Inspired by the Danish film movement, Dogme 95, this story follows a strict ethnographic credo of dogma only allowing the interlocutors a voice.
Cast and storyline:
Gregoria is the main character. She lives with her partner Don Robert in Mexico City. Her seven adult children are working in the informal sector, some as racketeers, others as robbers, yet others selling drugs or pirated goods, while some stay on the straight and narrow. The story begins in Gregoria’s home 10 minutes after the extorsion starts and ends six months later when the aggressors were hexed and Gregoria broke off her relationship with her own mother.
The mother Gregoria (on the phone):
“Uh huh, hang on, lemme see if I can find it. I’ve got it right here. Okay, what else? Alright, tell me. How’re we gonna settle this? Yeah, I’ll figure out what to tell ‘em. Beg your pardon?”
The children Mariana, Lidia, and Mario (moments later):
Lidia: “Mama got into a taxi, alone. I’m telling you, she took a taxi over there. How could she?”
Mariana: “Israel’s [Gregoria’s son] working. Should we call him?”
Lidia: “Mama’s gonna get pissed if we call Israel and get him goin’ crazy over this, too.”
Mariana: “Well I am going crazy over it. Don’t even have a car or a motorcycle or anything to follow her.”
Lidia: “But it’s someone we know. Somebody she trusted betrayed her.”
Mariana: “It could be anybody, sister. How many people come around here knowing all our names? It could be any nutjob.”
Lidia: “But I heard him tell her, “I’m a kidnapper, I’m a rapist, I’m a murderer: me, I don’t give a crap about anything. So you, what do you want? You want me to start killing her? I’ve got your Karla right here.” He started tellin’ her everybody’s names. I don’t know how much he wanted, but my mama was goin’ crazy, “No, no, hang on a minute señor, all I can give you is a hundred thousand pesos. I don’t have any more than that. Whoever told you my accounts were full was lying; I don’t even have bank accounts.” Mama walked away so I wouldn’t hear any more, but I could still kinda hear him tell her they have photos of all of us women, they even have photos of the girl, and if she didn’t want to lose her beloved Karla then she shouldn’t get stupid. They knew how to get under her skin with the girl—that’s why, like I said, she went goddamn crazy, Sister.”
Mario: [arriving] What, dude? What’s going on?
Mariana: “Somebody called my mama on the phone and they’re extorting her. She already gave them some money, but then they told her they wanted more or they were gonna kill Karla, Luz, the baby. And Mama left, on her own. She got into a taxi and she hasn’t come back.”
Mario: “No, no, no. I’m gonna lay it out real clear for you, those are goddamn worthless jackasses; they’re animals. They’re calling from inside the prison; otherwise, they could’ve grabbed my mama somewhere out there and pulled her in, easy. Then they would’ve had us by the balls, but they didn’t, because those jackasses are behind bars.”
That day we were taking the kids to the doctor. I remember we were about to get in the taxi when somebody called my mama. Don Robert started yelling for her; we went back inside and my mama grabbed the phone. That’s when the whole fuckin’ thing started. I saw her face drop. I said, “What happened, what’s wrong?” I imagined it had something to do with one of my brothers, something like that. My sister Mariana shows up in a taxi, she says hello and sees my mama won’t let go of the phone. “What’s up, what’s going on? Who’s she talking to?” Right then whoever it was started telling my mama they had my older sister Mariana, they were gonna rape her, and they were going to send her beloved granddaughter Karla back to her in pieces if she didn’t go deposit the money. But she didn’t wanna tell us anything. She couldn’t even talk, ‘cause she was on the phone with that guy. We only knew what was happening ‘cause I put my ear up to the phone and she let me hear, but I only caught a couple words. My mama told us to shut up, real harsh. Luz and me were telling her, “Mama, calm down. Turn off that goddamn phone. Hang up.” And then she said, “Shut up; they’re going to kill Blackie. And my sister told her, “Mama, I’m right here. They’re lying! Look at me, I’m Blackie!” They fucked with her head so much that she was totally out of it.
All of a sudden, she went. I remember I asked you, “Where’s my mama?” “She took off running. She got into a taxi and she left,” that’s what you told me. And my sister said, “She gave us the slip, little sister. She got away from us and she started running.” “How could you let my mama go by herself?! Hours went by and we didn’t know where she was.
She took a real long time to come back, and when she did, she was still on the phone. The guy told her he needed another twenty-five. “Yes, I’m getting it now, I’m getting it now.” She left again, but right then Patricia’s sister Monze showed up, and we all went after Mama. I wasn’t gonna let her get away from me, not for anything. My mama went to get another taxi on the Eje. She gets into the car and says, “Get out of here.” And Monze tells her, “We’re not gonna leave you. Everybody get in,” and we all got in. “The thing is, I’m being followed,” my mama says to her. But by then they were writing notes to each other, passing the paper back and forth. Monze writes, “This is coming from inside the jail,” and my mama writes again that it isn’t. “I’m alone. I’m on my way to deposit the money,” my mama says into the phone, and the idiot answers her, “Alright, something is something.” Monze writes, “See how it is comin’ from inside the jail? How else could they not realize we’ve gotten into the car with you?” There were four of us in the taxi, and behind us we had one of Israel’s friends following with a machine gun. Mario and Israel were following in their trucks with a bunch of badasses too, and more machine guns.
When we got to where she was supposed to deposit the money, my mama was gonna go in, but Israel blocked her off. “Mama, give me the phone.” “Stop fucking around, I’m gonna go deposit it.” Israel says to her again, “Give me the phone.” “I said no! Move, they’re going to kill Mariana!” Right then Israel grabs his gun and he starts loading the chamber, chhhk! chhhk! and he puts the gun up to his head, “Mama, I’m gonna kill myself if you don’t give me the phone.” My mama was paralyzed. “Calm down, calm down! I’m gonna put my son on the phone,” she says to the guy and she tosses the phone to Israel. They start talking to each other, “Yeah, jackass, we’re waiting for you right here,” and I don’t know what else Israel told him. They tried to get into his head with psychology too, ‘cause they even told ‘im, “I have your sister Mariana here.” But Israel yelled at him, “Oh yeah, jackass? My sister is standing right next to me. Come here and start shit whenever you want.” “Well I’m gonna kill her.” “Well go on, kill her.”
While they were talking, we got my mama into the bank, and Mario told her, “This is all coming from inside a prison. Nobody’s gonna kill you; they’re not gonna do anything to you, Mama.” And it was like right at that moment my mama snapped out of it. And Monze asked her, “How much did you leave for them?” “Twenty-five thousand pesos.” “Where did you leave it?” “Here.” They’d sent her back to the same bank. Monze went and talked to the manager fast, and he went and asked the cashier if my mama had come by before to leave twenty-five thousand pesos in the name of whoever. The girl started lookin’ through her files and she said, “Yes, and the money hasn’t been claimed yet.” So they gave the money back to my mama.
When we were all back in the house again, all these trucks and cars pulled up. At first I thought, “My god, they’ve come for us,” ‘cause you never know with people. But it was the backup my brothers’d called in; they were there to watch out for us. Some of them came on account of Mario, others for Israel. All the roofs of all the buildings had snipers on ‘em. In every building, at every gate, at every door, there were armed badasses. I felt trapped, like “Ay, what the fuck?” ‘Cause you couldn’t leave. Nobody could, not even to go to the store, ‘cause of what’d just happened. It was real intense pressure. I felt hounded.
They knew where I lived, they knew my little girl’s name [Karla], they knew a million things that nobody knew. They even knew what my mama was wearing that day. That asshole told her on the phone, “You’re wearing a black dress right now; you better save that dress for your kids’ funerals, cuz I’m gonna kill every one of them.” How the fuck did he know she was wearing a black dress? Who was watching her right then?
Putting the pieces together, we think it must’ve been Cristina, Mario’s ex, with her new boyfriend Andres, and even my mama’s own grandson, Victor. First of all because they knew everything about us. Plus, things between my mama and Cristina had ended badly; she’d kicked her out of the house cuz when she was still living with Mama, she switched the electric bill into her name. Well, things soured between them, they got into it, and my mama kicked her out. In her rage, she pulled this bullshit; who else? Plus, her new boyfriend was in the prison, and we knew he was running extorsion from the inside. And her son Victor was there in the house when it happened. He went inside with his grandma to eat, but even then he never put his phone down for a second; kept sending text after text. When the call came in and everything started, he came out to see what was up and he just watched and watched.
After that, Cristina and Esther got into a fight. Esther was Lalo’s wife. She and Cristina were real close friends; they lived together and they’d go to the prison together, but one day they started fighting cuz Cristina owed Esther money. Well Esther told my mama, “Y’know what? For real, here’s how that shit was: Andrés was the one who planned it all, but it was another guy form Veracruz who called you. Victor was giving the signs and Cristina was the one who was gonna pick up the cash.” It all came out.
How could Cristina repay her like that? She lent you a hand, gave you food to eat, supported you, got you outta jail, and you go and pull some barbaric shit like that. My brothers for sure would’ve gotten revenge if it weren’t for my mama giving the order to leave her alone. “Don’t go over there anymore; leave them to God.” You think, after everything they’ve done to her, how could she suddenly say, “No, leave them alone”? It’s a miracle she didn’t have a fuckin’ heart attack. When you’re in a situation like that, your first instinct is to say, “I’m gonna kill her.” But then you think about it and you say, “Alright, then you’d turn into the same thing as she is.”
Enrique (Luz’ husband and Karla’s father)
I pulled a really, really bad hex outta my books, to kill the people who did it. Once we knew the names of who’d extorted her, the hex was quote unquote simple. You cut limes in half. On butcher paper, you write the name of the person and you fold it in half. You put that red stuff on the name, that stuff that’s like Guinea peppercorns. You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it, you can’t pick it up with your fingers, and what’s more, if you throw it at someone, they’ll die right there on the spot. Why? Because they’re powerful powders; you hafta know how to handle them. Anyway, you close it up with fifty straight pins and make a cross over the whole lime. Put all that in a dark container with a lid. I put some vinegar in there too, and some coffee, and some urine before I put the lime in. You close everything up and drop it into the river. I went to throw it into the dirty river in Naucalpan. The moment I dropped it and it fell into the filthy water, it was like I’d fired a cannon; it even splashed us. Didn’t splash us a lot, ‘cause we were on a bridge like 45 feet above the water, maybe a little less. But the minute I tossed it over, the water let out this intense boom, since it had so much tension in it.
Two or three days later, I started hearin’ talk about how Andrés’d been sent to a different jail; they’d stabbed him and nailed him with who knows how many chips there on the inside. They found out he was an extortionist, that he’d been paying off the director of the prison, and to wash his hands of it, the director sent him to another prison. Plus, Christina´s sick. Her legs are all fucked up with spider veins. She’s screwed now, too. The hex worked.
Gregoria (the second hex)
Not long afterward, the sorcerer Renato came by and I told him what’d happened, and we asked him to do a hex. When we did it, I watched everything that witch-man did. He prays over here, he says some words, he throws them, he puts out the papers and he covers them with black salt. Anyway, all that hullaballoo was so she would go away. Renato started smoking a cigar and then he goes and turns around this way and he starts with his brouhaha. I see how the smoke comes out, by God, I swear on the Virgin, he sucks on it like this: ssshhhhhh. And it seems like the smoke vanished like this, “fuuuuuuu.” He ate it up. Then Renato says, “Now you can sleep easy,” and not tiniest bit of smoke came out. I said, “Ay, let ‘em drown, let ‘em get emphysema. Ay my little God, I know this is bad. Don’t think I’m playing the fool, Lord, but you know that this is about justice, because what they did hurt me. It’s nothing more than justice. If you want them to die, well let them die. If they’re gonna die, let them die.” But Renato says, “I’m not asking for justice, I’m asking for vengeance. I want them to die.” Well, he’s pure voodoo. But for me it’s more for them to leave our path, or at least mine and Luz’s.
Half a year after the extorsion, Gregoria´s mom had that señora, Cristina, and the kids over to her house. My mama didn’t have a problem with the kids visiting their great-grandma, but she was up in arms that she’d have Cristina over. My mama went in there, saying how could she let that bitch into her house, knowing what she’d done to her daughter. But my grandma snapped back at my mama, real rude. She told her she didn’t give a fuck what’d happened, that it was her house and she could have whoever she fuckin’ wanted over. After that little speech, my mama left. I understand my grandma’s getting up in years, but how’s she gonna welcome in someone who’s done so much harm to her daughter? My whole life, my mama’s been real close to my grandma. But since then, I’ve noticed my mama’s stayed totally away from my grandma. It’s like the umbilical cord got cut: foom!
I’ve never confronted Cristina. She’s their mother, at the end of the day. Imagine, if my kids realize I’ve done something to their goddamn mother. I hafta be real careful with that. It’s a fact it was her: everything fits, even the goddamn lover fits fuckin’ perfect. Only thing is, I’m not sure where he is right now. He didn’t even know me, and he was set to kill me for the shit I had with Cristina. From what the gang’s told me, he’s not a real ballsy guy, but he’s one of those who if they see you distracted, they’ll clock you when you’re not lookin’. He could be standing right next to me and I’d have no idea. But let God give me life and health, and I’ll take that fucker on. For real, I’m gonna get dirty for whatever idiot ideas that jackass Cristina’s put in his head. But then, with time, that kind of asshole doesn’t usually last long, cuz they run around with no control. One way or another, they always fall.
For the reader:
This is a short version of a published article in Anthropology and Humanism: https://doi.org/10.1111/anhu.12181). Every word of this story has been spoken into the ethnographer’s microphone, transcribed, cut, and merged into a plot that follows a scram telephone extortion. Inspired by the Danish film movement, Dogme 95, the research and writing followed a strict ethnographic credo of dogma only allowing the interlocutors a voice. A working paper about the credo (Arbejdspapir om dogmeproduceret etnografi: Et manifest for radikal monografisk realisme) can be downloaded at the author’s academia.com profile. All names and places are pseudonyms.