“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.

I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.


As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….

Growing Up in a Penal Colony/Creciendo en una Colonia Penal

Text: Francisco Collazo
Translation & Photo Slideshow: Julie Schwietert Collazo
[vease abajo para la version en espanol]

The fort of San Carlos, located in the town of Perote and the state of Veracruz, is one of the largest forts constructed by the Spanish in Mesoamerica. From the outside, San Carlos looks similar to the Castle of the Cabana in Havana, Fort San Felipe in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and that of Cartagena, Colombia. There’s one big difference, though: this fort is constructed on terra firme and it’s far from the coast. In fact, the closest coast is the port of Veracruz, more than 100 kilometers from Perote.

San Carlos’s history is also quite different, and is little known by historians and even less visited as a historic site. Since its construction in the 18th century, San Carlos has served as a fort, a military school, and later, a state prison, which was in operation until last year.

The fort of San Carlos housed thousands of inmates doing time for various crimes. Among them were German prisoners who were captured during World War II, says Juan Carlos Palacios, the fort’s de facto historian, Germans who were believed to be responsible for the sinking of the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania in 1915. Within these walls, the prison also held prisoners of Spanish extraction and other nationalities during the Spanish Civil War. It’s also historically significant because the Mexican President, Guadalupe Victoria, died of an epileptic attack here in 1846.

During its days as a penal colony, the fort was a small, walled city, with stores, a bakery, woodworking and wool-working shops, and even restaurants that advertised the sale of the best “Jarocha” food–the name that’s given to people from the state of Veracruz. The inmates could buy and sell all the products they needed at inflated prices. The market was secure and free of competition.

There were men and women here, young and old, gays and straights, babies and toddlers. For the youngsters, the prison was their home. They weren’t criminals, but they found themselves here because one or both of their parents were incarcerated for an offense and no one on the other side of the wall could provide support or sustenance for them. At the time, there was no social system established to protect the innocent young people, much less to cover the costs associated with their care. Such was the case for Andres.*

Andres tells us what he remembers from the time he spent living here when he was six years old. His father was sentenced for petty larceny and served six years at San Carlos. At first, there was no one to care for Andres; his only option was to be sent to live with his father within the walls of the prison fortress.

Andres arrived here by pure conicidence- “I came to town to work at the fair,” he said, “and decided to drive by.” He hadn’t known that the prison was closed a year ago and that the 2,000+ inmates had been transferred suddenly one night to a new facility not far from here. The transfer operation, according to Mr. Palacios, damaged the historic site, as heavy vehicles pulled into the patio, causing the foundation to sink and encouraging people to take pieces of history with them. It doesn’t seem that the transfer was coordinated with architects or historians, a fact which caused irreparable damage to this historical site that is as valuable to the world as it is to Perote.

The fort is humid and dark. Nature–and, in particular, the climate that vacillates between humidity and cold–is conspiring for the fort’s destruction. There are leaks and flooded areas in many of the fort’s rooms, but it’s still possible to find evidence of the most recent inhabitants: posters of semi-nude women pasted on the false walls of the cells alongside magazine cut-outs of religious and pastoral scenes, bedspreads, small personal objects, and childish drawings on the walls where Andres indicated the school or childcare was located.

“This was the bakery,” Andres points out. “There was the library; further along was where a man sat repairing shoes. And here is where I lived with my father. Further down were the women and the older people.” Andres’s face shines with nostalgia and the emotion of a child as those of us listening to him fumble for words and struggle to define what we feel. We are lost in time. We are there with Andres, children in this world of horror and pestilence, trapped between tall, thick walls. Helpless.

He also tells us that there was a time when two men offered him marijuana; he still doesn’t understand whether the offer was to initiate him in the world of vice or what. He tells us about a fight in the patio where one man tried to hit another in the head with a bench before being stabbed– “My father pulled me away by my hand,” he says. It seems that this event left a profound impact on the young boy.

Before we turn the camera on to film, Andres is filled with nostalgia. In his expressions, one sees that unexpected emotions are competing with old memories, and he struggles to accommodate them all. Being here is, perhaps, a test of his own strength, of his emotions, of human nature.

I am transported to Europe, to the concentration camps I’ve seen in films, and I sense what it is to feel all of this injustice while still a child. For Andres, though, San Carlos was far from a concentration camp. He recalls important childhood moments here. Playing with kids outside on sunny days, his friends, and above all, the jealous protection his father offered him. The smell of freshly baked bread, the incessant noise of daily life. This was his world and his young memories were formed here; they can’t be taken from him.

Was this a good place to live? That’s how he remembers it with the memory of that six year old, innocent and vulnerable.

It was all important for Andres. And now it is disappearing. It no longer exists. This was the best part of his childhood because it was here where his father was truly a father to him until released from prison. Afterwards, he says, his father wasn’t the same. “When he got out, he returned to the same old thing; he didn’t treat me the same.”

It’s this phrase that helps me understand his world; I’m able to see beyond the four walls of the fortress. I begin to make sense of his world and, at the same time, mine. I understand the importance of family and love in terrible circumstances. I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the realization of how imperfect we are and how imperfect the human mind is. Everyone has a story, everyone has something to tell.

The visit is animated by the sudden appearance of a former mayor of Perote, who recalls that the central patio of the fort looked like a small European village– “There were all types of food, all sorts of European languages being spoken.” The mayor is here touring with his two granddaughters who are visiting from the United States. His story is different but also true, and confirms the history of the fort.

The current mayor of Perote has big, ambitious plans to preserve the fort. They’ve already laid out a proposal for its restoration and are working to realize it. The mayor and his cabinet all understand the historical importance of Fort San Carlos.

The sky starts to cloud over. The humid damp descends upon the fort. In the distance, I can see the heavy clouds advancing towards us, as if being pushed by a strong force. The mountains that dominated the horizon are almost invisible now. It’s time to go, just like the night the inmates were transferred. Heavy with the weight of history, carrying something valuable with us from this historic, important site.
*Name changed.

La fortaleza de San Carlos de Perote en el estado de Veracruz es una de las grandes fortalezas construidas por los espanoles en mesoamerica. Desde afuera en su apariencia se asemeja al castillo de la Cabana en La Habana, al fuerte San Felipe en San Juan, Puerto Rico y en gran parte a las de Cartagena, Colombia, pero con una gran diferencia: esta esta construida en tierra firme y muy lejos de la costa. De hecho la costa mas cercana esta en la ciudad de Veracruz a mas de cientos de kilometros de Perote, lugar donde se encuentra ubicada. Su historia es tambien muy diferente y poco conocida por historiadores y poco visitada como lugar historico por muchas razones. Desde su construccion en el siglo XVIII esta funciono como fuerte, luego escuela militar y mas adelante como Reclusorio Central del Estado, una prision estatal que estuvo en operacion hasta hace un ano.

La fortaleza de San Carlos albergo a miles de confinados por varios delitos, incluso prisioneros alemanes que fueron capturados durante la segunda guerra mundial- nos dice el senor Juan Carlos Palacios (actual historiador del fuerte)- y que segun se cree tuvieron que ver con el undimiento del crucero de lujo ingles RMS Lusitania en 1915. De igual manera albergo entre sus muros prisioneros espanoles y de otras nacionalidades durante la guerra civil espanola y lugar donde fallece de un ataque epileptico el presidente mexicano Guadalupe Victoria en 1846.

En sus dias como colonia penal este fuerte era como una pequena ciudad amurallada: tiendas, almacenes de comida, panaderia, talleres de elaboracion de madera y lana y hasta restaurantes que anunciaban en sus afueras la venta de la mejor comida “Jarocha”: que es como se les llama a los oriundo del estado de Veracruz. Los reclusos podian vender y comprar a precios inflados todos los productos que alli se consumian. El mercado era seguro. Su clientela conocida y libre de toda competencia. Aqui se encontraba representada la comunidad de donde procedian: hombres y mujeres, viejos y jovenes, homosexuales y ninos. Para estos ultimos esta era su casa. No eran criminales. Su presencia alli se debia a que uno de sus padres o los dos eran enviados a la carcel por la ofensa de varios delitos y al otro lado de las murallas no tenian ningun apoyo o sustento para su sobrevivencia. No habia un sistema social establecido para proteger a estos menores inocentes y mucho menos para cubrir los gastos de este por la ausencia de los padres o sus protectores como le paso a Andres.

Andres nos cuenta lo que recuerda de su estancia alli a la edad de 6 anos. Su padre fue sentenciado por robo y enviado alli para cumplir sus 6 anos de sentencia. Al otro lado, el pequeno no tenia un alma quien cuidara por el y le diera calor y proteccion familiar. Su unica opcion fue el fuerte de San Carlos.

Andres, llego alli de pura coincidencia- “Me encontraba en Perote trabajando en una feria.” Al enterarse que esta habia cerrado como prision y los 2000+ de confinados habian sido trasladado en una sola noche a otro centro recien construido no muy lejos de aqui. La operacion segun nos cuenta el senor Palacios, dejo danos al recinto ya que hubo que dejar pasar camiones de gran peso que undieron los pisos de los patios y fundacion. Ademas de llevarse con ellos o desmantelar en su esfuerzo valiosas evidencias de valor historico y arquitectonico del lugar. El traslado al parecer no fue coordinado con los arquitectos e historiadores, dejando perdidas irreparables para el patrimonio historico de Perote y la humanidad.

El lugar es humedo y oscuro. La naturaleza y en especial el clima humedo y frio de la region esta conspirando para su destruccion. Hay filtraciones e inundaciones por la mayoria de sus cuartos y sotanos, pero todavia se puede ver evidencia viva de sus exhabitantes: afiches de revistas con mujeres semi desnudas en las paredes falsas, escenas bucolicas y religiosas, mantas de cama, grafitis y objetos pequenos de uso personal y dibujos infantiles en una de sus paredes, que fue segun Andres fue la escuela o guarderia para los ninos que alli vivian con sus padres.

“Aqui estaba la panaderia”-nos senala Andres-“Alli la libreria, mas alla se sentaba un hombre con su banco para arreglar zapatos, en esta vivia yo con mi padre. Mas alla vivian las mujeres y en esta los ancianos.” Su cara se despierta con un brillo de nostalgia y emocion de nino y todos nos quedamos falta de palabras o emociones fijas y definidas. Nos hemos perdido en el tiempo. Estamos alli con el; somos ninos ante este mundo de horror y de pestilencia, apartados y solos entre muros. Indefensos. Tambien nos cuenta que en una ocasion dos adultos les ofrecieron marihuana, hecho que todavia no entiende si fue para enviciarlo o para otra cosa. Nos cuenta que en el patio presencio una pelea donde un hombre trato de golpear a otro en la cabeza con un banco para despues ser apunaleado- “Mi padre me saco tirandome de la mano”-nos dice. Este hecho al parecer fue impactante a su temprana edad.

Antes de que aparecieramos con la camara para filmar, Andres sentia nostalgia. En sus expresiones se notaba que sus emociones inesperadas estaban compitiendo las una con las otras tratando de acomodarlas todas. El estar alli quizas era una forma de probarse a si mismo, a sus emociones y a su naturaleza humana.

Me transporto a Europa, a los campos de concentracion que me ensenan en las peliculas y siento como se puede sentir entre toda esta injusticia todavia siendo un nino.

Para Andres todo esto estaba muy lejos de un campo de concentracion. El recuerda momentos muy importantes de su ninez alli. Los juegos de ninos en los dias soleados. Sus amigos y sobre todo la proteccion que su padre le ofrecia con celos. El olor a pan horneado, el incesante bullicio de la vida cotidiana. Este era su mundo y sus memorias de adolecentes que nadie se las quitas. Era este un buen lugar para vivir? Asi era como el lo recordaba con su memoria de 6 anos, inocente y fragil.

Todo esto era importante para Andres. Y ya va desapareciendo como tal. Ya no existe. Era la mejor etapa de su ninez porque alli fue que su padre fue padre hasta que cambiara al salir de la prision. Segun nos cuenta, su padre no fue el mismo- “Al salir volvio hacer lo mismo, no me atendia igual.”

Su mundo con esta frase tenia ahora sentido, pude ver mas alla de las 4 paredes de la fortaleza. Se me hizo comprensible su mundo y a la vez el mio. Comprendo la importancia de la familia y el amor en circunstacias terribles, a la misma vez me invade de repente la realizacion de lo imperfecto que somos y lo imperfecto de la mente humana. Cada uno una historia y cada uno con algo que contar.

La visita se anima por la presencia de un ex-alcalde de la ciudad de Perote que nos relata que- “el patio central parecia una pequena villa europea” – “habia comida de todo tipo, se hablaba en todas las lenguas europeas”- El ex-alcalde se encontraba de visita con sus dos nietas que lo visitaban desde los Estados Unidos. Su historia es diferente pero cierta y confirma con sus relatos los hechos alli ocurridos.

Hay planes muy grandes y ambiciosos por parte de la alcaldia de la ciudad de Perote para preservar el lugar. Ya se han hecho propuesta para ello y se esta trabajando en esa direccion. El alcalde y todo su gabinete entienden la importancia historica y universal del fuerte San Carlos.

El dia comienza a nublarse. Se torna muy frio y humedo. A lo lejos corren las nubes cargadas como si fueran empujadas por un fuerte objeto. Las montanas que dominaban el horizonte a lo lejos ya casi no se ven. Es hora de irse como se fueron aquella noche los reclusos. Cargado de historia y llevandose consigo algo valioso para el patrimonio universal.