Mazatlan: Love in the Time of Coronavirus


Driving along the malecón in Mazatlan, the ocean is not choppy today, it isn’t throwing shards of gold. This morning it wears a conservative navy blue and a muted glitter. Yellow tape flaps at the top of every set of stairs leading down to the beach. Because the beaches are closed, no one is here to wade through the salty breeze and breathe that minuscule flow we always knew about, and never had much reason to notice. 

Semana Santa begins. Holy week. Any other year, the beaches and hotels would throng to proclaim the Lord’s rebirth with jubilant mariachi trumpets and buckets of Pacifico beer. Now, marines in sand-colored fatigues cluster together on barren stretches of concrete boardwalk. Automatic rifles hang limply at their waists. Everyone’s temperature gauge is set twenty degrees higher here, but even they must be hot under the glaring April sun. City police in their dark blues ride up and down Olas Altas on souped up ATVs, or ride standing in the caged beds of muscular trucks. They are intimidating, but if you look closely they are smiling and joking like any other group of old friends. As we drive past one group of police, a policeman hugs a displaced lifeguard in his signature white rash guard and red shorts. In Mexico, though the paternal government has closed everything down, any group still allowed to congregate can’t help but engage in this easy fraternity, whether or not hugging is advisable in this new normal. I don’t know the rhythms well enough yet to know whether the policemen cluster as a show of force or of pride and reassurance, or simply because they are as bored as the rest of us, and have nothing better to do.

A few hundred miles away in the U.S., we cope with neuroticism, finger wagging, and innovation. It soothes our nerves to debate face masks into the ground. If we are allowed to complain and to nitpick, we can get on with the hard work at hand. Some of us are lucky enough to skate the surface, nibble pop culture we missed over the years or get to know our spouses and children a little better. We don’t mind being reprimanded for calling the police to report our neighbors for going outside or for hugging a friend. We force ourselves to listen to the stories of the victims, and sometimes, some of us have the space to cry. Though we are decreasingly protestant, we embody the Protestant Ethic, running to tattletale, to lose ourselves in semantics, to demand they give us more restrictions, and also to invent new ventilators, order our industries into macro wartime transitions. Once we have noticed this tiny molecular flow we can mobilize a massive one, the storm’s furthest rain bands responding to that minute and distant eye. Employment screening becomes healthcare certification to move workers across state lines.

In Mexico the tourism has dried up and left a bitter residue. The North American tourists and expats used to bring their money, and now if they come at all, they could bring disease. Landlords retain security deposits, watch helplessly the growing infestation of petty theft, everyone wondering, but where is the money going to come from? The food? Protesters wear face masks at the border, and I think that some people stare flatly at our American family as we walk along the malecón at sundown for a baptism of wind. Whether or not I imagined the dirty looks, I was relieved to finally imagine a taste of what some Americans went through and go through, with Japanese faces, Mexican accents and Jewish names, a thousand hex codes of skin. Then, a young couple who had also brought their son to the malecón encouraged him to come wave to our children. I realized that I had been expecting Mexicans to treat Americans the same way many Americans treat Mexicans. And they never have, not once in three scattered years of living here.

On another day I am stopped on the street, asked in perfect English, do you feel safe here? Another day, I’m greeted by a face-masked driver who will take me to my solitary office, and when I ask him how he’s doing he says he’s well, gracias a Dios. He has no choice but to drive, and in a place where the government will not be sending even a meager check, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, weighing the risk of Mazatlan’s low case number to give him a little money and take a ride along the ocean. Some people might die and others will starve, and how are we meant to choose? In another month, every cab driver will tell me the same thing: that this paternal show of force is merely political. Though I don’t know exactly what is meant by political in this context, I do understand the weary cynicism. The U.S. version is that we seem to have found yet another emergency that requires us to surrender more of our privacy and civil liberties. At least you get the stimulus check, one driver says. We get nothing. I notice more and more people in the neighborhoods with long thin poles or sturdy climbing shoes, shaking mangoes out of the trees.

In the the pink dusk, the gente must come outside, risking the police officers who will stop them and ask them to don face masks even when alone, even when in their own car, officers who will ask why they are out on the street at all. Mazatlecos are used to this cleansing bath of orange and pink light, and to the feeling of being small and together. They need it. Whether in a cathedral or as ants along the ocean, we humans revere this feeling. Our lizard brains may grow spikes on our tongues to point out who is not doing enough and who is on the wrong side, but our hearts know better. In the glare of a boundless ocean, you smile instinctively at the people you pass. A few months ago, when this new era was only giving up glimpses, everyone shrugged and had to say the same thing. Estamos en las manos de dios. We are in the hands of God. When we finally understand that we cannot model our future or, in any meaningful sense control it, we reveal our divinity by reaching out for smallness and unity in the places we find it. Institutions may seek out ways to exploit and further their wooden agendas, but individuals will find opportunities to cultivate community. We have a new reverence for the balance across our molecular loads.

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