Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

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.


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.

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.


I try to approach most things in Mexico with a conscious effort to avoid judgement or at least snap-judgement. I’m an outsider here and the humor inherent in cultural dissonance is everywhere, but I usually try to project polite interest and not hysterical, uncontrollable amusement.

Then there are some things that are just too funny for this kind of careful planning.

My friend and recent guest and I were out in search of some live music one night when we encountered Oskar –a uniform supply store with the most amazing and completely ridiculous collection of mannequins in the front windows.

Dr. Bedhead and Mom Jeans are just the start of the party.

Author David Lida, who I have written about before, describes them thus on his blog:

All the mannequins appear to be about 40 years old and wear wigs with the corresponding decades of neglect. They look like shipwreck survivors, or people who’ve had their hair cut with a lawnmower. Their hands – those that still have them – tend to make expressive or even extravagant gestures, sometimes bent into positions impossible to duplicate in real life. Some are in disturbingly suggestive poses.

From David Lida’s great blog about Mexico City and explored in greater length in his fantastic book, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century.

We didn’t go looking for this cast of characters, but once we came upon them we were first in totally amazement and then fits of laughter. Hair standing on end, silver lipstick (on male and female mannequins), arms missing, giant burly hands screwed on at the ends of delicate and slender arms, and, as Lida mentions, incredibly disturbing expressions and postures. The whole mess is displayed without a detectable trace of irony. All the characters wear some of Oskar’s many offerings while looking for all the world like a still from a low-budget zombie film.

This team is prepped and ready to eat your brains.

This guy just finished off the Tin Man.

Words escape me.

This model is called the Charles Manson and it is apparently very popular with Oskar's management.

People passing us on the street laughed at us laughing as we posed and took pictures. I’m sorry, Mexico, but these are totally ludicrous.

Trish is ready to give the zombies hell.

I get a lot of petitions from and I’m not sure how effective they are but I appreciate the role the play in bringing issues to my attention. It’s not as if I didn’t know that toy-makers make stupid toys for girls, but this one hit a little close to home as LEGOs were some of my favorite toys growing up.

This is a LadyFig, apparently. I'm sure she is brushing her hair before she goes to present at an international conference on human rights.

After 4 years of marketing research, LEGO has come to the conclusion that girls want LadyFigs, a pink Barbielicious product line for girls, so 5 year-olds can imagine themselves at the café, lounging at the pool with drinks, brushing their hair in front of a vanity mirror, singing in a club, or shopping with their girlfriends. As LEGO CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.”

From the petition letter.

My brother and I had an ongoing cast of LEGO characters. They were all space explorers and all male, but only because it wasn’t possible for a LEGOnian to wear both a space helmet and one of those pop-on hair-dos that indicated femaleness –an incarnation of an issue that I continue to confront.

Space... man? Who cares?

To be fair, my brother was much better at constructing spaceships and bases but he was also almost three-years older than me and now, as an adult, is an aerospace engineer at NASA. I like to think I contributed a great deal to the plot of the crew’s adventures and to character development. Our spacemen had occupations such as chemist and engineer and I don’t recall ever feeling that a vanity or jacuzzi was missing from our expeditions.

Click here to sign the petition to tell LEGO that these “girls” toys are dumb and offensive.

The moment of silence is for my computer. After just 14 months of service, it has died. This was very sad news and made me quite suddenly and painfully aware that I use my computer for everything and that I am far too casual with its contents.

I lost a computer once before. It was my classroom desktop unit right before Christmas of my first year of teaching. Windows started acting up, so on an off-period I wheeled it down to our IT guy who wheeled it back to me an hour later after wiping the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system. Dozens of painstakingly constructed vocabulary quizzes and countless hours of anguished lesson planning winked out of existence. Fortunately, I was way too busy to allow myself more than a five-minute panic attack and life went on, much the same as now.

I am borrowing a loaner from work and I am back to blogging.

November 2nd was Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. People still had Halloween parties on October 31st and there was a variation of the Trick-or-Treat on November 1st (it involves costumed children demanding candy from shop owners or money off strangers in the street), but the real festivities, bordering on national holiday, are on November 2nd. People travel to see their families and build altars at home to honor dead relatives. There are kitchy, cartoony gift cards with grinning skeletons and there is deadly somber grief and remembrance. It is a compelling mixture of sobriety and levity, celebration and doom.

I am about to make a generalization, which of course means it will be at least partly wrong, but I think Mexicans have, broadly speaking, a much more embracing attitude towards death and inevitabilty than your average norte americano. The graphic violence splashed across the covers of daily tabloids would be just one place to point. Día de los Muertos could be another.

I went to a Día de los Muertos festival at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) which turned out to be another amazing collective paper-mâché project, creepy and incredible. Below are some photos.

This calavera king would've made me very scared as a child.

UNAM's campus and famous mosaic.

Living calavera.

Amazing giant book containing at least two pages by Borges.

Detail of death in the Borges story.

Calavera in red.

This is everyone's art project.

Papier-mâché skeletons.

Papel picado.

That’s pretty much how the headline reads. I was describing to my neighbor this parade I ran into downtown this afternoon in my Spanish eloquence: “Lots of… colorful… big… art animals…” and my neighbor, who is Mexican and my age, nodded sagely and said something like, “Aah sí, los alebrijes,” or, “Oh yes, the papier-mâché monsters.”

Apparently the alebrijes, brightly colored freaky monster figures of all sizes, originated as the fever-dream of one individual Mexican artist. They were further popularized by Frida and Diego (who are on a permanent first-name basis in Mexico). As I was walking downtown today I heard and then saw the parade of giant alebrijes, apparently built in contest every year by art collectives all over Mexico.

Preying Mantis Alebrijes --I love how it looks like he's about to munch unsuspecting pedestrians.

Hideous Flower Alebrijes --this one reminds me of some video game but I don't know which one.

Frilled Lizard Alebrijes --totally awesome, especially the wings!

Alien Frog Alebrijes? I give up. I guess the only real requirement for entry is that you have a mouthful of pointy teeth.

They are sort of amazing. Aside from the great monsters, all the kids pushing and pulling them and marching around on stilts and banging drums and cheering for their entry were my favorite part. It made me feel so happy to see them out having what looked like such a good time, showing off this outrageous, ridiculous, and totally cool thing that they’d made. As a former nerdy art kid, I know what it’s like to get caught up in a project of creation that is so fun and that makes you feel so good. So good, in fact, that you can be found chanting and clapping and cheering in the streets next to your creation on a brilliantly sunny day with people in the streets cheering back.