Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Canadian caper

I hope you’ve gotten a chance to see the movie Argo which won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday night. It portrays the hostage crisis in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979 and how a small group escaped aided by the Canadian Embassy. Frequently referred to as the 'Canadian caper' the escape of the six U.S. diplomats almost three months into the hostage crisis wouldn't have been possible without the support of the Canadian diplomatic corps. Not mentioned in the movie is Mexico’s role in the Shah's exile.

Deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi spent the first five months of his exile in Egypt, Morocco, and the Bahamas. In June 1979 he arrived in Mexico, benefiting from Mexico's long-standing policy of a welcoming those in need of political asylum. The Shah, his family, and staff took over the Hacienda de Cortés Hotel in Jiutepec, Morelos. Two months later they moved into a large home on Privada del Rio street in southern Cuernavaca. I was eager to meet him.

After much pressure from national and foreign press, the shah's spokesman Robert Armao scheduled a press conference.  I registered for it.  When I arrived a heated discussion was going on in the middle of the cobblestone street.  Reporters were told the press conference was cancelled and replaced with a photo opportunity -- no chance for questions and answers. 

I asked Armao how he addressed the Shah.  "Your Majesty or Excellency," was his reply. Once tripods and cameras were in place on one end of a swimming pool, the Shah and Empress Farah took their places at the other end. The only sounds were the clicking of camera shutters and whir of motorized film advancers.  I broke the silence and bellowed in English "Excellency, would you mind answering a few questions?"

The startled Shah replied, "It depends." With that what was to be his last press conference began.  Other reporters started shouting their questions in Spanish before the last syllable of "depends" was out of the Shah's mouth. I stepped in as the Spanish-English interpreter.  

Pointed questions were fired away about events similar to those shown in the grainy black and white video with which Argo begins. The Shah skillfully answered all questions, punctuating each with a smile at the end.  After a reasonable amount of time he brought the press conference to a close with both the empress and emperor waving goodbye as they walked into the house.  

The following day I went to Privada del Rio to see what else was going on and encountered the Shah walking from his house to a neighboring house.  As we shook hands he graciously told me he was going to an interview and invited me to listen in.  He entered first and his security people next.  Just as I was about to enter Armao shut the door in my face!

I knew of the Shah's love of speed, be it skiing down a mountain, driving a fast car, or piloting a plane.  I’ve read that when he skied in Switzerland he had five Shah-look-alikes skiing at the same time. The last time I saw him was on the expressway from Cuernavaca to Mexico City. It’s a road I enjoy driving fast -- 'straightening out' its curves while keeping track of other cars going at my same pace.  I wave them on when I see I won't be able to keep up with them. If we get to the tollhouse together I consider it a draw.   It was fun seeing that the driver of the car that overtook me one day was the Shah.  His chauffeur was in the passenger seat. 

I was surprised when a month later the man with the firm handshake, driver of the fast car and tennis player recently seen playing at the Cuernavaca Racquet Club was making plans to travel to New York for urgent cancer treatment.  

The movie Argo makes no mention of the Shah’s four-month stay in Mexico before traveling to New York. His arrival in the U.S. sparked anger that led to hostages being seized on November 4, 1979, in Tehran's U.S. Embassy. The hostage-takers demanded that the United States exchange the Shah for the 52 hostages.  

When the hostages were seized the U.S. government asked the Shah to leave.  He went to Panama's Contadora Island for three months. He departed from there just hours before the Iranian ambassador arrived bearing a 450-page extradition request.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's death at the age of sixty was announced in Cairo on July 27, 1980.  In Muslim tradition his whole body was wrapped in a shroud.  At the moment of burial his son turned the body onto its right side so that it faced Mecca.  Only the Shah's immediate family, closest friends, and his physicians saw the deceased Shah.

The Shah's death did away with the hostage-takers' main demand, however it took another six months to negotiate the hostages' release. Was it an even more audacious process than the Canadian caper -- a story befitting another movie? 


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The game of the name

A basic right we all have is the right to a name.  According to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child along with a name comes immediate inclusion in a civil registry and the right to a nationality. 

Cultures have different ways of giving names to children.  Those with a Spanish tradition, such as Mexico, tend to use given names followed by a first and second surname ("primer apellido" and "segundo apellido").  Foreigners in Mexico, especially those arriving from the North, frequently find it odd that parents do not have the same surnames as their children.    

Mexican parents are free to choose their children's given-names but the registration process for surnames is strict.  The newborn receives its father's first surname as its first "apellido" and its mother's first surname as its second "apellido".  Hence, the surnames of parents are different from their children on government issued documents. 

In Mexico a baby born in a hospital goes home with a birth certificate that registers gender, weight, length, parents' full names, place, date, time of birth, and a foot print.  Parents or legal guardians are allowed a time period in which to register the baby's given-names at their municipal civil registry office.  If that time period is exceeded then witnesses are required to accompany the parents or guardians and baby to the civil registry.  Indigenous people frequently prefer to register their children's birth in what they consider "their" municipality, even if their child is born in a distant location.     

In the Spanish system the first surname is the one used for putting names in alphabetical order. Next the second surname is alphabetized. Only then are the given-names used for alphabetizing.  The frequent "security" question asked by U.S. banks, "what is your mother's maiden name?" would be senseless in Mexico -- it is printed in the phone book.  

Latin Americans from Spanish speaking countries who move to the U.S. will frequently hyphenate their surnames so as to keep both their "apellidos" yet not be alphabetized under their mother's maiden name.  

Names can get quite long, especially with multiple given-names.  For the sake of shortening a person's name it is usually a given-name that is dropped rather than one's second surname.  If an initial is used it will usually be for the second surname, not a middle name.   

Under current civil registry rules a Mexican woman keeps her birth name for life.  Though she may choose to take on her spouse's surname, frequently with the possessive "de" between her first surname and her spouse's, she keeps the name with which she was registered at birth on her government issued documents.  Hence, in order to cash a check made out to her, she will need to have her name written as it appears on her identification document. 

Mexican spouses who are active in politics or business will sometimes go to great lengths to use their legal names and keep their marriage out of the picture as much as possible in order to lessen talk of nepotism. 

On a similar note, when noted politicians do not use a second surname and instead write their name with a middle initial, it will frequently be a tip-off indicating that their second surname is a non-Spanish or non-Indigenous surname. 

Among Mesoamerican surnames, Maya names are more common in Mexico than those from any other Indigenous language. Nahuatl is a source of given-names, even among those who do not consider themselves Indigenous. 

The United States cycles through trendy names that are popular for a few years and allow calculating people's age by their name.  Latin America doesn't seem to go through those cycles. However there are names that are popular in some countries and not in others.  A man named Jairo will likely be from Colombia or Venezuela and Rodrigo from Central America or Colombia.  Xochitl, Xicotencatl, Netzahualcoyotl and Cuauhtemoc -- names of Nahuatl origin -- will be from Mexico. 
A new phenomenon regarding names has evolved with the Internet.  One would think that readers who comment about a newspaper or magazine article online would be among those who most want to be able to make a statement and be recognized for it. Yet they rarely use their names, much less their email address.

There are organizations where as a matter of policy, only first names are used in an effort to make sure participants stay out of the limelight.  One such organization is the loosely organized Occupy Wall Street.  Yet even so, some people can still be identified.  A Harper's magazine article quoted from the speakers log at Manhattan's Zucotti Park and mentioned "Charlie from Cuernavaca" who delivered a greeting along with pericón flower-crosses from Cuernavaca for Liberty Park.  I received several inquiries asking if I am that Charlie.

An archaic definition of surname is a name title or epithet added to a person's name, especially one indicating a location.  It worked for me. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

American Benevolent Society

In 1868 a group of U.S. citizens living in Mexico City ate cherry pie together on George Washington's birthday. That was the start of the American Benevolent Society, a mutual aid organization to assist fellow U.S. citizens in distress in Mexico. Current members are putting the final touches on their 145th  anniversary celebration. Yes, they will serve cherry pie at the event too. 

Founded just three years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, the American Benevolent Society (ABS) raised funds through social events to respond to the needs of widows and orphans, repatriate bodies of U.S. citizens who died in Mexico, help with medical emergencies, and finance emergency trips back to the United States. 

Last week I had the opportunity to visit with Barbara Franco, Executive Director of the American Benevolent Society. She told me "we still provide those same services.  People from the States with those kinds of problems want and need help in English.  Our work really hasn't changed much, except for the way we go about doing it.  Instead of making arrangements to travel by train or boat we arrange travel by plane and purchase the ticket online.  Our work doesn't change because people and their needs don't change. Circumstances don't change." 

The ABS also helps people of other nationalities through their own similar organizations.  "If you don't know what to do in a crisis, we're a good place to start.  We can direct virtually anybody to some kind of help either through us or by finding them the help they need.  We provide medical services through the ABC Hospital which we founded 125 years ago in an effort to not become a burden on the Mexican health system."

There are new needs U.S. citizens are facing for which they are seeking assistance from the ABS.  One is that of retirees from the States who need assisted living but cannot afford it. Another is Mexicans who went to the U.S. and acquired citizenship, or have children that are U.S. citizens, and have returned to Mexico but cannot use the U.S. Medicare coverage to which they are entitled.   The ABS is working with other organizations around the world to get the Medicare law changed.  "We could take care of people better if they could receive their Medicare benefits in Mexico." 

Another emerging group is made up of very young children born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. Now with reverse migration, these children face problems registering for public schools and government services in Mexico. As Franco described, "They are U.S. citizens, but a sort of undocumented foreigner in their own 'cultural country.' There are also children who are a little older without documents from either the U.S. or Mexico.   They were taken to the U.S. by their parents when they were very young and nothing was done about their papers.  Others in their twenties don’t have the Spanish with which to function in Mexico, but they don't feel comfortable in the United States.  We do what we can."  

"What we can" includes legal and immigration work and advice, scholarships, and medical and psychological care.  Franco summed it up as "a lot of refuge.  We consider ourselves a soft place to land in English in Mexico City."

Not all its work deals with distress. The ABS hosts special events and classes open to the community.  It is also collecting oral histories of expatriates of all nationalities. We are invited to record our stories on professional audio equipment assisted by an experienced interviewer. According to their website, "Interviewees reflect on the past, imagine the future, and taken together present a collage of expatriate voices that speak about love, survival, immigration, culture, community and the challenges and joys of cross-border life." 

An additional commendable aspect of the American Benevolent Society is that it funds close to 90% of its expenses with the income from two enterprises, the American Cemetery and the American Bookstore.  

The bookstore is located adjacent the Union Church on Reforma in the Lomas de Chapultepec section of Mexico City. The ABS is not affiliated with the church, it merely rents space there. In addition to selling books, the bookstore provides a welcoming, friendly place for those who need that type of space.

Donations fill in the financial gap with many of them coming from people who have received assistance from the ABS when they were in need.  Marvelous.

Those who sign up for a moderately priced individual or family membership are offered the satisfaction of supporting a good cause and the invitation to an elegant reception on George Washington's birthday.  Yes, for cherry pie.   

Speaking about those who have preceded her, as well as those with whom she has the privilege of working, Franco said "There are many, many functions that we serve, however I think it is the quietness of the American Benevolent Society that in many ways counts the most.  No fanfare.  No waving flags or beating on the chests or anything of that sort.  It is just the constant, always there, quiet good work."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Strength of the Triangle

I first got to know Heberto Castillo through his weekly news analysis articles. Besides being a university professor and a noted politician, Castillo was also a civil engineer.   I always found his articles interesting to read because even though they were of political content he did not resort to political rhetoric or polemic.  Instead, he presented his readers with facts and invited us to have our own calculator in hand as he led us through mathematical calculations.

When I started reading him, his most frequent topic was analysis of Mexico's oil policy.  As a reader of Castillo's articles I learned about the cost of production of oil and gas, its characteristics, how and where it could be stored, gas pipelines of various diameters, techniques of welding pipe, how much gas it takes to fill a pipeline, the value added to oil by transforming it into a chemical product and more, all while entering figures into my calculator.

By following his logic and doing the math there was nothing to do upon finishing his articles other than to agree with him.

In the field of civil engineering Castillo is best known for his breakthrough in a design that he named "Tridilosa". It is based on the strength of the equilateral triangle.  Turns out a triangle cannot be deformed into any other shape -- unlike squares and rectangles, for example, which can be deformed into parallelograms.  Tridilosa is based on welding or bolting equilateral triangles together to form pyramids and then welding/bolting pyramids to pyramids.  With that Castillo could span huge areas in buildings, creating floors and ceilings with a horizontal structure that cannot sag.  It also brought with it tremendous savings in weight and expense over the traditional concrete and iron-reinforcing style of construction.  He applied his technology to buildings, bridges, even barges and floating drydocks.  I've read reports of bridges he designed for Nicaragua over which trucks can drive yet they can be lifted and carried by two people -- one at each end.

Mexico City's predominance of low buildings makes it an easy city in which to find landmarks to guide us on our way.  On the west side of the city I frequently use the World Trade Center as a reference point.  Blue in color, rectangular in shape on all its sides with a revolving restaurant on top -- it is an easy landmark to pick out in the city's skyline. This is Castillo’s largest building using the tridilosa design. It holds Mexico City's record as the building enclosing the most interior space. Formerly called the Hotel de Mexico, for a number of years it was also Mexico City's tallest building.

In the political realm Castillo is most remembered as a founding member of the Mexican Workers Party (PMT), which later dropped out of sight when it merged with other parties of the left.  Castillo liked to say "Tridilosa benefited the PMT because I could design a bridge in a morning and, with the fee I charged for it, finance the party for months."
After doing this for a number of years Castillo decided to stop financing the PMT with his honorariums because he realized he was weakening the party by making it dependent on one person as well as giving himself excessive influence over the philosophy and administration of the PMT.

Tridilosa's strength, based on the equilateral triangle, became the example Castillo used to describe his political ideology.  He compared society to an equilateral triangle. Labor, capital, and government are what make a society strong he said, but they only do so if they are of equal strength.  If one part gains dominance over the others, Castillo's philosophy maintained that it either had to be restrained or the others needed to be strengthened.  Castillo saw a need to strengthen the labor portion of that equation in Mexico.

In his articles Castillo always gave credit to his high-end Hewlett Packard calculator.  At the time I had an equally fancy Texas Instrument calculator. On a visit to a session of the Chamber of Deputies I noticed a Hewlett Packard calculator sitting on a deputy's desk.  I looked up at the occupant and asked, "Are you Heberto Castillo?"  He answered affirmatively.  I introduced myself by telling him I'd recognized him by his calculator.

Castillo died in 1997 while serving as senator from Veracruz.  Though he was a strong critic of the government he was nevertheless a very respected one.  The weight of his words far exceeded the size and strength of his party.  The Senate in which he served chose him as the 1997 recipient of the Belisario Dominguez Medal of Honor, its highest award, bestowing it on him posthumously.   In 2004 his remains were moved to the Illustrious Persons Rotunda in the Dolores Cemetery -- the highest honor in Mexico's civil cemeteries.  The very modern design of the green glass monument over his tomb resembles the Mexico World Trade Center in its proportions.  Intentional?