So I Married an Alien

Sept. 8, 2016

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I thought I should post this little confession. I married an alien. She invaded America in 1998, coming from a strange land called Mexico. Now if she was a white person we would just call her an “ex-pat,” but Americans prefer to refer to non-white visitors who weren’t born here as “immigrants.” If they came here to escape war or violence or just the American dream of economic mobility but they didn’t come through the very tiny door controlled by the federal bureaucracy we all love so much, they are called “undocumented immigrants,” or what the Trump crowd prefers, “illegal aliens.” I’m going to compromise and refer to my wife as an undocumented alien. It sounds more X-Files. And sexy. Hey, I saw a cute alien finger and I put a ring on it! (Or rather, she graciously allowed me the great honor.)

Now before Donald sounds the butt bugle for his quasi-fascist “deportation force,” let me say she now has papers. Thanks to immigration reforms under the first Clinton administration (See what I did there?), a loophole opened and she earned a green card that establishes a right to permeant residence in the USA. I just hope we can find it if Donald’s thugs kick down our door in the middle of the night as they round up the “very bad people” the Mexican government is “sending here” to “kill us.”

I mention this because, like most intelligent Americans, I have whiplash from trying to figure out what the fuck Trump’s ever-changing immigration policy is. Is he planning on asking “his generals” to come up with the answer to that one as well? It seems his policy is based on who his audience is and if his teleprompter is working or not. It certainly was a lot of xenophobic screaming after he returned from his brief trip to Mexico.

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There are a couple of reasons this matters. First, as I’ve written about many times in this blog, he is using scare tactics to whip white voters into a frenzy. His recent cavalcade of “angel moms” whose kids were allegedly killed by undocumented immigrants is a classic example. Of course it’s heartbreaking to have a family member murdered, but most people are murdered by people they are closely connected to, not the neighbor’s gardner. According to FBI crime statistics, only 12.3% of homicides are committed by strangers. Donald Trump is more likely to be murdered by Donald Trump, Jr. than an documented immigrant. But he’s successfully made brown immigrants into this season’s Willie Horton bogey man.

Despite his claim that America is a “complete disaster. Believe me.” – the crime rate has steadily been dropping in this country since 1993 at a rate of about 5% a year. And not only do immigrants have lower rates of crime offending than non-immigrants, studies show that cities with higher undocumented populations have lower crime rates. Think about it – If I’m here without papers, I’m not even going to jaywalk for fear of being discovered by police who might deport me and send me far from my family and my job. (And by the way, as Mexican President Peña Nieto pointed out to Trump’s confused face, illegal immigration to the U.S. has also been steadily declining, but, you know, THE SKY IS FALLING.)

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The second reason this is important is that all those “illegal aliens” that the Trump mob loves to hate and are convinced are stealing “their” jobs (picking strawberries) have stories. Some are escaping the insane violence of El Salvador and sending them back would be a death sentence. Some just want a better life for their children. Andrea wrote about her crossing so beautifully in the new collection, A Journey of Words. She didn’t come here to steal anybody’s job or rip anybody off. She came to live and to make America greater, as generations of immigrants, both legal and illegal (whatever that really means), have before and after her.

I feel like we’re at a turning point. So much of the political rhetoric from the Trump mob sounds like Germany in 1933 or even the United States in 1942, when 120,000 Japanese-American citizens and Japanese immigrants were ripped from their homes and thrown in desolate concentration camps until the end of the war. I wonder if my daughter, who Trump has hinted is not guaranteed citizenship just because she was born here, will be safe even if America’s favorite con artist loses in November.

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It’s clear that many of Trump’s thugs could care less about the facts, whether it’s Trump lying on TV about his past statements (that happen to be on video) or just repeating the “Crooked Hillary” mantra in hopes that truthiness beats out the truth. I’ve given up trying to convince these people. But I think if they just knew somebody like Andrea or any of the twelve million people who are here without papers, Trump’s fear mongering would fall on deaf ears.

Remember when pretty much every gay person outside of San Francisco was in the closet? (Maybe you’re not old enough.) As those people found the courage to come out, attitudes changed. A guy in Omaha had a harder time going off about “them queers” because he probably knew (and liked) some people who were gay. Just think of all the people in the Bible Belt who watch Ellen Degeneres five days a week. They must be pretty conflicted about the “hate the sin, love the sinner” crap they are supposed to believe.

It’s time for these same people to get to know their neighborhood undocumented immigrant. Who knows – they might also find love.

 

Feministing in Havana

14 August 2016

Going to Cuba was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My second major at Emory in the Reagan ‘80s was “International Studies” with a focus on Soviet and Latin American politics, Cuba being the connection. My mother was there as a bobby-soxed teenager in 1959 and flew out Havana the day Castro took the city. The one paper my she saved from her college days was about Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Cuba has always seemed completely off-limits to me. But if Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, I can see Cuba from my balcony here on Isla Mujeres. Actually, it’s just over the horizon. If I had a frisbee and a good south-eastern trade wind, I could probably land it inside a cell in Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. government is still actively creating terrorists. So why not just go?

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That’s what Andrea and I did. On a mad impulse we bought tickets to go. On Tuesday I went scuba-diving and on Wednesday I was on a Cubana Airlines flight over the water from Cancun to Havana. Barely an hour in the air and we were there with our hastily prepared visas and access to the world’s last “socialist paradise.” (Your Nikes are made in Vietnam and your iPhone is made in China, so they are disqualified and nobody is claiming North Korea as anything but an Orwellian nightmare.) Off to the land with no internet, leaving our wi’s and fi’s behind.

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There’s so much to write about the experience. We were there as the country was getting ready for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday. I can’t believe the guy has been there my entire life. His brother, Raul Castro, has somewhat normalized relations with the U.S. and since Obama eased the embargo, you can feel the Starbucks shops just lining up to come in and change the nation overnight. Ask anyone from a small-town what Wal-Mart has done to America. Havana had plenty of construction cranes and the new hotels were coming. I’m sure the names “Hilton” and “Trump” will become part of the new oceanfront skyline. (Although nobody seemed to know who Donald Trump was. God bless them.)

It reminded me of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1991, right when the country opened its doors to the west. The people and infrastructure in Prague had no idea how to handle the rush of tourists who wanted to come and look around. There were no hotels or restaurants and capitalist entrepreneurialism was a foreign language. We stayed in people’s homes and ate whatever we could find in beer halls. When I returned in 1992, all that had changed. Western money flooded the “Paris of the East,” and there were billboards proclaiming (in English), “There are now four McDonalds in Praha!”

So we’ll see if Brother Raul lets that happen to his island. I have feeling it’ll look a lot different next time we go back. We stayed in a wonderful casa in the center of the city that might be a Quality Inn this time next year.

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But I thought I’d write a little but about gender on the streets of Havana. Cuba has been known for being on the vanguard of gender equality issues for a long time. Women, like Celia Sånchez, were at the forefront of the revolution in 1959, fighting alongside Fidel and Che. The Federation of Cuban Women was formed shortly after that. Half of the judges and justices in Cuba are female, over a third of the parliament is female and 62% of university students are female. There are great feminist Cuban rappers, like Krudas Cubensi and Obsession and 31 Cuban women are competing in the Rio Olympics.  (Watch for Yorgelis Rodríguez in the heptathlon finals.) Unlike in the United States, gender equality is a part of the Cuban constitution. “The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.”

So it must be a great place to be a woman, right?

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Andrea and I were walking around our little neighborhood on Friday morning, just behind the Cuban capital building and some guy, seeing her, angrily shouted out to his friend, “She got fucked by the French!” He probably thought I was French and what was this brown girl doing with a white guy. It was in Spanish so I totally missed it but Andrea was visibly upset. After a similar comment she felt abused enough to return to our room and just hang out, away from the catcalls. She was shaken as the daily war on women followed her all the way to a communist outpost that supposedly outlawed sexism before I was even born.

Cuba is an incredibly diverse place, from dark Afro-Caribbean to Europeans (and probably some Hemingway descendants). Andrea, who would be punishingly sexy in a medieval suit of armor, noticed the comments were coming from men of color and asked me why that was. I assured her that white men were not free from the same behavior but there might be some good feminist explanations of the race-gender interaction.

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I took a moment to play professor and tackle it from three of the many feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists would argue that black Cuban men have be raised with a different relationship to women than white Cuban men which may be more vocally aggressive and seeing a Latin woman with a white man viewed as a betrayal of an ethnic subcultural value. Marxist feminists would say that even in allegedly communist society, poor people still exist and are alienated and poor black Cubans are alienated the most. (Stats back up that black Cubans have the lowest paid jobs.) So Marxist Feminists would argue the one place those men have power in a patriarchal world is over women. (Stats also show black women in Cuba experience more domestic violence.) Finally, radical feminists argue that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in spite of popular values of gender equality, finding any way possible to subordinate females, either through institutional means (less pay) or old-fashioned scare tactics. So on our little block, mostly populated by men who were poor and dark-skinned, it was the catcall.

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I don’t know if this discussion was of any value to my wife. The conversation became one of how do we get men to raise their sons right so our daughter won’t routinely experience the same harassment. We both absolutely loved our brief time in Cuba and want to return as soon as possible, before Starbucks and Wal-Mart (and future bankrupt Trump casinos) erase a nation frozen in revolutionary amber.

There’s a great line about Cuba – “Cuba got three things right: education, health care, and baseball.  And it got three things wrong: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The food can be pretty bland. I would say it’s been wrong on lots of human rights issues as well (although the last ten yeas have seen massive improvements for the lesbian, gay, and transgender populations). But all the socialist good will hasn’t stopped men from being dicks. I have to side with the radical feminists on this one. You can get rid of capitalism, but until you get rid of patriarchy it’s the same old shit. Cuba libre.

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The Casual Sociologist: Causally watching race and races from Mexico

July 26, 2016

Watching the American political conventions from another country is a strange experience. The summer of 1984, I was living in Dublin, Ireland and only heared second hand reports about the amazing speech Jessie Jackson gave at the Democratic Convention. Now, thanks to the global wi-fi (and CBSN), I can stream it live and watch from my bed here in Morelia, Mexico.

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One of the funny items that has been circulating (besides Melania Trump’s beautiful tribute to Michelle Obama) has been the image of very Caucasoid-looking people holding “Latinos para Trump” (not “Latinos por Trump”) signs at the RNC last week in Cleveland. The implication is that there are no actual Latinos for Trump, so the RNC made the signs up and handed them out to the whitest crowd assembled since Kenny G’s last concert, hoping that the internet wouldn’t notice. “Look, Latinos do support Trump! Everybody was wrong!”

First of all, there are Latinos that vote Republican. They’re called Cubans. Secondly, Latinos come in all shapes and colors. From dark indigenous people to European Spaniards and old fashioned whites. Not all Latinos look like George Lopez. Having said that, and being married to a full-blooded citizen of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos (That’s “Mexico” to you gringos), I feel pretty confident in saying those folks holding the “Latinos for Trump” were about as Latino as a crunchy chalupa at Taco Bell.

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I was thinking about the issue the other day as Andrea and I were sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Plaza de Armas in the center of Morelia. We were enjoying our very European cappuccinos while dark skinned indigenous people (the “O.G.s of Mexico”) tried to sell us trinkets, clothing and candies. Andrea was quick to point out how Mexico has adopted it’s own version of racism that grants privilege to the lighter-skinned citizens. The darker the Mexican berry the harder the struggle.

The United States exports a lot of wonderful stuff. I saw a kid in Mexico City last week playing Pokemon Go! USA! USA! Some might argue that rampant consumerism is not our best export. Now that nearly everyone in Mexico has a credit card, the latest clothes and gadgets are accessible (along with a lifetime of debt to the happily profiting banks). But before the exported version of the variable interest rates came our views on race and the basic idea that the whiter you are the better you are.

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If you don’t believe me, look at the origin of the term “redneck.” Poor whites had to work the fields and their tanned skin reflected that. Eighteenth century aristocrats hid from the sun and prided themselves on their porcelain skin. And if that wasn’t enough, they would cake on the white face powder and powdered wigs. (The great irony was a lot of that white powder contained lead and poisoned the wealthy.) But anything was better than looking like the darker common folks.

Add “negroes and mulattos” to the mix and you have the completion of the “white is right” hierarchy. And it’s not like this idea died in 1865. All over the globe there are Asian-originated people getting plastic surgery on their eye-lids in a sad attempt to “look white.” And all over the globe there are African-originated people who are bleaching their skin in a sad attempt to “look white.” And if you’re a Latina, there’s blonde hair dye on sale! There is a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry that regularly tells women around the globe that being beautiful means being “white.”

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10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White

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I had a Latino student in one of my Hate Crimes classes at Portland State who did a fascinating research project. He did a content analysis of images of women in fashion magazines that targeted the Latina audience, like Vanidades and Latina. The images of ads and articles were either of Caucasian women or very light-skinned Latinas. There were no images of indigenous women or even mestizo (mixed) women. The message was clear – white is beautiful and, therefore, non-white is ugly.

It’s no secret that Mexico has it’s own version of American racism. Just watch any half hour of Univision or UPN and try to find dark brown faces. When they do pop up on telenovelas they are maids, peasants, villains and even witches. The news presenters all look like Access Hollywood hosts. Off the screen it is just as clear. The lighter skinned people work in banks and the darker skinned work construction and peddle. White is money.

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But this racial class divide is not always so divided. The teacher’s union in Oaxaca is waging a bitter strike against the reforms of President Peña Nieto. Last month six demonstrators were killed and more than 100 were injured by federal police in the conflict. The teachers are often lighter-skinned and more educated than the demonstrators but they are all in the struggle together. Last week we were in Pátzcuaro and traffic stopped for what I thought was a festival of locals. That was until I saw the anarchist flag and the barricade on the railroad tracks to stop trains from getting through. These young dark brown people were shutting the system down to support teachers in another Mexican state.

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I know to a lot of Trump folks (and maybe Americans in general), “Mexicans” are anyone whose family comes from south of El Paso. That includes El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and even Brazilians. They are all the same skin tone and education level. Malcolm X once said, “What does a white man call an educated negro with a PhD? He calls him a nigger.” That attitude is often extended to the “beaner” in America. (But if you can get a few of the light-skinned, dyed-blonde GOP Hispanics in front of the camera at the RNC, no problema.)

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So it should not be a great surprise that the attitude that white is better permeates south of the border and across the globe. Racism is a planetary sickness that devalues indigenous people pretty much everywhere (outside of Northern Europe). But maybe, if Trump wins, white will be out and the world will become a nauseating shade of orange.

Cinco de Mayo guest essay: A Conversation with the Serpent

May 5, 2016

With the current hostility towards Latinos and “illegal aliens” drummed up by the presumed Republican nominee for president, Donald “Bigly” Trump, I thought I’d hand over my blog to my wife, Andrea. She is one of the people the Trump thugs will be looking for, so her voice is much more powerful than mine on this topic.

She’s also a much better writer than I am. When I first read this, I wept for what she’d lost to be here in the “land of the free.” This piece might remind you of the great Mexican writer, Octavio Paz. Or it might remind you that we are all continuing journeys that our families began for us. In honor of the hard working people who won’t be drinking margaritas today or having sombrero contests, please spend some time with mi familia.

A Conversation with the Serpent

by Andrea Barrios

This creature inhabits two worlds. Split in uno, dos.  This same creature never leaves the borders she was made to cross. Those unnatural lines. They are sticky, tangled, and wherever she goes, they wrap around her ankles and pull down as the creature walks, as if to remind her she is not home. The serpent woman looks down at them, smiles, then keeps moving.

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“Entre mas bien te portes, mas bien te va a ir” you said to me once. Yes, you told me once and left me puzzled. You, Anastasia, the boss lady of the Rosas clan. Eighty some years old, with hoses for veins. I’m not sure how you came to be, how you came into this world. You seem too old for anything to have created or birthed you. You look and smell like sweet tree bark as if you had been standing there, in that same spot, taking root for years and years just watching Mexico’s story unfold from the time of the pyramids to now. Tienes una calma admirable. You have that calmness about you, the kind of calm serene spirit only the air between strong growing trees have. You were never taught to make sense of letters, but have always had plenty of wisdom to share about how a life should be lived. You represent our land, Mexico, in all it’s wholeness, with all it’s jungles, trees, garbage, tierra, oppression, cactus, esqueletos, all of it. Your words are always so sure of themselves, they stand over us and give us a dirty look when they come out of your mouth. “The better you behave, the better life will be to you” you said. With iPhone in hand, I recorded your voice without you noticing. It might be the last time I would get to hear it since I moved North, to the United States of America. Your voice.  A voice that reminded me of the one place I belonged to and wanted to hold on to, but also  a voice that yanked on the back of my neck hairs and reminded me that I wasn’t there anymore. But it wasn’t until I crossed over to the other side that your words made sense. Only there, in between worlds, on that shaky bridge, did I find the meaning to your words. I found what you really meant to say. Split into uno, dos.

When our people move North and cross the waters of the Rio Bravo to the other side, we get split into two. It’s funny how even the river that divides this land and that land has two names: they call it The Rio Grande, the “big river.” We call it El Rio Bravo, the “angry river.” Different names, different experiences. Split into two. Everything about me seems to be split in two. You would never understand because you are whole. You have all your parts and know them well, because they have been a part of you always. You’ve never had to add or subtract anything from yourself. Everything is where you left it, just the way you know. But me, my everything splits into dos ever since I left our place. I have two heads, two tongues, two brains, two, two, two. Two mouths, two homes, dos modos de ser, two. And just like the Mexican female goddess was split into two by Spanish religion, split into the virgin and the whore, Tonantsi and Coatlalopeuh, I too, along with all the women in your family have been split. Octavio Paz would say we, the women of your country, only become more damaged when we cross over, because according to him we are born damaged. He says women are born with a wound that never heals. A raja or opening that bleeds out every month to remind us we are weak, and sinful. He repeats that “a woman is a domesticated wild animal, lecherous and sinful from birth, who must be subdued with a stick and guided by the reins of religion.” He would say that when we cross over and abandon our homes the wound tears and only opens up more and we bleed out.

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But I know you, and I can see you start to laugh, and I know how you raised us, and I can hear you tell Paz that he can shove his book up his ass. Up his on raja. You never needed nada de nadie, nothing from no one and would be proud to say you bleed and are still strong. I can hear you say that to me and tell me that you are both the whore, and the virgin. You were both La Llorona and La Malinche. The wailing woman, crying your songs for her lost children at the river by the border, and the one who Cortez slept with because he wanted your power. You are both Tonantsi and Coatlalopeuh, and are not gonna apologize for any of it.

In a way, I have always been jealous of your life, grandma. A life with a poor but constant home. A life that to American standards would seem miserable. But you live happy because their standards don’t exist to you because you who have been untouched by American culture and expectation. You own and know yourself so well, unlike us on the other side who have two faces, because having one would not be enough. We keep a third face in our closet because it’s too sad for even us to look at. So you see us, on this side of the line, and we walk cradling our dried up roots in our arms, with our two sad brown faces swinging as we go. You are whole in the way that I cannot be. You are the constant force, the motherland. Just looking at you, a serpent woman, could scare you in the sweetest way. You know when you do it don’t you abue? You know when you scare us because after you notice, you smile and your face gets all wrinkled with satisfaction. The same half fear is what I feel when I think of returning home, to what our country has become. The kind of fear you want to feel because it feels good. Home scares me, but it’s impossible not to long to go back, not to go back crawling into familiar arms.

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You and our country are full of life, but also full of holy death. Death does not scare us. Magic doesn’t make us laugh. You taught us to live with it, to not fear it. You and our ancestors have built altars to venerate lady death, la flaca, la huesuda. You light the dead candles so they can find their way back home once a year, and set out a feast of bread and tequila for them to enjoy while we sleep and they dance around us. You don’t let us go out into the streets without “La benediction” for fear of the spirits, but mostly out of respect for the evil in all of us. You cover the mirrors in the homes when someone in the family dies, you say that if you don’t the deceased will take us with them to that other place, and you say it’s not our time. You believe in the life in us, but also teach us that we should not be scared of death. All your beliefs intact because you’ve never crossed to the North. It’s another world, Grandma. In the words of Gloria Anzaldua, your beliefs would be classified as “fiction, make-believe, wish-fulfillment.” they say that “Indians have primitive and therefore deficient minds.” And that label, is what our people deal with on the other side. We are classified as having deficient minds because we believe in gods and goddesses that don’t line up with theirs. So we stand here and are scared to hold onto our brown Gods, and the Gods sense we are scared. They know it and frown and slowly step back from us, leaving us here, on the other side with nothing to believe in. All that is left is the holes in our bodies from when we were whole, but now are hollow. The further our people get from our brown Gods, the closer they get to the United States.

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You grew up with the land and the land grew with you and around you; framing the beautiful lines on your face. Grandma, unlike in your old Mexico where the trees are welcomed into homes through the windows and doors and wrap around the houses in a protective embrace, or where the dust and soil are like part of the family, or where the fireflies light the red sky, the scenery in the United States is not welcoming. It doesn’t embrace you. It doesn’t grow with you. It grows, expands, decays, grows again, never once acknowledging your presence. A neighborhood once full of life gets bought out to make room for bigger and better concrete. All while the people with our skin color get pushed out further and further into the decay. And from that decay, they rebuild and dwell. The United States hosts so many of our peoples bodies, but it never really welcomes them. There is always that awkward feeling floating around the air that one gets when a guest has overstayed its welcome and both parties smile nervously awaiting for a departure. You know that nervous feeling Grandma, I saw you make that face when your comadre wouldn’t leave last Saturday night after you had coffee with her and your tired obsidian eyes just danced around her as if you were trying to cha-cha her right out of your house. I know you feel for me, and feel a loss. Because even though your roots are firm and stable, you see that ours aren’t and you can’t do anything but watch us leave and return tired. Our existence here is uncertain. Our limbs decaying. You notice how damaged our roots are from the transplant and dried up from not having a stable place to grow into and hold on to. The soil is not the same. Our people can’t grow on concrete.

It’s too bad you brought us up with so much pride, I think to myself sometimes. It’s all your fault Anastacia. You, the warrior goddess who raised and fed all those children on corn you grew on your back. You, who reminded yours that you brought them into the world and could take them out of it, if you wished to. Yo the traje a este mundo, y si quiero te puedo sacar, you would say. You and your proud serpent spirit, the shadow beast. You never needed nada de nadie, and you wished the same for us. You infected all the women in your family with that same spirit, the same pride. The same kind of pride I hate when I see it coming from the whites who say all the illegal aliens are taking over their country. But I just look at my skin and the constellations my moles make on my arms, and the patterns they make remind me of yours and I laugh. I laugh because I don’t blame them, not always. I imagine them moving South and bringing their dull religion and customs with them and I cringe. I understand they are only trying to protect the little identity they have. Their red, white and blue colored pride. But yes abue, that same pride has taken over me, it both empowers me and tries to trip me up, to hurt me as I go. The pride is like the ancient serpent goddess: it will let you grab a hold of her but you never know her mood. She might be at peace that day and just dance in your hands, or she can grab you using her fangs and coil herself tightly around your arm. But, because I can’t hold on to you or our country, I risk it and I grab a hold on to that pride shaped like a snake.

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I blame all this pride on you. I have a hard time deciding if it’s useful or not. Like the old Aztecs, the one’s before the warfare tactics took over and the female spirit was split into two and before the Spanish rapists tried to erase our spirit, I, like the old Aztecs grew up with you, with a matriarch, as the goddess. Even if you, the aging goddess never misses Sunday mass and makes us, your grandchildren stand and kneel and stand again and praise the bleeding male God on the cross. A God that was pushed on you and us, but one you took in because you saw that he too was an orphan. I wonder if you know we praise you? And stand and kneel only for you. You are our God, our Tonantsi. Blessed are you amongst grandmas. Bendita seas tu. You who can make water turn into tequila, and provide it for our whole family who faithfully drinks for their sins every Sunday.

So you ask me what changes when you go North and you ask me why I return to you so pale? Grandma, you don’t know this, but the further North you go into the US, once you cross, the paler the air gets. Air so pale and dry it strips your skin of colors. So please, stop teasing me about being so pale, it’s not my fault. You can rub all the beets in the world on my face and I still wouldn’t get the color I once had, the color I had before I left. I still qualify as a person of color to the whites, so that’s something, right? I agree with you, the air, the rain and clouds in the U.S. are cabrones because they keep our people so colorless, so pale. We can’t even wear our rightful brown skin. The browns and reds and burnt yellows we inherited from our aunts and uncles, the Aztecs and Los Mayas. Instead we walk around with just enough of a lazy brown to make us stand out from their whiteness. Enough to make us different. Enough to make us “aliens.” Brown aliens. So our color get’s washed away, slowly being taken away by the foreign clouds and the American rain. Our color washed away, but never our stupid pride, Grandma.

You ask me why I come back so thirsty? You don’t know, but there are less real cantinas, or what you call them “Mexican water holes.” Less gossip, and less mercados– yeah the ones with the piñatas on the ceiling, and the pig heads hanging from hooks, and the smell of the spices and candied air… we don’t have those. The mercados or tiendas that do exist are here for the amusement of the whites, so they can feel all warm and fuzzy and cultural. Whites like to buy all our colors, even if they are overpriced. I once went into a tienda and tried to have a conversation with the person at the counter taking my money and all I got was my change back and a “I don’t speak your language, I’m not Mexican.” back. I don’t like that they accuse our people of not belonging, yet take our colors to make up for the lack of theirs. They take us and leave us as they please. They like some parts of us, but not the whole. The whole is too much to handle. Too much of a bother to deal with. Too much to understand. We are not as simple as they want us to be.

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You ask me why I come back so tongue-tied? Why do I come back hablando chistosito? My r’s weak from the long trip. English, which was once unnatural to me tries to take over my mouth and you notice it and frown. My tongue is too, split into two. And with my serpent tongue I speak here and there. Each end of the tip of the tongue dancing to a different rhythm. Our people are so confused when it comes to language. We can’t speak Spanish, but some of us don’t know English, so we mix them together. Un revoltijo de lenguas, but that isn’t acceptable. The mixing of languages isn’t acceptable, it’s illegitimate, like us. Our people have created a border language, a language that lives on the bridge where we too live. “Deslenguadas. Somos los del español deficiente. We are your linguistic nightmare, your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestisaje, the subject of your burla. Because we speak with tongues of fire we are culturally crucified. Racially, culturally and linguistically somos huerfanos– we speak an orphan tongue.” says Anzaldua. I hear stories of parents who prohibit their kids from learning their mother language for fear that if they speak something other than English they will be seen as less. Don’t they know they are making them into “less?” I am thankful of my tongue split into two when I hear stories like this, because I’d rather have the tongue of a serpent, split into two at the end, than to not know las palabras que salen de tu boca. In the wise words of Ray Gwyn Smith, “who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” And war is what those language borders create in our Mexican heads, but Grandma you wouldn’t understand. Your tongue is agile and your r’s are strong.

You ask me why I run wild into the sugar cane fields in the back of your house, in and out and in and out. I run wild when I come back to stretch out the stiffness of life on the bridge. because our people are tired of hiding. We are so used to hiding up north. We are so tired of burrowing our brown faces deeper and deeper into the ground for the fear of being seen, being caught. So tired from giving in to the addictions of hiding out behind our masks. Our people get home from work and in their isolation sit and eat their loneliness. Only they know how lonely it is to be here, not surrounded by people who look like you, who sound like you. That is what life is like on the bridge, and it get’s tiring. So when we are back on the other side of the bridge: our side, we rejoice and drink, we take off our masks, sun our faces and shoot guns into the sky like fools who wish to reclaim what they left behind. To shoot it down from the heavens hoping we have the right aim and that thing we’ve been stripped from when we left falls right on our heads.

You too, have asked me why our people come back so slouched? Todos jorobados. With green dollars in their hands, but slouched. I think the expectation is for our people to check their pride at the border, you see, and some do. Some forget who they were before they walked with the masks over their face, their real face. They don’t light candles for their deceased, they don’t remember how not to fear, they are scared to look at their faces, they are scared of death. Not me. I managed to sneak that pride in just like the bottles of Mezcal, the kind with the little worm I always manage to sneak in when I fly back now that I have my papers. Now that I was given a piece of paper than says my crossing over doesn’t have to be the cause of my death. A green plastic card with my brown face on it that says that I’m one of the lucky ones that can go out into the streets without the fear of being kicked back. I managed to sneak in that dark pride you gave me because its color matched the black and blue night over our heads the night we crossed the Arizona desert. That night when I and the other sixty something brown faces full of color crossed the dusty Arizona desert leaving tracks on the sand with our bellies as we dragged them through. The blue night we had to claw ourselves into the ground to hide from the border patrol in order to cross over to a land that once belonged to our people. We didn’t fear because in some way, we had already been there. The desert recognized our faces and said hello and helped us on the way.

The desert trusted us and said “I missed you” and “come back.” A desert that hid us behind her black arms so that we could make the journey back to our old land safely. We knew the way and the way knew us.

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So the pride was snuck in, but something else got left behind. Either something gets left behind or you pick something up as you cross into this country. Whatever it is, you never get it back. Whatever it is it’s heavy and makes the Mexican men walk all slouched, not like the men who walk like roosters on Sundays in your little towns plaza. I see the heaviness of that thing weigh down their bottom eyelids. Sometimes that thing is so heavy that their whole head tilts towards the ground. Sometimes it splits them in half and you see only half of their body moving as they go, just when you think Mexican men can’t be any more damaged. Half of our women and half of our men out here in these American streets. Fragmented by their struggles, stripped of their beliefs, little decayed beings.

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“But I’ve behaved badly, and life has been pretty good to me” was what you said to me once, after that other thing you said to me. Then it all made sense. You, with your twisted tongue, the cactus goddess, said with your eyes, a message in code that I don’t even think you understood. You could not have understood what it would mean to be because you are whole. You said to me in code, and I understood. You knew you hadn’t conformed, no te portaste bien. You had owned both the light and the dark in you, the virgin and the whore. You didn’t let anyone take your wholeness away and that is what you wanted for us. That was the only way to be for you. You weren’t speaking to me as the virgin, or the whore. You owned your everything. And that to you was the only way to behave “well.” You let our ancient goddesses speak through your eyes and told me to hold on to that thing they passed down to you, and you to me. To our people. I finally  understood your words on the bridge.  You tugged  down on my ankles and I smiled  at you.

Report from the Island of Women: #BringbacktheGoddess

Aug. 3, 2015

I’ve been living on Isla Mujeres for a month now and I’m feeling the presence of the Mayan goddess, Ixchel. Well, maybe that’s just wishful thinking. People love to think that God or the gods are a constant presence, but here on the island, it’s not hard to imagine. And while #Goddess may be now banned on Instagram, she is alive and well here on the Island of Women.

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When the Spaniards first arrived on this little island in the 1500s they noticed an abundance of images of women in the carvings and paintings. Being good Catholics, it never crossed their minds that they might be images of goddesses. They probably thought it was just Mayan porn. But, in reality, most of those images were of Ixchel, the Mayan jaguar goddess of fertility. She was also known as the goddess of medicine and midwifery.

That makes sense on a couple of levels. Islands often have feminine deities because they symbolize emergence from the sea, just like a baby emerging from her watery womb. There is a pantheon of goddesses across the seas that represent creation, from Huamea in Hawaii to Agemen in the Philippines, Rangda in Bali and Erzulie in Haiti.

We come from the water so it all makes sense in contrast to those land-locked nomads who butchered each other in the name of their male warrior gods. My favorite book to assign to my students is Riane Eisler’s The Chalice & the Blade: Our History, Our Future (1988). It’s a rereading of the history of the construction of God and how evidence shows that thousands of years of goddess worship was re-written by the image of God as male. At the peak of the Reagan Cold War she asked readers, what if the dominate icon of God was of a woman giving birth instead of a man being murdered on a cross.

To be fair, the Mayans were pretty patriarchal. Their kingdoms were ruled by patrilineal kings who often engaged in violent bloodsport, including human sacrifice, like heart extraction. (Ouch!) It’s believed that much of this was learned from their psychotic Azetec neighbors to the north, but once the idea of chopping people’s heads off to appease the gods becomes a fad, it’s gonna be hard to top that trend. Watch Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalpypto for a fairly decent (if debated) portrayal of these fun times.

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But I don’t think anybody was sacrificed for Ixchel, even though she was viewed as a warrior goddess. On the south end of the island, Punta Sur, there was a Mayan temple dating back over 500 years. Unfortunately, in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert knocked it off it’s foundation and there is only the base left. But the area is still known as Ixchel’s hangout. It’s the eastern most point of Mexico, so pagans and sun worshiper’s go there at dawn to watch the first rays of sunshine touch the nation. But those aren’t the only people who go there.

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Because Ixchel is the Goddess of Fertility, Punta Sur is a popular place to conceive children. Legend has it that if even the most infertile of couples takes a stroll on that end of the island, they will be blessed with a baby. The best place to go is the “womb of Ixchel,” a little cave at the end of the point. And yes, I took Andrea there. But more aggressive baby-wanters don’t take any chances and just strait up do the mambo right there by her statue. There are plenty of stories of lovers caught buns-up, paying tribute to the goddess. That seems a bit risky as the iguanas, giant flying frigates and Israeli tourists might be a bit distracting. But some people are just committed. And when someone gets pregnant on the island, the common refrain is, “Blame Ixchel.”

I love uncovering the hidden goddess cultures of the human race. There is a direct connection between Ixchel, the Aztec goddess Toci, and the worship of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. According to Mary Daly’s groundbreaking 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, when the Conquistadors came to Mexico pushing Catholicism, the locals asked “Where is your goddess?” Their replay was, “We don’t have a goddess but we have the Mother of God.” And that’s why you see more images of the Virgin in Mexico than you do of Jesus. There is an undying devotion to Nana Guadalupe, the holy mother.

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On our last bus trip from Morelia to Mexico City, we saw hundreds of cyclists on the highway. It wasn’t a fitness ride. They were all following icons of the Virgin.  At the basilica, you will see people who have crawled hundreds of miles on their knees on a pilgrimage to see the cloak of Juan Diego, emblazoned with the famous image of the Virgin Mary. I’ve seen it and as a committed agnostic, it’s humbling. It’s a moving reminder of the resonance of the goddess in the psyche of Latin America. It’s not the vengeful god of the Apocalypse, waving a Confederate flag, it’s a pregnant woman and author of kindness, forgiveness, and new life.

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There is such a fear of the sacred feminine in our male dominated world. I’ve written about the conspiracy of silence around breast feeding that is now cracking. The latest assault is by Instagram, where #Goddess has been banned because women were posting pictures of themselves nursing their children (#slut and #tits are still approved.) There’s plenty of porn on Instagram (Um, #Thotsbelike), but women nurturing their children is somehow offensive. But women are no longer silent to this stupid shit. #BringbacktheGoddess already had 5000 mentions on Instagram. (#Stopcensoringmotherhood has 6000 hashtags.) Instagram deserves to be publicly shamed for trying to shame women for being women instead of “hos.”

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I don’t know if there is a downside to all this fertility worship. It is not uncommon to see 12-year-old girls who are pregnant here. While this is pretty common everywhere, it may have a link to the early adulthood of islanders that Margaret Mead wrote about in Coming of Age in Samoa in 1928. Artist Paul Gauguin had three teenage brides while in Tahiti and Martinique in the 1890s who became the subjects of his most famous paintings. On Isla Mujeres, only grade school is paid for by the state. Most 13-year-olds are already working on fishing boats and planning their own entry into parenthood. So there is this great clash of cultures between competing ideas of motherhood and when it should happen.

One of my students this summer is studying local conceptions of fertility and the role that Ixchel plays in people’s lives. She’s finding that younger girls have lost the connection to Ixchel and are focussed on having C-section births which are now the norm in nearby Cancun. She’s also finding that the goddess has become more of a marketing tool to attract tourists instead of a deity. But she did mention asking a 14-year-old girl at a teen pregnancy meeting about Ixchel and the girl said, “Who is Ixchel?” To which another pregnant teen piped in, “Don’t you know why you’re pregnant?”

Motherhood is a sacred thing. On one hand it seems completely bizarre that things like birth and breastfeeding are met with such revulsion and censorship. Ask a teenage boy to pick up some tampons at the store and see how visceral the opposition will be. But when you look at the long campaign to vilify the sacred feminine as original sinners (“That bitch Eve was a ho!”), you can see the long history of the banishment of the Goddess. Hebrew texts banished Lilith from the Garden of Eden and Instagram has banished “goddess” from its hashtags. It’s all part of the same thing. Why do you need the sacred feminine when you have Caesarean Sections? But Ixchel is also the Goddess of Storms, so maybe she’ll have something to say about it.

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Isla Mujeres Field School Class of 2015!

Gender Notes: A Short Note About Mexico

July 21, 2015

I’m loving my time in Mexico and we’re not even half-way through the adventure. Every day holds a dozen new sensations and the people are so generous here, it puts self-absorbed Americans to shame. Mexico is a complex country, existing in the high tech modern and almost feudal rural worlds at the same time. My feminist brain has noticed some deeply gendered realities, but I have to remind myself that it’s not just Mexico that can get caught in the past. I’m sure that rural Alabama is basically the same.

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I’m back with my family in Andrea’s grandmother’s town. It’s a little place called Puente de Ixtla in the state of Morelos, near Mexico City. The house is really a group of houses for the family. Andrea’s abuela lives in the house in front and some of her dozen children live in other houses on the property. It’s like a family compound known as a vecindad and it keeps the family close to each other. That means there’s a host of uncles that can help take care of grandma.

But in reality, it’s the uncle’s wives that do most of the work. In a classic gender division of labor, the women stay in the house cooking and cleaning constantly. As a guest, it’s wonderful to be the recipient of such hospitality. I can’t say no to all this amazing food, but when I helped Andrea wash the dishes, there were some laughs. What’s a man doing washing dishes?

This isn’t just a rural Mexican thing. Dorothy Smith wrote about this over forty years ago. Women are relegated to the domestic realm while men exist outside the house. Virginia Woolf wrote about it long before that. There’s really no reason for the woman here to leave the house except for an occasional trip to the market. There’s even a whole army of beeping trucks and honking bikes who will deliver everything from tortillas to propane to your door. The streets are filled with a barrage of these sounds on the lookout for housewives who will flag them down.

You could make the case that this system exists because it works. But who does it work for? Just like Betty Friedan addressed in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, these women are fully formed human beings, not domestic robots. Just maybe, at one point in their lives, they imagined themselves pursuing their own dreams and goals. Of course this way of life is so deeply rooted, being a “good wife” may be the only objective.

This gender dynamic played out last night. I got pulled in to a drinking contest with an uncle we will just refer to as Tio Diablo. I let my own macho desire to not be shown up get the better of me. I didn’t want to be the “American wimp” with this hard drinking lot (and I’m paying for it today). A group of us were sitting outside drinking 40s and Grandma, 84, was chugging the Coronas. One of the uncles’ kids is a beautiful 4-year-old girl and Grandma gave her a sip of her beer. I was a bit shocked but then she started just sharing the beer with this child who was enjoying it way too much. I asked the girl if she was OK and she just smiled. It was a case of bystander apathy. Later, I was angry at myself for not intervening right away. Children’s brain development can be seriously compromised by alcohol. What if grandma thinks it’s “cute” to give Cozy beer?

I don’t expect Andrea’s abuela to be up on the latest research on pediatric cognitive development, but there’s bigger issue at work. This girl is on a trajectory to be another housewife and if she loses a few brain cells, it shouldn’t interfere with her ability to get supper on the table. Added to it is an element of racism. Because this little girl has more of an indigenous Mexican look she is also devalued, as opposed to Cozy who is fawned over because she is so “white” looking.

I talked to Andrea about the beer thing and she talked to her mom and there was a little chat with Grandma. So I think the beer thing is dealt with. I did get an epic evil eye from her for bringing my Yankee values to her casa, but who cares, this little girl deserves every possible chance to do whatever she wants to in life.

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I’ve often lectured about how we can be ethnocentric when viewing other cultures, but sometimes it make sense. In have wonder what it would be like if a wave of feminist consciousness swept Puente de Ixtla like it did America fifty years ago. Men might have to start washing their own dishes! And maybe women would get dressed up and go out on the town for a bit of fun.

I don’t want this post to sound ungrateful for all the wonderful hospitality I’ve enjoyed here.  Andrea’s family is vibrant and hilarious, singing and laughing. It really is like a dream to be here. And Cozy Valentina loves all the attention. Family is so important. I just want everybody in the family to be fully valued.