An Interactive Memoir
Jerry Ross, the Painter

Ch3: Life out West

Back to Mexico & Hotel Pancho Villa

There was a period of time when after being expelled by WWP, Pamela and I were living in Buffalo and I had applied and was accepted to a Teacher-Corps/Peace-Corps program at Buffalo State.  Part of my teaching practicum was teaching at Lackawanna High School.  One of my fellow teacher corps friends was from Arizona and he was always talking about how nice it was. At one point Pamela and I separated for a time. She had gone off to Europe to hitch-hike around. I had come down with mono and was very ill.  A doctor recommended getting a “head to toe” suntan to fight the infection.  I also started taking T’ai Chi lessons to build up my energy level.  Eventually I left the area and headed west, for Arizona.



After leaving Buffalo via the interstate highway system, I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona as per suggestion of my Teacher Corps friend.  I parked the car on a suburban street and walked around a bit just to get the feel of the place. It was a college town and I always felt comfortable in neighborhoods around a campus. As I passed a large house with a porch, several young college guys said “hello” and asked me if I wanted some “organic peyote.”  I had never experienced any psychedelic drugs while in Buffalo, only pot and hash.  As a political activist, I had always considered LSD as a copout, an escape into a fantasy land that would divert energies away from serious anti-war efforts.  But all that was behind me now.  One of the guys sitting on the porch extended his hand which contained two large brown capsules.  “It’s peyote but without the strictnine junk that makes you puke”…”take two of these for a good trip.”  Somehow I trusted these guys, took the capsules, and put them in my pocket. 

I continued to walk around the neighborhood coming to a high school football field.  As I approached I heard drumming and as I got closer saw it was an indian pow wow”, the first I ever saw, with Indians dancing in the football field.  I decided to climb the bleachers for a better view.  Having just arrived from Buffalo, this was a fantastic sight.  Here were real Navaho Indians doing their thing.  I felt I had really arrived in the West.

But suddenly, as if someone had thrown a light switch, the scene changed.  Out of nowhere, a line of Arizona state trooper vehicles appeared and doors were opening as the troopers got out and approached the dancers with clubs in hand.  Without a warning they began to club and drag dancers to the squad cars.  Women and children were screaming, all hell was breaking loose.  In what seemed like just a few minutes, everyone dispersed and ran for it and the cops took off with their captives.  I was left sitting there in the bleachers, a lone witness.

I was bummed out by this scene which took me back to what I was trying to escape from.  I had just spent four to five years in the movement and was looking for a break from this kind of thing.  I decided to ingest the organic peyote.  I did so and drove down along the river.  Red necks were beeping at me when they came up from behind and saw my New York plates.  I was getting high and slightly paranoid.  I pulled over and sat by a tree along the river.  I remember waking up with my arms wrapped around a tree.  I remembered little other than sitting there watching the river. But everything was intact.  I still hand my wallet and car keys.  I returned to Flagstaff proper, the town.

While in Flagstaff I had the opportunity of interviewing or a teaching position in southern Arizona.  The position was in Naco, on the Arizona-Mexican border.  They were not going to make an offer until the end of the summer, whih gave me a chance to drive around and explore.  I visited a friend who lived on a commune in California and then drove north to Oregon where some teaching jobs were posted in Salem.  I took along a hitch-hiker who wanted off in Eugene and it was early evening, so I decided to stay in Eugene for a few days, since it looked like a nice college town.  I found a temporary room near campus and liked the scene enough to stay until the end of the summer when perhaps the Arizona job would materialize. 

That summer I was rooming with Mike Phinney and Peter Sorenson, students at the U of Oregon.  Mike would eventually become owner of a very successful coffee roasting business and Peter would become an attorney and eventally a County Commissioner.  But in those days they were just students and accepted me as a lost soul who completed the apartment house along with several Africans.  That summer I dropped a lot of acid and it became my psychedelic summer in Oregon.  I had arrived in the “Left Coast.”  I started back darwing and painting that summer, inspired by the rolling hills and distant views.  My first work for that period was very acid-influenced but did serve to kick start my dormant art career. 

At the end of the summer, I got word that I was hired.  I jumped back into my Toyota Corolla and drove down to Naco.  I found a nice place to stay in Bisbee and started to settle in.  I even phoned Pamela who was now back with her parents in Williamsburg, to ome and join me.   No dice.  After a few weeks of getting settled, the landlord announced that he had just sold the property and we all had 2 week notice to get out.  Now Bisbee and Naco, at least in those days, had very little housing and I was nearly broke. 

Pancho Villa

I talked to the school principal and he told me that all teachers were expected to live on the US side of the border.  But a Mexican janitor at the school told me that I could probably find a room in Hotel Pancho Villa in Naco, on the Mexican side of the border.  I went over there and luckily there was a room vacant on the second floor.  I would be living just across from a Mexican school teacher who was living in the hotel.  When the principal got wind of this he hit the ceiling, so to speak.  I think it was right then and there that he decided that I would be terminated after one year for insubordination.  By the end of the year there were many reasons why he might want to fire me but I need to ease into the story.

Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora border crossing

Here I am suddenly living like in the days of the old west.  It wasn’t a stage coach that pulled up each morning in front of Hotel Pancho Villa but rather a dusty little Mexican bus or a truck load of camposinos.  The Hotel owner was Pancho Ihm, a Chinese-Mexican who hung out playing dominoes each evening with the local officials.  Pancho had a big Zapata-style mostache His cohorts were the agent of the aduana (customs), El Capitano (head officer of the Federales), and Doctor Romo, the town’s physician.  They all seemed to be members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.  

Sonoran desert

The school principle was so angry at me for living on the Mexican side that I bet there and then he decided not to renew my contract for the following year.  He had told me it was temporary, at the time I was hired, and that he wanted a Mexican-American teacher for math and science.  But here I was teaching 6th grade general science!  My preparation in the teacher corps was for math, not science but I did the best that I could.

I was a bit shocked when I saw my students in the 6th grade.  There were around twenty students and at least ten of the were much older and bigger than the others.  They had been held back or for whatever reason were placed in my classroom when they really should have been in the 9th grade.  I soon realized they spoke very little English.  They were also always smiling and laughing in class and it didn’t take a genius to realize they were stoned on grass. 

One of the students took a liking to me.  I think he liked the fact that after the main lesson in science, I would allow them to build a makeshift play area in the back of the classroom that looked like a rocket ship.  They could play and carry on there as much as they wanted.  One day Roberto asked me if I wanted to take my car and drive “muchas calles” (many streets) and I agreed.  We got into my small Toyota Carolla and drove around at night or in the afternoon after  school Naco was just a small dusty village and there were maybe tem streets or so.  At one point Roberto asked me to stop at his grandfathers house and wait for him.  When he got back in he showed me a small bag  bright green grass.  He asked me if I could drive to the cemetery so we could smoke it.  I saw this as a great opportunity to really get down and understand the local culture.  Here in Naco the 6th graders were already deeply into the mysteries of marijuana.

I drove to the cemetery and he quickly rolled a joint.  We smoked.  Suddenly this high came on so strongly that I felt completely paralyzed.  I coukd hardly move.  Roberto roared in laughter yelled “Usted esta loco!” (you are high!)  and he laughed and laughed.  After a while the high began to turn to a kind of paranoia (this is always the downside of marijuana) and just then, suddenly a truck began to approach us.  My paranoic mind envisioned a truck full of federales and that we were in big trouble.  My heart was beating furiously and I was really afraid.  The truck got closer and closer.  When it was directly upon us, we saw that it was a truck load of camposinos rolling slowly out of town, they were singing and smiling and paying us no attention.  The high turned back to an intense spirituality as the whole scene took on an almost beatific experience.  Robero gave me the rest of the grass for my own use.

I has a very tiny room in Hotel Pancho Villa.  The local school teacher had a similar room down the hall from me.  He was “stationed” in Naco because in the socialistic Mexican system of education, teachers were assigned to posts that could be anywhere in the country.  His girlfriend (his fiancé) was also a teacher but she was stationed somewhere else.  He had to wait several years before they could apply for teaching positions in Mexico City where they could be married.  So here he was, a bachelor stuck in the boonies. 

The bathroom we had for our use in the hotel  as several flights down.  It was very dark and somewhat damp down there.  I remember taking showers there and using the sink and every once in whule when you reached for a bar of soap there would be a giant cockroach sitting there with its attenae moving up and down as it checked me out.  It was quite a shock to see it the first time.  But on t hither hand the room upstairs was dry and clean and I never saw so much as a bug in there.

Nights could be boring.  The old men would sit around playing dominoes or watch seedy porno films on a movie projector.  There was basically nothing to do.  There was a rumor of a whorehouse on the outskirts of town that I wanted nothing to do with.  Every once in while I was invited to go with el agente de aduanas, the Mexican school teacher, and el capitan de federales (the customs agent, the schoolteacher, and the captain if the federal soldiers) for a ride into the countryside at night where they would get their kicks shining a spotlight into the desert.  When a jack rabbit woukd become transfixed by the beam, the capitan would shoot the rabbit.  Cheap thrills.

On the weekends when I did not cross the border and drive to Tucson, I would go to the local dancehall.  This was an enourmous space with a bandstand and tables set out in a semi-circle.  The band, “Los Microbios” (The Microbes), would play traditional Mexican songs of the area (Sonoran ballads) and people would dance.  If I wanted ti dance I would have to approach the mother sitting with her daughter and request the hand if her daughter for a dance.  If she said yes, I would have a very nice spin out on the dance floor.

Of course there was a lot of drinking.  I could usually afford to drink taquilla which was quite strong. Towards th end of the evening everyone seemed more that a bit tipsy.  The typical scene that would unfold was this:  the band would start fighting among themselves during the break.  They would be too drunk to do any real damage but a few fistfights would break out, tables overturned, chairs flying.  Then things would calm down, the players would get their act together, and the music would begin again.

At first I thought this was just a Mexican phenomenon (“The crazy Mexicans” my brain would tell me).   But once when I had occasion to drive across the border to Bisbee, the nearby mining town, and enter a bar there, the same thing happened among gringos.  Here is how it unfolded: everything would be quiet at the start.  Just a few tables occupied by card players.  A very western tavern scene right out of a western.  

A Mexican sitting next to me at the bar would offer me a drink.  Then, all of a sudden an argument would break out among the gringo card players.  They were completely drunk and would be punching each other in the face.  Tables overturned, chairs rolling over.  One man fell near the door and a woman was trying to bash his head in by closing the door on him. She was pulled away by the bartender who was then punched by the man on the floor, now up and throwing wild punches. 



 This would all go on for four or so minutes while the Mexican and I would watch as if we were at a movie or a play. Then it would get calm. Tables were put aright and chairs pushed in. Card playing would resume as if nothing had happened.  After around ten minutes the whole scene would repeat itself, almost like clockwork.  Amazing.

Once Pancho, the Hotel owner, El Doctor, El Capitan, El Agente, and the schoolteacher, all of us piled into several cars, one being mine, and we departed to Cananea, miles south of Naco, for a political conference of the PRI.  First we made th obligatory stop at the whorehouse at the edge if town.  I waited in the lobby of this rather seedy establishment while the others had their fun.  When finished, we again resumed iur trip to Cananea.  Upon arrival there and getting ourselves situated on a second floor terrazza of a Chinese restaurant, we began to see events unfold.

I had never known, never realized that just a few hundred miles south of the US border existed a culture of campesinos.  From our perch way above the street below, as far as our eyes could see, was just a sea of c ompletely white outfitted camesinos waving their machettes in the sky.  They were on hand to greet the presidential candidtate of the PRI who would be coming to speak to them, to outline policy and promises for them if they would vote PRI. 


Pancho Villa 

They waited for hours for the candidate, in the bright sun, listening to speech after speech by minor candidates.  During this waiting period, we saw a young woman jump on the stage and grab the microphone and begin a protest of some sort.  I could not make out what exactly she was saying but I did see her being grabbed by police and being dragged away.  I wonder who she was and what happened to that poor soul. More meaningless speeches and more tedium and thefinally the candidate appeared in a convoy of ten or so limosines.  He talked for abut a hour and a half before everyone seem pleased and exhausted we began the return to Naco