John Ross, R.I.P.

From Sea to Stinking Sea

By Kent Paterson

Long live John Ross. The author, poet, pioneer draft resister, ex-con, globe-trotting rebel and self-described trouble-maker died of complications from liver cancer on Jan. 17 in his beloved Mexico.

The US-born journalist was 72. A frequent commentator on Mexico for community and public radio stations, Ross was perhaps best known in this country for his chronicles of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion that shook Mexico and the world. For the last 25 years of his life Ross was based in Mexico City, though his sojourns took him as far as Iraq, where he served as one of the “human shields” that atttempted to stop George W. Bush from obliterating the cradle of civilization.

A “red-diaper baby,” Ross first kissed Mexican soil in 1957, following a north-south trail blazed by other Bohemians and Beats like William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, the manic driver of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus and the Electric Kool Aid acid test.

Unlike Burroughs, who got a monkey on his back, and Cassady, who was found dead on train tracks in San Miguel Allende, Ross plunged into Mexican and Latin American politics.

Almost like a seasoned mole, the Mexican sauce concocted of chiles, chocolates and dozens of other delights, Ross was seeped in Mexican history, culture and politics far more than any other foreign-born correspondent in Mexico.

He lived at the Hotel Isabel, a graceful old lodging in the heart of Mexico City, where he observed and dissected Mexican politics and society. In his cramped but productive quarters, stacks of the left-leaning Mexico City daily La Jornada were piled high. This writer recalls bouncing around Mexico City press conferences with Ross in 2006 to cover the unfolding conflict over the presidential election results. Ross was convinced that the announced victory of conservative candidate Felipe Calderon over left rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was a fraud; he had witnessed it before, back in 1988 when the then-ruling PRI party deprived opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the presidency. The 1988 election was fictionalized in Ross’ novel Tonatiuh’s People.

Although Ross’ journalistic endeavors appeared in countless publications, his juiciest stuff flowed freely in the “Blindman’s Buff” series sent as e-mails to a subscriber list. Ross’ long and sometimes rambling pieces often put events in Mexico in a global context.

In the last year of life, Ross tackled difficult but defining events that will shape the course of Mexico in the near future. Like other observers, Ross was puzzled by the long silence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army preceding and during Mexico’s historic bicentennial celebration, a year steeped in bloody battles involving drug cartels and numerous human rights violations.

“Zapatologists like this writer have always been notoriously off the mark in trying to predict what the compas will do next. Stay Tuned,” Ross wrote.

A sharp critic of Barack Obama, Ross regarded the man once considered by some on the left and in the progessive community as the second coming of FDR as a shill for Wall Street and the Pentagon. He even compared the president to a former Mexican governor widely blamed for crushing a popular 2006 rebellion in Oaxaca and killing or disappearing scores of people.

“Obama’s never-ending wars on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have transformed him into a Ulises Ruiz on a global scale,” Ross penned. In his last years, Ross likewise devoted much space to the so-called drug war devasting Mexico. As Hillary Clinton’s January visit to Mexico once again demonstrated, the US administration’s unyielding support for the Calderon government — buttressed by the Secretary of State’s announcement of $500 million in security aid — would surely have had Ross adding Mexico as the third nation on the list of Obama’s endless wars.

In a manner similar to the humpback and gray whales that winter in Mexico, Ross tended to migrate back north as the cold season began drawing down. Like an unshakable, literary Wobbly he traveled from city-to-city giving book signings, speaking to college audiences and generally invoking revolution. Inevitably, the prolific writer’s journeys were inspiration for zapped e-mail articles that sliced away at the corruption and decay of the contemporary US. “From sea to stinking sea,” was a phrase Ross used to sum up the state of affairs in his birthplace.

Ross would tell US audiences that the best way to support the Zapatistas was to become Zapatistas themselves. And he didn’t mean by donning a ski mask for a demonstration or marching on City Hall with toy and real rifles. What Ross meant was that people in the US had their own local and national struggles, in the same way Chiapas’ indigenous Mayans did. He urged listeners to take a cue from the Zapatistas’ years of patient, grassroots organization and mass mobilization. It is a lesson still over the head of many self-styled progressives in the US.

On the day Ross died, this writer was on the shores of Banderas Bay on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It was a splendid winter day, and three whales emerged from the waters. Defying the ships around them, they trashed about the waters creating waves.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2011

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