Tag Archives: mexico

Rejecting Compliments, Resisting White Privilege: A Call for Help

1 Nov

I first realized just how disgustingly prized and privileged being light-skinned is here when we lived in Juquila. When people commented about my appearance, I could never quite separate out how much of their impression was just because I was foreign. A gringa living amongst us! Can you imagine! Men would congratulate Conan in the street for bringing home this rare, first-class acquisition. (I know. Patriarchy on top of it all. Sigh.) That was bad enough, but at least I could blame some of my ill-gotten fame on the small town, we’ve-never-seen-foreigners factor.

When people complimented baby Lucia, though, it made me particularly uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Look at her!” They’d say, “Just like the Gerber Baby! So adorable!” Which might seem innocuous enough, until you saw the larger trend of comments. “She looks just like her mama,” they’d say, totally negating all the obvious facial features that she inherited from her Papi, which to us were plain as day. “She got the light-skin from her mama; how beautiful!” and even things like, “Look how white she is! It’s a shame she didn’t get her mama’s eye color, though!”

Just look at these two. There’s no way you could deny their resemblance. Except people did!

I couldn’t say thank you, because it felt awful. It was like they were negating my husband. Like they were lessening themselves. Like they were denying part of Lucia- specifically the Mexican part of her. Like they or their child’s brown skin, brown eyes, black hair wasn’t as beautiful. How could I say thank you for that? I needed to respond, and I didn’t know how.

I still don’t know how. “Look at that precious guerito!” people gush over Khalil. When it’s another parent and they’re with their child, I am quick to pay some adoring compliment to their child, but beyond that I’m not sure what to do. I second-guess every compliment aimed at my kids. Obviously, I think they are adorable, because they’re my kids and I adore them, but I don’t want them to be taught that they’re good-looking because they’re “white.”

If it sounds like I’m over-reacting, let me give you a clearer example of the problem:

“I wish I were guerita (light-skinned) like Lucia,” Evelyn, one of the kids’ cousins, told me one day. It wasn’t the first time our 8 year old niece had mentioned skin color to me, but it was the moment that it was painfully obvious to me just how deeply society’s systemic racism had penetrated her little-girl psyche already. Just in case I didn’t get it, she bemoaned herself further, complaining, “I don’t want to be morena (dark-skinned). It’s ugly.”

The ambulance in my head switched on the siren and roared into gear. Help! Emergency! Pre-pubescent girl already hating herself! Code red! All hands on deck! (Okay, obviously I’ve never worked in health care and I know zero emergency slang. Forgive me. This is totally the kind of blubbering idiot that I am when in a panic. Which I was.) “What?!” I asked her, trying not to yell and shake her.

I took a breath and tried to talk and look normal. “You don’t need to be guera,” I started. “You’re already beautiful, just like you are.” Cliché, I know. But it’s true, it’s so true- Evelyn with her friendly, extroverted spirit. She’s who always comes and takes the hand of whatever family member of mine is visiting, to lead them around, to show them all they need to know, entrusting them with her wide open heart. Evelyn who’s curious and unapologetically opinionated. Evelyn who also has gorgeous wide eyes and a lovely smirk, among other radiant attributes. Evelyn who is brown-skinned and beautiful.

“Yeah?” she asked, sounding as hopeful as I felt disheartened by her remark. “I’m beautiful?” I reiterated that she was, and that I love her. She smiled and swept me away to show me something her parents had bought her.

I wanted to sit her down to talk about all the shades of beautiful. I wanted to talk about beauty’s source, about how it’s what’s on the inside, and how you feel about yourself that makes or breaks beauty. I wanted to say that society’s views on beauty are a total load of horseshit anyway. I wanted to sit down and have a long, age-appropriate talk about racism and prejudice and discrimination. I wanted to find time to walk around together, surf the internet together, and point out all the beautiful women with skin like hers. I wanted to find princesses and doctors and fairy godmothers and warriors and presidents and other Wonderful Women with brown skin like hers, and talk about how beautiful they are, to discuss the different forms of beauty. I wanted to rant and rave about the system and how fucked up it is that an 8 year old girl has already gotten the message that she’s not worth as much as another little girl. I started to say a whole lot of stuff to her, but I was so overwhelmed with how to go about it all, and she had already changed the subject.

Race in Mexico is fairly homogenous, in the sense that the grand majority of Mexicans are a mix of indigenous genes and European genes, with some African and some Asian genes in a few places. Despite this theoretical “sameness” there is a huge variation in skin tones and other aspects of appearance that people attribute to race. And there is absolutely a racism problem in Mexico. This is what racism looks like here. It has a different history than in the US, but the resulting prizing and privileging of all that is white is the same. It’s deeply rooted and entrenched in the culture, just like in the US.

So what does it matter, that I, the exotic foreign white girl auntie, am trying to tell Evelyn that she’s beautiful and valued? It’s so far from sufficient. She’s already learned and internalized the message that she’s not beautiful, because of her lovely brown eyes, because of her shiny black hair, because of her very own skin, the blanket enveloping her beautiful existence, that’s already betraying her, making her other, less-than beautiful. And if here in Mexico, where some shade or another of brown skin is the majority and the norm, if even here her brown skin is not valued, what must it be like in the U.S., in England, in Ireland, in all the places where brown skin is “other?” The injustice of it is maddening.

I’m not worrying about her beauty in terms of how many people might ask her out to dance, but I am worried about her feeling as valued and worthy as anybody. Even if it were “just” about a little girl’s body image, it still wouldn’t be okay to teach a girl to hate herself in the body that she lives in. But it’s so far beyond that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, talks about how it’s absolutely that kind of prejudice that is part of what leads us down the path to the devaluing and dehumanizing of a whole people. It really struck a chord with me when I read that he realized that “…the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.”

This has severe consequences. It’s why people of color are constantly being killed by police officers in the US. It’s why there are so many cases of indigenous women here giving birth on the lawn or in the bathroom of the hospital, because no one could be bothered to receive their precious baby, who’s already being valued and cared for less, starting at birth. It’s why Conan got stopped by the police for walking with his own daughter (read about it here). It’s the kind of thing that they talk about in this study, where they found that teachers expect more bad behavior from African American boys in preschool. The effects of prejudice are so far-reaching, so consequential.

And prejudice starts with precisely this kind of attitude: that the lighter your skin is, the better-looking you are. I’m not blaming the entire institution of racism on friends’ and family’s comments, but I do think that what we say- especially in front of children- makes a difference. These seemingly well-intentioned compliments about my kids’ light skin perpetuates racism. I still don’t know exactly what to say when I hear it, but I know it’s imperative that I say something. Help me, please! I need suggestions! I realize now that it’s not enough to have conversations with my kids about it in private; I need to confront this racism in the moment- in a nice way, but in a way that expresses that I don’t agree, for example, that they’re cute because of their skin color. This is important not just for my children, but also for Evelyn, and all the other beautiful, valued, worthy people of all shades of skin, who need to get the message that they ARE beautiful.

There are lots of other ways I think we can make a difference. Please leave comments with suggestions!

Some Irreverent Cheer, in T form

2 Sep

I needed to focus on some silliness after 7 days of melodrama and frustrations, and what’s cheerier than irreverent and inappropriate t-shirt messages? Some superb ones can be found all over town here and I’ve been jotting them down for ages. Finally it’s time to share.

With Mexico being a neighbor to the US, you see lots and lots of people with shirts in English. Some things are new clothing that has something written in English because it makes it cooler- or something. I’m not really sure what the motivation is for making baby onesies, for example, that say “Handsome” instead of “Guapo.” We’re in Mexico, guys! Speak Spanish! Stop making stupid crap in English! Is there so much obligatory diffusion of ‘Murican culture happening that you can’t even get new clothes in Mexico in the national language? Geez.

Occasionally it becomes fun, though, when they start putting totally random English on shirts. I used to have a shirt that somebody bought me from the Canary Islands that was covered in words as if you were supposed to read it, but it was something like: Freedom butterfly go spider fly love pacore fun forever (totally unrelated crap with a totally made-up word for good measure). But it’s in English! Super cool.

Here are some other good examples of these kinds of shirts (from the interwebs, not from my camera, because I suspect it’s rude and an invasion of privacy to snap photos of people in their t-shirts all the time):

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I secretly hope that some aspiring English language learners sit around and make up these t-shirts. Like they just open up a dictionary and pick out words that sound nice to them. Or they open different youtube pages and the first word of each video is what goes on the shirt. However they come up with it, they obviously don’t care whether your English t-shirt is credible or not. It is the reason why I will never, ever get a tattoo in a language I don’t speak. Imagine getting something really deep written on you, only for it to be something like, “permited to going” or “vintage gonna” or so many much worse things. Okay, maybe it would be funny enough later to make it worthwhile. I won’t say never. Just probably not. 1527898-980x

Then there are the t-shirts in English that are second-hand, presumably from the US, usually with more legitimate English. Some of the ones I appreciate are messages that are a bit incongruous with the person wearing them, like the wasted-drunk guy outside the market wearing his “Franklin Elementary PTA” t-shirt. Or the grumpy old lady in the shop wearing her shirt that says “My heart is all his!” (Although, okay, maybe she felt passion in her cold little heart once upon a time.) There’s the construction worker with his Harvard Alumni t-shirt or the harried mom with her Mini Marathon for Parkinson’s Disease shirt. Sure, maybe they did those things, but it looks a little out of place in the moment.

I like the meant-to-be sarcastic ones, like Conan’s t-shirt that says, “I’m just one freaking ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (But we bought it in the US, so maybe it doesn’t count.) “Everybody loves me” also falls into the “surely this is sarcasm” category, because who makes these slogans up? Could you be serious about that?

Usually when I ask my students about their clothes’ messages in English, they don’t know or they’re not totally sure what it says. Even when theoretically they know all the words on their shirt, they haven’t really bothered to decipher the message. I like to talk about them in class sometimes. “I’m not from Ireland but you can still kiss me for luck” was one that we all translated together, and then I tried to explain the significance. Other common messages include things like “I’m not short, I’m fun-sized” (totally apt on that particular wearer), or “chocoholic” (we agreed that yes, that was appropriate for her character).

There are accidentally ironic t-shirts, like my student who tripped on the sidewalk one day because she was focusing so hard on her phone. I helped her up and then I laughed at her, because her shirt that day said, “Textaholic” with a big cartoony cell phone on it. “Do you know what your shirt means?” I asked her. “No, what?” she said. Oops.

Hands down, though, the t-shirts that most cause my hysterics are the wildly improper and inappropriate ones, especially when the user seems completely oblivious. Like the seemingly nice and attentive father walking down the street one day holding his kids hand and talking to him in a gentle voice. He was wearing a shirt that said in big bold, all-capital letters, “Shut up and take it in the butt”- I am not even exaggerating; that’s what it said! I thought, “Surely he’s clueless. He has to be in the dark. Should I fill him in? What if he already knows?”  How many other English-speakers are walking around in shock about his t-shirt? Let us all be in shock; it’s kinda fun.

I also love that students in the strict, conservative university where I work wear outrageous messages on their clothing.  I’m always wondering, “Do you not get it, or are you using people’s assumed lack of English to wear really semi-scandalous or risqué things?” They get away with it, I imagine, because it’s in English. Like one of my little 18 year old newbies this semester that showed up the other day wearing a shirt with some cartoon character on it, but in all caps above the image it said, “FUCK!!!!!!!!!!” (Seriously, with like 10 exclamation marks) And below the image it said “I’m high” with another 18 exclamation marks. Based on what I know of her so far, I bet this student has never even seen illegal drugs in her life, but I love the accidental audacity of her wearing this in front of all these uptight administrators, these folks checking their clipboards, making sure nobody’s sitting on the lawn. Bless. It’s a bit like this shirt below, so inappropriate that it’s kind of awesome:

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A more mildly inappropriate one from a student has a picture of a toaster and a slice of bread in conversation. The toaster says, “I want you inside me.” The bread is saying “That’s hot.” Nice and cheeky. Unfortunately, since my students often don’t know what their shirt means, it lowers the cool factor a bit in my eyes. When it’s a naughty or outlandish message, I now prefer not to ask if they get it. I let myself assume that they know so I can appreciate their small rebellion.

Because the internet never ceases with its capacity to add to my cheer (thank you, Google images, thank you!), I found some more fun stuff to make my day. Below are some shirts I’m totally getting for my next trip to the US.

How about you guys? What ridiculous shirts make your day? Shirts in English? Spanish? Share the giggles!

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This reminds me of how my Nonna used to pronounce the video game system Neen-TEEN-do. I’m gonna sport it so all the Spanish speakers in the US can wonder if I have a clue what it says (it means, I don’t even understand). 

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Eres un pendejo means “you’re an idiot” hehehehe

My Oaxacan Reality Show

30 Aug

Have you ever approached the mirror expecting to see a cockroach, because things are so bad you’re sure you’re living out a Kafka novel? I started my Monday timidly glancing towards the mirror, convinced someone had come along in the night and boofed-up my hair, maybe wiped excessive blush and three layers of mascara on me, because I undoubtedly am living some bad reality TV. Or perhaps the previous days were supposed to be motivation for me to write about my life for The Onion, everyone’s favorite satirical paper. I knew my life wasn’t a sitcom because it was too preposterous to be made-up.

 

This was my reality show script this past weekend:

 

Friday: The Absurd Car Saga Continues

 

We’re driving down the coastal “highway” (a highway covered in topes, aka speed bumps), cruising along nicely because we’ve already stopped twice since leaving our house to put water in and cool down the car. That’s the state of our car currently- the motor’s been totally rebuilt now, along with about 15 other things, but anything that we haven’t put in new in the 2 years that we’ve owned it is just waiting for its moment to break down. I could write 3 different blog posts about this lemon of a car and all the idiot/liar mechanics and how every time we fix something they break something else or something else breaks right afterwards. I could write about how it tricked us by not breaking down for a couple of months, and so we decided to do some more major repairs on it to make it last us, and it hasn’t lasted a full week since then. But Conan’s made me promise not to blog about the car. “It’s bad enough I have to live this experience;” he explained, “I really don’t want to read about it.” But the car was the start of this mad-house weekend, so, sorry, Conan, but I’ve got to tell a little bit.

 

So we’re driving to Lucia’s school to pick her up. Now, luckily, we haven’t had to make the trek to take Lucia to school and back every day, thanks to a super nice lady, J’s mom, who lives a couple miles from us. Lucia’s new school, which is fabulous for her, is like light years away from us. It’s as far as you could possibly get from our house and still be in the same small town. Taking a taxi there is prohibitively expensive. It takes two buses and a good amount of walking on both ends just to get there without a car, and then there’s the trip back for Conan and Khalil. So all the days when our car doesn’t work (usually, thus far), Conan takes Lucia down the road to J’s mom’s house. J’s mom takes her and brings her back to there in the afternoon.

 

Three weeks in, Lucia is used to going with J’s mom. She showed me the other day how she and Papi speed-walk down the street to the collectivo stop in the mornings. Conan showed me the video that he showed Lucia to stop her complaining, a video of some kids who scale a cliff to get to school and back. This is good, I thought. My kids in no danger of growing up too privileged for her own good. But J’s mom now has to start taking her older kids to school as well, which means she needs to leave an hour earlier. I refuse to think about the problem till Monday, though, because our life is a twelve-step program and we’re already dealing with this tricky moment.

 

We’re driving in our radically unreliable car because the plan changed too much in one day. Lucia was supposed to be getting a ride with a different mom because she was going to her new bestie’s house to play after school. Unfortunately, there was a problem on the other mom’s end and she had to reschedule. We’d already cancelled Lucia’s normal ride with J’s mom, and I knew Lucia was going to be madly disappointed. Thus, I thought it might soften the blow if I went to get her. I told Conan I was going to take the buses and such to get her, but he convinced me it’d be better to all go in the car- we’d just put water in along the way. So here we are.

 

The car makes it all the way to the school! J’s mom had had car trouble herself earlier in the day, so she arrives in a borrowed car. The borrowed car gets a flat tire right on the corner by school, so Conan tries to fix it. The car’s spare needs air and our spare doesn’t fit. J’s mom calls the flat-tire car’s owner and he comes quickly in J’s mom’s now-fixed car (how’d she get a mechanic to work so quickly!? I gasp). She has to go pick up more kids, so we take the flat-tire-car-owner to the gas station to get air in his spare. When we arrive at the gas station, we hear a big pop! from our car. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I yell, about to pull my hair out.

 

It’s not a flat tire, at least. Conan opens the hood. Some belt has snapped. But not completely- only part of it is torn. Conan gets out the dirty steak knife he apparently keeps handy and cuts off the busted part. We take off back down the road to the school where the other car is. We make a deal with the flat-tire-car-owner that he’ll pick up me and the kids off the side of the road if he sees us there on the way back to our side of town. With only a couple of stops to cool the car down- one of those stops to buy quick food, we make it home just in time for me to go back to work. Well, I’m late for the 8th time this week, but I get there.

 

Speaking of late, Conan’s going to be late to an important prayer service. The babysitter calls while we’re on the road, saying she can’t watch the kids that afternoon. That means Conan can’t leave as planned for Pinotepa, a coastal town a few hours down the road where his stepdad Arturo is from.

 

Here in Oaxaca, when somebody dies, there are nine days of evening prayer services for the deceased, with the ninth one culminating in an all-night sort of wake/prayer service. They repeat the process a year later, and this is the year anniversary. We already missed the original service for Arturo’s mom, so it’s important that we go. But I couldn’t even handle the mental images of a weekend purgatory with my insomniac children, all sleep-deprived and exhausted and expected to sleep on straw bedrolls when there’s an exciting wake going on around them. Plus we are all in the throes of a cold, just to exacerbate the potential misery. Conan was going to go alone, but this is like another sign from the universe. He decides to stay home and try to figure out the car situation.

 

 

Saturday: Blood and Gore and Electrical Outlets

 

Our most trusted and honest mechanic is unavailable. Sadly, this guy is slower than molasses in January AND the least experienced and least knowledgeable of the dozen mechanics we know down here, but at least we’re sure he’s not trying to rip us off, ever. We wait, as usual.

 

We decide on a family field trip to the library before our weekly venture to buy fruit and vegetables at the market. At the library, Khalil’s pulling books off the shelf with glee. I look at Lucia for a second and when I look back at Khalil he’s got his finger on an electrical socket and is trying to shove it in there. WTF? Who puts an electrical outlet in the children’s books? Or who puts the small kids’ books where the outlet is? Geez, Mexico, Geez!!! I know that safety is a joke here, but it’s a library, which really should be a universal safe space, don’t you think? Sure, they don’t have those convenient plastic outlet-cover things with that specific purpose down here, but this is a land of genius inventions!  Put some duct tape over that shit like I do, people! No wonder a kid’s third birthday is such a big deal here: if your kid survives that long, it’s obviously a miracle.

 

The rest of our outing is blissfully uneventful, not including Lucia’s meltdown in the taxi because I told her I’d buy her a treat “later” and then later never happened. “I wanted ice cream, too, but I bought fruit for you little people instead!” I want to scream, if only I could have my own meltdown. Instead I limit myself to furtive eye-rolling while I console her. Life is really hard.

 

Tensions remain high at home due to hunger and exhaustion. Voracious snacking happens while I prepare official lunch. Later Conan and I get in a fight over who is supposed to rinse Khalil’s poopy diapers. Conan escapes outside to do yard work. I attempt to put Khalil down for a nap.

 

I’m lying in the bed with Khalil when Conan comes up and asks if we have peroxide. I look up at him and there’s blood all over his shoulder and on one side of his chest. It’s coming from his head and it’s still flowing out swimmingly.

 

“What happened!” I shriek at him. “Do. We. Have. Peroxide.” He repeats. Then Calm Julia starts a wrestling match with Hysterical Julia. “Go in the bathroom,” I tell him, breathing deeply while my hands shake. “Bring some ice,” he says. I grab peroxide, ice, and the small, worn white “Él” (His) towel that was a wedding present, which just happens to be in the kitchen. I douse his head in soap and water and try to guess how bad it is. He holds the towel with ice in it on his head. The bleeding continues.

 

I’m flapping around like a chicken, trying to get things together to schlep him and the kids to a clinic. “Get your shoes on,” I tell Lucia. “Because we’re going to the hospital?” she asks, having overheard me tell Conan that I’m taking him. “Yes,” I confirm, and she is remarkably obedient. “I’m ready, Mommy,” she says, stunningly cool and calm.

 

Of course our car is not working. I am also out of minutes on my phone, and in my agitated state I appear to be unable to use Conan’s phone to call a taxi. Conan feels dizzy, which puts me almost over the edge. “Don’t pass out on me!” I tell him sternly.

 

“The neighbor,” Conan says, reminding me that we have a helpful neighbor. I try to call him instead of a taxi but my phone hasn’t miraculously gotten a top-up on minutes in the past 30 seconds. I can’t work Conan’s contact list still, either, and as I’m trying to push in the buttons and becoming less and less dexterous and sharp-witted (you’d think I got my head busted open, too), Conan says, “Go.To.The.Neighbor’s.House.” OH, right! I snatch the baby and go.

 

Luckily, the neighbors are home. The papá, Sergio, comes over to help. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he says, and Conan says, “Yeah, I don’t feel so dizzy now,” as if to say “Let’s just forget about all this.” I’m on the verge of screaming, “Your head got busted open by a heavy wooden beam! Have you already lost your mind?!” Instead I limit myself to a determined, “We’re getting you checked out.” The neighbor offers to give us a ride to the worthless pharmacy doctor down the street. That’s better than nothing, so we get in the car. Lucia stays with the mamá neighbor and their three kids to play, thankfully.

 

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Conan demonstrates how the beam was (we recently did some construction on the house and this beam was stuck extra tight until this moment)

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This is how the beam fell, except Conan was kneeling down to pick up the bucket right there. He has some amazingly bad luck. But better him than the kids, we agreed.

 

The pharmacy doctor is closed at the pharmacy in our neighborhood. The less-busy one downtown is also closed. We get out of the car at the next one, pleased because it looks like there’s no line. We tell the neighbor we’ll catch a taxi back and thanks for the ride. Turns out there’s no line because the doctor has just gone to lunch and won’t be back for an hour. Ooops. Now what?

 

The Red Cross is just a couple blocks away, so we start walking. I’m carrying the sleeping Khalil in my arms and Conan is shirtless and still messy with blood, holding the bloodied white towel with ice in it over his head. He says he feels “fine.” I am not assured.

 

At the Red Cross they clean and examine his injury and tell us he needs stitches, but they’ll have to charge us for the materials- a couple hundred pesos. They work off of donations, so that’s that. And they’re not doctors, so they explain that they can’t give us a prescription or any other care, so we might prefer to go to the Health Center (Centro de Salud). “They’re government run, so they don’t have any reason to charge you a peso,” the paramedic says. (I suppose he’s a paramedic. Whatever he is. Random guy who knows how to sew people up? Friendly apprentice to a Silence of the Lambs-style murderer? Who knows?)

 

We take a taxi to the Health Center and go in the Emergency doors. You remember the Centro de Salud, the one that was on strike for months? They’re not on strike anymore, thank goodness. Someone is in the exam room and there’s another couple waiting. The other guy’s having chest pains and he gets seen first. Conan tells the nurse he had an accident and got hit in the head. She glances in his direction. Analysis complete.

 

While we’re still waiting, the nurse comes over and asks, “Did you guys bring a vehicle?” I’m thinking “Did someone park illegally on the nearly-empty dirt road outside? Why are they asking this?” I give her a simple no, although I’m tempted to disclose too much information about the useless state of our vehicle.

 

“Well, it looks like we’re out of the thread for stitches, so you’re going to have to go to a pharmacy and buy it.” She informs us casually. The nearest pharmacy is something like 10 blocks away. I look slowly at Conan with his head injury and I look down at the sleeping baby in my arms. Do I go on this outing with the baby, which will take longer but be safer? Do I leave the baby with the head-injury patient? Do I send the injured party to buy his own medical supplies, with his bloody towel and topless, bloody chest, because our first walk-around wasn’t quite fun enough? IS THIS A SICK JOKE?

 

Of course it’s not a joke, though; it’s just how it is. This is not as bad as the time that a doctor sent us home during Lucia’s crisis asthma attack with her blood oxygen level still at a dangerous 89% and not responding to treatment. It’s not nearly as bad as my friend’s birth story. She’s a negative blood type and her baby’s positive, so you need a special shot, which you can get anytime between 28 weeks pregnancy to 72 hours after birth. Otherwise it’s dangerous if you might ever want to get pregnant again. The hospital where she gave birth (yep, those same scary fools that are my insurance company) kept telling her they’d get it for her soon, until her 72 hours were almost up and finally they admitted that they didn’t have it. Her husband had to drive hours away to go buy it and race back to get it to her in time. So, I think, this is not that bad.

 

Luck is on our side! The director finds a little bit stashed away in a closet somewhere. Hallelujah, amen.

 

The nurse won’t let me accompany Conan, probably because she doesn’t want anyone with non-injured heads to hear her inappropriate commentary or to be a witness to who-knows-what. “These glasses just don’t let me see right anymore,” is among her pertinent remarks. That was after she discussed with the other lady (nurse’s aide? Who knows?) this being her 2nd time giving stitches. When Conan asks, incredulously, “Really? Second time ever?” she explains that it was her second time with the other lady. Conan’s hoping that’s true, but it’s too late to back out of this anyway.

 

Meanwhile, the director, who’s the only doctor on site, takes me to a different room to complete some minimal paperwork. I give him basic info about Conan and what happened. He tells me he’s writing a prescription for an antibiotic and pain pills.

 

The doctor still hasn’t actually examined Conan, so I’m trying not to scoff about his antibiotics. When I ask him if antibiotics are necessary in this case, he assures me that they are, just like all the doctors here do, no matter the circumstances. They don’t even diagnose you; one doctor I saw limited herself to the question, “Injection or pills?” like they used to ask, “Paper or plastic?” in the grocery store. You have a cough? Antibiotics! Diarrhea? Antibiotics! It’s a miracle that there are still antibiotics that kill off actual bacterial infections here since they’re used for everything else instead. But I digress.

 

If I had known that my moment with the doctor would be the only moment for questions, I would have gotten it together to inquire a little more. If I had a peso for every time I thought “If I had known this sooner,” since we moved here, we would be filthy rich enough to improve doctors’ training in the entire state of Oaxaca. Although we’d only do that if we could ALSO buy a car that works.

 

Conan survives the dodgy nurse’s handiwork and we go to the reception/cashier area with a piece of paper. The receptionist charges us 85 pesos. I ask if that’s how much it costs despite his having this insurance- the Seguro Popular (insurance that covers you at this type of public health clinic). She’s like, “Oh, you have Seguro Popular?” Conan explains that he does but his paper is at home. Because that’s all it is- a printed piece of paper. It’s not like it’s something you carry around with you everywhere, or it’d be unreadable once you needed to use it. “Can’t you look him up in the system?” I ask, to which she probably should have burst out laughing. But instead she politely tells us that there’s no system like that; he just needs his scrappy piece of paper that anybody could print from a computer. I guess they’re counting on the fact that not enough poor people have the means to make their own ridiculous document for insurance coverage. Or they just don’t care.

 

“Welcome to Oaxaca!” I think, land where you better be at home with your shoddy print-out proof of insurance when anything happens or else it’s no use. What’s more of a joke, though, is that at no point did the doctor examine Conan’s injury, and no medical professional has given him any medical advice or instructions on follow-up care. No one has given us any idea of potential complications, what to watch for, tips on keeping it clean, or even when to get the stitches taken out. Nothing. I kind of assumed the nurse had told Conan some of that information. I must be somewhat in shock myself because I am not on my A-game with the demanding questions, and therefore we get zero information. At least he got seen, I guess.

 

conan busted head

It doesn’t look too bad after it’s all stitched up. Too bad it feels really bad still. We go out for ice cream down the street from the clinic before we get a taxi home. There’s the silver lining. 

 

Sunday: Dry like a Desert, No Oasis in Sight

 

Conan acts like he feels fine and starts to refill leaking fluids, add extra water, and beat on something to make the tail lights come on (oh, yeah, we have some electrical problems, too) so we can take the car out. We go to inquire about brand-new cars, because at this point I’m convinced that it will be cheaper than trying to maintain a car that never works. Unfortunately, the facts and numbers demonstrate my miscalculation. A new car is still unattainable. But my kids have fun playing hide and seek around the Volkswagon showroom and jumping on their couch. That’s what matters on a Sunday, right?

 

We drop the car off at the mechanic’s, who hopes to get to it today. He calls Conan right as we’re about to sit down to dinner that evening, because he’s about to get started working on it. Conan rushes off to the mechanic’s house. As soon as they start working, it starts pouring down rain and nothing can be done till the next day. (What, do you expect mechanics to have garages here? Bwahahaha.)

 

While Conan is out, we run out of drinking water. I still don’t have any minutes on my phone, so I can’t call him to bring some home. I’m worried that it’ll be too late to get any from the house on the corner by the time he gets back. I could leave the sleeping children alone in the house for a minute, but I’m scared of the dogs once it’s dark out and they get more aggressive. So I’m stuck, with my ragingly sore throat, and no water. I need tea now! Worse still, how will I get out of bed in the morning if there’s no coffee? I blow up a balloon for my imaginary pity party. For some reason, this small inconvenience feels like the worst thing yet.

 

Then I remember that it’s not my first day in the illustrious state of Oaxaca. It’s not even my first time with this particular problem. I get a big pot and put tap water on to boil. “It’ll be better coffee,” I think, “I’ll add some cinnamon to the pot!” I make my coffee the traditional way, letting the grinds sink to the bottom. It’s all ready for me to reheat when I get up the next day, thus assuring my 5AM wake up will be executed successfully. I make ginger tea with some of the boiled water, and it’s the perfect soother.

 

I plan the meals for the next day. Conan has a plan for Lucia’s school transportation for the next day. No further plans can be made. We’ve made it through this day. That is all. There’s no moral to the story, nothing special to be learned, because this is a REALITY show, folks. I go to sleep hoping for a better script and better hair tomorrow.

From Oaxaca with Love, my favorite Seedy Salsa

8 Jul

It’s recipe time- back by popular demand! Okay, really I just got one request, but I aim to please, folks. It turns out that a chef that cooks Mexican food in Gothenburg, Sweden, got turned on to my Oaxacan mother-in-law’s refried bean recipe via my ex-roommate Jeremy from Indiana who’s currently residing in Sweden. (I love this interconnected universe!) So in honor of fabulous roommates now residing in other places, I bring you more delights from small-town Oaxaca.

I’m showcasing one of my favorite salsa this time, partly to share with you lovelies who haven’t been to Mexico an important lesson about Mexican salsa: it’s not all this tomato-jalapeño business like you get with your chips in those “authentic” Mexican restaurants in the U.S. (Shocking, I know.) It’s not even all spicy, although there are usually peppers of some kind involved. Salsa just means sauce- you know, something to add flavor to food. It is a great way to serve more or less the same food about 10 different ways; just change the salsa.

The problem with sharing many of the best Oaxacan recipes is that many of the ingredients are not exported items. You just can’t find chepiles in Kentucky. I’d bet there aren’t any guajes in Sweden, either. With that in mind, this salsa is for the lovely folks of Gothenburg, since I hope you can find these ingredients there.

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Guajes grow on a tree and you eat the softish seeds on the inside of the pod. It’s easy to open the pods, making for convenient snackfood if you have a tree around. (You’re jealous, aren’t you? My guaje tree is better than your convenience store.) You can also make salsa from it, of course.

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Chepiles- perhaps my favorite food to eat in tamales… They cook down when heated like spinach but are so tender in their flavor. (Don’t let this picture fool you- they aren’t eaten raw.)

This salsa is made out of what we call semillas. Even though semilla is just the generic word for seed, this is the most common snack-food seed in Southern Oaxaca: the seed of calabaza. Calabaza means something like pumpkin or squash. Soft, small summery squash, though, is called calabacita (little squash). You can use the seeds of any hard gourd/squash- acorn squash, butternut squash, any squash or pumpkin with hard seeds.

These seeds are also really good for you, by the way; they’re full of iron, among other things.

Here are some examples of our calabazas (ambigious pumpkin/squash goodness):

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softer but still not very soft squash “calabaza”

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harder, winter-ish squash “calabaza”

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more cheap and delicious convenience food- semillas!

Here, you can just go buy a bag of already-roasted semillas for 5 pesos (pretty cheap).If you can’t buy roasted seeds, it’s pretty easy to roast them yourself. Just separate them from the fleshy part of the squash as best you can- it doesn’t have to be completely separated because the rest will come off easily when they’re dry. Here, they get put directly on the comal (griddle), like so many foods. (Ovens aren’t commonly used unless you’re producing a bunch of bread or something.) A frying pan will do if you don’t have a griddle. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven.

Space the seeds out a little on your griddle or oven pan so that they’re not on top of each other. Add some salt and toast them (over low heat on the griddle) or roast them in the oven (at 400 degrees Fahrenheit / 200 Celcius) until they’re browned on the outside, turning occasionally. The smaller the seed, the faster they’ll roast.

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Tortillas roasting over a traditional comal

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This is more like the comals used on an inside stove, which goes right over 2 burners on the stove. Getting a fire started is okay on a special occassion, but mostly I’m grateful I don’t have to do it every day.

 

If you want seeds just for snacking, you can also add a little oil and some spices before roasting. I really like mine with some cumin and cayenne pepper (my recipe from back when I used to have to roast them myself, bwahahaha). You can eat them with the shells and all; they’re delicious and nutritious. It’s good to prepare them anytime you are using a squash with edible seeds- less food waste and more healthful snacking for you.

Here’s the recipe for Salsa de Semillas (by Paulina, my badass, feminist, Oaxacan mother-in-law who shows lots of love via what she cooks for us):

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Paulina and me on the coast during my first visit, before she was my mother in law

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Paulina showed me how to make salsa in the traditional molcajete on my first visit to Mexico

It’s not meant to be spicy, so if it’s hot for you, use fewer chili peppers.

Ingredients

1 cup roasted semillas (approximately)

10 dry, red, medium-to-low-spicy-level chili peppers- chile costeño is what is used here, but it’s hard to come by outside of here. You can substitute maybe 8-9 chiles del arbol mixed with 1 chile guajillo.

1 (medium to large) or 2 (small) cloves garlic

3 leaves of Pitiona (optional) (apparently known as Bushy Matgrass in English)- If you don’t have this, don’t worry.

water

salt to taste

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chile costeño

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Pitiona, a common herb used in cooking and natural remedies here (Sorry, guys, this probably doesn’t grow in your backyard, either.)

Preparation

Step 1: Roast the seeds, as described above, if you are not buying pre-roasted semillas.

Step 2: Roast the chili peppers.

Roast the chiles on a dry griddle or frying pan on low-medium heat, similar to how you roasted the seeds. It only takes a few minutes, though, and you need to move them around on the pan every minute or two. It’s okay if they get blackened a bit, but you don’t want them crispy. You also don’t want tons of smoke from them filling up your house, so keep the heat fairly low and don’t let them get too burnt (and open a window). When they are a little black on each side (more or less- you don’t have to turn them over one by one), put them into some water to soak for about 15 minutes (longer is okay, too, but not necessary- you just want to soften them up for blending).

Step 3: Combine ingredients.

Put seeds, chili peppers, garlic and (if available) pitiona in a blender or food processer. You can also use the traditional mortal and pestle if you prefer (if you are working on your arm muscles, for example). Add a little bit of water to help the blender grind it up, and then add more to make it liquidy. Be careful, though. There is no exact amount of water, but add little bits at a time to get the right consistency. You want your salsa to be thinner than a normal paste but not watery like ketchup or something. It should be somewhere in between. Add salt if needed (depending on how salty your semillas already are).

That’s all! You can enjoy your salsa on any food. We especially love it on eggs and beans (my family’s common breakfast), but it can go on all kinds of stuff: rice, cauliflower- anything that needs a bit of pizzazz.

If you try this salsa, let me know! I want to keep my mother-in-law updated on her worldwide fame in the kitchen. Take care and buen provecho.

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It should look more or less like this.

P.S. Sorry, y’all, but all the photos are from Google and not me, except for the plastic bag full of semillas and the pics of Paulina and me. I’ll try to do better next time. xoxox

Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca

1 Jul

Somewhere between six and ten people died and lots more were injured during a protest in our state, Oaxaca, on June 19. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people died, or exactly what happened, because everyone has a different account, and you can’t really believe anybody. The government, the police, the media, and the teachers’ union are all notoriously corrupt. Both the causes of the protests and the way they are being carried out is a lose-lose situation for everyone in our state, especially for all the children and youth.

The government says six people died, but nobody trusts the government. Elections here are even more rigged and fraudulent than in the U.S. Buying votes is normal. You might get killed by the competition if you are running for office, partly because if you are elected you can (and probably will) steal enough money from the people to keep you set for life- therefore it’s worth killing over. The government is full of outright, blatant lies: just Google “the missing 43 Mexican students ” (here’s some of the info:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35539727) if you haven’t already heard about the biggest government and police corruption scandal during this president’s reign. In this most recent case, in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, the original official story was that some other organization or group jumped in and shot the protesters. Originally, reports even said the police went to the protest unarmed, which isn’t the slightest bit credible. So you can see why government and police reports aren’t believable.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the utter honesty of the teachers’ union as well. I imagine that accounts from teachers and other folks on site when it happened are more realistic than accounts by police or the media. But the union here is not really the voice of the teachers. Membership in the union is obligatory and participation in protests is mandatory, although they rotate participation some so they don’t have to be protesting every day for these month-long strikes, at least. While I don’t think our public school teachers are the bad guys in this scenario at all, and I’m in favor of unions, I think this particular union is not good for our schools or the kids, and not even particularly good for the teachers. (More info about the teachers’ union, sección 22: http://www.mexicogulfreporter.com/2013/08/oaxaca-education-at-mercy-of-omnipotent.html )

Some articles act like the teachers are screwing over the system, and it certainly sounds like it when you read that teachers’ and staff compensation account for 94% of education funding (http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ ). But teachers don’t get paid excessively, I can assure you (people aren’t shy about discussing income here, so teachers I know have told me how much they make). It’s not bad pay but it’s not outstanding, either. Thus, this statistic in context speaks way more to a) other folk that get paid, for example folks who only exist on payroll and not in a classroom, including dead people (yes this really happens here- some live person is cashing in the dead person’s paycheck) and b) just how little funding there is for education. Here, there’s no funding for transportation or food, and next to nothing for anything else. This means classrooms not only don’t have enough books, sometimes they don’t even have classrooms. (Conan and other students had to help build their own high school, for example.) Parents pay so much out of pocket that for “free” public education that school is inaccessible for many people. Not only do parents pay for school materials for their children- which is already hard on many families-, but also they regularly get asked to pay extra fees for whatever the school needs. Parents also have mandatory volunteer work days at the school (because schools can’t hire other staff), and they get fined if they don’t attend.

What Are They Fighting About? The Existing Problems, the Reform, and the General Lack of Confidence in the System

Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes in the world. It “ranked 118th out of 144 countries in quality of primary education, behind many poorer countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.” ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-reforms-idUSKBN0OI0AL20150602) Within Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in education. The federal government passed a bill for Education Reform back in 2013, because pretty much everyone agrees that radical changes to the system are sorely needed in Mexico.

The reform sounds helpful on paper, and in general people seemed to be mostly in favor of it before. Some of its official objectives are creating more equity, and that it be free and accessible. The reform proposes lots of money for more schools, money to improve existing schools, money for food in schools in poor areas, and other such necessary funding. Who knows if it will be enough funding and where the money is coming from, but that part sounds great. It proposes transparency about where the money goes in schools. It calls for better textbooks, more parental and community involvement, and more access to teacher training. It will also require teachers to undergo evaluations and trainings, and to justify their absences if they miss more than 3 days of class. There are lots of things that it doesn’t cover that would be nice, like changing the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, things like that- but it’s a start. (this article gives a good overview in English and here’s some info in Spanish directly from the government about their plans: http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ 

http://www.nl.gob.mx/servicios/reforma-educativa

Since nobody believes the government, however, and the news can’t be relied upon for real, relevant information, either, we are also inundated with rumors and counter beliefs about the reform. The number one complaint is that they are going to use this to privatize education. The government viciously denies it, but they are working on privatizing other public things, like petroleum. The government also said the police weren’t carrying guns, among other lies; they don’t prove themselves trustworthy, to say the least. So the government repeats that the tenets of the reform are to make education free of fees, and people shrug their shoulders.

The kind of information that my students tell me they believe about the reform is that, for example, they just want to fire all the teachers. We’ve heard that they’re going to take away everyone’s retirement benefits. We’ve heard that you won’t even need teacher training to be a teacher- that anyone who can pass the exam will be a teacher (which is not a very credible claim, since so much of the reform emphasizes teacher training, but there you have it). A big concern is that if teachers don’t pass an exam they will be fired on the spot. According to the proposal, teachers with poor evaluations will receive more training and then take the exam again in a year- and have a third chance with more training if the fail the second time. Supposedly the evaluations will take many factors into consideration, including the environment and culture where teachers are, which is really important here in Oaxaca where there are many indigenous languages spoken throughout the state, and many kids growing up in a household where Spanish isn’t spoken. Of course the reform needs to take regional and cultural factors into account, and it does propose to do so- but once again, it’s easier to believe what your teacher friend down the street tells you than what the government puts out there. And the teacher may or may not believe what they’re being told about the reform, but regardless they have to protest it or there will be serious sanctions against them.

My impression before this protest was that most people do want evaluations for teachers, or at least some kind of accountability, to deal with the very real problem like teachers selling their guaranteed, lifelong position off to someone else when they retire. Some people are definitely concerned that there is ZERO oversight on teacher quality; teachers are guaranteed a position for life (and beyond, when teachers give their position to their child, for example), no matter what they do or don’t do. Parents are also sick of the strikes; Oaxacan kids have lost more than an entire school year in the past 7 years of strikes. (from this article, which was also one of the broadest and best articles I read covering the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/world/americas/mexico-teachers-protests-enrique-pena-nieto.html?_r=0  ) And that’s not including the 6 or 7 months-long strike that happened in 2006, which was the 25th consecutive year of teacher strikes in Oaxaca under this teachers’ union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  )

But ever since people got killed, the tides have changed drastically in terms of public support. Most people are vocally or actively standing with the teachers now (including a lot of international folks who don’t seem to know what is actually going on here), which also means they’re against the reform now. Also, people down here still revere teachers and, more importantly, lack trust and faith in government to a much greater degree than the cynicism and distrust they have for the teachers’ union. The union talks a good talk, and the demands during the annual strikes (yes, every year for the past 30 years or something now, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  ) always include some demand or the other related to the wellbeing of the students.

While pretty much ALL the systems and agencies in this country are corrupt, the government is seen as the most corrupt. Certainly the federal government cares very little about Oaxaca, too. (For example, when the months-long strikes were going on in 2006, for ages the federal government washed their hands of the situation, saying it was a local issue.) So the union is robbing people, sure, but the government killing people- and getting away with it, as usual- is certainly worse.

At the very least, no matter how people down here feel about the union and the striking teachers, most people doubt that the reform will actually help Oaxacan children anyway. After all, it’s been proven over and over that people can’t rely on institutions here. It’s pretty depressing, if nothing else.

The Effects of the Protests

The protest is ongoing and the demonstrations and blockades, along with its secondary effects, are widespread throughout Oaxaca- plus there’s some similar action happening in our neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero. Teachers have been on strike since mid-May, first of all, although it was all pretty low-key until elections in early June. Things heated up, then calmed again, and then the killings happened.

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a shot from 2015 strikes (borrowed from ibtimes.com)

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teachers camping out in the zócolo, the main square, of Oaxaca City- a common sight…. (image from nvinoticias.com)… Teachers have rotating schedules for when they have to participate in protests- thank goodness! They have families, too. 

Since then, the government and teachers’ union have had two separate dialogues, both lasting for several hours, where NOTHING has been gained nor lost on either side. Nobody is reporting any clear news on what the hell they’re saying in there for all those hours (perhaps they’re talking about their grandkids, a la Bill Clinton), but there they are. So far they haven’t set up a third meeting. (Here’s an example of the very vague reporting: https://oaxaca.quadratin.com.mx/reforma-educativa-no-se-abrogara-osorio-cnte/)

The union and the government are at an impasse. The union won’t accept the reform, and the government won’t rescind the reform, which is now written into law and already partially implemented. The union is promising to get more drastic and expand their actions to other parts of the country. More and more police are arriving. There are rumors of military involvement. The only thing to do is to wait and see. Here’s a lot of relevant information about what’s happening:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2016/07/supplies-airlifted-to-oaxaca-as-blockades-continue-in-several-mexican-states/  I suspect things will get crazier before they get better, despite the government’s vague promises that they will resolve this within a few days.

A big part of the protest is the numerous blockades that the teachers union and their allies have set up throughout the state. They’re mostly letting people pass (with some delays) but blocking commercial trucks. So some areas are short on food supplies, and the gas supply is short everywhere, although it’s coming through sporadically, here at least.

I can’t attest to the extent of the problems happening due to the protests, because there’s also a lot of misinformation and false information about it. For example, I just read an article saying that in Puerto Escondido (where I live) and in Huatulco, there’s gasoline but only for 12 hours a day and each car can only get 200 pesos of gas. In reality, the situation here is that gas seems to randomly arrive at one or two gas stations and everyone lines up to fill up. At times there are cars parked lining up hours before a pipe even comes in. At times people are waiting in line 3 hours to get gas. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a short wait. But it’s not how they painted it in the media.

The news is also stressing how much people are suffering from a lack of food, and it’s hard to say to what extent that’s true. Here we still have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. The prices of the stuff that gets trucked in from Oaxaca City has gone up, but even that seems to still be plentiful enough. The two supermarkets in town have some empty shelves, but they are at least getting sporadic shipments of things or they’d be totally empty by now. I have been able to get most of the things on my grocery list every week despite the situation, for example. But I don’t know how it is in other areas. Supposedly Oaxaca City is seriously affected, but a friend of mine there said she’s not seeing that. The government just set up a schedule to airlift food to our state, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, or what food they’re taking. Our family in Juquila says they aren’t getting stuff like cookies and other commercial food, but nobody’s going hungry there, either, or at least not because of the strikes. It’s all a bit 1984-esque to me.

The strikes are hurting a lot of the small businesses, though, which a large portion of people rely in for their income. Less people are travelling, for example, so all the folks who have their restaurants along the (very slow, winding) “highway” are not getting as much business. Our friend in Juquila had to come down here for hamburger buns for his restaurant, as another example. It is making people late to work for transportation problems in some areas. It means my friend has extra hours added to her weekly journal to her Masters-level class in the next state over. It’s definitely inconvenient and costly for a lot of people who already have enough economic problems. I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds on national news, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. I do know that people are a bit sick of it. “I don’t know why they can’t protest in Mexico City instead of here,” one friend said. It’s a good question.

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Surviving beyond the system: individuals selling gasoline at higher prices for desperate folks- here in Puerto Escondido (sorry it’s not a great pic- taken from our moving car)

Conclusions: What about the kids? What about a total revolution?

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the kids are not winning. The children of Oaxaca, already living in the poorest state of this country, living in a country with one of the worst educational systems and outcomes in the world, are not benefitting in any way, shape, or form from any of this protest, and they might not benefit from the reform, either. I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but it would be nice if some institution did something with the best interests of the children in mind as their primary motivation. I’m sure President Peña Nieto and Local 22 Teachers Union are open to your suggestions, dear Reader. (lol)

We do desperately need reform, or, better yet, revolutionary improvements for our students here in Oaxaca. Yes, we need books, food, transportation, uniforms, and so, so much more. We need a different curriculum, dynamic teaching and learning strategies, a way to make school worthwhile, relevant, and accessible for kids so they’re not routinely dropping out at 12. We need institutions that serve the people, institutions that people can count on. We need police who don’t shoot protesters as the status quo. We need governments that don’t order, support, and cover up killings and disappearances. If corruption is always going to exist, we at least need a bit less corruption in all levels of our public institutions and agencies. We need much more than what anyone here in Oaxaca can even realistically imagine receiving at this point. And that’s the worst part of all, perhaps- that there’s so little hope, for our state, for our youth, for our future.

 

 

Colorful Catholicism for Goddess-Lovers, and for Those in Need of a Lover

5 Jun

Mexican Catholicism is a gloriously pagan affair. If I were Catholic, this would absolutely be my style. It’s Goddess-centered (ahem, I mean Virgin Mary-centered), and way more elaborately ritualistic than a typical Catholic mass in the U.S.

I already liked Catholicism for all its saint-loving, saints being like special lesser deities just to help you out with random parts of your life. But in Mexico the interpretation of saints’ jobs is even better. For example, when I mention a Saint Anthony, who I know as the Patron Saint of Lost Things (this is who I always call on for lost documents, lost keys, etc., although I’m not a practicing Catholic), everyone laughs at me, assuming I’m talking about the saint you call on to find yourself a boyfriend or husband. You have to turn an image of him upside down if you are a single lady looking for a man (I haven’t seen any specifications on whether or not it can help single ladies find a girlfriend, but it’s very specific that he’s a saint for solteras, so I guess he won’t help attached women find an extra lover, nor men looking for a partner.)

Don’t worry, though, fellas, because there’s also a local recourse if you are having trouble finding a woman partner. Halfway up the mountain, between Rio Grande and Juquila, lies the small town of San Marcos Zacatepec. Right there off the main road you can make your pilgrimage to the Piedra Mujer (Stone Woman). Go in, say a prayer (some put it in writing as well), light a candle, and you’re golden. Once you have your partner, you go back and give thanks with an offering (money to maintain the sanctuary, and a thank-you note if you want.) All in a day’s work in the world of Mexican Catholicism.

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a close-up of the “Stone Woman”- if this ain’t a tribute to the Goddess then I don’t know what it is

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The sanctuary of the Piedra Mujer

And it doesn’t end with the saints. I love that nobody’s walking around with those WWJD bracelets, because for the most part, people aren’t all that into Jesus. The majority of the love, prayers, tokens of adoration, and clothing accessories are for Mary. People have images and invocations of the Virgin Mary all over the place, all the time. I’ve seen a whole group with painted t-shirts of grafitti-style Virgin Mary. Cars sometimes have lettering on the windshield reading “Gift from the Virgin.” There are Virgin Mary bracelets, necklaces, rearview mirror ornaments, dashboard ornaments, car hood ornaments, wallet-size cards, statues for the home, dolls, and tattoos. There’s more tourism that goes to visit the Virgin Mary who supposedly appeared in Juquila than there is tourism to the beach here in Puerto. The devotion is impressive.

juquilita

one common image of the Virgin of Juquila

Juquila isn’t the only spot where the Virgin Mary has been sighted in Mexico. Nor is it just a spot to pray. No, it’s way more pagan-style than that; you perform a whole ritual when you go to ask for something. You make a clay figure that represents what you are asking for from the Virgin (for example, a car if you are hoping to save up to buy a car). You make a promise to the Virgin. You spread some dirt on your face. Some people bathe in the water near the cave where she was spotted. People fill up their plastic bottles with that same holy water. It’s a very serious affair. People don’t ask for stuff without expecting to work for it, but it’s a way to get extra help, an extra blessing when you’re trying to do or acquire something big. There are folks who wouldn’t dream of starting some big undertaking without a visit to the Virgin first. Often it involves a promise to the Virgin; making the pilgrimage by foot or on your knees next year, or cutting off your beautiful braid, or some other kind of sacrifice.

Rituals in general are of great cultural importance. When you die here, people aren’t worrying about who’s going to give the moving speech at the funeral. Instead everyone comes together to cook food for the people who will come every night in a nine-day long ritual of prayer and incense. It culminates in the ninth evening being an all-night prayer vigil, followed by everyone going to the cemetery in the morning to leave the cross and say some more prayers.

There are other religions here, but Catholicism is the big majority rule, and it’s totally ingrained into the culture whether you’re a practitioner or not. Mexico is technically secular, but for all intents and purposes it’s still an officially Catholic country. For example, I just went to the grand opening of a new (completely secular) business, and half of it centered around a blessing by a priest. And the Church has some serious, major power that I sadly don’t see them using for justice around here. They’re typically more concerned with whether you’re married via the Catholic Church and whether men should have earrings or not than all the malnourished people in this rampantly corrupt state. (According to folks I know who go to mass and listen to these exciting sermons and otherwise participate- I don’t have first-hand experience with mass here, sorry. I do know that Conan and I can’t be anyone’s official Godparents here because we’re only legally, civilly married, not religiously.)

Catholic Church aside, though, I adore Mexican Catholicism for the way it honors and continues to revere it’s pre-Colombian roots, without even acknowledging that this could possibly not be Pope-approved, all this assembling clay figures, for example. Here, this is what Catholicism is, period- pagan symbols, goddess figures and all. If I could just get over the whole institution of it, all the priests that act like they‘re God, and even this radical Pope still telling women not to protect themselves with condoms and birth control- if I could just get past that part, I would have found a religious home in this fabulously expressive, colorful Mexican Catholicism. I might still get one of those graffiti-style lettered shirts, anyway, if I could get one of the Piedra Mujer instead of the Virgin Mary. I’m going to look into it.

Peace and respect, folks, to all the religious in whatever religion and the non-religious, too. Until next time.

 

What Not To Do When You Move to Small Town Southern Mexico

9 Apr

My dad always said that opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one. So true, and yet we all still think that ours is truly valid, that we can really help someone out with our hard-earned wisdom. So I’m here today, ladies and gentlemen, to share my opinions, my own stellar advice for all of you pondering a moving to the marvelous state of Oaxaca. For those of you already in Oaxaca, this is still superb advice, but you might already know it. You guys can go ahead and laugh with me, please and thank you.

This is advice that I would have appreciated, theoretically. I mean, okay, sometimes I love to jump headfirst into things, blindfolded and grinning. But often I would prefer to research things to make the most informed decision possible. Usually that means I seek as much advice and information as possible and then jump briskly off cliff number one anyway. Sigh.

So here you go- I present you the fruits of my experience, aka some advice that you can read, reject and ignore. (I’m practicing for the kids’ adolescence.)

The first tidbit of guidance I have for you is second-hand, but it is first-rate advice nonetheless.

Don’t change your country of residence immediately after having your first child.

“Don’t plan any major life changes for a while. Transitioning to parenthood is hard enough.” Our lovely doula, the birth assistant we hired for Lucia’s birth, tried to warn us. Truer words were never spoken. But, alas, the U.S. government did not appreciate this wisdom. And you know, there’s gotta be some benefit to starting your kid off really, really early with the globe-trotting.

But it’s not a great plan for adjusting to parenthood sanely. Abandoning your entire support system and general way of life while learning how to parent is a special kind of madness. I mean, leave the country, yes! I am so glad that we live here- now. If we could have waited a year, though, it would have saved us lots and lots of heartache. So while I don’t recommend jet-setting first thing postpartum, if you find yourself doing it, you’re a special kind of badass, and I want to be your friend.

Don’t buy an automatic car that needs work.

Contrary to popular belief down here in the land of stick shifts, automatics are not bad cars. In the U.S. I owned several over the years, and a couple of them were fabulous cars. They go up hills just fine, thank you very much, when they work. The problem here is, unless your automatic is more or less new (or at least in such condition that it never needs to be worked on by a mechanic), you are screwed, because nobody knows how to fix it properly.

This advice is spawned by my current frustration- the impetus for this blog post- which is a recurring soap opera. Every time our car breaks down (which is about bimonthly) it either takes a week (or longer) to fix it, or in the process of fixing it they cause some other problem. This month both things happened.

At first I thought this phenomenon was due to having bought a lemon of a car. Then I thought it was because the mechanic we often took it to (the cheapest option, a friend of a friend) was just a slow and inexperienced mechanic. But at one point we had a problem that required about ten different mechanics. Ten! They didn’t know if it was mechanical or electrical, so we took it to all the types of mechanics. They didn’t have a clue. They took apart our car, broke other things. It was absurd. And it just keeps happening!

It was nice to use an automatic to transition into learning to drive on these bumpy dirt roads with lots of drivers who don’t follow any rules. But now I have my teacher lined up to teach me how to drive a manual car, and I’ll hook you up, too. Just say no to automatics that might need mechanics. Buy yourself a nice little Tsuru, just like the taxis and half of the rest of the population own. That’s what we’ll be doing next, if I manage to follow my own advice. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Don’t build a house to live in when there is not yet electricity in the neighborhood.

“It’s just an overgrown lot right now, there’s no electricity or water,” my in-laws warned me when we came to visit the plot of land in Puerto that Conan owned. “Right, but we can get that stuff installed, right?” I asked, thinking it was just a matter of getting things hooked up, signing a contract, paying the bill. Little did I know….

We got water hooked up just fine during the building process, thanks to some help from a family member. But with electricity, there was no “hooking up” because there was nothing to hook up to on our block. The electric company won’t set it up someplace new unless they’re paid to by the folks living in the neighborhood and/or government (and we’re talking thousands of dollars). So it was a lot of waiting and fighting and hoping and hopelessness. Perhaps someone tried to tell me beforehand, but I was too blinded by my desperation to get out of Juquila to really let it sink in. And really, if I had it to do over again? I suppose I would think about us renting a place while we waited for electricity. But would I stay in Juquila till the lights came on here? Hell, no. Hell, no. (Seriously. Double or triple hell, no.)

We got lucky that we only spent a year and a half (two years for Conan) living without electricity. I know people who spent years and years living “off the grid” by accident. So you just don’t know when you’ll get it. Don’t plan to live there unless you’re one of those amish-style hippy types who wants to go charge your iphone at someone else’s house and live without fans because your body odor just isn’t at its best in the A/C. And if that’s the case, bless your little heart, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Don’t start a business that you know nothing about.

When we lived in Juquila, we couldn’t find decent jobs. Everyone and their mother wanted me to teach their kid English, but nobody actually wanted to commit to regular classes, or pay more than 20 pesos an hour (less than 2 US dollars). Conan’s construction skills were not in demand, either, since everything they construct here is very different. He got a job at one point, but he was working about 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for next to nothing.

So we decided to sell cell phones, accessories, and recargas (prepaid minutes) out of his mom’s storefront in the front of the house. That’s right- we sold cell phones. Imagine me selling cell phones. Me- who refused to have a cell phone until I lived in Chile in 2007. Me- who then held on to the same flip phone for like 6 years. Me- who still had cassettes until I moved down here, just to give you an idea of how resistant I am to new technology. It was totally my dream job to sell cell phones- Not! (Haha, look how backwards I am! Still using kid quotes from the early 90s- that’s me.)

In fairness, Conan knew much more about cell phones and accessories than I did (and do; I’m still clueless). But neither of us had any idea what the people of Juquila would buy, really. It was a pretty uninformed business venture, which seems to be kind of the M.O. in Juquila. There are no corporations; it’s all small business. You don’t take any classes or write up a business plan. You either have experience because your family owns something or you just scrape together some money for a small investment and get started with your tiny business that you hope will do well so you can expand. It’s a respectable way to do things in the circumstances, but it did not make us a living. Now if we had invested in statues of saints instead….

It wasn’t a total waste of money. We sold most of it over time. We used some of the phones and accessories ourselves. We earned some money, slowly. It was certainly an interesting experience. And I certainly admire the tenacity of the neighborly small business owners who just open up the front room of their house and stock some snacks and sodas along with the most common of vegetables. I mean, why not? Who says you have to have a stupid business plan? Granted, bigger small businesses down here do still have a plan, I’m sure. And maybe a small business could still work for us someday. But not in Juquila. And not cell phones. This lesson was learned, for now.

Don’t let your small child sleep in the same bed with you “just for the transition.”

Don’t do this unless you want to sleep with them forever. There is no “just for the transition.” Once they worm their way in, you will never get him or her out of your bed again. The transition just keeps on keeping on. Just say no to bed-sharing, for the health of your grown-up relationship and the sake of your ribs, which will remain bruised throughout the duration from all that kicking and thrashing these mini-monsters do. ‘Nuff said.

mac32_cosleeping04

this is our near future…

The Moral of this story is…..

Well, nothing, really. As you can see, I don’t have any real advice. I don’t have a clue what you should do, but I have a wealth of savvy on what not to do. Not that you should listen to me. Counsel such as this probably would have saved me lots of heartache, but that doesn’t mean I would have taken it. My dad was always futilely trying to save me from making the same mistakes that he made, but heartache is ours to find, one way or another.

Furthermore, if I had known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? In general, probably not. For one, I love rollercoasters, and I am constantly learning to appreciate this roller coaster that is my life, no matter what. Also, I’m working on not judging myself harshly, and both Conan and I have done the best we could with what we were working with, and that just has to be good enough. Not to mention that I always figure these brilliant “mistakes” are good for my character. And I’m pretty damn cool on a good day. So if you find yourself by happenstance moving to small town Oaxaca, look me up and I’ll impart more thrilling opinions. Worthwhile? Well, that and a few cents will get you a stick of gum, as my dad would say. So on second thought, come on down and I’ll give you a cup of coffee instead.