Saguaro Rib & Ocotillo Antenna: Images From Sonora’s El Pinacate

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This is another article in a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques.

The ocotillo are antennas. They bloom from volcanic cinders. Near the horizon, a granite mountain range shimmers, submerged in an old lava flow. Ribcages of saguaros stand on black earth. The cholla were dancing. They’re standing still now. There is no sound. There is a feeling of drowning in the depths of sky.

The name of this place haunts the imagination of any desert lover. El Pinacate is a mirage, once discussed but seldom visited. That is changing now. Declared a national park by the Mexican government in 1993 after over a decade of lobbying by scientists and environmentalists, La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is together with Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument one of the most important protected areas of the expansive Sonoran desert.

El Pinacate is frequently called the heart of the Sonoran desert. The volcanic geology gives it an edge, a rawness that evokes the force of the earth, the push of blood. And as park director Federico Godines Leal points out, seen from a satellite, the area even takes the shape of a heart––not the Valentines’ kind, the muscle kind. “And it looks that way from either the south or the north,” he says, a shine in his eyes. There’s a heaviness about this place that makes a visitor feel like he or she is at the center of something.

One of the first known Europeans to see this place was the Italian Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino at the end of the 17th century. What he saw from atop the Pinacate peak changed the world: the first proof that Baja California was actually a peninsula, not an island as was widely believed by the Europeans. Maps were never to be the same. Maps are portraits of the men who make them. It is healthy to redraw the maps every few generations.

After years of catering only to scientists and renegades, the park is now changing. Late last year a visitor center was opened. Years in the making, the center is touted as the largest public building in Latin America to be operated off the grid, powered completely by renewable energy. This is even more impressive considering the massive amounts of air conditioning required to make the place survivable in summer temperatures that can reach 125º F.

“The idea is to share,” says Godines Leal. “In a way, even the name ‘biological reserve’ is problematic, as if this place were reserved for only a few lucky guys, us. No, on the contrary, this reserve is open.  [The visitor center] brings El Pinacate closer to the public.”

From the top of the sand dunes of the Great Altar Desert, it’s about 50 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Colorado River. Govines Leal makes a point of saying that this is the sand that once filled the Grand Canyon, carried down grain by grain over millions of years. This is the remixed hollow of the canyon.

Saguaro rib // foto: logan phillips

Graceful cinder cones, sharp craters, broken black volcano bones. These are the beautiful scars torn across the earth by two million years of volcanic activity. Imagine if Sunset Crater were covered with creosote and saguaros.

The moon escapes from the granite horizon and slowly inhales, filling itself, smeared with the blood of sunset. The ocotillo are antennas, listening to something on the wind that we don’t have ears enough to hear.

The creosote bushes slowly gather sand, building their own altars. It is said that creosote bushes are among the oldest individual living organisms on Earth. Some have been found to be over 12,000 years old.

In the wind of the Rocky Point highway, plastic bags migrate. They can’t seem to remember where they came from. They’re caught up on ironwood trees, trying to ask for directions. Caught up on fences, no tongues, just a plasticine rattling, a friction played by rushing cars. That which was made nowhere has nowhere to return to.

Rainwater collects in slick stone basins, lasting most of the year without evaporating. These are called tinajas, each one a life-giving oasis in El Pinacate. Big horn sheep and mountain lions drink this water. Jets occasionally streak their trails across the water’s surface.

A road grader creeps along the visitor loop road, smoothing the damage done by the recent heavy storms. The average annual rainfall here is four inches. Earlier this year, two inches were recorded in just three days. While causing some inconvenience for park staff and visitors, the rain also means that this year will have one of the best wildflower seasons in recent memory. The river has whet its throat and is pronouncing its name. Río Sonoyta. The ghosts of floods are hanging everywhere.

UFOs glitter like cars that have driven up the sides of cinder cones and out into the sky. They wink in and out, some looking like stationary flares. Some looking like glitter. Some looking like something difficult to name. The coyotes screamlaugh among the black rock, then fall suddenly silent.

The mesquite smear along the edges of the highway like spined ink. Seen from the sand dunes, the Gulf of California makes a bright blur of the horizon. A swiftly moving silence.

“This place incites spirituality,” Godines Leal concludes, smiling. “This landscape imposes itself on you.”

La Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is about 80 miles south of Ajo, AZ just off the highway to Rocky Point, Mexico. The staff is bilingual and very helpful.  February through April is wildflower season and is by far the best time to visit the park. There is camping available, a small usage fee applies to all visits.

Street Art of Bogotá II: The Colombian Capital as Painted by Senil

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on Senil can be found on his Flickr.

Che Guevara is even today a master of disguise. He turns up as a chef. An Argentinian cowboy. A halo-wearing saint. And it turns out glass Coca-Cola bottles make great molotov cocktails. Discontent ripples in warm human waves. A headdress-wearing shaman has moved from the jungles to the capital. He now rents out cellphones to people on the street. Things are changing, remixing themselves.

Welcome again to humming Colombian capital of Bogotá, a city making a serious bid to become one of the major global centers of urban art. Like any city worth its weight in concrete, Bogotá is a study in the arts of juxtaposition, contradiction and oxymoron. Standing among the clean glass and white lights of the financial district, look just a few blocks up hill and check out the adobe houses that have stood there for over a century. Their corners are rounded, the grit in their walls held together by plaster and older, less affluent stories.

Time in Colombia is not a linear system, progressing toward a bright ephemeral utopia. Time here is circular, moving in spirals, doubling back on itself. The glitter does not supersede the adobe. All time exists at once.

While taking a taxi from the airport, zooming along a thoroughfare with cement medians and no shoulders, watch for men in wooden carts pulled by burros. Freelance garbagemen. They do more to keep the city clean than most politicians, who look to make their livelihood illegal.

Some high-rises were built only to stand and scrape the sky, completely unrented and probably uncompleted. Rich kids dance inside clubs. Outside they couldn’t walk two blocks without being shook down.

Quickly scrawled graffiti reads resistir es existir. To resist is to exist. Continuing to read the walls it seems that to remix is to exist––to take on the symbols and archetypes as our own. One of the local experts in existing is Senil, whose rearranged characters inhabit the florid, numbered streets of Bogotá.

¿So who are you? ¿Why “Senil?”
I’m an artist, I like cats. Why Senil? People who know me call me that because I’m an olvidadizo, always forgetting things and unworried about time.

¿What is this place––Bogotá––to you?
My center of operations.

¿Why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?
I’m a visual artist, that’s how I communicate my ideas. I’ve always wanted to be a sculptor, and that was the connection to graffiti: I was trying to make sculpture versions of [the street artist] Tot’s work. Then I started projects with DjLu, which is how I took up stencil and jumped into the streets with a couple small templates. That was the start of this urban artist project.

¿So is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿What’s the government’s stance?
In Bogotá it is dangerous to do many things. Clearly the social situation here is really complicated, and questioning the establishment is hardly recommendable. Regardless, there are some neighborhood initiatives that support graffiti work. But they’re not sufficient, so no matter what, one turns to clandestinity to develop projects. If they catch me, there do exist laws [I could be charged with], and with the proliferation of graffiti, we turn into targets of the authorities.

¿What reactions to do you receive to your work?
There are many reactions, and I pay a lot of attention to them. The ones that worry me are from people who feel disrespected by my work, because when you show reality in a raw way you can make enemies of the same people you want to support. For example, there was one stencil of the Che-f [Che as chef], somebody angrily took a chisel to it and wrote: “Nobody messes with Che, idiots!”

Your art seems to hold a lot of social critique. For example, your stencil of the falso positivo, ¿why bring up the subject with this symbol? ¿What impact do you want it to have?
Not all my work has social content, sometimes as an artist I simply express ephemeral or indulgent ideas. The Falso Positivo stencil is a rhetorical piece based on a pharmaceutical symbol associated with health. When I change the text to the word “falso,” I ironically denounce one of the diseases that affects our society today: the phenomenon of forced disappearances. [See Noise #102 –– Ed.] What I’m looking to do with that symbol is to make problem present in the streets, especially in places where the problem isn’t common, and in this way to engage citizens with it, hopefully eradicating it.

You play a lot with the image of Che: the Che-f, the Che-sús, the cowboy Che. ¿How is Che Guevara seen in Colombia today?
He represents revolution, but nevertheless it depends on the context. Some who consume his image are thinking, questioning people; on the other hand, there are others that just associate the image with fashion.

Explain for us a bit about your piece of the indigenous man with the “minuto celular” sign.
It comes from two socio-environmental issues. It’s a critique of the displacement suffered by the indigenous, caused by violence, which leads to the abandonment of the state and the loss of ancestral beginnings. The “minuto celular” sign is an urban icon that [in addition to advertising cellphones for rent] represents the scarcity of employment and the necessity of making money however possible.

¿Does freedom of speech exist in Colombia? ¿How is graffiti a part of that?
Yes, there is freedom of expression, but only when the expression stays inside the parameters dictated by the government itself. When you step across those boundaries and you question the establishment, the situation can turn dangerous. As far as graffiti, it’s a form of free speech since it’s done out of personal initiative. The act of scrawling on a wall is a political act, because it challenges and questions the establishment regardless of the message. Surely there are other examples of free speech, nevertheless a piece in the street can be read by anybody, and that makes it very effective.

¿What is the most important thing for people in the U.S. to understand about Colombia?
That we are tired of war, and that they are welcome here. They’d have a good time.

Intimate Performance & Discussion in Tucson

Hello world. I'm going to be participating in an interesting event tomorrow night in Tucson... it's not exactly a public performance, but if you're reading this website in time, consider yourself invited! Casa Libre is an amazing place, and the Salon helps keep it that way! I'm looking forward to it very much.

Dear artist,

Our next Wednesday Night Salon at Casa Libre is one week away! Join us on January 27, from 5:00 to 7:00, as poet Logan Phillips leads off the evening discussing performance as ink: how does a performer choose, in the creative moment, from the wealth of languages available to him? What if a poem is better written in video? Why does one poem come out in Spanish and another in English?

A committed spoken-word artist, collaborator, teacher, and mixer of sound from the border, Logan approaches these questions time and again through his performance practice. He has learned to trust uncertainty and embrace the realm of total possibility, where a poem might require voice, ink, paint, gesture, or dance in the context of a given moment. Logan is author of the chapbook Arroyo Ink, cofounder of multimedia performance collective Verbobala, and was cohost of the first national Mexican poetry slam in 2007. Find out more at his Web site:

As always, our Wednesday Night Salon will be potluck. We have a lot to celebrate in our first Salon of the new year. 2010 marks Casa Libre's seventh year providing creative space and inspiration for writers and artists, local and national. Hats off to Casa Libre and all the hard-working, dedicated people who have kept it going! Let's raise a glass next Wednesday in thanks for this amazing oasis.

Street Art of Bogotá: the Colombian Capital as Painted by DjLu

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The following interview and translation is part of a series of pieces I am writing for The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. Send along any comments and critiques. More on DjLu can be found on his MySpace and Flickr.

Grenades grow on stalks of maíz and explode into flowers. A gas pump holds a gun to its head. An umbrella blocks a rain of rifles. A man is lynched on an oil pump. A soldier mounts a machine gun turret on a mule. The guy from the Men’s Bathroom sign loses a leg to a landmine. He walks using a rifle as a cane. Welcome to Bogotá.

This is the city as painted by one of its best street artists: DjLu. His work was omnipresent in all parts of Bogotá I visited, and after following his stencils through alleys and across boulevards, I was lucky enough to run into the artist in the flesh.

¿To begin, what is there to know about DjLu? Who are you?

DjLu is a visual artist from the National University of Colombia, who discovered in 2004 that gallery art is turned into a static art form by being in a private space, destined to a slow death. Then the decision to adopt the urban context as the right place for expression.

¿What is Bogotá to you?

It’s the city where I was born, the playground where many ideas are born and projects come to life.

To get into some context, ¿could you tell us a bit about the history of street art in Bogotá? I was blown away by the quality and quantity, ¿has there always been so much?

Urban art linked to politics has appeared in Bogotá since the 70’s in the form of [what we call] lyrical or poetic graffiti, and also through conceptual and social art projects like those done by Antonio Caro. Nonetheless it’s not possible to speak of a consistent and diverse urban movement until about 2000. That’s when Bogotá adopted––late but with a passion––an art form that was already in vogue in the great world capitals. Recent years have seen Bogotá flower with an infinite number of approaches to street art, from the tag and throw-up, through wild style, blocks, characters, arriving at [wheat pasted] posters, stencils, stickers and complex murals.

¿So why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?

I paint to transmit a political and social stance that puts a rock in the path of apathy. I paint to give proof, to surprise, and through that to invite better ways of inhabiting and coexisting. I also paint to exorcise my fears, to get to know myself.

The stencil is the medium best suited for my project in the urban environment, since it has been used for political and against-the-grain messages for years. It’s also good for its reproducibility, through which an artistic project can usurp advertising and reach wider reception and better effect.

You have painted all over Colombia and the world. ¿How do you see street art in your country in comparison with countries of the so-called “first world”?

From having had the chance to visit Milan, Paris, Barcelona and Buenos Aires, I can say for sure that today Bogotá has no reason to be jealous. The level of technical and conceptual skill in Bogotá is really pretty high.

¿Is it dangerous to be a graffitero in Bogotá? ¿Does the government support or repress graf? ¿What would happen if they caught you?

The legality of painting in the street isn’t very clear, so it’s up to prudence, the artist’s luck, and the attitude of the police who are on shift to determine guilt and give pardons. I’ve never had big problems, apart from a couple opportune moments where I’ve been taken into the police station, without further consequences except a small loss of time and an explanation. But I’ve known of colleagues who have been detained twenty-four hours for the same thing.

What first caught my eye about your work is the heavy dose of social content. Obviously it’s not just “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, I’m interested to know if you have a specific vision you’re looking to transmit, or if you’re just looking to create images that are as provocative as possible.

I definitely have some specific interests and worries that are born not just of the local political situation but also of the worldwide context and world problems. I’m interested in bringing to light the conflicts that we’re involved in at every level, beyond understanding war as the only type of conflict. I’m worried by war as a business, by social displacement and by the changes in the ways that we use the earth: this earth where we plant mines instead of seeds.

The images become provocative in the sense that the immediate reaction of the viewer is to feel assaulted or deeply effected by them. And that their day-to-day apathy is interrupted by a reflection of our errors.

Your images play a lot with symbols of violence, and Colombia continues to be a very violent country. ¿What is the relation between violent images and true violence?

The work is born of my experiences, of a life immersed in a state of violence at every level: from the government, guerrillas, paramilitaries, not forgetting of course street violence and even inside the family. Although it has advanced a lot, Colombia is still bottled up in a war basically motivated by money and totally off-track from its social ideals. I’m interested in highlighting the relationship between fighting wars and playing games, the manner in which a conflict is absurdly driven by hidden interests––a game in which we all lose.

Nevertheless I don’t believe that my images are violent in the sense that they’re not explicit, they’re symbolic and that takes away the aggressive tone. There aren’t any bloody images or bodies in mass graves. There are silhouettes of pistols, rifles and soldiers which are part of a process of hybridization where two or more images are put together to alter their original meaning. This incites the spectator to come to their own conclusions and in the end to involve themselves in the search for solutions. These symbols appear in the streets to draw attention to situations that we are unconscious of, yet complicit in.

¿Does free speech exist in Colombia? ¿Is graffiti part of that?

From my position as an urban artist I’ll say that there is a large dose of free speech in Colombia. My project is still seen for its artistic character, even as it’s heavily loaded with politics. I should say that I haven’t felt any type of pressure, persecution or discrimination for the work I’ve done, including when I have ended up being very direct in my critiques against the government of the moment.

I believe that street art is one of the least manipulated forms of expression that exist today, though we couldn’t say that it’s completely free speech. Factors such as fashion and advertising negatively influence the freedom that street art promises. But the city-space still maintains, with an ever-increasing force, that tendency of being the voice of the voiceless, the pressure valve of the oppressed, the shithouse of the radicals and the canvass of the artists.

In general I believe that that any artistic practice is a way to stay on the fringes of the lifestyle currently imposed upon us, a chance to be more critical of the archetypes that we’re always told to accept as truth.

¿What is the most important thing that people in the U.S. need to understand about Colombia?

The problem of misunderstanding is bilateral. It’s not just that people in the U.S. have a biased view of us, in general the world is imbued with preconceptions that distort the reality of every country. We should form opinions based on specifics not generalizations. By that I mean that not everybody in Colombia is a drug runner and not everybody in the U.S. is an imperialist gringo. In Colombia we not only have a multicultural country filled with riches and natural beauty, but also––more importantly––a population with an incredibly human quality to it.

Thinking of the theme of this interview, I can tell everybody this: if you like street art, don’t hesitate in coming to see what’s happening in Bogotá.

¿Anything else?

Live happy, ¡juega siempre!


Flagstaff blizzard.

And then the big winds camearound midnight, the radio station was tracking their arrival to the city. This just in to the West Side first.

Went walking beforehand, foot after foot, to the knee, deep snow. Deeper-than-dog snow. Dog bounding through snow and disappearing between bounds. I did a fall I call the inverse snow angel. (Video available upon request). falling thick.

And then the big winds did come, rearranging the powder as they saw fit. I saw it until the windows iced over. Then came the flashes of lighting unheard of in a blizzard, light bouncing between snow and low clouds, the whole world crackling purple white.

Woke up on the couch at dawn, the sun had come to breakfast. I was surprised and went back to sleep. The sun stayed anyway. Brilliant day. Sky without a trace of adjectives. I walked to Macy's. The coffee provisions had run out in our orange bunker.

Drank and thought about how the only way to live a desert is stories. Silko, Ortiz, first Australians, Bowden, Jews they all know this. Voices that shape the sand like big winds the snow. Stories that shape the ear. But how to explain that silence? The space after this stanza, the long horizon where words are born.

The stillness of staying home. Stillness rare like snow lightning. Stillness of cars stuck in the street.

And then the snow plow came and it didn't matter much, chaos is still chaos no matter who tries to own it. The City plows the rich neighborhoods first. Of course.

Resurrected my sister's car at sunset with a borrowed snow shovel. More is forecast, and what's here will freeze good tonight. Good to think we can leave when we want. But it's that silence we're after.

• • • L

for alison diciembre 2009

merry haunzakwanzamas & solstice, everybody

• •

Avie is surprised to see the sun come over without calling first.

Buen día.

Orange Bunker.

Snow turns the neighborhood back into forest.

Flag is very white, but tries to be colorful as well.

The space between things.

Always good to have arms for work. I spent an hour moving pounds of snow that won't exist if the sun sticks around. Like all work.

Taller Leñateros en vivo


Taller Leñateros is a Mayan / mestizo arts collective from Chiapas, Mexico. I have one of their many fans since I first stumbled upon their workshop in San Cristóbal de las Casas in 2003 and held in my hands their book "Conjuros y Ebriedades" (cover at left). It's an amazing thing, a collection of Mayan poems and cantos, the first of its kind in maybe 400 years. The Leñateros make their own paper from corn husks, coconut husks, old cardboard, maguey fibers, among many other materials. On this paper they print their words in Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Spanish and English. Then they sell the books over the internet to people all over the world.

This year Taller Leñateros was invited by the renown poetry festival Poesía.en.Voz.Alta to give a rare live performance in Mexico City. That was last week. I feel lucky to have been able to attend, and that I was able to make a high-quality audio recording of the performance. Under a tent in the pouring rain, it was one of the most beautiful stage performances I've ever seen. I'd like to share that.

Download the entire recording here. (42mb) And enjoy.

Verbobala on Facebook

I wouldn't be nearly as interested in Facebook if it weren't such a great tool for helping me do what I do... manage both my own shows and Verbobala's as well. But of course just about everyone who complains about "La Face" secretly loves it. So maybe I should just keep quiet like. In the meantime, be our "fan" for the latest info, including a bunch of fotos that just came out:


Deconstructing Borders with a Cello Bow and a Smile

Here's an excellent project proposal by a friend and collaborator of mine, sound sculptor Glenn Weyant of Tucson, Arizona. Glenn is using an interesting and trustworthy website called Kickstarter to raise $3,000 for the production of a new double-disc edition of his most famous work, the Anta Project. For the Anta Project, Glenn plays the US-Mexico border wall as a instrument to make experimental drone / ambient music. Political, aesthetically interesting and cool. Profits from the sales of the new edition will donated in their entirety to No Más Muertes / No More Deaths, a human rights organization based in Southern Arizona that has saved the lives of countless migrants over the years by leaving water in the desert. This is solid humanitarian work that hardly anyone else is doing.

I'll leave the details to Glenn's description, but I want to throw my support behind this thing as much as possible. And since I'm short on cash and can't pledge more than $20, my support means spreading the word far and wide.

This is well thought-out and worth your support. Please join me in making art make change.

Bienvenido a Colombia: a Brief Story of Militarization and Rebirth

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The following article marks my return to The Noise, an arts and culture monthly newspaper published in Northern Arizona. I wrote for them in 2006 and 2007, and they recently asked me back to their pages, which I am very grateful for. Thanks Chuck and Meredith! Expect new writing on Colombia for the next three months or so, posted on the first day of every month. Send along any comments and critiques.

“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed?

To answer that question, a good starting point would be Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Colombia’s strong-arm president was first elected in 2002 with the campaign slogan “mano dura y corazón grande,” promising something like compassionate conservatism but with guns. Reelected in 2006 and currently enjoying an approval rating of 70% while contemplating a constitutional referendum allowing himself a third term, Uribe has brought about change in Colombia on a scale that Obama could only dream about––not that their objectives are at all similar.

“Bogotá is safe again,” a man selling cellphones in Bogotá tells me. “And now you see luxury cars cruising the streets, stuff like that. Before, you’d never see that. So I think Uribe has done us alright, the money is flowing.” Right there, seen from the street level, are two of Uribe’s principal gifts to his country: security in the cities and foreign investment.

As if to drill the point home, a taxi driver in Cartagena tells me a few weeks later: “Look, you can say what you will about Uribe. But really, without Uribe, you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” Like Lonely Planet alluded to, visits by foreigners are way up as of late, especially among Europeans.

The increase in security has also kicked off something of a rebirth in the arts as well. An entire generation of middle-class young people in Colombia were raised behind closed doors, their parents fearful of the violence in the streets. Now in their roaring 20’s, they have taken to those same streets, bringing with them an explosion of música, new activism and graffiti (more on the street art in a future edition).

This is the boom that resounds through Colombia today. It can be heard in bands like Bomba Éstereo, Tumbacatre, Choc Quib Town, and La Makina del Karibe. It can be understood by watching a crowd of fifty sitting in a plaza listening to a young street poet, or on the faces of tens of thousands indigenous people marching toward Bogotá in search of recognition. It can be seen in the pops and locks of a lone breakdancer busking in the centro to a soundtrack of “Brass Monkey” on repeat. It can be felt as a collective exhalation.

Not that everything is aerosol and roses. Those dark associations that might jump to mind when the word Colombia comes up––blow, the FARC, Pablo Escobar––have hung in the collective psyche of people in the U.S. since Colombia was big news in the 1980’s and 90’s. They are the same living ghosts that haunt the country today.

Take coke, for example. Colombia is of course still the world’s largest producer, and it is mostly Colombian cocaine sold to party people in the U.S. that fuels the “narco-violencia” slaughterhouse spiraling out of control in Mexico––between 3,500 and 4,000 dead so far this year. (Le Monde Diplomatique México, September) The cocaine is imported to the U.S., guns exported to Mexico and dollars exported to Colombia––dollars from both the illicit drug trade and from the U.S. military aide sent to combat it.

Which brings us to the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the rebel group formed in the 1960’s as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. The consensus today seems to be that by now the FARC has lost any relevant ideological motivation and has become entrenched in a posture of perennial resistance and marred by the use of kidnapping and cocaine as their main income sources, yet the government still estimates their numbers at around 11,000.

It is in this context that the group has suffered many defeats during Uribe’s presidency. While offering other armed groups the chance of peacefully demobilizing, Uribe has embraced the view of the FARC as terrorists and has launched a no-holds-barred offensive on the group. Perhaps his motivation is partly personal––Uribe’s father was killed in a botched kidnap attempt by the FARC in 1983.

But, like all things in Colombia, it’s just not that simple. Violence has been played like bloody tennis for decades, tit-for-tat massacres and tactics that have left all sides tarred. For instance, the genocide waged against the Unión Patriótica political party in the late 1980’s. What began as a hope-filled ceasefire and an opening to a political solution to the left’s grievances ended in a dirty war that has made all government talk of demobilization since very suspect. (Dudley, Steven. “Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia”) And then there’s the more recent example of the “falsos positivos.”

“False positives” is the name given to young men who are kidnapped by the Colombian army, transported hundreds of miles to zones of conflict, dressed as members of the FARC and shot. This is done to increase the body count, helping the army to look as though it is winning the war against the rebels. Though documented cases go back to as early as the 1990’s, a new scandal broke in 2008 when more than a dozen falsos positivos were identified and many more suspected.

Even the infamous Pablo Escobar seems still able to haunt society 16 years after he was gunned down in Medillín. His pet heard of hippos has continued to grow since his death and has begun to escape the confines of the sprawling hacienda that once belonged to the drug king. Ecologists fear disaster, though surrealism is alive and well.

So why does it matter that “Colombia’s back” thanks to Uribe’s militarization? Well, because as you may already expect, they are your tax dollars that are at work in Colombia. The massive U.S. aide package known as Plan Colombia was set into motion in 2000 in the name of the larger U.S. “War on Drugs.” The majority of the $7.5 billion package goes for military equipment and training. Chided as “Plan Nueva Colonia” by critics who see the plan as disguised interventionism and a doorway to a new colonialism, the program does speak to Uribe’s closeness to Washington. The connection was made yet clearer when former President Bush awarded Uribe a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly before Bush left office in January.

Now key parts of Plan Colombia are set to expire, it was leaked in July that the U.S. has been negotiating with Uribe an agreement that would allow up to seven Colombian military bases to be used by U.S. armed forces and private contractors––all of whom would be operating with impunity from persecution for any potential crime committed in Colombian territory. This is worrisome, given the spotty reputation of U.S. forces in Colombia, a reputation tarnished by incidents such as the rape of a 12 year-old girl in Melga by U.S. soldiers participating in Plan Colombia.

It’s important to know what’s going down in Colombia because Colombia is the front line of the U.S.’s current foreign policy in Latin America. And because at the same time the country is producing some of the most interesting music, art and culture of anywhere in the hemisphere. So for the next few months expect more words and sounds from the south, and expect them to come not from the usual talking heads, but from graffiti artists, human rights promoters and musicians. There are many stories to tell.

MC Ewor

Ewor es entre mis favoritos poetas de la Cd. de México, y además es de los mejores freestyleros que he visto jamás. Y si eso fuera poco, sus hablidades con el beatbox mejoran constantamente. Él es el MC principal de nuestro Sonidero Verbobala, aunque hasta ahora sólo nos ha podido acompañar en nuestras tocadas chilangas. Acabo de salir esta entrevista que hizo el con una radio cultural del DF, que lo disfrutes. Ewor is among my favorite poets from Mexico City, and also happens to be one of the best freestyle rappers I have ever seen in any language. And if that wasn't enough, his beatbox skills are always on the increase. He is the principal MC of our group Sonidero Verbobala, although as of the moment he's only been able to play with us at our Mexico City shows. Here's a new interview that he did for an arts & culture radio program, I hope you like it.

Bat Night in Tucson

Video from last September's Bat Night 2009 in Tucson, Arizona. The event, sponsored by the Rillito River Project, seeks to bring attention to the disappearing rivers of the southwestern United States. I was asked by spectacle experts Flam Chen to participate in their commission for the event, and I wrote a custom poem for the event, which I'll be posting soon. Check the video below. The poetry starts around 2:10:

Colombia 2009

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“Colombia’s back” proclaims the travel guide Lonely Planet in its new introduction to the country. But back from what? The violent abyss of past decades? The cocaine-flavored stereotyping by foreigners? The guerilla forces that choked the highways like cholesterol? Well, yes, that’s what they mean. But how did it happen, and what’s changed? READ MORE...

Into Venezuela: words have a hard time keeping up

Life is so busy being lived, words have a hard time keeping up. Divine how that happens sometimes. A week ago I was set to enter Venezuela, which seems about a lifetime ago. The bus from Bogotá took 17 hours to the border. It was the longest buss-butt I have ever endured, and over the course of the trip I laughed, cried, and ran through just about every other travel cliché there is. In the end, I made friends with the three guys who took turns driving the buss, throwing it down mountain roads and through pueblitos. A good thing I endeared myself to them, they ended up offering to make me a reservation at the hotel they always stay at in Cucutá, the Colombian border town that was the final destination. At midnight I checked in to a cement square with a TV, toilet, sink, shower (PVC pipe), bed, AND AC for five American dollars.

Up early, showered & out the room. Traditional breakfast of eggs, beans and rice (can never go wrong), walked down the rutted dirt road to the highway, taxi to the Terminal de Pasajeros. Bad rumors had been getting thicker as we had approached the border the day before. Chávez is riled up again and Colombo-Venezuelan relations have once again deteriorated. This time Chávez has a pretty legitimate complaint: last month it was leaked that Colombia has agreed to allow the establishment of five US military bases within its borders. It was a pretty direct flouting of the 1994 Colombian constitution (given that the agreement was made without public scrutiny) and is seen by Colombia’s neighbors as a legitimate threat to their security. You have to understand people have a pretty cynical view of the US military here. History has not left our country in a good light.

So, Chávez is rattling sabers and generally being a pain in my ass this morning. He had previously closed the border to all cargo trucks carrying everything except food, causing a kilometers-long backup on the border highway and chaos in Cucutá. I had received some advice that I would be better off to cross into Venezuela at a much smaller crossing an hour north. So off I went, feeling pretty good about myself, timing and Life in General as I walked through the craziness that accompanies every international border, even at 8:30am.

There’s a single Colombian soldier posted at the bridge. I ask him about an exit stamp from Colombia, and he tells me that the only migration office is back in Cucutá, an hour away. Or, he says, cross and see what they tell you over there, maybe you don’t need one. So off I went, among the motorcycles and women crossing the dull metal of the bridge shoved between the two shores of a lazy tropical river of wide mud. Entering Venezuela I offer myself up to the soldiers on the other side, asking about passport stamps. They are sweaty and look at me only as if I only intend to make them sweat more. They do not want to sweat. But they like to make others sweat more than them, so they themselves feel less sweaty. This is as much as I understand them. They ask  me to unpack my bag, laying out everything on a small table for them. Particular interest in the unopened jar of chunky Jif peanut butter I’m carrying (reaction: disgust). Particular interest in my blackbook, leafing through the pages slowly (reaction: mutual sweatyness).

Moments like this one are something that few writers in the US have experience with. When a soldier is leafing through your notebook, what you have written or are thought to have written can suddenly get you into a lot of trouble. I have the habit of taking travel notes more in English than Spanish for this reason, and usually switch out the names of dictators for less impressive, Anglo equivalents. Fidel is Frank and so on. Words can be as dangerous as bullets (verbo = bala) or, as was pointed out to me later in VZ, as calming as arrows of peace. In the end, a lot of nothing happens. Information about the border stamp? Just continue on, I’m told. So off I go, to wait 40 minutes for the next transport to the next town for the next bus.

Venezuela is the most militarized country I have ever traveled in. Whereas Cuba is an elderly revolution, mostly concerned with reliving its past, both real and imagined, Venezuela is a militant youth with strong ideas and eyes on the future. There are checkpoints about every 300 meters, it seems. As soon as the soldiers see me (and they always see me), we are stopped and everyone is asked for ID. The first two checkpoints are military, and I’m cleared through without and trouble other than sweat on my part. Then, we hit the National Guard checkpoint.

Lots of flipping through my passport. Looking for something. Looking for something that isn’t there. And then my passport isn’t there at all, it’s walking across the highway to the head honcho. Here we go. Could come here plees? I’m asked. Speak Spanish? And now the question: fake ignorance, or talk my way out of it. I of course go for the verbo. Turns out that my passport doesn’t have an entry stamp (!), and I am in Venezuela illegally. But qué pasó with the soldiers telling me to continue on? “Mah, those are just soldiers,” he says, “just like any soldiers in the world, the only thing they know about is war.”

In addition to being militarized, I now learn that VZ is also very corrupt. We dance the classic 1-2 of good cop / sweaty cop, meanwhile the van and all its other passengers wait on the other side of the highway. If I pay a bribe now, I’ll be paying bribes for the rest of my time in this country. No go. The van driver seems reluctant to leave me with the cops, but I reassure him, and off he goes. Eventually the good cop tells me there’s a migration office just down the street from the village we’re in. Back I go.

Same thing in the migra office. Stamp? “We have no stamps here. But please, sir, let us give you the run around while we practice our Englitch upon you. You attend college? Batchelor? Me too.” Fantastic. We’re overeducated with nowhere to go, all of us at once. I invite you to high-five with our respective deplomas, sir.

The batchelor eventually sticks out an arm and stops a car passing by the office. He tells the guy driving to give me a ride back to the border bridge. Back I go.

Six hours from when I was last there, I find myself sitting at la Terminal in Cucutá. It is now 3:30pm and the heat is like Venezuelan diesel fuel: cheap, everywhere, and the locals seem to live on it. Also like the heat are the rumors, which have gotten thicker as the day has gone on. I’m told Chávez has closed the border completely. Or maybe he hasn’t. Or he will. Or there’s a two hour line. Or that diplomas and passports are being smoked like cigars by the Venezuelans. At least that I know not to be true.

In the end, lucky break, I met the right group of guys with the right car for the right price. The right price being five American dollars for what will turn out to be a four hour trip and two stops for migration. The right car is, during this particular day in my life, a maroon Chevy Caprisse that looks like it has dealt with this heat and these rumors everyday since 1985. Off I go, five other men and me, roaring through the swarms of motorcycles and carhorns.

Only a 20 minute wait to get the exit stamp. A brief moments of international limbo, then the entry stamp into VZ is almost instant. I sink lower in my seat with every checkpoint, lots of trunk popping, but we get through OK. Conversation in the Caprisse is interesting. I can tell the driver is a armchair (or driver’s seat) philosopher and political analyst, the kind that holds a diploma from university of Constant Conversation. At one point he says “en este país uno trabaja como negro por intentar vivir como gringo.” In this country one works like a black to try to live like a gringo. He’s a Chavista (pro-Chávez), he says, but only because he’s also an oportunista.

I daze in and out of coherence. We arrive at San Cristóbal as dusk is folding down the hills. I pay the driver his 10,000 pesos, he’s all smiles and solid advice. Just in time: the last buss for Mérida, my destination, leaves in 30. Hand shaking with the men. Off I go. Toilet, call ahead to my friend in Mérida, eat some fried bananas, take another Dramamine, the bus leaves. Six hours of intense air conditioning and a soundtrack dominated by karaoke versions of modern pop hits, as interpreted by keyboards set to sound like Andean pan pipes. Torture by excessive comfort and suave.

Midnight. Mérida. Taxi to the address of my contact, Nestor. En route I realize that I copied his address but not his apartment number. My cellphone died in the Caprisse. The taxi driver plays the young punk at first, then gives in and calls Nestor for me. Nestor does not answer. We try again. Nope. I give the taxista his money and he advises me not to wander too much in this neighborhood.

I convince the doorman at the gate of the apartments to let me charge my cell in his guardshack. I have good reason to believe he is drunk. And! Turns out my Colombian SIM card won’t work here. So I make friends with another, younger, less-drunk guard who calls Nestor again. Nada de Nestor. There are hundreds of apartments here. I have visions of curling up next to the landscaping to sleep.

Then! Phone call! Nestor! Drunk in a bar in the centro! On his way home! “Voy pa’lla!” And there it is, my people. 2am, stretched out on a deflating air mattress in apartment 2-B, Mérida, Venezuela. My first night in the country.

That was just one day, over a week ago.

Words are having a hard time keeping up.

Art exhibition in Tucson

I'm a little late in posting about this, but I wanted to get it out there anyway. For the very first time I am showing work in a juried art exhibition! The gallery is a great space called Raices Taller 222 run by a well-organized group of artists in Tucson's warehouse district. The name of the exhibition is "¡Chubasco!," an annual event they do on the monsoons. I'm showing some of the prints from Arroyo Ink (still for sale online!), many of which have to do with the cosmic grit of mi tierra:

The exhibition opening was last weekend, but the work will be up through September 12th, and there is another reception this coming weekend for the 1st Saturday Artwalk. I saw a bit of the other artists' work before I left Arizona, if you're in town it is very worth stopping by to see this! Check below for an email from the gallery.

Hello Monsoon Artists,

We want to thank you for participating in our monsoon exhibition "¡Chubasco!", which opened last night. Opening night was awesome, our unscientific manual head count at our most crowded was just about 200 visitors! We recieved lots of positive feedback from our regular patrons as well as from our new visitors. Lots of comments on the beautiful artwork and the great atmosphere they encountered at the gallery.

Contributing to the great atmosphere was the exciting drumming by local musicians Ashatari, Carlos, Donato, Bubba, Vitas & Darius, who treated us to drumming from Brazil, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Earlier in the day, we had contacted a couple of the drummers to see if a they were available to perform at the opening. They totally pulled it together by showing up with all 6 drummers! Thank you guys for a great performance!

If you missed the opening, you have another chance to attend another big event at the gallery next Saturday. Saturday August 1, 2009, is 1ST SATURDAY. This very well attended monthly event sponsored by CTGA (Central Tucson Gallery Association), of which we are founding members, gives us another chance to open our doors to the community, along with other galleries on 6th street and the surrounding downtown Tucson art district. Visit CTGA at for all the info. Bring friends & family and enjoy another great evening on Saturday, we will be open from 7 - 10 PM.

Once again, thank you all and we hope to see you on Saturday!

1st Saturday Sat. August 1, 2009 7:00 - 10:00 PM

"¡Chubasco!" exhibition dates: July 25 - September 12, 2009

Regular gallery hours: Friday and Saturday 1:00 - 5:00 PM or by appointment

Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery & Workshop 218 E. 6th Street (1/2 block east of 6th St. & 6th Ave.) Tucson, AZ 85705 (520) 881-5335

Raices Taller 222 Art Gallery and Workshop is Tucson's only Latino based nonprofit cooperative contemporary art gallery located in the Downtown Historic Warehouse District

Arrival to Bogotá: impossible to be lost

I was having a conversation on the plane at 4:45am with a civil engineering professor who was coming home to visit Bogotá, which is where we were about to land. He and his girlfriend were asking me my plans for Bogotá. Namely, where I was going to stay. They both seemed mildly shocked when I told them I didn’t know, that I was planning to land first and figure it out later. Then I arrived to Bogotá but my suitcase didn’t. My senses were so dulled from the previous 24 hours of travel that I found myself just standing next to the empty luggage conveyor, blank-faced. The peppy airline employee didn’t seem surprised at my situation, and I guess I shouldn’t be either. There were three flights between two airlines, likely my suitcase just decided to go out for some drinks in Houston and didn’t make it back to the airport in time. Understandable. I recieved a couple sheets of paper, a complimentary bag of girly toiletries and a phone number to call in the next few days to see if the suitcase makes it down.

The first thing I learned about Bogotá: it’s cold in July. Just a fistful of hours ago I was in Tucson with the temperature hovering around 108F (42C), and then it’s dawn and I’m standing in a grey sunrise, 45F (7C). Pull on the jacket, catch a taxi to La Candelaria to look for coffee and a grip on things at 8200’ (2500m) above sea level.

La ciudad amanece gris. Grises las calles, grises los cielos, gris la recorrida en taxi. Y puede ser por eso que me llena de tanta emoción cuando la veo por primera vez: quieta sin viento, una filosa espada de color, violenta y alegre. No la estaba buscando, pero cuando veo la bandera colombiana por primera vez empiezan a valer la pena las 24 horas de viaje me ha costado encontrarla.

The street art here is amazing. Must be the reaction of such a vivid people against their gray capital. That’s what I’m thinking as I wander the half-abandoned streets of La Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood near the centro. I had been sitting on a park bench for a few minutes with my blackbook, watching the shoe shiners set up for the day, and the street people wander through, complaining to anyone who would listen. And now, walking, I realize I had unconsciously been worried about getting lost when another thought occured to me. If I have little idea of where I am and no idea of where I’m going, how could I be lost? Impossible.

My favorite two pieces of street graffiti poetry thus far:

"De$sarrollo es suicidio" (Proge$$ is suicide)

"Somos un . . ." (We are a . . .) Probably the artist was surprised in the act and couldn't finish the phrase, but I'd like to think it was intentional. What are we, anyway? Fill in the blank, if you can. Mad-lib graffiti.

I had contacted a potential host through CouchSurfing, an independent travel website that I’ve been involved with for a few years. Everything ended up working out, and soon I was at her place having a conversation about Hispanic American literature. She’s a professor at the university here, and a very generous person who frequently hosts travelers from all over the world. I sleep for a few hours, eat, wander a bit.

We go out with other Surfers to a show at a infamous local bar, El Quiebra-Canto. Two local bands are playing: La Makina del Caribe and Tumbacatre. The DJ is spinning salsa with some Orishas, Sargento García and Bob Marley thrown in. There is definitely something happening in Bogotá, it feels new but could be very old at the same time. Young underground culture seems to be everywhere. And I’m dancing, dancing, dancing to La Makina del Caribe, who plays chapeta, a very happy music with tropical guitar and a solid rhythm section.

I liked Tubacatre even more (see video below). They hail from Colombia’s Pacific coast and are a true force, mixing Caribbean rhythms with heavy Baltic influence. What could be better? Their name supposedly comes from a cheap aguardiente alcohol, but it literally means something like “bed breaker,” and is used to describe a woman who is energetic in the sack. As in, “Ay, manica, ¿esa es Sara la tumbacatre?” The group’s lead vocalist is an afro-colombian guy with a grin and pipes that could blow down the room. He’s six inches off the mic almost all night.

Around then I have my second revelation of the day. More of a comparison, actually. Out of nowhere I saw myself standing next to the luggage belt at dawn, despondent. And then immediately I saw myself dancing shoulder-to-shoulder with a load of new friends, drunk on the energy of this place as much as anything.

This is going to be good. 39 more days in Colombia.


Another Colombian group, Bomba Estéreo:

¡Off to Colombia!

Well, here it is, compañeros. Opportunity and wanderlust have collided again, and I'm off to Colombia for five weeks. After spending the last three months in the US (the most in over three years), it feels strangely right to be heading somewhere where nobody knows my name and living in the moment is the only way to go. I'm sitting in Phoenix Sky Harbor right now, using the last few minutes of free internet access before my flight leaves.

I woke a dawn this morning in Sierra Vista after having stayed up most of the night packing. It was a hazy, pastel, slow burn. Then to Tucson to drop of artwork at the wonderful Raices Taller, where I'll be showing prints from Arroyo Ink as part of a larger exhibition starting this weekend. My first art show... never expected that to happen. Then the shuttle to Phoenix, which today happened to be populated with large, tattooed and decidedly chatty men of every ethnicity. Now they're boarding to LAX, then to Houston, then overnight to Bogotá. I'll arrive to an unknown city at 5am Thursday.

I'll be traveling Colombia for a few weeks, then attending the NYU Hemispheric Institute of Performance & Politics' Encuentro at the end of August.

Time for the unknown. Hasta pronto.