Monday, June 9, 2008

Goodbye

Farewell to a most romantic, sunny, polluted city -- all the sweet bread and fruit ice cream, tacos and tortas, women in tight jeans and cat-calling men, city buses and cowboy boots, friends and family. I will be back.

Click on the photo above to see a set of my photos on Flickr, a collection of downtown Guadalajara facades.

Friday, May 30, 2008

"Understanding albures, Mexico's coarse, cryptic puns"

(Published May 31, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

The Mexican albur has no translation. It is at once a game, a dirty joke, an offhanded pun, and an attempt to verbally disarm a credulous opponent. It is, to be exact, a spoken slap in the face (or perhaps, as you’ll see, on the buttocks).

The art of constructing a particularly injurious albur, about which books and extensive Internet forums have been assembled, is not something the average Spanish-speaking foreigner is likely to be familiar with or able to interpret – or for that matter a native Spanish speaker outside the Mexican border. Albures are intrinsically Mexican and by their nature cryptic to the unwitting outsider. But the concept is certainly worth being familiar with, lest you trip into one.

The albur (whose verb form is alburear) is the macho lovechild of a “your mama” joke and a dirty limerick, with Jon Stewart’s comic timing. Its goal is to cleverly use words with double sense in a way that will catch their recipient offhand, or to make an enemy feel like less of a man. For that reason albures are almost always sexual in nature, if not belonging to other strains of coarseness.

As they come in the form of word play or double entendre, English conversion is nearly impossible. But anyone will understand an albur’s main ingredients.

For example, can you guess what the chorizo, banana, cucumber, corncob, and chili represent in an albur’s context? How about eggs, marbles, or melons? Deconstruct just about any popular Mexican platter (did I mention cream and cheese?) and each component serves as fodder for vulgar discourse.

While most examples are not newspaper appropriate, and are more comical when spontaneous, a few tamer ones will suffice. Here’s an albur, in Spanish and English so the word play makes sense:

“Cual es la diferencia entre una silla y un pulpo?” (“What’s the difference between a chair and an octopus?”) Answer: “El pulpo tiene tentáculos y la silla tenta culos.” (“The octopus has tentacles and the chair touches backsides” – to be polite.) Get it? Tentáculos (tentacles) versus tenta (touches) culos (rear ends).

Another: “No es lo mismo papas en chile que chile en papas.” (“Potatoes in chili isn’t the same as chili in potatoes.”) The difference is subtle: The former refers to a dish, and the latter to a sexual act (“papas” is a not too common synonym for sex).

More often, albures occur naturally between two people-perhaps friends, or perhaps a taxi driver and his unassuming passenger – as a result of one party naively mentioning his sister or that he had eaten something phallic-shaped earlier in the day. The alburs are thrown back and forth like a hot potato until a clear winner emerges, rendering the losing man speechless, and thus emasculated.

The author of Albures.com.mx, a website that attempts to define and classify various user-contributed albures, warns that “you must treat the world with a certain delicacy in order to avoid what’s called a ‘French albur’ or ‘self-alburearse.’”

In other words, don’t fall into a trap. You might be treading dangerously if you mention simply that your head hurts or that you’re hungry. Come to think of it, best to avoid food talk altogether – you never know where that will go.


Friday, May 23, 2008

"Citizens desperately seeking a subway find encouragement online"

(Published May 24, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

In a city where the pace of bureaucracy moves at a numbing speed and infrastructure problems soar exponentially, a group of ten young citizens has taken another route to solve Guadalajara’s greatest urban crisis.


A Facebook group called “Queremos un metro en Guadalajara” (“We want a metro in Guadalajara”), founded by Abraham Jaime Hernandez five months ago, has caught momentum as fast as the high-speed connection that brings it to computer screens all over the city. Members of the online social network Facebook, where users keep track of their friends’ hobbies, favorite videos and photo albums listed in personal profiles, have flocked to the activist group. Over 7,000 Facebook users now belong to “Queremos un metro.”

“We only had the idea to create a social consciousness, but we realized the group could go farther than that – not just as a Facebook group,” Hernandez told the Reporter last week. “We began by collecting signatures in universities, then we started contacting enterprises, unions, and government chambers, asking for letters saying ‘we support the metro, we should change the city and modernize it.’”

The Facebook group keeps a neat online archive of newspaper clippings and charts that support its case, in addition to photographs of uber-modern rail systems in cities such as Sydney and Vancouver. Envious group members, like children peering through the window of a candy shop, leave disparaging comments below the pictures.

Under Vancouver’s elevated train, user Gino Berruti laughed: “You’re asking for a lot. If only something like that was built, or even something worse that would at least help the people of Guadalajara.” To the map of Guadalajara’s existing one and a half “Tren Ligero” (light train) lines, user Aldo Vega commented, “Honestly, this looks really sad,” along with a frowning emoticon.

In only a matter of months, the group has opened Guadalajara’s eyes to a serious impending crisis. It is the most polluted city in the country, topping Mexico City, Monterrey and Toluca. There is one car for every three inhabitants, while the Mexico City ratio is one to seven. Guadalajara also boasts more car accidents that any other metropolitan zone in Mexico. Sadly, by the year 2030, it is predicted that a person will be able to walk at a faster rate than a car can drive within the city, due to mounting congestion.

With all that in mind, Guadalajara is far behind the rest of the world’s cities in terms of a modern metro system. Comparing population density with lines of metro provided, the city is at the bottom of the list, even below others with a quarter the inhabitants.

“If you have the opportunity to travel to other places, you see other metro systems,” Hernandez said. “Monterrey is building four lines. Mexico City has the subway, another line like a monorail, and a suburban train.”

Group coordinator and University of Guadalajara law student Maria Andrea Cuellar Camarena speculates that the original metro system, planned in 1975 as seven lines to be built in two phases, was abandoned as the city’s political atmosphere changed. “The project could take up to six years to complete, so a governor doesn’t want to start a project and have someone else get credit for its success.”

“You’ll remember,” added Hernandez, “that the bus system is owned by important political figures.”

The energetic group has gained more support for the metro movement in the last five months than any other organization has since the Tren Ligero project was abandoned. Thousands of signatures were collected on petitions, and in March, the Jalisco State Congress voted unanimously in favor of metro construction in a “point of agreement”-not an initiative of law, but a recommendation for action.

“There is no impediment,” Hernandez explained. “We have money from other countries [Japan, France, and Germany have expressed interest in financing the project] and from companies [Siemens, Mitsubishi, Bombardier, and Alston].”

The former director of the Tren Ligero system was also in support of the project. Current director Diego Monraz, however, is another story. The group met with Monraz three months ago when he proposed the new “sustainable mobility plan” that includes the Macrobus lines now under construction.

“We asked him why the subway is not included in the mobility plan,” Camarena recalled. “It’s the backbone of a city. He told us that if he had all the money in the world he wouldn’t do it. He has since changed his mind but that was just for political acceptance.”

A request for an audience with Jalisco Governor Emilio Gonzalez, who group members believe opposes the project, was refused.

“He just doesn’t want to get into a project like this,” said Alfredo Rodriguez Aguirre, who owns a graphic design studio. “We are planning for the Pan American Games, and he doesn’t want to have all the roads under construction.”

The group had more luck with President Felipe Calderon, who they met briefly at a press conference on April 30.

“We told the president about the project and he thought it was interesting,” Hernandez said. “We’re going to ask him to do studies of metropolitan mobility. If we have a study no one can refuse or deny the importance of having a metro system.”

“Queremos un metro” members insist that there’s an urgent need for a more extensive, environmentally-friendly transport system in Guadalajara. Sighed Hernandez, “I think we have reached our limits.”

“There was a need then,” said officer Pablo Sainz Albañez, referring to the original 1975 metro plan. “Think how much the population has grown since. For some reason, it’s no longer a priority.”

Any of the “Queremos un metro” members mentioned in this article can be contacted by email at queremosunmetroengdl@hotmail.com.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Scholarships make Mexicans think big"

(Published May 17, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

A graduate from a Guadalajara university who aims to take over her father’s air ambulance company is the first recipient of a scholarship to study abroad named for Adolf B. Horn, the former U.S. consul general and president of the American Chamber of Commerce, who died last year at the age of 92.

Jessica Faubert had been accepted into several MBA programs in the United States but chose to enter the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago.

As her father plans to retire in the near future, Faubert will return to Mexico after her studies and run AirLink Ambulance, a leading air medical transport company with bases in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and Baja California.

“I need the finance background,” says Faubert, who studied at the Tec de Monterrey and speaks flawless English. “I just don’t have the skill set yet to be general manager.”

Faubert’s chance to study abroad comes courtesy of the prestigious Magdalena O. Viuda de Brockmann scholarship program, which gives outstanding Mexicans the opportunity to earn a Master’s degree abroad. This is the first year of the special Adolf B. Horn award.

Named for the mother of entrepreneur Guillermo Brockmann, who founded the program in 1993, the scholarships enable Mexicans to experience the values and systems of foreign universities, then apply what they have learned on their return to Mexico. In fact, each student selected is committed to staying in Mexico for five years thereafter and is chosen based on a potential to “provide a future contribution to the advancement and modernization of Mexico,” as the mission stipulates.

“We hope they will come back as bicultural people prepared to collaborate with local individuals,” says Anthony Rump, executive director of the scholarship foundation, which boasts an endowment of more than three million dollars.

As would be expected, the selection process is extremely competitive. A series of interviews narrows the applicant pool down to 12 candidates, who are promised the awards subject to proving they can finance the portion of tuition not covered by the scholarship. The applicants undergo a rigorous review by the program’s board of directors, a psychological exam, and are considered by two previous Brockmann fellows.

Faubert had no problem providing the scholarship committee with a detailed five- and ten-year plan. “I have so many ideas,” she says enthusiastically.

She would like the family business to be geared more toward information services. AirLink Ambulance currently focuses most of its energy in its infrastructural functions (the airplanes, pilots, doctors, etc.). Faubert wants to expand the company to work as an intermediary between customers and insurance companies. She cites new cost containment strategies that help save both parties money by looking out for exploitative medical services, such as hospitals that jack up bills for foreigners in crisis.

Faubert also plans to open up the business to a growing demand for medical tourism by offering package deals to Mexico for foreign patients, a booming industry that countries like India and Costa Rica have already caught onto.

Faubert was one of three applicants chosen from Jalisco; six hail from the state of Mexico, two are from Monterrey, and one from Tamaulipas.

Jose Fernandez, the selected recipient of the new Robert Leslie scholarship (awarded to a talented Mexican engineer) and ITESO graduate, is originally from Colima but has studied and worked in Jalisco for the last eight years.

Fernandez’s impressive resume already includes work as the head structural engineer at VAO Engineering, responsible for drafting and calculations of the Torrena project in Guadalajara, a telecommunications tower planned to be the tallest in Latin America.

He chose to study for a Master’s degree in order to manage entire projects such as the Torrena. He will attend a program in construction management at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, in part because it is a much more affordable option compared to similar schools in the United States.

“The culture there is very interesting,” Fernandez says. “It’s a mixed society – a British colony and indigenous people, which is a culture they protect.”

Rump says that the program’s international notoriety has lately generated more opportunities from universities than can be published in the scholazrship brochure. The French government, for example, will pay half the tuition of 75 engineering students who study at several universities in France (a program called Campus France); and Dublin City University in Ireland, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia and the University of Arizona all offer partial and total tuition waivers.

“This has been the highest honor I’ve ever gotten,” says Faubert of the experience. “I would motivate anyone to apply when going for higher education. It’s a reflexive process that is great preparation for university applications, and it makes you focus.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Shopping market flogs off-the-shelf art at equitable prices"

(Published May 10, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

“If a market for art exists, why not a supermarket?” ask the organizers of the SupermercArte, a bazaar in Guadalajara that replaces groceries with economically priced, original artwork.

The SupermercArte opened May 7 and will run for one month out of a temporary cultural hub on the highest level of Plaza Galerias. Customers grab miniature grocery carts and browse hundreds of small works of art by 44 different local artists.

“It’s as if people were going to buy tomatoes and onions, but instead of the tomatoes there are works by artists,” explained Marcos Hernandez, one of the artists participating this year by invitation.

The innovative technique is borrowed from a sister concept in Barcelona, meant to bring art to people who don’t normally frequent galleries or collect pieces. On one hand, the economic gallery makes already acclaimed artists’ works accessible to the public: this year’s participants include Waldo Saaveda, Jose Fors, and Alejando Colunga, known for his fantastic bronze creature-seats in Plaza Tapatia.

Alternatively, the SupermercArte gives up-and-coming artists a platform to show their work. Hernandez, who was the best-selling artist at the 2005 market, has not otherwise received much exposure. He believes his style, self-described as “abstract figurative, with oils, collage and photographs that I take,” is a hard sell. For the SupermercArte three years ago, he strayed from his regular approach, painting little pictures of cats for a better commercial bet.

This year, SupermercArte solicited 20 works from Hernandez, requiring that each measure no more than 40 centimeters and cost between 200 and 2,000 pesos. Hernandez offers his pieces at 200 pesos each.

“It’s a mix between a commercial style and my personal work, which is more abstract,” Hernandez said of the collection of small paintings he will sell this year. One piece, for example, depicts whimsical, floral twirls painted in agreeable pastels over contrasting patterns. It's abstract and fascinating while still office-friendly.

Participating artists receive a 50 percent cut from sales, and are credited for whatever they don’t sell. How much the project ultimately earns is not expected to be much -- organizers hope for a change in the public’s view of art collection more than large proceeds. A work of art, explains SupermercArte’s website, is a “unique gift with a constantly increasing value.”

Project coordinators have worked closely with the Jalisco Secretariat of Culture to create the market, which includes selecting the artists who contribute each year. “We collaborated together to develop an artistic aesthetic,” said Jaime Mor, one of SupermercArte’s principal planners hailing from Barcelona.

Part of the aesthetic vision involves eliminating the general public’s fear of galleries. At SupermercArte, buyers are encouraged to move close to, pick up, and touch works of art, like one might scrutinize a melon before purchasing it. Plaza Galerias was selected as the market’s exposition space for exactly this reason: “Regular people shop at plazas, not at art galleries,” Hernandez said.

The SupermercArte might even change the way people view Plaza Galerias, which often hosts cultural events. “We want people to stop seeing the space as just a place to go shopping,” said Maga Hernandez, a coordinator for the Secretary of Culture.

The SupermercArte is open during Plaza Galerias’ business hours, and will close after June 7. Plaza Galerias is located at Av. Rafael Sanzio 150 (between Av. Vallarta and Sebastian Bach), in Colonia La Estancia, Zapopan.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Forgotten your English?

ProEnglish recently started publishing an ESL newsletter for students and other clients, in hopes of one day converting it to newspaper form. Since its beginning I've developed and written all the content, so if you feel like practicing your English, click the links below. The articles are written at an upper-intermediate level (approximately). Enjoy!

FIRST EDITION

SECOND EDITION





(Look closely there, folks.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

"Mercado Corona, a vibrant market with tales to tell"

(Published May 3, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Calle Santa Monica, a few blocks from the downtown cathedral and running perpendicular to Avenida Hidalgo, is choked with foot traffic at midday and smells of roasted meat, spices and strawberries mellowing in the sun. A blue cement awning provides shade for the peripheral vendors at one of Guadalajara’s most historic markets, the Mercado Corona, beckoning visitors inside.

Judging from the dogged faces of shoppers waiting in lines for rice and chili in bulk, none is too concerned that the ground on which they stand has been steeped in a Tapatio insurgent’s blood, swept by a mysterious epidemic, and held the ashes of its thrice-razed market predecessors. They are, instead, picking through bruised mangoes, resting on stools to munch on freshly fried tacos dorados, and gulping down aguas frescas of mango and plum.

The Mercado Corona is ripe for exploring: it’s a less daunting version, with more specialized products, of the Mercado Libertad or the Mercado Abastos. The focus is food. Some cheap clothes, jeans and hair products are for sale, but the Sunday Santa Teresita open-air tianguis might be more suited for browsing those items.

The historic indoor market covers two floors and one city block. Fresh bread – bolillos, pan dulce, and wrapped cookies – is the main spread found along the building’s perimeter, as well as honey sold in plastic jars.

Here on the edge, fruit is also sold, but better prices are found elsewhere. Vendors benignly hound customers with calls of “Que te doy?” and “Que ocupas?” as they make their way indoors.

Inside, a thousand scents converge at once: sour, salty cotija cheese, tongue and pork sides grilling on open comales, bitter dried herbs hanging from nails and sugar-sweet pineapples dripping from their bases.

In spite of considerable chaos around lunchtime when hungry passersby swarm the small indoor restaurants, the Mercado Corona enjoys a consistent peace compared to its existence in previous centuries.

The market, named after the assassinated general Ramon Corona, was patriotically inaugurated on September 15, 1891, only to be burned to the ground in 1910 by revolutionary fires.

After two more reconstructions and two more deadly conflagrations, it occurred to city officials to rebuild with cement, and since 1962, has stoically sat in its current flameproof state.

The original grounds, long before a market was ever conceived, belonged in the mid-1500s to the bishop Cipriano de Nava, who lived in an old house on the land. In 1573 he founded a school for girls called Santa Catalina de Siena, which was converted a few years later to a convent. Years later, the ayuntamiento bought up the estate and there built the Hospital San Miguel.


A strange, unidentified epidemic hit the city just after the turn of the 18th century, and the hospital, filled to capacity with sick patients, needed help. At the same time, a religious order called the Bethlehemites were seeking asylum, and thus commanded care at the forsaken hospital, appropriating the facilities after the epidemic dissipated. A more modern hospital was built elsewhere in the late 1700s and San Miguel was officially abandoned.

The site’s incarnation as a market began in the early 1800s, as a haphazard tianguis began to spring up in the area. Guadalajara’s ayuntamiento decided to build an official market designed in a popular French style, gaining profit by charging vendors taxes.

It was on that very stage where Jose Antonio Torres, the illustrious Mexican insurgent who fought Spanish royalist troops until his capture in 1812, was executed. The particular method was a testament to his crimes against the Spanish state: the Independence hero was hanged, dismembered (each limb carried to a different town), and decapitated, after which officials displayed his head for 40 days. Once Mexico gained independence from Spain, the market was appropriately named “Mercado Independencia.”

Today the only blood shed on the grounds belongs to slaughtered livestock, splayed and pared on cutting blocks behind glass shields. But the spot’s tumultuous story will remain a legacy to a righteous figure in Mexico’s history.

At the heart of the covered building on the first floor, several competing women with giant covered baskets, elevated by stools and crates, broadcast their product with earsplitting repetitions of “Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir! Calientitos! Cinco por diez pesos! Acaban de salir!” The women, selling much loved tacos de canasta with potato, bean, and pork fillings, dish out the soft tacos onto plastic plates which customers douse with thick sauces, shredded cabbage, and pickled nopal and carrots.

Wandering up the sloped walkway to the second floor, visitors pass stands selling baskets of all shapes and small tokens given out at baptisms, weddings and anniversary parties.

Upstairs is an herbarium of sorts, stands and walls piled high with dried plants used as remedies for various ailments. Among them are flor de manita (calms the nerves), cola de caballo (good for arthritis and osteoporosis), and an ostensibly cure-all mix called el boldo consisting of chopped barks and grass, boiled into a bitter tea (aids digestion). Thick, arm-length cactus stems, de-thorned and stacked like bones, are said to benefit patients suffering from cancer.

It is also upstairs where prayer candles and assorted “curative” soaps and oils are found.

For those seeking the best prices for fruits, vegetables and any dried fare – rice, beans, chilis, jamaica flowers, peanuts, and sugar – the streets surrounding the indoor market hold the most promise.

On Calle Zaragoza between Independencia and Juan Manuel one can buy fresh local fruit by the kilo at open-front stores where staff hand-fill orders one at a time. One shop in particular, situated in the middle of the block, is always packed with customers and has the best prices, hands-down. Following the taco stand rule, it’s hard to go wrong: the more customers, the more turnover, guarantees fresher product.

The Mercado Corona is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Most buyers frequent the stands around lunchtime (early afternoon). To avoid crowds and sun, arrive in the morning after produce is delivered; come with a large shopping bag and an empty stomach.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Online Spanish references: the amusing & the accurate"

(Published April 26, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

“Health became duck with the studies of the River Santiago.” That is the translation of Monday’s headline in Guadalajara newspaper El Publico, and also one more piece of evidence that language is tricky and electronic translators should never be trusted. Specifically, AltaVista’s online application Babel Fish (babelfish.altavista.com/), notorious for such silly linguistic conversions.

But “Salud se hizo pato con los estudios del rio Santiago,” the original text I translated, is far from silly. It seems that hacerse pato actually means to play dumb, and discovering state health officials are casually circumventing environmental studies promised weeks ago to address serious health risks, I’ll elect a different translator next time I need the facts.

A good online dictionary is indispensable. Babel Fish cannot be completely disqualified – it’s a great form of amusement, to say the least. Its name is taken from a fictional animal in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who can instantly translate any language. The application can convert about a dozen languages, and going from one to another can be like playing the telephone game.

In fact, a popular website called Lost in Translation (tashian.com/multibabel) allows the user to translate a piece of text consecutively ten times. “I’m a little teapot, short and stout” becomes “They are a small potentiometer, short circuits and a beer of malzes of the tea.”

The sole advantage of Babel Fish, beyond entertainment, is that it translates large blocks of text and also entire websites, so that a basic, if flawed, understanding is gained by its user.

There are countless free online dictionaries that will translate just about any language from one to the other, and many, like Google Translate, offer the same block text conversions as Babel Fish.

So where do I turn for accuracy? The single most valuable online translator is Word Reference (wordreference.com), which has offered free online bilingual dictionaries since 1999.

Word Reference, once discovered by desperate language students and linguistic junkies, will become a permanent bookmark online. It is an immense glossary, boasting a catalog of 120,000 Spanish words with 250,000 translations.

Type a word into the search box, “decir” for instance, and a long list of definitions pops up along with a speaker icon to click if you’d like to hear it pronounced aloud. Along with every definition (in this case, one noun form and five verb forms) comes an example and its translation. Decir’s third definition implies to opinar, afirmar, proponer: “¿Qué me dices de mi nuevo corte de pelo?” is “what do you think of my new haircut?”

Then the site lists countless idioms and expressions below the definitions. “Ni que decir tiene,” means “needless to say,” and “!No me digas!” is “really!” according to Word Reference.

And at the end of that list is the reason Word Reference rocks: forums. If you search a word and it doesn’t appear, or the use you sought is not addressed in its definition or idiom list, chances are another person had the same problem and requested assistance in the forum from other users.

An entire thread of the responses, including the original user’s question along with opinions from native speakers from around the world, appears when you click on the thread’s title. Under decir, link to these inquiries read “cabe decir,” “’to claim ... decir, mostrar, or afirmar?’” and “al decir.”

In order not to seem too prejudiced (I have found no site more informative and user-friendly than Word Reference), I’ll say that there are so many free dictionaries online these days that it’s probably hard to go wrong. For instance, Reverso (dictionary.reverso.net/) is a compilation of various technical dictionaries-business, medical, and computer-and will instantly conjugate any verb. If you’ve got Google Translate set up as your homepage for a quick conversion every now and then, by all means, translate away.

Word Reference, however, is the anti-Babel Fish. It insists that you read into a word before going off and using it willy-nilly, that you know its alternate definitions and compound forms, and that you understand hacerse pato is not a cooking technique for poultry.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Update

So the gods of travel, economics, and new apartments threw me into a temporary internet exile, which I survived begrudgingly, and which explains my lack of blog posts and communication with the rest of the world not in a ten-block radius of downtown Guadalajara. An update is in order.

I moved on March 5, found a place smack-dab in the historic central district, a good-sized neighborhood away from the stingy gossip of a landlady who attempted to bill me an extra day’s rent (and internet charges) for the couple hours I spent moving out in the early morning of the 5th. In our final stand I insisted her that if she charged me the day I would stay the day, the same another tenant was planning to arrive at noon (whom I’m sure would also be charged). She acquiesced but still billed me laundry dues for the entire month of March, and is holding my deposit hostage until she receives my last note from the telephone company.

My new apartment is on the roof floor of the orangest house I’ve ever seen, above the shop of a mechanic who bangs around all day on water pumps and also welds together fruit juicing machines. At half the price I was paying before I can’t complain, not even for the rustic character-building skills I’ve learned like washing laundry in a paint bucket, grappling and swishing around a broom handle and sawed-off coke bottle device per a borrowed Chiapas technique (according to my roommate).

I share the place with two artists, the owners of the flat, a portrait painter and an abstract collagist respectively. And also with a sour Swiss girl, who loafs around in a constant stream of bitterness directed towards unfaithful ex-boyfriends and her own mismanagement of a home hair dye job; and a German girl, a slight, pretty dancer with a new pink scar that runs across her neck in the shape of a smile, acquired from ongoing cancer treatments. She’ll only stay a month.

My routine of teaching and writing for the Reporter is unchanged, except I’m doing a bit more web-editing now that the new site’s up (New and Improved! Click on the link: www.guadalajarareporter.com). I find myself sitting most nights at dusk on the wall overlooking my new street, the only time of day I don’t fear sunburn at five minutes exposure, with a drink in hand and headphones on. Without skyscrapers, which Mexican cities don’t tend to build, I can make out the stars behind the dim brown haze of Guadalajara’s ozone, while tepid evening breezes try to cool off the panting hot pavement.

Facing the small intersection, I can see the caddy-cornered abarrotes shop manned by La Güera, an affectionate, middle-aged natural blonde (thus her nickname) who appears to be on a first name basis with about a quarter of Guadalajara’s population. Discovering I’m from North Carolina she bragged that her 27 year-old daughter once lived two years there at a military base after joining the U.S. army, and now she’s on tour in Italy.

An ugly transvestite works nights against the wall opposite the corner-store (she lives above it), whispering obscenities to male passers-by. I asked my roommates about her and they shrugged it off, adding only that they consider her outfit of particularly poor taste. Since I face her directly from my rooftop perch and am a liable witness to all potential encounters, I’ve begun to wonder if I’m negatively affecting her business and have felt guilty on occasion.

With lack of other personal news, some things of interest have happened lately in this part of the world. First, the U.S. Marine accused of killing a pregnant peer in North Carolina, who fled the country months back, was apprehended last week in Michoacan (a state bordering Jalisco) at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere. He was born in Guadalajara so the FBI tracked him down here—and word is last month he dropped by Zapopan to say hi to a cousin, who had no idea he was a fugitive and reported the meeting a little too late.

Also, the governor of Jalisco has developed a scheme so mightily corrupt you’d think he were trying to out-do his colleagues in other strains of fraud and crookedness. Emilio Gonzalez has found a mere $90 million pesos lying around somewhere in those forgotten stashes of money generally stored in the dark closets of Mexican tax offices, and is putting it to use: he will build the grandest cathedral ever seen in Jalisco—of course, not by donation of tax-payers’ “leftover money” directly to the Catholic church (that would be unconstitutional, you see), but though contracting companies who will then very directly fund the construction. The plan is strongly opposed by most citizens, secularists and faithful alike, but will surely be realized nonetheless. As Stephen Colbert once billed a bit on the Daily Show, “constitution, schmonstitution.”


See recent Reporter contributions below. New posts proximamente.

"Medications on your doorstep"

(Published April 19, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

The new pharmaceutical company Medicity understands that for a very sick patient, a trip out of bed and to the pharmacy may be an effort. Or for an elderly diabetic patient, that simply locating the correct medications, their combinations and dosages every day is a challenge. As easy as ordering a pizza by delivery, Medicity brings medications right to your doorstep.


Delivery riders use Medicity’s colorful motorbikes to bring medications to customers’ doors within 30 minutes of an order being placed by telephone.


The company’s working concept is explained in three parts: a warehouse stocked with pharmaceuticals, from aspirin to difficult-to-find chronic medications to homeopathic remedies; knowledgeable medical consultants posted at a 24-hour call center; and a flock of motorcycles dispatched from various points in the metropolitan area (Guadalajara, Zapopan, Tlaquepaque and Tonala), arriving promptly at a patient’s doorstep with medication in hand.


To have medications delivered at home, a patient simply dials 8000-8000 (a local, not 1-800, number) and speaks briefly to a sales consultant to explain his needs. Doctors are also available to clarify questions about a prescription and to verify those called in.


A trial of the service proved any doubts I had wrong. After speaking with a representative and soliciting an order, a courier dressed like a fluorescent ghostbuster arrived at my house in under a half hour driving a cute blue-hooded Medicity motocycle. The price of my order was the same as what I pay at a regular pharmacy, though 20 pesos less than normal retail value, according to my invoice. A complimentary pill box was thrown in the bag.


Delivery can also be arranged on Medicity’s website. There is no minimum purchase required, and almost all forms of payment are acceptable, including cash, credit and debit. The service is completely free and phone reps insist no tip is required-it is included in the price.

An agent at the corporate office said that Medicity’s services are unique to Guadalajara, and have been in existence for only a month. Unfortunately, for the time being there are no English-speaking doctors available.

Medicity explains that its services are aimed at various groups of people who may have difficulty purchasing medication at a pharmacy, for whatever reason, including people who cannot drive, patients with an at-home emergency, patients with chronic illnesses who wish to pre-schedule all dosages (Medicity will program deliveries), and those who are simply too sick to leave the house.

"Face-to-face online Spanish tutoring"

(Published April 19, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

When learning a new language, it’s one thing to laze on the sofa with headphones and a cassette recording, mimicking common and phrases like a parrot. It’s quite another to sit face to face with a native speaker and chat back and forth – and that’s what Hablando Live, an online Spanish school started about a year ago, seeks to offer.


Partnered with Visual Link and a Spanish school in Cuzco, Peru called Wiracocha, Hablando Live uses a method of distance learning to get students talking and interacting from day one.


“It’s very difficult to gain conversation practice through a CD or tape program,” said Chandra Bringhurst, the company’s business development manager based in the Agora Hills, California office. I spoke with Bringhurst via Skype, a free Internet phone connection and chat spot through which Hablando Live’s students communicate (in addition to Google Talk).


Bringhurst explained that the only devices required to access the program are an Internet connection and headset with both receiver and microphone. The student may also use a web-cam to see the teacher. During the live class, a virtual blackboard is present on which the teacher can sketch words or explain ideas.

After the student registers for a class, which costs from 18 to 20 dollars per hour depending on the package, he arranges a time to begin class with a Wiracocha teacher, who will remain with him throughout the course.

The methodology is simple: each class consists of a conversation to practice material learned in the last session, introduction of new vocabulary and grammar, and a Latin American culture topic to wrap up. The program not only emphasizes speaking, but provides an overview of topics unfamiliar to many foreign learners. Subjects may include the Patagonia in Argentina, the Latin American kitchen, and costs of living in Peru.

“Where we’re focusing right now is working with different tour operators, clients who travel and like to pick up another language, or want to learn more when they come back,” said Bringhurst.

Hablando Live is unique in its connection with a school in Peru, which provides its students with consistent native speakers. But the service has many online competitors, including Interlingua, which works with a school in Guatemala and offers roughly the same service at a reasonable price. Both programs beat other methods such as private lessons, which can run up to 40 dollars a pop.


Other popular learning options include Rosetta Stone, which does not offer an online program, but courses for interactive study on the computer. The Berlitz language school uses an “audio-lingual” approach; that is, grammar is secondary to speaking and listening. Berlitz has language centers around the world as well as an online interactive course.


Bringhurst warns that other distance learning programs, while affordable, may not assure consistent communication with a native speaker. And because Hablando Live is based at a Spanish school, a student may call and chat with a teacher for a half an hour.


What all online programs can promise is a sense of confidence from the first day of learning a new language. While not ideal, simply because complete immersion is impossible, the face-to-face distance approach is possibly the best learning opportunity available aside from a private tutor.

"New tequila packs a piquant punch"

(Published [in part] April 19, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

The Jalisco company Tequila La Cofradia has found a successful and rapidly growing business opportunity in the form of a unique “chili peppered-cured” tequila called Agave Loco, containing the combined flavors of six chilis. The new investment, in partnership with a Chicago wine and spirits distributor, is in step with several other tequileras hoping to boost foreign enterprise in the form of distinctive liquors.

A bottle of Agave Loco is sold exclusively to the United States with a retail price of 20 dollars, according to La Cofradia’s general director Carlos Hernandez.

“The idea came from some Americans that came to Guadalajara and demonstrated their project, and developed it with us,” Hernandez reported to El Mural. The first order of 2,200 cases was exported to the U.S. last month, and will be sold by various retailers in May.

Tom Maas, Agave Loco’s brand owner who has 30 years in the wine and spirits business in connection with Jim Beam, was discussing tequila among friends when the idea came up.

“We were at a private home and the story came up as we were talking about tequila in the old days, how it used to be made. There’s a story that people used to store peppers in tequila.”

Agave Loco’s website cites the “legend” of a man who finds a jar of chilis in his grandmother’s home, pickled in this fashion. The chilis were delicious and so was the leftover tequila, which was found to be smoother than its un-spiced derivation. El Torito, a traditional drink from Guerrero, is a version of this style, consisting of green chili, onion, tomatoes and cheese soaked in mezcal and vinegar.

Agave Loco’s own formula is based on this tequila plus hot chili concept. Pepper-curing, says the company, reduces the “harsh alcohol burn” one experiences with a normal tequila, leaving only the aftertaste of jalapeño and serrano peppers, as well as a little heat.

“It’s sweet, with the spicyness of medium salsa,” says Maas, who adds that the tequila makes a tasty margarita.

Agave Loco will be promoted intensely in liquor showcases throughout the U.S. to establish its position on the market. The spicy drink has been well-received so far thanks to successful marketing strategies, reports Hernandez.

Tequila Patron and Tequila Herradura are also establishing their standing in the U.S. market. Hernandez noted that establishing a new brand can turn around a five- to six-million dollar profit in the first year, but can expect to sell around 100 million dollars of product in the future once the company gains a stronghold. Many American entrepreneurs see already-established tequileras as a reliable business venture and are investing increasingly.

La Cofradia’s business will expand in Russia by 400%, according to Hernandez, where sales have been consistent in past years. Plans are also in order to export tequila to India in bulk, where it will there be bottled and distributed. He explains the measure is used to circumvent protective tariffs imposed on shipping pre-bottled tequila, a practice whisky and beer companies already follow.

Maas says that Agave Loco will soon look for distribution in Mexico. “It’s the only kind of its type, and we really feel it’s going to be tremendous.”

"La Santa Muerte: A Catholic cult celebrates death"

(Published March 29, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Cecilia Varela, a follower of the Catholic cult of la Santa Muerte, wore red and black, thick eyeliner, and a small animal claw pendant around her neck. She carried with her a white mantle meant to be draped over the daunting female skeleton guarding a corner of the altar, with scythe, flowers and rosary in hand.


The altar devoted to la Santa Muerte, the personification of death called an "angel of god" and "la Nina Blanca" by her followers, is the first established in Jalisco. It is located on a dusty corner of Juan de la Barrera in Tlaquepaque next to a railroad crossing. Devotee Jose Sam and his "brother," who prefers the title "el General," founded the improvised chapel on August 22, 2007. The Catholic Church refuses to recognize worship of la Santa Muerte as a valid form of Catholicism, as it deviates from the doctrine of holy trinity.

When asked about the Santa Muerte mass, held on the 22nd of every month at the Tlaquepaque altar, Ms. Varela said she wishes people would come to the service instead of asking about it (refering to recent attention in the press), and insisted there are no distinctions between their and a traditional Catholic mass.

"Our lord God is the only god," Varela said. "He is the only one. Our father blesses you, and she [la Santa Muerte] protects you."

Followers of la Santisima treat her with a distinct, personal affection, and believe that, just as humans were brought into this life by God, they will one day be taken by death, thus la Muerte is owed equal respect.

"In the end, who will I remain with? It's better to get close to death now," Varela said.


Varela, for instance, brought the mantle not only out of respect, but to complete her end of a bargain with la Santa Muerte. She had asked la Santa to bring to her the "love of her life," a favor the angel did not fulfill. Varela said she realized she asked for too much, but even so, she promised to look after la Santa's effigy, and now feels at peace.

Members of the Catholic sect have often neared death themselves. Along the dangerous crossing between the United States and Mexico border, vendors sell candles and medallions of la Santisima. And in Mexico City's rougher neighborhoods, la Santa Muerte has gained popularity within marginalized communities -- delinquents, drug-traffickers and prostitutes, among others.

The local temple's co-founder Jose Sam led such a life at one time, and it was "el General" who saved him. They refer to each other as brothers, although by blood they qualify only as good friends.

"He showed me what it was to be a Catholic," Jose Sam reflected. "I took my vows 13 years ago. Before that there wasn't a bigger drug addict than me. I barely had any veins left. I walked around with no shoes and I didn't have any conscience."

Jose Sam and his "brother" now lead a wholly sober life. They made a pact together promising to live by "honor, loyalty, and discipline."

Because la Santisima is so sharply criticized and often believed to be a form of Satanism, the "brothers" refrain from judging others, and consider harmony to be the most important principle they have learned from la Santa Muerte. A prayer air-brushed on the altar's wall reads, "I pray for my friends and my enemies, for world peace…Let harmony and understanding flourish."

Devotion to la Santa Muerte's image is also essential; both men are quick to pull their t-shirts over their heads, revealing tattoos of religious script and the morbid figure herself.

What would surprise most people, said Jose Sam, is that on each day of mass, the little room is so packed that devotees spill out into the street. "A lot of people criticize us, but you wouldn't believe how many people come."

People of all backgrounds attend, he said, including neatly dressed children with their grandmothers -- not the expected image. A priest from Puebla leads the congregation every month, and as a video clip on Varela's cell phone showed, the proceedings appear quite ordinary.

What the "brothers" believe this indicates is that there are many more Santa Muerte followers that practice the alternative religion in closed quarters for fear of condemnation. Since the establishment of the altar, people in their community have been supportive, and there is no fear of the church.

Jose Sam and "el General" welcome anyone curious to attend the mass, which begins at 5 p.m. The Santa Muerte community will celebrate the one-year anniversary of the establishment in August, complete with a bounty of food and a mariachi band.

"Putting worthy literature in the hands of children"

(Published March 22, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Petra Ediciones, a small children's book publisher based in Guadalajara, operates out of an office appropriately situated in a neighborhood where all streets are named after literary greats. The company, in existence since 1990, has been recognized internationally for its innovation in a country whose market, as the publisher's director Peggy Espinosa remarked, "doesn't have the custom of buying books for children."

Each book Petra Ediciones publishes, from preschool-aged, cardboard picture books to larger reference books about geometry and famous authors, provokes an experience rarely observed in children's literature. The company collaborates with contemporary Mexican artists to create visual stimulation for its readers, providing early ex
posure to complex concepts.

"We offer images of high quality," Espinosa said. "We think about how we can present books to young readers so that they can have a deeper reading experience, something they can enjoy but also find meaning in."

In one way, it's like pouring chocolate over broccoli, a tasty incentive to dive in and get to the stuff of substance. For example, Petra Ediciones publishes an "art game" called the Photographic Mexican Lottery. Each bingo card in the set contains four-by-four rows of simple, black and white photographs of objects from Mexican culture taken by Jill Hartley, along with a name for the image.

One square, for example, features a long-straw broom leaning against a wall, and is titled "La escoba."
Young children playing the game, more likely drawn to cartoon characters than to black and white photos, can then locate "La escoba" in the game's handbook and read a short verse: "Teque teteque/ Por los rincones/ tu de puntitas/ yo de talones."

On the other hand, Petra Ediciones isn't just hiding deeper concepts under pretty pictures. They are doing what good children's books do best: enhance and exaggerate a story with visuals until the narrative peaks, and in that breathless moment, words disappear altogether and the art speaks for itself.

It's like when Max, the boy protagonist of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," proclaims himself king before threats of mutiny. There is that moment where the page turns and the narrative pauses -- and in an act of pure hubris and elation, Max swings joyously from jungle branches along with the Wild Things. The wordless two-page spread is exhilarating, managing to accomplish more within the narrative than any other page in the book.

Such is "Primavera," one of Petra Ediciones' latest publications, illustrated by Manuel Marin. In fact, the book is entirely wordless, a technique the author calls "cinematographic."

It uses color as its narrative catalyst, as whimsically tinted insects that look like glider planes fly over a minimalist white garden of line-drawn geometrical flowers and go about pollinating. Page one shows only the sparse garden, each flower of a different silly shape; on the next page a yellow insect arrives, bleeding yellow color into the flower it visits. The last spread is a full, rainbow-dyed garden, surely waiting to be discovered.

"Image by image, it puts you in a little universe of that art," Espinosa said of the effect.

"I like insects and they agitate me," Marin explained. "They pollinate and they are of great importance for the existence of all kinds of life on the planet. However we rarely think about them. So, I imagined the pollination of the flowers, and I exemplified what the insects do by making them give color to the flowers through their contact. In the end, all the flowers have color thanks to the insects' pollination."

"Primavera" was recently nominated for the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honour List 2008. Every two years IBBY selects books from around the world to be included in a catalogue, considered to be the best representatives of children's literature from each country. Marin will travel to Copenhagen in September of this year for the official presentation of his book.

Petra Ediciones has an impressive history of international accolade. Another book called "Dias Tonaltin," by Greek illustrator Lanna Andreadis, won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2006. The book contains 20 monochromatic images painted like thick Japanese calligraphy, each a representation of one day in the Aztec calendar. The images are labeled in both Spanish and nahuatl; crocodile, for instance, reads 'cocodrillo/cipactli.'

In 1997 the Petra Ediciones book "Una Cabeza de Caballo" was selected as one of the best children's books by the pretigious Banco de Libro de Venezuela. It is a fully interactive design experience: the reader follows sculptor Sebastian's monument in Mexico City's Glorieta del Caballito, from its construction to its geometric principles, then can construct his own model from paper cutouts provided with the book.

The objective, said Espinosa, is not that children can construct a perfect sculpture, but that they can experience making it hands-on.

Marin, who is also an art professor at UNAM and teaches children's workshops, says that what most interests him about children is how they can play and imagine freely, even while reading a book.

"They're not directed by anyone. They laugh and point at figures that they're looking at. They play with what they see."


Petra Ediciones has plans to expand to a foreign market, where the books would have a more consistent promotion with large booksellers like Barnes & Nobles. The Mexican market is fickle, and at times a book might sit on the shelf for months before selling. For now, the publisher remains busy looking for artists and authors with new and provocative ideas in children's literature.

"Translation is not always as it seems"

(Published March 22, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

This week during an English class I helped a student of mine, employed in the safety and health department of a large manufacturing company out of El Salto, translate an accident report from Spanish to English. A lab worker suffered a minor laceration to her palm caused by a broken flask. Although my students at that company would rather be tinkering with lab equipment than pouring over foreign languages, I gave them free range and recommended they follow the original Spanish text faithfully to translate. That is, 'especificacion' is 'specification,' 'laboratory' is 'laboratorio,' 'evaluation' is 'evaluacion,' and so on. And it worked well, at least in that scientific context.

But things are not always as they seem, as Spanish students learn on day one when the teacher explains we do not 'atender' la clase --as we certainly 'attend' class in English-- we 'asistir' it. Then what is it to 'assist' my mother with her housework, we ask. 'Asistir' similarly means 'to help': la asisto a mi mama con los deberes.


The same goes for 'discutir,' which in Spanish only means 'to discuss' if it's in the euphemistic sense your parents used when they wouldn't admit they were arguing. That's why my students gave me a funny look when I suggested we have a discussion about Helen Keller's biography, as if I assumed it should provoke a heated debate. In Spanish, instead, we would 'platicar' or 'conversar,' and leave 'la discusion' to politicians and landladies.


'Pretender' is another deceptive word whose meaning has little to do with what one might think in English: 'pretend,' as in to act in an untruthful way, is more accurately 'fingir' in Spanish. To 'pretender' is to express intention, effort, and or hope toward something planned. Pretendo ser actriz would translate roughly to I'm aiming to (or aspiring to) be an actress.


There are look-a-like words too that don't alter so drastically in meaning as pretender and pretend, more like a small tweak. Take investigar, for example. It means simply 'to investigate,' just as you'd think, only used more commonly as English-speakers use 'look into' and 'find out.' When I first came to Guadalajara and went apartment hunting, I visited a promising one found in an ad; later that day a friend sent me the text "Que investigaste?" Thinking for a moment like a detective, I wondered what it was exactly I had investigated, until I realized she simply wanted to know what I found out about the place.


I also began to wonder why Mexicans so often perceive circumstances as 'desperate.' That is, 'desesperado,' which I overhear in rather unremarkable situations that don't seem to justify such dramatic estimation.

A student once remarked that I was 'desesperada' with him, and my immediate thought was, what have I done? I mean, he's not really getting the present perfect, but I'm not to the point of desperation! 'Desesperar,' like it would seem in English, does mean 'to drive to the point of despair,' but usually it's used to express mere frustration or exasperation.

The grand prize of confusing translation would go to 'decepcionar.' One might assume the noun 'decepcion' would mean what it does in English: deceipt, fraud, falsehood, etc. But in Spanish it means what one might feel after being deceived: 'disappointment.' The verb that actually means 'to deceive' is 'engañar.' So, tu me decepcionaste means you disappointed me, and tu me engañaste means you deceived me. Whew!


And the list goes on. The early days of my Spanish education are gone, when I was apt to twist the pronunciation of an English word, maybe add an 'a' or 'o' to the butt of it, and hoping it would slide (it still does, now and then…). But now, I pretendo ser more careful with my word choice, lest I be engañada.

"IXE opens string of trendy banks"

(Published March 22, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

The first thought that comes to mind stepping into one of the 12 new IXE banks in Guadalajara is that you've accidentally walked into a Starbucks. And just as your eyes adjust to the warm, designer lamps you notice that there is, in fact, a café to your right…and is that Norah Jones playing overhead?

IXE Grupo Financiero has, since only October of last year, neatly established its attractive, trendy bank branches all over the city. The company plans to open a total of 20 locations, each one appearing to be pulled straight from an Ikea catalog with a striking absence of every hassle a bank trip normally entails.


IXE, a word in nahuatl that essentially means "he who practices what he preaches," has for the last 13 years been one of the front-runners in Mexico's investment sector, providing foreign exchange, asset and wealth management to corporate and private clients. IXE most recently added banking services to that list.

Roberto Manuel Bejar Orozco, director of the Ladron de Guevara branch in Guadalajara, explains that the bank grew out of their investment house (casa de bolsa) in Mexico City. Clients of IXE's services there complained of having to use separate institutions for banking and brokerage.

"It was our clients that asked for the bank services," Orozco explains. "It was very successful in D.F., and now it's growing at a national level."

Many current members of IXE bank services were top clients of other investment firms, as well as former clients of IXE employed bankers who brought them along when they joined the new company. Orozco refers to IXE's clientele as the "premier" sector.

That explains the absence of long, ticker-tape lines-the idea is to maintain few clients, exclusively of professional and corporate backgrounds, in order to provide a high quality experience. The more clients a bank has, says Orozco, the more it will lose. In fact, IXE bank barely advertises; most new clients come by word of mouth.

Unlike most banks that require a minimal sum to start an account, an IXE account opens at a hefty 20,000 pesos. This exclusivity, however, is exactly what a typical bank does not provide even to its premier customers, and is what draws big investors to the new bank. Because investment and banking services are combined, IXE is able to offer lower fees than most brokers.

Pamphlets and signs inside the bank emphasize the bank's personalized services. "Because you deserve it," says one, referring to a rewards program. "We treat every client as if he were the only one, and every client is the most important one."

This sentiment is immediately perceived: customers are genially greeted upon entering and promptly offered a beverage from the coffee bar. Three shiny Macintosh computers are available in the front window for browsing the Internet.
IXE prides itself on small details, such as a toll-free phone line for clients sans robot assistance-a live voice will always answer inquiries. The bank even provides a free document courier service to clients' home or office addresses.

"The main benefit is that at IXE bank you are treated like a person, with unique and high quality service," Orozco says.

Friday, March 7, 2008

"Sour times for sugar sector"

(Published March 8, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

January 1, 2008 was a distempering milestone for the Mexican sugar industry. After years of restricted trade between the U.S. and Mexico per NAFTA laws negotiated 14 years ago, tariffs and other regulations were finally phased out and the sugar market, as well as other agricultural sectors, was left open to the caprice of the global market.


The bouleversement in the agricultural markets has not sat well with groups on many ends of the business spectrum; Mexican farmers spent the end of January marching the same trajectory Pancho Villa took during his 1914 march into Mexico City, ending in the Zocalo of Mexico City where they burned tractors in protest.


The farmers insisted they would not be able to compete with highly subsidized U.S. growers and that th
e Mexican government has not done enough to protect them. Despite efforts on both sides of the border to maintain the previous restrictions, a bid to renegotiate trade laws was dropped in early February.


The tariff eliminations catch sugar producers between a rock and hard place. Take the case
of Grupo Azucarero Mexico (GAM). Located here in Jalisco, it’s the second largest sugar producer in the country, turning out eight percent of the nation’s sugar from their four mills, but fast losing ground to international sugar producers.


Hilda Alvarez, a head accountant working in GAM’s administrative offices in Zapopan, explained that NAFTA’s recent opening of agricultural trade is one impetus edging GAM downward; Mexican sugar simply can’t compete with cheap U.S. imports. In fact, Mexico will boast a 500,000-ton surplus this year and produces more than enough to cover domestic demand, but still imports cheaper sugar so as not to sell below production costs.


But GAM knew long ago tha
t NAFTA would have a deep effect, said Alvarez, and planned ahead for this day. “To prepare us, our CEO made trade with sugar companies in Brazil in order to share information about costs of production.”


It is not NAFTA that is most affecting GAM’s production costs, Alvarez believes, but the unions that represent sugar mill workers.
Alvarez said the sugar unions’ power and demands have become too strong. Because the growing and production period divide the year in half, a union’s refusal to work during the essential processing time will cost the company a great deal of time and energy.


In November 2006, union workers at Jalisco’s largest mill in Tala went on strike: over 1,000 union members in the milltown and thousands more nationwide petitioned for the consistent payment of their workers’ pension plans after retirement. The group demanded 3,000 retired workers be caught up for stopped payments as far back as 1998. They claimed industrialists were ignoring agreements that provide for fair pay.


The strike ended within a week, but another threatened in January of 2007 when the union claimed the issues unresolved. The strikes put 1,500 tons of sugar produced per day at risk. To an estimated 2.5 million people employed in the sugar industry, guarantee of payment has become increasingly important in the weakening market.


Sugarcane farmers also stopped deliveries to mills last December to protest their falling payment, which is based on the 50-kilo load’s selling price in the Mexico City market. Alvarez said that last year in January and February, a 50-kilo load of sugarcane, the raw product the company buys to process, cost 350 pesos. Today it costs around 270 pesos and the price is dropping.


The government created a plan last year to bolster sugarcane prices to maintain fair wages for farmers. But the plan came into effect at the beginning of this year, the same time as trade restrictions were lifted by NAFTA.


Consequently, the dawning of 2008 was a double blow for GAM. The price for raw materials suddenly rose at the same time they were forced to sell at lower prices to compete with international markets.


The only players that appear to benefit from the sugar market’s surplus are industrial consumers, soft drink or baked goods companies who can buy the sugar at its domestic crisis price or buy on the international market, often from Brazil, a country that faces little union pressure and whose climate is conducive to a longer, more productive growing period than Mexico.


“Those companies can buy sugar at lower prices than before, but the consumer doesn’t know,” Alvarez said. “The last consumer has not noticed any changes in the price of products they buy, although the sugar has lower prices than ever.”


Presented with a multilateral industrial nightmare, GAM is working to recover its losses.
“We’re looking for opportunities to lower costs. One option is in energy,” said Alvarez. The mills are able to generate ethanol from reprocessed bagazo, the leftover chaff from sugarcane; producers are currently investigating the costs.


Alvarez does not project company layoffs, at least for the time being, and said it would most likely affect the administrative area of the company, not production workers.
It is not clear if the sugar market will in fact fall into the chaos many analysts have projected this year, but Alvarez expressed fear that it would continue along its descending path if not more strictly regulated.


“The government needs to do something,” she said. “If prices keep getting lower, no one will be able to support this.”

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"Dogging the developers: neighborhood group presses on"

(Published March 1, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

In the center of the Zapopan’s Colonia Jardines del Sol, not far from several elementary schools and across from rows of multi-car houses on modern, palm-shaded Wisteria Lanes, is the site of the old Motorola plant and the current epicenter of a legal and environmental nightmare.

The SSC Inmobilaria group plans to build La Ciudadela, a commercial center with five luxury apartment towers, on the former factory site. The mega-project would boost the population density of the neighborhood by 20 percent. Jardines del Sol's neighborhood association, headed by German-born musician Ludger Kellner, is vehemently opposed to the project and is fighting tooth and nail to put a stop to the construction.

The battle has been going on for some time; The Guadalajara Reporter covered the story last August when Kellner’s legal status in Mexico was threatened by an anonymous complaint to the regional Immigration office, believed to be filed by someone whose interests were aligned with La Ciudadela project.

“That was scary for other foreigners who could see that even if you are legally living in the country, some financial or political interests might try to harm you with the pretense that you’re doing something illegal,” Kellner commented in a recent interview.

The complaint didn’t prosper and Kellner has continued his battle with SSC. According to Kellner, the current owners of the landsite are guilty of serious environmental violations, punishable by jail time. In a press conference last week, Kellner and other neighborhood advocates renewed their promise to prove the owners are constructing on contaminated land.

For a time, legal procedures ruled in favor of Jardines del Sol’s residents. In November of last year, Zapopan’s municipal government resolved an initial complaint the neighborhood association had filed in May; on November 23, 2007, the Ayuntamiento de Zapopan shut down the building site pending environmental evaluation.

The neighborhood’s own survey of the site’s surrounding area showed nearby residents suffered from a ten percent higher propensity of symptoms associated with industrial toxins, such as respiratory and nervous system damage.

Subsequently, the building company lost every appeal through to the Mexican Supreme Court. SSC Inmobilaria had nowhere else to go, and the site stayed closed until January 25, 2008.

On that date something happened that Kellner calls “outside any legal process.” By an inexplicable retro-appeal to the Jalisco state courts, the building company was granted legal permission to continue construction by a state magistrate.

“The legal course is the other way around,” Kellner said. “You first of all complain to the lowest jurisdiction, and then you end up in federal court, and if you lose there you have nowhere else to go. But they went exactly in reverse.

“They have continued from the 28th of January, and of course they’re going as fast as they can now because they feel we might stop them again – and we are going to stop them again.”

On February 21, in a rare public response to the neighborhood association’s accusations, the landowners said they complied with the law and found the ground within safe limits of pollutants.

Manuel de Asis Orta, vice president of SSC Inmobilaria, said that their tests found thallium (a bioaccumable heavy metal) in amounts permissible under Mexican law and that it “is false that contaminating materials exist.”

Responded Kellner: “The fact is that the authorities are not asking them to do what the law requires ... Their analysis was done in a completely incorrect way because by that time they had already taken out tons and tons of earth and thrown it into other places. That was polluted earth. They were polluting the whole city.”

Furthermore, explained Kellner, the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (Profepa) reported that samples were extracted from a depth of about one meter, while the law requires samples to be taken at zero to five centimeters as heavy metals are found on the ground’s surface.

“They took the samples at the wrong depth, and even so, they found thallium,” said Kellner. “Thallium is a very toxic heavy metal, it’s soluble in water, and even in the air; it gets though your skin and into your body, and it’s not eliminated by anything. It’s what they call a silent death.”

Since Motorola vacated the site in 1999 after a 31-year residency, the land has changed hands a number of times. When the Universidad del Valle de Mexico bought the land in 2003, they required that the previous owner, Alejandro Sanchez Garza, have the land surveyed for pollutants. The study found the land to be contaminated, the results of which were included in every subsequent deed.

“Nobody who was involved in this deal here is able to say he didn’t know about this document, because it’s cited in the deed in which the lot was sold to the German bank as a fiduciary,” Kellner said. “The funny part about this is that the two partners who have the option to purchase the land say that they never knew about this document.”

There is more that does not add up: the federal government does not have a single paper filed by Motorola or ON Semiconductors (a subsidiary of the Texas Pacific Group, which bought up the semi-conductor division of Motorola worldwide) registering their industrial waste – how much, what type, if transported by government authorized hazmat freight companies – for all activity during the 1980s and 90s. Toxic waste registration is obligatory under federal law.

Recently the Jardines del Sol neighborhood association went to federal criminal courts to file a complaint requesting the builders be held responsible for their crimes. They are also at the point of petitioning federal courts once again that the construction be stopped.

SSC Inmobilaria insists that La Ciudadela will benefit the community. They announced they will donate 1,200 square meters of land so the Federal Electricity Commission can build a substation that could provide 1,200 area homes with energy.

Kellner will continue to combat the project. “We know that this is a lengthy process that might take several years, because you cannot remedy a polluted site within weeks.”


Not included in the Reporter's edition but worth mentioning:

Kellner noted that two water bottling plants, Bonafont and Arco Iris, are not far from the contaminated landsite, as well as the Sabritas factory.

“The government favors investment. Investment goes first, because it generates employment, it generates prosperity. But this is not prosperity if you have people die on account of investment.” - Ludger Kellner

"Gabacha reporter grills Orange County's most informed Mexican"

(Published March 1, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

Gustavo Arellano isn’t just Mexican, he is “The Mexican” – the voice of the United States’ newest and largest minority who answers every question gabachos and latinos have “wanted to know about Mexicans but [were] too pendejo to ask.” Arellano smashes stereotypes one at a time in his nationally syndicated OC Weekly column called “Ask a Mexican,” and released a book last May by the same name. A Spanish version of the book will soon be released in Mexico.

Last week
The Guadalajara Reporter’s MEREDITH VETO spoke to Arellano via telephone from his Orange County, California office.

MV: The questions you receive are strongly worded, often with racist undertones. You obviously take this in stride. But do you ever get discouraged by this gabacho mentality?

GA: Oh, no, I love the racist questions. They’re the best ones. I get all kinds of different questions, not just racist white people who write in to me, but from Mexicans who are racist against whites or blacks or other Mexicans. I get questions from Mexicans in Mexico wanting to know about some aspect of Mexican history or culture. No matter how much I write the column, no matter how much I try to debunk stereotypes, racism’s going to exist. So the best thing I can do is tackle it and ridicule it.

MV: I understand you received a Masters degree from UCLA in Latin American studies. How much does your historical foundation come into play when you answer questions? What is your research process like?

GA: My college education was great for a number of reasons but really the main reason was that it taught me how to do research, get a lot of information and then boil it down to the particulars you need. For instance if there’s a question about etymology, I’m going to consult etymological dictionaries, I’m going to talk to language professors, I’m going to consult history books. If somebody has a stupid question like “Why do Mexicans sell oranges on the side of freeways?” that’s not going to take a lot of research. That’s just going to be a joke off the top of my head. [The answer: “What do you want them to sell, Steinway pianos?”]

MV: You are also, and firstly, a food critic for the OC Weekly. You write a column called “This hole-in-the-wall life.” I liked what you said a few weeks ago about small Mexican restaurants in the United States, when browsing a menu: “Figure out which Spanish words have yet to become part of the Southern Californian Spanish. Order them – none will disappoint.” Would that sum up your attitude as a food critic? Is that what you look for in a good hole-in-the-wall restaurant?

GA: I used to do higher-end restaurants, but they never particularly interested me because I don’t want to spend 100 dollars on a good meal when I could have a better meal for about three bucks. When it comes to Mexican restaurants, I try to review restaurants that will feature food from a particular region nobody has ever really had. For instance, here in Orange County there are a lot of people from Jalisco. What’s a great meal from Guadalajara? Tortas ahogadas. Growing up, I never had a torta ahogada until I went to a taco truck and said, what is this? So to me, it’s foreign food as well. More importantly though, it’s great food. By doing restaurant reviews like that I’m also able to talk about the phenomenon of migration to the U.S.

MV: Would you mind answering a few of my own gabacha inquires?
GA: Sure, yeah.

MV: First, when I came to Mexico as a study abroad student, my program advisor warned female students that Mexican men are far more likely to cheat on their partners than American men. I believe she even had numbers to back it up. Does that have any truth, or was she just trying to protect us?

GA: Protect you from what? Oh please. Number one, if we’re going to play the stats game, the most comprehensive study of male cheating patterns was done by the University of Chicago, they interviewed God knows how many people, and they came to the conclusion that the fidelity stats for latinos and whites weren’t really that far apart to say this is endemic in the culture. Cheaters are cheaters all across the world. Your teacher absorbed all these stereotypes of the Latin lover, the unfaithful man, those stereotypes. I’m Mexican and I haven’t cheated on anyone in my life.

MV: Here’s another: Clowns are everywhere in Mexico. They perform on the streets, they’re featured on television and in advertisements. It strikes me as odd only because Americans tend to be fairly hostile towards clowns, even fearful of them. Any explanation?

GA: [Laughs] You know it’s funny, that’s true. I laugh because I agree with you. I personally don’t care much for clowns, but what I mean is that they neither draw fear nor happiness from me. I never understood why a lot of white people are mortified by clowns. You know, what do clowns supposedly represent? Gaiety, happiness, hilarity. Who wouldn’t want that in their lives? If Mexicans are hanging out with clowns, that just means they like happiness more than other people. They like fun stuff. Especially with the television shows, there’s a lot of goofiness, it’s really outlandish. Kind of like the Japanese. We like our humor to be as outlandish as possible.

MV: If Americans could stand to learn one thing from their Mexican neighbors, what would that be?

GA: What Americans could learn from Mexicans is that we’re not trying to take over the U.S. Up here, I think that’s always lurking in the minds of white Americans. Oh my God, these Mexicans are moving into our neighborhood, they’re trying to take over our culture, they’re trying to impregnate our women ... Aaaah! No, they’re not. It’s so nationalistic, it’s so assuming that every action [Mexicans] take against them has to be because they’re Americans. Just so you know, we don’t want to take over the United States.

Curious about Mexican culture? Write to themexican@askamexican.net with your own inquiries.