Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Love you on a Tuesday

"Please buckle your seat belts for take off" the flight attendant instructed. That's what I like to hear. I stared at my Tijuana - Culiacán boarding pass. If you had asked me thirteen months ago if I ever expected to be holding a boarding pass with those two names on it, I would have definitely said: I believe those two names are restricted to newspaper articles about narcotrafficking. Apparently not for the families and ordinary looking people that filled the plane. One of those two names probably meant home.

I was surprised when my school approved my request for a Monday off on late Friday afternoon. "Is it enough notice?" I asked. "Oh, no problem. Culiacán es preciosa, I'm from there!" one of my bosses told me, beaming. At my U.S. school, we had to request days off, even days for professional development, at least a month in advance. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico? The principal appeared and commented again on my absence from the work Day of the Teacher party. "We would like to invite you to a breakfast, Saturday morning at nine, downtown" he stated, "I noted your absence at the party!" He handed me an invitation for a breakfast in honor of Mother's Day. Hmmm, Mother's Day was weeks ago and I do not have children. Exactly why was my presence requested? The fog of confusion entered my brain. 9AM broke through the fog like a cryptic, smoldering black menace. I nodded vaguely, knowing I wasn't going to go and dreaded the retribution that is surely coming.

I had found a cheap ticket with an airline with "bus" in its name. I am always kind of against using that word to describe planes. I am not sure why anyone would like to identify themselves as the Greyhound of the sky. There is another airline that uses the word "calafía" in their name. In Tijuana, the cheapest and most rickety buses in town are called calafías. They zig zag through traffic, cutting others off and stopping wherever they please. Whenever I think of this calafía airline, I think of a rusty plane blowing black smoke through the sky, tearing in front of 747s and landing in a dust covered field while the passengers jump from an open door of the plane to the ground because there are no stairs.

I bought my plane ticket and decided to hose off my car. I haven't washed it once since it arrived and it uh, shows. It is so dusty here I really didn't see the point, but the students are becoming increasingly fascinated by the level of filth present on my automobile. It looks like a rolling beach. I see their heads snap and stare when the sandy hooptie of the American profe rolls by. A quick spray down made it look like it was just kind of dirty.

I stepped out onto the stairs to exit the plane in Culiacán and was hit by hot, damp air at nearly ten o'clock at night. I pulled my hood up, crouched low and crawled on my elbows and knees military style to the airport entrance. Just kidding. The city looked nice from the taxi windows. I met up with another exchange teacher to attend a teaching conference that was arranged by a third exchange teacher that is based in Culiacán.

Monday morning, the conference room was filled with teachers from Sinaloa. I was surprised by the turn out and was left with the impression that the Sinaloa education ministry is pretty hot shit. Of all of the impressive teachers in the room, one strange one approached my friend and me. "I want to be an English teacher" the shifty guy with a long scar on his forehead told us. "I went to the U.S. as wetback ten years ago and learned English in Las Vegas". I asked myself if I should question him about his choice of terminology and decided not to.

Less than twenty-four hours later, I was back in the airport. I watched Argentina whup Canada in a friendly match and headed towards security. "Please wait" the security guard told me solemnly. I waited a few minutes and was sent to the X-ray machine. As I turned the corner, I saw a cluster of guards surrounding an empty pizza box that was sitting on the conveyor belt. They all started giggling. "It was her birthday!" they called between giggles, pointing at one uniformed woman.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico?

*Title, Tuesday Moon, Neutral Milk Hotel

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Walk on the Wild Side

"HILARY! Why didn't you come to the party?" Roberto asked me. "I don't know, Profe. I planned on it. I got home, I was tired and in a bad mood and just didn't make it" I answered. "Even Profe Julio came," Roberto responded "he has been out sick for two weeks and still showed up at the party and danced all night!". I don't know, if I had been out sick for weeks and showed up for a work sponsored party and danced all night, I wouldn't be lauded, I'd be fired. "I know Profe, I screwed up" I said and hid from the teachers for the rest of the day.

"Profe, ¿va a ir al baile?" the students asked me. It has been one party after another for various holidays that aren't celebrated in the U.S. Day of the Teacher. Day of the Student. Day of the Child. Day of the Woman. "I don't know if I'll go to the dance..." I answered. "Come on Profe, dance with us!" That's the thing, chamacos, I'm a white American. We look gross when we dance. One of my African American students in Atlanta told me specifically, during some goofy class activity, that I was proof that white people can't dance. It's okay. I accept it. Sometimes I do secret shower dances, or this crazy Norteño dance I invented, but that's all I have to say about that.

"¡Voy a bailar en la mesa!" one bobcat announced, with a head jerk and hip twist. "Dance sexy, erotic!" he emphasized, in some crazy English.

Holly came from Miami, F.L.A....I decided to use a song to help me teach the past tense. I wanted something narrative, something that told a story. I've heard "Walk on the Wild Side" so many times in my life that it seemed like a good choice. I was surprised that the students had never heard the song. I saw them holding back giggles when Lou starts his do do do, do do do do..... When I realized they were trying not to laugh, I laughed, then everyone laughed. I'd forgotten how unbelievably lacking in rhythm it is. It's Lou. He's my man.

I entered one group on Wednesday to find the classroom empty. "They're at the cevecería" others told me. The brewery? Why didn't I get to go? I ran into them later and asked them how it was. "It was good," the told me. "we got to try the beer, a cup apiece". You learn something new everyday. The drinking age is only eighteen in Mexico and most of these kids aren't eighteen. "But you know.." one student explained "things aren't so strict here". Have I mentioned lately how much I love Mexico?

I entered another group and found only a third of the students that should have been there. I got talking to some of them. They had questions about my job in the U.S. Do I always teach? What age group? What subject? "Spanish" I answered. "I took Spanish when I went to school in the U.S." one told me. I laughed. "Yeah, I've had a lot of Mexican kids in my beginning Spanish classes at home," I told him "they take it because it's easy, or because their parents want them to learn more about their language". For some reason, I felt sad. I have taught a lot of these kids in Atlanta. It seemed strange to be talking to a student that had been through the same experience and was back on the other side, voluntarily or involuntarily. Everything is strange. The world really is one big back yard, with signals crossing and people moving. It's beautiful and sad all at the same time. And me, well, I'm just floating through.

Sometimes I wish I could put the beauty and tragedy all in one box, wrap it up, and pet it for a little while.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Arizona sure has helped the nation. We've woken up and smelled the coffee! Iowan Pat Bertroche, a Republican running for a congressional seat, would like to put microchips in undocumented folks before deporting them. "I can microchip my dog so I can find it" he is quoted as saying, "Why can't I microchip an illegal?". Well cochino, an "illegal" is a human being, not a canine. GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim James would like to offer his state's driver's license exam in English only. "This is Alabama; we speak English" his commercial states. Some of us from other states might differ that the language spoken in Alabama is actually English. The Maverick John McCain has further displayed that he misplaced his backbone and supported SB 1070 in an attempt to beat a Tea Partier out of his Senate seat. Representative Duncan Hunter, you guessed it, a Republican from California, would like to deport U.S. born children along with their parents, though they are American citizens and not citizens of any other country. The Department of Education in Arizona is blocking people with "heavy accents" from teaching English as a Second Language. I have a feeling they are not talking about people from Alabama, Brooklyn, or the Scottish. On April 18th, an Ecuadorian man bled to death on a platform in Queens while multiple people passed, without calling an ambulance. Some took pictures with their cell phones. The passage of SB 1070 in Arizona has accomplished exactly what I feared it would accomplish: it has opened the floodgates of hate.

I had a warning. Things seemed to go relatively smooth when Obama was first elected. Things got nasty when he actually tried to govern. After the health care vote, black Representatives were met with racial slurs and spit on while they attempted to enter the Capital. The opponents weren't screaming "I hate your health care bill". They were screaming racial slurs. My representative in Atlanta is John Lewis. You may have seen him in old sixties videos, strolling beside Martin Luther King in places like Alabama. They called him a nigger. I can only imagine what he must have been thinking. Did he ever imagine that the election of the first black president of the United States would lead to being spit on as he entered the Capital in 2010? It was brewing, the racism, stewing and building and waiting for Obama to act, for Obama to do something they didn't agree with. And then the bile spilled forward.

After watching a series of videos recorded during earthquakes, our principal told us what to do if there is another earthquake, before gliding into another slide on his Power Point that dealt with myths about earthquakes. Number three: "Don't panic, the United States will help us". As soon as the slide came up, multiple people in the room said "Arizona". "That's right: Arizona." our principal said. "The U.S. doesn't want us and we can't rely on them for help". I felt awkward and people were looking at me. It wasn't the first time Arizona has come up since the passage of SB 1070. I understand that it is not a bad thing if Mexico doesn't rely on the U.S. should a natural disaster occur; they need to be prepared. But I don't like it that the legislative moves of one racist state has made visa carrying, Mexican citizens feel unwelcome in our country. They are one of our closest neighbors. We share a border and a history. We are sitting on their land. They welcomed me to their country. And aside from all of that, they cross the border daily, on legitimate visas that they pay for, to go shopping in American stores, eat in American restaurants and visit American theme parks. I couldn't even get across the border during Christmas because the line at San Ysidro was hours long, they had shopping to do. And now, they do not feel welcome. Actually, they are afraid they will be completely harassed. So they'll shop here, not in Chula Vista, not in Nogales and not in El Paso. Congratulations, Arizona.

Alec and I spent the weekend in Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora. The beach is pretty and is a popular destination for southern Arizonians. Mexico is not forgetting about SB 1070. Various articles and editorials about the law are still a daily feature in local newspapers. As we got closer to the beach, we began seeing a lot of cars with Arizona tags. Current tags, not the expired tags of Mexicans that bought cars in Arizona. I really couldn't believe it. They own homes and condos and continue visiting the hotels and idiot gringo bars that take up little pockets of the town. My mind wandered....seventy percent of Arizonians supported the law. Maybe the percentage of supporters was lower among people who actually visit Mexico regularly? Or maybe not. That takes balls. I'll harass you if you come to my country, but I will wander around yours like I own the place. Actually, I do own parts of it! When interacting with locals, I found myself thinking, "Please don't let them think we are from Arizona". For once, I was glad to have Georgia tags in Mexico.

It wasn't the first time I have felt uncomfortable with my nationality while traveling. Indonesia, late in the year 2000, was a little awkward. Turkey, March 2002 was an experience. Vietnam brought obvious difficulties. But I am American. It is who I am.

There is something wrong with our country. The country of immigrants. The melting pot. Sometimes, I think we should just give up on the experiment. Send everyone back to where they came from and leave the place uninhabited, except a few Native American reservations. Seal it shut with an impermeable, Simpson's dome. It can't be saved.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


All the leaves are brown...
"ALL THE LEAVES ARE BROWNNNNNN!!!" I howled with the radio. And the sky is gray..."AND THE SKY IS GRAY!!!" I continued, alternating between backup vocals and occasionally, singing lead and letting the Mamas back me up. Sometimes, I managed to do both. A border patrol check point popped up out of nowhere. "Are you an American citizen?", "Yes", "Do you have anything illegal in the car?" "No", I answered. I went for a walk..."AND THE PINCHE STOPPED MEEEEE!!"

Five days off. I probably would have signed my contract if I had ever been spontaneously given three days off, starting on a Monday, at my U.S. school. Here, I was actually a little irritated when they told us we didn't have to go back to work until Thursday. I like to plan for long weekends, go somewhere. The other exchange teachers knew they had the break and tried to make travel plans near Mexico City. I unequivocally told everyone I DID NOT have the break. Friday afternoon, my school decided they would give us the days off. I think it's disrespectful. People have lives. Let them know if they have to work or not.

What could I do at the last minute? Alec didn't have the break, I was on my own and had no plane tickets. I attended a pro-immigration rally in San Diego on Saturday. I'm not big on protests. I know they are important but am uncomfortable with the format. Numbers matter, so I went, even if I didn't carry a sign.

"Where are you headed in the U.S.?" the border patrol agent asked me as I attempted to pass through Tecate Monday afternoon. "Joshua Tree National Park" I answered. "Pull into the Secondary Inspection Area" she responded. Second time in less than a week.

After a thorough car thumping, I again felt relieved as a drove through Southern California. I glanced into my rear view mirror and saw a Border Patrol truck behind me. For some reason, that made me nervous all over again. Why? Why?! I asked myself. The border wall looked weird from the American side, different. Iggy Pop came out of nowhere on my radio.

Margaret was on my mind. My old best friend. This was the kind of trip she used to do, after she moved out west. She would take her old Honda to Mount St. Helens, Monument Valley, Glacier National Park, where ever and often alone. I always think of her when I go out west. Not in Mexico, that's my thing, but the American West. That was her thing.

God definitely controls the radio in the borderlands. Occasionally, NPR would break in, only to be interrupted by Mexican radio, and then a little more Christ. I found myself singing to occasional sweaty, sixties hits that would break through the fuzz that took over most stations. I share a distinct American cultural trait that loves having a car and being able to take off in it without really knowing where you are going. In the late, golden part of the afternoon, I entered the Joshua Tree park. As I tore up the deserted road that climbed a rock covered mountain, the opening cords of "American Woman" sailed out of my radio, crystal clear, and I really felt completely right with the world.

The kids had gotten pretty rowdy when they learned they were about to have five days off. Actually, things got kind of rowdy before they found out about the break. I was doing a question and answer activity with my really boisterous electronics group earlier in the week. I strangely have come to look forward to teaching them. We have a good time. "Who do you want to question?" I asked each student before they read their question out loud. I started leaving off "to question" for expediency. Unfortunately, "who do you want" also translates to "who do you love" in Spanish. This particular group is made up of about thirty-odd boys and five girls. "Wooooooo!" the boys shrieked, after boys would select boys to question. It became a pattern, "Who do you want?", wooooo!, and then a question in English. Some boys winked and blew kisses when selected.

Other groups engaged in more sinister activities. There was a group that I taught last semester that was removed from my schedule for the current semester, in order to cut back my hours. I miss them. They gave me so much hell when I arrived and then I was disappointed when they were gone. When we pass each other throughout the school, they scream "We miss you profe!!!" and put their hands over their hearts. I, in turn, put my hand over my heart. They wave at me from their third floor balcony when I enter the school. Five of them were caught robbing other students' back packs while we were in an assembly. The school threatened to call the police if they didn't hand over the stuff; they produced a multitude of cell phones and MP3 players. I was honestly shocked. "Kick them out" multiple teachers said when we heard what happened. I agreed, until I found out who did it. All of a sudden, I felt differently. What the hell got in their heads?

As I drove out of the gate for my return to school, a caravan of federales drove past. Three trucks with men dressed in black, complete with combat boots, bullet proof vests and ski masks that show only their eyes. They rode through town with their machine guns raised and poised for action. A small army, around twenty-five men. I don't know why they are so much more intimidating than the military. Is it because they were black ski masks, instead of the viewer friendly beige? Their reputation?

A Tijuana fire truck sat at the entrance to the school. The firemen wore "San Diego County" fire jackets. As I didn't see smoke, I dragged my mongo box of dictionaries into the school and started my day. "We're going to use them?" the students asked, marveling at their newness.

I heard the message ding ding of my phone..."Can you see the fires?" Alec's message asked cryptically.

"Yes, yes you are..." I answered as they smelled the new books.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

California Dreaming

I really needed to get across that border and to the UPS store. I used some of my Fulbright money to buy a class set of Spanish-English dictionaries and the boxes had been waiting for me for two days in California.

Getting up before 8AM seems like waking up in the middle of the night for me now. I made it up around seven and sat bleary eyed, drinking my coffee and plotting how I could get those boxes. Half an hour drive to the border. About a half an hour to get through the checkpoint. Fifteen more minutes on the trolley. How big were these boxes going to be? Haul boxes back to trolley. Ride it fifteen more minutes back. Drag large boxes over big footbridge to Mexico and drive back home. "Screw it," I thought "I'm gonna drive".

I decided to go through Otay, the lines are supposed to be shorter than San Ysidro's. I felt weirdly independent as I drove through town. Kind of like when you put a dog in the car and it gets all excited and looks like it's smiling. I passed a taxi with "El Cholo" proudly displayed across its windshield. I got lost trying to find the border crossing. Finally I saw big lines of cars and pulled down one of the lanes. It was mysteriously short. I knew I was doing something wrong and couldn't figure out how to reverse the situation. "Oh well," I thought "they'll just tell me to turn around or something". I approached the gate.

The agent looked at me with a little apprehension. "Hi," I said. "I have no idea what I am doing, I haven't crossed in a car before and this line seems way too short". "Yeahh..." he said "You're in the Sentri line, the line for trusted travelers that have undergone criminal background checks". He was surprisingly cool, not yelling, it was actually like a normal conversation. "It's confusing around here. I am going to let you through with a warning" he said, placing an orange card and my passport under my windshield wiper. "Just pull up there and stop" he said, pointing toward a garage-ish area. "That, um, parking lot?" I clarified, pretending that I didn't know what it was. "Yeah" he said. I thanked him. I knew I really didn't want to go in that area. I've seen it before from the bridge at San Ysidro and on Weeds. But, I figured I deserved it. I cut in the line, I could at least sit a while in the Secondary Inspection Area.

Border Patrol agents drank coffee and milled around. Several cars waited in various lanes to be checked. Dismantled cars sat pulled off to the side. The agents were strangely pleasant and normal, it actually seemed like any office, except for the weird gigantic tools laying around, drug sniffing dogs and guns. They didn't exactly seem to be going in order of arrival, some folks were getting checked that had come in after me. Again, I figured I deserved it. Maybe they were going to let me sit there the amount of time I should have sat in line. Agents thumped on the panels of the cars and climbed under them with mirrors. They opened hoods and trunks. A couple of agents approached me at various times and did a few little things. I felt very wide eyed and cautious about my movements. Agents have opened fire two times in San Ysidro since I arrived in Tijuana, I really didn't want to do anything stupid to startle them. A red sports car with chrome tail pipes and a California tag pulled up next to me. The agents thumped on the interior panels of his car and went to work thumping on the exterior panels. One agent called another agent over. She listened carefully as the other agent thumped around near the gas tank. She started to nod her head slowly. Two agents removed the man from the car and handcuffed him. A sly, knowing smile spread across his face as he was lead away.

They were asking other drivers for proof of car registration and insurance cards. My car is insured and registered in the United States, but being the sharp one that I am, I carry little proof of either. It was dawning on me that I might not be able to explain my way out of this, that I might actually be in trouble. My track record with the migra hasn't been so hot. The SUV next to me was finally cleared and when the driver went to start his car, the battery had died. He looked thrilled. He had been watching me for a while, possibly because I appeared to be the only non-Latino in the Secondary Inspection Area. The agents approached my car, asked me to give them my car keys and started thumping it. After repeated attempts to get the hood open, they finally let me get out and open it myself. The ran my sketchy paperwork through their system. I imagined red flashing lights going off in their computer: Got in argument with Pig Faced Man at San Ysidro. Photo: There she is walking through the Sonoran desert with four gallons of water. Police report: She did something really dumb when she was twenty-three. Document check: Has that crusty old Mazda been properly imported and exported from Mexico? I watched as the agents siphoned the gas from the red sports car. "Please be careful next time." one of the agents instructed me. "The fine for what you did is between $500.00 and $5000.00". FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS? Dude, I'm a teacher! I thanked them and actually meant it and drove through the last checkpoint. An agent circled my car again. "Georgia!" he howled, "You lost?!" "Yes, I am" I said, laughing with a big sense of relief. He directed me toward the mini malls in Chula Vista and I sped off into California with banda music on my radio.

I missed my dentist appointment, but only by like twenty minutes. Maybe I did it on purpose. Maybe I subconsciously preferred the Secondary Inspection Area to the dentist's office. I got to work, feeling like I had already had a full day. Profe Julio unpacked a syringe and some sort of vial he had bought at the pharmacy and handed them to the nurse Profe. They walked to the other side of the teacher's workroom and she put a shot in his butt. The academic coordinator and another teacher stood up on chairs, pointed, laughed and took photos with their cell phones. The bell rang, Profe Julio pulled up his pants and we all left to teach our classes.

I am wondering if that MacGyver Profe can fix my cracked molar.