Cartagena

Jorge and I arrived in Cartegena two nights ago.

Because of the tropical climate, beautifully maintained Spanish-colonial arquitecture,  colorful gardens, delicious seafood, and a well-developed tourism infrastructure – Cartagena is one of the most popular destinations in Colombia – and indeed in all of South America.

After five days of wearing bulky cold-weather clothing, we happily slipped into our cooler cotton clothes, and soon felt the familiar sheen of sweat on our skin. I didn’t need a mirror to tell me that my bouncy Bogota hairstyle had wilted. I quickly put on my wide brimmed hat – a practical way to save time on hair maintenance – and avoid more sun damage to my skin.

A few minutes of walking around town made me wonder about other differences between this port city and the high-altitude capital of the country. I enjoyed visiting Bogota, but I often sensed tension there. I am used to a visibly-armed police presence, but the graffiti on almost every wall and the sullen student unrest made me feel uneasy.  In Cartagena, I notice that  most of the well-dressed patrons are Latinos or tourists – the servers are predominantly black.

A bit of historical background: In 1533, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Heredia took the village of Calamari by force, and founded the city of Cartagena. The “new city” was settled by the conquistadors, and in a relatively short time, it became one of the wealthiest ports in the Americas. One truth left out of the typical narrative for tourists is that this port’s biggest business was slave trade. The native population had been decimated by disease, and a new source of cheap labour was needed. It is estimated that over one million Africans were shipped to Cartagena.

Cartagena was also a major port for shipping the gold that was looted from the Inca Empire and that of the local indigenous Zenú people of the coast. The city was often filled with gold and precious stones and it quickly became a target for pirates in search of booty. The Spanish rulers built an 11 kilometer-long wall that managed to withstand most of the attacks, and in fact Cartagena was never completely under siege as was the case in other wealthy Spanish-American ports.

The British also attacked the city several times in an effort to take it from Spain, yet another painful and bloody episode in the history of colonization. Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811, one of the first cities in Colombia to do so. Finally, in 1821, Simón Bolivar entered the city from the sea and re-named it – La Heroica – the Heroic City.

During this whole time, slavery continued, but many slaves escaped to create free villages, called palenques. In these communities, they could celebrate their African roots and culture. In 1851, Colombia abolished slavery, 14 years before the United States. The only surviving palenque is San Basilio de Palenque. It was the first free city in America dating its foundation to 1713. To this day, the people there speak a unique language, Palenquero, a combination of Spanish and languages from West Central Africa.

Walking along the fortified walls – touring San Felipe, a hill-top castle built by the Spanish – or visiting the Palace of the Inquisition are reminders of the contradicting perspectives and cultures, and Cartagena’s inequality.

Above all others, one sight caused me to contemplate the different “worlds” of Cartegena. I noticed many black women dressed in colourful Colombian dresses, selling fruit and posing for photos.

Did Jorge and I take pictures of these women? Yes – after being asked to do so by many of them – we did. The photo at the top of the post shows two of them modeling their splendid outfits. I suppose they feel that their work is easier than a lot of other jobs, but I felt uncomfortable holding up my phone for the quick photo shoot.  But as always, Jorge was complimentary and generous, bringing out genuine smiles and thanks from both. He can relate to everyone and I am grateful to be making this trip with him.

And we did spend money on another purchase – if you guessed that we bought something “green” – you guessed right. This is my new silver pinky ring – designed by a Columbian jeweller who told me he had lived for several years in Canada.

So yes indeed, cultural melding of many kinds are found in Cartagena.

 

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Bogota

Are you wondering why I am in Bogota? Colombia is a country I never expected to visit. but I’m glad the fates have brought me here. Our nephew Raul is getting married next weekend in Barranquilla. We are close to him and his girlfriend, Jassel, so when the “group” that will sit on the groom’s side started forming, Jorge and I signed on.

There are 13 of us, and we all figured it would be silly to travel all this way and not see as much of the country as we can. Jorge and I opted to stay in Bogota for 5 days and Cartagena for 3 more before we travel to Barranquilla for the wedding.

Last Thursday’s non-stop flight from Cancun to Bogota was literally as easy as eating apple pie. Interjet took off on time, we had lots of legroom, a free checked bag – a sandwich and a cocktail too – all for about 7,000 pesos return. It felt like the “good old days” of air travel had returned.

Immigration and Customs in Colombia are extremely “thorough”, as are the foreign currency exchange and hotel check-in security. We had to fill out lengthy forms, allow our passports to be photocopied and even had our fingerprints taken. The government seems determined to know everyone’s business. But who can blame them? A decade ago the country faced dire crime-related challenges that are more or less under control now. And the citizens I’ve spoken with have opted to take the strict measures in stride. They don’t like to talk about the past but obviously, they feel that too much control is better than not enough. They do not want a return to the dark days.

However, the day we arrived, a crowd of about 1,000 students marched through town, causing havoc with the traffic. Much of the angst derives from the constant devaluation of the currency and sky-high Inflation.  A cup of coffee costs about 10,000 Colombian pesos. (Mind you it is excellent coffee!)

The next day, Friday, no sign of the protestors could be seen. By noon, even the graffiti they sprayed on public buildings had been scrubbed off. When I looked at the recently cleaned walls, I saw clear evidence of earlier erasures. Obviously, the troubles of the past are not entirely in the past. But I can relate to that – all of Latin America is undergoing changes – for us all the sacrifices and the stakes are high.

And speaking of “high”; Bogota is the fourth-highest of the world’s capital cities (2,625 m / 8,612 feet). I spent a short time in the highest La Paz, Bolivia (3,640 m. /11,942 feet) during my youthful backpacking days. But I have never been to Quito, Ecuador the second-highest (2,850 m / 9,350 feet)  or Thimphu in Bhutan, third at 2,648 m or 8,700 feet. In La Paz I never got sick – at 20, who does? – but on this trip, both Jorge and I felt queasy the first evening.

However we have picked up the pace since then.  Our hotel is located in the colonial district and we’ve done plenty of walking through the narrow cobblestone streets. The architecture reminds me of other Latin American cities I love – San Cristobal de las Casas, Puebla, Mexico City and Lima.  The atmosphere is lively and street vendors line the sidewalks. Although the rain has not let up for much of our stay, people don’t let a little foul weather deter them from gathering in the Main Plaza to play chess, feed the pigeons, listen to music, and mingle with friends.

The rain did hold off long enough on Saturday morning for us o go see the Shrine of Our Lady of Montserrate perched atop one of the highest hills in Bogota. To get there we rode a sky tram and had fabulous views of the city below. We did not stay long though because we could see that our luck with the weather was not going to last much longer.

 

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All our outrunning the rain built up an appetite and our first authentic Columbian meal took care of that. Very nicely I must say!

Ajiaco, a delicious Columbian dish

We would have liked a siesta, but instead we spent the better part of the afternoon at the Botero Museum. Up until now, I have not been a huge fan of the artist’s pudgy people, but seeing such a large body (no pun intended) of his work has changed my perception. His work is full of social commentary and irony — his technique is masterful. He is also generous with his art, in both Bogota and Medellin he has built museums and filled them with his own work, as well as his personal collection of other artists’ canvases, including – Chagall, Picasso, Renoir and Dali – admission is free of charge – and I plan to return there today.

 

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But I also want to visit the Gold and Emerald museums. I have not been near the jewellery shops, but today my companions will not have to “force” me into a shopping foray.

In the next day or so, I will let you know how my restraint is holding out!

 

 

 

 

¿Quien sabe? – Who knows?

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Jorge and our “altar de muertos” – his mother taught us to observe this tradition

Did you see the movie Coco when it was released in 2017?

If so, you’ll remember that the story begins on November 1st, the night when the dead are supposedly able to visit the families they left behind.  All they need do is follow the path of magical marigold petals that leads back to their homes in this realm.

A young boy named, Miguel is accidently transported to the “other side” and he discovers that not all the deceased are eligible to make the annual journey.  If they are not remembered by their still-living family – if their photograph is not placed on the commemorative altar – they are forbidden to leave their world.

Miguel ‘s great-great grandfather is not among those honoured by the family. Miguel’s grandmother has repeatedly told him that her grandfather abandoned the family to seek fortune and fame as a musician. With a tear she added that his great grandmother, Coco, never recovered from her daddy’s abrupt departure. But when he meets the the old man, and hears his version of events, Miguel realises that Abuelo has been a victim of deceit.

Miguel’s epic effort to restore Great-great Grandpa’s reputation is a fiesta that could only be conjured up by Mexican imagination. No other nationality uses colour, movement and music with such aplomb.  Rainbow-hued mythical animals, known as  alebrijes, sweep the young hero out of imminent danger, the orange marigold path pulses and shimmers, mariachi music swells, bones clang against each other, googly eyes pop, tears gush forth and immense teeth grin with telescopic effect. Coco would be exhausting to watch if not for its overlying sweetness.

I also loved the director’s choice of voice actors. All of them are well-known and exemplary Latinos – Edward James Olmos, Gael García Bernal and Ana Ofelia Murguia – and my favourite Mexican writer, Elena Poniatowska Amor lent her voice to Miguel’s great-grandmother, Coco.

It is rare for movie distributers to return a production to the screen, but that is precisely what has happened with Coco. If you have not seen it – or you want to see it again – you can do so this week in most of Merida’s cinemas.

Coco is all about family – the importance of remembering and cherishing – a reminder to not forget and honour our departed loved ones. I recall watching my mother-in-law arrange her altar. “Do you really believe that the spirits will come here?” I sceptically asked her. She gave me one of her enigmatic smiles. “¿Quien sabe?” – “Who knows?” she replied as she touched each of the framed portraits. “But just in case they do, I want to have this feast waiting for my mother, father, aunts, uncles, and for my little girl who died 2 weeks after her birth.”

I realise now, that the altar was Doña Bertha’s way of dealing with the finality of death. She knew it could not be reversed, but maybe it could be suspended, if only for a day and a night?

And in that spirit, our family also embraces the tradition. I cover the sideboard with  my hand-crocheted white table cloth, arrange flowers, and I polish the frames that hold the images of our dearly-departed.  My sister Anne has joined my parents and Jorge’s, our assorted aunts and uncles, as well as our little boy who died when he was only three days old. Today I will place some mucbil pollo (commonly called pib) on the altar and pour a few shots too. And for Jorgito, I’ll lay down some chocolate.

After all, “¿Quien sabe?”

Life is like a bowl of soup…

Mom used to make delicious soup from the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey… we kids gobbled it up, and she joked that the meal was “the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers.” In Mexico I have carried on the tradition… whenever turkey is cooked in our house, soup will follow.

Every year, as the Thanksgiving meal is cleared away, I fill a heavy-weight plastic bag with the bones and stray scraps of meat… and into the freezer it all goes.

Yesterday, I removed that bag of turkey bits and bones from its icy shelf,and  let everything thaw. I assure you, this does not take long in Merida. I used the biggest pot I have, and filled it with the scraps, a piece of onion, celery leaves, coarse salt and black pepper corns.  Then I covered the whole works with water. Like a Baptism.

It took about two hours for the unpromising mish-mash to boil and transform into rich broth. I then strained off the liquid and piled everything else onto a platter. Back on the burner went the broth, with the addition of 2 cups of garbanzos that I’d left soaking the night before. The pot slow-boiled until the garbanzos were soft

And while that was happening, Jorge helped me pick off every bit of meat from the heap of bones on the platter. We are always surprised by how much there is. We also peeled and diced 6 potatoes and 6 carrots, and just as we finished cutting the veggies and salvaging all the turkey we could, the garbanzos smelled done, and we added the final ingredients into the pot.

During the 15 -20 minutes it took for the soup to simmer to perfection, I set the table, chopped fresh parsley, put it into a pretty bowl and I filled a basket with French bread from Escargot (my favorite treat!)

The aroma wafting from the kitchen brought the household to the table so we could savor “the soup of our labor”.  I could not help but think how soup-making parallels the living of our lives…

When we start out, we are nothing more than macromolecule building blocks: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Our mothers nurture us and we develop into tiny but remarkable replicas of our birth parents. As we squeeze through the birth canal, we shed the flotsam and jetsam that sustained us through our nine month gestation. And with a primal cry, we begin walking our path,   One fine day (upon college graduation? marriage? the birth of children?)  Mom and Dad pronounced us: “ready for the bigger, wider world. “  But “ready” seems to come in fits and starts for me.

The past couple of months have not been easy, and sometimes I’ve felt like my turkey soup is all gone. But those who love me have helped me to see that I still have plenty left in my bowl.

As we sustain others… they sustain us.

 

 

 

The Hot Seat

Despite the difficulties, the migrants keep moving north

 

The largest-ever Migrant Caravan has entered Mexico. More than 1,000 people have applied for political asylum in this country, and about 400 have returned to Honduras.  Yet the number of those walking towards the USA is growing. Why is this?

Even though the initial group has reduced, others have taken their place. I read this morning that another 1,000 Guatemalans are preparing to cross the Mexican border and catch up to the Caravan. What drives them on?

In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the four top reasons are corrupt government, inflation, unemployment, and organized crime. We can nod our heads in agreement; these sound like compelling reasons for leaving the country. But my gut twists when I think about what this harsh reality would feel like.  I have never been subjected to anything that remotely resembles what the refugees have endured.

None of my loved ones has been gunned down in the street. No vicious gang member has ever tried to recruit my husband or my son by holding a knife to their throats. Neither my daughter nor I have been raped. No one in my family has worked 10 – 14 hours for $4 USD. None of us has been punched, thrown to the ground and kicked by a police officer because we refused to pay for “protection”. We have never been threatened with death for an outstanding extortion payment.

U.S. politicians claim that Central America’s plight is not their responsibility. But the truth is: American policies have contributed to such scenarios in Mexico, Central and South America. Roosevelt frequently referred to his foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, as “the big stick” (speak softly but let the threat of heavy retaliation hang in the air)

In the early and mid 20th century, countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were in their formative modern periods and could have progressed, but the United States supported military dictators and far-right parties who in turn kept wages low for the foreign companies that had established operations there. Progressive education was discouraged, and any insubordination was met with extreme violence.

Then in 1996, U.S. authorities approved the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act,” and in the early 2000s, tens of thousands of convicted criminals were deported to Central America. Soon we saw the expansion of gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang (Barrio 18) – this  gang originally born in the U.S.  – spread like virus across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Additionally, the region’s civil wars left an unknown number of young people with no family. And that, combined with extreme inequality, incarceration of suspicious-looking youth, and weak judicial and security institutions brought the bitter brew to a hard boil..

Over the past 15 years, the gangs have taken over both rural and urban areas. Across the northern part of Central America, boys from 12 years up are prime targets for recruitment. Under-age girls can also become part of the gangs, either to be used sexually or as active members.

The struggling Caravan families tell stories of this abuse and more. They get no help from the authorities – there is nowhere to turn for help – so they are forced to leave.

But all the difficulties the Migrant Caravan has endured up to this point is like an “initiation”. As they get into higher elevation and colder terrain, they will need warmer clothing and more food. Where will it come from?

I ask myself – What will happen to these people IF they reach the US border?

The Trump administration swears they won’t let them cross the border. So what is Mexico expected to do with thousands of desperate people ready to storm the ramparts? The American president has threatened to send in the army. What will the soldiers’ orders be? Will they start shooting? Use tear gas? Will they gather everyone up and detain them for due process, as the UN has insists. The families will be separated. How will they deal with still more psychological trauma?

I feel quite sure that this Central American Caravan has started a tide that cannot be stopped. All the politicians on our continent had better stop creating policies that serve their interests and those of big business. They must look at the people’s needs. They have to stop posturing and work together to find an immediate solution that can be expanded over time.

The world has changed and will change still more. Those who are able to adapt will thrive. Those who grip on to the past with their toenails, and deny what’s happening will find the world more and more hostile.

Like it or not – Trump is in the hot seat. He would be well-advised to cool down.

What can we do?

Caravan of Central American migrants walking to the Guatemala – Mexico border

 

On Friday night, while watching the TV footage of approximately 3,000 men, women and children from Central America (mainly Honduras) heading en masse for the United States, I realised that embers – smouldering for so long – have burst into flame.

The migrants’ situation is absolutely tragic.

Why are they willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives by undertaking such a perilous journey – one of almost 3,000 miles – to a country where they know that they are not welcome. Those interviewed said they don’t want to leave their homes, but unemployment, the cost of living, gang violence, and scarcity of food have forced them to do so.

The precise number of migrants swells and trickles like the rivers they must navigate. When they come across kindness, food, and shelter, they stop to rest – but before long – they move on. The television screen showed parents pulling and coaxing their little children, and when I looked closer at the crowd, I saw more children struggling on their own. There seemed to be an inexplicable number of pre-adolescents with no adult watching out for them.

On Friday morning, the caravan arrived at the Suchiate River. (The river serves as the Guatemala-Mexico border) At the river, the migrants came upon a closed metal gate. Two military jeeps were parked to one side, and Guatemalan police in riot gear looked on silently.

The migrants called out: “We are not smugglers, we are immigrants.”

Faced with the locked gate, most of the migrants resigned themselves to follow established procedures, but a group of young men attacked the barrier and succeeded in tearing it down. In a flash, men, women and children rushed toward the bridge that spans the river. In response, the Mexican federal police deployed pepper spray. An officer used a loudspeaker:

“We need you to stop,” he begged the crowd.

The police eventually restored order on the bridge, and they closed the border gates again.

“One way or another, we will pass,” the migrants chanted.

The head officer told reporters that buses would take the women, children and the elderly to safety. But the migrants did not want to move. They regrouped and formed orderly lines but refused to board the buses. Obviously they fear deportation.

While the reporters summed up the events of the day, the television cameras took slow footage of the thousands of exhausted human beings on that bridge.

Then the station switched its information feed, and Trump’s countenance filled the screen. “The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility. Won’t be. You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places; we can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”

Why couldn’t he have shown a little compassion – at least he could have expressed some sympathy – but he did not.

The trade talks of “the agreement formerly known as NAFTA” are sewn up. Our region is now a place where money and commodities will move freely over borders. But people? Ah, ah, ah – not so much.

The U.N. warned the Mexican and U.S. governments to respect the human rights of every person in the caravan and consider each case individually. This seems like the right procedure but the situation is so far from right.

I am reminded of the Spanish population fleeing Franco at the end of the Spanish Civil War – or the Jews trying to escape the Nazis during WW II – or the massive exodus of Serbs from Croatia – or the starving Rwandans – or most recently, the Syrians.

 But there is one big difference: This is not happening on another continent, nor is the Caravan an event of decades ago. The Honduran caravan is traveling across the American continent NOW. Are we going to turn our backs?

 If you are a person who reads, researches and reasons, you probably realise that more caravans will form. There are frantic people struggling throughout Mexico, Central and South America. There is too much imbalance in our world. Something has to give.

Examining the historical and current causes for this imbalance is important if a fair solution is to be found; we can’t allow more Band-Aids to be slapped over gushing wounds. But finding a fair solution is the province of lawmakers. What can be done? How can this process start?

Well, the November midterm election is coming, and I feel that American voters have a responsibility – not only to themselves – but to everyone on the planet.  The rest of us have no voice, no say with regards to American immigration policy. Only registered voters can help moderate the voices in the American Congress and Senate.

On Election Day, if you are feeling complacent, think of those migrants on the bridge, and think of your own grandchildren who will inherit either a more just world or a huge mess.

Then – get out and VOTE – please.

***

P.S: The Christian right support Trump and his team – they profess to follow the Bible – and what does it say?

Matthew 25:40-45 New International Version (NIV)

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 

42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 

43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

 

P.P.S: You will have to watch 30 second ads first, but then you’ll learn more about the Honduran tragedy at these links:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/18/one-step-time-desperate-families-migrant-caravan-us-border-america

https://edition.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/10/19/russian-charged-manafort-court-murray-dnt-lead-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/around-the-world/

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/migrants-honduras-take-shelter-mexico-heading-u-s-border-n922426

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4mjGmIAoR0

I could not have said it better…

Life goes on. Today marks two weeks since my sister’s tragic, sudden death. My family’s emotional roller coaster ride is starting to level out, but nonetheless, we still feel like sheets hanging on the line – in a cloudy sky – we know the rain might come at any moment.

Don’t you love this photo of my 18 month-old grand niece, Helena?

I always like to include a visual in my posts and somehow this one seemed to suit. As you read on, I think you’ll understand why.

But, but, but – this post will make more sense – if you first click on this link: http://steveinmexico.blogspot.com/

You’ll find yourself at one of my favourite Mexico blog sites. The author, Steve Cotton, is from Oregon but he lives in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco. He has been blogging since 2007 – and even though we have few opportunities to visit in person – we have become good friends through our blogs.  Today his post is a lament for the demise of another blog, The Mexile.

Steve is an excellent writer, and so is The Mexile’s creator, Gary Denness. These two have spent thousands upon thousands of hours constructing some of the best posts I’ve ever read about life in Mexico. Their styles are as different as their content, their wit and their nationalities.

Another long-time blogger I admire is Richard Grabman at The Mex Files – he verges on irreverent – but what he writes is true.  A relative newcomer in the Mexico blogosphere is Mike Polischuk. His site, Traveling in a Confused World is more of a photography and architectural blog, yet his commentary is adroit.

But I digress – getting back to Gary – his final offering reads:

Fifteen years, two months and twenty one days ago I wrote my first blog post. Today, I write the last. It’s been fun – mostly – but these days I seem to blog largely for the sake of blogging. And too much of it involves typing angrily into the internet with little real purpose. I wrote that first post as an optimistic 30 year old, about to embark on a backpacking trip of a lifetime through Mexico, full of wonder at the world surrounding me. I write today as a slightly jaded 45 year old, rather fed up with the amount of ignorance and prejudice that has come to the fore, and unconvinced that the planet is heading in the right direction. 

I could not have said it better. The world has changed dramatically in the past decade and a half. And between the ages of 30 and 45, people take quantum leaps in their assessment of how to best spend their time. So I understand why Gary has decided to quit blogging. I too have almost done so. A few times.

I am not a great blogger. I do know my topic and when I’m on a roll, I think I can be entertaining. I come across emotionally, but really, I self-censor a lot. Often my Canadian self is too polite and my Mexican side is too respectful to fully tell it like I see it. I feel as though I skirt around what I want to say and I pointlessly worry that my opinions will come off as trite. So, I tone it down. This tendency does not lead to satisfied writer syndrome – to the contrary – it brings on full-blown angst. This in time leads to burn out. I do not want this to happen to me. I want to enjoy blogging – I want to continue – but it looks as though I will have to make some changes (again)

Steve and Richard, I hope you’ll continue to enrich my reading list, as you have done for many years. Mike, please keep showing your insightful photos.

Gary, I suspect you’ll regroup and take another kick at the can – if you do come up with a new platform – please send me the link. Good luck to you!

Good luck to us all, actually. Let’s keep bringing it on home as best we can. Like little Helena – gripping the ring with her teeth – as she bravely crawls through the spiralling maze.

 

Remembering my sister

 

 

 

Anne, Barb, Cathy and Joany, in Kamloops about 5 years ago.

 

For Anne

June 2, 1958 – September 15, 2018.

When we celebrated your 60th, I didn’t know I’d never see you again.

Today started out so fine.

I cooked, wrote and painted;

I planned a festive lunch for Sunday.

And then the phone call came.

My brother-in-law sounded odd –

“Are you sitting down?” he asked.

A weird wind whistled in my ears.

And my breath seemed stuck.

“I am sorry to tell you,” he began –

He described a curvy road,

And a small car colliding with a bigger one.

“She didn’t make it,” he said.

 

Just yesterday, we were four healthy sisters –

Joany, Anne, Barb and Cathy.

And tonight, we’re only three.

How can you be gone, Anne?

Should I keep my sorrow inside?

Or allow myself to fall apart?

My movements are slow; my mind feels like mush. 

My face mirrors the pain I feel.

 

On Monday I will travel to where Anne lies.

Barb is relieved that I’ll be there.

We’re sorry that Cathy won’t be able to come.

Will we ever get used to Anne’s absence?

We three, and our brothers,

will always miss our sister.

So will her loving husband, her two grown daughters

And the four grandchildren who were her greatest joy.

We loved you Anne. And we always will.

Now… at 89

Grant Spradling has lived a full life. Fufilling, Unconventional… one of Laugher and of Love.

Among much, much else, Grant has authored and published five books, and this week he will launch his latest, The Chelem Papers. Actually, there are to be two events:

Tuesday September 18th for Merida residents at: Hennessy’s Irish Pub, on Paseo de Montejo, 5 pm.

 – and –

 Wednesday September 19th for those who live at the beach: The Bull Pen in Chelem, 5 pm.

At both venues, Grant will speak about the book, and readers will also have the opportunity to meet his publisher, Lee Steele of Hamaca Press.

When he was younger, Grant thought he would perhaps see 80, but if that happened, he felt sure he’d be in full dotage, with nothing new to look forward to. “How wrong, wrong, wrong I was,” he says with a sly smile. “I am 89 now, and while the past nine years have included a number of culminating experiences, they have also introduced new people, challenges and perceptions.” Publishing The Chelem Papers is his latest accomplishment, but he also survived a serious heart attack in 2015; and this year Grant’s resiliency has been sorely tested by the death of Clifford Ames, the love of his life.

Grant Spradling came into the world during the first years of the Great Depression. His home, Wetherford Oklahoma, (a town smack-dab in the middle of the dust bowl) was part of a farming community, but it did have a college.  Grant initially studied there, but he left when awarded a scholarship to Oklahoma City University and Boston University School of Theology. After his ordination in the Congregational Church, he lived in Attleboro and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His family and the town where he grew up shaped his life. The Spradlings found stability and succour through strict observance of their religion. They did not condone swearing, drinking, smoking, and certainly not homosexuality. Grant had no choice but to closet himself. He says that this denial of his true feelings cost him dearly but it also built up resilience and determination. When he met Clifford, he refused to be defined by the past that had formed him. After about ten years as a minister, Grant left his parish to become a professional singer.

I asked him how he and Clifford met. He gave a hearty chuckle, and said,  “The first time we heard each other speak, we were drawn like magnets by our accents. We came from the same place.” He then got misty-eyed, “And from then on, we stayed in the same place.”

Their world widened to include, a writing career for Grant; and the painter’s life for Clifford. They resided in several different parts of the USA, including Key West, Florida where Grant received the mentorship of well known authors. A few years later, the winds blew strong from the south and eventually carried Grant and Clifford across the Gulf of Mexico, to Merida. They bought a sprawling old colonial house, and built their forever home. In time, they extended their radius to inlude Chelem, a small fishing town.

Grant has journeyed from the dustbowl of his youth to the tropical ambiance of his present life. The loss of his life partner coincides with the departure of his closest expat friends in Merida. He finds himself cared for by two Merida friends and their families; he says he finds it fitting that he and his two Yucatecan friends find themselves so involved in one another’s lives.

Nonetheless without Clifford, Grant says he often feels like “a kite without a string” or “a bird with no wire to settle down on”. And after saying this, he turned to look towards the back of his property.

My eyes followed his, and they focussed on an amazing Alamo tree. Long ago, it sprouted next to a building that once stood there. Maybe the tree and Grant began their lives about the same year? Anyway, now the building has crumbled except for an old piece of wall, encircled by the tree’s roots. The foliage spreads high above Grant’s house and pool. Maybe the tree offers a substitute for his “kite string”? Or “bird wire”?

“I feel an outpouring of love. I know now that the meaning of life is found in living fully and helping others to live fully,” says Grant. The tree’s roots anchor him and the branches shelter him, just like his two friends.

I look forward to getting my own copy of “The Chelem Papers”… Grant’s stories make for a great read and will surely give me much to ponder.

 

How can this be happening – yet again?

If you’ve heard the reports of student unrest at the National Autonomous University of Mexico – UNAM – it may be unclear to you which students are involved in the protests, and what complaints they have.

Some background information will hopefully help to resolve this confusion… In Mexico the educational system’s levels have different names than in some other countries. The level called Secundaria in Mexico, is called Junior High school in the USA and Canada. Preparatoria in Mexico is the equivalent to Senior High school. Many preparatorias follow curriculum and internal policy established by principal universities in the county’s major cities. And even though the students who study at the preparatorias are not yet of the age or academic level to be enrolled in university’s faculties, they are on the academic track; and once they have finished their “preparatory studies”, they aspire to acceptance in a university faculty. To get more federal funding, for curricular and other (vague) purposes, the universities consider these preparatoria students as part of their system’s general student body. The CCH Azcapotzalco, where the recent unrest began is one of the many high schools affiliated with the UNAM. So, the majority of students in question, range between 15 and 17 years of age. They are minors.

The students at CCH Azcapotzalco have many complaints, but some seem absolutely justified:

  • Although classes began a month ago – teachers and schedules have not yet been confirmed. This is no doubt due to political and budget-related issues, BUT when it comes time for the students to write their all-important faculty entrance exams, they will be at a severe disadvantage if they have not received the necessary hours of instruction
  • Following the kidnapping of a female student, Miranda Mendoza, the students are demanding better safety conditions,

The students would not budge from their position and the “authorities” lost patience.

For decades, los porros – anti-protest thugs – have reputedly been used by politicians and university authorities, to break up student protests.

Earlier in the week, it seems certain that one of the groups of porros provoked a violent exchange with students from the CCH Azcapotzalco.  The attack left 14 students badly injured.

The aggression provoked solidarity from the extended student, family and neighbourhood communities; and it grew into mobilization.

On Wednesday September 5, 2018, thousands marched to the UNAM’s main campus, a massive demonstration, demanding an end to the violence and danger within educational institutions. The students insist that the authorities must expel los porros.

The university temporarily suspended its internal transportation systems in an effort to prevent students from different education centers from joining the march.

But the students are mostly young – they can walk long distances with no problem – and at 1 p.m., they set out on foot from the Political and Social Sciences Faculty, and continued all the way to the main administrative building. The news source I watched, reported that the line of marchers was 4 kilometres long.

In other cities of Mexico, more marches were held. A group of students studying at the Merida UNAM campus marched down Calle 50 to the Main Plaza at the same time as their fellow students were marching in Mexico City.

Everywhere the participants were orderly and non-violent, and in Mexico City, they dispersed after the student spokespersons read their pronouncement. Their main point is:

¡Educación publica, laica, gratuita y sin violencia!
¡Fuera porros de la UNAM! (sic)

Education should be public, secular, free and non-violent.

Get the thugs out of the UNAM.

2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of the student massacre at Tlatelolco. On October 2, 1968, thousands of university students gathered at the Plaza of Three Cultures, a broad space in the heart of a public housing development close to downtown Mexico City. The army “received orders” to open fire on the crowd. Afterwards, many students were arrested. They were held in jail and tortured, or simply disappeared – and NO responsibility was ever accepted for the thousands who were wounded or killed. The repercussions changed the social fabric of the Mexico.

Violence against students has NOT stopped, and obviously, this is an especially sensitive issue this year.

President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has expressed his support for the students’ cause. He says the violence must end, but he stressed that resolution should be negotiated between the students and the university administration.

Since yesterday, several of the faculties of the UNAM are on strike in support of the students. Today the UNAM issued a document that is currently being studied,

The common phrase – The more things change, the more they stay the sameMUST NOT continue to be a commentary on the students’ struggle.

PS: If you want to read about the 1968 student protest, I recommend, Massacre in Mexico, the English-language version of Elena Poniatowska’s iconic accout of the protest and its aftermath:

https://www.amazon.com.mx/Massacre-Mexico-Elena-Poniatowska/dp/0826208177