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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saguaro rib // foto: logan phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¿What is Bogotá to you?

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

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

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

¿So why do you paint? ¿Why stencil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¿Anything else?

Live happy, ¡juega siempre!

DjLu

Bienvenido a Colombia: a Brief Story of Militarization and Rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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