Dad Love 10: We become gendered.

February 17, 2017

It seems like just seconds ago I was writing about Cozy turning two. We were on our sweltering Mexican island preparing for a birthday adventure in the Yucatan jungle. Now we’re in freezing damp Portland and this child seems like a completely different being. Those six months have been a tsunami of evolution. While the  whole country seems to have devolved, Cozy has become a person and also, dammit, a girl. She’s down for the cause, this girl. She marched in the Women’s March and met the mayor at the Portland United Against Hate rally. Have you met Cozy V. Blazak yet? The mayor has.

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I’ve been lecturing about gender socialization since the George HW Bush Administration (Remember him?), so I know you don’t raise kids in a vacuum. You can’t create your kid like an art project. Society sneaks in on the corners (and on the Disney Channel), but I was a little surprised how quickly my genderless baby became a full-fledged girly girl. I’ve written about her princess thing. The other day I was fixing something and asked her to hand me a long screwdriver. She correctly grabbed the flathead and I thought, “That’s my kid.” And then she raised it up in the air and proclaimed, “Elena of Avalor!”

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This two-and-a-half-year-old is infinitely fascinating. She loves to do the “woos” at the right places of “I Am the Walrus” and tell you the names of her friends in daycare. “The guys, Josie, Amelia….” As soon as she gets to “school,” she goes straight to work making art, just like her mama. She likes to jump off of things (“Daddy, watch this!”) and play hide and seek. And if you ask her what she wants to eat, it’s either mac & cheese, candy, or “ice cream chips.” Most of the time we can figure out what’s she’s trying to tell us and she gets frustrated when we can’t. All this happened is a space of six months. Boom.

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We are quickly leaving the phase when we can pick out her clothes. For me that was about sixth grade. I learned this lesson when I tried to put on the Falcons sweatshirt for Super Bowl Sunday that my dad bought her a year ago. Nope. She wanted to wear her Minnie Mouse dress. Sorry Grandpa. It’s either gotta have Minnie on it, be pink, or be a skirt. I didn’t even know they made skirts for toddlers, now I’m searching target.com for anything she might like. The girl stuff is like a magnet to her. It’s not like either of her parents wear pink. (Well, I do have this flouncy number from my New Romantic days.)

It makes me think of some of my LGBTQ friends who have said that they didn’t have that same experience. Little girls who never wanted dolls and little boys who wanted to wear skirts. It’s a great window into the nature/nurture debate about gender and sexual orientation. I don’t know if Cozy is gonna be a lesbian, but if she is, she’s gonna be a lipstick lesbian with the best skirt collection in town. Just a hunch.

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For now, I’m just loving this phase. I still spend too much time watching her sleep but I also will have endless fun doing puzzles, coloring, or teaching her how men do laundry and lay on the floor to listen to John Coltrane records. She pretends she has a trumpet and plays along. I guess she’s more of a Miles Davis.

She’s deeply empathic (“What’s wrong, Daddy?”) so she must know I’m more in love with her every passing day. I wonder if she knows that people respond to her in a totally unique way, like she’s a shaman onboard the Good Ship Lollipop. The world feels like a better place because she’s in it. I hope she uses this power she has in a meaningful way. How old do you have to be to run for mayor?

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Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

I found a 2-year-old!

August 22, 2016

I was thinking of Googling “quotes about time.” Maybe there was one that said something like, “Time is a baby cobra, waiting for the right moment to jab its poison fangs into your neck.” Cozy just turned two, so that might be fitting of the stabbing realization that our “baby” is a fairly formed little person now. Or maybe for the fact that she is now in complete realization of the power of the temper tantrum, ready to shut all forward motion down. She’s grown into this glorious child, charming the pantaloons off of everyone in Mexico, but she also learning the power of one word – no. And that’s probably a good thing.

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As I wrote a few weeks ago, Andrea and I came to Isla Mujeres alone, leaving Cozy in Morelia with Andrea’s family. After over two weeks apart, we were finally reunited last Tuesday. We were both so excited about her coming to Isla we could barely sleep. Cozy loves flowers so I bought her a bouquet and we hopped on the ferry to meet her on the Cancun side of the bay. When she and her abuela finally arrived at the port (transport from the Cancun airport can take a long time if your collectivo has to stop by a lot of tourist hotels first), she seemed a bit surprised to see us, like, “Oh, I sort of remember these two.” Then she looked out at the Caribbean and said, “Agua!” That’s my hija.

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Birthdays are a big deal in Mexico so we made a big deal about our little Bug turning two. She had a party in Morelia, with uncles and aunts and a cake. Here it became a two-day celebration. We started out at the beach building sandcastles, going to see the sea turtles at Tortugranja, and the iguanas at Punta Sur. We rented a golf cart to ride around the island and at one point, with the beautiful Caribbean rolling by on our right side, she put each arm around our necks and hugged us tightly with the biggest smile ever on her face. “I think she remembers us,” I thought. It was all worth it for that moment.

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Then to Café Mogagua for the second annual Café Mogagua birthday banana split. It’s a Mexican tradition to push a kid’s face in their birthday cake and Andrea is not one to pass up a good tradition. The white people in the café were probably shocked but the Latino family next to us thought it was hilarious. And so did Cozy. So much of this trip has been about connecting her to her Mexican heritage, why not a little whipped cream?

 

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Day Two was a trip to Xcaret, an ecological amusement park between Cancun and Tulum. These people know how to make eco-tourism fun for the whole family. I thought Cozy would love seeing the birds, dolphins, monkeys, and butterflies (and she did). The most amazing part of the experience was the half-mile long underwater river that visitors get to float down. They give you a life jacket and flippers, and like a Mayan offering, you are thrown into the water. Cozy was apprehensive about the whole thing. It might have been the fact that two days before she fell into the hotel swimming pool and was rescued by one of my students. (I dove in too, but “first responder” Elaine was on it!) But once in the river, clinging to my neck, she started to go all wide-eyed. “Do you like this, Bug?” I asked. “Si!” she said.

Xcaret is essentially a water-park with animals (Cozy was fascinated by the stingrays and roared at a puma) with several all-you-can-eat buffets scattered through the park. Everyone is in their bathing suits all day so it’s an opportunity to be reminded of the wide variety of bodies in the world, all entitled to a good snorkel with a nurse shark.

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Then, at 7 pm, everyone dries off and heads to this giant arena for a two-hour spectacular. A cast of over 300 puts on an impressive show about the history of Mexico, complete with Mayan sports, mariachi bands, dances from Jalisco, the flying men of Papantla, parrots flying around, and ending with an ode to the diaspora of the Mexican people that would make Donald Trump caca in his foreign-made suit. It was great seeing Andrea’s mother sing along to every song and Cozy was just completely amazed by the whole spectacle. I watched her as much as the show. It’s been so important for her to be exposed to her Mexican culture and she got it in grand style that night.

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In the middle of all this excitement it became clear that we now have a two-year-old daughter. She’s a little social butterfly who loves to chat it up with the other chavos. She will wander off as far as we’ll let her, confident on her own path. (Don’t worry, I’m quite mindful of the horror stories of kids like her being snatched or falling into gorilla enclosures.) But she also has a new defiance. She can walk a mile, but if she wants to be carried all she needs to do is stage a noisy sit in. If she doesn’t want to eat in a restaurant, banging her head on the table and screaming bloody murder sends the message to everyone in earshot. “No!” works in both English and Spanish.

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Andrea figured out how to handle this fairly quickly. You’ve got to come on strong with a stern voice. For all my lecturing on raising children, I’m a complete wimp. I can’t yell at her just yet. I worry about her little flameouts after being away from her for two-and-a half-weeks. I worry about other people thinking I’m shitty parent because my kid is wailing in front of the flamingos. I worry that Super Nanny will judge me for not putting the kid on the naughty step. So I carry her through the jungles of Mexico. But Andrea’s way works and I know it’s important for parents to be on the same page. (“Yeah, I’m not wrapped around anybody’s finger,” he said.) Firm and supportive, like a Playtex brassiere.

We’re settling in to our new parenting role. I don’t know if the “terrible 2’s” is really a thing, but it feels like the junior member of this partnership is now testing her autonomy. Right now life is about enjoying our last week here in Mexico, swimming, eating as many street cart quesadillas as possible, and dancing to the Beatles in our air-conditioned room. The outside world still sneaks in, including sexism at the Olympics, the spectacle of Trump’s free fall, and kids like Cozy being endlessly bombed in Syria, but we’re happy to be a tight little gang of three isleños. I have a sneaking suspicion that the bilingual kid we will bring back to Portland is gonna have her own ideas about how to live in this world.

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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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Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

Aug. 8, 2016

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Cozy is fine. She’s with her abuela in Morelia, Mexico in a serious Spanish-language immersion class, going to the park with her tia, and, by all video accounts, having a blast. Andrea and I came to Isla Mujeres without her so I could start teaching this anthropology field research course. Cozy joins us on August 16 and we will be the reunited island family.

Sounds great, right?

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I mean what couple with a toddler wouldn’t want to have a few child-free weeks on a tropical island? It is certainly great for Andrea and I. This is my second year teaching a summer course at the amazing Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School and to have our own time is a true godsend. We sleep in and stay out late and when we walk down Hidalgo, the main street, the merchants shout, “Hey, honeymooners!” as they try to sell us trinkets and Cuban cigars. It’s a trip in time that’s allowed us to remember who we were together before we were “parents.”

But the missing part. That part can be rough.

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When we started on this experiment, I thought we’d have regular video hookups with Cozy via FaceTime. That’s how we did it last year when I came to Isla first and Andrea and Cozy stayed in Morelia for a few weeks. Technology has often been our link when I am out of town. I love seeing my daughter make goofy faces at me on her mom’s laptop.

A lot of therapy over the years helped me learn that some of my core relationship issues revolved around attachment and fear of being abandoned. Good therapy can take you way back to things that happened to you early in life, before you thought much about the world other than, “Wow.” My big “breakthrough” happened when I suddenly remembered how my parents would drop with an elderly neighbor when they went out of town for Amway conventions in the 1960s. I was maybe 3. I remembered thinking they would never come back and then being overwhelmed with emotion when they actually did come to get me. My apologies to all subsequent relationships. I’m better now.

So you can guess I don’t want to inflict that stress on my own daughter. This situation is different. She’s with family who spoil her to death. Andrea’s mother came to Portland from Mexico for the birth and was one of the first people on Earth to hold Cozy. She guards her like the most precious child. She is well fed and entertained and fortunately was out of the path of Hurricane Earl that almost hit our island last week.

We got to the island on July 29th and after a few days organized a FaceTime chat. Andrea’s sister, Viri, rang in with Cozy on her lap. We were so thrilled to see her and Cozy tried to kiss the screen. We were singing and hearing her new words and all smiles. Then I think she suddenly realized that we weren’t actually there and started crying with a horribly stressed look on her face. Her wise aunt just hung up. It was the right thing to do but I could feel a Mayan dagger plunged into my heart. And that was that. She won’t see us until we’re standing on the docks at Puerto Jaurez on the 16th, the day before her second birthday. (We plan to welcome her back with a big celebration.)

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We’re on “Island of Women,” but it’s really “Isla Niños.” There are so many little kids here, it’s hard not to be reminded of ours at every turn. Kids at the beach, kids riding with their family on motorcycles, a gang of four little girls who play in the alleyway of our hotel. Last year when we had Cozy’s first birthday party here, it was not hard to round up the local rug rats to have a go at the piñata. They are all stand-ins for our Bug.

So that’s the challenge. I want to enjoy every second with my beautiful, brilliant wife and not think my child is “gone.” I’m trying not to worry that she’s unsafe or that she’s forgetting about us or preferring the attention she’s getting to our less exotic life in Portland. Will she have grown so much I don’t recognize her? Just don’t think about it.

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I don’t need to string up Christmas lights to get messages from her in the upside down (OK, we just burned through all 8 episodes of Stranger Things). It not time to go mental. But missing your child is a powerful thing. Looking forward to hugging her is like all the Christmas Advent calendars I had as a kid rolled into one. One day closer.

I’ve been writing a lot about empathy in this blog and I’m getting a bite size chunk of the struggle of parents in the military or in prison who are far from their children. It’s got to be rough for parents who are separated and have work out custody arrangements. And we are not even touching the experience of actually losing a child. Lord. We probably grow more than our kids through all this. Letting go just a little bit. Not so easy. And it’s only sixteen years until she heads off to college. Help!

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For now it’s only eight days until Cozy and I are building castles in the sand and then watching them melt into the sea.

Dad Love 1: Dad Love

Dad Love 2: A Star is Born

Dad Love 3: Death and U2

Dad Love 4: You’re So Far Away

Dad Love 5: Flash, Ah! He’ll Save Every One of Us!

Dad Love 6: First Steps

Dad Love 7: I Need a Pep Talk

Dad Love 8: I’m on Drugs

 

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.

Abuela

“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.

Cancun: Where the U.S. Government Sends its Rapists

Aug. 10, 2015

Whenever somebody tells me, “I love Mexico! We went to Cancun just last year!” I want to beat them senseless with their selfie stick. Let’s get this straight. Cancun does not count as Mexico. It’s an American strip mall built in the land of the Mayans. It is a city created to lure gringos who want a nice beach in another country but don’t want to deal with grubby foreigners (or even their currency). It’s a fabricated vacuum that has very little to do with the great, vibrant nation of Mexico.

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Cancun was created in 1970. (So I’m older than Cancun.) At the time there were only three coconut farmers living there. (The 2010 population was 722,800, not counting douchebags. bachelorette parties and roofie suppliers.) The Mexican government invested in nine hotels and America’s favorite spring break destination was born. Clubs, hotels, and all your favorite American restaurants, like Hooters and McDonalds, are all positioned not more than 50 feet from ATMs that spit out Yankee dollars. Don’t speak Spanish? No problema!

So on Saturday night we decided to have a little excursion into a bizarre alternative universe where basic laws do not apply. We hopped a ferry off our tranquil island home and journeyed into the belly of the beast. Andrea and I and her sister Viri hoped for best. How bad could it be? Surely not the heart of darkness.

CoBro

Arriving in Puerto Jaurez we let Viri get the taxi to the club district because my American accent would have doubled the price. The cab driver told me, “Drink mucho tequila! Tequila! Tequila!” We were quickly recruited by a bouncer to come to the “hottest club in Cancun,” called La Vaquita, the little cow. (I don’t really get the cow thing. Udders?)  So when you get to this area before midnight, the clubs are front-loaded with dancing girls to lure the bros in. They are essentially strippers who have been imported from north of the border to attract customers. (None of the women looked like Latinas, not that Cancun club owners should proudly exploit their own.) After the clubs are packed, these women head home, hopefully to some safe space, before doing it again tomorrow.

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So we got cut a deal since it was one dorky guy and two beautiful women. Only about $35 each cover charge and he slapped our wrist bands on. And that came with an open bar, so an endless stream of sugary daiquiris and piña coladas headed our way. But then our waiter, Luis, just started bringing the trays of shots, one after another. I got the hint that the goal was to get the ladies extremely fucked up so they would be more “fun.” I started dumping my shots off the balcony so I could regulate and keep my cultural anthropologist hat on straight. I noticed the club next-door was Dady’O, the place Kim Kardashian goes to shake what her selfies bought her. I thought about running in and taking a massive dump in her honor but fish tacos have got me a bit irregular this summer.

One thought I had was how little dance music has changed in thirty years. (Just check out the 1983 dance mix of Human League’s “Fascination.”) But instead of extended dance versions you just got half a song before the next jam for the ADHD generation. As the clubs started to fill up, the DJ switched over to American hip hop and all your favorite hits where some rapper demands to have his dick sucked. (Can we please have a moratorium on dick sucking references in rap songs until there is an equal number of jams about going down on the muffin?) For every killer Jay-Z cut there were five super-misogynistic songs to dance to with your ass grabber. We were hoping that one-hit-wonders like Soulja Boy were now working at a Walgreens, restocking maxi-pads.

The last ferry back to Isla Mujeres was at 12:30 a.m. and since I’m no party-pooper we decided to go all night and catch the 5 a.m. ferry home. I may be a 51-year-old academic, but if there’s a good beat and you can dance to it, I’m yours for the night. And on and on to the break of dawn.

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We made our way across the street to the famous Mandala club and got in for free (again, I was with two beautiful women so I guess the logic was that at least one woman would be available). And we never paid for drinks there either (although we might have walked out on the bill, but who could tell with the jets of steam blasting out the ceiling at odd moments.) Like La Vaquita, the club was full of American bros on the  prowl. Viri had some dude try to drag her away but she used her “No speak English,” defense to escape the guy’s grasp.

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Mandala had a better dance floor and a “show.” And by show I mean female dancers who were dressed like the escaped from Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby prancing around while one climbed into a giant champagne glass and some bored employee poured a big bottle of bubbly (water, actually) on her ass. Worth every penny we paid to get in. And the bros shouted rude things at her because that’s what bros do.

The clubs in Cancun are open to the street which gives pedestrians a peek at what they’re missing and also allows people inside to interact directly with street vendors. What is painfully obvious is the large number of children who are working well after midnight, selling trinkets to tourists. Around 2 a.m. we took a break to grab some food on the strip (with about 10 different sound systems at full volume) and we’re approached by a sad-faced 7-year-old boy selling bracelets. Viri asked him why he wasn’t home in bed and he said his dad had died so he had to work. It was heartbreaking. You don’t want to support this exploitation of children, so I just gave him my bottle of water a sympathetic look and wished that Mexico had the same child labor laws that the U.S. does. Andrea had spotted a woman selling necklaces with a 9-month baby on her hip and chased her down to ask her why she would expose her child to all this noise well after midnight. Turns out it wasn’t even her baby, she was using it for the sympathy factor. The child seemed listless and doomed but it’s hard to judge people that are forced into this globalized cluster-fuck.

If we had been at a production of Les Mis, this would have been a quaint but sad historical footnote. But it was August 2015 and it put a downer on the vibe. It’s so odd that Americans are invited here to party their asses off while small children beg at their spray-tanned feet for pesos. And just down the street they can buy some of those children for sex as Cancun has a healthy sex-trafficking trade in the heart of the club district.

So, hoping to stretch out our adventure with some fun dancing, we headed back to La Vaquita and our open bar. But the night had passed some tipping point and all those free shots meant there were scores of barely standing females with the douchebag predators making their move, grinding and groping. It became clear at that moment that Cancun must be the date rape capital of the western world. Bros of every stripe (American, Mexican, Armenian) floated around to find the drunkest girl to “pick up.” An obese Mexican guy grabbed a petite girl on the dance floor by the hair and tried to pour a beer down her throat. I threw a handful of ice from my daiquiri at his head and she slipped away. Another guy had tried to do the same thing to Viri a little earlier and I had to give him the “don’t fuck with my hermana” look.

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It got bad. Like open season bad. Part of me resented having to stay sober so I could cock-block these rapist wanna-bees. Part of me was angry that these women were making themselves vulnerable to these assholes. But the biggest part of me was angry that men still see this sexually aggressive behavior as acceptable just because “everyone is shitfaced.” “It’s not rape if we’re both drunk!” It makes it hard to cut loose when you are thinking about all the reality-checks coming the morning after. Petite Girl ended up hooking up with a bro in a backwards ball cap and a tank top that said “Just Do Me,” while DMX rapped, “I gotta get my dick sucked.” I’m sure they’ll live happily ever after.

As 4 a.m. approached, we decided we better beat the rush and find a taxi back to the ferry port. Outside the club there was another gauntlet of vultures too cheap to pay the cover for the club. They were just hanging out in the street waiting for drunk women to come out and then zoom in like seagulls picking off baby sea turtles who just want to make it to the sea. Viri came out before us and some Pitbull-looking-motherfucker was on her tail. And he had a sidekick to insure his game. I had to position myself near her to send some kind of signal. But how many women don’t have a brother-in-law to run interference?

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We made it back to the ferry and watched the stars shine from the top deck as we headed back to our beautiful island. It was such a challenging experience. I will dance my ass off to a good Kanye jam and am happy to gulp a cocktail bigger than my head but I felt on guard against the wall of shit that happens every single night in probably every single club in Cancun. The place seemed like a fantasy world for somebody like Donald “Miss Universe Contest” Trump who puts so much emphasis on female beauty, the deregulation of the economy, and the freedom to not be accused of raping your wife. I’m surprised he doesn’t have a hotel there. Look, I know this behavior happens elsewhere and I want people to be able to celebrate the joy of life and “be drunken” (as Baudelaire urged) in a beautiful place like Cancun, but would I want my daughter Cozy to come here when she’s 18 and set herself up for the bro predators? It’s a tough call. But for now, I feel like dropping a bomb on the place would be a good start. What was wrong with it just being a coconut farm? As we approached Isla Mujeres, we saw a shooting star above the ferry and I made a wish for my little girl.

Note: The U.S. government is not sending rapists to Cancun. They come for the cheap beer and steak fajitas. Likewise, the Mexican government is not sending rapists to America. Donald Trump is just a complete idiot.