The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas

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Written for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.4mb).

The Many Names of El D.F.: Art Capital of the Americas Between english indie rock and a naked crowd: the new Mexico City?

A couple weeks ago, on a Sunday just before dawn, 20,000 people were standing in the center square of Mexico City. It wasn’t another political protest, or even a particularly popular Catholic mass. No, they were completely naked. And they were standing at attention, saluting, in the freezing cold. It was art for art’s sake.

Later, the photographer Spencer Tunick spoke about why he picked Mexico City for his latest naked installation / photo shoot. “There’s something happening in Mexico City, it’s cultural, it’s going to explode and it’s going to be great. The greatest and newest things can come from Mexico. In my mind, the heart of Latin America is now Mexico.” The New Yorker was apparently seeing something that goes largely unnoticed to people living in the US borderlands. Mexico City, an art capital? Since when?

Some say since NAFTA. Another New York institution, the venerable Times itself, also recently cast its ears on the exploding english-language indie rock scene in the Mexican capital, and through sources cited NAFTA as being one cause of the explosion.

The theory is one that chicano poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña has been openly dreaming about since the early 1990’s––that along with endless KFC’s, Micky-D’s, and Wal-Marts the size of entire pueblos, we would begin to see a free flow of art and artists crossing borders and expectations. Has that time come? Has the coming of the MySpace messiah changed everything?

The energy of Mexico City has always been obvious and overwhelming. “This city is a universe,” says Pilar Rodríguez Aranda, a video artist and writer currently living in Coyoacán, a neighborhood on the southside. The city is so many things at once, and each can be seen through its many names. It is el DF, el distrito federal, the government center, just as DC sets Washington apart from the rest of the nation. It is also chilangolandia, an ego-centric metropolis, cosmopolitan and hip.

It is also––as Pilar calls it––el DFectuoso, the defective center of a torn country. “It’s a mirror of this country so full of contradiction and injustice, of beauty and the poor masses. She’s right, in all this art-talk there’s no denying the city’s plagues. Violence against women on a horrific scale. Drug cartels––financed by sales in the US––with a boot on the neck of every level of government. El narco even recently helped give Mexico the dubious honor of being labeled the second most dangerous nation for working as a journalist––second only to Iraq.

El DF is also of course locked in a perennial arm-wrestle with Tokyo for the right to call itself the biggest city in the world, which is perhaps how it inspires the obsession and envy of other metropolises like New York and Los Angeles. Of course, we’ll never really know if it is literally the biggest, but does that matter? In 1961 some four million people lived in the city. Now, it’s anywhere between twenty and thirty million––take your best guess.

José Manuel Mendoza, an intellectual of many disciplines and native to the city, puts it this way. “[In the middle of the twentieth century] Mexico City represented for the rural poor what the United States does today. It was the land of guaranteed opportunity.” Which of course sparked massive inward migration from the provinces.

Despite all of the comparisons between NYC an LA, there is one fundamental difference to el DF. While New Yorkers and Angelenos have a clear tendency to think they live in the center of the universe, chilangos have evidence, at least as they see it. Over half of the  population of the entire nation lives in Mexico City, and when people in other states refer to it, they usually just call it México. Even more shocking is the history of that demographic. From the Classic Mesoamerican Era onward––long before the arrival of any conquistadores––city-states like Teotihuacan (100 BC-650 AD) and Tenochtitlán (1325-1521 AD) had always been the cultural and popular focus of the region, often holding more people than the rest of the Mexican land-mass combined. 

The word Mexico itself comes into play here, and its original meaning in náhuatl. Mé, meaning moon. Xi, navel. Co place. The place of the moon’s navel. So you could say Mexico City has its own center-of-the-world complex. Maybe any good city worth its weight in concrete does. One of the original Spanish conquistadores, Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote that pre-conquest Mexico City––the Mexica capital known as Tenochtitlán––was the most marvelous city he had ever set eyes on. Four times bigger than Sevilla, the largest city in Spain at the time, Tenochtitlán was a shining city built on a series of platforms and islands in a lake surrounded by 15,000’ volcanoes.

Little by little the Spanish drained and filled in the lakes, and built a Catholic church atop every Mexica temple they could find. Which brings us to the earthquakes. Every great city has its origin myth, and each its dark prophecy. For Manhattan, it’s the bay rising twenty feet. LA has the San Andreas and Hollywood, both tempting fate. But el DF is sinking. Its sandy conquest-era foundations can’t support the mestizo jewels of architecture built atop it. As the city sinks, it shakes, settling back down into the earth. And when the fault lines that run through the Sierra Madre––San Andreas’ southern cousin––sends shakes, it’s always el DF that feels them most.

So this city is a little like everywhere, ephemeral and blissfully doomed. Making art in the meantime and fighting for enough to go around. Abortion has been legalized and American Apparel runs a culture rag called Mexico City Monthly. As Pilar says, “it’s natural that in a city this size there are ‘important’ things happening.” But is it natural for 20,000 people to be standing naked at dawn in front of the national cathedral? Entirely. This is the center of the moon’s bellybutton.

One of the Millions III

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The third of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (30.9mb).

In the first two installments of the interview, Carmen explained how six years ago she and her husband David left their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico for New York City. She was almost 30 years old at the time. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their third attempt, after being separated in the desert north of Sasabe, they made it to a house in Phoenix. From there they took a bus through Flagstaff to Las Vegas, and from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. They took flight across the country to NYC, where, a few months later, they were caught up in the horror of September 11th, 2001. In this final segment of the interview, David adds a few of his own observations.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC

Interview and translation by Logan Phillips

The Return

I was there still a year and a half more after September 11th. David two years and a half. He was painting and I was working in a deli in Harrison. Work got scarce after the Towers. People weren’t interested in making improvements on their houses. And even if you are out of work, you still have to pay rent.

Look, I had plans to only be there two years. In October 2002 I bought my return ticket for February 2003. I bought it five months ahead of time, I had made plans ahead of time to return. It wasn’t spontaneous, as if I said “tomorrow I’m leaving.” No. I thought about it, but David told me to think about it more, to stay and save more money. I told him no, because I couldn’t be away from my daughters any longer. They were small, they needed me. He said, “well, go, but I’m staying.” And he did, a year longer than me.

I came back mainly for my daughters. I had nightmares about them there. Many times late at night I would wake up and David would tell me to calm down, but I would cry. I had horrible, ugly dreams. I’d think about them and cry. I talked to them twice a week on the phone. As much as I could. But I tried to save as much money as I could because it cost five dollars every time I would call them, and five dollars would begin to hurt after awhile. They sent me things, photos, and I sent them photos too.

I came back in a plane. Direct to Mexico City. Super easy.

carmen

Thoughts on Immigration

After everything, it wasn’t worth it. It’d be worth it if you’re going legally to visit, because it’s a beautiful country. To go with work lined up, maybe with papers to be there only seasonally. That’d be better. Because, like David says, going like we did, it’s dangerous. You die out there. There are so many who stay out there. Close to Sasábe there is a place called Altar, it’s on the way to the border. In Altar there is a pile of crosses and posters that say “don’t risk your life, don’t cross the desert, don’t cross the mountains, you can die.” It took us exactly 25 days to cross in total.

David says, “Me, to everyone who tells me ‘well, I’m headed there,’ I say, ‘why are you going? You’re abandoning your country. You can work here. You just need intelligence. You’re going up there looking for money, but you can find it here, and with less problems. There you’re going to go every single day to work, you can do that here too. Don’t be lazy.’

“Also, they want to see new things, because a lot of people come back talking about things that aren’t true. ‘There you earn bills hand over fist,’ and all that. ‘I don’t know what to spend my dollars on,’ but it’s all a lie.” They come back showing off, it’s not reality.

We paid more than $500 a month in rent in New York. You don’t save up a lot. I didn’t save my money while I was there, I sent it back to do a little bit of work on my house. Yeah, I added on a little to my house, I put a entrance on my lot. It’s something that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do here as easily. And David saved a little for his taxi. But almost the same as when we left. What is good there is the clothes. The only good thing we brought back with us was good clothes and shoes.

Oh, it felt so good to come back. Lately, although work has been going a little bad for me thanks to the type of bosses I’ve had, I still don’t feel like going back to NYC. Even though it’s a beautiful city, you feel like an outsider. I felt strange, out of my element. I couldn’t just talk to people, “Hola, ¿qué tal?”

But we did some nice things there. For me the coolest thing we did was go to a Paul McCartney concert in Madison Square Garden. That was definitely the coolest thing.

It will never be possible to stop immigration. There is so much poverty in Mexico. We are poor, but there are people way poorer than us. People who can only eat tortillas, chile and salt. It doesn’t matter to them to risk their life to go looking for what is called “the American Dream.” Look, in the US there are people from little villages in Mexico that you can’t believe are there. People from the mountains, from villages that are at the tops of the mountains. One time I met some people from Michoacan who told me they were from some little tiny village, I asked them how they came. The same way, they found a coyote. There are villages here in Mexico where there are no men. They’re all there [in the US].

You know what messes things up financially to go? The coyote. The crossing costs $3,000. That’s $30,000 pesos, more or less. They have a good thing going. Look, the majority of them have already been deported from the US. The guy who crossed us, he was deported. They will never be able to get papers. Maybe someday David and I will be able to get papers, even though we’ve been caught. Maybe with time, I don’t know, some new law, an amnesty or something. Like that they would pardon your sins.

The coyotes are sure it will go well for them, all the better that it’s an illicit, illegal act. But the worst is then when they just leave you, throw you out into the desert. That’s really bad, and that’s why I’ll never go that way again. Never.

Sure, it would be possible to construct a wall along the entire border. But it’s not worth it to the government. And look, Mexicans are clever, they cross in tunnels and drains also. Would it be possible for them to construct the wall? Yes. But would it stop migration? No. See, everything here is a swindle. Like the saying, “he who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead.”

The immigrant work force is a business. It suits the US government not to stop it, and also the Mexican government. It’s a business for them. They only thing they do is control it, nothing else.

David says, “How many millions have they invested in Iraq now? And they can’t close the border? It’s a business. If immigrants don’t enter, who is going to do the work? Everybody that takes care of the kids, that cleans the houses, they’re latino. If the US didn’t want anyone to come in, they could stop it.”

Los Angeles, California, is the city with the second largest Mexican population in the world. More Mexicans than in Mexican cities. More than Guadalajara, more than Puebla.

Look, this is my opinion. I put myself in the place of the people of the US, those who don’t have anything to do with the economy of Mexico, and I think, it’s not their fault things are this way. But yes, there are immigrants who have committed crimes. And that’s why people have a bad impression of all immigrants.

I would tell people in the US to put themselves in our place. The majority, we want to go to work, not to rob anyone of anything. We go to work. And if people gave us that opportunity, if they allowed us to work legally and efficiently, we would take it. Even while working illegally––and I say this not to to brag or to show off––after only two months Khol’s gave me employee of the month twice, paid vacation, prizes. What does that mean? That we would be really efficient employees if it was worth the trouble to go and work. So to those people who have the wrong opinion of the majority of us, they should realize that all we want is to work and nothing more. And we want to do things right.

Carmen and David continue to live and work in Cuernavaca. David works as a wholesaler and at various jobs. Carmen has gone through a string of jobs since he return, but continues perusing her real passion––singing at events with a band––whenever possible. Her daughters are now in middle school.

Since Carmen’s crossing through Arizona, it is estimated by the International Organization for Migration that over three million other Mexicans have left their country and crossed in a similar way, looking for greater opportunities for themselves and their families. Far more than in the past, 45% of those three million immigrants were women. The number of unaccompanied minors is also growing. 7,000 were caught and deported in 2005.

One of the Millions II

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The second of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (18.7mb).

In the last installment of her interview, Carmen told how six years ago she and her husband David decided to leave their hometown of Cuernavaca, Mexico and try for NYC. She was almost 30 years old at the time and looking to change her destiny. They hired a coyote who arranged for them to cross through Arizona. In their second attempt, they jumped the wall in Nogales and nearly made it to Tucson before being caught. Back in Nogales, the coyote sent them west for the third try, to the small border town of Sasábe. 

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from the Arizona Border to NYC

Interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Sasábe

When finally there was the opportunity to go, the guys in Sasábe put you in a pickup with thirty people, and that’s how you go. “Like little sardines,” David said.

They separated us. They put me in one truck and him in another. When they did that, I began to feel really bad, I was saying to myself “no, no, no,” I didn’t want to be alone because I was so scared. It was really hard for me there, more than it was for David. Well, maybe he felt bad that I was alone.

They bring you up through the hills, in the dark, obviously late at night. They already know the route, but they still have to guess, it’s risky. You’re risking your life because on either side are steep ravines.

That night we went. Him in one truck and me in the other. And the truck that I was in was caught by the migra. We had arrived at the crossroads where we’d get on the freeway, and the coyotes were waiting for the migra shift-change. That moment is when they try to take advantage and get you to the city.

When we got on the freeway, about ten minutes passed and a migration patrol came up beside us, they pulled us over and made us all get out. They brought us back to Nogales because it is the closest station. They again fingerprinted me and scanned my eyes. They asked me how many times they had caught me now. I told them the truth, two. “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” they said.

Back in Nogales, Mexico, I wouldn’t let the drivers of that truck get away from me for anything. I didn’t know where everyone had gone, but they knew what truck David had gone in. I grabbed them and told them, “you guys aren’t going to leave me here. I’m going with you wherever you go.”

“No,” they said, “the thing is...”

“I’m going with you.” And they took me back to Sasábe. I arrived crying and giving up hope, because I thought David was already in Phoenix. We got there about six in the morning and at seven o’clock that night, all of a sudden a guy who had been in the truck with David returned on foot. I recognized him. “Hey,” I said, “you went in the same truck as my husband.”

“Yeah, it broke down on us, I came back for a part to fix it.” So the truck had broken down out in the horrible, uninhabited desert. He had just walked for something like eight or ten hours.

When he was ready to go back to the truck, I told him, “I’m going with you.”

“I can’t risk taking you because you’re a woman and you aren’t going to walk fast enough.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I stuck myself to him.

“I can’t take you.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m going with you, I’m not staying here.” I went with him out of necessity, he couldn’t believe it. We walked from eight that night until about two in the morning. We walked and walked. And during all that time we were completely alone. And there are so many women who have had experiences where they were raped by the very coyotes themselves.

Suddenly he stopped me and I asked him why. He told me that there were wolves there. “Shhhh,” he said. Can you imagine the fear I felt in that moment? I told myself that was it, a wolf is going to show up and we’ll never leave here.

I’ll always respect that man. We were so alone in the desert, and moreover I was so scared. But I felt how he was breathing and I realized that he was scared too, despite his experience. I don’t think you ever get over that fear of animals, of the unknown.

We finally arrived where everyone else was hidden. I arrived yelling “David! David!” in the darkness.

He heard me and he asked “what are you doing here?” because he thought I was already in Phoenix. When I saw him, nothing else mattered. I started to cry. Everyone was asleep, hidden, because the helicopters can be sent over any time.

“Why’d you bring her!?” The coyotes were scolding the guy I came back with.

“She didn’t want to stay,” he replied.

Across the United States

There were already so many going, and with me, one more. They fixed the truck at about five in the morning, we left and that same truck brought us all the way to Tucson. Arizona is pretty, beautiful cities.

In Tucson, they ask you “who is sending you?”

“Coyote so-and-so.”

“Ok, those sent by so-and-so over here, those sent by the other coyote over there.” Because for them, it’s all about when payment time comes, they have to keep people organized for that reason. At that moment you don’t pay, you’ve paid your trip from Cuernavaca to the border, but you don’t have the rest of the payment deposited until you’re where you’re going.

We arrived in Phoenix in a van, on the freeway. Now, being inside the state, there’s not very much migra. The migra is on the border. But we were in Phoenix about a week because there was a lot of migra in the Phoenix airport.

We were shut in, watching television, eating, sleeping, always shut in, we didn’t go out for anything. But there we ate in luxury. They sent us stuff to eat, a lot of it, chicken, juice, yogurt. They asked, “who’s gonna cook?” Straight away I said “I will,” and I made food for everybody.

We waited, and went from there to Las Vegas. Yeah, since there was so much migra in Phoenix, in the airport, we said to ourselves “well, we gotta get around them.”

In Las Vegas we arrived at the station and immediately got on the next bus. So, first to Las Vegas, then from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on the bus.

They already described the person that would be there waiting for us, and  there he was, exactly how they had said. Ready for us. How many hours is it from Los Vegas to Los Angeles? It’s a long time. He put us in a hotel, and fed us well. Two days in Los Angeles in that hotel.

In the LA airport we were afraid because we felt like the migra would catch us. But the guy said that here there’s no problem, and the coyotes buy everything for you. You just arrive and get on the plane.

And from LA they threw us in a plane to New York. And that’s that.

NYC & September 11th, 2001

We arrived in New Jersey, because there weren’t direct flights to New York that day. David’s brother’s family came for us. We were feeling bad and disoriented because of the time change. And from there, off to look for work. David already had something. His brother is a resident and has a painting company. He married an American and had two kids, Americans who don’t speak a bit of Spanish. He had left them with their mom. We were in his house, they gave us one room for the both of us, I started looking for work and found it at a clothing store called Kohl’s.

[Six months later] I was at work, in the Portchester store, which is one of the biggest branches. That day I was vacuuming the children’s clothes section. Then a co-worker, a Guatemalan, told me “A plane hit a building and exploded.” I didn’t think of the magnitude of it, just the first thing that came to mind, that a little plane had smashed itself against the building and fallen as if it were nothing, an accident. Suddenly everybody began to get nervous, and I saw that a lot of my co-workers had started to go up to the cafeteria on the second floor.

All of a sudden, somebody said “another plane hit!” and some people started yelling “another! Another!” Things had gotten ugly. I just stood there––I still had the vacuum in my hand––thinking “what is going on?” A friend of mine, a Peruvian woman, said the manager was calling us to the cafeteria because it looked like something was happening at the World Trade Center. We went up and they had a TV ready, and there were the buildings on fire, with all the smoke. I started to cry, saying to myself “what’s happening...” The news came about the Pentagon and that one had gone down in Pennsylvania and I kept crying, just remembering it, I get goose bumps. A friend told me to calm down, but I just said “look what’s happening!” They had already started talking about terrorists and who knows what else.

The manager started talking to us in English, a friend told me what he was saying in Spanish––I hadn’t learned English yet, actually I never learned it well, but it’s OK. He said that we had to stay calm but that we were going to go home because something horrible had happened. We had to leave calmly, they were going close the store. In that moment, one of the towers fell. Somebody screamed. Everybody cried out, loud. The manager was so red from screaming. I cried, it really scared me, I was shaking, not knowing what would happen. The other one fell. People burst out in tears and screams again, hugging each other, saying that it couldn’t be, talking in English, black people, white people, everybody. People hugging each other. With the other tower falling on TV, we started to organize ourselves to leave. I caught a taxi outside of the mall.

The taxi driver already knew. And almost all of the taxi drivers are Hispanic. I remember he was a Peruvian because he asked me in Spanish, “they closed the store?” I told him yes.

“Because of what’s happening to the buildings?”

“Yes, didn’t you see?” 

“No, but the freeway is jammed, lots of accidents.” People had gone crazy, they reacted however they could in the face of such a tragedy. I arrived at my house still crying. I asked one of my neighbors if she could call my mom as a favor, since they had cut the communication lines and you could only call other countries with cellphones.

In Mexico at my house my family was already crying like I had been killed, because they had heard that New York had been attacked by terrorists. They practically thought we were at war. My neighbor called them and asked “does Carmen live there?” And they cried louder because they thought she was calling to say I had been killed. She said “calm down, señora, Carmen is OK, she asked me to call on my cellphone because the regular phones aren’t working.”

And my mom: “tell her to come home so that she’s not there, tell her to come back to Mexico.” Later I said to myself, if it was my decision I’d return, but I was scared to get on an airplane because there could be a bomb there too.

In a few days I went back to work and they told us that we were going to be on red alert. We were going to work, but with a lot of precaution. If anything happened, they’d call us and immediately we’d leave because they didn’t know if it was war, or if they were going to close, or what. They didn’t know what to do either. Actually, people stopped buying. The streets were empty. Many people stayed at home, in their basements. They stayed there because they still didn’t know what to do.

But little by little, everything started to be more normal––if you could call it that, normal. But in the new year, during March and April, they started to check the papers of undocumented workers, and my papers were fake. They fired a lot of people. Now all illegal workers were terrorist suspects. Well, it was a security measure, but if the United States really had wanted to throw out all the illegals, it’d be left without people, without workers. All of the physical manpower is illegal.

I think at least fifty percent of the people killed were illegals. And that number that they use––2,300 deaths––it’s a lie. I could dare to say that more than 50,000 died. Remember how many floors each tower had? A hundred. That’s 200 floors. How many offices were there on each floor? At least ten. Banks, businesses, restaurants. Let’s only put three people per office––which there could have been at that hour, and it isn’t much. That’s thirty people on each floor. Times a hundred floors, that’s 3,000. Do you remember the 1986 earthquake in Mexico City? The government only said that 10,000 died. It’s inconvenient for governments to tell the truth.

Imagine all of the immigrants that worked there with false identification. There was no way to know who they were. They only counted the people that they knew through legal papers. But lots of people work with illegal papers under a different name.

They don’t count those people. 

Carmen concludes her story next month, telling of her return trip to Mexico, and explaining what advice she would give to other Mexicans thinking about crossing illegally.

One of the Millions

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The first of a three-part interview for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, download the pdf (25.7mb).

Carmen is a woman in her early 30’s, born in Cuernavaca, just south of Mexico City. Six years ago this month she started a journey that took her across Mexico and into Arizona. Her ultimate goal was New York City, where she arrived just in time to experience the events of September 11th, 2001. What follows is her story, as she herself tells it.

One of the Millions
How Carmen Crossed from Cuernavaca to NYC

interview and translation by Logan Phillips

Preparations

We left February 15th, 2001. It was a normal day, just like that song that says, “it wasn’t hot, it wasn’t cold.”

We had decided in October of 2000. I was working in a coffee shop, selling little cakes, chocolates. We decided to go because... well, my husband, David, he wanted to go more because he has a brother that lives in New York and he offered David a good job, as a painter. I wentto try my luck, to try a new way of living my life. Maybe it was curiosity, but more it was the necessity to earn a little bit more money in less time.

But we needed a lot of money just to go. We had $6,500 for the two of us.

We also needed a good coyote. A friend recommended him to us, we didn’t know him. He’s from Puebla, he came here to Cuernavaca to talk to us about it. We crossed through Arizona because the coyote told us to. He’s the one that decides the route you’ll take, you can’t say, “no, I think we’ll go through Tijuana.” No, you make a deal with the coyote and the only thing you’re interested in is making it to the other side. You pay him and he has to figure out how to get you there––all the way to wherever you want to go, to Wisconsin if you want. But you don’t pay him before. You give him the name of the person who will send the money, and you pay him when you arrive.

He gave us advice, like not to bring backpacks, packages, but to dress warm because it’s really cold. No photos in your wallet, and just a little bit of money. He told us not to be scared, that we’d jump the wall and that’d be it.

My oldest daughter was ten years old, and the younger one was seven. I told them that I had to go work, that they needed to wait for me for awhile. Although they didn’t understand it, they had to accept it. They stayed here, with my mother. They cried, and felt like we were abandoning them. It was hard.

My mother and father gave me a lot of advice, that I should be careful what I get myself into and who I make deals with. Since I was young my dad has always taught us to be honest. David’s family told him to behave, and not get drunk all the time. They just told us to be careful, especially when the time comes to jump. Also to be careful of the cholos because they’ll assault you.

carmen

Nogales

We left on a bus from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, to the airport. Then in a plane to Hermosillo [capital of the state of Sonora]. There we hired a suburban, which is like a taxi, but for a lot of people, and it took us to Nogales. I didn’t know anything about northern Mexico. It’s like David says, “I didn’t know any farther than my eyes could see.”

Nogales is ugly. It looks like an abandoned city. The whole border is ugly.

We arrived at a hotel. The coyote had told us where we would meet again, in that hotel. It obviously wasn’t a luxury place, normal rooms, normal beds. He was already there waiting for us, and that same night we tried the first time. That first time is when the cholos showed up, the guys who live on the border and make a living of attacking people. They’ll take your shoes, your watch. But that night they just were making noise, shouting our way. See, they also want to jump, so when you try, they’ll make a big show so that you won’t make it.

We had to jump from really high in Nogales. The wall was fourteen or fifteen feet high. But the jump is the least of it. The important thing is to get to a safe place where you’ll be able to get transport to where you’re going. Sure, you jump in Nogales, but to get to the next populated place, it’s unbelievably hard.

You arrive like a soldier, chest on the ground, dragging yourself. More than half a mile like that, dragging yourself like you were a worm. Like that. But the cold, it gives you all its got. Our jackets weren’t thick enough.

There were six of us crossing. David and me, our cousin, a couple and another guy. Two kids from Puebla guided us. Ah, because see, it’s not the coyote who brings you, the coyote sends the people who will bring you. No, the coyote doesn’t hang around there, he passes you to a helper and says “take them, you know where to go.” And they were young! Not even eighteen years old. From Nogales we hoofed it the whole way.

We made it to a ravine at about eleven that night, and we were there all night and all the next day, without eating, just sleeping. We were hugging one another, trying to get rid of the cold. It was unbearable, to the bones. We couldn’t lick our lips because the spit would freeze. We hadn’t drank any water, hadn’t gone to the bathroom––much less taken a shower––in two days. A lot of animals came while we were there. If you get hurt, you’ll die there. It’s really risky. People don’t realize.

We just huddled in that hole. I didn’t know absolutely anything about Arizona, just some photos and maps on the computer, and the desert, which is the famous thing. And Tucson thanks to that Beatles song that says “Tucson, Arizona,” but that was it. [laughs]

A car came for us the second night. We all piled in, all pressed together, it was horrible. I thought that the car was going to take us to a safe place, but that car didn’t bring us anywhere. They threw us in the desert. They told us that we were going to just walk for half an hour, then we’d meet another car to take us to Tucson. We had to go around the checkpoints, but they keep saying things so that you don’t get scared, but it isn’t true. That night they threw us out of the car at about nine.

That was the most traumatic for me. We had two gallons of water that we got from the car. Our feet sank in the sand, our sneakers filled up with it. We jumped some barbwire. I fell flat on my face. The highway was about a mile away, and they have this red light out there that detects your iris and they’ll know you’re there. All kinds of technology. But it’s stupid because they know that there’s a lot of people passing anyway. We walked all that night.

We hadn’t eaten anything. David started getting really mad at the guides. We got to an underpass on the freeway, before Tucson. The guides kept saying “there’s the car,” lying so that you’ll wait. We were really disillusioned. We went out to the freeway and waited, I said it wouldn’t be long before someone called us in. Half an hour later, the migra arrived. One of the guys with us had lived in Brooklyn before, and he started talking to them in English. “We’re tired, we’re hungry.” They rounded us all up and brought us all the way back to... Nogales!

The migra was really nice. We can’t say anything bad about them. They took us to the station to get our information. Later, in Mexico, we called the coyote because he always has people in the hotels, waiting to send them. We got to the hotel with our clothes in rags, he saw us and said “I thought you two were already in Phoenix!” We started to talk, and he said he was going to send us through Sasábe.

We got to Sasábe [a small bordertown east of Nogales], another horrible place, there isn’t anything there. We were there about a week, not doing anything. We were in this house with tons of people, about fifty. Everybody together, Salvadorians, everybody, waiting their turn. Waiting.

Carmen continues her story next month, telling of how she and David became separated during their second attempt, and how they eventually made it to Los Angeles.

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides

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The second in a series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. To read the entire issue, which is excellent, download the pdf (16.9mb).

La Virgen As Seen From Both Sides
a Cross-Border Look at the Virgin of Guadalupe

The fireworks have been exploding for twenty-four hours without stop. There are mustaches drawn on all the male children under the age of three. Mariachis are playing in nearly every neighborhood. There can only be one explanation for all this colorful chaos, which even here in Mexico is beyond average: this must be the 475th anniversary of the appearance of La Virgen de Guadalupe. This must be December 12th, Día de la Virgen.

On this day shrines pop up on nearly every street corner, each bedecked with noche buena flowers. Thousands of pilgrims stream into Mexico City’s Basilica, carrying portraits of la Virgen on their backs and crawling the final steps on their knees, leaving dark stains of their faith on the stones behind them.

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“This is a very important day for us,” says Antonio Perez, an out-of-work mariachi who is hanging around Cuernavaca’s main square on the night of the 12th. “I have a lot of faith and devotion to her.” He’s an impeccably dressed old man with watery eyes, soft-spoken and sincere. The words he’s saying are written everywhere on the streets around us as he says them.

We’re sitting near el Calvario, one of Cuernavaca’s soaring churches where  reverence for La Virgen is focused. It’s here that the local parents bring their young children dressed as peasants to have their pictures taken in mock rural landscapes. They jam through the wide doors of the church, children on their shoulders, pushing to hear one of the masses being said every two hours. Inside, the church is a sea of dark hair, a sea whose waves sigh in rosaries and undulate onto their knees in prayer.

Along with Día de los Muertos in early November, December 12th is a day that is exclusively Mexican. La Virgen is the patron saint of Mexico and is also called “the Queen of the Americas.” As Octavio Paz wrote in 1974: “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.”

But to those of us from the southwest U.S., this all sounds familiar. Even if it’s only seeing her likeness emblazoned on the spare-tire cover of a certain pink VW bus that haunts Aspen between San Francisco and Agassiz Streets in downtown Flagstaff, we’re aware of her presence. It’s evidence that while political boundaries between Mexico and the U.S. were redrawn in 1848, cultural boundaries remain much more fluid.

In Bisbee, Arizona, just a stone’s throw from the international line, one sees old cars pushing through the narrow streets with bumper stickers that read, “IN GUAD WE TRUST.” On a December morning not long after the 12th, Elaine Blake and artist Judy Perry are gardening in front of the Bisbee Episcopal Church. “A lot of us have had experiences with the Virgin,” says Perry. Blake agrees, “she just made herself really known and vivid to me. She talks to me and I talk to her... she is the divine presence that is anchored in this place, in this earth.” Both women recall being attracted to Guadalupe thanks to her being a female religious figure. “I think it’s important to bring the female and male energies together in spiritual life,” says Perry.

Perez, speaking of La Virgen’s appeal to Mexicans, says “we feel proud that she came here to Mexico to appear... the story is that she appeared to somebody who was of the most lowly people, his name was Juan Diego.”

In Bisbee, anthropology and faith seem to occupy the same space at the same time without getting into a fistfight. At the Bisbee event on the 12th, “there was a woman [Maggie McQuaid] who talked about the cultural antecedents, Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess,” according to Blake.

Such talk, though, has no place in the mind of the average Mexican on the night of the 12th. Perez, for one, shirks the suggestion of La Virgen being related to the pre-Hispanic gods. He shakes his head, “no, no, no, no, no, I don’t understand that, I’d say no.”

 Blake seemed to be a bit surprised by the reverence held for Guadalupe in the southwest. “I’ve talked to a couple of people who have said ‘I’m a Guadalupian, not a Christian,’” she said.

Meanwhile, in central Mexico, Perez leans against a park bench, smiling. “Everybody’s walking around content today. Just so happy for this day.” Two peoples, two countries, unified at least once every year by their faith in figure that they see from different perspectives. Sounds like just another story from the border.

Mexico's Dark December

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The beginning of a new series of Mexican snapshots for The Noise, published in Flagstaff. Not all will be this political, but it's a political time.

Ulises ya cayó y sigue Calderón –graffiti, Cuernavaca zócalo

Depending on who you ask, Arizona’s southern neighbor is either in the first stages of a nationwide class war, or just up to business as usual. Either way, December 1st looms large on the 2006 Mexican calendar. This Friday, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa is set to be sworn in as the next president of the United States of Mexico.

As with any issue, this is worth asking the taxistas about. “A grey December awaits us,” said Augustin, a middle aged taxi driver on the day that the PFP (Federal Preventative Police) entered Oaxaca city in an attempt to retake it from the APPO (Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Peoples), a movement that has controlled the city since late summer. “Things have never been this tense.”

The Oaxaca issue is the most visible flashpoint in a struggle that has been part of Mexico’s landscape since time immemorial—the peoples’ friction against a wealthy and corrupt ruling class. Primarily, the movement seeks the removal of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a member of the historically omnipotent PRI party. It is widely accepted that Ruiz is a corrupt and heavy-handed ruler, which has been evident in his dealing with the APPO. Disappearances and murders by plainclothes police officers are now common place. Ruiz is the kind of politician that many hoped would be obsolete by now, a throwback to the 1970’s and 80’s when corrupt politicians acted openly with impunity.

However, coming into 2007, Mexico is a different country. In 2000 Vicente Fox became the first president to come from a party other than the PRI. Both he and incoming Calderón are members of the PAN, a rightist pro-business party. Faced with the situation in Oaxaca, Fox displayed a startling outward indifference for many months. He waited until the situation had escalated incredibly and sent in forces in late October, his other options mostly unexplored and therefore exhausted.

Fox may have been just a little distracted. He unabashedly supported Calderón’s bid for the presidency, to the point of using millions of dollars of public funds in pro-PAN TV advertising. When the vote came back too close to call on July 2, all of Mexico’s political mind became preoccupied with the contested election. The leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has not conceded gracefully. Since lifting his occupation of Mexico City’s center in early September, his movement has lost momentum that it seeks to regain on December 1st by staging a series of massive protests. Obrador declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico on November 20th and has announced the creation of a parallel national government. As of yet these moves haven’t had a definite effect, but that may well change in December.

The two movements—the APPO in Oaxaca and the lopezobradoristas in Mexico City—have been quick to declare common cause against what they see as corrupt government. It can be read in the graffiti that seems to be growing from every cement crack all over the country: “Ulises has already fallen and Calderón will follow him.” Faced with a political landscape at least as volatile as that of the 1960’s, what will Calderón do when he takes charge? And what will happen December 1st?

“Nothing’s gonna happen,” says another taxista working near Mexico City. “It’s pure blah blah blah, same as always. The dog who barks loudest doesn’t bite.” He may be right. Several key dates have passed this fall without the predicted outbreak of violence and revolution. September 5th the election was called for Calderón by a national court with PAN sympathies. September 16th, Mexican Independence Day, Obrador backed down and allowed the army to stage its traditional parade. October 27th, the PFP moved into Oaxaca and an expected national outcry wasn’t nearly as strong as it might have been.

On the other hand, all of these events could be seen as stepping stones down a path that leads to more drastic events. “Just think about it,” comments Margarita, an elementary school teacher in her 60’s, “1810, Mexican Independence. 1910, the Mexican Revolution. 2010, who knows? A class war?” The possible signs are obvious: Oaxaca, the election, severe economic disparity triggering mass migration, Fox’s squandering of a magnificent and unique opportunity for change and the ensuing widespread disillusion, and the wave of left-leaning governments winning power across Latin America.

From whichever angle it is considered, December 2006 looks to be a key month in the recent history of Mexico. It’s as if millions of hands are extended to the sky all across the country, holding its reassuring blue mass over their heads. On December 1st we’ll see how many decide to drop their hands and pick up arms, in whatever form they come. And more importantly, we’ll see if without their support, that blue sky falls.

An American Poet in Mexico

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The sixth and last installment of my series of articles for The Noise. Fotos by Bart Pogoda.

Poco a poco se anda lejos. –dicho mexicano

We’re practicing personal pronouns when it pops out of Yared’s mouth. “The fan writes a circle!” he cries, fully aware that in my fourth grade classroom, we raise our hands when we would like to speak. He just can’t help himself, and his little dark fingers fly to cover his mouth as soon as the last word leaves it. “Sorry,” he says, rolling the r’s.

“That’s OK, Yared,” I tell him, and it’s moments like this that “Teacher Logan” remembers that he is actually a poet, not the elementary school teacher he has been pretending to be for the last month. Soon the class is working on illustrating the English sentences they just made up, and my pocket notebook has found its way into my hands. The fan writes a circle above the head of Yared, I write, and its verses blow all across the schoolbooks.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

How did it come to this? School books, personal pronouns and starting the days by singing the super-popular “Good Morning Song”? In the eight months since leaving Flagstaff, I’ve felt myself blown from one continent to the other, waking up in strange cities where the shadows tilt at crooked angles and riding boats and motorcycle sidecars that always seem to take me farther from home. Then, it happened in late summer: the money ran low, the wanderlust overflowed the notebooks, and lonely became more than just an adjective. It was time to settle.

I arrived in central Mexico again after almost two years with a backpack full of slightly trumped-up résumés and the familiar, strong set of ganas to again see this country from the inside out. I didn’t plan on teaching kids. But the kids had my number, and the school had the envelope stuffed with peso bills.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

At this point, I’m just another undocumented American worker supporting the Mexican economy. The school passes me those envelopes every couple of weeks, no one asks questions, and I wade further into the Byzantine, murky and antigonizing world of Mexican papeleo, hoping to one day become legal. At least for me there’s the chance of becoming legal.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

I leave our house at that moment when the night just begins to crack with the lucid expectation of dawn. While walking the fifteen minutes to the freeway, I pass the milpa where the corn has now grown to its full height. Just above it, on clear days, Popocatépetl dwarfs an entire mountain range. Glaciers still somehow cling to its summit and steam wisps from the sleeping lava below.

The bus is usually packed, maybe fifty people steated and another fifteen standing in the aisle. We’re all clinging to our last moments of calm before the long hours of trabajo, and the sleepers’ heads fall and nod like heavy fruit on elastic necks.

Meanwhile, outside of the day-to-day life of most workers and children, the country has wound itself tight into a political crisis the likes of which it hasn’t seen since maybe the Revolution itself. After nearly seventy years of rule by the PRI, (the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party) Goliath finally took one to the forehead with the election of PAN’s Presidente Fox in 2000. Now, just six short years later, PRI came in a distant third in July’s presidential elections.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

The United States seems to be the global trend-setter in more than just movies and music these days: disputed, too-close-to-call elections now seem to be de moda the world over. The leftist PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost to right-winger Felipe Calderón of PAN by just 234,000 votes out of some 41,000,000. But as with everything, the Mexicans had to put their touches on the trend to make it their own. In 2000 in the US, Gore fought for his cause with one foot already in the grave, and in 2004 that strange flavor of American political apathy allowed the shifty happenings in Ohio to go by uninvestigated.

By contrast, Obrador and his supporters stormed the streets, occupying the center of Mexico City for over a month. Recently, after the PAN-influenced high court ruled against him, he vowed to establish a “parallel government.” Never mind that the taxista that I rode with today called him “out of his head” and that he continues to alienate many moderate voters with his extra-governmental manuevering, the man knows how to stand his ground. And further south, in the state of Oaxaca, police and government have fled the capital city under pressure from a peoples’ movement led by—who else?—schoolteachers.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

But somewhere in between all of that, la vida ya se ha normalizado un poco—what a miracle of human adaptation that a life like this could begin to seem normal. Walking into my tiny classroom with hardly any experience to teach English to kids born in 1998 felt like a running of the bulls—except that the bulls new the ring better than I did and were somehow capable of throwing spitballs.

But the weeks pass and Mexico swollows us—surrealist Mexico at its best: our neighborhood fills with taxistas and mariposas every afternoon. The taxistas drink Coke and piss in the bushes while they wait for fares and the butterflies look mostly like delicate pieces of fax paper folded in half and given the spark of life. The neighbors across our small valley burn trash while wildflowers laugh and bloom from the rough sides of the cement streets. The woman down the way makes the greatest gorditas de flor de calabaza you’d ever taste, and occasionally some men come by in a big truck to pick up the trash from our house.

It’s like that dicho says: little by little you end up walking far. You put your head to the grind, lay down ink when you can, and the next thing you know the fan over your head is writing circles, bringing everything together. The fourth grade class has a laughing attack, the teacher does a fan-dance, and the poems spill through the bars covering the windows.

We are raising our hands and not looking back.

Mexico. Foto by Bart Pogoda.

An American Poet in Spain

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The fifth in my series of articles for The Noise.

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“Everything cool, chico?” he asks me in Spanish with a heavy Arabic accent, his dark face poking out from under the shade of his umbrella. I’ve been eavesdropping on him for the last couple hours, understanding nothing, his voice blending with the sound of the small waves tumbling onto the rocky beach—but now he’s speaking directly to me. The sand that spreads between us is an ant’s Sahara.

“Yeah, bastante bien amigo,” I tell him, craning my head back over my shoulder toward where he’s sitting. He smiles, and a skinny arm extends from under the ink-dark shade of the ragged umbrella, beckoning me over. I pull myself up—already sun-drunk from the hours laying on this beach outside Barcelona—and stumble across the tiny desert between us, sitting down heavy next to him.

¿Qué tal?” he smiles, his teeth are like the nearby wharf at the end of the beach, built of cement pilings: angular and broken, tumbled down in a loose line. I imagine his teeth to be covered with the same bright graffiti as those giant cement blocks.

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Ay, muy bien, how could I not be, pasandolo suave here on the beach.” It’s true, after weeks of nonstop transport and mazes of brick cities, cheap rooms and heat, today is full of the glorious feeling of doing nothing. A group of three naked gay men are playing beach ping pong in the sand not far from our umbrella. They’re harmless and macho, strutting around.

There’s another man under the umbrella with us, he’s been mumbling nonstop in indecipherable Arabic since I sat down. He has a lighter complexion that has been burned repeatedly by the strong Spanish sun. There are a few beer cans half-stuck in the sand in front of him, next to the half-full vodka bottle.

“So where are you from?” I ask the first guy.

“Casablanca. Morocco,” he tells me, “though I’ve lived in Spain for almost fifteen years.” He notices that I’m looking at the bleary eyes of our companion. “He’s also from Morocco, but he’s drunk. I like España, it has a little of everything and is a very free country.” A topless old woman crosses between us and the hazy blue Mediterranean. I nod. The two men begin to talk in Arabic, lapsing into French at times. It all blends together.

“I like the sound of Arabic,” I tell him, “I’d love to learn it someday.”

Sí, it’s easy hermano. Go to a mosque, they’ll give you a Koran in Spanish and Arabic, you’ll learn easy.” I smile, thinking this guy is the most relaxed and effective evangelist I’ve ever met. We talk for a few more minutes. Just before I stand to leave, I ask him his name. “Mohammat,” he smiles as he extends his hand. Of course.

Like all countries, Spain is a nation of immigrants, but unlike any other country in western Europe, it was mostly controlled by Arabs for almost eight hundred years, ending in 1492. Just as we still carry the torrid legacy of 1492 with us here in las Américas, Spain too wears its past on its sleeve. In Andalucía, the southernmost province of Spain that was the last to be retaken from the Arabs, the mosques and catholic churches literally blend together.

For several centuries after the fall of its empire, it could be argued that Spain was the Mexico of western Europe. Isolated on the Iberian peninsula, its reputation in Europe held that it was a rural society of darker-skinned people, exotic in culture and sunny in weather.

Yet a far more relevant comparison in today’s world would be this: the United States is to Latin America what the European Union is to Africa. Spain, by extension, could be seen as the southwestern US, or even Arizona. Whereas our southern border is a sea of sand and rock, Andalucía is separated from Africa by a literal sea, less than 30 miles wide.

It’s estimated that in the last decade, over 3,000 people have lost their lives attempting to cross into the United States, most by dehydration. By comparison, the same number have died between Spain and Africa in the last seven months, most by drowning. It is immigration on a scale that no one in this country—on either side of the debate—can even fathom. The connection between the immigration issues effecting both continents is rarely made.

In Spain, immigration is framed much differently. Thanks to its many centuries of empire and current participation in the EU, Spain takes a much more complete view of the situation, seeing it more as a feature of globalization rather than simply “they want our jobs.” Likewise, the response is different. While there is a fair amount of wall-building and militarization, groups such as the pro-immigrant Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía acknowledge that “in Africa [Europeans have] sowed poverty for centuries.”

In a way, the Spanish government recognizes this as well. Its plan includes not just reforming its own immigration system, but also economic aide for North African countries such as Morocco. The thinking is that if economic conditions improve in Africa, Africans will have less reason to immigrate to the EU. Nothing in the US’s plan comes close, except for the creation of border factories on the Mexican side, the maquiladores that began in the 1960’s and have proven to be low-wage pits, spawning shantytowns outside of Nogales and femicide in Ciudad Juarez.

The comparison doesn’t end with immigration. In Spain, Catholicism meets Islam just as in Arizona, the Protestant North meets the Catholic South, and there’s a lot to be learned from the two. There’s something to be learned from Mohammat on that Barcelona beach as well: maybe the meeting of two religions can come down to a relaxed conversation between two people, after which they shake hands and go their separate ways. Wishful thinking, sure, but a little hope and a lot of thinking go a long way on either side of the Atlantic.

An American Poet in Ireland

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The third in my series of articles for The Noise.

“Many a sudden change takes place on an unlikely day.” —Old Irish saying

We arrive in Dublin on National Day of the Sunburn, the sun burning bright and strong on the old streets. Blokes with pink faces and red chests strut the wide sidewalks of O’Connell, carrying their shirts in their fists and lopsided grins on their faces. Cleavage is everywhere burning, happily. Hello, St. Patrick. I bring you my fists full of snakes.

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My entire family is along for this chapter in my international debacle, taking some type of pilgrimage back to our supposed origins. More accurately, it is to be a two-week drunk, thinly disguised as the last “family vacation”—the gran finale to a string of trips running back into my youth.

We board a bus toward the city centre, with mum navigating. I’m sitting on the upper level of the double-decker, stuck between the ripfire sun and tall windows that don’t open. We’re nearing our destination when the bus runs over an electric hippopotamus, the beast screaming and sparking as it goes under our wheels. The bus driver yanks the bus over to the side of the busy street and we all begin to shuffle toward the exit.

Turns out I’m wrong about the hippo bit. The bus driver has had what I’ll hear him describe as “a bit of a smack,” which, turns out, is Irish for “my bus has nearly ripped another car’s door completely off its hinges.”

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“Some genius stopped in the centre lane to let out his girlfriend,” he is going on to explain in a weird, calm voice, the radio pushed to his thin lips, “I had the green and I came up right along it.” Before he describes the rest, I’m already on the sidewalk looking at the girlfriend, who is holding her head in her hands, every part of her body shaking. It was nearly her spine that was bent backwards along with the door of her boyfriend’s good-looking car. No matter, there’s no time for us to stand around, a quartet of tourists gawking at a “bit of a smack.”

There are things to do, such as completing the final steps of the long pilgrimage. We’re only a few kilometers from St. James’ Gate, famous for housing the lead brewery of Guinness & Co.

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Holland is to pot what Ireland is to stout. The Guinness Storehouse is by all accounts the largest single tourist attraction in the entire nation. The 1000+ year-old Christian manuscript known as the Book of Kells, housed at Trinity College? A distant second. An island famous for its drunks attracts drunks for tourists. At the very end of the brewery tour, they offer up the obligatory free pint. Unlikely that a free baptism or pint of holy water is offered after the Book of Keels tour.

“What would the cat’s son do but kill a mouse?” —Old Irish saying

I am son of The Cat. The Cat, aside from financing this fiasco, has been sticking to a strict diet this week, a diet consisting of three basic elements: some potatoes to eat, a graveyard to gawk at, and a pint to wash it all down. This is not a difficult challenge. These things practically fall into one’s lap on this green island. The Cat is giggling now, sucking down the day’s first helping of the alcoholic black milk, clearly in his element.

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We’re at a small pub, crowded around at a smaller table, sunlight pushing through the open door into the dank. The carpet is a dark smear, and the walls recall a friend’s comments about the Copper Queen in Bisbee: “it take a lot of years for tobacco smoke to marinate wood this well.” Nevertheless, smoking in bars and restaurants has been banned in Ireland since 2002. There wasn’t a vote about it, just an overzealous Minister of Health. Nor was there the popular revolt that everyone expected to follow the decision.

We marvel at the menu and its Irish plethora of fried foods and chat up the barkeep as he waits for our pints to settle. “I paid Guinness €15,000 last month, and what did I get for it? Nothin. ‘Kickback’ ain’t the word I’m lookin for, but at least Hinekin passes me a little cap or somethin. Out of every ten pints of stout I sell, nine of ‘em would be Guinness.” For many years, Guinness ran an ad campaign. It was simple. The slogan was “Guinness is good for you.” This was also the era in which pints were prescribed to the sick and to mothers while nursing.

“Never say die, while there’s meat on the shin of a wren.” —A an Irish

Forget shamrocks and leprechauns, there is no more poignant symbol of Ireland today than the cranes that hang over nearly every city. Construction is everywhere, this is an era of progress.

Ireland has been part of the European Union since 1977, and switched to using the Euro currency exclusively in 2002. Today over half of the population is under thirty, and roughly a third of the entire population lives here in Dublin. The youth are obvious. They drip drunk around corners, sunburn on the sidewalks and open their car doors into moving traffic. It’s their time, it’s a hopeful time and they know it.

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There are as many people of Irish decent living in the United States today as in Ireland, but the newfound economic progress has even transformed Ireland into a destination for immigrants. Streams of Poles are immigrating to Dublin, seeking the €7.40 minimum wage, or better.

These Irish never say die. Smacks, drunkery and economic prosperity. What more could a country ask for? I’m son of The Cat and I’ve been killing rats since noon. I can’t walk straight. What more could I ask for on my last family vacation?

“To be red haired to better than to be without a head.”

Indeed.

An American Poet in Guatemala

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The second in my series of articles for The Noise can be found here, on their newly-redesigned website.

We get on the bus before the sun gets on the earth. It’s 4:15am in the dusty Guatemalan city of Santa Elena in El Petén, best known as the service city for the Tikal ruins tourist trade. The bus appears: another big, busted-out old school bus painted in bright colors, which under the bus station’s yellow lights make it look like part of an evil circus.

A man starts calling out its destinations as it coughs and sputters, backing up to the curb. “La Técnica!” is last, it’s the one I’m waiting for along with most people out here, breathing exhaust. The back door is thrown open, the same door I used to practice emergency exits from in elementary school. I grab hold of the bars on either side and pull myself up, my bag and guitar bumping against the sides. (...)

foto: bart pogoda

An American Poet in Cuba

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First published in The Noise, mayo 2006. See all posts on Cuba.

I’ve been in a Cuban house for five minutes when a commercial for the US Army comes on the television, which is playing in the background as we’re all huddled around my map, trying to figure out where exactly I am in La Habana. Turns out that somebody down the block has two satellite dishes hidden on a roof, inside a water tank with the top cut off. From there they have over fifty families hooked up with coax cable, each one is obsessed with Univision and TNT, both en español and from Miami. This is dangerous. This is my first five minutes in a Cuban home.

I’m sitting on an old bed in a crumbling colonial building, trying to remember why it is exactly that I came to Cuba. The bed is in a room I’ve rented from a gay couple who lives together illegally here. Renting me the room is also illegal. And I guess that’s why I’ve come to Cuba: to really see what this country’s people are like, after hearing so much about governments in NAU courses. Turns out that it’s exactly as I expected: everything most Americans know about Cuba is wrong.

For instance, beards. My dear fellow Americans, beards haven’t been popular in Cuba in a generation. In fact, here the two-month-old unkempt fuzzbomb on my face doesn’t peg me as “antiestablishment,” or any such thing. When a Cuban sees a beard like this, they’re wondering por qué quiere parecer el tipo–if my look-a-like beard means I’m a Fidel supporter. Beards in Cuba are like American flag pins on suits in the States: the ruling elite wears them, and we may or may not agree with them, but only the most rabid citizens wear them too.

Most of the Cubans I’ve met don’t describe themselves as communistas, and most make €10 a month. My friend Juan–one half of the gay couple–is explaining the system to me after dinner the other night: sure the government gives out food each month, “pero no alcanza,” it won’t last ten days. For instance, though each citizen receives five pounds of rice each month, they receive only four ounces of low-grade coffee, 250g of cooking oil, eight ounces of chicken, eight eggs, etc. Though there’s one thing that is never lacking in Cuba: the infamous azúcar that has been the base of the Cuban economy since early colonial times. The sugarcane fields are still endless and burn green into the pale island sky.

To make it work, every Cuban is forced to live illegally in one way or another, whether it’s stealing some sweet-smelling cigars from the factory they work at to sell on the side, or renting out a room to a lost American writer for €15 a night. They’re risking ruin by doing so: if I were to be discovered here, my hosts would be fined over €1000, an unthinkable sum.

At this point in the article, you’re probably assuming that I’ve become an anti-Castroite, in league with the rabid masses of exiles and the infamous Miami Mafia. So then, it’s time to point out something else ignored by Americans in thinking about Cuba: it’s more complex than pro-Castro or anti-Castro. In fact, I’ve come to look at it from the perspective of a Cuban, who doesn’t have the luxury to be anti- or pro-. Of the Cubans I’ve met, most couldn’t give two shits about The Beard: they’re too busy trying to figure out how to get some chicken for dinner or worrying about black-clad agents on the roof ripping out the wires that connect them to Univision.

“It’s not him, it’s the bureaucrats around him,” Alberto, a 24-year-old sound engineer, tells me. Most people still feel a nostalgia-tinged loyalty to Castro personally, and most also agree with the elderly man in Cienfuego who puts it this way: “I love my country, but this system, it doesn’t work.” Castro was responsible for some amazing leaps in the early years: bringing literacy the Cuban people, providing free health care–but by all accounts he has now fallen the way of the traditional caudillo strongman.

As far as education and healthcare go these days, it’s exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante who points out “what good is teaching the millions to read when only one man decides what you read?” Higher education is nearly useless without academic freedom, which has steadily eroded.

But as an American who can’t afford health insurance, I admire the Cuban system. Then my friend Dominique in La Habana reminds me, “[the healthcare here] is great as long as your doctor isn’t in Venezuela,” where many Cuban doctors spend years at a time.

The government programs are mostly well-intentioned and idealistically right-on, but are marred by a government’s manipulation and personal grudges. Then again, doesn’t that sound similar to our situation here in the States?

We’re not so different, Cubans and Americans, despite our governments’ respective stupidity. Stick with Alberto, who says “to me, it really doesn’t matter, socialismo o capitalismo. I just want to be able to provide for myself and my family… do you think I could do what you’re doing now? Drop everything and travel to, I don’t know, Japan? That doesn’t exist here…”

For me too, at the moment, there’s more pressing matters than international political systems. For one, my money has run out thanks to my poor planning. I’ll have to hitchhike instead of taking the tourist busses and survive on the salty pizza they sell in the street for 50¢. I’m lucky that at least one American company besides the almighty Coca-Cola has broken my country’s useless embargo: there should be money waiting for me at the local Western Union soon.

Until then, I’ll turn on the TV for some pirated telenovelas and try not to get caught watching them or thinking all these thoughts. Next door, an old lady is yelling about rum. This old building seems to sigh. Down in the street children are playing baseball with a broomstick bat and a bottlecap baseball. Someone is practicing trumpet on a nearby rooftop. Flagstaff seems far away.

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