John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, has been a walking monument in Mexico's City's Centro Historico for decades. He is easily recognizable with his signature goatee, ponytail, and a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck. More remarkable than his singular appearance is his life-long adherence to the pursuit of social justice and the impact he has had on his adopted country.
John is now in the terminal stages of a cancer he has battled as valiantly as he’s fought for every social justice issue of the past 50 years. By the time you read this he will have left his hotel room on Isabel la Católica steet, where he has lived since the week after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, to be with friends on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro, preparing for passage to the other side. That passing will be a loss to Mexico, the press, oppressed people the world over, and his compañeros.
Since 1957, the beginning of John’s life in Mexico, he has covered every major story from political upheavals to environmental crises. JR broke the story of the impending Zapatista uprising in Chiapas weeks before it happened and anticipated the negative impact proposed laws would have on the fragile ejido system before they were passed.
Strange as it may seem, this beat poet, performance artist, eminent journalist from Brooklyn, may well be the conscience of the progressive movement of the country he adopted, as well as being a bridge to help Mexicans and Anglophone readers understand each other and the Deeper Mexico.
On December 29, I went with my colleague and John’s friend, Carol Hopkins, to move John’s Mexico archives from his hotel room to their temporary storage at the Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca. While I moved boxes, Carol interviewed a weak and sick John. Though physically challenged, JR’s mind remains an amazing repository of a lifetime of stories. We told him we would like to write a two-part column for The News and asked his permission to record. John agreed and with some amusement told us that he had been a correspondent for The News decades ago. So, we come full circle.
"The first rule of journalism" John told us, is “be there. You can’t report stories you haven’t witnessed personally. Develop your sources. Over the years I have maintained sources as diverse as a homeless beggar and those in lofty positions of power.”
John spent his early years in Mexico quietly living in Michoacan, intending to write the Great American Novel. But his philosophical roots were in progressive social movements and he became increasingly involved with campesino struggles. He used his writing skills to draw attention to their efforts to protect the land against the depradations of land hungry international corporations. For John, this seizing of the land was a reprise of the Morelos hacendados requiring more and more land, squeezing the campesinos, until the inevitable revolution of 1910. Indeed, John said, “little has changed for the campesino from the pre-Revolutionary period to today and the promises of the Revolution are largely unfulfilled.”
In addition to the breadth of his Mexican work, John Ross was the first U.S. citizen imprisoned in protest against the Vietnam draft; he was the leader of the Human Shield Brigade in Baghdad at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though a lifetime Jew, John fervently opposes Israeli suppression of the Palestinians and has traveled to Palestine to help with the annual olive picking.
John has published eight books of fiction and non-fiction. Though already struggling with cancer, in May of this year JR finished a grueling three-month, 66-stop book tour from San Francisco to New York presenting his 493 page El Monstruo, Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009). As the book jacket tells us, "never before has anyone told from the ground level the gritty, vibrant histories of this city of 23 million faceless, fearless souls, listened to the stories of those who have not been crushed by the Monster, deconstructed the Montruo's very monstrousness, and lived to tell its secrets." It is the story of the Valley of Mexico from its volcanic origins right up to the year of its publication.
His earlier Murdered by Capitalism (2004), is John’s personal story of 40 years “on the barricades of social justice issues in the two Americas.” Since 1996, John has written a newsletter series, Blindman’s Buff. A few are available online to those thirsty for an in depth understanding of the development of Mexico’s current political, social, and economic situation. Blindman’s Buff is not written for those wanting to be spoon fed pablum. They are brilliantly written, heuristic, and deserve a careful read. John's archives contain all of them and hopefully, someday soon, they will be published in book form.