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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




The color of success

12 August 2017

I moved to Mexico in 1996 for my doctoral research. I lived in Colonia Alamos, a declining middle-class area, and went to a mediocre gym in Narvarte. I have a vivid memory of one of my workout friends there telling me, quite emphatically, the title of this blog post. The context was a discussion of…

via ¿No hay racismo en México? — The Power and the Money

Getting by

11 August 2017

Translated from “Instrucciones de un obrero para estirar el salario mínimo” (Luciano Franco, Cronica de Hoy, 11 Agusto 2017).|


Juan Carlos is one of the 7 million Mexicans who, according to Inegi statistics, earn between one and one and a half “salarios minimos” per day.  With superhuman effort, he stretches his 130 peso per day salary to at least guarantee his family is fed, and he can cover the costs of his own commute to and from work, and his children are able to get to school.  

If it were not for the extra income his wife, Patricia, pulls in through informal work on the weekends, and the financial contributions of his eldest son, even paying for utilities would be impossible. Let alone clothing and shoes.  Even with four hours of overtime every week, Juan Carlos’ just couldn’t make it on his wages.  

Juan Carlos is 43 years old. He and Patricia have been married for twenty years and have three children:  18 year old Juan Carlos, 16 year-old Roberto, and 13 year-old Ana Patrica.  He has a high school education and has worked in a metallurgical plant for the last five years.  

He lives in colonia Tenayuca Aqueduct, just over the line into the State of Mexico, where his two younger children attend local schools.  Juan Carlos, Junior, left high school to work in an area department store. His income, along with his mother’s is essential to the family’s survival.  

It helps that Juan Carlos is affiliated with the Mexican Institute of Social Security, which covers the insurance for himself, his wife, and his two minor children.  His income is too low for any withholding to be taken out of his salary.

His regular workday (not counting his routine three or four hours a week of overtime) is 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.  He is up and tout of the shower by  5:30 in the morning, in time for Patricia to take her own shower. The children bathe at night, since… as he puts it… we have to save time, and can’t all use the bathroom in the morning.  

While the children dress and get ready for school, Juan Carlos makes coffee and starts to make breakfast.  Patricia serves up the milk, bread, and scrambled eggs and makes bean sandwiches for the children to eat at school.  

Juan Carlos would prefer to escort  the youngerst, to school, but has to take a microbus to the Metro.  Patricia, takes her daughter “a few blocks” given that the young teen “does not like to come to school with me anymore, “she laughs.

Before heading out, Juan Carlos gives Patricia 100 pesos to cover the daily food budget.  He admits that by the end of the quincena [15 day standard pay period, generally the 15th and 30th day of the month], “I can not really leave that amount,” he acknowledges.

Juan Carlos earns 130 pesos a day – about seven dollars – a few pesos over one and a half times the minimum wage, or about 3,900 a months.  With overtime, he brings home just over 4000 pesos a month.  

75 percent of Juan Carlos’ salary goes to food.  He’s able to put aside a little for his evening treat, normally a sweetroll and coffee.  

Patricia contributes her earnings from part-time, informal work at a neighborhood tiaguis where on Saturdays and Sundays she sells, “whatever: clothes and used shoes in good condition, CDS, and sometimes, sometimes, perfume. We sell everything, so as to help and get ahead with our family.”

The family budget is a simple one:  The two younger children receive 50 pesos a week each.  Juan Carlos’ commuting costs are 42 pesos a day, or 210 a week.  The rest goes for food.  There is no money for extras, like recreation.  Whatever is on television has to suffice for that.  

Other essential expenditures, such as electricity, water, telephone and other services, come out of whatever Patricia earned from her weekend sales job, and whatever the elder son, Juan Carlos,  has been able to contribute after eight months working himself.   

“Juan Carlos junior already contributes a lot to family expenses by taking care of and buying his things and his food, since he almost always eats breakfast and eats out of the house and, even so, contributes financially to his brothers,” says the proud father of the family.

Juan Carlos is part of the more than 7.5 million Mexicans who, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi), with the data from the fourth Government Report, earn between 1 and 1.5 minimum wages per day, and This year is 80.04 pesos.

The drama and economic vicissitudes Juan Carlos and his family face daily to get ahead are not as painful that suffered by the estimated three and half million Mexicans who receive no salary — that is to say, that they only have like tips tips or “commissions”, although they work eight or more hours to the day.

Doctor Mora and Mr. Trump

10 August 2017

Doctor Mora, José Maria Luis Mora Lamadrid, was a maddening bundle of contradictions — a priest who fought for a secular state, a liberal democrat who supported conservative dictators,  Santa Anna’s ideological foe… and the brains behind Santa Anna’s political success.  Born in 1794, he was only a bystander during the bloody War of Independence, spending most of the period as a student at the presigious Colegio de San Ildefonso, earning a doctorate the same year he was ordained, in 1820.

Although holding a clerical  sinacure (as Archdiocesan librarian),  he opposed the 1824 Constitution for what he considered its inherent contradiction in guaranteeing freedom of thought while estabilishing the Roman Catholic Church as the state religion.  He abandonded his clerical post to take up journalism, taking his fight against clerical privilige and arguing for seizure of Church properties.  While he supported the rights of the people against the elites, the 1828 expulsion of Spanish citizens — as well as his own thinking about the French Revolution — led to his backing the conservative coup of the dictator, Antonio Bustamente.  Initially thinking that limiting voting rights to property holders would better guarantee individual rigts than would universal suffrage, he soon realized that this would serve only conservative interests.

In studying the problems related to limiting the vote, based on his observations of election results at a time when Mexico was going back and forth between broad and limited suffrage, he became, in effect, the first political scientist. His findings were the key to, ironically, Santa Anna’s success… and perhaps, better explain Donald Trump’s puzzling election, better than any more recent pundit.

What Mora found was that what today are called the “low information voter” is not all that nuch a factor in elections. Nor really — except for campaign funds — are the rich.   The rich will stay rich, no matter who wins an election, but are invested in the sttus quo.  The “low information voters” … mostly the poor in Mora’s day … will take their opinions from their “betters”.  Peons are not going to have much interaction with rich hacienda owners, but will with the smaller land-owners, the village priest, the local shopkeeper.  Likewise, in the cities, the “better sort” the poor are going to meet with will be government clerks and gofers, market stall owners, journalists, and school-masters.  In short, it was the insecure middle-class (or what would be recognized as middle-class today) that determined who would win elections.

Santa Anna may not have read Mora´s works… but his backers did.  And, Santa Anna — the son of a minor bureaucrat and initially a small time hacienda owner himself — instinctively knew to appeal to the people Mora said were the key to winning office.  As a land-owner, Santa Anna was considered relatively progressive, seeing the welfare of his peones as essential to his own business success.  Moreover, his record as a regional adminstrator, as governor of the Yucatan where he simply ignored regulations imposed by Mexico City when they would harm the local economy suggested to rural middle-class “decision makers” that he would look out for the interests of the middle class, and prevent unrest among the campesinos.   His education policies (Santa Anna’s governments always supported programs to make basic education available to more students) were particularly popular, the great fear among the small-time business owner always being that their children would not have the skills or education needed to maintain or improve their social status.

That Santa Anna was a political chameleon, sometimes a liberal, sometimes a conservative might matter to the elites, but as long as he could hold out the promise of protecting the middle-class, he was safe.  It was only in his last presidency, when he was married into the elites, and appealed to the interests of the elites, that he was finally thrown out of office (and the country) for good.

Pundits today try to explain Trump as a product of the “low information voter” when perhaps they should have looked at the contemporary US equivalent of those 19th century landowners and shopkeepers… the “middle brow” TV pundits, the gas station owner, the departmental manager… though to be fair, Santa Anna often delivered on his promises to protect the middle class and Trump… well…

Drug runner

29 July 2017

This is the sort of one sided news story that I generally feel calls for a stiffly worded rebuttal, but having been in and out of hospitals here the last two months (long story short:  a broken leg, followed by an infection, followed by having a titanium plate installed in my leg) has added — much against my will — to some understanding of where “those people” are getting their ideas.

The Indiana couple who felt they, or rather their preemie baby, was being “held hostage” are pandering to prejuice and indulging in stereotyping in their attempt to find someone to blame for their bad luck… of course.   And the local politicians of even more egregious pandering… and the media nreports were lazy — simply parroting  the family’s version of events unquestioningly.  STILL… recent events (which prevented me from posting as much as I should have… or is that a rationalization?) make me wonder if in part the “issue” isn’t just the naivete and blinkered world’view of so many of our visitors, but at least partially the hospital´s own limited world-view.

Comments posted on Indiana sites that reported the story often mentioned that the couple should have purchased travel insurance.  Especially since the mother was 28 weeks pregnant.  Less noted, but still a factor for many, was that while the couple did have insurance, it was a state “workaround” to the new U.S. health insurance system, and the premature birth wouldn’t have been covered if the couple was anywhere outside the state. Still others noted that the amount the couple had to pay before leaving (about 30,000 US$) was less than they might have to pay “out of pocket” even with what passes for decent insurance in the United States… and that the cost of medical care for a premature baby can easily run to a much higher figure:  up to a million dollars.

All true.  Although those defending the couple generally pointed to claims (by the baby’s grandfather) that the child was a “hostage” in attempts to collect that $30,000 and there were threats to just put the baby on the street if the money wasn’t delivered immediately.

I was fortunate in that when I had my accident, one of the bystanders who stood by me (one asks if complete strangers would have dropped whatever they were doing to assist a person in distress back in Indiana like they did here) happened to be a third-year medical student.  I recall her asking me if I wanted to go to the “foreigners’ hospital”. I expect the Indiana couple, being at an “all-inclusive resort” when the ambulance was called, were just automatically routed to a “foreigners’ hospital”… a euphimism for a U.S. style for-profit medical center.  Like any such business, it is going to immediately start charging the patient the moment they come through the door.  We paid 3000 pesos not too long ago for an emergency room visit to our neighborhood private hospital for what turned out to be a relatively minor incident that resolved itself without medical intervention).

I could have gone to an IMSS (Mexican Social Security Institute), but with stories of the overburdened emergency rooms dancing in my head (I read the papers and watch the news here), I specially asked to be sent to the Red Cross Hospital.  And, even though it is a “not-for-profit” institution, there are still expenses to be met.  I knew that.  With my leg shaped like the letter “Z” and in intense pain, I was more interested in immediate care, and the Red Cross ambulance was on the way.  So …

I spent a week at the Red Cross hospital, and — although the mounting bills (and need to pay before services were rendered) was nerve-wracking… especially that first night when, on top of dealing with the shock of the accident, my spouse had to make multiple trips to Polanco to arrange the intial payments… living here it was expected.  I imagine the Indiana couple somehow had it in their heads that a “foreigners hospital” could just bill them for the services provided, despite not having any insurance, or ties to the country (it’s not like a Mexican hospital can send somebody to collect in a foreign country, and what would they do… threaten to break some legs?).

After my release, there were problems with my recovery and my leg became badly infected.  This meant being re-admitted to  the Red Cross Hospital (and another round of payments), and those “uncovered” services that in Latin America the hospitals can’t provide, that the patient’s family members have to perform.  In the “foreigner hospital” these services might be provided, and the bills presented as they came up… which is what, in the news stories about the Indiana couple… accounts for the extra charges they suggested was a form of shakedown.

One of those costs are the drugs administed to the patient.  Strange but true:  in the name of neo-liberal reforms, hospitals do not include medication with their standard services.  Our inadequate social safety net relies on the assumption that Mexicans are a family-oriented culture, and the family can pick up those tasks the hospital can’t.  Like running to the pharmacy to purchase those medications.  At least price-controls on medications somewhat keep the costs down, it can still be difficult.  And even if you live here, it doesn’t always make sense.  But then, what in any health care system does?

To my spouse, photographer John Kirsch, fell the familial duty of buying my drugs (and dealing with the billing office in general).  His story:

A few minutes earlier, she had told me her name was Laura and that she was the head of surgery at Hospital Cruz Roja.

Only an hour or so earlier, Richard, my husband had been readmitted to the hospital after X-rays found that his leg had refractured and was badly infected.

A few weeks earlier, he had been discharged after surgery on his leg, which he had broken in a bicycle accident.

We had traveled half-way across the city for a checkup, expecting that the doctors would tell us that Richard’s leg was healing and that he would walk again soon.

Instead, Richard was now in the emergency room, being readied for more tests and a likely surgery as doctors looked for ways to combat the infection.

At first, I did not believe my ears when Laura told me, in a calm and even voice, that I would need to buy antibiotics for Richard.

What kind of hospital is this? I wondered. Don’t they have drugs for their patients?

But I could see that Laura was perfectly serious. I would have to stifle my disbelief and find the drugs that Richard needed to fight his infection.

A few minutes later, the short, heavy-set doctor and I raced through the rain to the pharmacy at the Superama a few blocks from the hospital. I didn’t exactly feel like I was in a nightmare because I knew that what was happening was real.

But I still felt caught up in a situation that seemed unreal to me. A hospital that does not have drugs for its patients? The question kept going through my mind.

The situation was so far outside my sense of what is normal that I could  hardly grasp it. All I could do was do what Laura told me to do.

Then the doctor and I were at the pharmacy counter. The pharmacist and the doctor – Laura had told me his name but I could not remember it – discussed the medication, the doctor called Laura to make sure the medication was acceptable, then I paid $700 pesos for two boxes of medication and we were back in the rain on our way back to the hospital.

I left the hospital that night thinking that my drug run had been a one-off affair.

The next day, when a young male nurse handed me a prescription for several drugs, I learned that I was wrong.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said loudly as the nurse walked quickly away.

It dawned on me that I would be expected to buy drugs every day for Richard. I wasn’t mad about the money. I was mad at the hospital, for forcing me, a family member with no medical training, to buy the drugs that my husband needed to fight his infection and get well.

“If you don’t provide drugs, can you even call this a hospital?” I asked one of the doctors a day later. He looked away momentarily and said he and the other doctors were troubled by the policy but that the administration was adamant about keeping it in place.

Each day, Alison, the social worker assigned to Richard’s ward, handed me a prescription for the drugs he needed and I made the rounds of the pharmacies, some of which were blocks from the hospital.

I was usually able to find all the medications the doctors required but a few times I could not. When that happened I sought assurance from a nurse or doctor that Richard would be okay anyway. They gave it, sometimes, I thought, with a bit of hesitation, and I would leave that night with a small twinge of fear in the pit of my stomach.

I have been told that hospitals in Latin America often require family members or friends of patients to buy medications. So I guess my days as a “drug runner” for Cruz Roja were a learning experience.

But part of me is still dumbfounded by the notion of family and friends having to buy drugs for their loved ones in the hospital.

I hope never to have to do that again.

Horns of a dilemma

17 July 2017

Having recently returned from a long hospital stay, and having had to receive medication that included controlled doses of opium… it still strikes me as odd that an opium producing nation like Mexico has to import medical opium from the few nations (mostly former British colonies) allowed by international treaty to produce opium medications.

The heroin epidemic in the United States, at least the latest one, is blamed on easy access and over-prescription of  synthetic opioides, and — while I don’t understand the subtle differences between opioides and opiates (synthetics and those made from opium poppies) — that is a problem for the United States.  One that seems to have more to do with how medications are delivered than with their effectiveness, and/or availability.  Obviously, if persons wanting pain relief are turning to heroin, they haven’t been receiving adequate treatment for pain relief based on less harmful opium-products.  And in the meantime, Mexican and other Latin American patients are paying more than they should for pain relief medication.


And, in the meantime, the slaughter in the name of controlling uncontrolled substances goes on…




150 years ago today

18 June 2017