Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Exodus, Movement of the People

Classes update: Today we watched our 895th documentary on “free” trade and enforced globalization of markets and how much they hurt the world’s poor.

I have about had it with these. Not that I disagree with the argument – I’m just tired of hearing the same things over and over. And I already agree, so it’s like, enough already, I got it! I end up taking devil’s advocate positions just to make things in more interesting…

All of which is rather ironic, as the first part of our orientation to this semester program emphasized a non-hierarchical, critical-thinking-based form of learning, based on experiences followed by communally-formed interpretations of those experiences. I had my doubts about the possibilities of this model, too – it’s just kind of funny to see things turn out to be exactly the opposite.

Maybe the real problem is that our actual experiences have been pretty limited. Most of the week is taken up by reading books and watching documentaries and then having discussions among ourselves in which we all take either leftist or really leftist positions on matters of the day (again, not that I disagree, I’m just tired of the echo chamber).

I suppose that’s what academic classes usually amount to, but I didn’t need to travel to another country to read books and watch documentaries. I want to do something, but I’m stuck in this endless loop. A lot of the time I feel like I am wasting my time.

But this is the trial run of the program, so I should have a little patience, I know. And there have been exceptions – glorious exceptions, really. There was the grito I blogged about a few weeks back. And then there was last weekend.

On Thursday I bought a Latin American Spanish-language Bible (La Biblia Latinoamericana) especially for use in our Bible class, which is taught in Spanish by a local Catholic priest who has over thirty years of parish experience and, lo and behold, did his doctoral work in Brazil under a Lutheran scholar. The class is called “Reading the Bible from the Perspective of the Poor,” and it’s helping me to see things in the Bible that I’ve never seen before. La Palabra de Dios, the Word of God, is coming alive for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

And it isn’t just Padre Jose Luis who is teaching us. Every weekend (Thursday through Saturday) we stay with host families in Cuernavaca (see “Back in the Barranca” from a few posts ago). Last weekend we learned the history of our host families’ neighborhood.

Thirty years ago the barrio (neighborhood) of San Anton was extremely overcrowded and getting more so every year. Rising rents and low incomes meant that more and more people had to live in each house. Conditions were bad. People wanted out. As our host grandmother told us, “We were the Israelites in Egypt.” And then she read a passage from the book of Exodo (Spanish for Exodus) that she felt described their situation perfectly.

Community leaders went to the government for help, but they were dismissed. (Sound familiar?) Then one day someone looked across the barranca (ravine) and saw as if for the first time that the other side was uninhabited. It wasn’t great land – sloping harshly, of course, as ravines do, totally unfarmable, and full of trees and rocks and wild growth – but it was land.

Problem was, the government owned this land and had its own plans: namely, a new prison. The people petitioned and petitioned for the land, but the government wouldn’t budge. So the people – with the help of Padre Jose Luis, our Bible professor, their parish priest – hatched a plan.

Late one February night hundreds of people left San Anton – an exodus – and carried lumber and tools and lights and food and made their way into the land across the barranca. They came by three different entrances so as to attract less attention on their way, but by morning their late-night land takeover was plain for all to see. The new barrio of La Lagunilla had been founded.

Of course, Pharoah does not let you go that easily. Our storyteller read us another passage from Exodo and then told of how the local government sent police and national guard troops to surround the area immediately. But the people held firm. They appointed lookouts, and sent up fireworks into the air whenever there was the slightest hint of trouble, so that all the people could gather together and thereby maintain their strength. They didn’t have weapons, after all. They had only their faith in the God of the Exodus and their dependence on one another. Padre Jose Luis, for his part, stayed with them, celebrating mass and providing pastoral accompaniment.

The standoff in the barranca lasted months. In the Exodus, the Israelites finally escaped their captors and gained their freedom by miraculously crossing the Red/Reed Sea, but there is no sea in landlocked Cuernavaca. Something else happened instead.

One day the President of Mexico (!) came to visit Cuernavaca, to dedicate a newly built school. The school was near the area of the land takeover, so a large group of people from La Lagunilla marched to the school and demanded to speak with the president. While they were waiting, one of the women marching started crying. She cried, and she cried, and she could not stop crying. She carried flowers in her arms in the hopes of getting the president’s attention, but now she was crying and could not stop. When the president emerged from inside the school, he noticed the woman. He asked his advisors why the woman was crying, but they could not tell him. So he went over to the woman, and asked her. And she told him everything.

By the end of the day the president had ordered the military off the land. The people were free. And the very first thing they built, the first permanent structure after receiving their freedom, was a church, to celebrate, to thank God. (At this point a chill ran down my spine – this was exactly what we had been told in Nebraska, too: that the first thing the new Nebraskan settlers did was to build a church.)

Every year since that day the people of La Lagunilla remember their freedom with a celebration. Like the Passover, the Lagunilla celebration begins at night, at the hour the exodus began. By morning it is full of fireworks and food and festivities, and everything culminates in a worship service.

Then our storyteller read us another passage from Exodus. Liberation, she reminded us, was not the end of the story. For after the Israelites gained their freedom, then the real work began, the long, hard work of building a community, of forming a people. At first, she told us, the community was free of any kind of crime – the community was simply too tight for it. But now, thirty years later, La Lagunilla faces the same problems every community faces. The social fabric frayed. People moved away. New people moved in, people who didn’t know the history, who hadn’t lived the history themselves. So they tell the story again, and retell the story. Such is the work of building and re-building community.

What is an outsider to make of a story like this? At first you just sit in awe. Our storyteller and her husband laughed merrily at us: Didn’t we have any questions?

Questions?, we thought. We are still in shock. We have just heard the story of the Exodus as it happened again in our time. William Faulkner, that great Southern author, once wrote that “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

Neither, it seems, is the Bible.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Cubs v Brewers 5/1/08

So this post is not Mexico related - I just want to forewarn you on that. Unless you want to consider it indicative of the ways in which we stay connected back home even as we live 1686 miles away, south of la frontera...

I cannot resist joining the throngs of Cub fans - literally around the world! - who are thrilled (and on pins and needles) that the Cubbies are heading to the playoffs 100 years after their last World Series championship.

Two other teams may - may - be headed to the playoffs, too. The Chicago White Sox won today to give themselves one more chance to get into the postseason. The Milwaukee Brewers wrapped up the wild card over the weekend. My friend Adam (blog post alias: "From Michigan With Love") demanded props for this on my blog. Well...I'll do this much. In celebration of the Cubbies making the playoffs - and, ok, the Brewers too - I offer this story from five months ago. Our story begins in the spring, not in Mexico but on the North Side of Chicago, when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of baseball...


As May began the Brewers were visiting Wrigley again. This would be the last time the Cubs and Brewers played each other before we would all be leaving Chicago. We were, of course, in the midst of academic finals, and had little time to spend an afternoon at a baseball stadium...

On Thursday morning, the day of the last game of the series, I showed up for class to find Adam, my friend who is lifelong Brewers fan, dressed in full Brewers regalia. Now, I had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning working on a paper and so hadn’t thought to counter by wearing any Cubbie blue. So, lacking any other recourse, I started badgering him.

I suggested that we should go to the game to watch the Brewers lose. I hadn’t actually planned on this at all, but soon I was urging him to skip his afternoon class and go – just for the fun of badgering, really. But then I saw a crack, an opportunity. “Ok,” he said. “Find out if there are still tickets, and maybe I’ll go.”

I went home and checked online. Not only were there still a few tickets left, but Carlos Zambrano – the Cubs ace – was pitching, AND Alfonso Soriano, supposedly the Cubs’ superstar, was coming off the DL. Things were adding up fast…it was getting harder and harder to resist this game. So I put on my Cubs hat, Cubs t-shirt, and Cubs jersey and went to find Adam.

“Alright,” he said when I found him, “I’m in. But we have to go to chapel first, and I need you to help out with communion.”

Now, normally I am all too happy to help out with communion, but at this particular moment I was wearing a blaring Cubs outfit with a giant Cubs logo on my shirt – not exactly discrete, reverent clothing. But there was no time to change.

And so it was that twenty minutes later we find ourselves standing in the front of the chapel assisting with communion decked out in the colorful liturgical garb of Brewers and Cubs jerseys. I figured we had made complete fools of ourselves…until chapel ended, when an gentleman who I’ve never seen before – must be visiting LSTC - comes outside to find me. Oh no, I think. He’s going to give me an earful for wearing such a thing in chapel…

“Hey,” he says. “That’s a wonderful statement you two made!” What? He laughs heartily. “Unity in the body of Christ, unity in the National League!” And he walks away, still laughing.

Time to go - it takes a little over an hour to get from Hyde Park to Wrigleyville by public transit. When we finally get there, Adam runs off to get cash at the ATM. I run over to the ticket booth and quickly ask for two tickets in the Upper Deck. The guy working the booth - who already looks grouchy - looks at me like I'm crazy, then shakes his head like I have got to be the dumbest fan in the world. “I only have single tickets that are not together, obstructed view,” he growls. Alright, I say, give me a minute.

I call Adam on my cell and I can barely hear him. I can’t get tickets together, I say.

“What?” he yells. “No tickets together? Hold on.”

There’s a brief pause, and I hear only the cacophony of voices in the background.

Suddenly Adam’s voice rings out clear again. “Hey, thanks! That’s great!”

What? I respond, confused. Dude, what should we do?

“Just wait there, I’ll come find you.”

Uh, okay…And in a moment he’s standing in front of me, holding up two tickets in his hand.

Apparently, while I had been having no luck at the Wrigley Field Ticket Booth, Adam had been standing in front of the ATM listening to two girls deliberate behind him. These two bystanders just happened to have two extra tickets and didn't know what to do with them. Just then I called, and Adam thought fast. When I said I couldn't get tickets, he made sure to respond extra loudly: "WHAT? NO TICKETS TOGETHER?" and within seconds the two girls had handed their two extra tickets to him. For free.

So, armed with our two free tickets, we wander into the stadium and begin trying to find out where our seats are. Suddenly Adam looks up. “Matt,” he says slowly, “I think these are Field Box seats. They're 6th row!” It's true. We enter the lowest entrance to the stands and end up in, yes, the sixth row, right along the first base basepath. Not only did we receive free tickets, we received free tickets six rows from the field at a nearly sold-out game. “This is unreal,” Adam says, over and over. "Unreal!"

We get up close views of every player’s batting stance. We watch crazy plays on the first base line. We see how tall Carlos Zambrano is. We see how wide Prince Fielder is. We watch Prince Fielder, all two hundred and some pounds, run straight into a catcher to avoid an out. Ridiculous plays and unexpected lead changes abound. It’s one of the most exciting baseball games we’ve yet seen in our several Cubs-Brewers games in the last two years.

Foul balls fall all around us. We joke that we’ll catch one – we always bring our gloves to baseball games, after all, as if we were nine years old.

Suddenly a foul ball flies just behind us, bounces off someone’s head and off another’s hand before Adam snaps out his arm and snatches it out of the air with his bare hand. He caught a foul ball!

Everyone around us cheers. Is this really happening? Adam is still shaking with excitement when, a few minutes later, I turn to take his picture. As much as Adam smiles normally, that has got to be one of the biggest grins I have ever seen on his face.

The weather cooperates, too. All during the game the clouds threaten to storm - we're convinced it will rain, given our past bad-weather luck at these things, including snow, freezing rain, and frigid temperatures at more than one game - but on this day it never does.

As for the score, well... My Cubbies take a lead early, but Kerry Wood, our hero of seasons past, blows the save, and the Brewers rally for a win. At this point in the season we’re locked in a tight race for first place, but I have to admit: I’ll take a loss as the price for a day like this.

On the way home, Adam and I talk about perfect days, ranking moments from our autobiographies out loud. Could we talk about anything else right now? When we get home Zach and Jon come over, and we hang out on the porch for a long while, telling stories and eating the Chipotle burritos we’ve picked up on the way home and drinking out of our souvenir cups from past Cubs and White Sox games. Later that night our day is broadcast to the world with Adam’s Facebook status:

“Top five days, easy.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Mexico City Metro

Note: This is a guest post from Chris. It’s also an old post – I wrote it in a notebook a month ago, when Matt was in Cuernavaca with the computer, so it covers impressions from my first several weeks here.

22 August 2008.

Matt has been suggesting that I write a blog entry on the Mexico City Metro for a while. Now that I’m a veteran – I’ve been riding it to and from the archives for about three weeks now – I feel equipped. The Metro is one of Mexico City’s greatest accomplishments as a modern metropolis. Its many arms extend to the far reaches of the city. It is clean, it is cheap – 20 cents with unlimited transfers versus $2 in Chicago – and it is relatively efficient. Essayist Alma Guillermoprieto notes that it survived a major earthquake in the 1980s with nary a buckle.

But the Metro also symbolizes the crime and danger of Mexico City. Guidebooks warn against pickpockets and suggest that lone women may attract “unwanted attention.” Women themselves are more explicit. Women from the provinces who have spent time in Mexico City warned me against the subway, because men “touch you.” Between that and numerous warnings to skip the Metro at peak hours, I was extremely nervous about hopping on for my first ride.

So it was a surprise to me that I actually enjoyed my commute. I started riding the Metro before the universities were back in session for the fall, which eased me in nicely – my first week I always got a seat in the car. After that, the subway trains have been more crowded with young people joking loudly, flirting delicately, making out, sleeping, doing crosswords, eating breakfast, and applying makeup.

Like in Chicago, it’s fun to ride public transportation, because you encounter a broader cross-section of people than you would in the small circuit of your daily activities. Unlike Chicago – or, I should say, unlike my narrow slice of weekend red lie rides, the Metro seems to burst with activity, even in the morning when half the passengers are drowsing.

First, outside the stop, you encounter stands selling magazines – including one, prominently displayed, called Tetas (Tits) – and stands with fresh-squeezed, fresh-blended fruit juices and snacks of all kinds. On the first step down, there’s someone selling “Metro,” the tabloid newspaper for commuters. Ten steps down, a girl has spread an array of gum and breathmints and other small candies in the corner of the landing. Fifteen steps down sits an old man, facing away from the entering commuters, holding out a cowboy hat to ask for change. At the bottom of the stairs is the “official” metro stop snack shop, then the ticket window where you throw 4 pesos under the glass and say “2, please,” and the woman slides you two tickets while continuing her chat with her neighbor. You rush with everyone else toward the turnstiles, thrust your ticket in the slot, and rush down another flight of stairs, past some art on display in glass cases.

My stop, Copilco, is decorated with murals, so as I wait for the train I look at the designs on the walls. When the train comes, I jump on and look for a seat. No luck, so I sling my backpack to my front and grab an overhead handrail.

Then, depending on how groggy I feel, I space out out the window or begin to furtively watch the other passengers. A young man in a suit with a bright colored tie looks like he’s reading a legal brief. The woman next to him is grading students’ papers. Oh and what’s that delicious smell? The woman seated below me is quietly eating a tamale.

The train stops and more people get on. One of the new passengers is playing music loudly. “The greatest hits of the seventies,” he cries. “200 songs, mp3 format, 10 pesos. He looks around. Nobody seems interested. He moves along the train car, repeats his schtick. Somebody raises a hand. Another passenger gets the salesman’s attention and points out the potential client. The sale is made.

In Chicago, people have tried to sell me baby’s barrettes or tube socks on the El, but there it just seemed desperate. Here, where there is a rich tradition of “ambulantaje” – informal-sector sales – there is a thriving economy on board the Metro. There are new CDs every day – ranchera; salsa; cumbia; that 70s album which incongruously (to me) lumped the Beatles and CCR and something that sounded like Peter, Paul and Mary; a 90s American rock CD that I wish I had been savvy enough to buy; “the best in French music”… I haven’t heard a genre repeated yet. And while CDs are the most common item for sale, the start of grade school has brought pens and papers, caramel lollipops, gum drops, and other little treats for children. Then there are the performers, less frequent, but memorable: the talented guitarist who played and sang American pop tunes from the 1960s; the blind man who sang so tunelessly that his “performance” was clearly just to draw attention to his blindness; the skinny, dirty young man who chanted incomprehensibly, rolled his body over broken Coke bottles, and finished with a “muchas gracias.” Finally, there are the beggars, and there are few people that actually beg on train cars. One woman cried out in sing-song. “Excuse the bother, but I would really appreciate your contributions for my baby’s milk and the other things he needs.” Another silently handed out cards to people – my guess is that the cards either contained a prayer she hoped to sell, or they told of her plight – either way, I guessed she didn’t speak Spanish well.

The fascinating thing about this world of commerce is that the salespeople on these trains don’t seem to have much in common – they are young and middle aged, male and female, sloppy and neat. A few days ago, a young man dressed in all white tear-away warmup pants and a white jersey – stylish stuff – barely let his sales pitch interrupt his flirting with a pretty girl. Later that afternoon, a middle-aged pitchwoman marketed pens and pencils. A twenty-something woman tried a frantic strategy, saying “Buenas Tardes” to everyone on the train and thrusting something under their noses. It’s not an effective strategy – too invasive.

When the train stops at my stop, I get out, trudge upstairs, through the turnstiles, past the churro seller and the magazine stand and out to the street, to make my way to the archives.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Back in the Barranca

(Editor's note: On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the semester the Lutheran Center program will be held in Cuernavaca. We take a bus there on Thursday afternoon, stay in homes with families, and return on Saturday evening. The following was written in Cuernavaca on Saturday morning.)

So here I am in Cuernavaca again. I am upstairs in the bedroom of a little house on one side of a barranca (ravine - be sure to roll your r's when you say barrrrrranca, it's way fun). The house is literally on the side of the barranca, not on its edge or anything like that. Both sides of the barranca are covered with square cement houses like this; from a distance they look like barnacles on the side of a ship. Up close, however, they are colorful, painted in pinks and blues. Stray dogs wander the bumpy stone streets; graffiti is everywhere, but much of it seems overtly political. Inside the houses are families: large families, small families, abuelos (grandparents) and ninos (children) and everyone in between.

The barranca is beautiful, but it can be dangerous, too, especially in the rainstorms that are so common this time of year. The street outside this house slopes downward at at least a 45 degree angle. When we first arrived on Thursday afternoon it was pouring rain, and these sloping cobblestone paths had been turned into not streams and puddles but rivers and waterfalls. (The rest of Cuernavaca doesn't flood, you see, because all of the water flows here, to the barranca.) The waterfalls are the most frightening. I am still haunted by the way the water came pounding, overwhelmingly, down a stone staircase right where we stepped off the bus. Now, I have been to Niagra Falls, but this impromptu waterfall dropped my jaw more. Niagra is massive and worth visiting, but it is a tourist destination; it is so controlled that tour boats flit around it all day. The waterfalls in the barranca, on the other hand, flow anywhere they want to without regard for human civilization. Water in the sloping ravine of an well-inhabited barranca is chaos.

We are here in Cuernavaca for for homestays with families. We are going to do this every week: Take an hour-and-fifteen minute bus ride down to Cuernavaca on Thursday afternoon, have a Bible class at a retreat center here, then go to host families for cena (dinner) and sleep, then activities on Friday, then back to the host families for the night, then Saturday with host families until after comida (main meal of the day) which is usually at 2 o'clock or so but can last for a few hours. I expect (hope) to be back in D.F. by 5 or 6 so that I can spend at least the evening and Sunday with Chris.

Today is Saturday, and I think I am supposed to be using it to spend time with/chat with/practice my Spanish with my host family. Except that my host family is a family with three kids, so they have, how can I put this...a life. Saturdays are busy, so no one is home right now and won't be until the afternoon. It doesn't matter. Even if they were home it would be a challenge. My Spanish is really weak right now (it's been wasting away the last few weeks in the English-speaking Lutheran Center); I seem to be struggling even more than I did the last time I was in Cuernavaca in August. Last night most of the family was out with more activities, so my roommate/fellow student and I had dinner with the daughter of the family who I think is in high school. She was extremely polite and made a valiant effort to think of conversation topics, but the language barrier was rough. I think we talked about animals and zoos and pets for about 10 minutes, but the language barrier kept settling over the table like a pall and the meal passed with lots of really awkward silence.

After dinner I wandered upstairs to do some reading. I finished the assigned pages for The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective by Elsa Tamez and then moved on to a book I picked up at the library of the retreat center, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It's a description of life by a creek in the Virginia mountains, full of richly textured observations on the tiniest parts of nature that somehow balloon out into reflections on the big questions of life. I love books like this; they can be like oxygen for me, when the time is right.

I read late into the night, then woke up early to the sounds of dogs and roosters and car alarms and reggaeton rhythms and read some more. Around ten o'clock I wandered downstairs and ate breakfast and sipped Nescafe. In many homes here, instant coffee is far more common than brewed coffee. This always seems strange to me, since back home Mexico is known for its high-quality coffee beans. It seems they send the good stuff abroad and drink the little Nescafe crystals at home.

Around eleven o'clock some other students from our group came by; they were going to find a cafe somewhere or something. I bid farewell to my roommate and stayed where I was. I needed a break from the group with whom I spent most of my waking hours. Besides, my energy was almost totally drained by all the liberation theology / neoliberal economics readings. Yesterday I broke into laughter about something, and one of my classmates remarked that it was the first time they had seen me laugh in several days. Liberation theology and economic systems are rough things to study. I see the problems...I just can't find the solutions. And so I feel drained, and overwhelmed, and, I think, paralyzed from action by circumstance.

But now I had found some reading that was actually giving me energy, reading in the form of the poetic prose of Annie Dillard. Strange, that descriptions of life in the shadow of Virginia mountains would resonate for one living in a ravine south of Mexico City. But they were, and now that I was on a roll with some reading that was giving me energy instead of draining it, I thought I better keep going. So I did.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

El Grito: Recap

As you may have been able to tell from the video, on Monday night we took part in the Fiestas Patrias, Mexico’s annual celebration of its 1810 independence. It was quite an experience…

We (Chris and I plus two other students and two instructors) left the Lutheran Center around 9:00pm, hailed green VW bug street taxis in the drizzling rain and headed south on Insurgentes Sur toward Tlalpan. By heading south we were heading away from the main celebration in Mexico, the celebration in the Zocalo downtown at which the president of Mexico would soon appear. We were avoiding that particular celebration because, well, it would be a mob scene the likes of which we’d rather not imagine. (I’ve been to Chicago’s 4th of July celebration, and Mexico City is at least five times the size of Chicago, so multiply Chicago’s 4th of July mob scene times five…I don’t think so.)

Anyway, Tlalpan is a quieter barrio on the southern edge of Mexico City with lots of old colonial buildings surrounding its central plaza. Plazas: Every neighborhood here has a central plaza with a gazebo in the center, the city government building on one side, and usually an iglesia on another side. They’re kind of like the courthouse squares in many American small towns.

As we stepped out of our taxies on San Fernando street, we could already see increasing groups of people heading in the same direction down the cobblestone roads leading toward the center of town. We followed them around a few corners until we found ourselves heading into an incredible mass of people. Within minutes of meeting this massing mob we were mashed into it. We pushed our way through, past the rows of food stands that lined all of the plaza’s surrounding streets, food stands selling elote (corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise and chili powder…on a stick) and atole (a hot, cornflour-based drink, thick and kind of milky but with cinnamon and pureed rice and, well, cornflour in it) and Mexican versions of fried dough and pulque (a hard liquor from the same plant tequila comes from – it’s like the Mexican version of moonshine) and all sorts of other things Chris calls, with utmost affection, carnie food.

We made it to the plaza’s central gazebo, then stopped for a bit to look around at the myriad decorations – red-white-and-green lights strung everywhere, a giant plumed serpent stretching over one building (Quetzacoatl, of course), a bandstand with mariachis and dancers doing their thing as enthusiastically as you can imagine, and, of course, thousands of people carrying Mexican flags of all sizes. Families were everywhere; Chris was amazed at how many children there were, ninos of every age. Our group split up to wander around the crowd a bit before the official celebration began.

Finally, at exactly 11:00pm, the crowd seemed to focus and face in one direction, and a message swept through the crowd: He’s on the balcony! It’s almost time!

Suddenly it began. The mayor (?) came out onto the balcony and began to cry the following words. To every phrase the crowd responds with a fervent VIVA!

“Mexicanas y Mexicanos! Viva nuestra independencia! (VIVA!) Viva los heroes que nos dieron patria y libertad! (VIVA!) Viva Hidalgo! (VIVA!) Viva Morelos! (VIVA!) Viva Josefa Ortiz De Dominquez. (VIVA!) Viva Allende! (VIVA!) Viva la Virgin De Guadalupe! (VIVA!) Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! VIVA MEXICO!”

As the grito (the cry of independence) reached its Viva Mexico! crescendo, the energy of the crowd erupted. Confetti flew into the air, as did shaving cream – especially shaving cream sprayed by a little boy on his dad’s shoulders next to us, who managed to get shaving cream all over his little sister’s head (you can catch a bit of this on the video). Suddenly the sound of a million sparks flew up behind us – they had lit the Mexican version of fireworks, these giant wire shapes which light up in colors of flame. Chris says it’s like in the movie Annie, where they light up Annie’s name in the sky. Except these weren’t lit up in the sky, they were lit up on wire frames fixed onto the top of a building. The first one they lit was in the shape of a giant face of Hidalgo in red, a giant face of Josefa in green, and VIVA MEXICO in white in between their two giant heads. We thought it was pretty awesome, until they lit the trump card: a butterfly which began with wings folded upward, which they lit, and then it began to spin around, and then the wings came down – WHAM! – and then it really started spinning around, shooting sparks everywhere as it spun…indescribable.

Then the traditional fireworks shot off into the air, and the flags waved again, and the people broke into song (we didn’t know the song, so we couldn’t join in). After things settled down a bit – only a bit – we started heading home.

It took us a long time to hail a taxi this time, as there were so many others trying to get home, too. As we stood at the edge of the street, a group of young Mexican guys, probably in their early twenties, walked past us. Their leader had a straw cowboy hat on and was waving his Mexican flag. As he passed us, he looked at us out of the corner of his eye. When they were a few steps beyond us, he called back to us without looking back or breaking his stride:

“Viva Mexico, gringos…”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fiestas Patrias

Tonight begins the Celebration of Mexican Independence Day. That’s right: cross Cinco de Mayo off your calendars – it is nothing compared to Quince de Septiembre.

For tonight is the true Noche Mexicana, the time of the Fiestas Patrias, when the heroes of 1810 and 1910 are remembered almost 200 years later. Walk down any street for the last three weeks and you will find the red-white-and-green of the Mexican flag being sold on street corners in every size and variation (my favorite are the inflatable helium balloons shaped like flags), massive tri-colored banners hanging from every building, and full-size flags hanging out the backs of taxis as they whip around corners and stall in traffic. The orgullo – pride – is everywhere.

And then there is el grito (the cry). El grito! Now, look: These national myths are always a little oversimplified, of course. Rosa Parks is justifiably an icon, but she was merely the symbol for a much wider and highly organized movement. So keep in mind that the real history is probably more complex. But still, an icon is an icon – they’re important. And this one…

One-hundred-and-ninety-eight years ago Miguel Hidalgo was a Catholic priest doing ministry with indigenous Mexicans in a small town several hours northwest of Mexico City. On September 15, 1810, near midnight, he started ringing the bells of the church to call the people to action. That’s right – a priest is credited with starting the revolution.

Here is what Hidalgo said that night (taken from a pamphlet we were given today):
I have been your priest and your protector for seven long years. Together we have made a community of which we all have a right to be proud. Together we planted mulberry trees and grapevines, raised silkworms, and made wine, in spite of the Spaniards’ opposition. Together we put up our factory where pottery and leather goods are produced. Always, as you well know, I have been your friend. Always I have zealously defended the poor and the oppressed. When the Spaniards came and uprooted our trees, because of the competition, I protested with all my might, but it was in vain. Finally the time has come for us to unite and rise up against our oppressors, both yours and mine. So now in the name of our beautiful land, and in the name of our beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, let us take back the lands that were stolen from Mexico three centuries ago.

And then he cried the immortal words which are repeated this night by the President of Mexico, officially, and by millions of Mexicans everywhere: Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe, viva Mexico, y muerte a los gachupines!!!!!!! Long live the Virgin of Guadalupe, long live Mexico, and death to the Spaniards!!!!!!!

Then, proudly carrying the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe ahead of them, the crowd began the march to Guanajuato, the nearest city. Tens of thousands join them on their way. The revolution had begun.

Within a year of the grito Hidalgo’s head was on a pole as a warning to other potential revolutionaries. But the rebellion could not be stopped. It would not end until 11 bloody years had passed. And even after that Mexico still had to struggle. Twenty years after the war for independence ended, Mexico had to suffer the invasion of the United States (all the way to Mexico City!) in 1847 which included the surrender of a full third of its land to the U.S., and then twenty years after that the imposition of French rule in 1860, and then twenty years after that the rule of Porfirio Diaz who felt the need to hold the presidential office for forty years. Mexico needed another revolution in 1910 to kick out the Porfiriatos, so on this night the heroes of 1910 are remembered, too. And then, of course, there are those still fighting for change, who are hoping that the coming of the year 2010 might spur on, if not another bloody revolution, at least a symbol of much-needed social change…

But enough of that. Tonight is a time for celebration. It’s a little awkard for the visiting American, of course, but I’m not missing out on a national fiesta! I’ve been wearing my red-white-and-green Mexican National Team soccer jersey all day. This evening we ate pozole, the traditional food of the fiestas patrias – it’s like a kind of hominy soup, but you put in red salsa and green lettuce and white sour cream and crunchy tostadas – it’s like a party in your soup!! In a few minutes we’ll leave the Lutheran Center to head to a local barrio (neighborhood) to celebrate the grito with a local community. But even now I can already hear booming fireworks of celebration beginning outside….

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Afternoon at Xochimilco

Just a pic from our weekend today... more descriptions to come later.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Peliculas y mas

So I actually ended up satisfying my movie craving...sort of. On Wednesdays movies are cheaper here - 32 pesos, or about 3.20 in US dollars. Pickings were slim, so we went with a heist movie. Chris likes heist movies. This one was called El Robo del Siglo (en ingles released as The Bank Job), which apparently was based on a true story about the 1971 robbery of a bank on Baker Street in London. Who knew?

El Robo del Siglo turned out to be both less and more than we thought it would be. Less: Chris didn´t care for the gratuitous flaunting of 1970s London´s seedy underbelly. I suppose if you are going to make a movie about the seedy underbelly of 1970s London, you have to show some of said seedy underbelly, but... it was a bit much. More: When the movie was over, for about 10 seconds I honestly did not know where I was. The movie was in English with Spanish subtitles, but the English was British because of the London setting. So you spend two hours in London, then the lights come on, and you´re back home. Or, wait, no...we´re not home, exactly, we´re in...oh right, Mexico, I think, in the land of Espanol, not British-English, and suddenly there is a different language being spoken everywhere. It´s just a weird topsy-turvy feeling is all I´m saying.

And if that wasn´t enough: On Thursday night there was a special one-day promotion at the movie theatre: 1o pesos (about 1 US dollar) per movie, except all movies being shown that day were Mexican-made. There were a few of these that looked interesting to us, but there was one we had been wanting to see for awhile: La Misma Luna, released in the U.S. as Under the Same Moon. It´s about a Mexican mom working (undocumentedly) in the Los Angeles to send money back to her nine-year-old son still living in Mexico when her son decides he is going to go and cross to el otro lado (the other side) to find her. Naturally he encounters many adventures on his journey, and one of the best things about the way the film portrays his adventures is that they are (1) filled with many of the typical life-threatening dangers migrants face when they cross the border but also somehow (2) filled with much humour and hilarity and companionship and, well, life. Life in the midst of threatening death... In the tradition of Chicago-based TV movie reviewers, Chris and I give La Misma Luna/Under the Same Moon two enthusiastic thumbs up.

And speaking of companionship and life, the companionship of life here in our Lutheran Center community is beginning to come together, too. Recently, and somewhat involuntarily, I´ve been thinking about life as this long journey, a long journey in which different companions join you for different stages of the trip, different legs of the tour, as it were. I don´t know where I came up with this image, but it keeps coming back to me.

As for us, we have many companions with whom we shared paths in the past and who continue to be a part of our lives from afar, through email or telephone or even just the many memories we share...

And then there are the currently physically present companions, those with whom we find ourselves living in community these days. These are new companions. And making new companions can be hard...especially for a cautious, often introverted, and very slow friend-maker like me.

I wonder whether this will be a pattern for my whole life, this repeated process of making and re-making friends, of building and re-building communities, of having to receive the gift of companionship over and over again. I wonder if my seminary colleagues are going through this process right now, in their own way, in all the different places they find themselves this year.

As for me, I began to feel the first stirrings of community only this week, and really only at the end of this week, when we gathered for the week-closing worship time. We sang a few songs, heard the Gospel and reflected upon it, broke a tortilla and poured some wine, and shared God's grace and peace in closing. It is a strange thing, this ritual we return to again and again, and yet there is power there, somehow. It is a power that moves among us and within us when we least expect it.

I have missed that power - missed seeing it though it has surely been here - for much of the time we have been here, so far from home. But it is beginning to come back. It must.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

La Pelicula

The Wall-E on my school notebook is looking at me longingly. I still have not seen his movie. I wanted to, I did! But there was that whole moving to Mexico thing. Once we moved to a place near movie theatres, we tried to see it one night (by “we” I mean Chris tried to humor me), but we could not find it in English.

It is possible, you know, to find English-language movies in Mexico. Most of them are Hollywood movies anyway, and they usually come in one of two forms: English-spoken with Spanish subtitles or Spanish-dubbed. The English-spoken with Spanish subtitles is what I was looking for, of course. But I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

After my Spanish-language immersion class, I decided I could go for the Spanish-dubbed. Probably I would not understand everything, but (a) at least I had a little bit now, (b) it’s a kids movie, after all – how complicated can the vocab be? and (c) that adorable notebook had been gazing at me for weeks!

But when I got back…no more Wall-E. He was out of the theatres. You could still find him on street corners, of course, among the millions of other pirated movies costing anywhere from 10-30 pesos (1-3 US dollars), but because it was only just in theatres the pirate copies come from a dude (or dudette) with a video camera in a movie theatre. I learned that lesson after buying a pirate copy of Kung-Fu Panda. It looked like a really funny movie…I could tell by the constant laughter of a hundred children in the movie theatre that inevitably was recorded with the movie. I turned it off after about two minutes. Sigh.

I could see another movie, but there’s really not much out there at the moment. Apparently late August/early September is the time for violent action movies. There’s nary a comedy to be found, at least not at the theatre across the street. There’s not even an action comedy. There’s not even Hancock! I hope something else comes out soon, because I have a definite movie craving that is not about to be sated anytime soon. I mean, the new Harry Potter is at least three months away…

And besides, I really wanted to see Wall-E. It’s going to be a while before I finish off this notebook, and until then I’m going to have to look into those robot eyes every day… Someone mentioned in class (which, after all, is where my notebook spends most of its time) that they heard it was a surprisingly anti-corporate movie. “An anti-corporate movie from Disney?” responded someone else. Sigh. Let them talk. Wall-E still stares at me with his giant puppy-bot eyes…

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Snapshot 9/6

It’s raining again.

I am taking a break from trying in vain to figure out the student health insurance website. I am on that lame website because I am trying to take advantage of the Internet working – it’s been up for maybe 10 minutes a day for the last week. I suppose it’s a good thing to break my Internet habit. I’ve been feeling a little addicted lately. (Except that emails mean the world to me these days. So I keep checking the connection anyway, addiction or not.)

Chris is not here. I have this vague recollection of her coming into our room, cheerily telling me where she was going, and then leaving again. But I cannot for the life of me remember what she said. (Don’t tell her I said that.)

I’m sitting in bed with the computer because I’m really tired. Reason #1 for being tired: We accidentally stayed up until 1 am watching my new pirate copy (picked it up off the street for 15 pesos, about a buck fifty) of El Senor de los Anillos: El Retorno del Rey and somehow totally forgot how long that movie is. At first I tried watching it in Spanish with Spanish subtitulos, but then Gandalf started going off about military strategy and with the combination of Spanish words and Tolkien words I could not figure out (or remember) what in the heck was going on. It’s been awhile since we had watched it…too long, it seems. So we switched to English subtitles. One step at a time…

Reason #2 for being tired: We did a lot of walking today. In the morning we found our way over to Coyoacan, a sweet little neighborhood that is about two steps less fresa (Mexico City slang for yuppie) than San Angel. We admired the ever-increasing red-white-and-green decorations for the fiestas patrias (the Mexican Independence Day celebrations that are coming up on September 15 and 16) that are everywhere and more these days, then stopped at a coffee shop so I could get some reading done. Classes, gulp, start next week. I had a café mocha with a serious Mexican-chocolate flavor (which among other things means a good dose of cinnamon) for half the price it would have cost me at Starbucks. I love that. It helped to lift my spirits in the face of the readings I had to do. A person can only take so much Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader at once (yes, we are reading them for seminary classes...Ethics and Economics...despite my usual leftiness I'm still a little ambivalent about how one-sidedly radical the readings are...anyway)…

Reason #2.1 for being tired: We had to be back by 1pm for the program-provided lunch, but we don’t exactly have the distance between Coyoacan and San Angel figured out just yet. So we had to walk/run fast for several miles to not get there on time. After arriving a half-hour late, we wolfed down some food and drink and then left for the programmed activity for the day (Reason 2.2), a(nother) visit to the Bazar Sabado. I was a little down on the idea when we left, but I forgot how nice it is just to walk around all the bright colors of the different paintings and beaded animal masks and lucha libre t-shirts and (my personal favorite) crazy-weird wildly-colorful sculptures of chupacabras (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chupacabra).

I spent the rest of the afternoon reading about liberation theology (still not sure about it) while Chris read Glamour en Espanol (hey, she spends the rest of the week in the library).

Now, as I think I may have mentioned previously, I am sitting in bed. I am trying to decide if I have the strength to get up and figure out where Chris is. Wish me suerte (luck)…

Orientation, Day 2

Friday was a long day.

We spent the morning talking about specifics of our life together: how meals will work, how transportation will work, how laundry will work, etc, etc, etc. Chris and I had been wondering about a lot of this for a long time now, so the information was very, very helpful.

Then we moved on to talk about how we would actually live together: how will we resolve conflicts, how will we respect others’ space, etc. I didn’t have much to say, which will probably not bode well for me in the future. I have learned that I rarely know what I need from the group until I know the group. It is difficult to come up with too many helpful ground rules that amount to more than common sense until you know the people involved: who the people are means everything. Still, we spent a lot of time on this.

After lunch we talked about another article, this time about a kind of cross-class encounter spirituality, i.e., what is the approach/reaction/experience, in spiritual terms, of the encounter of, say, us, with the place that many are now calling the Two-Thirds World. I loved this article, actually. I’m kind of a sucker for Ignatian spirituality stuff, anyway, especially along the lines of what David Miller was doing at LSTC for awhile. Also, this particular article was written by Dean Brackley. Back in CPE a colleague recommended that I read a book by Dean Brackley whose title escapes me but it was something like a liberation angle on Ignatian spirituality. I couldn’t find it at the seminary library, so I gave up. But after reading this article, now I really do want to read Brackley’s book. It was everything yesterday’s reading on pedagogy was not – warm, balanced, and spiritually thoughtful. Unfortunately, everyone else in the group seemed to either hate the article or found large chunks unhelpful (an odd contrast to the article we read yesterday, which I alone hated). So that’s the way that is.

It’s been a pretty intense few days of community. I am definitely ready for the weekend break. Well, the Saturday break, at least. Well, the Saturday morning break, at least. There is more stuff planned for the afternoon, and then all-day Sunday...I suppose this is the reality of immersion…

Friday, September 5, 2008


Thursday was our first day of orientation. I had been a bit nervous, only because it looked like, from the schedule we had, that we were going to begin the day by sharing our call stories. I shall refrain from sharing the groans and ironic remarks that race around the circle of seminarians any time “call story” is mentioned. As for me, the way I see my story seems to change with every leg of the journey, which only serves to make my oral retelling either really long or really incoherent or usually both. Why would I want to share a long and incoherent story with people I have just met?

Fortunately, our morning session was filled with nothing of the sort. Instead, we did what Kim calls a “dinamica” (dynamic?) in which we pretended that the floor was a map of the world, and moved around on it while we told chunks of our story: where we were born, where our maternal ancestors were from, where are paternal ancestors were from, what place in the world has shaped us in some way. Naturally, the first of these allowed me to shine the spotlight, once again, on the fact that I was born in California, a fact of which I am unreasonably proud. For the last one I explained how Chicago has shaped me, both in growing up just outside of it and in the last two years I have lived in the city proper. Random fact: for the “place that has shaped you” I was the only one, student or teacher, to stand in a place inside the United States rather than outside of it. Mostly I think that’s because I never went on any kind of lengthy study abroad program, but still, I thought about it for awhile.

As for the middle two places – where our ancestors are from – I had very little to contribute, especially relative to the other people in the group. I know my ancestors on my mom’s side were from Germany, but I don’t know a whole lot beyond that. I think I have been asking more questions in recent years, but still… I don’t have near the knowledge that, say, Kim has about his family roots. I’m sure I haven’t been listening well enough. As for my dad’s side, well, I just went and stood in West Virginia. The things I don’t know about my family could fill books…

Anyway, we spent the rest of the day talking through the program methodologies and schedules. I am cautiously excited. I am excited because one of our assignments goes like this: on Mondays we bring in a news article that has caught our attention, on Wednesdays we present a brief social and theological reflection/analysis on it, and on Fridays we have a Bible study/worship service. That’s right: we start with the way the world is and we conclude by finding the good news that God is doing in the midst of it. Exactly, exactly what I have needed. (Sidebar: When we had talked through our hopes and fears for the program, my hope was that I would be able to find the good news. I got some funny looks, but my preaching colleagues know what I’m talking about.)

On the other hand, I remain cautious: You never know what any class is going to look like until you get a few weeks into it. I imagine this program will be like that, too. Also, I have to be patient, which is not always easy for me. There was a lot of theory today – pedagogical theory and a little bit of theology – and that is always hard for me to deal with. My philosophy background – analytic philosophy, not continental – has left me with a very low tolerance for vagueness or inconsistency of any kind. Theory is very hard work, and it drives me nuts when people treat it like a 5-minute meal. That’s the charitable way of reading my reaction. The other of way of looking it: I am just really nitpicky when it comes to theory.

After a long day like this, I needed a drink. And by drink, I mean a cup of hot chocolate. And by hot chocolate, I mean hot chocolate with tequila. With 4 hot, fresh churros. All for less than the price of a mocha at Starbucks, at a café only a few blocks away. Ah, Mexico…

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Moving Day...Again

Today we moved into our new place. Again.

It is nice. Really nice, actually. The house is almost exactly the same as the one we just moved from (at the Lutheran Center, there are 4 houses for guest accommodations that are all the same, one right next to the other), but this house is much more furnished than the one we were living in during the month of August.

While we are, of course, happy just to have a bed and a shower, this particular room also has a larger dresser, two bedside tables with lamps (lamps!), a shower head with better water pressure…etc. The common area here has couches, a computer that is sometimes hooked up to the Internet, and a giant bookshelf with our course books on it – one copy of each book for all of us to share.

The kitchen is also better, with lots of helpful cooking utensils. Last night I cooked a lentil-rice salad from one of the two Mexican cookbooks we lugged down here. (Brief sidetrack: You would be surprised how hard it is to find jalepenos in the grocery store here! Jalepenos! Nowhere to be found!) Anyway, about halfway through making the recipe I realized a needed a blender to finish it. How do you say blender en espanol? Fortunately, we, um, borrowed one from another house. So now that we’re in the furnished house: No more blender stealing!

I also brought my maps – my map of Mexico, with each state in a different color, and my gi-normous and hugely detailed map of Mexico City – over here, too, and taped them to the wall in the common room. Kim was very excited about them, so I thought I would share. The downside is that the maps are no longer in our bedroom… but the upside is that our bedroom has a mirror, which we have decorated appropriately.

Actually, I have to admit that decorating that mirror was the first time I actually started to feel like this could be home. A Cubs hat, a Tigers hat, two Obama campaign buttons, and our Lonely Planet calendar off to one side… yeah, that could be home. ☺

Later in the day there was a knock on the door: it was time for a house blessing. Kim pulled out his trusty Occasional Services book, Spanish language edition, and we processed our way through the house, blessing each room in turn with a verse of Scripture and a prayer. Then we all sat down to our first community meal together, with Kim and Randy, our faculty advisor from Luther.

Tomorrow the semester program starts officially, with orientation activities scheduled from 8am to at least 8pm. It’s time to dive in. Deep breath, here we go…

Photo Gallery: San Angel

More photos: These are from our new neighborhood...

PS - Google changed around its Picasa app, so I had to use the slideshow feature instead. You can click the slideshow to see the full album, with bigger pictures, if you want to.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Politics, Near and Far

Last night, on the rumour that everything was 50% off on lunes y martes (Monday and Tuesday), we went out to an Irish pub for dinner. I ordered the Fish and Chips, which was on the menu in English, I suppose because it is that most English of foods; Chris ordered a hamburguesa, and both of us were thrilled just to have good old-fashioned thick-cut French fries for the first time in over a month.

A funny thing happened on the way to the pub: we passed a man sitting at a coffee shop painting a gigantic portrait of – who else? – Barack Obama. Sadly, my former Hyde Park neighbor was not sitting for the portrait in this little café in Mexico City; instead, the artist was painting from a much smaller 4 x 6 image of the senator from the great state of Illinois.

It’s an odd thing, keeping up with politics from afar. Last week, while Chris was gone, I checked the New York Times’ website every day, watched some excerpts from speeches on the DNC’s website, and downloaded the Daily Show and the Colbert Report for their Tuesday-Friday coverage. I even took the risk of talking politics with the other Americans in our group, but I still felt estranged, somehow, from the events back home.

Then, suddenly and without warning, on Thursday the two worlds, the one I was trying to keep up with back home and the world in which I currently live were suddenly smashed together, as if a wormhole had opened up between them, or as if a veil had suddenly been lifted and the connections between our two countries were laid bare, clear for all the world to see.

We were visiting UNORCA, an influential organization of campesinos (farmers) from throughout Mexico. Like any organization UNORCA is concerned with the needs of its members. It used to be, they told us, that Mexican farmers could feed all of their fellow Mexicans. They could grow the historic, seemingly eternal staples of maiz (corn) and frijoles (beans) to feed the cities and towns and fields from the Rio Bravo to the Riviera Maya.

But no more. NAFTA, they told us, has destroyed any meaningful level of food sovereignty. (For a quick primer on the concept of Food Sovereignty, read and click around the relevant Wikipedia article here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty.) Now, these farmer/organizers told us, corn is dumped into the Mexican market from United States producers. While NAFTA was supposed to make products like corn cheaper, prices are instead skyrocketing, threatening the only way of life many Mexicans have ever known.

Not that UNORCA’s beef is with the United States. I asked (through a translator) whether there was any relationship between farmers in Mexico and farmers back in the States. I was thinking especially of the folks I met on the Nebraska Rural Immersion Program back in January, who faced challenges of their own, some as a result of NAFTA. Yes, they told us: UNORCA works with the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S., finding common cause on policies that hurt farmers in Mexico AND in the United States. This is the kind of thing that excites the populist in me: people coming together, people working together, people building relationships and solving common problems together.

Anyway, what struck me about UNORCA – and about several other folks we’ve talked to along similar lines – is that they aren’t dreaming of some impossible world. They aren’t crazy liberal. They’re world-weary people who know dang well the world is changing. They just want to make things a little better – a little fairer. The concrete, short-term goal that UNORCA is pushing for, and that several others we’ve talked to this week are also pushing for, is a renegotiation of NAFTA. Did you catch that? Not an abolishment of NAFTA. The cat, no matter how much it continues to hurt the little guy both in Mexico and in the United States, can’t be put back in the bag. No, say people here, we just want a renegotiation of some of the parts that are particularly unfair.

“That’s why,” says one of the UNORCA representatives (in Spanish, of course), “we are paying close attention to your Democratic convention this week. One of the candidates, Obama, has indicated that he would be open to renegotiating NAFTA. So we are paying very close attention.”

Let me be clear: I am a skeptic when it comes to these kinds of things. I know so little about NAFTA it’s embarrassing. I can’t jump on a bandwagon that quickly, I need to learn a lot more before I start taking positions on how we solve the global food crisis (although, it should be said, one way you learn more is by listening to the concerns of everyday people, just like we’ve been doing all last week). So, let’s (a) recognize that this NAFTA issue is really important and deserves more attention in the coming weeks, and then (b) set the specifics aside for a moment to recognize that this much is true regardless: The policies, the actual concrete policies of candidates and elected leaders, the policies of the United States matter, to people both near and far. Again: The policies of the United States matter, to folks at home and abroad. One last time: Policies matter.

And so, as you might imagine, I returned to keeping up with the political news with renewed interest, but with a much higher level of annoyance at all of the horse-race coverage. Is Obama an elitist? Will McCain be able to woo Hillary voters? Enough! What are their proposed policies, and how will those policies affect us? We need to start asking that question – and start pressuring our journalists to do the same. Because if I have learned anything this week, it is this:

Policies matter.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Today is September 1. A day like any other day…except that for me it always marks the unofficial End of Summer. Even if school has started a week or two earlier, and even if the weather remains hot for a few more weeks (and – I can’t believe it – even if the Cubs remain in 1st place!!!), even despite all of this when the calendar says September for the first time for me the train cars have begun to head down the hill toward the end of the year.

This year September has an added layer of meaning, for this year we are in Mexico. We are, um, still in Mexico. It appears that this is not some extended summer road trip (our many adventures notwithstanding) but, in fact, where we will be for September, October, November, December…

So as the initial dizzying heights and lonely lows of our landing in Mexico begin to settle down we turn our attention to simple rhythms of life. Not that things are entirely settled just yet – sometime this week, we’ve been told, we’ll move all of our stuff, yet again, to a new building. Nothing’s ever really settled around here. But still: we are setting foot on another plateau where, for a time, at least, things will be relatively stable.

Last night we went grocery shopping. Many of our meals will be provided as part of the program fee here, but we’re still not sure how many, and until the semester program officially starts we do actually have to eat something. We picked up some cereal, and avocados (so I could try a new guacamole recipe), and stuff for tortas (sandwiches with crusty bread, frijoles, and assorted other usually hot and toasty ingredients), and, of course, a giant jug of water to drink.

Chris left this morning, back to her normal routine. She spent most of last week rubbing elbows with bigwigs in the U.S. Embassy (or so I’m told) as part of a multi-day reception for Fulbright recipients. I hope she’ll write a bit about that experience, because I certainly found it fascinating. She also was able to meet a few other folks from the States doing similar kinds of things here…our pool of *potential* friends grows ever larger, bit by bit…

As for me, my 3-week language program ended on Friday with a visit to the Basilica of Guadalupe. That trip, and several other activities last week, deserve their own blog posts, but I found it much harder to find time to write with so much going on. (I also came down with a fever halfway through the week, which does, desafortunadamente, impact one’s writing ability…but that’s another story.) I expect the same will be true in the coming months; there will be less and less time to write. But you, dear reader, can help with that: If there is anything specific you want to hear about, please let me know, through a blog comment or an email or Facebook message or what-have-you, and I will do my best to tailor a post around your curiosities as soon as I have a chance.

Anyway, most of my classmates left on Saturday, and there are now two of us left, waiting patiently (sort of) for the fall semester program to start. We have 8 billion questions about what the next three months will look like that we are trying to suppress for at least a few more days. And we are trying to figure a few things out on our own. How does this new cell phone work? How do I sign up for the new seminarian health insurance? What should I eat for lunch? Why is my jug of drinkable water empty again?

Of course, we are Lutheran (ha), so we also found some time for fun. We wandered around the Bazar Sabado on sabado (Saturday), a sort of high-class arts and crafts market within walking distance from where we live. And within walking distance in the other direction: The Estado Olimpico futbol (soccer – and this is the last time I will call it soccer!!) stadium, where the Pumas of UNAM play every Sunday!! Futbol deserves its own post, so I’ll save the bulk of that description for another day, but suffice to say that we bought tickets in the cheap seats for 8 bucks a pop, bought a rally scarf (very important for futbol games), and cheered the Pumas on to a 3-0 victory against Atlas (no idea where they’re from…still working on this futbol league…) and all three of us (Chris, me, and Jen, our new companera) left fully sunburned (ouch).

So, in short, this is a break like any other break. Some things to figure out, some fun stuff to do…and always the impending start of Whatever Comes Next.

And so we wait.

Photo Gallery: Best of Cuernavaca

More pictures: These are from the 2 weeks I spent in Cuernavaca studying Spanish and exploring the Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera (City of the Eternal Spring)...

Best of Cuernavaca