at work. Why do I keep getting the chilly sensation that this is no country for old men?


We went to visit the Wall where Hidalgo Texas fronts up Reynosa Tamaulipas across the bends of the Rio Grande (it’s called the Rio Bravo on the Other Side.) In Hidalgo, the Separation Wall is built around a restored pump house and bird sanctuary and resembles one of Richard Serra’s hideous installations. The aluminum cylinders that form the wall have enough room between them to allow a snake to squiggle through but the jabalis and other mid-sized mammals whose habitat this is are caged up north and south of this man-made North American monstrosity.

Down here where even dogs and their fleas are subject to deportation (the fleas were born here), everyone carries two sets of picture I.D. and flies multiple Stars & Stripes from their front porches.

The pinnacle of my sojourn in the Valley was an evening at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Center in San Benito. Narciso Martinez was one of the original maestros of the TexMex School of conjunto accordionistics and his instruments – ornate squeezeboxes – are on display at the center. The afternoon we parked in San Benito, Pfc. Adriana Alvarez who had fallen in Iraq (no cause of death was revealed in the Valley Morning Star story) was buried out of a local chapel. A hundred mourners were on hand, many of them representing local public safety agencies and Adriana was made an honorary member of the San Benito Police Department.

The gig at the Narciso Martinez was a joy. Irma Guadarrama, still the most beautiful woman in south Texas, warbled two handmade songs and my energies were choogling. Rogelio Nunez, a mainstay of the Center, also directs the fortunes of Project Libertad, which has stood up to the Migra and defended newly arrived indocumentados for decades. Rogelio offered me a three month writer-in-residence at the crumbling Stonewall Jackson Hotel in San Benito. Being a connoisseur of fleabag hotels. I just might take him up on it.


At the other end of Texas, El Paso is trapped in the crossfire between two wars: the bloodcurdling drug war right across the river in Juarez, and the U.S. war on the world out at Fort Bliss where soldiers freshly flown home from Iraq and Afghanistan and now Pakistan and all the other Last Stans, strangle their wives in their sleep, apparently hallucinating that they are the enemy.

The daily body count over in Juarez outpaces the kill count in the besieged Taliban stronghold of Marjah. At every presentation, hands shoot up to probe my opinions on the drug violence. Sometimes I refuse to answer. The U.S. skew on Mexico has become synonymous with severed heads, the slaughter of innocents, naked castrated men dangling from freeway overpasses with signs pinned to their chests paying obeisance to Santa Muerte. Mexico is so much more than this macabre Gran Guignol, it is a civilization and a political crucible where the fightback of El Pueblo should be an inspiration to brain dead and dying gavachos.

At UTEP (University of Texas – El Paso) attendance is plummeting because students from Juarez can no longer traverse the big river. I spoke about prospects for a new Mexican revolution – the old one exploded in Ciudad Juarez an even hundred years ago – seeking to measure the objective conditions which are overripe for fresh uprising and the dearth of social forces that could ignite a new one. The audience listened for a while but inevitably the questions about the glut of gore spilled daily across the river took over.

Ironically, El Paso is flourishing in the wake of all the killing (over a thousand in 2009.) Restaurateurs and retailers have packed up and moved their inventories to the Texas side and the city is enjoying a real estate boom as the exodus of middle and upper classes seeking to escape the carnage crests.

Felipe Calderon’s ill-advised drug war drowns out all other news. Even Las Muertas, the hundreds of women raped and slain in Juarez since 1993, have disappeared from public attentions. The untimely passing of Esther Garcia, the mother of the mothers of the murdered and disappeared, has only compounded the silence.

Driving through El Paso en route to Las Cruces, Bobby Byrd, the patriarch of the Byrd clan whose Cinco Puntos Press is a beacon of culture in this high desert wasteland, is on his cell phone – gabbing while driving is still legal in Texas as several near side-swipes by distracted chauffeurs underscored. Bobby is hobnobbing with Reyes Tejirina whose takeover of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in a land grant dispute back in 1967 is now enshrined in southwest school textbooks. Reyes, now a doddering elder who preaches The Protocols of Zion, wants Bobby to drive him to the airport when he flies up to Chicago for an appearance with Minister Farrakhan.

El Paso, of all tank towns, now has its very own Holocaust Museum financed by local Zionist moneybags. As we drift past the shuttered stacks and smelters of ASARCO (Bobby’s daughter and a member of the El Paso City Council, led the battle to squelch the reopening of this death trap), the elder Byrd muses on this unlikely turn of events. “The real El Paso holocaust is buried out there in the Smeltertown cemetery.”

We cross the state line into New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment and private prisons, a saga to be reviewed in the next installment of this quixotic journey through the underbelly of Obama’s America.

JOHN ROSS is on a book tour with his new cult classic “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City.” You can catch him at The Tattered Cover Friday March 5th and at the Mercury Café on the 6th, both in Denver. Ross will invade the frozen north for a week’s worth of presentations in Minneapolis/St Paul March 7th-13th – consult www.nationbooks.org for dates and venues.


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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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