Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Men of Straw

Drawing based on photo by José Rosas Cano

Note: Written within the context of the Irish referendum on marriage equality May 2015.
(The following is a conversation which may or may not have taken place, inside a wooden barn, at the fort of Loreto; in Puebla, Mexico; on the eve of the 5th day of May of 1862.)

            ‘What has been agreed my dear teacher?’

            ‘The same as was mentioned by the republican messenger who visited our foggy village: Our blades will win a place at the table for our people, my dear Coyi.’

            ‘Master Washi, I would follow you anywhere, so would the rest; but our people have been duped before… are you confident that this new government will keep their word?’

            ‘Brave Coyi, I tell you this: If we do not act as equals we will never be treated as such. Tomorrow, we will be first to repel the French assault; it’s an honour… If any of us survive, we will hold the government to their word, if we all perish, our women and elders will do it, if they should be chained or slain as in the past… then our people’s children will avenge us all someday.’

            A sense of foreboding clouded young Coyi’s brow, he glanced at his machete, left standing against the barn door, the carvings of a cross and the symbol which his teacher told him was an ‘M,’ freshly cut into its wooden handle.

            “Protection…” his teacher had said; “…our saviour and mother Tonatzin will walk with us.”

            The late afternoon thunderstorms began to roar high up in the sierra. Coyi looked out through a crack in the door, there was just about enough daylight left to make out the contour of the volcanoes to the west, they stood purple and bruised against the gushing red dusk.

            Fire in the clouds wrapped itself around snowy peaks; bottled up tempest in the mid-spring evening of bloodletting.

            ‘I will fight by your side any day my teacher. I know very little of this world. I haven’t been able to learn the Spanish alphabet though you’ve tried. I’m thankful for the medicine through which you have shown me the twilight world of which others can only dream… Teacher, if you think being here is a good idea, I shall ask no more.’

            Washi moved closer to his disciple and landed a warm hand on his shoulder.

            ‘Coyi, this is the time to think of this world and not of the other. You are a man, you have already fought enough battles in your life, you are free to go, many happy years await you and there are many lessons which I cannot teach.’

            ‘Let me learn the lesson of why we must be here and defend this fort.’ Coyi said.

            ‘Very well,’ Washi said pausing only long enough to smile, ‘When I was your age, no one would have believed that a Zapotec indian could ever become president; and yet, it happened… This is a time of great change my dear one. President Juarez will not betray his own blood; he will make good on the republic’s promise to us. On the other hand; there are many in this world who hate the kind of change that is taking place… They don’t want indians as presidents, they want Indians under the yoke, ploughing the fields or cutting down straw until they die.’

            Coyi turned to look at his teacher’s face, his lips hurting to say something.

            ‘Speak, after tonight you may not get another chance, my brave Coyi.’

            ‘My teacher… what if we, what if we lose?’

            Washi slowly crouched down and began dragging his finger on the ground. He remained quiet for a while. The mules in the barn stirred as the far away thunder began to rumble.

            Coyi looked down at his teacher’s drawings and recognised the sacred geometry outlined by his fingertip -their people’s motif on the dirt; it brought a sort of calmness to his heart.

            Washi stopped drawing and caressed one of the bales of straw at arm’s length. He ran his dark fingers along the surface, as if trying to count the individual strands by touch.

            ‘If we fight and lose, we will be ruled by foreigners, yet again.’ He finally said.

            Coyi listened to the distant thunder; he began to guess the expression in his teacher’s eyes as the twilight dyed itself black.

            ‘My teacher, what can a few dozen Zacapoaxtlan warriors do here, that thousands of well-armed republican troops cannot do?’

            Washi smiled lovingly at his student, recognising rightful questioning as if blossoming in the dark like a Tlitlitzin moonflower.

            ‘Dearest Coyi, by showing our Zacapoaxtlan faces at the battlefield tomorrow, we will show this Napoleon III over in Paris, and his generals here in Mexico, that they are not just fighting president Juarez, they’re not just fighting the second Mexican republic… Our blunt machetes, our huarache-sandaled feet, our cotton clothes, our straw hats… our very own copper faces… we will show them that they are fighting Mexico itself.’

            A lull in the thunder coincided with a coyote’s distant call, which for a second distracted Coyi from the lesson at hand.

            ‘I see,’ Coyi sighed and nodded as he leaned back against the straw, ‘and besides us, the Xochialpulcans and our other neighbours, are there more Indians waiting to defend this fort tomorrow, teacher?’

            ‘I was the only indian face at that table my Coyi, but in so many other faces there, I could see the blood of our ancestors even if somewhat mixed with the Spaniard’s own, like in Porfirio Diaz’s -the military man from Oaxaca.’

            ‘And what of this General Zaragoza who is to lead us tomorrow? Some of our men heard that he is not even from around here.’

            ‘He’s from Texas.’

            ‘Forgive me teacher, but are Texans… Mexican?’

            ‘They used to be, Zaragoza still is.’

            ‘What of the old man we met on the way here? Oswaldo, the black man? The one who says he fought alongside Riley back in 47?’

            ‘He was at the meeting also. Oswaldo is well-known to Texans like Zaragoza; many years ago -before he ever met Riley- Oswaldo fled the plantation, as there was a price on his head.

            The wind outside began to pick up and made a draft of dust fly around inside the barn; wood boards creaked, Washi and Coyi squinted to keep their eyes clean.

            ‘A warrior who runs away?’ Asked Coyi, as the wind howled.

            ‘Those who once dared chase Oswaldo across the border, called him a “runaway slave.” He calls himself a “free man”.’

            ‘Teacher, why would a man choose to fight with us against the French rather than return up north to fight his would-be masters?’

            The rain opened up, and began hitting the barn’s roof. It sounded like a thousand lashes, like a thousand drums.

            ‘Young Coyi,’ teacher made his voice louder than the deluge, ‘Why a man choses to stay in Mexico is often the fault of a woman; Oswaldo fights for his family. As for the French… Their Emperor wishes to set up shop in Mexico and help the confederates who fight Lincoln up north… so that when they win their so called “civil war” up there, they can make us all into slaves.’

            Coyi remained quiet listening to the thinning rain and contemplating all of the things his teacher had told him.

            Only the darkness would witness Coyi and Washi’s embrace. 

            Soon enough, the rain stopped and Coyi fell asleep with his head on the straw.

            Coyi dreamed of the mountains of Zacapoaxtla, of his mother’s cheekbones, of the cuts in his hands after long days working the fields and of a waterfall, the one he saw reflected in his teacher’s eyes.

            When he woke, Coyi found Washi sitting calmly, looking at him, dressed in the cold twilight.

            A bugle broke the peaceful awakening as the sun’s rays snaked in through the gaps in the wood.

            ‘It’s time.’ Washi whispered, preparing to stand up.

            ‘Perhaps… one more question teacher?’ Coyi rubbed his eyes as his nerves choked his voice.

            Washi smiled and sat back down.


            ‘If this new republic survives, will we all be equal?’


            ‘Indians, blacks, the women too? No more second-class people?’


            Coyi nodded scratching the thick black hair on top of his young head.

            ‘What about people like us teacher? We, who choose each other but must hide it because of the laws that say we can’t be together? Will we be equal in the new republic also?’

            Coyi dived deep into his teacher’s black eyes, waiting for the answer.

            ‘Coyi, my dear, my equal: If not in this new republic, it will be so in another republic; but I think that you and I will not ever see it, even if we live a hundred years after this day –the Cinco de Mayo of 1862.’
Copyright © Francisco Rebollo 2015






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