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Thursday, February 4

Alejo Garza Tamez, the Vernacular, and the restoration of Mexico's sacred narrative

Here I republish an essay from December 9, 2010, lightly edited with a photograph added that lauds Don Alejo as a hero and a painting of him as a saint. Why, one might wonder, the sunglasses for both depictions, given that there are photographs of him without them? The answer I found for myself is that with the dark glasses shading his eyes he is Everyman, which I think is what a sacred narrative is all about.     

"It's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."
-- Emiliano Zapata Salazar, a leading figure in Mexico's 1910 Revolution

Alejo Garza Tamez
"It was well known that his word was as good as a contract."

The term vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning "domestic, native, indigenous"; from verna, meaning "native slave" or "home-born slave". The word probably derives from an older Etruscan word. In linguistics, vernacular refers to language use particular to a time, place or group. In architecture, it refers to that type of architecture which is indigenous to a specific time or place (not imported or copied from elsewhere). It is most often applied to residential buildings. [Wikipedia]
A reader asked me to clarify what I meant by the term 'vernacular' given that my use of it in yesterday's DeviantGlobal post wasn't clear to her from the standard dictionary definition.

So, for readers who saw the first version of the post: at 7:54am ET yesterday I made this revision:
... in the manner of weeds springing up through cracks in pavement 'the Vernacular' -- in its broadest meaning, the power of expression that evolves naturally through the preferences of many -- is always with us; no totalitarian regime and no number of criminals can snuff it out. The stand of Alejo Garza Tamez against drug cartel enforcers less than a month ago, which has already made him a folk hero in northern Mexico, is ample reminder of that.
To elaborate, I learned about the wider application of the term decades ago from hearing a discourse by an American academic whose name I am sorry to say is lost to me; I can't even recall his speciality.  But I do remember the gist of his explanation, which returned to me when I pondered the last stand of Don Alejo on November 13 of this year. The academic, and others in his circle of thinkers, observed vernacular architecture versus city planning and saw broad social implications in the tension between the two ways of people used public spaces.  

Vernacular architecture doesn't fit with whatever layout of buildings, roads, and central squares was created for the urban environment through planning. Yet one way the state and the ruling classes maintain control is through control of how public spaces are configured, argued the academic. And against this is the vernacular approach to these state-created spaces, which reveals how the public actually uses them.

I suppose a classic example of how a public space can be changed by the vernacular is the use of church-door entrances as message boards once literacy began to increase in Europe. This led to Martin Luther nailing his "Ninety-Five Theses" to a church door. While his statements touched off a revolution the act of nailing them to the door was not revolutionary -- although I assume the use of church doors for such a purpose was a sign that with increased literacy the power of the church was increasingly open to challenge.

From all that, you can see why the academic liked the term 'vernacular' to convey the gist of his argument. There is a proper or polite form of a language that when adapted to everyday usage evolves slang and applies meanings to words that were never intended. The academic thought that the concept of the vernacular applies to all public activities and that by organizing through the layout of public spaces how the public acts, the power of the state is reinforced and class differences can be maintained.

And the inverse is also true: by changing how public spaces are meant to be used, the power of the state can be undermined. At the worst extreme is found the Taliban carrying out executions in a soccer stadium or Mexican cartel gangs turning a plaza into a gallows platform for hangings, torture, and beheadings.

And in both instances the public is conditioned by these debased uses of state-planned public spaces to act in a manner that makes them subservient to the new ruling class -- in the case of Mexico, the criminals who control several regions of the country. Thus, a reign of terror can be maintained with relatively little effort: the public becomes conditioned to stay inside when a cartel gang wants them to remain out of sight, to flee when a gang wants them to flee.

That's what happened in northeastern Mexico. Perhaps as many as 5,000 ranches in the region have been abandoned by ranchers who don't want to end up like Alejo Garza. From the Latin American Herald Tribune (thanks for not bothering to date your report, LAHT!):
... The drug cartels, which have been engaged in a turf war since the beginning of this year, take over ranches and use them as bases, a Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office source told Efe on condition of anonymity.
“They use them as recruitment centers or as hiding places to avoid being spotted when federal forces do aerial reconnaissance,” the AG’s office source said. ...
Many ranchers have decided to abandon their properties or switch occupations to avoid becoming victims of the cartels, the Tamaulipas Regional Ranchers Association, or URGT, said.
“It’s a scourge that is hurting everyone. The ranchers have stopped going to the ranches and are working at something else, so the industry has been falling. They are abandoning the ranches,” URGT president Alejandro Gil said.
About 5,000 properties may have been abandoned in the state, Gil said. ...
Alejo Garza Tamez, a 77-year old lumberman, found himself caught between two ruling forces: a corrupt police force, the most visible face of the state in that region, and a drug cartel. The cartel delivered a routine eviction notice to him when they wanted his ranch. What Don Alejo did in response was a profoundly revolutionary act in consideration of the 'population-centric counterinsurgency' tactic taken up by the Mexican Army against the cartels -- a tactic copied from the U.S. application of POPCOIN in Iraq and Afghanistan -- even though the cartels aren't insurgents. 

The essence of the tactic is to use military force to create a smothering show of protection in order to give a population victimized by an insurgency a sense of security. The cartel counterstrategy, as it is for the Taliban in Afghanistan, is to strike wherever the state's show of protection is not. The upshot is a very passive population -- cowed on the one hand by the rule of the drug cartels and on the other cowering behind the protection of a military.

Don Alejo did not cower. Nor did he accept the eviction notice or ask the police for help. (Surely they would have only told him to flee and reportedly he did not trust them.) After sending the ranch hands away he posted his large stock of hunting rifles and ammunition around the windows in his house in a way that he could, at least at the start of the attack, trick the cartel enforcers into thinking there were several armed defenders inside the house. 

When the enforcers showed up he quickly went from post to post, picking up different rifles and firing. In this way he was able to kill four of them, wound two others, and panic the rest into fleeing.

It was a doomed stand, however, and Don Alejo knew so from the start. The enforcers, armed with automatic weapons and grenades, numbered about 30 according to the LAHT report. They regrouped and lobbed grenades into the house and finally riddled him with bullets.

Alejo Garza was a given a hero's burial and as I mentioned earlier, the tale of his stand against the cartel has already made him a folk hero in northern Mexico even though it's not yet a month since his death. His saga was quickly carried to the United States, first by a handful of American blogs then into the mainstream media via The New York Post report on December 5

This means the very able propagandists for the Mexican state and the cartels will find it impossible to stamp out the story of Don Alejo's lone stand against a cartel. Yet both ruling forces have good reasons to want to quash the story. 

The Mexican state wants the fight against the cartels to be the responsibility of the government. For their part the cartels, which created the narrative that they are the inheritors of the bandito 'romance' that gained great power during the Mexican Revolution, have always known that their fiction would collapse when confronted by a true revolutionary hero of the Mexican people.

If Don Alejo had been a young man, one whose life had not had time to form, it might have been a different story, but everything about his long life is recorded: a man of honor, hard-working since his early youth, well off but not wealthy, a man who protected his employees and would calmly die fighting tyranny rather than bow to it.

The choice Alejo Garza Tamez made in the face of death has restored Mexico's sacred narrative of the revolutionary spirit. He is not only a martyr, hero and saint; he is the true face of Mexico, the face that Mexicans carry in their hearts.

This, then, is the power of the Vernacular spirit, for it makes its own narratives quite apart from ones spun by rulers.

I am grateful to Michael Vlahos and John Batchelor for their discussions over the years about a nation's sacred narrative and its importance, which have helped me think about events in Mexico in a different way. I was unfamiliar with the concept of the sacred narrative before those two ruminated about it on John's radio show. However, I confess that I listened with exasperation as they sought to find a new version of America's sacred narrative to help keep up public support for the war on terror -- a version they hoped would engage the entire American society in the way the World War Two narrative had.

I understood their point: in a generational war that was being fought by professional soldiers rather than citizen soldiers the war effort could easily come to be very remote to most Americans. But by the 2004 presidential election campaign I was already quite sick of the search for a compelling war narrative -- a search that seemed to obsess Democratic candidate John Kerry and other Democrats. Too often they didn't talk about what was happening but about 'the narrative' pertaining to what was happening. It became like listening to a broken car alarm.

The term has come roaring back since then; in September Clarence Page reported that the word 'narrative' topped the list of political buzzwords. His criticism of the way the term is used mirrored my distaste although his critique was far more eloquent than the grumbles I expressed on my blog years back. He wrote in part:
In fact, "narrative" was popping up so much in reference to Obama as he grappled with crises like the Gulf oil spill that a Washington Post reporter was inspired to lead one feature with, "Sing to me of the Obama narrative, Muse."

But what does it all mean? Why has "narrative," an ancient word, moved suddenly to center stage in today's politics? I think it has something to do with the growing sophistication of the political spin industry and growing competition between growing media outlets for increasingly fragmented and polarized audiences.

In other words, today's audiences are no longer satisfied with choosing their own news outlets. They also want to choose their own versions of the reality that news covers. Whether they realize it or not, they're shopping for their own "narrative."

Political operatives and increasingly journalists use the term in ways that sound a lot like the old familiars: "spin," "public image," "propaganda" or "party line." But "the narrative" combines all of these strategies into a larger all-encompassing perception of parties, platforms and candidates that boils down to one message: We're on your side and our opponent is a (fill in the blank.)

The rise of "the narrative," as [Global Language Monitor President Paul Payack] observed, is bigger than spin; it renders actual positions on the issues almost meaningless, "since the positions now matter less than what they seem to mean."

Yet President Barack Obama, among others, knows quite well how quickly your narrative can turn from savior to pin cushion. [...]

Narrative has power. For evidence, look no farther than the Bible, whose lasting power comes largely from its storytelling. It is much easier for most of us to remember how Moses received the Ten Commandments, for example, than to remember what all of those commandments were. (A wise editor I once knew boiled all ten down to one: "Don't!")

The danger comes when politicians and their operatives essentially use "narrative" as a shorthand for "bull," the version of the truth that they want us to believe even when they don't believe it.

That's why the rising prominence of "the narrative" in political discourse should serve as a warning to voters. We like to think we're making informed choices between candidates and issues. The campaigns think we're really voting for one narrative over another. [...]
It seems to me that an authentic narrative can't be manufactured and that a nation's sacred narrative can only be restored by events that are not orchestrated.

The only art I can recall that alludes to the concept of the sacred narrative is Ridley Scott's Gladiator and specifically the film's Battle of Carthage. The scene also puts the power of the Vernacular on display when the organized might of Rome, decked out with chariots and archers, bears down on a motley group of gladiators meant to symbolize barbarian hordes.

What was Rome? Rome was a dream, but during the up-ended reenactment of the Battle of Carthage the sacred narrative that once nourished the Roman spirit was restored.

After the battle the Emperor Commodus sardonically asks, "My history is a little hazy Cassius, but shouldn't the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?"

Yes, the gladiators should have lost in the 
Colosseum, just as Don Alejo should have fled. Can you imagine the expressions on the faces of the Mexican marines as they searched his house after the incident, looking for the other bodies? And finally realizing all that mayhem inflicted on a gang armed to the teeth had been done by just one old man? God help me but I feel no sorrow at this, just triumphant laughter welling up from a place deep in my heart.

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