It has been about 2.5 months since arriving in Mexico to conduct my research the Santiago River in the municipalities of El Salto and Juanacatlán in Guadalajara, Mexico. El Salto and Juanacatalán are part of the Conurbated Zone of Guadalajara, along with the municipalities of Guadalajara, part of Zapopan, Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, Tlajomulco de Zúñiga, and Ixtlahuácan de los Membrillos (” Zona Conurbada”). In this area, Lake Chapala, one of the largest lakes in Mexico at 114,659 hectares, is the main source of water occupying 86% of Jalisco (“Lake Chapala”). The Santiago River is an important part of the Lerma-Chapala-Santiago water basin in Mexico and spans 562 kilometers, passing through the municipalities of El Salto and Juanacatlán in Jalisco (Comisión Nacional del Agua, 2017, p.48). West of the Santiago River in El Salto, there are 232,852 inhabitants and east in Juanacatlán, there are 17,955 inhabitants (INGEI, 2020, pp.51-70).
Between the two municipalities is Juanacatlán Falls, a once-popular waterfall. The waterfall was described as touristic, majestic, a sight to see by foreigners and Mexicans alike. It was powerful enough to use for hydroelectric power, its flow strong enough to feel its mist as the water fell down the slope. Now, the water is barely strong enough to cover the entire slope, with slaps of black and gray stones detailed with small streams of water. The waterfall is a tragic site to see and smell, with its foamy waters crashing down the slope, transporting toxins into the air and river. Upon first visiting El Salto, the smell of the river permeated the air with rotten eggs.
The smell invades and overtakes the air of the town, the homes, and the air that flows into the bodies of residents. From 10 miles away from the river to less than one, the smell of sulfur sneaks into one’s surroundings, creating experiences that range from universal to intimate, but all remain intolerable and insufferable. The smell is criminal, in the way it acts as if it sneaks up, invades your personal space, and violates your body. Life would be more difficult to enjoy while being aware of the river, like eating, breathing, and meeting with others. On the days I would travel to El Salto, I would always have something to eat at the house of Un Salto de Vida. Every day was different, one day being mole poblano with chicken, the next day quesadillas and homemade tortillas, and a different dish the next day.
The food was amazing, the flavors and presentation reminded me of if I were home and I felt welcomed. But sometimes as I ate, the smell of the river’s waste would walk in through the house, making my nose crinkle, and turning the food in front of me into a pool of river water, staring back into my face. The smell cruelly reminded me of the toxins my body consumed with every breath and bite I took, even if I did not want to think about it. On Wednesdays, Un Salto de Vida has meetings with the collective, or people in the organization, about actions they are taking, news, the garden they upkeep, and more.
As we speak and listen to one another at 6 in the evening and the sun sets, the mosquitoes rise and prepare to attack our open skin. We all try our best to cover up and protect ourselves from their bites, but the mosquitoes still found a way to penetrate and pick at us. As the meetings went on, so did the swarms of mosquitos that came to join. They circulated our heads and bodies, to land and bite on our arms, legs, or faces. At first, the mosquitoes would bite me and I would notice immediately the small red bumps that were spread sporadically on my legs and arms. But, as time passed, the bites would show up days later, but still as irritated and red as before. Some days, I would get bitten a couple of times while on others I would get bitten up to 40 times on my arms and legs, leaving my body burning and oozing with open wounds as I scratched frantically for the irritation to go away. The plague of the foam, mosquitoes, and smells from the river make it insufferable and unbearable at times. The endless loop of swatting away the pests and sour smell seem like cries of help, waving hands and arms up and down, hoping to be saved, and the misery will come to an end.
But sadly, as energy breaks down, the torment does not stop, and we sit and suffer the
environmental hell that is the Santiago River.