Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tlaltenango Travels (part I, observations on the North of Jalisco)

Downtown Tlaltenango courtyard and former market area built in era of Porfirio Diaz
I went to the North of Jalisco a few weeks ago to work out details of my long-term estancia (from December 20 through March) and get a start on research. I stayed at the Hotel de la Plaza in Tlaltenango for three nights, not wanting to impose on anyone in Atolinga/AZ. The hotel had reliable internet access, amiable receptionists (who told me about their studies at the UDG satellite campus in Colotlán, about 30 mins from Tlaltenango, called Centro Universitario-Norte. I wanted to visit the campus (but didn’t have time this trip), and would like to audit a sociology or anthropology class in the spring. Colotlán was an important economic and political center during the colonial era, located at the northern frontier of the Chichimeca lands (the enemies of the Aztecs, “Chichimec” was a pejorative term used by ethnic groups of the south  like the Aztecs to describe the nomadic ethnic groups of the north) and governed by the Audencia de Nueva Galicia. I’ve also recently learned that the comunidad de Tulimic de Guadalupe in the municipio of Colotlán holds its annual fiesta patronal starting December 19, which will be fun to attend when I move up there. 
Map of colonial Mexico - if you look hard  enough, you can see Nueva Galicia (today's Jalisco)
 The first full day in Tlaltenango, Tuesday, I went to the Presidencia Municipal (sorta like town hall) to see about tours. In the desarrollo económico section, they called Ivonne, a tour guide who told me she’d be giving a tour to some prepa students later that morning.  She took me to the Communications office and sat me down in front of a computer owned by the Director de comunicación social, José Alonso Serrano Campos. He’s in charge of the website there and holds a public chat for people’s questions about the city. He had prepared the DVD about the city with his colleagues and was kind enough to let me sit at his desk and watch it for 30 minutes while people randomly walked in and out of the office. I had the sensation that this office was a central place where things happened. I was glad to be at the center of things, overhearing people’s business as if we were in a press room or something.  They also seemed to have a slightly rebellious angle on events (like in a newsroom in the US). We talked for a bit about the newspaper here, called La Voz del Norte, which he runs. When I asked him what area the paper covered, he said the whole north region + the city of Tequila (which is only an hour from Guadalajara).  I commented on what a vast region that was, and he said, yes, but that the government bases its coverage on population size, and that, according to them, the small population size didn’t merit a few newspapers. I met different members of his staff as well as Jaime Alejandro Márquez Salinas, a late 60s, PE teacher in the public school who invited me to visit his home to see his fabulous collection of historic photos about the city. Jaime wore a whistle around his neck and looked generally jocky with a baseball cap with California written across it. This kind of sports wear is not uncommon in this area of high migration to California and Illinois.
Later that night, on my way to the Unicorn Restaurant down the block from my hotel, I met another older gentleman who had worked for years in California and retired in Tlaltenango. His son was visiting him for a month or so, and he introduced me. That same night I fell into a conversation between a Tienda naturista (health food store) owner and a client. The client was complaining that when she went to visit her daughter's family in California, they always told her to take off her shoes when she entered the house to keep the carpet clean. That necessity seemed quite absurd to her, she keep repeating the story over and over again. I asked her some questions too - she seemed pretty happy to remain here in Mexico, where there were clean wood floors you could sweep (I agreed with her that the act of vacuuming sometimes seemed endless and futile. How do you know there aren't germs festering below? At least with a broom, you see what is there). I bought some cranberries and an oatmeal cookie and went on my way.   

Ivonne gets a phone call while touring with UAZ students
Ivonne, the tour guide, is quite an entrepreneur. She had moved here from Monterrey a long time ago with her husband, and, when she divorced, began her own company. She was very excited to give me a tour and was not afraid to overwhelm me (or the students from the UAZ Prepa, a private preparatory school affiliated with the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas!)  with lots of information. We visited the Presidencia, the church on the square where Cristeros were thrown off the bell tower in the 1930s, a home for the elderly (this seems pretty rare in Mexico – people there were impoverished and so glad to receive the prepa students, hugging them over and over again) and some of the poorer comunidades and ranchos surrounding Tlaltenango.  I enjoyed meeting the students, and later saw them board the combi for Atolinga. A significant group of students commute twenty minutes from Atolinga to Tlaltenango each day to go to the private school. Another day I met them when I was going to Atolinga and chatted more with two girls and one boy. They said they're learning English school but would like to speak it better. I thought perhaps I could offer them English practice while I'm there.
Tlaltenango church belltower

Altar made of pink limestone or cantera (characteristic of the North of Jalisco) in Tlaltenango
Tlaltenango was founded in the 1430s, before the arrival of the Spanish. One of the churches in San Antonio, over 400 years old, was very traditional and closed to outsiders. Of all the interesting places Ivonne discussed but we didn't visit, I'd like to see other locations in the area on a future trip, like La Sierra de los morones, a mountaineous area called el Campanario and Teúl, the sacred homeland of the Cazcan people, the original inhabitants of the region. I’d like to learn more about the colonial era. Ivonne told us that in 1531 from the mountains near Teúl, the Caxcan inhabitants of Tlaltenango and the surrounding area fought the Spanish, who were trying to build a town near what is now called Nochistlán. The Spanish lost this battle and attempted three more times before the town was finally built in 1542. 

In 1541 the Caxcanes led a famous battle with their Tepehuan, Zacatec and Guachichil allies, against the Spanish in the Sierra del Mixtón (today known as the Sierra de Morones).  The Mixtón War lasted two years but in 1550 another war took place called the Chichimeca War between Chichimec ethnic groups. This war lasted almost forty years. The Caxcan towns of the area around Tlaltenango suffered attacks from the north launched by their former allies, the Zacatecs because they had submitted to the Spanish Crown. Ivonne told us these stories but I supplemented my knowledge by reading a few articles (chapters from books about the area as well as online articles). Here’s one example of an article: http://latinola.com/story.php?story=6618

Pre-Hispanic ethnic composition in Northern Jalisco/Southern Zacatecas 

I also learned about the Feria de Tlaltenango during the last week of December. There will be special holiday activities, dances, beauty pageants, live music and other events. I’ll definitely attend, and will try to interview some of the organizers about it. Similar to the Feria de Atolinga in August, there are a lot of migrants who return home for this fiesta. I've discovered an interesting blog combining current events, politics, culture and economic commentaries about this place: www.mytlaltenango.com.  More to come on my stay in Atolinga (see part II, to come)         

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teaching Comparative Literature in Mexico

Two weeks ago I finished my Master’s course in Comparative Literature on “US Immigrant Voices” in the Departamento de Estudios Literarios at the Universidad de Guadalajara. It went splendidly – the students were motivated and engaged quite profoundly in passionate literary discussion. They are mostly adults in their 30s and 40s who work full time and doing graduate studies in their free time (except for Mario, a young 2o-something man who works part time with the Secretaria de la culture doing reading workshops in the region, and studies full-time). These students had just begin their Master's and were taking my course as an elective while at the same taking required courses on a variety of topics like Bakhtin, Structuralism and Linguistic Theory. The program here appears to be mostly focused on Latin American and European literature and theory. During the first semester, they are asked to choose a topic for their Master’s thesis, so that they can begin to apply the literary theory they are learning.

We read several texts but one of the most rewarding ones to teach was the short story “Mrs. Sen” in Jumpha Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a beautifully written and compact tale of a woman’s profound sense of exile living in the US, her pain living far from her homeland, India as the wife of a math professor. She cares for a young boy, Eliot, in her home, preparing meals for him and becoming his surrogate mother (his real mother is single and works horrendously long hours to take care of them). Mrs. Sen’s major obstacle is that she has never learned to drive. And this is considered a complete failure in American society – her “refusal” to drive is one of many signs of her refusal to assimilate and become a member of US society. 

At first I was a bit worried since I was unable to locate a Spanish translation of this story of the collection, and most the students did not have an adequate English level to be able to read and discuss. I also wasn't sure my level of spoken Spanish would be proficient enough to relay my ideas to them (it turned out to quite well, though, and we all survived the experience with few communication issues). 

It also helped that one of the students, who owns a translation company, took it upon herself to translate the 15-page story. She said it did not take her long and the translation was quite artful; it definitely facilitated our discussion in the seminar. In conjunction with this short story, we read an essay called “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Spivak (I found a Spanish translation online through the website “scribd.com,” a goldmine I recently discovered). Not sure this was the best essay to frame our reading, but it definitely supplied the students with a cursory understanding of the contributions of Postcolonial Studies.

I found it useful and interesting to read the stories through the lens of power, identity and colonial discourse. I would also venture to say that the readings altered students' views on US Culture a bit. One text that provoked a lively dialogue between us was Tomás Rivera’s novella Y no se lo tragó la tierra, one of the more important examples of Chicano literature. While students were generally familiar with the works of Sandra Cisneros and Gloria Anzaldua, few knew Rivera. By also reading Homi Bhabha’s “Of Mimicry and Man” from The Location of Culture, we were able to identify the figures of colonial power in the story as well as the futile, in-between position of the migrant (a colonized type, in my mind), who, in spite of his desires or attempts, can never assimilate or “rise up” to the level of the colonizer. He is always seen as “less than,” never “equal to.” 

I am summarizing the seminar here in terms of theory and cutting short our more complex discussions of character, theme, narrative, etc. I especially enjoyed hearing their ideas about Chicano literature – the students seem to share a common view of emigrants who leave Mexico for the US. For me, having spent a lot of time with migrants, it was difficult not to react strongly to some of the views that bordered on caricature.  The group connected some of the stories we read to their own experiences; several described to me their observations of migrant homecomings during fiestas patronales in the area. It was fascinating for me to hear their views on emigrants who had left Mexico. In contrast to our discussions of fiction, which had elicited empathy and a sense of identification, our discussions of life experiences evoked a variety of responses -- some filled with compassion and others unsympathetic towards those who come home to "brag about their life en el norte," "wear the American flag on their clothes like a banner" and "speak English all the time, maybe even more than in the US." I urged students to keep an open mind and recognize the conflicting points of view from each side of the border (the migrant who returns to Mexico vs. the Mexican national who views the migrant from a nativist perspective). I prefaced this message by saying I was neither Mexican nor Mexican-American, but that this phenomenon of divide on each side of the border seemed characteristic to me of diasporic cultures. I am grateful for this teaching experience which I'm sure will inform my research in exciting ways. 

On the last day of the seminar, the department got together for a poetry reading (many of the professors are authors in their own right). Students and profs together ate arranchera and drank Corona. I met one prof who has promised to invite me to his home so I can see his vast collection of World Literature (including some of my fave authors like Edwige Danticat, Ben Okri, Ahmadou Kouruma). I was glad to know students in Mexico are reading American authors. The concept of World Literature doesn't seem to be widely diffused or discussed here, unless I'm missing something. During the Feria Internacional del Libro (FIL), reportedly one of the largest book fairs in the world (which starts next week), I hope to hear more about this. Nobel-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa will be one of the guests of honor at this year's feria.
Having finished my teaching at UDG until late spring semester, I’m free to conduct research and teach English in the Norte de Jalisco in January - April. I’m preparing to leave Guadalajara after my mom’s visit -- around December 15, and spend at least three full months in “Jalzac” (anthropologist Manual Nájera’s name for the region where Northern Jalisco meets Southern Zacatecas).  I’m currently editing a blog about this week-long reconnaissance mission.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Day of the Dead Urban Style

Altar Competition at the Centro Cultural Refugio in Tlaqueplaque

At first I hadn't been convinced that Day of the Dead in Guadalajara would be so unique. I had been to celebrations in Austin and Chicago, and didn't know what to expect in the city. Friends and acquaintances suggested traveling to Patzcuaro or Morelia to see how it’s still "traditionally" celebrated. I gave it a thought, remembering that my friend Benjamin lives in Morelia, but ended up staying in the city to teach my class on Jumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies and Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (this fabulous experience merits a separate blog). I did my utmost to experience as many angles on the celebration as possible, and, in the end, was glad to witness it here.

Two Thursdays ago, I attended a play called “Mujeres de Arena” (“Women of Sand”) at the Museo del Periodismo (Museum of Journalism) on Alcalde Avenue with my friends S and J. The play vividly and cruelly exposed some of the tragic issues surrounding femicide in Cuidad Juarez (According to Amnesty International more than 370 young women and girls had been murdered in the cities of Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua since 2005). Sometimes the cast of five women would wear white, as angels, showing the audience how, contrary to images of them in the press, these women (the youngest a girl of 12) hadn’t “deserved” their fate, only going about their regular business as women and doing nothing out of the ordinary. At other times, the cast would wear sinister black. There was also a curtain with light shining on it and the actresses behind it, allowing us to imagine some of the horrifying acts of rape, but, alternately, also see them in beautiful and innocent silhouette profile as lively women still alive.

The audience sat in chairs and on benches forming a circle in the museum foyer around a stripped-down stage level. Incense burned and lamps created an eery atmosphere and much doubt about what was actually happening on stage (exacerbated by the huge columns in our line of vision). Although the drama played in several theatres in the city (most were free entrance), this performance was dedicated to a 28-yr-old Guadalajara actress who had recently suffered a brain hemorrhage and was fighting for her own life at the Hospital Civil. My friend J, an actor and puppeteer, who knows her well, was in a state of existential anguish, because he also had heard recently of the death of a puppeteer friend in Tapalpa, a rustic mountain town about two hours outside Guadalajara, reportedly for having witnessed the narco execution of his friend. Coincidentally, my friend Q and I went there that weekend to attend the art festival he was supposed to participate in, but the festival was canceled due to community grief and fear. Nothing had happened like that in the town ever, one of the men working at the tourist office told me.  Through these two stories about death--one theatrical but inspired by actual events, and the other real but associated with the theater, I grew intensely aware of the need to celebrate life.
Usually peaceful Tapalpa, about 2 hours from Guadalajara

Calaveras de chocolate en el Parque Morelos
On Friday I continued to explore Day of the Dead celebrations before the holiday, walking down to Parque Morelos, where Pedro, the maintenance man at our rental property, suggested I go to see all the adornments being sold for tombs: sugar or chocolate calaveras, toy coffins with papier-mâché puppets ready to pop out, miniature food offerings for the dead (I bought a clay pot with shellacked corn kernels and one red chile, as well as a chocolate skull with freaky, electric frosting eyes) and skeleton figures, the female ones called Catrinas. Catrina, the name for an elegantly dressed woman from the Belle Epoque era, was conceptualized by the graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada at the end of the 19th-century (in fact, the city of Guadalajara funded a street art project that lined the downtown streets with Catrinas dressed up for different functions (Hawaiian Catrina, Hemp Catrina, Tai Chi Catrina, etc). 

Hemp Catrina on Juarez Avenida

 After the market I kept on trucking, down to the Panteón de Belén, the oldest cemetery in Guadalajara. I had wanted to get tickets to the nocturnal ghost tour, but those were sold out. Meanwhile, I was glad (and relieved?) to join the less scary 2pm tour. This cemetery has been closed for a long time, open only for tours. There were no mourners or visitors of graves. The graves and mausoleums were left in ruins and visitors were told not to climb the stairs up to the grander mausoleums or even put their feet beyond the barrier of the chain keeping them off the grass for fear of scorpions ready to feed (true?). 
Panteón de Belén
 We heard stories of the Vampire Tree (who took root through the heart of a vampire, who would, if the tree were uprooted one day, seek his revenge on the entire city) and saw the tombstones of the famous, rich people of Guadalajara past. 

Of even more cultural interest to me was the Panteón de Tlaquepaque (a nearby municipio, just a train ride away from downtown Guadalajara), which my conversation partner Saúl and I visited last Sunday just before heading to an altar competition at the Centro Cultural Refugio in that same town, and the Panteón de Mezquitan, which S and I visited last Tuesday, the actual Day of the Dead. Yellow or golden marigolds (called zempasúchitl in Nahuatl) which mark a pathway to the altar, reigned in both these cemeteries where people still bury their beloved and visit them around this time of the year to nourish them (materially and spiritually). Some interesting sights caught my attention: men selling water to wash the graves, graves with elaborate arrangements of marigold petals (which didn’t seem to move in spite of the wind) as well as offerings of food, coke or water, cards and mariachi groups wandering about the grounds (I heard them playing but didn’t see anyone hire them out, though I’m certain it was happening).  S and I were reassured to see a few families sitting around a tombstone, laughing and telling stories. This scene of human warmth served as a counterbalance to the stories of death I'd heard over the week (I had been puzzling over the death of 15 recovering drug addicts who were executed at the Tepic carwash, and stunned at the news that the group of men from the auto repair shop who'd disappeared while on vacation in September had been found, buried in a case of mistaken identity). The cheer and light of marigolds and multicolored papel picado, or cut out tissue paper, seemed to go a long way to lift spirits.         

Panteón de Mezquitan, downtown Guadalajara

La Cigale en voyage

La Cigale en voyage
In Tanzania