Tag: Mexico

Why We Leave, Why We Left

On Leaving America, Elena Poniatowska, and Janet Blaser’s Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats

I’ve done this before, in fact, many times over the last twenty years. Leaving what used to be home in northern California and returning to my new home in Mexico. I look at faces in the airport, each time younger. Each time more distant.

I’ve never really known how to bridge the gaps that separate us. The biggest one being America’s brand of alienation, the one I grew up in. Moving through the world in a car, getting out, brushing shoulders with others. But then, not really brushing. More like glimpsing from the side while standing in the Pete’s Coffee or the Starbucks pickup line. What are you like, my fellow corporate customers? I ask silently. We are conjugated, that is all. I consume, you consume, he she it consumes. The Latin of separation in this corporate meeting place. Would you ever even be interested in what I write and think about? Novels about events in Mexican history? Events much like those in US history. Genocide, slavery, civil war—the motives for what are not taught in school or discussed at the dinner table. Should we call it Deep America?

“What has fiction got to do with it,” you ask, as you stir your coffee, without looking at me, without speaking. One moment, please, while I consult my inner muse. The one that dictates the next sentence. The one that is listening to something in my brain. And so, well, aren’t we all living out the plots of our own lives, our own stories? The ones about conflict and struggle, love, cruelty suffered and forgiveness given and received? Aren’t we all protagonists, flawed yet still trying to do the right thing? Trying to find our place.

I am heartened by the children, on this morning, traipsing along behind their mothers, carrying their little stuffed-bear backpacks and their fuzz blankets, trudging along bravely, as if the snow were two feet deep, for the moment protected by the same glittering airport bubble that I too inhabit.

At the same time, as I drink my coffee, I’m holding Janet Blaser’s wonderful Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, the testimonies of twenty-seven women, including Janet, on why they moved from the U.S. to Mexico, looking for a better and more satisfying life. If only I had had this book in my hands twenty years ago, when my love and I took a deep breath and crossed the border at Nogales, Arizona.

If that had been the case, we would have had much insight into what we were doing. But we did not have her book and had to learn everything ourselves and, in the end, over the years, became permanent residents of Mexico, the place we call home.

In her book, before the Preface, Janet quotes from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. “I have an idea that some men (change the man pronoun as appropriate) are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace…Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends them far and wide in the search for something permanent to which they may attach themselves…Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

Several years ago, Elena Poniatowska, Mexico’s grande dame of letters, gave a keynote speech at the San Miguel Writers Conference, where she read from a long list of foreigners like herself, who came to Mexico, wrote, painted, sculpted and composed and added to the country’s vast cultural richness. Each one of their stories of why they came (and some left) are part of the same kind of testimony you will find in Janet Blaser’s anthology.

Still at the airport, I am going where most of my fellow airport coffee drinkers aren’t going. I am leaving “we” once again and joining “them.” Already, I have to start saying “they” again, referring to my fellow coffee drinkers. If I told them where I was going, they would pause for moment and then politely ask, “Why?” And I would tell them, in order speak a different language and live in a different culture.” And then after another polite pause, and with concern in their voice for me, they would ask, “Is it safe?”

I am familiar with being afraid of Mexico. Years ago, when I was in my early thirties, I flew to Puerto Vallarta—my first time in Mexico—and found my way to the old hotel. I went to my room and closed the shutters, got in bed and pulled the covers over my head in the middle of the afternoon.

It was another thirty years before my love and I crossed the border. The women Jamet Blaser’s anthology are far smarter and braver than I was. They knew something was missing in their American lives, and they wanted to change that. They saw through the mirror that reflected their American culture assumptions back at them. That is not easy to do. We are the dominant culture or, more accurately, the dominant country. As the Mexican saying puts it: “So far from God, so close to the United States.” Dominant cultures tend not to be able to see into other cultures.

I sip my Pete’s Coffee. I guess I could say I’m going to a place where some of the coffee beans that fuel Peet’s and Starbucks are grown and are picked by people whose day wage would not buy even a quarter of a cup and whose lives most of us are not even aware of. They do not figure in the corporate algorithms. Except, perhaps, that you may think they are dangerous. They are not. They are poorly paid workers and kind people.

Truth in advertising: There is a Starbucks in the very historic center of my colonial city Guanajuato. Clearly, corporations are not put off by Otherness and simply hire locals. But there is a choice here. The best coffee in the Western Hemisphere is a few steps up the street at Greg’s Café Tal.

My one recommendation? Begin learning Spanish now. It’s like having a diving bell that lets me sink into the culture. My Mexican writing partner always argues that I have not immersed myself deeply enough, that I don’t always find the precise word I’m looking for. That happens to me in English, too. I started Spanish when I was fifty. He may be missing the point somewhat. There is no bottom to culture. Your intent and persistence is key to communicating and respecting the wonderful people we live among. And so: begin your Spanish and buy Janet Blaser’s book: Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats.

Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory

“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”

A Small Matter

My wife was visiting in the north, helping our friend, who is Mexican, married to a Frenchman and living in Madrid, research Mexican engineering students studying in the U.S. in the 19th Century.

 

I stayed home in my small colonial city, practicing no longer being dependent on my wife, as well as exploring solitude, bachelorhood and cat farming. The latter can be explained by the fact that a small stray cat family that lived next door decided to live at our house. My neighbor, who had given sanctuary to the family—on her laminated tin roof held down by stones borrowed permanently from our property—argues that it was enticement. Not by us but by our cat, an earlier immigrant. Who always leaves food in his bowl. Hence, enticement.

 

The new family consisted of a mother with a brown moustache, a doting father and two young ones. Then one day I reported to my traveling wife that the mother cat appeared to be pregnant. And after a bit more time, that she appeared to be un-pregnant.

 

“Did you look for the babies?” my wife asked from the archives of one of M.I.T.’s libraries.

 

I said no I hadn’t. I had more important things to do. Like Yoga, writing, getting a massage, and finding a place to eat lunch, followed by a nap, putting together something for supper and watching horrible news from the country she was visiting.

 

“Have you looked for the babies?” she asked from the archives at Cornell.

 

I said I hadn’t and wasn’t going to because they could be anywhere, near or far.

 

Then one day, after climbing the 203 irregular Mexican steps to our house—plus long, steep, slanting stretches—I came through the garden gate, then the garden itself, and spotted them. Two little things, on a patio. I counted them again. Two. I had expected more and was relieved to arrive at the same count.

 

I climbed some outside stairs to the terrace off our main living level. The house is small but has two main levels and three terraces, two terraces on the lower level and one on the upper. Sometimes I call them patios. When I reached the terrace on the upper level, my neighbors’ seventeen-year old son Evan was standing on his flat roof—which we call an azotea here—which is level with our top living level.

 

We both heard a third kitten, but it was not clear where the sound was coming from. Evan kept looking at a drainage hole near the top of the stairs I had just come up. I climbed our iron spiral staircase, thinking the crying was coming from our azotea (an Arabic word). The crying was weaker. When I descended the spiral staircase again, I saw Evan still staring at the drainage hole. That was where the kitten’s cries were coming from. Somehow it had gotten up to our upper level—I suspect his mother—and then entered the hole and dropped twenty feet down the 4” PVC drainage pipe. And was trapped—essentially entombed by tons of cement and brick.

 

“What are you going to do?” my wife asked.

 

I said I had snaked a thick rope down the pipe, and if the kitten couldn’t climb up it, it was going to die.

 

My wife said I should call the builders who built the house. I said they would never be able to find the exact spot where they could break through to the kitten.

 

“Do you want me to call them?”

 

My wife is the most take-charge person I know, and at eight-thirty the next morning our two chief builders and a helper were at the front door. They had dropped whatever other project they were assigned to by their boss, who is our former presiding builder-architect. At the same time a close family friend—a great animal lover—called to see whether he could help. I told him how hard I thought it would be to reach the kitten. That the rope I had worked down the pipe was synthetic and therefore too slippery for the small frightened claws.

 

My friend is a busy artist. “I’m coming up,” he said.

 

Including me, five men were now working on the matter. The helper unlatched a heavy case and brought out a powerful hammer drill, something like a small jackhammer, and began chipping away at brick and cement.

 

My wife was calling every half hour. She told us to drill in an area circumscribed by the circumference of a quarter circle radiating from where two walls met at a ninety-degree angle. The pipe had to be in that area. We could not miss, she said. Unless, I thought, the pipe had not dropped straight down.

 

The first mason left to go to work on their current, official project. I think he had only come to reassure me and make sure the correct measures were being taken. And because he feels we’re part of his family and he’s responsible for us.

 

After more than five hours of pounding with a sledge and chipping and drilling away with the machine, we could not find the pipe. And I ordered a halt. Everything else had failed as well. My next-door neighbor, who argued enticement, helped me wrap strips of cloth around the slippery rope. That didn’t work. The cloth bunched up and wouldn’t descend. She then started making a cloth rope. I rigged a weight to carry it down. The weight wouldn’t go around the corner just in from the entrance hole. We tried a chain as a weight. That worked, but the kitten’s cries had weakened and then ceased when the chain descended. I was afraid the chain could pin the kitten and keep it from breathing. The masons tried to snake black half-inch PVC tubing with a sharp end down the pipe. It wouldn’t go around the first corner. Plus, I was afraid it could injure the kitten.

 

At the beginning of all this, my friend the artist took off his clothes, donned my bathing suit and went down into the cistern on the lower living level patio, while I drained the sludge-fermented rain water from the cistern down into the garden.

 

There were two drainpipes entering the cistern, and my friend was able to determine where the kitten’s cries were coming from. They got stronger during the blasting and drilling, as the kitten fled the noise and came closer to the cistern.

 

I went into my shop and built a bridge that extended from the entrance pipe the kitten could approach from to the rebar ladder that descended into the cistern. I rigged a piece of screen so the kitten could climb the ladder. When everyone had left and I had thanked them and arranged for payment, I placed a frozen salmon patty and some dry cat food at the end of the pipe entering the cistern.

 

I was beginning to realize the kitten’s plight. It hadn’t drunk or eaten for thirty-six hours now. I went up to the upper level and poured some purified drinking water down the pipe. Not a lot, but enough to lick, at least. Then some dry kitty food. Whenever possible the kitten’s mother had hung around the fatal opening and made encouraging noises. So I blocked off the opening. I want the kitten to go in the direction of the cistern and not linger at the mother’s end of the pipe twenty feet above. I also didn’t want a downward air current carrying the smell of salmon away from the kitten. I rigged what they used to call a trouble lamp in the cistern—a light bulb with a screen around it, equipped with a hook. I wanted the kitten to see light when it was night and everything was completely black.

 

My neighbor had been up on our roof watering plants, which is part of her job. The water had run off, I realized, passed around the kitten and had started to fill the cistern. Where the kitten would drown, if it missed the bridge and fell in. So I drained the cistern again.

 

It was all I could do. Survival now depended on the smell of salmon and dry food, the kitten bridge and the trouble light. I went to bed and slept fitfully, worrying about the kitten. It’s crying had grown weak, and I wasn’t too hopeful about its escape.

 

At four-thirty, I woke up and heard it crying, seemingly close by. I hopped over to the bedroom window and listened. The cries were coming from the cistern. I got my flashlight and went barefoot down to the lower level and stuck my head down into the cistern. Its cries were very loud, but there was no little head at the point where the pipe entered the cistern.

 

Then I realized the cries were coming from below the pipe opening. I shined my light lower, and there in the far corner at the bottom of the cistern, in the mud, was the three-week old kitten. My bare feet hurt on the narrow rebar ladder rungs as I descended. I squished through the mud to the far end of the cistern, had a moment of hesitation when I considered whether little wild thing would claw me, but picked it up anyway and held it to my chest to give it warmth and to calm its shivering.

 

I climbed the rebar ladder with my left hand—with the kitten and flashlight in the right, but I needed more of my right hand to get up onto the patio above me. But each time I set the kitten down on that level, it ran back toward me, I suppose to not lose contact with me. So I put the flashlight down and held the kitten and I finally managed to get my bottom up onto the patio floor, my knees under me and stand up.

 

I unplugged the work lamp and went upstairs to the higher living level, found towel and dried off the kitten. I wrapped it in the towel, found an eyedropper, warmed some soymilk and slowly squirted the milk into its mouth. When I thought it had drunk all it should have after a period of starvation, I found a plastic bottle, filled it and heated it in the microwave. I found a shopping bag, lay the warm bottle on one fold of the towel and the kitten on the next and wrapped it and the bottle with the rest of the towel. I hung the bag on a knob of cabinet at the foot of the bed. The kitten cried softly maybe five or six times and then was silent. And slept for more than three hours.

I sent a telegraph to my wife (via WhatsApp), announcing that the kitten had walked through the pipe, fallen into the cistern and was now safe, fed, warm and asleep.

 

Later that morning it, I placed the kitten near where I thought the mother and other two kittens had their den. It started to cry immediately when I put it down. The mother eventually approached, nosed it, and then hopped up on a sifting screen that placed her a good three feet above her baby. The screen rested against the vine-covered, twelve-foot wall at that end of the garden. With mother always above her, the kitten managed to climb up through the vines until it was about six inches from the top. At that point, the mother reached down, took it by the back of the neck with her teeth and hopped a few times until she entered her leaf-covered hiding place. Silence ensued and I was sure the mother had started to nurse her wayward kitten.

 

An hour later, I heard the kitten crying again. I looked down from one of the patios and saw that it had fallen down the other side of the wall and was lying on one of several old chicken cages. That’s when I began to form the theory that the kitten didn’t see very well—as many don’t, I later learned, at a young age. It had fallen three times. Once twenty feet down the drain pipe, once from my bridge down into the cistern and now down the other side of the twelve-foot wall. I remember mumbling something like, “Oh, God, you’re on your own now. Either you climb up the wall or your mother goes to get you. Or natural selection takes its course.”

 

A few hours later, the kitten was on the other side of the wall again, crying for its mother. It was there when night fell, and I carried it to a cat bed on a couch under our arches, wrapped it up with a warm bottle and small blanket. When I got up the next morning and checked, only a small portion of its head was exposed to the morning chill. I peeled back the blanket enough to see that it was breathing. It opened its eyes and said something to me. I took it upstairs to feed it warm soymilk, which my wife told me by phone was not good for kittens.

 

Eventually, the mother took the kitten back into good standing and kept hiding the three babies every time we tried to check on them. Now they all eat dry and wet kitten food from the palms of our hands. The mother supervises but does not hide them. The rest of the family serve as loving, concerned aunts and uncles, or half-sisters and brothers. We tried various names for him (his sex having been determined), settling on something that sounds like Tooby for the kitten that fell down the tubo, the pipe, but saved himself with a little help from others who felt it was no small matter.

 

Spotting the Mugger First

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.

The Murder of Mexican Journalists. With Impunity.

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.

An Interview with the Filmmaker Ludwig Carnival

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.

 

 

The Perils of Writing

What are the perils of writings? For a storyteller, it’s when reality is more frightening and bizarre than anything you could ever invent. Or is it that historical violence has become no longer historical in that it is just around the corner, down one block, behind the garden gate, driving slowly by the building on whose roof you do yoga and wish all mankind peace of mind? Once, it was interesting living in a country where the rule of law was not something you could take for granted, was not a concept widely understood. You had to rely on your fellow citizen to protect you, to offer you cordiality, advice and warnings regarding where it was not safe to go at night, or even during the day.

Violence and lawlessness are less interesting now. It is just a matter of time before it touches you. Or hits you, as the case may be. It will come again after a long period of civic calm. It will be a policeman, or three, with dark glasses. A troubled young man, or three, twisted with resentment at those who have an education, a job, and, most important of all, respect. It will be Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil—no longer just limited to this beautiful old land of forgotten mines and ancient trails, of hidden springs and clumps of shade-giving trees, of great painters and gifted musicians. It will not come from a hungry man walking a distant trail, carrying a frayed knapsack, moving over a non-Sierra Club trail between two small towns whose streets are dirt and whose pickups are old. Evil will come in a brand new pickup that has never had a shovel thrown in its bed, or in a black limousine followed by black SUV chase cars.

Or it will come at the end of an instructive index finger, ordering you to step out of the line at Customs, because the computer has shown you to be man critical of two, maybe several, governments. You know what it’s like to be singled out. You have already had a passport application “lost” in the time of Reagan, or what it Bush? Your privileged education and therefore your expectation of just treatment as a citizen allowed you raise a hue and cry with your Senator and Congresspersons. Through its obedient Kafka-esq Intermediaries, the State claimed that someone with your exact name and paper trail owed the Foreign Office, the State Department or some other governmental Auslandsamt, a sum of money. Your elective representatives intervened, raised questions and parted curtains. Grudgingly, the anonymous they’s gave you a passport, not for ten years, but for eight months. But what would have happened to you if the Representatives could not part curtains, since they themselves languished on lists?

But now the they’s have gotten a lot smarter. Their machines hear more, pluck it out of the ether, record it and compile it for future reference. The people in power are renewing the old game of looking for political enemies. This was always the case in most of the countries in the world. East Germany comes to mind. There, one chose one’s friends carefully, you laughed together over food, but quietly. Important information was exchanged in lowered voices in a modest greenhouse, while you admired the host’s crop of English cucumbers, a luxury in his gray country. And yet, it did not matter. There were always ways to coerce one friend against another. Inform, they would murmur, or your daughter cannot attend the university. A harmless bargain, citizen.

And yet writers kept writing, books were banned, and the few contraband copies, hidden from the censors, traveled from hand to hand, until they grew stiff from Scotch Tape and were held together by rubber bands.

You write a letter on behalf of a writer held in solitary confinement in Azerbaijan. He was critical of his government, and so they arrested him and gave him nine years. He is not allowed to see his wife and children. He has tuberculosis. You hope your letter will help stone-faced men decide to let him go. You argue that a government wins more respect by not imprisoning writers. But governments have trouble hearing this. That is because its ministers are also afraid. You wonder whether this writer, if he survives, will one day have to write a letter for you. To a camp in Cuba or a salt flat in Utah.

And so the question is can a writer write when he is afraid, when he knows they’re listening? Can a storyteller tell stories? Stories that warm the heart, or give hope, or speak of love? How brave they must have been, the writers in the time of dictatorship, who have written at the peril of ending up in a cold, small cell without light, cut off from those they love and who love them.

I know this is dark. I am sorry, but the banality of evil seems to be on the upswing, and storytellers must write about it.

In Latin America, Mexico Ranks Among Most Dangerous Countries for Journalists

The 2017 World Press Freedom Index warns that in Latin America, journalists are persecuted and murdered for investigating issues that affect political leaders.

Mexico City: Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Brito covered drug trafficking issues in a region of the southern state of Guerrero where criminal groups are extremely powerful.

In September 2015 he survived an attempt on his life and because he was deemed at “very high risk” he became a beneficiary of the federal mechanism for protection for human right defenders and journalists created in December 2012.

The protection measures he was assigned consisted basically of police patrols. They offered him a place in a shelter in Mexico City, but he refused.

In October 2016, the protection measures were cancelled; five months later, Pineda Brito became the first journalist murdered in 2017 in the most dangerous country for reporters in Latin America.

Pineda Brito’s March 2 murder was followed by six weeks of terror in which three more journalists were killed and two others survived after being shot, in different parts of this country of 127 million people.

The highest-profile murder was that of Miroslava Breach, on March 26, a veteran journalist who covered political news for the La Jornada newspaper in the northern state of Chihuahua along the US border.

But Pineda Brito’s killing reflected the inefficacy of institutional mechanisms for protecting journalists in the region.

“Last year it became clear that the state’s protection model exported from Colombia to Mexico and recently to Honduras had failed,” said Ricardo González, security and protection officer of the London-based international organisation Article 19, which defends freedom of expression.

“The cases of journalists murdered in Mexico, who were under the protection of different state mechanisms, as well as the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s refusal to take part in the assessment of cases under the Colombian mechanism are things that should be of concern,” he told IPS.

For González, the lack of a functioning justice system and redress makes the model “ineffective, apart from financially unsustainable.”

The numbers in Mexico prove him right: according to Article 19’s latest report, of the 427 assaults on the media and journalists registered in 2016, 99.7% went unpunished.

Meanwhile, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression has only managed to secure a conviction in three cases.

Most of the attacks were against journalists who work for small media outlets outside the country’s capital and at least half of them were committed by state agents.

The federal protection mechanism currently protects 509 people – 244 journalists and 265 human right defenders.

But even though the dangers are growing rather than decreasing, the government and the legislature cancelled the funds available for protection and since January the mechanism has been operating with the remnants of a trust fund whose 9.5 million dollars in reserves will run out in September.

According to Article 19, violence against the press is still one of the main challenges faced in Latin America and something to be reflected on when World Press Freedom Day is celebrated on May 3.

“In addition to Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Colombia, the situation in Paraguay and Venezuela, in particular, reflects the deterioration of freedom of expression in the region,” said González.

In the same vein, the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders on Wednesday, April 26, warns about the political and economic instability seen in several countries of Latin America, where journalists who investigate questions that affect the interests of political leaders or organised crime are attacked, persecuted and murdered.

“RWB regrets the pernicious and continuous deterioration of the situation of freedom of expression in Latin America,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the RWB Latin America desk, presenting the index.

“In the face of a multifaceted threat, journalists often have to practice self-censorship and even go into exile, to survive. This is absolutely unacceptable in democratic countries,” he added.

The RWB report underscores the case of Nicaragua, the country that experienced the largest drop in the index because since the controversial re-election of President Daniel Ortega, the independent and opposition press has suffered numerous cases of censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests. The country fell 17 spots, to 92nd among the 180 countries studied.

The report also describes Mexico as another worrisome case: in 15 years it dropped from 75th to 147th on the index, putting it next to Syria and Afghanistan. Mexico is still torn apart by corruption and the violence of organised crime, says RWB.

In fact, it is the second worst ranked Latin American country, after Cuba, which is 173rd, after dropping two spots.

At a regional level, the countries best-positioned in the ranking are Uruguay (25th, after falling five), Chile (33rd, after dropping two) and Argentina (50th, after going up four).

Increasingly sophisticated means of control

Despite the threats and risks, independent journalism is making progress in the region. In 2016, the organisation Sembramedia created the first directory of native digital media in Latin America which has listed more than 500 independent platforms.

But at the same time, the means of control of the independent press are getting more sophisticated, said González.

Legal, labour and online harassment, as well as indirect censorship through the control of state advertising are tools that governments and political and economic groups use ever more frequently around the region.

In Mexico, the most emblematic case is that of journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was fired together with her investigative journalism team from the MVS radio station after publishing an investigation about corruption implicating President Enrique Peña Nieto.

But there are even more unbelievable cases, such as a judge’s order for psychological tests for political scientist Sergio Aguayo, after he published well-substantiated information about massacres in the Mexican state of Coahuila, connected to former governor Humberto Moreira.

The organisation FUNDAR Centre for Analysis and Research has documented that this country’s central government and 32 state governments spend an average of 800 million dollars a year on official advertising and announcements in the media.

Another Mexican organisation committed to the defence of digital rights, R3D, reported that various regional governments have bought programmes from Hacking Team, an Italian cybersecurity firm that sells intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments and companies on websites, social networks and email services.

According to R3D, online intimidation and monitoring have increased in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

This pattern repeats itself in other Latin American countries, where attacks are increasing and presenting new challenges.

“In the last year, we have seen how the risks of violence which in the past were limited to questions such as drug trafficking are now faced by those who cover issues related to migration and human trafficking, the environment or community defense of lands against the extractive industries,” said González.

Another flashpoint is the coverage of border issues. “Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States has had quite a negative effect in terms of freedom of the press, both domestically and internationally, in the entire region,” he said.

(IPS)

Black Dog Enters the Café

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.

Uber vs Mexico City’s Transit Police

Recently, I had my first Uber taxi experience, as well as my first experience of police corruption in Mexico city.

We had to get to the Mexico City airport. Our AirBnB host sang Uber’s praises. He would pay the taxi through his account. I would reimburse him in pesos. We would only need to call about six minutes before an Uber came. The driver would be dressed in jacket and tie, we would know all about him before he arrived since he had been thoroughly screened by the company, we would see his photo and know the license number of his car. We would each get a free bottle of water.

We waited at the corner of Motolinía and Avenida Francisco Madero. Various taxis slowed, offering rides. We waved them on. That may have been the tip off. Finally, Luis came, in a little red car, clean, new, and with the right license number. We loaded our luggage. Luis asked what terminal. We didn’t know. I got out the piece of paper with the flight information. There was no mention of the terminal. Our host looked it up in a flash with his smart phone. Terminal 1. A good minute had gone by. We got in the car. A Transit Police pulled in in front of us with his motorcycle, boxing us in. He came to the driver’s window. We had, he said, committed an infraction and weren’t going anywhere. Our host, a rational man, began to protest. What did he mean, we had just stopped to load baggage, that’s what you do when you’re going to the airport. The policeman said we would have to wait until his commanding officer got there. Out of thin air, a Transit Police pickup pulled up next to us. A female officer got out of the passenger seat and turned to the pickup’s bed. There she had a whole tangle of wheel boots, linked by cables, to incapacitate the Uber taxi. I got out. I told her we were on our way to the airport, we had a flight to catch, clearly we were tourists. She ignored me. Our host ran down to the middle of the next block, up-traffic, to consult with other police who had gathered there with their squad cars. I could see about three different flashing police lights. I assumed their activity had to do with ours, and it looked menacing. Our host ran back. He opened the truck of the Uber.

“There, look at the bags,” he said to the woman. “See, they’re going to the airport.”

The female officer ignored him and began to fumble with her nest of cables and wheel boots.

Our host looked at me. “Get in the car!”

I opened the door. Our driver—quiet the whole time—had been saying something to the motorcycle officer. He turned back toward me and commanded, “Get in!”

He started the car and began to back away from the motorcycle that blocked us. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He pulled out and gunned it. D. turned around to wave good-bye to our host. I turned too and could see he was still arguing with the police.

“What happened?” I asked our driver.

“I told him he would have to pay for the flights if you missed them.”

After a pause, I asked, “Did they know you were going to pick us up?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So the police are with the taxi drivers and anti-Uber?”

He nodded, yes, that’s what was happening.

He held up a small bottle of water. Would I like one? I said I would. D. thanked him and said no.

While I drank my free water, I contemplated what seemed like a  dark alliance between the police and the spread of normal taxis. I didn’t understand it, especially since, according to Luis our driver, Uber paid the same amount of taxes as the regular taxis: 2%! and that, like everything else, it had to do with mafias of control and was, of course, a kind of anarchic harassment. It turns out, however, that the matter is much more complicated and that Uber actually casts a long shadow, and that our host was wrong and the Transit police, right. For an intelligent discussion, scroll down to the Laura Flanders interview with a representative of non-Uber taxi drivers in an American city. I find her remarks very persuasive: http://www.telesurtv.net/…/Mexico-City-Set-to-Regulate…

Mexico Still Mourns

I am sorry. I steal this as well, because the world needs to know.

Reforma: Guadalupe Loaeza*
Translated by Danielle M. Antonetti

As I do every year, last Sunday I took my grandchildren to see “The Nutcracker” at the National Theater. Once seated, I gave myself a task: to watch all the people filled with holiday cheer as they entered the theater to admire the last performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, the music of which is so familiar to us that even the most ignorant can recall a fragment. Most of the attendees were children and adolescents, bundled up and accompanied by their families. The atmosphere inside the enormous auditorium, with space for 10,000 people, was festive and Christmassy.

For my part, I was a deeply gratified grandmother surrounded by my six grandchildren, two of my sons, my daughter-in-law and Paloma Figueroa, the young professional dancer. With that same festive mindset, I watched young grandmothers wearing 100 percent wool coats with furs and carrying Coach or Marc Jacob purses. Many greeted and waved to each other from afar. The show was only minutes away from beginning.

Suddenly, the lights went down and at the stage’s illuminated center appeared a group of young people holding two banners, one with the hashtag #Yamecansé [Enough, I’m tired]** written on it and on the other could be read the words, “Stop impunity.” Daniel Castillo, in evening wear, spoke on behalf of his fellow members of the National Dance Company:

“Mexico is mourning the unsustainable and heartbreaking impunity that has become a daily story and that violates our citizenry.”

With perfect diction, his words echoed all across the auditorium.

A profound silence fell over us. No one moved in their seats, not the children and especially not the adults. The power of Castillo’s words and the audience’s silence united all of us. Castillo, whose image was projected in color on two enormous screens placed on either side of the stage, continued,

“Mexico, we are no longer just mourning the disappeared teacher college students, but those of Aguas Blancas, San Fernando and the children at the ABC nursery***,”

“I want to read a poem written by one of our company members, the ballerina Sonia Jiménez.”

At that moment, and despite my wearing a red sweater, I felt dressed in black from head to toe.

We are mourning,
We are the cry of our dead,
We are the blood shed on fertile land,
We are the silence on the verge of exploding.
Today we do not recognize the ground on which we stand,
The falling rain does not erase the mistakes,
Our eyes don’t wipe away the truth,
We live blindfolded, we have sold-out,
We speak with the breath of our bodies.
Turn off the lights. Mexico is mourning.

As if moved by an gigantic, invisible spring, the public rose to its feet,  “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…,” until it reached number 43, which they memorialized with their fists raised.
The applause was an enormous and deep expression of our condolences. Everyone was mourning. Everyone felt even more tired than Murillo Karam for all the corruption and impunity. And all of us represented “the cry of our dead.”

I envisioned backstage: 170 dancers of the National Dance Company and the students of the National School of Classical and Contemporary Dance, elegantly dressed as the characters of the ballet’s epoch, applauding. I was imagining the company’s five principal dancers—Agustina Galizzi, Ana Elisa Mena, Mayuko Nihei, Blanca Ríos and Erick Rodríguez—mourning. Those who appeared particularly sad were José Luis González, Mariana Garce and Sofía Villarreal, who that night were saying goodbye to the company, which was celebrating 50 years of putting on the Christmas ballet. Also, I imagined “Clara,” the protagonist of Hoffmann’s tale, the little rodents, the tin soldiers, and the Nutcracker himself mourning, applauding in honor of the 43 disappeared.

“Why did you get so sad all of a sudden, Mamá Lú?, one of my granddaughters asked me.

“Because Mexico continues to mourn,” I replied.

I have the impression that my granddaughter did not understand me. Then, the curtains opened and the show began.
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*María Guadalupe Loaeza Tovar is a contemporary Mexican writer and author of many books, including Las Niñas Bien [The Good Girls], Las Reinas de Polanco [The Queens of Polanco (wealthy Mexico City neighborhood], Debo, Luego Sufro [I Owe, Therefore, I Suffer] and Compro, Luego Existo [I Shop, Therefore, I Exist], in which she writes ironically about the Mexican upper class. Twitter: @gloaeza
 
**Reference to offhand remark of Attorney General Murillo Karam at the end of the press conferece at which he announced that arrested members of the Warrriors United cartel confessed they had murdered the 43 Ayotzinapa students and burned their bodies. The remark was immediately turned against him on the social media and in the press.
 
***Aguas Blancas was the massacre by police of protesting farmers in Guerrero in 1995. San Fernando was the massacre, in 2010, of 72 Central American migrants by the Zetas cartel with the collusion of local police. The ABC nursery fire, in 2009, possibly the result of local officials’ attempt to destroy records in an adjoining store room, resulted in the deaths of 49 infants and young children and the injuring of 70 more.