Catastrophe, Puppets and Convivencia

Last week, Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid swept both coasts of Mexico. Currently, the death toll for flooding and landslides has passed 130. The storm also displaced thousands, swept away entire communities and caused unprecedented damage to the roads and infrastructure here in Mexico. A huge portion of the country is trying to move on from what was the biggest natural disaster in half a century. Here are some images of the storm.

One way to respond to the humanitarian crisis brought upon by Hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel in the last couple of weeks was to begin to gather resources– food, water, clothing, blankets, toys, etc. for the those in need. Here at the Casa, we have begun collecting donated items to distribute directly to hurricane victims. One of the Casa’s former directors, Jill, was also directly impacted by the storm. While doing research in Guerrero, she got trapped in a Santo Domingo, a small community along the Río Balsas, and was unable to make it back to Mexico City for a week, as all transportation was halted. (Here is an article about the storm hitting that community). Fortunately, with the help of a disaster relief team and a jet ski, she was able to make it back home on Saturday. To add some comic relief to the week’s stress and hardship, her daughter Agnita staged a puppet show to narrate the week’s events, in which the happy ending was Jill making it home for Agnita’s 6th birthday party.

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“Never before seen or rehearsed,” the puppet show was a big hit, captivating the 25-odd kids in what was preceded by an under-five-minute puppet performance of the Wizard of Oz. The gathering was just one of this weeks many examples of “convivencia” or time spent together. More and more, convivencia has become a routine that shapes the rhythms and motions of my days here. Not even had we cleared the table for the potluck we hosted for Tochan volunteers yesterday when we were setting the table for the morning breakfast. Rotating between being the host and the guest is a constant cycle that nourishes and invigorates our spirit, our work, and our purpose in this community. It can also be exhausting, as the dynamics of collective decision-making, reflection, and convivencia are met with challenges of every kind. Still, the constant effort is so worthwhile.

 

Being a Witness

This was a week of witnessing. In both expected and unexpected occasions, the week brought several moments of confrontation, new perspective and an overall sense of struggle among people I have met. On Wednesday, I visited Tochan, a migrant shelter in Mexico City which mostly houses Central American migrants seeking asylum in Mexico. It is a lot further out from the Center than the Casa, in a poor (but safe) neighborhood with a reputation for drug abuse. Although it technically receives both men and women, currently in Tochan there are only men, and there is a possibility it will stop receiving women. The residents there now are all Central American men, from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, ranging from ages 18 to 70.

The main purpose of the trip was to visit and pass time with the residents of Tochan. One of the ways to understand the shelter is to see it as a place where migrants end up if “something goes terribly wrong,” (this is relative, because no one has an easy trip migrating across Mexico) in their journey across Mexico. It would be uncommon for migrants to enter the city otherwise if they are headed to the United States. “Terribly wrong” generally means a tragedy along the lines of kidnapping, extortion, injury (as in the case of one current Tochan resident, only 23-years-old, who lost one of his legs while riding one of the cargo trains used to cross Mexico). When crimes are commited against migrants in Mexico (documented or not), they can file for asylum within Mexico.

Inside Tochan, the migrant shelter

Inside Tochan, the migrant shelter

After spending a bit of time at Tochan we came to see that the pace of life there is monotonous and slow. There are virtually no recreational resources there beyond a T.V., computer, and some books. Part of this is due to that fact that Tochan is a recently opened shelter–it has only been around for about a year. Also, many of the men are out during the day working or looking for work. While we were there we watched one man get his head shaved, morphing from a shaggy head of curls to a smooth buzz cut. He was made into a new man before our very eyes. In this way, the tranquility of Tochan can be a positive feature for those fleeing trauma and crisis. It is a place that allows a period of rest, sometimes for months, on what is otherwise an arduous and ambiguous journey toward new opportunities and new life.

Fast forwarding two days… on Friday, Mara and I were trying to shop for coffee mugs in the Historic Center in the midst of the police’s effort to displace the teachers who have been demonstrating in the Zocalo for the last month. There had been rumor that this would take place on Friday, only two days before–in that very plaza– the Mexican government would host the country’s national day of independence. When we got off the metro on the other side of the Zocalo, we realized that the commercial center where we were heading was barricaded off by police. We gathered with other spectators to see what was being blocked off and for what reason when we saw smoke coming from near the Zocalo, and we had to make our way back to the house on foot because all the metro stops between the Zocalo and our house were closed.

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Arriving at the Eje Central, about halfway home, helicopters began to fly overhead and we watched as protesters with sticks, metal pipes and face masks began to pour out of one of the streets in the Centro onto one of the city’s main avenues. We moved out of the way as protesters began to run as if being chased. It was then that we saw more than a hundred riot control police running after a group of stick-bearing protesters. On our way home, stopping at our favorite torta stand, we saw on the news that the tents and belongings of the teachers were being cleared out and burned. Sure enough, only a few hours later we began to see the tents appearing on our very own Monumento a la Revolución, which is now completely filled by the protesters’ encampment.

Police chasing the fleeing protesters

Police chasing the fleeing protesters

It was a confusing scene, not only for how surreal the afternoon’s events had seemed, but in waiting for news of mass media and the depictions of the days events. In the newspapers we read that the teachers had been given notice that, because Mexico’s Independence Eve “Grito” is always held at the Zocalo, the teachers would have to leave or they would be removed by force. However, talking to a teacher at the Monument, it seemed they were too little notice to get their belongings and leave before the whole plaza was torn apart and the people who refused to leave were tear gassed. In learning more about this teacher’s stance with regard to the new education law, it became clear how many layers of information muddle the realities of the protest, the union, the government, all of the major players involved in this dispute. According to this teacher, they are protesting an part of the law that makes teacher’s jobs reliant on student performance (similar to No Child Left Behind), which could make teachers vulnerable to mass firings. Another issue related to the national exams for teachers and students is that in states like Oaxaca, one of the poorest and lowest performing states for education, teachers there will suffer at the expense of the national standard. Also, despite criticisms that teachers in Mexico are one of the higher paid public employees and that they don’t work hard, this particular teacher brought up the hardships faced by rural, poor school teachers, such as the use of their own salaries to provide basic school supplies, to the point of using their own money to buy students food to eat so they can concentrate. Finally, there is also strong use of language of “free public education for all,” which has been at stake in the past, and appears to be at stake in this new law, although it’s unclear to what extent free public education is being jeopardized.

It is a difficult issue given that the Teacher’s Union is Mexico is known to be one of the most corrupt, the education reform one of the most polarizing issues, and currently, yet another issue for which a resolution seems distant. Also, the Casa takes a calculated role in its participation in political demonstrations and protests in Mexico. In general, it attempts to avoid stances on politically controversial issues, when not compromising its fundamental values. In the cases where participation does occur, it is fomented by the actions by the Casa team, often as a gesture of humanitarian, as opposed to political, aid. This participation may take the form of educating, hosting events such as film screenings or meetings, etc.

In this sociopolitical context, there are voices to be heard, and stories to be witnessed right at our doorstep in this moment of considerable social unrest. We are taking steps to educate ourselves and listen to various perspectives and experiences, while trying to humanely and morally respond to the social conditions that surround us–and the concern that arises as a result of those social conditions. One thing is for sure, it is an incredibly complex political situation which is made more complex by issues such as corruption, bribery, the political tools of mass communication and information, and, of course, being an outsider to the Mexican political context.

The front page of the newspaper on Saturday.

The front page of the newspaper on Saturday.

Still, it is intriguing to see how one group of workers has responded so animately in resistance to a single law. I have never, even having lived in D.C. my whole life, witnessed a political protest of this intensity and proportion. Still it is increibly difficult to sustain. These teachers have now gone a month without pay, and are living in a makeshift tent city with no access to bathrooms, water, clean clothes, etc.. They are relying greatly on donations and support from people to keep them going. But now it is getting cold, the government does not appear to be budging on its stance, and it seems like soon they may be packing up and going home in a few days. At least for now.

 

Reminder: No Quiet Days

As I sat down this morning to write about how peaceful the last couple of days here have felt, Mara rushed in from her morning run. “Kate! Have you seen all the roads blocked off around the monument? There are buses everywhere!” I laughed at the irony of being in the midst of a blog post about serenity.

Protest forming at the monument

Protest forming at the monument

"March to the Zocalo Tuesday 10 at 6:15"

“March to the Zocalo Tuesday 10 at 6:15″

It was a message from the city (El monstruo, if you will) reminding me of the unending barrage of movement, tragedy and unrest just outside the walls of our peaceful community. To be fair, it feels peaceful here because it is the environment created by decades of dedicated volunteers, workers, guests, etc. And it does not exist despite the tides of chaos that ebb and flow with each hour, but as a refuge and response to that very condition of our present moment, which gives our work meaning and makes this place so very special. The Casa makes it its mission to maintain an environment that lives its values, regardless of what the world shoves through our front door, drops on our roof, rockets through our windows. And it is important for those who come here to share in our sense of refuge and receive our hospitality when peace may be harder to find in other parts of Mexico. (The story of the migrants killed by “the Beast,” the cargo train that carries roughly a thousand migrants through Mexico each day, the exploitative mining practices going on in Chiapas, the tangled knot of Mexican politics, and an unending list of injustices that require urgent, dignified response all come to mind. How do we begin to face those things? As an individual? As the Casa? As a society? These are the questions surging forward as I take a deeper look at where I am and what I’m doing here. We may house up to five migrants in the Casa, but the other thousands? Where do they go? Where will they sleep tonight?

It’s a good time to reflect on all that is happening in Mexico outside of our Casa bubble, especially as a reminder that there are no quiet days here. I’ve started taking bike rides as a practice of social consciousness while in the city, as an opportunity to hear new voices, see unfamiliar faces, to take unexpected detours.

Mara bike riding in front of me, on the way back to the Casa from the Historic Center.

Mara bike riding in front of me, on the way back to the Casa from the Historic Center.

As the days progress during the “Summer” here, the sky evolves from bright blue at breakfast, to dull smog, to intense gray, to a dark rain. By the time the rain comes today, I will be around a table of 20+ Casa volunteers, staff, friends, and guests, holding hands in silent prayer for our quiet house and the sustenance we have been provided, and in turn provide to others.

In the Shadow of Monuments

The monument below is the heartbeat of the Casa’s very own Colonia Tabacalera. Just two blocks south of the Casa, it is “The Monument of the Revolution,” and its origins lie paradoxically as the planned presidential palace for Porfirio Díaz, the late 18th/early 19th century Mexican dictator. Depending on who you ask, some may define the monument as the gravesite, not the birthplace of revolution: below its massive stone structure lie the remains of several famous Mexican revolutionaries, including Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza.

Monumento de la Revolución

Monumento de la Revolución

Over the last two weeks, I have watched the plaza of the Monument transform from a hangout space for lovethrust teenagers and a venue for rock concerts into a staging area for protests organized by the National Educational Workers and finally, on Tuesday, an area overwhelmed by police barricades and checkpoints. The timing of these displays of civil unrest was poignant, as the Casa screened the film Rojo Amanecer on the same day that our neighborhood was tense with an overwhelming police presence. The heart-wrenching film is about the 1968 student massacre, which resulted in hundreds of deaths, disappearances and arrests of Mexican students, political dissidents, and bystanders. This tragic event touches a nerve in media coverage and in the larger discourse of protest in contemporary Mexico, as acts of violent political repression remain a not-so-distant memory.

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The incongruity of the images/symbols evoked at the monument have, in the last weeks, forced me to reflect upon the complexity of what was once just a sunny spot to play soccer and enjoy a paleta (I mean, it’s still that too, of course). The current protests (coupled with the Casa’s intensive orientation to Mexican history/politics) have offered an abrupt confrontation with the realities of the contemporary Mexican state. After this week, the space’s evocation of revolutionary ideals is clouded with realities of oppression, it’s encouragement for festivity is trampled by hardship. And so it becomes, it our very backyard, a site that fosters, as many public spaces in the city, both protest and passivity. The contradiction is more apparent here because it is a glimmering, untouchable symbol of revolution.  An immediate parallel has me reflecting back about my home in Washington, D.C., where I grew up in the shadow of monuments also riddled with histories of dissidence and struggles for justice.