By Claire Marie O’Brien
“At my school, the students created a gigantic number 43, each candle symbolizing a missing student, so that anybody from the sky — the UFOs, the airplanes, God, perhaps? — could see and understand the sorrow that the Mexican students are dwelling with. Maybe now the people will understand why it rains: even the sky is crying .”
Valerie Rodarte, Mexican university student
A street of small adobe houses runs through a middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of a Mexican city. It looks peaceful enough at first glance.
But those who live there know better.
To residents who have gazed at the street over time, the signs of a neighborhood transformed by seven years of horrific violence are clear. A big iron gate blocks off the entrance, and curtains are drawn across every locked window. People walk directly from their front doors to their cars or to the bus stop. They don’t go out for strolls. They stand aside for certain of their neighbors and avert their eyes.
And there are no children in sight.
Inside one of the smallest houses, a girl who grew up playing tag on the street sits at a computer typing an email to an American journalist. Valerie Rodarte has just finished up another week of a heavy college course load, but she won’t be joining her classmates for a night on the town – or for even a study group in the library. Neither will many other students at her university, especially girls.
In fact, until recently, Rodarte hadn’t been outdoors at night in six years.
“Parents don’t let kids play outside anymore,” wrote Rodarte, “We were just about the last of those children, or maybe second to last. And even though I’m no longer a child, in general I try to follow my mother’s wishes as best I can. She tends to get sick or unwell if we’re not all in a place she trusts, and that’s only home.”
Rodarte added that her mother has good reason for her fears:
“It’s dangerous,” she said.
At 22, Rodarte tends to view life before drug cartel violence as if through a telescope, from a great distance. There were no gates blocking the street ” back then “. Until 2008, when former President Juan Calderon’s war on Mexico’s powerful drug cartels reached Valerie’s city, her street reflected her universe of childhood, family, and school.
Rodarte’s archaic description of childhood play as “merry” strikes an American ear as melancholy, as she recalls long games of hide and seek, tag, and just kicking a soccer ball around.
“It was safe and fun to play outside in those days. We played a tag variation called Police and Thieves, where we had our “prison” and sent all the bad guys in there,” Rodarte recalled. “If that seems ironic, I’ve heard that children today play that they are drug traffickers.”
She added that the neighborhood children had also been free to walk to the nearby little shops for treats.
“Almost everywhere in my street area there is a little shop or food stand run by families who need more income, as jobs are scarce nowadays in Mexico,” Rodarte said,” I remember how much we loved to buy candy, but potato chips were actually the most popular thing. They came with prizes and toys and that’s what made potato chips incredibly loved by children.”
V A L E R I E W R I T E S: A B O UT 8 Y E A R S O L D
I can’t recall my exact age but I was still a child. It was Christmas. I received new N64 games — Hey You, Pikachu!, is a vital mention — and I felt cozy at my home, surrounded by good smells, speaking English for the first time of my life, feeling protected, as in a cave in where pleasures abound and where I can finally feel fully protected. My mother’s not in this memory scene I am describing right now, but I know she’s near — that everybody’s near. I know that my family is near, that no one’s far, that I just need to raise my voice to be heard and stop being alone.
A G E T W E N T Y – T W O
Violence made me see the worst part of humanity and turned me into a rather distrustful and insecure person; I no longer trust people much, and I feel bad about a future where I can get shot if I raise my voice higher than I’m supposed to.
I still wonder if the world even cares about us. I mean, Mexico’s not a white country, and we’re not a First World country, so obviously our problems won’t be treated with media coverage like the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. And because our tragedies aren’t good excuses for war (yet), we won’t be heard as much as we need to be. Thus, our politicians will keep mistreating us from the shadows – because of this impunity.
Most Mexicans think real life lies outside and what we produce is purely crap. People still gush and get excited when they discover that somebody else had a trip to somewhere outside Mexico or to the U.S. For me, it is sadder when Mexicans leave to any American city and forget their own culture.
When a Nightmare Moves In
The city knew what to expect when it became a battleground.
People were terrified before the terror began.
For two years, a wave of brutal executions had swept the nation, as Mexico’s powerful drug cartels fought both one another and the corrupt government with which many had long-term relationships. The United States had helpfully trained the bloodiest of these as Special Forces, armed them to the teeth, and returned them to Mexico, where they promptly deserted.
After re-emerging as the notorious Zetas, the cartel cut a swath of blinding terror across the country, skinning people alive, beheading them with chainsaws, and hanging their headless bodies from overpasses.
“The violence didn’t hit us until 2008, but when it did, it hit hard and quickly. First came massacres of our police force,” reported Rodarte, “and next the doctors fled the city after narcos made public threats against them.”
With relatives escaped to America, and her father gone since childhood, Rodarte’s already small family became even smaller.They hunkered down together – Valerie, her mother and older sister – in the little house the two girls had always known.
Valerie was fifteen years old.
Rodarte described schools that shut themselves in and “turned their walls into literal prison walls, with the spiky wires on their tops to protect children from any unwanted intruder.”
“I saw my first dead body not long after that. It was lying in the front of the gate in my schoolyard. Since then, I’ve seen so much.” she reported. “My mother no longer wanted us outside, unless it was for an important thing. And if we ever want to hang out with friends, we must be back at a certain hour. So you could say we build a routine that feels like a kind of prison”.
The violence slammed into Rodarte’s family with the first robbery of the bank that employs her mother:
“She tends to be the target of most robbers who assault her bank. Trust me, it’s terrible when your mother returns, all soaked in tears after surviving yet another robbery – and to know that this will repeat sometime again later. So I tend to live the worst of the city through my mother.”
Rodarte believes that her life has shown her the dark side of human nature:
“All this violence made me discover who were drug traffickers, who weren’t and who were actual people of trust. So you could say I met the dark side of people,” she relected.” I saw how low and cruel somebody can become, and it made me realize how sometimes civilization tends to be an erroneous concept. I wasted what was supposed to be the prime of my youth because of this imprisoning routine I became used to.”
Over the past year and a half, Valerie has slowly been adding carefully planned activities to her life – nighttime as well as daily. She doesn’t remain out after dark often, nor stay out late, and she’s intensely aware of friends’ reports of being robbed on the street.
But Valerie wants to live.
“In the end, I don’t think you can keep kids away from each other,” she writes in a tone that sounds almost, well, merry.
Rodarte also had to expand her sphere of daytime activities in order to accomodate the academic requirements of her degree program. She’s breathing bigger these days. Not big. Bigger.
The danger is no less for Valerie and her generation than it was before.
They are just standing into the wind.
They know that most of Mexico’s people don’t live in adobe houses – however small – with running water and heat, food, clothing, and school.
They live in houses like this one.
But Valerie Rodarte hasn’t forgotten her people. She comes from a generation that can’t forget.
V A L E R I E W R I T E S
I turned on the laptop, the name Ferguson — FERGUSON, in caps — popped onto the screen. And this time I knew the world was burning, slowly and painfully. This time I saw that the world is truly flying away, burning, losing itself into the universe, prepared to crash itself into a bigger wall of nightmares. I read the news. I read the anger. I read the poison that was boiling so much for the people of the north. And even though the fabulous world of the Internet offered me a video to understand the judicial side of the Ferguson incident, I declined. I didn’t want to know the hypocritical side, for I knew the social side, which is, frankly, far more important and powerful than the former.
Only then I felt so much smaller, as I used to blame the United States for all of our problems, and then I realized that we’re all just victims from the same monster. Then I saw that we’re not small, but rather little water drops, as those hidden inside of popcorn, slowly heating ourselves in order to explode and, finally, occupy the space we deserved from the beginning and without the lies from the Big Ones.
I realized that a new culture came, and it was the pop culture, not to be confused with the “popular culture” term, but rather with the new mindset that the world’s getting now that we’re finally meeting the real cause of our problems. A culture that has said “Enough!” and it’s ready to burst and destroy all the injustices of which we’re all victims with just one loud “Pop!” explosion…
I just now wonder how much heat we need so we can finally go “POP!”
When will the pop come…
Editor’s Note: None of the photos used in this article are specifically associated with Valerie Rodarte. They do not identify her location in any way, but have been approved by her as representative of her experience. The photos all come from Google Images and are unrestricted.
Claire Marie O’Brien is an award-winning journalist based in New Mexico. Her work can be found on the blog site Eléctrica in the desert.