John Ross in Mexico

While I was traveling in Mexico these last few weeks, an icon of Mexican foreign correspondency passed away. John Ross, 72, died of cancer around Lake Patzcuaro, the same weekend I passed by that absolutely stunning place on a bus through Michoacan State.

I met John once, in 2006, when I was in Mexico City on assignment for the former Knight Ridder newspaper chain. I was covering the Mexican presidential race for about a month and had read, most likely on Narco News, that Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista rebellion, was running an alternative presidential campaign, traveling around the indigenous heart of Mexico and making an argument that progress in Mexico would not be found in the mainstream electoral process (or the mainstream media). He had changed his name to Delegate Zero and was calling his effort La Otra Campaña – The Other Campaign.

I have been trying to reconstruct my meeting with Ross, an expert on the Zapatistas, and the story on La Otra that I eventually wrote, but I have not been able to find my notes from the time. I remembered meeting him at a restaurant near the Zócalo in Mexico City and after reading Tim Johnson’s post on Ross’s death, I recalled that it was Cafe La Blanca, pictured below. (Johnson is now working the job I was trying out for, as Mexico City correspondent—KR became McClatchy, the Mexico Bureau was left open for a few years, I moved back to Boise, etc.)

Café La Blanca
An empty Cafe La Blanca in Mexico City where John Ross ate almost every night. Photo from juliette_y_cristian_en_méxico on Flickr.

At our meeting, Ross and I talked about San Francisco’s Mission District, where I was living at the time, and a place where Ross wants his ashes scattered. We talked about Mexican politics and journalism a bit. I think he was testing me out a bit before giving me any info on Marcos, which I respected. I think that Ross then put me in touch with Al Giordano, a founder of Narco News, who sent me the schedule for The Other Campaign in rural Mexico State, with a harried note saying he didn’t really know where San Antonio Pueblo Nuevo was and that it’s near Atlacomulco, but that there were four San Antonios in the vicinity. I told him I’d see him there.

So on April 22, a Saturday, I hired a cab for the day and took my wife and one year-old daughter to find the Zapatistas. I think the map below shows where we went, but I’m not sure. The cabbie had no idea where Pueblo Nuevo might be and we drove west of Mexico City, onto dirt roads. We were trying to get there at 9 and I think we finally found it closer to 11, or later, as it was just about lunch time, which is late in Mexico.

View Larger Map

I thought of myself then—and think of myself now—as a journalist of John Ross’ ilk: rugged, independent, more interested in the people than the politicians, willing to go places at personal sacrifice for a story. But I was also in Mexico on an expense account with a major U.S. newspaper chain where I could do things like hire a cab for a day (oh to be on an expense account again)! Part of the Other Campaign was a fierce commitment to the alternative press and indeed, there was a caravan of lefty journalists from all over the world following Marcos across Mexico. We saw their ragtag caravan in the parking area and then walked through some brush to reveal a large tent, mostly full of Indians and campesinos, listening to speaches. In front, on a raised platform, sat a masked Marcos and several other Zapatistas. It was a surreal scene.

La Otra Campaña in rural Mexico State, April 2006

I asked for an interview with Marcos and was told he does not speak to the mainstream media, which was a bit of a bummer. I think I’d be more aggressive about it today … I’ll admit now that I really had no idea what was going on at that meeting, who was speaking, what the purpose was. Perhaps that came through in the article I eventually filed. I believe it was more of a listening tour, where the Zapatistas were building capacity in rural areas by listening to the complaints of the indigenous populace.

We stayed for a communal lunch (chicken, beans, sweet local mushrooms), I interviewed a few campesinos and snapped a few pics and then we loaded into the cab for the long ride back to La Zona Rosa, stopping for pulque along the way, real homebrewed pulque, which also made it into the article.

My family, eating lunch at Zapatista political rally, Mexico State, April, 2006

This is where the problems started. As I stated in the article I wrote, the mainstream press did not really care about Marcos anymore, but I was trying to get the mainstream press to run a story on his Otra Campaña anyway because I thought it was interesting, I thought he was a significant historical figure since the outset of the Zapatista rebellion on the eve of NAFTA’s inception and frankly, I sympathized with many of the values and ideas of the movement.

Unfortunately, none of that would come across in the final version of the story. The Zapatista sympathizers hated the story (the only archived version I can find online comes from a Chiapas web archive and is headlined: “Knight Ridder Trashes Marcos.” I’m pretty sure Giordano sent me an e-mail saying he regretted helping me get to the rally (he never found it), but I can’t find the e-mail anymore. And I fully admit the headlines sucked, and I won’t even use the excuse that I didn’t write the headlines. I wanted to emphasize the marginalization of Marcos in the Mexican and international press and the co-opting of indigenous issues by the other candidates and by Vicente Fox. But the final draft of the story does read like a marginalization of Marcos and indigenous issues, and for that I have felt badly for four years.

I never saw Ross again, but I’ve always been inspired by his willingness to write what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted, outlets for his work be damned. His vision of Mexico is part of mine. And whether he likes it or not, the mainstream media, in the guise of Knight Ridder and it’s wannabe foreign correspondent of the moment, bought John Ross dinner at La Blanca that night.

John Ross poetry

PS I did find an early draft of my story and it was much better and more balanced than the version that was eventually published. Too bad.

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