Thursday, January 28, 2010

More than a feeling

Standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, I didn't expect to be thinking about the revolution. It was that song, that stupid song, "More Than a Feeling". Suddenly I was in Cuba, riding through the night in a taxi, warm breezes swirling through the open windows and Boston playing on the tape deck. "Everyday I wake up and I hope that the Revolution is over" our driver told us. Everybody has a life to live, I've got mine, you've got yours and the taxi driver has his. Except mine's good and his is shitty. And there's nothing he can do about it. I realized I was about to cry and trained my eyes on the ground, blinking rapidly.

We had another informe at the school, a big community meeting that explains our failure rate, what the money was spent on, all of the walls we got painted. After my principal's presentation, the superintendent got up and stated that it was the first time he has been impressed by a presentation by our school, because he at least thought we were honest this time. I guess that's a compliment. I was simply marveling that they managed to pack about one hundred and fifty people into one of our classrooms. And here I was hoping to have less than forty-five kids in my upcoming classes.

"If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the 'Fuck you' signs in the world. It's impossible."

The cholos that line the street heading to the school have started greeting me while I hike up the hill. In English. "Hey teacher!" they call, day after day, smoking and passing God knows what to my uniformed students. Their tone isn't menacing and I always respond with a smile and a wave. I like to tell myself that even the cholos like me! I am making an impact! But I know the truth, dear God I fear the truth and scope the dark streets when I walk down the hill at night. I wish I could be like the little brown chihuahua on my street. He looks me straight in the eye and slowly raises both of his back legs off of the ground, balancing only on the front two. Suck it, he seems to tell me. Look what I can do.

Yesterday, I had to give my exam to the kids that not only failed the class, but didn't bother showing up for the week of recuperation classes and exam. Today, I was told that I would give the exam to the kids that not only failed the class and that didn't show up for the week of recuperation classes and exam or the exam I gave yesterday. It grated on my nerves. Our superintendent worries about the kids that don't go to school, says that they rob and steal and assault people. That is why we give so many "opportunities". That is why we are supposed to pass all of them. Keep them coming. It's better that way. Don't worry if they don't know a damn thing, if we can get them to come here a few times per semester at least they're not robbing people. It doesn't matter if they show up for a job with a worthless piece of paper in their hands and everyone realizes that they can't do a single thing that that paper says they can do. Who ever thought that babysitting could pay so well.

"I can apply your exam" the secretary told me when I went in search of exam copies. "I'm going to apply all of them" she told me "for all of the classes". Great, do it. I spotted Roberto outside, sitting on a bench in the sun. "What are you doing here?" I asked him. He's off on Thursdays, depriving me of a little ray of sunshine and sanity one day per week. "I'm applying my exam" he told me. "But Aracely said that she would do all of them?!" I told him. "No. I'm applying my own". Dirty work was afoot. "They let them cheat in there. Don't even grade the tests, they just give everyone a seven. I am applying my own exam and grading it myself" he stated. And he wonders why he's always one inch away from being fired. I can't believe he actually wants evidence that they know a damn thing, what kind of teacher is that?

And then the sky opened up and pulled us all away to a better place.

*The Catcher in the Rye
Holden Caulfield in Chapter 25

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mexico cares

I love going to the airport. Person on the go, woman of the world, got a flight to catch. Don't go thinking I lead a mundane existence! I have places to be. I had to get up way before a comfortable hour to catch my flight from TJ to Mexico City for the Fulbright midterm conference. Yeah, I said Fulbright Midterm Conference just because it makes me feel special. Glamorous. Worldly. Everything I am not. The Volaris planes cut around the little plane parking lot, sporting names on the side of each plane. Francisco. Alejandro. Cute, very cute, there goes the Sara plane. My Interjet plane was a spark plug, it seemed to shoot down the runway and barrel into the sky in a spunkier way than most planes. And up it went, swooping and turning and rocketing away from troubled TJ.

I love Mexico City. Urban jungle, everything a city should be. I have been there before and was excited to go back. I was surprised when the taxi from the airport pulled up in front of the hotel that Fulbright put us up in. I knew it would be nice. Zona Rosa. The super nice part of Mexico City. The odd part was that I have stayed in the same hotel before on a school study trip I took as an undergrad. Sometimes I wonder who I really am. When I look for a hotel, I usually have to specify that I would prefer my own bathroom as opposed to sharing the one in the hall with a bunch of twenty year old backpackers. How I ended up two times within the same lifetime in a beautiful colonial hotel in the Zona Rosa confuses me.

Not to say that I don't like nice things. I love nice things. As I viewed the cafes and shops that line the Zona Rosa under the clear blue skies and warm air of DF I felt completely content. We were shuttled between beautiful hotel to gorgeous offices of the Mexican education ministry to the spacious and polished conference rooms of the U.S. Embassy. This is the life, I thought as we mingled with people that are used to these spaces, these rooms. "I'm with the State Department", "I'm with the Embassy", "I'm with the Fulbright Commission" I heard over and over again. And we were the star attraction. I found myself feeling sad at unexpected moments. I really doubt I will be a guest of the State Department again in my lifetime. All of this special treatment is completely temporary and sooner rather than later I will be scrambling to figure out what to do next. I knew it wasn't reality. My current reality is on the dusty edge of Tijuana in a graffiti tagged neighborhood. I had the same sensation at my first Fulbright conference in DC. As I sat in an expensive hotel listening to important people thanking me for being a part of important things, I knew I was just days away from returning to the dank, utilitarian spaces that embody the public school system where I work.

"Do you feel safe in Tijuana?" I was asked for the millionth time in DF. I still didn't know how to answer that question. I am a superstitious person. If I said "yes", I knew I would be shot dead tomorrow. Am I cowering in fear? Well no, I'm not. But Tijuana is not safe. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Everyone likes to tell you that the only people that get killed here are narcotrafficantes. What they don't mention is that these shootouts take place in very public places, in bars, streets and restaurants that are spread indiscriminately throughout the city. There is not a sign out that says: We kill people here. It seems to happen everywhere. Do I feel okay here? Yeah, I'm okay here. But I am not the bad ass that I feel like they wanted me to be. You'd have to be a freak to feel safe in a city where dead bodies have been hung from overpasses and scalped faces sewn to soccer balls.

I spent an extra day in DF in order to enjoy the city outside of conference rooms and because the floods in Tijuana weren't really enticing me to return. The rows of colonial buildings and hyper urban atmosphere reminds me of Madrid. It seemed even more beautiful than the first time I was there. It really didn't feel real. In ways it didn't even feel like Mexico. Sure, Mexican people were everywhere - I know that all Mexicans don't live like the people in Tijuana, but somehow I couldn't put it together in my head that both places could exist at the same time. In the Zocalo I caught sight of huge piles of water bottles and thought we were walking up on some sort of massive recycling project. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that people were collecting and loading water into trucks to help the relief effort in Haiti. It was fantastic and immediate and knocked me out of my self centered, overly reflective state.

Before I knew it, I was hovering over TJ again in a plane. My stomach was kind of hurting and I felt a little you feel safe in Tijuana? Do you feel safe in Tijuana? Though it was after midnight, the dread slipped away as I rode through familiar streets. Near my house, I noticed a patrolling convoy of Mexican military following a truck that sported a soldier manning a mounted machine gun. Hmmm, I thought, the beige ski masks are way less intimidating than the black ones.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

We are human

I was excited all week. I woke up at 5:30AM, caught a taxi to the border and waited in line to cross it. "What are you bringing back from Mexico?" the American agent asked me. "Ummm, my clothes, some shampoo...I live in Mexico" I finally answered. I wasn't returning, I was going. "Where are you going in the United States?" she demanded. "San Diego" I answered. "Why?" she shot back. "To catch a flight" I returned. "To where?" she retorted. "Phoenix".

Ahhh, Phoenix. What a yucky city. Tucson is funky, Phoenix is just sprawly. I met my sister in the airport before noon. We immediately wheeled out to the Hispanic part of town in search of Sonoran hot dogs, my sister's chosen birthday meal.

"¡El pueblo!, ¡Unido!, ¡Jamas será vencido!". "¡Obama!, ¡Escucha!, ¡Estamos en la lucha!". The chants surrounded us as we marched down the street, surrounded by thousands of people carrying signs and banners. "¡Arpaio!, ¡Racista!, ¡Tú eres terrorista!". I felt happiest when I would see Hispanics in cars, at taco trucks, in yards, their eyes widening when they saw us, followed by horns honking and fists raising. Cholos, grandmas, families. Obama....eschucha....estamos en la lucha...I only wanted to cry when I looked at the children, on shoulders, in strollers...this is for you, I found myself thinking, THIS IS FOR YOU.

After a morning of activism, Holly and I arrived at a ritzy spa to relax for the rest of our birthday weekend. I jumped around on my big bed and dug through all of the drawers in our fancy room before heading out to the super pretty, pool side bar for some snacks and drinks. People sat around fire pits, drinking and talking. I am not much of a mixer. Why would I want to meet strangers while I was in Phoenix with the only person I really wanted to talk to, my sister Holly? We laughed and drank and talked about the rally. While finishing what we thought was our last beer, a voice called "Ladies... would you like to join me at the fire?".

"And what do you do?" we asked our host, an older yet cool looking woman with a cigarette in one hand and a red wine in the other. "I am a conductor. I drive trains" she answered, a mischievous look in her eye. You don't hear that everyday and it fueled the conversation for another quarter of an hour. "I'm on leave" she explained, removing her hat to expose a soft, downy fuzz that covered her scalp. "I had this little problem". "Are you good now?" Holly asked. "Yes" she said and smiled "all clear".

She ordered us another round of drinks. The waitress rounded the pit to come to her side. "I can serve these ladies and I can serve you, but I cannot serve them" she whispered, motioning toward the indoor bar. The conductor laughed. "My partner is inside watching the game with some guy we just met today" she explained. Two old men promptly staggered out the door of the bar and plopped themselves by the fire. One looked like Christopher Dodd. The conductor's partner began the usual round of questions. "What do you do?" he asked us. "I'm a teacher..." I began. "That's nothing!" he barked "Pay attention to this woman! She drives trains!". I felt the giggle rising in my throat while he lashed out at Holly in a similar fashion. "What were you doing in 1978?!" he demanded. Well sir, I was trying to pull my other leg out of my mother's womb. "See!" he growled "Pay attention to this woman! She drives trains!". He ordered us another round of drinks, took a guzzle of his wife's wine and turned to Holly. "So what do you do?" he asked, beginning the cycle anew.

The senator suddenly tumbled from his chair, wedging himself between a stone wall and Holly's leg, after putting out the fire pit with his foot. "Stop that" the conductor hissed, relighting the fire with her lighter and flicking her cigarette in it. He had propositioned Holly, who inadvertently burst out laughing and asked "Are you kidding?!" The man could not get up. After a laborious effort, Pay Attention to This Woman hustled Chris Dodd to his feet and dragged him up the stairs to his room.

It seemed like as good a time as any to get going and Holly and I bolted to our room, trying to control our laughter until we were out of earshot.

*in case you weren't sure, Chris Dodd is my pseudonym for the crazy drunk man that nearly set himself on fire.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Yo sí limpio Tijuana

"ESTOY AQUI PARA LA BASURA!!!!" The garbage man shrieked, chasing a small boy in diapers down the street of our privada. Their huge truck tore down the street in reverse with a man hanging off the back drinking a Coke Zero, setting off car alarms as it passed. Half of our neighbors stood in the street either watching or scuttling to put their trash cans in the street for the Liberace of garbage men. Even trash pick up is a party in Mexico. "¡BASURRRRAAAAA!!!!" he howled, as the truck tore out of the privada as quickly as it had arrived.

I had an ugly experience on New Year's Eve that has stuck with me. I was feeling pretty jovial, drunk and even singing and dancing publicly in my favorite Atlanta bar with my friends. How this turned into a near physical confrontation with a Hispanic Border Patrol agent is beyond me. What was the migra doing in Atlanta? And how can a Mexican man proudly explain to me that he drags "illegals" back to the border? How can some culero say in public that they should be "shot on sight" and expect everyone to nod their heads and agree? If the Native Americans had had gunpowder, they might have employed his idea and trained the scope on the illegally entering pinche Mayflower. The little old Pinta might not have come out unscathed either.

I had to visit the Mexican migra again last week and got turned down again for my visa. Feeling frustrated, I hotboxed a couple of Nicorettes and crossed the border for the Chula Vista Target. "What's your name?" a big guy hanging out of the window of a cruising BMW asked me, "I think we went to school together!". I always fall for this shit. I told him my name and that I wasn't from around here. "Are you married?" he asked. Like I said, I always fall for this shit. I of course answered "yes" only to be told what a damn prize I am and that he would have snapped me up in a second. It sounded as if my consent wouldn't have really been an issue. I felt relieved to get back to Mexico until I saw the eyes. Again, lurking in the no man's land on the U.S. side, directly in front of the Mexican border, between two fences, feet away from the ICE agents. Curious, inquisitive eyes of multiple detained men watched me as I watched them and I slowly walked toward the turnstile, liberties intact, coming and going as I please.

The cars have been repeatedly visible in the parking lot, so I have been going to work on a regular basis. The walk on Monday was clear blue skies and warm weather until I saw the man in swat gear and a ski mask holding an automatic weapon in front of me on the sidewalk. Three more came into view and a police pick up truck full of detainees. The guys in the back looked pretty tough, I found myself hoping the police had apprehended the people who shot a man to death the other night in the neighborhood next to ours. I inadvertently made eye contact with one of the ski masked police before diverting my eyes to the ground as I carefully passed him. "Buenas tardes" he greeted me, as the rest of the police pick ups came into view. Cars were pulled to the side and trunks opened as the ski masked cops hunted for whatever, a number of things come to mind, they were looking for.

I am teaching the largest class I have ever taught. Nearly fifty kids that failed English during the ordinary semester have been packed into one classroom so that I can re-teach and re-test them. Students are everywhere. It is difficult to walk through the room; some kids cannot leave their seats without moving multiple tables. The punishment for late arrivals is hunting through neighboring classrooms for a chair. Other teachers stare in horror when the bell rings and the sea of kids pours out of the classroom after my 100 minute class.

It's cool.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


As I walked past the giant police station practicing my America's Next Top Model walk, I heard a little "beep beep" and I waved furiously at Profe Julio as he drove past me in his car. The last day of school is always so happy, festive. I believe Julio's car was probably directed straight for Sinoloa; none of the teachers could wait to get out of Tijuana and get home to their pueblos.

Returning was a little tricky. I crossed the border in the middle of the night with large groups of Mexicans dragging luggage just like I was. I was a little unclear on when I actually had to go back to school. The calendar said the 4th, but I had heard a few murmurs about the 6th at the school's Christmas party. The morning of the 4th I woke up feeling a little down. I unpacked the loads of supplies I brought from Atlanta to get me through until July, weird stuff: printer ink, English novels, vitamins, winter clothes. Stuff that is either expensive, unfindable or things I simply did not want to buy again upon return to Tijuana. I knew I really should get ready to go to school. I opened the blinds and squinted my eyes in an attempt to see the parking lot of the school. It looked pretty empty. To double check, I trained the zoom of my camera on the parking lot like binoculars and decided I did not need to take a shower.

In the early days, I would have walked to school to check it out, see if anyone was there. Sometime in November, I changed my system and simply walked out to the street, saw no cars in the school parking lot and decided I wasn't going to bother to walk up there. Monday, I relied on the mile and half wide view from my bedroom window. The hills that circle Tijuana had undergone a remarkable change in the past two weeks. The pale, Return of the Jedi Mars-scape had been replaced by a dark moss fuzz. I felt compelled to open the window and felt a warm, spring like breeze that immediately made me feel optimistic and content about being in Tijuana.

I continued my new system on Tuesday and decided school had not yet started. On Wednesday, I could see the reflection of the sun from windshields in the school's parking lot. I really didn't know what I was walking into. There are classes between semesters for the kids that failed, yet another last ditch effort to make them pass. I failed about seventy kids and as I walked to the school, I had no idea if I would have to teach that day or just sit around in meetings. It was a little unsettling, as I had no plans or materials prepared. I scanned the streets, looking for students walking to school. I was relieved to see empty classrooms when I arrived. And then came my next question...exactly what were we supposed to do? It became apparent that we would sit around and talk about our holidays for about an hour and a half and then attend a meeting. Comparisons swirled around the room of how many hours each profe had spent in the bus to arrive home. Of how fantastic the food is in the town that they come from. Of how many months until spring break.

Our meeting was relatively informative and ended with a large multicolored cake that we ate to celebrate Día de los Reyes. Everyone found it quite amusing when I encountered a small, plastic, naked boy in my piece of cake. Yes, I will be preparing tamales for the staff on February 2nd, which also happens to be my birthday. As I am American, I hope they will be satisfied with pizza or McDonald's, as everyone knows that is all that we eat.

Profe Roberto told me that the naked boy is good luck. That I should dress him when I get home in order to ensure this luck. I pondered how to dress this half inch naked thing with a rather pinched and demonic look on his face. I am considering using one of those small, useless band aids that appears in every purchased box, only to hang around the medicine cabinet for years. I really feel like I need the luck.