Imagine, if you will, that I found a new passion after I left my mate of many years. I was not looking for a new love. Nay – you could say, it found me.
It was 1988 and I struck out to learn, face to face, mouth to ear — about Mexico and Central America. Twenty-nine years old and I reclaimed my self, my independence. And during that ten-week sojourn, I took the first honest-to-goodness train of my life. We ain’t talking ‘bout no rapid from the east side to the west. We’re talking ‘bout El Oaxaqueño, 12 hours from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Ay, how I relished the mystery of traveling through the night, awakening in the morning amidst hamlets nestled in the folds of rock, cliffs so close I could study their formations. The slow reach of the sun over one and another range of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Wood smoke scenting the crisp air. The food offered by the women who boarded, the conversations with other passengers and the workers. The squeal of wheel upon rail as we hairpinned through those mountains, finally descending to our destination.
I then knew that riding the rails is a perfect way to learn about a country. Many times the train goes where no road goes. You travel slow enough to be able to see wildlife from those smoke-hazed and cracked windows, critters scared by the traffic of highways. You can catch glimpses into homes set close to the tracks. And beyond passing through pueblocitos, within the train itself forms a community. You can talk, share lives and food, walk about. Face it, you can’t even begin to do that on a bus.
If I could, through my poetry and stories, share these experiences, put a human face on the names of pueblos from Alaska to Patagonia through these rides. I decided to devote every cent, every opportunity to travel by train.
But come 1997, the raison d’être of these journeys changed. No, it deepened.
With the signing of NAFTA, Mexico had to agree to privatize its national holdings, including the railroad. In five sectors it was sold off to consortia, made up by Mexican capitalists and — in larger part — by US cargo train companies: Union Pacific, Santa Fe-Burlington Northern and others. By early 1996 freight services were in their hands. Then 1 October 1997 — I came to discover — marked the official turnover of the passenger services.
I didn’t know this when I crossed the border on an October day, planning to again to ride the rails. I wanted to go to a friend’s family’s village in the Sierra of northern Durango State. I could make it totally by trains.
Or so I thought.
14 October 1997 / Matamoros, Mexico
Just after dawn I cross the bridge from Brownsville and arrive at Mexican immigration.
“How will you be traveling?” the official asks.
“Well, you’ve missed today’s train. It left at seven this morning.” He turns to a co-worker. “Isn’t that right?”
The other man raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders.
My information says the Tamaulipeco leaves at 9:20 a.m. I head off for the station, through the streets of this awakening city, in hopes of catching it.
I stop at a stand where a brazier and pots of coffee steam in the cool of morning. “Which way is the train station?”
The man replies, “There are no trains, no hay.”
Further down the main road, I find a tourist information booth. Two men are inside, one behind a desk. “The train station? It’s up about four more blocks. Pero no hay.”
Next door is the government tourist office. The young woman shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s best to go to the station and ask.”
Once more I make my way up the now-busier street. At the next corner, near the tracks, a tourist officer and several taxi drivers sit on a bench. They all say, No, there is no service from here because of privatization by the government. Pero sí hay from Reynosa. It leaves at 4 p.m.
A loud train horn disturbs our conversation. We all cover our ears. A long chain of Northwestern and other cars come rumbling along. It stops. Security men begin searching between the cars for stowaways, pulling them off. A few jump and escape.
I turn back from my quest and catch a bus for Reynosa.
Out front of the bus terminal, I ask a man where the train station is. He responds, “No hay trenes.”
I walk up to a taxi driver (they always know). Yes, he agrees, at 4 p.m. there is a train. He gives me directions.
Later I stop by a man selling roasted corn at the curb. “No,” he answers, “there are no trains.”
“But in Matamoros they told me there is, and a taxi driver here said so, too.”
“Look,” he says adamantly, “you can believe me or you can waste your time. But there is no train.”
“Oh, at least six months now.”
Another man comes. “For Monterrey? Yes, there is. My sister took it Sunday. It runs every other day. So, yes, today there will be.”
With this hope I follow the tracks to the blue and white station.
It is boarded up, the doors locked with heavy chains. Some of the windows are broken. Through their white paint peeling away, I see the schedule blackboard still hanging by the ticket window. The blue seats in the waiting room remain.
Between the old station and the abandoned restaurant next door, a man sells gum and candies. “Excuse me, sir. Why is there no passenger service?”
“It’s because of a company del otro lado, from the other side. It bought it and decided there will be no service.”
“Oh, since three or four months ago.”
Right at that moment, a lengthy string of US freight cars halts, brakes clanking. Black-coated men begin searching among the cars for stowaways.
I return to the bus terminal and stay until night to go to Monterrey. In the women’s bathroom, I recount to Socorro, the attendant, my fruitless search for the train to Monterrey. She is surprised to hear the news.
15 October 1997 / Monterrey
I grew bored in Reynosa and finally took a bus here, arriving at 1 a.m.
At about three, I wander outside and ask two taxistas there. They conclude, “With the change of owners, no-one knows the present schedules. It’s best to go inquire there.”
“Who are the new owners?”
“Some are Mexicans, others are from the US.”
I wait until the light of day begins washing the city streets and I walk as fast as I can with this forty-pound knapsack to the train station. A man sits behind the ticket window.
“Is there still a train for Durango?” I shift the pack on my back.
“Yes. It leaves in fifteen minutes. For only one? Ninety pesos.”
Ay, I tell him of my misadventures with the Tamaulipeco. “Since when doesn’t it run?”
We leave behind those saw-tooth mountains of Monterrey, swirled with white rock. The chilled dust of early morning blows through my shattered window. Our train of hard foam cushioned seats, of dirty floors and dirty floors rocks and sways past a hamlet of rubble of once-homes destroyed. From the ruins of one flies a zopilote. Forests of ages-old yucca trees. A hawk soars over the green desert thicket. Encrusted sand dunes sculpt the earth. I snuggle into the warmth of the sun as we pass by a village of old-fashioned adobes.
And I awaken at Paredón. In those hazes of sleep, I expect this car to be full of Mexican Revolutionaries.
The train winds through low mountains, then horseshoe-curves around a flatland. Once more it begins to corkscrew through mountains. A hawk sits up on the rise of ancient basalt boulders. The desert sand is laced with dry streambeds and footprints, horse trails, coyote tracks.
We zoom past cornfields and jolt past a sky-blue circus big top as we enter Concordia. There, a black-hatted, sun-glassed man boards. He strolls up the aisle and back down, playing a beat-up guitar and singing a corrida. He gathers his tips, then goes to the back of the car. He performs a few ballads, a fellow passenger joining in.
As we pull into the next town, a new voice and masterful strumming is heard. All women’s eyes turn to that man, black hair pulled back into a curly ponytail. They nod, smiling, whispering to one another.
Near the tracks, nine students stand. Their brass coronets gleam in the now-afternoon sun. A few practice notes, and as we pull away, they play a clarion call.
The strolling musician is gone.
We fast clip upon these old rails. The diesel engine hums deep. Vineyards and orchards neatly crisscross this wide valley.
Over a soccer field in Gómez Palacios bobs a blue and yellow kite. Children gather in the stands, watching its dance. A colorful clothesline flaps its laundry in the cool sun.
At Torreón, an elderly woman boards. Her silver hair is covered by a black lace scarf. She holds one corner of it in her mouth, hiding the right side of her face. It falls away for a second, revealing a misshapened nose, a cheek deeply incised with wrinkles, a sunken eye, a sneering mouth.
A little girl’s dark eyes peer over the seat in front of me, then dart away as I grin. Next they appear around the side of the seat and retreat with a shy smile.
As we ride into the sunset, we hug mountains of folded rock. Shadows fall deep and long. The red soil is shaped into irrigation ditches and plowed rows of golden maize. The bright-yellow sun nears a blanket of gilt-edged periwinkle clouds touched with peach. I listen to the music of this train and wish I could write its symphony.
counterpointed by squeaking springs.
Just before the sun sinks beyond, the bottoms of the clouds are etched in magenta. Then the landscape falls into greys. The pastel sky drains. Out there, to the north, a long spume of white smoke blows from an orange bundle of flames.
I turn my eyes to where the moon has risen above the sierra. The rest of our way to Durango, I gaze upon her fullness.
17 October 1997 / Durango
Sunrise is beginning to wash the eastern sky. The once-full moon disappears in the western. The chill of this semi-desert morning hovers around and within this caboose. In the warmth of a diesel stove, the conductor, an old farmer and I huddle.
“Come Monday,” the conductor says, “there will be no more passenger service — only cargo. The day before yesterday there was a passenger car. Now they ride in the caboose.”
“Why will there be no more passenger service?” I lean towards the stove, holding my hands out.
“The new owners have decided the tracks are in too bad of shape.”
“Who are the new owners?”
“Union Pacific here, Santa Fe elsewhere. They own the tracks, stations, everything. And they’re ending a lot of services.”
“Así pues, I wanted to take the train from Matamoros to Monterrey, but there is none now. But there is from Reynosa, they told me. So I went there by bus. Pero no hay.”
The farmer shakes his head. The conductor nods his, “But we believe some will return once repairs are done — like that one.”
“Well, the story is much the same up north. Before, all the passenger trains were run by the freight companies — Union Pacific, Santa Fe and others. But during the 60s and 70s they decided to do away with them. Then in 1976 the government said we needed them again. But AMTRAK, as the passenger service is now called, doesn’t own many lines. It has to pay the freight companies to use theirs. So AMTRAK can’t make much money, and fares are high.”
The conductor checks the fire. “Sí, money is more important than the people.”
The old man nods.
The conductor falls silent as several other workers enter. He hands me a cigarette and lights it, hands cupping the flame.
Once they leave, he continues. “One has to be careful of what one says. There are many animalillos.” He draws a finger across his throat.
“Even on el otro lado,” I respond, “people are afraid to speak up. For fear of losing their jobs, their homes, their cars and all else.”
We talk about our pueblos, our people on either side of the Great River. Of how US corporations are robbing the people of the trains, the farmers of their lands.
Soon the day is lighter and more passengers board. Our conversation ends. I take a perch in the cupola. The old man stays at the table, near the stove. The conductor begins his work.
At about 8:30 a.m. we leave, with two locomotives, seven open hoppers, this caboose, a car with barred windows for security guards and a payroll car behind. Over two dozen passengers are crowded in here.
Past shantytowns of wood and cardboard homes and into the desert, its edges and mountains hazed. The rocky land rises, studded with fruiting nopales, and it falls away to dry stream beds. Through forests of mesquite, the ashy soil beneath carpeted with sage. Campos of maize sprinkled with sunflowers, fields of frijol. Cows graze near the tracks. One’s breath steams the morning. Another, chewing its cud, slowly moves off to a quieter place, away from our clicking train.
We stop at a village. The sun strokes my face through this open cupola window. The farmer looks up at me writing these words. With a slight laugh I wave my pen, writing in air. He nods and smiles. I lean out a bit and notice in the third hopper up front rides a white-jacketed, white cowboy-hatted man.
A herd of seven bulls begins stampeding, one by one, across a high field of grain. Above them flies a flock of low-swooping black birds. And just as suddenly the bulls stop.
In the yard of a blue and turquoise house, a young boy runs. He pauses to watch our train go by.
On the stove the workers heat some chiles rellenos and water for coffee. One of them warms his hands.
We arrive at another village. On the gravel road traversing the tracks a bicyclist stops to look. Before we depart with nine new passengers aboard, he pedals off.
A yellow-sweatered boy climbs up to sit on the cupola floor. He calls to his nervous brother to join him. I squeeze myself closer to the window to share my seat with him.
Lucia — a pueblo of raw adobe walls. A woman with her young daughter runs alongside us. The conductor leans out the vestibule. “Where are you going?”
“Get in the caboose.”
“En serio? They told us there was no passenger car!”
And more pots appear on the stove. Their smells waft up to my hungry nose. The conductor motions me down to share lunch with them.
As we slow for the next stop, Los Pinos, the old farmer waves good-bye before darting out the back door.
The conductor rummages through his black sports bag. His ball cap comes flying, landing at my feet, as he puts on a gnarl-faced mask and turns to us at the table. He tosses that aside and digs out a cassette player. Between stops he listens to music through the headphones.
A woman sits upon the bed platform in the rear section. Her young fingers skillfully crochet a doll’s dress. Her son Josué puts on the Halloween mask. Papa reads today’s paper. Over his shoulder, her green eyes study an article he shows her.
At this workers’ dining table sits Mary with her four-year-old niece. Next to me is Rosario. Rosario, now 18, yes, has finished her studies. “A ver – we’ll see,” she says with a shrug when asked about her future. Mary, 23, finished only secondary school. She has no job. “No, I’m too old to finish my studies,” she says with a tilt of the head, a lift of the shoulders.
We ignore, then parry, and ignore again the chiding of men.
Through the partly opened window, I catch glimpses of countryside and villages, of children waving, of workers in the fields. Lakes glitter in the noon-day sun.
Esfuerzos Unidos, Alisos, Nuevo Ideal. Family by family, person by person, the caboose begins to empty. Angelita, Las Flores, Chinacates. A wagon drawn by two horses trots across a field.
The wooden crucifix and rosary beads above this table sway with the train’s rocking. We begin winding our way down through the heights of the Sierra Madre. Rock walls hug this train.
The conductor goes atop. Another worker hops out a cupola window to join him. There I see them standing, coated against the wind, speaking into walkie-talkies. One leans through my window and begs some matches.
At Kilometer 157 we make a short stop. A sow leads three piglets across the dirt road. The conductor climbs down to talk with some fellow workers there about when their paychecks will come. “We have the payroll car here.”
“No,” one states, “I got my letter.”
“Well, after Monday, no hay tren.”
“No me digas — Don’t tell me,” another says surprised.
A lone zopilote soars over a land of bleached bones. Two yellow butterflies dance above a yucca. Beneath the shade of mesquite a burro lies. He lazily turns his head to these clapping cars. We still creep through this mountain chain, metal screeching against metal. Not far from a swift river sits a lone adobe house. In the front patio grazes a tethered horse. A small waterfall tumbles. A black bull wanders to the shallows to drink from the clear waters.
At Santiago Papasquiaro we wait. The locomotive pulls away. A dust devil picks up trash & egrets in its whirlwind. We finally depart here. Three young boys jump on a trampoline in a yard. The man with the white sombrero is gone. A dog on a rooftop barks as we gain speed.
Rosario, now in the cupola, squeals as one of the brakemen walks through with the mask on.
Within the cloudless sky a hawk dips and rises above the scrublands. A roadrunner darts among the brush. Above a pool of steaming sulfur springs hovers an orange and white dragonfly.
The conductor sits at the table reading the news. After a while he falls asleep. Rosario and Josué sit across from me up here, singing corridas. A six-pack of Modelo goes around the caboose. One by one, the cans of beer are popped open.
A pair of blue and black butterflies appears alongside us. But just as quickly, we leave them behind.
At Presidio Rosario gets off, a bit tipsy from one beer. A family of four women and a boy come on with hand-made ribbon wreaths protected by clear plastic bags.
We journey along a river that occasionally cuts cliffs and other times winds through the plain. At Corrales the new women and boy depart. They walk across the wood-plank bridge, across the river, into town.
We arrive at Tepehuanes, only seven passengers left, the end of this line. The adobe station is pink-painted bricks. The train goes a bit further to begin loading timber for the paper mills down south.
Next door to the station is a hotel. My room is large, with thick adobe walls. I open the shutters of the window and begin spreading my work on the table beneath it. Before sunset I head for dinner, crossing the bridge over a brook, climbing the hill into town. After I return, Magdalena invites me to join them in the kitchen. An adobe stove in the corner warms the interior dimly lit by one bulb. On tomorrow’s south-bound train, she will be leaving on a “trip.” Later, she confides she is going to el otro lado. Since the train will no longer be arriving, there will be no guests for their hotel — and so to make a living? She will leave her 113-year-old mother in the care of a young Lola. Lola’s mate, José still doesn’t believe the train will end come Monday, that this was indeed the last train to Tepehuanes.
I spend evenings in that kitchen, seeking the heat of that stove, chatting with Lola and José. Doña Julia dips gingerbread cookies into her glass of warm milk, gumming her words. One night of chilled stars and the sierra silhouetted against the waning moon, she tells me of when she met Pancho Villa. She was down by the river washing clothes with other women. No, she laughs, she rejected his invitation to join the revolutionary forces. I ask her if it were true he had many women. She only gives me a demure, silent look.
My plan is to spend a month here, then travel down to Durango. From there I will take the train to Felipe Pescador, to make the connection with the south-bound Ciudad Juárez-Mexico City train.
I spend the days writing, and talking with the local people about the end of this train, and of those to Aserraderos and Regocijo. One late afternoon several women and I drink coffee in an eatery. Candy, who works for the village, shakes her head. “I had heard such, but…” The waitress is shocked. “There is no train for Regocijo? But, but I was going to go visit my sister there in a few weeks! How will I be able to afford it now?
The Day of the Dead comes and goes. And every other day, when the cargo train is due in, I go down to greet the workers.
7 November 1997 / Tepehuanes
I go to dinner about 4:30 p.m. Afterwards I decide to walk down to the station to see if the cargo train had come in. Several workers and I sit on the platforms.
“Today is National Railroad Day,” says one.
“Ay, there used to be bands greeting us here and elsewhere,” another reminisces.
“But now there is just silence. All is mute.”
The conductor turns to me. “Since two or three days ago, there’s no train from Durango to Felipe Pescador.”
“What? How are people going to get there? There’s no road!” I interject.
The workers dejectedly nod.
“There’s talk, too,” he continues, “that there won’t be one for Torreón nor from Mexico City for Juárez come the 13th or 14th of this month.”
“When I was in Durango, I asked about those trains, and I was told that they would continue to exist!”
“Well, that of the Felipe Pescador line was a bit abrupt. The jefe de patio got a telegram saying, ‘As of tomorrow, service is cancelled.’ What could he do?”
I look at the shadowing ground. “How is it now without passengers?”
I arrive in Mexico City 15 November and go to the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México. A woman in a 12th floor office shows me the official schedule as of 29 September 1997. She has received reports that between 40 and 50 routes have been cancelled since then. No, she didn’t know about Tepehuanes, nor Aserraderos, nor Regocijo.
In the next few months in Mexico, I madly dash after disappearing trains.
I look at my map of Mexico, noticing those black rail lines that go where no road passes, a web covering the nation from Baja to the Yucatán. I think of the routes I have taken over this decade of traveling. I think of the rides I will never get a chance to experience.
I shall miss the awakening from dreams, to see the full moon shining upon a sleeping home. Hushed voices in unlit cars of passengers coming, passengers going. The golden mesh of lights filling the valley as we’d come into Mexico City at night. I shall miss seeing the morning sun reach its fingers into the crevices, range by range, of the southern Sierra Madre mountains, morning mists over jungle cerros of Tabasco. I shall miss storm clouds mounding, then bursting upon the afternoon desert, sand imprinted by coyote, correcaminos running for shelter. Sunsets painting the western horizon.
I shall miss leaning upon the vestibule half-door, the wind blowing loose strands of my hair about, listening to the clickety-clack over wooden ties, the softer rhythm over concrete ones. I shall miss the smells of those women offering me gorditas de nopales con queso and atole in Chihuahua mornings, volovanes de cangrejo and coffee come Veracruz evenings. The bite of wood fires in crisp darkness. Of burning fields of sugar cane in the zafra.
I shall miss the children looking over their seats at this loca writing, or playing with their toy cars in the aisle, or sitting with me and this map, seeing where we had been and where we were going. Of sharing my sleeping bag with families migrating north, dressed in nothing more than thin cotton clothes.
I shall miss the stories of a doña Juana telling me of her childhood during the Mexican Revolution, before roads cut the Durango deserts. I miss sitting next to a doña Teresa embracing sweet azucenas to her Tehuantepec-huipil breast, like a Diego Rivera painting. I shall miss the conductor’s wife offering me a croissant, a banana and coffee, the workers offering me fish tacos or chiles rellenos.
I shall miss the sharing of lives and hopes, food and love with others, whiling away the time on those endless, timeless journeys.
Traveling by train no longer became a way to enjoy the country, to learn of its culture and life, to share community. No, riding became much more than that. I had to face deeper realities of the importance of these trains.
What will happen to those people who supported their families by selling to us passengers? On ebon nights, awaiting in the lights of the station, boarding with their baskets and kettles steaming in the chill air, stepping over bodies wrapped in thin blankets, sleeping in the aisles. The voices of mothers and their children quietly calling
Arroz con leche
Gorditas . . .
How shall campesinos get their cheeses and fruits to market? How will they feed their families tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow?
What will happen to those villages whose lifelines were the silver rails?
Will abandonment beat the dirt roads, melt adobe homes into the earth? Will wooden doors bang in winter winds sweeping down from the north? No longer will laundry sway in a blue-white sun. No longer will small circuses pitch their ragged big tops for a few day’s pesos before moving on to some other pueblo. How many of these families have had to pack their trunks and bundles, migrate to a city in hopes of survival? How many of these communities are now rent by these winds of thoughtless change?
How will folks visit one another? How many will be able to afford a bus ticket for everyone in the family, to see abuelito, to celebrate Tía Rosa’s birthday, to take a holiday? Before, the bus was up to three times more expensive than the train. Who will be able to afford those bus fares spiraling, spiraling upward, now that there is no competition?
How many lines might continue to because these new owners deem they can jack the prices up, rake in the big bucks from the foreign tourists? Or because of protest by the people?
For now the vestiges of the Mexican Revolution continue to fray in the northern winds. Perhaps those days of train travel are gone. Or perhaps not. Maybe someday a new government shall come to power that recognizes the importance of the trains to communities, to the families, to the economies of these pueblocitos — as is happening in other countries.
Or perhaps a new Revolution is brewing in the Sierra Madre. Maybe one day former workers and a village will take up “arms” of máquinas and carros, appropriate the tracks, and with no funds from anyone keep the lines alive and gleaming silver to the ejidos, giving campesinos a way to get their products to market, for the ill to receive medical attention, for kinfolk to visit.
It may seem this affair has ended, but I still study my map, tracing those black lines. This is a love that has deepened with the years. I still search, every time I am in Mexico, for whatever visage of those train adventures. And, ay, when we meet once more, what a ride we have!
Sí pues, as long as there is a train upon which to journey, this shall be an affair never-ending.
© Lorraine Caputo
Would you like to continue riding the rails in Mexico? All aboard!
ADVENTURE ON RAILS (Nuevo Casas Grandes – Cumbres, August 2003)
DESERT REIGNS (El Águila Azteca – Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo, December 1996)
THE CONDUCTOR AND HIS WIFE (División del Norte – Mexico City to Ciudad Juárez, March 1994)
A TICKET TO RIDE (Torreón train station, October 1992)
EL JOROCHO (El Jorocho – Mexico City to Córdoba, December 1996)
THE JUNGLE TRAIN (Córdoba to Mérida, December 1996)
RANDOM ACTS (El Oaxaqueño – Oaxaca to Mexico City, April 1996)