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La Raza and race

12 November 2017

Officially, since Independence, Mexico has done everything it can to erase the differences between “race” in favor of creating “la raza” — the people.  But, with ethnic identity movements gaining momentum in recent years, there is more awareness by people of their own “race”… for good or ill.  I tend to think the recent interest in racial identity — as evidenced by the inclusion of “Afrodescendiente” (of African descent) in the latest census — has much to do with U.S. influence.

Given that, historically, the Bourbon “casta” system of racial classification was used to prevent people from rising above their assigned station in life, and such classification was considered inherently unfair… and most people, regardless of what their casta was — as long as they couldn’t claim to be pure European — claimed to be mestizo. And, the Afrodescendientes, as a separate community, were forgotten.  That much of the Afrodesceniente community* has been historically neglected may have as much to do with geographical and cultural isolation as racism, but the new ethnic awareness does have positive results, at least identifying areas where more resources are required.

No one believes that racism has disappeared from Mexico, or anywhere else in the Americas (or on planet Earth). But, “race” being a cultural construct in the first place, how do we write about it, when trying to interpret one culture’s constructs for another culture?

Gods, Gachupines and Gringos was written for a U.S. audience.   The U.S. concept of “race” not being exactly the same as the Mexican (or general “Latin American”) sense of raza has presented something of a conundrum.  U.S. critics have noted that I “brown-wash” the whole question of race in the first edition, in accepting the prevailing theory that Mexicans have largely assimilated into the mestizo majority.

Although mestizo simply means “mixed”, it’s usually understood to mean a person of European and Indigenous American ancestry. It’s not a 50-50 proposition.  Is a person of 90% indigenous and 10 percent European “mestizo”?  I’d argue yes, if the person’s culture was that of the Mexican mainstream, and no if the person’s culture was indigenous .  But, it’s much more complicated than that… depending on what part of Mexico one comes from, people likely to also have some Sub-Saharan African, Arab, or East Asian ancestry as well.

Writing for a U.S. audience, what race a historical figure is matters a little more to me while working on GGGV2.0   While I mention that this or that figure was “Afro-Mexican” or that non-European communities like the Chinese and Koreans have played a significant role in various developments, records aren’t always clear as to how the person in question considered him or herself.  Sometimes it’s a toss-up.  The 19th century novelist Guillermo Preito  was, or wasn’t, Afro-Mexican.  It’s interesting that he was the grandson of Padre Morelos (who was described as mestizo, but was at least partially Afro-Mexican) and… having modeled much of his own writing on the Afro-French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, perhaps his ethnicity (or mixed ethnicity) is of some significance.

This video, from “Masaman” deals with the same problem, from the U.S. side of the border:


*Surprisingly, while the Costa Chica (in Guerrero State) and Oaxacan Afro-Mexico community has below average educational and earning levels for their state, Afro-Mexicans in Veracruz and Tabasco have higher educational and earning levels than average.  (Mexico’s Black Population)


One way ticket, please

8 November 2017

The Metro is still the best way to get around town.  And, yes, there is a station at a cemetery.  (Actually, the family said they were just too poor to rent a hearse).

Such a mean old man

16 October 2017

15 year old Kayla America Fuentes tracks down a story most of us would never touch with a ten-foot pole.  The Old Man Who Calls The Border Patrol on Immigrants (Splinter 16 October 2017).  Sombrero tip to Debbie Nathan of


I’d known about Rusty for a long time before I saw those Jeeps. The first time I heard of him was when I was about seven years old, when my family and I were coming back from Matamoros, Mexico—that’s where a lot of my family members live. My mom was talking about what a mean guy Rusty was, how he would call the Border Patrol every time he thought an immigrant was near his house. I actually saw Rusty not long after, at the neighborhood gas station. He was a huge white man with icy blue eyes.

Rusty—also known as Cuban Alfredo Monsees, Jr.—is 69 years old. When he began talking about his family history, I was amazed that it was all connected to Mexico. The most impressive thing was that he said his father was Pancho Villa’s personal servant during the Mexican Revolution. He claimed to have pictures (I didn’t see them). He even told me about his step-brother who was born in Mexico and still living there now.

How can someone with Mexican roots like this be so angry with Mexicans? I wondered. He kept talking.

 Now I just think of him as pathetic, and someone to feel sorry for. Still, he’s a dangerous person in my neighborhood.

Reading for today:

8 October 2017

Dispelling Mexican Narconarratives: Why Most Fiction Gets It All Wrong (Borderlands Beat)

Drugs traffickers are the most visible faces, easier to blame.
Sure, they’re people who have a name and a face that we all want to condemn. They’re the only ones visible in the clandestine economy of drugs. But it’s also an economy that necessitates police and traffic schemes. For drugs to come across the border they need a way in. That usually involves bribing the police, Border Patrol, the military. And even when they get in, the drugs still need to continue to the cities of mass consumption like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. The drugs don’t just evaporate and suddenly show up in New York. There are larger schemes and traffic routes within the U.S. And nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to talk about how is it that you can get high in New York when there’s mass surveillance done by the NSA and others. We all want to talk about the drug lords in Mexico. We want to talk about El Chapo, a guy who didn’t finish elementary school, who doesn’t even know how to send a video message from his cell phone, but suddenly he’s the guy we need to blame. It’s absurd. My agenda is to say that we’re choosing the wrong criminals.

I’m not sure the narcotics trade is any different than any other large-scale multi-national business. While more obviously violent (one can’t exactly send a memo from the CEO to enforce corporate protocol) it depends as much on control of the state as any business like Mobil-Exxon or Walmart does. And run by the same kind of people… putting profits before social responsibility. On the other hand, being a “criminal enterprise”, unlike Mobil-Exxon or Walmart, the management needs to disguise their role which has the ironic effect of making it seem somehow less than other exploitative industries depending on cheap labor and violence… like the oil industry, large scale agrobusiness, etc.

Believe it or not

30 September 2017

When Pope John-Paul II  placed a crown atop the statue of the Virgin of the Assumption (Virgen de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de María) in the 18th century parish church of the Nahuatl community of Copilco, Comacalco, Tabasco, he was hardly the first, nor by any means the last, to pay particular homage to the legendary image.

According to oral tradition, in 1638, a wooden boat washed up on the shore in Paraiso. On board was an image of the Virgin, which pious fishermen carried up to the local church.  The Virgin, apparently knowing her own mind, was found the next morning, heading north.  The fishermen, concluding the Virgin knew her own mind, helped her along, carrying her to the next church north.  Which was not her intended destination, and Virgin again moved on overnight.  Carrying her from church to church, she finally decided to stay in Copilco.

The original church was rebuilt in the late 18th century to house the image, and is considered an outstanding example of tropical baroque.  Particularly colorful, the church as been decorated over the years by local artists, and is, in itself, a tourist destination, apart from the religious pilgrims who have come for the Virgin’s blessings since the mid 17th century.

It’s not that she’s necessarily nice.  In 1800, blood stains in the shapes of soldiers and weapons appeared at the foot of the statue.  Then, snakes were seen writhing around the base.  Along with, of all things, a big cake.  The snakes (six of the seven… a detail always mentioned in the stories, the significance of which is never said) were captured, killed and soaked in alcohol to create what was literally a miracle cure.  Soldiers from the local barracks… who had been in the community to harass the locals… confiscated the cake.  Ate it.  And died.

Her fame as protector of the Nahautls only grew, although she has eventually become seen as the “Queen of Tabasco” (the rationale for the Pope’s ceremonial coronation).  During the radical anti-clerical governorship of Tomás Garrido Canibal, who one year celebrated Mexican Independence Day with a particularly impressive display of pyrotecnics, blowing up Villahermosa Cathedral, the church (and the Virgin) were left alone.  It may have had as much to do with the nascent tourism industry as anything.  Tabasco, being a swampy, oil-producing state, had little enough to recommend it to tourists, and the church was a “must see” site in all the tourist literature.  That the local economy by this time also depended heavily on the pilgrim trade may have had something to do with it too.  Or… maybe even Garrido Canibal didn’t want to mess with those snakes and cakes.

As to the Virgin herself.  Having expressed her opinion of militarism once before, she began to weep when Mexico entered the Second World War and didn’t stop until the war ended.  Or that’s the story.

She began weeping again this last week.  Sadness over the earthquake is the popular explanation.  Maybe, though, she’s mad at Donald Trump… or about NAFTA negotiations… or the likelihood of our next president being from Tabasco… or…?


Santuario de Cupilco

Museo Comunitario de la Virgin de Cupilco


Isn’t that convenient?

29 September 2017

As with any natural disaster, there is always the question of what part unnatural acts played in the devastation.  Specifically, where newer buildings collapsed after the 19 September earthquake, there is a question of whether or not they were built according to specifications (in which case, perhaps the engineering standards need to be looked at), or were corners cut.  And if cut, by whom.. and how.  And, there is always the intriguing question to be asked “Cue bono?”

The tool needed to answer those questions exists… the SIG-CDMX or Sistema de geográfica of SEDUVI, the Secretariá de Desarrollo Urbano y Vivenda.  In other words, the database of  land use and development project data, which ties to the building permits and engineering reports, inspections, etc.

Right now, the excuse is that the Seduvi building was badly damaged, and fiber optic lines to the building were destroyed.  , and the information is unavailable.  You mean there aren’t backups, or that nobody wants to start looking at the data?


Humanitarian tourism and other infamies

28 September 2017

In some ways, I am grateful that my accident, and its too long recovery, has kept me from taking an active role in responding as I might wish to our recent tragedy.  I sense that my own privileged neighborhood received the bulk of international and local attention not because the suffering was worse for us than for others (like the sweatshop workers trapped in a collapsed building in Colonia Obrero, or the congregation at a baptism killed in the collapse of a church in colonia Guerrero, or the residents of the small communities south of the capital), but because the area has excellent access to the rest of the city (my rationale for living here in the first place), is home to some of Mexico’s better known journalists,writers, and artists (and many more wannabes), as well as first-world foreigners.  I suppose it was inevitable that … given the type of people who live here (along with the majority of ordinary middle-class Mexicans), that we’d be the focus of international attention… if for no other reason than foreigners and tourists have at least some idea of where this area is, or at least have vaguely heard in mentioned… if only as something silly like the “new Berlin”.

The best I could do was to repost calls for volunteers to help in other places around the city, and plead with journalists to give coverage to the wider disaster, and not focus too narrowly on this one neighborhood.  Cynically I suspect the reason so much foreign coverage only showed Condesa and Roma was simple.  Not so much the easy access, as it was that cafes and bars in the area managed in most cases to get back to work.  Take a photo, interview an English speaker or two, and file a story (or upload a post) from the comfort of the nearest Starbucks.

Jorge Zepada Patterson, in his weekly column for Madrid’s El País, notes that not all who descended on the area were those who responded to our collective SOS, nor at least intended (with the least amount of trouble) to tell our story, but those who wanted their own story to tell… or at least the vicarious thrill of having been part of something much bigger than themselves:

 (my translation, photo actually from Nepal, but you get the idea)

Together with the first responders, voluntary and otherwise, who contributed their muscle and insomnia in the first 72 hours after the 19 September earthquake (some of whom are still digging through collapsed buildings and toiling in relief centers), a witnessed a new phenomenon that, for lack of a better name, I will call “humanitarian tourism”.

The Condesa has been turned into a kind of apocalyptic theme park, something to visit, an experience to trophy.

Hordes descended to the attractive and bohemian colonies Condesa and Roma, to take “selfies” in front of collapsed buildings. Dressing up in masks and helmets, the tourists record through their cell phones a landscape of devastated buildings and evicted tenants, of streets strewn with crime scene tapes.

I describe it as a “humanitarian tourism”, because – while apparently intended to help the victims and show solidarity with the fallen — is was, in fact, essentially a tourist expedition: a leisurely weekend trip to the Condesa Apocalypse Theme Park : a place to visit, an experience to collect. The last time I went to a museum in New York I was struck by the fact that most of the visitors turned their backs on Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night; they were not going to the museum to see the painting but to take a selfie with the picture behind their smiling and proud faces. They literally passed the work without seeing it. In return, they came out with the digitized image that bluntly declared: “I was here.”

This weekend I went back to thinking about those false cultural tourists. Unfortunately I had to be part of those who could not return home because of the damage to my own home. Hundreds, maybe thousands, wandered around our house wondering where we would sleep that and the following nights, when we could change clothes or pick up the cell phone or where I might find my abandoned wallet. We all received some help from the wonderful volunteers who had morphed into providential angels.

But we also witnessed legions of visitors attracted by the morbidity of the tragedy of others. The same fascination that a road accident exerts on the rest of the motorists who as survivors are free to enjoy the sight without recognizing, t themselves as simply survivors. I suppose that, in fact, witnessing another’s misfortunes makes us survivors.

Humanitarian tourism is no respecter of differences in social class, age, or sex. I saw the elegant ladies of Las Lomas and Polanco wrapped in 500 dollar leather jackets, with their coiffed hair protected by Pineda Covalin scarves as well as youngsters from the slums who can attest to the fact that disasters feast on the affluent as well as anyone else. Both rich and poor accepted rescue vests, masks, and when there was one, some protective helmet, to take an improvised tour of the damaged buildings. At some point they told themselves that there were already too many volunteers, that “it’s best to stay out of the way” and returned where they had come from Yes, but gratified by having felt the desire to help others and by being able to post a photo on Facebook or Instagram to prove it.

Do not misunderstand me. A week ago in my column, I praised the enormous generosity of the thousands who spontaneously in the minutes after the earthquake, and throughout the following days, put their own lives on hold to save the lives of others. t We can never thank you enough for your effort and solidarity. And, of course, behind every tragedy there are huge crimes: from the murderous builders and corrupt building inspectors who forbid buildings, even, to those who committed assaults in the midst of the catastrophe. t Compared with these scoundrels, the false humanitarian tourism that I describe here is a venial sin. Definitely. But it is a frivolity that I had never observed, or at least not on this scale, in the midst of a sin like the one we suffer. Digital post-modernity, I suppose.