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.

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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 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 Change.org 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 Change.org 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.

Teotihuacan is a giant archaeological site –the former great city of several long lost peoples: those who built it, now called the Teotihuacanos, and those who came upon it once they had disappeared, most famously the Aztecs who named it the place where gods are made. The sheer scale of Teotihuacan is humbling. The pyramids seem built to rival the mountains around them.

Renamed the Pyramid of the Moon by the Aztec --the far smaller of the two great pyramids at the site.

This is an immensely complicated site, founded around 100 B.C.E. and expanded and occupied by various peoples in the subsequent centuries. Although there are many Mayan influences to be found here, the site itself has nothing to do with the 2012 apocalyptic predictions of the long-count calendar. Nevertheless, the world of the Teotihuacanos ended, obviously, and the site is assumed to have been largely abandoned when the Aztecs happened upon it.

The new beginning of a new year and my first visit to the site gave me pause. Scholars think there are two overlapping factors that brought about the end of the first era of Teotihuacan and both are presciently facing our global society today: drought, caused by changes to the climate, and a popular uprising of the common against the elite classes in their city. Apparently the academics used to think that Teotihuacan was attacked, sacked, and burned, triggering its downfall. Broken artifacts and traces of charring seemed initially to corroborate this. On closer examination, however, archaeologists discovered that this kind of destruction was limited to the structures related to the upper classes, indicating the revolution of a people who had lost faith in their leaders.

I put exactly zero stock in doomsday predictions, but walking through the ruins of such a complex and advanced city does make me think that there is no reason to not believe  in the end of the world as we know it. For me, this usually manifests itself in fantasies of somehow collectively manifesting a better world, one without poverty and violence (or, even in my fantasy, let’s hedge and say significantly less of these). There is, however, no reason to assume that great, global change, the kind that might wipe out a people who built a mountain, isn’t in store for us if we don’t move forward with humility and great forethought and caution. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our experiences of climate change and social unrest. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our world or each other.

On one of the upper terraces of the Pyramid of the Sun.

 

Carefully climbing down the steep steps.

The man-made mountain: the Pyramid of the Sun.

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.

Sometime right after Thanksgiving I went to the field to work. In Tlapocoyan, Veracruz and the surrounding communities. The outreach team split up into two groups, but I managed to get in on every workshop we gave. In total we spoke to about a hundred people about the workplace rights of migrants in the United States. Everyone came on invitation. Here I am reading aloud a part of a case study. The guy in the red shirt had a pretty sad story of being badly injured working for one of the traveling carnivals in the northeast United States.

Taller in El Jobo, Veracruz. Participants read a case-study of a migrant fair worker.

Right after Christmas, I came back to the office and to my project. I’m writing a curriculum for CDM’s basic workshops.

Workshop titles include:
Wages and Hours
Health and Security
Discrimination
Recruitment
Reprisals
Temporary Visas
Civil Rights (which includes things like ones right to remain silent and speak to a lawyer and ones right to be protected from warrant-less searches in the home).

Writing a whole curriculum with content and facilitator instructions in Spanish has been a challenge and I have been at it since mid-September. It is finally coming together. I’ve drafted all seven of the presentations and one of my Mexican colleagues has made track changes in Spanish. We’ve introduced them to comité members (who will be receiving and giving the trainings and learning to facilitate using these materials) and gotten and incorporated their feedback. Once I finish incorporating all of the track changes and doing some formatting, I’ll be done with this significant part of my project.

Also, when I went to Veracruz, the outreach team took a brief detour to go rafting to and swimming in an amazing waterfall. I feel very blessed entering a new year.

The team rafting. It's hard to look cool in this getup, but who cares?

El Encanto cascada/waterfall.

Good for perspective. This cave was huge.

 

Looking good in those rolled up pants. I know everyone in this photo felt so happy just then.

Vamos 2012, let's see it.