Miguel is a skilled workman, you might even say a master builder, who works and supervises the work done at the property where I live. Even ‘El Arquitecto,’ the owner of the place and designer of the houses and buildings here, treats Miguel with respect—not a trait our architect landlord is known for with regard to the fellows who work for him.
When Miguel arrives in the morning, his salt and pepper hair is neatly combed to the side, his pressed shirt buttoned and tucked in, and he looks like a businessman on a casual day. Before working, he changes into paint-flecked and rugged clothes, along with a white ball cap pulled low.
However he’s dressed, he has a quiet dignity about him. When I asked him what kind of music he likes, he paused, thought, and responded “la musica de Mozart.”
Miguel was doing some work on the house we live in the early afternoon and Aurora asked him if he wanted refreshment, water or juice, or she joked, beer. Though he full well understood it was a joke, Miguel shook his head disapprovingly, and said he never drinks.
When we asked why, he told us the following. I’m surely getting a few things wrong due to my struggling Spanish comprehension. I’ve changed Miguel’s name to protect his privacy as well as any unintentional innaccuracies on my part.
In the late 70’s Miguel left his native Oaxaca to go find work and get a taste of life elsewhere. He spent some time in Southern California, very near San Diego. He crossed without documents and returned of his own accord when the harvest was over.
After this he gave Mexico City a try, which is where he met his wife. He was working as a carpenter, making cabinets in a large shop. After work, or on weekends, sometimes he would go out and enjoy a few drinks. One weekend he got properly drunk and, leaving the bar, hailed a taxi to take him home.
The taxi wound its way through the hills at one of the far reaches of Mexico City, towards Miguel’s neighborhood, and en route, he passed out. When he woke, it was to a terrible scene. The taxi had crashed, killing one person and seriously injuring another. Police were on the scene. The cab driver was nowhere to be found. Miguel was the only one in the car—and so, he was taken to be the one responsible.
This was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted several years. Despite protesting his innocence, Miguel was jailed, then at the trial, convicted of manslaughter resulting from drunken driving.
He was sentenced to thirty years in prison. He arrived at an infamous institution called ‘La Perla’ (The Pearl). Which, he said, is a terrible place because there were ‘many men there who had no fear of death.’
It was during his incarceration that Miguel claims he found God. The worst imaginable had happened, human society had abandoned him, and his only hope was divine intervention, to which he credits the change in his luck.
Mexican justice did slowly turn its wheels. Miguel kept on maintaining his innocence of the crime, that it was the cab driver who caused the accident and then fled the scene, and was able to make appeals.
At length, the court decided to make an inquiry and re-open the case. The taxi driver was notified he was to come under investigation, and that the case was to be reconsidered. And—Miguel claims this is the point at which his bacon was saved—the taxi driver promptly fled for the United States. This fact worked in Miguel’s favor, and after deliberating, the court decided that the basis of its prior ruling was too dubious, and set Miguel free. He’d lost three years of his life behind bars.
And that, he says, is why he never drinks. As he wound up his story, my takeaway was that it seems the current crisis of impunity in Mexico has deep roots in the dysfunction of the Mexican judicial system.
After his release from prison, Miguel was in Mexico City when it was half-destroyed by the 1985 earthquake. He was in the subway, and saw the pillars rocking. Escaping with his life a second time, that was enough for him, and he moved his family to Oaxaca.