Silence is one of the ironies I have come across this year. Mexico is a hostile environment to those who seek quiet. Music is blasted from cars, houses, stores, and cell phones, with little regard for the surrounding community. Advertisers use bullhorns attached to cars with monotonous voices intoning the types of scrap they haul away, or the selection of ice creams available. Birds are ever present, due to the environment and the normalcy of keeping chickens. Houses are built up right next to highways and major arteries, leading to a proliferation of traffic noise. Also, the majority of houses and walls are poured concrete or cinder block, which reflects almost all sound. The best way to get someones attention is to shout their name repeatedly, even if they are not present. My host brother once shouted for his mothers attention before asking anyone if she had gone out (she had). Even out on the farm, the main thoroughfare between two towns passes close by, the approach path for the local airport passes directly overhead, the sheep constantly bleat whenever anyone is spotted, the town across the way has morning announcements over their loudspeaker system, and the nearby school inspires it’s students to learn by playing terribly out of tune trumpets on a schedule I still haven’t figured out yet. Life in Mexico is noisy.

Silence is more than just the lack of ambient noises, though. One of the things I have not done much of this year is talk. I have been a listener, asking questions only to keep the stories flowing and the conversation carried on. It’s been interesting and difficult, not to comment, not to voice my feelings and thoughts. It’s partly because of my poor Spanish. Expressing myself is still difficult, at least when I need to say something more than “I’m tired because I couldn’t sleep”. Partly it has been from choice, to try to really listen to the people around me, not just be thinking of the next comment to make. You learn a lot about people from paying attention to people, to the words they choose, how they say them, and their body language. I feel that I know a lot about my family here in Mexico, and my co-workers, maybe more than some of my friends and co-workers in Texas. Not because I care for them any more (or less), but because I have taken the time to truly listen. I could say I have become comfortable with being silent. Also, I have become more comfortable around silent people. I may not be very loquacious myself, but silence within a group, or between two people, can still be strange sometimes. This year has made me appreciate those silences more, moments when people don’t need to constantly fill the air to feel that they are with someone. It allows you to actually be with the person, with what you are doing, they are doing, what is happening. People should allow these silences to happen more often, and I have a new appreciation for those who do.


On a different note, I will be returning home in about a week. It feels odd, not having much time left here, caught between wishing I had more time and wishing I was on the plane already. It’s a transitional period and awkward, like silence. It doesn’t help much that I hate saying goodbye and having going away parties, but these things will happen none the less. Living in the moment is hard when the moment makes you feel terrible. Anyways, thanks to all of you who read this, and all of you who helped me be able to come here for this amazing year! I will be around soon, so you can ask me all the questions you want! Or we can be silent, your choice.

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I only have about a month and a half left here in Mexico, so my thoughts recently have returned to home. Even the just thinking about the word gives a warm feeling that reminds me of sleepy weekends, familiar meals, friends, family, and comfort. Norman Rockwell-esque scenes also accompany this word, but that’s just my American indoctrination showing. Home means so much more than that. But what exactly?

In my sophomore year at college, I noticed a curious phenomenon. About half way through the year, my schoolmates and I started using the word home to describe our dorms. Some had done this sooner, around the end of the last school year, and I am sure others never could quite call college home. It also happened here in Mexico, about a nine months into my experience I began to refer to Tehuixtla as home. This usage is casual and not premeditated. I did not sit down on the beginning of the ninth month and say to myself “OK, I guess this is home now, and I had better start telling people”. It happens spontaneously, like saying “I can’t wait to be home” after a meeting, or telling someone you left something ‘at home’. What is the impulse to regard a place as home? It isn’t the proximity of family, as I have no blood relations close to Tehuixtla. Neither is it where the bulk of my possessions are, nor where I sleep at night, even if for an extended period. I never considered my freshman dorm room home, but my sophomore year, the entire dormitory seemed to be home.

I think that many would agree that home has more to do with familiarity and comfort than with any actual physical being. That may be the origin of the phrase ‘at home’, like saying “he is at home in the woods”. We don’t mean that a persons things are their, or that they live there. We mean that they are comfortable, in their element, at ease. So maybe a better definition of home is a space a person is familiar with and is comfortable operating in. These can be physical or mental spaces, for example your house versus being ‘at home’ in a situation. With this definition in mind, where is my home now?

I can tell you that it will still not be Mexico. There are still a thousand things I don’t understand or feel comfortable doing, not to mention the innumerable things I don’t even know. But neither will it be The Woodlands, TX. There are many things that will appear odd to me, for instance everyone has cars and there is no public transportation. Or that every product imaginable is easily available, that everyone is in an eternal haste to check things off their lists, that the television is on every waking hour. I don’t know how long it will take me to adjust but adjust I will, or forever be an outsider in my own society. This is the dilemma of all returning voyagers, and will vary, depending on if they are returning from a business contract in Dubai or a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Little things that we don’t even pick up consciously will be missing and make us feel out of place, and some things we will miss, like the food or the time to relax. Also, depending on the time we have been gone, things will have changed. It may be small things, like your friends haircut or a new gas station on the corner. Or it may be large, like a family member passing away or friends that have moved away. People in our lives have also had the time pass, and will not be the same person as we remember leaving, with new experiences, stories, and concentrations. How will we relate to them on return?

Making it sound really miserable, aren’t I? But there are a significant bonuses about coming back. One, there will be ample supplies of Dr. Pepper and Hershey’s bars in the grocery store. And two, most travelers return being more adept at dealing with uncomfortable situations. This is one of the amazing things about long travel, it erases one part of the definition of home! If I am comfortable in uncomfortable spaces, then I can virtually be at home anywhere. There is definitely a scale of comfort, though, I probably still won’t feel comfortable doing public speaking, but many other situations, such as the ridiculousness of The Woodlands Mall, will be uncomfortable me, but I will be ok with it. So while I may not have a secure place to always feel comfortable and familiar in, I will have gained the wider world as home.


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April Newsletter

This is my April newsletter, now in web format!

A Normal Day and a Little More

My day starts at 4:30, when the small rooster that sleeps in the tree outside my window decides that he has had enough of that sleeping nonsense. He’s one of those little red chickens, a little larger than a Cornish game hen, so his call is high, shrill, and more than enough to wake me up, as my head is lying about twelve feet away, separated only by the mesh screen in my window. About two hours later, sometimes filled with dreams, other times with thoughts of how good roast chicken would taste, my alarm goes off and I dress for the day, pants, long sleeves, and boots. My host grandmother, a wonderful woman of 74 years, has already cut up some fruit and made sandwiches for me. I told her at the beginning of the year I could cook for myself, but after several days of having two lunches, I gave in. Then it’s off to the farm.

I usually arrive on time, as those of you who know me can attest to. Chores occupy the first part of the day, mainly watering what needs to be watered and feeding the animals. My responsibilities are feeding the piglets, getting the sheep their water and silage, and watering the greenhouse where we keep the seedlings and some early tomatoes that are still alive, somehow. The papaya trees down the hill from the sheep also need to be watered every other day, using a bucket and barrel full of water. When George, my boss, is not around, I also feed the cats, dogs, and chickens. This usually fills up the time until nine, when we break for lunch. The time after this is devoted to whatever tasks might be needed. These have been the most varied of my time so far at the farm. I have watered sorghum rows with a 60 foot long hose, made walls with feed bags filled with dirt, plastered said walls with a mixture of manure and dirt, plastered said manure with lime and sand, written schedules for work shops, built nesting boxes for chickens, picked up fallen branches, planted all sorts of vegetables, cleared land with hand tools, chased sheep, taken photos of the farm, taken sows to be impregnated, made observations on the orange tree orchard, made sorghum silo with a tractor, laid out electric fences for pig pastures, scared pigs to stay in their pastures, and about a dozen other things I can’t remember. The day during work is packed with interesting (and sometimes less than captivating) tasks that I never imagined I would be doing a year ago. We take a fifteen minute break at twelve to have some Coca-Cola and a bit of shade. Then we return to our tasks, finishing up at two in the afternoon to feed the animals another time before heading home thirty minutes later.

Then I do nothing. Most of my afternoons are spent reading in my room. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I take a carpentry class with one of my coworkers but the class is only from four to seven, still leaving me plenty of time to spend. You may have read before that I have had trouble with my “leisure time” here in Mexico, that I can’t find friends. Well, that is untrue, I have several friends, all who are above the age of 35 and spend their afternoons either working or passing the time with their children (albeit usually watching T.V.), so I don’t often “hang out” with them, though they do infrequently invite me to fish with them. I am sure the infrequency has something to do with me losing at least three hooks each time I go. So why I don’t I go and find some younger men my own age to hang out with? They are not here.

The ages of men in Tehuixtla seems to jump from 18 immediately to 28, conveniently skipping over my age group. Most of the soccer team I play on is 7 years, or more, younger than me. So where is this missing generation? The answer lies in the state of jobs in town. There are none. No new jobs are being created and many of the old family farms have been bought by large farms that ship their produce to the U.S. and employ seasonal workers. The young men of Tehuixtla have left to find work. I see a few of them hanging out near some of the corner stores, but all tell me these are not the men I want to know, with their new pickups and SUV’s with tinted windows. These are few in number anyways. The rest have moved away, some temporarily or permanently. Like most rural areas, Tehuixtla has bled young men to the larger cities like nearby Cuernavaca. A nephew of my coworker’s, aged 19, moved there this year, but still returns some weekends to play soccer with his old team. Still more have moved to Mexico City, where a trip back home is much more costly and seems to only be undertaken on special occasions, usually bearing gifts that cannot be found locally at reasonable prices, such as appliances and electronics. Still, the jobs in the larger cities are also often scarce, due to all the competition from other fit young men from hundreds of other small pueblos across country. So many end up in the U.S., both with papers and without. What else is there to do when you can’t find a job in your own country? There are a few that turn to the cartels, who happily offer them employment, if it could be called that. The severance pay for quitting such a job is often very literal. Mexico City is a far cry from the pueblos, choked with smog and traffic, living in cramped, unfinished apartments, most searching for jobs rather than finding them. The Federal District does quite well, housing many students, workers, and businessmen, but the poor live outside this city in a city, quite convenient for the federal government, which does not need to provide them utilities, such as plumbing, part of the reason many children have respiratory problems. When faced with such a picture, why not take the chance and cross? Their grandfathers were invited across during World War II, when the U.S. needed the labor, their fathers crossed and the worst that happened was they crossed across a street, the Border Patrol (la migra) caught them and sent them back with a warning. But those who don’t grow up on the border don’t hear the stories from now. They know of the wall, and the deserts, and la migra, but they don’t hear about getting lost in the night when their coyote takes a wrong turn, about being caught and charged in a courtroom with 70 others, about being shipped halfway across the country to be deported into a unfriendly, uncaring city like Tijuana or Piedras Negras. Why not cross?

As it turns out, my family all have resident visas, with three of my uncles living in Houston, and grandchildren spread out all over the lower 48, including one in the military. My coworker’s family is not so lucky, yet all but two of the seven siblings have lived in the U.S. for varying periods of time. They all have stories, some good, some bad. One brother lived for a year sleeping 4 hours a day, working two jobs, and returned with $400 in his pocket, thanks to exorbitant rent, not to mention the taxes he paid to the U.S. government. Another was caught twice by the Border Patrol. The third time, an agent told him a better place to cross, realizing he would end up killing himself otherwise. Another worked for just enough time to save money to buy a house near his parents and moved back to Tehuixtla. All worked all the time, all worked for very low pay, some in restaurants, others in factories. I can tell you that they aren’t murderers, rapists, or any other type of felon. They crossed because they could no longer support their families, or because they wanted to start a family, to start a small business, or to save up some money for their childrens education.

I know that not all who cross have such benign intentions, but does that mean we should simply condemn all who cannot meet the high standards of legal entry? But don’t take my word for it. Look into the requirements for a visa into the U.S., it is much more than Mexico requires of us, who can simply show up at the border and ask. Look into the effects of NAFTA on the Mexican economy, as well as the subsequent move of manufacturers to Southeast Asia. Look at the effects of U.S. government programs, such as how Operation Gatekeeper affects deaths in the desert and Operation Streamline affects our budget, not to mention our human rights record. Don’t simply believe what I say, or what Fox, CNN, NPR, The Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, or any other news outlet has to say. Do some research on your own into how the border is being run and what it is costing our country in more than money.


A section of the fence with some BP trucks

Looking across the border into Arizona. Several Border Patrol trucks are easily visible.

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An Episode from the Border

Looking through the wall at the border.

A few weeks ago, the Mexico YAGM’s crossed the border in Arizona to renew our visas. We spent a week there, learning about how the border works and a little of it’s recent history. The entire experience is too large to describe in one blog post, so perhaps I will write more later about it. The problem with the enormity of what we saw and experienced there in the desert is that it is difficult to write about. So, I will be sharing just one little thing I remember from the trip, Operation Streamline.


We came into the courtroom a little late, due to the airport like security at the entrance of the federal court building in Tucson. The judge had yet to arrive, so we sat ourselves in the small seating area for visitors in the back right corner of the room. The first thing that struck me, besides the ridiculously high ceilings, was the soft whispering of the chains. Every time one of the 70+ accused persons would shift their weight, scratch their face, or cross their legs, their movement was accompanied by the rustling of steel links. Bound with handcuffs chained around their waist and another chain that wound down to their feet, which were again enchained, there wasn’t much the migrants could do to keep their silence. Filling what was normally visitor seating on the right of the courtroom, the crowd of accused spilled over into the jury booth and occupied three tables in front of the judge. These tables sat about 9 at a time, but the were up to 15 sometimes being heard at the same time. Between the visitors and the defendants was the visitor seating reserved for public defenders, which was sparse with about 8 defenders sharing the same amount of space that 60 of the migrants fit into. The three women accused that day were separate, sitting ahead of the defenders.

One of these women had slightly darker skin than the others, and her hair looked as if she had ridden to court in the back of the truck, which wasn’t far from the truth. The room, with it’s lofty ceilings, giant wood carved seal of the DOJ, and grandiose bench seemed to press down on her shoulders. She was hunched over and furtively glanced around the space about her. Searching the faces of the other accused, as well as the visitors. It seemed to me she was searching for any presence of a friendly face. She was heard in the middle of the hearing, called up with about 8 men. The judge described their rights, as he had to every group he had called up. They had the right to remain silent, they had the right to a trial, they had the right to representation he intoned in a hurried voice, though who knows how the interpreter sounded through the headphones of the accused. Then it was explained that these rights would be waived if they plead guilty, which was the entire point of the hearing, and what might happen to them after (deportation back to their home country with brand new criminal record from the U.S.). Then one by one, he asked if they understood their rights, if they had any questions, if they plead guilty, and then the accused would respond “culpable” (‘guilty’ in Spanish). Only three people did not answer in such a manner, and the woman was one of these. Her answer was a blank stare at the judge and her defender, who had about 7-8 other clients to also worry about. The judge ordered her back to her seat so the defender could explain what was going on again.


Los Pinos


Something about her called my mind back to my 6 weeks in Guatemala, especially the many afternoons I spent in the indigenous community outside the city, named Los Pinos (The Pines). High in the mountains, the air was crisp and clear, the sky a bright blue with barely any clouds, except those few times it drenched the green fields with rain. The roads were pitted dirt tracks and the suspensions of the old Bluebird buses from the U.S. didn’t deal very well with them, liable to throw whoever was in the back seat up into the roof. There I would walk through the cinder-block houses, their corrugated steel roofs stained black from the open fires the women would cook on. The women were the brightest part of that world, their traditional shirts a rainbow in the surrounding gray of their homes. I would arrive at the day care and spend scant few hours with the children there, their mothers busy working or cooking, their fathers working far away (80% of the men in Los Pinos were in the U.S. while I was there). I could see the women I had met, their homes with bare dirt floors, their world of tortillas, buzzing power-lines haphazardly strung to power only TVs, disintegrating plastic flip-flops, toddlers strapped to their backs, and their education that likely ended around the 4th or 5th grade.


A Guatemalan woman and her children looking in on a meeting in Los Pinos


Then I snapped back to the trial, seeing more men accused of illegal entry shuffling up to be questioned by the judge. At the end, the woman was called up again with the other two who had not understood or had too many questions and were so delayed so as not to slow down the hearing. This time she responded the right way, though her tone of voice was unsteady. What I would give to know what she was thinking at that moment. The judge questioned her the same as all the others. Their name, where they were from, had they crossed this spot on the border at such and such a date. She had indeed from Guatemala, probably from the west of the country, where most of the population is indigenous and lives in small villages well below the poverty line. Nothing in her world could have prepared her for the grand court room in which she sat, the types of questions being asked her, the consequences of pleading guilty. All the accused before her answered identically, few asked any questions, a few even got jail time for multiple entries. How could she have known what a trial in the U.S. meant, the waiting involved, how her ‘crime’ could now be used to block her entry, however unlikely, into the U.S. legally. I don’t know the truth, but I believe all that she thought of when asked if she was guilty was going home.


More about Operation Streamline:

Phoenix New Times


ACLU National Immigration Forum

Also, a brutal film about Central Americans crossing Mexico into the U.S. (WARNING, SERIOUS VIOLENCE): Sin Nombre



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Thanks for reading and supporting me!

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Philosophy & The Farm Life

A lot of newborns have been gracing us at the farm lately. We have had 11 new chickens, 13 new piglets, and 8 new lambs. They are all very energetic and basically like to get out and run around, especially the piglets. But before this starts to sound too idyllic, one of the lambs died because it’s mother refused to let it feed, one of the runts of the pig litter had its leg broken when it’s mother stepped on it trying to get away from the piglets, and another piglet was crushed to death by its mother laying on it for too long. How can animals be such terrible parents? I would have assumed that animals would be very protective of their young, since there is little else they think about but survival. But what survival? Every time I approach the pigs, or the sheep, or the chickens, the first to run are the elders, as the young do not know better. This means the individuals survival seems to be much higher on the natural list, as is rational. If there is an overwhelming threat to a group, the individual who is capable should flee, because that means survival, even if it means the destruction of those who cannot. Therefore more survive.

But for example, how would we feel if when a child was threatened, the parent simply abandoned it? We would immediately castigate the parent as negligent, if not outright evil. This example, which I hope most would agree comes to a realistic conclusion, demonstrates two things. One, society is not rational. We do not make our decisions based on rationality, nor is it deeply valued by most. Anyone who follows politics, sociology, or anthropology can easily point out examples of this. This is not a condemnation, but an admittance, and may be a strength. This is possible because the second conclusion is that there are limits to pure reason. I suspect that these limits are personal, and of course shaped by the culture and environment that one is part of. But as one who has held pure reason as the highest good for some time now, it is interesting to come to my limit.

I would rather that the pigs herded their young and the ewes were doting mothers. But that is not the reality, as animals seem to be beings of pure reason, doing what they do for existences sake alone. I prefer humanity in its flaws, pride, and courage. We may create some of the most terrible conditions ever encountered by living beings, like war and poverty, but we also produce some the only examples of love and selflessness to be found on this Earth, since apparently nature does not readily supply these. We should take pride in the latter, but tempered by knowledge of the former.

Luckily, this has revealed some underlying assumptions I did not know that I had. One is that I consider family one of the highest goods. It is something visceral that we can depend on, provided that the family is strong enough to break our fall. The family always seemed like a rather abstract concept to me. During high school, I preferred to spend time with friends or on my own, but now that I have actually spent a significant time away from them, I realize how much energy and strength I gain from their mere presence. Hopefully I won’t ever forget that. The second is that moral adherence is preferable to physical survival. This is steeped in two thousand years of the idea of self-sacrifice that has been lauded by the Church (and dutifully ignored in practice), and a childhood of reading what are essentially myths (stories where things happen according to how they should occur, not how they do occur). In these stories, the sinful atone by sacrificing themselves and the heroes die for their causes. This assumption terrifies me. Deep down, I apparently believe things happen as they should, that the good guys win and every crime is solved by either CSI or the cops from Law & Order. But I know from world events that people, good people, die every day, from hunger because their government is spending all its money on armaments instead of agricultural aid, from easily preventable diseases because drugs are too expensive, or of exposure on cold nights because they have no home and no one to shelter them. The world we live in is harsh, the consequences for those who live day to day are deadly. And yet, seemingly I still believe that good will win, that the deserving are rewarded, and that Eliot Stabler will punch the bad guy in the face. Belief can be powerful, but only if it is put to use. I don’t know if I am strong enough to do that.


For some news, there are rumblings that rival crime syndicates in two nearby cities are getting ready to fight, and not the clean kind of fight either. Please keep the people of Mexico affected by the war on drugs in mind next time the news rolls around, because America isn’t the only one paying for it’s drug habit.


Well, that was all fairly depressing. I am doing well, the farm keeps me busy, and my family continues to put up with my “stupid American” questions. I have now attended two quince?eras and a wedding, my soccer team is the local champ (though I did not play in the final game), and I now know that almost all tequila comes from the state of Jalisco and mescal (another type of liquor) comes from Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HA-kuh).

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Socializing in the Pueblo

Living in a small town in Mexico is quite odd. At times it is very tranquil, with just the birds chirping in the trees while the sun sets over the neighboring mountains. At other times, tractors and trucks are constantly passing, the roosters outside my window refuse to cease claiming their territory, and the gas, water, and tortilla salesman slowly prowl each street with their horns blaring (the tortilla ones aren’t so bad, they’re on motorcycles). The distinction between these two is quite sharp. Another interesting contrast is much more pervasive, and difficult to wrap my mind around. Particularly in pueblos (small towns) in Mexico, the family serves as the main social unit. We have all heard that Mexicans place more value in family, that their families are strong, but what does that all mean?

From what I have been able to tell, Mexicans spend A LOT more time with their families, in the sense that they do not have “friends” as we would signify them. They have neighbors and the people they hang out with on weekends, but the home is almost strictly reserved for the family. A non-family member visiting the house is a somewhat rare event, other than neighbors chatting about news in the doorway for a few minutes. The divide between our method of socializing, which I would consider to be through our interests1, whereas the culture here really spends the majority of it’s time with family, meaning siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents, the whole clan. Generally, that tends to make the family much closer and even a little insular, which has made socializing difficult here.

There is, however, a dark side of this. Again, this is from my experiences so far and very limited point of view, that Mexicans don’t ‘get out’ much. Yes, they party, go the soccer game, go fishing, and go to work, but in the end, they probably spend a good amount of their time watching T.V. Mexicans don’t bowl alone, but they do only bowl with their family2. There is a strange privacy to the family, one that doesn’t allow other people3 It seems to have created a very cliquish family sphere, to the detriment of the overall community of the area. It is very difficult to be involved in any activity without having an in through a family member of someone already involved. For example I got onto the soccer team I am playing on because one of my coworkers brothers is married to a cousin of the coach, not even a joke. It’s just the way things work here. Also, it means the absence of the “normal” social groups that we as Americans are used to (see footnote 1). I can’t join a car club that doesn’t exist outside certain street, a rodeo run by cousins, or a reading club within a family4, without first having an ‘in’ to the primary group. The most difficult part, for me as an American, is that these groups are not advertised in any way that I know how to interpret. They are spread by word of mouth and “general knowledge” that that group of people does this activity.

In my opinion, this does not point out the insularity of the Mexicans, but a loss of community knowledge in Americans. We rely so heavily on other people telling us explicitly what there is to do (T.V. commercials, newsletters, radio advertisements, email listings, etc.) that we no longer have the ability to know our community. You might even be able to argue this is because we no longer have community in this way, that we have individualized community to such a degree that this type of knowledge is no longer even available.

Well, back to searching and asking for activities to do. I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving and will have a great Christmas! There was an earthquake here yesterday in the evening, 6.45 on the Richter scale. The motion was more up and down than shaking, so no major structural damage, but there were three deaths near the epicenter. It originated in the state of Guerrero, and lasted for less than a minute. The main worry is that because it felt so strong, it would be a repeat of the 1985 earthquake that leveled Mexico City, so there is a feeling of relief right now.



1For example, an American makes friends who share his/her hobbies, such as cars, painting, music, working, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, etc. Even the way we make our friends is highly individualized in the States!

2 Except of course for the women, who work almost all day cleaning, cooking, washing, repairing, and generally fulfilling every 1950s era fantasy of the housewife. And many of them also have work! It is a thankless and unrelenting job, as they get no breaks from it, not even for holidays. This, of course, goes for women all over the world.

3I’m not saying here that I have felt excluded. We’ll get to my reaction, don’t worry.

4These are all completely conjectural, but possible groups.

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The Power of Stories

People who have contacted me from the States often ask ‘what are you doing down there?’ This has not been an easy question for me to answer. There is the obvious answer of working and living amongst a new culture, of meeting new people, seeing new things, and experiencing life in a new way. But as I said, this is the obvious answer. The answer is supposed, in fact it is known, before the question is asked. So why then is it asked? There is obviously something else they want to hear, past the day to day, past the colorful incidents that make living in a different culture a thrill and a terror. They want to hear a story.

Some quick background, I will admit that I am a bookish person, though I will not say by nature. I take much pleasure and solace in reading, it is part of what revitalizes me after long days dealing with the world, and this has always been true, long before I stepped foot in Mexico. This should leave you concluding that with the extra stress and clamor of living in a new place, that I have been reading an inhuman number of books, at least compared to the paltry amount of books that has the indecency to claim the title of ‘average per year per capita in America’. While in some degree it is a refuge from the pell-mell of how I view my new culture, it is also keeping me thinking and wondering about how this experience will inform. It has kept me from sinking too fast into a new world, also known as drowning. In short, I have been reading a lot, not to mention working on a farm, playing soccer and hanging out with my host family. All sorts of books as well, including gardening, aquaculture, permaculture, political systems, philosophy, religion, theories of work, motorcycle how-to’s, and just plain old tales and stories.

Stories are never plain and old. The last I read was Stardust, a short novel by Neil Gaiman, with a wonderful lecture transcript afterward, which is the author speaking of the importance of stories and tales. The gist of the lecture is that there is something very natural about these older forms of story that resonates within us, something that calls us back to them again and again, even though they may be in a different guise. Think of the difference between a Disney Snow White and the older version of Snow White. And then add in countless books, TV shows, plays, movies that have borrowed or adapted the story. Something in the tale wants to be told and is natural for us to tell. This quickly brought to mind another lecture, back in my first year of college, of a Biblical criticism class. The professor spoke of stories and how they shape the actual world around us. One of the oldest stories is one of the most powerful, good versus evil. These stories are older than the advent of the ability to record them. God and the Devil. The Olympians and the children of Mother Earth and Chaos. The Æsir and the frost giants. Of course, these tales were the backdrop to many others, but are still the main part of the telling, the overarching story. Think of the impact that the definitions of good and evil have had on this world. How do we even define them? Often as not, it is through stories, parables, tales, legends, and myth. But there are many “basic” stories, other than good and evil, such as ‘the quest’, ‘the romance’, ‘the trickster’, and a countless variations and mixes. What they all have in common though is that they carry a moral, a meaning, a framework through which to see the world, even though this may change from reader o reader. This is why fiction is often more moving than fact.

So when people ask me ‘what have I been doing’, I really don’t know how to answer. They know that life here is different, but do they really want to hear all the mundane differences, all the changes in etiquette, all the misunderstandings, or do they want to hear a story, that carries weight and meaning and a new view onto the world. I unfortunately did not read Stardust in enough time to have a such a tale ready for this blog post, and it is very possible I won’t have one until the end of my year, or of my life.

My apologies for yet another post that has nearly nothing to do with my time in Mexico (and yet it has to everything to do with my time in Mexico). Comments, critisicms, questions, and suggestions for further entries are always appreciated. Thank you again for anyone who has generously allowed me to spend this year abroad, I hope that it will be worth your support!

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Our Stuff and How It Affects Our Lives

Just a warning, this post talks about some hard stuff about our society. So, if you are game, read on…

Well, another week (or so) has passed here in Tehuixtla. The farm is still going, although the loss of the electric fence controller has made things a bit harder, as we are now having to check on some of the animals constantly. It’s amazing how much you really have to make sure they aren’t getting into trouble. It is something a lot of people don’t have to deal with anymore in the United States. I know a couple of people, mainly La Grange residents, that have some cows, or are 4H participants, but by and large most of the people in my life do not have daily contact with animals, aside from pets or the ones we meet in the suburbs and cities, such as pigeons, songbirds, geckos, insects, and the like. A ‘pest’ is how we choose to describe animals that are not in our life through our choosing. This daily contact with smelly, hungry, obstinate farm animals has made me realize, in the smallest degree, how far separated we have become from the subsistence life, from merely trying to survive. Food is provided us (U.S. Americans) by a complex agricultural market and distribution system, most people have water, that we can actually drink, delivered straight to our houses, ready for instant consumption. This existence is one of leisure, time spent on what one finds important. Which is stunning when we realize how much time we spend on things we don’t want to be doing, on activities felt to be obligatory. Our society has become so highly accustomed to the necessities of life, food, water, shelter, being easily accessible that we no longer see them as daily chores, daily requirements in order to survive.

So, we shift that need to others, in two meanings. One, we shift our need to do things that sustain life to things that are unnecessary in the light of survival, such as making sure our lawns aren’t growing past the maximum allowed by the homeowners association, that the bills are all paid (something everyone hates), that our houses are antiseptically clean, that we TIVO that new show. These are not really surviving, just examples of things that are seen as chores, as necessary in that middle class life I come from. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay our bills, but wouldn’t you rather be sitting in your dining room signing checks than walking a few kilometers to get two buckets of what is hopefully clean water every day? We put so much worry and energy into these things that are not actually sustaining, or improving, our lives. The second meaning is that we displace our actual survival onto other people around the country and around the world. Our food is grown all over; grains from the Midwest, fruit and vegetables from Central and South America, delicacies from Europe and Asia. There are other people bending over in fields, lifting boxes in factories, caring for livestock so we don’t have to. That is the reality of a market economy, the universal system we call capitalism. Some people even go further to displace the previously mentioned fictional needs of everyday life in America to others, in the form of lawn services, maids, etc. (I almost put in nannies there, but childcare is in no way a “fictional” need; I don’t know how you parents do it).

Capitalism is an amazing system. It works in ways that could never been foreseen, and will work in ways that we can’t imagine. That’s why there are different schools of economy. If we really could predict what was going to happen accurately, why would there be expert economists arguing about it, why would people be making fortunes off of the stock market? The thing that makes capitalism terrific (using that word in its base meaning) is that it fundamentally forces everyone to play by its rules. Capitalism cannot be fought, at least not in the current culture. I’m guessing that some people would say that is beauty of it. It touches everything. Look around you right now and how many things can you point out that you produced. A market economy separates us from the production of things we use constantly. Even in our jobs, what we “choose” to produce, capitalism plays a huge part; for example, I don’t want to work with sewage, so I don’t, but someone will, because it is a job and everyone needs one of those to survive, to have food, shelter, clean water (I do work with manure though). Those on the top of the heap take the “best” jobs and the rest get filtered out as they go “down” the pyramid of socioeconomic status. But what we often forget in our life of plenty, in our separation from survival, is that others, who don’t have much of a choice in their opportunities, are essentially forced to take that job I don’t want, to work in the agribusiness as a farmhand so we can eat, to mine coal in Pennsylvania so we can have the internet, to get paid pittance in a factory in China so we can have plastic toys at Wal-Mart and Target. People give up so much around the world, to survive and hope that their children may live a better life, so that we have our daily, “normal” life.

Of course, this isn’t all that strange in Mexico either. There are still those on the top taking what are considered the best jobs. There is still inequality intrinsic in the system, capitalism, that effectively runs the whole world. But what makes it more visible to me is that it is different here. The system is the same, but it manifests itself in other ways. I am accustomed to normal, middle class life in the U.S., so it is difficult to see, but here, when the way people get clean water is buy purchasing garifones (~20L bottles) of purified water, when transport is largely by bus instead of private car, when the majority of people work in large factories or farms instead of the service sector jobs prominent in the U.S., it is far easier to see that the system itself, what we teach as the highest good, is integrally unfair to people without the privileges of a good education, a good economy, a family that can support waffling youth who don’t know what to do with their lives (thanks Mom and Dad). But at the same time, escaping from capitalism is essentially impossible without resorting to some sort of communism (note the small c). Not everyone is willing, or able to live in a self sustaining commune, so there must be some sort of middle ground that reduces the essential oppression in capitalism, while still allowing a market economy to be able to operate, allowing people to do the work they wish, work that fulfills them (a subject I will be writing on later.)

So this leaves us with some questions, like what could this alternative economic system be? How do you fix a system? What will I do when I get back and am expected to get a knowledge-working job, the “crust” of American labor? Well, right now I’m going to stick to sheep. I am here to learn from a way of life different than ours and see what conclusions I can draw from immersing myself in it. Who knows what lessons I will learn, whether it is from tending to live stock, the way my host family functions, or the societal unrest occurring in Mexico right now. All I can do now is use the time you have given me here and pay attention.


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Mexico and beyond!

Greetings from Mexico! It has been about 3 weeks since my arrival here, a good part of which was taken up by our 9-day orientation. About a week ago, I moved in with my new family in Tehuixtla, a small town south of Cuernevaca in the the state of Morelos. There are 11 people living in separate houses around a small courtyard. The family (here) consists of a grandfather, grandmother, 3 daughters, one son, and 4 grandchildren. There are 3 other sons, one more daughter and 3 more grandchildren that I know of that live elsewhere, a far call from my small family! They have been very hospitable and I am looking forward to getting to know many of them as the year goes on.

I can finally tell you more about my work site, since I have worked approximately a week there! Rancho la Troje is a small, organic farm. There are orange trees, corn, Chinese beans (very similar to green beans), pigs, sheep, chickens, worm composting, and more. My boss is an American (and now Mexican citizen as well) named George Anna, who is very involved in her new community of Mexico. The first week was spent mainly learning the basic chores that have to happen everyday, mainly feeding the animals and watering certain plants. Two brothers work (very hard) to keep the place running, and I am learning the ropes from them. George is devoted to the practice of permaculture. Permaculture is short for ‘permanent agriculture’, meaning using natures principles to grow crops, and is one of the many things I will be learning about. Hopefully I can get some pictures up soon of both my home stay and the farm!

Another culture I have been learning about is the social one here in Mexico. Usually, I don’t think it is all that different, but then I will come across something, a word, a gesture, a view I haven’t seen before, that makes me remember how big the gulf is between our two worlds. The farm is filled with many jury-rigged tools, quick-fixed fences, and other things that would have been long ago replaced in an American environment. Reading here is not a common activity, one of the main forms of activity in my family back in Texas. And these are the small, every day things compared to larger cultural items such as gender roles, views on religion, home life in general, even issues of space. Right now what I tend to notice are the dissimilar items, what is probably an effect of culture shock. My reference point is still that of the American, the white, the educated, the privileged few. I hope part of what this year will bring is new reference points, however partial they might be. Then I will be able to be able to view more of the world through the eyes of those who are different, the other. I have been able to read quite a bit, and when Spanish ties my tongue and the effort of trying to speak is giving me an all too real headache, it is a refuge. Perhaps it is also a crutch, but only the future will let me know that (though I still welcome any comments on that issue). One of the books I am reading talks often about the other and how we view them is often more skewed than we think. We often ascribe aspects that are not present, assume viewpoints that don’t exist, and generally view them as ourselves. The last is the most difficult to break. For example, as I stated earlier, one of my great joys is reading. Here in Mexico, reading is generally viewed as a non-event. Not that it is bad or malicious, but seems to be viewed as doing nothing. I cannot fathom how someone could come to this conclusion, as I see reading as the primary passage of knowledge. How can that be nothing? I am almost afraid to learn, but if I do not, then why did I come here? Certainly it was not to introduce Mexicans to American culture, I am sure they get more than enough of that. Nor was it to hide in an ivory tower and read all the books I brought with me. I am here to experience. So when I am feeling run down, tongue-tied, overwhelmed, or simply homesick, it helps to remember all of you at home supporting me in this, along with all the books. Thanks to all of you.


P.S. Thinking about Lutherhill and all the good friends I made in La Grange, hoping they don’t have to deal with anymore fires. Please keep them in your thoughts!


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