Reporter-and mother-in Mexico

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Note: This was the essay I submitted to The New York Times’ Motherlode blog before covering the NYC protests on the night of the Ferguson verdict. After consulting with the editor, I used only a small part of this piece in a reworked essay about covering protests, which was published by Motherlode last week. You can read that essay here.
**
The assignment email arrived on Wednesday morning. Could I cover the planned march in Mexico City the following day? Thousands were expected to turn out for a march demanding justice for 43 students who were kidnapped by police in late September, their fates still unknown. I’d been reporting various aspects of the case for several outlets from afar. Could I, the editor asked, cover it on the ground? I read the message to my husband. “When are you flying out?” he asked.

Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city's main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Mexico City’s Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city’s main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It’s not as if we sit around wringing our hands, wondering whether I should take on assignment that involves leaving him and our three children—a five year old, a 13 month old, and a three month old—at home. As a generalist freelancer specializing in Latin America and working in a publication climate where the calculus of effort and work versus financial reward never seems to become less challenging, I don’t have the luxury of turning down many assignments, especially as my family’s breadwinner.

But as I stood under the flag flying over the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza and the end point for the march that had brought thousands to the street in a peaceful demonstration, I knew that this was entirely different. Across the plaza, I could hear small explosions. A man with a bullhorn was warning those of us in the middle of the plaza to move back; a confrontation was inevitable, he said. I was about to make the decision to advance toward a group of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police standing in front of the National Palace, decked out in full riot gear. Should I beat a retreat to my hotel, just a couple blocks away or stay and see this protest through, reporting the full trajectory of events?

A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

I advanced. I’d take common-sense precautions. I’d leave if things escalated to the point where I felt my life was in danger. I knew the area well—my husband and I had lived in Mexico City before we had kids and I’m there frequently for work—and as I surveyed the scene, I evaluated possible escape routes.

Then, I took out my camera and started shooting.

Every few minutes, I’d update my Facebook status. Each time I did, the joyous face of my five year old looked back at me from the screen. My husband, too busy with our three energetic kids to keep an eye on my social media feeds, wouldn’t be reading my posts, but I knew close friends would alert him if they had urgent concerns about me. He knew where I was staying and where he could find a copy of my passport if he needed to contact the Embassy. We had even talked about the possibility of teargas at 3:30 that morning as he helped me out the door for my 5:45 AM flight.

Protesters shouted insults and profanities, threw bottles and garbage, and rattled and rocked the barricades separating them from the riot police at whom they were directing their rage. I was standing on the barricade, shooting photos as Molotov cocktails exploded at the feet of police, who were putting out the small bursts of fire with extinguishers. I was alert but not overly worried– the Mexican Constitution prohibits police from carrying arms at and during peaceful protests. On the other hand, the 1968 massacre of unarmed students at Tlatelolco, the site of which was less than a mile away, came to mind, and the striking absence of uniformed police along the entire march route had already put me on edge. I wasn’t naïve: the shit could hit the fan without warning.

One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Suddenly, some protesters managed to wrest one of the barriers free of the others, hurling it towards the riot police. The breach of the barrier flipped the switch. Cops swarmed toward protesters, sending them running in retreat. The crowd seemed divided. The majority had come as peaceful protesters, drawn closer to the conflict because of curiosity and, in some cases, the hope that their presence and their chants of “No violencia, no violencia” (“No violence, no violence”) could deescalate a confrontation. Others wanted to stand their ground and shouted “Ni un paso atrás” (“Not one step back”). Riot police pulled back. But then, another provocation. This time, they surged forward with full speed, pushing the crowd across the plaza. Once on the other side of the plaza, they broke into files, closing off side streets and trapping protesters—and me—in a box they made with their bodies. Tear gas was released, sending some people into a panic. I pulled my scarf up over my mouth and thought about my husband’s warnings.

Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It was time to make another decision. As a mass of people heaved forward, pressing into my back and pushing me along, I thought of my kids, a picture of each of them flashing across my mind. “They died doing what they loved” has always seemed the most pathetic of epitaphs, no matter how true. I was face to face with a riot cop, my body pressed against his shield. I didn’t want to get trampled by the crowd or beaten by the cop. I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t let myself fall down. I inched along the wall I was pressed against, looking for an out.

And it was just then when a gap opened between two cops. I knew I had to get there and I knew I had to do it fast. A man beside me, his face bloodied and his expression of confusion transitioning to shock, was the last thing I saw as I dove around a riot shield and out onto Calle Madero, where a constellation of glass lay shattered on the sidewalk. Gulping deep breaths of air, I kept moving forward, dodging what looked like a road block by ducking onto a side street and winding my way back to my hotel.

"Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
“Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It is easy, perhaps, for you to think I’m some irresponsible adrenaline junkie, a charge, it’s worth noting, I’ve never heard leveled at a male journalist who happens to also be a father. I am not. I am, instead, a writer who believes in the power and responsibility of being a witness to other people’s stories and telling them because I have the privilege of access to outlets that let me use my voice to do so. Earlier in the evening, my attention had been drawn repeatedly to women, mothers, grandmothers, and children in the protest. “What if your son was #44?” read a handmade poster carried by a woman who looked worn by life’s trials. I couldn’t bear to take her photo. Instead, I looked deeply into her eyes and nodded, a quiet gesture of recognition between two mothers.

"The homeland isn't the narco-politicians. The homeland isn't narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
“The homeland isn’t the narco-politicians. The homeland isn’t narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

My identity as a mother informs my identity as a reporter and writer, and vice versa. How could they not? I noticed the child lying on the ground in front of the Benito Juárez memorial, drawing a picture to carry in the march. I noticed the dad who carried his daughter in his arms for the two miles between the Angel of Independence statue and the Zócalo. I wanted to be here as their witness, to say that I won’t be complicit in the silence of media who don’t think these stories and lives are important. I wanted to be here because maybe, just maybe, the thousands of people marching might make their country—a place that had once been my home, too—a safer one.

Her sign reads, "I don't want to grow up in fear." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Her sign reads, “I don’t want to grow up in fear.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Many friends and colleagues who are women and who have reached their mid 30s struggle with “the kid question.” “How can I have kids and still do this work?” some have asked me. “How can I not?” might be the better question. I wanted to be here because I want, someday, to say to my children—my two daughters, especially—that they don’t have to choose between their family and their work. That it’s all important.

Coverage of missing Mexican students

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Although US media have not been doing a good job covering the disappearance of the 43 students in Guerrero, Mexico, I’ve been trying to do my part to fill in some of the gaps. My reporting has involved both on-the-ground and from-a-distance coverage, and true to my general approach to work, has endeavored to share and explain aspects of the story that have been overlooked.

A flyer showing one of the missing students, held by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City.
A flyer showing one of the missing students, held by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City.

To that end, here’s a round-up of the work I’ve published on the subject, as well as an interview I did just today with one of NPR’s Los Angeles affiliates, KPCC.

“Artists Put Faces to the Missing Students of Mexico” (Hyperallergic)

“With art and music, Latinos in US respond to Ayotzinapa” (Latin Correspondent)

“Anonymous launches Operation Sky Angels in response to Ayotzinapa
(Latin Correspondent)

“#YaMeCansé: Mexican Attorney General’s closing remark sparks protests and a hashtag” (Latin Correspondent)

“Art in a time of agony: Mexican artist Valeria Gallo speaks about #Ilustradores con Ayotzinapa” (Latin Correspondent)

“Watch 4 protest corridos dedicated to Mexico’s missing students” (Remezcla)

“The Disappearance That Broke the Camel’s Back” (Foreign Policy)

“Mexican corridos tell the story of the 43 missing students” (Interview with KPCC)

Vintage Maya

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

I’ve just wrapped up a writing project about the Mexican city of Mérida for AFAR.com, and I’ve spent hours happily immersed in research, which, as always, draws from a variety of textual and visual sources.

Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world.

If you’re not familiar with Mérida, it’s the capital of the state of Yucatán, Mexico, and is located on the Yucatán Peninsula, once the stronghold of Mayan civilization. There are numerous Mayan sites in the region; the most famous one is Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the so-called “new” seven wonders of the world, but there are many others. Mayan cultural traditions remain strong in the area, and were definitely one of the more interesting aspects of my most recent visit to Mérida in December 2012.

It so happened that while I was working on this project, I was already in the midst of reading the excellent book The Reader’s Companion to Mexico edited by Alan Ryan, which contains several travelers’ accounts of their excursions to Mayan sites. We’re talking late 19th-century, early-mid-20th century travelers, some of whom were intrigued and thrilled by the adventure of journeying to these (at the time) hard-to-access sites, and some of whom, like Graham Greene, were repulsed by the whole affair and regretted ever having harbored a single moment’s interest in seeing the remnants of the ancient civilization.

Their accounts offer interesting counterpoints to, say, reviews of the Maya sites that one finds today on TripAdvisor. Considered alongside one another, travelers’ accounts of their explorations in and around Mérida provide a fascinating time-lapse of how the sites have evolved, becoming increasingly accessible to the public.

I also happened upon this archive of photos from National Geographic: can you imagine finding that massive Olmec head? Epic discovery.

My last trip to Mérida was not the best one, but after working on this project, I’m ready to go back.

An Evening with Diana Kennedy

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
For the record, I almost skipped the evening with Diana Kennedy. The weather was bad, the Williamsburg location of her presentation was annoyingly inconvenient, I was tired, and my day’s to-do list was still long. Plus, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve made an effort to go see someone renowned in their field, only to feel afterward that the balloon of enthusiasm I’d carried for them so long had popped unceremoniously, never to be refilled (I will never, for example, forget dragging Francisco to see the anthropologist Clifford Geertz– “He’s AMAZING,” I promised, “What a mind!”–only to be chagrined. Geertz was utterly incoherent and probably should have retired from public life by that point.)

The one and only Diana Kennedy.
The one and only Diana Kennedy.

But I’d paid $35 for a ticket to see her. I needed a break from the computer. And, of course, it was DIANA KENNEDY, widely regarded as the foremost authority on Mexican cooking, a woman who rarely makes appearances in the U.S. and who is advanced in age. This opportunity would likely not come again, so I bundled up, grabbed an umbrella, and headed to the G train.

The James Beard Foundation Award-winning book, Oaxaca al Gusto, one of many books Kennedy has written.
The James Beard Foundation Award-winning book, Oaxaca al Gusto, one of many books Kennedy has written.
For once, I was not disappointed. Kennedy, who is 91 years old, is in fine form, vital and entirely coherent and unapologetically outspoken. She is visiting the US (NYC this week, Austin this weekend) to publicize the launch of a foundation that she has established, a fitting continuation of her life’s work, which has involved more than a half century documenting in painstaking detail the culinary techniques and traditions of Mexico’s varied regions, including Michoácan, where she lives, and Oaxaca, to name only two.

The foundation will, among its many pursuits, digitize Kennedy’s extensive trove of documents, field notes, and photographs (and as someone who is wildly enthusiastic about digital archives and digital libraries, I couldn’t be more excited about this), making them available to anyone who has Internet access. At a time when the effects of the genetic modification of seeds, flight to urban areas, and ongoing geopolitical conflicts threaten both traditional foods and recipes in Mexico (and really, almost everywhere else), Kennedy’s longitudinal study of Mexican cuisine is nothing short of a public service.

As a Kennedy admirer, a Mexiphile, and a book collector, this was an amazing gift.
As a Kennedy admirer, a Mexiphile, and a book collector, this was an amazing gift.
Kennedy spoke at The Brooklyn Kitchen, a gourmet goods and kitchen shop and event space, in a free-flowing conversation with guests (a number of food journalists among us) about topics ranging from lard (“I want all of you to know I eat fat. There is nothing better than lard.”) to her travels around Mexico (“I wish my truck could talk, too; it has a lot of stories it could tell.”) to her thoughts about sustainability (“You better not invite me to your kitchen if you don’t want me to look at your garbage. It’s the first thing I’ll look at. I can tell everything I need to know about you based on your garbage.”), answering questions passionately until the moderator–not Kennedy herself–called it quits. She was equally effusive in her criticism and praise of every subject raised, and modeled what I think many more of us should be: outspoken, confident without being arrogant, committed to a cause, and as alive as a roaring fire. She also stayed on to sign every single attendee’s book– we each got to pick one of three books as a gift (which, truth be told, was another motivating factor for me to go to the event).

At the end of the evening, I felt new.

If you’re not familiar with Kennedy and have even a casual interest in Mexican culture and food, I recommend her cookbook-memoir, Nothing fancy: Recipes and recollections of soul-satisfying food. She has written several other books, each one a gift, full of knowledge and the passionate curiosity that has driven her for her entire life.

Public Service Announcement: Mexico Copper Canyon Trips

My friend, the writer and fellow Mexi-phile Zora O’Neill, tipped me off to two upcoming iterations of a trip to and through Mexico’s Copper Canyon that sounds spectacular, and she said I could share the information for folks who might be interested:

Copper Canyon

This is an area of Mexico I don’t know at all (yet!) but have long wanted to visit, so if you go, I’d love to hear about your experience.