Saturday, January 31, 2009

He did what now?

There I was on a boat, floating through the chinampas on what remains of Mexico City's great lake system, when a Mexican man I had recently met informed me that Obama had bombed Pakistan. The man was my history teacher's 24-year-old son, a staff member in Los Pinos (the Mexican version of the White House) and we were presently embarked on a class field trip to the city's age-old agricultural grounds. Despite our current isolation in the watery corridors, I was a bit shocked that I hadn't heard the news and a bit hurt that this young staffer, a Mexican citizen, seemed to know more about the US government than I. Of course, I was even more shocked about what Obama had done.

Upon my arrival home, a little searching yielded an article on page A8 of the New York Times about remotely piloted predator drones dropping bombs on Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan. The presence of operatives there was nothing new to me, but the situation had always seemed so complex--unidentifiable targets, the presence of civilians, issues of national sovereignty--that I had not fully expected even the Bush administration to act. But sure enough, in his first two weeks in office, Obama was continuing a Bush plan that also includes Special Operations ground forces in the the remote mountainous region.

Of course, last week's bombing should not have come as a complete surprise. Last year during the primaries the President said that, with credible intelligence information and precise targets, he would bomb the American ally. Nor should I be so judgemental: I don't have access to that credible intelligence information, and it is pretty obvious I am not aware of all the goings-on in the Middle East.

However, what did disappoint me was that Obama, who campaigned on an anti Iraq war platform, was so quick to drop bombs in other countries. With all his criticism of the Bush administration, I wouldn't have thought him one to follow in his steps. 

Maybe he had meant that the scale of the Iraq war was a mistake. Maybe he had meant that the country was the wrong stage for a decade-long campaign against terror. But when I voted for Obama I trusted that he knew the value of a human life. Sure, no Americans were at risk in the operation, but the "precise targets" that he spoke of happened to be two homes. Out of the 15 people killed, three of the dead were children. 

I also expected Obama to understand the value of foreign diplomacy. US unilateral action (along with the deaths of potentially 100 civilians over the past few months) has actually made  Pakistan's own bid to fight the terrorists increasingly unpopular amongst its citizens. Once again the US is taking too simple of actions in a situation that involves careful consideration of an area's dynamics and history. 

As Obama's presidency fills me with hope, I also question the true nature of the change he has promised to bring. Change does not mean simply bombing different countries or using different rhetoric. It involves being smart about our actions. It involves working with countries rather than blowing off their governments and bombing their citizens. As American citizens, it also means being aware of and supporting a real change in our government. We have to be more aware than our neighbors, more conscious of how we move in the world. And we have to stop hiding this sort of information on page A8 of the New York Times.

Monday, January 26, 2009

History Lessons

Sitting around the dinner table last night (well, in true Mexican fashion it was really a late lunch), the topic turned as it usually does to Mexican history. For those of you who know me well, I would like to state for the record that is was not I who brought it up.

It seems to me that in Mexico I am always learning something new about Mexican history, a different tidbit from everyone I talk to. While it is true that those in Coyoacan are an intellectual bunch, it appears that the topic of el patrimonio has always been dear to them. Of course, in the US the conversation can often turn to the state of the stock market, the president and his cabinet, or the latest set of propositions on the ballot, but rarely do I see lively conversations about Washington's fording of the Delaware or the original settlement in Jamestown. Less still do people know about the original American tribes, which are far too many and unfamiliar for me to name. 

It was at this point that my friend Britta posed the question, or rather the thought, that Mexicans know their history better than Americans do. Of course, even in her statement there was an interesting interpretation of American geography and history: when you say "americano" in Spanish it refers to people from all of the Americas--an American in the United States sense of the word is an "estadounidense" (the rough equivalent of a United Statesian).

Perhaps it is because we are foreigners that the Mexicans feel compelled to recount their history, to correct our errors and our American ways of thinking. Or perhaps it is more a sense of culture, a deeper sense of belonging in the region. Perhaps because the very same Indian blood spilled by the Spaniards runs through their veins that they know the stories so well. In the US, indigenous people are thought of as something belonging only to the past, shuffled off to reservations, forgotten. It is easier to forget a history when it was one you never knew. 

But I think it is more than that. Rarely do we retell even our own family and regional history. It  is left to civil war reenactors and New York Times columnists, not dinnertime conversations and hallway remarks. It was suggested by one of the guests that perhaps it is the nature of struggle in Mexico that makes Mexicans always remember. While US history is treated as fact, stamped in textbooks and recited out loud by choruses of grade school children, Mexicans treat their history as a fight against the dominant narrative. The Spanish tried to erase it when they arrived, tearing down the native temples to use the stones in their own. The US war that took  half the Mexican territory is also well-remembered, for in remembering the Mexicans know what the Americans forget--that it was not always US land in the north.

Even basic facts of Mexican life seem debated. How many died in the student protests of 1968? Many sources say hundreds. The official monument in the square has but twenty names. How many inhabitants are there in Mexico City? Every source I read, Mexican and otherwise, waivers between 10 and 30 million. 

Perhaps it is in the constant retelling of events, this conscious history, that the people have established a sort of oral tradition that defies the official and written narratives. Perhaps in this way they are able to take ownership of their own history.

Puebla in Pictures

Our weekend trip to Puebla was short but sweet. In the nearby town of Cholula a beautiful Spanish church rose above the town on the shoulders of a giant pyramid. We explored the ruins beneath and were overwhelmed by the beauty of the sunset.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Metro

My first trip on Mexico City's massive transportation system was toward the Dr. Gálvez station on the metro bus. Who's Dr. Gálvez? we had asked our Mexican history professor. I had assumed he was a famous practitioner. Darned if I know, was her essential reply.

In a system where each stop is named, illustrated and slapped with a color-coded label, I have found that it is entirely possible to know exactly where you are going but be completely lost at the same time. Some of the stops, with signs depicting canon balls or revolutionary war heroes, drop you off at a library or a shopping mall. Others are more straightforward, with names like Hospital General or Observatorio, but Etiopia leaves you nowhere near the African country.

Don't get me wrong, the metro is quite useful. With trains arriving every few minutes, stops all over town, and maps handed out by metro security guards, I have found the system to be entirely navigable. But sometimes on those long trips, with nothing to do but stand pressed in between the five million commuters that ride the train every day, protecting my pockets and genitals from overly-friendly passengers, I contemplate getting off at random stops. Maybe Oceanía will take me to the beach. Maybe the one with the angel will take me to heaven. More often than not I end up in an alley, although often unknowingly close to a national monument from which the station takes its name.

According to Mexican journalist Juan Villoro, the metro signs "were designed as a modern code with a twofold purpose: proving that pre-Columbian culture was alive and well, while acknowledging that many of the riders were illiterate." In this sense, the metro once again proves to be headed in the right direction but completely lost at the same time. Despite all its modernity, Mexico still suffers from age-old problems.

Amidst men and women in business suits and company logo t-shirts pass the peddlers, hawking everything from lottery tickets to spelling books. You can't take a trip without being serenaded by guitar or assaulted with music from the "80s, 90s and now!" Some people just pass by barefoot, their hands extended to grandmas with cell phones and young lovers canoodling on the plastic train seats. While for many an office worker the train is a mode of transportation, for the poor and illiterate it is a livelihood. 

In this sense the train also serves a dual purpose. At the same time that it speeds the city's workers towards modernity, it has also become a place for those who are being left behind. People don't just travel here, they work here. For them there is no morning train to catch, no momentary discomfort from the humid subway air. This is it for them. They spend their lives underground, unable to enter into the normal city life above. 

While the origins of the man himself may be forgotten, the station at Dr. Gálvez is a lot of things to a lot of people. For me at least, it's the stop for the university.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pero en Coyoacan, No

I have so far been very impressed with my experience in Mexico City. Its history is inspiring. The transportation accessible, the shopping to my liking and the weather agreeable. My school is beautiful and my home nearly perfect. The streets of Coyoacan, my neighborhood, are lined with trees and good places to eat. On the weekends they come alive with people dancing in the plaza, browsing the market, and eating ice cream with their sweethearts. I have even found a yarn shop and have begun to knit a hat for Sean. All in all, it is a perfectly fine place to live.

But what I sometimes forget is that even here, in a country that teeters on the brink between First World and Third, I live an incredibly privileged life. The comparably cheap ($2,500 peso/$200 a month) rent I pay is out of reach to many in the city, where minimum wage is barely $8 a day. I eat out every night (even if it's just at the corner taco stand) and I spend the weekends exploring the city or traveling to nearby ones. The 80 cents I pay for my daily fresh-squeezed orange juice would be a boon in a beggar's cup.

Coyoacan in itself holds a special privilege and is often counted as apart from the city itself. Before the 1970s, people dressed up just to come here, and today the wealthy middle class still stroll along the streets. The likes of Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera and Hernán Cortés once called this place home (the communist leader even stayed, with Coyoacan marking his final resting place).

The most obvious mark of privilege today, however, is in Coyoacan's exceptionality: "Pero en Coyoacan, no." Whether the city is affected by water problems, natural disaster, or deteriorating buildings, Coyoacan is always the exception.

This year, in the face of a drought, each of the city's districts will experience three non-consecutive days a month without water. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" most of the residents run on their own private wells. The city has also been plagued by earthquakes, with the most recent sismos in 1985 toppling hospitals, apartment buildings and government offices. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" here the buildings are sturdy and safe. In the rest of the city, neoliberal budget cuts have threatened public works projects. "Pero en Coyoacan, no:" the main plaza is currently undergoing an expensive government renovation.

Coyoacan is an illusive entity to those who try to essentialize Mexico. For them, it is all rural, or a clogged urban metropolis. It is poor campesinos and victimized maquiladora workers. It's violent and unstable. The food will make you sick and the water will have you peeing out your ass.  These things do exist in Mexico, but it is also so many things that my countrymen cannot imagine. Aztec ruins come alive in the center of one of the world's largest cities. It bosts carefully built architecture, a modern metro system. In all honesty I feel safer walking around here at night than I did stepping out of my apartment in Berkeley after dark. 

I realize that Coyoacan is an exception, not the rule. But what is the rule in Mexico? In a country with 32 states, in a city of 30 million inhabitants, all I can do is live one exception at a time. Each place with its charms, each place with its problems. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Where Have All the Rivers Gone?

The indigenous inhabitants of Mexico City have not disappeared. They have simply mixed with the Spanish, to varying degrees, and become Mexico's mestizo race. The great boulevards of Tenochtitlan, which were really huge water causeways and damns, have not been lost either. Today they are streets, crisscrossing as they ever were through one of the world's largest cities (past and present). Words like chocolate and avacodo still tumble from our lips. The markets are still here, as are the government buildings.  These are changing, moveable parts of the city, but they will always be here in one form or another.

So what happened to the lakes??

I had previously assumed that the lakes had dried out. Their fragile ecological balance destroyed sometime after the arrival of the Spanish, they had simply withered away.

As it turns out, it wasn't that the lakes had gotten smaller at all--it was just that the population had gotten bigger. As I imagine it, as the city slowly began to grow after the conquest it continued to extend the chinampas, the artificial islands on which the city was built. Perhaps one day, after years and years of growth, these chinampas finally reached the lake's shore and *poof:* no more lake.

But like the many people and things in Mexico, the lakes are much too resilient. The tributary streams continued to flow in and the summer rains continued to pour. I imagine it must have been quite a battle. 

In 1629, a horrible flood kept parts of the city submerged for over five years. It was at this time that people began to think Mexico would not survive as the capital. Construction began on Puebla, a town only a few hours a way. 

The lion's head on this building marks the flood line in this part of the city:

Mexico City, however, did survive. Today the lake flows in the form of rivers, hundreds of rivers, channeled subterraneously under the great metropolis. Every once in a while, however, the city sees signs of their tenacious existence. At even the slightest rain the streets begin to flow, unable to absorb the excess water. And like Venice, the capitol is sinking at the rate of 2 to 3 cm a year into the murky lake bed. Some places sink even faster. This church (pictured at left) goes down into the mud at a rate of 8 cm a year and a requires a bridge to access it from the street. In the plaza, the Iglesia de Jesus Nazareno (pictured at right) measures its movement with a giant pendulum, located in the center of the abbey.

The irony, of course, is that Mexico City is also facing a severe water shortage. As the population swells, the water tables shrink and the tributary streams deliver less and less each year. But I am confident that just as the people and water have continued for years, I am sure they will find a way to continue for many more.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I was in such a rush to get out of the house the other day that I forgot my wallet. I left home with only the change in my pocket, which was probably about 50 pesos ($4). As it turned out, my pocket change was enough to buy me the four bus trips needed to get to and from our school and the field trip, lunch with a cup of juice, half a cup of ice cream, and a full undergraduate and graduate tuition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

That's right, Hispanic America's finest institution costs just 20 centavos a year (about one and a half cents). Our trip there was fascinating.

La UNAM, as the university is called, is built in the southern end of Mexico City. While a fairly modern affair--the present campus was built in the early 1950s in its own "University City"--it was first founded in 1910 and granted its autonomy sometime in the 1920s. And as much as it looks forward into the future, it is also deeply grounded in the region's history. 

In 1500, when Paris was a maze of winding streets and London was a small affair of 50,000 people, Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital at the center of Lake Texcoco, was a well organized, wealthy metropolis of 250,000. It's market in Tlatelolco was the economic capital of Mesoamerica, offering everything from fruits and gold to dental services. The wide plazas and huge boulevards eased commerce and transportation throughout the lake's artificial island system. The political center was the throne of power for the entire region, sharing in a triple alliance with the Alcohuos of Texcoco, who lived on the eastern shore, and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who lived on the western shore. It was the king of Texcoco, a poet and architect, who built the complicated system of damns that kept separate the salt waters of Lake Texcoco from the freshwater of the surrounding lakes. A great system of damns and causeways crisscrossed the entire valley.

The project of University City is one that captures this history. The buildings of the campus are clustered around a large square, similar to the way temples surrounded large plazas in Tenochtitlan's meeting places. Each of the colleges of the university, which lie off of the plaza, cluster around their own courtyards, forming communities within communities on the campus. Cars do not pass through the campus in a busy highway but rather float above the ground on elegantly-crafted bridges, reminding me of the broad causeways of the Aztec city. Even the handball courts remind me of Aztec ruins, constructed from thick walls of stone. The famous main library is a large collage of rocks, natural in color, collected from all the regions of Mexico.

In addition to their history, the buildings are wonderful in function, each designed by a different Mexican architect. The chemistry building only has windows that open to the north, shading the laboratories from the hot sun that could ruin experiments. The swimming pool, enormous in size, fits lanes for laps and diving boards, stretching out of site under a bridge. Many of the buildings are built right from the volcanic rock from which they grow, while mounds of dirt support trees that could not otherwise take root in the tough ground.

UNAM It has a student population of 286,484 on a main campus of 1,803.86 acres. It has it's own bus system and metro stop. It also has a free bicycle system, where you can take a bike from anywhere on campus and leave it for others anywhere else. As for classes, I have decided on Agricultural Economy, The Economic History of Mexico, Social Theory of Latin America, and Mexico: Multicultural Nation, which start the first week of February.

As a bonus, here's a pic of our cute guide who showed us around campus:

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Mexican games are way more fun. And dangerous. Basically, they are more fun because they are dangerous. Where else is it acceptable to give a kid a bat, blindfold him, spin him around until he's dizzy and send him off at a crowded party to hit a papier-mâché donkey which, by the way, is moving? The US version, pin the tail on the donkey, is much more tame, the biggest danger being a piece of tape or a push pin.

Also fun: Mexican playgrounds. I am of the firm belief that kids are meant to get hurt. That's how they learn. And the introduction of lawyers in to the situation is just less fun for everyone. When I was a kid we had a great playground: merry-go-round, teeter-totter, rickety slide. Of course, my brother broke his collar bone at the tender age of one, but he got better. No lawsuits there.

As American playgrounds are becoming increasingly sanitized (guard rails, plastic anti-bacterial coatings, the replacement of concrete and sand with wood chips), I yearn for the real playgrounds. The ones that kids like. And that is why, as an overgrown kid, I have found Mexico to be an utter joy.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

History Repeats Itself

There was once a great city in the valley of Mexico. In the span of only a few hundred years its numbers swelled to the point where the people and houses pushed beyond the city's boundaries. They did not grow their own food nor mine the area's resources but rather grew rich off of the making of ideas. 

This place was Teotihuacan. It also describes modern day Mexico. Separated by thousands of years but appearing in the same valley, both cities thrived--Teotihuacan as the religious capitol of Mesoamerica and Mexico City today as a global service economy. It is quite possible, however, that the modern day capitol faces the same fate as the city of the past: a scarcity of resources. Indeed, in order to thrive off of ideas alone the people of Teotihuacan traded with surrounding areas: agricultural products from the Maya, shells from the coast, silver from the north. Water was scarce and brought in to the city from a diverted river. At the population's peak, even the the surrounding area was deforested so the trees could be used as building materials.

But at some point the rains stopped coming and the trade slowed down. The people of Teotihuacan suffered. They blamed the priests for the lack of prosperity and burned the city multiple times in mass riots. Eventually no one returned to rebuild it. The people disappeared and the city was left much as it is found today, with only the stone pyramids left behind.

Mexico City, along with most large cities in the world, faces the same problem as Teotihuacan did sixteen centuries ago: it is not self-sufficient nor environmentally sustainable. Will it face the same fate?

Today, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it is quite possible. But if history is doomed to repeat itself, chilangos are most worried about another fate: that of the Aztecs, conquered by a foreign power in the 15th Century.

Ever since the Mexican American War in the mid-1840s (Mexicans prefer to call it the War of Northern Aggression) when the US took half of the Mexican territory, Mexicans have been more than a little weary of their neighbors to the north. Anti-US rhetoric shapes national politics, appears in the lectures of professors at all but the most conservative universities and even characterizes dinner-time conversations at my host family's table. Indeed, their accusations are not without merit. In a slightly more discrete but no less violent takeover than the Spanish, American companies (along with their international counterparts) have been buying up Mexico's public industries since the financial meltdown of the 1980s. In violation of the 1917 Constitution, subsoil resources such as minerals and water were forcibly sold off by the World Bank, an American institution, and landed in large part in American hands. With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, some feared that the US takeover was complete.

With the fear of foreign domination taking center stage, the fate of Teotihuacan is all but forgotten. Today most of the vendors at the site barely know its history: they hawk Aztec trinkets, Maya calendars, and Virgin Mary blankets in a conflation of cultures. But the fate of the ancient city holds a crucial lesson: a city, or even a country, that cannot secure and protect its own resources, regardless of outside threats, is doomed to failure.

Mexico is not poor. It has immense petroleum and mineral wealth. It has a growing working-age population. Its movies, TV shows, and companies export to countries throughout the Americas. It has vast agricultural lands. Carlos Slim, a Mexican telecommunications mogul, is one of the world's richest men.

The problem for Mexico, as if nothing has changed in sixteen hundred years, is that a mismanagement of these resources has created a scarcity. Like any other urban center, Mexico City imports all of its food from the countryside. As growth and overpopulation occur, food and other resources are becoming harder and harder to secure. The environment grows taxed. Less work is available. Fewer funds are devoted to sustainable growth. Mexico City, like Teotihuacan, is in trouble.

Part of the problem lies in the mismanagement of resources. Where women once carried purchases home in baskets and clay pots, every grocery store outlet and panadería today offers their customers plastic bags, a non-renewable, non-recyclable resource. The highways leading out of town are littered with plastic soda bottles, Cheetos bags and baby diapers. Landfills fill up faster than the sanitation department can find room for them. When there is a leaky faucet, few bother to fix it. Mexico City today is not only one of the biggest cities in the world but one of the most polluted. In their quest to become a modern, industrialized country, Mexicans are living beyond their means. Globally, we all are.

The problem also lies in an increasingly weak Mexican agricultural sector. During the past hundred years of intense industrialization, agriculture was virtually ignored by the national treasury as the money flowed instead to urban projects. People went where the money was, leaving the poor rural areas for slum life in the capitol and jobs in the factories. The ejido system, created by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s to protect peasant lands, ended under neoliberalism in the 1980s. Again many people were forced out of agricultural production and into the cities. A swelling urban population meant the country was importing an increasing amount of food from abroad. When corn prices soared during the ethanol boom, many went hungry. Rural peasants had once been able to avoid starvation by eating what they had grown, even if in bad years it was only a little. In the cities, people were left with nothing.

In the most grim outlook for Mexico, we can say that the country will face both the fate of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. Today, the country's resources are threatened not only by internal factors but external ones as well. Since the 1970s, Mexico has experienced a growing balance of payments debt, meaning it imports more than it exports abroad. While industrial production has increased in the country, the final step of the process, where most of the value is added, often occurs in the US or China. The same for petroleum production. Trade agreements, such as NAFTA and GATT (of which Mexico was not a member until 1986), have forced the country's borders open, flooding the market with subsidized US corn and allowing entry to aggressive multinationals. In an increasingly globalized market, capital flight in the 1980s virtually left the country bankrupt overnight. As more and more of the nation's resources fall in to foreign hands, Mexico becomes increasingly impoverished.

Already massive unrest is occurring. When the price of corn rose in 2007, people took to the streets against the PAN government. When the conservative party won what was considered an unfair election in 2006, the entire main boulevard of Mexico City was closed off in protest for weeks. That same year, teachers in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country, clashed with police and the state governor over corruption and a lack of funds. Many took to the streets, burning buses, blocking off roads and taking over radio stations. The 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico, was forcibly shut down by protests.

This is not to say that Mexico is doomed. In fact, massive unrest is also a sign that the people are willing to fight in order to save their country. In 2000, an historic election led to the end of one-party rule in Mexico. Today, positive environmental steps are being taken to compost Mexico City's waste, where every street garbage bin and every household separates their waste into "organic" and "inorganic" sections. I pointed out in an earlier post the fluorescent lights are beginning to appear in cathedrals. Mexicans have not yet avoided the fate of those who came before them, but in learning from them they just may be able to write a new chapter. 

Friday, January 9, 2009


China cochinaHershey's Bar... they were names that kids called each other at my elementary school. In a Fanonian phenomenon children of one persecuted race insulted another. My Japanese friend became "dirty Chinese girl." Light-skinned Mexicans insulted darker ones. I do not specifically remember being called names, but at an early point in my childhood I came to understand that gringa salada was Spanish for "white trash." 

In Mexico City, as well as in the states, race and identity play a large roll. My light-skinned professor is addressed as guerra in the market. Those from the city are chilangos. White women and men grace every billboard. With rare exception the beggars are invariably more indigenous. And while my appearance gets me noticed, I can barely scratch the surface of what I am sure is a complicated system of ethnic politics.

What I do know is where I come from. My mother's side is mostly Irish, my grandmother's grandfather having fled the homeland during the Great Famine. My father's side, as far as I can tell, were English before they inhabited the deep south. In terms of race, the first time my Irish patriarch saw a black man and his son bathing in New York he ran in fear of having seen the devil--the darkest skin in Ireland is that of a potato. My southern great grandmother thought black people were great and that everyone should own one. 

The point is not that I am either proud or ashamed of my family's origins but that I know them. They are part of my identity. And so it surprised me the other day to learn that a classmate of mine knew nothing of hers. We had all assumed she was Latina, but when asked she simply said that she did not know--she was adopted.

Race says very much about a person and nothing at all at the same time. The election of a black president this year in the US meant a tremendous amount to a lot of people. And yet at the same time Obama is genetically indistinguishable from any other American. At most times I could care less about my ancestors. I am big on determining my own destiny and family history is something so distant that rarely concerns me. But by the same token how one appears in society opens some doors and closes others. To say that I carry nothing of my family would be a lie. This girl also has ancestors. When people look at her, she falls in to their categories, creates expectations. And somehow, she got here. To not know where you come from is a terribly liberating thing.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Speaking in Tongues

In the past week I have been tripping over my words. My r's don't come out right, long phrases confound me, and Aztec street names have me shaking my head in confusion. But at the end of the day I know I can retreat to my blog, my instant messaging, and my American cohorts and know that my words will come out more or less as intended. And some day maybe, just maybe, I will pull it off in Spanish, too. 

But my host father has a stutter. While his Spanish is perfect and he tries his best at English, he will always trip over words. It is not a very noticeable thing. It creeps up on d's and p's and the occasional o. I'm not quite sure what causes a stutter, but the story he told me was incredible.

When Ricardo was a child, he went with his family on a picnic. They laid everything out on the grass and the two parents along with their eight children began to eat. Pretty soon a vaquero came along and told them that they had to move because his herd was coming through. They gathered their things and let the cows pass, and once they had gone through they settled back down again to eating their lunch. What they did not know was that the herd would be returning. Sure enough, the cows came back through again, this time led by an angry bull. All the children scattered and, as there were only two parents to eight children, there was only so much the poor mother and father could do. They grabbed children left and right but poor Ricardo and his sister, both very young at the time, were chased by the bull. He said they were so scared that they lost their voices. 

By this I thought he meant that he had been too scared to even scream. But he and his sister stayed mute for over three years. With both parents working there wasn't much they could do to help him. It wasn't until they put him in a special school that he started to speak again. The teacher would play the piano and he would sing along: "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do," the same in Spanish as in English, and in this way he began to regain his voice.

Today, on his 60th birthday, he still has a slight stutter. He says that even now his sister doesn't speak much at all. With all this pressure to learn Spanish, I sometimes forget what a challenge learning even one language can be. So tonight, instead of speaking, we put our mouths to a better use: eating cake.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Getting Used to It All (or Not)

I am continually discovering Mexico's peculiarities. It's not that Mexico is peculiar, but rather that it is strange to see every day things done differently than I am accustomed to. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to learn that life in Mexico is lived in much the same way as in the US, but nonetheless it is peculiar to see ordinary things done in completely different ways. Grocery shopping, bread shops, bus trips all take on a distinct Mexican tint. Some customs I will adopt, while others are best left to the chilangos (Mexico City natives).

Newsstands are one of my favorite things in the city--though they, too, will take some getting used to. They are usually a combination of porn, new mother magazines, and the daily newspapers, which are usually filled with graphic pictures of brutal killings. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the three.

Holidays are another fascination of mine. I have consumed no fewer than three roscos (the Christ-filled sweet bread) since my last post about the celebration of the three wise men (El día de los magos), and I now owe several of my friends tamales next month. It further occurred to me today while watching previews at the movie theater that while Santa is certainly present in the Mexican culture, he is mostly used to sell things--almost every commercial featured St. Nick drinking Coca-cola, buying insurance, and using phone cards to call the US. On one occasion he was accompanied by two of the wise men--perhaps Santa is the third??

On my arrival in Coyoacán, my host father took me to the market. It is a classic Latin American market conducted in stalls that sell everything from meat hung up on a hook to spray bottles with a scent that promises to attract your lover. While I had visited many markets before, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of having to do all my grocery shopping there. Only a few more blocks away, however, is a supermarket (un "super") that has all the makings of a grocery store. And while they offer a wide array of standard items, from tampons to soy milk, I was hard-pressed to find face wash and the eggs are still kept unrefrigerated. Hopefully in the future I will be able to tell you about the more distinctly Mexican products they offer, but for now I stuck to the basics: bread, bananas, shampoo.

As most of you know, I am always game for a lively political conversation. That is what originally attracted me to Mexico City. The other night I was granted just that at a dinner with my host family and some of their guests: their married son, their daughter's boyfriend, and a professor from Tijuana with his wife. I couldn't always express myself as well as I wanted to (and chilango Spanish can be difficult to understand!), but the company entertained themselves by asking me intermittent questions about the states. Why had I come to Mexico? What do Americans really think of Mexicans? (To learn my true opinion, the professor asked me what he said was a telling question: Would I marry one?) Our conversation was peppered with occasional rants by the professor (always with his apologies) about the hegemony that the United States exercises over Mexico and Latin America. Mainly, however, they talked about things I knew nothing about: the former manager of PEMEX (the national oil company), candidates for the PAN... their conversation went well into the night and finished hours after I had gone to bed. If I mentioned mainly the male attendees of the party, that is because they were mostly the ones who did the talking. However, not to be confused, my host mother graduated in economics and her daughter knew plenty to throw in her own piece.

What was particularly interesting about their conversation was the way in which the topic of Mexican politics often led to a wider discussion of politics in Latin America in general: Lula in Brazil, Bachelette in Chile, Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela, Castro in Cuba, Bush and Obama... When Latinos talk about America, they mean the whole of the Americas, not just our beloved United States. As my history professor commented to us the other day, while the US is focused mainly on the events inside its borders (and, it can be said, on the events it helps create beyond them), Mexicans have a much more broad scope. This is evident in the newspaper coverage as well, which in Mexico encompasses much more than the obligatory national news. 

My final note is about those things lost in translation. Today at the mall a Body Works store(similar to the American Bath and Body skin care store) sold products labeled in English and French, without a drop of Spanish. I used to think that product labels included French because they were sold there, but now I am sure that they are just there to be pompous. I bought myself a bottle of men's face wash because the "super" had been out and because it was cheap (I am pretty sure men don't go in Body Works anyway, as our token male can attest).

The movies also carried translations: "Four Christmases" with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn became "Ni en tu casa, ni en la mía" (Neither in your house, nor in mine). Will Smith's "Seven Pounds" was "Siete almas" (Seven Souls). The Adam Sandler movie entitled "Bedtime Stories" was called "Cuentos que no son cuentos" (Stories that aren't made up). In most cases, I believe the Spanish translation was actually more accurate than the English version. I skipped the subtitles all together and saw the Mexican "Rudo y Cursi" starring my personal favorite, the gorgeous Gael García Bernal. As we left the theater we filtered back in to the mall, where we were affronted with stores of all types. They included Radioshack, Body Works, and an interestingly-named athletic shoe store:

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Casa de California

For the first month we are here we take classes in a house owned by the University of California. Before the house was purchased by the University, it was many things, including the place where NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed (the room is pictured below). Needless to say, the house is gorgeous. I also included the two pictures at the right that show what the house looked like back in the 1950s, when it was an upper-class mansion.


Every morning we have two hours of Contemporary Mexican History, followed by two hours of Spanish in the afternoon. The "we" are 12 girls and Ramón, all of us from different UCs. The poor guy is a good sport about it, and even puts up with the group being addressed as "chicas"--in Spanish, a group of girls is referred to in the feminine (chicas, niñas, etc), but the presence of even one guy necessitates the masculine (chicos, niños). In our case, we decided one boy wasn't enough for us all to be addressed as "chicos."

As an added bonus, here are some pics of my parents pretending to sign NAFTA:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Baile Folklórico de México

Tonight we went to see Mexican folkloric dancing in the famous Museo Nacional de Antropología. It was gorgeous. Here are some of the highlights.

This dance is entitled "Sones de Michoacán," or "Old Tunes of Michoacan:" 

"La Revolución" of 1910 included solderas:

Here is un vaquero with his rodeo rope from the region of Jalisco:

Here is the "Fiesta en Jalisco" or "Jalisco Festivity" from the land of mariachis:

And, of course, the Mexican Hat Dance: