Cheap Thrills Away From Home

Nick proudly announces that he’d never paid more than $100 apiece for Broadway tickets. Marty insists that $409 for a single ticket to a single seat for Book of Mormon was a real bargain. That was still above my comfort zone, given that amount’s darn close to a partial pair of Ferragamos. Or a week’s worth of Skechers. Or maybe a sack of items at Sephora. I’ve got my priorities, you know. Debt and the kind of culture that generates reviews in places like The New Yorker just aren’t among them.

I’m not part of the lumpen proletariat, I do have an American Express gold card, have flown first class, have bought a Gucci purse or three, have owned French and Tumi luggage, and always check my baggage, frequently more than a single piece. I’ve never stayed at a hostel or Airbnb, because that’s just too close to camping. I prefer to stay at nice hotels, and if I can’t do as well or better than what I have at home, there’s no point in leaving home.

People are always asking if I caught some high-culture event or ate at some restaurant in TripAdvisor’s top ten when I’ve left home, even those who know me well enough to know what my answer will be. Upon returning from San Miguel de Allende, about 150 miles up the road from home, friends will ask about the great restaurants I ate at, only to roll their eyes when I tell them about the take-out grilled chicken from a roadhouse or a tapas bar at a swank grocery store.

My holidays are filled with regular things, regular meals at regular places, and souvenirs are just as likely to be regular stuff. What did I bring home from my last trip to Medellin? Shelf-stable fruit purees, cotton hand towels, antibiotics, some bar soap, a book about Frida Kahlo’s love affair with Trotsky, and a pair of porcelain monkeys. Plastic storage containers, odd condiments, bobèches, hot pads, wire whisks, hair brushes, eyeliner, and unique kitchen tools have found their way into my baggage on other trips, each bearing a tale guaranteed to bore any listener.

Shopping malls may be dying in the United States, but they’re thriving in Latin America and elsewhere. And they rank among my favorite destinations whenever I’m away from home. I’ll research what shopping malls to hit, because the mall is my version of high culture, a sporting event, and a self-guided tour all rolled into one. Malls are an opportunity to see ordinary people, local folks doing quotidian things, even if sometimes there might be a free concert, seldom lasting more than 20 minutes, which is long enough for musical entertainment anyway. Malls are microcosms of society, town centers, and harbor much more than mere mercantile.  Nail salons, beauty parlors, art exhibits, coffee shops, and nice restaurants beckon. At least one full day will be spent at a mall, no matter where I’m going.

Buenos Aires’ Patio Bullrich, Galerías Pacífico, Paseo Alcorta, Alto Palermo, El Solar de la Abadía. Montevideo’s Punta Carretas Shopping, Town Center in Boca Raton, Medellin’s El Tesoro Parque Comercial, Queretaro’s Antea Lifestyle Center, The Galleria in Houston, Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Denver’s Cherry Creek Center, Bogota’s Centro Comercial Andino and Hacienda Santa Barbara. I’d rather spend hours at any one of them (and have) than at the Met or the Getty Center. And advance reservations, long lines and admissions never come into the picture.

Even down-market malls have a certain appeal. The Centro Comercial Palacio Nacional is in the heart of the downtown Medellin harbors an amazing collection of the tackiest merchandise you’ll ever see, but the stores aren’t the point. Because it really did start out as the national palace, you’re really there for the architecture.

Give me a day at El Corte Ingles, and I’m better entertained than I would’ve been at the Prado. Far more exciting than a museum, a wander through Harrods’ Egyptian Hall and Crystal Rooms costs nothing. The architecture of the flagship El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico City is breath-taking. Even high-end drug and dime stores like Boots and Sanborns harbor treasures I know I won’t find at home.

I’m impelled to search out Chinatowns wherever I go: Chicago, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Calgary, London. San Francisco and China don’t have the franchise on Chinatown.

Even grocery stores, ranging from little corner abarrotes, bodegas, kioskos, to supermarkets and all the way up to Carrefour, are mustn’t-miss cultural attractions. It’s fascinating to explore new produce items, puzzle over why the meat department is filled with tons of cured meat, chuckle over the offerings over on the gourmet aisle (Pace picante salsa and hard taco shells, anyone?), gaze upon twelve kinds of quinoa, inspect interesting crackers and cookies.  I’m still sporting shopping bags from Carulla with the same pride that attaches to those from Draeger’s Market and Trader Joe’s.

Always beckoning are antique stores and thrift shops, even more entertaining when I’m on a mission. I shop for monkeys, most often the ones impersonating humans. One friend is always on the prowl for Hawaiian shirts, another for antique brandy snifters, and yet another has yet to see a Breyer horse that she can’t pass up.

Finding yourself in an odd part of town filled with stores you never knew existed – one specializing in belts, another in dog collars, one selling zippers and only zippers, and yet another specializing in cabinet pulls with a door knob store next door—is magic. I’ve taken taxis clear across town to visit a Home Depot-esque places in foreign countries, just to see what’s selling, satisfying my curiosity about what a stove might cost, pawing through the garden department for seeds not sold where I live.

Street vendors call out to me. I rarely buy, but I always gawk. A cure-all made from live snail ooze, battery-operated electric flyswatters, lighted walking sticks, a pistol that shoots soap bubbles, cell phone time, pirated merchandise, sponge rats, fake eyelashes in fantasy colors.

The organ grinder mesmerizes me, always evoking the memory of one I saw years ago with live bear tethered to the organ.

Hippie and flea markets may be the same the world over, all surely run by some worldwide hippie market syndicate that prescribes the essentials: candles, soap, odd oils and potions, incense, chocolates, tisanes, herbal remedies, musical instruments made out of gourds by political prisoners, patchouli and El Condor Pasa wafting through the air, indigenous clothing, and some craft made from recycled materials like vinyl records or wooden lasts.

There’s a blessing somewhere for those fortunate to watch a living statue set up at the beginning of a shift and deconstructed at the end.

And then there are the hardcore markets: Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, Mexico City’s La Lagunilla Sunday antiques market, which means donning combat clothing, checking anything of value back at the hotel. These are living, breathing museums where all sorts of treasures are for sale.

I don’t understand why people take guided tours when striking out on your own is so much more fun. There’s no cheaper and more interesting way to see a city than by hopping on a commuter train or bus and riding to the end of the line or until boredom sets in and then dovetailing back.

Sunday tango in the streets of San Telmo, a Cuban a capella concert in Merida, a dog show in Sevilla, the juggler playing a harmonica while riding a unicycle in Amsterdam, and a bazaar of new designs and a clown workshop in Bogota all provided lasting memories without costing a dime. Even right here in my hometown of Morelia, fascinating and free entertainment abounds. Grown people, some of them even doctors and lawyers, painting designs on fabric, the stuff I’d roll my eyes at, at least until I realized the participants, chatting away, and having a great time doing what they were doing, left me happier just for watching them. Orchid shows, caporeia exhibitions, dancing horses from Apatzingan, and the Sunday art market in Parque Las Rosas, and book fairs compete for my attention.

And then there’s the matter of eating. Too many friends plan their travel by restaurants and TripAdvisor ratings, and I’ve even accompanied them on those jaunts, forced to stand in line for the opportunity to shed far more money than the dining experience warranted.

Don’t get me wrong. I like to eat, and I like to eat well. I just resist planning and spending outrageous sums of money.

Now, I’m no fan of food trucks or street food, and where I can comfortably plant my derriere is just as important as what goes down my gullet. It’s not all about the cheap; it’s more about the timing and convenience. The rest is just serendipity.

A cup of regular black coffee served in a china cup, along with a domino cookie, for less than a dollar in a sidewalk café populated mostly by city hall employees in Envigado. A Monday meatloaf special in a New Orleans diner of no memorable name. The best cochinita pibil in Merida, located just by asking two lawyers on their smoke break where they would have an ordinary lunch. Those great and incredibly inexpensive meals are still fondly remembered more than some expensive repast at a destination venue like Commander’s Palace or The Russian Tea Room (which I dearly loved for the décor).

When I’m traveling, just as at home, my main meal is midday. The menú turístico (tourist menu) has never let me down, and it’s usually an opportunity to enjoy several courses at a fixed price for far less than a la carte. Upscale grocery stores usually have a deli with an eating area, often a great opportunity to pick up something tasty for a light supper. I’ve enjoyed duck tacos, Lebanese platters, Peruvian ceviches, and pastel de choclo from grocery store takeout.

Food fairs, gatherings of regional cooks, celebrations of traditional cuisine, even charity barbecues have served up great food at affordable prices, and each of those was even better, because I’d just stumbled upon those events.

Even for those who aren’t fast food franchise fans at home, McDonald’s in Lima and Pizza Hut in Madrid command visits for intercultural exploration, fueling their passion more than Astrid y Gaston and Botín.

That Swarovski-encrusted car at Centro Comercial Andino in Bogota remains far more vivid in my mind that any Bruegel art, and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Kinky Friedman more appealing than Phillip Glass. Call me easily entertained.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

AMLO Cardenas

July 1, 2018

Today was the biggest election in Mexican history.

My thumb is inked, which means that I’ve cast my vote. So, I’m standing in line at the casilla at the public school three blocks from my house this morning, even before my morning coffee, thinking I’d walk over to OXXO and get a free cup for showing my thumb, joined by the rest of the neighborhood dressed in their Sunday best — Skechers and sweats– when an ignorant middle-class woman ahead of me in line asks if I’m Mexican. “Do you think I’d be standing waiting around here if I weren’t?” She chimes in with that usual “You don’t look Mexican,” never mind I look like half the people waiting in the schoolyard. I am so tempted to tell her “You don’t look like you can read,” but I don’t.

She leaves a few minutes later to go to the Sunday tianguis.

My line isn’t moving, even though the schoolroom is staffed with the election personnel. The vigilantes de los partidos – observers from each of the political parties – haven’t shown up yet, and the party can’t proceed until they’re all there. That always seems to happen in the P through Z line.

There are 25 people ahead of me in line, the head of which is marked by a woman in an orange headscarf and another with platinum-streaked hair. A couple one person ahead of me are passing the time playing pat-a-cake pat-a-cake baker’s man; the man directly ahead of me, dressed in black and white from his ball cap all the way to his Skechers, black Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt under a black vest, checks his iPhone, clad in a black leather case; the girl behind me with neatly applied lipstick and good eye makeup is getting one call after another on her smartphone; and the reigning doyenne of the organic market is four people behind her, stylish in khaki slacks and a white blouse, which I’d say came from Palacio de Hierro. I have on purple Skechers (2017), black Adidas pants from Nordstrom Rack in Honolulu in 2006, a grey t-shirt from Nordstrom’s in San Mateo (2014), and a purple appliqued hoodie. And freshly dyed hair.

Finally, an elderly nun, her thick white hair neatly coiffed, a giant cross hanging from her neck, emerges, raising her inked thumb in victory, proclaiming “I was the first!” as she practically dances across the pavement. She was one of the happiest nuns I’ve seen in ages.

And before long, my turn at the polls arrives. I hand over my INE card, the election worker reads out my name but not before asking “What is your last name?” My surname appears in the same spot on the card that everyone else’s does, but it’s confusing, since my last name is all too often confused with the first. Still, since the card only reveals two names—a first and a last—you’d think he’d figure that much out. He reads off my name, five workers checking their rosters to mark my appearance, and one poll worker after another rips a ballot from their book. I enter the booth with a handful of ballots – one for each of the five races.

There may be tacos (multiple ballots folded together), but there will be no hanging chads. All of the voting is done with paper ballots, voters using the same ballot from Tijuana to Cancun.

And after marking each with an X in the same spot to cast my free and secret vote, I exit the voting area, folding my ballot to deposit in the box marked in a different color for each office. I go on to pick up my INE card, getting my right thumb indelibly inked. Just so I won’t vote twice.

And I stride, victoriously, from the school yard. It’s no secret that each of my votes went for the PRI candidates. That’s just how I’m wired.

August 5, 2018.

My candidate for president came in the third. It wasn’t all that surprising, even though I still maintain that he was the best-qualified for the job. During his concession appearance the evening of the election, he almost seemed relieved. His wife unquestionably had to have been relieved. And both will surely lead much saner, less complicated lives during the coming six years than the man who won.

It seemed a given, no matter whom you might’ve asked, that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO, would win. What rankled me more than anything were the attitudes of many voters, smugly declaring that it was time for revolution, that they were somehow the anointed ones for supporting him, and how much so many of them bore that same scent of those who had supported Hillary Clinton.

AMLO shouldered the victory with just as much class and style as José Antonio Meade Kuribreña handled defeat. At least publicly, hands reached across party lines for a show of unity and moving on.

There were no public meltdowns, no ninny snowflakes crying in their Kool-Aid, and life went on just as always. No one donned silly pink knitted hats. The peso became stronger. The sky didn’t fall.

Sure, there were burned ballots, and little frauds committed here and there, just as there is in every democracy, everywhere. But none of it was sufficient to change the final result.

Estadounidenses could take a few lessons from Mexicans about how a mature nation operates. A year and a half have now passed since Donald Trump was inaugurated, and Estadounidenses still can’t get their acts sufficiently together to realize that it’s about respecting the office as much as the one who occupies it. It’s dangerous to admit to Estadounidenses that you voted for Trump. Five years from now, AMLO’s visage may be on the Judases that we all blow up just before Easter and exposes will be published, but for now, he’s being treated as the second coming of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (Mexico’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and that’s just fine. (I’d rather have seen the second coming of Adolfo López Mateos, but there’s always next time.)

May AMLO turn out to be a great president. He’s already exceeding my expectations.

Inked

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At OXXO this morning, the coffee was free. All I had to do was show my thumb. It’s not some thumbprint technology, it’s old school. After Mexican voters cast their votes, their right thumbs are indelibly inked. You have to wonder what body part they’ll ink on a voter who has no hands.

The voting process is old school, too. Dressing up a little better than usual, because you just never know whom you might run into at the polls, because this is an event that brings out everyone, well, everyone with an IFE card, I joined the line for first last names from Posada to the end of the alphabet, two ancianas passing ahead to the front of the line. I surrendered my voter ID to a poll worker, who passed it on to a man with tattooed arms, who read my name out loud. And he got it right, too. The next worker located a photo of my ID in a book containing the ID of everyone in the precinct, and a fourth separated ballots from four books: one for governor, one for presidente municipal, one for a federal diputado, and a fourth for the diputado local, each printed in distinctive colors. Entering the voting booths, curtained in plastic, I drew Xs over the names of my candidates, noting that the bravest and most independent of all was buried at the lower left hand corner, folding each ballot before exiting the booth. After depositing each ballot into its designated box, I returned to the table, retrieved my IFE card, and got inked. Voting in Mexico is a streamlined, easy process, no confusing machines to work or chads to confuse. And that’s the way voting ought to be.

On my way out, I ran into a former governor. But then former governors and retired politicians are a dime a dozen around these parts.

If you’re reading this, you’ll want to know whom I voted for. Let’s put it this way:  the party who kept sending me spam texts didn’t get my vote, and neither did the party who kept robo-calling me. I picked up a t-shirt from one of my candidates months ago. And one of my candidates never gave me anything, never contacted me, not even leaving a single piece of paper slipped under my gate. But he brought Jorge Castañeda to town support his campaign, and that was good enough for me.

I have a feeling that this election, like that last gubernatorial election, isn’t over yet.

Me and the Morning Paper

Reunited with an old friend, who shows up every morning on my doorstep, bearing tidings, good, bad and in-between, gossip, a peek into lifestyles not my own and just like mine, I feel like my life’s back on track. La Voz de Michoacán and I have had an off-and-on relationship for years, or at least since I first laid eyes on Morelia back when José López Portillo was moving out of Los Pinos.

La Voz is everything that the rest of the pack isn’t. It’s a tabloid, designed for reading on the subway, which Morelia will never have. It’s about as flashy as a pair of Flexi shoes – and just as reliable. It’s not a sexy, edgy newspaper, but it’s solid, comprehensive, and it delivers what it’s supposed to.

It’s also the only newspaper published in Michoacán which bears its price both in Mexican pesos and U.S. dollars. 10 pesos and 1 USD. You know what that means.

And it’s also the only paper around, at least that I know about, that has the P’urhépecha Jimbo—a page printed in P’urhépecha and in Spanish.

It sells out faster than its competitor at the abarrotes in my neighborhood.

The late Miguel Medina Robles was a publishing giant, and even though I only met him once, at the annual dinner over at the rectory during my colonia’s fiesta patronal, he made a lasting impression.

There is just something civilized and disciplined about print that the digital world doesn’t deliver. I’m forced to read sections that I’d ordinarily skip online. Sure, the digital version is easier, but it encourages skipping over items that I find myself poring over in print: two-page spreads about Pre-Hispanic music in Michoacán, what the recipients back in the Old Country do with remittances sent back home from migrants, the career of a caricaturist over at the Plaza de Armas. I can tear out sections to save for later, clippings to be passed on instead of forwarded.

Newspapers have been as much a part of my life as magazines. I grew up on the Los Angeles Times, followed by the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune, the St. Joseph News-Press and the St. Joseph Gazette, the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune. For twenty years, Sundays were filled with both the Omaha World-Herald and the Des Moines Register. Each foray to a new city meant having to pick up the local newspaper, even if it was just to read the obituaries of people I never knew.

But then my lifetime ambition, never fulfilled, was to be editor of Parade. A slender printed-on-newsprint accompaniment to the Sunday newspaper, it was read by more people than any other magazine.

Every newspaper demands reading in its proper order, which is probably not how the editors intended. The Sunday New York Times means grabbing the magazine.

But we’re talking about La Voz here. And this is the order in which it’s read in my house:

• Toca Mal. Everything worth knowing can be f0und in that small below-the-fold (if a tabloid had a fold) on page 2A. Toca Mal, who has gone from Francisco Lopez Guido to someone else, is the Herb Caen of Michoacán.

• Facetas. The F section, these are the social pages, where I concoct connections and stories in my own head about the lives and people who grace those pages. I get to keep up on the birthdays and saints’ days of people who’re a notch above me.

• The back page of the A section: seguridad. That’s the crime page.

• Dinero. The C section tells me how broke I am.

• The A section. That’s the main body of the newspaper, containing the far-too-lengthy-to-read editorials. And the esquelas. Those are the obituary notices placed by businesses, organizations, and important people lamenting the demise of important people. I am amazed at how quickly, sometimes only within hours of an unexpected death, these notices appear.

• The B section (pais) and the G section (regional news).

• Finally, the E section, called O. which stands for ocio (free time), containing entertainment and cultural news.

• And then I’ll do a switchback to the F section for the crossword and horoscope.

• The D section? That’s the sports section, which my employee grabs before the newspaper reaches my hands.

And what did I do this morning while reading the print version? I clicked on the web version just for the update.

Kissing Baby Jesus

I will never be cool. I’ve never kissed a woman, other than in the most forced greeting, and even then I make great efforts to avoid doing so. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it’s just not my style. But an effort to be polite, I bowed and kissed Baby Jesus. It was agonizing.

Not all Christmases are festive and joyous or even as picturesque as something Noman Rockwell could’ve dreamed up. Some are spent in lonely bars. Some are spent with odd lots of relatives and a police presence. Others are spent looking for Chinese restaurants. And some are simply awful.

There was Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s. The bar exam review course would start the next day, and for the next ten days I would be the sole occupant of the FIJI house with Mother Guy’s blessing. For at least a couple of decades, she was housemother to the fraternity of every important male at the University of Iowa.

More than a few Christmas spent aloft on a plane, fleeing flyover country.

Christmas Eve at the Villa Montana, more than any place else during my adult life.

Christmas Day volunteering as a Candy Striper.

A Christmas Day drive to the countryside beyond San Miguel del Monte and ending up at Paseo Altozano.

Christmas in Buenos Aires, heralded by fireworks and a complete and total absence of traffic, not a taxi cab in sight.

Christmas Eve in Florence, successfully scoring a simple black doll over my mother’s entreaties to opt for something fancier.

The awful ones have their place, if for no reason other than to be memorialized in blogs like this. And here’s mine, which is far more dreadful than the Czar of Tzurumutaro could ever contemplate.

A few days before Christmas, more than a decade back, I found myself an unwilling guest at a neighbor’s Christmas Eve dinner. I’d armed myself ahead of time with a tale of other plans, but the sly old lady, whose own kids had the foresight to leave town, was a step ahead of me, telling me that the rest of my family, which amounted only to a sister and her husband, had already accepted. I did not know at the time that she’d already pulled that trick on them. We were trapped.

Christmas Eve started off with mass at 9 p.m., seemingly quicker and more cheerful than usual, with the padre starting off with a hearty “Buenas Noches” and ending with aguinaldos of cookies and candies for everyone.

We came armed with a Costco pecan pie and Ensalada Navideña, and it was a good thing we did. The culinary offerings awaiting us amounted to macaroni with ham and pineapple and a single pollo rostizado. And this was not a poor family.

The holiday feast over, we were invited to admire the nativity scene which extended along the entire side of the room and around the corner, replete with giraffes and elephants and zebras. Maybe even dinosaurs and a statue of Benito Juarez. As the clock struck midnight, and with great ceremony, the hostess presented the infant Jesus surrounded by candy, not for a bris, given that eight days had yet to pass after his birth, but for adoration and besos. He travels around the table from one guest to another, which didn’t take long, given that there was a total of six humans at the table. I am last, my sib and sib-in-law rolling their eyes and laughing under their breath, but I have not a clue of what awaits. And then he’s handed over to me. Never mind that I had not the first clue what to do with him. “You’re the madrina, and you’re supposed to place him in the nacimiento,” I was instructed. Oh.

Not only am I supposed to kiss Baby Jesus, I’ve been tapped to lovingly place him in the cradle.

Now, I know it’s a tradition, but it struck me then, and it still does today, as just downright creepy. Not the idea of blessing their Christ child, but asking me to do the honors. What were these people thinking?

Meanwhile, gunfire pierced the night air, and we casually tried to identify the kind of weapon used. Mostly .22s, we figured. I would’ve gladly placed myself directly in the line of fire if it would’ve meant avoiding that episode of kissing baby Jesus. Walking home, some of the other neighbors were sitting outside warming themselves in the fogatas in the street, inviting us to join them for a tequilito. I could’ve used several before what will always be remembered as the saddest, most horrific Christmas Eve in my life.

Lesson learned: even if you have zero plans, make up some. And engrave them in stone.

Cultural Literacy

I wrote that blog post back in January, 2008, days after receiving my carta de naturalizacion, which had only been signed half a year before. I’d intended to write something acknowledging the anniversary, but then it just slipped past me. Maybe that’s a sign that being a Mexican by choice is just so much a part of who I am that I no longer need to remember the date.

I had just returned from Bogota, when I was awakened with a call from SRE, telling me “Your carta has arrived, but you’ll need to take the test.”
Bring it on.

Well, they hadn’t created the test yet.

“Create one, because I’ll be in your office tomorrow at noon.”
“You’ll have to know the Himno Nacional.”
So I spent the night studying and memorizing all of the stanzas of the Himno Nacional, but I was damned if I’d sing it. (I knew that I wouldn’t have to.) Admittedly, it got a little edgy, wondering if they’d spring something on me like what the real name of Guadalupe Victoria was. I kept telling myself that they really didn’t want me to give them a dissertation on the differences between the Estrada Doctrine and the Castaneda Doctrine, reminding myself that after all I was a lawyer and had even passed a bar exam. And the test should probably be designed so even Guatemalans could pass it.
I enter the office and surrender my FM-2. The delegado stamps my receipt for it, which is a signal that I’m going to pass. She ushers me to a table in her office to take the test. Nothing I’d studied was on the test, but I could pass it. I do have to say that most people could not. Not even a lot of natural-born Mexicans. It wasn’t easy. But I’m determined. I blank on naming the state where Chichen Itza is located, first writing Quintana Roo, and know that’s not right. Yucatan. I do not want to tell her that she’s mispelled Chichen Itza, but as she’s looking over my shoulder, I ask “It’s in Yucatan, right?” She says it is.
I write out all ten stanzas of the Himno Nacional. Her jaw drops. “You know that?”
Yeah, bring it on.
“You really do know your Mexican writers, don’t you?” she says, amazed that I could name more than the requested three.
“Would you like to know Benito Juarez’ mother’s apellido?  By the way, the test is supposed to be administered orally, so as not to discriminate against those who cannot read and write,” I tell her, just in case she wants to know for future reference. I like to be helpful in that kind of way, but only after I’ve got what I want.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Last week I asked several Mexican friends a few basic questions about this country, just to test their cultural literacy.

I started out with asking them to name a few Mexican writers. The first insisted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Mexican writer. Doesn’t Colombia ring a bell? The second came up with Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, claiming that he couldn’t think of any more off the bat. The third admitted that she could not name a single one. Haven’t these folks heard of Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Pellicer, Denise Dresser, Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, Ramon Lopez Velarde, Manuel Othon, Manuel Gutierrez Najera, Elena Poniatowska, Anita Brenner, Carlos Monsivàis, Homero Aridjis, Juan Rulfo, Guadalupe Loaeza, Laura Esquivel, Margo Glantz, Sara Sefchovich and and Guadalupe Marín, just for starters? Do they ever read the newspaper

One out of the three could not name the jefe de gobierno of…

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Will El Hermano Mayor de Leon be Watching You?

Writing in Fast Company, Austin Carr made more than a few scratch their heads in wonder this evening:

Biometrics R&D firm Global Rainmakers Inc. (GRI) announced today that it is rolling out its iris scanning technology to create what it calls "the most secure city in the world." In a partnership with Leon — one of the largest cities in Mexico, with a population of more than a million — GRI will fill the city with eye-scanners.

Houston-based lawyer Ignacio Pinto-Leon, who is admitted to practice in Mexico as well as New York, smells an urban legend in the making:

  • Leon is a municipality in the state of Guanajuato. I would think the city does not have a budget for the price tag of the technology. The state executive maybe; the federal government for sure. But not a city.
  • City jails house only drunks and prostitutes for up to 36 hours for each infraction.
  • The state and federal government run the real jails. So, the first take of irises on inmates would give a very poor—but probably cheerful—sample.
  • Put  fancy little cameras in public places in Mexico, and most likely they would get stolen quickly. I’m not bashing my countrymen; just guessing. 
  • So, it would flag the "bad guys." Well, the bad guys in Mexico are really bad guys. They have really big guns—we don’t sell guns in Mexico except through the Mexican Secretary of Defense, but have a neighbor nearby who sells everything from grenades and whatnots at good prices. And sometimes the bad guys attack in groups of forty or more. 
  • Kidnappers would routinely include ripping the eyeballs to avoid detection.
  • Is the government going to share the information with stores in the case of shoplifters? Really? Entrepreneurs distrust the government; why would they open their computers to them?
  • The only two sources with information are: the company’s webpage, and a press release published in an online newspaper. The press release is also by the same company and a local partner.
  • No AP, REUTERS, NOTIMEX or any other agency note. Nada.

Having said that, Pinto-Leon commented:

Mexico is Mexico. Few things would surprise me regarding my beloved country. We say that compared to Mexico, Kafka was a costumbrist (Mexico is essentially Kafkian by nature). I don’t know if they have the technology to try it on such a wide population. My guess is that the note is inaccurate. It would be interesting to read more about it. Constitutionally speaking, there could be some freedom of transit and freedom of privacy issues too. 

 

Books, Sports and Life – A Blog Worth Reading

I’ve known Elio Martinez, a partner in the South Florida law firm Concepcion, Sexton & Martinez, for at least two decades through bar association activities. Beyond his life as a lawyer, I considered him one of the most reliable sources around when it came to books and restaurants – and particularly the latter. He bears responsibility for introducing me to my all-time favorites, Versailles on Calle Ocho in Miami and to El Palacio de la Papa Frita, serious-food restaurants where the tables are lined up with precision, the waitstaff stooped, elderly men who would’ve been old long before either of us were born, and the air filled with political intrigue over at the corner tables.

Not until he unveiled his new blog, Books, Sports and Life, did I know about Elio’s past as a sports statistician and historian. It’s amazing what a blog can reveal.

 

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The Presidential Semaphore

 

ARTICULO 34.-LA BANDA PRESIDENCIAL CONSTITUYE UNA FORMA DE PRESENTACION DE LA BANDERA NACIONAL Y ES EMBLEMA DEL PODER EJECUTIVO FEDERAL, POR LO QUE SOLO PODRA SER PORTADA POR EL PRESIDENTE DE LA REPUBLICA, Y TENDRA LOS COLORES DE LA BANDERA NACIONAL EN FRANJAS IGUAL ANCHURA COLOCADAS LONGITUDINALMENTE, CORRESPONDIENDO EL COLOR DE VERDE A LA FRANJA SUPERIOR. LLEVARA EL ESCUDO NACIONAL SOBRE LOS TRES COLORES, BORDADO EN HILO DORADO, A LA ALTURA DEL PECHO DEL PORTADOR, Y LOS EXTREMOS DE LA BANDA REMATARAN CON UN FLECO DORADO.

Yesterday, President Felipe Calderon switched that around, flipping the presidential sash so that red instead of green would appear topmost. So, what’s behind that move? Is it simply to show the world that he’s still Boss of Mexico? Or is it another step toward the North American Union? All right, so what does this signal?

 

A Bitch in Need

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This bitch’s mother does nothing but practice law all day long so that she can feed three hungry poodles. She has no life except attending dog shows and participating in listserves. Her only human friends are imaginary. Please brighten her day by going here or here or here, and voting this dog A Dog’s Purpose Dog of the Week. And tell everyone you know to do the same.

And Now Let Us Speak of Elephants

Rick Bayless will be doing the cooking, but what else will be on the table during Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s trip to the White House? Tom Risen predicts what he’ll tell the U.S. Congress next week, but would it be unreasonable to expect him to call a spade a spade instead walking delicately around the elephant in the room?

What’s next in Mexico – U.S. relations?

And who’s really behind El Blog del Narco?

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April 19 Times Three

Fifteen years ago, from the Hilton Istanbul I watched the news of the Oklahoma City bombing before going downstairs to a cocktail party organized by the English-speaking community. Everyone there hoped and prayed that it wasn’t the work of some crazed Arab. “We’ll have hell to pay if the Arabs are involved,” said one elderly Jewish man.

Only two years before, on the same day, the U.S. Government blew the smithereens out of a religious compound in Waco. I was in Mexico when that happened.

Two years to the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, I was repatriating my late mother’s Seville to the U.S., driving up Interstate 35 at an excessive rate of speed, only to be stopped by the very same Oklahoma State Trooper who nabbed Tim McVeigh. As he’s handing me a citation for not using a seat belt, I notice his name, and I ask him “Are you…?” as I look toward the freeway exit. Yes, he was. Yes, over there.

But there’s another chapter in this story, and that involves McVeigh’s accomplice, Terry Nichols. He would go on to be defended by Ponca City lawyer Brian Hermanson, who would shut down his solo practice and put his own life on hold to accept the challenge. Today Hermanson’s practice is back in full swing, and he’s running for District Attorney for Kay and Noble Counties.

The next time you think that what’s heard halfway around the world doesn’t affect small-town lawyers, think again.

 

Uncle Sam’s Hysteria

The U.S. government tells its employees to avoid unnecessary travel along the border and in parts of Michoacán. Now it’s “authorized the departure of the dependents of U.S. government personnel from U.S. consulates in the Northern Mexican border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey and Matamoros until April 12.” What, the U.S. government was holding the family members of government personnel hostage? And after the window for their departure closes on April 12, they’re stuck in Mexico? Just what is it that I’m missing here?

Earlier this week, more than a few friends called, shaking in their boots over Dateline’s dramatization of a 2007 kidnapping of a very wealthy Mexican in San Miguel de Allende, his family’s retreat to somewhere within an hour of Washington, D.C., and a whopping big fiesta they threw for select friends and Dateline’s film crew upon a quick trip back to Mexico. Even though the Washington Post and Marie Claire stories, more than a year and a half after the victim’s release, made it sound as if the family was now living in the witness protection program, ZabaSearch turned up their whereabouts in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They’re on the speaker circuit, calling themselves “well-positioned to speak about the geo-political implications of the Mexican drug trade, cartels and terrorists on border safety and U.S.-Mexico relations.”

Amidst all of the media’s attempts to frighten the daylights out of everyone living in Mexico, life goes on here in Michoacán. Today is a federal holiday, and Costco and Mega were packed to the gills with shoppers. The shopping centers were filled, and Starbucks had its usual crowd.

Billie Mercer and her husband Ned, Texans transplanted to San Miguel de Allende, flouted those warnings about highway dangers as they drove north to the border, going straight through the badlands. And did they ever see plenty of action—men playing golf, kids playing baseball.

Please, someone, tell the U.S. government and the U.S. media to chill.

 

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Why Mexico Can’t Have its Joint and Smoke it, Too

In What’s Spanish for Quagmire, Jorge Castañeda explores and punctures the five myths surrounding Mexico’s (and your) war on drugs.

Los Estados Unidos lost its war on drugs, just as surely as it’s going to lose that war in the Middle East. It’s time for some rational heads to prevail.

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Do Estadounidenses Get the Leadership They Deserve?

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a LifetimeAn excerpt from Game Change appears here.  Of course, those in the know knew something was foul from the very beginning. How else could a nobody like Obama have been elected?

This is another book y0u, my faithful and good-looking readers, can buy me for Valentine’s Day.

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Remembering the Man who Made Gumby

It was Hanukah, and the year was 1999, when Gumby first appeared on a latke, right here in the Promised Land of Saint Mary of Guido. We kept his appearance rather quiet, knowing that millions of Gumby devotees would storm the place in search of his image. Every year after, while others play the dreidel game, count their Hanukah gelt and light the candles, we would remember fondly the night on which Gumby on a latke came into our lives. As far as we knew, we were the first house that he would honor, given that absolutely nowhere, then and now, would a reference to him appear. On the other hand, others may have likewise kept mum about his appearance.

Sure, you’ve seen Jesus on a tortilla, the Virgin Mary on a piece of burned toast, Mother Teresa, the inventress of human suffering, show up on a shriveled apple muffin, and Buddha himself reincarnated as a Cheeto. But none of the would even resonant with us quite like Gumby on a latke.

Today we bow our heads in a moment of prayer and sorrow at the demise of Gumby’s creator, Art Clokey.

 

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Sacrificing Santa

semana-santa-claus Over at The Immoral Minority, published where surely the North Pole is within sight on a clear day, Santa has been rescued from the thrashing he’s been given by both the politically correct and the religious right. Maybe it is time that we restore him, his goodness and cheer during the world’s day off. There’s a lot more unity in gathering ‘round good ol’ Saint Nick than passing around a baby doll for everyone to kiss.

Like this image? Let’s give credit to Prefiero soñar despierto for that.

 

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Matters of Faith

PA310545 They call it the religion of death, the cult of criminals, narcos and riff-raff. The Catholic Church doesn’t much like it, and neither does the government. All of this sounds suspiciously like a cult that started some two thousand years ago, doesn’t it? That’s Santa Muerte for you.

So, it was the day before Day of the Dead, and we’ve seen everything new there was to see in Patzcuaro. It was time to do some exploring, and we went off to the tiny burg of Santa Ana Chapitiro, nestled along the winding road between Patzcuaro and Erongaricuaro. On the lake side of the road sits a small chapel dedicated to Santa Muerte, and we went in, not knowing what to expect.

PA310540We were taken aback by what we saw. And fascinated. The chapel was filled with a refreshing sense of faith, mixed in with caring, devotion, and humor – more so than what we’d seen in ages and ages. A catrina sat waiting for the perfect man, and it’d been evident that she’d been waiting a damn long time. The people in charge weren’t the kind of folks who’re “not our kind.” For all I knew, they could’ve been actuaries, orthodontists and schoolteachers. They were amazingly normal. They were nice and gracious people, the kind of people you’d pick for neighbors.

So, why is everyone up in arms over Santa Muerte? Beats me. Maybe it’s the frank honesty that institutions really fear.

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Many thanks go to Marisol Contreras of Morelia for supplying these photos when our camera didn’t work.

Coke is #1 for Lawyers

You went to college. You did drugs. Which did you prefer—pot or coke? If you became a lawyer, the odds overwhelmingly indicated that you preferred Bolivian marching powder over Acapulco Gold. So reveals a series of studies Richard Florida analyzes in The Atlantic.

Credt goes to Robert Ambrogi at Law.com for giving us this lead on the obligatory law-related post.