Thursday, April 28, 2011

Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
---{Book Review and Guest Post by Susy Chavez]

There is a legend that runs through artist circles in Mexico about the surrealist French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first visit to that country. They say Cartier-Bresson was so moved and overwhelmed with visual stimulation that he declared all one had to do to find a surrealist image while in Mexico was to point one’s camera and simply shoot. Apparently, Cartier-Bresson found the surrealist promised land in le Mexique.

Escondido, 2005
Mazahuacholoskatopunk Series
Federico Gama

I often times find myself imagining Mr. Cartier-Bresson wondering the streets of Mexico camera and western sensibilities in hand, like some sort of belated colonialist explorer encountering the totem-like mishmash of the ancient, colonial and the modern that makes up Mexico. My own voyeuristic fascination with Mexico, like all the best voyeuristic endeavors in life, is deeply personal. I am, to put it mildly, passionately in love with its fluid pump-up-the-color-volume folklorico-piñata-dance chaos. Fortunately, this love abounds and Daniel Hernandez’s new book, a quasi telenovela meets Boogie Nights love letter to the 20 plus million metropolis that is Mexico City, is a worthwhile testament.

To take Hernandez’s book as simply a non-fiction travel book or as the cool kids are calling it these days, creative non-fiction travel book, would be a mistake. Hernandez’s book is fascinating precisely because he is NOT: 1) trying to find himself by teaching English in another country 2) throwing himself into hard labor in a remote indigenous village 3) has no philanthropic endeavors 4) and NO broken heart he needs to mend through ancient indigenous practices. Hernandez is on a mission to find himself, a San Diego native, Angeleno transplant via Tijuana, Mexico whose parents warn him early on that in el DF (Mexico City, pronounced ‘de-efe’), he’ll get his socks stolen while he’s got his shoes on. Instead of making him run up towards Canada, Hernandez, a self-described “dark-skinned” pocho mexi-gringo, decides to move to el monstruo (the monster, a tongue and cheek term-of-endearment for el DF). It is in el monstruo that Hernandez leads us through a series of hoyos funkys, underground tunnels that weave through the city coming up momentarily from time to time for brief snap-shots of a series of urban subcultures that include but are not limited to fashionista fairies, nezayorkinos, banda, grafiteros, emos and fresas.

One of, I believe, nine children raised by immigrant parents in Southern California, by the end of the book you get a sense that Hernandez is some sort of desert chameleon one minute drinking a cahuama (a family sized beer sold in Mexico) with a friend in a run-down prostitute laden side of town and the next schmoozing with the crème-de-la-crème Mexican up-and-coming fashion, artist, writing crowd. I suppose a warning against whiplash is in order. Nevertheless, it is through these encounters that Hernandez not only lays out the mega-city for us with all of its divine contradictions, but it is precisely through these urban-life snippets that he refreshingly peels back and exposes his own identity based struggles. Knowing exactly from where he was coming, I found myself wanting to reach through the pages to shake his hand on several occasions. There are particularities to being a fill-in-the-blank –American and going back to the country of “origin” that I believe might transcend beyond one particular experience or culture, Hernandez’s book would fit that category. The prodigal son that leaves the land of opportunity for the land our parents left behind. This is not Cartier-Bresson getting off a plane baptizing Mexico as the surrealist-promised land.

The book is a quick read at that, one that I intentionally extended and savored piece by piece until despite my every effort it’s pages ran out. At the end of the journey through one of the largest urban jungles in the world, it is obvious that although Hernandez is gifted with those chameleon-like tendencies I previously mentioned, it is the magic of the city itself that allows Hernandez and the millions of transplants that keep pumping into it, to transform themselves day in and day out.

[Susy Chavez is a manic gardner, artist, photographer who loves nothing more than to walk down the sunny streets of Oaxaca Mexico. See more here]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Panzanella and signs of middle-classness

Even as I talk about identity being fluid, and personhood as pastiche, there is still a value to certain core forms of identification. In my case, middle-classness. Or to be more specific, socialist Indian eighties-style middle-classness. While a really poor eater through my childhood and teens, I nevertheless absorbed that one core lesson that all my peers learnt, "Do not waste food!". While most of my parents' generation has it down to a fine art, I am a rather confused arranger of all things leftover. As a result, I have to scout for recipes to figure out what to do with things such as day-old bread. This is one such.

Panzanella is an Tuscan bread salad and while it sounds to my ears, rather meaty, soggy and heavy, it is far from. Give it a go.

For 3-4 servings of Panzanella, you will need:

* A loaf of day-old bread
* 4 teaspoons of rice wine/ apple cider/cooking vinegar
* 2 cups of olive oil (It's good for you, so stop sighing!)
* 2 cloves of garlic chopped fine
* 2 cucumbers peeled and chopped
* 2 tomatoes chopped
* A cup of basil leaves
* Salt and pepper

1. Soak the bread in water enough to cover it; add 2 teaspoons of vinegar
2. After 15 minutes, squeeze out all the water and crumble into fine particles into a bowl or serving dish

3. Add salt, pepper, garlic, 2 tsps vinegar, garlic, and 1/2 a cup of oil. Mix well.
4. Then add the cucumber, tomatoes, and the remaining oil. Tear pieces of basil leaves and add them in.
5. Cover well and chill for at least an hour.

I have seen a number of variations so you can imagine this is easy to play with; add celery, sage, marjoram, perhaps even some feta.

I adapted this recipe from the Organic Tuscany Cookbook and if any of you generous souls feel like planning me a birthday present in advance, I need cooking lessons here!

Panzanella is light, and effervescent, it is the both light and delicious and a little like a summer's day in the park. I could do with a frisbee now.

But the day is at an end and I have the week to contemplate, so I will now settle down to my salad and a glass of wine and leave you fine people to whatever it is that you want to do. Perhaps work, perhaps play, perhaps even nothing. Alright, I have to go. I need wine. And music.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Prodigal Returns

Or not?

Dear ole faithfuls, at the risk of boring you with the inordinately long tale of my absence, let me sum it up thus:

(a) Travel
(b) Conferences
(c) Work crises
(d) Travel
(e) Work that I had to get to because I lazed around on the beach...

And it is this last that should catch your attention because wait, isn't she in Wisconsin? Wasn't it winter? Where is the beach? Has she lost it?

To answer all of the above; I went to Hawaii. For a conference. Really...

The one thing I was not ready for when I signed up for this conference was how far Hawaii is from the West Coast of the US. Really. Here's a map.

It took ten hours to get from Chicago to Honolulu. I traveled from freezing, 3 degrees Celsius weather to a lovely balmy, humid, sunny 25. The sense of travel itself is so funny. Distance is difficult to comprehend. The travel corridor is so inundated with technology and speed. You enter into the plane and exit into another airport. No whoosh, no bodily disintegration and reintegration. No magic. In so many ways, the disenchantments of modernity are so horribly obvious.

And of course, even if it's Hawaii, it is inexplicably part of the US and therefore culturally expected to produce the signs of Americanness. Like diners. And fake politeness. Not that the stewardesses on Continental felt the compulsion to be anything like that. They reminded me of an older generation of Air India aunties who find it their birthright to be both snooty, and matronly, in the same sentence. Imagine an American aunty mentally wagging her finger that you asked for wine. And producing it five hours later than requested. At which point you are asleep. Which is precisely the state that you needed the wine to catalyze. But of course, you have now been woken up so you can ingest said wine. Hello aunty.

Let me also mention that my travel companion was upgraded to business class while I was stuck mangling my already stunted frame into tiny, "small is friendly (to capitalism)" persuasion cattle class seats. Skank. The travel companion, that is.

We finally landed in Honolulu. Just the name was enough to warrant my feeling happier already. We all have these mythical places of exotic repute that have been mythologized in quizzes, drawing room conversations, and nerdy oneupmanship. Mine are Honolulu, Mombasa, and Jhumritalaiya.

The conference was in Honolulu, so we stuck to Oahu and didn't explore any of the other islands. Our hotel was by Waikiki beach, my presentation was on Day One, and there were very few anthropologists around. Clearly the Gods were in support of my intellectual laziness.

For four glorious days, I ate pineapples, and walked by the beach, and drank beer and rum. I walked endlessly, drove around Oahu to the beautiful surfing beaches and got browner than ever before. Thanks to fabulous travel companions, I also discovered great Japanese food, drove by the coast, and felt rather wonderfully ready to return to work.

Honolulu is strange. For one, it is unbearably touristy, commercial and built-up. The hotels, and condominiums come right up to the beachfront. It is also racially very diverse (which is a relief). You see many Polynesians in the city, and of course, white Americans in hordes, but also African Americans, Asians, and Japanese residents. What is also obvious are the levels of poverty. The city is inundated with the homeless and we were trying to understand the phenomenon. I suppose the most obvious reason would be the weather. It is not disturbing on the whole, but the city is far from soothing. It seems like a city forced upon a rather differently oriented landscape. As if this is were not meant for urbanity of this kind. I'd like to think that this is not pastoral nostalgia, but in some ways, I suppose...

The foliage though is something else. It covers, adorns, and wraps around the island like a living, breathing ferment. The city thankfully cannot escape it either. It is the kind of lush green that I know screams forth after it rains in the Sahyadri ghats. And it's tall, and broad, and generous and kindly. Like a favorite uncle. Or an aunt.

So here we are at the end of our travels, calmer, wiser, quiet-er....and here are a few learnings:
(a) I will write more frequently...cause it is good for me. And I forget that in any case, there is always the written word.
(b) It might not be everyday, because life interferes, but it will be more frequent, because writing makes me happy.
(c) I like pineapples
(d) I should swim more.

On that note peoples, welcome back. Tell me all about yourselves now. Next week, I will tell you all about NYC.