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Will “they” get over it… and should they?

13 September 2017

Something by way of a draft for an introduction to a new edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.

Last night, I watched the 2008 documentary The Last Conquistador“... a study of the controversy surrounding the city of El Paso’s commission of a monumental sculpture of Juan de Oñate), one incident that stuck in my mind was a meeting of Hispanic historians and history buffs where one leader said that the Acoma tribe should “just get over it”.  “It” was Oñate’s massacre of an estimated 1000 Acomas in October 1598, followed by the enslavement of the rest, and having the left foot chopped off all the adult male survivors.

Oñate, founder of El Paso/Juarez, and Santa Fe, is undoubtedly a seminal figure in the history of New Spain.  That his impact on what is now part of the United States was largely forgotten by “official” history until quite recently does indeed have more to do with seeing history through a “white lens” (a term I have shamelessly stolen from Joaquín Ramon Herrera, who did the illustrations for, and designed the cover of, the first edition of Gods, Gachupines and Gringos).  Joaquín was referring to the tendency to interpret experience and to explain complex events  through the viewpoint of the privileged class  … in the United States, the “white” majority.  Especially in places like El Paso (a majority “Hispanic” city), paying homage to a Oñate would seem to be a corrective to this — never mind that he was of Jewish-Castillian ancestry (“white” by 21st century reckoning), and the majority of people in El Paso “people of color” — mostly of mixed European and indigenous ancestry.

To the Acoma, and the other Pueblo tribes of New Mexico Oñate was a terrorist and genocidal maniac.  He had more than a hand in wiping out about 80 percent of the communities that existed at his time, and evidently the Viceregal government back in Mexico City agreed.  Despite having “settled” huge new territories for the crown (his forces ranged as far afield as what it now Oklahoma and Kansas), he was recalled to the Capital in 1606, tried and convicted of cruelty but merely stripped of his title as Governor of the new territory, and banished from returning.

Certainly, it is to the credit of sculptor John Houser — who had worked with indigenous communities memorializing their own history — that he was conflicted about the meaning communities gave to his work, and wondered if it hadn’t been a mistake, despite which the 11 meter high monument (allegedly the largest equestrian statue in the world) was installed at the El Paso airport October 2006.

Then this morning, I read a small paean to Juan Garrido, the African born conquistador.  When I was writing my first edition, Afro-Mexican studies was a tiny field.  Most scholars paid attention to the impact of African influence and culture on colonial New Spain and in the early Republic, the contemporary Afro-Mexican community has only been receiving a wider recognition, both by scholars and the general public, in the last decade.  In my first edition,  Garrido got a one-sentence mention, as the first wheat-grower in the Americas.  But his history is hardly that of a benign farmer.  He had taken in active role in the genocide … or as he put it in a letter to King Felipe I, the “pacification” of Cuba, and, as an officer in Nuño Guzmán’s rampaging conquest of what is now Jalisco, an active participant in the reign of terror, enslavement, and genocide perpetrated against the indigenous communities.  Can he be seen as a figure of pride by Afro-Mexicans, or would that be merely substituting a “black lens” for an indigenous one… or is seeing him as a Conquistador, and celebrating his contributions to the creation of New Spain, to see him through the “white lens”?

No historian can guarantee that his or her work is free of all biases, nor am I completely convinced it is necessary to inject my 21st century white lens (even with corrective glasses, fitted by a wide-ranging number of scholars, writers, and ordinary people from various minority cultures) on historical figures.  That is, one has to accept that the often appalling attitudes and actions of our ancestors may not have affected them, or been viewed by them, the same way they affect us.  We’re grossed out by the thought of Aztec human sacrifice, of the (mis)treatment of women and sexual minorities, of slavery, of the whole nonsensical theory of “race”, of any number of things.  The most one can hope to do is say “X did this, and also did that” and let the heroes fall where they may.



El disastre… hardly the first, and definitely not the last, time.

10 September 2017

For obvious reasons, this seems an appropriate historial document to highlight today:

The permanent tourists: when will they ever learn?

2 September 2017

Via one of the “expat” sites:

 A couple, which has been “coming and going on 180 day tourist permits[FMM: technically not a “tourist permit”, but permission to be in Mexico, but not to work in Mexico, for a short period of up to 180 days] for several years” got off the plane recently, “they were then asked to step into the interrogation room and  to hand over their phone and laptop, along with the password for their email.  They hold an on-line job from outside of Mexico. They were questioned about where they live, how long and what was their source of income. The agent then discovered an email on the computer that was an exchange regarding a VBRO email. It was a rental confirmation for a house that they manage for a Canadian friend. The money went into a Canadian account but as far as he was concerned they had income in Mexico. The lecture they got included three main points. They had been residing in Mexico on FMMs intended for Tourists. They would need a Resident Visa to stay in Mexico. They were not permitted to work in Mexico. ´Managing´ Mexican property is a lucrative activity. Lastly they would be responsible for paying tax on the rental income. [Although given a 30-day tourist permit, if they wished to return, the immigration officer said they would need “to visit a Mexican Consulate and apply for residency.”

A lively thread followed, most comments coming from people with residency permits of one sort or another, most of them not particularly sympathetic to the couple.  I’ve been hearing more and more stories like this, and — at the same time — more and more posts from people planning to look for work after they arrive here.  While working “on-line” remains a possibility, or so far is overlooked by the authorities (how to tax income earned abroad is always problematic) I see a few trends developing.

The assumption that one is “entitled” to stay up to six months simply because you cross the border isn’t a given.  Mexico is not some technological backwater, and … although slow to do so… is updating and installing better software.  They can see where a person is continually coming and going as a “tourist” and is rightfully suspicious of those tourists whose entries indicate that they live here.  The Mexicans expect those foreigners living here are not likely to become public charges, and … as US and Canadian (and every other country’s immigration officers) … interrogate the would be visitor about their financial resources, intended destination, purpose for visiting the country, and other matters.  I haven’t heard of anyone denied entry (yet) as happens with some regularity at the US and Canadian borders, but I have run into people given shorter stays when their responses were inadequate.

A few years ago, when after our former employer’s business in Mazatlan had closed, and we had moved to Mexico City, my now spouse inadvertently overstayed his temporary residency permit (which permitted him to work).  It was a complicated situation, and at the advise of our attorney, he  returned to the United States for a few days, then flew back to Mexico expecting to receive a 180 day FMM, which would give ample time to resolve the problem. Not something easily explainable at 2 in the morning.  The 20 days he was given were a little hectic, and we’ve been told the immigration officer overstepped her authority, but that was an unusual situation.  And one we were able to resolve.

The couple in the post, and those “permanent tourists” who are working in Mexico in some way (which would include pet and house sitting… and, obviously, managing rental property) aren’t in some bureaucratic twilight zone, but are clearly violating the laws.  Giving them 20 days to make arrangements to either regularize their situation, or at least wrap up their affairs in the country (and, as supposed tourists, staying less than six months, there wouldn’t be much to wrap up) is relatively humane.  Most other places would just tell you to buy a return ticket on the next plane out.

Of course, having been an “illegal alien” at one time myself (working on a tourist visa, and not even bothering to renew it, to boot) I’m not going to say that this couple were “bad hombres” and — for all I  know — they may have just been victims of bad advise.  After all, the internet (and travel guides, and other foreigners) too often give bad advise. I have no idea if a FMM holder who is paid abroad for on-line work is considered working in Mexico (it would seem NOT YET) but they probably should avoid those jobs meant to earn income within Mexico, like property management, or sales of Mexican goods and services… including language lessons.

There are political considerations in all this, as well. Not so much in some “left/right” argument … between those who see the couple’s woes as some kind of “karmic payback” for mistreatment of less well heeled migrants to wealthier countries, or as some “hypocrisy” for the demands of justice for Mexican migrants who have run afoul of US immigration laws… but in the sense that the comments suggest that the more settled migrants (and expats) are less sympathetic to the “permanent tourists” than I’d thought. Perhaps it’s a feeling that having “gone through the channels” the resident visa holders see themselves as belonging, and the “permanent tourists” as interlopers on their community.  And, perhaps, the Mexicans are starting to agree… that the “tourists” are welcome to visit, but if they plan to stay, at least say so.

Reading Thoreau in Mexico

28 August 2017

Thoreau has been interpreted in many ways … which is only right, given that as a New England Transcendentalist, one’s intuition about an experience is the path to wisdom.  Given that On The Duty of Civil Disobedience was written largely in reaction to his own protest against the U.S. invasion of Mexico, it is only to be expected that our writers’ intuit Thoreau’s political stand as more relevant to this country than even his better known Walden.

Juan Manuel Roca’s “Evocación de Thoreau” from the 27 August Jornada Seminal. My translation*

Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience strong influenced both Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi:. Together they would become icons of an otherwise iconoclastic movement: anarchism.

Inclining towards anarchism, Thoreau is, at core, a pacifist, but his pacifism is pacifism, an active pacifism, involved with politics in a real way.

Born in Massachusetts in 1817, in the 21st century his reputation is mostly as a pioneer in the ecological and environmental ethics movements. He gives testimony to his love for nature in his beautiful Walden, a book about life in the woods that he published in 1847 and which tried to reconcile the split between man with his natural environment.

But, On the duty of civil disobedience is perhaps his greatest political legacy. In 1846 Thoreau refused to pay taxes, in protest both to the war against Mexico and to slavery in the United States, and was sentenced to jail. From there was born his famous treatise, in which he declares as one of his main concepts the idea that governments should not have any more power than the citizens are willing to grant it, even proposing the abolition of all government and in the same vein, opposing all power.

He then declares himself, like any good and true anarchist, an enemy of the State. His influence over the ensuing years has ranged from the Beatnicks to Martin Luther King to the late American environmentalist Murray Bookchin.

Reflecting on Thoreau, the elderly Henry Miller said he was “the best sort of person that a community can produce”. Someone who would have preferred the non-existence of governments if I was in a hurry to define his book. I could say that it is a classic of insobordination, a manual for the disobedient, useful for reinforcing the healthy and necessary ideas of dissent.” Miller himself evoked D. H. Lawrence when he said that Thoreau was a “aristocratic spirit,” which Miller reinforced by saying that “he is closer to an anarchist than to a democrat, a socialist, or a communist.”

When he wrote Of the duty of civil disobedience, he most certainly did not think that the conditions at that historic moment in his country were inalterable. He warned about how, over and above the will of one people, the US government – like so many others – will continue to give rise to “abuse and prejudice before the people can act”.

As an example he presented, “…the current Mexican war, the work of relatively few people who use the government established as an instrument, even though the people would not have authorized that measure.”

It is history as repetition, a macabre caricature that would re-emerge its imperial mood in the Vietnam War and of course in the Iraqui war, which was enthusiastically supported by a spurious government of this country.

Thoreau should be considered a hero in Mexico and deserves tp have a monument to remember him by, as surely as we have one of Gandhi.

* Working from the original Spanish, and not having Henry Miller’s works handy, I can’t vouch for the Miller quote. Thoreau’s, of course, I took directly from the published 1849 text.

One lump or two? Sugar negotiations and NAFTA

19 August 2017

With NAFTA 2.0 negotiations beginning earlier this week, most media focus has been on what the United States expects in a new NAFTA treaty.  While there is still hope in Mexico that a revised treaty might benefit the country (or at least not unduely damage existing economic ties), Ana de Ita, writing in Thursday’s Jornada, believes the earlier negotiations over sugar quotas suggest the present Mexican administration is unprepared, or disinterested, in any new treaty which will prove beneficial to Mexican industry, or…especially… agriculture.  

(Originally published as “Lecciones del azúcar ante la ‘modernización’ del TLCAN“.  I made a few necessary changes to “Englishize” idiomatic expressions, and some changes in sentence structure and verb tenses.).

The sugar negotiations, that preceeded the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which began [Wednesday], came together in a series of errors by the Mexican government, placing it in a weak position. The long dispute over sugar became a political football for the current administration, something that could be sacrificed to save the total renegotiation and exhibit A in how negotiations between the superpower and the weak and non-consensual government of our country are likely to go. .

The Mexican Secretary of Economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, considered maintaining a balance between fructose and sugar in both the US and Mexican markets, but never included fructose imports in the agreement.

In the early 1990s, during NAFTA negotiations, Mexico was a net importer of sugar, but had a small export quota to the United States of 8 thousand tons. Mexican negotiators — betting that privatizating the sugar refineries would increase production and productivity — asked the United States to increase the export quota to 1.65 million tons, which was not accepted. NAFTA increased Mexico’s duty-free export quota only up to 25,000 tons between 1994 and 2000, and up to 150,000 tons between 2001 and 2007 provided there was a surplus of sugar available. But, in the latter period, the surplus could only be for two years in a row.

With the sugar industray in the United States already facing competition from high fructose corn syrup in the soft drink industry, the original agreement was hotly debated.

Mexico’s 15 percent tariff for sugar imports and 210 percent on fructose imports, were to be phased out in 15 years. The parallel letters on sugar signed as a condition for the Clinton administration to accept NAFTA, specified that for Mexico to claim there was a surplus of sugar, it also had to consider fructose consumption. Thus the condition of surplus was never fulfilled in the period of transition between 1994 and 2007.

In 2008, as scheduled, the two countries liberalized the market for all agricultural products. Fructose imports from the United States increased rapidly to $900 million in 2012. On the other hand, Mexican sugar exports also soared to $175 million in 2013. The US sugar industry responded by requesting the Commission for International Commerce to investigate whether the Mexican sugar industry was using subsidies to their industry to “dump” their product on the United States. Mexico was found guilty by this commission that proved that Mexican sugar is exported with margins of dumping. The subsidies refer to the expropriation and rescue of bankrupt refineries by the Fox Administration, following the return of previously expropriated mills to their former owners. This would have allowed the United States to apply tariffs of about 80 percent. To avoid them, the two countries reached a suspension agreement in 2014. Mexico committed to comply with volume and price caps and with a schedule for exports. As a result, the NAFTA liberalization had no effect on sugar.

The Mexican sugar industry responded by asking the Ministry of Economy to investigate dumping by fructose importers. The Ministry concluded in 2015 that while fructose imports were within the margins of undercutting prices, it would not continue the investigation, as it did not cause damage to sugar production.

Late last year, US sugar corporations, claiming that the suspension agreements did not sufficiently protect them, set a deadline of June 5 to reach a new agreement at the risk of imposing tariffs. On June 6, the dispute concluded with a new agreement.

Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce and head of the US negotiation, said: “We have managed to get the Mexican side to accept almost all the demands made by the US sugar industry to solve the flaws of the current system and ensure fair treatment of the producers and sugar refineries of America.” Meanwhile, Secretary Guajardo, responsible for the Mexican side, tried to sell the new agreement as a success, since it maintains the access to the US market for Mexican sugar, with any additional demand available to be offered on the domestic market. Mexican refiners declared that they definitely sacrificed a lot, while the rating agency Moody’s for Latin America summarized the general sentiment: What we saw is that Mexico accepted the punishment imposed by the United States.

Urban wildlife… Godzilla?

16 August 2017

We have been warned!  Well, despite being house bound for now, I knew there were some major changes to the Centro Historico.  But, with the blessings of our local government, it appears we’re in for a major bit of urban renewal… Next week (20-22 August) Godzilla will tower over the “city of palaces” and who knows what will be the result.

Several streets in the Historic Center around Plaza Santo Domingo, will be closed to both foot and motor traffic Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday for filiming “key scenes” for Godzilla, King of Monsters, scheduled for release in 2019.  According to Jefe de Gobierno Miguel Angel Mancera, Godzilla is generating two thousand temporary jobs … as technicians and extras… in addition to economic benefits to local hotels and restaurants…. though I’m concerned that Godzilla may not appreciate Mexican sushi, and I’d hate to make him mad.

People we wish we’d met: Ian Graham

12 August 2017

A direct descendent of Oliver Cromwell, grandson of the fifth Duke of Montrose and son of a Lord, Ian Graham’s unlikely career, recording Mayan hirogliphs, was a mere by-product of his desperate attempt to sell a used car.

Born in 1923, Graham would be an indifferent student, but … with his illustrious ancestry… expected — like hismany relations — to enter into a respectable career in British academia or publishing.  He opted to study physics, but… flunking out his first year at Trinity College Dublin, joined the Royal Navy serving throughout World War II. While he did return to Trinity after the war, he lost interest in physics, and, hopingto make a living publishing coffee-table photographic books, planned to drive across the United States in his well-maintained 1927 Rolls-Royce.  The idea was to sell the car (preferably to a Hollywood movie mogul) to cover the photo expedition, but a road sign changed his life.

Photo: Expedition Magazine, Penn Museum, July 1973

In south Texas, he noticed the sign pointing to the Mexican border.  Mexico seemed more photogenic than Texas, so he turned the Rolls south.  Stopping off in Mexico City, he became first learned about the Mayans, and their ruins. He would spend the next 50 years of his life meticulously photographing every Mayan glpyph could find… often leading expeditions to uncover little known, or unexplored sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.  Eventually hired by Harvard University, Graham’s 17,000 negatives would be the basis for the 1968 Corpus de las Incripciones Jerogliphicas Mayas, the “Bible” of Mayan scholarship.

The Corpus (CMHI) is a more than just a record of every known glyph, but the basis for deciphering a language that has to be recreated backwards.  That is, unlike modern Romance languages (Spanish, French, Catalan, Italian, etc.) where scholars work forward from Latin, and have a known script.  With what we know of Mayan glyphs the result largely of Graham’s own work (and that of 19th century explorer and scholar, Alfred Maudsley) actually being able to read Mayan glyphs is more than just figuring out what each symbol stood for.  It is also a matter of working backwards from the 28 or so extant Mayan languages … work Graham cheerfully predicted shouldn’t take more than another 200 years or so.

Graham’s photographs are often the only remaining evidence of much of the Mayan world,  sites often looted ahead of archeologists and preservationists.  As the pre-emininent expert on these sites, Graham spent much of his later years in courts giving testimony, lobbying governments for stricter penalties for dealing in stolen artifacts, and assisting the Mexican and Guatemalan governments in pressing claims for the return of stolen patrimony. In other instances, where ruins exposed to the elements soon destroyed the glyphs, Graham’s photographs are the only record of what was once visible.

The accidental scholar and jungle explorer was no Indiana Jones.  While he had his share of run-ins with jungle critters, bandits and tourists (he was unfailingly polite to most tourists, especially Mexican and Guatemalan tourists, though he was known to berate those that littered… or, worse… wore tacky tee-shirts), he preferred the civilized comforts of a hotel to camping in the rough.  His rationale was that setting up camp, and cooking out in the wilderness was a waste of time, but there was also the indisputable fact that he believed in three decent meals a day, even if the mid-day meal was a picnic on the job site.  So, at his home in Petan, Guatemala, he maintained a fleet of aging Land Rovers (he was a proper British gentleman, after all), that were cannibalized back and forth to keep one running when he was out on a dig.

El Universal, 12 August 2017

Still working well into his 80s (when he was finally recognized by his own government with a Order of the British Empire, and by the scholarly community with a Macarthur Genius grant), he continued to attend scholarly conferences, and consult with experts on the glyphs while he wrote a biography of his predecessor, Maudsley, and his own autobiography, entitled, tongue-in-cheek, “The Road to Ruins”.

Retiring finally to the family estate in Sussex, he kept busy with an earlier interest, restoring antique Rolls-Royces up until the day he died (1 August) at the age of 94.


Well done, old chap!



Jones, Lee.  My Field Sessions with Ian Graham.  Institute of Mayan Studies,

Reflections on The Road to Ruins (Dave Quarterson), Institute of Mayan Studies, April 2013.

Reinhold, .Robert”Theft and Vandalism” Expedition Magazine 15.4 (July 1973): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, July 1973 Web. 13 Aug 2017

Ventura, Abida.  El legado de Ian Graham, autor de la “Biblia de la epigrafía maya”  El Universal, 12 Augusto 2017