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Athletics, tour guides, evangelism and Mexico border crossings

Stan Gotlieb

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

August 23, 1996: A Border Resident Shares Her Experiences

Sandy Weisel writes:

Hi, I just love your column. I was born in Tecate, raised in Tijuana and now I live in Arizona (My husband is a US citizen as am I as ofApril). It is true what you say about innocent people getting the end of the stick when crossing the border... I have had green corn tamales (made for my husband by grandma) opened, asked why I drive a 4 wheel drive car in AZ, why don't I use mexican highways coming home, why if I am a US citizen do I want to go to Mexico (to see family of course!).

I am a teacher's aide with two kids and as far as I know I don't look like a smuggler. As I told an agent not too long ago "I don't even wear "Versace" (the dead giveaway for most smugglers and their girlfriends).

Many agents are very nice and polite; others are rude and take their frustrations out on people like me (as in "this is too much of a nice car for a mexican girl to be driving around in or are sure these are your kids? They are blonde and white (so am I for that matter brunette and white)").

Growing up in Tijuana I never thought of San Diego as a different country, it was all part of the area that I lived in, SD was as much my home as Tijuana, the border to me was only one traffic jam I had to deal with, all part of living in the big city. It is certainly complicated but even more so because nationalism inflames passions and passions lead to fervor without foundation. I get into discussions with friends from both sides of the border but I have the answer now to shut them up, I will read them your article and make my point. Thank you, great job.

Stan replies:

Thank you for the kind words and the personal testimony. No-one should have to put up with the kind of mistreatment you have endured just because some politicians see a political advantage in brown-peril demagoguery.

July 28, 1996: Privatize Pemex Now

You are dead-on correct about the need to privatize Pemex (hopefully not selling it at a bargain price to associates of Salinas de G, like TelMex). I met some other American computer consultants who had been hired a few years ago to set up an inventory control system for large equipment for Pemex. In short, their lives were threatened because the system would have endangered an important source of corruption. They were taken from their hotel under armed military guard and protected until they boarded their aircraft home.

The ... politicians in the PRI (no different from ... politicians everywhere, including here) have invented and then supported this nationalist fervor in order to maintain their main source of graft.

L. Cohen

Stan replies:

In the article to which you refer, Privatization And The National Pride , I pointed to Mexican jingoism as one of the stumbling BLOCKQUOTEs in the way of the Zedillo administration's attempts to sell off the major remaining nationalized industries. However, I did not mean to imply that I am for the sales. I am not.

The fear is that a "privatized" Pemex will become a foreign owned Pemex, with decisions that affect the Mexican people being made in New York and Geneva and Bonn and Tokyo, where nobody much cares about the fate of Mexicans. Remember we are talking about monopolies, here. For instance, a credible case can be made that once controlled by US agribusiness interests, Pemex' fertilizer plants will be converted to other uses and cheap Mexican fertilizer will be replaced by more expensive US imports. A "global" decision with serious local repercussions.

I agree with you that the corruption which pervades Mexico, as it does the US, easily crossess from the private to the public sector and back again, as does ours. A good example of that is the Army "protecting" your friends,so that they left the country before they could further endanger corrupt Pemex officials. Therefore, I don't see privatization under the present reality as anything more than another opportunity for corrupt government officials to line their pockets with under the table deals.

In fact, a case can be made that only by selling Pemex can the corrupt ones enhance their financial and "untouchable" positions. The elements include the current age and inefficiency of Pemex' equipment, the massive cleanups necessary to rectify years of unfettered polution, the inevitable tie-up of foreign exchange income as unpayable debts come due, and the general mood of "hang someone, anyone" that has resulted in the arrests of former governors, heads of major corporations and political operators in recent weeks; and the likelihood of undetectable tens of millions in bribes to officials to approve licenses and acquisitions. If I were in the position to approve such dealings, I would be looking for a way to make a big score now, before the axe starts falling, as it surely will when Pemex gets devalued like Telmex did.

On the other hand, the present situation is clearly intolerable: no money for capital equipment, ecological safeguards, workers' salaries; mortgaged to the hilt for already-spent foreign debt. So what's the solution? I sure don't know.

Here you have caught me out in my most vulnerable contradiction: it's easier to be a critic than it is to work out a definitive answer.

July 5, 1996: A Revealing Glimpse Into the Mexican Character

A reader writes to share a unique experience during a visit to Oaxaca city:

We were walking from the market back to the zocalo we were talking and we walked into a standoff between about 12 men holding metal rodes and sticks of wood about to go after each other.

When we saw what we had walked into we turned to go the other way and they put down their 'weapons" and said "no, passele.. no hay una problema ,passele" [pass, there's no problem, pass] so we walked through, them all smiles and us really confused. Judith.

Stan replies:

There is a core of decency and respect for others that runs through the people of Mexico that I find uplifting and for which I am grateful. There is also Machismo, and you were women. Whichever was operating in that particular situation, can you imagine that happening in the US?

Still, there is also a note of caution that needs to be sounded here. Not all such events end so pleasantly for the casual bystander. It is a good idea for visitors to let their antennae precede them by a safe margin, and not to blunder into potential danger. As you pointed out elsewhere in your letter, the strife between the political parties in Oaxaca has on occasion resulted in shootings. Trusting, but cautious: that's the way to go, in my opinion.

July 4, 1996: Athletics Training In Oaxaca?

First a thankyou to yourself for maintaining such an informative web page. It has spurred me on to continue my quest for a inter training location.

I have just graduated from Bristol University (BSc physics) in England and am now living and competing in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is far too near to the arctic circle for my liking. I am an 800m runner - currently ranked second in Scotland and 8th in Great Britain. I think that to increase my chances of making i tthat I should move to a warm climate, preferably at altitude for my training. My sister has just returned from Mexico and has recommended Oaxaca as a pleasant place to live. But as an athelte? What do you think?

You are probably aware of the prowess of the Kenyans at distance running events - who have lived and trained in the mountains of central Africa alltheir lives. I and a couple of friends - graduates of University of Oregonwant to give ourselves similar advantges. Does Oaxaca have a running track or any US style sports facilities?

We also need to support ourselves finacially as we do not have any significant sponsorship yet. Do you have any ideas for teaching English or any work which could lead to board and lodgings? Track coaching at schools, etc.?

I am willing to make any efforts to make this happen. Any help you or your readers could offer will be eagerly awaited.

Robin Hooton

Stan Replies:

Oaxaca is a very athletically-minded place. There are bike races almost every month, marathons every month or two, and sports events for young people almost every Sunday in the Llano Park. For joggers, walkers, exercisers, there are the paths and exercise areas in the Tequio, a forested area near the airport. The University has good facilities.

The problem is going to be earning a living. The schools that teach English do not pay their teachers very well, and tutoring, while better paying, is overcrowded with providers. It is possible that you or your friends could use your academic specialties to enter the job market, but of course it will require a decent knowledge of Spanish. In fact, living in Mexico from day to day (as opposed to being a tourist) will require some facility in the lingua mexicana, unless you settle in some yankee-dominated location like Chapala or San Miguel.

Opportunities to teach English are probably more numerous and better paying, in southeast Asia or eastern Europe, or for that matter, Africa.


June 20, 1996: False Information Feeds Anti-immigrant Hysteria

Dan McWethy forwarded a letter from a friend. The following is a summary of his friend's arguments, and my answers in italics:

We must stop illegal immigration because we are a welfare state. The cost of free immigration will bankrupt us under the present "social services net".

This is simply false information. Unfortunately, even well-meaning "liberal" folks fall for it over and over again. See the Washington Spectator of June 1, 1996 (and many other publications including NACLA and The Progressive), for the facts.

In fact, only about 15% of all illegal immigrants stay more that two years, having come to work and send money home to their families. 5% of immigrants receive welfare benefits of any kind -- only slightly larger a percentage than white citizens.

An often-quoted report by Los Angeles County, used by anti-immigration forces to "prove" the writer's point, is statistically flawed. It sets percentage of welfare services provided to both legal and illegal immigrants at 31%, and revenue collected from same at about 9%. What it fails to say is that the revenue figures are based on recent immigrants only, and that when longer-term immigrants were factored in, the income (33%) was in excess of cost: in other words, our foreign born citizens are net contributors to our social services.

The writer cites some (admitedly random, anecdotal) evidence to show that it is not only the poor mexicans who violate our hospitality. Presumably this proves that he is not just against the poor, but is an equal opportunity xenophobe. The case he cites is that of a Mexican woman of considerable wealth who brought her son to this country to receive a very expensive operation at public expense and then returned home with him, rather than paying for similar services which are available in her own country.

It is unclear what the point is, here, if it is not to show us that all Mexicans --not just the poor -- are untrustworthy people who will rob us of our eyeteeth if the border fences don't work. There are those who would say that this case reveals problems among our overworked and over-regulated social services personnel (you could get a hernia just trying to lift the procedures manual in some offices). Still others might blame the often irrational and inadequate legislation our congressional representatives pass in our names while making sure that the profits keep flowing to their hospital and insurance buddies. Surely, in a country where millionaires buy and sell regulators, judges, lawmakers and law enforcers every day, it can not come as a great surprise that the upper classes in Mexico also cheat when the opportunity affords itself.

Finally, he argues that by allowing Mexican campesinos to work our fields, we take the pressure off the exploitative Mexican government and their oppressive supporters; that by giving them money to send back home, we are dulling their appetite for a much-needed revolution. In other words, keeping them out is really for their own good.

First, we are not talking hordes here, folks. The wildest estimates of illegal immigrant volume set it at less than one million in 1996. That's about 1% of the Mexican population. The other 99% are staying at home and working it out, and believe me (I live there) they are not generally a bunch of happy campers. Second, it takes a particular kind of superior and condescending attitude to tell someone whose family is starving to let them starve for the greater good of the country. Not even the EZLN is doing that.

Finally, is anyone counting the social cost of all the extra prison cells, border patrol officers, fencing, electricity, civil suits for use of excessive force, and bad will between races that all this brown peril hysteria engenders?

Maybe it's time we stopped blaming the victims, and went after the real bad guys: the excessive costs of hospital stays, and hospitalization insurance; the military and economic support our country provides to repressive and banker-friendly regimes in our hemisphere; the industrial agriculture system that requires laborers to live and work in such feudal conditions that only the most desperate will participate; and the system of half-truths, distortions and outright lies that the propaganda mills of our own white ruling class use to keep us divided and fighting amongst ourselves.

June 17, 1996: Why Are Indigenous Soldiers Fighting Other Indigenous People in Chiapas?

Mojo Maya wrote a long and thoughtful letter which I will attempt to summarize here.

When in Palenque, Chiapas, an area with a lot of Zapatista sympathies, she noticed that the soldiers who had come to town on Saturday to shop with their wives and girlfriends were obviously of indigenous blood, just like the villagers they are charged with suppressing.

Even recognizing that there are divisions among the native peoples regarding the EZLN and their activities, she posits that it must be difficult for young men just off the land to evict other campesinos from theirs. She wonders if they may have been forcibly conscripted, as in Guatemala.

Stan Replies:

While there is no apparent forcible conscription, the Mexican army has a policy of relocating soldiers far from their families and friends. Often, it is their first time away from home. In the Mexican countryside, where tribal and family ties are the strongest ones, this practice not only cuts the soldiers off from their emotional, moral and economic support, it plunks them down in areas where strangers are treated cautiously. Putting the much-hated uniform of the oppressor on them guarantees their alienation. Small wonder they end up doing the ghastly things they do.

There are divisions among the people in Chiapas over the proper role -- if any -- the Zapatistas should play at this point in Mexican history. Often these divisions are simply between the "haves" and the "have nots". Frequently they are based on perceived slights or favoritism on the part of the EZLN, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (the left-center party that appears to favor the EZLN), or supportive Catholic church figures. Wherever possible, the army, and its' US advisors in "low intensity warfare" exploits these differences to make the people easier to control. Of course, they also tell everyone that they are trying to preserve "democracy" from being subverted by the "communists" (or some such bugaboo).

May 3, 1996: Tour Guides in Oaxaca

Patricia Osakis writes that if you visit the ruins, like Monte Alban or Mitla, or if you want to spend a day buying rugs in Teotitlan del Valle, or looking at wooden animals in Arizola, it is easy to arrange for a guided tour. But in the incredible and exotic Abastos market, faced with an abundance of strange vegetables and fruits with almost unpronouncable names, you're pretty much on your own. None of the tour agencies offer guided tours of the Abastos. How come?

Stan replies:

It probably has to do with how unmanageable a tour group would be in the warren of crowded and chaotic alleys, aisles and passages of the Abastos market (actually called Centro Mercado de Abastos). If you are dealing with more than a few tourists, there is no way to keep them together. Also, most tour guides at the ruins or in the craft villages, while somewhat bilingual, have learned their English spiel by rote, and know that if you are at point A, you give out with blurb A.

Market tours are a different kettle of fish. First of all, with so many varieties of fresh and dried herbs, fruits, peppers, etc., it takes more than a "course" to inform a guide. Second, the guide has to be genuinely bilingual, and a little trilingual, as many of the sellers only have rudimentary Spanish, being mainly speakers of Zapotec, Mixtec, or other native languages. Thirdly, since we are talking about food, it helps for the guide to be a cook, and since most of the cooking is done by women, and since guides tend to be men...

I actually know only one trilingual Mixtecan-Spanish-English market guide that I would recommend. She and her US-born bilingual husband also do village tours. If you're interested, let me know, and I'll provide you with more details.

May 1, 1996: Beware using white telephones -- they may be a tourist rip-off!

Stan warns wary travelers:
Everywhere you go in Mexico turistico these days, you see these white wall phones, with a sign in English saying "call the U.S. or Canada on a credit card or collect, just dial "0". Usually, they are in or near hotels or tourist attractions.

These phones are not part of the Mexican phone company. They are owned by a US firm.

Dan McWethy wrote to say that he used them frequently to call home, thinking "what a great convenience", and he is now paying the price: about $20 dollars u.s. for the first MINUTE, and about $7 to $8 for every minute or FRACTION of a minute thereafter.

Because the billing goes through a third party, it is impossible to demand an adjustment or an explanation, and his local phone company will not refuse to pay the charge. I am sure that the same would be true had he charged them on his credit card.

Protect yourself by demanding to know the rates BEFORE you make the call. If the operator will not tell you, or can not connect you to someone who can, consider going instead to a Larga Distancia facility, where they will explain their rates to you. Also be aware that many hotels add a surcharge for long distance calling, even if you call collect, and that in some cases the surcharge is 100% or more. Once again, ask first.

March 24, 1996: Is This A Good Time To Move To Mexico?

A reader wants to know:

My husband and four children and I plan on moving to Mexico in a couple/few years. My husband is a Mexican citizen and I am American. We bought land in the state of Nayarit, very close to the coast, on a mountain. We want to build a nice house, send the kids to Mexican schools, start businesses in Mexico, stay at least as wealthy as we already are, and have a great life.

My question is "Are we absolutely out of our minds?" Everyone I know thinks so. I don't think so, but I am interested in your opinion.

Stan Answers:
Maybe you are nuts: so what? "Everyone" told me I was nuts, to do this or that, go here or there, move to Mexico w/out knowing how I was going to support myself: you name it, there is always someone who will gladly advise you not to.

I came here because I found it a gentler, kinder place, less type-a and more accepting. I am glad I did. I stay because where-ever I go, there I am, and here is o.k., too.

In general, the Mexican economy sucks, and the political system is falling into ruin. The army and the police are running amok and Mexico City is going the way of Guatemala City. But not EVERYONE is having hard times; not EVERYWHERE is becoming dangerous and uninhabitable. Can you dance through the raindrops when others are getting soaked? I suspect you know the answer to that better than I do.

What I do know is that as I get older, I find it harder to take risks. This means that if I wait, I often don't do. I also know that times are tougher everywhere, as increased populations, concentration of wealth, and plain old human cussedness take their inevitable toll. Certainly this is true of the U.S. How else to explain Pete Wilson, Diana Feinstein and Pat Buchanan?

Let me know when - and what - you decide.

March 2, 1996 A sincere Christian talks about evangelism.

Pedro Basilio is a middle-aged Mixtec indian who lives in Ayutla. When he was fourteen years old his father was killed by Pedro's uncle for a piece of land. In the vicious circle of family fuedalism, Peter went to Mexico to earn money to buy a gun. He would return and avenge his father's death. In Mexico City, the only people he knew were some Bible translators. They allowed Peter to live with them being ignorant of his intentions. One night while during his stay, he picked up a Bible and began to read it. That night, after reading about the person and message of Jesus Christ, Pedro decided to become a Christian. He immediately returned to Ayutla and found his uncle giving him the deed to the land he sought and promising that he would never have to look over his shoulder in fear of Peter again.

Peter then lived in Ayutla for several years. Later he moved to The United States to work with another couple who was translating Mixtec. They spent seven years working together translating the New Testament. Eventually, Peter felt a very strong burden to return to Mexico, and share with his own people the message of Jesus Christ. He has been there for maybe 7 or 8 years and there are several congregations; two Mixtec congregations in the mountain villages, and one "Spanish" congregation in Ayutla.

My church in Lexington Kentucky became friends with Peter when he lived in the United States and determined that when Peter left, we would help him in any way we can. We support him financially, and go down three times a year to provide medical supplies and services to whoever wants it. Peter, however, is the boss of all that we do. We ask him what he wants from us, and that's what we do, nothing more, nothing less. In fact, we are afraid of Manifest Destiny, and have purposed only to be Peter's friend, and help him in whatever way he desires.

At any rate, my wife and I went for three months to live with Peter and help him with whatever. I attempted to teach guitar to some members of the church, and also helped in an english school. Peter trained me in pastoring a small congregation. My wife also helped with the children in the church, and the english school as well. More than anything, we were there to be Peter's servants. In the end, though, I'm sure we benefitted more from our trip than Peter did from our presence there.

Peter has, admittedly faced many difficulties in his efforts. A local witch doctor and member of the Catholic Church put a contract out on his head. Whenever Peter goes to share in the villages, the Catholic priest from Ayutla goes behind him to make sure they know Peter is wrong. The believers have faced some persecution as well. But what has struck me is their determination. They have found so much more than a dogma or church teaching. They have encountered Jesus Christ. For this reason, they are willing to suffer anything, and they count their suffering as nothing. As far as I can tell, this group of believers has never persecuted Catholics. Rather the opposite has been true. I have seen conflict, but I have also seen much good as well.

The early Christians in Rome suffered some of the more severe persecution in history. They were falsley accused of burning Rome. They were disdained for proclaiming another God besides Caeser. However, they would rather die by the sword than disown that God. I guess what I'm saying is that the price of "disturbing" the status quo is worth it when one has encountered more than religion. These people are willing to pay any price for the precious thing that they have found.

...I am very interested in your comments, and my feelings won't be hurt if you think I'm a misled, arrogant gringo.

Stan Replies:

First, let me make it clear that I will not allow this column to be turned into a forum on evengelism, either pro or con. However, if a reader has a FIRST HAND experience of what happens on the interface between western religion and native peoples and culture, I welcome the input.

Your tale is touching and your well-meaning humble attitude is compelling. I salute you both for the depth of your commitment and for your willingness to share your faith with someone whom you rightly suspect will reject it. I do not think you arrogant, although you may be misled. I do think that the assumptions you make and the lessons you draw are more beatific than balanced.

History is full of the excesses of well-meaning people, and the "early christians" that were persecuted in Rome turned out to be the Catholics who then persecuted Protestants, as the Protestants turned out to be the persecutors of naturopaths ("witchdoctors"), free thinkers and others. Not that violent rejection and repression of "outsiders" has been confined to the judeo-christian tradition: ask any meso-american slave who gave his heart for his Aztec, Inca, Olmec or whoever captor.

My old daddy used to say that figures don't lie, but liars figure. If all the converts were truly made into the ideal Christ-ian that Pedro/Peter is portrayed to be, then I for one would say "hats off", but the facts appear to be that most people belong to religious groups because they perceive an advantage: life everlasting, social position, new roads to power, the deacon's daughter, travel to the U.S. to study the Bible, whatever.

From what you said, I doubt that much of your largesse (medical supplies, english lessons, etc.) went to persons outside Pedro/Peter's congregation. Furthermore, everything you did enhanced the position of his Churches. People who have little can be very impressionable when someone in their village is able to call down the power of distant wealth and secret knowledge.

"What a cynic", you will probably say, and you would be right. I got that way from watching the differences between what people say and what they do; what they profess to believe and how they treat those who do not share those beliefs; who profits and who loses. As far as I can tell, ALL religions (including secular ones) have one common factor: a promise that an adherent who really believes (and demonstrates that belief) will profit -- either now or later.

February 5, 1996
Josh Urquhart write to ask:

My fiance is going to Monterrey (Mexico, not California) over spring break to help some volunteer organizations. What sort of paperwork does she need (besides the obvious passport and ID)? I have heard horror stories from friends who went and got ripped off because they didn't have the right car insurance, drivers licenses, etc. Plus, she is Hispanic, and I have other Hispanic friends who were really hassled when they tried to go back to the U.S. and didn't have the proper papers (some had very young siblings without passports).

Stan Replies:
To enter Mexico with a car, you need a valid U.S. driver's license, your car's registration papers, and proof of insurance. I got my insurance from an agency in Laredo, who claimed to be providing "Sanborne's" insurance (a well-known standard coverage). In Texas, ask your agent to recommend someone. You specify the number of days you intend to be in the country, and the amount you want to receive for your car if it is totalled or stolen, and the rate is calculated accordingly.

To return to the U.S., you need a valid official picture id such as a driver's license as proof of citizenship (non-citizens supposedly can't get regular driver's licenses). Passports are good, but not necessary. You can also use a certified birth certificate, but probably still need a picture id to prove the you on the certificate is you.

On both sides of the border, having the right papers is no guarantee of hassle-free passage. As you rightly pointed out, hungry Mexican authorities are not above "misunderstanding" the law until paid for a proper understanding; and overly zealous and sometimes racist U.S. border officials can make coming home something less than a welcoming experience.

Before she decides to drive down, I strongly suggest your friend read the relevant chapters in "The People's Guide To Mexico", and, if she is a member of any travel club such as AAA, gather together all the materials she can get that might be useful.

Finally, remember that buses are cheap, fast and plentiful in Mexico. In general, and unless there are good reasons to the contrary, I recommend that people leave their car at home.

January 5, 1996
Laurie Loeb writes:
I'm really enjoying your articles/letters, learning quite a bit, chucking a lot, and shaking my head in frustrated and sometimes disgusted agreement with much of it.

One piece I really have to take comment about is Welcome to L.A. RE: "In a major headline article in early April 1995, the respected daily La Jornada reported that significant numbers of campesinos in Chiapas will not be able to plant corn and beans this year. The seeds which the government promised them if they did not grow seed plots, will not be issued. The seed program was cut as an "austerity measure", to help satisfy the Clinton "loan" requirements and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)."

My understnding of the true situation was that due to the increased military presence and attacks on the rural villages in the areas of Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, La Realidad, et al following the February government crackdown to try to arrest Zapatista leaders, thousands of campesinos fled into the mountains fearing for the lives. Their houses were ransacked and burned, their milpas also destroyed, livestock starved in their absence, and they were simply not there when planting season arrived, still too frightened to return to sow seed.

I never heard word one about a government seed program, which sounds like a typical coverup for the real news. Now, whaddya think about that?

Stan Replies:

Woodie Guthrie once wrote: "some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen" (Ballad of Pretty Boy Ffloyd). The Barzonistas would certainly agree.

Thanks for the reminder that state-sponsored military terrorism, as practiced in Chiapas - an old proven method of depopulating rural areas - is still being practiced by our neighbor to the south. But don't forget that there are more subtle and hidden ways of accomplishing that end, no less destructive of rural self-sufficiency, for all their legalistic camouglage; and while some of our "leaders" will decry starvation by scorched earth, thereby "embarrasing" our client governments, no-one sees anything wrong with a banker fulfilling the terms of his credit agreement by foreclosing on the land- and future - of indebted peasants. No blood, no need to notice.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 1996 by Stan Gotlieb © 1996
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