In the early part of 2013, I read Alfredo Corchado’s new memoir “Midnight in Mexico” and it soon became a topic of conversation while I traveled through Tijuana, in Texas and in New York City. The book’s storyline is built on Corchado’s investigation into a very possible hit on his life. In a review and q/a with the author for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma I explained why I found the book compelling and a necessary read:
By offering readers a deep look into his interior world, Corchado illuminates the complex forces at work in Mexico´s “descent into darkness.” He focuses squarely on the fallout from Mexico´s transition from an autocratic government to a fledgling democracy, which destabilized power structures among organized crime groups. He trades the gore that has dominated headlines about Mexico to concentrate on political machinations, corruption and manipulation, underpinning forces of a violence often reduced to the simplistic term, “drug war.”
The entire piece can found here.
The dogs of Ciudad Juárez as a metaphor for the ambitions, corruption and failure of people. Published September 4 by Al Jazeera America.
Imagine, then, the upheaval that upended this imperfect but functioning system when a manageable 20,000 street dogs morphed into a teeming population of 200,000 mutts, German Shepherds, Labs, and the favored dog of city dwellers for years — the Poodle.
The bond between man and his best friend was corrupted. One man nailed a dog to his fence. A gang of 10 children lassoed a cat, hurling it up onto the street cables high above, leaving it to dangle there.
But to this day, the dogs still roam the streets. Their miserable bodies betray the lasting legacy of violence, their wretched lives warning that the human conditions — which ushered in the crisis and determined their sad fate — persist.
Read the entire story here.
City of Dogs was a featured selection by Vela Magazine: Women We Read This Week
“This story is about much more than dogs – it is about international corporations paying poverty wages, about people forced to abandon homes and pets, about a culture in which it has become easy to blame violence on “brutality” or “immorality” without actually analyzing the economic violence at the roots of it all.”
Ten years ago, I produced a feature story for public radio about Army Reservists as they prepared to deploy for Afghanistan.The piece was built around the drafting of their a last will and testament and centered on the singular question: “what was the most precious thing in their lives?”
Over the summer I reported on homeless vets for Al Jazeera America, many of whom had returned from Afghanistan. It was in many ways the closing of a circle, or perhaps the beginning of another.
In truth the story wasn’t about homelessness, it was about the more nebulous part of violence and war, the scars. Like the radio story from a decade ago I found much of the story was contained in how it was told rather than simply the words. It may be because trauma and violence are not flat, delivered chronologically, they operate outside of neat time divisions, as does recovery.
By Sunday, most of them will be back on the streets, but some will have taken the first steps towards finding a home. How they arrive at taking that very first step says much about the vexing nature of veteran homelessness. It says even more about the universal human needs that, for many, lie behind their homelessness.
Mission: Transformed_ published in the Sept.-Oct. 2012 issue of Sojourners magazine
ON A FLIGHT from New York City to Guatemala some years back, I met a woman from Oklahoma on her way to visit her soon-to-be internationally adopted daughter. “I just found them, the Guatemalan children, on the internet and thought they were so beautiful,” she said. She beamed, her blue eyes, carefully painted lips, and cross earrings all sparkling.
Guatemala’s landscape, where wistful clouds cruise above fertile fields and past rumbling volcanoes, reflects the volatility of the country’s tragic history. That history includes a decades-long civil war, ending in 1996, in which more than 200,000 people were killed, mainly by U.S.-backed government forces. To visit the country is to experience not just that history, but also a culture that pioneered astronomy, devised an intricate written language, and erected engineering miracles. But, asked whether she intended to preserve her adoptive daughter’s ties to her homeland, the woman I met on the plane said, “If she wants to see it, we’ll bring her. But really, there’s nothing there.”
The attitude that “there’s nothing there” is, all too frequently, the attitude of missionaries en route to Guatemala. But when Joel Van Dyke arrived in 2003 from Philadelphia, he suspected there was plenty there—there in the country’s slums and in the cities’ bursting garbage dumps, where thousands of people find sustenance every day. He set out to find what was there by learning to ask the right questions of gang members, slum dwellers, sex workers, and the local faith leaders who work with them. To do this, he told Sojourners, he had to adopt the attitude “let’s go see what God is doing in the world and let that color and shape the theological discourse.”
That guiding principle is behind all of the work of the organization Van Dyke works for: the Center for Transforming Mission (CTM), an international nonprofit that provides theological training, spiritual formation, and networking support for local religious leaders in the global South. Based in Tacoma, Wash., and founded by longtime urban ministry worker Kris Rocke, CTM offers resources to grassroots organizations in more than a dozen countries.
“Our proclamation of the gospel is often a product of the power and privilege we enjoy,” Van Dyke and Rocke write in the book. (As it has been in the past; for example, the CRWM, when founded in 1888 to work with Indigenous Peoples in the U.S., was initially called the “Board of Heathen Missions.”) The story of mission—his own and others’—is, Rocke says, to start with the attitude, “‘here comes the white great savior,’ only to figure out that [the missionary] is the wounded one, is the crippled one.”
Van Dyke and Rocke introduce and conclude their book by emphasizing that their work is firmly based on a willingness to give up the power of unquestioned certainty. They submit themselves, they say, to the very real possibility that they are wrong. For now, though, in Guatemala and countries across three continents, they and others at the Center for Transforming Mission have committed themselves to the simple act of asking.
This piece appeared on Salon.com on November 14, 2011
CIUDAD MIER, Mexico — A Mexican army commander sent to protect a region of villages and ranches in northern Mexico from the Gulf Cartel and Zetas can describe, in detail, the profile of his assigned enemy, the country’s notorious drug cartels.
“These guys are sick in the head,” he says, gazing at the brush and mesquite from behind his aviator sunglasses, toward the camps of the “enemy.” “They follow a sick ideology, they’re animals.” Without missing a beat, he continues, “Look, there’s no jobs, the poverty is bad; there aren’t enough schools. There is nothing for these boys and the cartels offer them a job. They tell them, ‘You can have any kind of pickup truck you want,’ he says. “They get paid more than we do!”
The commander and his soldiers have staked out a lakeside park near this colonial village, providing security for the annual fishing tournament. Bureaucrats from the state tourism department and soldiers, some manning gunners mounted on military trucks, vastly outnumber the few tourists. Even so, reporters from TV Azteca prepare a promotional report about the event, an image that makes an effort to convince tourists that the “frontera chica” (small border), the nickname for this swath of the border, is secure and ready for tourists. Last year when the Gulf Cartel and Zetas launched their siege on the frontera chica, the then governor of Tamaulipas dismissed the reports of decapitations, incinerated cars and shootouts as merely a “collective paranoia.”
Such is the panorama of Mexico’s violence, a distorted battleground of propaganda, impunity and duplicity amid death. Such is the conflict in which the U.S. government has become firmly entrenched over the last four years since newly elected President Felipe Calderon launched his controversial U.S.-backed “war against the drug cartels.” The conflict has cost between 40,000 and 50,000 lives and violence has worsened with the U.S.-Mexican military deployment, according to a recent report on global violence by the Geneva Delegation. Violence in some parts of Mexico now outstrips the levels of many war zones.
–This piece was reported from Ciudad Mier, Tamaulipas, Chicago, Mexico City.
Michelle García, a border-crossing Mex-American journalist, deconstructs the daily press orgy of “sex and violence.” It is a visual force that diminishes the real victimization of women as well as their often genuinely heroic responses,” as summarized by Froylan Enciso, co-curator with Paul Gootenberg.
I highly recommend visiting the site and reviewing the incredible reports by including gems by Howard Campbell and Elaine Carey. I especially enjoyed Natalia Mendoza Rockwell’s piece Boots, Belt Buckles and Sombreros:Narco-Culture in the Altar Desert. Many thanks to both Froy and Paul for inviting me to be part of the issue.
This piece was published on the sites of The Texas Observer and Women in Media and News. Download pdf version here.
A few days after my 16th birthday, a woman walking along a lonely highway in the neighboring town accepted a ride from an acquaintance. She climbed into a car carrying four men. Linda Gaitan was 19, a young mother who wore a tattoo, “Soy Gaitan” (I’m a Gaitan), her husband’s surname. The four men drove Gaitan to an outdoor party—beer and men cheering on their birds in an illegal cockfight. Gaitan was gang-raped on the hood of the car by 11 men and a teenager. The beer, the cockfight, Latinos queuing up for their turns. The details became an open wound with rumors and news reports buzzing around like flies.
The 1988 rape in San Diego, Texas, swelled in my mind as I read the details of the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, a small town north of Houston, by 19 males, the youngest 14, the eldest 27. The New York Times and Houston Chronicle coverage included comments by locals who suggested that the girl somehow consented or invited the abuse. Some in Cleveland described the girl as dressing beyond her years, walking around alone. She hung around with teenage boys, they said.
The Chronicle made the questionable decision to include details from the girl’s Facebook page. The Times allowed chaotic reactions from locals to dominate the story, and the response to the coverage was swift and fierce. Some in the community had cast blame on an 11-year-old girl, and the press had given them a free pass. Critics have rightly excoriated the press for failing to provide “context,” the context being that a child can never consent to sex. It’s illegal.
I return to the comments by the locals because they reveal much about the way people, communities and the press process sexual violence. These reactions appear to be imbued with shame, exacerbated by internal politicking and are a reaction to the press itself. The result—battle lines are drawn, camps are formed, allegiances are fortified.
Less obvious in the calculus of the ‘post 9/11’ world that emerged is the 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, the unmanned drones that cruise into Mexico on the hunt for drug traffickers, an unprecedented level of immigrant deportations and one baggy pant wearing baby-faced Mexican kid known as ‘Puebla’—New York state’s first and only convicted terrorist.
download pdf version here
In 1891, my great-great-uncle, Catarino Garza, attempted to overthrow the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz, by launching an armed revolution from my family’s south Texas ranch. One year into his campaign, Garza agreed to an interview with The New York Timesto explain the reasons behind his insurrection. “The impression prevails that I and my followers are simply an organized band of border ruffians,” Garza told the reporter. “As nothing can be further from the truth, I rely on you to do me justice.”
Journalists of that era who covered the new and largely unknown southern territory drew heavily on U.S. military reports, which viewed Mexico through the prism of expansionism. The United States, eager to protect trade with Mexico and secure its new frontier, came to Díaz’s defense and deployed the Army, the Texas Rangers, and other law enforcement outfits to join Mexican federales in hunting Garza down. And on the front page of theTimes, in keeping with the label assigned to Garza by the U.S. and Mexican governments, Garza was branded a “bandit.”
In Garza’s day, American press coverage of Mexico paid scant attention to the fledgling nation’s internal political dynamics or the views of its population at large. More than a century later, this remains too often true, as the story of Mexico in the U.S. press is mostly a one-dimensional account of the horrible “drug war.” I am no apologist for drug cartels, and I don’t place the revolutionaries of old on equal footing with drug kingpins. Rather, I detect enduring assumptions that govern our coverage of Mexico—what’s perceived as good for the U.S. is portrayed as good for Mexico. To wit, if the U.S. interest is clamping down on the supply of drugs reaching American streets and nightclubs, then calling out the military is a wise policy decision for Mexico. Such a simplistic calculus ignores the fact that narco-trafficking is a firmly entrenched and complex organism that exists for a range of economic, social, and political reasons.
Land, you see, is everything to us. Our culture is tied to the land. It is passed down as our inheritance, as my father did for me and my siblings, fulfilling his long-held pledge. In these borderlands, the fates of families like mine have hinged on the land. And so my instincts insist this wall is not just about illegal border-crossers, not just about Mexicans. It is, in a deeply historic way, about people like me, people whose identity was forged in generations of struggle over land. Download article: On the Texas Borderline, a Solid, if Invisible, Wall