by Brenadan Maslauskas-Dunn/Love and Rage
Cancun. That one word, that one city, to many north of the Rio Grande who have the money and the means to travel there, it conjures images of partying, beaches, spring break. My understanding of Cancun however, formed over ten years ago. I understood Cancun to be a city that was torn apart by, at least visually and on the surface, the carelessness and recklessness of college students and tourists. But scratch under that surface. Just slightly. And you’ll find a deeply scarred city, its open wounds caused by a constant wave of attacks from a different kind of foreign invasion, that of global capitalism and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
It was in Cancun, in the late summer of 2003 that the wealthiest and most powerful people of the world met at the WTO conference convened there. Countless people from all over the world came to protest the WTO, as they had in past gatherings of the rich, most notably in 1999 in what would later be called the Battle of Seattle. On the first day in Cancun, protesters gathered en masse to again spar with the forces of power and violence. It was in front of a phalanx of police guarding the WTO conference that Korean farmer Kun Hai Lee, after proclaiming that “the WTO kills farmers,” repeatedly stabbed himself in a ritual suicide, a martyrdom that would shed light on the plight of farm workers and poorer farmers the world over who had been pushed to the edge by the disastrous policies of the WTO. Some farmers, like Lee, were pushed over the edge. His blood stained the streets of Cancun. The city was both a playground for the rich and a battleground for the poor of the world. Kun Hai Lee was my introduction to Cancun. It was strange to be there years after his death. I felt I was walking on hallowed ground.
My introduction to Cancun through the news and stories surrounding Kun Hai Lee and the WTO protests was quite different from my physical introduction to the city this summer. The time mypartner Michelle and I spent in Cancun was, for me at least, mesmerizing. I was in a daze the whole time I was there, still in disbelief I had successfully made it across the border.
We mostly spent our time on buses. We hopped on an air-conditioned ADO bus from the airport to downtown, and back again, and again. This ride was on a sleek white and red bus that made Greyhound seem like a dysfunctional relic from some bygone era. Then we ventured on a beat up bus that mostly locals took to slave away in La Hoteleira – the strip of land on the coast that was invaded at some point and occupied by a seemingly endless line of five star hotels that shot up into the sky. Our funds were limited as it was so we slept at a hostel near the bus station and stayed awake all night battling mosquitoes in the humidity.
I’ll be completely honest when I say that the WTO, the protests that confronted the organization, nor the martyrdom of Kun Hai Lee were on my mind in Cancun. But other moments and movements that wove in and out of the same movement that Lee had bled and died for – the global justice movement – were on my mind. My thoughts were set on the Zapatistas, on Oaxaca, the city that rose up in rebellion in 2006; even on our final destination of Cuba which, although it had stumbled here and there along the way, at times with disastrous consequences, still seemed to be involved with that movement, at least in spirit.
The absence of my mind from the present moment probably explains in part why Michelle and I walked in circles to try to find our hostel that first night. Or maybe when we very unsuccessfully snuck into an expensive hotel to get access to the beach, with our terrible attempt to pass as bougie tourists. Confidently, in my broken Spanish I invited a worker there to go to the beach with us instead of trying to tell him we were going to the beach. After a look of confusion swept his face, and Michelle explained to him what I tried to say, I secretly hoped he and his coworkers would call for a strike, push the tourists out of the way and take over the beaches that were rightfully theirs.
He replied in English, “The public access is just a few hotels down.” Eventually, we made it to the beach, minus the striking workers. It was a thin strip of sand we spent the afternoon on, our backs to the Zona Hoteleira and are eyes fixated on the ocean, lost in our dreams, our visions and our uncertainty about what was in store for us over the next month.
Aside from the Zapatista language school we had signed up to go to in the mountains of Chiapas, we had no fixed schedule and didn’t have much of an idea of where we would stay in each city, how we would get there, or even what cities we would stop at first. Campeche? Merida? Who knew? So we sat, took a deep breath, and mostly in silence, took in this incredible new country.
We went swimming, walked in circles on the Zona Hoteleria to try to find a bus, ate quesidillas downtown, walked through hot, sweaty crowds of people on their way to and from work, and sprinted through traffic circles to dodge cars. But we mostly watched the city come alive before us in what seemed like an eternal procession of people.
I know visitors take away different experiences away from a city advertised to the world as a playground and a party – an escape from reality. For me, one thing stands out: the kindness of the people. It was much more sincere and had firmer roots it seemed than anything I’d experienced in the U.S. The first night in Cancun, Michelle and I were completely lost. But stranger after stranger helped us find our destination, either with a free ride at the airport, or with the older man who slowly walked us through a maze of streets and traffic circles to bring us to the hostel. It was comforting.
She and I were foreigners in a different land, in a different culture, with a very rudimentary understanding of Spanish and we were welcomed with open arms and a “de nada” to our thank yous here and there.
This was Cancun for me. The people, the workers, and those struggling from below who welcomed us with the affection of a relative. I imagine that Kun Hai Lee had the same reception from the people, the poor, the workers. From those struggling to cater to the demands of the rich, whether it was to the members of the WTO in 2003 or those today partying in luxury suites in high rise hotels in the Zona Hoteleira. I guess it only makes sense that the starting point for our journey through Mexico and Cuba, to find the pulse of the global justice movement, was the same place where Kun Hai Lee, pushed to the edge, decided to end his life.
The tragedy and irony of it all, in Cancun of all places in the world. Yes, Cancun is hallowed ground, soaked with the blood of Kun Hai Lee, drenched with the sweat of the working poor, but also packed with the dreams and visions for those who want a more just world. You just have to scratch under the surface to find them. Just slightly.