Friday, November 30, 2007

"Exchange students thank hosts with a taste of home"

(Published November 30, 2007 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Photograph by : Meredith Veto

    Laura Lomeli and Saron Hardin-Smith enjoy what’s left of two Thanksgiving turkeys.


It was a sight for sore eyes: a dazzling spread of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, cabbage and holishkes, pumpkin pie… and turkey. Two, in fact—razed to the bone in the delicious tradition that brings U.S. families together every year to celebrate gratitude for the harvest and one another.

The chefs in question were 14 students from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina who study at the Universidad de Guadalajara’s Centro de Estudios Para Extranjeros. The students spend a semester living in Mexican homes, sharing the table each day with their surrogate families. And as their time draws to a close, what better way to express gratitude for their love and support than to offer a traditional U.S. feast.

The meal was hosted in the home of Roberto Gomez, director of the Intercolonias program in Lomas de Oblatos. More than 20 years ago, Guilford College established a relationship with the Mexican social justice organization, which is based on the teachings of Paulo Freire.

Approximately 30 colonias in Guadalajara are involved in the effort to improve infrastructure, build credit unions, and manage a youth sports league, among other community ties. Guilford College students maintain an ongoing dialogue with members, discussing current issues and cultural challenges.

But conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner strayed far from political discourse.

The house was so packed that people poured out the open front door, plates of food in hand; kids darted between legs and chucked tazos (Pogs) on the floor. Friends laughed and joked, lamented their imminent departures, moaned and patted their full bellies with satisfied smiles.

As the night wore on and the tequila ran out, folks drifted outside into the comfortable chill, and departed with extended hugs and good wishes. It felt like home and richly so, in the way that good food and company usually does. No tradition was lacking; in fact, a new one was added:

A dancing chicken. The holiday coincided with the birthday of a partygoer, whose friends hired a man in a chicken suit with a boombox to join the fun.

We’ll call it Mexico’s version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Noche Fea

Guadalajara, Jalisco – November 24, 2007, just before midnight. A friend was detained by the police (for reasons that remain unclear) and escorted in a patrol car to the dark outskirts of the city, where he was restrained and beaten brutally by five officers. The next day he recovered in the hospital and reported the incident to the Juzgado Municipal’s internal affairs office. A lawyer advised him that actions may be taken against the officers if he can recognize them in a line-up, but he will not recover damages.

My phone rings at 12:30 a.m., rousing me from a half-dream featuring Erin Brockovich, still playing on the television I forgot to switch off. “…So before you come back here with another lame ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez.” A friend is speaking to me from within the walls of a jail cell. He is crying and talking a fast, garbled Spanglish. They beat me, Meri, they took me fuera de la cuidad and beat me. Help me, go to the bank and bring mil pesos. Go to the Juzgado Municipal en La Calzada Independencia [he calls to someone outside the cell; a male voice yells a number], La Calzada Independencia 840. 840, Meri. Hurry. They beat me so bad.

I pull on jeans discarded two hours earlier on the floor, throw a sweatshirt over my blouse, step into boots and walk into the night, cursing my luck. You owe me one, cabrón. I make a pit stop at the Banamex up the street, withdraw 1500 pesos, and flag a taxi on Niños Heroes. The cab rides east and passes prostitutes lazing on corners next to hardware shops, doors locked and windows barred. Up Independencia to the eight-hundred block, dropped on the stairs of the central station.

The station’s lobby is empty and white, lit by fluorescents. A tired woman at a corner desk opens the registry and locates his name. She explains the fine will be 238 pesos. A man accepts my cash and handwrites a receipt, passing me a stamped copy of the citation. I cross the lobby and wait on a cold perforated metal bench. Time passes strangely, my eyelids droop. PUM pum PUM pum PUM pum PUM pum. A government drone down the sex offenders’ wing stamps documents, echoing like a dull heartbeat down the hall; a young woman shuffles in the same direction, weighed down by two bags of packaged copy paper.

He walks through the glass doors, hunched over and wearing nothing but a pair of corduroy trousers, and shivers like a baby whipped out of a bathtub. The tongues of his shoes, stripped of their laces, stick up and show his gray socks beneath. The corners of both his eyes are purple and framed by dark knots—there is a quarter-sized raspberry on his forehead still bleeding freshly, a blackened bump on the bridge of his nose, long scratches on his back, and circular welts on his wrists as if imprinted by shackles.

He collapses and sobs. I remove my sweatshirt and try to fit it over his head; he fails to notice my effort and grips his neck, rocking back and forth in a fit of shock. Eventually forced into a cab, he lingers before the door closes and cries at the rifle-wielding guard who keeps post on the steps, Hijos de puta! Pinches cabrones policia, que no hice nada! His tears flow and he repeats the same phrases like a broken record, he tells me he loves me and thank you I don’t know what I would’ve done… aaauuwwww, I hurt so bad…they beat me, Meri, they beat me bad.

As I squat to remove his shoes and socks he stands as stiff as a board, welts tightening his joints, and I gently lift his arms enough to slide off the sweatshirt. He still shakes uncontrollably. I feed him two naproxen tablets and put him in a hot shower, light a pot of water for yerba buena tea and set the table with two cups and a plate of pan dulce.

I was at a concert, and a cop took me and my gringo friends outside. He thought we were smoking pot. He let the pinche gringos go but when I told him I wasn’t doing anything and asked about my rights, he put me in la patrulla and took me away. He let me go at a 7 Eleven so I went in and got a coffee; when I went out I saw more patrullas and heard them ask each other, ‘Hey, is that the same guy?’ and that they were going to fuck me up. This time the cops handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car.

How many cops were there?

Five. They drove me in la patrulla out of the city, down la Carretera Chapala, and to a dark side road. I was handcuffed and pushed to my knees, and they started beating me. They hit me in the side of the head in my jaw and I blacked out a few times; I can’t remember it all. They stole my money, around 800 pesos—my whole week’s pay, it went to them!—and my watch and iPod. I looked into one cop’s face and asked him why doesn’t he take off his badge and gun, remove my handcuffs and fight me like a man.

You were cited for insulting federal authorities. That’s what the report says.

How dare they beat me! I worked the whole week, for them! And I didn’t do anything! …I wasn’t scared, but I felt completely impotent.

He doesn’t touch the tea or pan dulce, and breaks into tears several times again. I play Manu Chao to calm him, but the lyrics stir him and he sings like his heart is breaking: “Todo es mentira en este mundo / Todo es mentira la verdad…”

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2007, Mexico:

“Among Mexico’s most serious human rights problems are those affecting its criminal justice system. Persons under arrest or imprisonment face torture and ill-treatment, and law enforcement officials often neglect to investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations.”

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Spanish-language theater thrives in Guadalajara"

(published November 16, 2007 in The Guadalajara Reporter)


The 2007 Theater Festival of Jalisco, an ambitious showcase of local talent staged in cafés, government plazas and theaters, comes to a close this week. The festival highlights the city’s blossoming theatrical innovation, bringing together 43 classic and original works presented by largely local groups: tales of mythical creatures, forbidden love affairs, and journeys through time and space.

One of the most celebrated plays realized during the event was Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” presented at the Teatro Experimental de Jalisco and directed by Jalisco native and versatile dramaturgist Guillermo Covarrubias. This year marks the 20th anniversary of theater group Palabra Viva (founded by Covarrubias), whose elaborate adaptation of the classic work played with fantastical images through costume and set design, intertwined with multimedia projections and dance pieces.

A choral ensemble supported the narration, and included original music by Jaime Mosqueda.

Covarrubias, who acts as director of Scenic Arts at the Cultural Secretariat of Jalisco, insists that “The Divine Comedy” has a message as communicable to a modern audience as when it was written seven centuries ago: the existence of a decadent society in crisis, and a struggle between political forces which oppress the people.

Alicia Yapur, director of “Relacion Perversa” (Dangerous Liaisons), an adaptation of Heiner Müller’s “Quartet” presented by local theater group Aquelarre, has been immersed in acting and directing since she packed her suitcases at age 16 and moved from Tampico to Guadalajara to become an actress. Her production of one of Müller’s most important works brought to life the explicit and quick-witted dialogue, energized by an extravagant set and “pop opera” music.

Unlike many artists struggling to shine on the silver screen, Yapur finds theater most rewarding and believes our fame-obsessed society has lost touch with the local stage. She believes as much money should be invested into local theater groups as is proportioned to visiting productions in order to support regional artists.

Audiences also enjoyed adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” a minimalist production about an old man, confined to a wheelchair, and his servant – in this production performed by two clowns – both isolated in a house in a nowhereland at the end of time (Thespis Teatro y la Casa Suspendida); Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” about the strange clinical methods two journalists encounter upon visiting a psychiatric hospital (Grupo Mascarada Teatro Independiente); and “Dakota,” a surrealist trip whose Spanish author, Jordi Galceráan, has gained commercial success in the film industry (Grupo INVERSO Teatro).

Audiences may still look forward to the Universidad de Guadalajara’s production of Johnathan Larson’s “Rent,” on November 16 and 17, 8:30 p.m. at the Teatro Diana. The large-scale musical, based on Giacomo Pucini’s “La Boheme,” centers on a group of struggling young artists in New York’s East Village, who fight against poverty and the emergent AIDS epidemic.

Business and Buses

As a native English speaker I was offered a job teaching for a company called ProEnglish in Guadalajara during the interview itself, not a week after I arrived. Industries with business ties abroad hire teachers to visit their companies to give small classes, normally before or after the workday. Among other benefits—a decent salary for Mexico, plus payment of transportation fees outside of the city—the position has allowed me to become one with public transportation.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the crack of dawn—the only time I ever put a scarf around my neck—I walk four blocks south to Washington, a few streets away from the looming Corona factory, and catch the 622 which makes a convenient loop west, sails north around the Minerva glorieta, and drops me a hop away from Nike’s administrative offices. There I instruct a peppy accounting executive from Chihuahua who begins every sentence with “Teecher!” and makes conversation at 8 a.m. (in any language) half enjoyable. She loves watching the slow-paced instructional DVDs that mimic American sitcoms, and makes me repeat a phrase ten times, noting it diligently in her idiom ledger.

“I talk HER out of it. I talk MY SON out of being a musician. SHE talked me outofit outofit outofit outofit.”

To reach Boehringer Ingelheim, a German pharmaceutical lab with a plant in the dismal industrial zone, I walk eight or ten blocks down to Independencia (which saves me a four and a half peso bus ride), and grab the 62A or 54, either route usually steered by kamikaze chofers who jet through tunnels and around cars a tenth their size like nobody’s business. They stop on a dime, the back door swings open while still in motion slamming hard into the side of the bus (Gabe, who in general disdains public transportation, said the bus door slamming is one of his favorite sounds; I prefer a screen door), and propel me down to the sidewalk, the sudden inertia stunning.

I teach the human resources director at Boehringer, a sweet, bright-faced woman who speaks English well and often walks me to the cafeteria and offers a strawberry popsicle, by far the most delightful fare of Mexican cuisine, surpassed only by pan dulce and tacos de pastor.

My saving grace is the least desired destination for traveling English teachers living in Guadalajara: El Salto, a town miles outside the city close to the airport, nestled in the surrounding dusty hills. The ride is 45-minutes on a gentle chartered bus that goes around Tlaquepaque and stops infrequently. I use the time to prepare for the class or listen to music; the air is fresh outside the city and feels divine on my cheeks. The mountains and housing developments roll by the highway, and the bus inches through small intermediate towns, clusters of poor roads and junkyards.

Because of the space many companies have plants out in the valley: IBM, Urrea (a Mexican tool manufacturer), Nassa (animal feed, I believe), and Wal-Mart’s distribution warehouse, whose loading docks stretch for miles. I stop at DSM, which manufactures nutritional supplements (animal and human) for Nestle and other food processing giants. The bus leaves me at a stoplight where the highway divides and I walk about a kilometer down DSM’s service road, flanked by electric fences and grazing cattle.

At the entry point I exchange my driver’s license for a visitor’s tag and sign the registry, and from there walk to a meeting room outside the plant’s storage facilities. I teach a group of four or five men, lab technicians with horrible social skills who supervise bi-monthly plant audits by their Swiss administrators. They are neither excited by the audits nor the English-language skills they must employ for them, so I generally spend the two hours trying to make them laugh.

One of the more garrulous technicians drives me to my bus stop after the night’s lesson, a man who, when asked to provide an example using the past conditional, once said that he met his beautiful wife as a result of sleeping in on the day of the entry exam for the prestigious university he wanted to attend, instead relegated to the lesser technical institute she attended (“If I had not overslept, I would have never...”).

I wait on the edge of the road next to a hotdog stand, flipping pesos in my palm until the yellow bus pulls up.

Coming back down the hills, Guadalajara at night is an infinity of lights and highways that flood the bus’s windows. Sometimes I can see tiny bursts of red and orange fireworks like little pinpricks in the dark sky, miles away across the expanse.

The bus is tired at this point in the night. The chofer keeps the interior lamp off unless someone boards the vehicle, and usually plays talk radio. I watch the sparkling city and rest against the window; I’m usually last off, and walk the eight or ten blocks back home down Niños Heroes, a boulevard choked with exhaust and home appliance shops. The Super Gigante grocery is the light at the end of the tunnel: a block later I turn down Bélgica, smeared with fallen oranges bulldozed by car tires, and walk up the stairs of my apartment building for supper.