Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Mexican students don't complain about

My American students can be real whiners. If the temperature crested 70 in the classroom, half the class would complain about the incredible heat, stating that it was impossible to work in that environment or they would sleep because they had no control over themselves in such extreme conditions.

The environment at my TJ high school can be a little harsh. With sweat dripping down my face, I tried a few times to make small talk with the students, "Whew, hace calor", etc. Their faces told me "Quit your bitchin' woman and teach". None of my students have asked me "Are we doing anything today?" as if we generally sat around filing each other's toenails in class, or the dreaded "Can we just do nothing today?". Nor have the told me "This is boring" or asked "Do we have to do this?". For some reason, this sort of commentary is off the table.

There was a big meeting one evening at the end of the street in our privada. We were surprised to learn that we had to pay the privada boss various amounts of money for maintenance, including lights that have never been turned on and plants that aren't watered. Before I could ask any questions, the conversation quickly turned to the behavior of the children on our street. After one parent fielded a complaint about her kids, she proclaimed "If you show them a lack of respect, they will show you a lack of respect". I recognized her little ray of sunshine from the day he repeatedly screamed "¡TONTO! ¡TONTO! ¡TONTO!" at us while we dragged the new trashcan we had bought down the street. Or maybe from the day we returned to our house from D.C. and found about ten kids inside our walled compound screaming and playing, while hers demonically rode what we thought was our secure, gated wall like it was a horse in a rodeo. Might have been him.

Most of the privada kids are actually pretty sweet. There is this big kid that I am guessing looks older than he is that always greets me and Alec in the street. Lately, he has even started trying out English phrases. And then there is little Jessica. She stared at me for about a week and slowly started asking questions. Then, she wanted to see the multitude of plants we bought to make our carless driveway look garden like. After viewing the plants, she started requesting to see the inside of the house. Alec wasn't so keen on the idea. "If she comes in, I am going outside. I am not going to be the American pervert on the street". I finally let her in. She took a quick look around, looked vaguely disappointed by our second hand furniture and left. The last time I saw her, I asked her how kinder was going. "I didn't cry today" she told me. No, neither did I.

There are things Mexican teachers don't discuss either. Like school. They have an "on" switch and a big off switch. In the U.S., our lunches were dominated by talk of bad behavior, certain, dreaded students whom we all knew by name and at times, tales of glorious lessons and activities by glowing teachers that would leave the rest of us annoyed. Here, during our break, teachers talk about their families, about the weekend, about politics. No one discusses the students. Nor do they tell of the awesome lesson they just conducted. Sometimes they rant about the chingada adminstración. The sala de maestros is our sanctuary, our bosses don´t enter. Once, when pressed, a teacher friend of mine decided to tell me of his tardy policy, having heard that I still struggle with tardy students. Hell, I still carry my schedule around and a map of the school so that I know where to go every hour. "I charge them" he told me. What? Do explain. "Five pesos" he stated. "They have to pay if they want to get in late. Or if they didn't do their homework". He continued. "Profe Maria charges forty. People are starting to get mad about that". Things certainly are different here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

El Viento de Santa Ana

I was okay with coming to Tijuana for two reasons: the weather and the proximity to various activist groups that deal with border issues. The weather was definitely not panning out. On Independence Day, I decided to get in contact with some border groups. While volunteering in Arizona with No More Deaths, I had heard about a group called Border Angels that had a similar mission, distributing water to migrants, yet in the California desert. I was also familiar with Casa del Migrante, a mission house that served migrants that had been deported in Tijuana. I contacted them both and was flattered to receive quick responses.

Alec and I arranged to meet the Border Angels coordinator at Playas on the morning of the 19th. We would participate with her in Coastal Cleanup and learn a little about Border Angels' activities. That morning, Alec bought a newspaper before we left to catch a series of buses and collective taxis that would take us across town to the beach. Lurid headlines were spread across the front page, three police officers ambushed and shot by traficantes, in, of course, Playas. The drug crime here is a little different than in the U.S. From what I can gather from various crime related television shows I watch at home, organized crime generally avoids targeting law enforcement in order to avoid confrontation with a well armed police force. Here, the traficantes target the police and political figures; they are better armed and usually force resignations through intimidation. Or they just shoot them. Or cut their heads off. One evening during my low period, we went to the Chinese buffet restaurant near the grocery store, better said, in downtown Villa Fontana. I grabbed some food and plunked myself at a table near the television, in order to see the Mexico vs. Whoever soccer game. As soon as I sat down I was cursing myself, why, why, why did I choose to sit near the table full of cops carrying automatic weapons??? They had bullet proof vests on, if someone took a shot at them we would be in the line of fire. "You could have picked another place to sit" Alec muttered, as he sat down by my side. On our way back from Ensenada a few weeks earlier, we had to pass through a military check point in order to re-enter Tijuana. They had a tank sitting on the side of the road with a soldier manning the gun turret. So, off we went to Playas to clean the beach, lightning doesn't generally strike twice, right?

We botched the meeting with the Border Angels coordinator, but cleaned the beach anyway. We rescheduled for the evening of the 22nd. I don't go out during the week usually, it takes too long to get across town and it's scary in many parts of TJ at night. I would make an exception. We got a taxi back out to Playas, traffic was surprisingly clear by the border in the centro. The border wall looked even worse than normal, bathed in orange flood lights with lurking migra trucks on the U.S. side. The Border Angels coordinator arrived late, flustered, with a small child in her car. "I work in San Diego" she said breathlessly. "The border is closed, there was a shooting, something happened, I was afraid they wouldn't let me pass!". We talked for over an hour about how I could volunteer with them; distribute water in the Imperial Desert, pass out breakfast to day laborers outside of Home Depots in California, visit desert canyons where migrants congregate after crossing. Exactly what I was looking for. We got a collective taxi back to the centro. It was late, dark and kind of quiet, yet people were buzzing about "la línea", it was closed, our collective taxi driver said over his radio that he had "Dos americanos y cuatro de nosotros" in his car. I felt nervous riding through TJ that night.

Three vans full of migrants had attempted to crash through the check point at San Ysidro. The border patrol fired on them, killing a few and the border was promptly sealed. I have to admit this was the stupidest plan I had ever heard of for getting into the U.S. The border is a militarized zone, even if they had made it through they would have been picked up in minutes, detected by helicopters, virtual towers and BP on the ground. But, my bleeding heart tells me that it isn't responsible to fire across 24 lanes of traffic. Thousands of people enter the U.S. illegally every year, seventy-four more men is not worth accidentally gunning down a person waiting in traffic. Además, entering the U.S. illegally is not cause for getting a bullet in your head. In Arizona, a first offense is a misdemeanor. Those who feel differently generally sit in lawn chairs in the desert wearing night vision goggles with the Minutemen, instead of working for the Department of Homeland Security. I guess retrospect is always 20 / 20, those agents didn't know what was going on when the vans crashed through; TJ is a pretty violent place. I could only imagine the men in those vans. Saving, borrowing money to pay a coyote to bring them to the U.S. They probably imagined walking at times, staying in safe houses, laying in the trunk of a car through checkpoints. The horror they must have felt when those vans pulled up to San Ysidro and they realized the harebrained plan thousands of dollars had paid for.

The wind woke me up the next morning. The windows were rattling and doors where slamming shut throughout our house. I stepped outside and the hottest wind I have ever felt was tearing through east TJ. We had a gas leak in our big ass crazy tank and the whole house reeked. I went to work. I had to take each of my classes down the rickety, tire "stairs" to a building down the hill, to visit an exposition about various states in Mexico. The kids were howling and the girls were scrambling to keep their skirts down in the wind. The sun felt like a laser and the hills around the school were on fire again. Why did it feel so crazy here? "Es el viento de Santa Ana!" Hector wailed. "It's gonna knock the gel out of my hair!" Yeah, outta mine too.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Independence Day

"The trick is not minding that it hurts", I always remember that line from Lawrence of Arabia when Peter O'Toole burns his hand over an open flame. My old, best friend Margaret and I always used to say it to each other when things got shitty. Actually, we would simply say "The trick is not minding". Care a little less and it actually doesn't hurt at all.

It is considered a sign of weakness in the U.S. schools if you turn to the administration for help with discipline problems. Yeah, they carry titles like "Discipline Assistant Principal", but say "Keep your problems in your classroom". Here, they have prefectos. Their job is to rove the school, looking for kids acting like assholes. I decided not to deal with discipline problems anymore. "Puedo entrar?" in other words, "I am late as hell, can I come in?", answer: "No". Ask them once to be quiet and they don't, "Ven conmigo, we are looking for the prefecto". Actually not the prefecto, the prefecta, because the female one does her job. I had noticed that I had a silent majority in my classes that watched me furtively and wanted to pass. I have always had this problem in the classroom, concentrating all of my attention on the idiots and forgetting the other thirty kids. Yeah, it seems a little weird to abandon the class and wander around the school with some kid that irritates you, but something had to give.

There were also the unsilent, special cases. Victor, this great kid in a low performing group that helped me with Spanish pronunciation. I COULD NOT understand a lot of the kids' names when they would tell me; from day one Victor would articulate every syllable, I would repeat and I would have the name. Jose Luis, who struggled with every aspect of English grammar and could not speak to save his life, yet was hell bent on learning our pinche language. El Hombrecito, a little wildcat that looked like he was twelve but was actually sixteen. He was tiny, but apparently had grown at some point, because the hems of his pants and their waistband always rode way too high and his crazy gelled, spiky hair made him look like a superhero. Hector, the Mexican version of Arnold Horshack, a runty kid with a wispy mustache who stood at the bottom of the "stairs", a descending pile of old tires in the sand, with a sleazy smile on his face calling "Chicas, I'll catch you" as the class descended the hill. Gloria, who for some odd reason reminded me of the enigmatic Keeley from my Arizona desert patrols, who told all the students that I was secretly her mother. The kids that wore their uniforms on Fridays, though they are allowed to wear whatever they want and apparently didn't have anything else to wear. There had to be a piece of me that could give something to them.

"Rigid", that is what my U.S. principal called me. "Just doing my job" was my response. My kids spoke better Spanish than any other teacher's. "I am proud of what I do", I told him. You know what? Here, I would do less. There are kids that can learn in a closet with a book and others that can't learn from Jaime Escalante. I wasn't going to cram it down anyone's throat, I was teaching to the willing. They could go as crazy as they wanted to go and I would rove and teach those who wanted it. Hell, Mexico is loud anyway.

It really helped that we had Sept. 16th, Independence Day, off. After a four day swine flu week. I couldn't figure which class was where; suspensions for swine flu, a day off for Independence Day, and various impromptu faculty meetings had left all nine groups at different points in my lesson plan. There was also class period when we would salute the Mexican flag. They don't just say the pledge at the beginning of class, they randomly assign a whole class period to pledge the flag and sing patriotic songs, knocking the lesson plan for one group completely off track. I was surprised how they saluted the flag, right arm outstretched. I assumed that that must be how they do it in Mexico, but had an image of some plane flying over the school and seeing hundreds of young Mexicans in a central courtyard, and one crazy American woman, saluting Nazi style and discovering that I was actually part of a secret sect. I spent Independence Day like a good American, shopping at Wal Mart. I assumed that I would run into some sort of parade or fire works display, but never saw anything. When I returned to school on the 17th, everyone, even the snack shop guy, asked me what I did and proceeded to tell me about all that I missed. I guess it never occurred to anyone that a foreigner wouldn't know what to do on Mexican Independence Day. Anyway, we had exams that week and I had about 320 to grade.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Swine flu

Things really started looking up by the time the swine flu hit. By the third week of school, my mood was at an all time low. I really didn't come here to do everything wrong. I actually wanted to do a good job.

Alec and I decided early in the week that we would spend the weekend in Ensenada. After nearly two weeks of heat wave and living room sleeping, I insisted on a hotel with cable and air conditioning. After checking out the town, Alec and I ended up catching Rocky on cable, late, the night of the 5th, while the rest of Mexico watched Mexico vs. Bolivia. Honestly, Mexico could be playing me and Alec in soccer and it would still be considered the game of the century. Watching Rocky I led to a You Tube marathon back in TJ that included back to back, ten minute sessions of Rocky II and even III, the one with Mr. T. I could not convince Alec to watch the one with the big Soviet guy. I decided the week of 7th that I was not going to lose my mind here.

The heat finally broke. The fourth week of school, I started walking to school even though it can be hot in the afternoons. I am kind of a spectacle around here, people would stare at me in the street while I walked to school and to make matters worse, I was usually covered in sweat. Not usually, always, and with a bright red face and wet hair. My students also walk to school and though they teased me about the sweat, I felt like walking with them promoted camaraderie a lot more than riding past them in a taxi. They also were starting to realize that I did not live in San Diego and cross the border every day in my sports car to visit them. The saving grace was definitely my ipod. The afternoon walks can be easily summed up by listening to Galaxie 500's "Strange". Actually, that can sum up my Atlanta state of mind as well, if that is in any way noteworthy. The sweat and spectacle aspects of the walks were embarrassing, but the ipod portion made me look forward to them.

I still felt a bit uneven that week, but felt like I was wrapping my head around how I was going to survive in that school. I love the snack shop at school. A family prepares all of the food, and the first time I approached and asked for a Coke the youngish guy that works there stated: "You can speak to me in English. I have to ask, what are you doing here?" I explained my prestigious exchange and he responded "Why don't you just work on the other side?" Money, money was what he didn't understand and when he figured out that I get paid from the other side, things were a little clearer. He asked me where I live, "Villa Fontana" I answered proudly. "You live in the ghetto" he answered. "We live in Playas, it's middle class, you really don't even have a car?". I love this guy. The part I really don't want to say is that he was really the one that should be teaching English, not working at the snack shop.

Rumors started swirling midweek that one of the morning students had a confirmed case of swine flu and that the "pinche dirección" was hiding it, to avoid interruption of upcoming exams. The class suspensions were weird, school was not suspended when the hills around the school were on fire. Classes were suspended the evening the students had a dance, so that they would have time to get ready. They had also sporadically called off classes for impromptu faculty meetings, but the meetings never seemed to deal with anything really pressing. "Who watches the students?" I would ask, the reply was that they would either wait for us or go home. Late Thursday, we had a ten minute meeting that turned into an hour long affair - classes would be cancelled Friday because of the sick morning student. It was difficult to control the smile that was trying to spread itself across my face.

In the meeting, we were told that we would teach the rest of the day, though apparently the school was infected with a nasty enough virus to cancel classes the following day. The students were to clean their classrooms during the last class of the day. I went to my second to last class of the day and asked them if they had another class after mine. "Yeah" they said "Ciencias". Fine, I thought, move forward. They'll clean during ciencias. The kids were bad that day and I lost my shit with them and was a little bad myself. When I left their room to go to my last class, I found the door locked and the lights out. I ran into one of my sweet students from that group and asked him what was going on. "We already cleaned, everybody did, it's time to go home" he told me. Baffled, yes, baffled I was. Does clean during the last class of the day mean clean during the second to the last class of the day in Mexico? I watched my rather wicked group cleaning their classroom, the only group of students still dragging mops around. The sunset was kind of sinister that day; bright, red light burned through all of the windows in the school while the only group of students left at the school cleaned their room.

Alec and I went to San Diego the weekend of the 12th. I had received a notice that I needed to send my passport to Mexico City in order to process my work visa and decided to make one more border break before sending it away. That Friday swine flu break really did me right. On Monday, classes were back in session. The principal had told us that all faculty and students would have to wear face masks. As part of my new attitude, I decided not to run all around town looking for one in order to be prepared. Surely the kids wouldn't remember and they would have a big box of them at the entrance to the school. As I walked to school, a couple of my students and their mom offered me a ride. "Profe, where is your face mask?" they asked me. "They aren't going to provide them at school?" I asked. They shook their heads quietly, with that pitying, "this poor woman doesn't understand anything" look. One of the stores at the entrance of the school got smart and was selling them for 5 pesos each, and I managed to get one. I felt awkward wearing it, but the students seemed very chilled out about the whole thing. They actually looked kind of cute, sitting there doing their work, seemingly unaware of those things on their faces. By the end of the day, their masks had smiley faces, gnarly teeth and pot leaves on them. As I entered one group's room, they all stood outside, snickering. They had scratched the "dis" off of the "Disinfected area" sign, so that it now read "infected area". Well, we certainly couldn't go in there.

Heat wave

When I first arrived in Tijuana, everyone asked me two things: "Weren't you afraid to come here?" and "Isn't our weather great!". Well, by the second week of school, the weather was not great. Suddenly, unpredictably, the temperature spiked. Hot, really hot and not much of a drop in the evenings. Alec and I had acquired a futon and began sleeping in the living room, it was too hot to go upstairs. Mexico is loud. Everyone knows it, but no one tells you how to deal with it. The kids howling next door with their karaoke machine at 8am, car alarms, people with loudspeakers mounted to the roofs of their cars, blaring music or advertisements. I would wake up in the morning, in the living room, willing myself to stop grinding my teeth.

At the beginning of the second week of school, I still did not have lists of which students were supposed to be in my classes. I tried not to be the uptight American the first week, things take time, my U.S. school never had it's shit together either. By the second week, I was getting testy. "Poco a poco" my fellow teachers told me. Random kids were coming to my classes, simply to heckle me. Some kids were coming to whichever class was convenient, regardless if it was their class or not. It was hot. No air, no fans, just gray, concrete classrooms. Ten, fifteen kids at a time entering class late. Some arriving five minutes before the class ended. I was moving ahead, their curriculum is super tight here and I couldn't wait for these kids to be ready for school. They started refusing to work. After days of preparation, twenty of forty kids would refuse to do an oral, though they knew they were getting a grade. The tension in my head was inexplicable, I was willing myself to smile, move forward and not tell these little shits to fuck themselves. Whoever they were, because I surely didn't know. I guess the good thing is that I'm not a cryer, at least not in front of a bunch of kids.

I finally got some rolls midweek. Now, I would get this thing under control. I found an online gradebook and spent about eight hours in my sweltering apartment adding all four names of each of my 350 students to the attendance roster. I made seating charts. I returned to school for the third week and found that the rolls had been changed. Some new students, many students no longer on the list. I had a really screwed up, eight hour, online gradebook now. My scalp even felt tense. The heat continued. Still sleeping in the living room. Was this culture shock? I thought there was supposed to be some sort of honeymoon period before you started hating everything. One day, the school invited some folks to entertain the kids during their four o'clock break. They brought huge, loud speakers and rallied the kids to dance and scream. The 4:30 class bell rang and we all started our classes. But the entertainment didn't stop. Blaring music, a matter of feet from our open classroom doors. We couldn't close them, or we would surely die of some sort of heat related illness. The kids didn't even seem to find it strange, they watched me calmly as I screamed above the music and wrote things on the board, as if this was completely normal.

Early on, the school was pretty proud to tell me that they had a lot of technology in their classrooms: projectors, computers, more than most Mexican or American schools. I discovered quickly that three of the nine classrooms I teach in did not have these amenities. The outfitted rooms had computers that were locked in metal cases, when I inquired about a key it couldn't be found. No copies, no video or audio and in some cases, no overhead lights or functioning electrical outlets. It was starting to feel kind of Little House on the Prairie.

The crime here is terrible. Everyday some one's head is spilled across the front of the newspaper. I told myself that people who get shot here are probably involved in some way with the drug trade, until I heard Lourdes' story. There is a huge police delegation between our privada and hers. One afternoon while her family was spread across Tijuana, she began hearing heavy firing, "In front of Calimax" she told me "at the delegation". She was afraid and began calling all family members. Hours later, she watched our street on the news. Traficantes had ambushed the police delegation. When the police tried to radio for backup from other delegations, they found that the raiders had cut off their ability to radio, how? Who knows. "They were just killing them" Lourdes said. I was uncomfortable because she was crying. A long gun battle ensued that kept all of the residents trapped in their houses, terrified. I don't think Lourdes is involved in the drug trade.

One evening, on my late day, I noticed through the window of the classroom that the hills around the school were on fire. Everyone just kept working.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The school on the hill, you know, the one that looks like a prison

Classes began on August 17th. I didn't feel as nervous as I normally do on the first day of school, but still went in early to observe an English teacher do her first day. I really didn't want to go in cold. Her classes watched her silently, with rapt attention. When I approached a couple of students to grab a chair, they jumped to their feet and wouldn't sit until I asked them to. I was thrilled.

Later, I began my first of six classes for the day. There were nearly forty students in the room. Some stood when I entered, others did not. Basically, they went ass wild. Some of the boys were visibly mocking me, howling with laughter, asking me if I actually spoke Spanish, though I was speaking in Spanish. I could hardly be heard. I know that I am an adult, but still don't like being an ass. The only time they shut up was when I turned to the board and began furiously writing my entire syllabus on it - grade weights, expectations, schedule of exams. Normally I would just hand them a syllabus, but this is Mexico - the land of no copy machines. I guess I figured something out: give them work, they shut up. I was horrified. And five more classes to go. Four of the five went well, nice quiet kids, writing furiously as I wrote furiously on the board. I guess they knew what my back looked like. Huge classes, all pushing forty. I was surprised by the questions they asked "What is our schedule of classes?" - basically "When will you visit us again?". Again, no copies. I told them, and they would carefully construct boxes and grids in their notebooks - just to figure out when they had each class. I actually came home optimistic; four out of six isn't bad. And, I had made it. There would never be a first day of school in Mexico for me again.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What day is it?

Alec and I began the treck back to Tijuana on August 7th, but didn't actually do our trolley, on foot border crossing, bus trip and walk back to beautiful east TJ until the 8th. We spent the weekend furnishing our apartment with some of the crappiest appliances the segundas on Cucapah had to offer - my cheapness bought me a stove that requires constant relighting, a washer that merely dumps soapy water on the clothes and then sort of drains all over the ground and a refrigerator that works pretty well, all for around $200. We also had a bed, but not one other shred of furniture. Sitting on the tile floor was not helping my back, nor was walking up and down Cucapah. On the 10th I began preplanning at the school. It was a bit maddening - everyone was really busy and I had a million unanswered questions. The way they grade the students here is confusing, not the 1-10 scale, but that they don't appear to give a lot of grades during the units, instead waiting until the end for students to hand in a big notebook of work encased in plastic protectors. Then came our schedules. We all sat in a room and awaited the principal to call our names. When called, we had to sit at a table with the principal, academic coordinator and a union representative, whom I'm sure was thinking "What exactly am I supposed to do for you, pinche gringa?". Upon presentation of our schedules, we had to sign about a million copies of it. I would start work at 1:30 in the afternoon and teach as late as 8pm. Fine by me, the worst part about working is getting up early. I was surprised to see that I had 29 hours on my schedule, though Fulbright said we should only have 25 - but was intimidated by the process and began signing away. Later, I felt some resentment from fellow teachers because I had so many hours that I truly did not want. Here, the teachers are paid by the hour, somewhere around $5 to $7. The system is quite different here, students remain with the same group of classmates all day in the same classroom and the teachers run around the school to their various bases. It is their ecosystem, they are even responsible for cleaning the room in the evenings, including mopping the floor. I had nine different groups on my schedule - something no one envied - approximately 350 students. I also learned that my students were not receiving textbooks. The schools here do not have copy machines for general use - the expectation is that if the teacher wants to use photocopies - something that seems necessary considering the students don't have books - we give a master copy to the "jefe del grupo", the elected student leader of each group and the jefe collects money from all of the students to pay for the copies of their school work. Yeah, the idea of charging Mexican students from low income families for a copy of their homework kind of bothered me, worse, trying to organize nine jefes to have my copies on the right day seemed too complicated. My brand new schedule looked insane - I would see each group for three, fifty minute periods per week. I would see some groups on Monday, Wednesday, Friday others on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and worse, some groups for two periods within the same day, with a third class on some other random day. Homework anyone? How do you assign it when the group has two classes back to back, or one class at 2:00 and another at 5:00, with a full schedule of classes in between? Some days I would have five classes, others, like the dreaded Thursdays, seven in one day. I spent the week and weekend agonizing over my monster schedule and working on a horrible electronic folder that consisted of copying and pasting various parts of curriculum, school calenders and all of the tests I would give during the semester. I also worried that I might be getting jacked by my new school . When I inquired about the hours I was warned that my exchange partner would receive less money if I didn't work all of them and probably made my first mistake as an American teacher in Mexico simply by asking the question. I felt kind of indentured. I color coded my schedule in an attempt to organize when and where I would see these groups and repeatedly asked myself "What day is it?" "Which month is it?" "Where am I and how long have I been here?"

Friday, September 18, 2009

D.C. Fulbright conference

After a fast week in Tijuana, Alec and I got up early on August 1st, got a ride to the border ...from Roberto, of course, who insisted on picking us up at 7:30am on a Saturday though we said "You're off work!!! We can take a cab!!!", crossed the border on foot, caught the trolley to San Diego and a bus to the airport to take off for the Fulbright pre-departure conference in DC. The thing was, we had already departed and had farmer sun burns, blisters and small bags of dirty laundry with us. I had been looking forward to it, but felt less enthusiastic after finding the house; I really wanted to hoof it up and down evil old calle Cucapah and hunt for appliances in the segundas. The hotel was awesome - more than I would ever pay for and near Dupont Circle. But I didn't feel the buzz I felt when I went to the May Fulbright conference. In May I just felt so flattered..."Who me? The State Department wants to fly me to DC and put me up in a fancy ass hotel and thank me for being there?!" I really wanted to feel it again but instead felt a debilitating back pain that I had never experienced in my life, was it from dragging all of my stuff out of my Atlanta apartment? Too many plane rides? We started the week with a couple of days with Comexus, the Fulbright commission in Mexico. Our exchange partners were also there and I started to feel good - cool people going to Mexico - some really adventurous ones bringing families and dogs - I was impressed. Within two days Fulbright rolled into town with a host of international teachers from many corners of the world and the rest of the U.S. outgoing teachers. By the time they arrived our Mexico group was pretty close knit and not up for mingling - we had already found our people.

I found myself getting jealous when we discussed our assignments in Mexico - how did all these American high school teachers get placed in pretty towns at Mexican UNIVERSITIES, while I was headed to TJ to a public high school? When we discussed discipline in the classroom the coordinators directed a rather lengthy discussion at the two of us going to middle and high schools, then dismissed the rest of the group by saying "If a kid gives you trouble, tell him to leave. It's university". I also found out that I was a second choice. A teacher from New York had turned down Tijuana, and I was plan B. It took the wind out of my "hey Fulbrighter!" sails. I wanted to do touristy things like the rest of the group was doing but found myself bogged down with errands. The first evening in DC, Alec and I found ourselves at a Hispanic laundry mat that could have easily been in Tijuana. I already knew I needed to buy some things for school that I was having trouble finding in TJ. I finally gave up a dragged my aching back to the White House, Lincoln Memorial, etc. and enjoyed it - and then started having drinks with the rest of my group in the evenings. The schedule was exhausting - conferences all day, be here, be there and of course - beer fueled real conversations at night. I found myself watching the Mexican teachers and feeling really worried for them. Did they know what they were getting into? They taught at Mexican universities and wanted to do this thing for a variety of reasons - some financial - some professional - did they really know the shitstorm of the American school system that they were walking into? Weirdly, they just looked so innocent, did they know how bad it can be on "the other side"? And, worried for myself. I was really starting to like that nice hotel and the people I met and we were all going into the frying pan really, REALLY soon.

What is an unfurnished apartment in Mexico?

My exchange partner told me that furnished apartments weren't very common in Tijuana. What I didn't realize is that when they say "unfurnished", they mean without furniture, as well as lacking a refrigerator, stove and sometimes hot water heater. This, I did not expect. One day during our first week, Roberto took us past a friend's house that lived near the school. Lourdes, her husband Everisto and daughters Esperanza and Luz promptly began calling the apartment ads we had circled in the newspaper and every friend and acquaintance they could think of, in order to help us with our search. They had never seen our faces before. They even used their own phones to call, at no point did they say "You know these pinche moviles cost a fortune, how about we use your minutes, stranger?" This went on for two days - us hanging out at Lourdes' place while the whole family exhausted every resource looking for an apartment for us. They even drove us around town to scope out signs on telephone poles. They cooked us dinner at their house and drove us all the way back to the center of town in the evening. They bargained with people for $10.00 rent reductions. This is when I heard Esperanza ask a prospective landlord if the house had "a floor". Yes, "unfurnished" apartments at times lack "floor", the carpet or tile has been removed or never existed and there is only concrete. Same goes for "closets". Their may be a doorless indention in a wall, but any poles or shelves have left with the previous tenants. One vacating tenant proudly told us that though she intended to remove every appliance from the apartment, she was not going to rip the ceiling fans from the ceiling or tear the mounted blinds from the walls. At this point we also learned of "privadas". We were informed that it is more secure to live on a street that was barred from the main road by a huge gate and wall. It was also good to find a house within the privada with an additional barred gate and wall surrounding it and bars on all of the windows and security doors. We were given a further explanation of car thefts within privadas. We really didn't need to be convinced and settled on a small attached house within a privada, with an additional wall surrounding it and bars on all windows and doors, one step removed from the "cholo" neighborhood where the school lies, though we could see the school lurking at the top of the hill from the majority of the windows in our proud, new, 2,600 peso home.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

First days

The early days here were awesome. I have been to Mexico before. I go to the pretty places - D.F., Oaxaca, the Yucatan, Chiapas. When I received the notice from Fulbright that I had been accepted I was thrilled - it said I had been assigned to Baja California - a state I had never visited. I love the west coast - the attitude, the water, so different than Atlanta. As I hung up my dry cleaning I realized what came before "Baja California": Tijuana. TIJUANA. Drug cartels, shoot outs in broad daylight, a city barely south of the American border. Not the pretty adventure I imagined as a "Fulbrighter". It took me a minute. I have spent the last two summers hiking migrant trails barely north of the border in Arizona, looking for the sick and dying with a group called No More Deaths. Look them up; they are wonderful people. These summers have changed my life and impacted the rest of the year I spend away from them - looking forward to getting back on that hot ass trail and giving water to valiant people that risk their lives in order to improve it. Maybe this Tijuana thing made sense.

I knew I should stay home this summer, but couldn't resist returning to Arizona to work with the migrants. My sister and I drove cross country again and had a blast, then worked in the desert for two weeks. After finishing up with No More Deaths, I made a quick trip to TJ to meet my exchange partner and have a look at the city, then returned to Atlanta. I returned to Tijuana a few weeks later, July 26th to be exact, after quickly packing everything I own into my mother's basement and vacating my apartment. I was exhausted.

Tijuana seemed hot and crazy. A fantastic man named Roberto helped us with everything at the behest of my exchange partner. As I rode from the airport with my exchange partner's family I saw men swilling gas and blowing fire from their mouths for money in the street. The border wall loomed large to my left and I was the only one paying attention to it - it was a reality for the Mexicans and a sick curiosity for me. Alec and I stayed in a cheap hotel near the center of town that rented rooms by the hour - but also offered free wifi. Roberto picked us up everyday to house hunt, though his family was anticipating a major event: his wife was donating a kidney to his ailing teenage son. "No bother" he said when we asked him if he had time to drive us all around town on a daily basis. From the car I saw the fire breathing men and groups of soldiers patrolling the city from open backed trucks in full camouflage, carrying automatic weapons. One afternoon I saw a man in the middle of a congested street, his perhaps eight year old daughter stood on his shoulders and jumped off, then solicited money. I didn't hate him for endangering his daughter, I just felt sick to my stomach. Each day Roberto picked us up from the center of town and drove us east towards the neighborhood of the school - east TJ - the desert - a low income area where American tourists like us are stared at - obviously no one comes this far for prescription drugs or huge margaritas and donkey shows. I was always relieved to return to the center; one day a group of under ten year olds ran into the street with lucha libre masks on and began throwing each other over shoulders and hitting one another with chairs - I wanted to feel pity, but all I could do was hang out the window with all the change I had in my hand and smile and clap. They were amazing. And then we would return to the hotel - our new paradise - though the federales had taken over an upper class hotel a couple of doors down. We ran past it everyday - their black face masks and automatic weapons scared us.