Saturday, May 30, 2009

Life in Guadalajara: 10 mayors arrested for tipping off narcos

A couple of weeks ago, we went for a walk in a big local park. The dry season started about six months ago, which means virtually no rain. There were several big fires in the park recently. That didn´t stop this woman from taking a ride.

The daily newspaper Mural had several interesting stories this past week...

-- 10 mayors in the state of Michoacán were arrested for their complicity with a major drug gang, known as the Family....

-- The governor of the state of Zacatecas is denying any involvement in the escape of 53 drug thugs from the prison in her state. The escape was executed in less than three minutes, without firing a shot. Seventeen SUVs entered the prison, the murderers and traffickers hopped aboard and disappeared.

That governor is being challenged in the next election by a candidate whose family owns a warehouse where 14 tons of marijuana was recently seized. They were shocked -- shocked -- to learn that this contraband was on their property. So the two candidates are accusing each other of being the more crooked.

-- Land along the shoreline of Lake Chapala, Mexico´s largest body of water, is supposed to be federally protected property, but private owners are simply extending their property lines outward by buildings piers, filling in with stone and building tennis courts. It´s completely illegal but the federal agency charged with enforcement is ineffective.

Carlos Fuentes doesn´t get the joke

A couple of weeks ago, the much-honored Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote a column in the Reforma Group´s papers about how Obama had ushered in a new attitude toward treatment of prisoners compared to the evil Dick Cheney.

Fuentes quoted six paragraphs of a Maureen Dowd column that included what were supposedly Cheney´s comments on torture and terrorism to a secret meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Fuentes evidently couldn´t detect that the column was a complete put-on. Dowd left lots of verbal cues that the dialogue was imaginary, including Cheney´s parting comment that Jack Bauer (24´s fictional hero) was our finest counterterrorism agent. Fuentes missed all of the satire and irony. Tone and style are easy to miss in a foreign language.

When girls turn 15, they have a big church ceremony and a party, kind of like a coming out. The guys have to dress like members of a wedding party. We saw these guys in Xochimilco one Saturday.

Life in Guadalajara
Yesterday I went to the post office (nearest one is about four miles from here) to buy stamps. I asked for 50. The denomination I wanted (10 pesos, 50 centavos) came on a little sheet with three other denominations. The clerk patiently tore the denomination I wanted from 50 separate sheets. About a 15-minute operation.

Mailboxes are few and far between. The nearest to us is more than a half-mile away. Still, this is better than Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a city of about 1.5 million, which has only one post office and only two mailboxes, one in aforesaid post office.

The flu scare seems to be over. I still don´t know anyone who knows anyone who was sick with the flu. This little desktop pen holder was decorated by its owner. In the office building where I work, the receptionist took my temperature every morning by putting a sensor against my forehead. Antibacterial soap dispensers are everywhere.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dark days at the Baltimore Sun

A column in captures the essence of the newspaper crisis. The Baltimore Sun, which had 420 editorial employees a decade ago, now has one third that total.

Having previously shuttered bureaus in London, Beijing, and Moscow, the paper in the last few months closed local bureaus, including the one in Annapolis – Maryland's state capital.

More at "Dark day at Baltimore Sun, say critics - Michael Calderone -" -

When I arrived in Baltimore in 1995, the Sun had some truly great writers on their staff. It was a paper that I had to read and enjoyed reading. In the 11 years following, the paper had four different publishers and at least that many different editors as the corporate influence, first at the LA Times group and then at Tribune Co., made itself felt.

The Sun is a classic example of how corporate ownership helped speed the demise of large metropolitan dailies.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Flu update: 3 local deaths mean schools, bars, cinemas closed till May 18

The state of Jalisco where we live has a population of 7 million. So far there have been three cases of the H1N1 flu here that have resulted in deaths.

There have been 26 confirmed cases here and 1,259 suspected, so yesterday, Gov. Emilio Gonzalez ordered all universities and schools to remain shut down until May 18. They´ve already been closed for two weeks.

He also ordered the closing of bars, discos, sport stadiums and any place where large crowds gather. The city of Guadalajara closed the cemeteries, which get a lot of visits on Mother´s Day, which is tomorrow.

The flu scare you´ve all been seeing on television has been mainly in Mexico City, but now Jalisco and several other states are getting a delayed reaction.

Mexicans have a deep distrust of government officials and politicians, so they view these announcements with a mixture of fear and disbelief. They are also extremely upset that other countries, such as China and the U.S., have been shunning Mexicans.

The Flu´s Football Fallout

Also yesterday the Mexican Football (soccer) Association detonated a bomb of atomic proportions. (Foto from Milenio) It announced it was withdrawing its two teams from the final 16 of the Liberator´s Cup (Latin America´s football playoffs, bigger than the World Series) rather than give up the home field advantage they were supposed to have against teams from Uruguay and Brazil.

In response to the flu scare, the governing body that runs the Liberator´s Cup had ordered the two Mexican teams to play their scheduled home games at their opponents´ stadiums instead.

The spitting incident

In an earlier game in the Liberator´s Cup series, Hector Reynoso, captain of Guadalajara, spat on a player from the Chilean team Everton. (See video) Guadalajara players said the Chileans had been taunting them about the flu epidemic.

Reynoso apologized for it a few days later. But the incident may have had something to do with the decision of the Latin American football organization´s decision not to play in Mexico. Who knows.

Cartoonists continue to have fun with the crisis. This one is from

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Spanish lessons and Mexico City architecture

A letter from Cindy

We need a bumper sticker that says "I brake for archaeological sites."

Saludos a familia y amigos,

I took the plunge in February and attended an intensive Spanish language course - 4 weeks, 5 days a week, 4 hours a day. Two hours of grammar and two of conversation each day and English was never (almost) used. I figured it was the only way I would get through a language program without getting an ulcer - just plow straight ahead with no time to worry about it. It sort of worked. The grammar was easy and the conversation was a dreaded chore. I learned quite a bit and certainly increased some of my language skills but it did not make me any more comfortable conversing in a foreign language.

The irony is that I can get by pretty well with knowing only the basics - "Good day," "How much," "Thank you," and "I don't speak Spanish," which is very useful when approached by store clerks or street vendors wanting to sell you something or have you complete a questionnaire. So the only way to not forget everything I practiced is to force myself to use it. Since the conversation side is very stressful for me and induces a sort of panic reaction (deer in the headlights kind of feeling) I am in the position of practicing something I don't like in order to achieve a very limited mastery of a subject I rarely need. So far I haven't had the discipline to do that.

On the other hand, I enjoy translating Spanish. Really no surprise - I like logic and rules. So I study grammar books and do grammar exercises almost every day, I make dozens of, no, thousands of flash cards (admittedly a compulsion), and I occasionally translate a magazine article with the help of my books and an online dictionary.

Other than adding Spanish grammar to my routine, my days are basically the same as before - exercise, housecleaning, read, cross stitch - with the occasional excursion thrown in for variety. In the past 4 months we've spent another week in Mexico City, a few days in Colima, and almost a week in Austin, TX. Yes, I've been stateside again and it was very refreshing. More on that later.

First I want to share with you some of the things I love about Mexico City. I could walk around the central area of that city for days - and have, in fact, done just that - usually with my head tilted back and swiveling left, right, and back as I try to take in all the wonderful architecture. Colonial, Baroque, Art Deco, Neoclassical, Gothic, Italian Renaissance, contemporary - I barely know one from the other but I can admire them all. While Jim attended his seminar I would just walk, usually with a route and destination in mind, but invariably I would get side tracked by a bell tower 2 blocks over that way...

I especially like towers which is one reason my head is usually tilted back

or a religious niche back that way...

another reason I was always looking up

or a glimmer of colorful tiles in another direction...

I am spellbound by mosaics and geometric designs - must be my mathematical leanings

or a flash of that Latin America dark red that always captures my attention...

I usually didn't make it to my intended destination but had a lot of fun just wandering and goggling. I took hundreds of pictures of buildings that I found appealing that you won't find in any guide book (my kids all gasp in disbelief) - buildings with imposing doors...

I lied; this one is in the guide books - the Palacio de Iturbide (1780's)

fancy windows...

just a store front

plateresque and geometric wall decorations...

office building, I think

And my favorite periods of architectural design - Art Deco...

and the Victorian dollhouse look...

Enough with the buildings already. There are museums, parks, churches, and monuments to visit too.

I got a big kick out of the quirky sculptures and park benches along Paseo de la Reforma, a broad, elegant, tree lined boulevard perfect for strolling.

One of our side trips while in Mexico City was to Xochimilco where we punted along canals built by the Aztecs. View the March blog entry "Tenochtitlan and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest" for more pictures of our excursion.

The University has lots of holiday time, for the administration as well as the students. The school took a 2 week break for Christmas and New Years holidays and another 2 weeks around Easter. I'm curious about what happens during the summer. We used the 2 week holiday in December to visit several towns in Michoacan, the state to the southeast of us. That 11 day trip is already covered in several earlier blogs. Check out "Bridget, California, and travels in Mexico" in January for a summary of the trip and references to other entries.

April is a good time for a beach trip here but most Mexicans use the Easter holiday to go to the beach so we stayed away. Instead we took a short trip to Colima, a provincial town not too far from Guadalajara that is capital of the state of Colima. The town appears to be very prosperous with beautiful gardens (one with free wi-fi), colonial buildings, and two small archaeological sites on the outskirts.

This is awfully lush for the dry season. There is obviously money in this town to afford to keep the gardens in such good shape. The state is very small but has some important ports and beach resort areas on the Pacific which I surmise generate enough income to benefit the whole state. See more pictures in the April blog entry "Volcanos, Colima, and pre-Colombian sites."

The Virgin of Guadalupe on a pancake grill and other mysteries

Americans don´t really understand the Virgin Mary and her significance to Catholics. So they couldn´t be expected to understand the exponentially greater significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Mexicans.

Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, showed her ignorance when she visited the basilica of the Virgin, the holiest shrine in Mexico, which is visited by 20 million people a year.

They come to see the image of the Virgin that miraculously appeared on the cloak of the Indian Juan Diego when she appeared to him in 1531.

When Hillary saw the image, she asked her guide, Monsignor Diego Monroy, “Who painted it?” The priest smiled indulgently and told her what every Mexican knows (but not Hillary´s highly paid Latin American experts): “God painted it,” he said. It was a miracle.

I about choked on my Cheerios when I read Hillary´s question the next day. Some Mexican journalists I was having lunch with took her comment as an insult.

Article from El Universal

The Mexican press let her off easy. They could have beaten her up.

They were actually very restrained when they could have ridiculed her. This example from El Universal was typically restrained. Here is an article in English about Hillary´s gaffe.

People come to the shrine from all over Latin America, many of them approaching on their knees to show their reverence.

Mary is really more important than Jesus in the popular mind in Latin America, I believe. On Dec. 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, kids dress up like Juan Diego, one of the few Catholic saints who was not a priest or a nun. Probably the most significant detail about the Virgin in this story is that she was “morena”, or dark skinned. So the indigenous population of Mexico and Latin America has a special affection for her.
There is a decent article about her in wikipedia.

Rock star status, and the accompanying hysteria

In its extreme form, the reverence for the Virgin borders on the kind of popular hysteria that surrounds rock stars.

This photos shows a pair of wrestlers admiring what is described as an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a pancake grill at a restaurant on the California-Mexico border. In a video accompanying the article about this on, you can see a clear picture of what all the excitement was about.

As a regular viewer of news on Univision, the Spanish language television network based in Miami, I would see stories from time to time of images of the Virgin or Jesus appearing on a tablecloth, on the stained pillars of a freeway underpass or whatever.

A 2008 movie with Luke Wilson, titled Henry Poole is Here, tells of a man who buys a house that is famous with his Mexican neighbors for its image of Christ in some new stucco.

Video interview on talents needed for journalists

In March I was on a panel in Huesca, Spain, on the training needs of journalists. Here is a four-minute video on that subject.

The interviewer wants to know first about the fact that in Europe there are no journalism majors, only communication majors. I told her a good model is to study liberal arts and then get a master´s in journalism.

Then she asks about journalists who have no university training. I said a person doesn´t need a degree to be an excellent journalist, just certain qualities of curiosity, the need to get to the bottom of things.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Moby Dick, a great book that nobody reads

There were only about a dozen books that I brought with me here to Guadalajara. One of them was “Moby Dick”.

It swept me away when I read it in college 37 years ago. I had re-read it in the interval, but I wanted to see what it seemed like now.

Age can make a difference in how a book affects you. In high school “Hamlet” was supposely of interest to us as a struggle of a young man. But the play didn't move me as much as it did when I saw it and re-read it two decades later. I thought it was a great play for an older person disillusioned with the corruption and depravity of mankind. Shakespeare was 35 when he wrote it.

Great sense of humor

I had forgotten how witty Melville is, and how many humorous set pieces he works into this novel. His adventures on Nantucket and his descriptions of his shipmates show a fine sense of comedy.

From his letters, you can see that Melville was on fire creatively when he wrote this book and drew on a vast array of sources, from the Bible to the science of whaling. His narrator's voice adopts the tone of philosopher, preacher, tragic hero, comic fool, scientist, revolutionary, parodist, linguist and more.

By the end, you have lived on a whale ship and lived in his time. It´s a fantastic encyclopedic portrait of his universe, literally and metaphorically a voyage around the world. The ambition of his work is breathtaking. It´s a modern prose epic on the scale of Homer's “Odyssey” or Joyce's “Ulysses”.

A young man writes with the sagacity of age

Melville had just turned 30 when he wrote his epic tale about a whaleboat captain, Ahab, who is obsessed with killing the white whale that turned on his attacker and took his leg.

It´s a wonder that one so young could write such a convincing portrait of a vengeful old man (Ahab is 58, my age on the next birthday). Then again, doubt, despair, rage, awe and passion are simply timeless. That is, a younger person can feel it just as deeply and write about it with as much authority. Melville, like Ahab, wonders if it is God, Satan or cruel fate that lets loose all the evil and violence in the world.

Melville greatly admired Shakespeare's “King Lear”, another portrait of a tragic figure driven mad by the world, and you can feel echoes of that play throughout “Moby Dick”. Shakespeare was in his early 40s when he wrote Lear.

Is it still readable

Melville´s language has an archaic feel to it today, some 160 years after the publication of his most recognized work. His prose has a latinate style that shows his appreciation of classical Roman literature. In his day, every educated person would have read the important Roman writers in the original, which had an impact on the writing of English. Today it´s hard to find an educated person who can read Latin literature. So the style is unfamiliar.

And many of the soliloquies of the characters, as one scholar has shown, can be broken down into lines of blank verse in iambic pentameter, the verse form used by Shakespeare in his tragedies.

Modern reading habits are not well suited to Melville's Shakespearean style much less to his magnificent epic style. Melville is much easier to appreciate when he is read aloud or at the pace of a person reading aloud.

An example is this description of the white whale, which sounds like it could have come out of Homer:

A gentle joyousness -- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did suprass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

This is the great prose that Melville serves up on every page. Still, his quirky punctuation (semicolons and dashes galore) and his epic and tragic rhythms are unfamiliar to modern readers nurtured on realism and naturalistic language.

Book Club

The running joke in the Clintonville Book Club in Columbus, Ohio, was that one member would continually suggest “Moby Dick” as the next book, and was always voted down.

We left the club in 1995 when we moved to Baltimore, but the club did eventually read the book. I wonder what the discussion was like.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: My Norton Critical Edition, copyright 1967, ran to 728 pages, only two-thirds of which was Melville´s novel. The rest was critical assessments, letters, sources and commentaries. Cover price was a mere $2.45.