Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

I had to get one post in before March ended and clearly I’ve waited until the very last minute. My excuse is that March has been far from a typical month for me –half of it was spent in Mexico City, the other half traveling across the United States, seeing my family for the first time since August.

There’s a great deal of dissonance in my life right now. Mexico feels very suddenly, very sadly, very far away. Just days before turning over the keys to my apartment and catching a taxi to the airport, I was riding a ten-hour bus through the mountains to Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca for one last outreach trip. The copies of the curriculum –binders, posters, handouts– were printed and we were taking copies to the CDM staff in Oaxaca and conducting a training in using the new materials. I had been to Oaxaca for outreach once before, but I’d never visited the CDM office in what we affectionately call Jux.

Although it’s hard to know where to start, I loved everything about this trip. I loved working with our colleagues there –Alissa and Rebe– and visiting Ade on maternity leave and holding three-week-old baby Lenny who had more hair after three-weeks than I had at three-years.

Adelina's Newest --Baby Lenny.

I loved the food in Jux and pretty much ate my way across the city –tacos in white corn tortillas for breakfast, mushrooms and huevos ala mexicana, tlayudas, beans, quesadillas, entomatadas, and cups of fresh sliced mango and pineapple.

I loved getting to see my colleagues explore the materials I had been working on. We did a training with each outreach staff taking a module and presenting a workshop lesson using the information and the materials in the curriculum. We talked about the reasoning behind the curriculum’s design and its long-term objectives –to be used by the comite to organize in their own communities and give workshops. I can’t tell you how nice it was to sit back, on my last day or two in the office, and see my project explored, wrestled with, questioned, and, in many ways, work.

Rebe, Lilian, and Alissa preparing lessons for the curriculum training.

I presented on civil rights for migrants in the United States.

Alissa presents on discrimination.

Finally, I loved the time I spent with my colleagues. After our trainings, we had plenty of time to explore the market, watch cooking shows dubbed into Spanish at the hotel, and goof off on some nearby playground equipment. When they finally saw me off on my earlier bus back to DF, I realized that this, more than anything, is what I would miss about Mexico –doing good work with good people and having fun doing it.

The CDM outreach team (Lilian, Alissa, Brenda, and Rebe) hits the swings.

Yeehaw!

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Last week was an important milepost for me in my practicum process –a meeting with the Open Societies Foundation to introduce my project, a labor rights curriculum for community organizers, to a new and perhaps future donor. The week leading up to the meeting involved a lot of final proof-reading, making of last-minute changes and corrections, then printing and assembling a prototype of the curriculum and creating a presentation. It was helpful to me to remind myself of the understandings that were agreed upon at the outset of the project and to feel as though we had fulfilled the objectives we set out to fulfill.

The curriculum is seven modules and I’m currently finishing writing a workshop for training the comite (our community organizers) to use it. Each comite member will get a toolkit consisting of a binder with all the materials, handouts, laminated posters, dry erase markers, etc. and some training on how to facilitate, how to present, how to organize a meeting, which CDM will support to as needed. Below is the slide I presented on regarding my underlying understandings as I undertook the project.

OSF Presentation.

The points down the side in the blue arrows read: Accessible, Participatory, and Flexible.

Accessible: Detailed facilitator instructions, Clear and simple bullet-points of information, and Visual resources. I knew that individuals with varying skill levels would be using the curriculum including our promoters, new volunteers with CDM, and the community organizers themselves. I also knew the materials would be used in communities with variable levels of literacy and so it was a priority to create visual resources in each module to be as inclusive as possible.

Participatory: Questions to access participants knowledge and encourage them to share their experiences, Activities for small groups, Interactive activities. Everyone has been to good workshops and bad workshops (classes, professional development, etc.), but for some reason we often act as though what makes them good or bad is a mystery. Research has demonstrated again and again that people, regardless of age, learn more when they have the opportunity to engage with the material. Consistently participants say they enjoy attending events when they have the opportunity to network and share their stories with others. Finally, at the heart of this point, is the development dogma that participatory is better. I happen to agree. Often in a workshop you find that the greatest resources are the attendees and facilitating a space where they can share and interact around important themes is a much better role than lecturing. Designing workshops that are participatory is a moral obligation and it also happens to make them better.

A few pages from the curriculum --Module 5 is on reprisals or employers taking punitive action against workers for speaking up or organizing. The document on the right we printed in poster size as well and had laminated. It is a four-cuadrant reflection asking participants to consider the power dynamics between employers and workers.

Flexible: Options to change activities depending on the size of the group, Modules with interchangeable parts. Outreach is unpredictable. Often we go places where it is difficult to find someone by phone. Organization and promotion sometimes happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we arrive at a site to find the entire municipio, men, women, and children, turned out waiting for our presentation. Sometimes there are only two or three attendees. Additionally, communities vary widely by what is most relevant –in some communities in Oaxaca there have been many cases of illness due to pesticides, so a presentation on health and safety with an emphasis on toxic chemicals is needed. The curriculum was designed so that any block of information or activity could be pulled from any module to create a workshop with the most relevant parts or so that, in the case of a community we have visited many times, there is new material to use.

The Curriculum: A thematic guide for promoters of U.S. labor rights.

It was a big project for me. It ended up being over a hundred pages of materials and it’s taken the majority of my time here. Initially I was able to see a few CDM workshops in action and we shared the first few drafts of the modules with our comite members to collect their feedback and incorporate their suggestions. And last week, we printed up the draft and presented it to a donor. This week, thirty copies arrived from the printer in big boxes and this weekend we’re supposed to have our first training with a community organizer. I am thinking about what kind of sustainability plan I want to leave behind as I’m concerned that the project needs sustained engagement and support to be successful.

Presentation Morning: Lilian reviews the presentation while Brenda and Jesus pose.

Brenda and Jesus pose with curriculum binder and posters.

Jesus and I with my practicum project.

In any case, I can’t help feeling that this practicum has had a very nice arc –from the comite national reunion in September where I got to meet the organizers, plan workshops and activities, and then immediately see them in action and get feedback, to presenting a comprehensive and (largely) finished project to OSF. I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity through CDM to undertake this work.

I took Friday out of the office after a long weekend of outreach. A recommendation here that I had yet to scratch off my Mexico City bucket-list was the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. It’s located on Alameda Park near the Palacio Bellas Artes –the Mexican Kennedy Center. Without doing any other research, I went to find it. I don’t know what I was expecting upon paying my 19 Pesos for entrance, but it wasn’t this.

Diego Rivera's Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park

Considering that Rivera was such a prolific artist working in many styles over many years, you’d expect between all of his paintings and collections scattered across the city to run into a few duds… Well, this is certainly not one of them. The museum was built to house this one mural after the hotel where it was originally painted collapsed in an earthquake. The curators thoughtfully supply large wicker chairs with cushions where you can sit and stare as long as you like, as well as an interpretive key to help guide you through the expansive cast of characters from Mexican history.

Detail of the right side of a Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park

Yet another stunning and blatant critique of Mexico’s complex and fractured history from Rivera. There is simultaneously so much pride and shame and pain in this piece. The chairs are a thoughtful addition because it takes a few long moments to let it all soak in.

This past weekend, I returned as part of a team to Tlapacoyan, Veracruz for what is likely my final outreach trip during my time here. We were in Tlapacoyan before Christmas and managed to get in some rafting and awestruck gazes at a waterfall around our workshops and meetings. Tlapacoyan is a community where CDM has done a lot of work in the past and where there are a number of migrants who travel on temporary visas. It is difficult to find anyone in these communities whose life hasn’t been touched by immigration in some way and, during this trip, we learned of busloads of workers who had gone to pick oranges in Florida and a bus leaving the next day to bring carnival workers to the northeast United States.

We gave five workshops while we were there, traveling to small communities on the outskirts of the municipality, up winding dirt roads into the mountainous jungle. The area is strikingly beautiful with banana and orange groves pressing close against the highways. The air was thick and humid and, one night while I sat in the hotel lobby, I watched the plaza fill up with low-hanging clouds before a tremendous rainstorm.

Our new rights-promoter and outreach worker, Brenda, in Zapote Redondo, Tlapacoyan, VER.

I spoke briefly about minimum wage and overtime in San Pedro Buenavista, Tlapacoyan, VER.

Brenda and Lilian display a minimum wage map as part of the curriculum I've been writing in Novara, Tlapacoyan, VER.

As we spoke to workers, it became obvious to me that, while cases of abuse are rampant (from illegally low wages and wage garnishing to racially motivated assault), workers are not easily convinced to pursue their damages. The internalization of their condition is profound and there is a hesitancy to speak out as they believe this might endanger their ability to get one of these temporary jobs, even with these abusive conditions, in the future. I sat in on several interviews with Silas, our legal director, who with time and careful explanation, was able to convince these men to accept help. I witnessed a stark transition in these interviews. When we would knock at their doors and introduce ourselves, we were told there was no time, “I was just leaving,” or “I’m busy.” With persistence though and a few questions about their life in the United State, the tone shifted dramatically from insisting “No, no… no problems…” to excitedly bringing out battered folders to show us their pay-stubs and carefully collected documents and calling their brother on the phone to see if he would be interested in joining the case. We spent hours in their homes, drinking juice out of tall glasses, and listening to their stories while Silas guided them to reveal their own experiences.

This, I believe, is what we study in development as empowerment. It’s a tricky phrase that we dance around defining academically. It’s frequently a part of mission statements, a goal of development organizations, and appears as an objective in logframes. Is it something you can teach or something you can facilitate? Is it formulaic or always individual? I don’t know, but something lit up in these interviews with patient legal questioning about schedules and pay and living conditions. I believe it was the unspoken phrase that these men could hear, an undercurrent to the interview that they understood: What you experienced was not right, but there is something that can be done.

 

It is three-weeks until I leave Mexico City for the foreseeable future. For me, I think it is natural to lean forward into change, but preparing to leave el DF feels different. Mexico City is an amazing place and, given the right set of circumstances, I could see myself living here for the longer term. It is normal for my co-workers to ask if I am excited about returning to Texas, but the truth is I am torn. I am very glad to be here now. I will miss it when I am gone.

Last night, I arrived back in DF from a weekend of outreach in Tlapacoyan, Veracruz, and the return trip, which I’ve made by car several times now, is via highway from Puebla to the south-east. Entering the last half-hour of the drive, you trace a series of steep switchbacks up and over and into the Valley of Mexico (for an idea of the angle, there are rampas de frenado off the side of the highway, which are braking ramps in case your car runs away from you at this grade). As you tip into the bowl, as we did at about 8:00PM yesterday, the massiveness of Mexico City is spread out below and lit up with millions of tiny lights from every swinging bulb in a market stall, every tail-light in a micro, every glowing Metro entrance, every home and hotel, church and office building, every street lamp and every street corner altar below it. The hugeness of it all is otherworldly and takes your breath away for a long minute before you descend into the maze of highways and billboards.

What will I miss about Mexico City exactly? Although the essence of such a massive and complex place is beyond words, there are a few specifics:

I will miss the food. The food from hole-in-the wall comida corrida comedors, from market stalls, and from the street is truly the best. Blue corn tlacoyos, huitlacoche  and squash blossom quesadillas, cactus salad, little cups of flan and pudding, sweet rice and milk popsicles, egg and cheese tortas with thick slices of tomato and avacado and pickled jalapenos falling out the side, freshly squeezed juice (papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, beet, carrot, orange, pinapple –pick your combo), or sliced fruit sprinkled with chile powder. I don’t eat meat, so I’ve passed endless spits of tacos al pastor up completely, but I don’t feel deprived in the least. Most of the fancier restaurants, let’s say most of the ones with doors, can be bypassed. Mexico City does food and does it best in the street on a little red plastic plate with a square of wax paper while you reach around your dining companions for the lime or salsa balanced near the grill.

A fresh mango, cut like a rose and doused in chile powder in the Bosque de Chapultepec.

Food stand in Tepoztlan.

A New Year's Day breakfast in my local market: huevos rancheros and cups of cafe olla with milk.

Crispy fried chiles for those who like it hot.

I will miss the markets, oh-so-much. Going to the grocery store in the U.S. is frequently a chore (Austin’s Central Market notwithstanding). You submit to the florescent aisles and fill your cart with what is often punky looking produce from the other side of the planet. At the local Mexican market, you wander aisles brimming with fresh vegetables and fruits (some grapes and apples make it in from the U.S. but it is largely local). I can fill my shopping bag heavy with tomatoes, onions, avocados, potatoes, poblano peppers, spinach, and squash for less than $10.00 USD. At another stall I’ll buy a wedge of cheese cut off a wheel and a kilo of eggs fresh from the chicken. This isn’t to say that Mexicans eat particularly healthy (I believe they are right behind us nationally in terms of obesity), but a lot of the destructive globalization of food distribution simply isn’t affordable here. In the U.S. we are able to absorb the absurd costs because of our vast comparative wealth. In Mexico, $1.99 USD avacados from Chile would be ridiculous.

Tepoztlan Sunday market fresh fruits and vegetables.

I will miss my neighborhood very much —my beautiful apartment and the location of everything. I live a five-minute walk to the Metro (which, given my love for that public transit system, I will also miss), a five-minute walk from the market, a fifteen-minute walk from work, and just across a main street from the amazing Bosque Chapultepec. I will miss the few neighbors who know me, the women who sell me my produce at the market, and Juan at the corner store where I buy my water and late-night snacks.

These are what come immediately to mind when I think about leaving this city and the life I’ve been living in it. And there’s something more, that essence which I hesitate to try to describe… But the essentialness of it is something like this: Mexico City is totally captivating. It is a loud and rowdy blend of history (you can almost feel the Aztec ruins under your feet when you walk) and modernity that defies all simple descriptions. What will I miss? Everything.

Virgen of Guadalupe in the city's north bus terminal lit by the sunset.

There has been some terrible news out of America’s prisons in the past few days. Yesterday, a prison riot in Mexico near Monterrey resulted in 20 deaths, the latest in a string of prison riots in the country (31 deaths in Altimara, Tamaulipas in January, another 20 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in October of 2011 to cover just the past six-months). In Honduras, an indescribable tragedy occurred last week when 358 prisoners, at latest count, burned alive in a fire. Most had not been convicted of any crime.

Although we have more effective facilities in terms of control –better systems, I suppose, to prevent the destructive chaos of riots and fires– the United States ought take the longest and hardest look at itself following these grievous and preventable outrages. The state and federal governments of the United States incarcerate  far more of their own citizens than any other industrialized country in the world –a large percentage for non-violent drug crimes.

I am grateful for Chris Hayes reporting on this silent population that we too often discount in our minds as being undeserving of our attention. How dare we, or any other government authority, shutter people away in such great numbers and with so little recourse?

I highly recommend watching his excellent reporting here.

Since the first day I arrived, I’ve wanted to write about the Mexico City Metro. Despite what Mexicans will tell you, it’s not the biggest or the most crowded in the world, but it is massive and it boggles my mind that something so big, moving so many people every minute, works so well. The major streets above ground are almost always coagulated with cars, angry drivers punching their horns and fumes and exhaust hanging in a cloud low over the city until washed to the ground by a rainstorm. Pedestrians and vendors weave in the gaps between bumpers and motorcycles speed through red lights. Topside, it’s frequently chaos. Underground, somehow, even with almost 1.5 billion rides annually, all is order.

It costs 3 Pesos (or $0.23) to ride no matter how many stops you go or how many connections you change.

It’s also truly the best people watching available.

I love the Metro in the morning, even when it’s so crowded that the mass of people almost picks you up off the platform and presses you into the car. In the morning, everyone is subdued and sleepy. Business men read their newspapers. Women apply their makeup. During our week-long strategic planning conference in December, I did a 45-minute commute on the Metro in the mornings and afternoons and couldn’t stop thinking of the human dynamic, of sharing such a small space with so many strangers –the anonymity and intimacy of it all.

I also love that you can buy almost anything on the Metro that’s for sale for 5 or 10 Pesos –vendors roam the cars all day long selling items that are sometimes seasonal (cough drops, cookbooks) sometimes practical (gum, chap-stick, a wide variety of snacks). There are often ripped CDs of ranchero or techno or American pop songs which are blasted through speakers taped to batteries and stuffed into the vendor’s backpack. There are flashlights, barrettes, key chains,  coloring books, Sudoku, repair manuals, wooden cooking spoons, political pamphlets, and school supplies.

Live Music on the Metro

There is often entertainment on the Metro. The one-man-band approach is popular. Most troubling, I once saw a man whose act involved doing shirtless somersaults across a cloth filled with broken glass shards. This intersection of spectacle and desperation is something I also think about a lot.

The Metro is a portrait of the city. The metro is filled with people. It is filled with Mexicans who are endlessly diverse. Among them are those who have experienced some obvious physical loss or trauma. It is also common to see people who are sightless making their way through the train jingling a cup with coins singing some low and mournful religious song. People with gangrene limbs beg at the bottom of the stairs leading out of the station. I’ve ridden trains with the occasional youth whose mind and limbs are so evidently wasted by inhalants, probably paint-thinner or glue. I find myself reflexively breathing in gratitude that in this moment I am physically whole.