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Mexico on Less Than Five Bucks a Day

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.

Noelia is tiny … not pushing too hard at 5 feet … not too hard at all.

I’m well over a foot taller; thus to keep pace with me, her little feet are a dizzying blur in the dark. And then there’s that big toe. Left foot. Totally exposed. Gaping slit in shoe.

Viscerally, that toe batters me … flashing through my vision as … well, all I can come with: as a sort of kinetic Stephen Lendman essay. You know the riff:

Jab, jab, jab-jab-jab, jabjab … incessant … cumulatively damaging….

I’m supposed to be scanning the dark, alert for an ever-increasing number of two-legged predators. All the same, I cannot get past obsessing on that toe. That bare toe. That surely very cold bare toe.

Jab, jab, jab-jab-jab, jabjab….

Some background:

Older I get—and, zowie, am I getting older!—less I sleep. Thus, most every predawn I’m out wandering the streets.

Some forty minutes from where I live, there’s an open market that gets cracking at seven, a twenty-four hour OXXO (Mexican 7-11), and important for me, there’s my pal, Juan—Tzeltal Maya, cool guy, terribly afflicted by MS—who opens his internet café at (or usually—believe it—15-20 minutes before) 6:30 AM.

That’s where I spend my mornings. While I could have internet in the house, my area doesn’t have wireless, thus I’d have to go through Telmex … that’s Carlos (ain’t) Slim. Can’t do that—simply cannot. That’s the main reason.

Another reason: I’m an internet junkie. I spend at least an hour each weekday copying 3 or 4 hours of reading into a memory stick; once home, I sip at those 3-4 hours through the day. Internet in the house would fry me.

So that’s it … that’s how we met, Noelia and me … walking the dark into day.

Twenty years ago, with NAFTA only beginning to dismantle this country, San Cris, a heavy-hitter tourist mecca, was a quarter today’s size, a fifth the population.

Even ten years ago, the neighborhood I call home was still boonies: dirt roads, horses, cows, goats, sheep, chickens clucking, roosters crowing—very nice….

But NAFTA, its poisons systemic by now, metastasizing relentlessly, continued to destruct and devour. The dispossessed arrived, even now are arriving, by the thousands. A fifth of the surrounding mountains now savagely violated, forever destroyed by limestone quarries to fuel the cancerous sprawl on the remaining peaks.

With the sprawl came the vampires, the barracudas, the hustlers and huckster flimflam pyramid-schemers; their props in tow: those ubiquitous liquor stores, the pawn shops, used car lots, the shabby eateries—their attendant reeks of hard-used cooking oil, deep-fried maybe-pig parts.

Shortly, the broken ones were on the sidewalks, living, sleeping, cold, wet. At seven thousand-plus feet, nights here are at best chilly, with a better than even chance of being wet as well.

Wasn’t long before the broken ones were hanging together, mostly for their own protection. Mostly means not always.

The pairs and trios soon morphed into a dozen here, a half dozen there, another 10 two blocks away.

About the time that a walk in the dark could became an obstacle course through bands of broken folks—most sleeping, others cadging; most friendly, others not—about that time is when the sinister creeps showed up.

Some say that Mexico—with connivance of its unrepentantly corrupt governance—has been carved into territories to be exploited as desired by outreaching traficantes. Maybe. Whoever they are, they drive newish-to-new high-dollar SUVs, usually black, always plateless, with blacked-out windows—and windshields: supposedly illegal even here.

No hearsay this: I’ve seen them up close: Mexican takeoffs of predator drones—

For with the appearances of these prowling vehicles came an ongoing rash of disappearances—predominately children and young women.

Enough young women have escaped abduction-attempts by the occupants of these vehicles that it’s been well-broadcast: these bottom-feeders ain’t benign. Body parts marketeers? Sex traffickers? Slave traffickers? Child-sacrifice ritual jobbers? All or combinations of the foregoing?

Only—or, sinisterly, likely more than only—the vehicles’ operators know: once abducted, nobody returns to tell their story.

So where’re the cops? you might wonder. Maybe, some folks reason, the heat is cooling in the SUV’s backseat, fondling their blood money. Pure conjecture.

But where they aren’t is where they should be: gaffing these piranhas.

All this to say that the first time Noelia, hot-footing through the dark, sensed me some fifty yards back, her terror was palpable, an icicle piercing my intestines. I backed off.

The next time I spotted her behind me, hesitantly darting from shadow to post. I sped up.

This went on for weeks … maybe three. Gradually—very gradually—she allowed herself to get closer … particularly through those areas that the street people had staked out.

Another week of this and she was suddenly two yards left of me, walking head down, silent and grim as a shadow.

I snuck a quick scan. Petite … an inch either side of four-nine, maybe 20-22; india, I decided: long blade-thin nose; black hair flashing cobalt sparks even in the dark. Maya. Without a doubt.

I tossed her a casual “Chuki?” as if we were old buds. A sort of, “What’s up?”

Head averted now, she whispered, “Uh uh,” with a little shrug. Nothing.

That sufficed as conversation for the next weeks.

I was okay with that and, most certainly, so was she: the Maya are often called the quiet people … truly an understatement.

Thus would she gift me all the quiet-time in the world to obsess on that toe.

Jab, jab, jab-jab-jab, jabjab….

I have sympathies … more than sympathies: I have a young daughter, half Maya. Hence, years ago I learned not to intervene—nonintervention apparently an unnatural inclination of our species.

Couple years back, in the central zocalo, I’d had to sit through a session where a smarmy Miss from Holland, a saccharine sweetie, did a makeover of my six-year-old’s hair—managing in slightly under two hours to turn her into cartoon of Heidi.

Then there was Gabby Gerty, or so I tagged her, a loquacious Wisconsin schoolmarm, who wouldn’t leave my kid breathe till she’d accepted a small grungy box half full of broken crayons … complete with pantomimed instructions on how to use them.

What do you say? Well … you shoot for graciousness … but try to glom onto 500 years of munching on this stuff….

So you don’t intervene. Until you’re being strangled….

Which brings to mind: Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas (EZLN) writing about the early years of the Zaps, tells how the gringos sent endless boxes of used clothes and shoes—most of which was, kindly stated, ragbag stuffings. But one thing stopped him cold: a sexy red high-heeled shoe … a single red shoe. Stowing it in his motorcycle cargo carrier—already home to his pet chicken—he set out to find Cinderella … or at least the other half of the pair.

Anyway, we stared at those pieces of crayons, my girl and me. At length, massaging the silliness of those broken bits into an analogy of El Sub’s quest for Cinderella, we decided she needed a new coloring book. She had uncountable crayons—whole ones—at home.

It was toward the end of our sixth week of walking together, a Monday, when I noted Noelia limping. Not-so-bad became severe in two blocks. That left toe, not showing now, seemed connected to her limp. I stayed quiet. She’d choked on a few sobs before I, strangling now, stopped dead to say that it was time for us to talk about her foot. It took a little leaning before her story spilled over:

Her brother had visited yesterday, Sunday, her free day. He occasionally turned a few pesos part-timing as a cobbler. Hence, having spotted Noelia’s toe, the slit in her shoe, he set about fixing it: using heavy cobbler’s thread, he pulled the tear closed.

That coarse thread had very quickly chewed a fiery wound into her toe.

With one bare foot now, she hobbled beside me as I removed brother’s fix. We talked … finally….

A few months shy of 21, she was born into a hardscrabble ejido (community-held farm land) in the county of Chanal, Chiapas. Having finished preparatoria in her comunidad, she’d come to San Cris intending work her way through college.

But no matter how long she worked or how hard, she couldn’t get even the tiniest lead on poverty. In fact, by now, she’d been forced to conclude that simply her willingness to grapple with poverty was a virtual guarantee that she’d never beat it. She’d glommed onto the game, a sort of diabolical strip poker: she was a marked card in a stacked deck, ruthlessly, callously being stripped of her youth, stripped of hope, humanity.

Like the 500-plus days that’d gone before, she was on her way to work, a tostada factory—tostadas being the corn chips that come with the salsa in Mexican restaurants. I’d passed her destination-building for years without a clue it was a sweatshop.

If she wasn’t in the building before 6:00 AM, she’d be locked out. If she was locked out, essentially AWOL, in addition to not being paid for the day lost, she’d be fined another day’s wages—that’s what they’d warned her when she first started; though to be fair, while she’d known her coworkers to lose the day’s pay, they were not additionally fined.

She (along with her workmates—notably all indias from NAFTA-devastated ejidos) was required to show up each morning in a quasi-uniform: black pants and shoes, a white shirt, rigorously inspected daily for spotlessness. She received no uniform allowance.

She worked six eight-and-a-half hour days a week (the factory ran around the clock). Payday was every fifteenth and 30th/31st. The salary for pay periods was the same—in other words, for the seven months a year with 31 days, she worked the extra day with no increased compensation.

Following federal food worker law, every third month she had to take a worming med (60 pesos) followed by a lab-analyzed (90 pesos) stool sample. Should she test positive for parasites, she could keep working (something wrong here?) while she stood another round of worming and analysis. She was required to pay all charges, including—if indicated—retesting. At her option, she could spread the costs over two pay periods.

Additionally, eighty minutes of walking, six days a week, chewed through her cheap shoes in three months or less: minimal cost, 150 pesos.

So merely to prop her poverty, she was effectively taxed more than 300 pesos every three months.

Additionally, she pays 500 pesos monthly for a bare and cold windowless room (less than—even by half—what her workmates paid), bath and laundry sink shared by all tenants. For electricity and (non-drinkable)water —shared with other tenants—always subject to landlord’s graft: usually double, often more, the actual costs—she pays another 170 pesos (considerably more than I pay for a three bedroom house).

Lots of poor people in Mexico are willing to talk about their hard times, about surviving on a diet of tortillas and salt. Noelia’s packed lunches of tortillas and salt were the first I’d actually seen.

Her salary: 2000 pesos a month. Over three months, subtracting only the costs of her shoes and parasite control, she netted almost $4.60 daily.

Her Mayan boyfriend, a mechanic’s helper who lived separately, made less.

Not so may weeks later she didn’t show. I tarried. I backtracked. I dawdled.

Neither did she show the next day. Nor the next.

The street people hadn’t seen her. Nor had her workmates.

Neither did I have a clue where she’d lived, nor where her boyfriend worked.

I still look for her … every morning.

Was she, like so many others in these parts, disappeared? Is she even now being bought only to be sold again? Is her heart beating in that eighty-four year old scumbag’s chest?

Like so many hundreds of disappeared women in this country, did she too pay the ultimate tax on her poverty…?

High-pitched or low, operatic flourishes or no, we’re all choir here. Where else could I be comfortable tossing out names like Lendman, Slim, even El Sub? We all know who they are—nary a footnote needed. What I’m getting to: all who frequent this site have—or are working on—advanced degrees in cynicism. We’re damned difficult to shock.

But Noelia’s story sears my soul: how can any alleged human with such cold and malignant calculation —driven neither by passion nor hatred, certainly not by penury—set out to so slowly, so viciously deconstruct another?

Noelia and boyfriend, now on the sun side of a mountain tending their milpa, their plantings of corn and beans, occasionally shooing the chickens and ducks, are awaiting their baby.

Waytogo, Noelia!

That’s what I believe. That’s what I have to believe.

Frank Hilaire can be reached at

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