Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A bit of work, a bit of beauty

Day 4 & 5

I rise early and head for the Plaza for a quick bite. A tamal and atole sound just right on this crisp morning. However, by the time I hike it out to the station the crisp air has been burned away by the quickly-rising sun. Summer temps are on their way to Oaxaca. Many say that the rainy season has been dwindling over the past several years. A shift globally that takes root out here in the Mixteca where I see farmers planting their seed only days after cleaning the field (very unusual). They can't afford to miss even one day of rain that may come early.

I had plans today to travel out to San Andres Chicahuaxtla again to interview the director of the bilingual primary school. However, one of the teachers who works at the station informs me that he is out of town for a conference. So, I scrap the trip, not wanting to travel out there for nothing, and find a few other things to do around the station.
Virgen Carmen at the helm

Araceli and I work a bit on the sound we gathered at her home the other day. I burn her a copy of the interview so she can translate it into Spanish (we conducted the immigration recording of her sister in Mixteco). I also work a bit on the next English exercise for the group. I've been talked into giving a few quick English lessons to several of the station staff. But after leaving the first lesson's worth of homework with everyone a month ago, I see that only a small couple are actually doing the work.

I head over to the Fondo Regional, a small organization, partially funded at the federal level, that gives mirco-loans to small participating communities. The three guys that run this organization are extremely bright and industrious. And even though they are buried in stacks of papers, what amounts to the mountain of projects they manage, they give me a good hour of their time to talk about what they do. Say you're a small community that is facing hard times. You've got an idea for a sawmill. You rally the support in your community, you start an organization, then you write a proposal. You bring it to the Fondo Regional, asking for the start-up money for the mill equipment. An assembly of representatives from all the other small community groups gets together and reviews the proposal. If they think it has merit, they award you a loan. They may also award the community more than just the money for equipment, they may help train the organization how to make a saw mill work. The three guys who run the Fondo do research, go out and find a saw mill run by a community that is functioning successfully, and they bring the newbies out for what amounts to classes. The community group eventually pays the loan back at an interest rate that is the lowest around--and that interest payment, plus the original investment, go back into the Fondo purse for investment later. It's really quite brilliant!

I'm thinking of doing a story on the Fondo. I've asked the fellas if they'll let me shadow them out to a community to interview and record. They're more than willing--handing over their cell numbers and emails addresses.

Wonder what Pozole looks like? Wonder no longer.

The following day I arrive in the morning only to bump into the Payaso Ponpín--he's an ecological clown, or at least that's how I'm translating his title in English for now. I met him months ago at the Radio's Anniversary party. He started a program, which he shopped out to the public hospital in Tlaxiaco, to help interested communities start recycling programs. I'd thought a while back that doing a story about his work in small villages might be interesting. So when I bump into him this morning, I ask to accompany him as he walks from the station back to the public hospital in town. My first question: Why a clown? It's a long answer. At the heart of it is this: a clown can traverse certain boundaries that everyone else cannot. Ponpín exploits that fact to help change a community's perception about how to treat waste in their environment. He introduces me to the doctor at the public hospital in charge of spearheading the project with him, as well as another doctor working on a youth and sexuality program. Once they all hear I have a microphone, they are interested in commandeering my equipment and time for various projects. I get some names and numbers for my next visit. We'll see what comes of it all...

Later, I help Virgen Carmen record a migration story of a musician she brings into the station. This dude with scratchy vocal chords has been across the border several times. He writes songs Stateside and then sends the music and lyrics to his sons, who have a Norteña band in Tlaxiaco. Some of the songs have grown quite popular, like La Coyotita. Another was selected for a movie called Trade shot in the U.S. We record a bit of his story, and then ask him to sing a bit of La Coyotita a capella.

I should mention that today is the official holiday to celebrate mother tongues. That's right, tonguesssss, plural. Oaxaca ranks at the top of the list with over 16 indigenous languages spoken other than Spanish. And that number doesn't even include the distinct variances between languages of the same root, like Mixteco (of which there are 3 variants). Thus, it's a big day for the region, and the station, for that matter. The director is called away to a community where the Municipal President is celebrating the event. The tech expert at the station is called away to the local college to record their Mother Tongue festivities. As for me, I stick close to the station. XETLA is streaming live over the internet, sharing its programming with various other stations in the country. An event in Durango, which includes the presence of the President, will involve the station. So as you can imagine, things are quite aflutter. Tension is running high that all should technically run well. I find myself a spot out of the way to set my things down, hook my minidisc up to the console so I can record whatever seems interesting on air today, and try to be helpful where I can.

At the close of the day I wander over to the traditional medicine clinic that is next door to the station. With funding help from a donor in Florida, located through the station's contacts, this clinic opened up this past September. It not only serves a purpose to the community, offering free traditional medicine treatments to anyone in the area, it also serves as a means to preserve this ancient tradition of the region. I sit down with 6 of the clinic's doctors, all women. It's rare to find them all in attendance; normally they serve shifts throughout the week, traveling in from their distant pueblos to put in a day or two of clinic hours. Due to a meeting of the organization, I am lucky to have them all in one place today. We sit down for about an hour to chat about how each woman finds herself here--serving her community, as well as the wider region at this clinic. Why do they do it--work for free? What does traditional medicine offer a community? Have they encountered discrimination of the practice? I'm hoping I can cut together a small piece about the work of the clinic--and find a photographer to snap photos of the operation (anyone know anyone?). Then I can cut together a nice slideshow with sound they can use to shop around for funding. That's the idea.

The day winds down, and I head into town to meet up with a friend. The local college is holding a beauty contest tonight. I'm curious if it at all resembles beauty contests in the States. I wish, oh how I wish, I had been carrying my camera so I could show the wonder that is the Ms. Tecnológica Pageant. But alas, I had no camera. So my words will have to suffice. Imagine this, a small town square, decked out with a triangular runway, festooned in pink batting and the confusing presence of a fruit basket in the center. Students cram around the runway, small groups huddled together around posters and banners with the names of their favorite girl scrawled out in glitter. The sun sets. More passerby gather around, teetering on nearby stone walls for a better view. Local vendors take advantage of the crowd and stay open all night selling churros filled with cajeta, or punch with warmed fruit swimming in steaming cups.

We find a spot just behind the main stage, precariously balancing on a stone wall. My friend instructs me to puff out my elbows so that no one will squeeze into the small space between me and my neighbor to the left. Oops, too late. Someone fills the spot--and I almost tumble off from being jostled around so much. Britney Spears' voice cracks the muddled noise of the town square. She's singing "Gimme More..." just as the crowd erupts into screams. My buddy says there will be no swim suit competition, "This is a small, traditional town, Megan." But when the ladies strut out, they're all wearing shorty shorts, halter tops and high heels, gyrating to the music. What's the difference? This is just like a swimsuit competition--except that their clothing is more likely to catch fire, than be water resistant.

To make the evening more interesting we each pick our favorite girl. And I'll just tell you up front, I have exceptional taste--'cause my girl wins the big show. My friend picks his fav--and just to show his support every time she crosses us he yells like a drunken sailor, "Yea, Mamacita. Owww, me gustas, me gustas!" Real classy!

After the Shorty Shorts strut, there is a singer, and some traditional dancing from a local group. Then the competition takes a turn that certainly distinguishes it from any pageant I've seen in the States. Each girl comes out basically dressed like this:

So while our beautiful American ladies must come up with talents like this:

These young women dress up in regional costumes, and present their costume to the crowd saying, "My name is Azucena. My costume is from the Istmus of Oaxaca. The beads on this hem mean..." And so forth. And just to give my pageant buddy some credit, when he favorite girl speaks a little Mixteco in her speech he yells out with equal enthusiasm as for the shorty shorts dance, "Owww, me gustas tu lengua materna, nenita!" (Basically, I love your mother tongue, baby. I'm sure he means that nicely.)

There's some more singing and dancing. A mariachi band, very poorly mic'd, is brought out. And then it's time for the Evening Gown competition. I can't believe how much work has gone into this. I mean we're already on to outfit number three here--and each one is accompanied by a different hairstyle and jewelry. They must have a small army helping them change.

At last, around 11, the winners are finally announced. There are 2nd and 3rd runners up; there's an award for Señorita Simpatía (literally, Ms. Affection--which I think must be something like Ms. Congeniality), Most Photogenic, and finally the winner--which as I mentioned, is the girl I selected at the start. I have an eye for these things! Fireworks are set off into the audience--no law suits here. The whole thing's over.

The crowd breaks up slowly. I finish up my punch and think how grateful I am to NOT be a beauty queen. What pressure. People here are not bashful. I mentioned that my friend would hoot out in pleasure at the ladies. But there were also those who would yell out kind advice like, "Hey, you should exercise more, " or, "That's not a good color on you!" You have to be made of tough stuff here to be a beauty queen, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The American Work Ethic

Day 3

It's a slow morning. After a leisurely breakfast of tasajo and frijoles, I make my way out to the station, meeting up with an interview subject along the way. I met this guy a few weeks ago in a collective taxi returning from a recording trip to San Juan Mixtepec. A last-minute text yesterday finds us sitting in the studio at the station recording his experience across the border. After talking through a few points of the contest, we begin recording.

His story is totally distinct than the ones I've already recorded the day before. It's less about the twists and turns of crossing the desert, and more about a shift in looking at what it means to devote years of non-stop work towards a goal way down the road. I can't help but wonder after recording all of these migration stories if I could do that. Am I made of enough to weather the pitfalls of the journey, the obvious challenges of living in a country where you don't speak the language, but where you are also in danger of being deported every day? I doubt it.

Rene working hard.

I spend the rest of the day at the station working on a script for a small documentary (cápsula) I'm making about San Juan Mixtepec. Daniel and Cornelio are holed up in the studio working diligently on a station diagnostic that they have to turn into the CDI (the federal body that governs their station). So when I finally leave at 9:30 PM they still hunched over lap tops and mountains of paper.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Stories from the Desert

Day 2

The chilly morning knocks me awake. Oaxaca's been so sublimely warm in the last month, that a brisk morning almost seems foreign (I apologize to those of you living in snow-laden cities. But honestly, you've obviously selected the wrong place to live! I'm working on my tan and you're working on clearing your driveway--oof!) I head to the Plaza and pick up the following for breakfast: 1) a maiz-based atole, steaming hot in its Styrofoam jacket, 2) a chicken tamale in green mole sauce, swaddled in the signature corn husk, 3) a cup of yogurt with fruit gelatin floaters, 4) an apple from, of course, the U.S. of A. All for a grand total of $1.80.

After a bit of paperwork I get in a quick interview with a taxi driver/choreographer (everyone has a slash here in México. But unlike NYC where you generally find waitress-slash-actress, or bartender-slash-rock star--here in México it's taxi driver-slash-shoe salesman-slash-math teacher. You need four jobs just to float.) I'm collecting immigration stories for a contest going on through two universities and a museum in Oaxaca City. The top prize is $3,000 USD. I can only think that money would sprad immensely far here for someone of the region.

Irineo (the choreographer/taxista) tells me his failed story of immigration. At the age of 48 he saves up enough money to travel for 3 days across the desert in order to cross illegally into the U.S. They start by spreading garlic on their shoes and ankles--a repellent for the desert's vipers that lurk, undetected at night. Moving at an almost-run, the thin line of 20 follows the Coyote, snaking back and forth, using hills and mountains as landmarks to guide the way. They rest after 24 hours of uninterrupted walking. And when they eventually hit the border 2 days later there's a veritable weigh station of "mojados." They divide into groups based on their ultimate destination (Washington, Minnesota, the Carolinas, Florida). Tennis shoes and boots have given way to the monotonous trudge and must be abandoned for new digs.

Irineo stops. He tells me his mind will no longer send the signal to his feet to move. So in the end, after ll he's left behind in the journey he naps under a tree and eventually hikes a nearby gas station where he hitches a ride back to the border.

Later in the afternoon I head out of town with my co-producer, Araceli, to her village of Magdalena Peñasco. We have plans to record migration stories from both her dad and sister, who have each crossed the border. We're only able to record her sister before the sun sets, and marks my need to trek back towards Tlaxiaco. At the age of 18, María decided on a whim one evening that she's had enough of hearing about the opportunity of the United States, and wanted to go and see it for herself. Her story, completely distinct from Irineo's involves a sprained ankle in the first 5 hours of the trek, which she must ignore and bear for the additional 3 days of walking. The group is apprehended by Immigration on their first attempt. But once they are detained, and then passed back over the border, the group decides to make another attempt that night. They are successful. Tons of weary walkers pile, like tamales, into a single van, she tells me. Twice it breaks down over the course of the journey. But she eventually makes it to Florida--where this young, tiny 18 year-old works in a hotel, in construction, and finally in an apparel store. I want to know how she navigates the city, how she knows what coins to deposit for the bus, how to get to work...she explains in tears how she muddled through it all alone, so young. And after over a year, she returns. She misses her family, her town, the food. But it's not like she remembered. Her little brothers have grown up. They don't need her like before. And the poverty here persists. The lack of work--the hopelessness--they are still present. So she's putting her mind to cross again. This time, she says, she's ready for the challenge.

I return to Tlaxiaco a bit wiped out. But I've made another appointment to record the migration story of someone I met in a collectivo taxi a few weeks back. So I rally some energy in the form of an ice cream cone and head to the Parque to meet my next interview subject.

This is exactly the kind of guy (poster child for) those who would close our borders indefinitely, build a giant wall out of airplane hulls and find a way to live without cheap, immigrant labor (as if we could!); he's got a rough past, spent some time in an orphanage, spent some time feeling perhaps a bit lost. He gets into drugs, gets into jail, gets beaten into a gang where the hottest chicks stick to the most fierce guys, of course--a place where they would "spend two days getting high, chillin' out." And yet...

I can't help but think America would love this dude's 180-degree renovation, his cinematic shift away from that life when one day he discovers that milk and bread are way more expensive in México than they used to be. Inflation, the simple mathematics of the market slap him into, "I need to stop fucking away my life, throwing away my hard-earned money into shit. I need to set myself to work to the bone, save for my future. 'Cause there is no hope here in México. " I gotta think that the same Americans that would deport this guy in a cannon across the border without a thought, would have to admire his pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sticktuitiveness, his ingenuity, his 6 AM-to-11 PM work ethic, his new clean edge, his plan for the future--which holds to one line: I will not allow my kids to inherit misery. It stops at his generation. I mean, shit, this guy doesn't even have any kids yet.

Our country is filled with guys like this one who have started their own construction business, landscaping business, house cleaning business--what have you. They have taught themselves through sheer force of will to learn English. They have saved and sweated and saved and planned for a time when every day isn't about work--when it's about giving their families a better shot at it. I gotta think that's something that us "gringos" can understand. Wasn't our country founded on that? Wasn't it?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Soup

Day 1

Arrived on the early morning van from Oaxaca. As I promised myself, I worked for an hour of the winding drive--and then, resigned myself to sleep, slumped in the shotgun seat for the other two. Every time I awake, shaking sleep from my brain, the haze just wouldn't clear. It's then that I realize the hills and roadside before me are actually blanketed in early morning fog. It isn't my drowsy disposition, afterall. Our quiet van murmurs its way uphill, parting the thick mist like a curtain. Headlights glow and disappear into the soup; eventually the morning sun dissolves the mist and countryside fades into view.

Departing my house in the morn

I always arrive in Tlaxiaco with a loose pan of action. I say "loose" because holding too tightly the reins almost assuredly causes events to not occur. Today is proof of that; as I'd planned to meet up with one of the producers at the station to talk strategy on a co-production. She's not there, of course. So now I must improvise. I make a few calls to people I've met on past trips that could be likely interview subjects (don't want to waste the time). I burn a few music files and program sounds that I'll need for editing later. I crack open my computer and work on the script for a current piece. Around noon the producer shows up. We have a tête-a-tête, after all. And low and behold the day drops away behind me and night falls. I hitch a ride into town center with radio buddies.

Note to self: Remember to call ahead to my landlords to let them know I'm coming next time. Today marks the second time I've arrived and someone is already sleeping in my room. Awkward!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


"Am I really hungry? Why is my stomach grumbling so much? Is this a panic attack?" These are my thoughts as I lay in bed, having hit snooze for the second time, trying to decide if I can return back to my dream or not. And then it hits me: oh, this is an earthquake.

I'm from the Midwest. So please excuse my nïavaté when it comes to recognizing that the earth is trembling. I'm more accustomed to recognizing the green hue of the sky before a tornado whips through the plains, than this.

Apparently it was a 6.4 according to this site. That sounds big to me. But really, the birds chirped loudly, my bed shook around a bunch, dogs barked, and then it faded. Pretty uneventful. That's the news from the south!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Entre estos ojos

I'm busy this week and next loading, logging and editing all of the tape I collected in Tlaxiaco this past visit. The blog will get updated soon, I promise. In the interim, here's just a few things for which my camera has taken a fancy; I hope it can occupy you all while I get to my chamba...

Pipes carrying water from the hills of San Felipe to the center of Oaxaca.

A typical working lunch + wine.

A spot where I like to read + cuba libre

Friday, February 01, 2008


When I lived in Oaxaca in 1999 I often crossed the street in front of the school I was attending during break to buy a little snack to hold me over until comida at 2:30 in the afternoon. A small torta. Some cookies. Or my favorite, Dorritos chips with sabor especial. "Sabor Especial" is basically another name for Cool Ranch. I guess that doesn't exactly translate well. Though, I always felt that "special flavor" sounds like they're hiding something.

I digress. When I opened up my bag of sabor espeical chips that year, I pulled out a picture of the Pope.

Sometimes, in place of the Pope, there would be a tiny sticker of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Nice.

Well, today I opened a bag of chips to find this:

Has México lost religion...?