Thursday, February 25, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome

"You are invited to attend the opening ceremony..." the email said. I had to think about it. Go to school at 8:45am for some ceremony though I didn't have to work until 1:30? Hmmm. But, generally when they say "invited" they really mean "required". I decided to go. I was out sick last week for two days and figured I had better make an appearance.

As soon as I entered, I was hustled to the front by my principal. "I want to introduce you to the crowd!" he announced, referring to the six hundred odd students standing in the sun. I was placed in a line with the superintendent of our school system, a representative from the federal education system and the police chief. And then, I was introduced and told to address the crowd. Something happens to me when I am forced to speak in front of hundreds of people without notice, in Spanish. For the second time within one week, I became a mumbling, unintelligible mess. "Gracias!" I ended, and ran away after about thirty seconds of gibberish.

Quite a lot of folks were there from the superintendent's office in Mexicali. One approached me and asked if I was going to Mexicali with them, that day. Huh? "We'll take you by your house so that you can pack a bag", they instructed, "We'll be back to get you in an hour!". I ripped damp clothes off of my clothes line, forgot my contacts and a hair brush, and was whisked away to Mexicali. Four solid days without a teacher for my students. Oh well.

We stopped by a couple of nice hotels in the centro so that my drivers could collect their things; they had stayed the night in Tijuana. As we headed to the highway, we passed another campus of my school system that is basically right around the corner from where I live. Muddy, dirt roads lined the neighborhood and shanties lined the paths. Uniformed students poured out of the school. It reminded me of some of the rural areas in Laos. I was surprised that such third world conditions existed in Tijuana. Not completely surprised, but to say the least, saddened. "Look!", one of my cohorts called, "There is the academic coordinator's daughter!". Banda music played on the radio and the border wall twisted and turned on our left as we drove to Tecate. We ate some carne asada tacos and stopped by the bread place to pick up some of Tecate's famous bread. We passed through the military checkpoint and headed for La Rumorosa.

"We're going to visit another plantel" my drivers told me. "It's an extension". We pulled into the town of La Rumorosa, something that I didn't know existed. And for good reason. "No one stays here" they told me. "There aren't any jobs. Everyone goes to Tijuana or Mexicali or the U.S. But there are some kids here and the community asked us to start a school". We pulled up in front of what used to be an abandoned orphanage. There were three classrooms with some chairs and tables and beaten up whiteboards. It was freezing. People were wearing winter coats and stocking caps, inside. They have a student population of 50. I was shown a rickety kitchen with a sink and an old, tiny four burner stove. "The tourism students practice culinary arts here" they told me. Everything became very clear to me at that moment. I knew that I wanted to work there.

They told me that they would take me to another extension. They said that it was in a "humble" neighborhood near Tecate and that Americans had helped build whatever semblance of a school was there. I was curious, very curious. But for now, we headed to Mexicali. Música romantica played on the radio. We arrived at a hotel and I was told to call them if I needed anything, but might want to avoid going out alone. I waited for their car to pull away, put on my coat and headed out. As it was 6:30 and I had nothing to do, I decided that I needed beer and nail polish.

Breakfast with the superintendent, 8:00am. Or 8:20am, Mexican time. I barely ate. He wanted to smooth things over about my schedule difficulties. I told him that changes were made after I contacted Mexicali. "Good, good, good, we want more exchanges!" I was told. I told myself to be confident and attempted to drive my point home. I wanted them to understand that if they were willing to treat me, their exalted guest, so badly, the superintendent really ought to think about how the Mexican teachers are treated at that school. Deaf ears. "We want more exchanges!" was the only thing that rang clear. I know it's not my place. I had to try. I worry that I didn't try hard enough.

"The roads from Mexicali continue in Calexico" I was told. "We used to be one city". We were driving to the big event. We arrived at another plantel that was cloaked in students and press. The governor was coming. I was escorted to the front row. The governor of Baja California was introduced to the crowd along with another slew of distinguished guests. And then, I was introduced. At least they did not ask for comments. I have to admit that I wasn't too comfortable being within five feet of the governor, considering the nature of some of the violence here. I was especially concerned when we had to pose for huge group pictures and I was thrust at his side, sporting a ridiculous thumbs up! I got to sit in on his press conference. "How do you feel about the recent announcement from the U.S. that Americans SHOULD NOT visit Baja California and that Tijuana is one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico?" was the first question. Oh God, what did my government do now? I was interviewed afterward by a reporter. The inevitable question: Do you feel safe in Tijuana? "Nothing has happened to me yet" I answered, and stared back at her. Yeah, the hype about Tijuana is overblown. Come one and all?

We never made it to the extension near Tecate.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The love that won't shut up

I haven't been walking to school. It's a bad habit to start taking taxis and I decided to break it yesterday. As I walked, the soldiers came into view. Straddling both sides of the street, camouflage, ski masks, armored desert vehicles, automatic rifles, a guy manning a gun turret. I slowed my walk.

You're wondering now, what to do, now you know, this is the end...

Cars were stopped and trunks were open, a soldier abruptly thumped the base of his rifle and I raised my hands and slowly walked through. It was endless. And then I saw the taxi. Full of my carpooling students. Five, seven of them, crammed into one cab. When the soldiers stopped them for revision, instinctively, I stopped. I am an adult. I am their teacher. They are just kids. I was paralyzed. I am a foreigner. I knew I had no say here. I'm used to having to take care of my students. But here, we are all on our own. The soldiers let them pass as the kids waved at me through the windows of the cab. My ipod kept singing to me.

And he's related to you, he's related to you, he is waiting to meet you...

I am starting school just like I started it the first semester, on the shit list. I received a horrible schedule that I have been fighting both tooth and nail. It wears on me. My fellow teachers have been rallying around me. "This is shit" they tell me "they are taking advantage of you when they should be happy that you are here". After going up the chain by meeting with the principal, academic coordinator and union head, I was still getting stonewalled for schedule changes. Teachers started slipping me the phone numbers and email addresses of the superintendent of our school system. "Call him, write him" they advised me "Just don't let them know that I was the one that gave you the number..." I told them that I would write an email and bring a copy to school so that they could proof read it. I presented it to Profe Julio when I arrived. Throughout the day, teachers were knocking on my door. "Can I see the copy?" the asked. "Can I bring it to Nora? She wants to see it...put in a word for us. They treat us like shit".

I am not here to stir things up. But, I have always had a problem with relinquishing my rights. Even if teachers don't have any in Mexico. Why don't they strike if they are so unhappy? I have one word for you: Oaxaca. I am in a weird position. They want me to stand up for myself and in turn, stand up for them. I can do that. I can tarnish my career aspirations to vocalize our mutual discontent. It just kills me that the only reason I have a voice is because I am not from here.

My odd sanctuary has been the classroom. It never has been before, if anything, it was the highest point of stress in my life. The kids have been happy to see me. They weren't sure if I was coming back. While teaching a lesson on adjectives, I asked them to think of an adjective in English for every letter of my first name. "H?" I asked. "HOT!" the boys called out. Ay, Díos mio. Sometimes I think I am my best self in the classroom. I keep my demons in control, I am not too crazy and I am polite. My darling Gloria hugged me when she showed up for the first time on the second day of class, because she heard that I had asked where she was. And she still tells all of the other students that I am her mother. While revising the attendance list from one of my devilish electronics groups, I saw a heart drawn on the paper. "La profe y yo" was written in the middle.

I don't know how I can leave them.

*Title lifted from the Opal Foxx Quartet
*You're Wondering Now, The Specials
*Nude as the News, Cat Power

Monday, February 8, 2010

Malasuerte en Tijuana

"I'm sick of having guns in my face" one of my co-workers commented. "No kidding" another seconded, "the military has this whole hill surrounded".

I wanted to get out on Saturday, do some things. The rain slowed us down. Even light rain makes the dirt roads in my neighborhood impassable and fills and overflows the potholes of the paved ones. I settled for a trip to Comercial Mexicana, Tijuana's Wal-Mart, which is not far from our house. And has some pretty cool stuff. As Alec and I emerged from the store, loaded down with bags, we noticed that the road was blocked off by police officers and sirens were wailing in all directions as more arrived on the scene. We took a taxi instead of the bus home.

I really needed some Expo markers for school, so we decided to hit the papelería too. A man with a rifle stood on the sidewalk that lead to the store. Alec and I both stared at the ground and tried to give him a wide berth. "¡Buenas tardes!" he greeted us "Where are you from? ¡Bienvenidos a México!" The guy really seemed to be trying to be friendly, not to freak us out. I guess I am getting a little sick of having guns in my face too.

We got curious. What happened while we were in Comercial Mexicana? A cop got gunned down. In traffic. In the middle of the street. The street we have walked up and down a million times. He was headed for work at the police station next to our house. "Four murders in one hour!" the Frontera newspaper blared.

I haven't been to Casa del Migrante in a while. The bus driver didn't notice that I was getting off behind another guy and started driving. I jumped out of the moving bus while carrying a ten pound block of processed ham and headed down the street. I could hear music from far away. What was going on? A street party for Casa's church! I went inside and greeted everyone, I was pleased that they seemed happy to see me. "Let's go eat!" Raquel said happily, grabbing me up and taking me to the street with Gabriel and Rogelio. A little stage was set up and music was thumping, all of the songs I've heard a million times here sounded new and good. Tamales, enchiladas, elote....all for sale for some San Felipe church money.

...con las espadas desnudas a abrir aquellos cuerpos desnudos y delicados...

I had a smile permanently plastered to my face. Our lovely semanarista friend from Casa was dancing and slapping his own booty, then breaking into giggles. The horchata servers spontaneously broke into a line dance, take it down, bring it up, hold it there, keep it going...a kid ran by in an orange hoodie with a pumpkin face on the front and a stem rising out of his head, chasing a dog that was as big as a horse.

...como la flor, tanto amor, me diste tú....

Didn't they know we were all going to die?

I went to mass with the migrants again. I wanted to. My head was swimming. I tried to pretend like I was going along with the whole thing; I didn't want to be disrespectful. The migrants seated behind me took communion and came back to their benches behind me and remained on their knees. They were engulfing me. I normally would hate something like this, weird human proximity, but it oddly made me feel good. Until I heard the sniffles, the crying. My bones started feeling heavy, like a physical pulling and I was sinking into sand. My head was swirling and I looked straight up, pulled my chin up and tried to fixate on a single object, which unfortunately happened to be a bloody crucified Jesus on a cross.

I found La Doña outside of the church and asked her if I could help her cook next Sunday. "Of course" she said "of course".

*Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las indias, Bartolomé de las Casas
*Como la flor, Selena

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Las mañanitas

"And then, goosebumps appeared all over the body we were about to embalm!" one of my fellow teachers howled "Chinga! The girl was alive!". Friday night, on the eve of a three day weekend, the administration at school had decided to keep us until seven o'clock. I worked most of the day, making tests and materials for the upcoming semester. By five thirty, my eyes were having trouble focusing on the computer screen. The rest of the teachers were seated in a circle in the freezing cold sala de maestros, while one of the math teachers told us stories about a stint he did working in a mortuary. "One time, I had to go to the scene of an accident. A really bad one. Bike accident. Blood was everywhere and then I noticed change spilled all over the ground. Two pesos, five pesos, ten pesos....I had forgotten to bring bus fare to get me home and I decided that dead people weren't going to need the change anyway and I started scooping up the pesos, even the ones with blood on them." Groan, howl and hysterical laughter. "The next day, I picked up the paper and there was a picture of the scene and way in the back, I saw myself, hunched over, arm extended, haciéndome un pendejo".

I was up at 5AM the following morning and got a taxi right outside of my house. Two blocks away, we were stopped at a military checkpoint. A couple of large camouflage trucks lined the street and a soldier manned the gun turret. Cars were stopped and trunks were opened. A man stood with his arms over his head and his shirt pulled up to reveal his belt line. A ski masked soldier waved us through. The biggest, roundest, brightest moon hung in the dark sky.

Sometimes, in moments of adversity, I imagine myself singing "Stand" in front of an audience of my detractors. I have this really spangly dress on and look, well, awesome. I usually sing the howling Sly parts. Sometimes I play guitar too.

As I rode the trolley to San Diego, the big bright moon was replaced with a big round fire red sun that quickly changed the sky to a light blue color. I escaped being accosted on the train. It is always someone, "the thing", as my niece called it, a rough, anglo man (?) that wore garish makeup that had seated itself across from me and stared at me violently before requesting a piece of gum. I turned it down, as I only had nicotine gum and wasn't sparing a piece for a weird stranger. It turned it's attention to an older, Mexican woman and requested a piece of gum in Spanish. The señora stared back at it darkly, without responding until "the thing" finally looked away. Or the insanely drunk woman who aggressively seated herself with Alec and me, began a relatively intelligible conversation, picked up her phone and asked her caller if she "fucked her or was her mother?" and then proceeded to tell us the exact same story for the third time in a row. Or the "friendly" old men that creep over to my area and interview me about every aspect of my life. Nope, just lots of people crossing the border to work, coffee in hand and Spanish newspapers in front of their faces.

Yes, there is an irony to the fact that I had to leave Mexico only to re-enter it by air in order to spend my birthday weekend in Los Cabos. My family met me there. Have I mentioned that my family is awesome? While a lot of Americas won't even go to Cancun anymore for fear of swine flu or drug violence, my mother, sister and twelve year old niece have just made their third trip to Mexico in the last six months. My mother plows right into Tijuana and trots through the centro, buying souvenirs and tacos just like she is in Atlanta. My niece always wants to be in the street, where she can buy elote and Mexican sweets. As for my sister, if adventure had a first name it's H-O-L-L-Y.

I arrived in Los Cabos a couple of hours before my family, and presented my new visa to the migra agent. Trouble was afoot. "I just picked it up yesterday" I explained. "No you didn't" he said haughtily, pointing to the issue date of the twentieth while scooping up my passport and visa and walking to an office in the back. Great. Insisting on speaking in English, he pointed out that I hadn't been stamped out of Mexico when I crossed the border that morning. Shit. His accent was difficult to understand and when I asked for clarification about some unintelligible thing he said he snapped "Pay attention" as if I was a stupid child. "You like that little box you sit in all day, don't you? Makes you feel powerful. It's especially nice to talk down to some American woman too, isn't it? Do you have a hard on?" I asked, or I wanted to ask as I stood there, quietly and politely. I finally made it through, picked up the rental car and drove around a little, then returned to the airport. I popped the plastic lens back into the frames of my sunglasses and placed myself between the taxi drivers, waiting to see my family pop out of the airport doors. I am not sure why Americans go so crazy on vacation. Older, proudly alcoholic men walked around with open beer bottles. One carried a six pack of Dos Equis, popping open a new one whenever he saw fit. Brand new pedicures and golf clubs cruised by me. An older American woman with huge fake boobs walked slowly by, precariously balanced on very tall heels, with a chihuahua riding on her shoulder.

Ahhh, what a weekend. Warm breezes, seafood and humpback whales that would have impressed National Geographic. Yeah, Los Cabos is pretty heavily touristed and there is a damn good reason for it. Quicker than I wanted, I was back on flight to the U.S., so that I could return to Mexico. I sat in a sports bar in Phoenix that proudly advertised Bud Lite! and watched Fox News. It made me wonder which planet I was on while the commentators battled a one sided debate about why gays SHOULD NOT! be in the military. One of the "strong points" of their "debate" was that homosexuals would sue if they had to do extra push ups. Well, that sounds reasonable....their program was quickly followed by a commercial featuring G. Gordon Liddy selling insurance. I certainly trust Fox News and their advertisers.

I was seated again next to Marines on my flight to San Diego and quickly found myself back at the border. I remembered to get stamped back into Mexico, only after being invited to dance by the migra agents while they stamped my visa on the wrong page. As I walked past the ICE agents in front of the turnstile, they quickly pushed past me and zeroed in on a young, Mexican cholo with a small backpack, completely ignoring the much larger bag I was dragging.

And then I was home.