Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fabrizio Moro: "Pensa"

Re: Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. Though about the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, it's required reading for anyone aiming to grok the current Latin American narco-imbroglio. My amiga N. sends this link to Fabrizio Moro's rap video "Pensa". N. writes, "...he wrote it after seeing a documentary about [murdered prosecutors] Falcone and Borsellino. It won the young artist category at the Sanremo music festival the year before last. (Young is a relative term in Italy -- Moro was over 30 when he won the award.) The woman standing next to Moro at the end of the video is Paolo Borsellino's sister Rosa. Her face says it all."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Guest-Blogger Tim Wendel: Red Rain and Other Secrets and Riddles

Tim Wendel's new novel, Red Rain, based on a true story, is about a long-held secret of World War II. I'm a big fan of Tim Wendel's because he's not only a great writer but he's prolific and he brings passion to his work. Check out his website which offers all sorts of information about his many works, including the widely-lauded Castro's Curveball and a long list of his articles for USA Today, Esquire, The Washingtonian , and more. He also blogs on Buffalo Nation and Red Rain Blog, and, in his spare time, teaches a very popular workshop at Johns Hopkins University's Writing Program (read what he has to say to his students here). Over to you Tim!

Red Rain and Four More Secrets and Riddles

The ability to keep a secret may be a lost art in our time of 24/7 news churn and gossip columns everywhere we turn. But in the waning years of World War II, thousands of Japanese fire balloons landed in North America. These weapons were made of paper, assembled by women and schoolchildren, and they rode the jet stream to our shores. Rigged with small incendiary bombs, they ignited forest fires throughout the western states.

All of this is true. The reason you’ve probably never heard about the Japanese fire balloon was our government’s ability to keep a secret. In doing so, silence ended the threat. That’s the backdrop for my new historical novel, Red Rain.

I’ve always been attracted to secrets and riddles. So, if the Japanese fire balloon was the best-kept secret of World War II, what else is out there in U.S. history?

Jimmy Hoffa’s whereabouts:
The Teamsters boss disappeared from a Detroit restaurant in 1975. Thought to have run afoul of underworld bosses, Hoffa’s body was never found. Rumored resting spots include Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

The Lost Colony of Roanoke:
Financed by Sir Walter Raleigh, the Roanoke settlement disappeared. Theories about what happened range from devastation due to a hurricane to the settlers being captured by Indians.

Robert E. Lee’s tactics at Gettysburg:
Unlike Roanoke, what happened in southern Pennsylvania in July 1863 has been well-documented. With one blow, Lee tried to break the Union’s resolve. But ordering nine Confederate brigades (approximately 12,000 men) across three-quarters of a mile of open fields, the famous Pickett’s Charge, proved to be too costly. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia never recovered and the balance of power in the Civil War was permanently altered.

Lee Harvey Oswald:
Before Oswald could be tried in the John F. Kennedy assassination, he was shot and mortally wounded by Jack Ruby on live television. The resulting loose threads spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theories, as well as Don DeLillo’s classic novel “Libra.” Despite the avalanche of theories that have fingered everyone from the CIA to Castro to the Kremlin, I agree with historical novelist Thomas Mallon. In all likelihood, Oswald acted alone.

--- Tim Wendel

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.

P.S. Apropos of Lee Harvey Oswald, be sure to check out Thomas Mallon's extraordinary Mrs. Paine's Garage.

Ten Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop

Now posted on The Writers Center blog. Click here for more resources for writers. I'll probably be offering a one day writing workshop at the Writers Center (Bethesda MD) next winter or spring. To be notified, join my mailing list. More anon.

2018 UPDATE: An expanded and improved version of this post is available on my website here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Iceland's Financial Crisis

Last January when I visited Iceland I was astonished by many things, from the art to the geothermal baths, but most of all the thriving economy. The first thing I noticed--- the first thing most visitors notice--- was Reykjavik's slick modern airport and the ubiquitous and even slicker bank advertisements. It was a mystery to me how such a tiny county (population equivalent to Palo Alto CA) could have become, in the space of only a generation, what appeared to be an island of paradise--- if with the crappiest weather outside of Fargo ND. As anyone who's been reading the news now knows, what I was witnessing was the bubble at its biggest--- just before the pop. So what's going on now? I've been checking in with Iceland Eyes and Iceland Review. Here's the latest, from The Daily Beast, by Arianne Cohen:

Is Iceland’s Collapse a Harbinger for What’s to Come in America?

I hear two things a lot here: “Kreppa,” which means “depression” in Icelandic. And, “We’re waiting.” That sums it up. Waiting. The first weekend after the crash, the partying was loud, as it always is. Then it got quiet. The AA meetings, always well-attended, have reached overflow capacity.

Iceland’s banking system was the first to go. You saw the same headlines they did on October 2nd: “Icelandic Banks Collapse!” “Billions Frozen!” “Icelanders See Icarus-Like Fall of Greed!”

The nation’s stunning economic implosion tipped off the domino chain that’s cascaded around the world. So does the aftermath of Iceland’s spectacular collapse foreshadow what’s to come for the rest of the world?

Until food and supplies run out, the country remains in the quiet before the storm...

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tom Hilde's Book On Torture

On Torture, edited by my amigo Tom Hilde, was published last week by Johns Hopkins University Press. The contributors include Tom Hilde, Barbara Ehrenreich, Tzvetan Todorov, Alphonso Lingis, Ariel Dorfman, Rebecca Wittmann, Darius Rejali, Carlos Castresana, Adi Ophir, and others. Hilde writes:

The book is international in scope, but was originally prompted by the miscast framing of the so-called "torture debate" in the US during the past several years. The present collection is less about legalistic wrangling and instrumental reasoning and more an attempt to broaden the scope of the discussion over torture. Torture is wrong, of course, and this book collectively makes the case. But the central goal of the book is to expand our understanding, hopefully, of the multifaceted nature, causes, and implications of torture... This was not an easy book to do, and some of the writers took serious risks by contributing to it.

Note: Washington, DC on November 18th, Hilde will be participating in the symposium "On Torture," to be held at George Washington University (from 9am to 6:30pm). The keynote speakers are Santiago Canton (head of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) and Aryeh Neier (President of the Open Society Institute, a founder of Human Rights Watch, and author of several books). Other speakers draw from the book, and also include David Luban (Georgetown Law) and Manfred Gnjidic (lawyer for rendition victim Khaled el-Masri). More anon.

UPDATE: Read Hilde's
testimony on torture before the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

C.C. Goldwater Endorses Obama

The political tsumani du jour-- and the biggest yet. Read it in her words here.
Update: But her uncle Barry Goldwater Jr. is none too happy about it. Read his essay here.
Oh well!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guest-bloggers Anna Leahy and Doug Dechow's Top 5 Aviation Museums

This Wednesday's guest-blog post should get you flying high. (The photo, by the way, is courtesy of my sister Alice, and it shows the waist of the Baja California peninsula.) Two guest-bloggers today: first, Anna Leahy is a poet, creative writing teacher, and aviation expert. Her book Constituents of Matter won the Wick Poetry Prize, and she teaches in the BFA and MFA programs at Chapman University. She is also the editor of a collection of essays, Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project. Second, Douglas Dechow is an Instruction Librarian at Chapman University and holds a PhD in computer science. Together, they have written articles for the book Bombs Away and the journal Curator about how aviation museums represent WWII. Over to you, Anna and Doug!

Doug and Anna's Top 5 Aviation Museums

1. National Air and Space Museum (NASM)
If you go to only one aviation museum, NASM should be it. Since opening in 1976, the National Mall Building of NASM has been the most visited museum of any kind in the world, and the larger Udvar-Hazy saw its millionth visitor within seven months of opening. NASM is the world's largest collection of aviation and spaceflight artifacts, and both facilities have IMAX theaters.

Among the highlights at the National Mall Building are the Wright Brothers' original "Flyer," Lindberg's "Spirit of St. Louis" and the Apollo 11 space capsule. Udvar-Hazy holds "Enola Gay," the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima; a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird; and the space shuttle "Enterprise."

2. National Museum of the United States Air Force
Located at Wright Patterson outside of Dayton, this aviation museum documents the Air Force. The museum's own materials state their goal "to create realistic illusions of time and places with a real sense of atmosphere." This museum is a good stop-off on a drive across I-70 and Ohio.

3. Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum
The Intrepid is one of New York's hotspots. Just renovated and returned to Manhattan, this aircraft-carrier museum reopens on November 8, 2008. The facility itself is the most impressive artifact; you can walk across the flight deck and into lower decks that house aircraft and artifacts. The collection is especially rich in jet-age aircraft and Cold War history and is home to a retired Concorde. The Intrepid recovered Aurora 7 and Gemini 3 astronauts and houses a replica of the Gemini 3 capsule.

4. Tillamook Air Museum
The Oregon coast boasts one of seven remaining WWII-era blimp hangars, the largest wooden structures in the United States. This naval station and its role in WWII is documented in displays, including one about the women who oversaw carrier pigeons. Tillamook's eclectic collection includes a 1938 Bellanca Air Cruiser (only five were built, only this one flies) and a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser "Mini-Guppy." The fries in the café are excellent, and don't miss the cheese factory in town.

5. Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum
After years in pieces wrapped in plastic, Howard Hughes's HK-1-the largest plane that ever flew (for one minute)-dominates this spacious museum. What a story it tells! The collection includes a Douglas C-47 "Gooney Bird" transport and a de Havilland DH-4, the only American-made WWI airplane. Docents are friendly; a WWII-veteran discussed the B-17 Flying Fortress with us. Promotional materials capture what all aviation museums try to convey: airplanes "are not merely dusty machines, but expressions of man's desire to take to the skies so real and tangible that it is as if the planes, themselves, dream of the sky."

--- Anna Leahy and Doug Dechow

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.

P.S. Madam Mayo also recommends San Diego Air and Space Museum, which includes an important archive on Mexican aviation history, and the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Black Elvis by Geoff Becker and The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund Take the Flannery O'Connor Award for Publication in 2009

Re: The Flannery O'Connor Award, for which I served as one of the first three judges. Series editor Nancy Zafris has selected two winners, and I'm delighted to say that one of them, Black Elvis, was in my very own Himalaya, I mean, pile of submissions (pictured left). As I plowed through, I had no idea who the authors were--- the manuscripts came to me (as to all the judges) stripped of names, addresses or any other identifying information. Well, now that's official, I know who wrote the zing-on fabulous Black Elvis. Geoffrey Becker, congratulations!

The other winner, The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund, was in the pile that went to my fellow judge, G.C. Waldrup. I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Runner-up was Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs.

More anon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guest-blogger Sergio Troncoso on 5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Money

The starving artiste (re: Why Are Artists Poor?) or story-writing for billions a la J.K. Rowling? Or? Ah, the eternal mysteries of art and the marketplace... Today's guest-blogger is an exceptionally fine writer, my amigo Sergio Troncoso. We have a lot in common: we were both born in El Paso, both used to be economists, and both now write fiction. Sergio Troncoso's books are a collection of stories, The Last Tortilla, which won the prestigious Premio Aztlan and the Southwest Book Award, and a novel, The Nature of Truth, about a Yale research student who discovers that his boss, a renowned professor, hides a Nazi past. He's a prolific writer of both fiction and essays as well--- most recently, a short story, "A New York Chicano," and the essays "The Father is in the Details" and "Apostate of my Literary Family". Madam Mayo hears that he has just returned from the University of Arkansas, where he gave a speech on "Latino Literature and the Role of the Writer" to a standing-room only crowd. Read about all his speeches and his writing and more on Over to you, Sergio!

Five Things Every Writer Should Know About Money

The financial sky is falling, and so I thought I'd write about money and writers, and perhaps offer advice on what to do if you are a lowly writer, with just a few bucks to invest, or even a bestselling (or otherwise wealthy) author and you are watching your nestegg crack and ooze onto the Formica top, along with your dreams. I was chairman of the Finance committee of a writers' center for many years and briefly an economist before I turned fiction writer, and I thought I knew what I was doing, until the past couple of weeks of this financial meltdown. We could blame so many on Wall Street and in Washington, but the point is to survive.

# 1. Make sure you have enough cash to survive this economic downturn.
I have a money market fund at Vanguard, and it surprises me to learn how many writer-friends don't have this basic account for their short-term spending. 'Enough cash,' for me means at least six months for monthly bills and the like, and a money market fund, although not FDIC-insured, is usually a safe place to keep your spending money, with check-writing privileges, while it pays dividends.

# 2. Read Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, by Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber, a classic of investment literature.
You will quickly understand how the expansion of credit has been behind almost every major financial crisis, including the one we are in now, and how each crisis has played out over time with different, sometimes remarkably stupid, policy responses. The world never ends amid the turmoil, but alas, plenty of pain does follow the bursting of that proverbial bubble.

# 3. Invest, young writer.
If you are not crying over all the paper losses in your portfolio, if you are just starting out as an investor, as a writer, and if you have a strong stomach, invest. Market downturns are the best time to start mutual funds, the best time to start investing, and the worst time to even listen to anybody telling you to invest in the stock market. Be a contrarian, and have the best historic shot of making serious money, but also be careful. No one knows where the market bottom is, until ex post facto, so invest by dollar-cost averaging. That is, set aside investment money that you will not touch for at least five years, and drip it into an S&P 500 index fund over a 12- or 24-month period.

# 4. Never sign a book contract which pays you, the writer, your percentages from 'net price.'
Get your percentages from 'list price.' Net price is the discount (usually 40 percent) to the list price that a book is sold to the bookseller by the publisher. Do you want 15 percent of $12.00, or 15 percent of $20.00 for each book you sell? You would think everybody would know this, but I have read too many contracts that should otherwise be dumped into the horror bin.

# 5. Take heart, you are a writer, and you shouldn't really care about money, because if you did you would never have become this artiste.
Right? Right. Be a bottom-feeder and be proud of it: start a program to invest regularly in the stock market amid the chaos, and don't ever worry for more than a few minutes each day about how we are fast becoming a country that doesn't read.

--- Sergio Troncoso

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.

UPDATE: Sergio Troncoso now has a blog on writing and money: Chico Lingo.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Potomac Review: "The Darling of Rosedale"

The new issue of the Potomac Review is out and I'm delighted to say that it includes "The Darling of Rosedale," an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel, which is forthcoming this spring from Unbridled Books. P.S. Read a little bit (certainly not the whole story) about Rosedale on the Rosedale Conservancy website. More anon.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Guest Blogger Zack Rogow: 5 Links re: The Cover of The Number Before Infinity

Zack Rogow is the only poet and literary translator I know who can make an entire auditorium erupt into howls of laughter over the word... embryo. Well, maybe you had to have been there. I was! It happened at an Associated Writing Association Conference panel on literary translation. We've also crossed paths in Montreal and most recently, his class on Latin American Literature in San Francisco's California College of the Arts. As he has just published a new book of poetry, The Number Before Infinity, (Scarlet Tanager Books), I invited him to contribute this week's guest-blog post. An honor indeed that he accepted: Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of seventeen books and plays, including six collections of poetry, three anthologies, four volumes of translation, and a children's book. He's the editor of an anthology of U.S. poetry, The Face of Poetry, published by University of California Press; and editor of two volumes of TWO LINES: World Writing in Translation. Over to you, Zack!

I know you can't tell a book by it's cover, but when Scarlet Tanager Books accepted my collection of love poems, The Number Before Infinity, my first thought was about the cover. I'd been admiring for a long time the work of Mona Caron, the artist who painted an amazing mural that stretches the entire length of the Safeway supermarket at the corner of Market Street and Church Street in San Francisco. The mural celebrates the creation of bike paths in San Francisco, and it decorates the length of one of those rights-of-way with a continuous ribbon of images that metamorphoses from a train to a road to a snake to the track of a bike at the beach looking out at the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

I enjoyed looking at that mural for years when my trolley home from work surfaced from its underground route right at the site of that mural. Then by chance I met Mona at the dedication of another mural she did right near where I was living, and found out she had also done the bike mural, as well as a poster for the Critical Mass bike rides that give us a monthly reminder that fossil fuels are not the future.

For the cover of my book Mona chose to illustrate a poem of mine called "A Map of You," a love poem that begins with the lines: You've become my map, my geography:the Black Forest of your hair, your alpine lake eyes, fathom after fathom, your mouth red as turned Carolina earth, those shoulders like Dover's chalk towers, your Sugarloaf breasts, by your peninsular arms

Mona's initial design faithfully reflected the lush descriptions of the poem. When Mona did the sketch for the cover, the publisher, Lucille Lang Day, who is also an excellent poet and prose writer, was concerned the cover might be too much of a cheesecake image, the usual woman as sex object. Mona modified it so it showed a woman literally sitting on top of the world, sensual but powerful as well.

I hope the book does leave you with that image of the beloved. It also has a number of poems that reflect on the difficulties of love, particularly when the lovers are already committed to others. Yes, it's that complicated a love story. Many people tell me they like poems but often find them dense or inaccessible. I try to write poetry in a way that reaches out to the reader. The book is like a novel or memoir in verse, where each poem is a chapter in the story.

--Zack Rogow

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.
P.S. You can order Zack Rogow's new book from Small Press Distribution and also from amazon.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Copyediting in the Editing Process

Whew, finally done reviewing the copyedits on my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire (forthcoming 2009, Unbridled Books). I've been lucky to have good copyeditors on all my books. But this isn't a novel-gazing, oops, I mean navel-gazing post.

In my writing workshops I'm often asked about the editing process. I find most people are unaware of the crucial work copyeditors do in preparing a manuscript for publication. Alas, even the best of writers rarely spew forth perfect pearls. After multiple revisions, a manuscript may still need substantial editing. Agents sometimes play the role of editor, helping the writer smooth and snip and whatever it is they need to do to get the work into good enough shape to send out. Then, there's the actual editor, I mean the one who bought the book. (It's also possible to hire a freelance editor. Click here, then scroll down to "Editing," for some recommendations.)

Once the manuscript is as squeaky clean as it can be, and (ideally) both author and editor happy with the result, a specialized editor, the copyeditor, comes in and goes over the manuscript with the finest of super fine-tooth combs. Is it "carte-de-visite" or "carte de visite"? Should the "E" in Champs-Elysee have an accent? (Oops, for sure sure there should be one on that first lower case "e".) Mexican Expedition or Mexican expedition? They often catch commas inside, when they should be outside quotation marks. And so on. No matter how times I've revised a mansucript, I am always astonished by and grateful for the many things the copyedits catches and/ or suggests.

Here's an essay I recommend:

Copyediting. Vital. Do It or Have It Done.
by Diana Hume George

Maybe most apprentice writers don’t think that copyediting and proofreading manuscripts are issues of craft, but if they don’t, they’re wrong. These are the most basic craft matters in the book, in any book. Professional writing must be 100% clean. It must be free of errors in punctuation, usage, mechanics, and spelling. No typos. Period. READ MORE

Then, after the manuscript has been formatted, the proofreader goes over it. Then, once it's printed and bound and in your hands, count on it, you'll find a typo or five, obvious as a pimple on the end of your nose.

In sum, perfection may be unattainable, but one does one's best--- with a lot of expert help. Blessings to the copyeditors. More anon.

Friday, October 03, 2008

HearArts in Rockville MD: C.M. Mayo, Reading from the New Issue of the Potomac Review, and Brian Gross, Guitarist

Today, Friday October 3, 2008 in Rockville MD:
C.M. Mayo, writer & Brian Gross, guitarist
HearArts Reading & Music Series, curated by Philip Wexler.
Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts

Featured the first Friday of every month from
7:30 p.m.- 9:30 p.m.
$5 Admission to Cover the Cost of Refreshments

HearArts is a unique concept in cultural entertainment, fusing the literary and musical arts. Evenings typically combine a poet or fiction writer reading from his/her work, and a musician or musical group. The featured artists are followed by an open mic segment for writers or musicians in the audience who would like to share their work. Held in conjunction with VisArts' Art after Hours, in which the buildings galleries and studios stay open late, HearArts offers the public an opportunity to widen its artistic perspective.

Writer: C.M. Mayo – fiction
C.M. Mayo, a Writers Center faculty member, is the author of the forthcoming The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, as well as the travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English) chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

Musician: Brian Gross - Guitarist
Brian Gross, a guitarist for over 25 years, encompasses mostly Delta and Piedmont blues playing styles. He is the bandleader and founder of blues/jump/swing band BG & The Mojo Hands, a group of Washington, DC musicians who regularly perform to audiences throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Brian teaches guitar through his Midnight Blue Guitar Studio, and teaches Blues, Rock and Folk guitar classes through Glen Echo Park’s Creative Education Program (in cooperation with the National Park Service) and the Montgomery County Recreation Department in Bethesda, MD.

Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts
155 Gibbs Street, Rockville, MD 20850
tel: 301.315.8200 / email:

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Otow Orchard

I totally want to visit this place. Not sure I like persimmons, though.

P.S. They have a very fun blog.

Guest-blogger Stephanie Elizondo Griest: 5 Glimpses into the Mexican Underworld

Both bad news and good news today. The bad: Olsson's bookstores, long a standard of quality in the Washington DC area independent bookstore scene, have closed (filed for bankruptcy). Today's guest-blog post, by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, was apropos of her reading at the Dupont Circle DC Olsson's scheduled, alas, for tomorrow night. Well, on to the good--- indeed, very good: Presse Bookstore has just opened in Georgetown, DC on (how apt!) Book Hill, which I'll be blogging about later this week. And Stephanie Elizondo Griest's new book is out, available from fine bookstores throughout the U.S. She's the author of a rollicking memoir, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing and Havana, and the very popular (I've given several as gifts) 100 Places Every Woman Should Go. Read all about Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines on her website at Over to you, Stephanie!

Five Glimpses into Mexico’s Underworld

On New Year’s Eve of 2005, I ventured to Mexico with two intentions: to learn Spanish and to gain a deeper sense of my cultural heritage. History had other plans, and I soon found myself chronicling a social movement that shook the nation to its core. Here are five glimpses into the Mexican underworld, which are documented in my new memoir Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines.

1. Gays & Lesbians
I spent the first leg of my journey living with a pack of young, gay male artists in Querétaro. Our house was the epicenter of their community: gay men flocked in at all hours of the day and night. Since the majority lived with their parents (most of whom didn’t know they were gay), our house was their oasis. Upon crossing our threshold, they’d beeline for the bathroom, where they’d dip into the communal jar of gel and spike their hair into tufts. Then they’d blast Dead Can Dance, flip through fashion magazines, hold their boyfriend’s hand, tell stories. I loved it: not only were they entertaining, they taught me a far more colorful vocabulary than I was learning at the language school down the street!

The gay rights movement is actually making strides in Mexico, especially in the capital. In 2006, Mexico City passed a same-sex civil union law that gave gay couples the right to inherit pensions and property, join health and life insurance policies, and make medical decisions for each other. The border state of Coahuila has since passed similar legislation. But even so, Mexico is a fervently Catholic nation led by clergy who aggressively campaign against alternative lifestyles. It is also infested with “macho” men who torment homosexuals. Nearly 300 Mexicans were murdered because of their sexual orientation between 1995-2003. In fact, the foremost gay activist in Querétaro – a 28-year-old clinical psychologist named Octavio Rubio Acuña – was assassinated in his condom shop soon after I left. I investigated his slaying, and nearly everyone I interviewed believed that the local police were responsible.

2. Families of the Undocumented
One in ten Mexicans currently lives in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more migrate every year. The bulk do so by crossing the 2,000-mile border with a human smuggler, and at least 500 perish annually along the way. With one phone call, their families back in Mexico learn that they will never return. That they vanished in the desert. That they got arrested, no one knows why. So the United States seems like a black hole to these families. An abyss that sucks people away. They don't know where their loved ones work, what they do, who they live with, who they cross with. They don't know the name of their new hometown, which state it is in, or even what side of the country. They just pocket the paychecks they wire home every 15 days and wait for their return. Some don’t. Tightened security at the U.S. border has made it much more difficult, dangerous, and costly to cross. Rather than being deterred from entering, migrants who’ve already made it are staying for longer periods of time (if not permanently) to amortize the expense. This is the terrible irony of immigration: people go in order to help their families, but sometimes end up abandoning them.

3. The rural poor
When NAFTA was passed in 1994, Mexico’s then-President Carlos Salinas declared that it would “create jobs instead of migrants.” Instead, it has further impoverished the rural poor. I met countless farmers who were able to support their families just fine – until NAFTA. The price of staples like corn and coffee have been driven so low, it now costs farmers more to grow than what they would earn selling. Many have become subsistence farmers, tending only what their family can eat and allowing the rest to go fallow. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, some 1.3 million Mexican farmers were forced to quit their fields within the first decade of NAFTA alone. The bulk migrated to the United States. So in essence, U.S. economic policies are actually a major reason why so many Mexicans migrate in the first place.

4. Strikers
Mexicans seem to have as many words for “strike” as Eskimos do for “snow.” Perhaps the most extreme form is the plantón, when they gather in the town plaza, unfurl their bedrolls, and refuse to budge until their demands are met (or they are physically removed). And that can take forever. I interviewed one group who held a plantón in downtown Oaxaca for four years. They bathed there, slept there, grilled tortillas and tamales. Women even gave birth there. I once joined some plantón strikers on a seven-mile protest march. They had been sleeping upon cardboard for nearly 40 nights and were wearing flipflops and carrying multiple children in the pouring rain. They were also, on average, five inches shorter than me. Yet they marched twice as fast and far. I couldn’t keep up with them, and had to bail out halfway through from exhaustion. Mexicans are tough!

5. Prisoners
In Mexican prisons, inmates are often allowed to leave their cells. This was a bit of a shock for me: When I visited one in Oaxaca, a large group of inmates bum-rushed me, waving handicrafts in the air. None wore uniforms or handcuffs or even similar haircuts, so I initially thought they were vendors who somehow smuggled their goods inside. When I discovered they were inmates, every prison movie I’d ever seen flooded my brain. But Mexican prisons differ starkly from prisons in the United States. They only give their inmates enough food so they don’t starve and enough clothes so they aren’t naked. If they want to survive, they have to hustle.

The prison itself actually reminded me of a Chinese student dorm. Inmates sleep in bunk beds, six or eight to a room, and they can choose their cellmates. There seems to be few regulations about personal possessions: I saw crockpots, hot plates, cutlery, kitchen knives. I couldn’t help but contemplate how many different ways they could kill the guards, each other, or themselves – but apparently they don’t. They can also receive visitors inside their cells for three to four-hour intervals a day, and married couples can request private rooms for conjugal visits one weekend a month. Three of my cousins are currently imprisoned in the United States, and as far as I could tell, their Mexican counterparts enjoy a far more humane experience!

Mexico’s judicial system is another story, however. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 40 percent of Mexico’s prison population hasn’t even been convicted of a crime. Torture-induced confessions are employed to solve about one-third of cases, and defendants are rarely granted much access to the judges who decide their fate. The justice system also tends to persecute the wrong people. In Mexico City, for instance, more than half of the 22,000 prisoners have committed crimes as heinous as stealing a loaf of bread. Politicians and businessmen who pilfer millions, meanwhile, either slip by unpunished or bribe their way to freedom. As the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero once said: “The law is like a serpent. It bites the feet which have no shoes on.”

--- Stephanie Elizondo Griest

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts click here.
P.S. Related:
--->Q & A with Stephanie Elizondo Griest over on World Hum;
--->David Lida's 5 Secrets of Mexico City;
--->For the 19th century version of Mexican highway robbery, check out Alan Flukey's magnificent translation of the classic of Mexican literature, Manuel Payno's The Bandits from Rio Frio;
--->a review (from Wilson Quarterly) of Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan's The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey from Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail.