The Northern Lagoon
Land of Ghosts

Zacatecas, Mexico Photo: Anel Mariana Pérez Cabrera

This text serves is a short narrative on the northern region of the state of Zacatecas in Mexico, where the states of Durango and Coahuila converge. It briefly outlines five points, which we will use to approach the problems and contradictions that can be experienced there, whether through the study of history or direct experience on the land. First, the contradiction created by an unfinished revolution: a look at the experience of a journey by train in the desolate and lonely country; finally, a dead-end where only drinking and singing take place.

Jairo Alvarado

The earth is very red or very brown as the train passes a sky opposite the sun that is as red as an apple and as still as if one lived on the desolate ground. A brief look causes confusion: An illusion or the land of the dead? People live high up on the hills, on the plains of the wasteland, or in the fields. From this moment on, one is an absent son. Life consists of getting from one piece of land to the next, from one road to another, or from one country to the next, a transitory existence that is sometimes gloomy, sometimes happy. One lives to migrate and get away, to leave one’s land or earn a living.

Zacatecas represents one of the contradictions caused by the Mexican Revolution. Until a year ago, it was an institutional revolutionary state but actually unequal and poor. If its economic backwardness was considerable at the end of the 20th century, then the high rate of violence today in the 21st century eclipses any possibility of progress. A few at a time, people leave, not only to earn themselves a living but to find refuge from all kinds of violent conflict.  

As if the Revolution Were Somehow Forgotten

The concept of revolution in a state like Zacatecas is crucial to understanding the attachment and the distance people feel towards their lands: attachment to a historical and a revolutionary past. When crossing the plaza of any village near the capital, one can see the marks of a revolution that left traces and events behind. At the same time, one can state that if there was a revolution, it probably faded with the construction of a historical past and that, actually, the present shows us that the revolution was either unfinished for the farmers and the working class or that they didn’t notice the changing structures. Vast lands, sometimes so red and dry, waiting for the next rainfall. In this way, modernity is also subjected to questioning the revolution, as if the revolution were somehow forgotten, whisked away by train, the train of progress, on its perpetual route back and forth, leaving from the same station, always returning to the same spot. That’s why it’s always worth it to look at old train stations — to confirm that progress and modernity came about as a result of revolts, rebellions, and revolutions.
The passenger train has disappeared from Mexico little by little since the ’90s. A train trip was often an alternative way to travel. As the years went by, it became practically impossible to confirm that the train took historical memory along with it. Without trains, the recognition of the revolution was left to books, statues, and public buildings. In Zacatecas, with the train stations wiped out, the possibility of remembering local history from the outside is eliminated too. Now, only the people who live in the little villages close to the railroads are responsible for their own historical memory: for their micro-narratives, for their micro-short stories, and for recording their memories. As for the others — those who traveled from one station to the next, from one state to the next — they cannot remember the events of the past that were decisive at the time of the revolution and how life was lived alongside these moments, gazing at the landscape as the train arrived at the station. Now, these places are unknown: little villages, territories connected by passenger trains. Now, there are no more shared stories, there are only little lonesome villages, abandoned. Due to the necessity of leaving and finding work and the migration brought about by violence, they are solitary and arid places or villages, where the only noise, strangely enough, is the announcement of the passing cargo train.

The Lands that Nobody Sets Foot on Anymore

Every year, the cities, villages, and ranches are abandoned after New Year’s. People return to the cities they emigrated from. Crowded for a few days and deserted for months, these little villages, ranches, and municipalities are ghost towns, places with activities that are dictated by the wet and dry seasons. In these places, a constant silence prevails. On the plains, the silence is numbing, but on the mountains and in the hills, the air comes alive and overshadows the silence. Solitary villages that are now used to their inhabitants coming and going. Those who migrate are present through memories yet absent at the moment they leave. Temporary absences — migratory patterns — are characteristic of the lagoon in the territory of Zacatecas. Its population migrates in order to overcome the lack of opportunities, the drought, and the inefficiency of the government. It’s a wasteland: The revolution drove away its sons and daughters. Now, it’s hardly sowed and scarcely harvested. From far away, the sounds of the passing trains echo and announce yet another sunset in a place, where all the days blur together, and there is hardly anyone left.

The horizon is deserted. With the locomotive gone, the tracks remain as an idealization of infinity and freedom. Now, rough dirt roads are the only way out of a land nobody wants to set foot on anymore. Now, they not only go and leave their lands to earn themselves a living, but they have also become prodigal sons of the lands that they leave behind in order to survive the cycle of violence spattered among them. In the lands that no one sets foot on anymore, those who are left look to the horizon, remembering what once was one and many revolutions, one and many rebellions. The hope for freedom and equality that they intently longed for, as if the annual cycle of the land is a reminder of a nihilism, which in Octavio Paz’s words, “is not intellectual but an instinctive reaction and therefore irrefutable.” Cyclically, they come and go like the rainy season. Others stay and live in their worlds, existing within the reality that their land and grounds and soil provided them, longing to celebrate and drink, to share with strangers and friends, with those who gaze at the horizon deep in thought, with those who are old and young, with those who hold onto the hope of reaping from the earth in which they sow. They drink and sing. It is those who behold the revolution of the past, freedom, and progress on the horizon. They are the ones who see the ghosts of the land.

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