John Ross: Rebel Journalist Dies in Mexico

John Ross was a friend and colleague of Global Justice Ecology Project co-Directors Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle since 1996.  He also appears in Lacandona: The Zapatistas and Rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico—which we released in 1998.  John was also a good friend of GJEP Communications Director Jeff Conant and had a strong influence on Jeff’s book, The Poetics Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatistas.


Cross-posted from Counter Punch

Farewell to the Utterly Unique John Ross


John’s gone. John Ross. I doubt that we will ever see anyone remotely like him again.

The bare bones, as he would say, are remarkable enough. Born to show business Communists in New York City in 1938, he had minded Billie Holliday’s dog, sold dope to Dizzy Gillespie, and vigiled at the hour of the Rosenberg execution, all before he was sixteen years old. An aspiring beat poet, driven by D.H. Lawrence’s images of Mexico, he arrived at the Tarascan highlands of Michoacan at the age of twenty, returning to the U.S. six years later in 1964, there to be thrown in the Federal Penitentiary at San Pedro, for refusing induction into the army.

Back on the streets of San Francisco eighteen months later, he joined the Progressive Labor Movement, then a combination of old ex-CPers fleeing the debased party and young poets and artists looking for revolutionary action. For a few years he called the hip, crazy, Latino 24th and Mission  his “bio-region,” as he ran from the San Francisco police and threw dead rats at slumlords during street rallies of the once powerful Mission Coalition.

When the not so ex-Stalinists drove him and others out of P.L. (“break the poets’ pencils” was the slogan of the purge) he moved up north to Arcata where he became an early defender of the forest and the self-described town clown and poet in residence. From there it was Tangier and the Maghreb, the Basque country, anti-nuke rallies in Ireland, and then back to San Francisco, where he finally found his calling as a journalist. “Investigative poet” was the title he preferred, and in 1984, he was dispatched by Pacific News Service to Latin America, where he walked with the Sendero Luminoso, broke bread with the Tupac Amaru, and hung out with cadres of the M-19.

In 1985, after the earthquake, he moved into the Hotel Isabela in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, where for the next 25 years he wrote the very best accounts in English (no one is even a close second) of the tumultuous adventures of Mexican politics.

During the Mexican years, he managed to write nine books in English, a couple more in Spanish, and a batch of poetry chapbooks, all the while he was often on the road, taking a bus to the scene of a peasant rebellion or visiting San Francisco or becoming a human shield in Baghdad, or protecting a Palestinian olive harvest from marauding Israeli settlers.

John Ross at Dead of the Dead celebration.

He died this morning, a victim of liver cancer, at the age of 73, just where he wanted to, in the village of Tepizo, Michoacan, in the care of his dear friends, Kevin and Arminda.

That’s the outline of the story. Then there was John. Even in his seventies, a tall imposing figure with a narrow face, a scruffy goatee and mustache, a Che T-shirt covered by a Mexican vest, a Palestinian battle scarf thrown around his neck, bags of misery and compassion under his eyes, offset by his wonderful toothless smile and the cackling laugh that punctuated his comical riffs on the miserable state of the universe.

He was among the last of the beats, master of the poetic rant, committed to the exemplary public act, always on the side of the poor and defeated. His tormentors defined him. A sadistic prison dentist pulled six of his teeth. The San Francisco Tac Squad twice bludgeoned his head, ruining one eye and damaging the other. The guards of Mexico’s vain, poet-potentate Octavio Paz beat him to the ground in a Mexico City airport, and continued to kick him while he was down. Israeli settlers pummeled him with clubs until he bled, and wrecked his back forever.

He had his prickly side. He hated pretense, pomposity and unchecked power wherever he found it. Losing was important to him. Whatever is the dictionary opposite of an opportunist—that’s what John was. He never got along with an editor, and made it a matter of principle to bite the hand that fed him. It got so bad, he left so few bridges unburnt, that in order to read his wonderful weekly dispatches in the pre-internet years, I had to subscribe to an obscure newsletter, a compilation of Latin American news, and then send more money to get the editors to send along John’s column. [John had a relationship lasting many years with CounterPunch, publishing hundreds of dispatches, with only trifling hiccups with the editors. AC/JSC.]

He had his sweet side, too. He was intensely loyal to his friends, generous with all he had, proud of his children, grateful for Elizabeth’s support and collaboration, and wonderful, warm company at an evening meal. When my son, Ted, arrived in Mexico in 1990, John helped him get a job, find a place to live, introduced him around, and became his Sunday companion and confidant, as they huddled in front of John’s 11-inch TV watching the weekly broadcasts of NBA games.

He was a great, true sports fan, especially of basketball. One of the last times I saw him was at a friend’s house in San Francisco, in between radiation treatments, watching a Warriors game on a big screen TV, smoking what he still called the “killer weed.” Joe and I listened to him recount NY Knicks history, the origin of the jump shot,  and Kareem’s last game, which somehow led to a long complaint about kidneys for sale in Mexico that had been harvested in China out of the still warm body of some poor, rural immigrant who had been legally executed for jaywalking in Beijing.

John Ross earlier this year. Photo: Joe Blum.

The very last time I had the pleasure of his company was at breakfast in Los Angeles when Ted and I saw him off on his last book tour, promoting El Monstruo, his loving history of Mexico City. He was in great form. His cancer was in remission—a “cancer resister,” he called himself—and he entertained us with a preview of his trip: long, tiresome Greyhound rides, uncomfortable couches, talks to tiny groups of the marginalized, the last defenders of lost causes without the money to buy his books. It would be a losing proposition, like so many of his others, all of which secure his place among the angels.

Frank Bardacke taught at Watsonville Adult School, California’s Central Coast,  for 25 years. His history of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez, Trampled in the Vintage, is forthcoming from Verso. He can be reached at bardacke@sbcglobal

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  1. skippy

    Finding a quiet place to study in Nelson Hall at Humboldt State University in the early 80′s, yours truly was nearly booted out by an out-of-the-area special interest group coming in to lecture– but allowed to stay “as long as I was quiet.”

    The group encompassed a small gathering of 40-50 year olds, looking very conservative in their attire and outlook. This national group, Accuracy in Media (AIM), led by chief-fat-cat Reed Irvine suspiciously dressed in a tailored three piece suit and looking rather out of place, was here not only to collect his hefty salary and per diem expenses but to present their premise: setting the record straight on important news and media issues that have received biased, slanted coverage. Mr. Irvine and AIM called onto citizens to contact newsmakers, reporters and news corporations to end perceived and deliberate liberal media bias, giving a few examples.

    A voice from the back of the room immediately questioned their intent and agenda.

    “Who are you, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed asked.

    “I’m John Ross,” the voice answered.

    “And, Pilgrim, what do you do?”

    “I’m an Investigative Poet and Journalist!” came the reply.

    “Oh, do you write Letters to the Editor, Pilgrim?” Mr. Reed condescendingly asked.

    John Ross boldly stood up. He wasn’t about to take this sitting down. Nor be referred to as ‘pilgrim.’ His voice thundering, John laid down his qualifications. Without missing a beat, he then thoroughly peppered AIMs connections to its own bias and slants in the media, questioned their funding from right wing conservative groups ranging from the Republican Party to John Birchers, having unfavorable editors fired and forced retractions made, and AIMs deliberate role in massacre cover-ups in El Salvador and other incidents leading all the way up the ranks to the Reagan Administration. John Ross knew his details, facts, and questions… and his direction.

    Like a train wreck, AIMs meeting came to a grinding halt. Mr. Irvine was at a flabbergasting loss to shut Mr. Ross, Investigative Journalist, up. John continued until Mr. Irvine threw down his ace card in final exasperation.

    “I’ll have you arrested!” Mr. Irvine roared, “for disturbing the peace! Call the police! Call the police now!”

    Mr. Ross roared back, “I’ll have you arrested– for violating civil liberties, freedom of speech, the press, and of assembly! AIM is a sham, a front group for propaganda, and you’re deceptively telling lies to everyone! You’re not revealing your right wing ties and agenda to our citizens here, even when asked! AIM won’t– and doesn’t– allow free speech! What kind of fairness and accuracy in media is this? Go ahead, have me arrested!”

    The campus police were called. They refused to arrest Mr. Ross once both sides were explained, or, vociferously argued and yelled over. AIM and Mr. Reed, his three piece suit and his supporters, promptly packed up and left town unceremoniously. They’ve never returned. After that kind of welcome, would you?

    Pleasantly amazed and shocked over this drama unfolding before my very eyes and ears, Mr. Ross stood up for a righteous and just cause; he wasn’t merely a journalist, he was a complete fire-breathing tiger– as thin and diminutive as he initially appeared.

    At that moment I knew Arcata was a very special and unique place– and this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear of Mr. John Ross.

    Rest in peace, my friend. Many owe much to you.

  2. skippy

    John Ross was a great man.

    Mr. Ross’ life and times were a keen awareness of the impermanence and suffering inherent in this world, a subject he frequently wrote of. Many owe much to this man. He drew on wells of compassion, generosity, intuition, and justice, often camouflaged by the more complicated, bristly, and prickly parts of his personality. Yes, he could be difficult, intolerant, touchy, and loud. Nonetheless, he inspired profound feelings of connection and gratitude in many people and his generosity and writing touched many more. He was legendary in Arcata, Ca., perfecting his craft and sense of humanity and injustice before moving to the Bay Area and the larger world beyond.

    There’s far more to Mr. Ross. I encourage you, the dear reader, to please view the local Humboldt County, CA. link, below. It contains an excellent article he authored on a pertinent subject of racism here in 1982.

    You may leave a personal comment if you like about John; I humbly encourage you to do so. Mr. Ross, our traveling Humboldt ‘investigative poet’ and first rate journalist, would have liked that.
    peace, Mr. Ross. skips

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this and staying connected.

  4. Judith Karpova

    I met John when I too was a Human Shield in Iraq. He was on the committee most vital to our mission there, Site Committee, which chose Iraqi infrastructure sites of essential humanitarian importance to the Iraqi people, such as water treatment plants and food storage silos. He was an essential part of our endeavor to protect these places from being destroyed, as they were in the Gulf War. We went to the same site, the Daura oil refinery. There, he and I talked about Dexter Gordan and the beats, politics and history. He was kind and funny and inspired. He never let up. After Iraq, and the the briefest of respites, he went to Palestine to protect the olive harvest, and was set on and injured by Israeli settlers. He seemed to wring the last iota of usefulness from every fraction of a second given to him on this earth. There was never anyone like him, he was a great gift to this benighted US, and to the world; he lived as if he were ten practical geniuses, not simply one man.