Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fifteen days

It rained one day last week and the temperature immediately dropped, transforming a late April day into a pinche mid-January one. There was a bit of ambiguity about whether or not classes were being canceled and few students remained at the school. For some reason, the entire software group of students was out in force. I stood around with some other teachers, not teaching because I didn't have students, and watched a group of the software boys as they ran through the rain and jumped in puddles in order to splash each other. They were shrieking and laughing. They are all around seventeen years old. I was surprised that adult tendencies hadn't set in on them yet. I was bored and my only attempt to entertain myself was to lean against a wall and listen to other people talk. At parties, I usually sit around and drink and talk. It never occurs to me to run through the rain and jump in puddles or to climb a hill and throw pebbles at the people below. I saw the prefecto pass by the students and say something to them. One of the kids ran up to me. "The prefecto told us we were acting infantile!" he gasped, still short breathed and wild faced from his puddle activities. "Whatever" I said, smiling, watching a boy kick up some more water on another student. For some reason my mind wandered to a memory from a pizza place I used to work at. "Only children and women wear shorts" my Moroccan boss told me, eyeballing all of the American guys walking around in shorts while the Moroccan men sweated out the day in black jeans.

I got some Ramen noodle soup from the snack shop. They have different flavors of it here in Mexico. The school serves a chili and lime flavored one. After adding the hot water, the snack shop guy dumps an additional blob of hot sauce in it and gives me a real lime, to enhance the "natural" flavors of Ramen. It's weirdly delicious. "Do you know how long Ramen soup stays in your system?" one of the teachers asked me as I ate it. "How long?" I responded. "Fifteen days". I don't know why eating plastic can be so appealing at times, especially when served with lime and hot sauce.

In accordance with my ecology themed unit, I made my students bring in scraps of things the found in the street to celebrate Earth Day. Aluminum, wood, paper and plastic - some of the vocabulary words they learned. As I walked the aisles of the classroom asking each student to rattle off the items they found in English, six students pulled out six empty Tecate cans and set them next to their notebooks. I have an image of them saying "Let's do our English homework" and walking into OXXO to buy a six pack. I also wondered about the people passing by our doorway and seeing kids with beer cans on their desks while they worked.

Ecology Week ended up forcing a lot of class suspensions. Three of my classes were suspended so that the students could present projects that they made for the Ecology competition. About halfway through the second class, it became apparent that all forty kids from each group really didn't need to sit around with one project, waiting to present it. "Tell the other kids to go back to class" a teacher instructed us. I looked at Profe Hector. "How are we going to get them back in the classroom?" I asked him. "It's impossible. Don't worry, this is Tijuana, we can do whatever we want" he answered, and we leaned against a wall a talked for about forty more minutes.

Alec has become addicted to Saturday night fights on TV. We watch brutal boxing matches between various Mexican competitors and occasionally, big name fights. Our favorite part is when "Brought to you by HBO pay per view" appears on our cable-less, public TV station. We are hoping for the Mayweather fight, after already watching Pacquiao wallop someone and Holyfield lumber around with some out of shape guy. I imagine weird wires crossing the border and connecting with some house in California that bought pay per view, bringing prize fights for free to Mexico.

I love the blue and white bus. It's Alec's principle ride to work and he often comes home with stories that begin with "You won't believe what the blue and white did today..". I watched the blue and white cut through the McDonald's drive through, going the wrong way, and sail back into traffic just the other day. When traffic gets backed up, the blue and white simply drives into the oncoming lane, swoops into the maquiladora parking lot when oncoming cars come, and swoops back out into oncoming traffic after exiting the parking lot. Or it just drives through the dirt on the side of the road. You got somewhere to be? Take the blue and white.

So I made a dentist appointment. I found this guy's name on some surfing website. This is when my dormant xenophobia really kicks in. While eating a couple of weeks ago, I managed to chomp down on a rock, yes a rock, that was in my food and crack one of my molars. It doesn't hurt, but I am a little nervous about waiting for it to hurt. I am not to keen on going to any dentist and my fear of dentistry is compounded by going to a dentist in another country. I did it once in Madrid. It was okay, except that when the cleaning started to hurt, the dentist addressed the situation by holding my head down with his forearm until the sweat on my forehead made it start sliding off.

I think everything will be fine.

Friday, April 23, 2010


*Art by Lalo Alcaraz

"¿Cómo estás?" I asked Profe Julio as I entered the teacher's workroom on Monday afternoon. "Bien guapo" he answered, sailing by me with a sly smile on his face.

Last Saturday, Alec and I decided to join a California group that normally advocates for immigrants' rights while they distributed aid near the epicenter of the earthquake, south of Mexicali. We drove east through the Rumorosa and promptly got lost upon entering Mexicali. Finally, we saw the caravan of vehicles with handmade white flags hanging from their cars in the Mega parking lot. We inserted my Mazda in the line of overstuffed trucks and headed south.

It started looking pretty rural as we drove the dusty dirt roads south of Mexicali. As we arrived at our first stop, we saw people gathered in a small plaza and clusters of Mexican army vehicles. It was a little awkward, we had a lot of stuff but Mexico clearly had the situation in control. Large military tents with roll down screens and cots formed a square that included a food commissary and medical post. It was clean and orderly. Soldiers quickly unloaded eighteen wheelers full of food aid. "There are about eighty families living here," our leader told us, after speaking with the soldiers, "but they say there are more people about three blocks away that don't want to stay here because they need to stay by their damaged houses and protect them from looters".

We moved the trucks three blocks away. People began gathering immediately. I wondered what would happen, how would we distribute the stuff, would it get out of control? The waiting people asked us what we wanted them to do, form a line? Yeah, yeah, sounds good. We started unloading the trucks and were promptly assisted by members of the damaged community. They formed a chain and started off loading the trucks so efficiently that I felt like I was getting in the way and moved. I have volunteered with various groups that work with Mexicans in need and have noticed a common thread. The people that I have assisted are not hapless and don't like being treated like babies. In the desert, the first instinct for many of us when encountering ill people is to try to wait on them hand and foot. They don't like it. They are in the middle of a bad situation, yes, but they are not children. They want to cook their own food, load water in trucks, basically, help. At the migrant house in Tijuana, we are constantly visited in the kitchen by recently deported migrants that want to help cook, clean up, do something. Again, they are not children and we are not saviors.

We moved on to the next site. As we drove, I had the weird sensation that I have experienced many times in the desert. Weird stuff happens in the afternoon when you think your job is done. I remembered the helicopter evacuation, the three men that hadn't eaten in five days, the two men laying by the road with their ID cards spread out in front of them...It was obvious which roads had always been bad and which were simply ripped apart by the earthquake. People saw our trucks and began motioning and calling "Over there, over there". We came upon another plaza. A collapsed elementary school sat across from it. Distribution areas were marked, "Hot food" and "Potable water", but there did not appear to be much of either. People started gathering. A leader from the ejido approached and introduced herself. "Put the stuff here and organize it: food, toiletries, water and clothes. Save the camping stuff, I have a list of who really needs it. I'm going to tell them to line up, old people first". I was relieved to see her. A group of ten year-old kids showed up, all wearing identical Superman T-shirts. They helped unload the trucks and sort the stuff. I was in charge of toilet paper and soap and whatever else I could get my hands on. And then they started coming, quickly, and every time I looked the line looked longer than before. I had people on all sides of me; it felt like the restaurant rush. But instead of feeling bitchy, I actually felt completely in my element. Things were moving quickly and the Supermen helped us. "What can I give you, what do you need?" I asked one Señora. "Anything you are willing..." she answered quietly. Don't worry, I loaded her down with stuff. The endless thank you's were awkward. I know it is a social convention and that the recipients of our aid wanted to be polite, but I never know how to respond, in the desert or in Mexicali. "You're welcome"? For what, giving a thirsty person water? Awfully big of you. I settled on "Suerte": Good luck. Good luck with your collapsed town. Not the best, but all I could come up with.

I had to cross to San Ysidro again the other day. As I returned, an American agent approached a Hispanic woman in front of the turnstile to Mexico. "Can I see in your purse?" he asked, more as a statement than a question. She looked baffled. "I'm going to Mexico" she responded, confused. "Are you saying I can't look in your purse?" the agent barked. One little phrase would be very useful to these agents and they may want to learn it in Spanish, as they seem to only stop Hispanics at the turnstile. "This is a routine check. We are assisting the Mexican government to stop the flow of fire arms from the U.S. to Mexico. Can I look in your purse?". I passed through the turnstile, unmolested. Again, in the no man's land between the two fences, I saw a Border Patrol truck. Two agents stood talking and laughing, while a man crouched on the ground between them, his hands secured behind his back.

I think I am a little agitated the last couple of days. I know someone of questionable legal status that is returning to Mexico to see a possibly dying relative. Okay, it's their mother. I have offered what little assistance I can offer that is within the law, as I have no desire to spend time in some tent jail in Arizona. It is not needed. He knows what he is doing and is going to do it. I'm agitated by this new law in Arizona. A police officer will be able to stop anyone that they suspect is in the country illegally and ask them to prove their legal status in the U.S. Supporters of the bill claim it is not going to lead to racial profiling, yet cannot explain how one arrives at this suspicion of illegality. Special clothes? Weird shoes? Or let me guess...having brown skin? If a cop approached me and asked me to prove that I am legally in the U.S., I wouldn't necessarily be able to do it. I thought "Show me your papers" only happened in World War II movies. But you know what? No one is going to stop me. I'm white. An unmistakable euro-mutt. I am not sure how many of you have spent time in the American Southwest, but the ethnic makeup is decidedly Latino. Hell, it was Mexican land. It sounds like if you're brown, be sure to carry identification and be prepared to show it regularly or spend who knows how long in jail because some cop doesn't like the look of you, whether you are a citizen or not. "But this is the USA!" you say. No, not in Arizona.

Our military is also largely Latino now. I'm intrigued to see the outcome when the first cop asks some recently returned Latino vet to prove his or her legal status. Oh, but I lose myself sometimes. It's okay to send Latinos into U.S. wars, or U.S. construction sites, or U.S. kitchens. But the rest of the time they are supposed to remember that they don't have rights.

I guess you could say that I am agitated.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bueno Barato y Bonito

Coming back to work was hard. I'm not sure why.

"There is something in my beer" Alec stated. "Something I did not put there". I ran over, expecting to see a severed finger or bug in his Bohemia bottle. A perfectly petrified lime floated in the half empty beer. An old one. One that he did not put there. Before you all stop drinking Bohemia, I would personally like to vouch for it's quality. I have drunk about ten million since I arrived in Tijuana and this was the first that did not meet quality control standards.

A fart rattled through the other side of the teacher's workroom. "¡No seas puerco!" one of the teachers howled. "You're not showing the value of the month: Loyalty" Profe Julio remarked, wandering through the workroom with his shoes in his hand. "It's going to stink in here!" they yelled at him. "So how was your vacation, Hilary? Listen to me, I sound like those American movies when the Latino speaks English" Profe Julio continued, plunking himself in the chair beside me. "Good, good" I responded as Julio wrapped his scarf around his neck and over his nose.

"Hilary! Please tell your American friends to visit Baja California. They see Tijuana and turn around and go right back home. Tell them it's beautiful in the south!" Profe Berenice instructed me. "I think they already know, Profe," I responded, "there were a lot of them down there". "You should tell the exchange people to send you to Cancún next year!" she responded. Sometimes I have no idea what is going through this woman's head.

The teachers debated the ethics of something they were planning. "¡Lo no está prohibido está permitido!" they chanted in unison. I love this about Mexico. You do something you probably shouldn't do in the U.S., whether it's posted in writing or not, cops swarm you and throw you on the ground. "I was going to put the cigarette out, I swear!" you find yourself gasping, swatting the foot on your throat away. Here, things are kind of flexible. Go the wrong way and end up on the toll road to Ensenada? "I really don't want to do this," I told the toll booth agent "can I turn around?". "Sure, sure" he responded, moving cones and instructing the cars behind me to back up. I'm quite fond of the three Bs as well. "Bueno, barato y bonito, that's what we look for in a car" the teachers instructed me and were surprised when I told them that I would settle for bueno y barato.

"Where were you during the earthquake?" I asked one of my classes. This has become a popular question at school. One of Alec's students apparently was in the shower, felt the house rattling, and continued showering. All of my students pointed at one "kid", a student who says he is eighteen but everyone swears is thirty. "He was in el baño!" they shrieked. "Showering, right? Please say you were showering" I responded. "I was having intimacies, teachercita" one of my truly buck-wild bobcats said slyly. I am not sure what I did to give my students the green light to say things to me that they would never say to another teacher. I guess I haven't done a lot to discourage it either. I am curious about them, their real personalities, their slang. "Yeah, in your dreams," I responded "alone".

"Teacher!" one of my students called. "What's up?" I asked her, trudging through my first day back at work. "We made this for you" she stated, handing me a long necklace on a woven string. A plastic leaf hung in the middle, with my students names and group number on the back. It feels like a lucky, magic charm, a guard against anything bad that could come to me. I have been wearing it nonstop and have considered sleeping in it. I swear, these kids just break my heart sometimes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


"They are going to suspend classes on Friday, the day before Semana Santa. All you have to do is stop by on Friday and sign that you taught your classes" the union rep advised me. I went up to the school around three to sign for the classes that I didn't teach and the school was deserted. For once, I was the late one. The few people that remained were literally running for the parking lot to cars that were packed with wives and kids, ready for the long journey back to the precious pueblos they had left behind years before to head for the job filled metropolis of Tijuana.

En Mexicali ya había tenido oportunidad de echarle un ojo a esa gente. Gente sin vida, es lo que digo. Como cuerpos sin alma, quiero decir.

I was glad they were going home.

I asked Profe Josefina where she was going for vacation before everyone left. "We're staying here. My husband's family is coming up from San Luis Potosi. We didn't have enough room for all of them in the house, so my husband built an extra room off of the side".

Alec and I drove south, fighting over who had control over the stereo. We spent our first night in Ensenada. I love cable TV. For some reason I have ended up watching one boxing movie or another on more than one of my stays in Ensenada. This time, Raging Bull. "You didn't knock me didn't knock me down..." Robert DeNiro hisses at Sugar Ray Robinson, his nose plastered across his face and eyes swelled nearly shut. It's really a sick scene, but I'm not big on being knocked down either.

On we went, toward the fantastic, Dr. Seuss desert that surrounds the small cluster of buildings that make up the town of Cataviña. Oddly shaped cacti and neon yellow desert flowers dotted the mountains. Men sold gas from jugs on the side of the road. My car thought it was a good time to start acting weird and glow some of its danger dashboard lights at me around dusk. It reminded me of the time my sister's car broke down on us in the Petrified Forest in Arizona. I decided to just turn it off and we stayed at a hot pink little hotel with a slouchy mattress and a curtain for a bathroom door. Isn't it funny how places that advertise themselves as "linda" never are?

Though I loved the desert scenery, I felt sorry for Baja California. Even dusty roadside taco stands had menus in Spanish and English, anticipating tourists that used to come and clearly weren't arriving this year. Gun toting soldiers stopped us in the military checkpoints that line the transpeninsular highway and politely waived us through.

The car felt better in the morning and stopped shining those lights at me. For a '97 Mazda, it really seemed to take to those dirt roads. We drove through massive salt fields that made Baja California look like the arctic to arrive at the Laguna Ojo de Liebre. I really wanted to see more whales. From our little boat, gray whales and their whale babies humped their way through the water, blowing a weird orangey smoke out of their, um, blowholes. I really wanted one of them to turn our boat over. I am not really sure why, I didn't want anyone to get hurt and I didn't want to get eaten by a whale, I just wanted to know what it would be like.

We were supposed to turn back there, head north, but we went crazy instead and kept heading south. Actually, southeast, through San Ignacio and on to Santa Rosalia - a French anomaly mining town that looks like the Marigny or Dominica, but in Mexico. And further south, to Mulegé. And then to the crystal clear beaches south of Mulegé with big white faced birds that looked like Dick Cheney.....Some gringolandia developments started popping up. And we saw some of their inhabitants in Mulegé. But they were the other kind. The mysterious kind. Older, with four wheel drive vehicles with plastic gas cans strapped on the back and skin like brown leather. People that knew the whole history of Mexico and referred to their homes in San Felipe. They reminded me of Australians. A little rougher than ordinary Americans, wilder, but people that share our humor and redneck qualities more than our English brethren. I can't say that I entirely approve of the Baja expatriates, whether they live in McMansions in San Felipe or rusted RV settlements in southern Baja, but will say they are a different sort of tourist and generally extraordinarily friendly and helpful.

I realized that Tijuana is perceived as the eyesore of Baja California. When hotel proprietors would ask us where we are from, we would tell them that we are from Atlanta but have been living in Tijuana. "Oh no..." they'd say "you'll like it much better here". Poor TJ. It just can't help itself.

We had to get heading north. We went crazy again and took a detour to Bahía de Los Angeles. I expected another pretty, crystal bay or feared San Felipe, but instead found a more savage place with deep blue water and wild waves. Alec and I started plotting how to get back there and headed north the next day.

Military checkpoint after military checkpoint. The car was searched every time. Thumping on side panels, flashlights in air vents, please open your trunk can I see inside your luggage? All cars going south get the waive through. All cars going north get searched. "Write down your name and the make of your car" the soldier instructed me. I am almost afraid to say it, knock on wood, but the soldiers are actually really polite. I watch them when they search my stuff but have never had anything but honestly, a pleasant experience with them.

We got back to TJ late Thursday night. After washing my clothes, Alec and I went to a park near our house on Friday. It has a little zoo. Tigers, pumas, lynxes. Some really big bears that can stand on their back legs beside a wall that is way too low where we stood and observed them. One time, Alec saw a tiger ride by, being towed from a truck in a little cage, in the middle of traffic in Tijuana. I saw a llama in an intersection in Ensenada, riding through a four way behind bars. "I saw this tiger in a cage" the husband of another exchange teacher told me. "It was right in the middle of traffic. The thing was, the bars just seemed too far apart, like the thing could just swipe at you if you came too close. You know, a kid or something!".

I love Mexico. The park is basically in the middle of a series of giant roads, pollution, madness all around. A lot of the people I work with don't seem content in Tijuana. They want to be home, where they came from. There is violence here, bad violence, drug wars, soldiers, men in ski masks patrolling the streets. The Mexicans chased their kids through the park, bought snacks and laughed. Their capacity for happiness amazes me. It's as if the pollution, noise and grime just vanishes away. I love how they can't eat a bag of chips unless someone pours a quart of hot sauce directly in the bag before serving it to them. That my male students carefully cut out pictures of soccer stars from magazines and glue them to the front of their notebooks. That five gallon jars of hair gel take up a whole aisle in the supermarket.

As I rode the trolley north to San Diego to catch my flight back into Mexico to get to Mazatlan to begin my second week of vacation, I was filled with love for my students. Their faces filled my mind as I sat by a big cholo guy that no one else would sit next to, listening to Tijuana's greatest hits on my ipod. The job thing is a little on my mind. I have options. In that moment, the thing that felt most comfortable, the most natural, was to stay in Tijuana.

I did a plane tour through the southwest United States, changing in Phoenix and on to Sinaloa. I knew we were in Mexican airspace when I started seeing messages to God written on the sides of mountains. "Whatcha!" my cab driver said to another man, before continuing his sentence. You Spanish speakers may be accustomed to "Mira" as a way of saying "Look". Here, and in Sinaloa, "whatcha" does just fine. My super asombrosa family met me in Mazatlan for the rest of my vacation, while Alec returned to work in TJ and the rest of the world avoided Mazatlan because of the state it is in.

More cable! I turned on the TV late in the afternoon and caught CNN español. Sismo? 7.2 in Baja California...epicenter in my hand, "Alec, was there a, um, earthquake?". "Yeahhhh," he answered cautiously. "I didn't want to worry you. The floor started shaking and I thought 'shit this is an earthquake' and I got in the doorway. Then I realized in ten more seconds I could be out of the house and I ran outside. The whole street was out there and the road was moving, people laughing hysterically and dogs barking like crazy."

We took the boat to La Paz traveled and west toward Los Cabos. Okay, the Americans did not get the memo down there. BAJA CALIFORNIA IS DANGEROUS. STAY HOME. There may be beautiful beaches there, but BAJA CALIFORNIA IS DANGEROUS AND ALL GRINGOLANDIA EXCEPT ME MUST STAY HOME. Oh well.

I flew back to TJ Friday night. I offered Alec 175 pesos to drive my car to the airport and pick me up and was super surprised when he did it and had to cover my eyes from the passenger's seat while he drove through Tijuana to get us back home. "Keep the bottom lock on the door unlocked" he instructed me. "When the house starts shaking you're gonna want to get out of here".

*Malasuerte en Tijuana, Hilario Peña, READ IT