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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Return of the 8th Grade Mystic, Clairvoyant Catholic

Remaining: the 4 square blocks of the old Ursuline Academy school boundaries in Laredo, Texas. The school is now named St. Augustine. Most of the old buildings are still there, including the High School and Convent where the nuns lived, and the courtyard there where we held dances with a rock and roll band.

Gone: the giant mesquite tree near the 5-8th grade classrooms under whose shade I memorized Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," the trees on the corner where we carved our initials with boy's names we had crushes on, now forgotten; the grotto where I had my only moment of accidental mind-reading: After lunch at home two blocks away, I sped to my classmates on my bike and blurted out the name Sam Jaffe, the name of TV doctor Ben Casey's mentor. The girls spun around and said "shhhh!!!" as they were playing charades. I don't know why I blurted his name. I had plucked the name from the air and said it out loud before I even knew they were playing charades.

Gone: the 3rd floor open room in the convent where we were gathered to watch (great fun) a film. A film about the horrors at Auschwitz (what is most the opposite of great fun?) We cringed and cried to see the mounds of skin and bones. Where was God in all this terror?

Remaining: the office where I sat as an 8th grader, stunned to know I was being asked to leave my school of 9 and a half years (since kindergarten), and would be enrolling at public school. Less austere today is the office than when the nuns were in charge. It is now bright orange in color and students and staff breeze in and out, as I careen between the present and past, its shadows and whispers from 40 years ago.

Remaining: the chapel where we sat each week for prayers or Mass on the first Friday of the month, little Kleenex's pinned to our heads when we forgot to wear our beanies (little caps). The chapel has had a make-over, with new stained glass windows. The square chairs are still there, and the old plaster statues are fragile from the years of standing guard in the humidity of Laredo. I see the statue of the Virgin Mary there, and gaze carefully to catch her eye. I remember the week we learned about the miracle at Lourdes and we all prayed so fervently to repeat the miracle. One girl (not me, I swear on sharp cheddar cheese) thought she saw Mary shed tears and the news of the vision spread from class to class. For days the nuns played traffic cops to a little parade of penitents praying before the statue hoping they could witness her crying.

Gone: the scared 8th grader that was too much for the nuns. She left the old school shamed, but collected herself in short order, making new friends and learning from new teachers. The nuns, when they said good-bye promised to pray for her. The girl is grown and approaching 60, and thanks them for their prayers; she is thriving and so is the old school. There were more than 3 million dollars in scholarships awarded to the 120 graduating seniors this year. Isn't that miraculous?

I miss the old mesquite, the dances under the night sky, the conspiracy of little mystics. I am so happy to have returned and seen how well we are both doing, the school heading toward its 150th anniversary, and one of its once-clairvoyant minor mystics moving well on her divine path, whose journey of learning in life was so strongly shaped within those 4 square blocks.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There May Have Been A Day Without Mexicans on Bridge One

I loved this funny film, "A Day Without Mexicans" and was excited to see life imitating art yesterday while in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. The business community in Nuevo Laredo had called for a boycott of US businesses to protest Arizona's controversial new law allowing the police to stop and question anyone about their immigration status.

I drove over early Monday morning from my hotel to the bridge and was happily reminded the distances were not those that I'm accustomed to living in Pipe Creek. I was at the bridge in less than 10 minutes.

I walked to the area where the toll booths are located and could see the long line of pedestrians, which meant the planned Day Without Mexicans boycott of US businesses had not worked. The supervisor I spoke with said there was no difference in traffic this morning from any other morning.

Later in the day I returned to cross into Nuevo Laredo, and at 4:45 p.m. was the only car on the bridge, both ways. That was strange. I did my interview with the two very generous communication professionals who filled me in on their takes of what the border violence was doing to their lives--everyone staying indoors at night, essentially.

Also stopped in to visit my Aunt Angelica and Cousin Estelita, who live close to the bridge, and then drove home on an equally empty bridge. The attendant on the Mexican side said there had been 70 percent decrease in traffic, while the US Customs agent said there had been no change from the regular traffic.

Later yet that evening, Dee Dee Fuentes, the editor of the Laredo Morning Times met with me. She was working on a story for today's paper about A Day Without Mexicans not panning out. Turns out there can be no day without Mexicans, as people need to show up for work because they depend on a paycheck.

This is the reality, but the point of the film can still be useful in understanding just how interlaced our economies are, especially here in los dos Laredos.

Check out the movie, if you haven't seen it yet, it's funny and it makes you think...what if?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We all have plenty of faith, even narco-traficantes

"There is no such thing as a lack of faith. We all have plenty of faith, it's just that we have faith in the wrong things. We have faith in what can't be done rather than what can be done. We have faith in lack rather than abundance but there is no lack of faith. Faith is a law." (Eric Butterworth)

They are back, my friend reports. She's recently traveled by car from Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey. The roadside chapels built by families of a victim of a roadside car accident are back up after being demolished for the visit to the region last year by Hilary Clinton. The shrines were destroyed because they are an embarrassing and frightening reminder of the cultural changes happening in Mexico.

The roadside chapels used to contain plaster cast icons of the accident victim's saint (the saint on whose day the person was born), images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and others, and rows of candles. You would pull off the road on your way to the main highway to Monterrey to light a candle and pray for your safe journey. It was always smoky from the candles, and always warm. There was a place to kneel and pause to pray before your trip. It always felt like a gift from the family who built it in their loved one's memory.

New roadside shrines similar to the old ones but dedicated to a new deity, the cult of death, started being built along the roadways about ten years ago. Inside are statues of a death skeleton dressed in robes like the religious statues, also surrounded by images and candles.

We stopped to see one when we were last in Mexico in December, 2008 between Bustamante and the Colombia bridge outside of Nuevo Laredo. Inside the ramshackle windswept shelter I started to feel sick. It felt like the earth had suddenly begun spinning backwards and I nearly lost my balance, everything seemed upside down in a Mexico that venerated death instead of life. There were broken bottles and such a sadness in the statues crept over me I had to get out. I quickly took some photos to prove to myself this was real and not a nightmare. We drove on to the border without speaking. I wondered what causes the veneration of the dead? What causes someone to abandon faith in eternal life for faith in a short life ending in violence? Was it the desire for power? Is this new, or have there always been those that trade their souls for the short-term? These shrines are a testament to their coming out of the shadows.

In an excellent New Yorker article, Days of the Dead, Alma Guillermoprieto writes about the cult of death and narco-culture of Mexico in a way that illuminates and helps to explains these questions. The section on the cult of death is on page four.

I will add that these new shrines are good in one important way. They force the discussion about the shadow side of faith in Mexico's terrible struggle with poverty, corruption and maintaining against the odds the values that define its cultural trust: supporting and keeping its families together, healthy and strong, for long productive lives rather than short journeys ending in tragedy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jalapa, who's Your Papa?

Breakfast tacos inspired some word detective work this morning. It started with a large container of "Nacho slices" from Costco, for about $3.85, a great buy for jalapeño peppers.

Jalapeño peppers are becoming part of the mainstream American diet, and the English language is "owning" or "appropriating" the word, as well as the tasty pepper, changing the word used to refer to the hot little chile from jalapeño to "nacho slice". Here's a little backstory:

Jalapa is the capital of the Mexican state of Veracruz. There are about 400,000 people living there, and there is a university and a phenomenal anthropology museum with those great (as in enormous) and mysterious basalt heads that arrived there via waterways and the hard work of slaves thousands of years ago. It's high in the mountains and cool, with lots of trees and rain. It's near Coatepec and Xico, where the best coffee and mole sauces come from. I've been there three times. Once with no money (as in no, none, zilch) and two other times with lots of money (as in my wallet contained two credit cards). I mention this apropos of nothing, other than to say Jalapa is beautiful regardless of the money you may have. The sycamore trees in the park are taller than any I've ever seen, and three people holding hands would not be able to connect around their wide speckled trunks.

Xalapa, the Nauhuatl word for the town, translates to sandy land of water. When the Spanish came they appended the colonial governor's name, Enriquez to the town, but it's known as Jalapa or Xalapa interchangeably. That's how the name jalapeño came to be. The chile was grown there, and started its conquest of the Americas from that rainy, mountain terrain.

So, let's keep track, now: language migration/appropriation # 1: Native tribe names a town. The original name of the chile is lost as far as I know, and it becomes over time known as a jalapeño.

Language migration/appropriation #2: Ends at South Carolina, whose soldiers fought in the Mexican War at Jalapa. They returned to their homes enamored of where they had served, and named their town Jalapa. Pronounced with a hard "j" like in "jelly."

Language migration/appropriation #3: From Detroit. Cars made in the U.S. that were rusted and knocked around were exported for purchase by ship that landed in Veracruz harbor in the 1930's and 1940's, where they were transported to be repaired and resold in the city of Jalapa. Thus the English word for old junky car was born, "jalopy."

So it goes; language is alive; it changes spelling, meaning and it's fun to trace its journey. Next time you have a nacho with the mean green slice upon it, say thanks to the Aztecs and God knows who before them made that jalapeño possible.

Here is a cool link for more commonly known words that trace their roots to Nauhatl.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Terrorism Comes to Texas

The Four-Syllable Word, Terrorism

A four-syllable word can muffle the meaning of concrete feelings.
Take terrorism.
Once a headline for tragedies in far away countries.
It happened to people you would never know.

Sharper focus comes in first-person conversations :
• Schools and churches closed in your grandmother’s village.
• Nine people executed in another ranch town in the sierra where you spent a magical week Christmas ’08 hunting handmade straw chairs, hiking in canyons overlooking a desert oasis.
• The sierra where palm trees grow sideways in walls of slate
now a training camp for ex-police who traded their promises to keep the peace for profit in a new profession.
• News reporters are murdered; those remaining are silent, or writing obliquely to save their lives.

People turn from mass media to word-of-mouth:
• Whispers about a thousand troops sent to the border from the interior.
• Rumors about the Tamaulipas town of Camargo blockaded, no one allowed to leave or to enter.
• An entire village in Chihuahua packing it up and moving to Texas to seek asylum.

This is the new Mexican Revolution:
It convulses the country and spills across borders in a slippery, red flood.

Terrorism doesn’t explain the pain of the mother praying a novena for the son lost in the rain of bullets crossing the street to his class at the university. Nor does it fit for the 17-year old girl who survived two kidnappings, now uproot ed 500 miles from home.
Heartbreaking maybe.

Also, the word longing:
Sweet connection of bridges over a river that gave life, never severed.
Now threatened by greed and machineguns.
Force of might asserting will, gaining turf.
The deaths of thousands never entered on laundered-money ledgers

I am impotent remembering more peaceful times and long for their return:
We flitted like hummingbirds from flower to flower along both sides of the border,
singing songs in English or in Spanish, sometimes both.
We laughed at jokes in English or in Spanish, laughing crosses all language borders without a passport.
We ate at fast-food joints having tacos al pastor or burgers.
We learned the dance of two cultures by afternoons of shopping, visiting with family and friends, dancing in smoky clubs
How the border really was,and when it wasn’t; when it mattered, and when it didn’t.
Like a four-syllable word, the border we lived in had divisions that were apparent, but not discussed.
Layers beneath layers , which we saw, but could not explain or understand.

We never looked up to see
The storm that was brewing outside the fancy restaurants and gated neighborhoods of castles and green lawns.
We didn’t notice
The thunderheads forming over the card-board homes in the desert and the sierra
Where the have-nots watched on television the lives of those that did.
TV showed the way, the ticket to all things.
Old patience worn thin, faith, religion, hope and optimism exhausted.

Words like terrorism, narco-trafficking, money -laundering, and underground economies,
Cloudy constructions, foggy filters that obscure the vision and visceral reaction:
Sit,instead, for just a while in a shadowy chapel.
Cringe in sharp sorrow with mothers and widows who grieve for departed souls and memories of more peaceful times.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Top Reasons for Celebrating Cinco De Mayo

1. Simpler Times.
Mexico defeats France at Puebla. Mexico wins its freedom from French colonial domination. Today, in contrast, it's hard to discern who are wearing the white hats in the crowd of old-government-sponsored-drug-thugs, new, anti-government-drug thugs, new-turn-coat soldiers-aligned with anti-government-drug-thugs, spin-off anti-government drug thugs, etc.

2. Enchiladas Suizas.
French cooking is a great addition that has enriched Mexico's cuisine. Merci boucoup.

3. Half-price lunches at participating locations.
Chamber maids, gardeners and farm-workers temporarily held while traveling to their jobsites in the U.S. receive half-price on their happy meals at all Homeland Security holding station cafeterias (while supplies last).

4. Actors portraying Mexicans.
The U.S. commemorates Latinos' contributions to the magnificent mosaic of American cultures with remembrance of American film actors who have valiantly portrayed Mexicans in American cinema: Marlon Brando. Gracias, Marlon.

5. U.S. Brings End to Mexican Corn Market
The staple of Mexican agriculture, corn, lost its market value when U.S. subsidized corn flooded the market south of the border with cheap corn. Thousands of Mexicans lost their farms and work on farms and were forced to move to cities to find work, including cities in the U.S. No worries. Taco Bell bravely stepped into the Mexican fast-food business to provide the remaining masses with their daily "wraps". The corn goddess Tonantzin is not pleased.

6. Gated-Tourism
Flying in for rays and virgin beaches at heavily guarded Cabo San Lucas and Cozumel is still safe-vacationing for tourists. On the American consulate's no-travel zone: Acapulco, Mazatlan, Mexico City, all points interior (including San Miguel de Allende) and the border, where 5,000 people have died each year on average in drug-traffic related violence.

7. Daily bread vs. Ideology
The terrorism link to Mexican seasonal farm-workers, construction laborers and others coming to the U.S. to work at jobs Americans refuse to do has finally been disproven by the arrests of numerous would be-terrorists from other parts of the world, who only resemble, but are not Latino. Mexican workers leave their homes to earn a living, not for ideological reasons.

8. Legalized Pot.
Mexico's gift to American pharmacology is now being grown and sold legally in parts of the U.S. This is a significant step forward in drying up demand for its supply from old-government-sponsored-drug-thugs, new, anti-government-drug thugs, new-turn-coat soldiers-aligned with anti-government-drug-thugs, spin-off anti-government drug thugs, etc.