El Negrito/The Black One

A colleague of mine and I co-wrote this narrative back in February. The purpose was to interlink Black and Latino liberation in the United States, and politicize said liberation with the No Slavery No Exceptions campaign–fully removing the exceptions clause in the Colorado constitution.

On a day like today, with Alton Sterling’s murder, I wanted to share it publicly.

marcusandjake

“Our black fathers and their sons — “Marcus and Jace” 2015. #WakeUp”

Artist: Jordan Casteel

Fue el estado.

It should be noted that these views son mias, I speak for myself and not for the entirety of my community.

***Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.***

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My name is CM

Mi nombre es AC

We are organizers working on immigration and education

Y somos organizadoras trabajando en las áreas de inmigración y educación

 

But, we are here because we believe that our work, and our communities

Pero, estamos aquí porque creemos que nuestro trabajo, y nuestras comunidades

 

Needs to intersect with our Black brothers and sisters for our liberation

Necesita conectar nuestra propia liberación con la de nuestros hermanos y hermanas Afro-Americanos

 

CM: I do this work, because I have witnessed since my childhood how the men in my family–including my cousin R, are casualties of mass incarceration.

Este trabajo le interesa porque ella es testiga de cómo los hombres en su familia–incluyendo su primo R, son víctimas de de la excarcelación masiva.

My cousin R. will not see his 4 year old son A. for 38 years,

Su primo R. no verá su hijo de cuatro añitos, A., por 38 años

Because the system of mass incarceration coerced him into taking a plea bargain rather than having an opportunity for trial.

Porque el sistema de encarcelación masiva lo ha forzado a elegir un acuerdo con el fiscal en lugar de un juicio.

R., as a child, was unable to access the mental health care services

Desde que R. era niño,  no pudo tener acceso servicios de salud mental

And was constantly named as a troubled brown boy by our failed public education system.

Y constantemente fue etiquetado como otro niño Latino “maleducado” y “con problemas” en un sistema educativo que le ha fallado a él y muchos más.

AC:

A mi me interesa este tema por la experiencia de mis estudiantes y mi familia.

A. does this work, because of her experience with her students and her family.

Cuando enseñaba segundo grado, tenía que enseñar la historia de Harriet Tubman–gran liberadora de los esclavos en el sur de los Estados Unidos. Ella era guia para los esclavos, los llevaba por una ruta secreta hasta que llegaron al norte del río Mississippi hacia su libertad.

When A. taught second grade, she was charged with teaching the story of Harriet Tubman–the Great Liberator of Slaves and conductor of the Underground Railroad.

Para mí, ella era el primer Coyote.

For A., she was the First Cayote.

Pensé en mi propio padre cruzando millas en el desierto y cómo iba escondido en la cajuela de un carro con mis tíos, continuando la diáspora Mexicana al Norte a Los Ángeles y luego a Denver.

She thought of her father, who walked miles of desert and then packed and hidden into the trunk of a car with her uncles, as they continued the Mexican diaspora in the North to Los Angeles and then Denver.

Mis estudiantes y sus padres todos huyeron hacia el Norte, dejando atrás la inestabilidad económica y violencia con la esperanza de ser libres.

Her students and their parents all fled North, leaving behind the economic instability and violence with the hope of being free.

Como mi padre, se fueron en medio de la oscuridad de la noche, guiados por coyotes, con puntos secretos en la jornada, hasta que llegaron con seguridad cruzando al Norte del Río Bravo.

Like A.’s father, they left in the dead of night, guided by coyotes, with secret stopping points along the way, until they arrived safely North of the Rio Grande.

Y aun a la fecha, mis alumnos tuvieron padres que fueron encarcelados en un centro de detención mientras esperaban sus deportaciones.

And to-date, several students have had parents who were detained in an ICE detention center awaiting their deportations.

De esta manera, fue que mis estudiantes pudieren entender la historia de Harriet Tubman y la Jornada de los Esclavos Hacia la Libertad,

This is how her students came to understand the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Esta era su propia historia en muchas maneras.

The story was their own in many ways

As the Gospel of Luke (4:18) proclaims,

Como proclama el evangelio de San Lucas (4:18)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

El Espíritu del Señor está sobre mí

Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor:

Por cuanto me ha ungido para dar buenas nuevas a los pobres

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives,

A pregonar libertad a los cautivos

and recovery of sight to the blind, Y vista a los ciegos

and to let the oppressed go free”

A poner en libertad a los oprimidos

 

 

Como te Voy a Olvidar/How will I forget You

At every club or bar in Mexico City—no matter how hipster or electro chic—there exists the moment when the DJ plays Los Angeles Azules’ “Como te Voy a Olividar.” Time seems to stops for a brief pause, everyone releases a short excited breath and before the singer croons “Amor, Amor, Amor…” the whole room is on the pista de baile, singing along with the track and dancing pasito por pasito to the beat of the cumbia.

Como Te Voy a Olvidar

The first time I really noticed this moment, I was in Morelos with Ellen and my friend Karina’s family. We were at a little restaurant on the side of the road eating an early lunch before heading back up to El D.F. The restaurant had few patrons (despite the best tamales I’ve ever had in my life), and an outhouse-style bathroom. I was walking back from the bathroom when I heard this song play. I looked around and was struck at how odd it seemed that no one was dancing. And then I quickly realized the absurdity of this thought given that it was 11 AM on Sunday—not a Friday or Saturday night out in Condesa or Zona Rosa after a few Bohemias.

In that moment I was transfixed by the beauty of picking up on something so native to the culture, like recognizing the song everyone knows and loves. This is similar to the first Homecoming dance at Colorado College, when the DJ played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I stood in awe as the massive crowd of white people—both current students and alumni alike– wailed every word of the song, jumped into a collective mosh-pit, and  practiced their best air-guitars.

These moments served as teaching moments in which I learned I both did and didn’t belong. I didn’t have enough of a white-American childhood to know Who-TF Journey is, nor did I know the Mexican-Banda scene well enough (my parents preferred ranchero stylings of Jalisco) to know about Los Angeles Azules. Ni Gringa ni Chilanga.

Como te Voy a Olvidar and Don’t Stop Believing are songs which at one point were only vaguely familiar to me, and are now songs I adore. They incite me to sing and dance to cultural synchronicity. I even know one more song by Los Angeles Azules (see “Llorar, Llorar“).

In either case, I belong for the length of a pop-song. When the music stops, I stop belonging. I have to explain to the kids at the CC Cabin that “no, I have really never heard the song ‘Wagon Wheel,’” as a classmate plays it around the campfire. As my oh-so-cool Mexican cousins stare aghast, I explain I don’t know the dance to to cumbias because they only play hip hop at my middle school dances.

Belonging and not-Belonging was a recurring theme in my time in D.F. (hence, the name of this blog). At times I had the cultural advantage over my fellow Fulbright peers. I could pass as A Mexican when I ordered food off menus, related to people around me at the Metro stations, or hung out with my tia in el centro de Tlalpan. But other times, I was taught by my Defeños explicitly How-to-be-A-Mexican. There was the time Lalo laughed endlessly over all the idioms I didn’t know, and taught me that “el cameron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente” is the flip side of the early bird getting the worm. No soy de aqui, ni soy de aya.

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At this point, it’s been a year and a half since I lived in Mexico City. In December 2014, I went for five days after after I had been back in the USA for six months. Next month, December 2015, I will go back for another five days to visit Lalo, Mario, Toy, and hopefully see Mayela (my Venezuelan). I can’t wait to be on a plane, peer out the window and see the sea of endless lights, get off the plane and be in El D.F. again. The answer to como te voy a olvidar, is that I have not forgotten my city, 22 million strong.

The year-and-a-half back in the United States has been a return back to my family, friends, the mountains, and home. Monday-Friday (sometimes Saturdays) I spend my time with “radical priests and building power in local schools” (it’s in quotations because that’s what’s in my bio on Hinge and Bumble ja ja) working as an Organizer. I live with Millie, who just bought herself a new house on the east side, close to my work. The art I bought the last time I was in D.F. is framed and mounted on the wall of my new room. Megan left me for school in New York (though at least she is with Jordan). Lucille and I still go to Hip Hop Fridays and complain about the Newly Arrived to Denver. I volunteer with my alma mater on the alumni board, with a local foundation on their grant making committee, on a city-commission, and am dabbling with communications work on another volunteer board. I dated someone and it ended. I drove my little gold Honda until a semi hit me on the highway, and now I drive an eco-friendly gas-efficient Mazda. I’ve managed to see Ellen, Meredith, Mariah, Robert, Liz, and Colton on this side of the Rio Grande since we all came back. And Wendy even moved to Denver this past summer. I stopped eating meat and became a vegetarian (that sometimes eats fish). My eyes and heart are still wide open, and my hair just as big (though it has been highlighted, grown out, and then cut short again). By all means, I have made a complete return to my life in Denver with a more intentional plan to take over the city with my people leading the charge.

Yet because of the work I chose to do, this year-and-a-half has also been marked by death and detention. The news showed us the seemingly endless death of black boys. The news didn’t show us the brown boys and black girls that fell along with them. Fue el estado. For a moment I thought John Boehner had experienced a moment of grace when Pope Francis came to the U.S.A., but no. The moment passed, and Paul Ryan announced the death of comprehensive immigration reform, while the courts leave us with baited breath on the prospect of administrative relief. Local governments continue to allow the detention of immigrants in centers beyond what the eye can see–whether it is in rural California or in the big concrete GEO facility in Aurora, Colorado. But if you look closely, you can find the children of the deported in your local school. If you listen closely, the detained will tap on the windows of their holding cells in downtown Philadelphia, begging to be seen, while a tourist comes up to you and asks if “that is where the ‘illegals’ are.”

Of course, the moments of not-belonging and belonging are frequent and unnerving. Trader Joes is new to me, and when I belong I go there with all the other Denverites and buy my dark-chocolate peanut butter cups, frozen saag paneer, and marvel at how happy the employees seem as they sincerely ask you their how-are-yous. Last week, I was reminded I didn’t belong. I waited in line to buy my five-dollar bottle of Tempranillo wine. It was a long line that curled to the back of the liquor-section. As I got closer I watched people around me, thinking back on the day as I had volunteered in my little sister’s kindergarten classroom. I was thinking about the innocence of her students like Fernanda, and the razor sharp wit of Denecia (Duh-knee-see-uh- she told me). My thoughts were interrupted as I heard laughing near the the wine-tasting table. Of course I started eavesdropping, wondering what-was-so-funny. The employee leaned into her captive audience drinking the two-buck-chuck as she made a joke about “illegal” and “legal” wines and the border. The whole crowd laughed and my face felt hot and burned.

The line in front of me moved, and I wondered what I should say. An educated, empowered, self-assured Latina like me should be ready to call out in a moments notice. Yet the shame of it all made me shrink, swipe my card, take my wine, and go.

Oh the phrases, clap-backs, and come-backs I’ve thought of since that moment at Trader Joes. I couldn’t pass as white-American in the line so as to laugh along with them. I couldn’t pass as Mexican in the line (maybe my curly hair?), or she wouldn’t have made the joke in the first place. Coloradans are not as obvious or overt with their racism. Coloradans like to hide their racism and prejudice behind polite-smiles or laugh among themselves when they think People of Color are not policing their political correctness. Not all Coloradans, but a lot. Including the ones who leave angry comments on Denver Post articles about ‘illegals’ and with outrage at the prospect of Syrian refugees. Including the ones who share the right-kind of liberal articles on social media. It’s like Jumoke said, they may be micro-agressions for white people, but they always feel like macro-agressions to us. Micro, Macro, transgressions nonetheless.

Last Saturday I found myself at a local wine bar with a bonafide Mexican. At the moment He is working as an architect in town. He is from el Norte, (from Chihuahua, went to El Tec de Monterrey), who is reading Ayn Rand, plays in a rock-en-espanol band, and expects to be on the U.S. Olympic karate team. We got to talking about the individual and the collective, and whether place determines who you are. I don’t think he knew that this is a favorite topic of mine, as in D.F. I was neither a chilanga nor a gringa.

He told me Denver was a home for-now, and I asked whether he saw Denver as a home for-the-future, given that in Mexico the peso keeps falling and the students keep disappearing. He explained that Mexico would only change if he people like him returned and made the country a better place. He explained this all in Spanish with the sort of zeal and esperanza that could light a fire somewhere. Arturo finished the explanation of his vision, with the conclusion that place does not determine your existence nor your person.

I sipped my tempranillo and explained that in the U.S.A., you could tell me the zip code a child lives in and I could reasonably predict the future; life expectancy, probability of jail time or diabetes, likelihood of social mobility. I explained how We love labels, and that whether I call myself Chicana, Mexicana, Hispanic, or Latina, I represent a whole community and not an individual. “Angela, what does the Latino community think about _____(insert any given subject)_?”

I explained how We never talk about the “white community,” because they get to be individuals, detached from their collective history and present actions. In D.F. I was not a gringa, nor a chilanga, but I was Brown like everyone else. I was part of the “normal,” and therefore granted a sense of individual identity.

The whole time, he listened. He didn’t interrupt me to ask me if I was “sure” it was always about race or immigration status or language. He did not man-splain, disagree, or even agree. He considered what I said, took a sip of his own tempranillo, acutely aware of being a Mexican who chose to come to the United States as an exercise of his own free will for the development of his career and person. He posited “I guess for me the question is not what do I call myself, but who am I?”

colorado

This question struck me because I find “myself” both among 22 million in D.F. singing “como te voy a olvidar,” and also leading a protest-vigil in front of the D.M.V. at 5280 feet above sea-level with immigrants, demanding their dignity and their rights. Maybe His esperanza is what holds true, and I must find that in the moments of acceptance and rejection. Take a cue from the mass of white people at the sweaty Homecoming dance, and “don’t stop–believing…” Believing in the esperanza that endures.

Con Disgusto y Desgracia/In Disgust and Disgrace

Patzcuaro, Dia de los Muertos, October 2013

Since I was a kid, my mother has always described me as inquieta. For the gringos, this term roughly translates to a state of restlessness, or not being able to sit still. It is usually used to describe the physical state of being restless–it could be used to describe my second grade student Fernando (aka Chicken Nugget–another story, for another time) who could not, for the love of God, sit cross-cross-apple sauce for more than five minutes. I had a carpet with 30 multi-colored squares in front of my teacher-chair. The school wide  expectation was that my students would sit in SLANT position (Sit Up. Lean Forward. Ask and Answer Questions. Nod Your Head. Track the Speaker). I loved SLANT because it encouraged my students to be active learners, especially when teachers used SLANT to encourage their students to ask and answer questions. Asking questions, being intellectually curious, is something that is important to foster in all kids (not just my 6 and 7 year olds) because it leads to critical thinking. This is why I became dismayed when I noticed other teachers using SLANT as a means of control. Students HAD to sit within the box, with their backs perfectly straight. Effectively discouraging students to think outside of the box–much less speak or question in a critical manner. Fernando, was one of my brightest and most clever students who was so inquieto, he could not sit still in the box. After about five minutes Fernando’s feet would start to wiggle and if was not given the freedom to stretch outside the box on the carpet, he would revert to poking the nearest classmate (usually little girls) to distract them, and himself. But common sense shows us that students are all different. Not all can learn within the confines of a hyper-structured box. So, my compromise with Fernando was that he could stretch out and take up two squares as long as he stayed focused on the content at hand. It was a simple compromise, but many in my building would have shook their head. I didn’t need to control my students to the minutia, provided that they were actively learning and pushing me. Critical thinking not only encourages a deep and meaningful sort of learning, but also implies that students should be active participants in their community–holding teachers, principals, elected representatives, and the system accountable for their end of the social contract. True checks and balances.

my second grade students

my second grade students

project2

my second grade students

project 1

mis estudiantes de segundo grado

However, when my mom or dad call me inquieta, it does not refer to my physical state of being. As a student I annoyingly sat cross-cross apple sauce and sat in my box perfectly. Yet, my mind was/is very inquieta. Much to the dismay of my teachers, I would shout out answers and could not raise my hand. This would continuously get me sent out of the classroom in second grade and I would cry. I could NOT understand WHY I could not raise my hand, and also WHY I was being punished if I had the right answers. As I got older, I learned that I had to raise my hand to let others in my class participate in the learning process. I understood that I had a hard time holding my thoughts to myself because I often have thousands of thoughts going on in my head all at once, and I have to say them out-loud to process and learn. What led me to work in social justice is the very fact that I hate feeling inquieta. I can’t stand seeing injustice in the world around me and feel helpless, as if I can do nothing about it! My parents and family taught me that you should never sit around complain–instead they would ask, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ My maternal grandparents refused to continue to live in poverty, immigrated to the United States, and sent money back to their families so they could use it towards their education and general welfare. My late godfather taught me that Christianity (or take it as faith in general) is about putting your faith into action and towards justice on Earth. This is why when I was about to graduate from college and realized I was one of a handful of first generation Latinas on campus, I decided to return to my community and teach. This is why when I came back from Mexico and saw that some of my students had regressed in their academics and social-emotional health because of a dysfunctional immigration system, limited access to health care, and a corporatization of the detention process, I decided to work at the school as a community organizer.  I am inquieta and have to do something, whatever I can, about the world around me. Being inquieta, restless, and tired of the injustice in the world is something that should be fostered in students and citizens alike. The older I get, the more I realize that Margaret Mead was right when she advised us to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…and that indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This blog was supposed to end with my return to Denver, to my home. Yet my time in Mexico City led me to the realization that one can have more than one home and be a part of more than one culture. Both gringa and Chilanga (by way of Michoacán). Additionally, it is my inequietud, which leads me to write this post. I have been reading the news (Mexican and United-States) for the last two months con muchisimo disgusto y desgracia at the slaughter of 43 students (as if by calling them ‘normalistas’ means that they were not students). I’m full of disgust at the violence and disgraced at the collusion of the state and narcos, which has led to their murder. I am dismayed at the bumbling apathy in the national government’s response, from the Attorney General’s…“ya me canse” to the president’s assertion that violence will not lead to justice. The worst of which, is that when President Enrique Peña Nieto refers to violence, he does not mean the killing of the 43 innocent students, he means the civil disobedience that led to setting the door of el Palacio Nacional aflame.

Today, the Mexican President’s stepdaughter proclaimed at an award’s ceremony that “no era el momento…de hablar de Ayotzinapa.” I reject this notion. Now is the time to talk about Ayotzinapa. Now is the time to DO something about Aytozinapa. The Mexican Constitution forbids foreigners from participating in protest movements, otherwise they are subject to have their visas revoked and subsequently deported. In fact, part of my orientation last year included a strict warning to stay away from the teacher protests that were going on at the time, and not participate in any way. This why if I were in Mexico City right now as a Fulbrighter, I would have been discouraged me from attending protests and even sharing pictures on social media. Knowledge is power, and this scares people who expect everyone to sit in their box, shut-up, and listen. It is why slave-owners in the American south were forbidden to teach slaves how to read. As famed historian Enrique Krauze explained in the New York Times, “But why kill innocent students? For the simple reason that their political demonstrations, civic protests and revolutionary idealism are bad for business. A man who has been arrested for his involvement in the tragedy added another reason: “Because they are unruly.” I would add, that they were also killed because they were inquietos. 

estudiantes-desaparecidos-en-iguala_655x438

The Mexican people, students around the world, and Mexicans abroad are tired, están cansados of violence, of collusion between narcos and the state, of a disgustingly weak judicial system, of being portrayed as nacos for protesting, and of brutal repression. And my gringos don’t get off the hook with sharing a buzzfeed article with a hashtag of #todossomosaytozinapa or #weareallayotzinapa. It’s all fine and good for people in the United States to condemn violence in Mexico. But the government of the United States must also acknowledge its role in the violence. The collusion between the local government, narco, and police led to the massacre in Guerrero (like Michoacan and other states), and is in-part rooted in the United State’s insistence on a failed Drug War, and militarization of local forces by way of Plan Merida. Furthermore, if you are a drug user in the United States–be you a yuppie snorting lines of coke at a college party, or a hipster taking molly before a concertyou contribute to the demand for drugs that allows narcos to not only profit, but gain power. Including the power to kill 43 students, assassinate innocent taxi drivers like my own tio in Michoacan, and to “disappear” thousands of other people.

It is ridiculous to expect second grade students to sit complacently and conform within the bounds of a box on a carpet. It is just as ridiculous to expect students around the world to not share what they see and hear on social media. It is absurd to expect students in one of the poorest of states to sit quietly in their classrooms, conformes con la destitud de su escuela, con la marginalizacion de su gente. When someone’s house is on fire, you can’t blame them for running out.

huelga

My mother was a normalista in Michoacán, just like the 43 students who were killed, set on fire, and then allegedly thrown into a river. The irony here is that Normales (teacher-training colleges in rural regions) were created to exist in the poorest and most isolated of places, with the idea that people from those communities could educate and empower their own. When the 43 normalistas engaged in civil disobedience to call attention to the lack of funds for their school, and to agitate the government and system that failed them, they were assassinated. Me llena con disgusto y desgracia por mi pais. 

Castillo de Chapultepec, Mural by Juan O'Gorman Spring 2013

Castillo de Chapultepec, Mural by Juan O’Gorman
Spring 2013

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References (please read, watch, and share):

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/opinion/enrique-krauze-mexicos-barbarous-tragedy.html?_r=0

http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21625789-modernise-country-needs-law-and-order-much-economic-reform-when-crime-unchecked?fb_action_ids=10204859772790959&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_ref=scn%2Ffb_ec%2Fwhen_crime_is_unchecked

http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-mansion-20141110-story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/11/09/mexican-governments-tired-but-not-the-protesters/

http://www.vox.com/2014/10/30/7090443/americas-war-on-drug-mass-graves-mexican-students

http://www.mientrastantoenmexico.mx/1365345746/

http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikeywilson/ten-things-everyone-should-know-about-mexicos-vio-12pv3

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/10/23/358236149/mexican-prosecutor-says-mayor-wife-ordered-attack-on-students

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30002547

http://dcgazette.com/presidential-palace-in-mexico-set-on-fire-by-protesters/

Sign a petition:

https://www.facebook.com/Presente.org?v=app_335652843138116&app_data=%7B%22organization_id%22%3A502%2C%22referring_action_id%22%3A5406%2C%22fb_referrer_uid%22%3Anull%2C%22source%22%3Anull%7D

En Limbo/ In Limbo

The first time I ever went to Mexico City was September of 2011. I was in my first year of teaching, and had just graduated from CC. The Mexican Consulate in Colorado had nominated me to represent the region at a conference of Jovenes Mexicanos en el Exterior, or Young Mexicans abroad. The idea was that the Mexican Secretary of the Exterior (SRE) would bring together young Mexicans who were working to better the lives of migrants in the areas of education, health, politics, finances, or art. In this manner, you could not only build a network of young Mexicans, but also better inform them of the various services local consulates had to offer citizens abroad. By and large, the majority of us were Mexican Americans, maybe not born, but certainly bred in the U.S.-of-A. Other delegates were Mexican nationals who were living or studying abroad in places like Argentina, Brazil, the U.K, and Bosnia. Amidst the discussion of consular services, the unofficial theme of the conference among the Mexican-Americans was our cultural limbo. There is a poignant part of an otherwise wonderfully tacky Selena movie where Edward James Olmos says,

“Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else. I’m serious…We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina. Anglo food is too bland. And yet when we go to Mexico, we get the runs. Now that, to me, is embarrassing. Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours … is right next door. Right over there. And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” (You can hear and see him yourself https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=697533739840)

At the time, I remember feeling especially self-conscious about my Spanish in Mexico City. Who wants to sound like a pocha in front of government officials?! Not I, said the ni gringa, ni chilanga

When I first started this blog, I acknowledged this limbo and had the hope that in Mexico City, I would not experience that feeling-of-neither-here-nor-there, ni de aquí, ni de allá. That as a Mexicana, I’d blend into society seamlessly, that no one would question my parentage, my ethnic background, and that I would feel as though Mexico was my home because I would finally be part of the majority group. I sought to understand, even quite desperately, what it was like to be a Mexican in Mexico.

I knew all too well what it was like to be a Mexican in the United States. A large part of that experience is precisely that aforementioned cultural limbo, including the pain that comes with being in between, or on the edge of two different cultures. The first time I came back to the United States from Mexico City, I confronted that pain as soon as my plane landed in Sky Habor International Airport in Phoenix.

I had just come back from the three day conference in Mexico City, elated by the people I had met, the chaos of Mexico City, the business men and women walking down Reforma, and feeling as though I had taken a wider step into the Mexican-side of the limbo, of the in-between, of the edge. It was a side I didn’t know as much. I was in this state of joy as I got off the plane, and even as I waited in-line at Immigration, another limbo. Customs and Immigration is the legal limbo (or really, political construction) in between leaving one country and entering another.

At that point, I had just left Mexico and was coming home. I had my layover in Phoenix, but would soon be on my way to Denver, mi casa. Signs told me I couldn’t immediately take out my phone and start checking-in or posting silly statuses on Facebook because there were no cell phones allowed. So instead I looked around me. I was in the line for American citizens and permanent residents. I saw people from my flight in line with me–mostly families coming back from the beach, or businessmen who were away for work. Only myself and the man in front of me stood out. We were neither tourists, nor businessmen. We were also not-white.

I thought nothing of it until one Immigration officer started making her rounds around the line reminding us all, in a flat-monotone voice, to “Please have your documents readily available to present.” I thought it was strange because the line was going super slow, and there were still about ten people in front of me, waiting to be called up to the Immigration officer. Nevertheless, I took my passport out of my bag and stared ahead. She passed by me, stared at me hard, located my passport with her eyes, and kept moving. Then she came back towards me, stopped at the man in front of me, and commanded him to “Sir, take out your documents now.” I looked ahead to see how close we were to the immigration officer, but we were nowhere near the front. The man looked shocked, and started digging into his carry-on, in search of his passport. The Immigration officer stamped her foot, and said, “Come on, sir, take your documents out now where I can see them. If you are in this line, you are not like your friends, you don’t have to hide anymore.”

I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. Her words may not seem like anything unusual, but her tone was unmistakeable. It was cold, it was sarcastic, and she meant he didn’t belong. What did she mean when she said “you don’t have to hide anymore,” or “you are not like your friends”? She assumed that surely the man must have been undocumented at one point, and that if he was not, surely, all of his brown friends were in this country illegally, with no documents, hiding from la migra, ICE, just like he was “hiding” his documents. The man just stared at her, pulled out his passport, and faced forward as the line moved a tiny bit forward.

I’d like to say that at that point, I stamped my foot and asked her very loudly what she meant by telling him he didn’t have to “hide” anymore, and what she was implying about his “friends.” I’d like to say that I pointedly asked her why she was harassing the man in front of me, if he wasn’t anywhere near the front of the queue. I’d like to say that I asked to speak to her supervisor and filed a complaint.   But I didn’t. I stared in silence, just like the man in front of me. 

At that moment, just coming back from Mexico City, I was reminded that I was not always readily accepted by as American. And neither are people who look like me, and speak the language I speak.

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The second time I went to Mexico City was on August 19, 2013.  I had packed the night before, and had discovered I was twenty pounds overweight in both of my giant suitcases. As punishment, I had to pay $130, buy another suitcase, move excess baggage into the new one, and then pay to check that third piece of luggage. For the first time in my life I cursed the number of dresses and shoes I own–maybe I do have too many…I arrived in Houston and met this talkative chica, Wendy, who was another Fulbrighter. Also another Mexican American, another ni gringa ni chilanga. This girl’s confidence and attitude had moved her up to first class (or maybe Economy plus?) in her previous flight from Los Angeles. She was also leaving her last year of Teach for America. Esa Wendy also chose to go to Mexico to explore her parent’s country. So much so, she would even be living with her extended family in Aguascalientes. 

This time, in Mexico City, I was not around other Mexican-Americans for a mere three days. I was to be around some gringo Fulbrighters and the 25 million who make up the Distrito Federal for the next year of my life. I spent that year teaching, learning, traveling, connecting with a few of those 25 million people, and contemplating my identity and experience in Mexico.

I taught English, American customs like Thanksgiving and Hip Hop as social resistance, pedagogical principles like Expect 100% Attention, 100% of the Time, how teachers can empower their students to use their education to achieve social change in the rural communities of Puebla, and that “bitch don’t kill my vibe,” is the equivalent of “no mates mi vibra.” I taught backwards-planning and multiculturalism in the U.S. public school system. I taught the wonders of debate as a way to learn English, as a rhetorical art-form, professional tool, intellectual game, and exercise in critical thinking. I taught U.S. imperialism then-and-now, and let’s talk about it, but cuidadito if you blame all the world’s woes on the red, white, and blue, because we don’t do it alone, and yeah, you may hate us, or love us, but it’s still an obsession (Gracias, M.I.A). 

I learned about Mexican history, like the fathers of the Mexican revolution (that was not really a revolution according to Rius and everyone else), about afters (the bars you go to after the clubs close), The PRI, architecture and design, and the Greats who used murals to teach illiterate Mexicans, about Vasconcelos at UNAM, about how green salsa is spicier than red salsa (unless it’s the orange one, because that means it’s made from habaneros!), that you should always look both ways before you cross the street, that meeting at 5:00 really means 5:30, that chilangos openly engage in public displays of affection with their significant other all the time in public, that propriety requires you to kiss everyone on the cheek (except for that one time my student got way too close to my mouth), that comida corrida is the best thing that has ever existed for a mere 50 pesos, that chronic diarrhea is normal (just take a Treda and a suero), that the waves are more gentle in bays than in mar abierto, that iguana mole is a thing, that Victoria is always better than Corona (and a tie between Bohemia and Leon), and that you can wander DF and learn about it’s history by seeing the ruins of a pyramid, Spanish colonial homes and cathedrals, and refurbished and dilapidated art deco buildings all in the same historic city center with a guapo urbanista as your guide.   

 

I traveled to the turquoise shores of Tulum, to the periwinkle sky of Cozumel, to the disparate dusty desert of Tierra Caliente, to south of Morelos and into a river full of little fish who nip at your skin. I traveled to the top of the pyramids of the Mexica, the Miztec, the Zapotec, the Chichimeca, of those who lived in Caxactla, to the ones whose names I forgot at Tepotzlan. I traveled to the churches built on top of, next to, and behind those pyramids, gilded with the gold of those who were forced to into labor and Christianity. I traveled to the homes of my friends whose parents treated me as one of their own, and encouraged me to eat everything on the table, because estas en tu casa. I traveled to the lakes at Patzcuaro, with the skulls, and the yellow light, and the marigolds that those in India also put on their dead in the Ganges River. I traveled to the north of the DF to the Tepeyac of the virgencita, to the Condesa near the city center, to my home in the south where I might as well be in Cuernavaca. I traveled on the train ligero, on the Metro, on the MetroBus, on the pesero, and by foot. I traveled one last time to Michoacán on the Tuesday before I left, where it meets the state of Mexico and there are blue walls with white trimmed windows and corundas and pink cathedrals, and lots and lots of rain, but who cares because we sat there next to each other laughing. And before that I had traveled to my family’s home in Michoacán, where I smelled the burned trash, heard whispers of the narcos and the did-you-hear-who-was-found-dead by-the-side-of-the-road, where I got on a horse named Hidalgo and trotted down to a waterfall, drank the best coffee there is (from Uruapan), coffee that looks like mud and is called–La Lucha, The Struggle.

connected with the two Venezolanas who made arepas and those plantane patties, the lady from my favorite Tlacoyo stand, the two best amigos who took me to Cuernavaca and cried before I left, the students who told me about their kids, their families, and about their ex-boyfriends who they hate. I connected with the people who said provecho before I ate, who said salud after I sneezed, who said con perimiso as they walked by, and gracias when they sat in my seat on the bus. I connected with those who called me maestra, señorita, greñuda, chica, morenita, Angelitachinita, Chicana, pocha (oh-no-you-didn’t), and guerita even though I’m brown. I connected with the ladies on the women-only vagon on the Metrobus, with the boy who I beat at Jenga at the coffee shop near the Francia stop on Insurgentes. I connected with those smart kids like esa Amy who gave up her Friday nights to work at shelters full of Central Americans making their way North, with esa Ellen who runs circles past everyone and their mother like a gazelle, with esa Liz from D.C. who pushes you to think beyond your limits, with esa Claire who knows hip hop trivia and feminism, with ese Col-ton, the real guerito whose southern drawl makes all the boys come to the yard, with the freckled Bay-area Britt who doesn’t care if the embassy says she can’t go there (because she goes anyway), with the real British girl esa Isabella who tells you pants are really underwear, with esa Meredith, the too-cool teacher who sews aprons on a vintage Brother sewing machine, with esa Allie who saves dogs from the streets, with ese Johnny who sits in cafes with you, ese Juan aka Wan who will make you seem like you know how to salsa with ease, with esa Samantha and her story of the conquest on the back of the bus, with esa Mariah who says her last name is Nah-pol-ehs not Nape-lll-s (get it right), with ese Robert who jumps through waves with you in Oaxaca and explains the theory of language (you still don’t get), and with esa Wendy who says she is definitely a gringa grown in Commerce-East-Los-Angeles.  

contemplated my identity on the bus, as I saw the Mexicanas in their heels and felt the (sometimes) silent stares of the men. I contemplated my identity when I saw my prima dance with her new husband at her wedding, when I took my parents to Puebla and we ate the best mole in the world (especially the pipian), and when my brother and I painted our faces like catrinas on the Dia de los Muertos. I contemplated my identity on this very blog. I thought I was neither gringa nor chilanga, but really I am both.

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The last time I came back home to mi casa en Denver from Mexico City was on June 1st, 2014. I flew in the aisle seat like always (the window makes me feel claustrophobic, and the middle suffocates me), only paid $40 to check a second bag (no overage fees), and landed in Houston for my layover (no Phoenix, thank goodness). Houston had automatic machines that scanned my passport in place of an Immigration officer, and in customs the friendly man said “Oh you’ve been living in Mexico City and now you’re back? How was that? Oh great. Well, we are happy to have you back. Welcome Home.”

I’ve been in the United States for 25 days and I am still in limbo. When the waiter brought my thai food (YESSSS I GET TO EAT DRUNKEN NOODLES AGAIN), I said “muchas gracias,” and he stared at me weird, and Millie laughed. I speak Spanglish to my parents, but now they don’t mind so-much. One day I cheer for Mexico against Brazil, and the next day I root for the USA against Ghana in the World Cup. I only use my car when I go visit my family in the suburbs, because I miss the miles I walked and thought in the streets of Mexico City (it’s two miles/one hour to work and my new hippie deodorant with no aluminum doesn’t really work). I get upset when I sneeze and no one says bless you or salud in the vicinity. I don’t get money until this Friday, so I’ve been putting everything on my credit the American way. I eat tostadas at my parents house and have already had bacon cheeseburgers (and even an elk burger) on multiple occasions (probably again tomorrow with Lucille and Megan). I listen to NPR as I get dressed and read Proceso and Noticias MVS and CNN Mexico at work. I notice art deco buildings in Denver when I walk, and think about the history of the Mile High City, just like I did in the D.F. My old 720 number now belongs to a woman named Cheryl, my Movistar +52 Mexico +55 DF SIM card is somewhere on my desk, and now I have a new 303 number where I still whatsapp the people who I love in DF. I am doing work I like, with people who I admire, and dance to hip hop with Millie, and live with Megan (my roommate forever) again and a new friend named Cora with-a- flute in a little house with a ghost in the attic (or in my room?). In the fall I don’t know where I’ll be or what I will do.

But I’m 25 and feliz. A gringo who knows nothing about me messaged me saying “Hey there Chilanga” and I loved it. Now I know I’m both. One foot in Mexico, and the other in the States. 

7 Dias y la Toz del Octavo Bloque/7 Days and the 8th Block Cough

I have seven days left in Mexico and I have had the 8th block cough for the last week. This post will make no sense to those outside the Colorado College community. Recent graduates, freshmen, and alumni of the CC community can empathize. To begin to understand this, one must first appreciate the beauty of The Block Plan. At CC, we take 8 classes a year (like at any college), but we take them one-at-a-time. Instead of taking four classes a semester all at once, we will take one class for three and a half weeks. The next three classes in the semester will follow each other successively (as opposed to at once). Classes usually last from 9 AM to 12 PM (unless you have lab, ha ha suckazzz), and then you have about five hours of homework the rest of the day, in addition to whatever activities or jobs you may have on campus. It’s not uncommon to have your midterm exam on the First Friday of the block, or to be expected to write your thesis in one or two blocks. At the end of the block, you have a five day break known as Block Break. We work really hard, and play just as intensely. In a sense, it takes a gloriously insane person to live and learn in this lifestyle. It’s not for everyone, but for us, there is no other way. (For more about how much I love the block plan http://www.digitalpodcast.com/items/8284581, start at 3:47)

Anyway, the first and eighth block of the year are the most celebrated. In particular, during 8th block we revel in the completion of thesis, our last class at CC, and the future’s prospect. Perhaps such celebration is also a way to evade the end, to post-pone the need to say goodbye to those who have been your family for the last four years. In any case, there is a pressure to relish every single day because the whole college experience is ending. You may darty every single day, and party every single night. You may ensure that you are surrounded by your closest friends every second of the block in some sort of hike, trek to the Cheyenne Mountain pool, or whatever. But such constant activity and outings have definite effects on your physical health–we call this chronic cold/flu the “8th Block Cough.” Similarly, for the past week I have had a lingering cough and laryngitis. Yesterday I couldn’t speak at all, and today I can sort of loud-whisper.

This last month has been a lot like 8th block, and not just because of my cough. I feel the same way I did before I graduated. As though I have to actively cling onto every moment with intensity, because this Fulbright experience is about to end. Where I may have previously lounged in my pajamas reading a book to improve my Spanish (currently Aura) or watching The Mindy Project in my apartment–every moment I spend in my apartment now seems like a waste of time. I will only be a Chilanga for seven more days, so I feel the need to be out and about in Mexico City with great urgency. This month we have:

  • Taken advantage of seeing movies for 50-some pesos! I’ve seen La Bicicleta Verde, Who is Dayani Cristal?, and today I’ll hopefully go see the new Wes Anderson film, El Gran Hotel Budapest
  • Visited museums, Museums, Museums! Specifically, the MUNAL, MUAC, and the one at Tlatelolco
  • Stimulated the local economy…ahem…shopping– You may have seen my new shoes:
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Hand Cut leather from Leon, wedges

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Capa de Ozona, Plaza Via Coapa, flats

  • Got out of bad situations--I have moved out of the apartment I had been living in this past year because of roommate-drama. Previously I lived with my two Venezuelan roommates, and my landlord. My two Venezuelans moved out last week because our landlord wanted to hijack their rent, charge us per night when we had family/friends over, and generally bad treatment. At the beginning of this week, my landlord and her mother stalked one of my Venezuelans at work, screaming and yelling obscenities. Though I had been a sort of neutral-party in this scenario, the stalking was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided to pack up my stuff and move in with my Venezuelans in their new apartment. Maye and Dayanna are letting me live with them until I live with them free of rent, so I donated a microwave to our new apartment. We cook dinner together, drink wine, and talk politics. Plus they will randomly cook me some Venezuelan fare, and it makes me so happy.
  • Went to Puebla for Cinco De Mayo–Puebla is the site of the historic battle between Mexico and the French. It is the only state in Mexico that celebrates the day at all. Ellen, Amy, and I took the bus to Puebla in the morning. We tried to see the parade, but we could not find a good viewing spot due to crowds who had gotten there much earlier than us. So we ended up wandering the city, and eating mixiote, mole enchiladas, and ice cream.
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Ellen and Amy at La Pasita, oldest cantina in Puebla

  • Saw a show at Bellas Artes–Ellen’s friend Becky was in town, so Esther and I accompanied them to the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico Amalia Hernandez one Sunday night. We got dressed up at had wine at the Torre Latinoamericana beforehand, and went to see the show afterwards. Each of the Mexican states has its own style of dance and music; in Michoacan we have the Danza de los Viejitos, where dancers dress up like old woman in rebozos, and use the walking canes as dance props. Veracruz has jarocho music on guitars and harps, and Jalisco boasts the country’s first Mariachi band and dance inspired by charros. This show is is a stunning compilation of all the different kinds of  traditional Mexican dance and music.

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  • Ate at traditional cantinas–Cantinas are the historic bar-restaurant establishments of Mexico, and the best ones in the DF are in the historic city center. The way that it works is that you order a beer or drink, and then the waiters will bring by continuous plates of small tapas. Basically you pay for your drinks, and then get free food. Meanwhile, there is either live Mariachi playing in the background, or a juke box plays songs that every one knows and sings out loud together. We went to one called La Mascota in Centro Historico. I think Anthony Bourdain had been there before on some episode, but it was a wonderful cantina anyway. Some cantinas are the kind where only men go, and so they stare warily when groups of gringas walk-in. But this cantina had an eclectic mix of tables full of families with young children, tables of old men, mixed gender friend groups, young people, and then us. A table nearby treated us to a free round of Victorias, I sang-aloud to Selena’s Amor Prohibido, and shared a plate of snails in Mole with Ellen.
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Caracoles en Mole

  • Went out dancing every weekend–Centro Historico Cantinas, Centro Historico Republica de Cuba (gay bars that play pop music and have great dancing), Garibaldi (open till early morning bars with mariachi), Casa de España (Amanditita dj’d a mix of Mexican cumbias and Brittney Spears), and our Despedida this weekend at some antro in Napoles.
  • Met someone and beat them at a game of Jenga in a DF cafe.
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  • Spent a day at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico)Visited the sculptural gardens, climbed these sculptures to get an amazing view of the city, saw a documentary on the Zoot Suit Riots as part of a film festival on Chicanos in America, and then got free tickets to the American String Quartet in Sala Nezahualcóyotl. This was all in one day. There is ALWAYS something going on at UNAM. For a while I was just sitting on one of the plazas watching the little lizards darting in and out of the volcanic rock. The campus is home to some of Mexico’s most famous murals by Siqueiros, but in an interesting contrast, is also designed by a modern functionalist architects. It’s a stunning and historic campus.
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I don’t think this is Siqueiros, but still badass

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Centro Cultural Universitario, home to the MUAC and sculptural gardens

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Watching the adorable little lizards, they are everywhere!

  • Went to Tlatelolco–Tlatelolco is  home to a plaza called La Plaza de las Tres Culturas.  The Mexican government allowed the riot police to massacre and “disappear” a number of students during a protest in the 60’s. You can visit this plaza and a museum on the massacre. There are also some prehistoric ruins in the area that commemorate the fall of the indigenous people to the Spanish, and the birth of modern Mexico. These ruins make it an especially haunting space. This was the last outing all of the Mexico City Fulbright ETAs spent together. Colton leaves tomorrow, Amy leaves in late July, Ellen leaves on Friday, and Claire, Liz, and I all leave on Sunday. Britt came down from Toluca and we had a wonderful day wandering the museum, exploring the plaza where the massacre occurred, and even played on an old playground.
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    “We will neither forgive, nor will we forget”

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    Ellen on a slide

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    Museum of the ’68 massacre

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    The plaza

 

When I woke up the morning of graduation at CC, the end of 8th block, I remember my first thought clearly; ‘I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to graduate.’ I had never been the person to whine about graduation, or mourn leaving out-loud. In fact, I hadn’t processed the fact that it was going to happen at all. It wasn’t that I wanted to stay at Colorado College, because it would have never been the same without my friends. But I didn’t want to leave my friends, professors, and people who had shaped the entirety of my college experience.

In the same vein, one of my students asked me “what will you miss most about Mexico?” And the answer is easily answered, “the people.” By this, I mean I will not only miss my friends, but also Mexican people in general. I have had the privilege to be around people like me and like my family, and it has been comforting. People who are warm, hospitable, flexible, and enjoy each moment so much, that nothing ever starts on time.

All of the outings and experiences I’ve had the past month have left me overjoyed, confused, and with an 8th block style cough. I have been so happy this last month, wandering the city on my own, riding the Metro, and going out and about the city with my friends before I have to say good-bye. I’ve stayed busy with the same urgency I felt at the end of 8th block. Maybe to distract me from the end of my time in Mexico. And I’ve been so full of joy. But at the same, I’m confused because there is a tension with that happiness in my heart, and the facts in my head.

The facts are that I will be back in Denver in seven days, that I will be flying out of the Benito Juarez Airport on United Airlines, that I will have a layover in Los Angeles, and then I will finally land in Denver. These facts are not all-together depressing. I facetimed with Millie this week about anything and everything, and I laughed and smiled as much as I always do when I talk to her. I also let Megan know that I will be moving into our house in Denver the Thursday after I get back, and she asked me when I wanted to throw a Welcome Back party and what the theme should be. It is a fact that I will be with my Denver friends in Seven Days. And my brain is always thinking about Denver and the United States. I listen to NPR every morning as I get dressed (Weekend Edition is streaming as I type) and I am all caught up on the news (WTF another mass shooting, and WTF this “new” twist on the DREAM Act with military service). My mom texts me every day, excited to have me under her roof soon. This is all to say that I am very conscious of the fact that I am going back to Denver, and it is not a terrible prospect.

But it is not a wondrous prospect either. My students are here, my roommates are here, my friends are here, tacos are here, artisanal jewelry is here, the Metro is here, Spanish is here, the jacarandas are here, traffic is here, the little lizards that scurry are here, the pyramids are here, mexican candy is here, nopales and the juice stands are here here, my life is here. And I’m not good at saying goodbye. I don’t cry in public/ever, I don’t tell people face to face how much I appreciate and love them (not that crying makes you good at goodbyes, I just mean I’m very closed in a way that betrays my feelings). Given my track record, I can predict that I will: wait to pack the night before I leave, say goodbye to people with a big hug and tight smile, later send them private messages telling them how much l love them, cry in the air plane bathroom, and listen to a lot of Jose Gonzalez. It never really hits me until I am actually on the plane or in the car on the way back.

I can’t even say I’m going back home, because at this point, Mexico City is also my home. Osea, Denver is my first love, the one that is the reason I am the way I am, the foundation of my life. But Mexico City is the new love that shows you a different way to be and feel, and ultimately changes you. I don’t know how to reconcile any of this quite yet, so I’m going to go make my 7-day bucket-list, make some tea for my throat, put on some red lipstick and go watch the Gran Budapest Hotel by myself.

 

 

24 horas en el DF/24 hours in the DF

The New York Times recently published “36 Hours in Mexico City” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/travel/36-hours-in-mexico-city.html?_r=0). The travel-piece gives travelers great advice on what to do and where to go in the D.F., or Distrito Federal. It also gave me the idea to record my own adventure around the city for 24 hours. I wanted to describe a day in Mexico City partially because I know so many of my friends and family have no idea what I’m doing here, and also to highlight some of my favorite places.

I chose a Friday because it is one of my days-off from work. I know that there will probably be no other time in my life where I will be young, free, living in the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere, and have a whole day that I can dedicate to exploring my surroundings. The following is where I went, and what I thought…

Cafe de Tacuba, Centro Historico

I left my apartment around 11 AM in my abstract print pants+purple double-strap top and headed towards the historic city center. I took the metrobus north on Insurgentes for about 45 minutes, until I got to Insurgentes Metro, and switched onto the subway. Along the way I listened to my usual playlist of Morning Edition. I switched to the blue line at Pino Suarez and headed up to the Metro Allende station. Normally when I go to Centro Historico, I get off at the Zocalo station, because this view stirs my soul every time I get off the underground.

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But since I was headed to the MUNAL (Museo Nacional de Arte), I got off at Metro Allende. As I walked down the street towards the art museum, I saw the discrete door for Cafe de Tacuba. I had not yet had my daily cup of coffee, so I walked straight in and ordered a cafe con leche and pan dulce

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Cafe de Tacuba is a restaurant that is housed in a converted convent from the Spanish-colonial era. It has wonderful arches that span the space like a cathedral—not to mention Spanish tiles and hand-painted murals on the walls. The waitresses all wear crisp white, nun-inspired uniforms and bring you some of the best, affordable and traditional food in the area. I ordered a coffee with milk, cafe con leche, strong enough to keep me wired throughout the day. I also picked out an orejita, my favorite type of pan dulce. I sat by myself next to a family, who I bid “provecho” to on my way out.

MUNAL, Museo Nacional de Arte, Centro Historico

I had first been to the MUNAL with my students last week. We had gone to see an exhibit called, El Hombre Desnudo. The exhibit features nude male portraits throughout time and has an amazing range of artists. While I was there I saw everything from a small collection of Cezanne (the Bathers), to pencil drawings by famous Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, to surreal photographs featuring David Alfaro Siqueiros in his underwear (whitey tighties never work–even if your a genius muralist), and also my favorite contemporary artist, Kehinde Wiley. Kehinde Wiley is an American artist who paints Black males in classic poses. The background of his paintings are always adorned with an insanely beautiful pattern, reminiscent of the prints in textile work. This particular exhibit had Wiley’s rendition of The Death of Abel. It is my favorite Wiley painting so far. I stood in front of this piece for about five whole minutes and tried to take a picture of it on my iphone (without flash!) but I got yelled at by a guard. 

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I am absolutely humbled by this piece. The janky jpg above does not do justice to the quality of Wiley’s work. For example, you can’t see the gold shimmer in the print that he paints in the background, or see the clarity of the subject’s tattoo on his arm. His work also reminds me of one of my greatest friends, Jordan Casteel. Jordan just finished her MFA at Yale and paints stunning portraits of black males. She is inspired by the juxtaposition of black males’ portrayal as either hyper sexual beings, or dangerous deviants in American society. 

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You can see more of her work at http://jordanmcasteel.tumblr.com/

In any case, I knew I had to return to the MUNAL because I had not seen any of the permanent collections. The MUNAL is only a short walk away from Cafe de Tacuba, so I weaved in and out of the crowds, enjoying the classic colonial architecture of Centro Historico on the way to the museum.

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As I walked towards the entrance of the museum, I got distracted by an indigenous man selling old books. I am currently reading Aura by Carlos Fuentes, but the e-book is downloaded on my iphone. This is really convenient because I can read it on the bus, and it fits perfectly in my purse. But nothing replaces the joy of opening up a real, physical book. Not to mention old books, which are treasures unto themselves.

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Books in Mexico are very overpriced, but I knew I had to buy these two. I bought the Chilam Balam book for my older brother Hector. He also loves old books, and I know he will find the book both tragic and eye-opening. I read sections of Chilam Balam in my Latin American Philosophy class in English, and I remember being overwhelmed at reading a Mayan account of Spanish colonization. That’s not to mention the prophecies that predicted the Spanish coming to the Yucatan! It’s one of those moments that reminds me that I am a product of colonization myself. The Rulfo book I bought for myself because I heard El Llano en Llamas is one of The Greats, and also I love the alliteration in the title.

The salesmen bid me a “good journey” and I finally stepped inside the MUNAL. One of my absolute favorite things about Mexico is how accessible the arts are to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. On Sundays, all museums are free. And students get in free any day of the week at all of the national museums. So I flashed my metricula and got into the museum for no charge.

The MUNAL is in a ridiculously gorgeous building. I especially love the open space in the middle of the building.

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Walking up to the second floor gave me the feeling of being a student at Hogwarts, or Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Either way–win win. It’s a glorious building. The second floor is dedicated to art from the colonial era, which means it’s basically a bunch of Jesus-paintings.

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I know using the phrase “Jesus paintings,” makes me sound dismissive of their historical importance, and maybe even condescending of the Catholic religion. But my relationship to Catholicism is a little strained right now. I find this incredible tension between the Catholic church I grew up in, and the Catholic church that justified the Conquest on the basis of “salvation.” I was fortunate enough to grow up in a large, liberal, Latino church that taught Catholicism through social thought and action. It is because of this upbringing that I am who I am today. But while I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve seen the disastrous historical legacy of The Church with regard to the Conquest. Oh sure, every cathedral I’ve visited in Mexico is gorgeous. But it pains me to see these cathedrals built on top of pyramids because it is a constant reminder of the cultural genocide the Spanish committed in the name of the Church. I find myself admiring the Baroque alters carved in gold, only to remember that they were often built by forced labor.

But I digress. Even though the religious paintings were sort of repetitive, I learned a lot of historically significant information. Ever wonder why so many Mexican men are named Jose? The MUNAL explains that when the Spanish colonized Mexico, they put a heavy emphasis on the teachings of St. Joseph (aka Jose), and made him the patron saint of indigenous people. Hence, all of the Jose’s you’ve ever met–including my grandfather Jose Nicomedes, and my uncle Jose Luis. 

The most fascinating paintings from the colonial era are the racial casta (caste) paintings. After the Spanish colonized Mexico (miscegenation via rape and intermarriage), their offspring were called Mestizo. Mestizo describes someone who has both European and indigenous ancestry. What is curious about this term is that it is also gendered. A Mestizo is someone who has a European father (mainly Spanish), and indigenous mother. If the situation was reversed (indigenous father, european mother), the offspring is called something else, and is a different racial caste. Thanks to the Spanish and a short period of slavery (why bring Slaves from Cuba or Africa if you have indigenous people to save and enslave?), Mexico also had Black people introduced into the mestizaje, or mixing of races. The mixing of races  was taken so seriously during the colonial period, that there was a legal racial caste system of about 14 different castas. Basically, the whiter you were, the higher social status you were afforded (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casta). To represent these castas, artists like Franscico Clapera, painted portraits of these racial castes. The MUNAL has two of the 14 paintings in Clapera’s racial caste series.

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Notice that the banner at the bottom of the painting reads, “De Español y de India Sale Mestizo,” or, “from Spanish father and Indian mother comes Mestizo.” I took a picture of this one in particular, because I identify as mestizo. It has always been one of my biggest pet peeves to always have to identify as “White” on Federal forms in the United States. Latino/Hispanic is only considered an ethnic group, and so if you follow the federal guidelines (at least on the forms I had to fill out to get a background check for my teaching license) it will say Hispanic/Latino=W. So, I had to scribble in a little W, for White.   

Secret Cafe, 8th floor of Sears Building, Centro Historico

After I got done with the second floor of the MUNAL, I decided I wanted to find a place to sit down and read. I am planning on going back to the MUNAL this upcoming week to go through the more contemporary artwork on the first floor. But after three hours of colonial religious paintings, I was ready to head out. I had read on a Mexico City blog that the best view of Bellas Artes was to be found on the 8th floor of the Sears building. The Sears (pronounced SEH-AHHHRS) building is built in this great art deco style and faces Bellas Artes (DF’s historical theater) on Avenida Juarez. On the 8th floor, there is a little cafe with super over priced drinks and a patio that faces the theater. 50 pesos for a Chamoyada and 35 pesos for an oatmeal cookie. But hot damn, the view was worth it. 

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I sent a snapchat of the view and my drink to some of my best friends, and my sister Nicole. Even she asked “WTF are you drinking?” To comprehend the beauty of a Chamoyada, one must first understand Chamoy. Chamoy is a sweet chile syrup that is used to condiment fruit, ice cream, or basically anything you like! Therefore, a Chamoyada is loaded with this type of syrup over a smoothie. Smoothie flavors include mango, tamarind, and lime. My Chamoyada was tamarind flavored and had some hot chile powder on the top. Besides drinking this weird little drink, I also got done with half of Aura, which reads like a Gothic novel, but a lot sexier than anything the Bronte sisters ever wrote.

La Chilanguita, Colonia Napoles

The cafe and the view were a treat, but it was mostly overrun with middle and high school couples making out. So after I finished my chapter in Aura, I walked down Reforma (the financial district) and continued reading at my favorite coffee shop, Cielito Lindo. I read for another two hours, before meeting Amy in Parque Hundido (a sunken gardens park) for dinner. She graciously agreed to accompany me to my friend Paulina’s birthday celebration later on in the evening. Paulina and I were friends at Colorado College. She is one of the most generous, intelligent, and sweet people I have ever met. Paulina has just finished up her Masters at Colegio de Mexico, and has started a translation company before she applies to Doctoral programs in Comp Lit for the fall of 2015. She is based in her hometown of Queretaro, but was coming to DF to celebrate her birthday with drinks at La Chilanguita. 

I have recently described La Chilanguita as Mexico City’s version of the Gin Mill. The Gin Mill is a popular bar in the LoDo section of downtown Denver. The Gin Mill is super fun, but has a very fratty and bro-y clientele. La Chilanguita shares a similar atmosphere. Previously, I had been to the Chilanguita in Polanco, which has a live band and big dance floor. This particular Chilanguita in Napoles mostly played regaetton, and projected the accompanying music videos with “girls gone wild” sort of scenes (not in a sex-positive feminism sort of way). The live band was much better, but also made it hard to carry on a conversation. Paulina and I kept yelling into each other’s ears as we caught up.

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Home, Delegación Tlalpan

Around midnight, Amy and I decided to go home. Amy took the metro, and I arranged for an Uber to pick me up. Getting home after a night out is always a hassle for me because I live in the far south end of the city. As such, the ride back home is always between 45 minutes to an hour, and will run me about $250 pesos in a sitio cab. It is definitely cheaper to take libre cabs, but I have decided to take Ubers instead of libre or sitio cabs. Libre, or “free” cabs are taxis that are not necessarily registered with a sitio, or taxi union. These are the cabs that have much higher rates of express kidnappings or assaults. I have to say that I have never had a negative experience in a libre cab, but after I ran into a guy who had just been mugged in a libre cab, I started to be more cautious. I only take libre cabs during the daytime and if I am with someone else. Sitio cabs are very safe, but also require me to carry a lot of cash. It’s not a good idea to go around carrying wads of cash on you, so I use Ubers instead. My credit card is registered to the Uber app so that I don’t have to carry a lot of cash all the time. It also sends me my driver’s information, the car’s make and model, and the license plate information. As a side-note, Billy, another CC alumni, helped launch Uber in Mexico City. The idea of supporting a business that has CC connections also makes the use of Uber appealing. I always get home safe and sound, no matter how late at night, or early in the morning. 

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There is so much of this city left to discover, that at times it is overwhelming. I start to feel panicked about the fact I only have 19 more days to wander around this beautiful and crazy city. I’m not counting down the days because I am not ready to leave, I have only been a wanna-be chilanga for 9 months!

Los Narcos y Semana Santa/The Narcos and Holy Week

There is just one month left until I return to Denver for the summer. Up until this month I have totally been pata de perroTo be “pata de perro” refers to a state of constant travel. It describes the month of April perfectly. I worked for two weeks, and then I had the 10th to 29th of April off for Semana Santa. In the United States we have Spring Break, and in Mexico we have time off for Holy Week (this should speak to the penetration of Catholic culture into an educational system that is supposed to be laica, or secular).  In effect, I had two weeks to not only travel around Mexico, but also see my family in Michoacán.

My perrita, Frida, in Colorado

My perrita, Frida, in Colorado

I had been wanting to go to Michoacán to see my family since Dia de los Muertos in November. The state of Michoacan is west of Mexico City, and neighbors Jalisco. My father’s side of the family lives in Tierra Caliente, in the high desert. Meanwhile, my mother’s side of the family lives in Tierra Fria, which is an area tucked into the high Sierra Madre Occidental. I grew up going to both parts of the state from the time I was 13 years old. Every winter break, my family would drive down to Michoacan and visit my Abuela Marcelina in Tierra Caliente for a few days, then drive west into the mountains to stay with my great aunt and uncle in the mountains. I was so lucky to be in the country during Navidad; hearing the gunshots in celebration, eating tamales till I was stuffed, and of course—playing with all of my cousins. When New Years approached, we continued west until we hit the coast of Guerrero. On New Years Eve we’d be on the shore eating huachinango al mojo de ajo, napping in hammocks, and getting knocked over by the fierce waves of the Pacific Ocean. My birthday also happens to be on New Years Eve, so I basically spent every birthday after the age of 13 on the beach!

The road trips to Michoacán stopped when I turned 18 years old. In 2007, then-President Felipe Calderon sent federal troops to Michoacán and started what is commonly referred to as the “Drug War.”  I’m not a fan of “wars” on abstract concepts like “terrorism,” because they don’t accurately reflect the complexity behind such issues. Wars on abstract concepts give governments the license to fund “wars” for an indeterminate amount of time, without a check from congress or the citizenry (see Radiolab’s podcast, “60 Words” http://www.radiolab.org/story/60-words/). Such concepts like “terror,” or “poverty,” are deeply complex issues that can’t be won or solved through force.

Since the Drug War, 60,000 people in Mexico have died. It’s unsettling to think that my uncle maybe included in that figure. We don’t actually know because his murder was never thoroughly investigated. In 2007, our family in Michoacán told us not to come because it was unsafe. I’ve heard some Mexicans criticize Felipe Calderon for starting that war because the human cost has been so high. Cynics say Calderon was allied to a rival cartel, and that he started the war to take down the Zetas. In my eyes, Calderon was the first to refuse to ignore the cartels’ growing influence in the Mexican economy, politics, and social fabric. The cartels have always been around, and the PRI government left them alone (if not colluded with them). As long as the government left the cartels alone, there was peace and stability.

But such peace comes at what cost? Certainly, the number of deaths  is staggering. But I wonder what would have happened if the government continued ignoring the cartels and their influence. Once, my dad found a beehive under the rain-gutters in our backyard. This posed a huge challenge. If he ignore the beehive, the hive  would keep growing steadily, until one day, bees could infest our house. So instead, he blasted the hive with water from the hose and knocked it down. When Calderon sent federal troops to Michoacán, it was as if  he would have thrown a rock at a growing “hive” of narcos. What happens when you throw a rock at a beehive? Mayhem. Chaos. Violence. 60,000 people dead. And for the people who live in Mexico, criminal activity becomes the norm. Fun fact:Nearly 70% of guns recovered from Mexican criminal activity from 2007 to 2011, and traced by the U.S. government, originated from sales in the United States” (http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/)

The Drug War has certainly shaped my family’s daily lives in Michoacán. When I got to Tierra Caliente the weekend before Semana Santa for my cousin’s wedding, my aunt pointed out the motels and armored vehicles around the bus station. They noted that those motels were full of federal troops. My Tia Lupe said, “Hubo mucha actividad la semana pasada porque la Marina vino a desarmar a los comunitarios, pero los federales ayudaron a que mantuvieran sus armas. Pero esperemos que todo este bien para la boda de Leti.” She had told us there had been a lot of commotion the week before because the Marines (SEMAR) had tried to disarm the community action groups, but the federal troops helped the community action groups maintain their arms. My aunt hoped that none of this activity would interfere with my cousin Leticia’s wedding. The whole weekend I heard what life is like when your town is taken over by vigalantes, or community action groups. My little cousin explained the new law and order regarding domestic violence. She said that   if a man beats his wife, the wife can now take her complaint to the vigalantes. The vigalantes will take the law into their own hands and beat the husband as a punishment.  My niece told me about how the vigalantes had saved her grandmother from getting caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out. When we drove from Tierra Caliente to Uruapan, I saw these vigalantes  in makeshift-barracks along the road and took pictures of them. They wear white T-shirts with their emblem of a dove on the front. They will stop suspicious looking vehicles from entering the town. In Tierra Caliente, you don’t call the police to enforce the law. You call the vigalantes.

Vigalantes, or "autodefensas" in Michoacan

Vigalantes, or “autodefensas” in Michoacan

"Barracks"

“Barracks” and their logo of the Dove

A lot of progressive-left publications have near glorified the comunitarios, or community action groups. They paint a picture of the noble pueblo, who has raised arms against a government who has let narcos charge small farmers sky-high quotas for selling their produce, who has let narcos rape their daughters, who has let narcos collude with local police and rule through fear and violence. To this rosy image, I offer one of my uncle’s reaction to this portrayal, “No tenemos que ser estupidos. Donde crees que esos campesinos están consiguiendo esas armas y trocas nuevas?” In other words, think critically, don’t be stupid. Where are these community groups getting AK-47’s, other weapons, and new trucks? Rival cartels. Indeed another one of my little cousins patted my back, smiled, and told me not to worry. She told me she heard the new cartel in town with the vigalantes, was going to kick out the Knights Templar. She told me to rest assured because the new cartel won’t charge quotas, kidnap, or rape. They leave people alone. They will be much better than the Knights Templar. I doubt this is true, and am disgusted at how living with narcos has become “normal” for my family. Michoacán is in a precarious situation with no rule of law. I don’t know what will happen in Michoacan’s future, or to my family that lives there, but I do know that it is possible to have a wedding in the middle of war.

Leticia at the Church

Leticia at the Church

Run through the bride!

Run through the bride!

Dancing with my little cousin Lalo

Dancing with my little cousin Lalo

La Culebra

La Culebra

the wedding

the wedding

When I got back to Mexico City from Michoacán, I took the day to sleep and pack. That very night I was off to the Oaxacan coast for Surf Camp with Ellen. I have always struggled with athletics, and I hate looking like a fool. I consider myself confident and a great proficient in most things in my life (other than flirting with guys), but sports have always been difficult for me. When I took a private ski lesson, I was so discouraged by my abysmal performance that I refused to go up to the bunny hill and try to ski down. Instead I went back to the lodge, bought a book on Leadville history, and read while sipping on a Negra Modelo. It was a lovely afternoon, but disastrous ski trip. When it comes to things like surfing and skiing, I am not only afraid of the conditions (high mountains, strong waves), but also despise failing at something in public. I am a very composed person, and falling off your surf board is not very elegant.

However, I prefer to fall off of my surfboard in my favorite bathing suit a million times over falling into snow and being weighed down by those horrid ski pants and jackets. It is especially great when you are trying to surf in a calm little bay like Playa Carazalillo.

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Playa Carazalillo, Puerto Escondido

The waves were generally small to medium sized and our instructors at Oasis Surf Academy (http://www.oasissurfpuerto.com/home_en.htm) were amazing. As a teacher I know how big of a difference it makes when your instructors are patient, give you plenty of positive reinforcement, and model the basics for you in multiple angles. Even at my scariest moment (I fell off of my board, and while I was trying to locate it another two waves successively crashed on top of me= hot mess), my instructor Tito quickly came to my aid by swimming me over to a steady rook, and helped me calm down. He even invited me out for a tequila shot later to “take away the fear.” I got back onto that surf board, and three classes later was able to stand up for a whole 3-5 seconds. Ellen, my triathlete wonder-woman, was taking those waves like nobody’s business. We had a nice little routine in Puerto Escondido: Breakfast and Coffee, Surf Class, Nap, Read at the beach, go out for Dinner, and Sleep. I read all about Octavio Paz (Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America by Enrique Krauze) and got the tannest I’ve been in a long time.

Towards the end of our time in Puerto Escondido, we met up with some of our Fulbright friends (Robert, Meredith, and her fiance Jamai) in Mazunte (a more low-key beach) and decided to go to Oaxaca City together. Oaxaca City is about 6 hours from the coast. You can get there 1 of 2 ways. Option One: Spend a lot of money on a luxury bus, and get there in 10 hours. Option Two: Pay 200 pesos to take a 12 passenger van and get there in 6 hours. You get there in 6 hours because a van is able to race through the switchbacks up and down the Oaxacan sierra much faster than a bus. We decided on Option Two, and one Drammamine later, we were in the Oaxaca City!

Oaxaca is a gorgeous state. It boasts a beautiful coast, and a pretty colonial capital city. The best part about Oaxaca is its rich history. Oaxaca is one of the states with the highest concentrations of indigenous people, and we were able to see this in Miztec textiles, the unique pyramid in Mitla which is designed in a Miztec-Zapotec fusion-style of architecture, and also in mezcal-making process. The streets of Oaxaca City are colorful, and have thousands of little artisanal shops. We chose to do the bulk of our shopping at a market that exclusively sold handicrafts made by women-artisans.  I will be taking a blanket, placemats, headbands with embroidered flowers, a bottle of mezcal añejo, papel picado, and so much hand-painted tin to Colorado!

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Arbol de Tule, Oaxaca

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Marino Wool on the Loom

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Textiles

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Mitla, Oaxaca

When I go back to Colorado in one month’s time, I will be taking back much more than artesanias. I’m also taking back a gorgeous leather bag. Just Kidding (but seriously). I will be going back to Colorado with a deeper understanding of human resilience. In the same way that Tupac writes about a rose growing through a crack in the concrete, my cousin Leti was happy as she danced her first waltz with her husband amidst a totally lawless state. It’s esperanza in my suitcase. And determination to fight against the systems that fail her, behavior in the United States that creates a demand for the supply that blazes through Michoacán with violence, and causes my little cousin to view her life within a narco-run state as “normal.”

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Una Buena Eduación/A Good Eduacation

When you immigrate to a new country, or are living abroad for the first time, how you comport yourself is a huge deal. As a visitor, you want to make sure you don’t offend someone by saying, doing, or wearing the “wrong,” thing. In this regard, being in Mexico has been easy for me. I know that I need to act with a buena educación, the way my mother raised me. Even though we were raised in the United States, my mother taught us the character education she learned in Mexico.

To know my mother is to know propriety itself. The biggest fault any one human can commit in her eyes is to be mal educado, or badly educated. To be mal educado has nothing to do with not graduating high school or college. That is, a person with a sixth grade education can be bien educado. To be mal educado refers to someone with a lack of respect for others, someone whose disrespect is evident in bad manners. Conversely, to be bien educacdo, refers to having good manners that convey deep respect for those around you.

Someone who is bien eduacado…

  1. At a party/family function greets the hosts, everyone in the room, and then when leaving thanks the hosts and graciously takes home all the leftovers someone will inevitably offer you.
  2. We always acknowledge someone’s presence by using these terms: Say “disculpe” when asking for someone’s attention. Say “con permiso” when walking through a group of people.  Also we say “buenos dias/tardes/noches” to strangers who we walk by, or “provecho” to customers at a restaurant.
  3. Always uses the usted-form of Spanish with elders and older strangers (unless they ask you to speak them in the ‘tu’ form)
  4. Always dresses appropriately and has good hygiene. This doesn’t mean wearing the best brands or most expensive clothes. This means not wearing anything too revealing (God forbid at mass), having your hair out of your face, smelling nice, and wearing clothes that are decente.
  5. Never talk back to anyone, especially elders. Always say please and thank you.

These rules apply to everyone, across socioeconomic class, race, or religion. More importantly, someone who is bien educado treats everyone around them very respectfully. You say “con permiso” when walking through a group of your peers at a party, or when walking past a janitor who is cleaning the space you are inhabiting.

Someone who is mal eduacado

  1. At a party/family function arrives without greeting or thanking the hosts. This person goes straight to their friends and starts eating all the food. This person may also refuse food when offered.
  2. Says “oye!” when trying to get someone’s attention, also interrupting previous conversation. Walks through a group of people or by strangers without saying “excuse me” or acknowledging someone’s presence.  Only acknowledges those who s/he thinks are equal to their social standing.
  3. Uses the “tu” form with elders
  4. Does not take care in their appearance, often looking disheveled or even smelly.
  5. Talks back to elders, or authority figures. Doesn’t say please and thank you. This person just takes.

Someone who is mal educado may selectively employ good manners to people who they see as their peers, or to their friends, but doesn’t extend the same treatment to strangers or people who they see as beneath them.

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I love about the concept of being bien educado because it goes beyond appearances. My parents don’t care that my brother is covered in tattoos–in fact, they even paid for my sister’s first tattoo (it was her Confirmation present). My parents care more about the fact that we present ourselves and act in accordance with the idea that we are part of a community who who takes care of one another. The idea of a buena educacion is especially important when your opportunities at a formal education are limited. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate and did not go to school not only because they were women, but also because there were no schools to speak of in their provincial towns. When you can not read and discover the world around you, you must rely on your family’s teachings to inform your mind. My grandmothers may not have read the social thinkers who talk about the importance of community, or challenged their social values with Hobbes and his god-is-dead, we-only-care-about-our-own-survival. Their education had to come from life, tradition, and community. I have a great example of being a self-made woman who is bien educada in my great aunt Elena. Because my maternal grandmother died when I was a baby, and my paternal grandmother lived in Mexico, my grandmotherly figure has always been my great aunt Elena. It is fair to say she is the matriarch of my mother’s family. My grandmother Maria Nicomedes (the “Nico” in my wrist tattoo) was one of 14 children. Most of them stayed in Arteaga, or perhaps moved to the city of Uruapan. But not my Tia Elena, she was the early pioneers of our family who went back to California. A land which, according to my own family teachings, “has always been ours.”

Tia Elena in Los Angeles

Elena in Los Angeles, early 1970’s

My Tia Elena is the most bien educada of them all. Though she is a very proper woman, she also tells you exactly what she thinks at all times. But she expresses herself in a way that lets her family members know that she cares very much about them, and will do anything for them. She moved to Los Angeles in the 1970’s and worked in whatever capacity she could to realize her new life. She cooked, cleaned, worked at a grocery store, and took care of other people’s children. Yet being in a new country forces you to learn a whole new sort of education. In Los Angeles, my Tia Elena had to learn English, how to navigate the city, how to protect her civil rights, how to enroll her daughters in the best public schools, etc. This new education is as much institutional as it is social. In American culture, it is good to say please and thank you, but you also have to develop a rugged  sort of spirit to make sure you are not taken advantage of. To integrate into American society is not as easy as “learning to speak English.” As my Tia Elena continued to learn how to be an American, she passed this education onto the rest of my family. My Tia Elena’s home in Sun Valley became the first home for all of those who immigrated in my family. Whenever my dad crossed over to work, he would stay with my Tia Elena in Sun Valley. Despite the fact that my father is not her blood relative (she is my maternal grandmother’s little sister), she would always take my dad in and teach him how to get around Los Angeles on the bus, how to use the microwave, and showed him enough English to get around. My dad recalls fondly how one night he wanted nothing more than a Mexican hot chocolate, the kind that is made from the hard Abuelita-brand cacao. My Tia Elena smiled and showed him how to make hot chocolate in the microwave, stirring in the chocolate powder with little processed marshmallows. America was a strange place.

Tia Elena and Child

As a nanny, 1970’s Los Angeles

At a party at CC, I had an inebriated friend tell me, “You know, I really love Mexicans. I was basically raised by a Mexican woman. She was my nanny.” For me, it was a very bittersweet sentiment. I got that my friend was trying to tell me that s/he deeply appreciated the work Mexicans have contributed to the United States. But my friend’s tone of voice said it in a way that conveyed pity. I thought of my Tia Elena, who sometimes (as pictured above) took care of children in Los Angeles to make ends meet. She is not, and has never been, an uneducated migrant to take pity on. My Tia Elena is a badass woman, who is bien eduacada. She has been in this country for over 30 years, and  has always worked to ensure her daughters and family had everything they need.

Yet, being successful and happy in a different country has a lot to do with language. My family learned this lesson as Mexicans in the United States, and I have learned the same lesson here in Mexico. My spanish often betrays my chicana-ness because my intonation is off, or I use weird expressions, or I don’t use certain expressions. But I generally know what is happening in a given situation in Mexico. I can’t say the same for my mother. Though her English is good, there are all these cultural sayings which constantly remind her she is not 100% U.S. American. Finding humor in misunderstandings around language is the best way to move forward. Finding the humor in these mix-ups is part of an immigrant’s education. A sort of sink-or-swim strategy. If you want to swim, you better laugh.

At work, my mother has had a particular issue with idioms in English. My mother works with low income and immigrant families at an Early Childhood Education school south of Denver. She loves her job, and finds it a place where she is constantly learning as well. Prior to a staff meeting, her colleagues were chatting about a rumor, when someone said they “heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.” My mother took this expression to mean they were referring to the Principal as a horse. She said she thought ‘wow I work with a bunch of mal educadas,’ interrupted the conversation to defend the school principal and say “it is completely in appropriate to call her a ‘horse.” She was scandalized by the candor these ladies exhibited–especially over an authority figure! My mom retells this story with a smile, saying her colleagues started laughing and explaining they were not insulting the Principal. They explained that “hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth,” meant that the rumor in question was confirmed by the source.

As a Mexican-American chica living in DF, I have also acquired an education in how you express yourself properly. I may know English and I may know Spanish, but it doesn’t mean I understand the cultural context behind figurative expressions in either language! In fact, I have butchered the same idiom in both Spanish and English. At a very important Board meeting I once said something along the lines of “this is an excellent suggestion because we can kill some birds with a rock!” Everyone looked at me strangely as I tried to explain what I meant. Similarly, among my students here in Mexico I tried again saying “Si! Y asi matamos los pajaritos con una sola piedra!” They died laughing saying if I say “pajaritos” instead of  “pajaro,” it comes out sounding especially gruesome.

In the case of Spanish idioms and sayings, I am being tutored by roommates and friends. By all counts, using idioms correctly is a sign of native language fluency. On a random Wednesday, I went out to a Spanish tapas bar with Mario, his boyfriend Lalo, and Mayela and Dayana. Lalo in particular, had a great time teaching me some Spanish idioms over Sangria. It helps that some of these idioms have a similar version in English. But some are totally new to me. Here is the list I compiled with Lalo.

  • El camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. This basically means if you snooze, you loose. But I love the image of a shrimp being swept away by a current.
  • El árbol que nace torcido jamas endereza sus ramas. If you are born a crook or generally sketchy, it’s hard to ever become a decent human being.
  • Entre una pared y espada. This one is the same as “between a rock and a hard place.” Except for in Spanish your between a wall and a sword, which I think is a way sexier expression.
  • Matar dos pájaros con un tiro. Kill two birds with one shot. SIGH.
  • A vuelta de ruedas. I don’t remember what this one means. I think it’s going forward halfway or something. Sorry.
  • No te eches tierra a ti mismo. This one means stop digging yourself into a whole, or making yourself seem like a dope.
  • El que madruga, dios le ayuda. This one is the “early bird gets the worm,” but with a religious twist.
  • Mejor prevenir que lamentar. Better safe than sorry.
  • Pata de perro, andar de pata caliente. Traveling/Wandering around frequently from one place to another.

There are also some great Mexican-isms that make the Spanish language especially colorful. Given that Mayela and Dayana are Venezuelan, they are also learning these phrases to be fluent in Mexican-Spanish.

  • Me enchile- I stole this expression from Meredith’s blog. I know it means to have eaten something that’s too spicy. But I never thought how funny it is–sooooo Mexican.
  • Apoco? De veras? Really?! No way! For real?!
  • No manches! You’ve got to be kidding me! My mother had a hard attack when I used this one on the phone with her, she said it sounded so mal educada. I was like, “No manches, mama! It’s not like I said…”
  • No mames! This is the crass version of “no manches,” and refers to a sexual act.
  • De repente puso sus moños. This literally means, “then s/he suddenly put on her bows.” It actually refers to the moment when someone gets especially particular or prissy about something.
  • Cañon! This one is tricky because depending on the context it either means “super awesome” or “super terrible”
  • Guey. This is equivalent to calling someone “dude” or “bro.” But it is curious because it a gendered term. So, a girl can call another girl “guey,” and a boy can call another boy “guey,” but a guy can never call a girl “guey.” The latter would be super mal educado!

With one month left in DF, I’m trying to become a great proficient in Spanish. When I started the Fulbright, my greatest hope would have been that using these colorful expressions would help me blend into Mexican society. That it would dissuade people from asking me, “De donde eres?”I would have loved for randos on the street to think “What a bien educada Mexican chica.” 

Yet I think I have hit a point where I have realized that I can live comfortably in the middle because it allows me to see the world from multiple angles. Just like my parents and family have learned to find the humor in cultural misunderstandings, I too am laughing and smiling in the moments that show the limbo in which I exist. When Liz and I were talking about buying plane tickets to Merida, I said “Yeah dude, we should buy the tickets with anticipation.” She laughed at me and said, “you mean we should buy them with plenty of time.” I think the Spanglish spoken by a chica who is bien educacada is more me.

 

 

Mexico y mis Joyas/Mexico and my Jewelry

My family has this wonderful tradition of gifting gold jewelry to Nicole (my hermanita) and I for birthdays, welcome-back-to-mexico trips, and other celebrations. At home I have this tragic assortment of gold earrings missing their other pair because of one accident or another. The gold jewelry was almost always exclusively earrings. It makes sense given the fact that both Nicole and I got our ears pierced within a week of being born. It’s a Mexican thing–that’s why you often see babies with pierced ears or even shaved heads (according to folklore, it makes your hair grow thicker and more evenly). In any case, my parents are so generous and lovely in this jewelry tradition: pearls for high school graduation, stackable rings for my 21st birthday, and best of all…a semanario when I turned 13.

I first came back to Mexico in the December in which I turned 13 years old. The last time I had been to Michoacán was to visit my paternal grandmother and take care of my maternal grandfather before he died as a really young girl. I remembered Mexico as a place where I had to drink unpasturized whole milk from a cow, drink Sprites with my abuelito, go to the tortilleria to buy a kilo for for the week, have my mom dress Nicole and I up for the Virgen de Guadalupe Day, and wonder why my abuelita didn’t have ketchup for my eggs (WTF is catsup?!!).

Coming back as a 13 year old was totally different. The five of us got into our Nissan Quest and drove from Denver to Tierra Caliente in Michoacán. The journey lasted 3 days and 3 nights, on the way I read upwards of 10 books in the backseat–all to myself (I was too delicada to share a seat with Nicole and Hector). Outside my window I saw the landscape change from the desert of Chihuhuahua to the winding roads of Aguascalientes, to the magueys of Jalisco, until we finally got to the dry heat of the disparate desert of Tierra Caliente. I remember meeting my cousins as teenagers, seeing my paternal grandmother for the first time since I was a little kid, and the lingering smell of burning trash all around me. That first time back in Mexico started the process of becoming reacquainted with not only my heritage, but also my family.

At the end of that December, I turned 13. For this birthday my parents went to a goldsmith, who melded down all of our broken family jewerly. Not just missing earrings, but broken bracelets that belonged to my abuelo, broken necklaces that were my abuelas–all damaged family heirlooms. Out of this gold, the goldsmith fashioned 7 individual gold bangles. The seven bangles signify each day of the week, each day of la semana. That’s why my bangles are called a semanario. To this day, I treasure those bracelets more than anything else I own.

Because of my family tradition and my mother’s impeccable style, jewelry has always been something meaningful to me. As I look back to the eight glorious months I have spent in Mexico so far, I can look to my new jewelry, or mis joyas to retell my story. Each earring, ring, or necklace is a little piece of Mexico I will carry home with me in two months. They tell a meaningful memory of my time here; as such, I humbly offer the following retrospective of my time in Mexico.

1. Tepotzlan-Yautepec-Las Estacas, Morelos

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I bought these copper–chandelier earrings at an ice cream shop in Morelos. I had gone to Tepotzlan to hike to the top of a Mexica pyramid. On the way up to the trail head we stopped at Tepoz Nieve, and an artisan came by selling her earrings. Later on, Ellen, Karina and I would go to swim in the most beautiful river–Las Estacas. This was also my first trip outside of Mexico City.

2. Coyoacan, Distrito Federal

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I bought these copper bangles and cuffs in the artisanal market in Coyoacan, which is my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It is a historic and colonial neighborhood near my apartment in the south of the city. The earrings are copper with Guatemalan jade, of the most incredible forest-green color. I bought this pair of earrings in my first week of being D.F., from an artisan wandering around central America making his jewelry. He had just gone all the way to Guatemala for the jade, and fashioned the earrings that very day! At the time, I was at a cafe at the Coyoacan plaza, enjoying a cafe de olla with Mariah, Wendy , Britt, and Rachel. Coyoacan is also where Frida Kahlo lived, and where I spent Mexican Independence day with Claire and the other Fulbrighters. We rode on rollercoasters, were lucky enough to hear a free Julieta Venegas concert, shouted salud as we cheered with Mexican lagers, and this is not to mention the glorious fireworks.

3. Mercado cercas de Metro Centro Medico, Distrito Federal

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I bought these stacked beads (known as chakiras) from a market next to Metro Centro Medico in Mexico City. It was the first time my Venezuelen roommate (Maye) and I had ventured out into D.F. together. Maye was new to D.F. from Puebla, and wanted to take me to Mercado Medellin to eat authentic Venezuelan food. On the way, we got off the metro at Centro Medico and stumbled into an open-air market near the park. I bought these stacked beads and put them on immediately. Then I stuffed my face with pabellon and an arepa with chorizo and queso Oaxaca.

4. Cuernavaca, Morelos

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All of the jewelry that I have purchased in Cuernavaca is especially precious because it is the artisanship of the Huichol indigenous group.  They utilize colorful chakiras to make the multicolor necklace and earrings in different shapes and figures. I didn’t haggle on the price of any of these pieces because such intricate beading requires a lot of patience and labor. Not to mention the Huichol do not have the best economic circumstances in Mexico (as a side note, the desert they believe to be the center of creation is about to be mined by a Canadian corporation). Cuernavaca is one of my favorite places to go on a day or weekend trip because it only takes me 45 minutes on a bus to get there (that’s how far south I live!), also it is the hometown of my other lovely roommate–Mario. On the weekend pictured, Maye (my Venezuelan roommate) and I surprised him for his birthday. Mario’s boyfriend Lalo later gave us a tour of centro de Cuernavaca, while Mario slept off his birthday celebration. Lalo and Mario have both become signficant people in my life here in Mexico. The three of us often sit around my dinner table talking Mexican politics, which means the world to me.

5. Guanajuato, Guanajuato

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I went to Guanajuato for the Cervantino Festival in the late fall of this year. The Cervantino is a month long arts and musical festival.  I went with some Fulbrighters, and our favorite couple–Javier and Marcela. Javier and Marcela were studying at UNAM on an exchange from their school in Sonora. Together we went to a free Kinky concert, visited Dolores Hidalgo (the birthplace of Miguel Hidalgo, the father of the Mexican Revolution), and had a hellish bus ride there and back (on the way there I got no sleep thanks to some rowdy UAM students, and on the way back our bus almost exploded and we had to hop onto another random bus). To this day, Guanajuato is one of the most stunning places I’ve seen in my life. I bought these feather earrings that are made out of real leather that is dyed and cut from an artisan on the street.

6. Patzcuaro, Michoacán

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These purple skull earrings are carved out of a light wood, and painted by hand. They are also my absolute favorite piece of jewelry I have purchased in Mexico.  In early November, I had the honor of going to the Dia de Los Muertos celebration in the town of Patzcuaro, in my family’s home-state of Michoacán. I went with Hector (my brother who was visiting), Ellen, and Liz. It was one of the most beautiful celebrations I’ve ever had the pleasure of observing. We did not go to the cemeteries as people were visiting with their loved ones at night (we didn’t want to intrude), but we did go in the mornings by day. It makes you truly reflect on what death means. Do we have spirits? Are spirits different from souls? Do we just decompose into the Earth? I have no solid answers to these questions, but I did come away with the fact that life is so fragile, it must be celebrated. Even when it “ends.” It is also curious that the marigold flower is central to the Day of the Dead, as it guides spirits back to Earth. As an interesting side note, the marigold is also used in Indian weddings. In both instances, the marigold connotes the beauty of life.

7. San Andres de Cholula, Puebla

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Cholula is the small town adjacent to the city of Puebla. Shyler, a Fulbrighter, is finishing up her MBA at Universidad de las Americas-Puebla. The focal point of the town is a gorgeous yellow church that was built directly on top of the largest pyramid by volume in Meso-America. It is perfectly emblematic of the Spanish colonization. We first went inside the cool pyramid, roaming around the dark corridors. As we began our hike to the top of the pyramid outside, I stopped to buy this rose-quartz necklace and turquoise ring set in copper. I later purchased the rose-quartz ring at an artisanal co-op near the city center. Cholula also has amazingly cheap food, and the best “going out” scene I’ve experienced in Mexico. The last couple of times I’ve gone, Shyler, Shaye, and I will start off with aguardiente (moonshine type liquor) at a cantina, go onto a club that plays hip hop (a rarity in Mexico), and then back to Shyler’s apartment. It is a safe, small town with lots to see and do. I also took my parents here when they visited (to the pyramid, not the clubs).

8. Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala

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Tlaxcala is the smallest state in Mexico, and only about two hours away from Mexico City. We had the pleasure of going there on our Fulbright mid-year reunion. We gave group-presentations on our work at our placement schools, went sight-seeing around Tlaxcala, and ended the trip with a culinary tour at a hacienda. The hacienda is one of the last haciendas that continues to make pulque. Pulque is a prehispanic drink that is made out of fermented agua-dulce, the inside of the maguey plant. Pulque is loaded with probiotics and Mexicans still drink it today. The earrings are made out of palm leaves that are woven and dyed to make the intricate designs. I bought them from a woman outside of the ruins of Cacaxtla.

9. Taxco, Guerrero

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Natalie is one of my best friends from college. We were sophomore and senior-roommates at Colorado College. She took a break from her busy life in New York City and came to visit me in Mexico City. As a quick trip, we went to Taxco, Guerrero. Taxco is the oldest silver mining town in the world. At it’s peak, Taxco produced more silver than any mine in Peru or anywhere around the world. The mines are still in operation today. I bought these perfect silver studs with a braided edge from a mining-cooperative. The proceeds go directly to the miners, who collectively share the profits. Taxco also had the cheapest and most amazing breakfast I’ve had yet: coffee, tortas de ejote, arroz rojo, a hard boiled egg, and a guisado of nopales and shredded chicken.

10. Puebla, Puebla

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Puebla is the city I have visited the most. In the last 8 months, I have gone three times. It is only 2 hours southeast of Mexico City. The first time I went to lead a professional development session on community engagement for Enseña por Mexico. I had the chance to tour Cholula with Shyler for the first time, and then Shaye and I ran into Wendy and her boyfriend by pure serendipity. Shaye is another Fulbrighter who is in the middle of finishing her doctorate at the BUAP. She is an outstanding person and great tour guide! So much so, that I came to visit her Shyler a second time. Most recently I took my mother and father. We visited the state museum, ate our way through the city (mole poblano–the most heavenly in Mexico), drank local coffee that is grown in the sierra, and of course–shopped for artesanias. My mom and dad are the ones who bought me the hand-embroidered obi-belt and traditional filegrina (plated aluminum) earrings.

———————

I can hardly believe I have only have two months left in Mexico. Part of me thinks I will be ready to go back to Denver come June. I have accepted a summer fellowship in educational systems-management, and I will be returning to the near-northeast to live with Megan again. Certainly, the prospect of a Colorado summer is as glorious as it sounds. Carne asadas with my family, stealing clothes from Nicole, cuddling with my dog Frida, hip hop Fridays at the Meadowlark with Millie, getting made fun of by Hector, and having craft beer readily available all summer long. But another part of my heart thinks of the purple jacaranda trees that line Mexico City streets, the tacos at 4:30 in the morning, the roof-top gatherings in Roma, the traveling, the jewelry, hopping on and off the Metro, my roommates, my Fulbright friends, and the beach. Here, I have learned to relish every breath I take. I’m still fairly uptight and serious at times, but even at work I am not the neurotic one! I find myself saying, “no te preocupes, va a estar bien,” to my colleagues.

I don’t know when in my life I will return to Mexico City. Maybe in the fall after my Colorado summer and double-citizenship. Maybe on my next vacation.

I don’t really want to think about that too much yet because it makes me deeply sad. So for now, I will think of my travels to come—Tierra Caliente for my cousins’s wedding this weekend, Oaxaca for Semana Santa (I’ve enrolled in a surf camp, even though I can’t swim properly), Colorado for a pit-stop, Merida on the Yucatan peninsula for some ruins, and then back in D.F. for the end. Gotta go pack my bags.

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p.s. I forgot to mention I have also traveled home to Queretaro with Maye, but I didn’t buy jewelry. There I bought two pairs of boots from an adorable Mexican boutique called Capa de Ozono. I did not include my trips to Cabo, Cozumel, or Zihuatanejo because travel to the beach takes up most of my budget, so I try not to shop on the coasts!

p.s.s. I’m truly blessed.

Amor a la Mexicana/Love to the Mexican Woman

This post is dedicated to the Mexican Woman.  And if you have not seen or heard this song, then your life is sorely missing out on this gem:

In the song, Thalia sings about the wonders of the badass Mexican woman who requires a macho counterpart (yuck)—all to the backdrop a kitschy scene in a cantina.  I used to dislike Thalia because my mother told me she had made some offensive colorist and classist remarks about Mexican people.  However, when I mentioned this to my cousin Alma, she denied the claim.  In her opinion, Thalia is a wonderful and kind artist.

Alma, a Mexicana herself, knows this firsthand. She is known on my dad’s side of the family as “Almita.”  Alma is also known as one of the most chingonas in our family. She left the Tierra Caliente of Michoacán for the bright lights of El D.F. at 18 years old to take dance classes.  The plan was that my uncle would pay for her classes in jazz and aerobics to the end of her coming back to La Nueva.  Once back in Tierra Caliente, she would open up a dance studio and teach classes.  Also probably live with my uncle until she was married.  Yet, Alma discovered the wonders of modern dance and asked my uncle if she could stay in D.F. longer.  My uncle refused—he didn’t want one of his youngest daughters in the D.F. any longer than she had to be there! So, he told Alma she could stay if she wanted, but that he would no longer support her financially.  Being the badass my cousin is, she was like “fuck it,” kept dancing, and was quickly noticed by some people in the entertainment business.  In a short time she was steadily accruing a list of A-List Mexican celebrities who she would work for as a backup dancer. Thalia was one of these clients. Almita says she was very professional, kind, and would pay for the dancers to stay in the same high-end hotels that she stayed in while on tour. Almita’s biggest break was dancing with Marco Antonio Solis’ tour.  If you are unfamiliar with popular Mexican music, Marco Antonio Solis, or “El Buki” is Mexico’s Phil Collins. He used to sing semi-political ballads with “Los Bukis,” (see ‘Casas de Carton’) until he pulled a Beyonce and started singing solo.  He also happens to look a lot like white Jesus.  I saw him in-person at a live taping of “La Voz Mexico” (The Voice, courtesy of Alma’s connections), and his hair is still as luscious as it was fifteen years ago (p.s. my father was totally jealous I got to see him, seeing as how El Buki is his all-time favorite).Image

In any case, the story here is that Alma never left Mexico City.  She spent her 20’s traveling the world on tours, partying at every stop, and finished out her career dancing for Siempre en Domingo (Latin kids who grew up watching that show on Sundays-be jealous) and is still in the Biz in the D.F. When I was pressed to find an apartment in Mexico City, she looked at a ton of places for me.  Ultimately, I found my current depa  on compartadepa.com.  Almita went to check it out for me, sent me pictures, and gave me the go-ahead about the safety of my neighborhood and the condition of the apartment.  Did I mention I had never met Almita previous to coming to Mexico City for Fulbright? Of course I know her dad, who is my brother’s godfather and my father’s older brother.  Alma’s papa would often throw big fiestas in his parcela and invite his gringo nieces (Nicole and I) and aijado (Hector) to play in the creek, and then we would eat mounds of fresh mangos/grapefruits/starfruit, etc. But since Alma no longer lived in Michoacán, I had never met her before. A lot of my friends marvel at her generosity in taking me around Mexico City and helping me settle-in—however this is standard in my family. It’s how we roll. When I found out my placement was in Mexico City, my father was said “Oh I have a niece in D.F. I’ll call her up for you.” My smart-ass gringa self responded, “Papi, there are 22 million people in the city. Even if she lives there, she might be three hours away from where I will be!” It turned out she lives about a five minute drive from the university I teach at, and only about 30 minutes away from my depa. I got served.

Alma is just one example of a strong Mexican woman.  You see them all around Mexico City. They walk in sky-high heels next to their male counterparts, sweep the dusty streets like nobody’s business, hear the patty-cake of their hands as they make tortillas, see them nursing their babies on the Metrobus, hear them croon Mexican ballads in Coyoacan, see them smoking hipster cigarettes with their wayfarers on, lined up outside a nightclub, and most famously–curling their eyelashes with a spoon on public transportation. 

I know the eye-lash curling may seem anti-climactic after my poetic list of Mexicanas in el D.F. However, this is something both visitors and other Fulbrighters point out without fail.  When Meg visited, we were on the Metrobus heading towards Centro Historico when I noticed her mesmerized by the woman to my left.  As always, the bus went on, curving dangerously fast around the bend by Ciudad Universitaria. Unfazed by the possibility of stabbing herself in the eye with her metal spoon, the woman continued peering at herself into her small pocket mirror, and tugging at her eyelashes with the curved side of the utensil.  Meg leaned over and whispered, “That seems really ineffective. They don’t have eyelash curlers in Mexico?” I instantly remembered my mother telling me about how she used to pinch her cheeks and rub strawberries on them for rouge as a teenager.  My mama also spoke highly of the effectiveness of The Spoon when curling lashes. I get freakishly excited when I am able to answer a question, correct a misunderstanding, or tell a good (or even boring) story. So I enthusiastically informed Meg that a spoon is actually much more effective at curling eyelashes than an eyelash curler.  Similarly, a flat iron is much better for curling hair because the heat gets all around the hair completely, while a curling iron is a very surface level curl.  I could curl my hair when it is straight in the hopes of Rachel-Bilson style waves a million times, but they never last as long as when Lucille graciously curls my hair with a flat iron (see TFA Prom Winter 2013). The effect is the same with a spoon.  Spoons give women a longer-lasting eyelash curl. Meg looked at me pretty skeptically, so I turned to the woman as she curled her eyelashes and said, “Verdad que las cucharas son mejores para enchinarse las pestañas, que si uno usa un enchinador?!” The woman smiled and nodded and even showed us how she uses the spoon.  Meg was then satisfied with my response and we enjoyed a day of tacos al pastor (a lot of them) and museums.

I speak of the spoon-eyelash curling on public transportation because it is emblematic of femininity in Mexico.  It is generally true that women in D.F. are as done-up and feminine as possible: Lipstick, heels (even to clean the sidewalk), a dressed up ensemble, and perfect shiny dark hair in big curls or a sleek top-knot.  The latter a far cry from my own giant hair. For real–some guys have crooned “Chinita” (curly haired one) at me, but mostly a lady shouted “Hey China” in an angry way at me in the Metrobus because I didn’t scoot down the aisle and make room for others.  Or even more hilariously, yesterday a guy in passing truck said “Ay greñuda! Llevame a tu tierra.” For clarification, “greñas” are a crass way of referring to hair, and calling someone “greñuda” means that said person has really messy hair. Well my hair is inevitably wild-looking, and I have accepted it.

And whether or not my hair is wild or tame, my own femininity is pretty strongly aligned to traditionally constructed views of what is “womanly.”  There is a reason why my building’s housekeeper calls me “la muchachita de los vestiditos” to my face.  I would rather wear dresses or skirts than jeans. The outfit is easier to put together when you’re not concerned with a top, and dresses are generally more flattering on my pear shape than jeans.  I enjoy the process of grooming as much as a house-cat. My morning routine is as follows:

1. Stream Morning Edition through the CPR station in Denver (shout out to KCFR!)

2. Wash my face with my green tea cleanser, pat dry. Pat in my moisturizer with SPF (you are not supposed to rub it in)

3. Sweep blush onto my cheeks. Line the top lid of my eye with a thick black line. Curl my lashes (with a curler, no spoons for me–I’m too clumsy), add a coat of mascara (organic!) and add a touch of gold shadow to the inner corner of my eye.

4. Finish the look with one of my many Clinique Chubby Sticks (fanatic of Hibiscus shade) Done! All in about five-to-ten minutes (my hair is another story for another time).

Is the grooming part of my routine something I inherently like because I have a vagina? Absolutely not. I learned it from my mama. To me, my mother epitomizes the Mexican woman. Part of that is traditional femininity, the other is a strength that can not be underestimated.  If you know my mom (or observed her ‘liking’ all of my facebook pictures now that I unblocked her), you know she is the picture of traditional notions of womanliness. Republican Motherhood and all that. She doesn’t really wear jeans in public (kakhis to lounge at home), unless it’s a dark wide-leg jean with a nice cardigan. Her petite frame is always dressed in some sort of printed dress, solid cardigan, and an interesting necklace.  Angelica (my mama) does not care for makeup, and only wares her tinted Burts Bees chapstick in Rhubarb tone and some blush.  But watching her take care of her skin is an art.  She washes her face with mild soap, slices open an aloe vera branch, rubs the aloe on her face, talks on the phone with my Tia Clara (her only sister) and then after a while washes it off, and puts on her daily moisturizer with SPF.  Presto!

A cynic could say that my mama is an instrument of the patriarchy, perpetuating such notions of femininity in her offspring and buying into the Corporate Beauty Conglomerates that commodify and profit off of “beauty” (as it is equated to femininity).  Along this line of thought, one could disdainfully criticize the woman wobbling her heels as she commutes down the cobblestone streets.  Or scoff at the danger in curling your eyelashes with a spoon on the bus.

Certainly, these critiques are warranted.  I believe that gender is a social construction created and manufactured by the patriarchy.  Patrick M.C. put it quite simply in annoying facebook comment:”Corporatism is the patriarchy.” Mhm. It can be argued that Capitalism aids and abets the idea that girls love pink, are made of everything nice, love kittens and bows and flowers etc etc.

I know that whole shpeel because I’m often spouting it at parties and dinner tables (I’m so fun to hang out with). Yet, I think such a critique is in danger of being surface-level when it does not take into account women’s agency and individual choices. I know that my brand of femininity is manufactured—but I enjoy it and I freely relish in “dressing up.” GASP! I enjoy the liberty involved in picking what to wear for the day but more importantly–I don’t expect others to do the same (unlike people at school who would scoff and ask why I was ‘so dressed up’ and then behind my back criticized my ‘superficiality’).  We each pick our own styles and looks, and generally (except for brilliant minds like Oliva Chow CC Class of 2010 or Ali Abraham CC Class of 2011) they are influenced by some sort of corporation or social construction. Whether that be glamorous sexy bitches a la Kim K., or carefree Patagonia-clad mountain climbing badass bitches. Or hot hipster bitches with their Urban Outfitter/American Apparel/ Free People outfits.

For me, the greater issue is holding other people to one’s own definitions of femininity, or feminism for the matter. That is why I get so annoyed at people who critique Beyonce, or even patronizingly refer to her feminism as “Beyonce Feminism.”  As if it is not a “real” form of feminism. In the postmodern world we live in (UGH I KNOW THAT TERM SUCKS), feminism means something different for each of our own contexts.  I’m not so relative that I dispel one single possibility of feminism. I believe that the axiomatic truth in feminism is that we advocate for the liberation of women. This notion is intentionally vague because feminism can mean different things to different people. This also comes from the same line of thought that is wary of describing Muslim women who wear the hijab or chador as “oppressed.” Image

There is something to be said for multicultural feminism.  That is, feminism that takes into account the intersection between culture and feminist theory.  Both my mom and Alma are feminists in their own rights.  My mom used to see it as a negative term, and after I explained it as the liberation of women—she was like “Oh yeah, I’m a feminist.” This is because she defined liberation in a way that is true for both her culture and context, and at the same time acknowledges that Women are not free within society—both Mexican and American.  Even my third grader Jostenh wrote, “I’m a feminist because I think my mom should get paid the same as a boy.” In his eyes, liberal feminism (like J.S. Mill) is something he understands. I hope when he is older he is still keen and critical enough to broaden his view of feminism.  But in any case, he too acknowledges a violation of women’s rights and liberties.

Back to the Mexican Woman.  Much love to the ones I know and the ones I have yet to meet. Behind the spoon-on-eyelashes is a strength that one can not deny.  My own mother started working as a teacher in one-room school houses in the Sierra Nevadas when she was 16, all the while helping to support her seven brothers and one sister.  When she was denied the ability to work in the United States as a teacher, she volunteered at our schools until she was hired on as a para professional for special education students, and then promoted to her current position  as a Family Service Liaison. In that capacity, she coordinates non profit resources for underserved families at her school. She not only takes care of our own family, but also others in our community.  While I was home during Winter Break, I got to see her in action once again. One day she was on and off the phone for a long time, and at the same time was instructing me as to how to make tamales (she thought I was going to fuck up the dough). When I asked her what she was doing, she explained that a mother in her community had left her abusive husband, and took her two children with her.  My mother had originally arranged for her stay at a battered women’s shelter nearby.  But since then, her husband had violently threatened her and said he would take their kids and call ICE because of her immigration status.  As such, the woman had fled to the U.S.-Mexico border.  So the day before Christmas my mom was finding a new shelter for her and her two kids. In that moment, I was as much in awe of my mom as I am now. She doesn’t stop. She doesn’t quit. She perseveres with a strength that is unparalleled.  She didn’t just teach me how to take care of my skin so that I look fabulous at 60, but also how to care and empower those around me. She taught my sister that no one can take away your dignity, and that you have to be brave for those who can’t. I can’t thank her enough.Image Continue reading