Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ 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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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’ve been asked several times recently to explain the story of Thanksgiving. Of course, the people asking are my Mexican peers, not American 3rd graders… So, I tell it with lots of disclaimers.

Well, the holiday was only institutionalized 200-years after the supposed event.

But, it’s about the first English pilgrims to America suffering incredible hardship… And then the Natives show up and teach them how to farm and give them food…

Of course, it doesn’t acknowledge any of the anti-Native treachery or conflict in our history.

So, they had a big feast to celebrate their survival and give thanks to their god and they invited the Natives and everyone ate a lot…

Which for then, probably meant that everyone got something to eat. Not that they put themselves into a food coma in front of the ballgame.

Amazingly, Mexicans have a painted history of this early colonial period in the slightly more southern Americas in their Palacio Nacional –done by the master, Diego Rivera. It is not one bit saccharine or glamorous. Rivera may have sweetened Native culture a bit, but he is raw and honest about the human cost of conquest. This would be like having a wall-sized mural of the 1622 Virginia Colony Massacre juxtaposed with the Trail of Tears in the White House.

Pre-Columbian society as imagined by Rivera.

Spanish conquest and the twisted, sickly Spaniards enslaving and murdering the Natives in their quest for gold.

I explored the Palacio Nacional a little more thoroughly with my guests and walked through the portrait gallery for the first time. Mexicans have stunning portraits of Aztec kings hung next to Spanish dictators and Mexican revolutionaries. The portrait of Emiliano Zapata is striking (Vincente Fox, on the other hand, should ask for a do-over while he has the chance).

So, in more than a few cases, you have portraits of the people who killed and overthrew the people in the potraits next to them. That blew my mind. There’s a certain honesty there about history that I think we’ve come not to expect in the United States, but that we should be striving for.

When we’re able to talk honestly about ourselves, where we’ve come from and what’ve we learned, only then, I think, are we truly able to move forward.

On September 19th, CDM called a press conference to announce the filing of a complaint against the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) claiming that the U.S. is failing to uphold its obligation to protect migrant workers.

From the Media Center at the AFL-CIO:

(Mexico City, Sept. 19) “The AFL-CIO, together with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), the Southern Poverty Law Center, PRODESC and other civil society organizations filed a complaint today against the United States under NAFTA’s North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) on behalf of workers who were brought to the United States to work under the H-2B visa program.  The workers have attempted under U.S. law to gain redress with no success so are using NAALC to hold their employer accountable. The complaint states that the United States failed to comply with its obligations under NAALC by permitting companies to routinely pay H-2B workers less than the minimum hourly wage and deny them overtime and reimbursement for  travel, visa and recruitment costs.” Read the rest of the article here.

CDM's Comité members speak out against workplace abuses in the United States (photo by Gracia Cuzzi).

Comité members who signed on to the complaint spoke at the press conference, along with Silas, CDM’s Legal Director in Mexico City. Seven or eight press organization attended, including the New York Times and Univision. This action highlighted the existence of complaint mechanisms under international law but also, perhaps more importantly, the need to publicize their use as widely as possible in the hope of raising awareness and increasing the likelihood of a desirable outcome.

More press here (Spanish) and here (also Spanish).

September 16th was the 201st anniversary of Mexican independence, but I’m behind in my blogging chronologically. Mexicans distinguish in their history between the independence and the revolution –independence from Spain was won in 1810 and the revolution was a multi-sided civil war that began in 1910 with a populist uprising against autocratic ruler Porfirio Díaz.

This picture from my life in Austin this past summer, outside the Mexicarte museum on Congress, helpfully distinguishes the two. My favorite part is the adaptation of the insignia on the Mexican flag to include the words: Paz y amor. ¡Por favor! (Photo by Devon Davey.)

Grafiti murtal on Mexican history, Hidalgo to Zapata, outside the Mexicarte Museum in Austin, Texas.

Mexican independence celebrations, especially in Mexico City, involve a lot of heavily military ceremony with uniforms that, like most military uniforms, are a throwback to centuries long past. They also involve el grito, literally the yell, which is given by the president and by many political leaders in plazas across the country at 11:00PM the night of the 15th. El grito is attributed to the priest, Miguel Hialgo (giving el grito in the painting above) who in tradition rallied Mexicans to fight for independence with these words. Now, the most famous grito is given from the balcony of the presidential palace (the same with the Diego Rivera murals I blogged on before) overlooking the central plaza of Mexico City, the Zocolo. Little translation is needed –the first line is, “Long live the heroes who gave us the homeland!” Then there is a list of vivas for different heroes of the independence, a viva for the independence itself, and several vivas for Mexico.


My Mexican friend and colleague, Jesus, asked me what Obama yells on the 4th of July, which I thought was cute. A quick Internet search revealed that U.S. presidents, at least in recent history, usually spend their 4th of July holiday with family or visiting with soldiers. We also certainly do not mark or celebrate our civil war, at least not nationally (November 21st this year will be Mexican Revolution Day).

I feel ill-equipped here to comment more broadly on the many questions I have. What the culturally distinct parts of our celebrations of independence say about us? How does the overt patriotism of el grito contrast with the U.S. tradition of bar-b-que? Does it mean something that the Mexican president is called upon to be the voice of the republic while the U.S. president is essentially given the day off like most of the rest of us? Maybe something supremely complicated or maybe nothing at all.

On the 16th of September, the actual Dia de la Independencia that Mexicans have off from work and school, I took a long walk through Chapultepec Park, through the street market where kids were nagging their parents for cotton candy and past picnicking families staking out their patch of grass for the day. We both also celebrate with fireworks and parades. Ultimately, for me it was a comforting reminder that we are no doubt more alike than we are different, which is a strange thought to cultivate on a day dedicated to nationalism.

Complaint and Remedy

Posted: 05/24/2011 in Uncategorized

For Olivia, since you liked that line. My dog, Ita, had a small alcove in the middle of the folded down backseat in my two-door 1996 Acura Integra. My things were piled almost to the ceiling on either side of her, but I shoved her bed in between so she could look out over the center console and gear shift and down the road. She was a champion, either just chilling out and napping, or perching with her front paws on the center console, or staring out the rear passenger windows which were tiny, tinted, almost completely obscured by all my stuff.

There was one hour at the end of day-five when she started to lose her mind, getting all bug-eyed and panting hard and trying to claw her way into the front seat. Latent claustrophobia? A breaking point? I have no idea. She also sneezed directly on me about ten times in a row during that hour, in my ear, on my head, even behind my sunglasses, so I guess you could call that a means of complaint and remedy.

A less empowered Ita responded this way when her bowl of water spilled into her bed somewhere in highway traffic outside of Gary, IN.

Ita protests her living conditions in the car.