Today was by far the longest, most tiring, and most bizarre of days on this trip. A shark-like feeding frenzy, a think tank full of young brilliant Mexican 'patriots', the best archeology museum I've ever visited, a law school lecture hall with no oxygen, and a TV variety show where I merengued with the star of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and downed four shots of tequila.
It all happened--really.
It began simply enough, a stimulating run through the pre-dawn town of Coatepec, its beautiful churches afire in oranges, cobalts and vermillions and the old ladies washing the stone sidewalks. I got dressed and was taken quickly to a restaurant --La Pergola--which is the favorite political watering hole of the local 'diputados estatales' (the erstwhile state reps). I walked in and was promptly mobbed by a group of reporters. This particular group were the most forward I'd ever encountered...and they kept trying to get me to say bad things about Mexico and the US. I was told by my US embassy contact that they are called 'tiburones' or sharks. Appropriate--it was a gosh-darn feeding frenzy...at one point I was shoved against a table and knocked over a bunch of books. After the impromptu press event, I breakfasted with a group of 10 or so diputados from the PRI and PRD (I guess the PAN reps didn't want any pan). Stories about politics and the governor's use of line item veto to frustrate the legislature's intentions. Sounds familiar (I tried to explain that our former governor was expert at this, too!). My power point seemed to resonate...but most were interested in making cell phone calls.
After a quick escape, we made it to CETRADE, an inexplicable acronym for a non-governmental think tank which had about 120 people packed into a small open air lecture hall. Lots of young people. Lots of questions. I got to do my George Bush-trying-to-speak-Spanish routine when describing why the US was in Iraq. I also realized something quite important: the ability to communicate how we do politics is inextricable from our politics. This realization made me feel more honest, and less anxious about trying to appear fair and balanced when I am not. My lecture that evening at the law school (250 attendees--must have been a slow night in Xalapa) began with an upfront explanation that the Republican who was supposed to have joined me on this mission bagged out at the last minute, so they were stuck with me.
In truth, the power point does deal with both parties' messages and has pictures and examples from Bush and Clinton.
In between, I was taken (not quite kidnapped, but close) to the Veracruz Meso-American Archeology Museum. Did you know that the Olmecs--the first Meso-American civilization--were around 1600 years before Christ? They even had a glyph-based written language and they idolized the Jaguar (I am still a Bucs fan--to hell with Jacksonville!). Most interesting was the obvious awareness that US nationals had contributed immensely to the discoveries about these civilizations--the primary grant for the museum coming from the Rockefeller Foundation, and the archeologists mostly coming from the US.
The Olmecs and subsequent tribes had elegant sculptures and stellae, but the highlight was coming to realize --very different from the US--how the Mexican people spoke about their indiginous peoples. Not as a 'they' or 'their' but as 'our' history and 'we' began here....that the native peoples are truly part of the nation's bloodline.
The lecture at the law school was long, and the students a little shocked (I was told later) about my informality. I did wear a suit. But I interacted with them and made jokes. Oh yeah, Hillary again. Why this obsession with Hillary?
Finally, at 10pm at night, I showed up at the "El Molcajete" variety show with my retinue of Election Institute friends and the unflappable Miriam. The word Molcajete is an indigenous word for mortar and pestle. The host--a Lebanese-Mexican man--has quite an interesting format. One well-known guest comes and cooks a favorite recipe. Their is an orquestra which plays salsa and Mexican danzon and cumbia, and then a political guest. The 'star' that night was the actress who was the female lead in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto-- the one who was pregnant and ended up in the hole with her young son. A lovely young Veracruzana woman who chose a family torta recipe made of ham and potatoes. So during the political segment, the host (a former Congressman, as it happens) quizzed me on immigration and gun laws. Every time he agreed with me, he made me drink a tequila shot --live on the air!
Three shots later, he broke for a commercial. I came on for a second segment later in the one and one-half hour live show to talk again, this time about--you guessed it--Hillary Clinton. I don't get it. In between segment, there was an impromptu merengue moment where I was dragged on camera to dance with the young Apocalypto actress...Lord forgive me for not saying no. It was, truly, an unforgettable evening. After all that, I didn't even get to try her torta!
At the late hour the show was filmed (10:30pm -- 11:30 EST), I wasn't the most interactive guest, I suspect. But I certainly was attentive. The varied Caribbean flavors of the orquestra's selections, the colorful and savory smells from the 'kitchen' in the studio, the somewhat-offcolor antics of the host. Wow. But what I'll always remember were two very different feelings the show evoked in me.
The first began with the 'oh-gosh-it's-like-I'm-in-college-again-and-have-to-do-the-tequila-shot.' I was on camera, it was shot live and the whole feeling was festive. I played along and it was all rather innocent, if somewhat excessive with the tequila. But in that moment it finally drilled its way into this thick skull of mine that, through their lens, I am another American--and here, I was showing the viewers in the studio and at home that I could keep up with the host.
This is perhaps more complicated than it might at first appear. As a Latino in the US, my own identity as a Latino-American is the lens through which I inevitably 'see' these folks as somehow connected to my own story. When the host teased me into drinking with the friendly appellation 'gringo', I got it. That I was a person who carried all the baggage of my country--a war that didn't make sense, a gunman in Virginia who I had to explain and whether it would mean a backlash against Mexicans working in the US, the prospects of true immigration reform--the whole enchilada. I was there, after all, to be the American. What an unexpected gift of sight!
The other remarkable thing in the show happened just after. Between shots where we were doing the interview, there was a pre-taped segment where the female host spent a morning with a couple of women 'de la limpieza', that is, hotel cleaning ladies. The segment was humorous with the co-host trying to learn how to change sheets on a bed, and so forth. But it also had a sting at the end: This vibrant young female co-host had to struggle to keep up,clearly experiencing physical exertion, with these older women who were professionals.
At the end of the segment, the host paused, praised the ingenuity of his co- host and then looked at the audience. "Can you join me in applauding all the women who clean hotels here and everywhere, who so hard and never get thanked?" The studio audience went crazy. How many there had sisters or cousins or aunts or mothers who did just that work in the US? I'll never know. Somehow the heartfelt applause seemed connected less to specific connections to persons in these jobs, and more as a collective expression of understanding. This experience of the immigrant in the US with all sorts of difficult, unpleasant, but necessary and unthanked jobs their brethren had over the border, was understood here as worthy of respect. How remarkably decent of them.
Tomorrow we have a couple of radio shows and a breakfast before we head back to Mexico City. goodnight!