Saturday, December 28, 2013


I had intended on going to the Jose Vasconselos Library in Buenavista today, about a 45-minute trip from where I live via bus and commuter train.  The library, a big one but not a very old one, is one place I can go to experience some of the intellectual scene like I was part of during college.  But when I got there, the doors were closed and a note taped to the outside stated that due to the holidays, it would be closed until January 4th. 

Not wanting to have let my hour and a half round-trip go to waste, I decided to spend some time in the mall next door which is in the same building as the train station.  Not normally my thing to go shopping, I stopped at a few stores to check out the price of some items (peanut butter which I have not had since having left the States costs about $4 USD at the grocery store for the smallest one) and to find a place to stop and read the book I had brought with me.  I had also planned on getting coffee since drip coffee here is rare on account of Nescafe being much cheaper. 

So I found myself in the food court, walking around and looking at the different restaurants.  As I walked around, I came across TacoInn, a place where they sell – you’re never going to believe this – tacos.  It reminded me of my first day, and in fact my first hour in Mexico when we ate lunch in the airport at about 3 in the afternoon and I had tacos from TacoInn.  In a way, it also reminded me of just how long I have been here now.  When I first got here, I had a terrible time ordering and understanding the Spanish when I got that very first plate of tacos.  Now, I can order with ease and even explain that, no, I don’t have 50 cents to round off the total and yes, I am sorry but you will have to make change for me.  (I’ve never understood Mexicans’ aversion to counting change, but that’s not important right now). 

What’s important is how much I’ve grown accustomed to the culture here.  How many foods I’ve learned to like.  How many things I don’t even think about being different anymore.  All this because I walked past a TacoInn. 

On my way home as I sat on the bus, a man got on who was selling candy.  This is quite common here and often the peddlers will actually put the item they are selling in your lap in hopes that you’ll take it.  But this man was different.  Right away I could tell he wasn’t from around here because of his accent and as it turned out, he explained that he was from El Salvador trying to make his way to the U.S.  He had been on the Bestia, the “Beast” which is a freight train that traverses Mexico from south to north and had stopped mid-way because he was in need of more money for the rest of his journey.

When I asked him how much the candy was, his response came as “lo que sea” – literally, ‘that which be.’  He didn’t care how much I gave him for the candy and it occurred to me that he was in his own time of getting used to life here, just as I had done at first.  He will make the transition again if and when he enters the U.S., albeit illegally. 

And so, for a short time, I could relate to this person on the bus.  Though we come from vastly different places, we have shared part of the same experience.  I think that’s part of how life works on this planet – we all have part of a shared experience and we all want the same things.  It sounds cliché, but it’s true nonetheless.  Whether you grew up eating tacos or peanut butter sandwiches, everyone deserves an equal chance.

Friday, December 20, 2013


I blog more than most YAGM and to be honest, sometimes I'm not sure that that's actually a good thing.  I feel like my blogs aren't as poignant, as meaningful because I write more often.  In each, I try to communicate what I see here in Mexico but often struggle to understand exactly what it is I'm seeing.  Or what it means.  Nonetheless, I felt called to write this particular blog because of some things that have been in the US news lately.

Those of you who are familiar with my Facebook well know that I often use it to post political messages.  So far in my blog, I have intentionally avoided that topic because of the way it divides whoever may be reading my blog.  But in this case, division is what I'd like to call out.

I  was recently asked to describe the United States to someone who has never been there.  I didn't know where to start.  What part of our culture do I talk about?  What parts should I leave out?  While the US is certainly a great country, there are, nonetheless, traits not so glamorous.  Consumerism run amuck.  Wealth disparity.  Factions.

Despite our name, we are not a country united.  Debates over what race Santa Claus is or whether a tv network should suspend someone for their comments create divisions galore.  It's interesting that these arguments would make almost no sense here.  Who would care what Santa looks like or what someone said?  Compared to the challenges of life where I am currently living, these fights are seemingly trivial.  What's more important is where clean water will come from, how schooling will be paid for, and what kind of work will be available tomorrow.  These are this real debates being waged right now in Mexico.

As Christmas approaches, maybe we can put an end to this petty 'war' we're in for a little while and focus more on the real issues at hand: poverty, discrimination, power imbalance, hatred for other human beings.  If we can do that, perhaps we'll be taking a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hunger Games: Factual Fiction

This blog is reproduced from The Road Less Traveled By, a blog written by Augie Lindmark.

When I was young—for me, young is defined by overalls and crayon usage—numerous fictional books found their pages turned by my curiosity. My adolescent years were full of The Chronicles of NarniaLord of the Rings, and the Redwall stories. If my younger years embraced fiction, my time as an adult has been buttressed by facts in non-fiction text. Because the majority of the books I read today touch on topics like health care and liberation theology, I had no intention of reading The Hunger Games. That intention didn't last long.

While the story might be geared for a teen audience, it was hard for me to not grab a copy at the local library. When I walked in, an entire bookshelf sagged under the weight of hardcovers and paperbacks from author Suzanne Collins' trilogy. A week before, Netflix introduced me to the first Hunger Games movie so I decided to read the first book. And then the second. Then the third.
In a blazing fashion last week, movie screens around the world offered early releases of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. With the first weekend under the belt of this young blockbuster hit, its audience continues to expand.
For those of you displaced from the buzz, much like myself a few weeks ago, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, lives in a world called Panem. Katniss hails from District 12, one of twelve forlorn districts that surround a pristine capitol. Years ago, a revolution organized by the Districts was stifled with deadly force by the capitol. Intolerable work conditions, marginalization from society, and as the series' title suggests, hunger, are all epidemics of life in a District. The capitol, on the other hand, sits in luxury and profits from the Districts' labor. With regard to quality of life, the capitol is a diamond in a landfill. The crux of the story exists in the retribution for the Districts' uprising—each year the capitol forces the twelve communities to send two tributes, children between the ages of 12 and 18, to the capitol where they fight to the death. Amidst the blood and gore, one victor remains standing. Welcome to The Hunger Games.
The storyline contains your familiar themes of love, good versus evil, and suspense at every turn. But underneath the fantasy and artfully crafted characters rests a story root that is anything but fiction. We might not live in Panem, but the Hunger Games are closer to home than we might think.
The canyon between fact and fiction is easily bridged.
Between the first two Hunger Games' books I supplemented my reading with Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States. In his work he takes a unique approach not found in general history books—he describes history through the lens of the oppressed. Starting in 1492, Zinn narrates our history into the 21st Century by highlighting the defects of a society focused on material gain and the increasing gaps between the elite and the forgotten. Starting with Christopher Columbus and the ransacking of America and bloody massacres suffered by Native Americans, to the barriers female Americans faced in the early 1900s workforce, the reader's eyes are pried open to the social structures of power and oppression ingrained in our history.
As I read Zinn's work, I was easily frustrated. I felt confined in the layers of oppression like I was running through a maze without an exit. At one point I flipped to the next page and half expected Katniss to jump out of the text. Instinctively, I closed the book and checked the cover. As you might expect, “Hunger Games” wasn't printed on the book's skin. I had crashed into the understanding that the text of a factual history book uncomfortably reminded me of the inequalities in Panem. The distance between Collins' fiction and Zinn's facts were two adjacent puzzle pieces of a larger picture.
Upon diving into the darker areas of U.S. History, you might think you were reading a novel; the facts of atrocity are hard to digest. In the case of slavery, a destructive need for constant growth and production made the oppression of a people based on their skin color a pragmatic approach for cheap labor and high returns. Racism, then, was a tool to keep the structure in place. It was a means to parry the effects of revolts and unrest. By creating an environment where the poor whites without land resented blacks held in bondage, there was a divide between the oppressed factions.  The separation of exploited groups—blacks, indentured servants, and women, among others—weakened their collective indignation and diluted the likelihood of an organized uprising against the land and slave owners of the 18th and 19thcenturies. A buffer against the highest echelon of society made the people forget who the real enemy was.
Howard Zinn reported on history; Suzanne Collins wrote fiction. Zinn took the view from below; Collins wrote from District 12. The style of writing between the two authors is night and day, but the themes are nearly identical. At one point in A People's History, the reader is reminded how financially fortunate individuals could avoid the Civil War draft by contributing a $300 offering. This 1863 Enrollment Act created a line between rich and poor where the wars—carried out for the interests of top officials—were fought by the poor. If you had the money, you were safe, if not, good luck. If you want a fictional take on the matter, look no further than the Districts of Panem. In Panem, you can apply for a Tessera if you are between the ages of 12 and 18. The Tessera provides a meager amount of grain and oil to combat a life riddled in hunger and poverty. But it comes with a cost: in doing so, your chances to be chosen as a tribute increase. If you are poor, your options are limited and the architects of the systems have an incentive to keep you there. Wars need soldiers. Massive accumulation needs workers. Somewhere buried the trenches of consumerism and production, someone takes the blow.

You might be thinking—but weren't these issues in the past? I wish I could say that Panem has one percent of its population controlling 40% of its total assets. Unfortunately, that fact is attributed to the United States. It reads like fiction, but sadly, it's our reality. 

So how can we use The Hunger Games to our real world advantage? A platform of country-wide readership and the silver screen has massive outreach. That reach is tailored to the generation most able to facilitate changes in our historically deep institutions. Our infatuation with the bold characters of which we read and watch must be used to galvanize young people to engage in what we see as unjust. The lack of access to health care; political elections as a monetary fist fights instead of democratic representation; and increasing achievement gaps across racial lines in our schools are urgent challenges that need to be faced.

But when we look at people that stood up to injustice, in fact and fiction, they rarely acted alone. A revolt in Panem wasn't feasible until the Districts united and fought as a unified force. Katniss had plenty of help in her survival. Historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony were fantastic leaders, but they were also individuals in much larger movements of people. When we place leaders on pedestals we wonder if we can ever reach that level. Instead, we must think off addressing the social cancers like racism, income inequality, homophobia, and sexism through movements of people with different talents, backgrounds, and ideas. When we move in concert with one another, we rise to a level of leadership that exceeds any metrics of measurement.

With the second movie titled “Catching Fire” I think about how sometimes we just need a spark of creativity or motivation to get the flames moving. If bringing needed change in our world is not the work of one person, we should ask each other about what makes us tick. What's your conviction? How do you define injustice? How do we address it? If we manage to identify the importance of constructive collaboration, dismiss the notion that our voices go unheard, and facilitate productive means of organization in our efforts, we'll be on the right path. When that day arrives, the odds will be ever in our favor.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Year

People warn you when you tell them that you’re going to live abroad for a year (as they should) that it’s not like vacation.  It is for the first few weeks and even months, but then things often change.  I’ve even seen manuals about it.  After about three months, it’s easy for the rose-colored glasses to come off and to find oneself jaded.  Nevertheless, I can’t really say that I’m that homesick.  But I will admit this:  It certainly does not feel like it’s three weeks from Christmas.  With temperatures here in the 70s during the day and 50s at night, it feels more like it did in the States when I left than December. 

Today I also realized that my alma mater, UW-Stevens Point, is having its end-of-semester Concert Band and Wind Ensemble concerts tonight and tomorrow.  The significance in this is that it will mark one year since I’ve played with that group.  Even though I didn’t graduate until after I student taught in May/June, I haven’t really been on campus or in the NFAC regularly in almost 12 months.  Being here in Mexico now makes me think of how many things can change in just a year.  It wasn’t that long ago either that I was filling out my YAGM application and doing phone interviews with the ELCA about this exact moment here and now.

At our retreat last week, some of the other YAGMs brought up that unlike last year, absolutely none of us have any idea where we will be a year from now.  Of course we have ideas, but nothing as concrete as before.  As we get into the thick of Advent and approach Christmas, remember that things are always changing.  I think that’s the true message of Christmas.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Happy U.S. Thanksgiving

Happy U.S. Thanksgiving!

I know,I know, I'm a few days late.  I've been busy, so cut me some slack.  We started our week last week as a group - all of us traveled from our respective locations to Coyoacan in Mexico City where we spent a few days at the Lutheran Center for our retreat.  The focus was globalization and it's effects indifferent countries.  Undoubtedly all six of us have seen the effects of globalization in Mexico, whether as a part of its economy or how it affects the people here.

One of the things I'm reminded of is that globalization doesn't always refer to giant corporations acting globally.  Sometimes it just refers to the fact that aim able to call home on a U.S. holiday from miles away or that I am able to receive packages from there.

But in many ways, it does refer to corporations.  It refers to exploitation.  It refers to being trapped in poverty.  So on this Thanksgiving, I encourage you all to be thankful for what you have.  You can afford to be in a heated house in parts of the country where it is cold.  You have access to food in many forms and can choose what you eat and when you will eat it.  You can travel to other parts do the country to see relatives quickly and without too much hassle.  And you can do all of these things knowing that you will be safe.

In Spanish, the term for Thanksgiving is 'el accion de gracias' - the action of thanks.  Yet for many, what follows Thanksgiving is anything but.  It's hard for me to imagine Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or any of the sort as an action of thanks.  It's hard for me to imagine that attitude as being indicative of any type of thankfulness.

So here's my challenge to you.  Being thankful is nice and all but if that's all it is, it doesn't really say much.  So between now and Christmas, which gives you just about a month, do something you normally wouldn't do.  Try going a day without something you would normally have.  If you want an easy challenge, go without Facebook, a certain food, TV, or a hobby.  If you're up for a little more difficulty, go without the internet at all, talking to friends except in person, or your cell phone.  If you really want a challenge, try doing without your car, turn your heat down to 55, or try using only 10 gallons of water the whole day.  I realize that this may all sound ridiculous, but it's not actually that far-fetched here.  Many people here do it every single day.

So that's my challenge to you.  No one is going to force you to do it, but if you do, I'd love to hear your feedback about how it went.  Most of all, realize that there are many things to be thankful for in your life, even things that you normally take for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving and Feliz Navidad