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Cubrebocas and the Viral Chupacabra: A swine flu report from Cuernavaca, Mexico

Though a comparison of the current flu pandemic to the chupacabra legend might seem crass and nihilistic, particularly in the face of real death caused by the virus, the public circulation of emails comparing the two gives some insight into the levels of deep mistrust that many people in Mexico toward their government.

by Kaaren Fehsenfeld

Signs reading “Closed for Health Reasons” hang on the iron gates that lock up many of the closed restaurants throughout Mexico while face masks (called cubrebocas or tapabocas) cover the mouths and noses of pedestrians, bus drivers, street vendors, and even people isolated in their own cars. In Cuernavaca, Morelos, despite being located just over an hour from Mexico City, the epicenter of the outbreak, there is a relative calm about the recent flu epidemic that has taken the world by surprise. But citizens are still worried and taking precautions: many wear the trademark blue or white cubrebocas that, since the SARS epidemic, have become an iconic image of the modern ‘outbreak’. Of the few restaurants, bars, cinemas and shops that still remain open, most are empty. As the days pass, however, the hysteria, fear, and paranoia of the initial news of the swine flu seems to have been replaced with a hesitant resistance and a will to weather the storm of this most recent challenge to both Mexico and the people who live here. In Mexico, most citizens live in a constant state of critique of their government, and criticism of the government’s actions has only increased since the outbreak of the swine flu epidemic. This is partly because elections are coming up in July and partly because extreme skepticism toward public officials is in many ways the status quo: the country suffered one of the longest dictatorships in modern history (the PRI party dominated for 71 years, while the presidency was handed from one politician to the next without legitimate, open elections) and is currently cited as having one of the most corrupt governments in the world. People here have historically been hit hard and repeatedly, whether by their own government, by foreign powers and investors, by poverty, disease and a lack of political autonomy that the privileged majority in the US can hardly understand and frequently ignore.

The swine flu outbreak is, of course, bigger than Mexico and Mexican politics. The virus is spreading rapidly, prompting the World Health Organization to raise its pandemic alert level to 5 (out of 6) and declare that a worldwide pandemic is “imminent”. And in addition to seven confirmed deaths in Mexico and an estimated 170 unconfirmed (but suspected) additional deaths related to the virus, the swine flu killed one person in the United States and there are thousands of suspected, non-lethal cases scattered across the globe. But in the epicenter of the influenza outbreak, people are nonetheless attuned to the ways that Mexico’s political machine is responding to the outbreak, as well as the new opportunities (created by the aftershocks of fear and panic) that now present themselves to politicians. For example, a taxi driver told me yesterday that he supposed the outbreak was “all politics”. A teacher friend of mine commented that, “the people have the burden of the disease; we’ll see which political party comes up with the vaccine”. And another friend even received a chain email comparing the flu outbreak to the chupacabra legend: the myth that tells of a hairy, fanged beast who emerges at night to suck out the blood (and sometimes the organs) of livestock in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The legend is sometimes used metaphorically to symbolize the way that fear and hysteria of an unknown chupacabra--in this case a flu supposedly created by the government—can be used to take advantage of the people.

Though a comparison of the current flu pandemic to the chupacabra legend might seem crass and nihilistic, particularly in the face of real death caused by the virus, the public circulation of emails comparing the two gives some insight into the levels of deep mistrust that many people in Mexico have toward their government. Indeed, the concern for most is not whether the government actually created the virus (an irrelevant conspiracy theory), but the ways in which politicians might manipulate the current state of emergency for political reasons. For example, the swine flu was first announced to the Mexican public on Thursday, April 23, 2009 and on Friday April 24, while the public’s attention was focused on a news media blitz that created an intense fear of the epidemic, the government passed a bill that will effectively legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, mushrooms, peyote and amphetamines. This is no small matter for a country where the economy is supported to a large degree by illegal narco-trafficking, and both politicians and members of the police forces have been brought up on corruption charges or suspected of involvement with known drug traffickers. Indeed, the decision to legalize the possession of small amounts of nearly every type of drug in Mexico is a pressing issue that should be at the forefront of public debate. It would normally be front-page news, but with the current state of affairs the legislation was either barely covered or completely ignored by most media outlets. The bill was passed under the radar when most of the country was looking the other way.

On Monday, April 27, all schools from kindergartens to universities were closed at a national level until the 6th of May. Restaurants, bars, and other public gatherings are now meeting a similar fate. The Mexican government encouraged citizens to take advantage of these impromptu ‘vacation’ days by staying home and spending time with family. Travel was discouraged, as well as public gatherings. The weekend of May 1st is celebrated as Labor Day in Mexico. However, May 1st is also recognized around the world and in Mexico as International Workers’ Rights Day; protests are traditionally held around the world in support of various workers’ rights issues. Teachers in the state of Morelos and other parts of Mexico have been on strike against the recently passed Alliance for Quality Education (ACE) act since August 2008. The act has been criticized by some as a neo-liberal policy that would open the doors to privatization of the nation’s schools. The ACE calls for the refurbishing of school buildings throughout the nation, and also establishes a set of tests used to determine whether applicants are hired as teachers, and also which teachers will receive promotions. But with the government’s encouragement to stay out of public spaces this holiday weekend, teachers nationwide have been forced to downsize many of the protests planned for May 1st. In Cuernavaca, determined teachers protested in spite of the warnings to avoid public spaces, their faces covered with blue and white tapabocas as they marched. But because citizens were heavily encouraged not to leave their homes, few people witnessed the teachers’ protest, and it was barely mentioned in Cuernavaca’s newspapers. The timing of the flu outbreak in Mexico is coincidental, but many people in Mexico remain skeptical of their government’s actions. As one friend pointed out, “the government could not have had a better excuse than the swine flu to tell people to stay home from public events, including the protests that were planned all over the country”.

To their credit, the Mexican government has had quick and drastic responses to the swine flu epidemic. They are attempting to cut the risk of infection by shutting down public places and events that are most likely to further the spread of the outbreak. Schools, bars, sporting events, and restaurants have been closed down for public safety. But while they are ostensibly protecting the people, it remains to be seen whether there are other political moves at work, let alone ones that will emerge in the aftermath of the epidemic. For this reason, and because history tends to repeat itself, many Mexicans have good reason to be skeptical. Because after the sickness passes, life will continue on, and there will be even more economic, political and social problems to solve.

In the meantime, the fear of the virus is ebbing, anxiety over the threat of new political chupacabras is growing, and people are living with the reluctance and acceptance of being a nation under viral siege, with the will to wait out the epidemic.

Kaaren Fehsenfeld is a Cultural Studies major at Columbia College Chicago who is currently studying & living in Cuernavaca.