Heading South

FOR MOST TEQUILA-soused American tourists, Mexico is a playground of pretty white beaches, casual Club Med sex, and quaint brown cabana boys--a sort of Third World Disneyland. For mescal-soaked American journalist Mickey Raus, our sleepy southern neighbor is more like a hell. As the protagonist of John Ross's apocalyptic new novel, Tonatiuh's People (Cinco Puntos Press), Raus is thrust headfirst into Mexico's political chaos, a vast hive of sectarian brutality and Orwellian bureaucracy, orchestrated by the oppressive Party of Organic Revolution, and supported by an American multinational, GE-DisneyMex.

Raus is a stringer in a strange land, engaged by an obscure California newspaper to cover Mexico's presidential election in the year 2000. Between bouts of serious drinking in the press club, Raus follows the campaign of opposition candidate Gen. Tonatiuh Galván, the son of a famous president and a threat to the PRO's 71-year legacy of absolute political power.

Searching for a story that will scoop him out of the proverbial gutter, Raus trails the Galván campaign on a treacherous nine-month jaunt across Mexico's provinces. On the road, he encounters striking banana farmers, a union of disenchanted garbage scavengers, angry mothers protesting the industrial pollution that has turned their milk sour, and SuperPendejo, a social crusader who dresses like a professional wrestler and bungees through windows to stop police evictions in the poorest parts of Mexico's filthy urban core.

Everywhere in the country there is injustice, and everywhere the PRO's goons and spin doctors conspire to hide it. "In a thousand nefarious ways," Raus muses, "the PRO had aimed its computers right at the people--dissolving their names from voting lists, aborting their birth identification numbers, erasing their land registration, telling the world how well they were fed when they went to bed hungry every night... denying them the bitterness of their daily existence. In short, disappearing them from the nation."

Ross definitely paints an unflattering portrait of life south of the border. Yet for the most part, it's based in truth. For the better part of a century, the nation's notoriously corrupt ruling regime, the PRI, has courted industrial development while virtually ignoring the health, economic welfare, and dignity of the people. And for the same amount of time, the enlightened U.S. government has alternately ignored, manipulated, and scolded the repressive junta. Though Ross spent decades covering Latin American politics as a journalist and has already written profusely on the subject, he seemingly found it hard to restrict Tonatiuh's People to the realm of fiction. Even as he wrote his "novel of the Mexican cataclysm," the things he was imagining were happening in the state of Chiapas. The resulting story is not so much a pessimistic warning against fascism, as a prophetic vision of Mexico's future.

Fittingly, Tonatiuh's People ends in a violent upheaval that leaves almost no one unscathed. As Galván's nationalist rhetoric galvanizes the people, it becomes clear that the PRO will not relinquish power without violence. Their political machine faltering, the incumbent regime turns to less subtle means of coercion, sabotaging Galván's bus, committing massive electoral fraud, and butchering two of the opposition candidate's lieutenants. Raus, meanwhile, tries to stay soused, knowing full well where the campaign trail is headed. This is a country, after all, where bullets, rather than ballots, are the traditional tools of revolution. When the storm finally breaks, it's an orgy of bloodletting that leaves thousands dead in the streets of Mexico City and the nation one step further from democracy.

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