La Otra Arizona: SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Part four of La Otra Arizona series.

This month the Supreme Court is expected to take on Arizona’s SB1070, the now-infamous immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. As with any Supreme Court case, SB1070 has traveled a long road of litigation to get to this point: decisions by lower courts, injunctions, appeals, etc. Now we’re headed toward the final decision––perhaps.

The court’s ruling will be on what is essentially a technicality, a question of states’ rights. Does each state in the Union have the right to set its own immigration policy, or is that the sole purview of the federal government, as the constitution seems to assert? Many across the nation await the Court’s answer to that question, as 1070-style legislation has been enacted in other states such as Alabama and “self deportation” becomes an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

However, debating such a complex situation as immigration in such a narrow manner omits some crucial background to the question. What got us to this point, anyway? What has been Arizona’s relationship to immigrants for the 159 years since becoming a US territory in 1853? What groups were considered to be immigrants, and which groups were given a free pass to homestead wherever they liked? While there isn’t space here to fully explore those questions, much can be learned from one example given to us by Arizona history.

The first villains in the tale of Arizona’s “immigration problem” weren’t Mexican, they were Chinese. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, coming mostly from the area near Canton in the coastal region of the Guandong Province. They came across the Pacific because of economics––crushing poverty in their homeland and the lure of seemingly endless jobs in the US, building the transcontinental railroads, working in mines, restaurants and laundries.

By the 1870’s, after the they had finished building the first national transportation system in the US, these workers continued to face the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the young United States. This xenophobia was codified by such laws as the Page Act of 1875, which was an attempt to stop Chinese prostitutes from entering the country. Since most Chinese women were assumed to work as prostitutes, the law effectively barred almost all Chinese women from legal entry to the US. This legislative impulse culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred entry to all except those who worked in a few professions.

However, there existed a loophole: while Chinese were prevented from arriving from China to the US directly, they could still legally arrive via Mexico. Even after the loophole was closed in 1884, the southern US border continued to be a popular point of entry. Indeed, the Chinese were the first group to be denied legal entry to the US based solely on their nationality––they were the country’s first “illegal immigrants.”

Once anything is declared illegal, enforcement can’t be far behind. The modern US Border Patrol has its roots in the “Chinese Inspectors” first appointed in 1891.

The Anti-Chinese movement in Arizona predated the federal legislation, however. An 1869 headline in Prescott read “MORE CHINAMEN––Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week, and have gone to work. There are now four of them which is quite enough.” Nevertheless, their population continued to grow, in 1879 the same paper declared “Prescott has about 75 or 80 Chinamen, which is 75 or 80 too many. Now is a good time to get rid of them.”

Racist editorials in Arizonan newspapers have a long history indeed. In the 1880’s the Tombstone Epitaph, whose editor and former Apache Indian agent John Clum also organized an Anti-Chinese League to “rid the town of evil.” An aspiring politician, Clum was an early example of an attempt to curry xenophobia into support for a political campaign. In 2003 another Tombstone newspaper was carrying anti-immigrant headlines, such as “Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!” but this time the villains were Mexican and the editor was Chris Simcox, founder of a Minuteman-related group.

This Arizonan pattern isn’t hard to pick out. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain have all used fear of an immigrant invasion to help them win elections in recent years. Sex sells, but fear wins elections.

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes on 1070, Arizona will still be forced to address the fact that we live in a border state that belonged to another country just a few generations ago. Framing immigration as a “problem to be solved” is a symptom of historical nearsightedness, and only serves politicians on the campaign trail and businesspeople in the board room.

In the wider context of immigration in Arizona, 1070 is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. If we want to deal with this reality, we’ll work towards understanding immigration as a complex web of issues interwoven with the individual experiences of intelligent and capable human beings. No state or federal law is going to “solve” this––it’s up to us to reimagine what it means to live in a border state entering its second century. It is exciting and unavoidable work.

For further reading:

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands.

Luckingham, Bradford. Minorities in Phoenix a Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona.

Sheridan, Thomas. Arizona: A History.

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.

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 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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