Category Archives: My book

The four directions: Cuatro caminos of Mexico

Taking off from most U.S. cities, one can see the edge of civilization, the place where urbanity stops and the countryside begins. Leaving Mexico City, the airplane is surrounded by civilization on all sides. It takes a few minutes to reach an expanse of dry fields and a large canal, but still, settlements abound for miles, cutting through the omnipresent yellowish haze of exhaust and fire and ash and CO2. Colonias, or neighborhoods rise up along the Western Sierra Madre as they have for at least two millennia, their people descending into the valley for cheap Chinese goods and wi-fi and Sam’s Club condiments and returning home to pursue some kind of small trade, a hardware store, a taco stand, an ESL school. And then all civilization is obscured by cloud cover, at last beyond the smog.

Mexico City is an amazingly functional place for such an expanse of humanity. It is hard to comprehend 20 million people in one ancient valley—civilizations on this scale are supposed to fall, torn apart from the inside or invaded by conquering forces. But drive—or better yet, take the newish Metrobus from the southern reaches of the city, Xocimilco, or even Coyoacan, into the Centro Historico and the scale becomes clear. The long boulevards heading north and south along the valley floor take literally hours to navigate. Insurgentes Sur, like boulevards that lead into or out of towns anywhere, is blanketed with restaurants, hotels, dry goods stores, car dealerships, colleges and housing projects. But in most cities that pattern repeats only once or twice. Along Insurgentes, the evidence of urban development, waves of Mexico City’s growth, can be seen time and again, like shards of pottery in an archeological dig. There are even successive waves of Hooters and McDonalds and Burger Kings as the boulevard climaxes at La Paseo de Reforma.

Disembark at Reforma and it’s obvious that all roads lead here. One friend described it as the center of the Spanish speaking world, which is certainly true. But it also seems to be the center of many different universes, with a consciousness and vibration older and deeper than any to be found in the United States. It is at once New World and Old World, a mash up of the European sensibility for lifestyle with the American pursuit of progress. And the indigenous creativity is still alive here as well. This combination of old, new and really old is what makes the culture of Mexico so intoxicating and relevant. It is properly strong coffee (Europe), a million choices for lunch (America), and a stack of piping hot tortillas (Indigenous), to put it in culinary terms. It’s going to the grain mill in the morning to make masa for tamales and then going to Costco for butter and wine. It’s stamped on the music as well: European instruments, American rhymes and industry, indigenous storytelling. Even the language—Spanish was a European language once—incorporates the Indigenous sounds and descriptions of earthly things, and the American (in a broad sense here) drive to innovate, invent, improvise.

And politics here is at once democratic, pragmatic, socialistic and very tribal. Until recently teachers and other functionaries could pass on their civil service jobs to siblings and children (so I’m told). Wherever the increasingly potent battles over the drug trade lead, the solution lies in some combination of democratic bribery for all.

An unexpected benefit of this mission I’m taking is the experience of Mexico in her various forms. I walked across the border from Texas, where a legitimate cross-national mind exists, despite the fog of violence that has infected it in the last decade. I’ve crossed the interior cities and countryside, where generations of migrants have jumped over that border-space to the northern interior, to places like Chicago and North Carolina and inland California and Idaho, where they find fields and hills and dales much like the ones they leave behind, the same fertile valley to which they hope to return.

And now I’ve been to cosmopolitan Mexico, where people on the train bury their noses in their cell phones, commuting to who knows how many jobs in the new economy and the old economy. Where meals cost 6 pesos or 600 on the same block.

And now, I’m heading to tourist Mexico, the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, where I expect to find a fourth sensibility, one imbued with dependency and caricature. I’ll try not to have too much fun.

Ipod Touch as the new laptop

This is my computer setup for traveling in Mexico

I decided not to lug my laptop to Mexico for this reporting trip. Instead I´m working with my iPod Touch (4th Generation) and an external bluetooth keyboard.

It´s worked really well so far. I upgraded my iPod before I left so that I could make use of the on-board microphone and the bluetooth support that the newest iPods have. I picked up a Microsoft Bluetooth Mobile Keyboard 6000 the night before I left because I like the key action better than the Apple keyboards, which must have been made for graphic designers who can´t speal anyway. And I use a cheap plastic stand for the ipod while I´m typing.

I am using the PlainText app for typing up my notes every night and for drafting blog posts. I like the clean interface but wish I could figure out how to use bullets and maybe even embed hyperlinks. It also syncs with my Dropbox account, which is where I access all of my notes for the book anyway. That is really convenient (when I have wi-fi).

I´m using the WordPress iPhone app to blog, mostly, but again, it seems to be lacking in its ability to handle photos and links and character styles like bold, etc. Maybe there is a better one out there? I´ve had to go online to fix a lot of issues with my posts. (Right now I´m using a PC at a public library somewhere in Mexico City … I´ll have to geotag the post to find out where I am, actually.)

It also seems like PlainText screws up the hard returns on my blog posts, but I have to experiment more with that.

The new iPod takes really nice little videos, but again, I have not had stable enough wi-fi anywhere to upload them. I am using HootSuite to post to Twitter and Facebook, Skype to call home and now TextFree to send free texts (otherwise they cost me at least 50 cents apiece). I am also using SpanishDict, which does not require wi-fi and has proven pretty thorough and even hip to the times.

Oh, and most important perhaps, I use iTalk light to record interviews, though I might buy the full version when I get back.

I like the little plastic base for the iPod (from XtremeMac) but I think a sturdier one would help. There is alot of pushing on the screen even when I use the external keyboard. If I need to plug in, I just put the iPod upside down and work near an outlet.

There are only two problems: (1) A frequent lack of wi-fi and (2) the inability to transfer photos from my digital SLR camera to the iPod (computer). I toyed with the idea of using the Eye-Fi memory card in my camera, which can connect to wi-fi, but I could not figure out a good system before I left. I also found a card reader that fits in the iPod on before I left but I can´t find it again.

I know others are doing this type of thing, but it took me a long time to figure out all the peices in an economical way, so I thought this might help other reporters or travelers out there. Let me know if you have other suggestions or techniques.

Seeking experts and wi-fi in Mexico City

I am now in Mexico City, staying with a family friend in Xocimilco and looking for sources for the book. I´m trying to get interviews with some Mexican government officials about the two sides of the marital immigration equation: the presence of Americans here in Mexico because of their inability to legalize in the U.S. and the struggle for Mexicans in the U.S. to obtain visas through their American spouses. I´ve gotten much farther with the Instituto Nacional de Inmigracion, which issues visas to travel and work in Mexico, but I´m also trying to speak with the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which aids in the protection of migrants abroad, largely through the Mexican consulates all across the U.S.

While I´m here, I am trying to contact American clubs and associations in Mexico City and academics at the Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico. The only problem I´m having is a lack of wi-fi (and figuring out certain punctuation on Spanish keyboards).

Wi-fi is everywhere, but many networks, both open networks and places like this library that provide passwords, do not have stable connections to the internet. I even paid for a month of Boingo wi-fi access but it has not helped me, failing in the airports in Juarez and Monterrey and Queretero, where I expected it to work.

I might have to go to McDonalds or Starbucks, even though I hate to do it. Sanborns, a chain of Mexican breakfast places/coffee shops also has wi-fi, which I am going to check out first. I went to a Pollo Feliz, which is owned by my host´s family, but no one knew the wi-fi password there this morning.

But more importantly, I´m still working out what I want to know about the Mexican perspective on bi-national couples. One thing is already clear: Mexicans “get it” much more rapidly than Americans when I attempt to explain the book. A few nights ago I was in the little town of Santa Gertrudis in the state of Michoacan [that is an awesome link, there, by the way]. We went to get tacos at 9 or 10 at night and there were a bunch of folks sitting around under the bright lights drinking beers and eating tripe. I just started talking about the plight of Americans who marry undocumented Mexican immigrants and they started gossipping about all of their friends. (While we sat there, trucks with license plates from Idaho, California and Illinois drove by.) The women all knew people with American spouses living here and there (acá y allá). They even told me to go out to an indigenous Purépecha village to find some mixed-status couples.

In the U.S. when I talk about the book, people are not aware that there are any issues with immigrating a spouse.

So I want to ask Mexican officials about options for spouses of Mexican citizens living here in Mexico, about the demographics of the returned Mexican population (through either forced of self-deportation) with strong ties to the U.S. and about Mexican foreign policy toward U.S. immigration affairs.

Last time I was here I was affiliated with Knight-Ridder and had some pull to arrange interviews. This time it´s like pulling teeth, but it is still fun to try.

Normal, Mexico

I have finally regained my sense of normalcy here in the Central Mexican town of Queretaro, after those few days in Ciudad Juarez. I’m visiting some dear friends who are helping me with the book and I’m pretending to be a tourist for a few days. We’re going to the market, looking at historical sites and I’m not afraid to whip out my camera and take pictures on the street like I was in Juarez.

This is a very cool town with lots of students, colonial-era architecture and interesting restaurants.

Here’s some photos of my stay in Queretaro:

My father’s vineyard

I spent an unexpected fourth night in Ciudad Juarez after AeroMexico canceled my flight out on Sunday. The airline put me up at the Quality Inn, which is a pretty nice hotel, also just north of the US Consulate, and gave me a voucher for dinner. I ate in a well-appointed, cavelike, smoky bar in the hotel compound where a young woman with a Mexican accent only a bit better than mine (there are many Mexican accents, but I’m just saying she spoke Spanish like a gringa) was holding court with the waiters, delivering a discourse on underground hip hop. She was smoking and drinking beers and entertaining most of the restaurant staff.

I was reading an English newsletter of the maquila industry I had picked up in the hotel lobby. The glossy paper referred to the region as the “borderplex” and offered various theories on how regional meanufacturing specialization in the developing world was going to pull the U.S. out of the recession (or some such bullshit). I was pegged as an international businessman—they kept asking me if I do international business. I just said I was writing a book.

The woman came over to talk and she was clearly American, from San Francisco. Just like the baggage handler at the airport was clearly American (Oklahoma) and many of the people in the hotel lobbies around the Consulate are clearly American, waiting here in Juarez to find out if they can get their visas and go home.

I say “clearly American,” but of course, this depends on definitions. Technically, any American who finds themselves in Juarez with business at the Consulate’s visa section has had some type of problem with his or her residency in the United States. But citizenship is not really how we define “American” on a day to day basis. The baggage handler and I had an instant rapport the moment he said, “Nah man, I’m American, I’m just hiding from my wife.” And then added, “They deported me.”

The young lady in the bar, well educated and upwardly mobile and, after spending a year’s exile in Mexico, perhaps too worldly for her age, had a similar take: I’m American, I’m just waiting for the paper.

Here’s what happened to her: She was born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. speaking fluent English, ragging on Oakland from across the Bay, pretending to like football and leading student protests for immigration reform. All that time, she did not have papers. She says her dad, an American citizen originally from Mexico, could have conveyed citizenship to her while she was a minor but he put it off and she turned 18 and she was an adult without legal status in the U.S. So she turned herself in and waited out a one-year penalty in the city of Monterrey. Now she’s back in Juarez to take a quick citizenship test—she says the questions are totally easy—and get home to her family in S.F.

She seemed a little miffed by the whole thing, but kind of had a good time down here for a year and is eager to get back to college and to her previously scheduled, normal life.

What is an American really? Is it defined by food, language, music, culture? Or is it the aesthetic of Jazz—the combination of all of the food, language, music and ideas of all of the people present in the 50 states at any given time.

Or is America a pace? Several Juarenzes have told me they’d never go north because people just shut themselves up in their houses and don’t congregate in the streets to make Jazz. I think there is some truth to that, but there are spaces within America where we meet on the streets and create culture.

There is one question that comes up a lot here and is important for my research. Is life easier here or there? I suppose it depends on whose life. My life has certainly been fairly easy of late, living in Boise, with all the comforts and security of life there. Compared to Juarez, that life is relatively stable, easy, safe. But it’s stressful too in a sort of suburban, drive to succeed, juggle the kids kind of way, which is uniquely American as well. Time takes on a different urgency up North, an unhealthy urgency. But is it easy or hard? That’s a question many Mexicans seem to be asking themselves these days, perhaps calculating the risks and benefits of going north or asserting a type of Mexican cultural nationalism that holds the primacy of lifestyle and personal interchange over time and money.

I’m going to walk past the Cartier watches one more time here in the Monterrey airport before I leave for Queretaro … I’ll let you know what they tell me.

You’re in Tucson?

The Rio Grande-Rio Bravo between El Paso and Juarez ... from the Santa Fe bridge.

Actually, I’m in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where I enjoyed a fairly relaxing day. I have not checked the murder count for the day here yet, but I just learned of the shootings in Tucson via Twitter and read several accounts.

All week I’ve been getting messages along the lines of: You’re in Juarez? And my reply is often that any city can be dangerous and that our media-filtered perception of Juarez (and by false extension, all of Mexico) is a flawed perception. I really wanted that to be so, but after three days here, I do not think it’s a false perception.

Everyone I’ve spoken to is nervous here: I just dropped my fork against my plate in a fairly nice hotel in a decent part of town and five people jumped up to see what was going on. I went to see a movie with a Mexican man from Minneapolis who is here waiting for his visa to come through (hoping it comes through) so that he can rejoin his American wife in the States. Several times during the movie (Tron 3D, dubbed) there were strange noises in the theater and people started looking around uncomfortable, pulling down their 3D glasses.

My first night here I stayed in a rough neighborhood with two Americans who have lived there for 15 years. I wanted so badly to be comfortable there, to talk to neighbors, to walk around. But nearly every house had a story of murder. Recent murder. I can’t write about the details, but we walked quickly to and fro, taking different routes each time, walking down the middle of the street, a technique I learned years ago from a friend whose mother is a social worker (apparently no one will touch the crazy guero walking down the middle of the street)? I took the bus from this neighborhood in the hills above Juarez through many run-down colonias, swerving around burnt tires, wondering at every unplanned stop. People did not make eye contact on the bus. We all had our collars turned up, stared straight ahead. I worked up the nerve to ask a lady next to me if the US Consulate was getting close and she briefly explained it was close and then got off the bus.

Crossing by foot from El Paso to Mexico over the Santa Fe bridge.

All this death, all this nervousness, was making me nervous, so I decided to get a hotel room near the Consulate. I’m not going to say where, because I’m still here and still paranoid, but it’s pretty sweet and rather affordable. I had survived 24 hours in Juarez. But I still had to go back and get my stuff and inform my hosts that I really appreciated their hospitality and deeply respect their choice to live there and experience the fear and desperation, and, to be fair, small celebrations of life and familia, that the majority of Juarenzes experience day in and day out. And to tell them that I needed to move to a more secure location. It’s always going back that gets us in trouble. In 1999, after a day exploring in downtown Johannesburg, I was mugged taking the scenic route back. It’s a small example and proves nothing, but I did not want a repeat. Luckily, I had met a man who works for a local health clinic and who offered to take me in his van to get my stuff and bring it back to the hotel. I told him the neighborhood and he said it was not a problem, though in retrospect, he did not know where it was and had no idea what he was in for. This man is in his 50s and grew up in Juarez. He is trained as an attorney, has adult children and holds a decent job. But I had to navigate for him and as we climbed into the barrio, his agitation became very obvious. We were driving a pretty nice passenger van and I noticed him checking the mirror, his face turning red, every bump or turn getting serious.

We pulled up to the little house and he said sternly, “five minutes.” I rushed in and told my hostess that I was moving closer to the Consulate, because that’s where my story was unfolding and because it’s safer for me. She was very gracious, but wanted to show my friend her little garden and two beautiful chickens. I was scanning the block for approaching vehicles while he got a quick tour of the yard and the house. This was most likely all irrational fear, but we were ratcheting up one another’s irrational fears. I didn’t like that he was so nervous, assuming he knew the area. He maybe didn’t like that he was driving a gringo journalist around in a fancy car in the colonias. Then he decided to take the scenic route back. There is a beltway around Juarez that most people with cars try to take to avoid stop lights, to speed past the ghetto.

But the day before, my host had taken me out to a vantage point to look north to the border, to Texas and New Mexico and to point out that like in many American cities, the beltway skirts the ghetto and provides no access for the poor to new infrastructure. We were now experiencing that first hand as we could clearly see the highway on the horizon but were speeding along dirt roads, imagining gangsters chasing us, until we finally came out to the asphalt. We both breathed huge sighs of relief. I know that this was all in our heads. But it was also a symptom of living in a town where the daily paper features a murder count. (U.S. papers have these in bad years too, remember.) We dropped my bags at the hotel and went out for double shots of Don Julio and some deep fried intestines with guacamole. I’m not the kind of person who regularly NEEDS a drink. But I needed a drink last night. (I could have done without the intestines, but they grew on me.)

Today I spent the morning eating fruit and eggs and transcribing my notes and then I met a source and spent all afternoon at a gleaming, well lit and highly secured mall. I hit the ATM. Had coffee. Took in a movie. The mall is spitting distance from the hotel. I’m a Juarez wimp now and I’m okay with that. But then I got back to the hotel tonight (wi-fi) and read about Tucson, where an apparently crazed right wing thug opened fire on a Democratic politician in a supermarket parking lot, killing six, and I’m not sure what to think. The cliche that all politics is local applies as well, and just as poorly, to urban violence. Just as the lone, or possibly pair of killers in Arizona acted in what appears to be an isolated incident, they were wrapped up in a national sentiment that has pushed many Americans to the brink of rationality. And just as many of the killings in Juarez are targeted, drug-related and extortion related incidents, they are also part of a larger geo-political context of free trade, drug trade and political corruption that plagues the border region. But these two geopolitical facts: increasing xenophobia and militarization of the border in the north and the growing power of drug cartels in the south are intimately related and on a crash course. It’s not a complete solution, but perhaps in the wake of this assasination attempt in the U.S., we will reassess the wisdom of criminalizing migrants, putting troops along the border and continuing to declare wars on inanimate objects (drugs, terrorism).

Either way, I’m outta here tomorrow, moving south for a long overdue visit with dear friends who just had their first baby, friends living in a new type of exile brought on by the same strain in American politics which reared it’s ugly head in Arizona today.

Steeling for Juarez

There’s good news and bad news about Ciudad Juarez, the closer one gets. I learned today that there have not been bus jackings in Juarez to date, so I should be fine taking a city bus tomorrow. But I also learned, at dinner with a group of El Paso Times reporters, about Molly Molloy’s Frontera List which tallied 13 murders in Juarez on Tuesday, including another beheading. Then I got a mixed reaction on my farewell Facebook post, with some commenters buying into the media hype about Mexico being super-peligroso, others attempting to debunk it and one former Texan issuing a level-headed analysis of his recent return visit to the border, saying it’s gotten ugly and he hopes it won’t spill over into the states.

There are two things easing my fears about heading across the Rio Grande tomorrow. One is the profusion of taco stands to which I am going to be exposed for the next three weeks. The second, and more serious factor, is the bravery of the couples I am going to interview.

I am going to Juarez because aside from being the murder capital of the world, it is also the locus of the largest US Consulate in the world. That means thousands of Mexicans with deep, deep ties to the United States must go there to apply for any number of tourist, work or, the cases in which I am most interested: marriage visas.

Thousands of bi-national couples pass time at the hotels in downtown Juarez every year, braving the mall, maybe venturing out to the ice rink or the movies, but mostly hunkering down and waiting for American officials to decide their fate. If they can brave life in Juarez for weeks, months, sometimes years, putting life plans and career plans and the relative security of the U.S. on hold, then I can handle it for a few days.

I am about a mile from the border, still in El Paso, typing this from a mediocre hotel room, and there is another thing drawing me south of the border. Even though I had a decent time at a bar called Tap and really enjoyed reminiscing my newspaper days with some young, eager reporters, downtown El Paso seems pretty dead. I’ll let you know if there is more life across the border.

American love exile links for Ignite Boise presentation

Tonight I am “performing” the first public presentation of my research to the Ignite Boise crowd at the Egyptian Theater in Boise. It is a crowd heavy in tech, with a slightly palpable conservative bent … I’m thinking of making my next Ignite Boise pitch an analysis of the politics of Ignite Boise, but that’s a different story.

It’s also a free event, with beer, tailored to the short attention span set (AKA Twitter crowd). In other words, I have 5 minutes to convey 10 million years or so of immigration love stories. So I’m relying on some racy mental images in order to grab the crowd’s attention. But if anyone is interested in reading a bit deeper in this field, here are a few links I mention in my presentation.

For Census numbers, see:

Love Exile (my term) blogs:

Pop culture references:

And finally, contact me here if you have ideas, stories, questions or concerns.