An “Extra” From California:

Being away, I find myself tuning in more – not less – to the newspapers (online, natch) back home, so as not to miss too much of what’s going on. It’s surprising how much information is available, and sometimes the info-tide can be a bit overwhelming. All the stuff I promised is still in the works – for later this month – but, for now, here are some odds and ends. One thing I can do while I am “away” is to update various files, including the Glossary and the Books page; review books and records; and clean up my address book and mailing list; which things I have done.

The pictures in this edition were all taken in the Three Rivers area of central California, where Diana has her Casita (little house; that’s it on the right). The masthead picture was taken through the front window. The turkey is “wild”.

Enjoy! Next issue should be out in late May.

American Journalists Arrested on May Day in Oaxaca, let go on May 3:

On May 1, after a rally for peace and justice and in support of migrant rights in the U.S., 7 participants, including four gringos, were arrested and held incommunicado by Oaxaca state police in plain clothes.

Information is sketchy at this time, and some of it downright contradictory, but it appears that this action was part of a general crackdown on independent journalists by the current governor that has included the temporary (two days) disappearance of two radio reporters and the occupation of the building used by “Noticias” (they subsequently found other quarters and continue to publish).

No charges were enumerated at the time, and today it was announced that all the arrestees had been let go due to lack of evidence of wrongdoing. The lawyer whom they hired cost them 1,000 dollars u.s. Of course, being poor but honest muckrakers, they can’t pay it, so they are asking for donations.

For those of you who are interested, the place to look for more information on this whole incident, as well as to contribute to the legal fund, is Narco News

Headlines in today’s Miami Herald, Mexican edition, and in La Jornada, feature a just-released U. N. report calling the situation for journalists in Mexico “deteriorating” and “dangerous”. All this does give one pause to think. No question it’s intimidating. So far, though, I don’t see any personal danger.

Impossible Things:

I have been reading the works and listening to the readings of Elizabeth (Beth) Kelly, Oaxaca resident, and co-founder of the Zócalo literary magazine, for years. Even though I have not yet had an opportunity to read her new book, “Impossible Things” – I want to wait until I get home and buy it from her – I recommend it based upon what I know of her, her style, and her material.

Beth has published her book through an “on demand” publishing outfit called Lulu. I have been casting my own eye on Lulu, and am looking forward to seeing the finished product. In the meantime, here is their blurb:

“Kelly writes about an expatriate scene in Mexico, Central America and  Columbia inhabited by a cast of outsiders, outlaws, retired military men, dreamers, ladies of the night, mysterious deities in black suits,  and latter day romantics.  Her characters are the people who remain after the tour buses leave.  In the middle of civil wars, military coups, and wild eyed scams they drift,  gossip and love through life creating their own mythologies.  Kelly catches the unconscious humor and odd situations that happen when the gringo community rubs up against the indigenous civilization.  Kelly’s ear for dialogue and her compassion for Latin America make Impossible Things a delight to read.”

Order “Impossible Things” direct from the publisher by clicking HERE

[The cover is a painting by Beth’s partner, John Barbato, a painter, tour-guide, writer and slam poet]

Lila Downs’ Fifth Album:

“La Cantina – entre copa y copa” (The Tavern – between drinks) is, depending who you talk to, either a bold new attempt to take old Ranchera songs and say something new about them, or a heretical and cynical ruination of agreed-upon standards. Once again, Lila reinterprets material in a way that makes it completely her own, as it should be, since she’s been singing Ranchera since she was a little girl – a fact that some of her critics tend to overlook.

Occasionally, I have disagreed with her interpretation of a song, balking at her desire to display her magnificent range and colors even when (in my opinion) a less virtuoso performance would have better suited the material. When this happens, I am comparing a song “now” with her rendition of the same song “then”. However, even as I do so, I am aware that no performer deserves to have their art frozen in time; that singers grow and voices change; that if note-for-note is what I want, I might just as well stay home and listen to the earlier record.

Admittedly, I have the “advantage” of NOT being a purist about any music: I liked it when Dylan went electric. While I like pretty much all music, I don’t consider myself an aficionado of any style (except maybe Blues, and who would like to definitively describe that category for me?), and what I know of Norteño music comes from the Texas Tornados (where I was introduced to the great Flaco Jimenez, who appears on this album). I like this musical style, but I don’t own any recordings of it, and I can’t name one “famous” Norteño band. It’s fresh material to me. “La Cantina” is a swell album.

As a production, “La Cantina” is amazing. Take a look at the list of musicians, venues, recording studios, producers, etc. Just getting it down on tape had to be a monumental task. That it actually comes out as clear, as tight, and as fun as it does is, to my mind, miraculous.

Aside from its fine production values, “La Cantina” is exciting on at least two levels. First, it shows Lila is not afraid to tackle a new (Northern) culture (Oaxaca really is a unique culture, in many ways). Second, it showcases some of Lila’s fine composition, maintaining her position as both an entertainer and an educator/advocate. But most importantly, for me, Lila’s renditions are straightforward, with little of the histrionics that have characterized a few of her cuts in earlier albums (all of which albums I like a lot, particularly her last one, “Una Sangre”, and most particularly “La Bamba” and La Paloma Negra”).

I think the “guardians of the gates” should turn around and look behind them; leave the present and the future to those that appreciate it. Taken on its own merits, stripped of all the “traditionalism” hoo-ha, this is one damn fine album. I own it; so should you.

[You can buy this album, or any of Lila’s albums, on Amazon , through our website. We get a cut, and it doesn’t cost you a penny more.]

[Diana’s daughter greets some of the neighbor horses, who, in spite of the writing on the fence post, are not themselves a bit xenophobic. Blue, ever photogenic, always turns to face the camera.]

Beware Mexican-style Drug Legalization:

As of this writing, the Senate has passed, and President Fox has agreed to sign, a new law whose apparent purpose is to de-criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, opium, heroin, cocaine and other “estupifacientes” (things that make one stupid). The key word here is “small”, because the amounts are miniscule indeed. Marijuana possession, for example, is limited to 5 grams, enough for about four “joints”. There are 28 grams in an ounce.

At the same time, the law declares that possessing more than that makes you a dealer: the penalties for dealing have been significantly increased – and the sentences will be mandatory.

Be careful.

[It remains to be seen if this move will satisfy the 4-out-of-5 people who voted, in a recent “El Imparcial poll, for complete legalization of Marijuana].

Isthmus of Tehuantepec will be next great battleground:

Plans are proceeding apace to create a great industrial belt across the Istmo. Backed by all the major candidates for the 2006 Presidency and governor Ulises, the steamroller that will destroy a significant piece of the last remaining old-growth rainforest in Mexico appears to be gaining speed.

At the heart of the plan is a “land canal”: a high-speed railway line from the Atlantic coast at Coetzalcoalcos to the Pacific coast at Salina Cruz. At either end, giant cranes would load and unload large containers from waiting ships. As planned, this scheme would be both cheaper and quicker than the Panama canal.

As a “natural” adjunct to this plan, there will be hundreds of “maquiladora” assembly plants built along the right-of-way; and a new superhighway is being built to connect MexCity and Puebla to the cross-country strip. This highway will also cut the connect time from Oaxaca city to Huatulco in half, a move that might finally “save” Huatulco after over ten years of languishing in the tourist doldrums.

The resistance is fierce. There have already been several armed conflicts. Campesinos and environmentalists in the region are well organized and increasingly desperate. Presidential candidate AMLOs recent speech in Juchitan, the center of Istmo life, promising to complete the corridor if elected, was both a surprise and a severe blow to the opposition.

The Istmo, particularly the area of the mountains around Pedro Matias, is going to be the site of massive repression in the coming months, and if that happens expect guerrilla warfare: there have been guerrillas in these mountains for decades). As the forest begins to be destroyed, and the water diverted for use in stone-washing jeans and other noxious practices, thousands of people may decide they have nothing more to lose, and act accordingly.

[The Kaweah Colony, just up the road from Diana’s Casita, was founded mid-19th century by anarchist radical timber workers. All that remains of their experiment are the town limits,a few history books, and this functioning post office]

Where is Lovely Rita when we need her?

If you are driving into the city of Oaxaca, beware! That green box in the middle of the block is not a mailbox, nor is it a garbage repository. It is a “European style” parking meter. After parking your car, you must pay your money, get a ticket, and display it on your dashboard, to avoid being ticketed and possibly towed or booted by the parking police.

With virtually no previous public discussion, it was announced a few months ago that the city had let a contract for the meter system with a well-connected local company, to privatize the curbs of Oaxaca. Since then, work has proceeded apace, as what was first announced as a small experimental installation in the Carmen Alta area is spreading to the entire city center.

Local garage and parking lot folks are crying “foul” because the meters are being set at 9 pesos per hour, slightly less that the going rate in their establishments, but in the not-so-long run they will be the real winners as motorists, frustrated at having to feed the machines at intervals – and getting tagged when they forget – begin availing themselves of the security of supervised parking. I predict that the lots will soon raise their rates significantly, as the demand for non-metered parking exceeds the supply.

While it is true that bus and taxi ridership will go up as more people begin parking further from the center where free spaces are still available, that will happen only after other endemic problems such as double parking are confronted. We who live in the center hope to see electric or gas powered trolleys, free and frequent, circulating back and forth to outer ring lots with cheaper parking. But we’re not holding our breath.

[Last week, Paula Woolrich, a lawyer and apparatchik of the PAN, filed an “amparo” (injunction) to prevent the new law from taking effect. I am not sure if she was successful, but even if she was it’s just a matter of time before the changes are “made legal”.]

[This is a California Red-Bud tree, which is abundant in this area.]


Another craft being lost:

In Oaxacan tradition, the bride is always presented with a matate, a rectangular bowl with feet rough-hewn from volcanic stone. In the days before high-speed electric grinders and automated tortilla-makers, cooks used the matate to grind corn for tortillas, using a second stone that looks much like a rolling pin. The matate was the symbolic – and to a large extent the actual – centerpiece of a household. To divorce or separate was referred to as “breaking the matate”.

A few of the villages around Tlacolula, whose Sunday market has made it a “must see” on the tourist trail, have traditionally specialized in making matates, and their cousins, the smaller, round “mortar and pestle” bowl known as the molcajete (while other villages in the area specialize in producing the Comal, the flat round clay disk sitting over a charcoal fire, that tortillas and other things are cooked on). They still do, and they still display their wares on Sunday, but according to a recent “El Imparciál” article, their numbers are shrinking rapidly.

Preference is shifting away from tradition and toward more modern appliances, as more women work outside the home and food processors replace hours of hard work with a few seconds of whirling blades; and as more and more Mexicans lose a sense of their indigenous roots under the influence of “mestizoisation”.

There are still plenty of molcajetes available in Tlacolula, the Centro de Abastos in Oaxaca, and most other markets. Every Oaxacan household should have one of these painted pieces of stone. Others should be aware that these are large, solid piece that weigh a lot and break easily when dropped: not good candidates for shipping.

Next stop, Oaxaca:

I’ll be returnig home in about ten days, and most of my time will be taken up with getting the new house ready for Diana’s return in June. In between meetings with plumbers, electricians, phone company, iron workers, masons and carpenters (really, I’m exaggerating: there will be some small projects to be done, but it will seem like eternity to me) I will be checking out progress in El Llano, the runup to the July elections, and other breaking stories. Stay tuned…