Present in the Moment: Priceless

Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.

Even children beg.

Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?

My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?

I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.

In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.

I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?

“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.

She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.

Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.

What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.

 

An Apparition at Night

An Apparition at Night

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to flow into and out of your life only to re-emerge later and unexpectedly like an apparition? Why does it happen? And does it mean anything later? These apparitions rarely seem to happen at home but only when I travel. Why is that?

Things aren’t always  what they seem in darkness

An apparition occurred this spring in Puebla, Mexico, the evening I met my friend Maribel for coffee at el Profeta bookstore on 3 Sur. Our friendship began years ago when she was my Spanish teacher and has since deepened to include her siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews at celebrations of birthdays and other family events. It was already dark when we arrived and we talked for several hours. When it was time to leave, we went outside to say “Hasta la próxima” (until next time) with hugs and kisses. Maribel walked west to catch a bus to her barrio and I turned east toward my hotel. That’s when I saw a man standing at the corner, half in the shadows, staring at us. It felt odd but not dangerous. As I passed him, he touched my arm. “Señor, te acuerdas de mi?” Mister, do you remember me?

My first instinct was ‘no,’ I didn’t know this thin man with glasses, a week’s growth of beard and a cap jammed over his uncut hair. He wore tennis shoes, rumpled slacks, a nylon windbreaker over a button-down with and a cheap woven bag over his shoulder. His mishmash, out-of-style ensemble was the kind of cast-of clothing sold by charities in thrift stores. I assumed he would ask for money. How could he know me?

Then I looked closely into his eyes. “Sí … te recuerdo. ¿Omar?

He nodded. I knew him five years earlier and never expected to see him again. That was when I was his volunteer teacher’s assistant in the third-grade class at a Puebla orphanage. In those days, he wore pressed white shirts, peered through horn-rimmed glasses and kept his hair cut short and bushy. He was a conservative Catholic and sent his children to private schools. We worked together for only three weeks and knew little about each other.

He relied on rote learning as the primary method of instruction without explanations or helping the students understand the material. Correct answers weren’t praised and any disturbance was met with “¡Callase!” (shut-up) and “¡Vamanos!” (Let’s go!). This increased the disorder and provoked several of the boys to challenge his authority several times a day. He had no idea how I might help him so, on my own, I worked with the students one-on-one, encouraged them and gave them attention. I became the un-Omar.

Omar was a computer programmer before he took up teaching. Maybe that explained his frustration with the children when they didn’t respond like a line of code. As a teacher, I thought him temperamentally ill-suited to instructing abandoned eight-year-olds emotionally scarred by adult abuse. Maybe he reached that conclusion himself and left teaching or maybe the nun who ran the orphanage decided that for him. Whatever the case, he worked once more with the codes and algorithms he could control.

He spoke softly, even deferentially, in a way I didn’t recall and he gave me his business card. It had his name and a list of his data services. He was self-employed and, judging by his appearance, I guessed his professional trajectory was sloping downward. I didn’t want to know why. Our unexpected meeting made me uncomfortable. I still expected him to ask me for a favor (he didn’t).

I crossed the street and he fell into step beside me so we talked was we went. “I wonder what became of David and Lalo?” I said. “They must be about 15 or 16 years old now.” They were the brightest boys in the class, the greatest challenge to Omar’s authority and cried when I left.

“Ah, you remember them?” he asked.

“Yes, especially David. He said he wanted to be a narco gangster.”

I watched him dissolve into the shadows

Omar sniffed. When our paths diverged after two blocks. We shook hands and wished each other well. Then he turned up a dark street and I watched him dissolve into the shadows, a man as ephemeral as the fog. Our meeting seemed out of the ordinary, like an apparition, and I wondered if he were merely a figment of my imagination.

I walked to my hotel, perplexed and asking how he could materialize at that moment, in an unlikely spot and recognize me from a distance in the dark? How long had he been there? Did he follow us out of el Profeta and wait? Or was he already at the corner when Maribel and I left the bookstore? How could he remember me, a near stranger, after five years? Would our paths have crossed if I had left the bookstore a minute earlier or later?

My Mexican friends often react to the inexplicable events like this with, “It was meant to be.” I don’t believe in coincidences and “It was meant to be” feels like enough of an answer when I’m in Mexico. It was meant to be because I learned the language and doors opened, because I made friends and filled roles in their lives as they have in mine and because Spanish makes my life larger and wondrous.,

Was the encounter meant to be? And if it was, why? I went to bed wondering if there was something more behind the encounter? Call it superstition but when someone appears to me unexpectedly, it’s hard to escape the notion it happens for a reason. If so, I would know why in due time. And if not, then I’d know that, too. Either way, I would have an answer.

 

Surviving Greatness

Have you ever wondered what catapults a people into greatness? How is it that a culture can survive for centuries long after the collapse of the kingdom that bred it? Wherever I go in Mexico, I see the remains of great city-state cultures that rose and dominated territories for centuries. In their time, they developed languages, forms of writing, literature, mathematics, mapped the heavens, created elaborate calendars, and developed food crops we can’t live without. Then the political orders collapsed, often abruptly, but their languages and cultures survived and continue to adapt to the present. What propelled their trajectories across the arc of history, like rocks launched from a catapult? What enables the cultures and languages bred in those civilizations to survive after the husk of empire falls away? Can such things happen to the United States?

I considered this question on President Obama’s last day in office; the day I arrived in Cuetzalan del Progreso, a Mexican town perched on a mountainside in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. Its residents speak Spanish and Nahuatl, and some speak Totonaco, two of Mexico’s 68 officially recognized languages that survived the collapse of their political cultures. The poems of Manuel Espinosa, a Totonaco poet who lives in Cuetzalan, bring into the 21st century the sensibility, spirituality, and identity of the Totonacos. Without its language, a culture dies.

My friend Lorena, once my Spanish conversation coach, lives in Cuetzalan and studies Nahuatl for her a master’s degree. We traveled together to El Taji­n, a ancestral cultural site of the contemporary Totonac and Huastec people. The road  to Papantla, a city on the Gulf Coast, was scarcely wider than the bus. It descended the altiplano’s escarpment by an organic route of broken asphalt and gravel, through jungle thickets, lime groves, and banana plantations. We rolled along a placid river rosy with the reflections of dawn .

El Tajin’s temples impress you with their massiveness but their origins remain somewhat obscure. Humans have occupied the place for nearly 7,000 years. During its apogee between 600 and 1200 A.D., Taji­n dominated much of Veracruz state from until its destruction in 1230. Walking in the tropical heat, among the silent, carefully set stones, I wondered what force of will or visionary leadership made the Totonacs, the Huastecs, the Olmecs, the Zapotecs great in their time and place. And why did their kingdoms fail? Was their greatness the work of a charismatic leader or the blossom of a widely shared vision? What makes America, or any nation, great, I wondered?

We explored El Taji­n the day after the U.S. inaugurated a showman as President. He was an improbable candidate who rode into office demeaning Mexicans, promising to build a wall along the border, and break up NAFTA. What does it mean to ‘Make America Great Again?’ Does it mean anything? Or has a country already passed its apogee when the people want a leader who will remake their country as it was in a mythical golden age? That was my question for inauguration day 2017. The new President’s confusion of facts and lies pose a threat; he might destroy much without knowing it or, worse, without caring. Seeing Tajin’s great temples abandoned,  I worry  the barbarians are already at our gates.

Can any civilization survive its particular greatness? Is greatness sustainable? Do the concepts and values that bring a civilization into being contain a hidden seed of self-destruction? And where is that seed? Is it something small, unnoticed, or ignored until it sets in motion an irreversible  cascade of problems ? Does any nation or people escape this? Archeologists and historians are left to wonder: Where did things go wrong? And why?

Greatness. What is it? And how does it come about? Wandering among the stones, seeing the design, the care, the precision in construction; I’m impressed. Surely, such greatness must be the flower from a unifying vision of the people, a communal vision, the whole being the  fruit of many small things woven into daily life.

And what of American greatness? So many of our cultural norms rest on a belief in personal autonomy, an orderly and predictable society governed by laws and informed by science. We are optimists by nature; believers that tomorrow will inevitably be better than today, and upward progress is continuous. Unfortunately, the events of the last decade challenge this cultural idea. For many Americans, their todays are worse than their yesterdays and their tomorrows seem even bleaker. Those who felt forgotten or betrayed hitched their hopes, resentments, disappointments, and prejudices behind a campaign that promised to make America great once more.

Something similar happened in Minnesota on a smaller scale. Long a state with a progressive political and social culture, Minnesota burst into national consciousness in the mid-1970s with a Time Magazine cover story about ‘the good life’ in a state that ‘works.’ At the time, it was known for honest, collaborative politics, outstanding schools and colleges, numerous national corporations, engaged citizens, and an ethic of social responsibility. Unfortunately, Minnesotans have since taken their ‘goodness’ for granted, and the social compact has frayed to the point that the public prefers personal tax cuts to the cost of maintaining highways, schools, universities, and social services.

The decline of Minnesota’s ‘greatness’ and the collapse of Mexican civilizations reflect a loss of collective will and communal spirit in favor of a more individualistic, unequal, and antisocial attitude with widespread distrust of authority. Likewise, the social fabric of the United States is torn between narrow, competing visions of polity and the purpose of government. The culture has turned in on itself, consuming the good will that sustained diversity. Was this election a fundamental change in American civilization, or merely one episode among many? Sitting in the shade at El Tajin, I knew it was too early to know the answer. Nevertheless,  it was not too early to ask this question. Will our culture and its greatness survive?

 

 

 

 

Ruminate–chewing the cud of history

via Daily Prompt: Ruminate

Ruminating. Growing up on a Minnesota farm, I spent boyhood hours tending to our herd of dairy and beef cattle. They were a peaceful lot for the most part and, on hot afternoons, they lay in the shade and chewed their cuds as casually as kids chewed bubble gum. Cattle and other animals are ruminants, they chew their cuds of partially digested forage. Ruminating, chewing a cud, is what all thoughtful people need to do at this moment in time. In the U.S., we value swift decisions more than taking the time to ruminate or think about the consequences of our actions. Living in Mexico, with access to Mexican and U.S. newspapers, I have an opportunity to ruminate, to think about the current course of U.S. events.

Freize 2017 015Taking the long view—four millennia in the Museo Amparo. An afternoon in Puebla’s anthropological museum is a good place to thing amid its outstanding artifacts from Mesoamerican civilizations. I go often, and my four hours there (this time) passed through 4,000 years of human experience. The objects showed me other ways to view the cosmos, human fertility, divinities, writing, art, household utensils and political organizations. The variety of objects reflected amazing styles, some formal and realistic, others loose and abstract, still others as fresh as contemporary forms. Without writing, they used clay funereal figures with symbolic heads, noses, mouths and tongues to symbolize the virtues and accomplishments of the deceased—an obituary in ceramics. A video gallery of contemporary oral histories recounts cultural ideas and beliefs in Náhuatl, Mixe, Mixteca, Zapoteca, Chichimeca, and Maya—ancient languages still alive and necessary to meet human needs now as in the past.

Amparo 2017 020From museum galleries to artisans’ stalls in the mercado, you can see how creative energy flows from culture to culture, century to millennium. Sometimes the expression takes a new direction, at other times it doubles back on itself. Artifacts and products still throb with the human energy that pulses in our own veins and minds. You need only spend a day at the Amparo to see that primitive and advanced are meaningless ideas about cultures. Their abstract fallacy is the illusion there exists an objective standard by which to measure cultures. Human imagination seems always capable of rising to meet the needs and resources of a time and place. Comparing the artifacts and ruins of the past with the present doesn’t tell us we are more advanced as human beings. ‘Progress’ is a seductive but conceited notion; a false assumption that cultures rise upward through time toward some imaginary finish line. The ruins tell us another story.

The past is never the past in Mexico. The past isn’t behind me but all around me; time is a thin, fluid membrane lacking the harder, linear qualities I know as ‘time’ in Minnesota. The phrase ‘up to the minute’ feels meaningless here. What minute are we talking about? The moment we’re in now, or some other moment that just passed, or the one about to intrude? Today is perhaps yesterday or a century ago in another guise. Time changes its nature just as the mythic creatures of indigenous stories transform humans into jaguars or coyotes into humans. What we think of as the ‘past’ is always visible in a sidelong glance at margin of our peripheral vision. If I turn my head to look …!

I always come away from Amparo humbled about my place in a vaster cosmos. The universe is less complete without me but, at the cosmic level, I am but one speck of creative energy among multitudes that contributes to the flow of something greater than myself and whose significance I may never fathom in my lifetime. And yet, I suspect that grasping the essence of the past is no more difficult than lifting a cup of Mexican coffee to my lips.

Living here and now—noticing the other. I notice that Mexicans acknowledge strangers and each other in the stores and on the street with a nod or an unforced buenas tardes or buen día. The recognition may be small, even subtle, but it’s part of the social ‘grease’ and grace that underlies communal life. It is to say: ‘I don’t know you but I see you, I acknowledge your presence.’ It is a small but essential thing and, because my presence is repeatedly affirmed by others, I never feel alone or isolated in Mexico.

IMG_5428It makes me wonder if, in the rush of modern, urban life in the U.S., we take too little or no time to acknowledge the presence of those we don’t know. We all hunger for connection, for the affirmation of our being, but I fear we may have wrung it out of our culture with our utilitarian focus on work, and our isolation within the bubbles of shared opinions, social class, and race. Still, I believe there is a simple, human path out of our present divisions—to simply and sincerely acknowledge the presence of the ‘other,’ the person you don’t know, the person who thinks differently, or the foreigner you may otherwise fear. A simple acknowledgment of our shared existence as humans makes other connections possible and narrows the distances between us. It isn’t difficult.

 

Reading our way to freedom—literature as a subversive act. Latin American poets and novelists loom larger in the politics and history of their countries than they do in the U.S.—at least until now. Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz and many others were potent political figures in their time. People of all classes and opinions read them, and their works threatened the powerful. Why? Because words matter. Why? Because literature engages a person’s soul in a way that forms convictions.

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Writers and readers are more willing to put themselves on the line for these convictions than those who don’t read. Political novels, like It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 are suddenly popular in the U.S. Why? Literature is known to cultivate empathy, buck up courage, and guide public thinking and actions during dark times. Reading literature is subversive. That’s why book banning and burning is no accident. A well-read person knows that ‘alternate facts’ aren’t facts; they are lies. We all have a responsibility to call a lie, a lie. If we fall silent in the face of falsehood, we sanction the lie and make it our own. Reading thoughtful literature is one of the most subversive and revolutionary acts possible. Hence, our Constitution has its First Amendment. Today, it’s just possible that thoughtful reading and rumination may save us from the liars among us.

The rise and fall of civilizations—among the ruins of Yohualichan. I spent Inauguration Day 2017 at the ruins of Yohualichan in the rugged Sierra Norte of Puebla, Mexico. In this forested region of isolated indigenous towns, Spanish is the second language of many. Yohualichan is an aldea or hamlet of perhaps 500 Náhuatl-speaking residents, descendants of those who succeeded the Totonaco people and outlived the Spanish. Here, ancient traditions are passed on informally at home and through the schools. I visited these ruins just as the 45th President of the United States took his oath of office with his promise to ‘make America great again.’ (Not that the United States isn’t great already.)

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The ruins were built more than 1,000 years ago by a once great people who were conquered by the Aztecs in the 1200s, and were in turn defeated by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Wandering among the remains of stone temples and plazas, I ruminated on the elements of a great civilization, a great nation. Do civilizations and nations pass through life cycles of ascent, dominance, and decline? History is filled with empires that rose, dominated, and then fell. Sometimes, there were leaders—usually authoritarians—who attempted to resurrect former greatness by sheer force of will. Resurrection never seemed to be in the cards for the Greeks and Romans. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao briefly imposed their visions of greatness on their citizens but their empires fell because of internal contradictions.

I spent a morning wandering among stone temples, ball courts, and plazas erected without machines or draft animals. Their walls are plumb and the corners are square and the stones whispered a secret. Greatness doesn’t depend on priests, politicians or authoritarian leaders. These great structures with stepped temples were erected by a people imbued with a common spirit that bound them together in pursuit of a shared vision—even a vision of heaven on earth. The spirit that led the people to momentary greatness lasted only as long as they held a sense of common purpose. Their civilization flickered and died from internal divisions, political factions, and military conquests.

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Much still isn’t known about the culture of Yohualichan and its larger center at El Tajín in Papantla, Veracruz. The people of El Tajín recorded their history and culture on scrolls called codices. Spanish conquistedores destroyed most of the indigenous records and the accumulated information. That’s what invaders do. They try to destroy the soul of the culture, erase its history, and impose their language as a means of controlling those they defeated or conquered. In the quest to restore American ‘greatness,’ a new presidency seems bent on upending and obliterating the work of previous administrations. Its words and early actions are those of an invader and not of a successor. Like the Spaniards that toppled indigenous temples, the new regime seems set to demolish the social structures it inherited from 240 years of American experience. Already, the national endowments of the arts and humanities are slated for elimination—a de facto destruction of American codices. What else the administration may destroy is yet to be seen.

A slice of hope. Not all is necessarily lost. There are grounds for hope. After a day in the ruins, a friend took me to look at one of a dozen cisterns constructed and maintained by Cuetzalan 2017 067communal effort. Sunset was nearly on us when we slipped through the cattle gate and hiked up the mountainside through the grass. The large tank sat on a concrete pad fed by tubes from springs tapped farther up the slope. A tube at the bottom of the cistern channeled water to a dozen smaller tubes that ran downhill to the houses in the hamlet below. Water is scarce in parts of Mexico, and even scarcer in the midst of a drought. The construction, operation, and maintenance of the simple cistern is a communal project, a shared vision. This small project, multiplied by millions of people, is what makes a great civilization. This is greatness working in an indigenous municipality. We can all learn from the past, if we will.

Recognition and a Sense of Place

The Virgin appeared at an Aztec sacred site.

There is no landscape like Mexico

I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?

When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.

When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.

Humility is the avenue to self acceptance.

Rosita’s house, six doors down.

On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.

With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’

Years of friendship.

Years of friendship.

A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.

Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.

As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .

In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.

The Exquisite Pain of a Double Life

 

What is more exquisite than preparing for a trip? A week, maybe two, or even a month? Do you have a ritual you follow as you prepare? I do. Mine begins by ignoring the departure date until at least a month before I leave. Then I start. It’s a kind of foreplay. Something that builds to peak excitement on the day I leave.

Tonight, I’m making beef and black bean tacos, listening to cumbia on my laptop and, later, watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a great story about greed, generosity, and compassion starring Humphrey Bogart.  I’m only 36 hours away from departure. The SuperShuttle will pick me up at 4:40 a.m. for a 6:30 flight to Mexico City. Two hours after that, I will be among friends in Puebla.

Already, the suitcase is packed—37 pounds of necessities to last me three months. That includes a laptop, changes of clothing, notebooks for my writing, gifts that Mexican friends have asked me to deliver to their families, plus personal odds and ends. The beauty of is—I’ve make the trip many times and I don’t need to take much. A woman five houses from my quarters does laundry. I cook my breakfast and supper and, as much as possible, live as ordinary Mexicans do.

A flight from frigid Minnesota to semi-tropical Oaxaca crosses more borders than I can count. Physically crossing the Río Bravo is the least significant of many crossings. And the much-trumpeted Great Wall will be easily crossed, also.

The most significant borders are internal ones of language, cultural beliefs and habits, perspectives on the world, expectations, and attitudes. You don’t often think of these things in preparation, but they’re there. And if you’re an experienced traveler, especially a bilingual one, it doesn’t take you more than a few hours—maybe a day and a night—to easily reintegrate into your new surroundings.

That’s how long it takes my alternate persona to assert itself in Mexico. The shifts are subtle now, I don’t notice the change the way I did at first, but they are essential to living easily within the envelope of Mexican culture. Language is the first adjustment. After nine months of speaking English like a Minnesotan, my vowels are ‘flat’ and have lost some sharpness of the long Spanish A, E, I, O, and U. It takes a day to complete the crossing from Minnesota English to Mexican Spanish. But that’s only the beginning.

As the language shifts,  the muscles of my tongue resume familiar twists. It’s like riding a bike, the muscles relearn to shape the proper sounds, moving faster to dance over the vowels (vocales), each one a syllable. At the same time, my ear retunes its acuity to recognize rhythms and sounds uncommon in Minnesota except in bodegas and Latino neighborhoods. According to scientists, a second language creates a new set of circuitry in the brain. Well, it’s time to flip the switch!

The crossing won’t be complete until my alternate persona emerges; the me that expresses myself in Spanish with words and phrases that I might never say in English in Minnesota. One of the miracles of another language is the way it taps into the subconscious parts of you in ways the native tongue doesn’t. With any fluency at all, you make the shift without knowing it.

My biological family didn’t overuse words of emotion. We were WASP’s and emotions were considered one’s private business, not to be put on public display. As children, were expected to speak in facts, not emotions. I grew up and remain a largely pragmatic, and matter-of-fact in Minnesota . In Mexico, however, a culture where all aspects of life are expressed in emotions and opinions, that neglected side of my soul emerges. The inner life, not the outer, is more important in Mexico. I say things using Spanish words and phrases of emotion I hesitate to use in Minnesota. In el norte, my comments on someone’s difficulty is usually “It’s too bad that …” because it fits within the emotionally restrained culture of Minnesota’s north European population. But not in Mexico. There, I easily say, “Está triste que … or It’s sad that …”

Between the United States to Mexico lies a gulf of history that shapes their respective cultural mentalities. As Americans, we are data-driven, depend on strong (even dominant) institutions to provide stability and security. We can count things happening exactly when and how they’re supposed to. UPS gives a tracking number and delivery date, our appliance repairman gives us the hour when he’ll arrive, our employer automatically deducts our taxes and deposits our paycheck in the bank. These and a thousand other certainties fee our fantasy of the world as a secure orderly place.

Not so in Mexico. Try to make a date for coffee next week and the conversation starts with, “Es posible… It’s possible …”  Of course it’s possible! you think. Anything’s possible. So why not just say, ‘Yes’? Because, in Mexico, institutions are trusted less than in the U.S., people don’t depend on them, and experience has instilled an understanding that the best laid plans will come a cropper more often than not. Crossing over involves setting aside an expectation all will run on time, as planned. That doesn’t happen south of the border, and we all learn to live in the conditional tense.

The happy history of the United States during the 20th century instilled the fantasy of ‘progress’ as a reality in which each generation of Americans is richer and happier than the one before it. Unfortunately, the expectation has induced an unsustainable sense of entitlement that began crashing in the 2008 recession—if not sooner. Maybe Mexicans are wiser on this point. They hope tomorrow will be better than today but they don’t count on it. They’re students of their own history and know the bitterness of disasters—political, financial, social, and familial.

You ask: Why do I cross over each year and live in a society rived by narco-violence, social unrest, economic insecurity, political corruption, and widespread poverty? Aren’t there better places than this?

It depends on what you mean by ‘better.’ Certainly, the Mexican coasts with their lavish resorts in Cozumel, Cancun, and Cabo are ‘better’ in this respect. But in those places I won’t find or receive what I look for and find among ordinary Mexicans. Living much as they do, I experience intimately my own humility and feel gratitude for my life and its possibilities in ways that don’t happen when all is secure and orderly. The mass of Mexicans are living a line from the Eagles’ hit, Hotel California: ‘You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.’ Crossing over lets me take their way of life as my own for a long as I can, and live it on their terms. Every time I do this, I reconnect with my deeper self, and rediscover aspects of my persona I have overlooked, neglected, or forgotten. Unlike my dearest Mexican friends, I can leave; there is an exquisite sadness in knowing they can’t.

Chaotic–The post-election state of immigration

Chaotic–The post-election state of immigration

How is it that a nation—one that calls itself a nation of immigrants— turns against the newest of arrivals? What can we do to make their lives less chaotic and more just?

¿ Cómo lo es que nuestro país—una que se llama si misma una nación de inmigrantes–se vuelve contra los más nuevos inmigrantes ? ¿Qué podemos hacer para poner sus vidas menos caótico  y más justo ?

Life is suddenly more chaotic for immigrants. I live in Minnesota. Here there are resident immigrants and resident bigots. Until the election, most of the bigots were invisible. That has changed. One of the young Latinas in our congregation told me some classmates she thought were friends now harass the immigrant students. ‘Go back where you came from!’ She said it was worse for Somalis, who are called ‘terrorists,’ and must fend off attempts to snatch their hijabs. How can anyone live while looking over her shoulder? How do I deal with this when I’m not an immigrant? Let’s start by understanding  our history and the roots of nativism.

La vida está más caótica para los inmigrantes ahora. Yo vivo en Minnesota. Aquí, hay los inmigrantes y intolerantes residentes así como. Hasta las elecciones, el más de los intolerantes fueron invisibles. Ahora, eso ha cambiado. Una latinas en nuestra congregación me dijo que algunos de los alumnos quienes ella pensara eran su amigos acosan los estudiantes inmigrantes. ‘Ir atrás tu país!’ Ella dijo que fuera peor para las somalís, que están llamados ‘terroristas’ y deben de prevenir atentados de remover sus hijabs. ¿Cómo puede cualquier persona vivir mientras mirando sobre su hombro? ¿ Cómo hago enfrentar esto cuando no soy inmigrante? Vamos a comenzar por entender nuestra historia y las raíces de nativismo.

Do we mean what we say?

This is our ideal. Do we mean what we say?

The racist virus has always been in the body politic but, with this election, it has broken out in pustules of hate. We can no longer pretend racism doesn’t exist. It’s always been there, now it’s visible. Trump didn’t create it, he exploited it. He drew to the surface something most of us preferred to ignore unless it touched us or someone we knew. We can’t pretend any longer.

El virus de racismo ha sido en el cuerpo político siempre pero con esta elección, lo ha rompió en pústulas de odio. No podemos pretender que el racismo no existe. Lo ha estado con nosotros para siempre. Ahora los está visible. El Sr. Trump lo no creado, él lo explotado. Él traigo al superficial algo que la mayoría de nosotros preferidos ignorar hasta que el racismo nos tocaba o un conocido. No podemos pretender nunca más.

Our history shows us the contours of our intolerance. The largely Protestant American majority of the 1850s feared Irish immigration—they were poor and Catholic. Chinese and Japanese immigrants barred by treaties ad laws in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, a fear of Slavs and Jews from eastern Europe resulted in quotas designed to keep a white majority from northern Europe. Indigenous Americans received citizenship in 1924! U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were interned during WW II, but not U.S. citizens of German descent. The quotas are gone and many whites fear they will no longer be the majority.

Nuestra historia nos muestra que estamos selectivos en nuestros prejuicios. La mayoría de protestante norteamericanos en los 1850s resisten la inmigración de Irlanda— fueron pobres y católico. Los chinos y japoneses estuvieron prohibido por acuerdos y leyes. Temprano en el sigo 20, un miedo de los eslavos y judíos de europea oriente resultó en cuotas fijadas para mantener una mayoría blanca desde europea norte. Los americanos indígenas recibieron la ciudadanía en 1924! Ciudadanos descendientes de Japón estuvieron internados durante la guerra mundial dos pero no los ciudadanos de descendientes de Alemania. Desde 1924 hasta 1965, nuestras leyes de inmigración usaban las cuotas para mantener un población de mayoría blanca de orígenes europea norte. Las cuotas existen no más y muchos blancos temen que ellos no van a ser la mayoría nunca más.

Trump campaigned by playing on an anti-immigrant fears and stereotypes. Lacking any grasp of the facts, he called Mexicans criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. FBI statistics show that violent crime is lower among immigrant communities than native-born communities. As for drugs, the U.S. and its citizens are the worlds largest market for narcotics. Market demand and not immigrants is the cause of drugs in the U.S.

Do good fences make good neighbors?

Do good fences make good neighbors?

Trump hizo campaña por tocando en los miedos y estereotipos de anti-inmigración. Faltando cualquier entendimiento de los hechos, él llamó mexicanos criminales, narcos, y rapistas. Las estadísticas de FBI muestren que los crímenes violentes son menos entre las comunidades de inmigrantes que en las comunidades de ciudadanas. En cuanto a las drogas, los EEUU y sus ciudadanos son el mercado más grande del mundo. Exigido del mercado y no los inmigrantes es la causa de drogas en los EEUU.

What is happening to our country? After centuries of immigration, why are we in chaos over who is or can be an American? Does the Statue of Liberty mean anything now?

¿Qué esta pasando a nuestra país? Después siglos de inmigración, por qué estamos en caos

Send me your...?

Do we still want the tired, the poor, the people unlike you and me…?

sobre quien es o puede ser un norteamericano? ¿Hay cualquier significada en la estatua de libertad ahora?  

If you worry about the chaos and discrimination against immigrants, there are simple but effectives things you can do. But if you aren’t concerned about the lives and civil rights of immigrants, then you are one of the oppressors. Silence in the face of evil is participation in the evil.

Si te preocupes sobre el caos y discriminación contra los inmigrantes, hay cosas simples pero útiles que puedes hacer. Pero, si tú no tiene una preocupación sobre las vidas y derechos civiles de los inmigrantes, eres uno de los que oprime. Silencio en la cara del mal es participación en el mal.

I recommend the following. Recomiendo los paso que siguen.

  • Join the local branch of a human rights organization like Amnesty International. Unirte con un organización para las derechos humanos.
  • Inventory your social and political connections. You probably know a professional who can help guide an and political system immigrant through the legal. Hacer un inventario de sus conexiones sociales y políticas.
  • Educate yourself on the legal rights of immigrants. Many immigrants are unaware they are entitled to due process—just as you are. Educar tu mismo sobre los derechos legales de inmigrantes.
  • Accompany an immigrant friend to court. Be a companion in their fearful walk. It will strengthen them—and you as well. Acompañar un amigo inmigrante al tribunal.
  • Honor your American ancestors. They fought in wars to secure legal and civil rights for all—the rights we too often take for granted. Honrar tus antepasados norteamericanos que pelearon en las guerras para asegurar tus derechos civiles.
  • Join an immigrant organization. A congregation, cultural, or service group will bring you in contact with people who need your friendship and aid. You will receive in proportion to what you give. Unirte una organización de inmigrantes.
  • Write letters for them—recommendations, introductions, or other documents. It is a small thing for you to do but it means the world to an immigrant. Escribir para ellos las cartas de recomendaciones y introducciones.
  • Let people know you are available to help them. Until immigrants know you are willing, they probably won’t ask you. What you receive back in friendship will exceed what you do, or think you do. Decir a la gente que estás desponible ayudarles.
  • Don’t worry about getting into trouble. It isn’t a crime to be a compassionate human being—regardless of their legal status. Standing with them in the face of trouble and injustice is the highest form of friendship if not patriotism. No preocuparse sobre ponerte en dificultades. Compasión delante de injusticia es el patriotismo más alto.

There is abundant information at the following:

Amnesty International

Fair Immigration Reform Movement

American Civil Liberties Union

American Immigration Lawyers Association

Immigration Legal Resource Center

American Immigration Council.

 

Unfinished Fluency

Unfinished Fluency

 “Are you fluent in Spanish?” my friends ask.

“Almost,” I reply. 

When I first enrolled in Spanish immersion, I thought of ‘fluency’ as the capacity to speak and understand without errors. Early in the course of my studies, I saw a banner marked ‘fluency’ at a finish line just ahead of me. The more I studied and learned, the more the finish line moved farther on, always a little ahead of me. Of course, I didn’t want to leave fluency unfinished. I wanted to cross a line that marked the boundary between fluent and not fluent. One day, I woke up realizing the ‘finish line’ didn’t exist; it was a figment of my cultural imagination.

Our American way of life seems preoccupied with the idea of completion, conclusion or the finished product. We don’t like things left unfinished—college degrees 10 credits short of graduation, questions left unanswered, arguments lacking conclusions, mysteries left uninvestigated. No. We are culturally inclined to want things neatly tied up, without loose ends. In death as well as life, we want resolution—closure. That’s the virtue we see in a ‘dead line.’ When we see something unfinished, a house, a project, an education, we tend to view it moralistically. Subtly, we think it a wasteful, slothful, shiftless, no-account. Culturally, we have little tolerance for anything unfinished.   

I suspect we can chalk up some of our abhorrence of unfinished things to the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution and mass production. American life is tightly bound up in a layers of integrated processes. Every step along the way is measured to the last nano-second. Each one must be finished on time, nothing must be left unfinished, incomplete or behind schedule. If it is, the whole system stops. It’s unfinished. Horrible!

Learning a language, even our tongue, is a process. No one is born fluent in his native language. Nor is it possible to wake up some day speaking another idiom. From infancy on, we learn through a series of steps and processes that become a part of ourselves. Unlike the manufacture of standardized widgets, language learning takes its own time and is never truly finished. Unfortunately, too much language instruction follows an industrial model. The lessons are often a series of uniform steps meshed into larger units and designed to be completed within a specified period of time, as if the students were of identical capacity.

Am I fluent? No. I’m not finished yet. ‘Almost fluent’ is about as much as I can accomplish in any language, even in my native English. Something is always incomplete because English and Spanish evolve constantly. Each year brings new phrases, shades of meaning, and slang. These variants come and go rapidly. As I learn and unlearn  them, they change how I think and speak and act.

With the passing of time and circumstances, I add to my vocabulary and I find new and interesting ways to say and write my thoughts. It’s all part of on-going literacy. The American English I hear in old radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s isn’t the American English of today. Today’s voices are more diverse, the vocabulary, accents,  intonation, and word order have changed. Language evolves with our lives. Learning a language is like buying unfinished desk. It possesses the virtue of creating opportunities to continue its completion to suit me with my taste in varnish or paint.

Am I fluent ? Not yet. Like you, the reader, I’m still unfinished.  I’m a work in progress, still learning Spanish ever more deeply, and evolving as I learn. Each lesson, each experience, adds to the sum of what is already there. It deepens and broadens my sense and use of the language. Fluency is a journey and not a destination. It is never finished.  

 

Staying Connected

Staying Connected

On Saturday I attended the wedding of very good friends—well, family—who came from Mexico 25 years ago. Although married in a civil ceremony, they waited a quarter century until their parents obtained resident visas to have a religious service. Then, with their daughters, parents, extended family and close friends around them, they held the nuptial mass at their cabin in western Wisconsin.

They did it the Mexican way, reciting their vows with the traditional lazo or cord around their necks. Afterward, the bride’s father, a retired mariachi in full costume, sang romantic songs. During the feast, over plates of mole rojo con pollo, rice and enchiladas, we visited in Spanish and English. Being connected to this family and a larger Hispanic community is how I keep my Spanish in ‘shape.’ I exercise it in the same way I work my muscles.

Stay Connected—We visit another country, we learn its language, and maybe we make friends there. But, after we return home to the U.S., we face the challenge of staying sufficiently connected to keep up the Spanish we have worked so hard to learn through immersion, classes or travel. Being connected or in contact with other Spanish speakers is the key. The question is, how to do it.

How I ended up at the wedding is part of a longer story. Suffice it to say, I was at the wedding because I looked for ways to connect and use my Spanish (see below). I met my friends at church and, because they lacked immigration documents, I used my social contacts to help a daughter enter college and the husband avoid deportation. For me, it was a matter of using my professional contacts and applying my professional skills to aid them. To them, I was a life-saver. After my friend no longer faced deportation, he said, “You’re now a member of the family. A ‘primo’ (cousin). Since then, they have include in family events. I’m connected.

Finding your particular connections takes experimentation. This can be as extensive as you want and it can lead in unexpected directions and relationships, as it did in my case.

Conversation Groups—I attended several types of conversation groups in Minnesota between my short and intermittent immersion courses in Mexico. Language groups are easy to find over the internet. Simply enter ‘Meet-ups’ in your web browser and then indicate the kind of ‘meet up’ you want in the search box. During the early years of Spanish lessons, I attended groups that met at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, a library, a coffee shop and a bar.

Each group had its own personality, depending on the language skills of the leaders and the participants. As I discovered, most groups didn’t involve native speakers as regular members as they had other opportunities to keep their language alive. The groups I attended included lots of eager beginner and intermediate speakers whose ability ranged from elementary level to bi-lingual fluency. Some knew no Spanish but came with the hope of learning it by ‘osmosis.’ This rarely happened.

You may have to try several groups before finding your ‘groove.’ Some may be too elementary and participants will look to you for leadership. Or they may be too large for establishing any personal relationships in which to have on-going conversations. Or they may be too advanced for you to feel comfortable. Keep looking. The groups exist and you will find one to fit you.

Cultural Centers—Many if not most larger cities have Hispanic cultural centers that offer classes in Spanish and the cultures of Mexico and other countries of Latin America. Minneapolis has one where I completed my beginning level classes with native speaker instructors before taking immersion in Mexico. Later, after I became fluent, I took two 10-week literature classes for the pleasure of reading Latin American writers and discussing the works with others.

If your city doesn’t have a cultural center, look for a community education program, or perhaps audit a class at a local college. One of my friends whose spoken Spanish isn’t as fluent as she wants it to be, audited a college course in Latin American literature. And if your city doesn’t have a college, then read aloud.

Volunteer—If your city or community has a Hispanic population, chances are good there are non-profit social and educational programs that serve them. Most organizations depend on volunteers to interact with clients and do much of the work. Volunteering may be a double opportunity for you. You will have the opportunity to use your language, meeting others, and serve them by helping them with your useful ‘connections’ to corporate hiring managers, college admissions staff, government officials and the like.

Most of us who are U.S. citizens know how the ‘system’ works and we usually know someone (or someone who knows someone) who can help a Latin American immigrant navigate to the services or officials they need. Aiding an immigrant to a job, an official, a service—even if your Spanish is still elementary—is a ‘big deal’ for them. It is through gestures like this that good friendships form. I’m still amazed at the difference I’ve made in some lives with a few phone calls, a few letters of recommendation, character references, visits to an official’s office, or accompanying an immigrant to court. As a citizen, these look like small favors; for my friends they are life-changing.

Churches—The church and its ceremonies play large roles in the lives of many immigrants. Not all are Roman Catholics, but also Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist and other denominations. Regardless of denomination, the church is still the community nexus where many Latin American immigrants come together to find community. I belong to a largely Mexican congregation in Minnesota where the liturgies and sermon are in Spanish, as are the after-church conversations over coffee and tamales. For six years, I served on the parish council and as its co-chair because I was also the bridge or connection to the majority culture.

These are some of the ways you can connect with fellow Spanish speakers. And, if you are so fortunate as to find a congregation, a nonprofit or a cultural organization that fits your abilities and meets your needs, you most certainly will make friends. Who knows, you may one day find yourself at a wedding as one of the family or at least in the smaller circle of close and trusted friends who will nurture your Spanish and deepen your sense of the culture.

 

Zapatos rojos—Red shoes and the pain of knowing

Speaking and reading another language opened doors into the lives of other people. Spanish helped me make friends I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, through friendships, I gained greater cultural awareness of Mexico. Greater awareness usually brings clarity but clarity reveals things sometimes touch my conscience in unexpected and uncomfortable ways. With awareness I also  feel some pain.

This happened gain last Saturday in Oaxaca, Mexico. This sunny, colonial city depends on tourists whose commerce with indigenous artisans and traditions accounts for nearly a third of the local economy. As la Semana Santa (Holy Week) approaches, more tourists arrive from Mexico, the United States, and Europe seeking a festive vacation.

IMG_5802Walking along the Alcala, Oaxaca’s street of high-end shops and tony restaurants, I’m surprised to see dozens of shoes, each the color of blood, set out in pairs on the gray cobbles. What is this, I wondered as I joined the cluster of Mexicans around the informational banner.

Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes) is public art dedicated to women who have suffered violence. It began in 2009 as a symbolic march seeking justice for 33 women who were killed or ‘disappeared’ in Ciudad de Juárez. Now it is a traveling presentation, a call to conscience in solidarity with all women who risk violence at the hands of men who are protected by custom and official indifference.

IMG_5799Tourists passed the exhibition, most of them glanced at the crimson shoes, but few stopped to read the banner before they entered the shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, the silent, empty red shoes screamed to those of us who read the banner.

The price for learning another language, another culture, includes knowledge of good and evil. Like it or not, reading about the horrific murders of women is now an integral part of my Mexican  reality. I can no longer say: ‘I didn’t know.’ Now I know, and now my conscience isn’t as clear as it was before I saw the shoes. How bad is violence against women in Mexico, I wondered?

Minutes later, I had an answer to my question when I came upon a group of women speaking in the shade of Oaxaca’s cathedral. Behind them, large banners bore the photos and stories of their daughters—promising young women— who disappeared or were killed. The speakers were part of 300 Madres A.C. Unión de mujeres victimas de la violencia en Oaxaca. Our small crowd of listeners included young Mexican couples with babies, middle-aged women, youths, two policemen, and me—the only non-Mexican.

The women tell forceful stories. The women’s emotions drove their stories of pain and loss. Now and then, each paused to wipe her eyes or regain her voice. Their words flashed like sharp knives, paring away the hypocrisy of police and public officials who told them not to worry, their daughters were probably off with their boyfriends. Or worse, officials told them the girl was probably a prostitute or drug addict—as if that justified their deaths. One by one, the mothers demanded an end to ‘la cultura machista’ that protects the men—including police—who treat women as less than human.

How bad is it, I wondered?  It’s bad—it’s staggering. In the State of Oaxaca (population 3.5 million), 559 women were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Another 25 were murdered in January-February 2016. According to the Mexican Institute for Women (2009), 67 percent of Mexican women over the age of 15 years experienced some type of violence. In 40 percent of the cases, the violence occurred in the woman’s home, and usually involved a current partner or ex-partner.

What accounts for these horrors? Beneath the colorful cultural images projected by Mexican tourist bureaus lies a dark, authoritarian legacy of traditionally narrow gender roles, an acceptance of violence, and an absence of political will or resources to investigate and bring assailants to justice. These women, like many others, can’t rely on the government to protect them so they are organizing in their communities to stop gender-based violence.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates (JASS) documented (2012) that government officials and security forces frequently used sexualized violence to intimidate and subdue women. In 2006, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was Governor of the State of Mexico, he sent security forces to crush a protest against a new airport. Two protesters died and 26 women were sexually assaulted by the security forces. To date, no police officer has been  found guilty of the assaults. Peña Nieto later justified the violence as necessary to restore public order.

IMG_5880Nor can women rely on the authorities to protect them from drug cartels that coerce women into transporting drugs and filling logistical roles. According to a former director of the National Women’s Institute (Mexico City), cartels force women into prostitution because the sex trade is the third most profitable market after drugs and small arms.

Can this be true? Sadly, it is. It is a dark aspect of the Mexico I love.

These questions led me to look for comparable incidents in the U.S. and Minnesota. Femicide or feminicide has its evil counterpart in the U.S. One U.S. woman is assaulted every nine seconds; at least three U.S. women are murdered daily by their husbands or boyfriends. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Ten million children witness domestic violence annually. Nearly one in five teenage girls said a boyfriend threatened her if they broke up. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner and this accounts for 15 percent of violent crimes. Nearly three-fourths of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94 percent of the victims are female (data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

In Minnesota (population 5.2 million), at least 115 women were killed in domestic violence between 2010 and 2015—34 of them in 2015. In the majority of cases, the women were murdered when they tried to leave an abusive relationship (data from Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women). This is significant.

Within my adult memory, there was a time when the police rarely intervened in ‘domestic violence’ except when the neighbors complained of the noise. Police seldom arrested anyone—particularly men. Women feared retribution and were afraid to press charges. Twenty years ago, the public regarded domestic fights as private affairs. When women did complain of abuse, the courts, the police, and even the clergy were quick to ask the woman what she had done to provoke the attack! They even advised her to be more understanding and work it out with her spouse. I’m struck by the similarities in the cultural mentalities of Mexico and the U.S.

I stood in the cathedral’s shade for nearly and hour and listened to the women tell their stories. As a husband and father of two daughters, I felt compelled to stay because, if I walked away and ignored the evil, I would thereby condone it and participate in it. As a foreigner, the only help I can give these women is to be present in the moment, listen to their stories, and let the stories touch my conscience. Listening is a form of participation, listening seems so insignificant, but in fact it’s an act of political and moral solidarity.

I returned to the shoes on the cobbles after the women finished speaking. The woman curating the Zapatos Rojos exhibit approached me with a slip of paper and a pen.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” Do I want to write a message?” she asked.

Yes. Until now, la cultura machista and its violence seemed like abstract information unconnected to my reality. I hadn’t encountered anyone who had suffered violence. Now that I’m a seasonal resident in Oaxaca, I know the violence is part of the society I meet in the streets, it’s a reality for the women who sell me tomatoes in the Mercado Merced, it’s an integral but evil part of the Mexico I love. The dozens of empty shoes eloquently call me to think of the dead or ‘disappeared’ women who live only in the hearts of their mourners.

Then I thought of my friend Rosario in Puebla. A year ago she posted information on Facebook about Guadalupe, her friend who vanished after work one afternoon. Guadalupe or her remains haven’t been found. Nothing more is known—only silence.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” the curator asked again.

.”

I took the paper and pen she offered, certain Rosario would leave a note were she here. But she isn’t and I will do it for her. No one can bring Lupe back from the dead but I could take Rosario’s place and stand with the brave women of Mexico who confront violence and official indifference. I wrote a note—a kind of prayer—to Guadalupe and stuck it in a shoe.

Empty red shoes cry out from the pavement. It is often said that travel and a second language broaden one’s perspective. And this is true. Once we gain another language, and our cultural horizons widen, we are vulnerable to the moral questions once invisible to us. The violence against women, like the sexual abuse of children, becomes culturally pervasive when society turns a blind eye and says it’s a private matter. I can no longer say I didn’t know, and silence in the face of evil isn’t a moral option.

Violence against women isn’t news to Mexicans; the news is that women will take physical risks to end la cultura machista. Zapatos Rojos is a fight for human rights, social equality, individual dignity and civic justice. The empty red shoes on the cobbled street remind me that moral obligations transcend national and cultural boundaries.