Tuesday, November 26, 2013

JFK’s killer tied with Mexico

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I had the unusual opportunity to meet and spend a good part of the day with Jeremy Gunn, Executive Director of the 1994-98 Assassination Reference Review Board.

If you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK”, you may remember that in the very last scene it refers to tens of thousands of government records that are in the U.S. National Archives and in government agencies that have not been released to the public. U.S. Congressman from Ohio Louis Stokes watched the movie with his daughter.  After the film his daughter asked, “Daddy, why don’t you do something about that?”

Stokes acted on his daughter’s challenge. He was pivotal in enacting the law that established the Assassination Reference Review Board in 1992, a few months after the film’s release in December 1991.  The Board was tasked with tracking down every government agency document referring to the Kennedy assassination and making it available to the public – including documents held by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA). The Review Board had considerable powers to declassify documents.
Documents that remained classified will be available to the public in 2017.  

By coincidence Dr. Gunn and I were both presenting talks at the University of New England in Portland Maine organized by Dr. Anouar Majid, UNE’s Vice President for Global Affairs and Director of the Center for Global Humanities.  My lunch-time talk was titled “Who was Quetzalcoatl?”  I got to speak of Mesoamerican mythology and the intrigue in the council of gods as they determined how to create the fifth sun and its accompanying fifth humanity of which we are part. I also spoke about Toltec Emperor Ce-Acatl Topilzin Quetzalcoatl who departed from Tula in 999 A.D. – promising to return someday -- a beloved leader who exited at the age of 52, not much older than Kennedy.

In his evening talk, Dr. Gunn walked us through how the Assassination Reference Review Board had done its work. He talked about the numerous witnesses they deposed, some for the first time, and the reams of documents they scoured. Many of their findings contradicted the Warren Report, the report generated by The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy set up by President Johnson just days after the assassination.

Dr. Gunn told us the Warren Commission report “did a disservice to the American people.” He compared the report to a “prosecutor’s brief against Lee Harvey Oswald.” He said that based on the Warren Report, Oswald could not have been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Dr. Gunn added that through its gaps and contradictions, the Warren Report “gave life to conspiracy theories” -- of which he named several.  I found it interesting that prominent among them were the ones set in Mexico City during the period of Cold War intrigue in the early 1960s.

According to Dr. Gunn, at that time Mexico City was the “spy capital of the world. Americans, Europeans, Soviet, Chinese, Czechs were all spying on each other.” 

He said the CIA had the Soviet and Cuban embassies under intense surveillance, recording the calls on most of the phone lines going into both embassies and photographing every person entering and leaving those embassy buildings. In theory at least, every person entering the Soviet or Cuban embassy was photographed from the back upon entering and in front view upon exiting.  

That’s why Dr. Gunn considered it strange that there were no photos of Lee Harvey Oswald at those embassies. Eight weeks before the Kennedy assassination Oswald had traveled to Mexico City.  Oswald entered the Cuban and Soviet embassies here seven times.  In theory the CIA should have 14 photos of Oswald. However the CIA produced no photos of him to show to the Assassination Reference Review Board.  The photo surveillance system seems to not have been operational at either embassy while Oswald was in Mexico City.  

Yet it is known that Oswald met with Valery Kostiakov in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City seven weeks before the assassination of President Kennedy. Kostiakov was attached to infamous Department 13 of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, specializing in sabotage and assassination.

During that trip Oswald was photographed at a party in Mexico City with Cuban diplomats. Cuban diplomats had close relationships with members of Mexico’s Communist Party, some of whom also attended the same party. They were later horrified to discover they had been at a party with Kennedy’s accused assassin.

At my talk on Quetzalcoatl I was asked if there was any more to the story of the historic character Ce-Acatl Topilzin Quetzalcoatl. One story has it that he set off from Veracruz on a raft in 999 A.D. sailing east – becoming the planet Venus when he touched the horizon.  When Hernan Cortez landed on the same shores in 1519 many thought that Ce-Acatl had returned. Using that to his advantage, along with alliances made with the Aztecs’ enemies, Cortez must have generated spying and intrigue that was not equaled until the 1960s, in what is now Mexico City.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Alma Reed: Beloved ‘Peregrina’

Forty-seven years ago today Alma Reed (1889-Nov. 20, 1966) wrote and delivered her last column for “The News.” In celebration of the Revolution, it was to be published the following day, November 20. Alma wrote of revolutionary ideals, it’s martyrs and heroes. She’d known many of these; one in particular traveled in her heart. Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s (1872-1924) photo was, as always, beside her typewriter as she wrote. Their story is one of the great love stories of Mexico — immortalized in the popular ballad “Peregrina.”

A native Californian journalist, Alma Reed, wrote a popular column in the “San Francisco Call.” Unabashedly progressive, Alma used that forum to fight against poverty, injustice and the death penalty. After her successful campaign in 1921 to save a 17-year-old Mexican national from death row, President Álvaro Obregón gratefully invited her to be Mexico’s honored guest. Though Alma spoke little Spanish she recognized her name and was thrilled in Aguascalientes when mariachi sang “Alma de mi Alma” outside her railcar, assuming it was for her they sang. When her Spanish improved she self-deprecatingly told the humiliating story to the delight of many new admirers. It’s part of La Peregrina’s legend.

Alma returned to the U.S. with one goal — an assignment in Mexico. In 1923, as a passionate amateur archeologist, she was offered a position with “The New York Times Sunday Supplement.” Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the new governor of Yucatán had opened a road to Chichén Itzá and the Carnegie Institute was sending an exploratory survey team. The assignment surpassed her wildest dreams.

As a colonel in Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary army, Carrillo Puerto started his work on behalf of peasants and working poor in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Now, elected governor of Yucatán, he had power to implement the ideals of the Revolution, including an obligation to uplift indigenous people. It was his hope to restore Maya pride by opening magnificent Maya ruins to tourism, supplementing the hemp-dependent Yucatecan economy. Alma’s initial interview with Governor Felipe Carrillo was love at first sight. “We were non-dogmatic humanistic socialists with shared passion for the underdog, reform, justice, the Maya.” Despite the Governor’s married state they were also rapidly inseparable.

Famed, eccentric archeologist Edward Thompson had begun excavations in Yucatán in 1885. He owned a dilapidated hacienda used to house the survey team. Thompson liked young Alma and promised to provide her with a real “scoop” before she left. In fact it was a confession. For years Thompson had been “removing” immense treasure from Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote and sending it to his benefactors at the Peabody Museum in Boston. He put his “confession” in writing and the greatest story of Alma’s professional life was headlines.

Despite a near constant proximity, Alma tried to maintain distance from her soul-mate, the charismatic, handsome governor. She left Mexico knowing she loved and was loved but vowing never to return. Her triumphant return to New York with the Peabody story only increased her popularity in Mexico.

The New York Times sent her back. Newly divorced Felipe appeared and proposed. Alma joyously accepted agreeing to meet him in Mérida.

Aboard ship a storm arose; despite violent winds, at midnight she heard a lovely melody, opened her cabin-door and found a trio strapped to the railings as they inaugurated “Peregrina.” Yucatecans — esteemed poet Luis Rosado Vega and famed composer Ricardo Palmerín — had written the song at Felipe’s request. It achieved overnight popularity.

Wanderer of clear and divine eyes
and cheeks aflame like clouds at sunrise,
little woman of the red lips,
and hair radiant as the sun.
Traveler who left your own scenes,
the fir trees and the virginal snow,
and came to find refuge in the palm groves
under the sky of my land, my tropical land.
The singing birds of my fields,
offer their voices when they see you,
and the flowers with perfumed nectar
caress and kiss you on lips and temples.
When you leave my palm groves and my land,
traveler of enchanting looks,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my land,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my love.

Alma and Felipe enjoyed two months together before Alma’s October return to San Francisco to plan for their Jan. 14 wedding. They wrote every day until Alma received word of serious political problems in Mexico; all communication with Yucatán was abruptly severed. Felipe, three of his brothers and other comrades faced a firing squad Jan. 3, 1924. His last act was to give the soldier charged with killing him the wedding ring he held for his beloved Alma with instructions to be sure it was received.

Alma always loved Mexico and returned in the 50s to live and work here until her 1966 death — receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1961. She heard “Peregrina” thousands of times throughout her long life. There are stories of musicians interrupting whatever they were playing to launch into “Peregrina” whenever Alma entered a room.

Felipe is buried in Mérida at the Socialist Rotunda. Alma is buried across the path.“Peregrina” lives on. No matter where you are in Mexico, tomorrow is a grand day to request it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chopra, Dawkins discuss religion

Charles Darwin published “The Origins of the Species” in 1859. Sixty-six years later John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a state-funded school in Tennessee. I was reminded just how powerful evolution and other ideas can be when I attended the International Festival of the World’s Brilliant Minds in Puebla this past weekend.

Held in the crisp, modern Complejo Cultural Universitario in the southwest of Puebla, 3500 people gathered for the three-day City of Ideas event. This year’s theme was “Dangerous Ideas.” Seventy-seven speakers presented — most of them in English — on a wide diversity of topics.

Evolution was the topic of a debate between author Deepak Chopra and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. They wrangled with the questions of whether life has a purpose, is religion good or bad for humanity, and what is the relationship between science and spirituality.

I was pleased that one of my heroes, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones, was on the program. At age 15 Quiñones crossed into the United States from Mexicali sans documents to pick vegetables on California’s farms. Now he is the world renowned “Dr. Q,” chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. As part of his presentation he projected a video of a brain pulsating to the rhythm of the patient’s heart. “It’s a dance in which I, and my surgical team, must stay in close step with that beating heart.”

Dr. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy told us about Barefoot College he founded. Dr. Roy travels to the least-developed countries and selects grandmothers who will study in India for six months and return to their communities as solar electricity engineers. To be considered for enrollment the grandmothers must be illiterate and from remote communities that do not have electricity. They are taught by illiterate instructors and return home transformed into “tigers,” able to electrify their whole village with solar panels. “They know how to fabricate, install, repair, and maintain community solar electrical systems.”

Dr. Roy explained the philosophy behind the Barefoot College. “If you want to change the quality of life of very poor people anywhere in the world, it is important that you take the communities into confidence. Never underestimate the power of poor people who don’t know how to read and write — they are capable of miracles.”

A number of young people also presented their ideas. Sixteen-year-old Jack Andraka described his paper-based sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer in five minutes at a cost of three cents. Eighteen-year-old Puebla resident Alberto Brian Fernández presented his invention based on bats’ echo location ability: a glove that makes it possible for a blind person to detect objects or walk through a crowd without anyone realizing she or he is blind.

Argentine David Konsevik described his Revolution of Expectations theory. He told us that with successes come new expectations. An example he offered was Brazil’s success pulling millions out of poverty under recent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Instead of being complacently appreciative of their new financial success, the former poor have created a political crisis for President Dilma Rousseff by demanding a cleanup of corruption and better quality social services.

Except when set up as a boxing ring for a debate, the stage was devoid of podiums or props of any kind. It was a rare presenter who used notes — though I did see a teleprompter at floor level. Speakers moved from off-stage to center stage by standing still on what seemed to me to be a magic carpet.

A portion of the program titled “Mex-I-can” celebrated Mexican successes on the world scene in science and arts. Molecular geneticist Elena Álvarez-Buylla spoke on the evolution of plants and the importance of protecting corn’s gene pool. Ballerina Elisa Carrillo danced, accompanied by an off-stage piano. When the ballet presentation was over, the piano moved to center stage on the magic carpet. That’s when we saw that the pianist was Abdiel Vázquez, who continued playing for 21 minutes — the time allotted to each presenter.

The tireless master of ceremonies was Andrés Roemer, founder and curator of the Brilliant Minds — City of Ideas Festival. He introduced the presenters during the three-day events, taking a break only during the “under-eighteen” section of the program. His son, also Andrés, introduced those speakers.

Heart-rending accounts were told. Simon Aban Deng told of being enslaved as a child in Sudan. Joseph Kim, orphaned by famine in North Korea, told of his escape to China. Manal Al-Sharif told us she receives frequent death threats for challenging Saudi Arabia’s ban of women drivers.
On the lighter side the Brilliant Minds conference included a magician, a pick-pocket and an art forger, each demonstrating his ability.

It was a wonderfully refreshing weekend of learning for the sake of learning. I’m told that in a few months all the presentations will be shown in movie theaters. After that they will be available online. Keep next year’s festival in mind as a unique, world-class event in English. You can get on their email list at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pixie: A versatile star

Madonna. Sting. Bono. We know them by one name only. They’re the superstars who’ve achieved such recognition they no longer need more of an introduction. For 50 years Mexico has had “Pixie,” the famously talented fashion-setting singer, actress, and clothing designer.

Pixie was born in Singapore while her father served in the British Colonial Medical Service. Named Angela Jean Hopkin she was called Pixie from birth. The first 12 years of her life she lived in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Ireland. After World War II and her father’s release from a Japanese Changi war prison in Singapore, the family returned to England.

Pixie finished school and studied theater in London’s Central School of Art. After working in repertory theater for a few years, Pixie was chosen to go to Dallas to participate in the opening of the only theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There she met a captivating Mexican phenomena, and her legendary life in Mexico began.

Pixie arrived in Mexico in 1963 on the arm of her Mexican fiancée, soon to be husband, film and theater director Juan José Gurrola (1935-2007). Coincidentally Gurrola too was known by only one name.

Pixie co-starred in the award-winning film Tajimara (1965). Written by Juan García Ponce and directed by Gurrola, Tajimara has a vignette scene featuring many Mexican actors, writers and artists appearing as themselves. Talking about the movie Pixie laughed and said, “every time one of these artists die the movie reappears on TV.”

Though Gurrola was a major part of Pixie’s early Mexico years, she also starred in both Mexican and U.S. movies under other directors — Mariana (1967), Candy Man (1968), and a singing role in Patsy Mi Amor (1969). At the time Pixie also sang professionally. She was the first to sing Beatles songs in Mexico and was the star of the show called “2+8 en Pop.”

Pixie fondly recalls the 1960s as the “Gurrola years,” a great period for Mexico’s creative arts and intellectualism. “Everyone knew everyone else. We worked together, played together, and had a wonderful time. It was pre-Tlalteloco and Mexico seemed the best place in the world to be.”

By 1969 Pixie had divorced Gurrola and was partnered with theater entrepreneur Alfredo Elías Calles, grandson of Plutarco Elías Calles. Alfredo cast Pixie in the avant-garde Mexican production of “Hair,” a tribal love-rock musical. Because of nudity and its satirical references to religion and morality, “Hair” was closed by the government the day after it opened. Most of the performers were arrested. “Through notoriety we became an instant family and have remained so,” Pixie said.

In a not-so-successful attempt to become low-profile, Alfredo and Pixie started a wig and eyelash company in the 1970’s called “Pixie.” It was an immediate success with 50 stores opened throughout Mexico. Pixie was invited to be on the TV program Siempre en Domingo and for four years shared time with Raul Velasco. New wigs and lashes were introduced every Sunday in lavish, campy, often comic musical numbers featuring Pixie. She was a sensation and by the end of those years recognized throughout Mexico as simply “Pixie.”

Pixie also designed clothes for these shows. “People started calling to ask where they could buy them. Thus ‘Pixie Fashion,’ a line of hip fashion clothes, was born,” she says. “Soon I had a number of stores in Mexico City. The Polanco mother-store, designed by British architect of BIBA fame Whitmore Thomas, was especially forward — a fashion destination.” The Pixie line was sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstroms as well as various British stores.

Pixie began working with the upscale Mexican department store chain Palacio de Hierro in 2002 and is currently a sub-director. “I love my work. I work with young, talented and excited artists. I remain passionate about fashion and hope to instill that spirit in them.”

Palacio de Hierro has turned its downtown Mexico City store into a museum of its own history celebrating of its 125th anniversary. One of the windows honors the “Pixie Years.” I toured the whole exhibition last Thursday with Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins. It is a fascinating review of Mexico over the last 125 years as lived by the “rich and famous” — only interrupted in 1914 when a fire conveniently closed the store for the remainder of the revolutionary decade.

Pixie’s 50th year in Mexico is being celebrated far and wide. In October she was featured in the fashion magazine Elle, popular  Quien, Women’s Wear Daily and enjoyed appearances in various other media.

“Mexico has been very good to me. It’s given me an amazing life, my beautiful daughter Gabriela Gurrola, and work I continue to love. I wake up each day excited about what new fashion trend I may discover,” she says. Despite all the years in Mexico, her heart is still Irish and she returns each vacation to her family home in Kinsale.

Women’s Wear Daily’s article about Pixie was titled “Pixie Dust.” May Pixie continue to spread that magic Pixie dust on Mexico.