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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Deliver Me From Arizona

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven: What were You thinking when you created Arizona elected officials?

This question comes from an Arizona-born, but reared and educated as a “Got-Here-As-Soon-As-I-Could” Texas transplant. This dual citizenship of a sort has made me wonder how two states that make up the major part of the U.S. –Mexico border could be so different in their approaches to immigration.
The answers I’ve come up with are as follows:

(I have had some help with this vexing question from historians at the college where I teach).

1. Arizona legislators put in more hours than ours do in Texas. Ours only meet every two years and for special sessions called by the governor, while theirs meet every year. I’m normally not a less-government-is-better kind of person, but in this case I’m apparently sipping tea.

2. In Arizona, the border with Mexico is a fence dividing the vast, sparsely populated Sonoran desert. You could see it from our back yard in Douglas, where my family lived for 19 years, and where my Dad was killed in a copper smelter accident when I was a toddler. In Texas, the border with Mexico’s Tamaulipas and Chihuahua states is a river, where villages and towns have thrived for more than 300 years.

3. Every year for the better part of this new century, 300 undocumented workers, also known as people, died crossing the Sonora. Last month, unknown thugs murdered an Arizona rancher. The death enraged residents and sparked the state’s lawmakers to pass a controversial law allowing local police to stop those they suspect of being here illegally to show legal work permits or citizenship. One person dead is too many, but you have to wonder if the Arizona lawmakers were wearing cultural blinders not to react in similar shock to the deaths of thousands in the state’s desert.

4. Culturally, Texas’ history is intertwined with those of Spain and Mexico. There have been serious conflicts, some still unresolved. But there has also been, especially at the border, many surprises and successes in the blending of two polar opposites. It takes real grit and tolerance to smooth over differences between such strikingly different cultures, but the Tex-Mex border has been working at it for fun and profit since Texas won its independence from Mexico. This “best of both worlds” brew of heritages is ultimately stronger than any divisions, despite and including dispiriting health and economic problems, and the recent return of the worst of the Wild West, lawless drug cartel thugs.

5. Follow the money. Both states’ largest trading partner is Mexico, yet according to the Department of Transportation, in August of 2008, Texas’ trade with Mexico was estimated at $8.3 billion, while Arizona logged in $787 million in that same month’s business with Mexico.

6. Money talks, but votes talk too, as the old Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project wisely counseled in their bumper sticker slogan, “su voto es su voz” your vote is your voice. According to the U.S. Census, Texan Latinos comprise 36.5% of the state’s population, while in Arizona, Latinos make up 30% of the state’s population. With both the money and demographics talking, it’s no wonder Texas politicians, starting with former Texas governor and U.S. president George W. Bush, have been listening. Their ears are tuned to business and political strategists more than to talk-radio hate-mongers bent on making scapegoats of undocumented workers.

So do we know if the next session of the Texas legislature will pass a law similar to that of Arizona’s? Or will the U.S. Congress finally see beyond election myopia to pass immigration reform that includes a legal accommodation for workers from Mexico? I don’t know, but I do have a sense that the drug cartel crisis will influence the outcome, as well as the new push for our nation’s climate policy. Likewise, Arizona may experience unexpected economic repercussions from the diplomatic fury in Mexico.

Exploring the different stances at the U.S. Mexican border has convinced me that Texas and my birth state, Arizona, diverge in their approach to immigration for reasons that differ as much as their shapes and sizes on the U.S. map. Amen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bring Me the Bathtub of Julia Roberts

The boy’s not-yet-arrived-at-puberty voice lifts over the barren hilltops with a ranchera ballad worthy of the lungs of Vicente Fernandez. It rides on the sunshine and cold wind to swirl around us as we sit resting on centuries-old rubble of stone and mortar that once was a chapel. I hear a phrase, a half sentence, nearly recognize it, and then lose it like a scarf blowing in gusts just beyond my reach. The edges of his voice are thin, but he makes up for his shallow resonance with purity and pluckiness. Since I cannot see him, I picture him with sheep in the background, standing like Julie Andrews in the Alps filmed from a circling helicopter.
We sit high in the Sierra Madre, among the more than 200 year old ruins of the Ciudad Abandonada, The Abandoned City, what remains of the 18th century Real de Catorce, a thousand feet above the present village of Real de Catorce. The ruins are nearly at knee level, with not a trace of the old city’s roofs remaining.
We hear his singing for nearly an hour, as we eat our packed lunches and rest the mountain ponies after a morning of slow climbing up rocky trails. From where we sit on our hilly moonscape we scan the hills around us to try to spot the young, singing shepherd, but cannot find him to wave at him and let him know by our waving that we hear him and like his singing. From behind a nearby hill where he tends his sheep he sings, unaware of the pleasure he sends as he sings to pass the time.
The church of San Francisco de Assisi in the center of Real de Catorce dominates the postage stamp view we have of the village. The church sits across a small plaza from an elegant square building that once served as one of Mexico’s treasury mints. Real’s population reached 40,000 around the turn of the century. Silver was discovered in 1773 and poured from Real into Spain and Mexico’s treasure houses until production ended when the mine was destroyed during the Mexican Revolution. Real’s wealthy citizens shut down the opera house, bullring and their colonial mansions, but some families chose to stay. The two-kilometer, one-lane tunnel that runs though the mountain connects Real to the outside world of San Luis Potosi, two hours to the south, and Saltillo and Monterry four and five hours respectively, to the north. Car headlights bounce as they probe the dark, undulating solid rock walls of the tunnel connecting Real to modern Mexico. A primal memory is stirred while driving through the passage, like navigating the birth canal or awakening from a dream, leaving one world to enter another.
The village spills over with visitors once a year in October for Mexico’s second largest religious pilgrimage. Real’s patron saint is San Francisco de Assisi; the saint’s life size, sandal-footed statue’s worn soles attest to his disinclination to stay put at a newer church built across town for him. Villagers are said to have taken the statue several times to its new home, but each morning it had found its way back to the old church. Villagers saw the wear and dirt on the statue’s sandals and decided to leave it alone.
The large church is a testament to the town’s solid Catholic base, but there is also a relaxed acceptance among the villagers for people with different beliefs, including the pagan beliefs of the ancient native culture of the Huichol who revere their sacred, ancient sites near Real. The Huichol travel on foot across the width of Mexico from the state of Nayarit for their annual ceremonies, which include ritual eating of peyote found in the area. Real’s surreal moonscape, along with its remoteness at 9,000 feet is a magnet for hippies, mystics and urban refugees from around world. The hallucinogenic cactus attracts yo-yo’s and yahoos who foolishly collect burlap sackfuls of peyote buttons they couldn’t ingest in a year, destroying decades of growth in an afternoon of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing” western greediness.
The locals, who are proud of their village and understand its attraction, politely tolerate visitors of all kinds, from professionals from Mexico City on holiday, to scraggly travelers from Anyplace, Planet Earth, on missions of looking for themselves by looking in new places. Locals are accustomed to visitors, but they still view them as somewhat odd curiosities. An anthropologist who lived in Real for seven years told me she detected a common concern, bordering on pity, from the locals toward their resident foreigners. Why would someone want to leave her family and home so far away in England, Italy, or the U.S.? Locals wondered what awful thing had happened to keep a person away from family for so long.
For the past twenty years Real has been populated by about three hundred families and a sprinkling of growing families of new immigrants from Europe and the States. They have opened artist studios and restaurants and are raising families in the arid hills around Real. The latest invasion of outsiders to enter Real was documented in the American press. A Hollywood crew for the (awful) film “The Mexican” brought super stars from California to live for weeks in Real. TV and newspaper accounts about the movie’s filming in the remote location spread news of Real’s existence to a worldwide audience. I followed the news with distress, praying Real would not go Hollywood and be overrun by tourists ruining its ruinous charm.
Spacious showers are standard in Mexican hotel bathrooms, and all memories I have of showering in Real are of racing to finish before the supply of hot water. About a year after the film was shot, on my fourth trip to Real, I am relieved to see only two modestly modern additions: additional phone lines have been installed and a cozy, new one story hotel has been built, both in connection with “The Mexican” film production. One newspaper account reported that the movie star Julia Roberts was unhappy with the whirlpool bathtub installed to her specifications in the hotel, and that she requested it be replaced with another one that suited her better. Brad Pitts, her co-star, is said to have been more accessible and friendlier than Roberts with the locals. He wore an orange tee shirt for several days, and locals copied him, buying out the town’s supply of orange shirts.
Has the singing shepherd seen the movie “The Mexican?” and, if so, what does he make of it? I can’t see him, so I try to picture him. He is about twelve, and short compared to the overfed boys his age in Texas. He has traded his gray hand-me-down clothes for a velvet black mariachi outfit, silver studs along both pants legs. He sings as he twirls a rope in a smoky arena at two a.m. at a state fair, performing to a packed house in the pre-show to the rooster fights, the main attraction. His boots are set with determination in the red sand, legs wide apart, chest held high, head thrown back. His boy’s voice wails into the microphone songs of heartbreak and passion. At the end of his set, in a smooth, sweeping motion, he lifts his dark, jeweled sombrero and bows to the crowd.
We refugees from city jobs scarf down our sandwiches in a hurry, rushing through our lunch break, still on Texas time. We envy the young shepherd and his rhythm of life without stopping to consider if he sings to ward off worries or to mend a broken heart. “What spirit! What optimism! What a legacy the young pastorcito carries, since before the time of Jesus! (I have finally remembered the Spanish word for shepherd boy. My mother used it with the diminutive suffix “ito” when describing the adult hired hand at her father and uncles’ ranch.) His job was probably the first we humans created coming out the gate of the Garden of Eden! Does the pastorcito appreciate this? Does he consider the long tradition of which he is a part?” I am swept up with the romance of the stark terrain and his mysterious singing. I then remember the poverty in Real and realize the pastorcito is unlikely to be as romantic about his life as I am. He’s the boy lost in the reverie of his singing, but he’s also the boy playing at the electronic game machines in the dark bar facing the tiny plaza that is hidden by the treetops a thousand feet below us. He’s the boy reviving the engine of an old cannibalized jalopy that would’ve rotted away in undisturbed retirement decades ago anywhere else but Real. He’s the boy playing soccer and dreaming of a world championship for Mexico. He’s the boy leaving the village at the end of the eighth grade for a job in construction in the metropolis of Monterrey.He's the boy considering a career with narcotraficantes, maybe he'll be lucky and live to be 30!
On this rocky promontory high above the desert I remember vague strains from the CD of the shepherd folksongs of the French composer Canteloube which was the musical accompaniment of the year I spent writing my Master’s thesis. The ranchera ballad the boy sings is as far from the trained voice of Anna Moffo as this desert mountaintop is from France. Their connection to each other is not the voice or the song, but the shepherd's singing and the loneliness the song expresses and heals all at once.
With friends I hiked on shepherd trails in Ireland’s Dingle peninsula one summer, aware that shepherds made the paths we followed centuries before Christianity arrived on the island. I remember the black and white mop of fur we came across one morning outside a village, tied to a low shed. She was mostly bones and fur, wagging her long tail, pleading to be petted, showing us her tummy. A working dog, this Border Collie, gentle with strangers at the edge of peat bogs. Where was her shepherd, and did he sing whenever he got lonesome, or did he lift his cell phone to call a friend instead? I wonder if pastores everywhere are going in for career retraining, checking-in the long hours outdoors in the elements for a job at the soon-to-come-to-your-village-Walmart?
I can only hear the young shepherd in fragments, plumes of sound that drift in and dissipate. Is he near? Beyond that craggy hill? Or is it that one? I can tell he is singing full throttle, no holds barred, his whole heart is in every word. Just like Julie Andrews or Anna Moffo, for the beauty and the joy of it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Census and The Future of Space-Age Mexicans

Update to Census Bureau Procedures:
This is to request the use of special class “M” algorhythm in the 2010 and all future U.S. census of Americans of Mexican descent.
Special interest is due to this affected population group, whose numbers shall heretofore be counted in multiples of two in blue states and four in red states. This special action is required due to their status as endangered in America’s future, as evidenced in recent futuristic films.
Although recent reports estimate Latinos in the US to number 47 million, with the majority being of Mexican descent, media evidence is clear that without these special Bureau of the Census measures, this demographic group will disappear.
Case # 1: Star Trek-- Note the population of the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise reflects a wide diversity of nationalities, there are no Mexicans to be seen. There is an actor portraying the half-human character, Spock, whose name is Zachary Quinto, who initially appeared to have a Hispanic surname. While he did receive a Catholic education, Quinto is in fact Italian-Irish.
Case #2: Avatar—The native population of the planet Na´vi is blue. Conditions seemed more hopeful for the existence of Mexicans due to the appearance of the feisty, immigrant Chicana helicopter pilot portrayed by actress Michelle Rodriguez. While she was instrumental in saving the Na´vi, she unfortunately died when she used her helicopter to help blow up and defeat the machinery that threatened the Na´vi tree of life and wisdom.
Case # 3 Star Wars—Contrary to earlier reports that Star Wars character Chewbacca was Chicano because he is both brown, and is sometimes referred to as “Chuy” by close friends, it has recently been learned that Chewbacca is in fact of Indian extraction. He is currently working on a DVD set of anger management videos with celebrity physician Deepak Chopra.
One possible explanation for the mysterious decline of Mexican Americans may be traced to the recent substitution of the term “flatbread” for tortilla, “wrap” for burrito, and the demise of the 15 year old Taco Bell mascot and media hero, Gidget (Spanish for “I may be small, but I make a six-figure income”).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Follow Up to Post on Nva. Ciudad Guerrero

We traveled to the border this past weekend for the funeral of my sister in law Mary's only brother, Larry Hernandez. Our cousins from Guerrero, Martita and Maricela, and their mother, my Aunt Marta attended the rosary and family gathering after the rosary. They informed me that the schools and church are still closed in Guerrero, after a month of violence such as machine guns going off at night. The government has sent in sailors from the Mexican Navy to try and keep the peace in this tiny border town. My cousin's 8th grade girl is going to move to Nuevo Laredo to try and finish out the school year in Nuevo Laredo. They say they have gotten so tired of the violence, but have learned to simply hit the floor when they hear the sounds of gunfire. What a horrible contrast to the peace that once permeated this little patch of hardscrabble country along the Rio Salado where my mother's ancestors settled to ranch and bring up their children.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Power of Language

Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues was a wonderful experience for all of the women (students, staff and faculty) who took part in the two performances we presented at Northwest Vista this week, Monday, March 29 at 12:30 and Wednesday, March 31 at 7 p.m.Thanks much to Professors Melissa Marlowe and Carina Gonzalez-Stout who spear headed the effort.
The amazing thing about the experience was the transformation I underwent with respect to the word, "vagina". I remember telling my office mates that I was auditioning for a play, and I just avoided saying the name of the play, even though I had seen Ensler's video on TV some years back. I remember the audition, at which I was emboldened to speak only after seeing 9-10 teenage girls have the courage to stand up and go through their audition. I remember thinking, if these young women have the courage, so can I. I didn't know then, but it was a case of The little Coochi Snorcher that could. Or should I say the Panocha that plowed forward! It took several readings of my part (The Vagina Workshop) and a rehearsal with my fellow actors to finally get me out of my discomfort zone about saying the word, "vagina". I got pretty good at it, frankly a bit melodramatic, I'm afraid. In my efforts to learn an English accent, I sounded like Count Chocula. Now, after two performances, the word is (almost) alarmingly easy to use. I'm tossing it around at any opportunity-- in front of my office mates, my friends and even my students-- some of whom were in the audience. Yikes!

My question is, if this word had so many locks and keys to keep it hidden, what are other words that need to be said out loud? Any suggestions, and why do they need to be spoken, the way "vagina" does in Eve Ensler's phenomenal play?