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Living here, I have learned to be alert. Each lesson where I have not done that has been costly. We were held up at knife point a couple of years ago, maybe more. You can read about it in The Knives of Mexico in this blog. In that case, a young man ran up the stairs past us—203 to our house from the old city center—twice, and the last time planted himself in front of us, brandishing his knife, a few yard from our garden gate. The missed clue? The lack of awareness? No one runs up the stairs in this city. Unless they’re high on something and/or have robbery on their mind.

At the beach a year ago, staying in a converted trailer, I followed the landlord’s advice and did not turn on the air conditioning. Instead, I kept a window opened (with screen) and turned on the fan. At 07:45 the next morning, I was aware that a man was standing a foot from where I slept. He darted out with my iPhone, a book, my one pair of trousers and other items that came to a tidy sum. I ran after him, without success. I had my money and credit cards in plain sight, tucked into a small Indian-woven purse. He missed it for some reason, or I’d have really been jodido. The lesson: keep windows locked and the air conditioner on, regardless of what any landlord says. He had taken off the screen and come in the window under the cover of the noise from the fan.

Yesterday, a Saturday, I started home wearing my expensive Ridge Runner’s 25 LLBean day pack. Nothing wrong with that, except that it signals you have enough money for that and for what’s probably inside it. I fell in behind a woman in her thirties. She was wearing medium-length high heels and very short black shorts barely covered by a black skirt, with black straps crisscrossing her mostly bare back. Every once in a while, she would reach back and adjust her shorts to a more modest length. Mexican women dress carefully and rarely, if ever, adjust as they walk along. There was something not ordinary about her and her progress through my neighborhood. Plus, I had never seen her before.

At the first alley, a good-sized man came up behind her. He was leering at her, which was also out of the ordinary. How do I know that? Because one notices those thing. We got to the stairs where I have to begin climbing. She turned into the darkness there—there was plenty of daylight left. The stairs are always in shadow. Something I have never done before: I sat down on a low wall on the other side of the road and waited, to spare her me climbing up behind her, if she was so worried about her modesty.

The man had not followed her. She had distracted me from thinking about him. I only knew this in retrospect. After a while, I started up the stairs. At the top, at the level of the higher road, there was no sign of her. Which seemed a little odd. So I started up the next flights of stairs. Half way up, I decided not to rest. The same man was coming up behind me, and I had already decided there was something making me uncomfortable with that. After all, where had he been before? Why was he still around? Why hadn’t he climbed up behind her, or continued on the road below?

At the very top, I sat down on a low wall, as if taking in the extraordinary view of the various church towers, the university and the rich cluster of old colonial buildings in the city center. And I watched the approaching man. Ten feet away, he glanced at me three times, and looked away. Out of the ordinary. Ordinary would have been holding my gaze long enough after the second glance to add a greeting. That is how it works here. But he looked away each time, his face in neutral. Then he sat down on the opposite low wall and looked at his phone.

But my wife and I had been stalked before by a couple of thugs in Guadalajara, and that was what they did: keep referring to their phones. To show their disinterest. Plus, what was keeping him there? There is ordinary behavior, which includes sitting for some reason. You’re old, your children are tired, you’re tired from lugging a heavy bag of groceries up to your house, you’re making a call, or you’re visiting with someone. But no one sits without one of these reasons. I could also tell he wasn’t delighting in the view and wasn’t reading anything on his phone. He and his face were blank, empty of activity. And I wasn’t going to let him get me isolated from that public spot, where five narrow alleys came together, six, if you include the stairs. So, I got up and went back down the stairs, as if, as a tourist, I had taken in the sight and was now retracing my steps. Which I did, all the way down to the center of the city, where I hailed a taxi and went up the side of the canyon and home that way.

I looked back a few times to see if he was following me. But he wasn’t. And today I climbed home, taking a different path, just to throw off anyone bothering to be watching for me.

These things happen here every once in a while. A social predator or two roll in to town and try their luck. That was what the knife holdup was. A chance spotting by someone passing through in a car, who got out and ran up after us. In this case, this series of little things out of the ordinary, is probably a one-off occasion. But I am still curious to know whether the man in this story was working together with the woman so concerned  by the length of her shorts and so successful in distracting me from the man who was tracking me.

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Taken from the CPJ:

Mexican journalist found dead with bullet wounds in San Luis Potosí
October 6, 2017 5:29 PM ET
Mexico City, October 6, 2017–Authorities in Mexico must undertake a swift and credible investigation into the murder of photographer Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
A spokesperson from the state attorney general’s office today told CPJ that state authorities found Esqueda Castro’s body this morning, near the airport in the city of San Luis Potosí. His body had three gunshot wounds, the office said.
The journalist’s wife, who CPJ has not named for safety reasons, told CPJ that armed men in police uniform who identified themselves as local police yesterday abducted Esqueda Castro from their home in San Luis Potosí.
She said the group of men, armed with pistols and at least one automatic rifle, broke the window of the front door of the couple’s home and stormed into the room where she and her husband were asleep. The attackers then collected the couple’s cellphones, and took Esqueda Castro away at gunpoint, Esqueda Castro’s wife said.
“Mexican authorities must swiftly investigate the abduction and murder of Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, and bring all of those responsible to justice,” said Alexandra Ellerbeck, CPJ’s program coordinator for North America, from New York. “Criminals, sometimes connected with state actors, know that they can get away with killing journalists in Mexico because of chronic impunity for these crimes. Until that changes, the violence will continue.”
The state’s general prosecutor said yesterday in a statement made on social media that the prosecutor’s office is investigating, and denied that state police were involved in the abduction. The prosecutor also said there was no arrest warrant against Esqueda Castro.
Ricardo Sánchez Pérez del Pozo, the Federal Special Prosecutor for Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression, told CPJ yesterday that his agency had opened a separate investigation.
Esqueda Castro worked as a freelance photographer for the local news websites Metropoli San Luis and Vox Populi, and edited a personal website, Infórmate San Luis. According to Esqueda Castro’s editor at Vox Populi, Gerardo Guillermo Almendariz, Esqueda mostly covered society events, but would sometimes work on crime stories.
Over the past few months, local police had threatened Esqueda Castro while he was reporting, according to both the journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz. On July 13, policemen threatened Esqueda Castro verbally, took pictures of his identification card, which included his address, and told him they were watching his home. Separately, several policemen on July 4 beat Esqueda Castro and threatened to take his camera while the journalist was photographing a shootout scene.
Esqueda Castro reported both incidents to the state authorities, and filed a complaint with the State Human Rights Commission, according to Guillermo Almendariz.
In a statement released this afternoon, the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a government body that provides protective measures to reporters under threat of violence, confirmed the threats, and stated that it had offered protective measures to Esqueda Castro. According to the protective group, Esqueda Castro refused protection, and said that he received no other threats after the two July incidents.
The journalist’s wife and Guillermo Almendariz confirmed to CPJ on Thursday that Esqueda had not been enrolled in a protection scheme.
Mexico is one the deadliest countries in the Western hemisphere for journalists. In 2017, at least four journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work, according to CPJ research, and CPJ is investigating the circumstances of another killing. CPJ has documented the disappearances of 14 journalists in Mexico, excluding Esqueda Castro. In May, journalist Salvador Adame Pardo was abducted from his home in the Mexican state of Michoacán.

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Guanajuato, Mexico, Oct.5, 2017

George Bunyan Interviews the filmmaker Ludwig Carnival on the health of Mexican film.*

GB: From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of very good films everywhere that don’t make it to the big screen. Is there anything we citizens can do about that?

LC: Yes. Stop watching mindless television. Demand art and thoughtful content.

GB: Isn’t that the argument of the artistic elite?

LC: It certainly isn’t the argument of the commercial elite. For them money, not art, is what is important.

GB: But without money, your films won’t reach the public.

LC: It depends on what you mean by public. People huddled in the flickering, blue light of their televisions, alone, hypnotized, without any questions forming in their brains as to what things mean. It’s a kind of self-selected numbing, distraction, excitement without insight, where you don’t remember what you’ve seen.

I recently went to a small movie house in Dahlem, an area in Berlin. I wanted to see whether it was still there fifty years after I had been a student there. My wife and I were the only people sitting in the theater. The movie was about raising salmon in desert in a Middle East country. That was the gimmick. That’s why it got picked up and distributed.

The movie house had endured because a series of owners loved film. There was nothing elite about the place or its activities. The billboard indicated that thoughtful films were the large part of the offering. In particular: The Thirty-Nine Steps, directed by Hitchcock. The Grande Illusion, with Erik von Stroheim. The Bicycle Thief. And the Mexican film Heli, by Amat Escalante. Criticized in some places for its violence.

GB: Violence sells, so does sex, so does white.

LC: That’s the sad part. The whiteness. So many films without cultural diversity, but revealing the racial assumptions that give cohesion to the dominant ethnicity. That is what characterizes blockbusters. Violence as the manifestation of strength and, usually, of male dominance, as in constant war and sex, as in the enticing postures of women that show thighs and breast, as if that were mainly what they are about.

I grew up in a whiteness, just south of Boston. My adolescent friends and I heard about the film Bitter Rice being played in a nearby seaport. We didn’t tell our parents what we were about to do, the three of us stealing away like plotting murderers , and hitchhiked to the town, praying the ticket booth would let us in, although we were years under-age. The crime we got to commit? We got to see nineteen-year old movie actress Silvana Mangano’s thighs and breasts. And violence. I remember thinking there must be something dirty about the whole thing because it was also Italian, and Italians, I knew, ate innocent people alive in East Boston. So many prejudices already growing like permanent cultural fungus in my young soul. At least it was international. But it had made it to the big American screen because of breasts and thighs. And probably also because of its dirtiness. Some critics called it Marxist because it dealt with labor issues.

GB: What about violence in Mexican films? Take the film Heli that you mentioned.

LC: I’ve seen the film. There is violence. But it’s not gratuitous violence. It shows unspeakable cruelty and torture, but it’s there for a reason. That is what goes on in a country with a long history of the absence of the rule of law; where educational and job-training opportunities tend to be out of the range of humble people; where the elite gather wealth and power, in their own way stealing from the rest of us with their monopolies. Anyone can join the drug cartels and become the cannon fodder for the incredibly bloody wars to control shipping and markets. The violence shows the depravity of a part of a desperate society where the only protection is neighbors looking our for neighbors.  Escalante rubs your face in it. Not to titillate and entertain, but to make you incensed that the powers at the top have allowed such a society to evolve. A society that we all in some ways help perpetuate every day. And in that way it is about Everyman and Every Country.

GB: What are you working on now?

LC: I’m writing a screen play about a corrupt federal policeman in Tampico in 1938, who looks for his angry, missing son in a city wracked by petroleum workers’ strikes. Where brutal counter measures produce limbless bodies floating in the Pánuco River, chewed on by oversized crocodiles and bumped against at night by submerged German U-boats, inching upstream. Where everything points to the coming slaughters of the Second World War, some of which is already beginning in that oil port.

GB: So the same old problems continue?

LC: The same problems exist. What sells is youth, young sexuality, young thighs and breasts, bulging muscles, guns, killing bad guys, winning the usually white beauties as if they were circus prizes.

What’s missing are the small joys, the small courtesies, I want to say, sweetness that strangers share, the fragility of unusual love. What sells is war, weapons, feats of unreal courage, blowing up things, car chases, high-tech crime fighting. A hip hollowness. Heroes wrapped in invincibility. The abundance of clichés.

Heli, the film by Amat Escalante, is slow, unrelenting. At one point, if I remember correctly, an Army pickup drives right up to the door of an innocent protagonist’s modest house, with its mounted, manned, heavy machine gun pointed right at the protagonist, what seems like centimeters away. It is a scene about menace. About the power of the State to threaten or run amok with impunity. A metaphor for what good people are up against in this country of ours. It is but one of countless brilliant scenes. Escalante’s films should be supported by patrons of the arts everywhere. As should those of countless other young filmmakers in this old and noble country.

GB: Thank you for your time.

LC: You’re very welcome.

*A reminder that this was a fictitious interview.

 

 

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The Orphan Line

I don’t know anything about orphan lines, except for what I can intuit. To be passed over by a friendly-looking, warm couple must be devastating. And hardening. Why wouldn’t they choose me? I am a good person. Only abandoned. Nothing more. I began using this comparison at the Writers Digest 2017 Conference in New York. For the last hour of four pitch slam sessions about 150 hopefuls poured into a large conference room where some seventy, or was it fifty? literary agents sat at little tables with their backs to the wall. The carefully announced and mapped numbers on the tables did not exist. I approached my number one choice, waited six minutes, as two other orphans talked to her in three-minute intervals, and then sat down. I gave her my spiel, carefully rewritten and rehearsed. She was uninterested. I said thank you and moved on. The next person rejected me as well. I grew more frantic. I abandoned the script. It didn’t seem to be working, aside from not really describing my novel. “Send me five pages.” Okay, that was better than nothing. I used broader, longer strokes. These were interesting times. The nationalization of Mexico oil. Eyes glaze over. But Frida did go to Tampico to welcome Trotsky and Natalia to Mexico. Eyes focus more. The Checka, or Stalinist secret police, did follow dissidents to Paris, Madrid and Mexico City to silence or punish or simply liquidate—to protect Stalin’s concept of the Soviet State as embodied by him. An example for things to come right here? I didn’t say that. “Send me a query.” “Send me ten pages.” No one adopted me, but at least they were offering to look at my teeth, see if my ears were clean, whether my feet pointed straight forward. My right veers a little off to my right. In search of rectitude, I suppose. I stand with it a little behind. The Fearful First Position? To disguise my flaws in general. Maybe you won’t notice. I certainly don’t. A little shattered, but not too much, I straighten myself for the next visit from those who may or may not choose me to be their publishing child.

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Final Pitch Slam Pitch

 

Front (top) and Back (bottom image).

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The pitch I gave in New York to a group of editors and literary agents changed constantly. As they warned it might. You had 90 seconds to explain the novel and entice interest.

This was the first final version:

“On the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil, the darkness of the Spanish Civil War— as in Stalin’s secret police liquidating anarchists and Trotskyists—spills over into a 1938 Mexican oil port…( space for a pause, while you try to think how it goes from here)…

…a place where federal anti-corruption officer Tomas Ortiz is looking for his estranged son and hoping to regain his wife’s love.

Tomas slips into deeper water, when he learns that his son is living with a young refugee, that they have two little girls and that she—an anarchist and defender of petroleum workers’ rights—is the object of a suspicious search by a man who has followed her from Madrid and claims to be her father.

In all this, Tomas is guided by a highly developed moral compass, which comes with a few flaws; namely, that he’s been unfaithful to his wife, he hallucinates and he’s a kleptomaniac.”

When that pitch didn’t seem to be working, I changed gears. I started to talk about the period, the convergence of big events, the stinking oil port teeming with agents of all sorts. Socialists, anarchists, communists that were Trotskyists or Stalinists, insurrectionists (plotting to overthrow President Lázaro Cárdenas), Mexican and German Nazis, Mexican and Spanish Falangists (the fascist party that backed Franco in the Spanish Civil War), English, Dutch and American enforcers from the multinational oil companies, red unions (socialist) and white (Stalinist and anti-union unions), and even Stalinist agents (NKVD and Checka) following some 20,000 Spanish Civil War refugees fleeing Spain, and accepted by Mexico. And in the midst of this, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, American supporters of the Fourth International, various Mexican generals, the Church, anti-Cárdenas banks and foreign (especially American) ambassadors.

For a moment, I wondered whether there was some kind of wall that agents and others couldn’t look over, or see through, into Deep Mexico, complex Mexico. When I began to talk about the historical context, I began to get results: Send me pages, send me a query. I suppose I also began to show my enthusiasm for my subject, which was hard to do with the prescribed bare bones pitch that had been advocated. Since it really wasn’t the same thing as my novel and, memorized, hard be enthusiastic about.

And so, I ended up writing the pitch I wanted to write, and the one I will use in my queries. The capital letters show italics.

THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO, historical fiction, 80,000 words.

The story of Fiona—a Spanish Civil War refugee—told in confidence, but with small inconsistencies, small problems of logic.

Told to Tomas Ortiz, a skeptic and Mexico City policeman, Special Branch, once close to President Lázaro Cárdenas but now disgraced for stealing a pair of earrings from Frida Kahlo in 1937 on the armored train that took Trotsky and his wife to the capital and asylum, but not to safety.

An oversized crocodile in the Pánuco River who defends her eggs, sees through the Fiona story and patrols the hot, stinking oil port of Tampico along with 300-pound tarpons, German submarines that never surface, and the heavy cruiser Graf Spee, which ghosts offshore in KRIEGSMARINE gray, ready to deliver the end of Tomas Ortiz’s world before he can regain his wife’s touch and find his angry, missing son.

Or stop the teller of the Fiona story, a pink-cheeked steward of Stalinist orthodoxy, from liquidating the daughter he says he has come from Madrid to save, and who, it turns out, is living with Tomas’s son—she, an anarchist, both advocates for oil workers’ rights.

A historical novel along the lines of E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME, but in the tradition of Juan Rulfo’s THE BURNING PLAIN, about deep Mexico, México profundo, a space unfamiliar to the giant to the north, also unseen by the shakers and movers to the south, the internal colonialists, who find the poor CAMPESINO picturesque but not striking socialist petroleum workers.

For the latter and their advocates, so think the overlords, on the eve of the nationalization of Mexican oil in 1938, no killing field or ship’s hold slaughterhouse is too radical or too mechanical. No federal policeman’s investigation will be tolerated.”

My stories have appeared in:

The Albany Review, “Sleep” 1987

Third prize in the 1994 Writer’s Digest short fiction contest for “The Curve of the Earth.”

The Press Democrat, (a large regional newspaper in northern California), “An Otter for a Hat” 1997, Easter edition.

In 2011, my short story collection THE PÁTZCUARO INCISION was a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award.

My story “The Hair and the Heart” appeared in the Winter 2015 magazine Saddlebag Dispatches, associated with Western Writers of America.

My Novels:

PLAYING FOR PANCHO VILLA, Editorial Mazatlán, Mazatlán, Mexico, 2013. Editor: David Bodwell. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

COMANDANTE IBARRA, Montezuma Books, Mexico City, 2015. Editor: Peter Gelfan. Reviews: Amazon and sterlingbennett.com

Biography:

I have lived fifteen years in Guanajuato, a university town in the mountains of Central Mexico; Harvard 1960; U. of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literature, 1970; Professor of German and Global Studies at Sonoma State University in California 1967 – 1999. I also taught Latin and Homeric Greek there. Have done two full days of one-on-one guided walks over selected Spanish Civil War battle sites, as well as extensive research in modern Spanish and Mexican history. I see my writing as influenced greatly by 19th Century German short stories.

Historical Context for THE QUEEN OF THE PÁNUCO:

In January, 1937, Frida Kahlo goes to Tampico, to welcome Leon Trotsky and his wife into Mexican asylum on behalf of President Lázaro Cárdenas.

It’s the eve of Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas’s March 1938 nationalization of Mexican oil.

In 1938, Hitler annexes Austria.

In the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Army, Church and the State (fascist General Franco) slowly crush Spanish democracy, sowing fields and ridges with discarded Mauser ammunition clips. Ammunition supplied by Germany and Italy for the fascists; by Mexico and the Soviet Union for democratic Republican Spain. Pitiless executions of prisoners occur on both sides, but far more on the fascist side, which then continue until 1975.

Some 20,000 Spanish Republican refugees flee to Mexico.

In 1940, a Stalinist agent, in very deep cover, infiltrates Trotsky’s inner circle in Coyoacán, Mexico City and mortally wounds him with a mountain climber’s ice ax.

In the years 1937-1938, Soviet security forces, including the NKVD, execute between 900,000 and 1,750,000 “enemies of the State,” that is, victims of Stalin’s paranoia—numbers that include assassinations outside the Soviet Union.

 

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Dressing up for a Lindy Hop “social,” I thought I’d bring out my only bow-tie, which had been slumbering, inverted, in my wardrobe for years. And I mean years. Maybe thirty or forty. And, of course, I found out I had forgotten the motor memory in my hands and had no idea anymore how to tie it. My love of many years figured it out in seconds, and so we cast off for the social with me flying my “moño,” which is what my fellow dancers called it in Spanish. Although I thought, from quick research, that that meant “bun,” as in a woman’s hair. Waitresses in the famous restaurant Cafe de Tacuba in Mexico City wear large white moños, and those are bows. My dictionary calls it a “pajarito.” A little bird. I think of it as a bat that has come out, taken on color and reformed. You can see the effect it has on women fifty years younger than me. The lesson was taken, and at the next social, in the space of a day, two young men showed up to Guanajuato Swing wearing moños or pajaritos or murciélagos, the latter being my favorite word in all of Spanish. That made the three of us leaders in Mexico’s newest, most important revolution, one that brings hope to partners everywhere.

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I’m sitting in my favorite café in my colonial Mexican city. I think of it as a very small Paris. I am going over the Spanish translation of my first novel Playing for Pancho Villa. I must have started this project a year or more ago. My wonderful translators, a Mexican poet and a French professor of French, have long since finished the translation—an enormous job. And then I have to come after them, checking each word for its fullest correct equivalent. I am on my last two chapters out of thirty-two. I am hoping the huge Spanish speaking world will read this novel more than English readers have. Its plot and general flavor may seem less foreign to them.

The dog, a bitch, tail wagging and delighted to see us all, a sort of Labrador mutt—I have since learned her name is Chia—comes through the always open door. She goes to everyone in the big room, mostly university students working at things and drinking tea. Several young women are hanging an exhibition of photographs and calling out adjustments across the room. A small film crew comes in and sets up in the middle of the gentle chaos. A young woman sits across from me, brushing on makeup. What? To make her more pale, remove any blemishes? Perhaps they are making a one-day movie. It is the end of the annual Guanajuato International Film Festival, and little groups of young filmmakers are competing to win in that category.

Everyone—including myself—reaches down to Chia, who I now realize is attached to a familiar young painter family and their two children, several months and two-or-so years old. Chia obits around this attractive young family. What strikes me is how each of us in the room wants the same thing: contact with this happy, tail-wagging ambassador. And then, after a half an hour or so, everyone except for the one-day filmmakers leaves, including Chia and her family. And I am left to listening to “Belle Nuit, Ô Nuit D’amour,” Les Contes D’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and to continue with the translation Playing for Pancho Villa. When I finish, we will sit down together, the three of us, the translators and me, and we will decide on the final changes and adjustments in another quieter café.

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