As many of you may know, John Ross passed away on Monday, January 17 at the age of 73, from liver cancer. I won’t try to replicate the many kind obituaries which have appeared in the U.S. and Mexican media in recent days. In fact, I didn’t know John well, but our encounters over the years, by chance or intentional, as well as his constant production of books, poetry and articles, leave me wanting to say something.
I first met John about eleven years ago, when he was doing a national tour and I organized his visit to Vassar College. He hopped in my car at the train station in Poughkeepsie and some of his first words were, “Mind if I smoke?” Assuming he meant a cigarette I said sure, and he promptly sparked a tiny joint. After settling in at my place, he gave a talk to a packed audience, interspersing political discussion about the Zapatistas and neoliberalism with beat poetry read with the aid of his much-commented-upon monocle. Later, he stayed up late with us 18 and 19-year-old kids, regaling us with stories of how Jack Kerouac chased him around a bar in Greenwich Village with a broken bottle (he had hooked up with Kerouac’s girlfriend) or his thoughts on the Saint Patrick’s Battalion (they weren’t political, it was all about Catholicism).
That encounter, along with running into him at various events over the years, such as a memorial for Rachel Corrie or a protest against the war on Iraq, as well as his books and columns from Mexico Bárbaro to Blindman’s Buff, made a lasting impression on me and nourished a deep respect for this singular individual. John was a person who knew his values, knew what mattered and was willing to face the consequences of what may come in his fight to uphold them - be they spending time in jail as the first conscientious objector to the Vietnam War; being deported by Saddam Hussein while trying to serve as a human shield against the second U.S. invasion; losing a eye to a San Francisco police beating; or a permanently injured back as a result of a beating from Israeli settlers. Lest we leave Mexico out, he was also beaten by the federal police after berating Octavio Paz in the Mexico City airport.
But it was not only physical coercion at the hands of state oppressors that John was willing to face. While he was quick with a smile, a great conversationalist, and truly generous and genuine with his time and attention, he called things as he saw them and if that resulted in a shot across your bow, so be it. Perhaps the most notable manifestation of this in recent years was his criticism of the Zapatistas, the Other Campaign, and Subcomandante Marcos. John was one of the first, if not the first, journalists to bring the Zapatista struggle to the attention of English-speakers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Solidarity was John’s mantra, and he saw it as his task to help bring the U.S. left’s attention to social movements south of the border. He traversed thousands of miles and spilled hundreds of pages of ink doing just that with the Zapatistas. But when he saw the Other Campaign go astray, in his eyes, of its intent and the values of the Zapatistas, he did not hesitate to voice his concerns. He did what is still considered heretical on the left: criticize the EZLN. This certainly cost him in terms of friendships, distribution and readership, but John had always struck out on his own course, why would he stop in 2006 at the age of 69?
The last time I saw John was in April of last year, where I put together another event in the Lower East Side, to discuss the situation in Oaxaca, the case of assassinated journalist Brad Will, and the Mérida Initiative. John was technically on a U.S. tour to promote his latest, and ultimately last, book, El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, but that evening he didn’t even discuss it, in fact only bringing two copies to sell. At that point his liver cancer was in remission and he seemed as feisty and energetic as he was when I first met him, maybe even more so, as he noted he was pleasantly surprised to still be alive.
As we all know, his cancer returned and ultimately took his life. In one of his last emails to me, he apologized for not writing his annual article about the murder of Brad Will, stating, “i’m gravely ill with liver cancer and just putting together a coherent article is not such an easy job these days - but i'll work on one for publication next week perhaps on the day of the dead (if i’m still among the living).” In fact, he did write that article and lived to fight a couple of months more, his dedication and fire never failing.
Though he would likely scoff at the tributes, the truth is there are few people like John, and those people should be celebrated and remembered. Thank you for all that you have given us, shown us and inspired in us, John. We will pick up the torch that you have passed to us.