Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Real gringo hero

Thirty-three years ago Carlos Arredondo came to terms with the hopelessness of finding meaningful employment in his native Costa Rica and joined the wave of undocumented migrants making their way to the USA in search of a better life.  Today he is one of the heroes of Boston. 

Two weeks ago, Carlos attended the Boston Marathon. He was there to cheer on the “Tough Rucks”, a group from the National Guard that "runs" the race in combat uniform and combat boots. Their loaded rucksacks feature a yellow ribbon with the name of a comrade killed in Iraq or Afghanistan or lost to suicide and PTSD-related accidents.   One ribbon read “Alexander Arredondo,” Carlos' son.  

The “Tough Rucks” got an early start, leaving Hopkinton at 5:20 a.m.  They expected to arrive in Copley Square at 2:00 p.m. 

Carlos was near the finish line when the bombs exploded at 2:45. Instead of running away, Carlos ran into the fracas to help.  He put a tourniquet around Jeff Bauman's bleeding leg, found a wheelchair and lifted him into it. When the tourniquet didn't hold Carlos grabbed Jeff's femoral artery and pinched it shut. Aided by another volunteer he found an ambulance.  

Photos of Carlos wearing a Costa Rican cowboy hat, a “Tough Ruck” sweatshirt, and two photo-buttons have gone round the world.  Interviewed over a hundred times, articles about Carlos now number in the thousands.

I first met Carlos and his wife Mélida in August 2011 at the Veterans for Peace convention in Miami.  They’d set up a life-sized photo of son Alexander.  In front of the photo were his empty boots.  Alexander died in 2004 while serving in the U.S. Marines.  Two years later his brother Brian, driven to depression and drugs by Alexander's death, committed suicide. Carlos and Mélida have since dedicated their efforts to honor their sons’ deaths.  

As members of Veterans for Peace (VFP) they lobby to bring troops home. They also lobby that once home the soldiers receive medical, legal, and financial care and assistance as they reinsert themselves into civilian life.

Carlos and Mélida are also members of Boston's Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline, meeting with families to reduce the incidence of suicide. They have also provided guidance to the Marines on a more respectful protocol for notifying parents when a son or daughter has died in combat. 

George Bush signed the directive giving legal residency status to undocumented parents of military personnel killed in battle.  Carlos was the first to receive it.  Later Ted Kennedy gave him his U.S. citizenship certificate.

Carlos and Mélida attended the workshop I offered at the VFP convention and were especially interested in the soon to start Caravan for Peace led across the United States by Mexican Javier Sicilia.

When I said goodbye to them in Miami, Carlos unpinned two buttons from his shirt -- one with Alexander's photo, the other of Brian -- and gave them to me.  I overheard Mélida whisper, "those were the last buttons."  I said nothing, thinking it awkward to return them but clearly understanding the special-ness of the gift.

I marched in the Veterans for Peace contingent in Boston's Veterans Day parade last year wearing the buttons.  I was delighted to see Carlos and Mélida each wearing similar buttons.  They'd made more!

Last weekend I asked Carlos "what is it that you wish those hundred interviewers had asked you, but didn't?"  He replied, "They didn't ask about Costa Rica, why I came, and how I got here."

He spoke about Costa Rica's fame as a Latin American democracy where social disputes exist but are resolved peacefully. He is proud the country did away with its armed forces. Carlos expressed his hope for a Central America with open borders. 

Though he loves Costa Rica, Carlos left home in November 1979. He hitchhiked through Central America and slipped across the Mexican border near Tapachula.  He crossed the U.S. border near Douglas, Arizona on Valentines Day 1980.  He located in Los Angeles and then moved to Boston where he married and fathered two children, Alexander and Brian.  

He told me of a job he held in Costa Rica as a clown in the bullrings at cattle fairs.  Costa Rica's version of a bullfight is similar to Mexico's "jaripeos" -- the bull is not killed.  They have added a variation of Pamplona's running of the bulls with hundreds of spectators jumping into the ring and taunting the bull.  Carlos, dressed as an American football player with all the padding and protection that goes with a football uniform -- except for a helmet -- had the job of distracting the bull to get him away from injured bullrunners.  Prophetically he was known as "El Gringo". 

When the bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line Carlos again jumped in to save the injured, but this time he was a real gringo. 

I read Carlos had visited Jeff Bauman in a Boston Hospital and given him a cowboy hat.  I feared he’d given away his signature hat, as he had given me his buttons.  “Oh no, my Costa Rican hat was too dirty and sweaty to give him.  I gave Jeff a U.S. cowboy hat!”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

John Spencer wouldn't like this

John Edward Spencer and Lady Elizabeth Brown, his lovely “Boo,” arrived in Cuernavaca in 1967.  They were traveling the country with the book "Mexico on $5 a Day" tucked under John’s arm. He read that across the street from the Cathedral there were cheap furnished apartments for rent in a building called La Casona. To their delight not only was an apartment available, it was a second story corner apartment with windows on two walls and a view of the cathedral. “How grand!” John is reported to have said. "This will be my studio; we'll live here too." When the apartment next door became available they moved into it keeping the corner apartment as John's studio. 

Neither apartment had much of a kitchen.  I first met this wonderfully eccentric English couple on a visit with Cuernavaca author May Brooks.  Boo prepared our tea using only an electric hot plate. They walked everywhere -- to art exhibits, cultural events, museums, movie theaters, banks, the post office, restaurants, and friends' homes.   Those frequenting downtown Cuernavaca came to recognize them.  Elizabeth attended St. Michael’s, the tiny English-language Anglican church. John, a Catholic convert, attended Mass at the Cathedral.

Poised and elegant, Elizabeth dressed in dark colors with her hair in a tight bun. Though quite a bit older than John she walked with her back ramrod straight. John always wore a suit coat and tie. The coat rarely matched his trousers, his shirt collar was usually frayed, and his tie askew.  Following Boo, with hunched shoulders and his hands clasped behind his back, he seemed older than Elizabeth.

John was a multifaceted artist.  Hundreds of sketchbooks were filled with his drawings.  He painted on canvas and carved river-smoothed stones with a dentist’s drill.  He created large, intricate metal sculpture.  He loved reflections.  In drawings, in oils on canvas, or in metal sculpture, the top is often the inverse of the bottom. 

John’s largest project,  "Spencer's Walls," surrounds the churchyard of the Three Kings church in northern Cuernavaca.   John was asked by a Canadian priest if he would design gates for the 17th century church.  John replied. "How can I design gates without walls?"  Spencer's many gates are marvelous pieces of metal sculpture that are often overlooked because of the immense, intriguing, fantasy of the stone walls he created to hold the gates.  

After Lady Elizabeth's death in 1986, John was distraught.  Everything in Cuernavaca reminded him of her. He needed to get away. With his rent paid ahead for just shy of two years to keep his Mexican residency permit, he left for a trip to India and Pakistan. 

Upon returning to Cuernavaca, he saw a chilling sign over the doorway of La Casona-- "Se Vende" (for sale).  John realized if the building sold he’d lose his studio and his beloved view of the cathedral.  

The man who traveled with "Mexico on $5 a Day" under his arm bought the building.  In cash.  By then La Casona hosted sixty tenement-like apartments.  John dreamed of converting the building into an art museum and cultural center for Cuernavacans and their visitors. The garden in the courtyard would be the fourth public green space in downtown Cuernavaca -- others being Revolution Park, the Borda Gardens, and the Cathedral's atrium.  His dream was so convincing that only two renters demanded financial compensation for moving out. John removed the top floor and took the building back to what it had been in the 1920s. 

When Sally Sloan, the director of the nearby Brady Museum, asked him what his plans were for La Casona, John replied "I want it to be 'The Met' of Cuernavaca." 

I was invited to John’s last birthday party on April 25, 2004.  Addressing his guests, he told us his longterm plans for La Casona.  I had a small digital camera in my pocket and filmed what he told us (you can view it at http://youtu.be/OXLXwK6Tbew). In that short video John asked us to speak up if what he wanted for La Casona wasn't being carried out after his death by saying "John wouldn't like this.  This wouldn't do for him."  

Unfortunately that’s where we are today. I've spoken up a number of times and said "John wouldn't like this."  In February I even chained myself to the entryway of La Casona during the inauguration of the exhibit "Instruments of Torture and Capital Punishment."  It is hard for me to imagine an exhibit that goes more counter to gentle John’s wishes than one displaying instruments of torture in his and Boo's bedroom.  

I feel certain that funding is available for “Cuernavaca's Met” if the expatriate community supports John Spencer's vision for La Casona. I have the required legal documents to make this happen.  However a positive public opinion is needed to pressure for such change. I know John Spencer would be delighted if we join to get La Casona, his legacy, back on track.  

Happy birthday Dear John!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sergio Méndez Arceo award

You are invited to a marvelous and festive convergence in Cuernavaca on
Saturday, April 20! Two Tarahumara ‘sacerdotes’ (priests) will descend from the north accompanying Estela Angeles Mondragón. From the southeast will come the heroic and much admired Las Patronas, women whose town, La Patrona, straddles the railroad tracks in coastal and tropical Veracruz. The event is the 21st annual Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize awards ceremony.

Sergio Mendez Arceo was the seventh bishop of Cuernavaca. During a thirty-year tenure (1952 to 1982), Don Sergio was an outspoken advocate for the respect of human rights. He put the Diocese of Cuernavaca on the map in church circles around the world. His Sunday sermons – often bordering on current events talks --covered topics as diverse as the dirty wars of the southern cone of South America, the Central American civil wars, affronts to human rights in the Diocese of Cuernavaca and in Mexico in general. He even talked about the atrocities carried out in the Viet-Nam war and racial discrimination and Indian reservations in the United States.

Beloved by his people, Bishop Mendez Arceo retired at age 75 in 1982 and lived another ten years as bishop emeritus. The Sergio Mendez Arceo prizes have been given out yearly since his death in 1992. Currently it is an award given in two categories -- individual and group.

Estela Angeles Mondragón is to receive the individual award for her work defending the rights of Tarahumara to their land. Neighboring cattle ranchers have invaded land ceded to the Tarahumara as ejido land by presidential decree in 1928. Estela's legal expertise, perseverance, and commitment to the cause of the Raramuri (the name that the Tarahumara prefer to be called) has led to winning 17 of 32 lawsuits filed. Over 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) have been recovered. Fifteen lawsuits are still pending and may result in the return of 12,000 additional hectares.

The Sergio Mendez Arceo group award is going to Las Patronas. This group of women prepares meals for 200 people, day in and day out. Mealtime is not announced with a dinner bell, but rather by the loud train horn blown by the engineer at the controls of La Bestia (The Beast). Las Patronas feed the people riding on top of the northbound freight train as it lumbers through La Patrona, Veracruz. Their guests are unknown to them. The travelers grab from the women's hands plastic bags filled with rice and beans each tied to a bottle of water. The clickety-clack sound of the train wheels on the track is interspersed with shouts of thanks from the men, women, and children on the train.

For the most part the people riding La Bestia are Central Americans on their way north to the Unites States. They hope to slip across the U.S. border as undocumented migrants, in the same way as they entered Mexico from Guatemala or Belize. Not having a visa for travel in Mexico leaves La Bestia as one of the few means of transportation available to them. Their only food is what they carried with them when they jumped aboard or that given to them by Las Patronas or other similar groups along the way.

In thinking about the travelers atop La Bestia we must celebrate the Associated
Press' announcement this month that its Stylebook no longer sanctions the use of the word "illegal" to describe a person; it should "describe only an action."

Each year I look forward to the privilege of being a member of the jury that votes for the Sergio Mendez Arceo Prize winners. The protocol and rules to be followed -- never knowing how the vote will go, yet confident that the jury's choice will be a good one -- is all of an intensity difficult to describe. On the first two votes the winner must win by 50% plus 1. Yes, people talk about it as white smoke and black smoke. Indeed it is the closest I'll ever get to the feeling that must accompany a papal conclave.

Saturday's events will begin with a Human Rights Forum that starts at 10:00 a.m. followed by lunch on site and the awards ceremony at 4:00 p.m. It will all take place in the recently refurbished Centro Cultural Universitario, Avenida Morelos No. 180 in downtown Cuernavaca (the southwest corner of the city block on which the Cuernavaca Cathedral is located). There is no charge for any of the events. If you can't make it to the forum, you will still be welcome at the awards ceremony.

Last year's prize winner, Javier Sicilia, the leader of the Movement for Peace and
Justice with Dignity, will give this years prize to Estela Angeles Mondragón. In addition to that he will be one of several featured speakers in the morning forum titled "Human Rights:  Challenges and Hope." The forum's closing talk will be by Daniel Zapico, Amnesty International's representative in Mexico.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mexican education

April 9, 2013

Mexico's constitution is long -- 136 articles -- and goes into great detail. Article 1 states  who and what are subject to the authority and protection of the constitution, shows respect for human rights and international treaties, and prohibits slavery. Article 2 recognizes the indivisible nature of the nation, its multiethnic nature, the rights of indigenous peoples' social, economic, political and cultural organization. Right on the heels comes Article 3, which states that the government will provide free and obligatory education that instills national and patriotic pride, democratic ideals, without association with any religion.

Being included in the nation's constitution makes education a federal government responsibility. This is very different from the U.S. where the constitution does not even mention education.  The original 1917 version of Mexico's constitution made education free and obligatory through sixth grade.  In the 1990's that was extended to ninth grade.  In the early 2000's a tenth grade was added at the beginning of a child's educational program -- preschool.

2013 brings its own constitutional change in education.  President Peña Nieto sent the Constitutional amendment to congress in December 2012. Known as the Educational Reform, the bill was approved by both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.  Since it involved changes in Article 3 of the Constitution it was then sent to the state chambers of deputies for the required approval by two thirds of the state legislatures.  It was ratified as a constitutional amendment that went into effect on February 25, within the first hundred days of the new administration!

The rules that will be used to implement the new law have yet to be written.  Although the basic structure of the educational system will remain the same, the new guidelines require that public school teachers pass an evaluation by an autonomous institution that will be set up for that purpose.  Will those that do not pass be laid off?  Or will they be retrained?  That is yet to be determined.

The Educational Reform requires that a census of teachers employed by the federal government be carried out.  There are over a million teachers affiliated to the teacher's union -- the largest labor union in Latin America.  However, there is no accurate count of the teachers employed by the federal government nor is there a census of public schools or a rating of the quality of the buildings, supplies, and installations. It will no longer be the teachers' union that will evaluate the competence of public school teachers. Under the new rules principals are expected to have discretionary control over spending taking into account each school's needs. 

As with any change, the Educational Reform has generated discontent in sections of the teacher's union (SNTE), especially in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca where teachers have been blocking traffic on major highways as a way of demonstrating opposition to the changes.

Although children's test scores do not compare well with their peers in other countries, the textbooks used in Mexican schools do receive kudos. All schools, be they public or private, are required to use the federally issued Libro de Texto Gratuito (Free Textbook) series in grades 1 through 6.  The whole country is moving through the textbook series at the same pace. The exceptions would be classes in bilingual classrooms for Indigenous children.  Lesson plans, tests, and examinations are all included in the free textbook series.  Teachers using the series are much like technicians following pre-designed instructions.  

In grades 7 through 9 -- known as first, second, and third years of "secundaria" --schools have some leeway in choosing their textbooks, however they must be chosen from among those approved by the Secretariat of Public Education.

In grades 10 through 12 -- first, second, and third years of "preparatoria" -- Mexican students start specializing.  They may choose a professional track leading to college or attend technical, vocational, nursing, or normal schools.  In English, the term "normal school" isn't used much any more, but in Mexico it is the designated term for teachers training schools.  Until the 1990's graduates of normal schools with a twelfth grade education entered the labor market with a teachers' certificate for grades 1 through 6.  Now they are required to also complete a three-year licenciatura (bachelor's degree) program concurrently with their first years of teaching.

Normal schools are scattered throughout the country.  Many are boarding schools located in rural areas where they constitute the only institution of higher learning for miles around.  Although they offer students full scholarships including room and board on campus they are on extremely restricted budgets.  Heartwarming stories emerge from them about students taking turns preparing meals for their classmates, stretching the food budget, dealing with bureaucratic and teachers' union red tape. 

The relative ease with which a teachers' certificate can be obtained, coupled with job security offered by Mexican labor law, the perks associate with federal government employment, and a teachers' union that has played a strong role in making placement assignments leads to an understandably strong opposition to Educational Reform among public school teachers.

It is going to be interesting to follow the Educational Reform.  It will be a major factor in determining Mexico's future.