How was mexico?

Posted by Bao on Monday, December 12th, 2005

How was Mexico? As if the country just sat there waiting for me to experience it, as if it was not a place all its own, with a people and history connected by a language I can’t speak, which will exist and move on with our without my stupid pseudo-tourist ass trying to learn in a few days what ni una mas and la frontera translates into. Yeah, but how was Mexico? The challenge in answering such a seemingly simple question, asked innocently enough by my good homies and fellow co-workers, is why this project is so valuable: it asks me to step outside myself, because ultimately this title is called America Listening, not Bao Talking. But then, how do I write a blog completely devoid of my own opinions and thoughts, when my perceptions of the experience as an American is obviously a big part of why I was asked to be a part of the project in the first place?

15 pages of handwritten notes and over 300 pictures taken with my brand spanking new digital cam, and I still have a hard time forming this in my mind. It’s not like there aren’t stories: I could tell you about how, before the trip, I read an entire book and countless articles about border issues, trade policy, and immigrant rights to find that it didn’t prepare me for my conversations in Juarez as much as a course in Spanish would have, or that having well-informed opinions may have in fact have worked against me when I wrote out the questions I was to ask the US Consulate, which they kindly declined to answer. I could make ridiculously obnoxious jokes, like damn, there are hella Mexicans in Mexico , or the best Mexican food I’ve ever had is here in Mexico! I could be really self indulgent and tell you weird, strange, and unrelated factoids, like most of my dreams while in Juarez involved past girlfriends or secret crushes: one really cool dream had me flying around with this woman I have a secret crush on, as if we were in that really bad 80’s movie The Boy Who Could Fly. I could tell you charming, quirky, “local color” character stories, like the Internet Café owner who sang what he described as “romantic” music as a Chinese restaurant in Downtown Juarez during the weekends, or how, on a little dirt patch of road, a little girl with a three week-old puppy becomes suddenly a universal symbol of cuteness amongst all our different personalities. I could look through my notes and make this into an exhaustive factual step by step account of events from the past week, but I’m already falling asleep of boredom just thinking about writing something like that.

I could write while staring down, fascinated by my own navel and talk about me me me, the contradictions I felt as an American, born in Viet Nam, visiting Mexico for the first time for a documentary film, apologizing to people for speaking perfect English and not a lick of Spanish… how awkward and uneasy I sometimes felt as a person from Phillips, from a working poor family or ghetto or hood or whatever the hell term academic activists call it these days, to stay at “nice” hotels and eat at “nice” restaurants in Juarez and have a bit of money in my pocket. Maybe we should tie this into my own life, like when many people in Juarez told me how they were treated by corporations and companies that did not care about them or tossed them aside when they could no longer be used, I thought immediately of my older brother, who was laid off by the company he had long worked for here in Minnesota one month after his wife gave birth to their first child.

In case there are doubters, let’s prove that I am a conscientious community ghetto poet by making epic statements like, visiting the impoverished areas of Juarez, where the community is devastated by post-NAFTA trade policies and exploitation by the maquiladoras, seeing the poor people living in the shadows of the wealthy buildings within spitting distance across the border, made me realize that poor and working people get fucked over no matter where you live in the world. Here’s where I go on a self-righteous rant about how fucked up America is, how we make the world miserable and witnessing all of this makes me sad, as if I was an innocent pure helpless soul hurt by a cruel world, as if I wasn’t as tangled up in, and connected to, the oppressive systems and institutional structures that mess up this world and fuck over people’s lives as anyone else.

Because I am using “I” too much, let’s instead focus on Luis’s story, whose experiences most likely will form the central narrative for this segment of the film. A native of Mazatlan who crossed illegally three years ago to work in construction in Minnesota, Luis has recently married his sweetheart, a cancer survivor, and went to Juarez to basically, “turn himself in” to the US Consulate and apply for a legal immigrant visa. He stood in line with many other brown skinned people, in the chilly 20 degree weather at 6 am, and waited patiently for the long, expensive, fussy, and ultimately demeaning ordeal to become a legal resident of the US. The loved ones stand in a small café across the street, sipping coffee and staring out frosted windows across the street at the long line of mostly silent, shivering people, hoping that the one they’re waiting for emerges from those secured doors soon. There was an unexpected complication during Luis’s meeting, so he will not be able to go home to Mazatlan and see his family for the first time in three years as he expected. He will have to stay in Juarez for the weekend and come back again for a follow up meeting on Monday, the Holiday of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which means again standing in the freezing cold at 6 am, which means more paperwork, more money, more time waiting, and waiting.

See, I barely used “I” at all in that last paragraph! Maybe now you will forgive me for not talking about Luis until the near end of my essay.

Okay, enough sarcasm and witticisms. The truth is, all these things really happened, and much more. The truth is, we had a tremendous amount of privilege being in Mexico as well-funded Americans, and we did our best not to squander that, and do some good and responsible work. The truth is, I have no real idea what most of the citizens of Juarez thought when they saw my Vietnamese face and was introduced to them as an American. The truth is, some of the funniest and best conversations me and Luis had were not on camera, and maybe that’s for the best.

Yes, my experiences, my process, and how I view the world are important, but mostly just in this blog entry, and to you dear reader, so that I may be as honest about my own personal investment in all of this as I can be. Ultimately, though, this is not just about my experience but about how all of is, in this world, are connected and responsible for each other. That’s the larger picture, the whole idea of this film. And not despite of, but because of, all the messy contradictions and the confusing issues and its moments of powerful beauty, we are off to one rocking start.

Next stop? Shanghai. I hear that there’s a lot of Chinese people out there.

p.s. Thanks to Carrie, Joel, Dom, Dusty, and Luis for tolerating me. And my snoring.

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