Saturday, May 21, 2005

psschitt gel!

I've been seeing them now for eight or nine months, but the t.v. ads for Psschitt! Gel on Azteca 7 still crack me up every time. The product is a Mexican brand of hair-styling gel, but with the Spanish pronunciation, the woman announcer seems to be imploring you to spray some "pssschit" onto your head. There's nothing better for control, apparently.

Friday, May 20, 2005

reefer madness

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has new book out called Reefer Madness; a collection of three essays on the American underground. The topics covered are pot, illegal migrant labor, and porno. Most interesting to me was the essay on illegal labor in the strawberry farms of California, where the bulk of the illegals are Mixtec Indians from western Oaxaca (where I lived last year). Schlosser calls the Mixtecs "some of the poorest and most exploited people in the Western Hemisphere," and after reading about their treatment by the strawberry growers, it was easy to understand why the Mixtecs didn't seem to be all that crazy about Americans.

Some of my students at UTM once gave a presentation on NAFTA in which they claimed that 85% of Mixtecan men between the ages of 18 and 40 had worked at one time picking fruit in the states. I had thought that the number sounded high, but maybe they were right after all. Gives me second thoughts now on having flunked them on the presentation. (just kidding!)

mexico barbaro

This is a quote out of a book that I am reading about Mexico in the early 1900s (this is my rough translation)

"The real Mexico I found to be a country with a written constitution and written laws in general almost as fair and democratic as our own, but with neither constitution nor laws in operation. Mexico is a country without political freedom, without freedom of speech, without a free press, without a free ballot, without a jury system, without political parties, without any of our cherished guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico, 1910

The following excerpt is from the Oaxaca News from last week:

"In the Southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, most people agree that the Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz's term as governor will be even worse than the already repressive and corrupt regime of his predecessor, José Murat Casab, both members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a group that has ruled Oaxaca for eighty years. After just three tortured months of his reign, Ulises' government has been internationally condemned for its acts of political revenge; for its violent suppression of protests; for its imprisonment and murder of dissidents; for its attacks upon the press; for its manipulation of votes; for its miscarriages of justice; and for the numerous ways it has abused human rights, immiserating and terrorizing its indigenous population to serve the interests of foreign capital and PRI political bosses."

drug lords

There has been a recent wave of drug lords executing each other in Mexico. Just yesterday, 12 were found dead yesterday across the country. As I previously mentioned in my comment on Mexico Barbaro, I feel that Mexico's crime is increasing. The stats in the following articles note the increase of crime in Mexico, with respect to crime related to drugs.

On the one hand, it is horrible to see an increase in the rise of violence in Mexico, however on the other, they are killing each other off, people who would other wise be increasing the production of drugs.

News link on drug-related killings (English)
News link on drug-related killings(Spanish)

giant chain stores

I’ve been feeling a little guilty lately about the amount of business I’ve been doing with a couple of American chain stores here: Blockbuster and Starbucks.

Now, I realize that as far as giant chains go, Starbucks really isn’t all that evil: I’m told that they treat their workers well, they support good social causes, and that they buy a lot of Free Trade coffee. But they still use the unfair advantage of massive corporate strength to overwhelm and eliminate locally owned coffee shops, so I’ve always preferred to buy coffee from the little guy.

Here in Mexico, however, what draws me to Starbucks (other than the fact that it’s right down the street from my place of work) is that it’s one of the few places where I can get a cup of coffee just the way I like it: brewed and with milk added. You can order a ‘café americano’ just about anywhere, but it’s usually just an espresso shot with hot water, which has a slightly different taste than the brewed coffee that I’m used to. Starbucks not only serves brewed coffee, it’s just about the only place I’ve found that sets out pitchers of milk and half and half. When I ask for a ‘café Americano con leche’ at other coffee shops, I usually end up with a cappuchino, and when I try to explain to the clerk that I would like them to pour some plain-old cold milk into my coffee, they often look at me like I’ve just asked them to spit in it.

So yeah, I’m an ugly American when it comes to demanding my coffee be just-so. But old habits are hard to break, I guess.

Now let me try to justify Blockbuster.

Part of the reason that I’ve ended up with a Blockbuster membership is because they seem to be the only game in town. In Oaxaca and Queretaro, where I lived previously, there were plenty of small mom and pop video rental shops as well as a Mexican chain, Videocentro.

Another reason I do business with Blockbuster is that they rent Zone 1-formatted DVDs. See, movie distribution companies format DVDs differently for the various regions of the world, I suppose to make it difficult for people in a country like Mexico to watch a movie that hasn’t yet been officially released here. So for that reason, DVD players sold in each region of the world are set to play DVDs for that particular region. I watch DVDs on my laptop, which I bought in the States and is therefore formatted for Zone 1. Mexico is Zone 4 so most video shops here rent Zone 4-formatted discs. With a laptop, you can change your DVD zone preference, but only up to 4 or 5 times before it’s locked permanently. Since I have a fair collection of my own DVDs that I bought in the U.S., after a couple of changes I would have to choose between watching locally rented movies or those in my own collection. Since Blockbuster rents Zone 1 DVDs, I don’t have to make that choice. Seems like a giant corporate conspiracy, doesn’t it?

Also, Walmart is another huge chain in Mexico that has generated quite a big uproar with their decision to build near Tenochitlan, outside of Mexico City.

catch 22

When Vicente Fox ran for president of Mexico in the last election, he ran promising cambio (change). And now that he's in office, cambio continues to be the catchphrase for his domestic policy. Well, he certainly has the right idea on that point because if there's one thing this country (or at least Oaxaca) needs, it's a massive infusion of loose change. It's crazy - nobody ever has change, not even stores that have been doing business all day long. I swear, the phrase I've heard most during my stay in Mexico is "no traes cambio?" It's a real catch-22 too because the ATM's charge a fee for each transaction so you try to make fewer, but larger withdrawals, but then you end up with 200 peso bills (about 18 USD) that you can't use anywhere. Go into a store and drop a 200 to cover your purchase and the shopkeeper will look at it like you just took a crap on his counter. Then you'll have to wait for 10 minutes while they send some kid running all over town for change.

So Vicente, bring on that cambio, and quick!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

partido de la sociedad nacionalista

Now here's an intriguing option in the upcoming elections: the new PSN, or Partido de la Sociedad Nacionalista. What's their platform? I don't really know, other than it's nationalistic. Their posters and ads tell me nothing about their agenda. Who's their candidate? Beats me, though somehow I doubt it's the bare-shouldered young woman that appears in all their publicity. I figure the PSN must be a party founded by bigshots from the beer industry. It's a very nationalistic industry, for one (just try and find a Budweiser in Mexico!), but the PSN's advertising strategy seems remarkably similar to that of the beer industry. What does a pretty, 18 year-old Mexican girl wearing nothing but a loosely-draped blanket and oversized sombrero have to do with a political agenda? About as much as a beautiful, scantily-clad woman has to do with beer. But people sure do buy a lot of beer, so hey, maybe this kind of marketing will work in politics too.
The thing that worries me about the PSN's ad campaign, though, is the young woman's instruction to voters to remember her when voting. It seems like a better idea for voters to have corrupt old politician-types in mind during that time alone behind the curtain.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

mayor of los angeles elected

"Our purpose is to believe in our young people. Our purpose is to make a difference,"

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, recently elected governor of LA, is the first Hispanic governor and more than a century.

president vicente fox comment

President Vicente Fox last Friday got himself into some hot water over a comment that some have decried as racist. Instead of apologizing, however, the president and some of his buddies (Foreign Minister Derbez, Cardinal Norberto Rivera) have rationalized and even defended the comment (addendum: on Monday night, Fox finally issued a private apology after a phone conversation with Jesse Jackson).

Just last week, a conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington featuring Mexican scholars discussed the problems that confront this country's Afro-Mexican population. The consensus was that Afro-Mexicans are largely marginalized and ignored by the govenment and subjected to widespread discrimination by Mexican society as a whole.

You certainly do run into a lot of very cringeworthy expressions of what would certainly be deemed racism in the United States. For example, from an AP story: "One afternoon television program, Vida TV, regularly features a comedian in blackface chasing light-skinned actresses in skimpy outfits, while an advertisement for a small, chocolate pastry called the "negrito" - the little blackie - shows a white boy sprouting an afro as he eats the sweet." Even the world-reknowned Ballet Folklorico de Mexico relies regularly on a giant Sambo figurine in its performances.

Part of the issue is that Mexicans are just a lot more open when it comes to talking about skin color. I'm constantly being called "guero," or "whitey," and dark-skinned people get called "moreno," or "dark," with no malicious intent nor hurt feelings. But that still doesn't mean that there's no line that can't be crossed.

Sometimes it seems that there's only one form of racism that matters here in Mexico: racism against Mexicans by Americans. And certainly, racism against Mexicans in the U.S. exists in many, very ugly, forms. But man, the treatment of indigenous people here in Mexico, not to mention Afro-Mexicans and the Central American migrants who cross over the Guatemalan border, is pretty appalling in its own right.

So when Fox tries to decry racism in the U.S. by making a borderline racist remark of his own, he and his argument seem absurd. The government here really flipped out recently when an annual U.S. State Department human rights report criticized Mexico's record. "What hypocracy!" they shouted, and certainly with good reason. But maybe Mexico needs to do a bit of reflecting on its own attitudes towards race as it continues to contest discrimination in the United States.

More info

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Everyone’s familiar with the old maxim: “When in Mexico, don’t drink the water.” Well this goes not just for gringos but for Mexicans, too.

The fact is that nobody drinks the water here, not even the locals. You get your drinking water in big 20 liter jugs called garafons which are delivered door-to-door, and anytime you need to use water in a way that it’ll end up in your mouth – like cooking or brushing your teeth – you use the purified water from the garafon. This week in my Level 1 class we started learning the modal verbs can and should, and in one practice exercise the students wrote sentences advising tourists what they can do when visiting Mexico, what they should do, what they shouldn’t miss, etc. They had a little trouble coming up with things that tourists shouldn’t do, so I told them the classic advice: “you shouldn’t drink the water.” They looked at me in a baffled kind of way, as if I had told them that gringos tell each other that you shouldn’t drink out of the toilet in Mexico or that you shouldn’t eat the dog doo off the sidewalk. Well, of course you don’t drink the water, morons, was the generally bemused reaction. They were quite startled, then, when I told them that in the U.S. and Canada and Europe people can drink water from the tap without problem and that foreign tourists have to remember not to do the same in Mexico.

But as careful as people are with the tap water here, you still can’t avoid ingesting it on occasion. You might eat off a plate that hasn’t been completely dried, or if you go to a restaurant, who knows whether or not they’ve used the tap water in preparing your juice or your soup stock or whatever. So minor bouts of stomach trouble are quite common . If you call in to work and tell them that your having some stomach difficulty, there will be no questions asked, just “oh yeah, of course, better take the day off.” El estomago serves as a great excuse that way in that it’s never questioned and completely understood. A week ago I went to a surprise birthday party for a woman who works in the office at the Centro de Idiomas, and while we all lay in wait at her house, her husband went off to pick her up from a class and bring her back to the party. Problem was that she was dilly-dallying pretty badly after the class, chatting with friends, wanting to run some errands, things like that. He said he tried a number of excuses to get her to hurry home, but nothing worked until he said “you know, my stomach is starting to gurgle – I think I’m going to have some pretty severe diarhea real quick. We better get home to the bathroom.” And that worked like a charm – she got right in the car and they rushed home to the awaiting surprise.

(A brief afterward: at the party, like all Mexican celebrations, they served pozole, a traditional meat stew. Of course, I was pressured into eating it, despite my insistence that I was a vegetarian. And lo and behold, the next day, there were some pretty unpleasant estomago-related occurrences.)

mosquitos in mexico

I certainly have had a lot of experience with mosquitos in my life -- I spent several of my summers months in Cuernavaca and Guatemala, after all. But I have to say that the mosquitos here in Huajuapan are unlike any that I have ever encountered.

It's not their numbers that are the problem; in fact, it's usually only one or two of them that show up to make my life miserable every night. It's more their approach that makes them insufferable.

For one, unlike other mosquitos that I've encountered, the Mexico variety seems to only show up under the cover of night. And then, they only come out when the lights are off and I can't see them. I'll sit around all evening long without a problem, but as soon as I turn off the lights to go to bed or watch a movie, I've got one buzzing in my ear. But as soon as I switch on a light so I can locate and crush the little bastard, he's vanished again.

The other unusual thing for me about Mexico mosquitos is that they have a very lethal bite. I've never had much of an allergic reaction to mosquito bites -- mostly I just object to the initial sting. But here, I don't even notice when the mosquitos are biting me, I just start to feel an incredible itch a few moments afterward. I also get a large, swollen bump, which I never really got from mosquito bites before. Sometimes the itching is so bad that it wakes me up and keeps me from falling back asleep.

So I've had to adopt a couple of anti-mosquito measures, which seem to work to some degree. One thing I've done is buy a Raid plug-in device, where you insert a small pad that heats up and produces a smell that it supposed to keep mosquitos away. Of course, who knows what the chemicals are that produce the smell and what what they're doing to my health. So now I'm trying a more chemical-free approach: I've positioned an electric fan a few inches from my bed and have the thing going at full blast all night. It can be a little distracting to try to sleep in the midst of hurricane-force winds, but it seems to keep the bugs away, and it eliminates the need to breathe in Raid toxins all night.

Maybe it's time to look into a mosquito net.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

TELMEX problems

A day after I paid my rent, my telephone bill arrived. The telephone company here, TELMEX, was for a long time a state-owned enterprise until it was privatized back in the 90s under the administration of President Carlos Salinas. Carlos Salinas may well hold the distinction as the most sleazy and corrupt president in the history of Mexico (and that’s saying a lot!) He currently lives in Ireland, I believe, and quite comfortably after he was able to ‘accumulate’ millions of dollars during his presidency and stash it in offshore bank accounts. He has been implicated, though never charged, in the assassinations of two political rivals. His brother, however, has been convicted in those two murders and is currently serving time in prison. There is also a lot of suggestion that the Salinas brothers were connected to the drug cartels up along the border.

As president, Carlos Salinas also sold off TELMEX to his good buddy Carlos Slim, who is now the richest man in Latin America. I think I have some idea why he’s so rich after seeing how things work at TELMEX and one of his other holdings, Prodigy internet service.

Anyway, I got my bill from TELMEX the other day and was quite shocked to see that it included a 1,499 peso (US$135) charge for Prodigy internet service. The charge had never shown up on my previous bills, and I certainly hadn’t ordered it in the past month. So I called up TELMEX to straighten the deal out.

“We have it on record that an Enrique Madrigal ordered the service for this number on March 11,” the service rep. told me.

“Well, I do not have the faintest idea who Enrique Madrigal is,” I responded.

“But the record shows that he placed the order from your phone number.”

“No, he didn’t,” I responded, “because I don’t know him and I can guarantee that he was not in my apartment on September 11.”

“Very interesting,” she responded, followed by a pause and the sound of fingers tapping at a keyboard.

“Now that I look at it,” she eventually responded, “the order was placed on March 11, 2005. Somehow, our computer reactivated the request…”

“Well, please tell the computer to un-reactivate it and take the charge off my bill.”

“Oh, I can’t do that. You’ll have to call Prodigy and have them disconnect the service. Then I can credit your account.”

So after a little venting, I had to call Prodigy. I told them that there had been a mistake and that I needed to disconnect the service. “OK,” said the rep., “but I see that the account is in the name of Enrique Madrigal. Are you Enrique Madrigal?”

No, I said, I wasn’t, and furthermore I had no idea who he was.

Well, then, she asked, was I Francisco R.? (That’s my landlord – the TELMEX service is in his name.)

No, I responded.

“Sorry,” she replied, “but only the account holder or the owner of the phone service can cancel the account.”

“Well then,” I responded, “I misheard you. In fact, my name IS Francisco R.”

“But you just told me that it wasn’t,” she said. “Plus, you don’t sound like a Francisco R.”

Darn that accent (putting my fist in the air and waving it)!

So then I had to call my landlord to ask him to cancel the service. And although his phone line is back up and running, he isn’t answering. And neither is his assistant answering on the cell phone. So I went by the landlord’s place (he lives not very far from here) and he wasn’t home. Probably down in Acapulco. But I left a note with the doorman explaining the situation so hopefully it will get straightened out soon. But if it doesn’t, for those of you who have my phone number, if you try to call and get a message that the line is out of service, you’ll know why.

Friday, May 13, 2005

all-day breakfast

As far as I'm concerned, they really ought to pass a law saying that any restaurant that has breakfast items on their menu must serve those items during all hours that they are open. This "breakfast menu available until 11:00 a.m." business really must be stopped. It's just flat-out discrimination against that segment of the population that gets up at noon, I tell you.

When I go out looking for my first meal of the day at 1:00 p.m., my stomach is just not ready for tacos or tortas; I need huevos a la mexicana or hot cakes (yes, they're called that here, too). So when I sit down someplace, glance over the menu at all the delicious breakfast options only to be told by the waitperson that they stopped serving breakfast two hours ago, I feel that my basic human rights have been violated.

I'm not just talking about amending the Mexican constitution to protect the breakfast-eating rights of late risers; either. This is also a major problem in the U.S. and Canada, and probably in many other nations as well. So at the very least, the issue needs to be addressed during the next NAFTA meetings, and the WTO might want to start taking a look at it, too.

That said, if any of you find yourselves in Mexico, you'll do well to stop in to La Pagoda, formerly known as Cafe Popular, on Cinco de Mayo and Filomena Mata. The Pagoda is not only open 24 hours, 365 days a year, it also serves delicious and inexpensive breakfasts during every minute of those 24 hours and 365 days. What's more, they have one of the best cups of coffee you'll find at an all-night diner. And if you stop by around 1, you might just see me there.

dormir, encantarse, y manejar una bici

Bicicletas diarias

Hay cosas en nuestra vida que son peligrosas: dormir, encantar y manejar una bicicleta. Dormirse, encantarse, y manejar, son tres invitaciones a lo mismo. Tres modos de irse a otra parte, a un lugar, a lugares que no siempre entendemos, que nunca gobernamos, que cada noche son distintos, y cada mañana nos deslumbran y asustan como una tarde de granizo en Mayo.

Manejar una bicicleta, como dormirse, es un peligro siempre, y una promesa cada vez. Es lógico temer a los peligros; sin embargo me he dado cuenta de que manejar tiene mas regularidad que dormir. Si te duermes en tu cama, tienes el riesgo de tener un sueno, el cual no te esperabas cuando te dormiste. Manejar una bici es menos peligroso con respecto a el hecho de que puedes tener el control de hacer cosas, puedes escoger tu ruta, tu destino, y tus tipos de riesgo; ni siquiera encantar tiene tal oportunidad. Imagínate que tengas un novio/a, ¿Piensas que tendrías menos riesgo en esta relación como en una aventura en las montanas con una bici, mochila, y unos amigos? La repuesta debe de haber sido, no, estar enamorada es mas peligroso. Hay mucha gente en el mundo, mujeres y hombres, que tienen miedo de enamorarse. A pesar de este miedo, sobreviven. Pero el tema hoy es manejar. Al manejar, siento que todo en mi vida no me importa. ¿Has ido a el cine te diste cuenta que mientras estabas viendo la película, tus problemas, tus estudios, tus deudas, tus amigos, tu familia, tu deseos, etc. parecían como no existieran? Toma este sentido y aplícalo a mi aventura en mi bicicleta porque siento así siempre. Con todo el respecto se merece, manejar es ser olvidado, es esconder en las sombras de tu vida?????. Mientras manejo, olvido que estoy en México, que tengo un papel que entregar mañana y tres hijos (jejjej no es cierto!).

Todo es posible con una bicicleta

Durante cada fin de semana, me levanto de madrugada, mas temprano cuando tengo que irme a trabajar durante la semana, y me pongo feliz. ¿Por qué me preguntas? Porque en este momento, tengo todo lo que necesito para ir a un lugar en el que nadie ha estado. A menudo le pregunto a la gente, “¿has ido a ciudad X?” Se queda sorprendida. Al principio, pensé que mi acento era horrible. Pero la realidad es que la gente no viaja hasta los distritos donde siempre voy. (Por tanto quizás sea una combinación de los dos). Si manejas tu bici, corres el riesgo de caerte o peor, estar en medio de la nada con una cadena que se rompió (lo cual le pasó a mi amigo el pasado fin).

Nos reunimos temprano, tan temprano que los gallos no quieren cantar ni levantarse. La ciudad duerme en ese momento, después una noche larga.
La cosa mas bonita de Oaxaca es la gente. Pero, en el segundo lugar es el campo. Cuando sales de la ciudad, no es como las demás en México, porque es virgen. La gente me mira como si fuera de Saturno.
“Bueno Días”, les comento, pasando tan rápido que mi voz es como un murmullo. Me siento vivo bajando las colinas y montanas. Mi adrenalina aumenta e incrementa hasta los cielos, me quedo tenso y nervioso. Me alegra que la gente me salude en el campo. Me da mucho gusto que los habitantes vivan una vida así. O sea, siempre parecen muy felices.

No hay una mejor manera de ver un país que manejar o correr. ¿Has ido a la sierra gorda en Queretaro, o el chico de Pachuca, los campos de Oaxaca, o las dunas de Sonora? Son lugares que exclusivamente puedes ir si tienes una bicicleta.

Cheerios son como México

Mi Cheerios esta en la mesa ahora mismo y leo su lema: No importa el gusto con nuestra variedad seguro encontrarás uno para ti.

El lema de México (en mi opinión): No importa el gusto con nuestro país seguro encontrarás un hobby para ti.
Es la realidad, puedes escoger lo que sea y todo lo que pase bien. Te digo eso porque he visto a mucha gente que no hace nada durante el día. Debes hacer algo, lo que sea, algo que te convenga.
A mi me gusta manejar mi bicicleta y seguiré manejándola para que conozca el campo de Oaxaca. Ojala que un día tenga yo la oportunidad a ver las valles y santiago apoala. Hay una voz en todo de nosotros, y ahora mi voz me llama a mi cama.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


What I’m teaching is considered EFL, or English as a Foreign Language, as opposed to ESL, or English as a Second Language. The difference is in the context: English instruction outside of an English-speaking country is EFL, inside an English-speaking country it’s ESL. Both fall under the umbrella of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).

The benefit of being a teacher of EFL is that you have the opportunity to live in another country and experience a different culture. But as far as the actual teaching goes, EFL is a tougher assignment. Generally, people who are learning English in an ESL setting are motivated to learn; they are either immigrants who know that they need English to have a better life, or they are students in an immersion environment in which they need English for their day-to-day survival. Another benefit of ESL is that you often get a mix of first languages in the classroom, so that in order to communicate with eachother, the students have no choice but to speak English. Therefore, the teachers expends less energy fighting to keep the class on task.

In the EFL situation, however, the majority of students do not have an internal motivation to learn English. They are in English class because their parents want them to be, because their school or university requires it, or because their employer thinks they need it. And this lack of internal motivation can translate into a lack of enthusiasm. Furthermore, they all speak the same first language, so since they often aren’t that motivated to practice English in the first place, they’ll retreat to the first language at every opportunity.

I think that foreign language learning brings out the worst in students this way because they’re required to be active learners in class. They might have to take Introduction to Astonomy to satisfy a requirement, but at least they can sit in the back of the lecture hall and doze off. In language class, however, they’ll have to actually do something, like practice a conversation with a partner, walk around and take a survey of their classmates, write something on the board, or perform a skit in front of the class. And they’ll be expected to do it all in a language that they can hardly speak, so they’re certainly not going to be looking very cool (or here in Mexico, very macho) in the process.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

grandmothers are beautiful people

The little closet in my apartment came stocked with clothes hangers, and pulling one out today I saw that it came from Weldon Cleaners in Medford, Oregon. I often see stuff like that, promotional items from obscure American businesses and wonder how it was that they ended up in this one little corner of Mexico. Most often it’s t-shirts, with logos like “Bob’s Towing and Auto Body, Sheboygan.” Those, I suppose, are easy enough to figure out, since Mexican immigrants are living and working in all corners of the U.S. and probably doing a lot of shopping at second-hand stores where you find t-shirts like that. But how about stuff like clothes hangers? Who would bother to bring a little clothes hanger all the way from Medford, Oregon? You also see a lot of logos, again especially on t-shirts, that are clear Mexican-made knockoffs of the kind of crap you’d find in the states. For example, my students will come to class with shirts that say things like: “Western Tennessee Superstar Championship Exciting Team,” which clearly have been generated domestically. And not only is the word choice often nonsensical on those things, grammatical and spelling mistakes are common, too. I had a student this semester at UTM who often wore a t-shirt reading: “Beverly Hills Yatch Club,” which messed with my head in so many ways that it was often difficult to concentrate on the lesson.

Of course, a lot of times people in developing countries buy or acquire these t-shirts without any understanding of what the English on them means. Once I was at a market in Queretaro and this obese drunk came careening down the sidewalk towards me, his fat belly bulging out from underneathe a filthy “Grandmothers Are Beautiful People” shirt. Boy, was I kicking myself for not having my camera on hand at that moment.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

el dia de las madres

Today, May 10, is Mother's Day in Mexico. Unlike in the States, where Mother's Day is always on Sunday, here it's always on the 10th. I guess the issue is that there are so many other special days in early May -- Labor Day is May 1, then there's Cinco de Mayo, and then something else, I think Teacher's Day, on the 15th -- that there's really no room to be moving Mother's Day around.

I guess the tradition in Ecuador had been that, at the stroke of midnight leading into Mother's Day, men would stand outside their mother's bedroom window and serenade them with love songs. But now what's happening is that more and more, men display their love for their moms by hiring the largest p.a. system they can find, mounting it on a flatbed truck, and parking the thing outside their mother's house. At the stroke of midnight, instead of singing and strumming a guitar, they blast out popular love ballads at unspeakable volume over mega-watt sound systems.

where are you from?

Since I spend a lot of time out and about by myself, I often get approached by curious locals. I guess Mexicans find us gringos less threatening alone. In any case, I’ve found that almost invariably, regardless of the intent of the person, the first question they’ll ask me is “where are you from?” When I first arrived in Mexico, I’d answer without hesitation that I was from the U.S. I soon learned, however, that in these situations, honesty isn’t always the best policy.

Now, the majority of people that approach me do so with friendly intent, and it’s pretty easy to identify these types. They’ll come up and ask politely in Spanish, or possibly in English, “Hey buddy, where are you from?” They might be studying English and want to practice, they might have lived in the U.S. for a bit and what to share their experiences, or they might just be curious as to what the heck you’re doing here. One time I was sitting at an outdoor café in Oaxaca on a Sunday morning and there was a very well-dressed family sitting at the table next to me, obviously just having come from church. I could see that the father was looking at me, and eventually he came over to my table and asked where I was from. I told him that I was from the U.S., and he invited me to come sit with his family. His two pre-teen daughters had just started learning English in school and he told me that they were very interested in practicing conversation with a native speaker. Of course, the last thing in the world these two girls wanted to do was speak English with an American and they were horried when their dad brought me over to meet them. I chatted with them a little in English, then we quickly switched to Spanish and I had quite a nice talk with a very pleasant family.

That’s an example of a positive “where are you from?” encounter. There have been others, however, that were not so fun. These are/were always initiated in Spanish and usually with an aggressive “Hey Gringo!” In these cases, the speaker is an 18-30 year-old man, often drunk. When I’d answer that was from the U.S., I’d have to listen to all kinds of abuse about Bush, Iraq, Afghanistan, U.S. immigration, and how we Americans think we’re hot. So I quickly learned that with these guys, it was best to lie. “I’m from England,” became my response. But this too turned out to be problematic. For one, if the person knew anything at all about current events, I’d still get crap about Iraq. But even if they didn’t, I’d be in trouble because they’d then want to talk all about English soccer, of which I know just enough to hold a 5 minute conversation. So I’ve switched to a new approach. Now I tell them: “I’m from Sweden!,” which has the effect of producing the most blank facial expression you could imagine, and at least 15 seconds of dumbfounded speechlessness. When they finally recover from this mindblow, they’ll mumble something like “yeah, umm, well … how about those %#$%^# Americans? and shuffle off.

Friday, May 06, 2005

public opinion

A Latin American public opinion poll that came out this week showed that in Mexico, only 41 percent of people have a good opinion of the United States. Of the 18 countries in the poll, Mexico was tied with Bolivia with the second lowest rating. Argentina had the lowest at 31 percent.

In terms of approval of the Iraq War, only 4 percent of Mexicans agree with U.S. actions. Again, that’s second lowest in the region, ahead of only Argentina.

In Mexico, the United States has lost more than 20 percentage points in positive opinion under Bush.

Personally, I think it stinks that on some occasions I feel the need to tell people that I’m from Denmark or Belgium in order to avoid getting crap for being an American.

Of course, the Bush Administration response to all this would be “Who cares what the rest of the world thinks?” But especially if you’re one of those millions of Americans who live side-by-side with the rest of the world, it seems like you should care.


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