-MEXICO 1962 - Michael James

The run from Victoria, Texas, to Ciudad Victoria, the Tamaulipas state capitol, on my Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle, was about 450 miles, 700 kilometros. That’s where I ended up, and where I checked into an old hotel. My room off the second floor balcony had a big bed and a big overhead fan, a good hot shower, and plenty of bugs on the ceiling in the night.

Out on the streets I watched a crowd gather around a gray-haired woman, a man in a straw cowboy hat, and a policeman. I didn’t know what it was about. After I shot a few pictures I was approached by an older fellow; he spoke English and we talked for a time. He had lived and worked in Chicago years earlier... said he once had a 1947 Harley.

I walked and looked around. People were friendly. I was offered the affectionate services of women for $2 -- offers I graciously declined, declaring I was too tired.

My first meal in Mexico was chosen by indicating to the waiter, el mesero, that I would have the same fare that someone at another table was eating. It turned out to be cabrito, baby goat. It was delicious. I washed it down with a Carta Blanca that cost 16 cents.

Awakening in the night, I went to the window and used my best español to ask someone in the gas station below what time it was. I heard doce -- midnight -- but I took it for dos, two. Figuring to get a jump on my ride to Mexico City, “dos” seemed good. I loaded up, gased up, and was ready to roll before I realized the correct time. With an extra two-hour jump, my ride now spanned the end of a night and the dawning of a new day.

A misty dawn and I was in a mountain town, smelling unique jungle scents, and the diesel fumes of buses and trucks. There I heard for the first time the early morning pat-pat-pat of women making tortillas. I shot a picture of my trusty steed parked in the middle of the road, in the middle of the town, with no one around. It was still. It was quiet. I soaked it in.


During the night out on the highway I had barely missed the rump of a caballo that was on the road seeking warmth. I had seen some campesinos muy borrachos staggering on the roadside, and, after following a bus for better lighting, had ended up in a dirt wash while navigating a turn near Ciudad Valles.

I had also pulled up to a rural cantina and dancehall, gotten off the bike, stretched out, and walked into the club. My entrance had eyes looking at me -- blond, 210, 6’ 2” -- wearing a gray leather welding jacket, black jeans, and jet boots. I ordered a refresco from the bar, drank it slowly, and nodded at numerous folks before saddling up and rumbling off into the night.

The Sunday ride south was “far out,” amazing and magical for this 20-year-old gringo del Norte. I rode above, below, and in the clouds. Along the side of the road there was an ongoing parade of Indians carrying sticks, pigs, turkeys, bundled-this and bundled-that, goods I did not yet know about.

I passed a scraggly group of peasants standing at attention, led in drill by a man in a scruffy uniform who waved as I rode by. And when I stopped, camera in hand, on the mountain’s edge, I decided not to “capture the spirit” of two Indians sitting on a wall with their machetes when they turned away from me.

Closer to Mexico City there were more mountains, more horses, burros and carts, more cars, buses and trucks, small towns, and all manner of roadside activity. And there were hundreds and hundreds of fellows riding European bikes. Bicycles. They were all wearing colorful tight-fitting riding outfits, grouped in packs, creating a rainbow effect. This bike scene was way new to me. I was the product of the fat-wheeled American bicycle era, a la J.C. Higgins and Schwinn, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.


By mid-afternoon I reached kilometro 16 up on the Carretera Mexico Toluca highway, 7,000 feet above sea level, 76 hours after leaving Lucia and central Illinois. I was there, at Mexico City College, planning to study, to see, to learn new things; and I intend to have a good time.

I took notice of the beatnik types, the early hippies, as well as straighter preppie types. Huaraches and woolen Indian sweaters were popular with all. I fell in with an interesting collection of gringo types living at the Mex-Ci-Co Apartments, and with people I met at school. All of them were older than me. I was, in fact, the young kid, being introduced to new and different things. That was my good fortune.

In my new world, Mexico summer 1962, these adventures included trips to the Museo Nacional de Arte, the central market, getting too drunk at a bar called Tipico Mexico in Garibaldi Square, climbing the pyramid at San Juan Teotihuacán, hitting the Toluca Thursday market, more climbing at las ruinas outside Toluca, and other trips out of town.

It also included discovering mangos, visiting eating establishments, hitting the Saturday night into Sunday morning after-hours dance halls, and going to the bullfights. And it also included drinking in the grand lobby of a palatial whorehouse, where I chatted with a very big and very black Cuban pro wrestler. Oh, and there was the discovery of la marijuana, the sacred weed. Hallelujah!

Twelve days after I showed up in Mexico City, so did President John F. Kennedy. He was attempting to bolster the U.S.’s role in Latin America via the Alliance for Progress. At the time I was a Kennedy fan, especially of his inspirational exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I was also, however, becoming aware that many in the world didn’t see the USA as the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I saw walls covered with anti-USA and anti-Kennedy graffiti. I photographed a man on a corner, and was able to discern the scrubbed-out words “Kennedy Largate” -- “Kennedy get out” -- on the wall behind him. My political awakening was continuing.

On July 29, 1962, an excited crowd lined the Paseo de la Reforma to catch a view of Kennedy in a confetti parade. I was there and shot two photos of Kennedy riding in an open air Mercedes with Mexican President Lopez Mateos. In the first one, which I call “Commotion in the Motorcade,” the secret service guys, riding behind Kennedy in a Cadillac convertible, are turned right and looking back. The motorcycle in front of the Mercedes had just hit someone who came too far out into the road.

That happened perhaps 20 yards to my right. I cocked my camera, immediately shooting again, catching a slightly blurred JFK who was directly in front of me. The vehicles had been moving fast, and after hours of buildup, the moment had come and gone. I took it easy, moving through the crowd, back to the Triumph and up the mountain to my Mex-Ci-Co abode, to eat, read Sons of the Shaking Earth, and reflect on some fading ways of looking at the world.


- Micheal James, October 2004























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