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Curious and incurious cats… mainstream media in Latin America

4 November 2008

Studs Terkel, who died Hallowe’en at the age of 96 said he wanted on his tombstone “Curiosity never killed THIS cat”.  Stefan Stern, in of all places, The Financial Times, wrote a fitting tribute:

“See it human,” urges Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s play All my Sons. Studs Terkel did just that. He listened to ordinary Americans and faithfully reported their views over the course of several highly productive decades.

Terkel grasped the realities of everyday working life. His broadcasts and writings were PR-free zones. They were not neat and convenient summaries of the prevailing conventional wisdom. They were not nice, filtered or censored. They were not advertiser-friendly.

My only time in Chicago was when I filled in on a software project for a couple of weeks when the project administrator had a health emergency.  Most of my work was just updating trouble tickets, which meant talking with the software engineers in various parts of the globe during their business hours.  It was kind of a cushy job… I’d be finished by about two in the afternoon… it was early fall. I had time to get around — but not everywhere.  I can tell you how to find the Uruguayan neighborshood, and where Frank Nitti is buried, but I don’t pretend to know Chicago.  For that, I depended on Studs Terkel.

The gravelly-voiced racounteur (at one point in his checkered career, he was the voice of the “dumb gangster” in radio soap operas) didn’t so much talk to everyone, as listen to them.  From knighted cultural figures like Sir Georg Solti to welfare mothers, street bums and gangsters, Terkel wrote of Chicago and kept us informed of Chicago — and the world at large — by listening to everyone.  Certainly, having grown up in a residence hotel (his family owned it) helped,  and Terkel’s natural inclination to lean to the left (he was blacklisted as a Communist sympathizer in the early days of television) made him receptive to listening to the “little guy” the “forgotten man” … even when we’d just assume forget we ever met the person — having once played a fascist on stage Terkel recognized that it wasn’t so much that people had evil or wrong ideas, but that they wanted not so much validation for their ideas, but validation of their own dignity as human beings.  and a hearing.  He trusted his own audience — his radio listeners and readers — to have the sense to reject the message, and not the messenger.

The son of an immigrant tailor and a circus performer, Terkel’s working class roots were genuine.   I doubt that today, given Terkel’s lack of a Journalism or English degree, he’d be offered a job with any radio station, let alone sent out with a tape recorder by any “mainstream media” outlet.  But, his childhood spent in a residency hotel (his family owned it), and his unusual career path (law student, statistician, actor, and always a curious cat, must have been seen as “experience in lieu of training”… and,  was perfect for a reporter on our life and culture.  And old radical like Studs, of course, loved to follow the amphorous, not always coherent, not always polished curious cats and ordinary voices that populate the internet.  Some of us call ourselves journalists (and some of us actually work as journalists — at least occasionally) and our voices are what is worth reading — “not nice, filtered or censored…. not advertiser-friendly.”  Real.

It was Hallowe’en — the same day Studs’ tape finally ran out — that I read Tracy Wilkerson’s October 26 article in the Los Angeles Times (may require subscription), “Negotiating a real estate mindfield” on her experience apartment hunting in Mexico City.  Wilkerson is a good reporter, and I have no idea what her background is.  For all I know, maybe her mother is a circus performer too.  WIlkerson writes of her experience in trying to rent a “three-bedroom house in an affluent section of Mexico City’s Polanco neighborhood.”

The landlady is worried about renting to narcotics dealers, who — having the money — naturally prefer the posh parts of town. Polanco landladies are human beings, with the dignity of their opinions and beliefs, and their fears of narcotics dealers are genuine.  The article is well worth reading…


This illustrates the real problem with “mainstream media” coverage of Mexico in particular and Latin America in general.  I don’t expect foreign reporters to live in hovels out by the city dump, and Polanco is a nice area, and I’m glad the Los Angeles Times pays reporters well enough to consider living there.  Wilkerson is only looking at a very small slice of real estate when she writes:

Fear, and a desire for security — those are twin urges that govern much of Mexican life these days, as drug wars rage and common crime soars. The neighborhoods around my office are armed camps. Watchmen stand at almost every door; even the dry cleaners might have an armed guard.

And so do many homes. A small apartment building, neat but not luxurious, the kind you might easily find in Silver Lake or Mar Vista, is likely to have a 24-hour armed guard service loath to admit anyone without prior announcement. This takes some adjustment for those of us accustomed to coming and going freely.

I lived in a perfectly safe “cuarto ambuelado” for a couple of months. They are tiny “efficiency sleeping rooms” (much like Chicago’s residency hotels used to offer) and tenants might stay a week, a month or years. The whole room was concrete… even the bed (yes, it had a mattress on top)… all built-in and not at all bizarre when you think about it. When a tenant moved, the mattress came out to be aired and disinfected, and the room was just hosed down. A simple and elegant solution and perfectly normal.  My apartment in Santa Maria de la Ribera (now a “hip” neighborhood) was not guarded, nor would it be.  Most people don’t live that way.  If there was a “guard”, it was the two Jehovah’s Witness ladies who offered up breakfasts and tracts in the morning to local construction workers from the local in the front of the building, or Caneno, the ancient chow who slept in front of the Farmacia next door at night and patrolled the streets by day… or Manches, the Jack Russell Terrier who lived on the roof.

“Many homes…” I give credit to Wilkerson for making this point, but given that, and the statement that “watchmen stand at every door, and even the dry cleaners might have an armed guard” makes me wonder (curious cat that I am) how much of Mexico City the “mainstream media” reporters actually do see.  Many more homes and businesses do not have armed guards.

I once joked, sourly I admit, to a Mexican editor (who had worked as the Washington correspondent for his paper) that most U.S. reporters get lost three blocks off Reforma (most foreign media news bureaus are in the American Express Building).  He didn’t think it was as much a joke as a statement of fact.  A seasoned, Mexico-experienced reporter I know once wrote about “well water shortages” in a middle-class neighborhood (within walking distance of the Zona Rosa).  His source was a maid who lived in a neighborhood with water pressure problems… not a resident.  This was forgivable — the reporter was still finding his way around the Capital, and had been working in another part of the country and just didn’t know that the neighborhood was one of the more desirable (but still, luckily, off the radar screen of foreign yuppies) in the city.  But, it indicates the problem.

Our assumptions — filtered, and advertiser-friendly — are not defined by the reporters, even if they do get out and talk to the people.  One thing that finally turned me off to using Associated Press was the realization that the stories by-lined “Mexico City” too often appeared to be press releases from official sources, with maybe a few quotes and then turned over to a re-write person and an editor who was nowhere near the story… and wasn’t a “curious cat”.  They seemed to drop in the phrase “the teeming slums of….”in every Mexico City story, unless it was in one of the neighborhoods (like Polanco) known to their reporters.   My favorite “teeming slum…” happened in in a neighborhood I used to regularly travere by bus… it was teeming with dairy cattle.

I want reporters to live decently.  I want everyone to live decently, though you can’t expect to go to Mexico City, or Bogata or Lima or anywhere outside of the United States and expect to find an apartment or a house the same as you might find in Los Angeles.  And I want reporters to be safe.   Mexico is a dangerous place for MEXICAN reporters (most of whom can’t afford those places with armed guards), and foreign reporters need to take reasonable precautions.  But one doesn’t live in Latin America… and one certainly cannot pretend to know Latin America … from the protected environment of a compound.

In writing Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, in some ways, maybe I was influenced by Terkel.  A doctoral student in another field of history was appalled that I wasn’t footnoting every sentence.  While certainly I did include footnotes (perhaps too many of them), I wasn’t writing a thesis (though, in some ways, I feel I’ve done as much research as any doctoral student) and wasn’t writing for academics.  And, more importantly, my research methodology was … to coin a word… “Terkelian”.   My book is mostly looking at foreigners, and how we foreigners (both divine and mortal) are seen in Mexico.  And how better to know that than to ask, and remember what I was told?  Oh, sure I depended on the written histories, the documentary evidence, the “accepted sources.”  But I’m not sure in trying to understand the Mexican point of view that soldiers, waitresses, market ladies, railroaders who remembered what their grandfathers claimed, taxi drivers, a nice little old lady in a ski mask, aren’t as valid a source as published “experts” — especially those filtered through their own (and my own) cultural assumptions.

In writing about Mexico… and about living in Mexico.. one needs to be a curious cat.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November 2008 6:49 pm

    My family is definitely of the Studs Tercel frame of mind. My wife is of Mexican/Scottish heritage, and we are from Vermont, USA. About 4 or 5 years ago we decided to take a year off from work, sell alot of our stuff, rent out house out, and go to Mexico for a year. We traveled down the Baha penninsula, and then the Pacific Coast. then north up central Mexico. Our goal – to find a small to medium sized village to live in for the winter, and it had to be well away from any tourists.

    We found the right place, and are still loving it, and visiting it on a regular basis. In 5 years there, we have seen maybe 3 or 4 other tourists.

    We actually don’t consider ourselves tourists at all, and have 2 godchildren in the town now, and are more like relatives to the people there.

    Steve Gallagher

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