29 April 2008

On Leaving Oaxaca

It's been beastly hot here, but Sunday night delivered a big bad thumping lightning and thunder storm, several hours long. Tree branches down, streets flooded with rain. Monday smelled like a whole new city, and then it rained again. Tuesday has been cool, and there are still puddles at intersections and storm drains, reminders of the changing season. Should be nice until the mosquitoes hatch. Which, it's ungenerous to say, is probably some kind of metaphor for Oaxaca.

There's noise this week about a federal bust-up of the Oaxaca State Police. I'll admit first to not having any idea what's going on beyond the little bit I've read, in English, from Nancy Davies. She writes that the army has arrested at least 7 state police officers, including the cousin of Governor Ulises Ruiz, in relation to investigations into events during the unrest in 2006. Nancy points out that local police seem to have scattered during the recent investigation. "14 didn't show up for roll call (on the 26th), 10 asked for their vacation time, [and] 16 are presumed Zetas, which is organized crime." It is unclear how much overlap may exist in these numbers but either way it's fairly interesting. Nancy's post further points out that at least one of the officers arrested was alleged to be involved in kidnappings and disappearances, and documents were seized relating to the severe, police beating of Emeterio Merino Cruz, who was left incapacitated after the attack.

All this is offered without any background information or fact checking, so take it as such. I don't know about the motivation behind this or the forces really at work. On the surface, it seems like a good thing for Oaxaca. Where politics play in Mexico, however, there is reason to be suspicious.

My focus has shifted of late, and my available time is now more likely spent at research for another writing project and not for the blog. It's become hard to dedicate as much time and energy to following up on the course of events in Oaxaca. It's difficult to encapsulate, but my interest in the perpetual turmoil, or perception of perpetual turmoil just beneath Oaxaca's surface, has dulled. Because it's not mine, because these aren't my people, my protests, or my city, the best I've been able to do is occasionally post updates on the nature of events as I see them here. (And who are my people? Which my protests? Where my city?)

My inability to capture, to really understand, or to fairly render the substance or the subjects of my writing about Oaxaca puts me in a mind to remember Graham Greene:

Perhaps no one can write in depth about a foreign country--he can only write about the effect of that country on his own fellow countrymen, living as exiles, or government servants, or visitors. He can only "touch in" the background of the foreign land.

The observation comes from Greene's introduction to Narayan's novel The Bachelor of Arts. It's not exactly what I feel, not personal enough, but it gets us close. The point is, the writer, the exile, the government servant, the visitor, all of us can only render these other lands as we filter them through our own distorted lenses. I think what Greene doesn't quite say is that no matter what we've put to paper, we don't get it. When writing about another country, none of us are ever either objective or truly empathetic.

As I prepare to leave Oaxaca, I distance myself from all this: the perennial difficulty in getting reliable information; the struggle to know which information to like or to trust (presumably I like Nancy's, but even that has given me pause recently); the posturing that goes on daily between the government and the people's organizations; the hearsay, the speculation, and the uncertainty; the speechifying and bickering that never ceases among a community of priggish expatriate residents (yeah, I'm talking about the Lending Library crowd) who would pretend to have all the answers; the noise, the noise, the endless, damnable noise.

I'm also worn down by, and looking forward to stepping away from, the oppressive police presence in the city: groups of cops standing about in threes and fours, or occasionally even by the dozen, looking for shade in the heat of the day; heavily armed truck convoys patrolling congested city streets; 200 plus state police in full riot gear surrounding the university--which happens to be at the heart of the historic city center and therefore at the heart of tourist flow through the city--on the eve of law school director elections; the helicopter with shooters tethered to the craft, leaning out over the skids with rifles at the ready, chopping overhead in great sweeping arcs to survey for narcotraffickers, we are led to believe, or perhaps merely to impose their presence.

All this while the commerce of a city that would be a tourist destination goes on below, within, and around. Families, parents, and children; backpackers, honeymooners, senior tours; hippies, youth groups, language students; Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Australians, wealthy Mexicans; artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, politicos. Everybody looking for something, nobody, I think, sure exactly what. So we all take some snapshots and a taste of mezcal, buy a bottle for the road and a piece or two of indigenous art, and head home wistfully, to remember Oaxaca as we want it to be, perhaps as it wants to be, and rarely, I suspect, as it ever truly is.

After six months and more here--a substantial visit, yet a mere passing glimpse of a city and a culture--it is my impression that nobody really knows Oaxaca or Oaxacans, especially me. It's a dynamic, ever-changing community where the same themes return again and again. Poverty, inequality, corruption, political unrest. While several vocal minorities make their presence felt across the city by demonstrating in the streets and plazas, the majority of Oaxacans, I believe, just want to work, care for their families, and feel hopeful for the future.

I don't know if the majority of Oaxacans actually do feel hopeful or not, or even if feeling hopeful for the future isn't a cultural notion, some righteous ideal I bring with me. For the middle class here, sure, I think they feel hopeful for their children. For the poor and the marginalized, it's hard to comprehend how exactly they might feel. I think of the things they attempt to sell that no one ever wants, the wooden bookmarks and hideous "indigenous" wall hangings, the baskets and bolsas and gum, the beaded necklaces, the thin shawls, and the native garb; I think of the children, little boys and girls, who weave between tables in the city's restaurants, bars and cafes to insert themselves, literally, into the bosom of conversation and warmth in order to earn a few pesos, a little affection, a jicama stick or a handful of peanuts or a lemon wedge off the side of a plate. I think of the aggressive grandmothers tacking between those same tables to sell gardenias, cheap candy, vitamin supplements or cigarettes to patrons eating expensive desserts; I think of these impoverished parents trying to fend for their children, or perhaps counting on the children, the power of whose cuteness is not overlooked in the running of the daily business, to fend for them. I think of the accordionists and guitar players on the Alcala, and their offspring with tin cans and plastic cups and little outstretched hands, some as young as three or four, who have already learned which face to look up with at passersby in order to earn a peso, or a five peso piece if lucky.

More than the political instability, more than the uncertainty for Oaxaca's present and future, I am left with the deep impression that the marginalized and impoverished will, for the foreseeable future, remain marginalized and impoverished, and that their problems will persist--regardless what happens in the halls of government and among community leaders; regardless what happens between Ulises Ruiz, the teachers, and the APPO--no matter how healthy the tourism trade or how optimistic the governor's annual address.


A postscript:

I'm losing my home Internet for about a week, so blogging will be . . . light. As if it hasn't been already. I'll be back online May 7, but then we're traveling from about May 10 - June 2, more or less. It's difficult to say for certain, because many things are in flux now, but the blog may go into hibernation for a little while.

Jenna and I will be in Denver, full time, starting early June. Consider this an open invitation to come see us, but please do call or write first.

As always, thanks for reading.

25 April 2008

He Said It

When is inspiring not inspiring? Perhaps when it's merely suggesting, or better yet "dreaming."

Case in point, Rush Limbaugh yesterday:

For a second day in a row today, the conservative talker discussed the potential for protests and power struggles at the August convention.

"Now, I am not inspiring or inciting riots. I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming of riots in Denver," he said mimicking the holiday tune.

He explained on-air: "Riots in Denver at the Democrat Convention would see to it we don't elect Democrats," Limbaugh said. "And that's the best damn thing (that) could happen for this country as far as anything I can think."

Emphasis mine. Call me crabby, I guess. I'm just not willing to accept the "not inspiring" argument. Inspiration is a slippery thing; here the speaker has made a case for why he thinks, in a direct, syllogistic statement, that "riots in Denver at the Democrat [sic, of course] Convention" would be "the best damn thing that could happen for (this) country . . . ."

What? Am I wrong? Look, the guy said it, whistled a tune, explained--pretty clearly--why riots in Denver would be so great. To say that's not inciting, okay that's close. I listened to the comment, and it wasn't delivered with the invective one would call "inciting." But to claim "not inspiring," on a radio show that reaches literally millions every day? That's just not credible.

Imagine the endless commentary, Limbaugh leading the way, if a Democrat or a popular liberal media personality called for riots at the Republican convention? Well, not called for, of course, but, you know, mentioned. "Dreamed" of, I suppose. Certainly didn't incite. Just casually dropped a plug for riots in an American city as the best thing for America. Inspired? Nah.

Yeah, I can imagine how that goes, and it isn't pretty. It'd be blasted as incendiary if not treasonous. I hope the media doesn't lose sight of that as Limbaugh continues to hedge while pushing his radical agenda, but I won't hold my breath.

23 April 2008

Update: Go Wings!

. . . Where I pick up my hockey loyalties once again after years of travel in lands where the concept of an ice rink is scarcely known.

NHL Western Conference Semis!
Go Detroit!

19 April 2008

Tom T and the Pope

Former presidential candidate and staunch anti-immigrationist Tom Tancredo (R-CO) finds the pope's comments about violence against immigrants "annoying" (really, it's worth waiting for the video to load), and suspects ulterior motives behind the pontiff's suggestions regarding immigration:

"I suspect the pope's immigration comments may have less to do with spreading the Gospel than they do about recruiting new members of the church," Tancredo said.

After hearing this, Howard Dean called on John McCain to denounce Tancredo. Not sure I understand the connection, but I'm all for the sentiment. Can somebody please remind me the origins of the name Tancredo?

18 April 2008

Winning High?

When I first read this Sullivan post I thought "Hey, that's a fair question." Can Obama deliver a knockout blow? Sure, he stands tall when Hillary & Co batter him over the head a few dozen times, but is it good campaign strategy to hope she just paints herself into a corner?

Then I read more carefully, and I realized that Sullivan merely poses the question so that he can beg Obama not to go in for the kill, and then he takes it one step farther.

I just hope he doesn't go negative with McCain. A key to his appeal is his positive reason, which would be revealed as mere cunning if it did not apply to running against Republicans as well.

Emphasis mine. I think this is about right. If Obama wins the nomination, can he--will he--manage not merely to remain above the fray, but to elevate the contest as well, in a general election?

In fairness to the Obama campaign, it probably will be enough if he simply remains above the fray and gets voted in without going ugly (as opposed to asking one man to elevate the contest as well, especially if his opponent isn't willing to do so). In and of itself, that would be a strong statement about the American voters' appetite for change. The question nobody seems to be able to answer is, is that scenario possible?


I liked everything Obama said yesterday. And I'm pretty well disposed by now to feel a reactionary dislike to almost everything coming out of the Clinton campaign machine the past several--and no doubt for the next several--weeks.

That said, Clinton sounds pretty darn good in this clip.

17 April 2008


Lots of big important things in the news today, but I'll focus on this instead. Steve Benen points up the grilling the FAA chief took over last week's air travel abomination.

Why He Can Win

UPDATE: Responding to comments about last night's debate, and a question about how he'll respond to the Republican smear machine in the general election, Obama offered this:

“That was the rollout of the Republican campaign against me in November. It happened just a little bit early, but that is what they will do,” Mr. Obama said. “They will try to focus on all these issues that don’t have anything to do with how you are paying your bills at the end of the month. There’s no doubt that I will have to respond sharply and crisply, then pivot to talk about what exactly are we going to do for the economy and what are we going to do about the war in Iraq.”

Until the nominating fight ends, Mr. Obama said, he is “trying to show some restraint.” He added, “I won’t have as much restraint with the Republicans."

This is part of Obama's effectiveness. He doesn't have to say "Clinton went over the top." All he has to do is suggest that he's holding back a little, demonstrating the new politics he says he can bring to Washington, and, all the while, doing his share not to shred the Democratic party in the process.

All that aside, it's not enough to say you're taking the high road and leave it at that. You've got to project that you're taking the high road, and Obama does. If he looked worn and wearied last night, he sure looked a whole lot more rejuvenated today. That, I think, stands to carry the message far.

If electability is indeed the issue, then I think Obama made the right answers today. This is why he can win.

16 April 2008

Politics as Usual

Why were all those AA planes grounded by the FAA last week? I didn't know this before, but it wasn't, apparently, due to a major flaw that could take an aircraft apart at 35k feet. Instead, it had to do with the spacing of wiring bundles, a relatively simple, if tedious, thing to fix without paralyzing an airline to do so.

Sound political? I didn't think so either, until I read Kevin Drum, who taps Andrew Tobias to explain how this is actually the fault of the Bush Administration.

15 April 2008

Movin' On

Like the Rockies last October, hopes were high but the series ended in a sweep. For those keeping track at home, I went 0-4 against the admissions departments. But my wife is massaging my newly accessible skull, so everything is going to be alright.

11 April 2008

Oaxaca Roundup

Despite all the fun we've had with my new do, it's not all peaches and cream in Oaxaca. The city, as always, is roiled in contradiction.

By outward appearances things are good. Tourism is up overall, though there's a momentary, post-spring break lull now before the summer season begins in earnest (this from a long time Spanish teacher who tells me that May enrollment is always tranquilo before June and July bring the summer backpackers and vactioners to town). Cafes and galleries are all open, and there's plenty of street art, music, and fireworks to be enjoyed on the weekends.

Get beyond the main blocks of the centro, however, and things are slightly different. Shots were fired this week between rival gangs at the UABJO, the big, ever turbulent Benito Juarez University in Oaxaca City. You may remember this account of elections for the director of the law school, which involved some 200 police in riot gear. It seems now that the fighting is between the former general director of the Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Sociales and the man who attempted to replace him. It's harder to follow then the election results coming out of Zimbabwe, and fighting broke out on campus this past Tuesday. Police responded with gas and carted people away.

On a different, and fairly disturbing note, two indigenous radio show hosts were reported murdered Wednesday in the Triqui town of San Juan Copala read an English article here). Here's a blurb from the Oaxaca Study Action Group which summarizes the events, though I can't vouch for accuracy:

Two indigenous triqui women who worked at the community radio station La Voz que Rompe el Silencio (The Voice that Breaks the Silence), in the autonomous municipality of San Juan Copala (Mixteca region), were shot and murdered while on their way to Oaxaca city to participate in the State Forum for the Defense of the Rights of the Peoples of Oaxaca. Three other people were injured.

. . . According to prelimary reports, the women had left the station, which is part of the Network of Indigenous Community Radio Stations of the Southeast (Red de Radios Comunitarias Indígenas del Sureste), around 1:00 PM. They were travelling in a truck on their way to Oaxaca city, but were ambushed on the outskirts of the community Llano Juarez.

The two community radio activists were supposed to coordinate the working group for Community and Alternative Communication: Community Radio, Video, Press, and Internet, at the State Forum for the Defense of the Rights of the People of Oaxaca, which was to begin today (Wednesday) in the auditorium of Seccion 22 of the teachers union in Oaxaca.

This obviously has people concerned, though most of the chatter is limited to the Internet, as far as I've seen, and not any actual activity on the streets.

In the meantime, a pair of public school teachers I've spoken with are dreading the upcoming, annual teacher planton scheduled for May. For those who don't know, the teacher strike of 2006 was unusual not for the strike itself but for the severe government response and ensuing community resistance. The teachers' union strikes every year to demand pay and benefits increases, as well as school supplies, school infrastructure, and greater resources for students. Each year the demands are met with a show of resistance by the government, the teachers camp in the zocalo for a month, and then everybody agrees to settle. Not so in 2006, but most of us know that story by now. If not, click here and here for background.

One of the reasons teachers may not be looking forward to the event is because their attendance is compulsory, including the part where everybody sleeps on the cold stones of the zocalo overnight or takes turns keeping vigil. One more example of political might in Oaxaca: teachers don't take to the streets simply to support the cause, but because their livelihoods depend on it. Much like government employees who are required to sit in the amphitheater seats every year for the Guelaguetza: the governor makes sure there are no empty spaces in front of the cameras.

One last item of interest in Oaxaca right now: security patrols have increased significantly in the past two weeks. Convoys of pickup trucks run in threes throughout the city, loaded down with the black clad, machine gun toting security agents of the Federal Preventive Police. The increase in forces, some 150 patrols, coincides with the appointment of a new director of the PFP (Spanish initials), and is said to be specific to Oaxaca. My guess is it has to do with increased drug violence, but is also inextricably related to whatever madness is going on with the high profile kidnappings of businessmen in the city over Semana Santa (Easter week). I haven't heard anything recently, but the guesswork ran the gamut from pointing the finger at disgruntled terrorists to the governor himself disappearing people who may know too much or have simply become inconvenient to have around. Either way, it makes for interesting reading.

Okay. Gotta go eat fresh tamales from the organic market. So it's not all bad in Oaxaca after all. Like I said, a city of contradictions.

10 April 2008

¿Por qué? ¿Porque no?

Sometimes you've just got to go for it. Hey, Janice: Can I get a new Frida?

08 April 2008

Today's Science

Bass thump got you awake nights? Depending on where you live, it could be the mating call of the black drum. Or perhaps it's actually a toadfish or a cusk eel.

1,200 species of fish are known to make noise by the mechanism of their "swim bladder." Learn how they do it, and how to identify some of the different mating calls, here.

06 April 2008

In-Store Specials?

I'm not sure I buy it, but the Denver Post asks the question: Are grocery chains gouging food stamp customers?

A (highly unscientific) study of 4 Denver area chain groceries over 4 visits between September 2007 and January 2008 revealed that, on average, check-out prices for the same 12 items in lower income areas reached a higher tally by 4% than the same 12 items purchased at sister stores in more affluent communities.

The take away? That remains uncertain. The Post, by its own account, seemed to struggle with the math.

Ground beef prices varied greatly from store to store and week to week, affecting the final cost of the grocery basket. That's because stores serving more-affluent neighborhoods at times did not carry the less expensive, fattier beef, while their lower-income counterparts sometimes lacked the more expensive, leaner meat. For that reason, beef is included in some totals and not others.

I'm not sure how the varying prices effect the decision to include or dismiss ground beef from the receipt totals, nor how that skews the numbers, but the Post's logic doesn't track for me.

I could devolve now into a conspiracy-ish thread about how corporate grocers may well be trying to get the most out of the government bucks their lower income patrons trade in, and how those pennies from each transaction translate into many millions when repeated often enough. What I'd really like to know, however, is whether the Post's findings are consistent with nationwide trends. That would really cast this in a different light. And then, are we looking at a massive, organized effort to bilk the government where possible (what private contractor isn't, right now?), or, as the article suggests, is this all just the complicated byproduct of our complicated economy?

The article asks some interesting questions, even if it doesn't get around to answering them. I'd love to see some thoughtful analysis from anyone who knows more about the topic. A hasty Google search doesn't turn up a whole lot on the specific topic at hand, though I have learned that Ralph Nader is concerned about price gouging on oil by the barrel, Alice Landes is upset about price gouging for Passover foods, and food stamp use is at its highest level ever. Isn't the Internet fun?

05 April 2008

Saturday Morning Reading

Salon interviews "Bonk" author Mary Roach in what proves to be an interesting, informational, and at times hilarious conversation about sex studies and modern science. Well worth a read.

Spring Forward Mexico

Mexico runs days to months to years behind the U.S. when it comes to any number of things, such as when we see movies, fashions, gadgets, cars, you name it (thought it's shocking how quickly bootlegged dvds make it onto the streets). The one that interests me today, however, is Daylight Savings Time. We've held onto it several weeks longer than our friends to the north, but tonight we draw even and set our clocks forward before sleep. Provecho!

Penn Apologizes

Wait a minute. Colombia? Free trade pact? Consultation conflict of interest? I thought Mark Penn was apologizing for the shirt and tie combination.

We can still hope, right?

02 April 2008

The Blogger is Away From His Desk

I'm not available for blogging right now, but Jenna did remind me to get back and post that the fire was out as of Monday and all is tranquilo again. I haven't heard much about it, except one of my students believes that it was simply caused by heat. And it's plenty hot here: mid 90s all week, and very humid.

More soon.