MEXICO and THE US: An Exchange of gifts
Des Moines Area
April 7-11, 1997
Do you like your ketchup? I gave you the tomato. Are you a chocolate lover? We gave you the cacao. Do you enjoy the French fries? They are not even French, let us thank Peru. Do you like your peanut butter, the Christmas flowers, and the chewing gum? We gave you all of that. Do you plant corn? It came from our Mexican grandfathers who worked something like 2,000 years for the corn to become what we know and enjoy with butter and salt.
Thank you for the ketchup, for the Coca Cola; thank you for the fried chicken, the hamburger and the hot dog. Thank you for the Blues and the Jazz, for the rock & roll, for Marlon Brandon, for Mr. Ford and his cars, for the magic and thousands of extras in the Cecil B. DeMille productions in Hollywood. You might not know it, but a Mexican, Mr. Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena, invented the color TV. He could not find an investor in Mexico, so he crossed the border with his dream, and it came out as Made in USA. My great, great, great great grandfather, the same one who built the Chichen Itzá castle, gave us the zero, the beginning of today’s computer.
Where do you start? Where do I begin? What belongs to whom? Who owns the air, the water, the sun, and the joy? Who is the owner of life? Who can pay for extra time?
Last year, I was visiting Kearney University in Nebraska. I was asked to speak to the college prospective students, who were visiting. Before the speech, we had lunch; there were two different buffets. One was German, and the other was Italian. The Italian buffet was crowded, so we (the visitors and teachers) enjoyed the German buffet with no pushing around. This incident made me wonder. So I talked to the students later on, about what a university was supposed to be, at least for me. I said, it has nothing to do with getting a piece of paper, that’s just a part of it, it is also about the knowledge of universes outside us; but most of all, it is about our inner universe in the bottom of our souls. So, I continue, I want to give you a gift, of course everybody claps, we always love gifts, but my gift, is very special, I want to give you your oneself. My gift is a question: why did you choose to eat the Italian buffet if is something that you probably eat almost every night at home, instead of trying new flavors. Many of you have German blood in your veins, and the blood, usually comes with bits of the culture.
How open are we to new cultures? New flavors? New thoughts? How open are we to life? And living means movement, changes, seeking, finding, growing, blooming; making mistakes, starting all over again; crisis means, giving birth.
When I was invited to come to Des Moines, Iowa, I was really exited. “Bah¡ -you might say- she probably says that to every city she visits”. Well, you are wrong. Since I was a girl, yesterday, of course; I’ve heard about you. Many of my Yucatecan friends came as exchange students, and probably some of your parents, went to Merida in the same exchange program. I’m certain that both Yucatecans and Iowans were never the same. They were not only Yucatecans or Iowans any more, they were enriched by a new culture, they grew, their world came bigger, because the language always come with the culture, and they not only learned Spanish or English, but also a new way of life and new vision of the world.
I’m not any kind of Mexican girl, I’m bilingual, bicultural but most of all, by heart.
My grandparents lived in San Antonio Texas 60 years; my mother was born there, and even though I came to this world in Merida, Yucatan and I proudly recognize that my Mayan blood makes me a poet, and my pirate genes, brave enough to cross the ocean of life, I also recognize, That I had the privilege of visiting my grandparents quite frequently, so I had a new dress for Easter, with of course the eggs and the bunny, I had Christmas, & Thanksgiving turkey and valentine sweethearts card, before it was marketed all around the world. I went to school for 2 years, learning enough English to hear and play with words. Like one time, this nurse comes into my grandfather’s hospital room and when she saw we were Latin, she asked: “Do “You all” speak English? And I was nice enough not to ask back: “do you?”
What has all of this to do with the name of the conference The Mexico-USA exchanging of gifts? Do we know each other? Do you know me as a Mexican, or you think of me as somebody taking a siesta most of the time, while it is fiesta to have some tequila and the machos meet the beautiful señoritas? Do we know you? When we think of you, we think of beautiful blond centerfolds in magazines and movie stars or boys more handsome than Apollo, probably beach boy types, tan and in a Corvette. Or perhaps, a tourist with freckles, chewing gum and smiling with a camera. That’s the same as thinking about Japanese women as geishas or Italian men as Latin lovers with a big mama who makes the best spaghetti in town. We don’t know each other because, Hollywood has sold thousand of clichés and we still let them manage our life and end thinking as they want us to; we let them tell us how to live, and what to believe.
In one way, you the United States, because of Hollywood, have a terrible problem. They have been saying all over the world for more that 50 years that there is nothing in earth like the “American dream”, so, people from every corner of the planet, want to have a green card, a piece of the marvelous fantasy.
I see the United State like a fantastic cake, maybe the richest in the world, not speaking of money but of flavors. You have been enriched with cultures from all over the world, with their flavors, and of course the mixtures made of the many cultures. Do you know that there is not chop suey in China? It was born in San Francisco; in Italy, you can’t find spaghetti and meat balls; and the nachos? They were born in California or in Texas I don’t know. Pizzas in Italy are quite different, and the enchiladas you enjoy here are unknown en Mexico.
I just know we are getting rich because of our multicultural possibilities.
Who came first, the egg or the hen; if the hen came first, where did she come from; if the egg ... where did it come from? We all are the same, up side down, down side up.
The worst thing that can happen to oneself, is to think that we have it, we are, we, we, we, because, where do the others stand? Who owes the land? The earth and the wind? Who has captured the truth? Who can hold hope and laughs? Who has captured a smile? Who can say who is different, just because, you are not the same? That’s not good enough.
My favorite riddle in English says: Who wears the smallest hat? A narrow minded person”.
When we speak about the relationship between Mexico and the United States, our skin wrinkles, our guts rumble back and forth. We don’t even want to talk about it. When are we going to start? The invitation was to talk about our profound differences, and our common destiny. We need each other, as the earth needs the tree. Without the tree, the earth might become a desert, without the earth, the tree would be only a dry seed.
There is a river, which joins us, and also makes us apart. You call it the Rio Grande, we call it Rio Bravo. I used to work in a bi-national Core group on the border between Mexico and the United States. I was the Mexican Director representing the Federal Tourism Secretary.
It was a terrible challenge for me. All my life, I had worked as a singer, and as a song writer, and I had had a radio program or TV shows, and then suddenly, the Minister of Tourism, invited to be his advisor in the construction of two theme parks: one in Tijuana y the other in El Paso. The minister hated the idea (as I do), of presenting the border just like a 24 hour open bar, to do all the things you don’t do in a well behaved home.
They sent me to Laredo for the first meeting. While flying, I was thinking, what could I tell them that could be useful? When I visualized the area, I realized that it was “nobody’s land”; culture in Mexico ended in Monterrey and started in the United States, from San Antonio to the north. So when I began saying: “We have to break the myth that the culture in Mexico is in the south, in Oaxaca, in the Yucatan or in the United States up north, in Boston and New York... The culture is here, because you are making your own cultures, and cultures are not good or bad, they just are different.
My God¡ They almost fainted¡ I was from Mexico City and telling them that they were worth something; that they had something to share, and I’m not speaking about the Mexicans, this was a bi-national reunion with border people who felt left by themselves. The next phrase was “un pueblo sin memoria es como una hoja al viento”; people without memory are like a leaf in the wind”.
The challenge began when we started working as a bicultural team, and because of my “way with words”, they sent me to Washington to a meeting with about 1000 people from everywhere. I surely remember the Iowan who was proposing the Corn Corridor.
My lecture was: “How do you start a Heritage Corridor”. I began by saying, please forgive me, for reading, but as this is my second language, I’m not sure enough to say all the things I care about and want to say, so I’ll read it for you:
RESTORING THE SENSE
The neon lights
had been too bright.
We need to dive
deep into our hearts
and find the roots
and find the truth.
The simple things:
the clear pure water,
the homemade bread,
the reaching hand,
the nearby heart,
which beats alike.
Looking into the earth,
Restoring the sense
Of being part of humankind.
I was invited here to speak, how do you start a Heritage Corridor, I might say that you need lots of love for life, courage and some naive ness, because you don’t know in what you are getting into”. And at the end, I said: “we were supposed to be a bi-national Core group, but instead of that, we have become a care group, because caring makes the difference”.
The interesting part of the story is that when I arrive at the meeting and found out that almost everybody had a master’s degree in landscape, or architecture etc. I said to myself; “well, if you are a poet, try to write a poem in English”. It came out what I just read before, and by my doing that, something changed the course of the meeting. A VIP from U. S. National Park Service officer, said, well, just, like Margarita, I want to read a poem that I have always loved. I felt that I gave him permission to be himself. At the end of the meeting, the general coordinator, said: “We thank Margarita, because she came to talk to us about the language of the heart and feelings”.
Most of our behavior is just cultural, because, at the end, we are all the same: we are conceived and born in the same manner, we die and bloom little tiny worms, no matter what language do we speak. We eat & diet, we love and hate, feel loneliness, unappreciated, left aside; If we are treated nicely, we respond nicely too; if they bite us, we can bite twice as much. We want to be respected, to be recognized, to be loved, to be useful, and to be self-assured.
You see how equal we are? And at the same time, we are so different. Why do we only see the difference, especially the outside difference like the color, or size instead of sharing the gifts every culture has in itself.
What is happening to the world? We have so many things, and we are so bored. Last year in Kearney University, I shared my worries in my lecture by saying:
“We are dying of loneliness, but we don’t allow anybody to get close: “don’t get too near, don’t get too close, and don’t get personal... Holy Ghost¡ Are we things, how can we not get personal, if we are persons! That does not mean that I have permission to dig in your bank account information or under your blankets, but my God, let us talk about something more interesting than just about the weather, the temperature or what Ohpra or Letterman said yesterday.
We have let Hallmark express our feelings; we have let the talk shows wash our dirty linen instead of doing it at home on a regular basis: expressing our dreams, our fears, our thoughts, but most of all, the tenderness hidden in our souls. We are so afraid of suffering that we’ve decided to stop feeling anything; just like a kind of limbo while we die. Don’t you think so? Then, why are we giving people more years to live? That’s terrible and I use that adjective because my language is not big enough to magnify the word terrible.
To live a passion is just good for the movies, in life, one should not get into trouble, and life itself is a lot of trouble because you can’t drive it like a car.
Facing these thoughts, I realize how important to us is the binational heritage corridor “Los Caminos del Rio”, that runs along both sides of the river from the Laredo’s to the Gulf of México. It took a third party to be able to see the uniqueness of the area, so Dr. Mario Sanchez, a Cuban-American, from the Texas Historical Commission, wrote a thesis on the area, and how the cowboys, now made famous by Hollywood, started here about 300 years ago, because the Mexicans had their towns in that part of the river, and their ranches in this side; so the old vaqueros, became the cowboys that still today we love to play with.
Dr. Sanchez worked very hard to get backing by the Meadows Foundation in Dallas, the US National Park Service, U. S. Fish & Wild life service, Texas Transportation, the State Government signing for a team work, inviting Mexico to participate... well, every thing you can imagine, but, again, we are so different, because our needs are different that every time I asked the director of the INAH National Institute for Anthropology and History for funds to save a church in Guerrero Viejo, she would answer something like: “Margarita, please, I have 46,000 archeological worship places... what can I do? And she was saying the truth: only in Yucatan we have more than a 1000 archaeological sites.
Tourism needed to invest in Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and México City with marvelous colonial downtowns which need restoration. In the United States, even though there was more interest because of the need of roots, a Corridor in that area, was not as fancy to “show off” like one closer to Boston, or maybe Philadelphia. Near Brownsville is where they had the last civil war battle, they won, without knowing that they had already lost the war. Tom, one of the care group team, had been trying to talk to the Mexican historians about the war with Mexico, and no Mexican wished to talk about something that still hurts; we lost over half of our territory; the betrayal of Antonio Santa Ana, one of the most hated men in history because the selling of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, still make us mad. So when we heard in Mexico City in an international meeting, Tom saying: “When the United States desire expansion made the war against Mexico...” we could not believe our ears! Did you hear what I did? -Asked everybody to everybody- I was just open-mouthed, but most of all, made me have more respect for Tom. He had the guts to say what we all felt. The time has passed by and now it is history, but I felt that this man was honest, respectful and really wanted to talk things out and learn from them. There was hope that maybe one day we’ll be able to sit down and talk.
As a Care group, we grew a lot. The Mexicans learned more and more about organization and productivity, the US team, learned more and more about how to relax and have fun. Their horizon was larger, they enjoyed life, expressed feelings and let themselves be kissed and hugged. Afterward, they gave very good ones.
There are two things that Los Caminos del Rio had given me. First I realized how bicultural I was because of my coming to the States in my youth. I don’t wait for things to happen like many of my fellow citizens do. They pray and wait. I also pray to my Chief, but I work as if the problem was mine, even though I know He has last word. I learn from your culture, “try harder”, “you can do it”, “try it again”, “do it yourself”, “self-made man”. All of these have made me a different type of Mexican, and it works, just as Lloyd Miller, who has gotten so close to the Mexican culture, that he has gotten his part of the culture.
We both have been blessed with a bicultural mind.
Allow me to speak about my dear Mexico. First let me tell you something that I just hate, and that is the image of the “spring breakers”; when kids go to my country to expose themselves like animals, doing what they can’t do at home. I hate it because of what you do to my dignity as a citizen of a marvelous country, but I hate to see you, bright and young, doing those things as if by doing it you will be accepted as an adult.
Many of you too think of us as lousy Mexicans sleeping siestas; you should see how my fellow Mexicans work beneath the sun in your tomatoes, grapes and strawberry fields, many times getting cancer because of the chemicals. Keeping your gardens beautiful, cleaning your houses and office, taking care of your kids, building your roads and homes, cooking and serving your food, sewing your cloths, fighting your battles… cheering your heart! You think of us always with a guitar singing, drinking and doing nothing, because, mañana, tomorrow is the day to begin.
Well, let me tell you that there have been great advances in the cure of Parkinson disease, thanks to our doctors, and that Mexico city continues to be la ciudad de los palacios, the city of palaces, because we have temples and palaces from the Aztecs, but also from the colonial times and now our palaces are made of iron and glass, are designed by architects that are invited all over the world to build or give lectures.
My country is divided in 32 states, and one is very different from the other, sometimes in one state like Oaxaca it is very different from one side to the other, but also very beautiful, because, every Oaxacan is an artist, you can see that when you go to their market and watch how talented they are, to beautifully fix their fruit, meat or the area where they sell. We are 52 indigenous cultures. Can you imagine? 52! That means different languages, cultures, dresses, etc. For example in Chiapas, they have more than 230 different typical dresses for women. They usually know where they come from by just watching the color or the embroidery. I don’t know the number of different types or hats we have, but, you can tell that they come from Veracruz, or Jalisco, or Nayarit. We are mestizos. That means that we have Indian blood and also somebody else. I know who the Indians are, I don’t know who the somebody else was; that’s why I say that my pirate genes make me brave enough, because, that’s is something that I can’t deny. Wow! They surely were brave. Imagine! coming to nowhere land, not knowing anything, and waiting for an arrow or a tiger to jump over you. But I know the Indians, they don’t know any thing about Wall Street, even though, it will affect them in many ways, especially making them poorer. But in their way, they are more happy than many people I know, because, they share, they care, and they get involved. For example, there is something called “tequio” or “mano vuelta” something like sharing hand. Somebody wants to build a house and invites all his neighbors for a sharing hand; they come, work, and later have a fiesta to inaugurate the house. The sharing hand means that when someone who helps in that occasion, builds something, that person will give back the hand he had received from the other. There is an obligation. In these towns that you might see very poor, and with no refrigerators, they usually eat meat every week or so, because, this week, don Juan kills his pork and invites everybody in town, so next week, when doña Lupe kills hers, don Juan will be invited like every one else.
They ask permission to the earth before they plant the seeds. I was told that in Oaxaca, a friend of mine saw how the people began talking to the earth, about how bad they feel about hurting her, but, that they need the crops for the tortillas and for life. They’ll drop some mescal, a local drink, to the earth, so it won’t hurt, and a women opening her blouse, with her nipples would caress the land to take away some of the pain.
We the modern men, despise, the Indians because we own things but, we also are dying of loneliness.
I invite you to come and to visit Mexico. Begin to look for a Mexican airline like Mexicana de Aviacion and let yourself be hosted with gentleness. Fly to Cancun, and let Aerocaribe fix the puzzle of putting together the places you want to visit. Acapulco, Veracruz, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Merida, Palenque... Go to the famous Chichen Itzá, where a light snake crawls from the stairs twice a year in the equinox. Can you imagine? Without computers, internet, mechanical equipment, nor even metal tools. Campeche and Izamal are the two colonial jewels we have in the peninsula. Campeche was completely fortified because of the terrible pirates, but when they completed their defense strategy, they could not test it, because, the pirates never came back! But the city is marvelous, the food is delicious and the atmosphere is for the real traveler, the “bon vivant”. Izamal was the place of Zamná, the Mayan Zeus, so from every corner of the Mayan world, the pilgrims would come on the sac bes, or white roads to worship and ask for his blessing. Fly to Tuxtla Gutierrez and fall in love with San Cristobal de las Casas. Stay for a while; let the Spanish come to you as the beauty of the place and its timing. Palenque with its magic and energy will get you the moment you step in.
Mexico City is a fantastic city full of places to go and visit. Don’t believe what the evening news says to win ratings. Nobody speaks of the working people and the good students making their best effort, or the faithful husbands o wives who overcome the temptations.
We all know that in New York, anything can happen, you can be robbed, or else, but you do not stop going to New York because something might happen to you. New York is too good to be missed. By the way, thank you for that marvelous big Apple.
Today it is easier to make relations by internet. It is safer, no commitment, no strange virus, no nothing. If we feel that the relation is going somewhere else, it is as easy as turning the mouse in other direction. Wow! Is that all? Is that what life is about?
I don’t say it’s bad, I have my e-mail, but you can’t compare a real hug, with a Macintosh “have a nice day” message.
Thank you for the invitation, for letting me share with you my concerns. I care for you, because the US is part of me, and also because whatever you do, plan or think, affects us. I worry about our kids growing up with only fast food and not enough kisses and hugs. I worry, because, we used to be Lopez, Hernandez, Smith or Miller, now, we all are Simpson. I don ´t know at what time it’s showed here, but in Mexico, kids love Bert, and now everybody calls everybody idiot and so....
When I get to Merida, I’ll tell my friends who came in exchange, that finally I was in their college in Des Moines, please keep on doing it, especially now that our kids need to learn English and computers to survive the global world.
Thank you for your generosity. The American people are always the first to send help to a needy country. Thank you for your technology. We are just seen begging. What kind of world are we building? Now is the time to dream and work harder to make it possible. If I’m allowed to ask a wish, I would like for us to be less perfect and more happy, a little bit less rich, -we don’t need so many things- and much wiser. If we have gone to the moon, let us not be afraid of diving into the bottom of our heart.
And please come to Mexico, not to drink till you fall, do it here, it is less expensive; come to enjoy our 30 centuries of splendor we have to share with you, let us recover the sense of seeing, listening, but most of all, our capacity for being alive. There are so many gifts to share, why don’t we open our door to each other? Believe it or not, we are in the same boat, and we better drive for our sake, in the same direction.
Now, let’s have some fun, let us sing.
El Rancho Grande