Last updateFri, 06 Feb 2015 5pm

Newly appearing reconsiderations echo a rural Mexican family’s harsh lesson in trying to deal with life’s end

Suicides.  Popular lore long attributed them to folks buffeted by unbearable “blues” during the holiday season.  Especially around the New Year.  Now experts say most suicides in the United States occur in late spring and early summer. 

Overall, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports there are 40,000 suicides in the United States every year.  For a local comparison: There are fewer suicides per 100,000 in Mexico than in the United States: 4.4 in Mexico; 10.1 in the U.S.

But when someone you know well kills himself/herself, statistics evaporate.  Some time ago, Selmo Diaz, a rancher friend, shot himself during one of Mexico’s steeper, more callous dives into rural corruption.  The local government of a western municipality took away much of his ranch without even informing him that the source of his livelihood was being appropriated. 

The near-century-old goal of the Hernandez-Diaz clan was to keep that family together.  But when Selmo married in the 1970s he hard-headedly chose to go a different way.  And a for a while, independent of his family, he did well.  But then, just before one of Mexico’s long run-ups to Christmas, he found out that pillaging non-influential rural citizens remained one of the government’s more active anti-social habits.  Thus his widely extended family – which experience had made wisely self-sufficient and fiercely anti-government – now celebrates a Christmas scarred by Selmo’s death.  Ranch people of thin resources are not inclined to forgive thievery, especially by a government whose crowded and seemingly insatiable corps tends to foster clouds of suspicions even during its unpracticed rational-seeming moments. 

The year just past was again roughly celebrated among the extended Hernandez-Diaz clan.  Some outsiders interpret this roughness as a familial eccentricity.  That’s because the “Selmo incident” was officially defined an “accident.”  Police agreed with Selmo’s family report that their kin folk’s shotgun went off unintentionally as its owner was cleaning it.  

Many among the thickly-branched Herrnandez family considered Selmo’s setting out on his own a betrayal as well as the cause of his death.   This remains a renewable “delicate” matter.  

(An aside regarding Selmo’s familial “worth”: Tall Anselmo Hernandez Diaz could reach things his kin folk couldn’t at that that time in Mexico –the early 1970’s.  He was, he admitted even to the family’s only foreign friend, a stubborn man.  Yet, he was admirably deft in handling stock.  His work with cranky, hurt or sick livestock often seemed close to wizardy.  The rough-broke mounts the family could afford were often dangerous to work with.  And they were a lot less easy going when he was daubing stinging medicine on swollen wounds.  Because of his knack, Selmo had become the clan’s and the area’s chief farrier.  The first time I recognized this was his work in shoeing a hard-headed stallion that belonged Agripin, patriarch of the Hernandez Ruiz outfit.

Vaquero and equine lore universally says that horses, especially mean-spirited stallions, don’t like having their feet worked on.  Selmo tied the clan patriarch’s stallion to the snubbing post in the middle of the main corral.  He spoke to it in a hardly audible voice and ignored the big horse’s attempt to stomp him into the dust.  Several vaqueros were on the fence, waiting for a rearing, kicking and biting explosion.  Murmuring, Selmo went about his work, soothing the big horse, stepping carefully very close to animal’s flanks where the stud’s hooves couldn’t reach him.  Before onlookers could fully make out what he was doing, Selmo led the big horse into the portril – colt pasture – and slapped him on the butt, turning him loose fully newly shod.)

But Selmo’s stubbornness erupted when local government broke down his fencing, and he went to the presidencia municipal to object that it was “stealing” his land.   He pointed out that he and his family were gente humilde, people who depended on a rocky mountainside for their livelihood.

“There are too many gente humilde with too much land,” he was told by the smug young official, whose influential family owned a large parcel adjoining Selmo’s.  The municipal government was eyeing his land under the government’s claim of eminent domain.  Since not only was the local municipio openly corrupt, so was the state and the federal government.  As the local government tore down his fencing and began to bulldoze his land, Selmo in the late evening hours began rounding up his wealthy neighbor’s cattle to sell for beef.  During one of these roundups, he was shot in the back by someone, legally identified as “unknown.”  The wound paralyzed him.  Soon his health in general began to deteriorate. 

Then, rather unexpectedly and tardily as 2014 drew to an end, much of the world seemed suddenly to be giving newly candid attention to suicide, particularly in the United States.  This surge of interest was most dramatically lead by 29-year-old Brittany Maynard.  Her rather shocking October 6 announcement that she was choosing to end her life before an incurable brain tumor did it for her, grabbed attention on both sides of the border.  Maynard unhesitatingly emphasized her wish for “a death with dignity.”  

For some reason, for some people Selmo’s rough death back in the 1970’s didn’t neatly fit the ”dignity” category.  Yet others argued that made landless and paralyzed by three bone/muscle-ruining nine-mm wounds in the back, he eventually died when he chose.  Not a popular concept at that time in Catholic Mexico.  

Also this year, on October 6, came the eye-opening book  “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by much hailed doctor and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande.  It’s about doctors trained to tell patients how to live, but who are unable to tell them how to deal with the finality when it is inevitable and close at hand.  

It’s true that that the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, often associated with existentialism, declared that suicide was the only true philosophical question: In the end, is life worth living?  And he put suicide as one of the responses to the Absurdism of most human life.  But, many scholars argue, Camus was not “recommending” suicide.  And Camus said that was true.   

But following these, on October 20, came a long, provocative article in the Atlantic Monthly by Ezekiel Emanuel, oncologist and a provost of the University of Pennsylvania. It was titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” accompanied by a host of articles in newspapers, magazines, on television, and public media sources.  All of which showed Selmo a bit ahead of his time. 

This is the first in a series on re-evaluating mortality.