I always said I’d never go back to Mexico. Having lived the first twenty years of my life enduring the lack of the most basic services such as safe drinking water, regular garbage collection or even the certainty that I’d make it back home after a long day at work should a bus driver, on whim, decide otherwise, my desire to return to my native country was less than zero.
How then did I end up whispering in the ear of Machín Aká (Governor-Ruler-Chingón-Supremo), here in the pristine beaches of La Paz, capital of this young republic, the California Peninsula?
Because of the ongoing pandemic at the time, the social convulsion and the restructuring of North America following the collapse of both the United States and Mexico, the precise timeline of my recruitment into the service of Machín Aká is not clear. As far as I remember, though, I first learned about his then-future project as I sat for coffee with Jr., a young Mexican man who approached me after a talk titled “The Subversion of Illegality” I’d just given at the reputable Northern Chicagoland University (NCU). Profesor Navejas, he said, soy estudiante de derecho internacional aquí en la universidad, y quería saber si puedo invitarle una taza de café. Me gustaría hacerle algunas preguntas sobre su trayectoria y trabajo. I agreed.
From the moment Jr. approached me, he impressed me. His confidence as well as other traits immediately set him apart from other Mexican-American young men I’d met. For instance, his diction, his articulation, his flawless mastery of what I imagined must be his second language. After all, my experience was that, as they irremediably weaved themselves into the complexities of highly specialized areas such as law, young people of Mexican descent found it difficult to maintain their parents’ tongue. I observed that they wisely favored English, the language of academic instruction in American institutions, over Spanish, the language spoken at home.
This, however, did not seem to be Jr.’s case, which led me to think instead that he might be part of the Mexican economic elite, known for sending their children abroad to college. As we walked to the coffee shop, however, he explained that, just like me (he had clearly done his homework), he had been born in a popular neighborhood in Guadalajara. Unlike me, though, he had had the privilege to travel freely between his native city and Chicago and thus grew up being fully bilingual, bicultural. Crecí en dos ciudades, he told me, pero he conocido muchos mundos. And so will you, he said, in a sudden and seamless switch to English.
Though, according to his own admission, he was especially drawn to my writings on popular music, Jr. immediately made it clear that he was there strictly on business. He referenced an article I had recently written, as the pandemic unfolded in Europe. In it I wrote that, if the coronavirus could so easily decimate better-funded healthcare systems, like the Italian and Spanish ones, when it hit Mexico with full force, the virus would ravage its primitive public hospitals in a minute. My article, “Let the Narcos Invest in the COVID-19 Vaccine,” had caught the interest of a “certain” person, Jr. said, the leader of the Cártel de los Altos de Jalisco (CAJ), an organization I had never heard of before. His boss—who hadn’t personally read the article but heard about it from Jr.—had been particularly attracted to one of the main ideas there: that, in exchange for fully funding the vaccine research, the Mexican government ought to give narcos complete autonomy to operate in certain regions of the country.
Machín Aká, my uncle, said Jr., disclosing both the name and relationship of the leader, wants to recapture the region of Los Altos de Jalisco. He is adamant about this. He was born and raised there, so he is understandably nostalgic about it, and obviously suicidal, when you consider that he’d be going against a better armed organization, El Cártel de los Charros Tequileros de Guanatos (CCHTG).
I knew, from years of reading about the CCHTG, that they had started as a group of sicarios for the Border Cartel. Then they had morphed into a most vicious and efficient killing machine, pushing narco-related violence to unprecedented heights and horror. Among other methods (which some have described as ritualistic, satanic, and medieval), the CCHTG’s signature consisted of dismembering civilians and feeding them to stray dogs, dissolving bodies of enemies in acid, fedexing the little toes of rival cartels’ kidnapped children, publicly executing politicians, hanging the corpses of their former bosses from lampposts in front of their own mansions and lighting them on fire. Their goal was obvious. The CCHTG did not only want to intimidate their opponents—they wanted to terrorize the entire country.
Of course, I answered Jr., trying to keep my cool while sensing that my life, unstable as it already was, had just entered a tectonic region I could see no easy way out of. But full autonomy, I continued, ought to be the basic point of negotiation with any government. Complete immunity, now and in the future, should also be demanded. As well, a steady, healthy and young temporary workforce, one that can be used and replaced every three years. The government shouldn’t have any problem recruiting, especially if it announces all positions will be relatively well-paid. It must guarantee, however, that these workers should expect no labor protection whatsoever and no way of suing the investors for known or unknown job-related dangers, now or in the future.
I had written that article out of anticipated despair, with the pandemic looming large in the horizon. Naively implying that no such connection could already exist, I had advocated for a cozy relationship between the State and criminal enterprise. I thought that my attempt to blur the boundaries between law and crime, between legitimate and illegitimate forms and uses of cash and violence would be seen as a joke. However, Jr. had taken my parody as a viable option, a true possibility, and so had Machín Aká. And it terrified me.
As we continued chatting over coffee (one of the last face-to-face interactions I would have before a long quarantine), I told Jr. that I agreed that his uncle’s vision was suicidal. As soon as word gets around, the CCHTG will cut off your uncle’s head, I said. Jr. responded laughing, That’s what I keep telling him but he is undeterred. I play along, mainly because he has supported me since an early age. He raised me, put me through college, is now paying for my law degree and even bought a condo in the Gold Coast for me to live in and for him to visit on occasion.
And it was precisely in Jr.’s Chestnut Street condo where, many months later, I saw him next. Not that I knew where I was. I remember a big window, a purple sky, a reddish sun crowning out of the depths of a calm, enormous body of water. I remember feeling dizzy, a dry mouth, a queasy stomach, almost like a hangover, though I don’t remember drinking the night before. What I remember most distinctly, though, is the big emptiness in my chest, the feeling, the longing, the sorrow. Though there were enough reasons to feel this way at the height of the pandemic, the feeling I had was less abstract and more personal, more immediate, more intimate. After a while, I concluded that it was the feeling of mourning. But whose death in particular could I be mourning in this profound, silent way? No one close to me had died recently, after all. Then it dawned on me. The state I found myself in was not pandemic-related—it was death stretching its long claws from the distant past, tearing the fabric of space and time, opening my chest and collecting its dues. But why now and why here, in this strange, tacky high rise condo overlooking what, after a while, began more and more to look like Lake Michigan at sunrise?
Didn’t I tell you, professor, said a familiar voice, that you’d also know many worlds? The world you visited, the world you're coming back from, the world that you’re mourning and having trouble remembering is the world of your past, your childhood, added Jr., positioning himself between me and the window. That which you most vehemently desire and can’t have, that’s the feeling that’s troubling you.
It all became clear to me then—it was the memory of my parents, the racing bus, my father’s frightened face, my mother’s agonizing moans, the dark pool of blood ballooning on the asphalt, the driver reversing the bus, with a vengeance, over my parents’ convulsing bodies, my trembling little self going from utter joy to unspeakable terror, my childish sweaty hands printed on our living room window.
How do you know, I managed to ask Jr., my voice trembling with pain and disbelief. Oh, we know all right, answered Jr. We’ve been working on the technology for quite a while. The unconscious is now our business. Reliving, enhancing buried memories. We’re currently working on memory extraction, but the next phase will be materializing desire, making it as real as this very conversation we’re having.
But, I was quick to say, you can’t do that, that’s… Unethical? Jr. completed my sentence for me. Look around you, professor, this is a different world, and you can either join us or try to see how things go for you out there.
Jr.’s offer wasn’t so bad after all. With the looming intestinal war threatening to tear the United States apart, militias surrounding the White House and every State capital after the resounding defeat of Donald Trump in 2020 and his refusal to admit it, divided loyalties within the armed forces, a sudden raise in political assassinations, ongoing police brutality from Tampa to Anchorage, and random ambushes on law enforcement officers throughout the country, what Jr. meant was that I really had no choice but to join him and his uncle, Machín Aká.
Regardless of my precarious stability in the US (still undocumented after 30 years and with no possibility of fixing my legal situation, a recent PhD graduate from an American university with no teaching experience and ineligible for academic employment, having no health insurance and no safe place to flee once the pandemic arrived in the Midwest), I could not hope to find anything remotely similar in my native country. This was especially true after the recent death of López Obrador, Mexico’s last president, a skeptic of COVID-19 and, ultimately, a victim of the virus himself. As the number of pandemic-related deaths approached one million, López Obrador lived to see how Mexicans, from southern and northern states, began revolting, executing local politicians in town squares and setting government buildings on fire, a trend quickly followed in major cities, like Monterrey, Guadalajara and, eventually, Mexico City. On the morning of January 1, 2021, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, already dead for a week, was burnt in a huge piñata effigy in Mexico’s City’s Zócalo square, the ritualistic site for Mexicans throughout millenia.
Facing the robust presence of the cartels, the inevitable fracture of the armed forces quickly followed: the army pledged its allegiance to the Central Cartel, the Navy to the Gulf Gangsters, and the Air Force remained loyal to the Cártel de los Charros Tequileros de Guanatos. As for Machín Aká, he’d let go of his quixotic dream to recapture the Los Altos de Jalisco Region, and instead had moved his forces and displaced his dreams to Baja California after having secured the protection of China as part of the hefty investment he had made in the COVID-19 vaccine with their government.
Early on in the pandemic, Beijing had realized that neither the United States nor Mexico would survive the coronavirus unscathed. Ideological wounds among Americans were too deep, impossible to heal. For its part, the primitive state of the Mexican healthcare system did not have a chance when it came to confronting the ravages of the coronavirus. Beijing had understood all that, and it hurried to establish regional alliances with local players open to a new hemispheric order. Thinking of the impending fracture the United States would experience and Mexico’s utter collapse, Xi Jinping’s plan was to capture both Californias, designating San Francisco the seat of a Unified Greater California to come in the following decades. In the foreseeable future, though, Beijing required allies, and Xi Jinping had not hesitated to bring Machín Aká into his service, guaranteeing Baja California a certain degree of autonomy for the time being.
Ultimately, though, not even the most optimistic Jinping could’ve predicted the devastation visited upon the United States as two unlikely allies, the coronavirus and the second amendment, conspired to bring America to its knees. When Donald Trump was finally charged with treason and inciting sedition, his followers revolted. Unwilling to clear the areas around government buildings, but especially reluctant to give up their inalienable right to their assault rifles, AK-47s and bazookas, they proclaimed themselves a free people against all enemies, foreign and domestic, anywhere and everywhere, now and forever. Thus, what had begun as a public health crisis morphed into an ideological battle, which later became the internal armed conflict universally recognized as the inflection point at which a once-prosperous nation sank precipitously into the abyss.
By the time the Ottawa Agreement was signed, the death toll in the US had reached almost two million. It was from that agreement that the current geopolitical order emanated: the Northwest and Southwest went to China; the last adherents of white purity fled to Alaska, which had been recently annexed by Russia; the Midwest joined Canada; Germany occupied New England, and the South became the Black Republic of the Gulf.
Except for the Baja California region (and complying with Jinping’s plans), the Ottawa Agreement signatories unanimously agreed that, in this reconfiguration of North America, the best way to honor Mexico’s ancient tradition would be for it to continue to be ruled by thugs.
My role in Machín Aká’s young republic is rather simple: making sure our guests experience the utmost pleasure and peace of mind. La Paz, the main retreat of our golden peninsula, has become synonymous with tranquility, sensuality, satiety, but especially forgetfulness.
Like pilgrims of yore, guests from the world over now inquire into, reserve, and patiently wait, even for months at a time, for coveted first-time vacancies. They have heard from their acquaintances that no place in the world can match the profound transformation they experienced here, which they often describe in religious language. But such testimony, while partially true, is also dubious. Our motto “Live Passionately, Forget Fully”, is clearly stated and explained in the Service Agreement all our guests are required to sign. While this clause is often overlooked and some have tried to sue us, for most the sensation they carry upon leaving our sandy shores—some have compared it to a fluttering in the chest—is proof enough that they have not been cheated.
Perfecting SM+Q to its optimal potential (full intensity and total erasure), took years. However, once it was ready, the demand for our services increased exponentially. Even though none of our guests can remember their experience, they can all feel it for years. Eventually, as it begins to fade, they become restless, anxious, desperate. Another one of our clauses, also overlooked, states that no guest may return to La Paz for a period of five years, a period I personally suggested to Machín Aká to keep our guests waiting long enough to really miss our product, to really want it. And they all come back. Or mostly.
We have gotten reports of some of our previous guests who, after endless calls, emails, texts, and much persistence, have been unable to stand the wait, the longing. One such loss that was particularly painful for me to learn about was that of Tsukuru Yamamoto, whom I personally met during his stay here and grew fond of because of our mutual love for the work of Murakami. When we tried to contact him after the mandatory five-year wait, we found out that early in the spring he’d thrown himself from his high rise office in Tokyo. Periodically, we’ve received similar grim notices of former guests who have gone missing in the sand dunes of Riyadh, died of hypothermia in the streets of Moscow, been unexplainably struck by the London Tube. Others have gone mad.
Whenever I hear a story like this, I wonder what Jr., who worked tirelessly on the global patent of SM+Q, would’ve said about the success of the drug. However, he did not live long enough to see it complete. In spite of his youth, wealth, athletic physique, access to excellent healthcare, and mastery of narco-diplomacy, the coronavirus was not something he could fight, recover from, or talk his way out of. When he died shortly after my recruitment, SM+Q was still a work in progress. It took the coordinated effort of other Jrs. scouting legendary elite campuses—MIT, Berkeley, Harvard—right on the verge of the American collapse, to gather the necessary talent. The fact that many of those enlisted were Chinese nationals already drenched with empire-making convictions made the negotiations between Xijing and Aká something relatively easy.
Also following Jr.’s death, it fell upon me to advise Machín Aká on crucial matters, including the content, potency, and effect released in each dosage of SM+Q. A most exhausting enterprise at first, it became progressively easier as the AI team honed the algorithms and the computers quickly learned to evaluate our guests’ profiles, preferences, memories, phobias, and wishes: the data that would inform the best way to instantly and fully soothe our guests, and slowly torment them when they went away.
Even though Machín Aká has always refused to travel on SM+Q, it often occurs to me that he might just be the most tormented soul I ever came across. In silent nights like this, when the tide is low and quiet and the waves serenade our guests in their peaceful retreat, I am suddenly frightened to hear prolonged sorrowful howls coming from Machín Aká’s chambers overlooking the bay here in his mansion. An old-school Mexican man, he’d never admit to it, but I know it is him, mourning the death of his most cherished dream: Machín Aká, leader of his own republic, cannot set foot in the land of his childhood, Los Altos de Jalisco, an idyllic region now reduced to rubble and ashes.
Sometimes things just work that way. Machín Aká (Governor-Ruler-Chingón-Supremo), whose most fervent wish was to run free amidst agave fields, became the founder of the California Peninsula, an empire of waves and dreams.
As for me, given the radical reconfiguration of North America, I never technically went back to Mexico nor did I ever become a true member of American society. Instead, I ended up stuck in this sunny plush retreat. I began my tenure here whispering in the ear of Machín Aká. Now, however, I mostly look after him in old age, on his decline, like the sun setting in the Pacific.
José Ángel Navejas is the author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant. He has also published Palabras migrantes: 10 ensayistas mexican@s de Chicago (ed. 2018), Invierno: Playlist desde Chicago (2019) and Un mojado en Chicago y cuatro discursos inaugurales (2021). In 2020, he received a PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago, making him the first undocumented (not DACAmented) immigrant to receive a doctoral degree from a public American university. Follow José Ángel on: Twitter: @joseangeln000 or visit his blog: https://joseangeln.wordpress.com/.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.