Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Snapshots from MX (part 2): Visit To A Forbidden City

From the Current Travel Warning to Mexico—U.S. Dept. of State (the reality check part)

“Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year. This includes tens of thousands who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico. The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations.”

Violence, Fear of Violence, and the Violence of Fear

Mexico hasn’t gotten many breaks over the past year. The most recent blow was the Mexican soccer team’s elimination from the World Cup, in a match where the refs allowed a blatantly offside goal by Argentina to stand.

Tourism has plummeted in the country. Last year it was due to the hysteria over swine flu. Now the fear of violence seems to be the catalyst: step across the border and your life is in danger. Well I’ve been living in Mexico for most of the past seven years and haven’t lost any sleep any personal safety issues. In fact I’ve enjoyed living here.

It was great to see a high school group from Colorado spend their spring break in Sonora building composting toilets. Too many schools and universities won’t allow student trips south of the border these days.

Return to a Forbidden City; Fond Memories of Nuclear Waste

There are a few places in Mexico I would think twice about visiting. Ciudad Juarez, considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, would be on that list. However I wanted to see an old friend there, so I decided it was time to return to my old stomping grounds.

The opportunity presented itself in June when I traveled to El Paso, TX for a temporary job assignment. I lived in El Paso from 1993-2000 when I worked for a bi-national environmental coalition, spending much of that time in Juarez, a sprawling city of roughly 1.5 million residents. There were murders between rival drug gangs back then, but the city felt safe. There was a thriving nightlife.

My co-worker in Juarez was Felix Leonardo Perez and we quickly became good friends. Through him I became immersed in the environmental, cultural, and social movement activities in Juarez. Felix was also a part-time actor performing in theater groups.

One of our most memorable environmental struggles was over the State of Texas’s plans to build a nuclear waste dump on the border in Sierra Blanca, downriver from Juarez. One march in Juarez against the dump had over a thousand people. A few weeks before dump opponents prevailed in 1998, several thousand public school students from Juarez blocked four international bridges for a couple of hours.

In Oct. 2006 I returned to Juarez for the Border Social Forum, held in conjunction with the World Social Forum movement. It was an exciting time with folks from all over the Americas, but it also turned out to be one of the last events of its kind held in the city.

By 2008 the violence had exploded. Mexico’s President Calderon, who had launched a crackdown on organized crime, sent thousands of Army troops to patrol the streets of Juarez, but many accused the soldiers of human rights abuses. Then U.S. military aid began pouring in to support Mexico’s Drug War. Things have not improved.

Bad Timing for Bad News

The day before my visit I watched the Juarez evening news. The day’s murders dominated the newscast. At one point the anchor stated, “Hopefully this will be all we have to report for today.” Two more killings were reported before the broadcast ended.

Also mentioned was the case of two thirteen-year old girls who were missing, especially disturbing news in a city where hundreds of young women and girls have been disappeared and murdered going back to the 1990s. The girls were found by the police the following day playing in a park; their teenage rebelliousness apparently unaffected by the violence.

On the morning of June 24 I drove to the Santa Fe international bridge. Being a little uneasy about what to expect I asked the attendant at the border parking lot how things were in Juarez. “As long as you stay on the main streets, you’ll be fine. Avoid side streets,” he said. I noticed it only cost three bucks to park for the day as compared to four a decade ago.

Relaxing at the “Beach”; Life Goes On Amidst The Violence

I walked down the main tourist avenue lined with bars, pharmacies, dental offices, and restaurants—the change from a few years ago was striking. There were no tourists and relatively few Mexican pedestrians. Several soldiers stood guard and truckloads of federal police would occasionally ride by.

Felix was much more relaxed than the last time I saw him, when the city was first overwhelmed by the spike in violence. He had obtained a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies. “Life goes on,” he commented, "I've never personally witnessed any of the violence here, nothing. But I know people who have."

We both knew Josefina Reyes who was killed a few months ago in the Juarez Valley. She and her entire family helped in the campaign against the nuclear waste dump. I hadn’t seen her since those days but she later became known for her political and human rights activism.

I used to love visiting the semi-rural Juarez Valley to escape the bustle of Juarez, but now it’s one of the most affected areas by the violence and many residents are fleeing. The mayor of one of the small towns there was gunned down on June 19. Here’s an article mentioning Reyes’s murder and the plight of the Valley:

Felix could see rays of light in the darkness that had enveloped his city. “ I like to sit in the main plaza by the cathedral and watch the people and families there enjoying themselves,” he stated; “I see this as a form of resistance. People are refusing to let fear and violence completely disrupt their lives. I also recently came across a youth dance group rehearsing in the street. That was wonderful to see.”

We moved on to discuss other things: books we’ve read, and updates on family and friends. The friendly waiter joined in the conversation at times. He must have refilled our cups of coffee a half dozen times, as if he didn’t want us to leave. We were enjoying ourselves.

As we stepped outside on the sidewalk I commented on the cool breeze blowing that day. Felix joked, “Yes, we’re by the beach you know.” Then after a handshake and a hug we departed.

In just a few minutes I crossed over the “beach” on the nearly dry river below and was back in El Paso; leaving behind a city with one of the world’s highest murder rates. El Paso has a very low crime rate; the spillover effect of violence from Mexico is a fallacy.

Reports say tens of thousands of people have fled the violence in Juarez. Would I have the courage to live there? Even if I tried to I could exercise the “beam me up Scotty” option at any time. But most in Juarez don’t have that luxury. Besides, people have reasons to be there: family, community, jobs, and even some fond memories. I hope I don’t wait too long before going back.

Recommended Reading/Viewing (from Democracy Now):

John Ross--Haven’t read his new book on Mexico (or any of his books for that matter but plan to), but found his interview delightful. Ross, who has lived in Mexico for decades, clearly loves Mexico and its people and focuses on positive aspects as well as the negative.

Grace Lee Boggs--This is a wonderful and inspiring interview with 95-year old Boggs, an activist in multiple social movements for decades, who participated in the recent US Social Forum held in her city of Detroit. A must view or read for anyone wishing to effect change in this country.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Snapshots from Mexico (part 1)

Snapshots from Mexico (part 1); Drinking songs and bad timing
June 2010

Survival Tips Where the Minimum Wage is Five Bucks (A Day)

Early one May morning I was driving through Sonora, Mexico heading for Nogales, AZ. I picked up a couple of men hitchhiking in the town of Imuris. They hopped in, one carrying a sack of vegetables to sell. They both got out in Nogales, Sonora and I headed for the dreaded line to cross the border.

A few minutes later I happened to glance into the rear view mirror and noticed movement in the camper of the truck. I pulled over and out climbed three more guys from the back, two of them with sacks of vegetables. They had climbed in when I pulled over to pick up the other two men and I never noticed. I just smiled as they got out and one attempted his best English to thank me, “Thank you for the rap.”

One of the first two men hitchhikes from his home every day in Imuris to an OXXO store (like a 7-11) near Nogales to sell burritos his wife makes fresh every day. He told me he makes about 1,800 pesos a week ($150 U.S.)—far better than the 500 pesos a week he could earn in a maquiladora. Plus he’s usually sold out by 1 p.m. and headed home where he tries to pick up odd jobs to further supplement his income.

One man I’ve gotten to know from the long waits crossing the border is an elderly gentleman named Victoriano. He hobbles around on a crutch selling chicles (gum). He told me how years ago a car hit him at a gas station and left him in the shape he’s in. He get's a disability payment of 800 pesos a month of which 600 goes towards rent. He's an inspiring figure, never complaining, radiating kindness---a Buddha like figure to me. The last time I saw him he told me with gladness his son had been able to start college.

One friend of ours, Olga, is from the old Pajarero culture, which is a combination of indigenous and gypsy cultures. She grew up living out of a horse drawn cart, camping in villages with her family throughout northern Sonora. She stills travels constantly with her son in an old truck to collect medicinal plants that she sells at different festivals. They also set up their booth “Tiro Sport” where you pay 10 pesos to shoot at little ceramic figures with a pellet gun.

One bit of recent news which ties in with the centennial anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: the miners of Cananea, Sonora (a site of historical significance to the start of the Revolution) who had been on strike for a couple of years and were occupying the mine, were removed by Mexican security forces using tear gas so now the mine may be reopened without the union.

Tocar y Luchar, and don't forget the marshmellows

In June we had our annual camp-out with about 20 kids at the Casa Elizabeth orphanage in Imuris. The recipe—set up a few tents, start a campfire and roast some marshmallows. The kids provided entertainment through songs and jokes. A ghost story or two and a great time was had by all. Ana Maria through Bridges Across Borders has done volunteer work at Casa Elizabeth for years with a violin and music program. Two of the girls are now pursuing university studies and supplementing their income by giving violin lessons.

In Venezuela a remarkable government sponsored program (started decades ago) teaches classical music to poor kids in communities and orphanages throughout the country. I once saw a documentary about this “Tocar y Luchar” (To Play and to Fight), and it blew my mind. To check out the trailer to this go to: can also watch the entire documentary on youtube.

A few days later we held our annual graduation at the prison for the inmates who had completed workshops in the Alternatives to Violence Project
( ). It was an enjoyable time in the Big House as we took in food and beverages and lined up some cultural activities. The Director of the local Casa de la Cultura had promised to bring in some entertainment but it looked up he wasn’t going to show up.

Then as we about lost all hope we looked around and there he was with a group of youth from Casa Elizabeth! It was their choir group of about eight girls accompanied by a boy on guitar. One of the girls, 15 year-old Alicia, gave an amazing little speech about how she had lost her Mother so she and her four siblings had ended up in the orphanage, but still she had been able to evolve and progress in life. “If I can do it, you can too,” she told the guys.

Another man came along to play traditional Mexican music on his guitar. The first song was about drinking and drunks. The Director asked him to avoid songs about drinking which cracked everyone up (the prison was observing the 75th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous with special activities that week). He had to think hard about what song he would be able to play.