Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

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 a bit weird to subscribe emotional attachment to a political figure, I think. Cults of personality are odd at best and dangerous at worst. Politicians are people of tremendous power and wealth who are already three-quarters of the way colored by the system before they reach us in any form. But, darnit, if it isn’t love that I actually feel for my president at times.

Especially at times like this (from New Orleans, 2009):

Of course this clip has nothing to do with Obama’s policies and various compromises and he doesn’t address the specters of otherness and race or the repeated whispers of “birth certificate” and “secret Muslim.” What he does do is give a warm, affirming, and honest answer to a 4th grader –What he does do is be real and it turns out that real Barack Obama is totally lovable.

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.

I’ve written on this blog before about fracking. Fracking is the high pressure injection of water contaminated with a toxic (and secret) blend of “fracking chemicals” under the ground to break apart the bedrock and release natural gas where we can collect (some of) it. Because of our unique (absurd) relationship with property ownership, one can own ones land but not the gasses and  minerals underneath it. Gas companies have been gobbling up drilling permits all across the country. As oil prices have risen, the phrase “America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas!” has become a mantra.

There are lots of environmental reasons to be opposed to fracking, but here is one more.

Ohio ended 2011 with a magnitude 4.0 earthquake on New Year’s Eve, the second quake to strike the area within a week and the 11th of the year. That earthquake, the most recent and the strongest, was traced back to the fluid injection wells at a fracking site in Youngstown, Ohio. Indeed, all 11 earthquakes occurred “within two miles of the injection wells.”

Now, state officials are shutting down the injection wells and letting the waste fluids that were injected to “bubble back to the surface in an effort to relieve underground pressure.” The original injection pressure will force the brine waste water back out of the well into storage tanks, which should “help stop the ground from shaking.”

Read the rest of the article on Think Progress.

Ohio was in the process of debating opening up the state’s parks to fracking and hopefully this will help prohibit that. If fracking were able to save us from the impending energy crisis, there might be a stronger justification for continuing it despite the outrageous environmental degradation. The truth is that fracking will not save us. Natural gas is also a limited resource with consequences for global climate change. Fracking is a way for oil and gas companies to squeeze more monetary value out of the earth in the short term without paving the way for energy sustainability or environmental health in the long run.

And apparently it can cause earthquakes.

Picture from the AP: Anti-fracking demonstrators at a recent protest in Youngstown, Ohio.

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.

I recognize that not everyone enjoys primary politics as much as I do. I love primaries. I love the coverage, the gaffes, the shuffling of positions for support, the revelations of character, the off-the-record moments that without fail get splashed across the Internet –basically the glimpses these all provide into the corners of our political landscape. Even as I think our monied-representative system is a disaster and our media is failing its essential function (to inform) in favor of entertaining or campaigning… I love primaries and this particular GOP presidential primary has been one of the most amazing ever.

And Herman Cain! Wow. Herman Cain has been so much fun. I will truly miss him from the news cycle.

This video is a pretty good summary of the most amazing moments, though it misses “Libya… okay… Libya…,” the performance of “Imagine There’s No Pizza,” and the metoric crashing of Herman Cain’s rising star on the sexual harassment and affair allegations (since when did affairs hurt Republican candidates, Newt?).

I really don’t think politics is a joke. I think politics matters deeply and our politicians can profoundly impact our lives for the better or the worse. It is nice, however, to have such a jokey field of candidates representing such radically offensive positions. It only seems appropriate.