I'm from Mexico City and lived in the U.S. for a total of more than 24 years. Now I'm back in Mexico. I realized I was seeing my country through the eyes of a native stranger. This is an attempt to process the differences, to explain Mexico to the U.S. and the U.S. to Mexico. With digressions along the way.

lunes, mayo 01, 2006

The Real Labor Day

(Photo by Luis Sinco of the LA Times)

I had hoped to post about this before, but I've been dutifully neglecting my blog. Be that as it may, I hope everyone out there has shown solidarity with the protests today, either in person or virtually. Many american workers may think that immigrant workers pose a threat to their jobs. Often tensions are high between working class white workers and mexican workers, and in my community between mexican workers and black workers who are sometimes vying for the same jobs. However, we should remember that the fight for rights can never succeed if it is not all-encompassing. Remember what Marx said regarding the beginnings of the movement for the 8 hour work day in the United States: "In the United States of America, any sort of independent labor movement was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor with a white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor with a black skin is branded." We would do well to remember this now. If "legal workers" want to see their labor cause strengthened, they must show solidarity with ALL workers.

I think of May 1st as the real Labor Day. Why May 1st? In 1889, the Second International declared May 1st as the day workers of the world would demand a shorter work day. This decision was directly inspired by the American Federation of Labor's resolution that the legal work day should be an 8 hour work day starting May 1st, 1886. What this amounted to, since, of course, that legal right had still to be fought for, was the plan for a massive worker strike on that day. The "Haymarket Affair" occurred on May 3rd and 4th of that year. It is probable May 1st was chosen as the day of strike because of the 1867 May 1st strike in Chicago, and because that time of year had traditionally become a time to fight for workers' rights. Because the American Federation of Labor had planned for another massive strike on May 1st, 1890, the Second International decided to adopt that day as well in its call for a workers' international demonstration for an 8 hour work day. Then, at its next congress, the Second International called for May 1st to be a day to demand worker rights in general, and to promote universal peace. Since the greatest potency of May 1st demonstrations was stopping work, reformists in many labor organizations urged moving the day of protest to the nearest Sunday. In fact, if you think about it, making Labor Day a national holiday is an intelligent way to co-opt it: how can the effect of a protest be felt if workers have the day off anyhow? A much stronger protest includes striking on the day, making the stoppage of work felt as profoundly as possible, making visible the otherwise invisible work done by billions of people.

Why is Labor Day celebrated in the US in September? There are various points of view. One is that after the Haymarket affair, the American Federation of Labor started becoming more conservative, and promoted celebrating Labor Day in September to draw attention away from the communist and socialist associations with May 1st. The September Labor Day was to be a day of rest and enjoyment, not protest. The federal government backed this move in 1894 after several state legislatures had adopted the holiday, and to appease workers after the crushing of the Pullman strike. Another explanation attributes the September date to the New York Knights of Labor parade in September of 1882, or to its genesis in the plans of the Central Labor Union. What is clear is that May 1st was NOT chosen as a government holiday because the government and employers were eager to cover over its radical associations. In 1928, Calvin Coolidge declared May 1st "Child Health Day" to draw attention away from it as a day for worker protest and strike. Guess who's plea it was to make May 1st Child Health Day? The now-conservative American Federation of Labor. Later, Child Health Day was moved to the first Monday of October in 1960, and May 1st became instead "Law Day" (Eisenhower had declared May 1st, 1958 "Law Day - USA", and in 1961 Congress made it official). May 1st also happens to be "Loyalty Day." Hmm...interesting.

Personally, I'm glad May 1st is not officially Labor Day in the United States-it gives us a chance to make more of an impact on the day that is more commonly observed throughout the world. Hopefully today many of us will make a difference in our smaller or larger ways.

domingo, abril 09, 2006

En el hoyo

I saw a documentary last night that is well worth mentioning, En el hoyo (In the Pit), by Juan Carlos Rulfo. It is a portrait of the workers who are constructing the second floor of a freeway in Mexico City called the "periférico." The project was initiated by the mayor of Mexico City, whom I've mentioned in this blog in the past, López Obrador. Usually you hear about the annoyance the construction has caused...it's one of the most used freeways in Mexico City (along with the Viaducto), and motorists were sick and tired of the delays it caused in the already congested traffic. Driving underneath it, though really not knowing much about engineering, it struck me that the design was terrible...in order to ensure it won't fall with earthquakes they've made it a huge, hulking structure. I'm sure there were better designs possible. Perhaps it was important to make it seem sturdy?

The construction of the second floor has been criticized by many. It apparently involves corruption, waste of money, and all the usual stuff of politics. López Obrador was so insistent on finishing it quickly (since he wants to be President) that he has people working 24 hours a day. This film doesn't directly mention most of these things (and in fact some of its funding comes from the city government). What this film shows are the incredibly unsafe working conditions, the lack of gear and tools, the low payment and long hours of the workers, and yet their dependency on the contruction to put food on the table. It also shows the incredible spirit and wit of mexicans, along with the usual cultural idiosyncracies. This is not a "voice of god" narration type documentary. It presents few direct facts or investigation. It is instead an observational documentary with a very generous budget. The words in the film are those of the workers. The cinematography is excellent. The score is one of the best scores I've heard for any movie. It perhaps is a bit too long, but then again, so is the building of the second floor, the periférico itself, the work hours of the protagonists.

It is unfortunate that the subtitles, particularly at the beginning of the film, are not well-translated. A lot of the wit and humor and double-entendre of the workers is lost. You also miss certain references, such as the workers calling the filmmaker "güero" (blond) and their particular way of addressing him ("usted" instead of the informal "tú")--indication of the difference in social status between them. Perhaps despite this for an English-speaking audience, you get the sense that the workers really come to trust and like the filmmakers. Though there is a bit of distance and respect, and the usual posing and acting for the camera, there is also a genuine unguardedness and desire to collaborate with the filmmakers. I highly recommend watching this documentary if you're able--with luck it will get some decent distribution.

miércoles, octubre 19, 2005

Will I Miss the US?

I'm moving to Spain next year, if all goes well. I wonder if I'll miss my "easy" life here. The land of convenience and consumption. Especially in Durham things can be quite effortless. You leave for a movie 5 minutes before it starts. But I'm really looking forward to living in a real city again....

It's just that as much as I'm tired of this place, I think my sense of identity has become so tied to it that I wonder what the new me, the eventual native in a new strange land, will be like.

Darle Cran

There's a curious expression in Spanish, "darle cran." I don't know if it exists outside of Mexico. You usually use it to mean doing away with something, destroying it, killing it. My dad told me the other day that the expression originally meant to crank...it comes from cranking a car motor. Literally, then, "give it a crank."

So how did that end up meaning to get rid of something? My guess is that if something was "dead" or not working, you would say you had to "darle cran" to get it started (crank it up). Maybe eventually people thought it meant it was no good anymore and should be thrown away. And then from that it went to actually destroying it.

Junk Blog

I've just started a new blog to put all my "consumption" opinions, because I realized I kept putting them here and they were out of place. I wanted to call the blog "Consumption Junktion," but of course it's so obvious it's already taken. So I called it "Funktion Junktion" instead--if you can think of a better name let me know! Anyway, there you will find stuff like my posts on the Mooncup and alternatives to plastic water bottles. I have plans for a post on sun protection and endocrine disruptors. Woo hoo!