drug wars

Dreamtime en la Casa de mi Padre

It’s the old adage: when something is horribly, almost absurdly wrong, do you respond by laughing, or crying? In the new movie Casa de mi Padre, the answer is a (mechanized, very fake-looking white jaguar toy) laughing.

Casa de mi Padre is Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna’s psycho-kitsch rant about Mexican drug war mania. Everything about the film is maniacal: the desperation of the comedy, the plastic gleam of the props, the exaggerated accents of the characters.

At points, the kitsch is overkill, and at other points, it’s magical: Will Farrell’s psychedelic spirit trip, led by said fake jaguar playing the role of a Mayan animal god, is crazy and commercial and expertly edited. It’s a yellow brick road down the mental hallway of a director duo gone (temporarily) mad: Aztec Somebodies walk over bloodied wedding cakes, a black-and-white clad Virgen Maria screams in sheer terror, bursting sound barriers and a bag of dried pinto beans.

This pipe dream about a good-hearted rancher who defeats the drug cartels, Gets the Girl, and wins over the American DEA shakes of the laughing, shivering excess of a kid on the wrong side of a sugar rush. It's the teary-eyed scene change switching 31,000 real deaths in Mexico for a fake bloody cowboy shootout. In the Disneyland deserts of Casa de mi Padre, all’s well that ends (mechanically).

Romeo + Juliet, Revisited

It's been almost fifteen years since director Baz Luhrmann re-made Romeo and Juliet. I loved it at the time, but didn't realize how prescient it was. Although it was made in the nineties, and was supposed to be about Europe, I realize it looks a lot like the Americas in 2010.
The re-make takes place in a vaguely Latin-ate place of neon crucifixes and low-riders. The technical scene is Italy, but barons get around in private helicopters as they do in Sao Paolo, and shirtless, aimless twenty-somethings hang out on the beach as they do in Miami or Los Angeles. Gangsters sport the Virgen de Guadalupe on their vests, and walk around in silver-spurred boots.
The Romeo + Juliet world looks like Shakespeare's, but with a charged,  electro-twist:

The word "Catholic" means universal. This scenario is now universal throughout our hemisphere: feuding families monopolizing cities, from New Jersey to Nuevo Leon. Maybe in Shakespeare's time feuding families traded other goods, but in the post-Bush, pre-Santos Americas, the Capulet - Montague feud just looks like two warring drug cartels.

If the Church was what "universalized" our hemisphere 500 years ago, are drugs our new church? Is cocaine the new communion?

For Bobby

It is said that everything that happens in the world happens first in California.

And now the first U.S. municipal official to die in the Mexico drug wars is from California.

El Monte, to be exact.

El Monte is about a mile away from where I grew up. I used to go running there after school. Our family buys cars there. El Monte is the subject of my favorite book, The People of Paper by Salvador Plasencia.

For the first time, El Monte was on the media map. It is the hometown of Bobby Salcedo, an Assistant Principal and School Board member killed in early January in Durango, Mexico. NPR reports refer to El Monte “an immigrant community." It is not an immigrant community; it is a community of color, but it is, by and large, a community of American-born folks living normal lives. Playing baseball, fixing up cars, or in the case of Bobby Salcedo, not just teaching kids but raising scholarship money for them.

News stories say that students like Crystal Delgado remember Bobby Salcedo as “not just a teacher; he was a friend. “

"He was always there for us,” she adds, “especially when I needed help. ...He was someone great who I will always remember."

Not that anyone should die in this conflict, but they especially shouldn't be the Bobby Salcedos of the world. Taking out the rival gang member, someone trying to snuff out new lines of business, that’s one thing. But to drag off and kill a Mexican-American success story, married to a Mexican national, who spent his time improving the quality of life in both his and her hometowns? Murdering the past President of South El Monte/ Durango, Mexico Sister City Organization - while they're having dinner?

That's who dies?

This is as emotionally puzzling as it is intellectually puzzling. The Merida Initiative is the U.S. policy initiative responsible for mitigating the drug wars, and subsequently, the violence caused by them. It is a hot topic among the prettied walls of the State Department. But part of me really wonders if drug cartels don’t make money off of the investments slated for fighting them; after all, the Colombian FARC grew fat with co-opted enforcement cash for a good 40 years.

And part of me wonders why the death of an (albeit low ranking) U.S. elected official won’t cause a blip in the larger policy picture.

Whatever their intent, the current "drug war" policies aren’t working: Bobby Salcedo is no longer around. And while his family might not be yet, I just hope he's at peace somewhere amongst the brush -the monte - between El Monte and Durango.


So, Washington has a Human Rights scene. There are hearings, gatherings, of those abused and those defending. There are stop watches, speeches, and much clearing of throats.

Last week, I went to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission at the Organization of American States. It’s a twice-yearly affair. The same people offend, condescend, and proceed to file Claims in the System that never gives out answers.

These events, like the Lectures and the Symposia, are run by men in blue suits. (The Gentlemen.) If there is a central table in the room, they are sitting around it. Maybe eating. Discussing. Nodding.


Women, observers, reporters, and bystanders sit on the edges of the room. We listen, sometimes bored and sometimes awed when they utter things like, “There is a man in this room who has tortured one of my clients; he is sitting right across from me.” A collective gasp erupts: Civil Society accused the State! On the Record! The Blue Suit on the left beams with his administrative accomplishment while the Blue Suit on the right fumbles nervously.

“Sir! Please!” the Accused responds to the Judge. “I would like to emphasize that the Mexican government decries the use of torture against citizens, and furthermore, I would like to refer you to the referendum that the State of Baja California passed just last year, which details that…”

The hearing goes on. I can’t believe what I just heard. I am kind of stuck in my chair.

I slowly wander outside, where everyone in the entire building seems to have come to smoke. The Human Rights Lawyer takes a long puff, stares up at the sky, and sighs.

He then looks over his shoulder, and sees the exact person he accused of torture 43 minutes prior. This makes him smile. Widely.

“Gentlemen!” he grins. Wait, I think to myself - he knows them? And knows them well? And he…likes them? They proceed to pat each other on the back, and laugh.

“How’s it been?”

Rudo Y Cursi give Diaspora a new name

Hispanic Heritage Month is coming to an end, and Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (might) have given us something to celebrate.

Or something to cry about.

The two teamed up to executive produce the Focus Features film Sin Nombre, a powerful drama about Central Americans emigrating to the U.S. via Mexico. And according to Sin Nombre, the name of the Diaspora is called miseria: misery.

For those of us concerned with cultural memory, what does this mean for what the word “Latino” means in the U.S.?

In Sin Nombre, to be Latino is to be displaced; an identity of never quite getting it right; of an identity of struggle. But there is a swagger in attempt; a glamour in trying. Sin Nombre narrates a land where Kool Aid, caló, and cochinita pibil mix under a relentless sun. Sin Nombre (which means ‘nameless’) is a chronicle to the millions of people that leave the lands where NAFTA has destroyed the remnants of what global capitalism called an economy, and come risk their lives on the top of trains bound for Texas, Arizona, and California. This journey is plagued by gangs – Mara Salvatrucha, specifically - from start to finish.

In real life, Gael and Diego - the stars of Rudo y Cursi - are neither rude, nor cheesy. They are urban intellectuals. Their fan base is, as well; their fans are folks that spend their days devising solutions to immigration as a transnational policy problem, not a personal one. Dressing up as poor rancheros and actually being poor rancheros are two different things entirely; so what does solidarity mean, both on and off film?


Gang life as a Latino cultural legacy is a tricky one indeed. ‘Mi Vida Loca’ has been made into a cottage industry of Homey dolls and maroon-colored tee-shirts for Hispanic America. And while ‘homey’ is a cute term of endearment and white tank tops are good ways to show off nice biceps, gangs themselves are uh …not good things.

In my family, self-identifying as a Latino was to self-associate with gangs. In the cusp creole land that is east Los Angeles County (Whittier), the dividing line between white and Latino had to do with gangs. My mother, Maria Delsoccorro, with her almond eyes and long black hair, didn’t want to call herself Latina. She liked books, not fights.

“Why would I want to do that?,” she asked. “The Latinas carried knives in their hair.”

Caló (Chicano Spanglish) even carried itself into the land where carne asada is called steak. “Oh yeah, the huisa girls,” my Irish-American father remembers. Huisa, which means girl, was thought to mean chola, or the word for female gangster. Chicanas were huisas, and huisas were cholas. Semantics = sociology= Chicana girls were gangbangers.

Times change; after age 20 or so, I decided that I, as a bookish woman, would self-integrate into Latino circles. The Latino world I rotate in out here on the East Coast is filled with talk of community mobilization, and security studies, and cluster development. The guero (light) Latinos, the ones I fit in around, talk about getting a Masters vs. a Ph.D; we listen to Jorge Drexler. Sometimes people throw up a “w” hand sign for West Coast, but it is, at the end of the day, a joke.


History aside, Sin Nombre reminds us that that la vida loca really is loca – and moreover, is horrifying.

Filled with brutal murders and a stomach-churning feeling that wherever you go, you won’t be wanted, Sin Nombre reminds us just how frightening, and confounding, the dividing really line is.

The subjects of this film feel that they don’t belong anywhere – and not like postmodern, Cultural Studies whining – but economically and socially feel homeless in their own Hemisphere. It is the fear that the world has locked you out, completely.

After surviving an attempted rape at the hands of the MS-13 gang lord with the letters ‘m’ and ‘s’ tattooed on either side of his face, the co-star’s greatest joy is to take a cold shower with her clothes on.

Pride aside, name-calling aside, these films make you wonder, does to be Latino mean to be always not-quite-there-yet? Is this what we are? And if so, why does it have to be like this? 

Why is misery such an everyday part of (inter) American life?

Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario stumbled upon the subject of Honduran immigration through Mexico by finding her Honduran maid crying in her kitchen one day, mumbling about trains. Sin Nombre is written in impeccable Spanish by hapa director Cary Fukunaga from the East Bay. More people need to create work about this subject, and give Latino life a wider range of names.

El Pasito NAFTA

For the March 5th primaries, the North American Free Trade Agreement had its moment in the sun – it defined the parameters and victories of the election, and forced two left-of-center Democratic presidential candidates to expose their stances on such deeply significant issues as job growth, domestic trade, and foreign policy towards Latin America. However, instead of applying their self-described candidacy “for change” to deal with the complexities of NAFTA in new and thoughtful ways, Obama and Clinton instead performed a flight-footed, anxious little dance around it à la pasito durangüense.

The pasito durangüense – a jumpy cowboy dance equally popular in Durango, México as it is in Chicago, Illinois - is more fun to watch, though.

The overall issue for the March 5th primaries was not just the standard political shape-shifting we have grown accustomed to seeing in place of honest dialogue, nor even the candidates’ suspension of judgment about issues of immense social and economic import to the Hemisphere.

It’s the fact that they can’t seem to step to an even rhythm.

NAFTA forces Democrats to scoot around almost every single constituent group of the Democratic party: blue-collar workers whose jobs have been taken abroad, Latino voters whose families are directly affected by immigration policy via Mexico and Central America, and white-collar progressives who consider their sort of neo-protectionist economic policies part and parcel of the more equitable, just society they expect the Democratic party to administer.

Some of these folks clap on the upbeat; some clap on the downbeat. What’s a well-dressed, camera-ready Dem to do?!

Agarra su pareja! If the two are pro-protectionist, they please their union base and alienate their business base. They also alienate the growing numbers of immigrant Latino union members, who by very nature of being in the U.S. favor open trade and economic relationships with Mexico and Latin America. On the flip side, if Obama and Clinton are pro-free trade, they will please their business base and alienate their union base.

There is no easy win here; they have to (literally) draw a line in the sand with this one. Because neither Obama nor Clinton can claim to fix immigration, public education, or healthcare in this country without fixing NAFTA. Politics, like many things in life, is like dance class – if you can’t do a single turn, trying to do a triple turn is really a bad idea…

If Clinton and Obama really lived up to their claims of being “candidates for change,” they would publicly announce their willingness to undertake the task of fixing what has arguably been a gigantic (elephant-sized) disaster for both countries. Instead, the Senators of two of the largest, most important states in the union seem to prefer to pretend like NAFTA is unintelligible, or as seemingly unsolvable as the murders in Juarez. Instead, they prefer to scoot along to its rhythm with a cowboy hat and a stomp to match.


While Obama and Clinton might find dancing el pasito NAFTA thrilling, but they’ve got to remember that for a lot of people, dancing el pasito NAFTA is really not so fun at all.