Sensational headlines in and about Mexico draw most of the attention: the capture of “El Chapo,” photos of black-hooded men from the “auto-defensa” groups challenging the drug cartels in the tierra caliente (hot country). But in-between hover other stories of life in Michoacán. Last week marked Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Over the previous weekend, locals throughout Michoacán welcomed the season with a Carnaval street party. Maringuías, men dressed as women, danced through the streets of Pátzcuaro accompanied by ragtag bands and fellow revelers. In this fiesta-filled country, long-standing rituals and the need to celebrate trump economic and social problems.
Carnaval fever in Pátzcuaro
What’s a festival without El Torito?
Meanwhile, others work diligently to address those problems. I wrote last year about the successes and challenges of Mujeres Aliadas (MA), a Michoacán women’s health care project. From their base in Erongarícuaro, the eight staff members, including Director Ondine Rosenthal, conduct community platicas (talks), educate teens about sexuality and reproduction, train midwives, and offer diverse health services through their clinic.
I see and hear the results on the streets of Pátzcuaro and nearby pueblos. On La Plaza Grande, I visit Erandi, a young woman whoruns Tutuch, a shop filled with artisan jewelry made from local gems and stones. She pushes a stroller with her smiling daughter, Ana Mia, as she points to gorgeous necklaces of turquoise and colorin, a seed particular to the region. Ana Mia was the first child born in the Mujeres Aliadas’ birthing tub – an innovation for rural communities here. Erandi was the model client. She attended every lecture on psychological preparedness and practiced yoga-like relaxation exercises to ensure she could pace herself during birth. Her partner, Cristian, accompanied her to each session as well as the birth itself.
Erandi and Ana Mia
“Other women from nearby pueblos are now expressing interest in water births,” says Ondine. Nothing new, perhaps, for women used to multiple options for birth in major cities or many parts of the U.S. But few such possibilities exist for women in rural Michoacán, as outlined in the letter below from Ondine. She details additional challenges the Mujeres Aliadas’ staff face every week, problems for which they design creative solutions. But the organization is at a critical point. Funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Semillas (“seeds”), a feminist organization in Mexico City, and other agencies helped establish MA. But for those seeds to flourish, they now need individual donations. Please consider joining me to help Mujeres Aliadas continue to aid and empower the women of Michoacán.
Dear close family and friends,
For the past three years I’ve been working at Mujeres Aliadas, a non- profit organization that works to improve and promote the sexual and reproductive rights and health of women and adolescents in the Lake Pátzcuaro area in Michoacán. When I started working here, I fell in love with the project and the cause. With this letter, I intend to share these feelings and perhaps get you interested in helping Mujeres Aliadas to advance the lives of thousands of women.
For me, it’s been an amazing learning experience, both in how to work with and run an organization, and coming to understand the challenges facing so many of the women who live in the villages around Lake Patzcuaro. Mujeres Aliadas was formed when women in the Lake Patzcuaro area began to speak out about the need for an organization that promotes the health and defends the rights of the women and girls here. For three years the team of Mujeres Aliadas worked on an analysis of the health care system in the area and found that:
Cesarean section rates are dangerously high, at approximately 41% (while WHO (World Health Organization) recommends 15%)
Women don’t have a choice as to the sex of the health provider; this is a special problem for the indigenous women who would rather live with an infection their entire lives than have a male doctor examine them. Many of their husbands just won’t allow them to go be examined.
Women lack alternatives to health care. Both the decline in midwifery and the increase in C-sections point to the increased medicalization of women’s health care and the attendant powerlessness of women in their health care decisions.
Maternal mortality rates are increasing. In 2002 the rate was 40.5 per every 100,000 births; by 2011 the rate had grown to 58.
Women lack basic knowledge of their rights, their bodies, health problems and reproductive options.
To address these problems, we’ve given lectures and information sessions for women in over 40 communities. In 2013 alone, we reached over 4,500 women. Some of their testimonios follow (in bold).
“All of these lectures are very interesting, they help us to know more about our body and it guides us, as moms, to talk to our daughters and clarify many doubts we ourselves have. Thanks for everything.”
In response to constant requests from the women after the lectures, we also created a teen program where we go to secondary schools with a lecture on sex, sexuality and adolescence. As we talk to these young kids, we realize how little information they have, how badly they need it, and how having this information can change their lives.
We also run a small clinic with three consulting rooms and two birthing rooms, where we provide women with caring, supportive gynecological and obstetrical attention. For many, it is the first time they have received the kind of care that every woman deserves. To date, we’ve seen more than 1,300 women in our clinic.
“My name is Ana Laura Molina, I’m from Nocutzepo, I’m very happy and grateful with Mujeres Aliadas for the good job and the care provided. Thanks to that, my first pregnancy was a beautiful experience and every consultation, lecture, therapy and psychoprophylaxis exercise that I learned, gave me the confidence and helped me lose the fear I had, so when the moment of the birth came I was prepared. I also liked that my husband was able to be in there with me; I would share everything I learned with him so he was also ready to help, and we all worked together. We also liked the way we were treated, in a hospital we wouldn’t have had this kindness, I feel very fortunate that I met you and that I am the first women to give birth in your clinic. I hope lots of women get to know your clinic and get to live the experience I did. I wish you luck and success. Thanks for everything.”
Photos of local women fill the clinic’s walls
To be able to continue spreading this model to communities, we also established a midwifery school where nine nurses from nearby towns are now in their last year.
All this work is being done by eight local women including me, and a few wonderful volunteers that love the Mujeres Aliadas’ project as much as we do. We were fortunate to receive some very important funding from the MacArthur Foundation and a few other generous supporters. But to keep the program running, we need to reach out as well to our friends and our family and those who care about the women here in Michoacán. And that’s why I’m writing to you today. I’m asking for your help, and I hope you’ll respond.
There are several ways you can help us: a) By donating money to the organization. Some people have given us $20 and some have given us $1,000. A one-time donation or a monthly pledge will help us to continue our work. For example, a monthly pledge of $42 adds up to $500 a year. b) By sending this letter to friends, family, and other people or organizations that may be interested, to help spread the word about our funding campaign.
Mujeres Aliadas is a charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, so the full amount of the gift you make is tax-deductible. You can donate online on our website: mujeresaliadas.org , using a credit card or pay pal account. Or you can mail a check to: Mujeres Aliadas, 100 S. Atkinson Road, Unit 116-265, Greyslake IL 60030.
Any help is welcome. Every email is highly appreciated. Every dollar invested in Mujeres Aliadas has a human face. Thank you in advance for everything, thank you for taking your time to read this very long letter, and thank you for being a part of my life.
In our first Telling Lives class at UNLA, we watched a video from a program called “Story Swap.” Sponsored by the Aspen Institute’s Writer’s Foundation, this multimedia effort links diverse groups through storytelling, creative writing, and visual art. Each time we listen to and write another’s story, the program’s website states, we build “compassion and empathy through authentic engagement.”
Tolerance for other cultures and ideas is one of the program’s goals. One international swap brought together Jewish high school students from Haifa and Arab students from Nazareth, Israel. Most of the participants had never met a person from “the other side.” But there were no polemics or political statements. Participants told a story important to their lives and identities. Then, their partners retold the story in written form as if it were their own.
After sharing their stories online, students from Haifa traveled to their partners’ school in Nazareth to read the story to the combined community from both schools. What did it feel like to hear someone else’s version of your story? “She really listened to me,” said Merin, the young woman from Haifa of her Arab partner Ayat’s rendering of her tale of emigrating from Russia to Israel with her mother.
How often does this happen – true listening? In Beyond the Writer’s Workshop, Carol Bly argues for more empathic listening among writers. She describes a common cocktail party phenomenon: You are telling a story to someone you’ve just met. In his or her eyes, you see that “please move on so I can tell my own story” look. Who learns to listen, Bly asks, really empty themselves of their personal agenda so they can hear another?
Eudora Welty writes, “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them [my italics]. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on.” Students in the “Telling Lives” workshop at UNLA fully participated. They attended carefully to one another and wrote profiles of their partners for the website. Then they traveled from Morelia to Erongarícuaro to record the stories of the staff at Mujeres Aliadas, a women’s health care project. Though all belong to the circle of culture called “Mexican,” beyond that little was shared. Many students had never been to the pueblos surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro, or knew about the work of this group on behalf of indigenous and mestizo women, or had considered midwifery as a viable health option. They transcribed their recorded interviews and faced the challenge of telling another’s story. Several profiles of Mujeres Aliadas’ staff appeared in the last blog. Four more are featured here.
These are “small stories,” perhaps, if you counter them to “big events” central to news coverage. But each reveals the power of stories and the effects of deep listening on the writer. Each profile also contributes to a collective portrait of remarkable women.
“Verónica Pureco Farías” by Maribel Barcena Lopez
Maribel with Vero (right)
Verónica Pureco Farías is a woman who by hard work, determination. and just plain luck has reached a place where she is truly making a difference. Verónica – Vero – was born in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán to a traditional mestizo family, and she continues to live there with her own family. Life in a traditional family meant certain things were never discussed because they were deemed inappropriate, including women’s health, menstruation, and overall well being. This was true for Vero, the women before her, and remains true for many of the women living in Pátzcuaro, Erongarícuaro, and other surrounding towns.
To Vero, it seemed as if life guided her to exactly where she was supposed to be. Before joining Mujeres Aliadas, she worked in hotel maintenance and also as a promotora voluntaria de oportunidades – a promoter of volunteer opportunities. She has always had a profound love of helping others, especially women in her community. When Vero lost her job at the hotel, a friend found her work cleaning houses. One such home belonged to Brenda Madura and Richard Ferguson, the founders of Mujeres Aliadas. One thing led to another and Vero joined forces with them, volunteering for two years. Finally, she became Community Coordinator, a staff position. She now travels to twenty pueblos, leading discussions on a variety of topics including the basics of women’s health, how to recognize and treat vaginal diseases, and the benefits of natural birth. In her community, Vero is considered to be a modern woman because of her ideas and outreach work. She is also a pioneer working hard for the advancement, knowledge, health, and respect of women.
“Eluvia Pedtro Mateos” by Miriam Lamarka Miranda
Eluvia with Miriam (right)
Eluvia Pedro Mateos is 25-years-old and a professional midwife. She studied at CASA, the professional midwifery school that is also a civic association in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. She was born in Chiapas, where her parents moved during the war. She grew up part Guatemalteco and part Mexican, so she speaks Spanish and Acateko Maya.
She believes that being a midwife is something as worthy of respect and as honorable as being a doctor. “A midwife is a friend and a confident,” She says, “When people look to us we have to help them,” she says. “At Mujeres Aliadas we are committed to giving women good information, especially in towns like Erongarícuaro. Most of the women are not well informed so if we help them, they can defend their rights. It’s tough work because the idea of giving birth in the hospital is so strong. Some people are afraid of midwives or the families don’t trust us.”
Eluvia has a smooth and calm presence. She wears a uniform and carries a badge with her name on it. For our interview, she picked her favorite place at Mujeres Aliadas, behind a big tree, covered by purple flowers and a nice hammock with a beautiful view. “Everything here is pretty. I can sit here and read something to relax.”
When she talks about her work, I can see the joy in her face. “A simple caress or just talking in a kind way changes women’s attitude and their health. I’m proud of being a woman and it’s beautiful, how women’s bodies work so perfectly … it’s a blessing.” She thinks that pregnant women deserve the right treatment. “Every time I see a birth I think it’s wonderful. This is where I want to be.” Her eyes shine and transmit the happiness of receiving a life in her hands. “A humanized birth is so different from the hospital. We prepare the mother in a natural way and form a better connection with the father and the baby. There’s a lot of union.”
Eluvia can surprise people with her youth and happiness, her strong ideals, and her choice to help women. “When people think of a midwife they think of an old lady with a rebozo and when they see us it’s like, “Oh! You’re so young!”
“A woman is capable of making her own decisions. A birth is something that belongs to her so nobody can force her to do things a certain way.”
“Liliana Campos Zúñiga” by Carlos Emilio Rodríguez Barrientos
Carlos interviewing Liliana
For Liliana Campos Zúñiga, everything started with an interview. With a degree in pedagogy, she could not find a job in her field so she applied for work as a secretary at Mujeres Aliadas. When she met Brenda Madura, the founding director and Ondine Rosenthal, now the Interim Director; she grew excited about the organization and its work. Liliana wanted the job, and if that were not possible, she would become a patient because she really fell in love with the group’s purpose.
In the end, she came to Mujeres Aliadas as both patient and worker. The secretary is an important position. Liliana organizes everyone’s work and communicates to the entire group. She also tries to spread the word about their services to help the organization grow.
Mujeres Aliadas changed Liliana’s life. Thanks to this group, she now feels proud of being a woman and is able to make decisions about her life. Now she can say “no” and defend her rights. She knows more about taking care of her body and is never ashamed to talk about her sexuality, pregnancy, and health issues with her friends. She realizes now that these things are very natural and important for every person to know about, not just women. Men too, can change their lives through this knowledge.
Liliana loves being part of this family. She hopes that men and women will want to join Mujeres Aliadas and experience life changes as she did.
Amalia Cabrera Cruz” byTalía De Niz Pérez Negrón
Twenty-eight-years-old, Amalia Cabrera Cruz is part of the twelfth generation of professional midwives from the CASA school in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Amalia works at Mujeres Aliadas in Erongarícuaro, a beautiful place surrounded by nature that has great positive energy.
Born and raised in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Amalia, the last of thirteen children, decided to study professional midwifery without knowing all the amazing things she would discover. She defines the moment when a newborn meets the world for the first time as “magical.”
She is a very professional woman who feels passionate about taking care of other women not just in her role as a midwife but as an “all in one”: midwife, psychologist, friend, confident and more. She feels a special connection to women and wants to be sensitive enough to know what a woman is going through even when she doesn’t speak.
Amalia is humble as well as prepared for her work. This midwife feels God’s blessings around her in having discovered people and places she’ll never forget. She likes to learn something new during every moment she spends with a woman while she is giving birth.
“You always need to love what you do.” Amalia Cabrera Cruz
The story of a “pijamada” – a pajama party – in tiny Erongarícuaro on Lake Pátzcuaro might not rock your world. But if you believe social change happens incrementally, through education and community empowerment, you might need an alternative to what’s in The New York Times about Michoacán these days. Yes, there has been violence near the coast and in Tierra Caliente, the dry, hot region where fighting between self-defense groups, drug cartels, and federal authorities intensified recently.
Interim Director Ondine Rosenthal with participants in the adolescent program. Photo by Paula Urquiza
But in Erongarícurao, hundreds of kilometers from violent upheaval, ten young women just completed a project in environmental awareness. As part of Mujeres Aliadas’ adolescent program, Paula Urquiza, a designer and professional photographer from Querétaro, taught them to fashion wonders from discarded materials. Curtains created from recycled bottles, jewelry from magazines, and a table made from an old car wheel were just part of the display at Mujeres Aliadas last week. Family, friends and community members came by to see the fruits of the community’s creativity.
An old tire partially transformed to a table. Photo by Paula Urquiza
The program’s base on the grounds of the Rosenthal family home offered a convenient location for the final phase of the celebration – the “pijamada.” Interim Director and creator of the youth program, Ondine Rosenthal, went to bed around 1:00 a.m. but suspects that the girls didn’t follow for several hours. Though Ondine is now responsible for oversight of all the Mujeres Aliadas programs, working with young people is close to her heart. Her profile by UNLA student Dhilery Alejandra García Hernandez follows below.
Each member of the Mujeres Aliadas staff faces challenges each day in promoting social change in rural Michoacán. Transformation occurs “poco a poco” – little by little – says community outreach worker Margarita Ascencio Flores (profiled below by UNLA student Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo). The wide-ranging programs realize an integrated and broad notion of “health.” This includes mental, spiritual, and social as well as bodily well being. Creativity also figures into health. Many on the staff, such as Community Program Coordinator Juana Abundez Capilla, are artesanas as well as workers. In her profile by UNLA student Grecia Gonzalez Miranela, Juana discusses the joy she finds in the creation of traditional textiles.
Last week’s show of recycled materials fits squarely within these broad dimensions. A healthy life includes environmental consciousness, creativity, and the essential Mexican element of “disfrutar” – to have fun – with a pajama party. What better way to introduce teenage girls to the importance of their roles in social change?
ONDINE ROSENTHAL by Dhilery Alejandra García Hernandez
Dhilery (right) interviewing Ondine
“Maybe in the future everyone will be able to see the impact Mujeres Aliadas has had in the community,” says Ondine Rosenthal. As she talks about her work, her eyes brighten and she can’t stop smiling.
She was born in Erongarícuaro, a small but beautiful town in Michoacán, Mexico. Her parents are North Americans who moved here in 1971 and started a painted furniture cooperative, MFA/Eronga. She and her two sisters, Ariel and Olimpia, grew up bilingual and bicultural.
Ondine has always loved her community. When she finished her undergraduate degree in communications at Universidad Vasco de Quiroga in Morelia, Michoacán, she worked briefly as a journalist for the newspaper La Jornada. But she decided to move back to Erongarícuaro. Soon afterwards, she became involved with Mujeres Aliadas as a translator, then a staff member. One of her first projects was Birth of a New Consciousness (Alumbramiento de una Nueva Consciencia). She worked with board member and researcher Richard Ferguson to produce this 48-minute documentary that explores the lives of women in the Lake Pátzcuaro region, and the health challenges they face.
Mujeres Aliadas has become central to Ondine’s life. She developed the program for teenagers and now serves as the organization’s Interim Executive Director. In this capacity, she is responsible for the midwifery school – the second one in México – and for the adolescent project, the community programs, and clinical services.
Her enthusiasm is evident. She would like to make Mujeres Aliadas grow and become the best health care option for the women in the region. It doesn’t matter if they are young, adults or old, because Mujeres Aliadas and Ondine will be there for them.
MARGARITA ASCENCIO FLORES by UNLA student Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo
Dinorah (right) interviewing Margarita
Margarita is a Community Coordinator for Mujeres Aliadas and works in twenty-one communities. She is from Puácuaro, a pueblo in the municipality of Erongarícuaro. Her grandfather, an important early influence, encouraged her to study and to understand places beyond her home. She studied secondary education in Tiríndaro, in the municipality of Zacapu. She has given classes on the Purépecha language, taught early education, and worked with the Puácuaro cultural committee. After she married, she earned her high school degree in Erongarícuaro. Her husband has also been an important support in her life.
Since Margarita was young, she has been involved in projects that try to strengthen the surrounding pueblos. In 1999, she became Councilor of Health, the first woman to hold this public office in the municipality of Erongarícuaro. Through her work as Councilor, she got to know all the communities of the region. Margarita joined Mujeres Aliadas in 2009. Her work involves giving talks on women’s health and sexual/reproductive rights. She says, “Here women don’t know their rights. We tell them: ‘You have a right to take care of your body, to express your views, to raise your children as you believe is best.’” At present, Margarita combines her work at Mujeres Aliadas with her women’s basketball team. She feels very satisfied with both.
Margarita is convinced that every woman has the capacity to do important things and the right to decide her path. She wants to share that ideal with other women.
JUANA ABUNDEZ CAPILLA by Grecia Gonzalez Miranela
Grecia (left) with Juana
One afternoon in a beautiful house in Erongarícuaro, Michoacán, on a wooden bench surrounded by a colorful garden, sat Juana Abundez Capilla. She is a craftswoman, a midwifery student, and a mother who also works at Mujeres Aliadas. She is a woman committed to other women.
Juana was born on February 26, 1976 in San Miguel Nocutzepo, Michoacán. When she was nine years old she learned the techniques of traditional sewing and embroidery. She loves the process of integrating colors to create a piece of clothing. The texture of the threads combining makes her feel joyful about life and nature.
She was married for sixteen years but is now separated from her husband. They have two children. When the separation occurred, finding Mujeres Aliadas and the midwifery course was a way to regain her dignity, the respect of her family, and her self-esteem.
Juana comes from a healing tradition. Her grandmother, Juana Espiritu Venegas, was a midwife and brought her granddaughter along to help with births and to treat sick people with botanical Purépecha medicine. Later Juana studied nursing at the Colegio Nacional de Educación Profesional Técnica (CONALEP) in Pátzcuaro. With this knowledge, she helped her community and found a purpose in life. Juana is interested in naturopathy as a complement to midwifery because she thinks you can heal people with plants and without invasive treatment. She doesn’t like the way hospitals and the government health system handle gynecological care.
Juana thinks women needs to be heard. She tries to listen and to give them time to speak about their problems and also to advise them about gynecological illnesses. Most important, she wants them to get to know their bodies and the miracle of life that involves childbirth.
When you look into her eyes, you can see she is proud of having learned the midwifery profession, and thankful for having the chance to help and engage with her community.
“The doctors told us that our hips were too narrow for babies, that we needed Caesarean sections,” said Margarita Ascencio de Jesús Flores, community outreach worker for Mujeres Aliadas. She gestured past her waist-length black braid toward her legs, toned perhaps by years as the star of her village basketball team. That indigenous Purépucha women in this rural area of Michoacán – some short and round, others as slim as Margarita – had delivered babies without surgical intervention for thousands of years seemed lost on the medical experts. I scanned the surprised faces of my students. All are from middle-class families and different regions of Michoacán but few had visited Purépecha villages or knew of midwifery as a viable alternative to hospital birth.
On a bright April day, we’d come to Erongarícuaro, a pueblo of about 5,000 on the edge of Lake Pátzcuaro, from La Universidad Latina de América in nearby Morelia. One of the goals of my class, “Telling Lives: Reading, Recording, and Writing Life Stories,” was to discover and write about lives different from our own. Each student would interview a staff member of Mujeres Aliadas, a health care project based here, and write profiles. I had met Margarita and companion outreach worker Veronica Pureco Farías at a staff meeting three years before. I knew Mujeres Aliadas offered a reservoir of compelling stories hidden from a broader public. (see www.mujeresaliadas.org/ or mujeresaliadas.mx).
Mujeres Aliadas was the brainchild of Chicago midwife Brenda Madura and her epidemiologist partner Richard Ferguson. Both had worked for a large Chicago hospital where Brenda often treated women from Michoacán. “They told me stories of life there,” she says, relating one that deeply affected her. One day a woman described bringing her very sick baby to a doctor. “She knew the baby was dying,” Brenda recalls, “So she ran to a local private clinic … She started banging on the door and screaming, ‘My baby’s dying …’ And they said, ‘Show us the money.’ She said, ‘I don’t have money. My baby’s dying … ‘ They locked the door and she had to sit out on the curb and watch her baby die. And I said, ‘This can’t be.’” Within five years, Richard and Brenda had moved to Pátzcuaro and organized a group of local Mestiza and Purépecha women to form Mujeres Aliadas – “Women Allied,” working together.
Mujeres Aliadas supports multiple programs. A birth center, originally in Brenda and Richard’s home, now nestles into the verdant grounds of the organization’s base in Erongaricuaro.
The grounds of Mujeres Aliadas
The first students in the midwifery training, which began in February 2011, are about to graduate as licensed professional midwives and specialists in women’s health. Community programs includes adolescent sex education, talks on women’s reproductive health and options, and “platicas,” informal conversations where village women (and sometimes men) discuss critical, often silenced, concerns. At the top of the list are the unnecessary Caesarean sections, which account for a third of all births despite local women’s expressed desire to avoid them. A Mujeres Aliadas survey revealed that many women have no idea of the risks involved in C-sections (see http://www.mujeresaliadas.org/reports/ for research and survey results). High rates of maternal and infant mortality as well as cervical and breast cancer complicate the picture.
Perhaps most devastating are women’s stories of being herded through an impersonal medical system, told to strip naked without a sheet to cover themselves, and denied other basic forms of dignity. In the documentary Birth of a New Consciousness (Alumbramiento de una Nueva Consciencia), directed by Richard and staff member/filmmaker Ondine Rosenthal, one woman feared showing her face. The camera scans her scruffy, shuffling Mary Janes as she describes a doctor’s abuse. The image haunts the viewer – a symbol of what women have endured, not knowing they had other options or where to seek information. The illiteracy rate is 13% for the region but twice as high among indigenous women.
Under these accounts hovers another story: that of social ills that plague postcolonial settings throughout the globe: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and depression. A standard mental health questionnaire Richard distributed in the Lake Pátzcuaro region showed that 67% of the women suffer from clinical depression. Statistics on domestic violence are harder to assess; reporting is spotty and shame pervades conversations. But stories of violence surface during the “platicas,” often tied to alcohol and machismo. Harvard researcher Sousan Abadian has chronicled how these problems result from collective trauma endured in worlds as diverse as the Rwandan genocide and her own heritage of Zoroastrians persecuted since the Arab invasion of Persia 1,400 years ago. But nowhere, Abdian argues, is the damage more widespread or enduring than among indigenous people. Unlike refugees who can create a new base somewhere, “native peoples had no equivalent of an ‘America’ to which they could escape…” http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/03/trails-of-tears-and-hope.
As I watched the students interview the staff, rapt and sometimes troubled, I remembered the other half of Abadian’s documentation: the path to recovery. Suffering is cultural as well as individual; healing must address both domains. The eight Mujeres Aliadas staff members assembled for our class (two were in Mexico City for meetings that day) are forging a path to healing on both fronts.
The staff has grown and changed in the three years since I met Brenda and Richard. Turning control over to local women was always their goal. In January 2013, Brenda moved to an international consulting position based in the U.S., while Richard remains on the Mujeres Aliadas board of directors.
UNLA student Dhilery García Hernandez (right) interviewing Interim Director Ondine Rosenthal
Ondine Rosenthal, an Erongarícuaro local, is now Interim Director. In addition, she continues to direct the adolescent education program. She gives talks on sexual development and created a “cine club” for teens. International films such as Persepolis opened a cross-cultural window otherwise closed to rural teens during the adolescent danger zone of summer. UNLA student Maribel Barcena Lopez, inspired by our visit, returned in June to teach sex education and self-esteem workshops through this program.
Amalia Cabrera Cruz and Eluvia Pedro Mateo, professional midwives who graduated from the Casa Midwifery School in San Miguel de Allende, live on the grounds of Mujeres Aliadas. They offer onsite births, gynecological attention, and educational resources. Additional staff include Liliana Campos Zúñiga, receptionist/secretary; Rocío Mendiola Navarrete, Assistant to the Director; Anabel Rosas Rosas, Educational Coordinator; and Juana Abundez Capilla, midwifery student and Coordinator of Community Programs. Bianca Vargas Escamilla, a graduate of the medical school of theUniversidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, contributed to the project as a volunteer doctor in residence during 2013. Margarita and Veronica share the outreach work to forty villages, a remarkable feat that may ask more sprinting of Margarita than even her basketball practice. For the entire staff, the work poses challenges: the constant need to raise money; the swim upstream through rivers of red tape for educational accreditation; the struggle to gain acceptance in the medical realm; the despair that stories of suffering induce. But each of the staff members affirmed that the rewards counter every hardship built into the work.
Staff meeting of Mujeres Aliadas
The staff’s passion for their work and belief in change imprinted deeply on the UNLA students. Carlos wrote later: “These are beautiful women …with bright eyes and strong voices that want to be heard. They taught me a lot of things about the rights, value and the importance of women, things that I already knew, but that are now marked in my mind, helping me see with a more human perspective.” Law student Grecia wrote: “I learned that people can engage in projects to contribute to the community. This is an everyday journey. Little by little we can change the collective mind and challenge threats to women. Like these women, I want to discover my vocation and to be really committed to a cause.” Everyone commented on the beauty of the setting: the grounds of the Rosenthal home, an old villa Ondine’s family bought in 1971 when they founded a local hand-painted furniture workshop/collective, MFA/Eronga. Dhilery wrote: “With the fresh air and birds singing, this looks like the perfect place to welcome a baby. “
As we sat around the rectangular table, magenta bougainvillea bursting into bloom beyond the windows, I remembered the dreams expressed at a much smaller staff meeting in Brenda and Richard’s house three years before. Students now about to graduate had just begun their midwifery studies. The film had yet to be made. As a teacher, I had my own fantasy: to bring students here to bear witness to the passion that generated and sustains this project. Now, this UNLA group has realized that dream. The project inspired two other class members, Talía De Niz Pérez Negrón and Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo, to return this summer as student interns.
In the next few weeks, I’ll post staff profiles drawn from interviews conducted that April day. They offer a glimpse of this remarkable organization, and of what students learned. But I suspect that deeper understanding will continue to unfold for them.
They drove trucks all night from Sacramento to Las Vegas. They picked fruit in the valley beyond San Jose. They spent eight years outside San Diego or fourteen years in Atlanta in a meatpacking plant or a decade in Chicago because they had cousins there.
I’ve taken taxis in Morelia, Michoacán several times a week since January. Nearly all the taxi drivers I’ve met have lived in the U.S.
Taxis lined up near Morelia’s Plaza San Francisco. The butterfly on one cab is a popular symbol, a nod to the nearby Monarch reserves for which Michoacán is known
“My English is not so good,” they say. “I learned on the street because I had no time to study.” When I ask if they liked El Norte, they say, “Si, me gustó.” This is hard for me to imagine because they did nothing but work. I wonder if they’re being polite to a norteamericana. Then they tell me how little they make driving a cab here seven days a week. Moving from survival to actually saving money can make you like even a very chilly place like Chicago. Many long to go north again.
Some have been back for only a year or two but most returned more than a decade ago following the post-9/11 wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. Dominic Bracco, writing for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, describes how fear-driven U.S. laws targeted Mexicans. “We as Mexicans became the enemy,” said Sandra Rodriguez, a reporter for the Ciudad Juarez newspaper El Diario. 1.6 million people were deported in the decade before 9/11, while the number rose to 2.3 million in the ten years that followed.*
Given the current fence-building fervor in the U.S., most of the taxistas I’ve met know they cannot return. Cannot ever see siblings and sometimes wives and children left behind. Cannot watch nieces and nephews learn to ride bikes or graduate from high school. Cannot listen to the next generation’s perfect English. On the other side, those in El Norte may never witness the aging of parents and grandparents or mourn their deaths within the tight circle of family.
Many taxistas display religious icons as protection against the perils of driving in Morelia
But one taxista I encountered did get to meet one of his siblings’ U.S.-born children. Call him Jorge. He picked me up one Friday on calle 20 de Noviembre on my usual route to teach at La Universidad de Latina América (UNLA). His cab was old but clean. A black rosary hung from the rearview mirror. A figure of el Niño Divino – the Christ child – rocked back and forth on the dashboard as the taxi lurched in and out of the gnarly traffic that must make driving a cab in Morelia a nightmare. Jorge looked to be about 30, his black hair still thick, his face bright as he turned to question me. He asked how I liked Morelia, this gorgeous 16thcentury colonial city with Costco, Mega, and Cinépolis multiplexes at its growing edges. “Mucho,” I responded with gusto. He grinned. Where had I come from? “Oregon,” I said, getting ready to explain the state’s position north of California – dead reckoning for most Mexican immigrants to the U.S. But I never got the chance. “Hillsboro! Eugene! Beaverton!” Jorge exclaimed. He had lived outside Portland for nearly a decade. Was he glad to be back in Morelia? He paused. “Mi mamá,” he said. “Mi mamá está aqui.” But what of other family members? His five brothers are all up north – two in Oregon, three in California. Can they visit? He shook his head. His mother may never meet her grandchildren.
A silence ensued. What expression of sympathy could I offer? In Mexico, family is bedrock. The separations in Jorge’s family are both unthinkable and so common that they defy comment by an outsider. Then Jorge said, “Pero una sobrina vino aqui, hace seis años.” The niece who came six years ago was part of a program set up in 2001 by UNLA and AHA International, an academic program of the University of Oregon’s Office of International Affairs. Faculty from Portland State University, Western Washington University, and other Northwest institutions came to UNLA to teach. Northwest students came to study immigration issues, Spanish, and other topics in classes that mixed Mexican and American participants. Jorge’s sobrina, the daughter of his Eugene-based brother, arrived from the University of Oregon for a semester. It was wonderful, Jorge said, to get to know her here in Mexico. But this program was suspended in 2010 pending changes to the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for Michoacán. I understand government and university officials’ concern over safety, but I mourn this lost opportunity. While problems related to drug violence may persist in parts of the state, I’ve felt very safe in Morelia. Living here and working with Mexican students has deeply enriched my life.
Every taxista’s history has elements similar to Jorge’s. The stories multiply until the echo resonates long after I step from the cabs. Here lie the shards of the shattered mythology of the U.S. Melting Pot, arms once open to the “tired, poor huddled masses” now protectively crossed across our chests. If the U.S. State Department lifts its travel warnings, if Pacific Northwest colleges and universities re-instate their programs, if the current immigration reform legislation passes, some families may suture the cleavages in their lives. But even then, fissures will remain – those formed by missed birthdays and weddings, first communions and quinceañeras, deaths lamented from afar, cracks as jagged as the barbed wire across the border.
Jorge brightened as we approached the university, remembering his niece’s stay here. I told him how fervently I hope things will change. “Yo también,” he said, “Soy un optimista.” Then he repeated, “Tengo mi mamá.” Semana Santa, Easter week, was approaching. Jorge would attend mass and savor a big Sunday comida with his mother. He is grateful for his job driving the taxi, even though longer hours yield lower pay than he made in the U.S. He fingered the dashboard figure. “Por Dios,” he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant. What is for God – the work, the hope, the maintenance of a divided family life? Before I departed, I asked how much I owed for the cab ride. He shrugged. That big grin again. “What,” he asked, “Do you think is fair?”
*From a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, cited in Brocco’s article: 9/11 “Border Security Leads to Crime Increase in Mexico,” September 15, 2011 – http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/mexico-border-closings-deportation-juarez-drug
In class this term, we explored a variety of ways to write based on interviews. Here, Miriam profiles a co-worker at the Clavijero Cultural Center in Morelia, the practicum site where she worked as part of her degree program. Lizbeth returns to the theme of family through an interview with her mother about her grandmother’s life.
Miriam Lamarka Miranda – Profile by Grecia Gonzalez Miranela
The first thing you notice when you meet Miriam is her shyness and the happiness in her eyes. She is 23 years old and a communications major at UNLA. The activity she loves the most is photography. She thinks every picture she captures is a special one because it represents a unique and unforgettable moment.
Art for her is an amazing way to express her feelings and the reality that surrounds us. When you ask her about her favorite artist, the first that comes to mind is Vincent Van Gogh. Her favorite piece by him is “The Starry Night.” She also loves listening to live music, watching musicians play and perform, drinking iced tea, eating really good food and pizza, reading novels, designing accessories and clothes with her sister in their little business project, and spending time with her family and her boyfriend.
She loves writing because it’s a really good way to remember daily life and experience. She hopes she will improve her English, her style, and that she will write something meaningful in the “Telling Lives” class.
The Clavijero library is a big, dark place. Shelves house the books, all donated by two respectful history researchers, Elsa Vargaslugo and her husband Carlos Bosch, both from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in México City. I work at the Clavijero with Amparo, whose name means “protection” or “refuge.”
Photo of the Clavijero by Miriam
Every morning when I arrive at the library, Amparo receives me with a smile and asks how I’m doing. She’s really an easygoing person. I met her through my professional internship at school. I decided to work at a museum because culture and art are what I enjoy most. I wanted to have a more educated point of view about these matters to help decide where I want to work when I leave university.
Everyday I find interesting books and new things to learn about and look at. In this context everything seems beautiful. Of course, all my life I have enjoyed being surrounded by books.
On the rainy, cold day of our interview, Amparo is wearing a black coat and working at the computer. She has big shiny eyes and brown skin with short, black hair. She laughs when I ask where she is from. “I’m from El Rancho Grande,” she says – a term Mexicans use to refer to a nonexistent fantasy world.
“I’m not even 30 years old and I have to take a lot of medicine,” she adds. Amparo has a problem with her heart, hypertension, so she has to take care of herself.
She described her real hometown, Tlalpujahua as a very beautiful place well known for its Christmas ornaments and the mines. Growing up, she used to play a lot outside, enjoying rural life. Her dad was a bus driver and her mom did the chores in their home.
“When I was little I was influenced a lot by my grandmother. She always told me that I had to keep away my tears if my husband one day treated me bad. But I asked her why I had to suffer? My grandmother is a very conservative person. So I have this clash of ideas. In little towns like Tlalpujahua ‘machista’ thinking prevails.”
Perhaps this is the reason that Amparo studies gender inequality. The way she was raised is so different from her way of thinking and that of her generation.
She studied history at Michoacana University. She would like to devote herself to her research. “I’m trying to finish my thesis,” she told me. It’s about the cloistered nuns in a convent in Morelia called “Carmelitas descalzas,” about their way of life and their thinking. She told me that when she visited the convent she couldn’t see the nuns because a big wall separated them. The thesis explores the nuns’ lives during the mid-nineteenth century when President Benito Juárez closed religious institutions as part of his reform laws.
“I have a group of workers at the university (Michoacana) and I’m very happy about that. Finally, we have our own department of gender and women studies. I’m really into that. We want to create our own publications with interesting articles. But now I’m more concentrated on finishing my thesis.”
Amparo has more enthusiasm than many workers I know, even though the bureaucracy she works with is slow. She attends to her work with a good attitude.
One day, she gave me a tour of the library and told me some creepy stories. “This place has a lot of history and energy.” The library used to be a place where priests lived. “One day a Bible fell off its shelf for no reason. Nobody knew why, but a lot of strange things happen here. Books disappear or change places. Maybe it could be the chaneques,” she says, “So we put candies here.” Chaneques are fantasy characters, magic little people that steal or hide things in Mexican culture.
Amparo is as mysterious as the library, and as interesting too.
Lizbeth Eunice Altamirano Torreblanco – Profile by Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo
Liz is a young woman in her twenties. A student of communication sciences, she introduces herself as “sensible, girlish, helpful, unpunctual, happy, relaxed, unorganized and friendly.”
For several months, she was a presenter on a television show on a local channel called “Voz y Solución.” The program addressed social problems in the community, and although she wasn’t completely pleased with the program itself, she was happy because she had always wanted to be on television. Liz would like to have her own program, one like those on “E entertainment television,” she says as a joke.
Her current life is marked by her boyfriend. She smiles when talking about him. Just being with him is one of the things she loves most. For her, the relationship has opened new scenarios. “He is really mature, he is constantly telling me to put my feet on the ground, that I can’t be capricious,” she says. For Liz, he is a serious candidate for sharing her life.
Family is core in Liz’s life. She has never been away from her family and she wouldn’t want to be. Closeness and good relationships with her family members have shaped her. What she enjoys most are those family meals where everyone – cousins, aunts and parents – reunites and laughs.
A Moreliana for all of her life, she would only move to another place for job reasons. She also loves movies, music, parties, traveling to new places, sleeping and eating, especially makis, a type of sushi.
”My Grandmother’s Story”
It was a sunny and shiny day. My mom had just finished cooking, and she was happy but tired. I knew that this interview would be hard for her because my grandmother’s life was so difficult, but satisfying too. My mom was happy to answer these interview questions about my granny. She likes to talk about her mother’s life to us, her daughters and son.
“Talk to me about my granny’s life….” Only a few words were enough for my mom to start a long conversation. After a big sigh she began…
“Candelaria Campos Hernandez, my mother, was born on February 2nd 1919 in Colima. In 1918, Mexico was undergoing a flu epidemic. Many families escaped from the region to save themselves from that sickness. So the parents of my mother, joined by her grandmom, decided to leave Zacatula, Guerrero, a poor little place located on the coast of Guerrero, close to Michoacán. After a year, my mother would be born, and her mother would die because of her birth.
My “mom Salomé” (grandmother of my mother) raised her; she was very strict. My mother started to work at the age of five. They were very poor so she had to do it so that they could eat.
When my mother was 13 years old, she started to attract the attention of the man who would become my father. He started to visit his stepbrothers because they were neighbors of my mom. He used to talk with Salomé, and get closer to my mom. My father was much older than my mom. They got married when she was 14 and he was 33 years old. “She didn’t know anything about love, or sex, because her “mother” never talked to her about that.”
At that moment I paused. I couldn’t hide my surprise that my grandmother didn’t know about sex because she never heard anything about it. My mom explained to me that those were topics that people of that time didn’t talk about.
She continued telling me that her mother had to grow up at the age of 15 when she had her first daughter. After that she had to deal with the death of two of her babies, one at two years old and the other, a few days after he was born.
“Some years later my father died when he was only 63 years old, of a heart attack. My mother was widowed at the age of 43 with 11 children.”
My mom’s voice began to crack and her eyes began to drop tears. I just embraced her without saying anything. My mom continued talking:
“No one could be at my father’s funeral, because everyone found out about the notice too late. My mother was with me at the hospital because I was operated on. I was only six years old and I would be there during three months of convalescence. My oldest sister and my youngest sister were accompanying me; the others were in Uruapan, Morelia, and Tiripetio studying. Only Rosalio, 17 years old, Maria, 13 years old and Fide, 10 years old were in Zacatula. They had to deal with my father’s body and everything else. Some years later my oldest sister died of heart attack too when she was only 45 years old. Then another sister died of cancer. My mother had to be so strong and deal with all this death. As you know she died almost three years ago of cancer too, at the age of 91.
She was very strong, humble, smart, and even through all the problems she had, she was so happy because she formed a large and beautiful family that was with her until the last day of her life, trying to give her back a little of all the love she had for us.”
Everyone in the workshop conducted a variety of interviews, some with family members. They often discovered hidden dimensions of lives they thought they knew. Sometimes those individual stories connected to larger social histories, as in Dhilery’s story of her Uncle Rojo’s education at España-Mexico.
Other times, in the writing process, students excavated memories that yielded new insight into family, as Grecia’s personal essay illustrates.
Dhilery Alejandra García Hernande – Profile by Carlos Emilio Rodríguez Barrientos
Dhilery is currently studying communication sciences at Universidad Latina de América. Though it wasn’t her original plan, she decided to stay in Morelia with her family during her studies, knowing she would be able to live in a foreign city in the future. She now thinks that staying here was for the best. She has the support of her family and the comforts of home. There will be time later for adventures in foreign lands.
She has also done many things outside of school. Last year she worked at “Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia.” It was a very good experience because she could watch life in a work environment and it helped to prepare her for a career after she finishes her studies. It was really great for her to see the roles people play in the workforce and how an organization needs everybody to participate. This says a lot about her personality. She likes order and responsibility. Most important, it proves that she really likes what she studies, and communications will prepare her to work in a similar organization in the future.
Dhilery also likes to study other languages such as English, French, and Chinese, and she enjoys learning about different cultures. She hopes to study for a master´s degree in another country, but she wants to come back to help Mexico and her community to become a better place.
I spend Christmas with most of the members of my mother’s family. All my uncles, aunts, and cousins get together to pass some quality time.
Since I was a child, my uncle Jesús Cerriteño has been coming to Morelia. He would just sit in the family living room watching all of us chat. He was enjoying the reunions, but sat there without speaking, only smiling.
I would never have imagined that he had such an interesting life story. My mother used to talk about how my wonderful uncle (also her’s) would arrive home and give his children and my mom, who used to play with her cousins when she was young, a small candy cake called “gansito.”
I had wondered for a long time about my uncle and his life. An interview was the perfect tool for learning about him.
We call my uncle Jesús “Tio Rojo” (Uncle “Red”). When he was a teenager, one day he was playing basketball and nobody knew his name. He helped his team win, so when the people congratulated him they just said,“You the red one, congratulations.” So everyone started to call him “Rojo” after that basketball match.
Now at the age of 75, that teenager still has his smile, his laugh and good conversation for those willing to listen. His hair is almost all white and his skin is a little bit tanned. Because of his work as a painter, he spends a lot of time outdoors.
I interviewed him in my house in Morelia. He was wearing a blue sweater, a pair of jeans, and black shoes when he started to talk about his life.
Jesús Cerriteño was born on December 15,1938. When he was five years old, he became one of those lucky Mexican kids to study at a special school. “España-Mexico” was founded in 1942 when Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas ordered the construction of a boarding school for orphans from the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco was the Spanish dictator from 1936 until his death in 1975. Thousands of people died during the war, leaving children behind. Some of those kids came to Morelia on a ship in order to have a chance at a better life.
Some Mexican kids also had the opportunity to live and study at “España-Mexico,” the best school in Michoacán at that time. My uncle was one of them. “Thanks to my mom, I could go to that school,” he says. He was raised by his mother, who was a housekeeper. She helped him get the scholarship that allowed him to study at the boarding school. ”It was the best one here, all the teachers were really smart,” says my uncle.
Looking back now, he remembers these years as the best time of his life. “I had the opportunity to go to a lot of places and to learn a lot. I loved being there,” he says. At “España-Mexico,” he had some benefits that he hadn’t had at home such as a daily shower, a good education, daily food, and even some sports time.
He studied there during elementary school. During the summer break before going to middle school, he quit. He could have gone back but he decided to start working. He now regrets this decision. But as a teenager it seemed easier to start earning his own money and start flirting with girls. He got some small jobs with people he had met before until he discovered what he really liked: being a painter. It may seem odd, but he found magic in mixing colors to discover a new one. “I tried a lot of jobs. I tried to be a mechanic, but I didn’t like to use gasoline to clean car parts. I tried to be an electrician but it was boring. So I finally learned how to paint the interiors and façades of houses. I enjoyed this because the person who taught me also showed me how to mix colors to create a new one. I was young so for me that was awesome.
My uncle still works as a painter. He has had a good life, having found his work when he was a young adult. He had 11 kids. Now he lives in Villahermosa, Tabasco, México with the younger of his daughters, her husband and three grandchildren. At this time of his life, what he likes the most is being with his family and watching action movies in his free time.
Grecia Gonzalez Miranela – Profile by Miriam Lamarka Miranda
Grecia with her parents
Grecia is twenty-three years old and her main character trait is that she’s a direct person. You can see by looking at her face that she is serious and formal. Maybe that’s because she studies law and is always is trying to do things correctly. After finishing her study of law, she would like to move outside Mexico to work at a Mexican Embassy.
She’s the kind of person that uses school as a tool to become a better human being. The university keeps her busy all the time, which she loves. But she also enjoys watching sports and baking desserts.
Grecia is a social person, too, always smiling and saying hello to her friends. She would love to study art because she thinks it’s the best way to express feelings and to show yourself to people. When she thinks about the future, she imagines herself living with someone she loves.
I remember the red and white lights every winter that signal Christmas is coming. The Christmas tree, the gifts, the decorations, and the smell of the pine tree in the house overwhelm me. I especially remember the Christmas of 2007. Why that year? I need to explain the circumstances.
My dad, Ignacio, had a car accident in Zihuatanejo in September of that year. He was living there because of his job at the gas station we own, and the rest of us were living in Uruapan. He was hospitalized for 23 days, and for all those days we couldn’t visit him because he was transferred to Guadalajara to receive intensive hospital care. My mom, Yolanda took care of him there. My brother, Nachito, and I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Uncertainty was our companion in those days. My father had two legs and some ribs broken and his diabetes got complicated too. He couldn’t walk; that was all we knew. But after five years of just visiting us every weekend, he came back to live permanently in Uruapan because he was injured and needed us to care for him.
The reality was that after the accident, we had a different dad. The man we used to know was very active, working every single hour of the day, driving from one gas station to another, yelling and screaming at everyone. He was very severe about work and how he felt people should act. After the accident, we saw a shadow of the man we used to know. My mom, my brother and I had to help him with everything. This included moving him to go to the bathroom and taking a shower, preparing his meals, and bringing food to him. He was in bed all day long; the only moves he made were to turn his body from side to side. All of us were chained to that room, the one next to the stairs on the second floor.
But that Christmas was very special because my mom, my dad, and my little brother were very close for the first time in many years. We were a family, a real one. Those months after the accident, we started to help each other and started to have a good relationship. The problems were there but that Christmas but we decided to lock them up for the night. We ate at our dinner table on the first floor and in that moment, unchained from his room, we felt free for the first time in months.
I remember that I cooked Bolognese pasta and baked an apple pie – my brother and dad’s favorite. Just having the four of us, without my grandparents and other relatives around, was a precious gift. This dinner felt like the most special and loving one that I’ve ever had. Today I remember that night and I can still see the red and white lights tinkling for us. We hoped for good days, and knew that everything was going to be just fine if we were together.
Maribel Barcena Lopez by Talía De Niz Pérez Negrón
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Maribel is an American girl with a golden Mexican heart created by the efforts of her family to keep all kinds of traditions around her: banda, mariachi, noches mexicanas, carnes asadas, weekends in Tijuana. But the most important value is family – the support, guidance, influence and inspiration she can only find there.
Her Mexican grandparents immigrated from Jalisco and Tijuana to California in the 1960’s. ”They are a very important part of my life. Their customs, morals, and ideals were passed down to their kids and then to their grandchildren, one of whom is me,” Maribel said. “ Most who are third generation are completely disconnected from their roots and do not speak Spanish. I am grateful to my grandparents and parents for not letting go of my culture.”
Maribel is an artist who likes to document herself and her adventures with photographs. She likes traveling, meeting new people, the sun, the breeze, food, and traditions. She is an L.A girl who loves her city, not the glamour and Hollywood but the one-of-a-kind big melting pot of languages, traditions, culture and histories that live there. Beautiful! She says, “One minute you’ll be in little Tokyo eating sushi and drinking sake bombs and the next minute you can be in East L.A. walking through the mercadito, eating un elote con chile and drinking an agua de limón.”
She has done substantial work with the youth arts collective “Heart and Soul” and “Inner City Arts,” a fabulous nonprofit organization where she can express herself, grow as an artista, and work in a space that stresses the importance and power of arts education. This is also where she found the motivation and desire to pursue a degree in fine arts with a focus on visual arts and humanities.
She is now in Morelia to sample the Mexican experience, try a different way of life, to get inspired, find new friends, and gain a different point of view about her country.
A sweet girl she is – a coffee lover (American with a bit of milk or iced if it’s a hot day), an adventurous but safe traveler, and definitely a person that you want as a friend.
”The Seeds of My Family”
Mom Lupe and Pop, 1979
In this photograph I see a young couple, gleaming with life and love. A giant smile spreads across the face of the woman as her partner gazes at her. His expression might be pure amazement and disbelief that he is standing next to such a beautiful woman. This moment shows the beginning of a new life, one of many hardships and sacrifices but also of happiness. This couple shares love but also similar stories.
Before they came together, both had to overcome many disappointments, setbacks, and failures. Both were born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, to lower middle class families. Times were tough and both had big families that needed their support. Their best chance was to find work in the United States. The people in the photograph are my grandparents, “Mom Lupe” and “Pop.”
Pop arrived in Los Angeles in November, 1968 – a moment that would change his life. He waited many years to receive his visa. The process was unpredictable, and at the time things in Mexico were in chaos. The tension in the country, along with student revolts and protests, delayed the approval of his visa. He worked small jobs and finally he was approved and on his way to the U.S. 1968 was the first Christmas he spent alone, away from his family, friends and his beloved hometown, Ocotlan. One of his first jobs was as a floor sweeper for an Italian named Mr. Remo who owned a clothing manufacturing company in downtown LA. Mr. Remo saw something in Pop and showed him the ropes of the business. Soon he gave Pop the opportunity to manage a cutting room department. Two years later Pop opened up his own cutting company with the help and support of Mr. Remo. It was his first major accomplishment – a defining moment in his life and a memory very close to his heart. He still holds undeniable gratitude for Mr. Remo, the man that saw him as more than just a Mexican immigrant who needed work, but as someone with humility, morals, a work ethic and integrity.
Mom Lupe arrived in Los Angeles when she was 17 years old. She came to find work to help herself and the eight younger siblings she left behind. Mom took the first job that came her way as a housekeeper and babysitter, for which she earned 25 dollars a week. The job lacked adequate pay, gratitude and respect. Soon she realized she couldn’t get by on this so she took her Tia Maggie’s advice and learned to sew. Mom went to work at a factory downtown on San Pedro and 22nd St. She wasn’t a pro when she started; her fingers and hands were still sensitive. Days at the factory were long and demanding, and the bosses unforgiving. When she poked her fingers with the needles, she would run to the restroom and cry in silence, her fingers bloody and her hands swollen. Although she was in pain and stressed, Mom didn’t show it. Her spirit, pride and determination were never broken and her pain paid off. By her second week she was making 65 dollars. From there she moved around to different sewing jobs and eventually landed in Glassell Park, at a factory next door to Mr. Remo’s. Whether it was fate or coincidence, that is how Mom and Pop met.
In this photograph I see a couple that together and apart are hard workers, determined and driven. However, I also see two people who don’t take life too seriously and enjoy the little things: morning walks on the beach, a hot bowl of menudo, reading on the front porch, and weekend trips to Tijuana. I see how their work finally reaped rewards. In this photo Mom and Pop are standing in the living room of a new house that isn’t rented or leased but purchased. Located in Northeast LA with a gorgeous view of the city, it has five bedrooms, three baths and a huge back yard, which would be perfect for all of the birthdays, anniversaries, Banda parties, noches Mexicanas, quinceañeras and weddings that were to come.
I see big smiles and big hearts, the meshing of new and old traditions, fights and reconciliations, family dinners where everyone is about to bite each other’s heads off but at the end of the night all are teary-eyed from the laughter. I see lessons being taught and learned, my grandpa telling stories from the past about people he helped when he had nothing, my grandma nagging at him to get rid of all his junk, and my grandpa not listening. I see my grandparents 40 years later, enjoying their café con leche and pan tostado at the table, savoring one another’s company. I see the planting of seeds that became my family.
In class, we often use poetry as inspiration. One week, we read Brian Doyle’s wonderful prose poem “What Matters,” which led to students’ epiphanies about the marvels of their daily lives. (For Doyle’s original, see http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/blog/what-really-matters). Carlos’ version is included below along with his profile.
We also write in response to prompts such as “I remember.” Talía’s freewrite brought her back to a life-changing period she spent in Paris. “One hundred and Thirty-Three Steps” follows her profile below.
Carlos Emilio Rodríguez Barrientos
by Dhilery Alejandra García Hernandez
Carlos is a Zihuatanejo native, though he hasn’t lived there in a long time. He came to Morelia looking for another way of life and for opportunities. He sees Morelia as a temporary place to live while he is studying communications at Universidad Latina de América.
What he misses the most about Zihuatanejo is the sand and his family. However, living alone has some benefits, such as being more independent, which has helped Carlos to get to know himself.
He would like to focus on writing. This is what Carlos loves to do as often as he can. A good whisky and a cigar are the perfect friends when Carlos is writing. He also likes to play guitar. For some time he wanted to be a great musician to travel around the world with his friends and his guitar. He would like to study in a different country, especially England because he loves their musical history.
Writing or being in the movie industry is what Carlos would like to see in his future in a big city. For now, he is enjoying his college years as much as he can.
”What Matters” by Carlos…..
What matters to me is the joy in life. The little moments that create big memories. The wind touching my skin while I´m running to reach the future. The taste of coffee in the morning. The heat of the sand when I walk in the beach. The cold water of the sea, drowning the bad memories. The hands of my friends pushing me toward new adventures. A text message in the afternoon announcing a party. A good book taking me to unexplored lands. An exciting movie to forget the homework. Waking up very late and realizing it’s Sunday and I can sleep in. A big chocolate ice cream in the park, watching the clouds traveling across the huge blue sky. A piano singing to the heart of the city. The bright of the moon covering the cold skin of a dreaming town. The crystalline waters of the rivers flowing into the huge sea. Singing until the voice gets tired. Dreaming about the future and awakening with a new goal. The embrace of a mother after a long time without seeing her son. The smile of a woman after a sweet kiss on her lips. The tears of a father, carrying his newborn son to the arms of his wife. The love.
Talía De Niz Pérez Negrón by Maribel Barcena
Talía is a Mexican design student at Universidad Latina de América in Morelia, Michoacán and will graduate at the end of spring term. When you first meet her, it’s hard to tell where she is from. This is partly because of her name, which she doesn’t care for because it’s not very common. But it’s also because her fluency in three languages – Spanish, French and English – makes it difficult to identify an accent let alone an ethnicity.
Talía is much more than a design student. She is writer, artist, world traveler and hopeless romantic. Her experiences while studying abroad in Paris forced her to become more personable and outgoing. She says that when you go to a foreign place where you don’t know anybody you have to reach out and be more present, because everyone needs a friend. In Paris she found more than friends. She found love in the beauty and culture of France. Ask her about her daily walks to buy fresh baguettes at the bakery near her Paris apartment or about the crazy coincidence that brought her to live in the same apartment as that of Dominique Bredoteau, a character in the French film “Amélie” – a favorite of hers. Ask her anything about France and her face instantly illuminates with joy and nostalgia.
She loves the little things in life: dancing in the shower or singing aloud to songs she loves whether it’s ACDC or Selena Gomez, and her favorite Miguel Bose. She adores romantic French songs, British accents, and American football. This shows what a well -rounded person she is. Talía may not know exactly what she wants in life and does not have all the answers in the palm of her hand. However, she knows how to follow her heart and so far it’s led her in the right direction. She has already accomplished so much and plans to do more. Next on her list is a visit to India and the Taj Mahal, as well as application to a Masters Program in Barcelona, Spain to study shoe design and creation.
“One Hundred and Thirty-Three Steps”
We are always curious, afraid, and uncertain of the firsts steps we take in life as children and as grownups in new, mysterious places. This is true even when those steps become memorable ones. Here is my story, one hundred and thirty-three steps I’ll never forget.
I remember the walk from home to the bakery: one hundred and thirty-three steps toward the delightful smell of fresh baked bread. There I was, living my life with different numbers and foreign words: six was the number, Jasmine the Street, 16 the district and Paris the place. At the first step, one big door opened, followed by the sound of footsteps and of a door closing behind. Then all the things around me came to life. To the right, the newspaper stand – click, clack, click, clack – my fifteenth step, to my left the smell of cheese drowned my senses. Ten steps later, the post office, another twenty steps, the police station.
Forty, forty-one, forty-two… Look at that beautiful dog!… forty-five, forty-six… Bonjour madame!… forty-nine, fifty… These were the sounds in my head every day on my walk to the bakery. Counting steps is a funny thing to do, I thought to myself almost every day, but why not? Why not make every step of my way a number I could remember for the rest of my days?
From the seventieth step, the walk was filled with colors and smells, especially in autumn. Close to step number one hundred there were lots and lots of leaves on the ground with colors I’d never seen before: yellow, orange, red, all mixed with the amazing feeling of almost.
One hundred and thirty-one, two, three… Bonjour, je veux une baguette s’il vous plaît, I said while my eyes checked each shelf filled with macarons, croque monsieurs, pains au chocolat, eclairs and the first bouches de noël. My hand searched my pocket for coins while the keys clanked with the money. After paying I stayed there for a short time to feel the warm bread in my hands through the paper bag, smell the combined ingredients and take the first bite of the baguette. That was it! That was THE moment where my every sense was complete, my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my hands. It was like being in a movie, maybe a scene from Amélie.
Why did I count my steps? Because I didn’t want to forget, because everyday in that place was like a dream to me. Because the fact of being there was magical, feeling the autumn air in my hair, the sound of people speaking French, the children playing, the discrete laughter, the intoxicating smell of the red wine, a smell I knew but had never enjoyed before. Because I was afraid to wake up and realize that the grass under my legs and my feet, the colors behind the beautiful and amazing lady of iron – la tour Eiffel – might be nothing more than my favorite dream. I counted my steps so I could replay them in my head. I wanted to be completely sure that I was really living in the same place that Dalí, Hemingway, Rodin, Monet, and Piaf once did. One hundred and thirty-three steps changed my life and made me realize that dreams can come true.
We always are curious, afraid, and uncertain not just of the first steps we take in life but sometimes of life itself. Some fears disappear and others remain. For me forgetting is the biggest fear. That’s the major reason why I try so hard to remember special things in different ways.
Introduction to Writing from “Telling Lives: Reading, Writing, and Recording Life Stories”
Before I arrived to teach a creative nonfiction class at La Universidad Latina de América in Morelia, friends on both sides of the border suggested that I’d have trouble using a workshop model – that is, writing together, responding, and revising. Remember, one friend cautioned, Octavio Paz’s famous formulation of the “masks” of Mexicans, a people not given to self-revelation. “The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself,” Paz writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
Maybe I just got lucky. In the “Telling Lives” workshop, the nine participants argue, respond, explore, and above all, write with enthusiasm and depth. We’ve written essays, profiles of people we’ve interviewed, and responses to readings. We’ve discussed truth in nonfiction and the similarities and differences between U.S. and Latin American forms.
What does it feel like to freewrite in a second language? Only Maribel, a Mexican American student from Los Angeles, is a native English speaker. It’s challenge enough in one’s first language to bypass the inner critical voice and write without editing or silencing oneself. “It feels like a way to put out all the things, feelings and thoughts that are messing up my head,” said Grecia. “It’s me alone with my thoughts,” wrote Talía. “It’s a way to meditate…a tool to be honest with myself,” added Dinorah. “As if every true feeling inside me gets out through the pen or pencil, without passing through my reason or my brain.” Dinorah finds the process equally liberating in Spanish and in English, though she adds that it may not feel equal to a reader who reads “my grammar mistakes.” I’ve found students’ grammar mistakes to be minor, their lively sense of language, image, and metaphor a retort to those who don’t believe one can write imaginatively in a second language.
For the next few weeks, I’ll post essays and interview profiles written by students this term. Each begins with a short biography of the writer done by another workshop participant. In this case, Lizbeth Eunice Altamirano Torreblanco interviewed Dinorah. The biographies became collaborative as each person reviewed and sometimes added to the portrait written by another.
This first piece by Dinorah reveals her interest in the crónica – a particularly Latin American hybrid form poised between literature and everyday news journalism. Often, cronistas represent lives from the margins, especially in urban areas. Here, Dinorah mixes elements of a profile with the cronista’s stance as observer to tell a story of her encounter with Andrea, a sex worker in La Plaza Carrillo of Morelia.
Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo by Lizbeth Eunice Altamirano Torreblanco
Photo by Maribel Barcena
Dinorah Ambriz was born in Los Angeles, California in 1990. Her parents, Aida y Manuel, had traveled from Morelia to look for better opportunities and also because Aida was a bit afraid of telling her mom she was pregnant for she was only 21. After two years in LA and with a strong desire to be with their family again, they returned to Morelia, where Dinorah’s sister Clyvia was born.
Nowadays, Dinorah studies communications, and she was just accepted to study philosophy at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). She is in a theatre group and is involved with “Yo soy 132,” a social movement that was created during the last presidential election in México. The group tries to contribute to the “long process of building citizen awareness about subjects of public interest in our fragile democracy.”
In her free time, one of things she enjoys most is working on ‘Do It Yourself’ things with Juan, her life partner. “Making things by ourselves instead of buying them is better for me, therapeutic, economical and fun. I like to buy wood, to sand, paint and make furniture to adorn our house”.
What she plans to do after graduation in communications and philosophy is to travel for a couple of months in Mexico, for she thinks her country is a beautiful one and deserves to be better known. Then, she would like to apply for a scholarship for a masters degree program in Spain, where she lived for almost a year, or maybe Argentina, and travel there with Juan and her baby cat Macario.
“Andrea: A Sex Worker’s View”
What she probably saw was a peculiar girl approaching. She gave me a look full of funny curiosity. My messed up hair along with sweatpants and a red sweater was probably not the usual look of her clients. She must have wondered why I was walking towards her.
Andrea, who identifies herself by an “artistic name,” is a prostitute who works at night in Plaza Carrillo, a small square known as one of the red-light districts of Morelia. Sex workers can be seen from morning until late at night. By day, there are just three or four in the square, but at night they are on every corner near Plaza Carrillo for a several block radius. At night they wear more attractive clothes, or pieces of them, in neon colors and filled with shiny accessories.
As with most of the sex workers, Andrea is used to the sideways looks that people give her, and also to the rude comments people shout while passing in cars. Sex workers are not viewed positively; prostitution is not seen as an honorable job.
Andrea is a 25-year-old transsexual dressed in an electric blue dress, with a pink bra, sparkly earrings, and high heels, carrying a colored purse. Her voice could easily pass for a feminine one in low tones. Most of the time, she refers to him/herself as a man, but acts like a woman. Here Andrea will be referred to as a woman because she was in that role for the interview.
She is really nice and has respectful manners. When I approached her, a deaf-mute man was trying to get services for free, as some kind of social service for his disability. When I asked Andrea for the interview, the deaf-mute started to ask how much I charged. He tried to touch me and then offered his hand. Andrea told him, with a protective attitude and with a just-created sign language, that I wasn’t offering my services and that he must go away and stop bothering me. After the man left, the first thing Andrea said was “What beautiful handwriting you have,” looking at the notepad.
During the day, Andrea goes to pick up her little girl at kindergarten and help her with homework. Besides that, she passes her day in bed sleeping and watching television. The only time she leaves the house is to buy groceries or things that she and her daughter need. At night, she dresses up and takes a cab to Plaza Carrillo. She lives quite far from the plaza in the chaotic suburbs of the city; she doesn’t like to take the bus because people murmur, “bajita la mano” – an expression that connotes how people secretly criticize her.
When I asked why she chose the job, she says, “My daughter is the reason why I work here. As long as I live, I want to give her the best I can, so she can never say that her father didn’t give her what she wanted. I want her to have everything I didn’t. For me, the most important thing in life is her.”
But she also chose it because she felt discriminated against for being viewed as gay. “Look, I have studied. I got a degree so I can work in a company. I studied pedatologia, but when people see you are gay they turn the back on you, close the doors and deny you the job.” In response to my question of what pedatologia is, for the word doesn’t actually exist in Spanish, she answers that she can’t explain it, but that she studied and learned to take care of kids with problems. Readdressing the issue of why she chose the job, she says, “Who is going to trust their kids to a homosexual? They think that because we are homosexuals we are going to touch them [the children] or violate them. It’s illogical.”
In Plaza Carrillo, all the sex workers know each other and they have rules for the new ones. They can’t steal, do unlawful things or throw condoms in the street. But they can drink a little bit, for the cold at night, they say, is hard to bear.
Andrea starts work at nine at night and finishes at three in the morning. She says these are not long hours, for others have been in the plaza since the afternoon. On a good day, Andrea attends six clients; on a bad one, she has no clients. The price during the day is 250 Mexican pesos, and at night it’s 300 (about 25.00 USD). The minimum salary in the city for a job like waitressing is eight pesos an hour. Sex workers carry condoms and lubricants, while the clients have to pay for the room and extra services are charged separately.
Sex workers don’t have someone who looks after them. Each is alone, “a defenderse como puedan,” although they also take care of each other. Most of them have children and a husband or romantic partner. Because their income is not regular, they need to make a colchoncito – a metaphor for saving money under the mattress – to buy diapers and milk. Many of them also have to give money to their partners.
About working at night, Andrea says it is dangerous and tiring. They have to deal with drunks and people who want to abuse them and hit them. “Most men think that because we are sex workers, they have the right to abuse us and use hurtful language. We tell them that we don’t like those things, but they say that they have the right because they are paying. That’s not fair.” Andrea says that in her experience the best-dressed people are the ones who abuse them. She also talks about how a regular client raped her two years ago. She repeats that is not fair the way clients treat them, neither the way people look at them as “garbage” or how policemen harass them.
When I asked about what she desires most, Andrea answers that she badly wants to buy a house or a piece of land for her daughter. Sex workers were trying to form an association, as they have in other red light districts such as Nocupétaro. They were struggling to get medical help, food baskets, and Infonavit, a government credit system. Andrea says that Infonavit is what she wants. “With the rent I’m paying, I could easily buy my house, but we don’t get credit or they ask for 8,000 pesos in advance. Although they think we earn so much, the truth is that we are not rich. We have to pay Coppel [department store], light, water, gas.”
The sex workers association they were trying to create was for transsexuals, transvestites and women. They couldn’t form it because they didn’t have the professional help that the sex workers in Nocupétaro had. “For every mistake, they returned the papers to us, and we had to pay for that. It was a lot of money. The girls in Nocupétaro helped us, and a man was supposed to help us, but he did things wrong and everything fell apart.”
Life at night appears to be difficult for them. But Andrea sparkles when she says that working at night has also some pleasant things. “I like being on the street because I’m enclosed at home all day. But what I like most is when a client treats me nice as a person and not a sexual object, when a man treats me de lo más lindo.
It seems that being treated as human beings should be a right granted to all. But for Andrea, a worker from a vulnerable sector of the city’s service industry, being treated as a human being is something felt only on special occasions.