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Letters to the editor: June - Nov. 1995

Stan Gotlieb

Below are some archives of letters to the editor that Stan has chosen to answer with open responses.

November 30, 1995
The Struggle

Curious, it seems. My wife and I were on a bus from Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez the very day (and night) of the August presidential elections. We were leaving. My wife was leaving the country of her birth to go to a new place which she had only read about and heard about. I simply wanted to get to Juarez and be done with the bureaucratic charade that is the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Department of State.

It was quite an experience listening to the sometimes Spanish, sometimes English commentators which populate the radio waves in the northern part of the country. Tanta porqueria de elecciones. My wife didn't vote. She carried her credencial de elector more as a travelling document than as a demonstration of her right to suffrage.

We survived three days in Juarez and visited the slums in El Paso once my wife was given permission to immigrate. At that point, we promptly returned and walked across Madero's capital to our hotel near the U.S. consulate. The elections were insignifigant to my wife at the time. She thought only that she was leaving, and she didn't want to.

The PAN would fall in Juarez's mayoral race, for the first time in several years. My wife's family all voted for th:e PRD, with one exception. My brother-in-law voted for the PAN, para que no faltara el pan {Play on words: pan is the Spanish word for bread, so this means roughly "the bread won't falter", and implies that his brother-in-law would suffer financially from a PAN loss (stan)}... Elections mean precious little in terms of day-to-day lives. And Zedillo won "bienestar para su familia"... de el {this refers to Zedillo's campaign slogan, "a good outcome for your family", and notes "for him" (Stan)}.

We left, partly in fear of the sexannual peso crash and partly in search of dollars to purchase some land and build a home. And you're right. The struggle continues. We check the peso's slide every day in the papers, and we fear for for family's welfare back in Mexico City. Meanwhile, Mexico's state department is pushing Mexican expatriates to naturalize themselves as citizens of the U.S.... in order to vote and push for change. To a certain extent there is some truth to the matter. Mexican-Americans who vote can at least have the pretense of some say in the U.S. government. And, since many up here support the PRD, Mexico's rulers will rid themselves of one more little problem.

Christopher Stewart

Stan replies:

Thanks for sharing your experiences. As anyone who has crossed the border either way knows, the artificiality of national frontiers seems, regardless of where, to breed a kind of tight-chested waiting-for-the-bureaucratic-axe-to-fall feeling. I'm glad your experience turned out well; many do not. I wish your wife much strength dealing with the racism and self-righteous attitudes of many of her new paisanos.

If you are surprised at the outcome in Ciudad Juarez, think about this one: the PAN won the presidency of the City of Oaxaca! No-one expected that, although the PAN showing in Michoacan, while not so surprising, was nonetheless disheartening for the PRD. The reversal in PRD fortunes in the last sexeno (six year presidential term) has been disturbing (many say that PRD won the 1988 election, but the PRI ripped it off with massive election fraud). I hope someone is doing a serious study of what happeded to PRD, and how much of the demise is Cardenas' fault.

As to the peso, let me be the first to say, in this column, that my predictions of this spring were woefully inadequate. I knew the peso would continue to slide, but meekly predicted a 7.5 peso dollar by year's end. As you know, it got that bad in mid-November, and it looks like we ain't seen nothin' yet. Your relatives and my neighbors are buying lots of smuggled Havana cigars for a bunch of greedy bankers.

October 27, 1995
Stop Putting Mexicans Down

I read your Tale of Two Students and found it inspiring. It seems that most of your stories deal with the dark side of Mexico. Much like in the US the Hispanics are treated, i.e., the-poor-people-who-can't-speak-the-official-language. In your story, a sense of sarcasm seems to transpire which I find offensive. True, wages in Mexico are minimal, and not likely to go up any time soon. Productivity in Mexico, in terms of GNP per capita is (was before the devaluation) 8 times lower than in the US, so what is wrong with working 8 to 6 to get a better life? Any person in the US who wants to make it on his/her own has to work just as much. I have met college students who mop floors during the night to pay for tuition. They earn the minimum wage and I have never heard a comment saying that that poor guy is being exploited.

The main problem in Mexico is that most people (inside and out) expect that "the government" do something to solve the situation. The solution is in fact the opposite: forget about the government! Do whatever it takes to get you and your community out to a better life without expecting any help from the outside. I would have loved to see the Tale of Two Students presented as a story of courage and determination instead as a story that moves to compassion to the fruitless efforts of two hopeless Mexicans.

Rafael Chavez

Stan replies:

Writing is a tricky business. One man's light-hearted humor is another's sarcasm. All I can say in my own defense is that I did my best not to do that which you have accused me of doing. My respect for the Mexican people is profound, and like my regard for my own paisanos it is leavened with what I hope is a healthy portion of fond irony and skeptical humor.

No white US citizen can reasonably deny a certain amount of prejudice, whether toward other races, colors, religions or sexes. It seems to me that a lot of my adult life has been spent struggling against those tendencies in myself and others. I certainly do not presume to tell you or any other person with a Hispanic surname how to react to what you read about others with Latin American roots. I can only say that I am confident that a careful reading of my articles will show that I regard the Mexican people as dynamic, indomitable and proud; and the current political upheavals as another step in their long struggle for true independance -- a struggle in which the vast majority are able to distinguish between me as an individual and my government.

I agree that in an ideal world, the individual will take responsibility for him or her self, and not rely on help from the government. I hope that I have not implied otherwise in my articles. However, in that same ideal world, the government would not interfere significantly in the life of the individual, then when that interference occurs -- as for example when a nation sends its' law enforcement arm into a community to repress worker uprisings while failing to do anything to punish death squads protecting large landowners -- then that government should suffer exposure, if not criticism. And when it is our government who supplies that government with arms, training, and money, then at the very least we should know it is happening.

Now, as to "A Tale Of Two Students", I thought that I had presented it as you said: "a story of courage and determination". Certainly, both young men, and those members of their families that I have met, have struggled mightily to elevate themselves economically. They understand the value of an education in that struggle. Likewise, until the IMF and the World Bank and other big money institutions pressured the Mexican government into "austerity measures" that are currently impoverishing the educational system, so did their government -- and ours.

Finally, let me say that if I am accused of having a "liberal bias" in my articles, I stand guilty as accused. I try to compensate for it, but I suppose that I am not always successful. Letters such as yours are helpful in balancing that tendency.

October 25, 1995
Is Oaxaca For the Physically Disabled?

stan...we very much enjoyed your letters on living in mexico...the positives and the negatives...a little about us...i'm disabled by a mining accident....and the cold wet climates here are very painful...we want to come to your area...we have heard Oaxaca is a good place to come...the climate would be great for me...i would ask you for advice if i may...a couple, could we live fairly comfortablely there for $1100 a month?? we don't require a lavish lifestyle...hopefully just a comfortable one...could you give us some insight on the possibility of being a good move for us?? thanks for your time...

Kyle and Shirley Dodd

Stan replies: Diana and I live on about $700/mo. including travel and "extras". We have a large one-bedroom apartment and live in a style which is quite comfortable for us. What is comfortable for you is something for you to discover, although $1100 seems to us a reasonable budget.

In general, I would not advise anyone to "relocate" anywhere, most especially to a foreign country, withour first spending some time there. Oaxaca is no exception. Before you sell your house, give your furnishings to the kids, and say goodbye forever to all your pals, come on down and set a spell. They speak a different language down here, and you can't buy a lemon or drink the tap water.

Oaxaca city's climate is variable. Some days are indeed damp (the rainy season lasts all summer), and the cold seasons require a jacket at night. On the other hand, the coastal resort villages are hot all year round.

For those who cannot qualify for a "temporary residence" permit, there is also the hassle and expense of having to leave the country every six months to renew your tourist visa. For more on residencies, and indeed for a good general overview of relocation to Mexico, I recommend that you read "Choose Mexico". If after reading that, you are still interested in coming down, get a copy of "The People's Guide To Mexico".

Finally, there is the whole issue of access. In Mexico, the sidewalks do not run smoothly from corner to corner. Aside from the holes and the sections tree roots have dislodged, there are also depressed or elevated driveways, and it is a rare corner that has a ramp to the street. Public buildings with ramps are few and far between. If you are wheelchair-bound, you will find Oaxaca to be a challenging place. Notwithstanding, there are people living here who are physically challenged, and they manage (sometimes with the help of attendants, who by US standards are inexpensive to employ).

October 20, 1995
Praise From A Peer

Stan, I'm the Proceso correspondent in California. Your stuff is quite interesting. I'd like to hear your thoughts on stories you think should be covered more extensively by people like us. Bye

Beatriz Johnston

Stan replies:

I am flattered that anyone who is associated with what I believe is the premier in-depth weekly news magazine in the hemisphere would take the time to read my stuff, let alone ask for my input.

Since you have asked, I would like a focus on children's issues: the growing number of street kids (see this column, Sharing The Wealth ), the rumors of child slavery ( The Servant ), and the deteriorating educational system ( Watch Out For The Wind , others).

Diana Ricci, my photographer, is interested in the fate of the middle class as a result of devaluation, and I have been focusing lately on the developments surrounding the Barzonistas ( The Middle Class Revolt ), whose movement will, I believe, be of historical importance.

Because my Spanish is only "Jornada" level, I confess I have not spent as much time with your more literate (and therefore more linguistically dense) magazine. If I have missed your treatments of these issues, please excuse my ignorance.

October 17, 1995
Don't Repeat Negative Rumors

The following is a loose translation of part of a letter received from a university student in Mexico:

I like your stuff, but I wonder where you get your information. If you make statements, you should state your sources. Mexico is suffering from a deterioration of confidence in the world, due to paoliticians' mistakes, plunder by speculators domestic and foreign, and stories of corruption. Therefore it is important not to spread rumors that originate in the bad faith of some Mexicans.

Daniel Sanchez Alanis

Stan replies:

As a student, you are required to put in lots of footnotes to support the statements that you make in your writing. Investigative reporters also are required to verify their stories. I am neither an academic nor a reporter. I write about what I read in the newspapers, what I see on TV, what I hear on the radio, and what I see and hear on the streets of Oaxaca.

I write for the U.S. people. I share my experiences with them. Sometimes I write about how the decisions of our politicians and our government officials affect the people of Mexico. My countrymen have a right to know this. Then, they can make up their own minds about whether to act or remain silent when our government does something that causes harm to your countrymen.

I enjoy living among the friendly, generous, honest and serious people of Mexico. I believe that on balance, I write far more positive things than negative things.

October 8, 1995
Aren't You Scared of Government Reprisal?

Stan: aren't you concerned that your articles will bring you to the attention of the PRI? I mean, you obviously care about the people, but have you considered the dangers of being a journalist even on the Internet?

Philip Ternahan

STAN REPLIES: If you think I write provocative stuff, you should see the stuff that gets printed here every day in the newspapers, or listen to the things people say on the radio.

Incidentally, let me clear up one possible misapprehension: the PRI, while the de facto political (above-ground) arm of the ruling families, is hardly a monolithic organization. In fact, my guess is that right now they are too busy accusing each other of assassination and corruption to even notice my existence.

While it is true that I could end up pissing some big shot off, and get my lillywhite butt thrown out as a result, I hope that a few simple precautions will suffice.

First and foremost, I do not involve myself in Mexican politics. That would not be appropriate, as I am not a Mexican citizen and can leave any time I wish. I am a citizen of the U.S.A., and as such I believe I have a right and a duty to report on how policies and actions of my government affect the daily lives of Mexicans and other Latin Americans, as well as other expatritates such as myself.

Second, I do not write for the Mexican market; and I write only in English. I do not presume to have enough expertise or experience to comment to Mexicans about their own experience. I barely have enough knowledge to figure out my own situation.

Third, I do not consider myself a "political" writer: I also write about the funny dumb things I and my fellow expats do, about travel experiences, etc.

Fourth, I have never claimed to be a Journalist. I have too much respect for the craft to do that. I am just a bozo commenting on life as I see it. I am neither an expert on anything nor an investigator. Opinions R Us.

Nonetheless, I am not without anxiety about how vulnerable I am. I wonder how writers like David Shields at The News and all the reporters at La Jornada manage to keep in the face of the power structure when their colleagues get beaten or killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suspect that they, like me, just cross their fingers and keep on keepin' on.

October 8, 1995
Illegal Immigration, Face to Face

For one reason or another, last night, two women and two small children from La Placita, Michoacan, showed up in my house, in Tucson, Arizona.

They were among the many desperate Mexican families who have lost all hope for finding any kind of prosperity in Mexico; and have decided to come to the United States to find work.

After expressing to them that I could be acting illegally by simply allowing them to stay at my home for a few days (they did not have immigration documents), I heard their plea.

One lady was working, just last week, at (a very fancy "american style" resort hotel) in Manzanillo, Colima. Her weekly pay was N$120 (about $20).

How can a resort property like this one, which probably charges $175+ dollars per night, pay (its) employees so little.

What's happening ?

I'm afraid that the peso will suffer yet another devaluation towards the end of November (just before Christmas) to about N$8 to one dollar.

If this happens, the illegal immigration problem will become even more serious.

I am concerened, sad, and frustrated. I wish there was something I could do to help.

Name withheld; see below

STAN ANSWERS: However these folks came to you, be careful. As you undoubtedly already know, Tuscon has for some time had an active and effective network of people sheltering and transporting Mexican and Central American political refugees. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government has a well-developed counterforce which does indeed put people in prison for following their consciences in this matter. Your concern is based in reality, not paranoia.

Your comments on the disparity between what hotels (and restaurants, and car rental agencies, and other tourist services) charge and what they pay their workers are echoed by many in this country and abroad. This week, there will be teachins and demonstrations in Washington D.C., as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund hold their annual meeting. Organized by an umbrella coalition called "50 years is enough", one of the themes will be that the socially destructive consequences of the IMF model of development, with its' demands for fast accumulation of hard currencies and capital intensive industries.

Many poor-people's organizations point out that tourism is good for the banks but not so hot for the folks. They note that tourist dollors go mostly to absentee-owned businesses which pay lousy wages. Unlike making a tire, or a refrigerator, the money doesn't get passed around much. Your guests are an example.

In an article published in "The News in English" on October 8, 1995, it was revealed to no-one's big surprise that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has failed to reduce illegal immigration to the U.S.; that in fact it has increased by more than 20%. Your observation is once again right on.

For a balance, let me point out that in Mexico, $N120 per week is better than the minimum wage (about $N13.5 per day); also that there are tips collected; also that the level of existence enjoyed by hotel maids probably is not so hot in the U.S. either. And of course, women with children, as in the U.S., are in the lowest wage-earning category.

I think your fears that the peso will continue to slide are well founded. The rate in Oaxaca yesterday was 6.35, up almost half a peso from the last month. Futures in pesos are trading currently at around 7.0 for January, but I think its' whistling in the dark. I am sticking with my 7.5 to 8.0 prediction for January 1.

I don't know what you can do to help, since I don't know you. I can tell you what I do, which is to continue to write about how the actions of our government and our financial institutions (I am not always sure they are distinguishable) affect the lives of people in Latin America, and to encourage my readers to speak truth to power.

August 13, 1995

I am under contract with Prodigy Service Company to maintain a Web Page on Latin America. I would VERY much like to add your Page to mine via a link. Yours is quite simply OUTSTANDING!

Laurel Pieper
Prodigy Service Company
Moderator, Latin America Interest Group

August 2, 1995

We are an australian couple going to mexico in Oct and Nov. we would really like to enter Chiapas but are concerned about the situation there. Could you give us an update on the safety for tourists. we are in our early 50s and are doing our first backbacking trip. Any information you could provide would be great.


Stan replies:

It has been 16 months since I visited the highlands of Chiapas, so most of my information is second-hand. However, everything I hear is good news for sensible travelers. Buses do get held up infrequently - second class more frequently than first class. Occasionally a traveler gets relieved of possessions by subterfuge or at gunpoint, but the Mexicans have a saying: Vale la pena (worth the effort/risk/pain). San Cristobal is a superb value right now, because so many tourists have been frightened by the mass media into going to "safer" places.

I strongly recommend that you get a copy of The People's Guide To Mexico (John Muir Publications, 9th ed, $18.95 U.S.). I ordered my copy from Wide World Books and Maps, 1911 N. 45th St., Seattle WA 98103. It is not a compendium of places to eat and sleep; rather it is a guide to a proper attitude and a sensible, unromantic, nonhysterical overview of the possibilities and problems of Mexican travel, customs, etc. It also has excellent sections on backpacking. Use it as an introduction for, and in addition to, your standard guidebook.

Backpacking (as opposed to suitcasing) is fine. Wandering as a lone couple along the shoulder of the road may be inviting disaster. I am sure that for every bicyclist who has been robbed of all his or her possessions on the road there are many whose bliss was not once interupted. I just don't hear about those. Remember that Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico, and that there is no such thing as a poor tourist when the guy with the machete has no shoes. Have fun, but stay awake. And when it is time to go to sleep, do it behind a secure locked door or in a guarded campground, and not on the beach or in the park. Mexicans, as a whole, are industrious, honest, courteous and generous. As elsewhere, there are some who don't fit that picture, so enjoy, but cover your ass.

Of course, the more Spanish you understand the more enjoyable your experience will be, particularly if you are planning to "live cheap". If you can, take a quickie course before you leave.

Finally, remember that Chiapas is not the only trouble spot in Mexico. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a state in Mexico in which some armed conflict has not occurred recently. Quite often, "safe" resort areas exist next to less-safe territory, and in the larger towns (as in the U.S.), some neighborhoods are safer than others.

Have fun.

July 30, 1995

I found your page on the WWW and have just read all of your letters. I am impressed. I'm not at all sure what you do or did for a living but it must have something to do with writing. I do a bit of writing myself and know enough to at least appreciate what you have done, and the effort that went into it.

Oaxaca was a refreshing change after Cuernavaca. Neither [my wife nor I] wanted to leave when the time came, but, unfortunately, Jackie had a job to return to.

Just wanted to tell you how much we both enjoyed your insightful letters and that you have made us more determined than ever to return to Oaxaca whenever we can.



July 25, 1995

I enjoyed reading your Letters from Mexico on Netscape, and learned a lot.

(You may be in over your head when you start talking about the world coffee market, though.)

I buy stuff from an outfit in Houston called "Pueblo to People" which claim to foster economic self-sufficiency among artisans and farmers in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and a couple other places. I wondered if you'd seen any evidence of their work?

July 2, 1995

Hi Stan, Linked into Peacenet the other night and found many of your opinions. Since I am interested in politics in Central America, and especially the political mish-mash produced by the aspiring evangelical politicians, I plugged into your "Religious Wars."

There are two points that I do not understand. Maybe you would not mind explaining your point. Paragraph #3 speaks of "plunder" in the context that the evangelicals plunder the community and from one another. Since you introduce the concept of plunder using the nineteenth century (and today in some small groups) Calvinistic notion of wealth equals God's blessings, I must conclude that you are saying that the evangelical groups in Chiapas are becoming properous. (See the Anis book of Guatemalan Indian evangelical prosperity, U Texas.) I cannot help but be reminded of the traditional Catholic church that "plundered" the citizens who buried their loved ones in church or community cementaries, cristened infants, and many more services rendered by the church. Of course many of these charges ended years ago officially. I say officially because in some of the countries that I visit, various of these charges are still being made.

You mention the intra-evangelical conflicts that arise, espeically when one or more of those church groups are offering rice and roofs in exchange for souls. This too is a form of plunder. I spent much of the 1980s in El Salvador where I saw conflict, even competition between the traditional Catholic church and the Catholic "popular" church. These were often furious battles that left priests, nuns, and other church officials not only offended, but angry. With regard to offering "food, tools, seeds, medicine, etc." for souls, I remember the volumns that have been written, in years past of course, of priests and church officials who absolved sins, even prayed for those in purgatory in exchange for lands and buildings. The bottom line is that, unfortunately the poor of Latin America have always been "plundered". Now evangelicals are getting a share, not only of the wealth, but also in politics.

The second point to be clarified is found in paragraphy #6. You state that "preachers were being taught coercion techniques and psy-warfare." What is that? The innuindo of this statement is horrific. If these church groups were employing psychologists to train them for social and cultural plundering, this would be a most reprehensible deed. However, if these preachers were being taught ways to evangelize, winning the lost, then it is entirely a different matter. I am for letting each church groups proseltyze whomever they wish. The people can make their own choice. But back to the point.....During the period between 1978 and 1985 Belgium priests helped develop hundreds of "Christian Communities" and as a result of their "teaching" (techniques or coercion and psy-warfare) young men and women robbed banks and participated in other events that the church would not have wanted their priests involved with. (See many of the books published by the Salvadoran university UCA).

As an academic I am interested in the religious warfare with which you began your article. I am especially interested in the impact that evangelicals are having on politics in Chiapas and Central America. But your language in this opinion does not add to knowledge, rather it seems to be a semantic attack on evangelicals. If you want to attack the evangelicals, and there are many ways to do that, do so, but know that the Catholic church can be revealed to be perpetrators of many of the same acts that you lay on the more recently arrived evangelicals.

Would it not be more advantgeous to tell what the evangelicals are up to, doing, rather than waste time with mere rhetoric that obfuscates the issues that need to be discussed. For instance, the increasing number of evangelicas, their impact on politics, will they enhance or discourage democracy in the region, are North American evangelical missionaries hindering or helping the process of democracy??? These need answers, they do not need polemics.



June 22, 1995

As the National Director of the National Chicano Legal and Civil Rights Commission, I am very interested in the Status of Chiapas, I trust you will keep us informed. I have son of Mexican Birth and I am from Argentina, Most of the information we are able to get is in Spanish, of which I speak, but have problems reading, we look to you for in depth reports.

Thank you

Juan Antonio Rodriquez, Ph.D.
National Director NCLRC

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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