Saturday, October 9, 2010

Meditation on the Rancho #1 - revised and edited on November 6

Dino, family shepherd dog in Agua Zarca

In a previous blog (August 17), I wrote about Agua Zarca, the rancho located in Northern Jalisco about 15 minutes from Atolinga and the place of origin of a number of Mexican families who live in Monmouth. I described the movement back and forth between the two places as a common pattern for families of the area, including those who currently live in the US, who usually have one property or two and return once a year – often during the fiestas – to take care of land, renovations and relatives. Those family members who live permanently in Atolinga – like Chavo’s paternal grandparents--still own their rancho there in Agua Zarca.
Entrance to the rancho of Agua Zarca (meaning "clear water" in English)

Even before I even went to Jalisco, I talked to people from Monmouth about the rancho (it’s often used in the singular, emphasizing the mythic and nostalgic character ascribed to it). When I talked with children of emigrants from the rancho, I had a peculiar awareness that, even for those who were not born here, the space evokes deep cultural memories and quiet refuge (the line between comforting and boring was sometimes not clear, even during the fiestas). When I first wrote about the rancho in my earlier blog entry, I left much information undeveloped. Having read now spent a total of eight weeks in Jalisco, I feel I have a more complex understanding of the history, geography and myth of the rancho. I won't be able to discuss all my ideas here and my knowledge still lies far from complete; however, I can definitely say that it lies at the center of my questions about the configuration of land, power and identity in the region. 

Ranchos are not unique to the North of Jalisco, but, rather, can be found all over Mexico and in the US. The word means different things in different contexts, but it generally can be used in two different ways. First, it connotes a small settlement or community of between 50 and 200 people. Second, it signifies a portion of land cultivated for agriculture or used for livestock.*  In addition, the rancho is located in a remote and isolated rural space. Within this general sense, it indicates an individual property with a small adobe home on it, or the home along with corn or wheat fields and livestock (ganadería). Rancho dwellings are generally made of a brownish adobe with some bushes, rocks or trunks below ground to support the tile roofs, corrugated metal or cardboard (or a mix of all the above). There’s usually a corral for domestic animals like pigs, chicken and even large livestock. A photo of mine testifies to the fact that cow meander or sprint about the rancho using the paved road or the paths between houses. They may have ropes hanging from their necks, as if they'd busted out recently from their fenced-in area. They appear to be looking for sustenance and enjoying their freedom. From time to time, the shepherd dogs discipline them.

Meandering cows in Agua Zarca

I can't say much about the specific organization of the rancho in Agua Zarca yet, but will return to one of the photos from my earlier blog, showing Dino, the family shepherd dog, standing erect in front of a pile of rocks stacked intentionally to create a fence, or cerca around the property. A gate closes off the two sides of the cerca. One anthropologist** who studies the area notes that, during the colonial period, landholders distinguished between land for pasture (which was communal property "given by nature" and thus to be shared), and land for cultivation (not to be shared). Even around the time of the Mexican Revolution, there were few cercas or bardas in the area, in spite of the individualist spirit of rancheros mentioned in most the literature I've read.

The photo of Dino in front of the cerca helps me to recall the organization of the rancho space. Across the street from this house lies Chavo's uncle and aunt's property. In the context of the fiestas, this is where family members would congregate for fiestas and dinners. There are several distinct living areas on the property, as well as a garden and green lawn at the back of the house, leading to a separate dwelling with bathroom. Their daughter, her husband and their two daughters stayed here while visiting (the youngest daughter was baptized in Totatiche on the Sunday of my visit). Other visitors stay in the second bedroom inside the house.

One day during our visit, Tia lay out a sumptuous feast of tacos with adobo, beans and homemade cheese on the outside table. On a table inside the house, she put desserts. Chavo and I skipped right to the homemade cheesecake, then went back for tacos. There was also ample Corona. Don Luis seemed very proud of this reunion; four generations of family, separated and dispersed across two countries, came together on this property for this occasion. In Atolinga, he hired and transported a three-piece Huichol banda (fiddle, bass and guitar) in the maroon pick-up to the rancho to play requests (I will talk in more depth later about their relations with the mestizo population in the Atolinga/Totatiche area, a subject yielding substantial information about race, ethnic identity and socio-economic power in the area.

Ranchos are “vestiges of a tumultuous agrarian past,” writes another Mexican anthropologist.*** The property appears to be unfinished, since the property is composed of new additions as well as old adobe structures in ruins. This conjunto or ensemble gives the onlooker the impression of a “provisional and unfinished world”*** whose state of existence is in progress and construction ongoing and dream of completion constantly deferred. According to this same anthropologist, the constructions, grouped together with little "apparent" logic, are sometimes viewed by the outsider with contempt and scorn (especially in contrast to newer, urbanized spaces), appearing irrational and chaotic to the outsider (later note, dated November 6: in this sense, this outsider perception of the rancho is not too different from outsider ideas about the sociedad ranchera, as well as those community members who come home from the US for the fiestas. While teaching a class at the UDG on Chicano writer Tomas Rivera, I discovered some recurring stereotypes or clichés in urban Mexico about migrants who return to the rancho in August or at Christmas time, eagerly boasting of their success "over there," wearing t-shirts with the U.S. flag on it, speaking majority English and spending loads of money.  While I spent time in Atolinga/AZ in August, I noticed a much more forgiving attitude towards migrants, perhaps because mostly everyone has family over in the US. However, I will definitely explore this social ritual of identity “performance” during Christmas time.          

The "tumultous agrarian past" in this particular sociedad ranchera likely relates to the decline of colonial power, together with land reforms following the Mexican Revolution, the remoteness of the place, the lack of demographic infusion from the outside, and, finally, the population decline produced by emigration. Certainly, these factors have not been mitigated by NAFTA (although most the emigration began to take place a decade before NAFTA). During my travels next week, I'm certain I"ll begin to locate the origins of this tumultuous past.

In a separate blog entry I'd like to talk more about national myths of the ranchero (the masculine ending -o describes the man who inhabits the rancho, whereas ranchera would describe the woman) as a solitary explorer who wanders about expanses of isolated land far from urban agglomerations with his rifle and dog. I'd also like to explore the part of the ranchera society that is linked to fervent Catholicism and rustic entrepreneurship.

Logistical updates: I'm leaving for Atolinga/ Agua Zarca on Monday. I will not likely conduct interviews while I’m there, but there are a few things I’d like to do, 1) set up a living arrangement for the time I spend there at the end of December, January and February, 2) talk with Helena, a 50-something, blonde store owner Chavo met one August day and whose uncle wrote a history of Atolinga, 3) visit local Cristero War sites to understand the importance of this event for the region, 4) visit libraries in Atolinga and Temastian, especially for knowledge about archives and periodicals, 5) meet teachers at the secondary school to see whether they would be open to hosting me as a teacher for two months, 6) talk more with Chavo’s grandparents, 7) meet other families in Agua Zarca with Monmouth connections, and 8) visit area haciendas. I don't think I'll realistically be able to achieve all this, by the way.

* = Patricia Zamudio Grave, Rancheros en Chicago: vida y conciencia en una historia de migrantes. 
** = Robert Dennis Shadow, Tierra, trabajo y ganado en la region norte de Jalisco. 
*** = Esteban Barragan, Con un pie en el estribo.

Dino relaxing at the entrance to a rancho property

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Between Mexico and the Midwest: the buzz about borders and belonging

Seven years have passed since I moved to West Central Illinois to work at Monmouth College.  For readers who don’t know Monmouth, this town located near Illinois’ border with Iowa is small, isolated and remote. If you need a TV, a computer, quality clothes or Unitarian Fellowship, it takes around 45 minutes to get to the nearest cities of Macomb, Peoria or Davenport, Iowa (although a great bookstore, health food store, bakery and CSA are located in nearby Galesburg). Coming from places like Chicago, Austin and Detroit, it’s taken a while for me to adjust to life in the rural Midwest. As part of my coping strategy, I’ve buzzed about the world incessantly and nervously, living for substantial periods in faraway places like Kenya, Tanzania, France and Mexico. Moreover, I’ve also moved around the region itself -- a bee drawn to a mysterious and sweet fragrance, from all appearances unable to land on the community where I work.
A budding community activist group called Los Alcatraces ("calla lilies") at the start of the Prime Beef Parade in Monmouth in September. I was driving the car, which was draped in papel picado and images of Frida Kahlo.
More accustomed to urban anonymity and activity, I found small-town life stifling at first. I moved to Galesburg (a 20-minute commute) then Macomb (a more difficult 40-minute commute). By commuting to work from another place, I discovered I could detach more easily from work stress, and therefore engage more profoundly with teaching and scholarship. I felt two different forces pulling at me: a desperate desire to belong, coupled by the need to create clear borders between my private and public lives.
The ways my stay in Mexico this year will help me to reconfigure these pieces of my life into a meaningful whole may initially appear a puzzling mystery.  Perhaps by recognizing relevant patterns, re-connecting missing or out-of-place pieces of my own story with others’, I will shift the world around me just a bit (or at the very least my look at it). This shift began to take place when I taught a course on citizenship-- a service learning course on immigrant communities in Monmouth., where I taught students about things like the history of immigration in the US and the unique regional role immigration from Mexico plays in our economic and cultural life. Local culture became a laboratory for exploring the world, with regional, national and global issues irretrievably linked. For me, students’ experiences off campus amounted to a study abroad as they crossed the boundaries of the college to engage in service learning and interviews with community members about immigration. As I began to understand my own growing leadership in facilitating these lessons, I also meaningfully linked my private and public lives in ways previously impossible. I rediscovered my sense of place, seeing the community through the eyes of an outsider, and felt increasingly compelled to tell the story of Monmouth’s Mexican community as a way of healing social rifts and ruptures my students and I had witnessed  I am traveling restlessly back and forth between Mexico and the Midwest, and finally settling in Jalisco so that I can hear the stories I will one day tell myself.

Given this context, it may be easier to understand why my return home to Illinois turned out to be an extremely valuable voyage. Before I made the trip home to Illinois to get Zoey (and leaving Mexico just a month after coming here), I regretted having to leave just as my year here was beginning. Not only would I be missing out on Mexican Independence Day celebrations, I thought, but my immersion and learning here in Mexico might be stunted. The trip turned out to be  the opposite: a catalyst for my learning about Monmouth and Mexico –a learning experience rooted in interstitial cultures and catalyzed by restless movement.  

Unlike most immigrants, I did not travel back and forth for reasons of economic hardship. I received a scholarship that enabled my mobility. However, when I hung out with families I had either stayed with or met in Mexico, I realized I had  acquired some tools for understanding their in-between and unresolved identities (and mine?). I became hyper-aware of my participation in cultural  practices and events shared across borders by traveling back and forth between Mexico and the US (with Mexico City in between for the Fulbright orientation). Here are some of those events: 

1) During my first week at home, I visited Don Luis and Doña Mari, who had returned home to Monmouth after the fiestas patronales in Atolinga. They invited me out for dinner at their favorite steak buffet restaurant in Galesburg. I shared my photos and videos with them of our trip, which we discussed at length. I also packed some items for Chavo, who had decided to stay with extended family in Guadalajara for a while. Previous to reuniting with Luis and Mari , I had imagined  interviewing them and recording their observations about the trip. However, during the times we spent together, I still felt the impulse to merely observe, without intrusion. I also felt I needed to acquire more cultural  and linguistic insight to construct appropriate questions in a way that wouldn't appear ridiculous to them. 
2) In the first week of September I participated for the first time in the Prime Beef Festival. Thanks to the organizing efforts of the Americorps Vista Volunteer in Monmouth, Los Alcatraces joined the parade. With the encouragement (and costumes) of Professor Diana Ruggiero, a recent addition to Monmouth College's Department of Modern Foreign Languages, a group of us women dressed as Frida Kahlo. I drove the car, which was decorated in papel picado and images of the famous Mexican painter. I "blasted" banda music to no effect, due to my impotent speakers. We began the parade near the Monmouth-Roseville High School and waited for an hour or so as the rest of the floats made their way down Broadway. As we passed through town, I couldn't help but be amazed by the number of Latinos watching from the sidewalk sidelines. How had I not recognized this diversity before? Perhaps a parade was the perfect event to make  visible this quality of Monmouth.  As we passed in front of the college, I switched with Tim Gaster, our other new colleague in the department, who drove the car while I accompanied the other Alcatraces. I had told Don Luis and Dona Mari I would be representing Mexico in the parade (we were holding a flag). Even though they said they would be busy, somehow they made it, and were watching for me with some of their relatives.  

3) Mexican Independence Day celebration on Main Street in Monmouth, organized by La Tapatia Mexican restaurant, was another special event that made me feel privileged to know the Latino community more personally than before (and more excited about returning to Monmouth to get know them more). Supposedly, celebrations like this used to happen more frequently in Monmouth, but somehow the rift between the two major Mexican restaurants in town had been blamed for the decrease in public events geared towards Latinos. There were dance groups of all kinds (i.e. tejano, ranchero, folklorico) celebrating in the streets, as well as vendors of all kinds selling delicious foods. I was proud to bring my Dad to this event and he, in turn, was quite impressed. I felt at home catching up with a few people I'd met and hung out with in Atolinga. Dad was excited to meet them too and ask them questions about their lives. This cross-cultural exchange is a major motivating factor in my community work and in my research. 

4) Finally, I drew on my observations during the first trip to Mexico by brainstorming ideas for projects with friends and colleagues, including possible exchanges between students in Mexico and in Monmouth, alumni or student travel abroad opportunities and a photography exhibit on transnational communities living in Monmouth and Atolinga. In the next week I plan to flesh out those ideas and draft a proposal or two. 

These experiences have helped to energize me in my discovery of new places and acquaintances here in Guadalajara. I’ve spent days with my friend S doing research at the Biblioteca Juan José Arreola at the University of Guadalajara (but located downtown). A few other highlights include the YMCA pool (just a 10-minute walk), nearby yoga and spinning classes, a pizzeria on Avenida Libertad (discovered after attending the Jalisco en Vivo concert at La Minerva Fountain last Saturday night – crazy idea), the Arles Café (the meeting site of the conversation group Polyglot), and Hubert Antoine’s Belgian crêperie “Le Coq à Poil,” a mere three blocks from my house (quelle chance!). Oh and let’s not forget the Tel Cel Customer Service center, where I went several times to get my cell phone situation straightened out (3313404124, in case the reader would like to call, even though skype is probably better – heatha8). Next step: dialogue with area scholars about my project and schedule my October trip to Atolinga.
Train Station in Princeton, Illinois seen from the Amtrak Train. I took this train from Chicago to Galesburg.

La Cigale en voyage

La Cigale en voyage
In Tanzania