By Nat Krieger
“No question, the life of the Mexican free dog — we prefer the term ‘free’ to ‘street’ — has never been an easy one.”
One look at the goateed philosopher who growled these words revealed their truth. Max looks like a small mop that hasn’t seen water in a while. Where the fur ends and actual flesh or even bone begins could itself be a philosophical question. Max is the leader of a pack — a not particularly ferocious, self-selected group of three, sometimes four, canines of uncertain and utterly unrelated blood lines.
They roam the streets of Santa Isabel Etla, a smallish town in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The pack’s foundational compact proclaims their geographic range as running from the Collectivo stand to the Municipal Market. However, like much of the Mexican Constitution and Greek claims to the name of Macedonia, the compact is more aspirational than real as business owners, waiters, and various other two leggeds are constantly challenging the pack’s right to patrol or even exist in their own land.
Like the man in Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Max had to learn early on to be tough. According to his long vanished name tag his full name is Maximiliano — in Mexico a name redolent with contempt, failure, and firing squads. (See French invasion, Benito Juarez, Cinco de Mayo, etc.) He could have changed it of course, made up something else, but like Sue, at some point Max realized that his moniker had helped make him the man, or the dog, he is today.
While Max is by far the smallest member of his pack, he is also the oldest, and, like their two legged tormentors, Mexican free dogs are great respecters of age. Max’s hard won sagacity, along with his uncanny ability to score bits of al pastor before they hit the ground has made him the kind of leader who’s admired rather than feared.
The average Mexican free dog appears considerably more reticent than Max. Their default approach to humans is not to. They regard us warily, expecting the worst. And their low expectations of the hairless two leggeds are consistently met. If it wasn’t for all the marvelous meat we’re constantly cooking and dropping most free dogs would likely head for the hills and never look back.
Ideologically speaking, Mexican free dogs are solidly in the antifa camp. Whereas many North American dog owning humans are obsessed with breeding and pure blood lines — in their canines if not in themselves — the countless packs who together comprise the Mexican free dog population are constantly moving kaleidoscopes of every known, and more than a few unknown, color, size, and breed. While there can be many reasons why a free pack may reject an applicant, it’s never because of parentage or race.
There are benefits to being a Mexican free dog, although immunizations and a steady supply of healthy food aren’t among them. For one thing Mexican free dogs get to live, and all too frequently die, as dogs. They run and live in packs. Whereas house dogs become members of a human pack, meeting others of their species only sporadically and even then in settings and at times arranged by two leggeds, the social lives of free dogs are filled with other canines; humans play a far more distant though still powerful role, kind of like a bunch of spiteful Greek gods with really short attention spans.
If the life of the free dog still looks less than inviting in the pitiless light of day, the night belongs to them. When the black dome of the Cosmic Theatre is hoisted above towns and villages across Mexico, house dogs can only howl in trapped anguish as they, and everybody else, from pigs and chickens to horizontal two leggeds with their pillows wrapped around their heads, are assaulted by the loving, brawling, gossiping soliloquies of four legged vagabonds shedding the day’s haunted, hang dog role to reclaim their wolfish souls, owing obedience to no one but the moon.
Read more about Nat Krieger’s travels in Mexico: