Friday, November 28, 2008

The Photo Opp

There was the time when I was in the back of a limo with John Leguizamo. And the time I ran into Tommy Hilfiger at what used to be Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago. And then there was the time when I met Michelle Kwan in the press room at a Champions on Ice event.

Those were times when I really wished I had my camera. Yes, even the most jaded, cynical ex-PR gal is sometimes a sucker for the token photo opp.

But these lame celebrity run-ins pale to the time when, two years ago, I was doing an interview at a little storefront church on the west side of Chicago. The interview subject was Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who, defying deportation orders, took up sanctuary in a church instead of reporting to INS. She wanted to stay in the United States to care for her then-7-year-old, US-born son, Saul. After all, deporting her would mean deporting him, because she wasn't leaving without him.

I really, really, really wanted my camera. But I'd forgotten it.

Arellano's not a celebrity, per se, but her story inspired me. No matter how you feel about the United States' immigration policy (or lack thereof), you have to admire Arellano's courage to stand up -- as an individual, as a worker, as a mother -- against what she thought was unjust.

I decided to do my M.A. thesis on Elvira Arellano's story, and how it was covered in the media in Chicago. Writing a thesis is kind of like having a baby -- it takes about 9 months, it makes you emotional, it keeps you awake at weird hours and it makes you gain weight. And then, when it's all over, there's this strange letdown. Postpartum depression, if you will.

Anyway, the thesis began (and, thus, my 'normal life' ended) at that little church, back in October 2006. By the time May 2007 rolled around, I'd written 170 pages on the woman. I'd darted all over Chicago collecting interviews and data. The walls of my tiny studio apartment were covered with newspaper clippings. My fingers were permanently black from newsprint. My back and wrists ached from being hunched over my little laptop. I'd developed a slight twitch in my left eye from staring at a computer screen.

At that point, I'd thought more about Elvira Arellano than can probably be considered healthy (as a friend so delicately put it, I am "neurotically obsessed" with the poor woman) . But I'd missed the photo opp.

Fast forward two years, to this week, and I'm attending an immigration conference in Mexico City. I'd heard that Arellano -- who has since been deported, despite her very public struggles -- was also going to be there. Arellano is still on my mind because I'm working on an article for a journal. And I'm still jumping through hoops to interview her: This time, instead of taking a bus across Chicago to meet her at a church, I've taken a bus across four Mexican states -- a 13-hour-round trip from Oaxaca -- to talk to her.

But I met Arellano. Again. We had lunch. We talked about her son. We shared a few laughs. She gave me her email address. And, two years, 170 pages, and 13 hours on a bus later, I finally got my photo. Woo-woo!

Thanks for everything, Elvira.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Magic Pills

What blog entry on a trip to the beach would be complete without (1) envy-inducing pictures of beautiful oceanside sunsets and (2) thinly-veiled references to drugs?

I've included the requisite sunset pics here in all of their golden-hued glory, snapped surfside from the almost-virgin oaxaqueña beaches of Zipolite and Mazunte this weekend. Both beaches are located on Oaxaca's coast, so some friends and I decided to take advantage of our long holiday weekend (November 20 is Revolution Day here in Mexico) to soak up some sun. We did all of the lovely things you do on the beach. Namely, we did nothing. It was wonderful.

Now, onto the drugs.

Zipolite is famous for two things: (1) nudity and (2) marijuana. Given that my grandmother will be reading this blog entry, I need to clarify that I did not participate in either activity. There were plenty of other things -- sand, sun, snorkeling, and, well, beer -- to keep me occupied.

But I did take drugs of another kind: Vomisin is amaaaaaaaaaaazing, man.

Vomisin is a magic little pill that I popped on the way home from Zipolite. It's an aptly-named motion sickness medicine that was absolutely essential for the trip. You see, standing between Huajuapan and the beach is a tiny little obstacle (read: sarcasm): the Sierra Madres, a mountain range that turns a would-be easy 300-km trip into a vomit-inducing, six-hour odyssey through switchbacks and dangerous curves and bumpy roads.

I braved the trip sans-Vomisin on the way down to Zipolite and literally wanted to die. This, coming from a girl who drives with a lead foot and jumps out of planes and dances herself dizzy -- namely, a girl who generally does not have a problem with motion -- should illustrate the intensity of the journey.

My travel companions and I, having learned our lesson, popped the happy little pills right before our return trip on Monday morning and enjoyed drug-induced, drool-dripping, head-bobbing slumber all the way back to Oaxaca City.

Vomisin, I heart you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

¡Viva la Muerte!

All week I've been meaning to write about my very first über-Mexican holiday, Día de los Muertos, but a history-making U.S. presidential election and a quasi-stalker incident involving a taxi driver-slash-television news producer have gotten in the way. You know, just another busy week here in thrill-a-minute Huajuapan.

But I digress. The title of this entry translates to "Long Live Death," which would be a pretty morbid sentiment if I were anywhere in the world except Mexico. Last weekend, I celebrated death as part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Oaxaca City. Though I've visited Mexico more times than I can remember, ironically I've never actually been in the country in the fall, or more specifically, on November 1 and 2, when DDLM is celebrated. And Oaxaca is to DDLM as Las Vegas is to Sin and Chicago is to's where you go for the crème de la crème. So you can imagine my delight at having the opportunity to pass the holiday here locally.

Some equate DDLM with Halloween, but they're oh-so wrong. DDLM has a bit more meaning behind it than the American squeeze-yourself-into-a-costume-and-stuff-your-face-with-candy holiday. The 'day' is actually two days, set aside to honor, well, the dead. November 1 has traditionally been reserved for children, while November 2 is for adults. Mexican families honor deceased family members by building amazing altars -- stocked with food, flowers, photos, beer, anything that the deceased enjoyed during his or her lifetime -- in their homes. Then, at night, they go to the cemetary to clean and decorate graves. Some families even have a meal there. The idea is to celebrate death as a part of life, so it's a really festive holiday.

I spent most of Saturday wandering through Oaxaca's amazing markets, taking in the sights: row after row of altar-buildin' goodies. Sugar skulls. Wooden skeletons. Flowers. Pan de Muertos (Bread of the Dead). Candles in every shape and size imaginable. And then, when night fell, our group sojourned over to Oaxaca's General Cemetery, where local families had gathered to decorate loved ones' graves, eat a giant meal, and pray together. The presence of something like 4,000 camera-wielding, Lonely Planet-reading gringo tourists detracted from the experience somewhat, but that's part of the deal when you celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City, I suppose...

Sunday, however, couldn't have contrasted more with Saturday's tourism overload. We took a bus out of the city to a tiny village called Teotitlán, home to a textile-weaving industry and the former host family of one of my friends and co-workers. The bus dropped us off on the side of the dusty highway, far, far away from the village itself, so we were faced with two options: We could either hoof the 15 kilometers into "civilization," or hitchhike our way there. Opting for the latter, we stuck our thumbs out and managed to snag a ride in the back of a passing truck.

The journey was worthwhile. Upon our arrival, our gracious hosts treated us to a shot of home-brewed mezcal, a tour of their weaving facilities, homemade tamales and traditional Oaxacan hot chocolate and pan. Their hospitality was very generous, especially considering we weren't the family's only visitors that day: They'd constructed a giant altar in their dining room, full of flowers and bread and photographs and even a few bottles of beer. They left the door open all afternoon so the spirits could enter the room easily. And, as we gringos gorged ourselves on tamales, they discretely stepped away to place two heaping plates of food on the altar.

When the dead come to visit, they bring their appetites.

After lunch, we made our way back to the dusty highway, only to find that city-bound buses had stopped running because of the holiday. Giddy from all of the sugar we'd eaten in Teotitlán (or maybe it was the mezcal?), we hitchhiked our way back into town, reflecting on death with smiles on our faces.

Translation (gracias, Pato) of the pic above, taken at the gate of the General Cemetery in Oaxaca:

"Postraos: Aquí la eternidad empieza, y es polvo aquí la mundanal grandeza."
"Kneel: Here eternity starts, and dust is here all wordly greatness."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

¡Arriba Obama!

My generation saw its proverbial man walk on the moon last night.

Just as folks from my parents' generation will never forget where they were when Neil Armstrong took his "giant leap for mankind," I'll never forget where I was on November 4, 2008. I watched my country elect its first black president -- in a sense, also a "giant leap" -- via CNN on a slightly-delayed cable connection in a tiny bar in Huajuapan de León, Mexico.

Our little expat community -- which included seven Americans, a couple of Brits, a girl from Spain and the local Mexicans who love us -- gathered in Sagrario's Bar -- the only place with cable TV in all of Huajuapan -- after work to watch the election returns. When we walked in the door, Sagrario's staff graciously flipped the channel from a soccer game to CNN en inglés and brought over some complimentary nachos.

They must've sensed that it was going to be a long night.

We hunkered down for our four-hour political fix. There was lively banter around the table as we watched states turn blue and red. The Americans in the group attempted to explain our country's hard-to-explain electoral college system -- a daunting task in one's native language, let alone in broken Spanish. The Brits in the group balked at CNN's audacity to spin their exit-poll projections as gospel. And the women in the group admired Anderson Cooper's, well, everything.

It was a great way to watch the election. And, personally, having observed the campaign unfold from overseas (including, of all places, in Obama, Japan), I couldn't have imagined a more appropriate way for me to witness American history in the making: far, far away from home, in the company of folks who aren't, as they say in Spanish, estadounidense.

It's this mish-mash of countries, languages and people that has shaped my political views. I've spent the last 18 months traveling, meeting folks of sorts of political persuasions, engaging in long, passionate, late-night discussions and, frankly, doing a lot of apologizing on behalf of my country for our dismal foreign affairs record. I've been asked -- by Japanese junior high students and Cambodian taxi drivers and Korean bartenders and Mexican supermarket clerks -- how I planned to cast my vote (how's that for a sense of responsibility to make sure I sent my absentee ballot on time?). I've been the recipient of verbal assault when folks in far-away lands have taken their political frustrations out on me, the only American in the room. And, sadly, because of the latter, I've done my fair share of claiming to be Canadian -- or Irish or Argentine or French, or, well, anything but American to avoid potentially heated situations.

And after all of these conversations and lessons and observations, what's my take on the whole thing? The watered-down, blog-compliant, 50-words-or-less version is this: For the USA to have any chance to be respected internationally, to have any hope of salvaging diplomatic relations, to truly show that we've learned from the last eight years of failed leadership, we'd have to put Obama in the White House.

And that's exactly what we did last night. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of my country. So proud.

I got chills when I watched the crowd erupt into cheers in Grant Park in Chicago (I wanted to be there with y'all, Chi-Town!). I thought of Kenyan friends when CNN coverage panned to images of celebration in Kongelo. I smiled as Mexican pals sent me text messages, offering me congratulations for my country's smart choice for president. And I got misty when I heard Obama thank his family, remember his grandmother, speak about how far we've come as a nation, give us hope for the long road ahead, and, most importantly, talk about change.

Change is a good thing.

So, ¡arriba Obama!, and thank you, my fellow Americans, for giving me a reason to be proud, even if it is from thousands of miles away.

Monday, November 3, 2008


His name is Yamasaki.

Yamasaki is a Japanese name (it means "mountain top," more or less), but the guy's Mexican.

But that's not the only interesting duality in Yamasaki's life: He's a taxi driver, and he's also a TV news producer. Go figure.

I met Yamasaki this morning. I was running and he was driving his cab. The first time Yamasaki waved at me, I turned up the music on my iPod and ignored him. I've had enough less-than-desirable incidents involving Mexican men yelling at me from vehicles to know better. Just ask my friends in Querétaro.

But Yamasaki was persistent. He followed me in his cab. He kept waving. I thought that perhaps he needed directions, but then thought better: Why the hell would a taxi driver need directions? From a freckle-faced, blonde-ponytailed gringa gal who is so obviously not a local? At 7 a.m.?

I ran faster.

Finally, curiosity and Yamasaki's persistence got the best of me. I stopped, paused my watch, and pulled out my earbuds. I was sweaty, out of breath and irritated. You don't stop me in the middle of a run for no good reason.

"Good morning. Sorry to bother you," he said pleasantly, getting out of the cab to cross the street, presumably to be able to talk to me without yelling. "Maybe you're in a hurry? I just want to ask you a quick question."

"I AM kind of in a hurry," I said shortly. The skeptical Chicagoan in me was rearing her ugly head. What, exactly, did this guy want from me? He'd better talk fast.

Yamasaki explained that when he isn't moonlighting as a cab driver, he actually reports for a local TV news channel. He's been working on a segment on physical activity. He sees me running in the mornings and wonders if jog daily...

My eyes widened. This guy has been following me every morning. What a creep.

Sensing my alarm, Yamasaki quickly backpedaled.

"It's just that my taxi route seems to be your running route..."

Okay, yes, I run every morning. So what? I made a mental note to change my running route. STAT.

"So I'm working on this segment. I've already interviewed a cyclist, a soccer player, a gymnast...but I'm missing a runner."

Oh God, did he want me to be The Runner?

He gave me his card. "It's just that people here in Oaxaca don't really exercise, and the station is trying to put together this public awareness campaign about health and fitness, and we'd really love it if you could give us a hand..."

He didn't just pull the "give us a hand" line, did he? My mind drifted back to my PR days with the American Heart Association, putting together similar public awareness campaigns, and to all of the people -- our volunteers -- that I'd desperately suckered into doing crack-of-dawn TV interviews with Chicago news stations, using that exact same line. What goes around comes's called karma, baby.

"Will the interview be in Spanish? It's just that my Spanish isn't so good..." I said, laying on the thickest gringa accent I could, my last hope for possibly getting out of this.

"Yes, but I love the North American accent. And your Spanish is very good."

Ah, linguistic flattery. He got me there. I gave him my email address, figuring if the guy was making the whole thing up, I'd still give him major points for creativity.

So it looks like I'm going to be on Huajuapeño TV, folks. Will keep you posted on the segment shoot and air date. If you tune in, we can double Huajuapan's market rating in one night.