Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The power of the flag

On most afternoons at 5:45 p.m., an army band leads a parade out of the National Palace onto the Zócalo in Mexico City to retire the Mexican flag for the night. I try to make the flag lowering ceremony the last event of the day on my field-study trips to that part of town.

The size of the flag flown in the Zócalo is such that it takes sixteen soldiers to roll it up while all the time keeping it from touching the ground. On windy days I’ve seen soldiers lifted off their feet trying to wrestle the flag. It can seem humorous to watch soldiers trying to maintain the composure required of a military operation while trying to control a huge flag flapping in the wind. I caution members of my groups to keep a serious face throughout the event since Mexicans near them might think they were laughing at the ceremony.

Not only do I enjoy the well-rehearsed nature of the military exercise, it’s also a way for foreigners to experience, first-hand, the deep respect Mexicans have for their flag. In many countries, including northern North American and western European nations, national flags are featured on beach blankets, drink coasters and items of clothing including underwear. You won’t see that in Mexico.

I’ve been to many political demonstrations in Mexico and I’ve never once seen the Mexican flag defaced or burned. Groups from the entire political spectrum seem to agree on their respect for the flag. From left to right, political groups often begin their meetings or events by honoring the flag.

During its first year of operations in Mexico, a misguided attempt by McDonald’s to honor Mexico’s flag went awry. The fast-food chain attempted to join in September’s Independence celebrations by making the flag the design of its placemats. Imagine patrons spilling catsup and mustard on the placemats and then wadding them up and throwing them in the trash. This lasted for approximately four hours before all McDonald’s restaurants were closed down. They remained closed for three days and then fined.

Flags are very potent symbols. After the horrific recent massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, African American Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole outside the South Carolina statehouse to remove the Confederate battle flag. She did this knowing she risked imprisonment.

In Washington D.C. last week, Cuba re-opened its embassy with a flag ceremony. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez raised the same flag that flew over that building the day President John F. Kennedy broke diplomatic relations. Rodríguez was 3 years old then. Raising that flag even required a new flagpole be installed no flag had flown over the building during the 54 years relations were severed.

On the same day thousands waited on the streets of Havana for the U.S. flag to appear on the U.S. Embassy. Their vigil was disappointed. The U.S. State Department announced it is waiting until Secretary of State John Kerry is present next month to raise the U.S. flag.

I’m celebrating the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in a special way. My father and mother were Presbyterian missionaries deeply involved in Latin American justice issues. In 1972 they prepared a white paper for the United Presbyterian Church USA’s Task Force on U.S.-Cuba Relations. In the 1990s they supported Reverend Lucius Walker and Pastors for Peace, a social-justice organization that repeatedly challenged the U.S. embargo against Cuba in an effort to provide that country essential humanitarian supplies, sometimes through Mexico, other times through Canada.

In 1992, I joined Pastors for Peace’s caravan to move donated medical equipment, humanitarian supplies, and Bibles from Laredo, Texas to Tampico, Mexico to be transported to Cuba. It was an open challenge of U.S. Congressman Robert Torricelli’s so-called Cuban Democracy Act that prohibited travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. It also prohibited trade with Cuba even by foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies.

Four weeks after the Torricelli Bill went into effect, U.S. customs officers wrestled clergymen in clerical collars to the ground on the Texas side of the border merely for attempting to carry Bibles across. By contrast, in Mexico, the Federal Chamber of Deputies voted unanimously to instruct immigration officials to expedite our entry into Mexico, and for Federal Highway Police to offer our caravan assistance to reach the port of Tampico where a Cuban freighter awaited our supplies.

When word arrived at our camp that the U.S. Customs Service had relented and would allow us to continue our journey, without requesting or accepting export permits, I was fortunate to lead the convoy of 44 vehicles into Mexico. The celebratory honking horns of our motley caravan sounded like a marching band to me that night.

The next day I found myself featured in the New York Times perched atop the lead pickup waving a flag. That photo hangs in my office as a proud reminder of the power of a flag.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Mariachi Mass

On July 14, 1957, a 16th-century Franciscan church in the heart of Cuernavaca was consecrated as the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Diocese of Cuernavaca. Church dignitaries came from near and far to celebrate in the newly renovated sanctuary.

Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo later recounted, “When it was all over I bought all available newspapers to see how the press had covered the consecration. Only then did I realize the coincidence of the date; it was the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. How appropriate! The storming of the Bastille was a liberating experience for the people of France; the renovation of the interior of Cuernavaca’s cathedral is a liberating experience for the people of the Diocese of Cuernavaca. We got rid of the excess clutter and can get down to the basics of what Christian life should be about.”

Ten years later, in 1967, Don Sergio decided that old European organ music was out of cultural context. He ratcheted up the joyous nature of the Mass by inviting mariachi groups to take turns playing in the cathedral. Now commonly referred to as the Mariachi Mass, its proper name is the Panamerican Mass and it started in Cuernavaca. Four of Don Sergio’s successors continued this tradition; the current bishop cancelled the popular weekly event.

Last week I was delighted to learn from Edward Priest, a Massachusetts native with a thick Boston accent, that a few blocks away in Cuernavaca’s Guadalupe church the Mariachi Mass is still celebrated every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. He should know. Ed is a mariachi and plans his trips to Cuernavaca around Sundays. In 2009 he started playing with the mariachis in the Cathedral.

Ed is a middle school French and Spanish teacher in Falmouth, Massachusetts as well as a musician in his own right. For nearly 20 years he has been coming to Cuernavaca every other year to improve his Spanish. His musicianship earned him the friendship and acceptance of many of Cuernavaca’s mariachi musicians.

Last Friday I interviewed Ed in Cuernavaca’s downtown zocálo. Dressed in his black “charro” suit, he was with other members of the Charros de Morelos waiting to be contracted for a party or serenade.

Each time Ed returns to Mexico he brings with him a hardbound book self-published through Shutterfly.com of photos taken on his previous trip. A photo in his current book caught my eye. Ed and some of his friends are at a going-away party being serenaded by a guitarist. The caption read, “Juan gave me the music of my very good friend Joaquin.”

Juan knew Ed really appreciated Joaquín’s guitar-playing and singing skills. The gift was not a CD or recording. Instead, Juan paid Joaquín to play at Ed’s table for an hour. During that hour, Joaquín was not a guest at the table. He was serenading Ed.

This may seem like an unusual relationship to music but is subtlety present in many Mexican venues even in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, where one goes to find mariachi for a serenade (seven songs) or per-hour for a party.

Mariachis can also be hired to play a single song or several songs in the plaza itself. In that case the audience may be a couple, a family, or a group of friends sitting on a park bench. Sometimes the mariachis are playing to a car and the people inside it. I’ve even had them get on board a tour bus to play Las Mañanitas for travelers celebrating a birthday.

Invariably passersby gather to listen to the music. In most any other country those gathered around would applaud each song. Mexico’s protocol is different those that listen-in just walk away. They’re eavesdropping on someone else’s music. Had they not liked it they wouldn’t have stopped to listen. But it is not ‘their’ music to applaud.

This understanding of “owning” music existed in Mexico long before copyrights became a source of income for musicians from the Internet. In mariachi or trio performances, the owner is the listener, not the singer or even the composer. In an open plaza setting the “one who pays the piper” has temporarily become the owner of space in the most public of places.
Yet in restaurants, where roaming musicians charge patrons per song, the whole restaurant often applauds each song. In this case, the “one who pays the piper” offers the music to those in the restaurant, taking them into account much as he or she would say “buen provecho” to those at another table upon arriving or departing.

Ed Priest now has two charro suits, black and grey. In addition to the Mass he plays parties and gigs with the other mariachis. He summed up the way music has opened doors for him in Mexico, “I feel deeply honored to be included as a mariachi and now play with a Puerto Rican group when I’m home. Music is a universal language that helps bridge cultural differences.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The secret of the guacamayas

I have been leading trips in Mexico and Central America for 40 years. I never get tired of it. It’s like theater.

I’m like an actor presenting to a group, giving them enough information to come to their own informed conclusions. Except in my case my audience talks back. They ask questions that lead deeper into topics and off on tangents. I incorporate changes based on the response I get from the group I’m leading.

And each trip I add something new to keep it fresh for us all. But it can be challenging to take people places I’ve never been myself and have the theater proceed smoothly. Like the time I took an Interhostel group from New Hampshire to Costa Rica.

Oldemar Alvarez was our bus driver. He seemed young to be driving a big tour bus and in charge of its maintenance. However, I quickly realized he knew his country well and had a keen eye for wildlife. He was able to spot monkeys, sloths, and identify birds and plants from the driver’s seat.

The trip’s itinerary took us further along the Pacific coast than I had gone before. As we left San José I told Oldemar we were going to a place that was new for me. I knew he understood the theater involved in group travel. Getting to a place is as much a part of a tour as the destination.

Seated in the jump seat in the front of the bus, I quietly told Oldemar, “If you tell me something I consider of interest to the group I’ll pass it on to the group. But if I do so it will be without giving you credit for the information. I can’t be saying, ‘Oldemar told me this or that.’ They’ll wonder, why isn’t Oldermar talking on the mic and Charlie at the wheel?”

I asked him if he was agreeable to that. He said he would be on one condition. When he told me something I would have to pass it on to the group.

My policy is to never relay information to a group I am leading without first verifying its accuracy. I’m even careful to tell a group when I translate for a Spanish speaker I will faithfully translate whatever the speaker says, but even though it is in my voice that they hear it, it is not ‘me’ who is speaking.

But there was something about Oldemar that made me trust him. I agreed to his terms.

We were well into the drive when Oldemar turned to me and said, “Tell the group that around the next curve we are going to see crocodiles.” I took the microphone and confidently told the group that around the curve were crocodiles. And sure enough, as we crossed a bridge after the curve we looked down into the river and saw dozens of very large crocodiles.

It was an amazing sight, though sad to see because the crocodiles congregate in the Tárcoles river because it carries San José’s sewage to the Pacific.

For having trusted Oldemar and passing on that information to the group, he rewarded me kilometers ahead as we approached the Carara National Park.

He said, “Charlie, people come from all over the world to see the scarlet macaws in this national park. They hike into the park for two or three hours in each direction. Some see the bright red long-tailed parrots. Most don’t. Since you trusted me about the crocodiles, I’m going to trust you with a secret I discovered while waiting for groups of birdwatchers to return to the bus. I’m only sharing this because you’re not Costa Rican and I know you won’t be giving this information away and spoiling the serenity of the place for the guacamayas.”

“Tell the group we’re going to be seeing guacamayas.”

I confidently told the group we are going to see scarlet macaws. Oldemar parked the bus and we looked down the length of a valley. There in the distance we saw a pair of guacamayas coming and going to their nest. It was a marvelous sight.

From then on every trip to Costa Rica included Oldemar driving the bus. He’s changed bus companies for better pay from time to time, but I always track him down and rent from the company he works with on the condition that he be our driver.

Last week I called Oldemar in San José, Costa Rica, and asked him if I could share our story. He agreed. He said the location of the guacamayas is no longer a secret. The park service constructed a platform for that pair of scarlet macaws.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Discovering the past

Cuernavaca resident Dorothy Wick called me in 2013 as she was preparing for a trip to Cuba. Dorothy knows that I have an extensive library at the Cemanahuac Educational Community. She was wondering if I had Tad Szulc’s “Fidel: A Critical Portrait,” published in 1986. I told her I did.

When Dorothy opened to the title page the label revealed it was she who had donated the book to the library. Another notation revealed it had originally belonged to Cedric Belfrage, co-founder of the radical “The National Guardian” in New York City.

The fact this book on Cuba had been purchased by a British-born journalist and then passed through the hands of a New York University librarian to me is not that surprising. Mexico has been the chosen home of many international intellectuals.

Cedric Belfrage was born in London in 1904. As a young Cambridge student of privileged background, Belfrage was attracted to liberal thinking. He traveled to Hollywood, California; soon finding success as a film critic and writer. He joined the Communist Party in the United States for a few months prior to World War II. During WWII he served Great Britain as a liaison with then ally, the USSR. That service, and his brief membership in the Communist Party would come back to bite him hard.

After the war, Belfrage and friend James Aronson co-founded “The National Guardian,” a radical-left weekly paper headquartered in New York City.

With the inception of the Cold War and its ensuing paranoia, the United States began to look for Communism in all liberal institutions, particularly in Hollywood and among the U.S. intelligentsia. The House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) grew increasingly powerful.

The only way to satisfy the committee was to name names of “fellow-Communists.” Many innocent men and women were accused; many imprisoned. Even if not convicted, an accusation was often sufficed to be blacklisted the end of any possibility of employment in Hollywood.

There were few who stood up to the committee. Cedric Belfrage did and his reward was deportation from the United States to Great Britain. He almost immediately chose to live in Mexico.

To avoid testifying before the HUAC a number of U.S. citizens also relocated to the welcoming Mexico; a colony of U.S. intellectuals formed in both Cuernavaca and Mexico City.

In 1950 10 of Hollywood’s premier writers were called before the HUAC. On U.S. Constitutional grounds the Hollywood Ten refused to answer any questions regarding their political beliefs and affiliations. They were all imprisoned. In 1954, at the height of the “Red Scare,” the United States banned the Communist Party and made membership illegal. The ranks of U.S. citizens in Mexico and abroad swelled.

Those who self-exiled to Mexico continued to produce movies, books, and screenplays using pseudonyms. Three of the Hollywood Ten were friends of Cedric Belfrage and lived in Mexico for at least a decade. Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz and Herbert Lieberman continued to work, even winning major awards under other names. They were regular visitors at the Cedric and his wife Mary’s home and gardens in Cuernavaca.

For 30 years, the Belfrage home high on a ridge overlooking downtown Cuernavaca with a privileged view of snowcapped Popocatépetl functioned as a B&B. It was only thinly disguised in Carlos Fuentes’ novel “The Years with Laura Diaz,” as an “asylum for political convalescents.” Fuentes describes Sunday afternoons and Mary Belfrage’s weekly rite of “preparing a bottomless bowl of spaghetti for all the dispossessed, all comers.”

When he died, Cedric Belfrage left his archives and personal papers to New York University. In 1991, one year after his death, Dorothy Wick first traveled to Cuernavaca to assess what he had left.

Dorothy was well prepared for the task. She describes spending much of her career as head librarian of NYU’s Tamiment Library, reorganizing the Rand School of Social Science collection of papers and books and bringing them into NYU Libraries Special Collections where they became available for scholarly research.Dorothy also trained archivists in the processing of labor union and personal papers collections. 

Cedric Belfrage’s archive fit well within the Tamiment Library collection. In collaboration with Mary Belfrage, Dorothy assembled the Belfrage archive and shipped it to NYU. However the Belfrage’s collection of books was not part of the donation to NYU. Mary had already dispersed a great number of the books before Dorothy arrived in Mexico. Some were sold, others were given to friends. Only a few were still on the shelves.

A year after Mary’s death, Dorothy purchased the Belfrage’s home and contents and has lived there ever since, surrounded by the ghosts of the brave men and women who stood up to the HUAC and made Mexico their new home.

Last month colleague Carol Hopkins and I visited Dorothy in her home where with an array of books on the kitchen table she treated us to stories in their setting.

Besides being a thorough librarian and archivist, Dorothy is very kind and generous in giving more credit than due. Referring to her trip to Cuba, Dorothy told me, “Incidentally, I got the trip award for being the best-read traveler. Thanks to your library!”