|Letters from Mexico|
Stan Gotliebs Letters From Mexico can be read on the World Wide Web, at: http://www.realoaxaca.com. Email Stan at: email@example.com
A Minneapolis wedding in Oaxaca
by Stan Gotlieb
In December, too late to make the January Letter, Lila Downs got married. To those of you who have not read about her in this column before, Lila is the daughter of the late Alan Downs, a presence in the Art Department of the University of Minnesota when I was a student there a long time ago, and Anita Sanchez, a Mixtec indigenous woman. Lila is also a diva, whose brilliant renditions of traditional Mexican songs and original compositions are informed by her training as an opera singer while attending the U in the 80s. Those of you who were fortunate enough to attend her Nov. 2 concert at the Cedar Cultural Center know what I mean.
I first met Lila in 1994. I was sitting in a local gringo hangout having a cappuccino when the door opened and pure sunshine walked in. It was Lila, along with her future husband, Paul Cohen. Their new found love for each other radiated from them and put a smile on everyones face. The couple that we watched getting married were somewhat older and more subdued (whom of us is not?), but still very much in love. And no, to answer the more cynical of my readers, they didnt have to.
Weddings, like most big events in village life in Mexico, are co-operative. The U.S. model, with the brides parents paying all the expenses, is not the Mexican way. In one form or another, the Mexicans observe an ancient practice which the Zapotecs have named Tequio (TEH-key-o). Tequio is a system of borrowing and lending meant to spread burdens across an entire community. If I am throwing a party for a special occasion, and I need to make a large caldron of soup, but I only have one chicken, I borrow another chicken from my neighbor, some celery from another, etc. Each of these is written down as a debt owed, to be drawn on when the lender, in turn, needs some help.
Also common is a system of madrinas (sort of like fairy godparents), including but not limited to the official god-parents, where relatives and special friends who can afford to fund parts of the festivities as a gift. Lilas wedding encompassed both traditions.
The ceremony took place at Lilas mothers house. The priest came down from Tlaxiaco, where Lila grew up. Someone paid his expenses, and a little for his trouble. Anitas house is a little out of town, and not everyone drove. The reception was even further out of town, so a couple of Suburbans and a bus were providedby someone else. After everyone had arrived at the reception, the bridal couple drove almost all the way there, and then transferred to an ox cart, all decorated for the occasion, for the entry into the reception grounds: yet another sponsor.
Lilas dress, the flowers, the liquor, the food, the sound system, and more: all paid for by someone other than Anita.
The ceremony was a very traditional Mixtec Catholic rite, which ended with the bridal couple standing beneath a Jewish wedding Chupa (KHU-pa) in deference to some of Pauls family in attendance. Holding up the poles supporting the awning were Diana, me, Jerry Lieblings daughter, and Michele Gibbs, a black poet and artist with a Jewish mother.
The reception, in a newly built traditional hacienda with super-wide verandas, was lavish, with over 100 guests seated. Oaxaca cooking maven and teacher Susana Trilling was the caterer. Of the five appetizer courses, my favorite was the jumbo shrimp dipped first in batter and then in coconut and then fried. The main course was a buffet featuring a real Louisiana gumbo and shredded turkey in chocolate mole (MO-lay).
Several of your old friends and neighbors were in attendance. Bob Persig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) had been a neighbor of Alan Downs and the young Lila. David Nelson, who lives not far from the Pride offices, came down to do the wedding video. He had attended one of Allens art workshops in Tlaxiaco when Lila was just a few years old. Amy Downs, Lilas sister, a millener who has for many years now lived in New York City, showed up suitably hatted. She used to baby-sit for the Persigs. Jerry Liebling, who used to teach at the U, was also a Downs neighbor when Lila was growing up. Now, he also lives in New York, and is a famous still photographer.
There were several musicians performing at the reception, pals of Paul and Lila from Oaxaca and elsewhere. Toward the end of the festivities, Lila sang, accompanied by Paul on the saxophone and a guitarist friend from San Miguel de Allende. By the time we climbed into our waiting Suburban, all our senses were overloaded.
They say the way to a mans heart is through his stomach, which in my case is a super-highway. If you want to travel in the diamond lane, Ill take coconut shrimp, please.
[Stan Gotlieb lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org Stan publishes the Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter, a sample of which can be found at http://www.realoaxaca.com/news.html]
by Stan Gotlieb
Well, here we are, another year gone by. Cant say its been a very good year, what with all the terrorism, the recession, and all. Sure hope it gets better this year, although I dont guess I have a lot of faith that it will. It appears that my Mexican neighbors share my misgivings. So, according to what I read, do yours.
Retail sales in this, traditionally the busiest season (remember, Im writing this to a deadline, one week ago), are down to abysmal levels. People are traveling less, and the tourism industry is reflecting that with emptying hotels, closing restaurants and desperate beach resorts. The government is considering the most austere public budget in history, while trying desperately to bail out favored industrial sectors that have suffered heavily from the turn-down in the economya very unpopular idea among the growing unemployed, and the employed who are paying ever more for a health-care package that covers less and less. Sound a lot like home?
The Argentines just defaulted, the Brazilians are in deep financial trouble, the Chilean recovery has slowed, and natural disasters in most of Central America have brought those countries to something approaching anarchy. Mexico is watching the price of oil drop like a stone while the other arm of Mexicos much heralded economic juggernautthe maquiladora assembly plants near the borderare laying off workers at record rates.
Human rights workers and reporters are being threatened and killed in Mexico, along with union organizers and other voices of dissent. The most prominent case in recent times, that of lawyer-activist Digna Ochoa, has drawn censure from the Organization of American States, as much for the cavalier attitude the Mexican government took to the threats she received as for the inability of the authorities to bring anyone to justice. Impunitya system of turning a blind eye to the crimes of officials and law enforcement officersis still alive and well in Vicente Foxs administration, especially if the suspects belong to the military.
The only bright note in all of this is the refusal of the Mexican government to go along with President Bushs declaration of unilateral war on all persons and nations that might house terrorists. Recently appointed to a two year term on the U.N. Security Council (its third since that bodys founding), Mexico made it clear that it will not participate in any police actions against other countries, unless they directly attack Mexico. This position is not without cost. It will probably mean that the United States will take no action on immigration reform in the near future, among other things.
Fox must balance this against the firestorm he would raise at home should he go along to get along. The electorate is very sensitive when it comes to Mexican sovereignty, and they are already nervous about plans to privatize the petroleum industry, which is the last of the great government-owned public works projects from the 30s to survive.
Meanwhile, we are about to embark on a trip to the Caribbean coast and the Yucatan peninsula, something for which we have been saving for months. Airport security is very high, and there have been no reported problems flying. While it is true that we are relatively safe from terrorism, we cant get too smug about it. Mexico also has its dissident groups, and while so far all the armed groups have maintained a strict kill the police and the army stance, you never know...
So, heres a wish that somehow, against all odds, the next year will be better. We could all use it.
[Stan Gotlieb lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. He publishes a Web site, An Expatriate Life, at http://www.realoaxaca.com/ and writes a subscription Newsletter on Mexico available by e-mail only. A sample Newsletter is available on his Web site. His e-mail address is: email@example.com ]
Thanksgiving among the expatriates
by Stan Gotlieb
Today is Jueves (Thursday to us gringos). Two days ago, we joined our neighbors in celebrating Veinte de Noviembre (November 20th), Dia de la Revolución (Revolution day; the day in 1910 on which Francisco Madero, a Marxist by the way, gave the orders to go to war against the despotic government of Porfirio Diaz). Today is just another work dayexcept for us. We differentiate it from all the other days of our vacation / retirement bywhat else?stuffing ourselves silly.
We are a fairly homogenous yet somewhat diversified group; a fair representation of the expatriate community. We range in age from 85 to early 40s; in education from professor emeritus (2) to high school diploma; in income from well off to basic social security; in politics from radical left to libertarian right. Still, we are mostly middle aged and elderly, college educated, ex-professional, and politically liberal to progressive. Probably, except for the politics, a group not unlike the one you might find in any city in Mexico to which gringos are drawn, living a much better lifestyle than would be available to us in the U.S., given our incomes. We are the a.t.m. generation; the remittance persons of the modern era, with bank accounts in U.S. credit unions, banks, or Merril Lynch, where our income awaits the electronic magic of on-line banking.
Aside from me, there is another Southsider here, visiting for a few months. We are connected through Lila Downs. He is staying with Anita, her mother, the only Mexican at table this year.
Diana and I are hosting, as we have for several years now. Diana prepared the bread stuffing and a Waldorf salad; others brought cranberry sauce, antipasto, a spinach-mushroom casserole, potatoes, (real Minnesota) wild rice and vegies, wines, juices, peach pie (pumpkin is hard to find here) and ice cream. The turkey, with meat stuffing and gravy, was prepared by a German couple who are in the smoked meat and fish business, and delivered hot from the smoker at exactly 4 p.m., as folks were arriving. My role is waiter and scullery maid.
Drinks and then dinner are consumed on the patio, denuded last summer of our giant and constantly shedding ficus tree. The sun, while beginning to sink to the west, has provided a warm and clear day. The food is set up on a table in the dinng room which has its own entry to the patio. When M has finished carving the turkey (fittingly, she is a sculptor), we all line up and circumnavigate the food table, and with heaping plates retire to our places in the patio.
As is traditional, we ask one another for what we are thankful on this day. For one another, we answer: for our friendship, our mutual support, our understanding and approval. We are, after all, strangers in a strange land: extranjeros (estranHerros; strangers; foreigners). Without each other, we would be isolated.
We are appreciative of our U.S. citizenship, a protection against the turmoils that plague many of the countries in which we and our fellow expats reside. We value the security that our dollar incomes provide. We are indebted to the many brave and visionary forebearers and contemporaries (some of whom are sitting around our table) whose struggles for justice and freedom have made us symbolic, in our adopted homes, of the kinder and gentler society that motivates many of our Mexican neighbors to risk their life and fortune as illegal immigrants to the U.S.
We are happy to be here, in these days of shock and sorrow. Each and every one of us who has been back home since Sept. 11 reports feeling a disturbing level of tension there; an atmosphere of alienation and fear. They tell of friends and loved ones who have cancelled vacation plans; personal experiences of airport confusion and incompetent security personnel; chilling tales of colleagues or distant acquaintances subjected to humiliation because of skin color or apparent ethnicity.
All of us identify ourselves as Yanks. All of us were shocked and disgusted by the actions of foreign terrorists on Sept. 11, and what appears to have been right-wing domestic terrorists using anthrax to convince average citizens that civil liberties are less important than security.
The current wave of laws giving the military and the national government unprecedented police powers free from the review of the courts or the oversight of our elected representatives conjur up images of Brave New World and 1984. One man recalls being gay in the military during the Second World War, when being discovered meant a strong probability of years in a federal penitentiary, assuming one survived the beatings in the stockade. Another tells of being shunted from one punishment unit to another, because he had belonged to organizations that agitated for the United States to enter the war in Europe before Pearl Harbor. He was labeled prematurely anti-Fascist in his military dossier. Many of us have similar tales to tell, either about ourselves or about people we have known. We have no illusions about the implications of loving security more than loving liberty. We find the current trend disturbing, to say the least.
Still, we console one another, it hasn't yet got to the point where human rights attorneys and investigative reporters are regularly captured and tortured by paramilitary units, and occasionally terminated while law enforcement is unableor unwillingto do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice. No, its not as bad as Mexico ... yet. We give thanks for that, and pray that it will continue to be so.
[Stan Gotlieb lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. He publishes a web site, An Expatriate Life, at http://www.realoaxaca.com/ and writes a subscription Newsletter on Mexico available by e mail only. A sample Newsletter is available on his Web site. His e mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org ]
The Season of
and maíz (corn). Candles are there in force. Passers-by are
often invited in for a look and a beer. Houses of the wealthy, normally sealed against the
street, stand open to display large and intricate altars in the forecourt.
There are contests among student groups to construct intricate altars in public buildings, and in churches and cemeteries. The awards are substantial. In the square in front of the Cathedral, sand sculptures are decorated in wild colors: skeletal dancers, devils, lovers, revolutionaries, angels. On the pedestrian mall, intricate sand paintings are the thing.
Different municipalities and different cemeteries have different days for decorating graves, but most of the action will take place tomorrow afternoon and evening. Celebrants will gather at dusk, and most will spend the night, talking and toasting their departed loved ones. They do this so that the dead, having left their resting places for the pleasures of the family home, will be able to find their way back again. Every season has a beginning and an end, and so it is with Muertos. It would be unseemly to keep the departed from their rest for more than a short while every year.
Tomorrow night in Minneapolis, on the final night of Muertos, Lila Downs and her band will be performing at the Cedar Avenue Cultural Center. Lila is a friend from Oaxaca, whose career dictates that she be away from the comforts of her family and her traditions just now. I'd appreciate it if someone would take this Letter along tomorrow night and show it to her. Let her know Diana and I are thinking of her and sending greetings from home.
[Stan Gotlieb lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. He publishes a Web site, An Expatriate Life, at http://www.realoaxaca.com/ and writes a subscription Newsletter on Mexico available by e-mail only. His e-mail address is: email@example.com ]
by Stan Gotlieb
Life among our expatriate pals who hang out in the sidewalk cafés of the Zócalo has been permanently changed since Sept. 11, in various ways. Some are obvious and others more subtle.
A few transplanted New Yorkers were caught in the shutdown of air services. One couple was in a United plane about to take off from JFK when the FAA grounded all flights. A niece of Diana's who lives in New Jersey was in New York on a shopping trip with her 4-year-old daughter and couldn't get out until Sept 13. Others, in airports as far away as Leningrad and as close as Mexico City, found themselves indefinitely grounded. Several were here, unable to use their tickets back to the Big Apple; a few are still here, frankly terrified about getting in a plane again. Friends who own a bed and breakfast have had 25 percent of their regular, year-in, year-out clients cancel their winter reservations.
Nobody we know has suffered any loss of friends or family, although several have friends who did. Everybody we know speculates incessantly on what will happen next, and whether or not something bad might happen here.
Vicente Fox, Mexico's president, and Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, have pledged total support to the United States in its Holy War against terrorism. With no offensive air or sea capability, and the Army's declaration of no service on foreign soil, neither can mean military assistance, so what do they mean?
A local expatriate recently returned from the United States. His plane landed in Mexico City's Benito Juarez airport. Before debarking, he was told that his luggage could no longer be shipped through, but had to be picked up at the arrivals baggage claim and re-checked for his Oaxaca flight. Delays were horrid, but he finally got his ticket and checked his luggage once again.
After clearing the first security checkpoint, he encountered two more checkpointsat each he had to show picture ID and his ticket and boarding pass. At the gate he had to go through the same routine again. Once down the ramp to the plane, he encountered two heavies (his description) who frisked some people, and actually took two men (Mexicans, he believed), in line ahead of him, down the outside steps from the jetway to a waiting van. Once in Oaxaca, he had to go through another thorough examination to get out of the airport.
His conclusion (and mine)? This had nothing to do with international terrorists and everything to do with Mexico's own, national movements for a more equal society. Fueled by severe economic and political turmoil, there is a growing grass-roots movement to resist some really unpopular austerity measures being introduced by Fox's right-wing party, the PAN. Fox, himself a globalist conservative who, before he ran (some would say paid) for the governorship of Guanajuato state, from which he almost immediately launched his campaign for the presidency, was the CEO of CocaCola Latin America. The son of a fabulously wealthy rancher and leather goods manufacturer, he is loved for his smooth and macho style by the same people who oppose many of his policies.
Whatever the lobbyists and spin doctors tell you, Mexico is in bad shape. The peso is being artificially maintained through Central Bank purchases of pesos, using long-term government bonds to generate the capital. Some economists have been quoted in the Mexican press as estimating the true value of the peso, now trading at 9.5 to the dollar, to be 12. Infrastructure spending (schools, hospitals, mass transit to name a few) has declined against the early 1990s, in real peso terms. Public education has been allowed to slip so badly that Mexicans have made private education one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, thus denying equal education to the poor.
NAFTA has, as predicted, decimated family farms as rising costs of fertilizers and pesticides and aggressive marketing of subsidized U.S. grown staples such as corn and beans have forced farmers to work in the cities at starvation wages or head for the border. Maquiladora plants are closing as the slowdown in the U.S. economy affects consumer spending over there. Scandal after scandal reminds the Mexican people that they are the chingadas (screwed) and the elites who walk away with billions are the chingaderas (screwers). Most recently, banker Cabal Peniche, who allegedly defrauded his investors of hundreds of millions of dollars while contributing tens of millions to the campaign of now-reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas, had all major charges against him dropped because the prosecutors failed to file the correct papers on time.
In such an atmosphere, where over 60 percent of the population is said to live below the poverty line, 50 percent are said to be illiterate, and whole villages depend on the money sent back by relatives working in the U.S., it is not surprising that some folks have donned uniforms and taken up arms, and others have taken to planting bombs. While small for now, the guerrilla (a term for any dissident group that advocates armed resistance) has a strong base in Mexican history. Hardly a decade has gone by in this century without one or another uprising, most often in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, southern states with the deepest poverty.
Thus it is not surprising that the Fox government has chosen this opportunity to tighten the noose of police oversight that has always characterized life for the average citizen. Isnt our own president, with his talk of Holy War and his proposal for a new cabinet-level domestic policeman, sending a signal to his cowboy-boot-wearing buddy that security is at least as important as human rights?
The first overt act of the new era in Mexico was the arrest of nearly 100 Iraqi Chaldeans (Catholics) in the border city of Tijuana awaiting U.S. government permission for them to join their families in southern California, and their deportation to a stalag inside an army camp in the southeastern state of Campeche for their own protection. With reports abounding of FBI agents harassing innocent Americans while they are exercising their freedom of religion in their Mosques, why should we be surprised?
We Zocalo lizards debate endlessly the right course, for the United States as well as for Mexico. We seem to be split in predictable quantity, with the majority being hardliners for the short run. Those of us in the minority, while we are split on many issues, share certain common beliefs: that state terrorism (such as blockading Cuba and Iraq, or moving the Mexican army into Chiapas in massive numbers) only hardens extremists; and that killing fundamentalists creates martyrs for those who replace them; that in the long run, only giving people something to live for can prevent them from becoming suicide killer crazies. Hardliner or not, all of us share one belief: we, a thousand miles south of your border, are only marginally safer than you are, as long as terroristsand the system of inequality that creates themexist.
Stan Gotlieb publishes a subscriber newsletter, available by e-mail only. A sample is posted to: http://www.realoaxaca.com/news.html . Stan answers letters at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
by Stan Gotlieb
Oaxaca is known for its Zócalo. There may be other towns whose town square is as beautiful, but our Zócalos combination of colonial architecture, old trees, sidewalk cafés and pedestrian-only streets makes it unique among the inner-city parks of Mexico.
For many of us, the Zócalo is Oaxaca, and the sidewalk cafés that ring it on three sides are a refuge, an observation post, and a reassuring place to eat and drink. We congregate there to gossip, make social plans, exchange information and relax with the News, or our favorite Spanish-language newspaper; write postcards and practice our restaurant Spanish. Oaxaca, the local folks insist, is muy tranquilo (very tranquil), and the Zócalo is the most tranquil place of all. Except when its not.
Recently, there was a large gathering of seemingly homeless individuals encamped around the square, and for some blocks around (30 in all). Many of them drove recent-vintage autos, they were rather well dressed for street people and they appeared to be highly organized. The clotheslines that they strung to hold up the tarps under which they hunkered down got in our way when we walked down the street. Occasionally, a group of them got up off the cardboard they had spread to sit and sleep on, and organized themselves into a marching group, complete with bull-horn. This, on top of the din coming from the loudspeakers in front of the Government building on the south side of the park, can get on a persons nerves. What was going on?
Far from being homeless, they were professionals: the people who teach the children of our State; the primary and secondary school teachers. They are on strike for a better deal, for themselves and others (as well as more wages, smaller classes and better health benefits, they are demanding that a proposed sales tax on groceries and medicine and books be killed, that the government recognize an old treaty they made with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, that plans to privatize education be scrapped and that each student receive a free hot meal every day). They were only onebut quite possibly the largestof the protest groups that have brought their demonstrations to the Zócalo over the centuries.
There is a group from a rural village that has been petitioning the government for four years; they are on their second governor, so far without success. There are groups that bus into town, march on the Government building, harangue the administration through bull-horns for a few minutes, and then march back to their buses and return home.
Ever since pre-Hispanic times, Mexicans have been bringing their grievances to the center of their lives for adjudication. This tradition, observed in the customs of the 16 native groupings of Oaxaca state, the Haciendas of the great Patróns, and the audiences granted by the colonial governors, is still alive today. What cannot be decided at the village level is brought to the Municipio (county); what the Municipio cannot resolve must come to the Governor. Oaxaca city is the state capital. The governors office is on the second floor, on the south side of the Zócalo. It is the peoples absolute right to petition authority, and thats why they come to the Zócalo: not to spoil the tourists day, but to exercise their legal rights.
A couple of weeks ago, after two weeks of encampment, the teachers gave up and went home, without getting what they came for. Before they did so, they gathered all their cardboard into piles for the city cleanup crew. Still, the social cost of the strike was enormous. Many merchants had been unable to get customers to cross the cardboard to enter their stores. Water, sanitary facilities, cleanup and extra police had cost the city of Oaxaca a lot of money. Students were out of class for a month.
The day after they left, I was picking up a pair of sandals from the repair shop around the corner from our house. Don Jaime, the owner/operator, was discussing the strike with another customer, Ricardo. It was, they decided, a political matter. The teachers, they opined, wished to embarrass the governor, a member of the recently defeated PRI party, which for the first time in 71 years found itself unable to buy or steal the 2000 presidential election. Since teacher pay raises are set at the federal level, there was little the governor could have done and the teachers knew it, Ricardo said. They pointed out that the citizens of Oaxaca, not the many demonstrators from outside the metro area, would bear the brunt of the cost. They agreed that demonstrating is an absolute and inalienable Constitutional right, but lamented that the teachers seemed to have so little respect for the tranquility and order of the rest of the citizenry.
Still, not one demonstrator was tear-gassed, or jailed, or clubbed. No windows were broken. No cars were burned. Somehow, in spite of the inconvenience, everyone got through it together. Did the teachers spend a lot of credibility, and leave a generally negative feeling in their wake? You bet. Are laws being proposed to keep them from returning next year? No way. This, I was informed was Oaxaca, not Quebec City. They may have been wrong, even insensitive, Don Jaime said, but they are our neighbors.
The honeymoon is over for Vicente Fox
(c)2001 by Stan Gotlieb
When I was visiting in Minneapolis a couple of years ago, construction had just started on what was to be the Minneapolis ' first Hispanic market place. When I came back this year, there it was, on Bloomington and East Lake: the Mercado Centrál (central market).
I had dropped by the offices of the Southside Pride, to say hi to old and new friends, and mentioned that I was interested in doing a story on the Mercado. Great idea, I was told: go for it. And go for it I did.
As you walk along Lake Street, as I did, from Nicollet to Bloomington, you pass many restaurants, shops, grocery stores and other businesses bearing the names of Mexican towns. It is part of the exciting, exotic, heady mix of new immigrants breathing new life into the old home town. By the time I got to Bloomington and Lake, I was envisioning the wonderful, exotic mercádos I left behind in Oaxaca. I opened the doors, stepped inside, and entered: Uptown.
At first, I was disappointed, maybe even a little upset. But then I remembered that I was in Minneapolis, not Oaxaca; that while the world revolves around me, it also revolves around others; that one goes to Oaxaca to find Oaxaca, while Lake and Bloomington is located in Minneapolis.
Once I was over worrying about what it was not -- a little bit of old Mexico in Minneapolis -- I began to see it for what it is, and to appreciate what a nice blend of old and new aspirations it represents.
Originally conceived as an "incubator" for startup small businesses with Hispanic themes, run by Latino owners and workers, the Mercado was planned as an "anchor" for other new enterprises along what was, not so many years ago, a vacancy-plagued and crime-ridden set of blocks.
The success of this approach can be easily seen by anyone riding the 21 bus. Newly renovated buildings, newly opened restaurants, boutiques, and grocery stores with names like "Morelia", "Michoacan" and "Puerto Escondido" evoke the richness and exotic ambiance of the "old country, mingle with similar start-ups featuring the cuisine and clothing of Somalia, Ethiopia, and other African ports of call.
East Lake Street, once (in my own youth) a vital commercial hub for the Scandinavians, Germans, and Italians that were the then-resident immigrant groups, is again benefitting from the ambition and dedication of newcomers bent on becoming successful citizens.
I can testify to the quality of the fajitas and the aguas de fruta (fresh fruit juices diluted by water, with a little sugar added). I found the staff in the various tiendas (little stores) and fondas (little kitchens) to be lively and pleasant. The honey-comb design of the ground floor reminded me of home, as did the gringos who were standing around trying to decide if they should partake of the tamales (can you ask her if it's real spicy, honey?), and the many Latinos who were shopping and noshing.
North meets south at Bloomington and Lake. The south part is definitely northernized, but on the other hand you don't have to shut yourself up in a flimsy little tube and launch yourself through the air for six hours to get there. Although, once exposed to our local Mercado Centrál, you might just get inspired to go to Mexico, looking for the real thing. If you do go, and you see me there, be sure to say hello.
The good, the bad, the ugly
by Stan Gotlieb
Politics in the new Mexico is about to take on some of the aspects of a high-noon shootout in a John Ford western. Starting this month, two shoot-from-the-hip political gunslingers are moving into the two most powerful offices in the country.
One in four Mexicans lives in or around Mexico City. While a good share of these approximately 20 million folks are actually residents of other states, the vast majority of them cross into the Federal District to work, play, or just to get to the other side. There is no other center in the country. Unlike the U.S., in which New York and Los Angeles and other centers serve as nexuses for this and that, Mexico City is more than a Washington D.C., more than just a seat for government and all the pandering and corruption that goes with it. It is also the center of commerce, finance, education, the entertainment industry everything but heavy industry, which is scattered throughout the northern states. This means that what happens in the Federal District does, in an absolute way, affect life in the rest of the country.
On December 5, Andres Manuell Lopez Obrador will take over the reins from his fellow PRDista, Rosario Robles, herself a replacement for Cuauhtamoc Cardenas, who was crushed in his third bid for the presidency. Lopez will inherit a mess. Mexico City is virtually ungovernable, and may by the end of his term be virtually unlivable. Crime, mostly committed by the uniformed police, is out of control; the city is sinking into the lake bed over which it was built as the water aquifer underneath it is depleted; the black market is so popular that in late November a massive police raid of the most notorious center for contraband was beaten back by a massive uprising of vendors and buyers; the parks at the periphery are being occupied by squatters from the countryside with no where else to go; and a new national government headed by a right-wing politician is sure to look askance at pouring more money into trying to straighten out the chaos.
Lopez is no political tyro, however, and his left-of-center credentials are impeccable. Once head of the powerful oil workers union in Tabasco, the most important state for producing and refining of oil, Lopez won the governorship of the state only to have the win taken away by election fraud. He has gone on to occupy the presidency of his party, the PRD, before an impressive victory in the Federal District elections. He walks and talks like a liberal, pro labor, pro poor, anti-corruption firebrand. Among his cabinet appointees is a man famous for his lifelong fight against corruption, and a graduate of the student massacre at the University in 1968 who has made a career of championing human rights causes. He will have to be reckoned with for the next six years.
Vicente Fox Quesada takes office on December 1. Having done what many thought the impossible defeating a PRI candidate for president and having done it without any help from the leadership of Lopezs PRD, Fox is riding high on the wings of victory. However, he will have to deal with a notoriously obstreperous legislature where his party does not have a plurality, much less a majority, and, at some level, he will have to deal with Lopez to keep the Federal District a livable place.
At the same time, he will have to appease the right-wing big-business conservative-Catholic PAN party, of which he is now the most prominent member. Although he won in spite of the fact that he did not openly seek the support of his party, preferring instead to raise his own campaign money (a fact that infuriated the old guard), nobody can govern Mexico (if anybody can) without some sort of party machinery to help smooth the way, and Fox and the PAN are stuck with each other. Already, he has proposed some Draconian tax laws, which dont stand a chance of passing the Legislature: he proposes extending the value added (sales) tax to the previously exempt categories of food and medicines. He promised that the currently nationalized energy and electrical sectors would not be privatized, but only the naive believed he meant it, and he has already proposed taking steps toward privatization, an idea which is also very unpopular with the average citizen. He is filling his new cabinet with monetarist, globalist neo-liberal idealogues.
Fox is a NAFTA booster; a good buddy of G.W. Bush, and a good enough buddy of Al Gore; an ex-executive with Coca Colas Mexican branch; a rancher said by the press to use child labor; a believer in unions being neither seen nor heard. Fox opposes virtually everything that Lopez stands for.
Depending on your point of view, one of these gunslingers is the Good, and the other is the Bad. The Ugly is the international business and banking community, as exemplified by Mexicos northern neighbor, the good old U. S. of A., Mexicos biggest trading partner by orders of magnitude, and holders of the strings which connect Mexico to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund a hundred ton gorilla whose wishes are not to be lightly ignored.
With the Ugly on Foxs side, what chance does Lopez Obrador have in this little duel? Actually, quite a good one. He has the leadership of the most important political force in Mexico: the people of the Federal District. And he will use that lever for all he is worth.
Unless there is a radical shift in Mexican society, which seems unlikely in the short run, this particular shootout may be please forgive the pun and the racist implications a Mexican standoff.
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Beware the lowly ficus
|by Stan Gotlieb
Everybody in South Minneapolis knows what a ficus is, right? Its that fast-growing little tree that graces the bow windows and bathrooms of houses, and performs as indoor landscaping for offices, apartment house lobbies, and fern bars.
When you get down here in the sub-tropics, ficuses, like a lot of people, are liable to undergo surprising and unexpected growth. Our ficus is now six years old, and about 50 feet tall. It sits in the middle of our patio, and covers it from side to side, about 50 feet across. It provides shade in the spring (when we need it) and in the summer rainy season (when we dont). It is a wonderful centerpiece, and provides one end of my hammock a place to hang. So why did I use beware in the title of this article?
Do you have a long-haired dog or cat? Do you sometimes despair when it sheds? Be glad you dont have a giant ficus! What your maple tree puts on the ground in a season might, if it is big enough, rival what our ficus drops every month. Oh, my, it sheds. And sheds. And sheds. And then there are the seeds, hard little pea-like things. In the rainy season, they drop like well ficus seeds. All in all, sweeping r us.
Did I mention that this titanic arboreal presence is only six years old? And that it grows almost as fast as it sheds? Every year, we have to have the branches trimmed back to protect our roof. Since it is owned by our landlady, we have to negotiate with her.
Like the few lucky widows around here, our landlady is very well off financially, and owns several valuable properties, from which she extracts as much rent as she can and does as little maintenance as she can get away with. So as you can imagine, I was mildly surprised and a little worried when she said, The tree needs to be trimmed; I have a tree trimmer I can call. You see, for the last two years, we have paid a fellow we know to trim the tree. This is because when, in the process of renting the place, we mentioned that the tree looked like it could use a trimming, whereupon she hired a fellow who cut down every limb to about six feet from the trunk, totally denuding the tree.
You wont have it cut like you did when we moved in, will you? I asked. Oh, no, she said. Its too expensive to have all that wood hauled away. Thus reassured, I told her to go for it.
Next day, the trimmer showed up. He couldnt have been over 16, a wiry little guy dressed in city shoes, slacks, and a long-sleeve sport shirt and carrying a machete nearly as long as he is tall. My heart sank. Another butchery, coming up. I couldnt bear to watch. Dreading what I would find when I returned, I slunk away to the Zocalo to soothe my shattered nerves with a watermelon juice.
Steeling my nerves, I rounded the corner into our patio, and there is was all one-quarter of it. Following some arcane instruction from the landlady or his own heart, he had trimmed off all the branches on the north, south, and west of the tree, and left the east quarter alone. I didnt know whether to hope he would return to balance out the job (thus once again denuding the tree) or leave it be (as a sign that at least some of the tree still lived). He did not return.
When Diana came home, I asked her if she thought the tree might fall over. She said she thought it would be OK as long as the wind didnt come from the west. I pointed out that the wind most often comes from the west. She responded that at least it wouldnt fall on the house; just the bottled gas cylinders.
Well, what can ya gonna do? I asked as I grabbed my latest trash mystery story and headed for the hammock, which happens to be on the east side of the tree. Somehow, I dont fall asleep in the hammock as much as I used to. It probably has to do with making sure I know when the wind shifts to the west.
Mexican army flexes its muscles
|by Stan Gotlieb
In spite of what the spin doctors and Washington beltway lobbyists hired by the Mexican government tell us, Mexico is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy (a small clique of ruling families), and no oligarchy can operate effectively without overwhelming official forces of law and order, chief among which is, always, the military. The reasons Mexico has been so successful at avoiding the banana republic image of its Central American neighbors are that the civilian repression and co-optation of dissent has been efficient, and one-party rule has kept the dividing of the spoils smooth and seamless from administration to administration. Simply put, there has been no reason for the Army to interfere.
Since the July 2 election, the whole system has been thrown into chaos. A nouveau-riche upstart, Vicente Fox, whose image of a plain (and sometimes barnyard) talking modernist is offensive to the more patrician powers that be, is to be the next President of the Republic. He and his National Action Party (PAN) can be compared to Richard Nixon, whose California roots and working class origins were in many ways a slap in the face to the Cabots, Lodges, and others in the old, established East-coast Republican hierarchy. The natural order has been successfully challenged, and the Mexican old guard is plenty nervous.
Traditionally, upper-class Mexicans have only four basic choices for a career: the Church, the 71-year ruling PRI party that just had its string broken, industry, or the military. This has been the base for the informal oligarchys control of the country. Any given President has had access to lots of family money (industry); cousins in the Legislature, which acted as a rubber stamp; an uncle, who is a Bishop, or two to keep the Church in line; and some in-laws among the generals. No longer.
Fox has high marks from the Church. For the first time since the Revolution of 1910, which stripped the Church of property and overt political participation, a President (elect) of the Republic, who at one point campaigned with a flag of the Virgin of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico) in direct violation of the law against combining Church and State, openly and publicly attends mass.
The industrialists embrace Fox as one of their own, and the general feeling is that if you liked Ernesto Zedillos soak-the-poor and give-to-the-rich neo-Globalism, you are going to adore Vicente Fox, who has said that only the business community can lead Mexico to first world status.
The politicians are in total disarray. After the PRI lost the Presidential election, it also lost other key contests, most notably a landslide defeat for the governorship of war-torn Chiapas, long regarded as a sure thing state for the PRI. For the first time in modern history, the PRI controls neither the executive suite nor the legislative bodies but neither does the PAN. Nobody is in control.
All this is very disturbing to the Army, in which Fox has no allies of sufficient rank to matter. Part of the deal he had to make when he was running was to promise the Army that they could pick the next (civilian?) Secretary of Defense by sending him a list of three candidates picked from the General Command. In exchange, they agreed to stand mute on the election. Still, they are nervous.
The Army is further disturbed by noises Fox has been making about completely revamping the war on drugs. After years of struggle, sometimes escalating to open warfare between Army and police factions protecting rival drug barons, a sort of armed peace is said to have been established. High ranking civilian and military narco-corruptos are said to have reached agreement on who gets what, with the lions share of the payoffs and profits now going to the military.
Is it a coincidence that while Clinton was in Colombia, touting U.S. involvement in drug eradication, which is as much about who profits from drugs the guerrillas or the Army as anything else, one of the highest ranking Mexican generals gave a speech to the military college in which he asked the question, If we, the military, do not act to stop the drug trade, who will?
Is it a coincidence that two retired (I want to emphasize retired) generals were recently jailed for past (note: not current) involvement in the narcotics trade by the Army, which has the power to try and imprison its own personnel without any public oversight. One of them, a notoriously bloody repressor of dissent in Guerrero state in the 70s, made millions while on the job.
Dope is the chief money maker in Mexico. Growing it and smuggling it are the biggest industries, and who controls the trade controls a large part of the state. The Army may be moving to protect its economic interests, and this would present a potentially very destabilizing situation.
In Chiapas, Fox has vowed to resolve the civil war in the first 15 minutes of my administration. Some 40,000 troops are billeted in Chiapas, ostensibly to keep the peace, but perhaps in fact to support the narcotics trade, which some say is largely controlled by the Army and which is opposed by the insurgent Zapatista guerrillas. One of the Zapatista preconditions to signing a peace agreement with the Mexican government is the withdrawal of the vast majority of occupying forces from Chiapas. Some reporters and human rights spokespersons have drawn connections between the Army and the narcotics industry in Chiapas. If true, this would suggest the Army will oppose any peace treaty in order to protect a large source of illicit profits.
The Army is also under attack from within. Ranking officers have, in the last year, been jailed for protesting the star-chamber imprisonments of their colleagues without fair trials or recourse to civilian courts of appeal. The entire secret system is being challenged, and this too is making the generals nervous.
Last but certainly not least, the election losses of the PRI, unthinkable before 1988, when Cuauhtemoc Cardenas breakaway faction beat the PRI for the Presidency but had the election stolen through massive vote fraud, are making the generals wonder if they are next and moving them to take a more aggressive stance to let the reformers know that they will not go gently.
[Those who wish to reach a clearer understanding of how drugs dictate policies in the U.S. and Latin America are urged to visit the web site http://www.narconews.com]
Stan Gotliebs Letters From Mexico can be read on the World Wide Web, at: http://www.dreamagic.com. Email Stan at: firstname.lastname@example.org