Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Mexico — There, Not Here

Mexico, Oaxaca, Irma JuarezUnderstanding Mexico is like learning Spanish. I’ll explain.

The other night, in a Spanish class, a student got hung up on a particular phrase because, as she put it, “it doesn’t make sense in English.” Of course it doesn’t, I told her, but it works just fine in Spanish.

It’s a common trap, one that grabs many Americans who learn a second language – assuming that native Spanish speakers think, as they do, in English and then translate into Spanish as they talk.

It seems silly, doesn’t it? Intellectually, we know that someone from Mexico or Colombia or Chile is not thinking in English and then speaking in Spanish, but emotionally it is a human trait to presume that others are like us. This is mostly a good thing because it enables us to find commonalities among the differences. Despite the language gaps, the discordant cultures and the political tribalism that distinguish us, we share experiences, emotions and the travails of the flesh. We are men, we are women, we work, we strive, we exult, we sicken, we die.

Seeing ourselves in the lives of others can enable us to celebrate what we share and minimize what we don’t. But, the differences remain and must be accepted in order to understand and communicate. Anyone who wishes to learn another language will not be successful if he or she challenges linguistic uses that come naturally to native speakers. You cannot master Spanish by imagining how you would say something in English.

And that’s how Mexico is. A lot of Americans (at least those not consumed by the paranoid mind-think of rabid conservatism) view it as an extension of the U.S. With the two countries sharing a 1,900-mile border, with 6 million Americans visiting Mexico each year and with 33 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States, it is easy envision Mexico as a browner, spicier, poorer version of the U.S., one with better beaches. But that’s not the case.

“Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos.” (Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.) These words of Porfirio Diaz, the autocratic Mexican president who ruled the country for three decades at the turn of the 20th century, define the conundrum that is Mexico – a land abundant in resource and culture and human spirit, but also one whose potential remains stunted because it lives in the immense economic and cultural shadow of the United States. Like a seedling in a forest, Mexico struggles for nourishment while the larger trees of the U.S.  absorb the nutrients from the soil, block the sunlight and suck up all the water.

Lacking nourishment to develop properly – that is to become a thriving, democratic, First World country – Mexico develops aberrantly, like a bush that can only grow in one direction.

Mexico, Oaxaca, La CienagaThe trappings of modern life are everywhere – sprawling beachside resorts along both coasts; luxury car dealerships even in poor states like Oaxaca; expensive restaurants in the capital; booming factories churning out appliances and cars for Americans; and cell phones in the hands of all but the poorest people.

Life looks good in Mexico to those Americans who jet into Cancun and jet out a week later, sunburned and sated with mushy margaritas. But this image is fake. It is a façade.

The resorts rest on a foundation of corruption; only the oligarchic political and business elite (and their children) drive the fancy German cars and patronize the upscale restaurants; the factories are real but their reach is limited and the average national income is $4,500, with the daily minimum wage about $5; and the cost of phone service in Mexico is one of the highest in the world, thanks to the longtime monopoly held by TelMex, which is run by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.

Anyone who spends time in the poorer communities in Mexico easily encounters more vivid examples of Mexican life behind the façade – single mothers who live in tin shacks and make 20 or 30 pesos a day selling trinkets to tourists; children old enough to be in middle school in the U.S. who have never set foot in a Mexico classroom; villages empty of working-age men, who are in the U.S. picking crops, cooking food and tidying up the yards of the wealthy; and more and more.

In the same Spanish class I mentioned earlier, I occasionally show pictures of Oaxaca, either scenes of the city or portraits of the families and children I’m photographing. Some of the student comments, coming as they do from educated, successful people who are interested enough in another culture to attempt to learn its language, are telling in their fundamental lack of understanding of the forces that create the conditions in which these families live.

Of a 28-year-old woman who has four young children, they ask – why does she keep having babies? Of the children in a shelter that cares for dozens of boys and girls of single mothers, they say – where are the fathers? Of the city’s main square, the zócalo, which is crammed with the tents of striking public school teachers, who have occupied the plaza for a year, they wonder – why doesn’t the government kick them out?

These are good questions, but they are American questions, asked from a mindset and an experience that takes civil society and the rule of law for granted, that (still) believes in the preservation of a social safety net and that cannot imagine the complications that confront a single mother with a fifth-grade education having to survive on her own in a macho culture .

The cultural confusion is understandable. Mexico looks like the United States. There are Wal-Marts and Honda dealerships and Starbucks. Kids wear T-shirts festooned with Disney characters. Adults sport Yankees hats and Dodgers jackets. Teenagers have smart phones. Waiters speak English. Politicians wear suits. People eat pizza. Everyone’s so, so, so nice.

But Mexico is not the United States. Tan cerca de Estados Unidos, pero tan lejos tambien. So close to the United States, but so far as well.

This is a lesson I learn again and again. As I sit, for example, in a mother’s living room and we talk about the town and the weather and her son, who was born deformed and now, at age 11, struggles with the onset of puberty from the discomfort of a wheelchair, I fall into that same trap as the woman in my Spanish class – I imagine the mother and I are the same. We are laughing and joking and she smiles so broadly and openly that we seem like old friends and for the moment I lose sight of the gap between us. I see what we share and miss what we don’t. I forget in that instant what I need to remember most in order to understand her and her life – that I will leave and she will stay. I will return with my expensive camera, which costs more than all the money she made last year, to my life of order and drinkable water and indoor plumbing and she will stay, with her son, with her family, in the town where she was born and where she most likely will die.

How blindly egotistic I am to imagine that she and I are the same – I in my life of privilege and good fortune and her in her life of struggle and hardship.

She is beautiful and warm and loving – like Mexico. She is heartbreaking – like Mexico as well. I need to accept this. I need to live with my love and embrace the sadness it brings.

Mexico, Oaxaca, zócalo, protest

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My Mexico is Missing in My Photography

Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

They love the photos. My wife, my friends, my family, they all think the pictures are terrific. They stare at the faces of the people. They comment on the aprons of the women. The cluck over the cuteness of the children and they sigh at the images of the food. These are wonderful, they say, such marvelous pictures.

But they are wrong. Well-meaning and flattering, but wrong. The photographs are inadequate. They are incomplete. They don’t capture what I saw. They don’t communicate what I heard. They don’t convey the feelings I felt when I made them. They lack as much — if not more — than they contain.

So much is missing.

The heat, for example. Where are the streets roasted by the sun into hot concrete slabs that scorch the feet? Where is the smoky sweatiness of the kitchen where the women are cooking, their golden skin glistening and their gold teeth glinting through the haze? Where is that room in the house, the one with the refrigerator filled with Corona and Coke, the one so dark that its corners disappear into blackness, the one in which the bride, still encased in the frothy spume of her synthetic gown, seeks haven from the heat?

And the drinking. Where are the groups of men who sit on shaded street-corners and underneath trees and drain bottle after bottle of mescal all day long and into the night? Where are these men who stare at me, curious and friendly, when I arrive and ask directions? Where are these men who watch me, slack-eyed and smirking, as I walked through town at dusk en route to the highway? Where the shots of mescal at the wedding breakfast, the cases of beer at lunch, and the bottles of both at dinner?

Oaxaca, Mexico, children, hijos, lunca DalayAnd the stories of the people. Where is young man with the gang tattoos on his face who tells me he’s done five years in a California prison, including a year in solitary? Where is the drunken gatecrasher with the Yankees hat who wants me to come with him to some caves in the hills so he can show me the shards of pottery he found? Where is the lovely older woman who posed for me with her hatchet as she was hacking up the last of the 25 turkeys cooked for the wedding dinner?

And so much more. The animals – the skinny dogs, the condemned turkeys, the flatulent pigs, the shitting cows and the ubiquitous flies, on the food, on the faces of babies, on whatever is alive or dead. The outhouses – reeking in the heat, furnished with encrusted thrones devoid of seats and provided with reading material so that yesterday’s soccer section can be used as today’s ass wipe.  The food – the mugs of breakfast chocolate; the large, tangy tortillas that substitute for forks when ripping chicken from the bone in bowls of red mole; the sticky plastic cups of horchata.

Why don’t the photographs show these things as I really saw them?

It’s possible that I don’t have what it takes to make the photographs I want. Maybe I don’t work hard enough. Maybe I hesitate when I should engage.  Maybe I simply lack the creative eye to see through the camera what I see without it. If this is so, then it explains why other photographers return from scenes just like those I’ve been in with images that are much more powerful.

Another possible answer is that photography by itself is not capable of capturing everything a photographer sees, hears, and otherwise experiences. This seems self-evident, doesn’t it? After all, a still photograph is a limited representation of a moment. It lacks the sound, the smell and the other tactile sensations of the actual instant.

Of course, I prefer the second answer to the first because it is not a condemnation of my abilities, but the truth is that both possibilities are dissatisfying and deflating.

If indeed, as I sometimes suspect, that I just don’t have the talent or the drive or the know-how to make great photographs, then, naturally, that would be depressing. But, equally disappointing would be the realization that photography, a pursuit I wanted to follow since I was in my 20s, lacks by its very nature, meaning its capture of a brief instant from an endless stream of moments that together produce a memorable experience, the ability to convey that experience from one person to the next.

There is a third option, though. It could be that I ask too much, that I want photography to be the means by which I fill the holes in my life and when it doesn’t I blame the images for their incompleteness, condemn the craft for its impotence, or indict myself as talentless.

This supposition carries the advantage of preserving what measure of self-esteem I have about my work as well as giving photography the respect it deserves as a tool of communication and journalism, one wielded with great impact by many photographers more talented than I.

Some of those holes, those devoid of personal satisfaction, moral fulfillment and social purpose, journalism once filled. Not every day, of course, but often enough to keep the drudgery of the daily deadline at bay. Journalism is a story-telling mechanism. This is important to me. I believe in the power of the story as a means to produce social good (and, for me, to enhance self-worth).  I also believe the purpose of telling the story is to affect the reader (or the viewer or the listener), to cause a reaction, be it emotional or intellectual.

My photographs are not telling the stories I want to tell, and these days those stories have to do with the Mexico, or at least my Mexico.

My Mexico is complicated. My Mexico is a contradiction. It is a country of wealth and warmth and welcoming people. It is a country of corruption and crime and vast social division.

My Mexico smells of ripe mangos, pungent salsa and smoky mescal. My Mexico stinks of clogged sewage lines, leaking gas tanks and dark clouds of exhaust fuming from buses and trucks.

In my Mexico, the nights can be so silent that only the rush of the evening wind en route from the mountain to the valley catches the attention of the ear. In my Mexico, the cities are besieged by a harsh cacophony of honking vehicles stuck in clogged streets, boom-boxes blasting disco tunes from sidewalk stands, and of a nocturnal canine orchestra that never sleeps.

My Mexico has markets laden with towers of fresh fruit, aisles of locally grown and slaughtered meat and colorful comedores that serve platters of homemade enchiladas and tamales and moles. My Mexico has food contaminated with agricultural poisons and human waste and water no human can drink without risking intestinal disease.

My Mexico is limited. It is mostly Oaxaca. My Mexico is vast. It reflects the history of all of Latin America and represents the current social, political and economic conflict of an emerging democracy.

My Mexico is missing in my photographs and I want to see it there. Is this asking too much? Of the images? Of me?

OjedaRoberta_021815_344

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Oaxaca and the 43

Oaxaca, zocalo, Ayotzinapa

In Oaxaca, the number is everywhere – 43. As are the words – Ayotzinapa, desaparecidos, justicia. And the faces – Jose, Julio, Luis, Carlos and more, all young men, all dead, all still missing.

The memory of the murdered students of Ayotzinapa is inescapable. Their faces stare out from posters plastered to walls. Banners hang from every public school denouncing their deaths. Arcing strands of black graffiti damn the government and demand answers.

In the zocalo, the city’s social heart, the faces of the victims hang from long strands of colorful construction paper, mixing with the Christmas lights and the blue tarps and orange and green tents of the unionized teachers who have lived in the square for months and have now incorporated the students of Ayotzinapa – who were studying education – into their grievances. The effect is cartoonish, but terribly sad.

Passersby ignore the signs and walk past the tents. The shoeshine men buff boots beneath silent, staring faces. Mariachis play. Life goes on – for all but the 43. They are Mexico’s sordid past. They are Mexico’s violent present. They are Mexico’s precarious future.

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Mary Ellen Mark, Me & Mexico

Oaxaca, Tlalixtac, charro, rodeo

I returned to Oaxaca this year to take a second photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. Here is an account of that trip — and its impact on me — that I wrote for a local magazine. It is an updated version of the story of my first workshop a year ago.

***

No Bull!
Discovering charros and more in Mexico with Mary Ellen Mark

By Tim Porter

The bull had been chased at survival-of-the-fittest speed by a charro on horseback, grabbed by the tail, and then flipped nose first upside down into the dirt, where its rolling bulk created a sideways tornado of dust and grit that hid all but its whirling hooves and horns.

Now, it was coming my way — one ton of off-the-hoof, out-of-control hamburger on a collision course with me and my Nikon. My options were few. A brick wall behind me. A cluster of horses, ridden by wranglers waiting for the bull to come out of the spin cycle, in front. A flimsy metal gate to my left.

I defied the complaints of aging knees, muttered a silent namaste of thanks to my yoga teacher and leapt for the gate.

A second later the bull gained its footing, arose from the ground like a drunken frat boy who had been ejected from a hipster bar, and looked for something two-legged on whom it could exact revenge. Its eyes, angry and aflame, found mine, doe-like and frozen, in my perch three feet above him on the gate. The bull swung his heavy, bony head into the gate, rattling my nerves and my bones. Then the charros, emitting whoops and wielding lassos, chased off the beast.

I checked the camera, noticed bull spittle on my jeans, moved back down along the wall and waited for the next animal.

Just another vacation day in Mexico.

OaxacaCharros_030814_155
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Years ago, I worked at a newspaper in San Francisco with a British reporter who had done several stints with the London tabloids and he liked to say of a hard-to-believe yarn, “Hey, it’s a great story even if it’s true.”

This bull story is no bull. But there are greater truths to be told here.

My nose-to-nose encounter with the bull happened while I was photographing the second day of a charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo that took place about 10 miles south of the city of Oaxaca in a town called Tlalixtac de Cabrera. There, teams of charros, the iconic Mexican horsemen whose tight-fitting suits and wide-brimmed sombreros remind tourists of mariachi bands but whose history is rooted in the horse culture brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, competed for the state championship.

I was in the lienzo charro (the arena) because of one woman, Mary Ellen Mark, the iconic photojournalist who has worked for Federico Fellini, and Life  and Vanity Fair, but is best known for her lifelong pursuit of documenting those who inhabit society’s fringes — street kids, circus performers and prostitutes.

She was a hero of my youth, the reason I became a photographer. My two days with the charros were part of a 10-day photography workshop she led in March in Oaxaca.

***

I first learned of Mary Ellen when I was in my 20s. The ’60s had come and gone and I was living in the wake of the period’s wanton indulgences. I’d gotten a low-level job in a swanky Nob Hill hotel and returned to college, but I had no plan. School was merely a way out of a life I could no longer live.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine, both taken in India. In the first, a boy sat at table in a cafe. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy-eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window. The second photo showed a hippie couple resting on a beach. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea.

In those lost children, I saw myself. The images embodied the untethered wandering that defined the era and that had led me, unwittingly, down shrouded paths from which many never returned. I’ve never forgotten those two photos.

Mary Ellen Mark was only 31 when she made those pictures, but she was already accomplished — assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, her mind and her camera  focused on the social trends of the day. She has said of those years, “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

Her desire inspired me, a confused young man who had passed from adolescence into adulthood along those same edges. I bought a camera. I learned to develop film, found a job in a darkroom and began shooting on the street, joined the community college paper, and started shooting news. There was plenty of that in those days — kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. I used the camera to both open the world to me and to shield me from it. In journalism, I’d found a purpose. I freelanced and hoped for a career in photojournalism .

But it wasn’t to be. My work wasn’t that strong. I was too timid, too distant. More than that, I allowed insecurity to ride roughshod over passion. To stay in journalism, I started writing, which came more easily than photography. Ambition took hold and I followed the opportunities — editor of this, editor of that, editor of whatever came along.

Then it was over. That’s too long a story to tell here. Suffice to say that 30 years after finding myself, I was lost again. Time passed. One day I took out my old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban marshes. Just like that, it all came back.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I learned the software. I bought a bigger camera. I found work with a local magazine that needed someone who could both shoot and write. Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio. I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment.

There was still that itch, unscratched — the edge, the margin, the harder truths. Don’t get me wrong. Living and working in Marin is a good life that many would like to have. But edgy it ain’t.

Then, 18 months ago serendipity struck. I learned of Mary Ellen Mark’s workshop in Oaxaca (where my wife and I had built a house). So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible — Mary Ellen (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my adopted city) all combined.

I joined the workshop last year. I met Mary Ellen (an extraordinary woman of relentless authenticity). I photographed in garbage dumps and garlic fields and the bedrooms of transvestites. I jabbered all day in Spanish. I came home with several good photos and a vow to return — which I did in March.

This year, when I returned home from Oaxaca, a friend asked, What did you learn?

I didn’t have a thoughtful answer at the time and instead something about getting closer with my camera. Since then, I’ve considered the question more and here is what Mary Ellen taught me:

  • That photography soothes me with its seeing and excites me with its engagement.
  • That I am moved by the tenacity and spirit and generosity of those who struggle daily for survival. I wish I were more like them.
  • That I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the short.

Good lessons, yes, but truthfully I knew all of those things before I went to Oaxaca in March, so you might say I learned nothing. You would be wrong.

What Mary Ellen Mark taught me most of all was to trust who I am. In that sense, I learned everything.

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Finding Photography

Reina Lopez, San Bartolo, Luis Lopez

Years ago, after the ‘60s and all the wanton indulgences of that time, I’d regained enough of myself to return to college. I had no plan, no major, no desire to be anything in particular. School was an escape, a way out from a place I could no longer be and still stay alive.

I had a job, my first in years. It was a hotel, a new, fancy one on Nob Hill. I set up tables and chairs for meetings and cleaned the rooms afterwards. I swept, I vacuumed, I emptied trash. I enjoyed the orderliness after a long time of disarray. The job was union and paid decent. After rent and food, there was enough to buy things.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine. Life, I think, but I’m not sure now. In the first, a boy sat a table in a café. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window or open door. He was in Bombay. He was me, a blond version, untethered, ungrounded. In the second, a young couple, also hippies, rested on a beach, also in India. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea. They, too, were me, looking searching, in between places.

They were the first pictures I’d seen that captured the disconnection I felt during those years. I’ve never forgotten them. Nor the name of the photographer: Mary Ellen Mark. She was young then, just past 30, but already accomplished – assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, lens focused on all the social trends of the day. Later she said of those years: “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

SanBartolo_021613_037.jpgZaachila_021613_008.jpg

She inspired me. I bought a camera, a Pentax. I learned how to develop film, got a job in a darkroom and started shooting on the street. I was terrible, too timid, too afraid to approached people. I joined the community college paper, started shooting news. There was a lot in those days, kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. Plenty to point a camera at. I got less terrible and used the camera – now a Nikon – to hide behind and overcome my timidity. At once, it opened the world to me and shielded me from it. I’d found a love. I wanted to be a photojournalist.

It never happened, though. And why that was is too long a story to tell here.  Here’s the short version: I did freelance. I chased the little jobs at little magazines. I did PR work. I made money. But I didn’t commit and that showed. My work was distant, a long way from terrible, but just as far from great.

Small newspapers offered me jobs. First one in an oil town, then another in a farm town. I said no. I worked part-time at a big San Francisco daily, the Examiner, as a gopher, and I saw the bright lights and that’s what I wanted. I got an interview. It went badly. The head of photo told me I didn’t have it, not the talent nor the desire. Best get out of it he said.

Dejected, despaired, defeated, I took his advice. I left town for one of those small newspaper jobs. I shot pictures, but I also began writing. The editor was a redneck, a cowboy and a grind. Writing came easily to me, more so than photography, and when an editor’s slot opened I took it in order to move up the chain and get more leverage.

Ambition hooked me. The photography stopped, then the writing and I moved where the opportunity led – editor of this, editor of that, editor of it all. Lots of work, even more stress.

And then it ended. Another long story. Here’s the short version: Thirty years after finding myself, I was lost again. Years went by. I moved out of the city. I was working, but had time on my hands. One day I took out an old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban woods and the marshes. Just like that it was there again, the rectangular image, the clarity of the prism, the reassuring clunk of the mirror, and, most of all, the precious instant of seeing, the moment the image became mine with the press of the shutter button.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I returned to photography. I learned the software. I bought a digital Nikon. I found work with a local magazine that needed who someone who could shoot cheap and also write. (That’s me: under-priced and multi-talented). Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio (shared). I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment. One thing went wrong: the boy got the wrong girl. I didn’t get Mary Ellen Mark; I got a version of Real Housewives. Not quite. But I do spend an awful lot of time making good-looking people and good-looking places look even better. It’s a good life. Many would like to have it, but there’s that itch, still unscratched.

Then, serendipity struck. A few months ago I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I built a house (here’s that long story). I saw a poster touting a documentary photography workshop led Mary Ellen Mark. So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible – Mary Ellen Mark (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my new love) all combined.

I signed up. I went. And I’m back. What happened during those 10 days in Mexico is yet another lengthy narrative I won’t relate here. For now, I can say what I learned. And that is this:

I love photography. I am fascinated by the imagery, with its patterns of light and shadow and shape and color. I am addicted to the capture, to the preservation of the moment. I find peace in the seeing.

I am drawn still to journalism and documentary, especially as tools for social change and justice. I am moved by the tenacity of humans whose lives are a daily struggle for survival and I am heartened by their humor, spirit and generosity toward others (even those, like me, who have much more than they). I admire those who celebrate this humanity.

I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the  short.

I relish the company of smart, creative, genuine people. I want to be one myself.

Truthfully, in my heart I knew all these things before I went to Oaxaca, so you might say I learned nothing. Still,  the workshop – and Mary Ellen Mark (an extraordinary women of relentless passion and authenticity) — taught me to trust what I know, so in that sense you might say I learned everything.

I finally found photography. Now I need to put it to good use.

Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

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The Real Mexico? ¿Y cuál es ése?

Last night while at a reception at a local art gallery I was talking with Edgar Sóberon, a talented painter whose work was chosen for the next cover of Marin Magazine. Sóberon, a native of Cuba who now lives in San Miguel de Allende, the central Mexico city known for its large community of both artists and North American expats.

I mentioned to Sóberon that my wife and I have a house in Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Hearing that, a woman in our conversation pocket said she planned to visit Oaxaca this summer and wanted to know what it was like. “Ah,” said Sóberon, “Oaxaca is what’s left of the real Mexico.”

As soon as I heard those words, I thought: The real Mexico? Which one is that?

Is the real Mexico in San Miguel, where thousands of older Americans, some wealthy, others living on Social Security, enjoy the tranquility, historical ambiance and mild weather the strong dollar buys them in this prosperous hillside city?

Is the real Mexico the terrorized border cities like Ciudad Juarez or Nuevo Laredo, where narco militias kill at will to protect their trafficking empires?

Is the real Mexico the one this art gallery guest hopes to visit in Oaxaca, where vendors sell colorful balloons in the zócalo, where the streets are lined with shops of artesania and where the cafés are crowded with language students having soulful discussions with their teachers?

Or is the the real Mexico the other Oaxaca — where government at all levels is marked by corruption, cronyism and crass disregard for the welfare of its citizens, where the average level of education is six years,  where three quarters of the population lives in “extreme poverty,” and where rural Indian communities continue to engage in tribal turf battles reaching back to pre-colonial times?

Real Mexico? These are all real Mexicos. And there are many others as well — the modern avenidas of Monterrey, the cosmopolitan chic of Mexico City and, the one known by most Americans, the self-contained resorts of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.

Sadly, the Mexico most Mexicans must endure is a dysfunctional one, where government cannot — and often chooses not — to provide basic services, where narco-violence is on the rise and where the rule of law is something read about in textbooks not practiced in real life.

This is the Mexico that Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center For International Policy, labels on the Huffington Post as living in a state of impunity. Carlsen write in response to the April 27 murder of two human rights workers in a remote indigenous Oaxacan village, she frames the attack in the broader context of the state government’s history of not only siding with the powerful against the powerless but of actively repressing dissent.

Layers of impunity and injustice have covered crimes in Oaxaca for years,” writes Carlsen. Her list of examples is long — the shooting death of U.S. journalist Brad Will during the bloody 2006 teachers strike for which no one was ever convicted even the though shooters were video-taped; the continued iron-fisted arrogance of Oaxacan Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz despite a ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court that he had committed human rights violations during that strike; and, now, the belief by human rights activists that paramilitary members sponsored by the government were behind the April 27 ambush outside San Juan Copala.

When the leaders of a society operate with corruption, arrogance and impunity, they create an atmosphere in which law has no meaning. As Carlsen puts it:

“Impunity is not merely a lack of justice and due punishment; it’s an incubator of violence and crime. When impunity becomes state policy, the rule of law crumbles. “

Although Carlsen is addressing Mexico’s most serious issues, her observation also applies to the quotidian illegal floutings of many Mexicans, who routinely run red lights, cheat on taxes, steal supplies from government contract jobs and see bureaucratic nepotism as a money-making opportunity.

I say these things even though I love so much about Mexico — its rich, blended culture; its amazingly diverse geography; its family centered communities; and, of course, its food (especially in Oaxaca). But I also love Mexico in the way I’d love a friend or relative with a substance-abuse problem — with sadness over his state, with anger his your self-destruction, and with hope that someone, some how, stages an intervention soon.

There is a Mexican saying, a dicho, that my first Spanish teacher taught me. It is apt here and goes like this: No hay mal que por bien no venga — “there is no bad that comes without a good.”

The real Mexico? That’s the one still waiting for the good to come.

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Pobre Mexico

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy story about the ominous criminal, political and social conditions in Mexico that have combined to degrade civil society in many parts of the country to the brink of public disorder.

Fueling this collapse are two evils — the ravenous appetite of the narco cartels for control of the border, of law enforcement and of the proverbial hearts and minds of Mexico’s impoverished citizens; and the endemic, ubiquitous and persistent corruption of government on all levels.

The Journal piece focused on the implications for the United States should the rule of law fail in Mexico. It quoted a high-ranking official in the country’s current ruling party, the PAN:

“The Mexican state is in danger. We are not yet a failed state, but if we don’t take action soon, we will become one very soon.”

For me, it’s more personal. I have good friends — Mexicans and Americans — who live there. I have a house in Oaxaca, Mexico’s most beautiful state and also its poorest. I have seen the country’s working people, through resilient desire and endless effort, carve out good lives for themselves amid a system that favors the wealthy, the connected and the corrupt. And, sadly, I have witnessed well-off people I considered friends express disdain for the poor and for the creation of a society of laws. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of the current system.

I don’t cry easily. The scar tissue laid on during 20 years of daily journalism usually keeps the tears in check. But these days Mexico makes me cry.

In the fall of 2006 I stood in the zócalo, the main square, of Oaxaca – a place I love, where I got married, where I built a house on the far end of a dirt road – and watched a battered TV play a video of the day state police rousted striking public school teachers from the square. I watched the rise and fall of batons on makeshift shelters. I saw the march of heavy boots through darkened streets. Fires burned. Rocks flew. The camera shook. Above all, I heard the sound of helicopters, which police used to fling canisters of tear gas into the crowds below.

I cried right there as the video played. A woman next to me, dressed in the traditional apron of a southern Mexican housewife, saw me, an aging gringo journalist laden with camera gear, and said, “Que triste. Que triste.” How sad. How sad.

A few days later, local thugs — some say off-duty cops — opened fire on a protest march, killing freelance American journalist Brad Will. (Here’s a picture — not mine — of the shooting.)

The resulting international outrage — far beyond any that accompanied the earlier deaths of dozens of Oaxacans — prompted the federal government to send troops into the city restore order.

More than two years later, nothing has changed for the better in Oaxaca. The economy, highly dependent on tourism, has yet to recover. The governor who attacked the striking teachers remains in power. The leaders of the strike are jailed. The killers of Brad Will are free. (The photo at the top of the post is from an anniversary march in Oaxaca’s main square two years after the 2006 attacks.)

Multiply this one incident — a strike, a shooting, a disregard by the authorities for even the facade of justice — throughout the country and amplify it along the drug-trafficking lanes in the border cities and you begin to get grasp of the severity of the challenges Mexico faces. Here’s one fact: 6,000 people were killed in Mexico last year in drug-related violence. The U.S. dead in Iraq for six years of war is 4,200.

Perhaps you wonder why you should care about what happens in Mexico. After all, aren’t the beaches in Baja still beautiful and the pina coladas in Cancun just as tasty? De veras, they are. But Mexico is much more than an American playground.

First, it is also, as the Journal points out, the largest U.S. trading partner and with our economy already on life support we don’t need to lose our best customer.

Second, if you think having more than 4 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States is troublesome, then imagine the immigration pressure on the border should the Mexican government collapse. Says the Journal:

“It has 100 million people on the southern doorstep of the U.S., meaning any serious instability would flood the U.S. with refugees.”

Finally, there is morality. What is happening in Mexico is simply wrong. It is wrong to oppress the poor so the wealthy can prosper. It is wrong to deny people jobs because they belong to an opposing political party. It is wrong to glorify crime and drug use. And, it is wrong to kill journalists. (Read this report, or this one, or this one from the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Poor Mexico. I cry for you. I wish I could do more.

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