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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.

You have the courage to be afraid

23 September 2017

Juan Villoro’s  El Puño en alto was published the 22 September 2017 in Reforma.  Translation by Peter Davies published in Latin American Focus, 23 September 2017.

A raised fist is normally seen as a sign of defiance.  But, when digging through the rubble, we all know it as the signal to keep absolute silence as rescuers listen for any sign of life below … in a way, a call to defy the unpredictability of our lives.

Eres del lugar donde recoges
la basura.
Donde dos rayos caen
en el mismo sitio.
Porque viste el primero,
esperas el segundo.
Y aquí sigues.
Donde la tierra se abre
y la gente se junta.
Otra vez llegaste tarde:
estás vivo por impuntual,
por no asistir a la cita que
a las 13:14 te había
dado la muerte,
treinta y dos años después
de la otra cita, a la que
tampoco llegaste
a tiempo.
Eres la víctima omitida.
El edificio se cimbró y no
viste pasar la vida ante
tus ojos, como sucede
en las películas.
Te dolió una parte del cuerpo
que no sabías que existía:
La piel de la memoria,
que no traía escenas
de tu vida, sino del
animal que oye crujir
a la materia.
También el agua recordó
lo que fue cuando
era dueña de este sitio.
Tembló en los ríos.
Tembló en las casas
que inventamos en los ríos.
Recogiste los libros de otro
tiempo, el que fuiste
hace mucho ante
esas páginas.Llovió sobre mojado
después de las fiestas
de la patria,
Más cercanas al jolgorio
que a la grandeza.
¿Queda cupo para los héroes
en septiembre?
Tienes miedo.
Tienes el valor de tener miedo.
No sabes qué hacer,
pero haces algo.
No fundaste la ciudad
ni la defendiste de invasores.Eres, si acaso, un pordiosero
de la historia.
El que recoge desperdicios
después de la tragedia.
El que acomoda ladrillos,
junta piedras,
encuentra un peine,
dos zapatos que no hacen juego,
una cartera con fotografías.
El que ordena partes sueltas,
trozos de trozos,
restos, sólo restos.
Lo que cabe en las manos.El que no tiene guantes.
El que reparte agua.
El que regala sus medicinas
porque ya se curó de espanto.
El que vio la luna y soñó
cosas raras, pero no
supo interpretarlas.
El que oyó maullar a su gato
media hora antes y sólo
lo entendió con la primera
sacudida, cuando el agua
salía del excusado.
El que rezó en una lengua
extraña porque olvidó
cómo se reza.
El que recordó quién estaba
en qué lugar.El que fue por sus hijos
a la escuela.
El que pensó en los que
tenían hijos en la escuela.
El que se quedó sin pila.
El que salió a la calle a ofrecer
su celular.
El que entró a robar a un
comercio abandonado
y se arrepintió en
un centro de acopio.
El que supo que salía sobrando.
El que estuvo despierto para
que los demás duerma.
El que es de aquí.
El que acaba de llegar
y ya es de aquí.
El que dice “ciudad” por decir
tú y yo y Pedro y Marta
y Francisco y Guadalupe.
El que lleva dos días sin luz
ni agua.
El que todavía respira.
El que levantó un puño
para pedir silencio.
Los que le hicieron caso.
Los que levantaron el puño.
Los que levantaron el puño
para escuchar
si alguien vivía.
Los que levantaron el puño para
escuchar si alguien
vivía y oyeron
un murmullo.
Los que no dejan de escuchar.
You are from the place where you pick up
the garbage.
Where two bolts of lightning
fall in the same place.
Because you saw the first,
you wait for the second.
And you’re still here.
Where the earth opens
and people come together.
You arrived late again:
You’re alive because you’re unpunctual,
because you didn’t go to the appointment
that death had prepared for you at 13:14,
thirty-two years after the other appointment, which
you didn’t arrive to on time either.
You are the missing victim.
The building swayed and
you didn’t see life pass
before your eyes, like it does
in movies.
A part of your body pained you that you didn’t know existed:
The memory ingrained in your skin
didn’t recall the scenes
of your life, but of the animal within
that hears the creaks of the walls.
The water remembered as well
when it was the master of this place.
It shook in the rivers.
It shook in the houses that we
built over the rivers.
You picked up from the books of another
time, one that you were a long time ago before
these pages.
It never rained but it poured
after the festivities
of the motherland,
that more resembled revelry than greatness.
Is there room for more heroes in September?
You are afraid.
You have the courage to be afraid.You don’t know what to do,
but you do something.
You didn’t found the city
nor defend it from invaders.
You are, if anything, a beggar
of history.
The one who picks up the pieces
after the tragedy.
The one who picks up the bricks,
gathers the stones,
finds a comb,
two shoes that don’t make a pair,
a wallet with photographs.
The one who puts loose parts together,
pieces of pieces,
remnants, only remnants,
whatever fits in your hands.
The one who doesn’t have gloves.
The one who hands out water.
The one who gives away his medicine
because he’s already cured of his horror.
The one who saw the moon and
dreamt strange things, but
didn’t know how to interpret them.
The one who heard her cat meow
half an hour before but only
understood it with the first
tremor when water came out of the toilet.
The one who prayed in a strange language
because he forgot how to pray.
The one who remembered who was at which place.
The one who picked up her kids at school.
The one who thought of those who had kids at school.
The one who ran out of battery.
The one who went out to lend his phone.
The one who entered an abandoned shop to steal
but repented it later
at a collection center.
The one who knew what there was too much of.
The one who was awake so the others could sleep.
The one who is from here.
The one who just arrived
but is from here now.
The one who says “city” by saying
you and I and Pedro and Marta
and Francisco and Guadalupe.
The one who has been without electricity
or water for two days.
The one who’s still breathing.
The one who raises his fist
to ask for silence.
The ones who obeyed.
The ones who raised their fists.
The ones who raised their fists
to listen if someone was still alive.
The ones who raised their fists
to listen if someone
was still alive and heard
a murmur.
The ones who don’t stop listening.

Start following the money…

22 September 2017

Some lessons we learned, others have yet to sink in.


Laura Carlsen on Real News Network:

Anarchy in the CDMX:19 Septiembre 1985… y… 2017

20 September 2017

Obviously, we have had an “eventful” few days here.  The coincidence of another major earthquake on the anniversary of what many here still think of THE earthquake (and only a two hours after a city-wide drill) has been endlessly noted, but apparently, saved lives.  The first responders to the apartment house collapse a few blocks from my house (where, had I not been in a wheelchair recovering from a bicycle accident, I’d have been walking my dog about the time it happened) were construction workers from a nearby renovation project who had just finished a refresher course on what was they should do, should they face a major earthquake ever again.  Which, of course, they did.

But, it wasn’t just the construction workers who popped up, knowing exactly what to do.  In 1985, it was the inability… or reluctance… of the government to respond immediately that forced citizens to set up “ad hoc” disaster relief brigades.  I honestly think it changed the psyche of the country… people did not passively wait for help to arrive, or for someone in authority to pop up to tell them what to do, but took control of their own lives, and responsibility for their community.  While some, like the Brigada de Rescate Tlatelolco have become formal bodies since then (and deserve your support:  paypal donations to, and back in 1985 we didn’t have social media to keep us informed, what surprises me is how organized the unofficial emergency response is.

In 1985, for communications, one had to depend on radio, TV and print journalism.  It took longer to sink in the dimensions of the disaster in 1985.  And, even if the media outlets were able to function, their reporters, pressmen, and technicians either were missing, or unable to get to work.  Elena Poniatowska drafted a writing class for “ladies who lunch” to work as reporters and runners for the newspapers.  A 14 year old boy scout took charge of one rubble-digging crew, under the assumption that SOMEBODY in uniform should be directing the operation (and, it is said, he did a much better job than any military authority around).  Private autos (still relatively rare in those days) were pressed into service as ambulances. And neighbors set up communal kitchens to serve not just the “damnificados” (displaced people) but the hordes of accountants, housewives, students, construction workers, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, punk rockers … who all found themselves not cogs in the machine, but active agents in the running of their own society.  But it took a few days.

Yesterday, within about two hours of the initial quake, Facebook and other social media (it could have been earlier, but I wasn’t checking my social media all that much while sitting out in the street anticipating possible after-shocks) was full of calls for this and that brigade.  None needed a formal name… nor was their any formal leader. But they knew what was needed.  Bicyclists were asked to meet at one place, ready to distribute food and water to sites where other brigades were searching for survivors in collapsed buildings.  And those brigades were listing exactly what they needed:  including megaphones for whoever it was who had to coordinate the effort.  And, if you’ve seen these operations, they are coordinated.

One reads and hears it was “anarchy” back in 1985.  And, in a sense, it was.  The government response was to protect itself from the people.  Much of the business community did the same, more interested in protecting its goods than in rescuing its workers.  It was chaos, but the heroes and heroines of 1985 who saved the city were “anarchists” of a sort.  The masses simply pushed aside the state, and of their own free will worked together under their own leaders… or no leader… to meet the immediate needs of the citizens.

In part, the state has learned its lesson:  one reason we have that drill every year here.  And some (but not enough) better building codes.  Certainly, the “official” groups… Cruz Roja, the hospital staffs, the police, the electric company, etc… have responded quite well, although not always as immediately as one would like.  Not having to go through channels, or wait for instructions, we are almost back to normal in good part thanks to a outbreak of anarchy.