Teachers are too dangerous for bike shares…
After I finished up at the Agrarian Archive I decided to go to the National Water Commission (Conagua) archive. My logic was that if there was conflict over land, there certainly would have been conflict over water. I was correct. There was conflict over water. But, that was not the most interesting thing that happened to me at this archive. I decided to walk there, since it was about 30 minutes away from my apartment here in Mexico City,
While on my way there, I happened upon a plantón de maestros. That was the first most interesting thing. This is essentially a camp of teachers from the national union who are protesting education reforms. I am, of course, theoretically in favor of unions. I am not in favor of unions as corrupt as this one. I am also not in favor of educational reforms that do not address this corruption, or even take into account the very difficult conditions for many teachers and students in Mexican public schools. There needs to be reform, but of a very different kind.
Moreover, while walking through this urban camp, I began to wonder: for whom is this
Next to the archive
convenient? I cannot imagine it is convenient for the teachers, sleeping on streets. It might be convenient for a government that wants to look like it supports striking workers even though it restricts where they can march, and camp out; it might also be convenient for a union to appear to be working with its members; it might be even more convenient for the same government and union to have millions of children without teachers. That is always convenient for authoritarians.
Inside the archive, I kept thinking. The woman in charge was extremely helpful (I recommend this archive highly) and the database was actually useful. This is quite rare. I found most of what I wanted, but I could not find anything to corroborate my suspicion (and newspaper reports) that Mennonite people in Chihuahua are digging too many wells and wells that are too deep, and that in time, there will be no water left. I didn’t really expect to find proof of that, really. But it would have been so cool.
Sometimes I think I should have been a historian because I love archives. So much. Last year, as some of you may remember, I visited the Archivo General Agrario for the first time. Last year, I was kind of annoyed with this archive because they were slow, I needed to write a letter on letterhead in order to be able to take pictures, etc. etc. etc. Classic bureaucracy. Then, I went back in March and I learned I couldn’t even take pictures! What the heck! I took some notes, and thought I would never have to return.
I was quite happy about this turn of events because this archive is a bit crazy. It is actually used by normal people, and in Mexico this means people who don’t know how to use computers well (the archive search engine is computer based) and sometimes people who can barely read. This means that the few people who are actually helping the patrons have an even more difficult job than in other archives. And the documents are in the process of being digitized so sometimes it takes a while to get them, and sometimes by around 11 or 12 there are so many people that they can take up to half an hour. So then I would go home and have lunch.
Then, I began to do some more research for my project and to talk to some people about agrarian reform in Mennonite and Mormon communities. I learned that one Mennonite colony, La Batea, was particularly notorious for problems with ejidos. I had read some information about final agreements, but then I realized I would have to go back and see how and why this conflict had started. So I had to read some documents (they were cool btw. Pieces of paper and carbon copies from 50-100 years ago are my jam). While I was staying with the Mormons, they and other people I met in the region also started telling me about Mormon problems with land reform, and that one of the reasons why they had fewer colonies now than 100 years ago was because of agrarian reform… when I went to look up two conflicts… the files were enormous. There was no way I could take notes, even if I made the questionable choice of bringing my computer on the subway to go to the archive (close to a neighbourhood, Tepito, that is not considered the best).
So, I decided to ask the staff if there was any way I could take pictures – I could pay to have photocopies made, but those took at least three weeks of turnaround. They were priced reasonably, but the time made me a bit concerned. Finally, I asked the right person, and he (pictured above) told me that according to his boss, I would need a letter, and a camera. So, once I had found out which documents I wanted to have for posterity, and after griping for a while to my housemate, I went back to the archive. The only problem with this is that I left my camera in my apartment (because it was breaking) and only had my phone. The phone also has the advantage of being able to use programs like genius scan to convert images to PDF, and then I can use Acrobat Pro to make the PDF searchable… so basically it is way more convenient. I decided to put on my best new t-shirt from Los Hipersensibles and my white privilege and hoped for the best. It worked. I now have so much information about ejidos, Mormons in Chihuahua and Mennonites in Zacatecas that it’s ridiculous. The question remains: why could I do this and why do people who are trying to ascertain their own land titles have to pay money and then wait for an interminably long time?
So I’m finally Manitoba, Mexico, and will eventually be heading to the Mormon colonies in Chihuahua and also the Mennonite colonies in Durango and Zacatecas. I’m doing research for my book. I have almost drafted the manuscript. And then I “just” need to revise the entire thing. Then my faithful editor, my dad, will make sure that it’s good enough. The writing is going fairly well, in part because a lot of these ideas have been percolating since I presented them for the first time at LASA in May of 2013. The other part of why it’s going well is my faithful unpaid editor.
I am reluctant to finish the manuscript, in part because I worry that my conclusions are going to offend someone. I am, of course, always worried that I am going to offend someone. The conclusions go against conventional academic discourse, that the Mennonites are separate somehow from Mexico; the research suggests some level of integration since arrival. Or, the research is from a perspective that serves to unite people from different Mennonite groups, and so focuses more on a Mennonite identity and less on how the Mennonites fit into Mexico. Research on Mormons is also primarily from an identity-based perspective. But, I believe that they are aware of their integration with Mexican society because it has been intentional for a longer period of time. Of course, I have not yet visited them, so perhaps I will come up with more problematic conclusions later. To date, I have only corresponded with some wonderful Mormons (who are also scholars of Mexico), so I am not sure whether and how well my research matches up to the typical experience. (Professors, teachers and church leaders might not be typical in any group. It is, somehow, easy for me to understand and relate to them though. I wonder why?).
My goal, then, for the next three weeks or so, is to keep paying attention, and to seek out opportunities to use my contacts and hosts (who speak the same languages I do) to learn about the rest of the community that does not speak the same languages I do. It is possible to glean a lot of information from simple interactions, especially when one is given to over-interpreting everyday events for one’s job. This should allow me to pay attention to people that are less frequently in scholarly literature, and to the stories that they might tell me, or show me. I also hope that paying attention to them might allow me to flesh out the hints at their lives that I see in literature and popular culture.
I am about to embark on the last leg of my summer travels and visit some friends from grad school and my parents. These travels have been interesting for a number of reasons, mostly that I returned to some places I haven’t been in a while – this is a good way to see how I have changed.
My first foray into the world this summer was a trip to visit my dear friends G and B, and all their friends, but not their dog (sniff), in Edmonton. They drove me everywhere I wanted to go, and we got to see B’s parents, my aunt and uncle (amazing) and some friends from Ottawa and Toronto. I met my friend’s husband for the first time and played with their cute kid (who is my distant relative, so, I claim ownership). I had some tea with a cousin who also lives in Edmonton and we caught up on the past a lot of years. This was a good holiday.
My next foray into summer travel was less fun. Instead of going to a conference in Puerto Rico as I had planned, I went to my grandfather’s funeral in Saskatchewan. This was undoubtedly the right decision and I spent some time with my dad and brother (my mom couldn’t make it) and my dad’s extended family grieving and remembering his life. When I came back to Bluffton, one of my friends asked me about my grandfather. I said simply that he was a good man. He was not a famous man (but he did write a lot of letters to a Mennonite newspaper, which makes him famous among my very extended family and friends of my dad in Mexico and Latin America). He did many things for his community, he loved my grandma and his family.
A few weeks later, I began my epic summer of travel in Mexico. I went to DF for a day (and went to none of the coffee shops or taquerías I had written about before), did a few errands, and then travelled to Chihuahua and Zacatecas (with brief time spent in Coahuila and 10 minutes in Durango). I felt like I encountered about 5 cultures in a week – Mexico City, airports, broader Northern Mexican culture, and, broadly speaking, Kleine Gemeinde, Old Colony (two kinds) and General Conference Mennonites in three different colonies. It was a lot to take in. I had heard of these places all my life but had never known what they were like – in some ways it was like visiting the community my dad grew up in, and in other ways, not at all. The way people’s houses are structured is, for example, more like how my grandparents’ house was than most Mexican homes I’ve visited. The food was a delicious blend between Mennonite and Mexican. A bit more coke that I’m used to, and a bit more Nescafé as well (fairly common in Mexico), but it was lovely. I of course was doing research for my new project so I was trying to take everything in. I may have succeeded.
I was able to bring some of this pseudo-ethnographic research to bear on two presentations I did when I got back to the part of Mexico I understand a bit better. But more on that next week.
I am now writing a book based in part on the dissertation I am no longer writing (thank goodness). The book refers to many of the same novels and short stories as primary texts. Yesterday I began revising the chapter that will now talk about the failing Mexican state after Tlatelolco and Vicente Leñero’s novel, El Evangelio de Lucas Gavilán. The novel, The Gospel of Lucas (Luke) Gavilán, brings the Gospel of Luke to mid 1970s Mexico. I like it so much I want to select it as the key text for the first year seminar I am teaching in the fall, except that it is no longer in print in English, so it is unlikely that twenty students could buy it from amazon. I think it would be perfect because it honors the biblical text, in many ways, so the often religious students would only be offended for half the novel. It would be challenging for them, because it would give them a perspective on the Bible they have likely never had before – that Jesus was a revolutionary, or at least, a rabble-rouser – and that he was never raised in body from the dead. The novel tells us that Jesus’ baptism happened when he heard John the Baptist preach, about how loving God could only be understood by handing oneself over to the cause of justice, and that this is at the heart of the Gospel message. I doubt any students would have such a radical mental shift, but so far that has not stopped me from evangelizing about “liberal” ideas. Any other texts I could use for the same end?
Grad school and television have gone hand in hand for me. Although I did not have a tv when I was a kid, I have made up for lost time. (Sorry mom! The pop culture that was going to rot … Continue reading
José Revueltas betrays the fact that in spite of his origins in the Mexican State of Durango, he is a “chilango odioso,” who knows he is better than others because he is from Mexico City.
“A primera vista pareciera como si únicamente la ciudad de México fuese el centro vivo —y esto, también, un poco relativamente— y lo demás una extensión al margen, fuera de los grandes sucesos y sumergida en un sueño compacto, mortal y asfixiante”
“At first glance it seems that only Mexico City is the living centre —and a relative one, at that— and that everything else is an extension at the margin, away from important events and immersed in a compact, mortal and suffocating sleep.”
José Revueltas, “Viaje al noroeste de México,” 1943. (Visión del Paricutín y otras crónicas y reseñas).