Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A woman who earned her big check

Back in the 1980’s during Mexico’s high inflationary years I had lots of experience writing big checks.  It took careful planning to squeeze the written-out amount in the tiny space provided on a check.  Occasionally, I’d write two checks because it was the only way to get the words “millions” and “hundreds of thousands” to fit.  

But there’s another type of big check I’ve never had any experience with.  The big-in-size check.  What do you do with a meter-long (three feet) check printed on foam board?  You see them when people win the lottery or game shows.  Until recently I’d never personally known anyone experienced with this type of check.

Last year at Puebla’s City of Idea Conference, 30 “Gifted Citizens” competed for US$100,000. They were invited based on programs they’d developed designed to improve the lives of at least 10,000 people within six years. It’s a stellar group.

I met Shanyn Ronis, a sparkling young 27 year-old idealist from Virginia, U.S.A. wearing a “gifted citizen” nametag at the coffee bar during an intermission.  She told me a bit about her program.  I was impressed.

The last day of the conference all 30 “gifted citizens” were invited on stage to be presented to the 5,000 City of Ideas attendees.  The curator of the event, Andres Roemer, announced the 10 finalists and Shanyn was one of them.  To my delight two were chosen to share the grand prize.  Shanyn was presented with a $50,000 “big-check”!

Last week Carol Hopkins and I interviewed Shanyn and learned that the actual “big check” is proudly affixed to the wall in her office.  Laughingly she told me she didn’t know anything about cashing a “big check.” The money was conventionally wired into the account of the NGO she heads and is already helping implement programs she designed.

“In 2013 I founded E-Gap (Educational Global Access Program).  Our mission is to develop programs and materials that sustainably enhance the impact of teachers serving vulnerable populations in conflict zones and other at-risk areas.  Teachers and existing NGO’s are key to our vision of forging a global cadre of highly qualified and dedicated teachers who can enable their students to achieve full potential.”

Most of E-Gap’s work right now is in Africa. Shanyn, who is bi-lingual in Spanish, is working hard to bring programs to Mexico.  She’s already implemented a program in Ecuador and is searching for a Mexican NGO partner for a similar program in this country.  She did college fieldwork in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico – with archeological work as well as social anthropology research in Oaxaca.    

Beginning as an undergraduate, Shanyn wrestled with working in social-inequality cultures, learning to implement “upside down” programs. “Most of the work we do is upside down.  I take what is, even accept social inequality, because if we wait for that to change nothing will ever happen.

“The people who actually carry out our programs are from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ecuador – and other countries in which we work.  They’re the folk who provide the missing pieces.  With their input we tweak our programs to work in their country – not the other way around. 

“Most educational funding in Latin America is for basic education – elementary reading and writing. But what’s next? There’s a lost age-group, 16-25, falling through the cracks.  They’ve completed mandatory primary education but don’t have job-related skills or computer competency.”  Shanyn has listened and heard them say, “In order to succeed we need more than education.  We need connections and experience.  Otherwise we’ll never get our foot in the door.”

And so, Shanyn’s Gifted Citziens’ award is being used to finance the training of 3,000 teachers in areas of extreme poverty and conflict zones by 2017.  “It is by far our biggest program. The video-based curriculum, designed for independent learners, combines with a written text and assessment. It can be used in rural areas – even those without access to internet and includes entrepreneurial training.

Shanyn told us how she came to be invited to The City of Ideas as a “Gifted Citizen.”  “Last year I was a guest lecturer at a conference in D.C. for young entrepreneurs.  There were several Mexican participants. One, an organizer for the City of Ideas, suggested I apply.

“The City of Ideas was an extraordinary opportunity to meet people with similar goals and visions.  We can supply support to one another as needed.  My gratitude for the opportunity to network with such an amazing group, not to mention the prize itself, is boundless.”

I still don’t know how to cash a “big check.”  But then, I don’t have one.  The internet says “big checks” are legal tender but I guess I’ll have to win one, or earn one, to find out if this is true.



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Templo Mayor staff allows blind and visually weak visitors feel the history

The Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City’s historic center is the result of a chance discovery. Electric company workers were digging in February 1978 and came upon the Coyolxauhqui Stone. The resulting museum, right behind the ruins of the Aztec Main Temple, only a block from the National Cathedral, was Mexico’s first post-Venice Charter site.

La Carta de Venecia (Venice Charter) was written and signed in Italy in 1964 and then refined and resigned in Ankara, Turkey in 1977. The Charter provides guidelines for all art and archaeological conservation. It favors consolidating ruins rather than restoring them and argues for on-site museums rather than sending artifacts to large national museums. The point was to allow visitors to decide what’s important and what’s not by giving access to a good sampling of everything archaeologists find on-site.

Architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, with the design of the National Museum of Anthropology under his belt, designed the space. In his travels he’d found a characteristic many museums share is a tendency to be user-unfriendly places. Immediately after the sign welcoming us we are usually given the list of “No’s.” Don’t touch, don’t eat, don’t sit, no photos.

Ramírez Vázquez suggested, “Let’s make this a friendly museum —  especially for children. Make display cases low so children don’t have to be picked up by an adult in order to see them … Yes, they’ll drag sticky fingers over glass cases while eating candy but you’ll be charging an entrance fee and will have money to pay a person to go through after a group of children and wipe the display cases clean.”

Museumographers included displays with captions in braille which the visually weak and blind are welcome to touch. This was put in place 35 years ago — before most of the museum security guards lives began. I’ve often wondered if they’d really allow a visually weak visitor to touch such a display.
Last week I was pleasantly surprised by the answer when I led a visit of students and faculty from Columbus, Ohio’s Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Seminarian David Young is visually disabled as a result of a bout with cancer and uses a cane to guide his way. When I asked a security guard if David could touch the life-sized sculpture of
the messenger god Chac Mool, he nodded his approval.

I expected David to read the braille caption and touch the sculpture with the tips of his fingers. Instead, he gave the braille only cursory attention and then sat beside the god. With both hands – fingers extended and palms spread – David ran his hands all over the sculpture. While he did that he described it to us in detail. From him I learned elements of texture and details of this Chac Mool I’d never noticed.

I timorously glanced at the security guard expecting to be told that David had gone too far. The smiling guard said, “That piece is a copy. There’s an original against the wall; he’s welcome to ‘see’ it too.”

Later David told me, “The fact that things I ‘saw’ with my hands gave other people new insights blew my mind. I guess I always think I see less than others and the fact that you got something out of my interpretation impacted me in a very emotional and meaningful way.”

David’s description of the piece I had seen many times made me recall a question I once asked an archaeologist, “Why do you have your workers make drawings of everything you find when you could take photographs of them?” “You see much more when making a drawing,” he replied.

After that I was on the lookout for other touchable displays. In the museum’s last room David described a keystone from a Roman arch of a Spanish building built on what had been the Aztec main plaza. David described the notches where the adjacent stones had interlocked with the keystone – notches not visible in the finished arch.

David’s museum experience was unique for him. “I’ve never seen this anywhere before. In the United States museums usually give me the $2 audio-guide for free. But you can’t see with your ears. You can see with your hands. And that makes a huge difference.”

He added, “I also noticed how frequently I was able to sit down in the Templo Mayor Museum. At every staircase leading from one gallery to the next I could sit on a bench with a backrest. Another positive aspect of this museum is the lighting. Exhibits are very well lit and were very easy for me to look at with my partial sight. I thought it was the most handicapped-friendly museum I’ve ever visited.”

Ramírez Vázquez would have been pleased his museum met David’s needs. I know I was. I didn’t ask the friendly guard if sighted people can close their eyes and touch the exhibits for the blind. I’d like to try. Could my un-tutored touch “see” some of what David described?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Juli Lynne and the poodle skirt

A beautiful, exquisitely attired lady of a certain age sat down beside me at a recent concert.  I commented, “You’re wearing a lovely ruana!”  Surprised, she looked at me and replied, “Yes, they are my favorite garments these days.”

Ruanas are a Colombian poncho-style outer garment made for both men and women. A woman’s ruauna is open down the front and often worn with one side tossed over the shoulder.  Her ruana was black, hand-woven with a red border stripe perfectly matching her bright red lips. Digs Collaborator Carol Hopkins whispered in my ear.  “Your seatmate is famous.  Juli Lynne invented the poodle skirt.”  I wasn’t impressed; I’d never heard of a poodle skirt.

We had awhile to wait for the concert to start and I told her about growing up in Colombia and wearing ruanas too.  She told me she’d been a Hollywood entertainer in her youth and later a well-known fashion designer in the United States. My interest was indeed piqued.  When she told me she was born in 1922 I was stunned.

At the end of the concert the audience was invited to sing verses of Silent Night in Spanish and English with the chorus.  Juli Lynne Charlot opened her mouth and soon everyone was accompanying the powerful, soulful, soaring contralto soprano emerging from this tiny nonagenarian.

Several days later we rang Juli Lynne’s doorbell outside a gate on a dirt roadway in the Valley of Atongo, Tepoztlan.  Carol, who has visited the house many times, had not prepared me for the huge, magical garden we entered. It is designed by Ken Drumbolis, one of Mexico’s well-known landscape architects.  I can’t recall being in a private garden with such a large botanical variety.  Juli Lynne’s house was equally unusual.  Every aspect of her life seemed to reflect a life-long aesthetic dedicated to surrounding herself with beauty.

Born Shirley Agin in New York City, Juli Lynne’s father and mother were Russian immigrants who moved to Hollywood and started working in the film industry when she was a toddler. “At 13 I discovered I had a brilliant coloratura voice and began to study opera. It was the only career I truly wanted. Shirley didn’t seem like the name of an opera star so I changed it to Juli Lynne.  At 16 I graduated from Hollywood High School and was chosen to be Miss Hollywood.” Julie Lynne added unabashedly “Obviously, I was a looker.“

It was the end of the depression and then the beginning of WWII.  “I began to sing with various big bands and later to accompany them when they entertained the troops. I performed with Harpo Marx and the Marx Brothers, sang with Xavier Cugat’s Orchestra.  I was a relatively big singing sensation and a good comedian but still continued my studies for the opera with dreams of being a grand interpreter of Mozart.”

At 23, Julie met Philip Charlot who she describes as the great love of her life.  He was a “dashing, cultured, French, British-raised officer in a Royal Navy uniform who’d been everywhere I dreamed of going, read every book I hoped to read.”  Juli accepted his proposal even though it came with a heart-wrenching caveat -- she could no longer perform. “I was married two years before I knew I had a title. I was a viscountess! The war was hard on Philip…” her voice trailed off sadly.  Juli Lynne would discuss him no further.

“After the war I was invited to a big Hollywood Christmas party.  I had nothing to wear but my seamstress mother had extra fabric around and lots of trim.  I made myself a white felt full-circle skirt and sewed decorated felt Christmas trees on it.  I was a huge hit. A pricey Beverly Hills boutique bought and sold twelve of them in days.” 

After Christmas the boutique asked me to make more skirts that weren’t seasonal. The first skirts I designed and made had dachshunds on them.  The male dachshund was chasing the female around the skirt.  It was a story skirt.  The female was a coquette and the male pup was pursuing her with his tongue hanging out. The owner of the boutique loved the skirts but suggested, “Most of my clients have poodles.  The rest is history.

“I did lots of other designs but none ever enjoyed the immense and lasting popularity of the poodle skirt.  I did moths being attracted to flames, spiders in webs (great for Halloween).  The skirts with roses on them were also popular.  At one point I had 50 employees working on production.”

Since interviewing Juli Lynne I’ve asked a number of women about poodle skirts.  While taking a group to visit the Monarch butterflies I asked how many of the women had owned a poodle skirt; every woman raised her hand.  Fifteen-year-old Menolly Pier proudly told me about her new poodle skirt; they are making a comeback. 

I asked Julie Lynne what advice she would give today’s young.  “Make the most of every minute you have; don’t squander your life.”  Surely Ms. Charlot has followed her own sage advice. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Rebel Reporter

Free-lance journalist John Ross (1938-2011) arrived in Mexico City one week after the September 1985 earthquake.  Rubble in the streets of the Centro Historico blocked his taxi’s access to his intended destination; he walked the last blocks to Hotel Isabel on Isabel de la Católica Street.  In response to his knocking the bell captain opened the massive door wearing what John described as an uncharacteristic full-dress uniform with shiny brass buttons running up his chest.

“Do you have a room?,” John asked.

“A room?” querried the bell captain.  “I have 75 rooms!”

After weighing the pros and cons of the many rooms and floors John checked-in to room 102, on the second floor with windows opening onto Isabel la Católica street.  It was his home for the next 25 years.

From Room 102 John led his readers through every major Mexican news story - from political upheavals to environmental crises.  John broke the story of the impending Zapatista uprising in Chiapas weeks before it happened and anticipated the negative impact proposed laws would have on the fragile ejido system before they were passed.  John’s first rule of journalism was, “Be there.  You can’t report stories you haven’t witnessed personally.  Develop your sources.  Over the years I’ve maintained sources as diverse as homeless beggars and those in lofty positions of power.” 

John’s last interview was in room 102 on December 29, 2010 with Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins while I moved his archive to a van for the first leg of its trip to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.

John, with the distinction of being the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, checked out of Hotel Isabel on December 31, 2010 – two weeks before his imminent death.  Alive, John was one of our favorite people.  Dead, he remains one of our most admired.

Last Saturday, Carol and I made our way back to the Hotel Isabel lobby for the presentation of John Ross’ posthumously published, Rebel Reporting, John Ross Speaks to Independent Journalists.

The “event” began with Norman Stockwell explaining how and why he’d edited and published the collection of journalism lectures his friend John had first given at San Francisco’s New College in 2006 and again in Wisconsin at Madison College in 2010.  “Dissemination of these lectures was the only thing John ever asked of me.  This book is my fulfillment of a promise made.”

A disparate group of eighteen was present -- aged 16-80.  In the once-grand lobby of the hotel, we’d pulled up chairs and celebrated our friend and the publication of his book.

Self-effacing, Stockwell said he’d “unsuccessfully offered the book to every leftist publisher in the United States.”  Just when he thought he’d let John down, a publisher surfaced.  Stockwell gives credit to many but I believe the credit belongs in his corner.  The existence of this beautiful, pithy, 118-page volume is an act of love.  There are two excellent forwards by Democracy Now’s own Amy Goodman and by Robert W. McChesney, University of Illinois professor of communications.

During Carol’s 2010 interview with John he had referred to the lectures now published in Rebel Reporting, “These are the most important of my unpublished papers.”  In a short summary of the lectures John emphasized, “To cover a story, go to where it happened, be a part of it. It’s not your job to be objective.  Find the truth and tell it.  Stand for Something. Don’t write anything you don’t believe.” 

John’s good friend, Hermann Bellinghausen, was among the 18 present last Saturday. John was Bellinghausen’s journalism colleague and godfather to Hermann’s young son, Julian, present at this book presentation. 

For many years Bellinghausen has covered Chiapas, the Zapatistas and sub-commandante Marcos.  He shared humorous and poignant memories of his friend — while deeply lamenting the unavailability of John’s books and articles in Spanish.  “It’s surprising and unfortunate but all of John’s writings about Mexico are in English.  John published three books about the Zapatistas and a novel about Mexico; all are important. 

“It’s also little known in Mexico how significant John was as a friendly interpreter of Mexico to the U.S… There’s never been a journalist like him.  In addition, he was a great poet, one of the last beatniks and a passionate lover of jazz…

“Though relatively unknown in Mexico’s intellectual world, John was well-known among Mexican journalists. John never let himself be tricked by power or fame.  Maybe that’s why he isn’t translated into Spanish – he didn’t have the right friends and he didn’t try to make them. Even though he wrote so well, with such passion and such a good pen, there are only 18 people here today.  We each need to make an effort for John to be better known.”

Carol and I walked away from the Hotel Isabel relishing our own reminiscences of John, glad we’d gone to where the story was, met John’s friends, and, for a bit, again basked in John’s genius.  In my backpack I carried a stash of copies of Rebel Reporting – published by Hamilton Books -- entrusted to me by Norman Stockwell for sale in Mexico.  Let me know if you would like one.