Real Heroes of Mexico

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to serve as a committee member of Real Heroes of Mexico, a group that “believes it’s vital to showcase the positive news and goodwill efforts taking place in Mexico, especially those who are making a difference.”

I was invited by The Mexico Report founder Susie Albin-Najera to serve on the committee, and am proud to serve alongside a a group of people who are as passionate about Mexico as I am.

We’ll be sharing stories of overlooked people in Mexico who are doing good. I invite you to follow along and learn about the real heroes of Mexico at The Mexico Report.

Know someone you’d like to nominate? You can do that here.

Mexican Americans Celebrate Independence Day in New York City

Text, Photos, & Video: Francisco Collazo
Translation: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
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I saw them crossing the river with my own eyes. No one stopped them.

In fact, they crossed two rivers en masse: the Hudson and the East Rivers. They came from everywhere– the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and even New Jersey– to celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day in New York. Some were wearing traditional clothing and hats; others carried flags or red, white, and green striped ribbons, the colors of the Mexican flag. There were the churro sellers and the flag and hat vendors. In the background, a mix of ranchera and other types of popular Mexican music are playing and shouts of “Viva Mexico!” resound. It’s an important day for those gathered here: it’s the first official parade celebrating Mexican Independence Day in New York!

The border isn’t Tijuana anymore, but the Barrio, where the greatest concentration of Mexicans can be found in the city. Their presence is easy to see. Businesses carry typical names like “Mi Pueblana,” “La Lupita,” or just post a sign that says “Mexican products sold here.” The Mexican population has grown here in recent years, and they’re the third largest immigrant group in New York after the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. They work in every neighborhood, doing all types of jobs: restaurant work, construction, cleaning, child care, truck drivers, to name just a few.

This year, they marched for the first time along Madison Avenue to celebrate their home country’s 199th year of independence. Although it wasn’t very well publicized, the event was well organized and the presence of Mexican Americans was impressive.

According to its organizers, the goal was to parade down the 5th Avenue like other immigrant groups do. For them, it’s a sign of recognition and an assertion that they’re here to stay. Long live Mexico!

**

Los vi cruzar el río con mis propios ojos sin que nadie los detuvieran. De hecho cruzaron los dos ríos en masa: El Hudson y el Río del Este.

Llegaban de todas partes– Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island y hasta de Nueva Jersey– para festejar el día de la independencia de México en la ciudad de Nueva York, algunos con sus trajes típicos y sombreros, otros con banderas y llevando cintas con colores patrios.

Se ven los vendedores de churros, banderas y sombreros.

En el trasfondo una mezcla de música ranchera y de todo tipo que salen a grito desde las gargantas abiertas de los altoparlantes. Gritos de Viva México! se escucha por todas parte. Es un día muy importante para ellos; es su primer desfile en la ciudad de Nueva York!

El borde no es Tijuana, sino El Barrio. Aquí se encuentra la mayor concentración de mexicanos y se nota con claridad su presencia. Los negocios llevan por nombre “Mi Pueblana,”“La Lupita,” o simplemente le agregan un cartel que anuncia:“Se Vende Productos Mexicanos.” La populación de inmigrantes mexicanos en Nueva York ha crecido en los últimos años.

Es la tercera después de los dominicanos y puertorriqueños. Y ya se hacen notar.

Es muy común verlos en cualquier barrio de la ciudad trabajando en todo tipo de áreas, restaurantes, construcciones, limpieza, cuido de niños y choferes de camiones de entrega, para mencionar solo los mas significantes empleos que estos nuevos inmigrantes ocupan.

Este año marcharon por primera vez la Avenida Madison de esta ciudad. Aunque no muy concurrido aun, estuvo bien organizado y se pudo ver la presencia en masa de los residentes de origen mexicano.

Según sus organizadores sus metas son desfilar por la 5ta. Avenida de Nueva York, como lo hacen los otros grupos de inmigrantes. Es para ellos un signo de reconocimiento y dejan saber que aquí están para quedarse.

Que viva México!

What John Steinbeck Can Teach Us About Mexico

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Alex Pears

There are a couple of writers whose work is firmly rooted in their own place and time, yet whose words and images always seem relevant.

E.B. White is one.

John Steinbeck is another.

It’s embarrassing for this literature grad to admit, but I haven’t read a lot of the classics. I was always (and still am) more interested in postcolonial literature, writing from the margins, non-fiction.

Last year, I picked up Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog, accompanied the writer on a cross-country road trip and the book is a chronicle of their journey. Nothing too dramatic–except real daily life–happened along the way, but I was taken in by Steinbeck’s astute observations and vivid descriptions, especially of seemingly simple exchanges between people he met along the way and insights he had into his own character as a result of doing nothing more than driving the pavement with his dog.

After I finished the book and started raving about it, my friend and fellow travel writer, Tim Patterson, said I had to read Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. I went out and bought the book right away, but I just couldn’t get into it. No particular reason.

A few weeks back, I pulled it off the shelf again and dropped it in my bag– some subway reading. And this time, I was drawn in. A completely different narrative, totally different journey, but one with equally profound meaning.

Reading Log from the Sea of Cortez as I did, during the swine flu (ahem, H1N1) mania–by which Mexico was particularly affected– and after recently closing up a chapter from my own life in that country, I found myself marking passages where Steinbeck expertly explored notions of Mexican and American temperaments and lifestyles… and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) criticized Americans’ all too frequent condescension toward Mexicans in the process.

But rather than say anything else, I should just let Steinbeck speak for himself:

“It is said so often and in such ignorance that Mexicans are contented, happy people. ‘They don’t want anything.’ This, of course, is not a description of the happiness of Mexicans, but of the unhappiness of the person who says it. For Americans, and probably all northern peoples, are all masses of wants growing out of inner insecurity. The great drive of our people stems from insecurity.”

“How can you say to a people who are preoccupied with getting enough food and enough children that you have come to pick up useless little animals so that perhaps your world picture will be enlarged?”

“…[T]he Indian [Mexican] might say ‘What good is this knowledge? Since you make a duty of it, what is its purpose?….Is it advancing, and toward what? Or is it merely becoming complicated? You save the lives of children for a world that does not love them.”

“And although [our boat] was swarmed with visitors from morning to night…although we were infested and crawling with very poor people and children, we lost nothing; and this in spite of the fact that there were little gadgets lying around that any one of us would have stolen if we had had the chance.”

“It would be interesting to see whether a nation governed by the small boys of Mexico would not be a better, happier nation than those ruled by old men whose prejudices may or may not be conditioned by ulcerous stomachs and perhaps a little drying up of the stream of love.”

“And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies….What they did for us was without hope or plan of profit. [T]here must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to….And yet some trade took place at every contact–something was exchanged, some unnameable of great value. Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnamables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even in simple contacts.”

“This was not bad or good, it was only different. Time and beauty, they thought, could not be captured and sold, and we knew they not only could be, but that time could be warped and beauty made ugly….Our people would pay more for pills in a yellow box than in a white box….They would buy books because they should rather than because they wanted to. They bought immunity from fear in salves to go under their arms. They bought romantic adventure in bars of tomato-colored soaps…. They bought courage and rest and had neither….

Spanish Harlem: A Photographic Tour/El Barrio: Un Recorrido Fotografico

Text & Photos: Francisco Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]
*

Headed north of 96th Street on Manhattan’s East Side you enter the heart of Latin life in New York. Bordered on the east by a river of the same name and by Fifth Avenue on the west side, this neighborhood was originally a haven for Italians and other recently arrived European immigrants…that is until the arrival of Puerto Ricans around the 1940s.

Today, the community gardens, cafes, churches, and retail stores of all types play their music and imbue a distinct flavor in this little corner of the city. Salsa, bachata, reggae, calypso, and romantic Mexican melodies float through the air, setting the atmosphere.

Ten years ago, the signs of progress were easily visible. Finally, El Barrio, as Spanish Harlem is known to its residents, was taking off. There was construction of every type: small boutiques, trendy restaurants, bakeries, art galleries, and high cost beauty salons all announced their openings.

Yet this progress has slowed just as quickly. Today, money isn’t flowing as quickly, in the same quantity, or with the consistency that it did then. Today, signs announce the closure or rent of storefronts. It seems that everyone here is preoccupied with just maintaining the basics needed to live. El Barrio, like New York, has felt the free fall effects of unemployment and the declining economy. Few of those businesses of the past are still around.

It’s not the first time that El Barrio has gone through ups and downs. El Barrio is a microcosm of New York itself, with all its contrasts: happiness and sadness, hope and desperation. Here, it’s hard to believe wholly in defeat. Like the phoenix, El Barrio will rise from its ashes.

*

Pasando la calle 96 del lado este de Manhattan hacia el norte comienza el corazon de la vida latina de Nueva York. Bordeado por el este por el rio del mismo nombre y por la Avenida Quinta al oeste. Originalmente esta seccion de Nueva York fue la cuna de inmigrantes Italianos y Europeos recien llegados hasta la llegada de los primeros Puertorriquenos alrededor de los anos 40.


Hoy los jardines de la comunidad, cafes, iglesias, negocios de venta de todo tipo ponen su musica y su sabor distintivo de este pequeno rincon de la ciudad: salsa, bachata, reggae, calypso y las romanticas melodias mexicanas inundan el aire y contagia la atmosfera.

Diez anos atras se podia notar con claridad signos de progreso. Finalmente el barrio estaba despegando. Construcciones de todo tipo: pequenas boutiques, restaurantes de alta cocina, panaderias, galerias de arte, y salones de belleza–todo de alta costura– anunciaban su proxima apertura.

Sin embargo ese progreso se detuvo o mejor dicho este progreso ha perdido altitud y velocidad a raiz de su despegue. El dinero no esta fluyendo tan rapido o en la misma cantidad y consistencia que en el pasado. Ahora los carteles anuncian el cierre o la renta de los espacios. Parece ser que todo el mundo esta preocupado por mantener lo basico para vivir. El Barrio, como Nueva York, ha sentido los efectos del desempleo y la economia en caida vertical. Muy pocos negocios han permanecidos.

No es la primera vez que El Barrio ha pasado por periodos de altas y bajas. El Barrio es Nueva York con todos sus contrastes y escenarios de una ciudad Americana: alegria y tristeza, esperanza y desesperacion. En El Barrio es muy dificil creer en la derrota; como el fenix, este se levantara de sus cenizas.

“Basta Ya!”: “Enough is Enough!”… March for Peace in Guadalajara

I was more than a little bummed that our trip to Guadalajara would have us away from Mexico City on the night of the Iluminemos Mexico march. Starting at the statue of the Angel and proceeding to the Zocalo, thousands of Mexicans were expected to descend upon the capital and unite in a peaceful, non-political march for peace.

You probably haven’t heard about el “Caso Marti,” the tragedy that was one of the reasons why the march was organized. On June 4, Fernando Marti, a 14 year old boy who was the son of a wealthy businessman, was kidnapped on his way to school. A month and a half later, Marti was found dead in the trunk of a stolen car.

In the weeks since, Marti’s father has been tireless in demanding that the federal government take more active measures in combating kidnapping and other forms of violence. He voiced the thoughts of thousands of Mexicans when he appeared before a group of politicians and authorities and, exasperated with their excuses, said, “If you can’t fulfill the duties you’ve been given, resign!”

Caso Marti was a high profile case among the thousands of crimes that are committed in Mexico City and the country on a monthly basis, but it seemed to be a tipping point. A group began to organize the Iluminemos Mexico march and informed politicians that they weren’t welcome to make speeches at the event. The capital’s newspapers dedicated entire sections not only to informing readers about the event, but also to publishing investigative pieces about the problems of crime in Mexico.

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The plans for the march spread quickly from one city to another, and last night, at 7 PM, people in towns across Mexico put on white shirts, lit candles, and took to the streets in a show of unity in their declarations for peace. Here in Guadalajara, it was raining until 6:40 PM. Yet by 7:15, at the corner of Vallarta and Avenida Cuatuhemoc, there was a mass of people as far as I could see in either direction. There were the obviously wealthy and the obviously poor. The young and the elderly. Children on their fathers’ shoulders. People in wheelchairs. On crutches. People with white flags, with Mexican flags, all moving en masse to the Minerva fountain, where doves would be released and the crowd would erupt in the national anthem.


*

We had the camera and two video cameras and weaved in and out amongst the marchers. “Poverty is also a form of violence!” yelled one student. “Felipe Calderon [the Mexican president] is my friend,” one elderly woman told me, cupping her hands around the flame of her candle so it wouldn’t go out. “We’re here because we want a safe future for our children,” said one mother, a tear rolling down her cheek as she talked to me. “Thank you for being here,” said men and women, again and again as we stopped them and asked for brief interviews.

At 8:30, the crowd gathered at the fountain and placed their candles around its perimeter, filling the entire space. And suddenly, a wave of applause ripples up the avenue… a group of indigenous students, dressed in outfits representative of their respective cultural groups, is making its way to the fountain and the crowd welcomes them with whistles and applause.

They’re taken aback, surprised to be drawn into the crowd’s embrace. “There is so much discrimination and violence against indigenous people,” said one young woman I interviewed, “so it feels very special for the people to welcome us in this way.” “VIVA MEXICO!!” one woman screams with a kind of primal ferocity, her face contorted with rage and hope. “VIVA!” the crowd roars back, before it begins to dissipate.

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Photos: Francisco & Julie Schwietert Collazo