Thursday, October 29, 2009

Home Again

Wherever that is.....I'm not sure anymore.

I'm back now in Phoenix for about 2 weeks, my semi-annual visit. Catching up with old friends and family. Then I'll be in Chicago for a few days next week.

I'll return to Oaxaca around the middle of November. Oh, the life of a nomad.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Catholic Church and Marketing

Having worked in marketing in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds for a number of years, marketing is something I know a bit about.

A case study ready-made for a marketing text is the situation of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Understand that--even though various sources place the current percentage of Mexicans who are Catholic at around 80%--that number is shrinking faster than the membership in the Roman Polanski fan club.

Why? Growing affluence, the effect of active Protestant evangelization in the country, dissolution of traditional family structures, creeping American cultural influence.....many reasons. But all that isn't new. Over the decades there have been repeated attempts by various liberal governments--going back to the Mexican War of Independence from Spain--to crush the power of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits got expelled (So, join the club. Jesuits got kicked out of everywhere.) The government closed the convents. They expelled foreign priests. They expropriated church property for government use. Which brings us to today.

I have my own theory for why the Catholic Church is loosing popularity: firecrackers. Yes, things that go "boom" in the night. Thursday morning, AT FIVE O'CLOCK IN THE DAMNED MORNING....I checked the clock... I was rousted from a deep sleep by an enormous explosion. "The next Revolution has come to town?" I wondered. "Or is the army shooting protesters again (nasty habit)." No, of course not. My brain was addled by sleep. Just one of the many Catholic churches setting off fireworks to "honor"? a saint or a festival day. Not being a Biblical scholar myself, I'm a bit confused here. What chapter and verse says: "And thou shalt set off firecrackers in the midst of yon night"? One of the Commandments, perhaps: "Thou shalt anger thy neighbor, repeatedly."

Consider: Mexico is a poor country. The headlines are daily trumpeting the economic crisis. Folks are out of work. Businesses are closing. THERE SIMPLY ISN'T ENOUGH MONEY to make ends meet. But.......for some odd reason.....there's plenty of money--millions in the aggregate--to buy pyrotechnics for every church, every festival in Mexico. An economist would say, "take all that money, divert it to social welfare programs which benefit the people..." Aw shucks, that's just too common sense. This is Mexico!

And then goes another boom. These weren't like little sparklers, but rather more like blasting caps. The "reverb" lasted for many seconds after the explosion. And then another. And another. And it continued for 10 minutes (I checked the clock). And the end of the explosions, the church bells sounded: a cacophony. Imagine taking all your pots & pans outside and slamming them together. For 15 minutes. Okay, at this point the church has awakened all the parishoners (and heathens like me) for a mile around, announcing to them they need to wake up and come to the 6:00 mass.

Back to my marketing hat. Wouldn't you think that if your organization were loosing members apace, you'd do everything possible to gain their love? To earn their support? To get them back? Here's a suggestion: PISSING OFF EVERYONE IN A MILE RADIUS AT 5:00 IN THE BLOODY MORNING....that's a bad idea.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When a "Resorte" Isn't a Resort

Words from one language that sound like the same word in another language are called "cognates." Spanish and English have a ton of them. That's why it's relatively easy for the speaker of one of those languages to pick up the other. It's not like English and, say, Japanese. Not too many cognates there. When you hear "verificar," for example, you can usually noodle out that that's "verify."

But then come the "false cognates," words that sound alike in the two languages but DO NOT have the same meaning. The most famous of these, and the bain of every young lady traveler in Mexico, is "embarazada." Looks like "embarrassed," right? How many female travelers to Latin America have said "I'm embarazada" thinking they've just told their new friends they're embarrassed, only to find out later what translation of their remark was really, "I'm pregnant." Oops.

When you see a sign that says "Bufete," in Mexico, don't get in line for the $6 All-You-Can-Eat special. "Bufete" doesn't mean buffet, but rather "law office." I stumbled across one of these the other day. I was out shopping for a mattress for my new place. I'm too old to sleep on the floor, so a mattress is the very first purchase for a new apartment. The sales clerks kept talking about "resortes." OK, I figured the were touting a hotel-quality mattress used by fancy resorts. Only when I got back home to my trusty electronic translator/dictionary apparatus did I discover they were talking about springs (resortes=springs) all along. Bong bong bong. Silly me.

Tutus, Tights, and Pigtails

All that on a 60-year-old lady. You have to understand that entertainment in Mexico takes many forms, some just plain weird.

Oaxaca's Teatro Macedonia Alcala is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and has programmed a rich and diverse collection of artists throughout the year. So when I saw the sign advertising "The World's Best Crotalist" (La Mejor Crotalista del Mundo)...I had to go, if only to find out what a crotalist wass. To my mind "crotalist" sounds like some kind of Ukranian meatcutter. Or maybe someone who makes croutons for a living. Who knows?

So I went. And, honestly, until the curtain rose, I had no idea what I was going to see. The house lights dimmed in the gorgeous old theater. The announcer asked for cell phones to be silenced. And out on stage comes Sonia Amelio in a tutu and white ballet tights, piroutting en pointe...up on her little tiptoes...spinning around and clacking castanets for all they were worth. Yep, "crotalist" is a castanet player. Click, click, clack.

Now, I have nothing against castanets. I think they're fine on your typical gypsy flamenco dancer. But Sonia has taken it to a whole new art form, slapping her spoons together in time with works by Debussy, Liszt, Mozart, and Chopin. Over the years, I've seen a ton of widely different performances: all kinds of plays, readings, dance concerts, and music. This left me I'd stepped into another dimension.

The Mexican audience seemed to know her well. She's apparently been in Mexican films and on TV. Plus, as her self-aggrandizing bio proclaimed, she's done it all: child prodigy on the piano, concert pianist at 6, ballerina at age 7, she's performed with the Boshoi Ballet in Moscow, done world tours, and earned the keys to the city of Manila.

Between numbers, for her backstage costume changes, they did an A/V presentation on a big screen showing Sonia performing in venues around the world and with clips from her film appearances. Sort of "Sonia the Magnificent." And with every round of applause, she gave us a deep theatrical ballet curtsy and sort of a Gloria Swanson thing with upswept hands. And with her Technicolor ear-to-ear smiles I was seriously worried she was going to bust loose some facelift stitches. That's catty. Sorry. Actually, she looked good. But the gauzy see-through dresses slit up to.....umm, just's time to give those a long-overdue rest.

As Monty Python famously said, "and now for something completely different." It really was. For $1.50 admission, it wasn't half bad.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Day in the Life

I got up around 8 this morning after 9 hours of sleep. Down with alarm clocks! I don't even own one now, and I sleep until I get ready to get up. Sweet.

Wednesday is the morning for our men's breakfast club. So I joined the guys for breakfast and catching up on the week's news. Afterward, a few of us walked over to the American Library, just a couple of blocks away. And there, I read the paper and chatted with friends.

Around noon I left for my every-Wednesday massage. Yes, I know that's a luxury. But I sure enjoy it. It keeps me loose and moving and helps counteract the encroaching impact of arthritis. Besides, I like it.

I came home and changed clothes in time to walk down to the zocalo and meet two women friends for lunch. One of them, Holly, is returning back to the U.S. to go to grad school, so I took them out for a goodbye lunch. All three of us work as volunteers at the Estancia Infantil. We lunched at a place called Terranova upstairs looking out over the town square from our table on the balcony.

After saying our goodbyes, I had a 4 o'clock meeting with Sears who were going to deliver my refrigerator and microwave for new apartment (more about that later). Since it's an UNfurnished apartment, I sat on the floor for 2 hours waiting for our friends from Sears. They never showed or called. Since I had received a call from the delivery driver earlier in the day, I had his number. So I called him at 5:30. He told me, "Oh, you have to talk to the Delivery Center" and then transferred my call to a line that no one answered. That pissed me off. And....of course....they never arrived (or called). Gee, that's just like Sears in the U.S., isn't it? What's so hard about understanding the 4 p.m. on Wednesday means 4 p.m. on Wednesday....not 9 a.m. on Thursday or Friday, or whenever....?

What Am I Reading?

you ask....
I'm in the middle of a history titled "Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity"(Oxford University Press) by Prof. Charles Cumberland. It's an old text, written in 1968. But that's the nice thing about history--it doesn't often change much. History is one of my favorite subjects, and since I'm spending time in Mexico, it makes sense to read Mexican history. I've probably read half a dozen or so. What makes Mexican history so interesting are all the surprising twists and turns. It's like a West Virginia dirt road up in the mountains, twisting and rutted, filled with bumps and turns. And it's hard to follow without a road map.

With their black humor, Mexicans joke that every 100 years they have a revolution. In 1810, it was the War of Independence from Spain. Then 100 years later, in 1910, it was the Revolution. For those of you chronologically challenged, next year is 2010, marking a BIG year-long party celebrating the bicentennial of independence (just as ours was in 1976) and the centennial of their revolution. We HOPE it doesn't mean another NEW revolution is just around the corner.

Interestingly enough, the movement for independence was led primarily by Catholic priests. Liberation theology before liberation theology began! You've probably heard the story about Father Hidalgo ringing his church bell to call all the residents of his town, Dolores, together to take up arms. His "grito" (scream) is commemorated each year on Sept. 15, the eve of the anniversary, when the the president of Mexico and the state governors replicate Father Hidalgo's grito, "Viva Mexico!" The War of Independence lasted 11 long years (compared to the American Revolution, which lasted 8).

Whether or not Mexico was ready for independence in 1810 is a matter of controversy. This from Professor Cumberland's book:
"During independent Mexico's first fifty hectic and catastrophic years, over THIRTY different individuals served as president, heading more that FIFTY governments. One persons occupied the presidential chair on NINE different occasions, and three others sat on that rickety pinnacle of power three times each. In one short span (1837-1851 inclusive) 16 different men served 22 governments as president. Cabinet ministers changed more often than presidents, and those 15 years saw 48 foreign ministers, 61 ministers of government, 57 secretaries of finance, and 41 secretaries of war. Frequently two groups claimed control of the government at the same time, sometimes three. The pendulum swung from empire to federal republic to centralistic government to dictatorship and back president occupied the chair (which exception of 3) for longer that two consecutive years, and some served only a few weeks. One year saw FIVE changes in government...."

Makes you dizzy, doesn't it? Compare that with the early history of American independence. Makes you grateful for the steady hand of someone like George Washington.

And then came Porfirio Diaz. Originally a military man (many of Mexico's past leaders have come from the military....they're the ones with the power to stay in office). Diaz became Mexico's longest serving dictator, ruling from 1876-1880 and again from 1884-1911, a total of 31 years. He was a ruthless totalitarian but a proponent of sound finance and industrial development. Sort of like an early version of Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Today, his reputation is mostly negative.

I like to try to understand WHY the United States developed as it did and our next-door neighbor developed in a different manner. In the earliest settlement phase of the continent, who came to Mexico? Conquistadors. Conquerors. Their focus was "smash & grab": take the gold, silver, and riches and go back to Spain to become a wealthy landowner. In what was to become the U.S., the English quickly realized that there was no "gold in them thar hills." Yes, there were economic interests in settling North America (tobacco farming, one), but in the northern colonies, there was the primary interest of fleeing religious persecution. They were SETTLERS who brought their women and children and intended to make a home. No so much so in Mexico.

Whole libraries full of books have been written on the theme. I'm no historian. But it sure is interesting to speculate how and why things came out the way they did.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ladies & ATMS

OK, women out there....what is it with ladies and ATM machines?

Here in Mexico, ATMs are critical to the gringo's economic survival. This is a cash economy. No checks. I rarely use a credit card, although I did bring one. Most merchants want cash. For the consumer, easier to budget that way. We expats get very, very familiar with the locations of all our affiliated bank ATM machines.

And I understand how they operate. The secret little password/pin thing you key in. Money comes spitting out of the slot. It's almost as much fun as Las Vegas slots. I've found as a man, taking money out of the ATM is one of the two things I do.....all by myself.

Not so for the fairer sex. It seems like every time I go to get cash there are women in line in front of me. And when a machine becomes available, they migrate in groups of 3 or so over to it. What's with that? I'm perfectly capable of taking money out all by my little lonesome. So why is it a group activity for women? Today, there were FOUR....count 'em...4 at the next machine, chattering away. A convention.

I guess it's analogous to the experience in a restaurant when one lady gets up to "powder her nose"...ALL the women at the table go along. A support mechanism, perhaps. I don't understand.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sounds of Oaxaca

If you wanted to, you could hear a musical performance every day of the week here.
I do.
This week was a case in point. On Monday, I went with my neighbors to the 19th anniversary concert of the Chorus of the City of Oaxaca. Accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of Oaxaca, they performed Mozart's Coronation Mass, along with Handel's Water Music, a Bach prelude, and other tunes. The venue was the Teatro Juarez, a super modern theater with the latest and best in scenic technology. The theater was formerly home to the State Congress of the State of Oaxaca. Here a link with pictures: Admission was 70 pesos, or about $5.

Last night, Saturday, I walked over to a free concert at Teatro Macedonio Alcala (that's the photo above). Opened during the Porfirio Diaz administration in 1909, the grand old wedding cake of a theater is celebrating its centennial with a series of performances. The group, Paulina and El Buscapie, performed traditional music with an emphasis on Son pieces. In the middle of the performance, they announced that a favorite local poet was in the audience and invited him to the stage. He declaimed extemporaneously for about 20 minutes.

Then today, Sunday, I headed down to the town square for breakfast. Afterwards, I noticed them setting up for the weekly free Sunday open air Oaxaca State Band concert "Under the Laurels," big shady bay laurel trees. I had about an hour to kill before they began at 12:30, so I sat and chatted with a visitor from Amsterdam and read the paper. The concert focused on works from opera: Verdi's Nabucco and Aida, Bizet's Carmen, as well as Tchaikovsky's March Slav and a Strauss waltz. It couldn't have been a more idyllic setting, sitting in the zocalo under an enormous shade tree, perfect temps in the 70's, a light breeze, and great music filling the air.

I came home and threw together a big pot of veg and chicken for a Caldo de Pollo (chicken stew). It cooks all afternoon, and the smell is making me hungry right now! It's 4:30 and I've got about an hour before I need to walk back up to the Teatro Juarez for another free concert tonight with the Symphony Orchestra of Oaxaca, this time celebrating the 45th anniversary of the founding of the local university radio station.

Who said retirement would be boring?