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A few years back I heard this song called Valentine’s Day In Juarez. The chorus of the song peaked my interest, so I downloaded the song. It goes like,
They got the cocaine, oxycontin, mushrooms, marijuana,
Vodka, plastic pop off (or Popov?), twist one up
It’s a catchy tune, but I didn’t explore the message behind it. I thought it was just a song about partying in a border town. And so it quickly fell into the rest of my music collection like a raindrop in a river.
Then I read Charles Bowden’s Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, and I revisited the song, illuminated by Bowden’s work. I can only describe this book as a sort of “marriage of Gonzo and Hell,” because Alice Leora Briggs illustrated in wood-etchings the dissolution of order there, in a style reminiscent of William Blake or Peter Bruegel the Elder. In fact, the images are quite disturbing, which makes them effective.
The word Gonzo seems appropriate, though I’m not clear on what it is, exactly—for Bowden participates to some degree in what he covers. His book details his experience, not so much the cold facts of the war. He doesn’t edit things but leaves the tape rolling. He’s deeply opposed to it yet unable to imagine the situation there getting better. He’s also a brave son of a bitch, considering all the recent murders of reporters.
Back to the Ike Reilly Assassination—He opens his song, singing,
Yesterday I smoked, today I don’t (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I swallowed, today I choke (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I dreamed, today I hoped (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Yesterday I sunk, today I float (yeah, yeah, yeah)
These words seemed a bit banal to me at first. But Bowden’s account illuminated a few things: First, the Juarez Cartel, as well as the others along the border, kill most of their victims quietly, in a suburban condo, by strangulation. Perhaps after some torture. The cartels call it carne asada, which in plain English means “grilled meat.”
The character of his song is in Juarez—or maybe just across the border—and he was looking to party, specifically for some drugs (Cocaine, Oxycontin, etc.). So he hooked up with some shady characters and for the drugs, he has to “carry roses across the bridge / to gain favor with the Suicide Girls.”
I don’t know who the Suicide Girls are, and I’ve Googled it, and, well, it turns up porn sites, so…?—But let us imagine for the sake of argument that the Suicide Girls are a gang of women, working with the cartels much like the Zetas, and have dominion over their little fiefs within the greater kingdom of the Mexican drug cartels.
Carrying roses across the bridge refers to a “mule,” I think—that is, someone who smuggles drugs across the bridge for the cartels—and some mules make money, but more disappear. Likewise for the character of the song: He sinks one day, floats the next. He’s been strangled and dumped in the river, floating down the Rio Grande. Which makes this song every bit as dark as Bowden’s stories of missing people: “Where he goes isn’t always clear / Places we both know have been closed for years.” Bowden keeps talking about the disappearing people. Most are never found, save for in a dusty folder within a DEA file cabinet.
My friend called the scene in Mexican a “soft war,” which I suppose is a reasonable nomenclature—except it’s still a war, despite the fact that it’s neither a cold nor hot one. It’s a unique case of drug cartels outstripping the Mexican government’s resources and ability to contain them. Instead of curtailing the growing violence, the government participates. The police perform the executions. The higher-ups look the other way on both sides of the border.
“But here is where we stop and turn off the answering machine and go back to the history that comforts us, the faith of our fathers,” Bowden says.
Where, then, do these cartels find all this money to keep on keeping on? You have to look no further than your own neighborhood. And while our government guilt-trips kids so they will avoid drugs, it knowingly supports, or tacitly approves of, the violence that is funded by drugs.
Such is the state of things, and it’s only getting worse.
On a side note
Since we never see Thomas Pynchon, there are always people trying to guess who he really is. Here’s my best guess so far: He is Charles Bowden.
Their voices are both similar, old and bass-y. Cf. this interview with Bowden with this video ad for Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which he apparently narrated. Maybe it’s just the subject matter that makes the connection for me. Even the pictures kind of match up: Pynchon vs. Bowden.
I know it’s crazy. But the name Bowden is similar to Bodine, who is a recurring character in every (I think, anyway, haven’t read em all yet) Pynchon novel. He’s either Pig Bodine (V) or Seaman Bodine (Gravity’s Rainbow), and there’s also a Bodine in both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day.
So would it be so crazy to think Pynchon works pseudonymously through Charles Bowden?—that, when Pynchon isn’t writing sprawling novels, he is an active journalist.
I’m probably wrong, but there are worse people to suggest, right? I can’t image either one would be offended at the guess, because they are both fantastic writers.
Rick Berman (not the dick who runs Star Trek, but the lobbyist) for The Daily Caller explores the semantic choices of the high-fructose corn syrup lobby, which has sought to change public perception of their sweetener. The lobby has petitioned the F.D.A. to allow their sweetener to be called “corn sugar” as opposed to “high-fructose corn syrup.” Berman considers this name an improvement, since the amount of fructose (what makes sugar sweet) is roughly the same as in refined cane and beet sugar. In addition, listing it in plain English as “sugar” clearly tells consumers what they are consuming. He notes the common view that anything sounding too industrial or scientific tends to scare people. He also explores the semantics of advertising and their word choices, concluding, “Americans want to know what is in their food, not which squares on the Periodic Table it occupies.”
In recent years, many have demonized high-fructose corn syrup. Sugar itself, in one form or another, has been a key scapegoat for America’s obesity debacle for even longer. The connotations attending to each product have shifted. In the 1980s, soft drink corporations replaced cane sugar with corn sweetener. They did so mainly because of high import tariffs and other government supports for the U.S. sugar industry (Yes, your tax-dollars support that foul miasma wafting over campus from Bay City’s sugar refinery.), which drove the price of imported sugarcane to artificially high prices. Domestic corn syrup, as a result, became the cheaper, domestic alternative.
Economics aside, the switch made advertising sense too. When the switch came, many—especially children—did not know what high-fructose corn syrup was nor cared to find out, because it is a mouthful to say and looks arcane enough to ignore. It made good marketing sense, then, to replace the word “sugar” with a word that looked like gobbledygook, because it replaced a word commonly associated with obesity with a word that had no negative connotation in the minds of consumers.
Twenty-five years later, the connotations have reversed. Enough talking heads and celebrity chefs have lambasted high-fructose corn syrup such that the word “sugar” seems healthier by comparison. The products have not changed, but the lobby intends to change its perceived health benefits. People associate sugar with greater health benefits—or at least, greater than those of high-fructose corn syrup—which, as Berman points out, was coined such because it had a greater amount of fructose than regular corn syrup, and not because it had more fructose than table sugar. While Berman maintains this switch of terms to be beneficial, “corn sugar” being a more to the point and accurate name, there is always an economic reason for these changes. This is an effort to change their product’s image, and like water, advertising tends to seek the lowest level. If one is stupid enough to believe high fructose corn syrup is bad because it sounds scientific, s(he) will be stupid enough to think cane sugar will be better for them. Only in advertising can the truth still seem like a lie.
Switching the names signals a greater trend. If the ingredient’s name reads as if scientists coined it, it must be bad, whereas, if it is natural, it must be okay. Still these assumptions break down under scrutiny. For instance, compare the processed xanthan gum with natural hemlock. Humans process kelp to make xanthan gum, yet it remains innocuous, but natural hemlock is a deadly poison. American Spirit cigarettes claim they are all natural, but they will kill just the same as cigarettes with additives. So too have words like “preservatives” and “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” become insidious, mainly because the name—often Latinate—implies, or lists outright, a scientific process. In the past, advertisers have listed these processes to distract the consumer from the basic contents of their food, even though chemically speaking, a preservative is just a salt and partially hydrogenated soybean oil is simply a fat. However, if the label lists the main ingredients as “salt” and “fat,” those products would be harder to sell.
If advertisers could convince the world that the sky is purple, they would surely try. It is disheartening that many in America gather a great amount of “truth” from advertising. Consider the Tiger Woods scandal. Why was it so scandalous? Charlie Sheen had just stabbed his girlfriend, but the media gave it scant attention in their scramble to uncover Woods’ many sins. Since Woods became pro, companies have pitched him as a mentor, a good citizen and a paradigm of racial progress. Years later when the scandal broke, the American public felt let down, somehow. Tiger Woods no longer commanded such admiration. Charlie Sheen had no such image to shatter, and in fact, he had the opposite reputation as a bad-boy with a record; so naturally, nobody was entranced with the scandal of his serious crime. They expected it.
The truth about Woods is obvious in hindsight. He plays golf constantly, and when he does not, companies use him incessantly to sell cars, golf balls, and clothing lines. All real evidence would suggest that he is too busy to devote adequate time to his family. Still many were deceived, because advertising has stamped this mentor image—and by extension, the image of a good father and husband—so indelibly into their minds. This deception not only illustrates the power of advertising to make one needy, but also its power to shape a person’s image. When that image shatters, however, we should not be so surprised.
Now, sugar has a good image—or at least not as bad. Even though the scientists at the American Dietetic and the American Medical Associations agree that cane sugar and corn sweetener are essentially the same, advertising still maintains a myth through the connotations of language. For a little while, the American public may believe corn sugar will help them with their obesity. However, whether a name seems natural or unnatural rarely denotes whether a product is processed or safe. Milk is regarded as natural, except for pasteurizing and homogenizing. Moreover, if you have smelled that sickly-sweet scent drifting from the Bay City sugar refinery, you might have guessed sugar cubes don’t grow in grandma’s garden.