Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cussing and slang in Mexico: it´s all about Mom

Mexican slang and cursing are different from every other Latin American country. The best place to find out why is in Octavio Paz´s classic essay on Mexican identity, "The Labyrinth of Solitude."

It´s all about Mother. Or the children of the Violated Mother, los hijos de la Chingada.

Mexicans use that phrase to describe themselves with a mixture of pride and bitter irony. It has to do with their history: indigenous women taken or raped by Spanish conquistadors and colonists. The Woman as Victim, a person they identify with. (Her opposite is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Woman as Refuge and Protector.)

Paz dedicates much of a chapter to the unique Mexican use of the word chingar: in this country, it´s as vulgar as saying f---, but in other countries it means to fail or get drunk or mess up.

Daily speech in Mexico is filled with expressions about mother:

Un desmadre (trans.- dis-mother) is a mess.

Desmadrarse (trans. to dis-mother oneself) means to go wild.

Ya estoy hasta la madre (trans. - I´ve reached motherliness) means I´ve had it, I´m tired, I´m sick of it.

Te voy a romper la madre (trans. - I´m going to break/wreck your mother) means I´m going to kick your ass.

Me vale madre (trans. it´s worth mother to me) means, I don´t give a shit.

A toda madre (trans. - totally mother) means very good.

Me cae de madre (lit. - he/she strikes me as mother) means I think he/she is cool or great.

De poca madre, (trans. - not very mother) means cool, very good.

Mentada de madre (lit. - mention of mother) means to insult someone´s mother.

The legendary mentada de madre here in Jaliso came when the governor, clearly drunk at a fundraising event, presented a check of state money to the Cardinal to build a sanctuary.

The donation was highly controversial because Mexicans have a love-hate relationship with the Church. The governor had been roundly criticized. So in presenting the check to the Cardinal, the governor told his critics and all the electronic media, "If you don´t like it, then chingue a su madre" (f--- your mother).

Dad, on the other hand, is not associated with victimhood but with power and control.

Yo soy tu padre (lit. I´m your daddy) means I own your ass.

Qué padre (lit. - How dadly) means cool or great. Padrísimo is even better.

I work with a guy who is a poet in the way he fills every line of speech with creative variations on four or five vulgar words, in all of their shapes and variations. Cab drivers are quite good at it as well.

The words for me do not have the weight of culture and history. I´m like a child playing with sharp knives. I don´t know how to pick them up or throw them around without causing injury.

Or the words seem to be mere puffs of air without substance, until I utter one and see it jerk someone´s head back.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Renewing a Mexican visa, or Catch-22

"Catch-22" is one of my favorite books because it makes hilarious comedy out of bureaucratic lunacy.

None of the bomber crew members in the story want to fly the suicidal missions over Italy. The only way they can get out of them is if they´re judged insane by the Air Corps psychiatrist.

But if they tell the psychiatrist they have horrific nightmares and they´re too terrified to fly the missions, that´s a healthy response, therefore they´re sane and have to fly the missions.

If a crewman really is crazy, then he enjoys flying the missions. So everyone has to fly the missions. That´s Catch-22. The world´s bureaucracies are full of Catches.

Mexico´s version of Catch-22

Getting a work visa renewed in Mexico is something like that. You´re wrong even when you´re right, and you will be punished. This year the government developed a new computerized streamlined system for the process. Here´s how it works:

1. It says on the helpful website that you just fill out the renewal form online. I ransack the website without finding the renewal form. There is no place on any page that has a link to it. I do a Google search for FM3 visas and find a blog dispensing immigration advice for Cubans living in Mexico. It has the link.

2. I fill out the form online. There is no English version, which is not a problem for me but must be for some of the other 1 million Americans who live in this country. At the end, the form gives me two choices: "save" (guardar) or "save and copy" (guardar y duplicar). Being a careful sort, I hit "save and copy".

Hitting "save and copy" was, I later learned, a big mistake.

3. Being a careful sort, before I fill out Cindy´s application, I take the printout of my application down to the immigration office to submit it to Answer Lady, whose job it is to help ignorant foreigners decipher the niceties of the system. She reviews my form. In the box for writing where the original visa was issued, I wrote, "Washington, D.C.", just as it said on my visa.

-- This is a mistake, said Answer Lady. Even though your visa says it was issued in Washington, it was really issued on Mexican soil because it was in the embassy there.

-- Oh, I said. So when I fill out my wife´s form online, I should write that her visa was issued in Mexico, right?
-- Right, said Answer Lady.

Believing Answer Lady was a big mistake.

4. At the immigration office the next Monday, the line is amazingly short at 9 a.m. We bring with us a fat file folder filled with documents that we had to present the previous year to renew the visas:
-- letter from me in Spanish attesting to the fact that I will support my wife during the time of my visa and not abandon her,
-- passport and two copies of each page of the passport,
-- visa and two copies of each page of the visa,
-- letters from the University and from Washington saying that I am in Mexico to do good things,
-- copies of passports of the letter writers with their signatures to prove that the letters aren´t forgeries,
-- copies of utility bills as proof of residence,
-- copies of three months of bank statements to prove income,
-- copy of my work contract with the International Center for Journalists,

-- three black-and-white photos face front, two photos in profile.....
-- and although we supposedly don´t need them this year in the streamlined system, I bring along the certified copy of our marriage license and certified copies of our birth certificates.

I also had obtained from Answer Lady the form you use to go to the bank and pay the visa fee for each of us.

To speed up the process, I paid the fees before submitting the application. Big mistake.

5. We submit our papers. Two women scrutinize various documents.

-- We have to reject your application, sir, because you made a mistake by hitting 'save and copy´. You only use that if you´re going to submit a duplicate for a child, and you don´t have a child seeking a visa. So you´ll have to go online and fill out the form again.

-- And we have to reject your wife´s application because it says she got her visa in Mexico but it was really in Washington, D.C.
-- But Answer Lady told me to put down Mexico, I protest.
-- Sorry.

6. We go to an Internet café near the immigration office and fill out the forms again, print them out, get back in line, which is longer now, and wait our turn. We submit our stuff again.
Do you have your payment forms? You bet we do.
-- I´m sorry sir, but we can´t accept your payment. It´s for the wrong amount.

Cindy´s is correct, but it turns out I had made a mistake and paid the same amount for both Cindy and me, about $100 each. I was supposed to pay $160 because I´m earning a salary down here.

7. They accept Cindy´s application but won´t accept mine until I go to a bank and execute a new payment for the correct amount. It´s not possible to just add on to the amount I´ve already paid. Cindy takes a taxi home. I take a taxi to the bank where I originally paid, pay again, this time $160, take a taxi back to the immigration office, take a ticket and get back in line. The line is longer now. I wait. I submit my application again, payment is correct, they accept the application and give me a number to check online. It will tell us when the visas are ready.

8. So what do I do about getting a refund for the erroneous $100 payment I already made?
-- You´ll have to talk to that lady over there.
She has me fill out some forms. Now what?
-- Well, the paperwork has to go through some channels and you´ll have to come back in three days.

9. I come back three days later, expecting to get a check or a voucher I can take to a bank and use to make a deposit.
-- Oh, no, you have to take this form to the office of a different agency, the SAT (tax collector) where they issue refunds.
-- Where is the SAT office?
-- There are several. You can look them up online, but you have to make an appointment.

10. I go online to try to make an appointment. The system is down and not working and continues not working the next day as well. I call the number listed on the website. A person answers and says that I made a mistake, this is the wrong agency. I check the number on the website. I had called the number listed, so evidently everyone who has this problem and calls this number will always get the wrong agency. She gives me the correct phone number.

11. I call the agency to make an appointment for getting my $100 refund. The woman asks me what SAT district I live in. I say I don´t know but I give her my address. She says she can´t tell from that what district I live in. I´ll have to go to one of the offices and ask which office is the correct one to go to for the refund.
Then I can make an appointment.

12. Meanwhile we find out that are visas are ready. On this day, the office is packed. We wait about two hours to get to the front of the line. I´m nervous as hell that I might have made some other mistake, that there is some hoop we forgot to jump through. The clerk asks us where our XXX forms are. What forms?
-- These forms. You mean no one told you to fill these out?
-- OK, we´ll just fill them out now."

Fortunately do not have to get back in line.
But this new form asks for information that we have already given them two or three times in different documents, but we have to fill it out.
We get our visas. Yay!

13. Now about my $100 refund for the erroneous payment.
There are two possible SAT offices that could be the one I´m required to go to. I pick the one by the Christopher Columbus Circle. I get in the line that says "without appointment". I give them my address. Yes, you´re at the right office. You´ll have to wait to see a counselor. I take a ticket. I wait. The counselor says that to get the refund I will need:
-- Proof of residence from a utility bill
-- a copy of my passport
-- the voucher that I already have and a copy of it
-- copy of my visa, both sides
-- the bank account details where they are to deposit the money (they don´t issue checks)
-- and I will need to make an appointment

Here comes Catch-22

-- So when would you like to make your appointment?
-- How about this week?

She looks at my newly issued visa. It´s a plastic card like a driver´s license instead of the old passport-style booklet. She checks the date. Technically, my new visa doesn´t take effect for two weeks because I renewed it two weeks before the old one expired.

-- I´m sorry sir, but we can´t make an appointment with you until this visa takes effect.
-- But I just renewed it. Look. Here´s a copy of my old visa.
-- Sorry, we´ll have to make an appointment no sooner than the effective date of this new visa.

14. Now uncertain whether my new visa is valid, I prepare to leave on a two-week trip to the U.S. I carry a 24-page full-color photocopy of my old visa, just in case. At the airport in Guadalajara, the immigration officer looks at my card-style visa as if he has never seen one before.
The new rules and new forms have been in effect for two months.
-- What´s this?
-- It´s my FM3 visa. It´s the new style. They just started issuing them.

He looks at me, looks at the picture, studies both sides of the card, trying to figure out what to do. Eventually he sees something he recognizes, writes something down and stamps some forms, giving me two copies.

15. I´m back now from the U.S. and have my appointment at the SAT office. I bring my fat file with me that has 10 times more information than is required because bureaucrats always want you to present something you don´t have.
She asks for a copy of the picture page of my passport, which by dumb luck I have. She looks at the bank account information.

-- This bank account isn´t in your name.
-- No that´s my wife. I don´t have a bank account. Here´s our marriage certificate.

After a half hour of looking at her computer screen and printing out a half-dozen documents, stamping each four or five times, she hands me a form that is a record of my application.

-- It will have to go through channels and be approved she says. You should hear within the next 40 working days.

40 working days. That´s more than eight weeks after you take holidays into account.

At this point, the authentic human response should be a shriek of frustration. But I know that within the bureaucratic system, you have to pretend to be civilized, or the system will punish you even more.

So now I´m waiting to see if the deposit will show up in Cindy´s bank account or for some notification that my application for refund was rejected.

On the other hand

The Mexican bureaucracy functions differently for special people, though. Yesterday I read in the paper that six state government officials, in illegal fashion and with approval from no one, awarded themselves bonuses last year totaling $2 million.

That averages to $333,000 apiece. I´m betting that they didn´t have to make an appointment at the local SAT office to get it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Designing a master´s degree and becoming an academic

This month I think I have finally resigned myself to the fact that I am becoming less of a journalist and more of an academic.

For the past several months I´ve been meeting with a committee of about 10 academics within the University of Guadalajara´s Virtual University, their distance-learning unit, to design an online master´s degree in digital journalism.

This is a fairly innovative program. There are maybe a dozen digital journalism master´s programs in the U.S., and I don´t know of any of them that are completely online.

There are only one or two similar programs in the Spanish-speaking world that both teach digital journalism (how you practice journalism in the multimedia world of the Web) and do it online. So it´s a stretch for all of us.

Meetings of the minds

The University has its own processes and values that have to be understood and respected, just as a newsroom does.

To begin with, you design a degree program as a response to a series of "problematicas" in society. Basically needs, gaps, problems. Then you describe "intervenciones" which your courses are supposed to provide to satisfy those needs, fill those gaps, solve those problems. This took a couple of weeks.

These interventions, if you will, are courses. Most of the participants in the committee are experts in education, online course design and pedagogy. Two are journalism professors with some professional media experience but little experience with digital journalism.

Words matter

I spent a lot of time just describing to the committee what is happening in the world of journalism today, which is a revolution on the scale of the invention of the book.

They needed a context to understand why I wanted to have courses on multimedia storytelling, citizen journalism, ethics in the online world, new business models for journalism, writing for the web and so on.

Then the hard part. Each course has to be justified by the "competencia" (skill) that the student has to demonstrate upon completion. And each of these skills is described in terms of abstract nouns whose meanings even in English are not always clear to me and often seem to overlap.

For each course we have to describe what conocimientos (knowledge), habilidades (abilities), actitudes (attitudes) and valores (values) are necessary to achieve the competencia (skill).

Into the home stretch

So after a series of six or seven three-hour meetings over the past months, we had the basic map of a master´s program, with individual courses, hours and credits described.

For the last two days, my team and I have been writing up detailed course descriptions with all of the habilidades, actitudes, valores etc. spelled out along with a description of course units and a bibliography. I did most of the 16 course descriptions that you´ll find listed on the left side of this wiki of the master´s program

Then we need to write up a formal document that describes the program in academic terms and get it approved by various committees of the Virtual University.

Tuesday we have a teleconference with a University in Santiago, Chile, to discuss offering our program jointly with them. They have a master´s in digital journalism, but it´s not online. (In the photo above, Arturo Catalán, who directs the program in Chile, visits one of our meetings.)

The goal is to get all of this done before my fellowship ends in December.