Category Archives: Mexico

Hope prevails through a bitter winter in Bancos de San Hipólito

We arrived in the fog-draped settlement of Buenos Aires, Durango, just after 9 a.m. It had been a hard night’s drive through a pouring rain, enlivened only by the stories of my tireless travel companion, human rights lawyer Carlos Chávez of the Jalisco Association in Support of Indigenous People (AJAGI, by its Spanish acronym).

We still had nearly three hours to go before we reached Bancos, but meanwhile, a group of comuneros from Buenos Aires awaited a ride in the back of his pickup truck. Chávez jumped out from behind the wheel he’d manned since 10 p.m. the night before, greeting a shivering cluster of men with good cheer and a round of hearty handshakes. A breakfast invitation followed, and Nora, Cristian and Yaser, three other AJAGI members, joined us as we were led through what looked like a refugee camp. Nora and Cristian had passed the night in the back of the truck; Yaser was less fortunate, having passed the stormy night in Buenos Aires.

A bitter windstorm had ripped through the village, stripping the tin roofs from many of the mud-brick homes in the middle of the night as the residents slept. The unrelenting rains and near-freezing temperatures compounded the misery as residents tried to piece their lives back together.

Nonetheless, a visit from Carlos Chávez and the folks from AJAGI was more than reason enough for a gathering. One family with a sheltered outdoor kitchen still in good working order invited us to huddle together underneath as the rains began again, and steaming freshly ground tortillas came off the grill one by one to envelop home-grown scrambled eggs and savory pork-seasoned beans and potatoes. Family members clustered around to beam at us and urge us to eat more as we wolfed down what was likely their sole daily portion. But to decline would have been an insult, so we obliged.

The strange winds, the unseasonable rains, and the unthinkable snowstorm of two weeks prior were recurring themes in our visit. The summer rains didn’t come in time to water the harvest, and much of the corn crop dried on the stalk. Of what survived, much succumbed to fungus when the rains arrived late. And then, month upon month of winter rains – and now the tornado-like windstorm that has just descended upon them, the likes of which they’ve never seen.

Climate change is not a theory for the Wixaritari, the tribal people named Huichol by the Spaniards for easier pronunciation. They are convinced that they are living it every day, and they are seeing it in shorter growing seasons and strange weather patterns. They don’t know the reasons, but it worries them.

There’s no time to dwell on it, however. There’s firewood to be gathered, roofs to fix, children to feed – and, for some, a regional assembly to attend down in the valley in Bancos.

Attorney Santos De La Cruz Carillo, technical advisors Yaser Ventura and Cristian Chávez, and community members Don Jesús and Prudencio, left to right - and still enough room for me.
Attorney Santos De La Cruz Carillo, technical advisors Yaser Ventura and Cristian Chávez, and community members Don Jesús and Prudencio, left to right – and still enough room for me.

Spirits were high as we clambered into the back of Chávez’ well-worn and mud-caked Toyota pickup truck. Bancos is in a sheltered valley, and considerably warmer than Buenos Aires, up in the mountaintops some 7,000 feet above sea level. Also, most of these families originally lived in Bancos. The residents of Buenos Aires are modern-day pioneers engaged in the act of resettling and at the same time reforesting the land ravaged by timber poachers from the neighboring mestizo communities.

The resettlement is all a part of a larger strategy, devised by Huichol community leaders hand-in-hand with Carlos and the rest of the AJAGI team, which has provided legal and technical assistance for nearly two decades, helping the community reclaim 55,000 hectares of land that had been annexed away from their territory and encroached upon over the years. An estimated 140,000 acres are at stake, including a 10,720-acre swath separating Bancos from its core community of San Andres Cohamiata in the neighboring state of Jalisco. In a groundbreaking decision in 1998, the International Labor Organization ruled that the Huichol people had a right to the land based on ancestral ownership, even though they don’t hold legal titles – a ruling the Mexican government has thus far failed to acknowledge. Repeated pronouncements from the international agency received no response until last year, when the Mexican government finally ruled in Bancos’ favor – but with a catch. It failed to recognize the ancestral rights outlined in a key document called Convention 169, and so the case remains in litigation.

“The case of Bancos at one point was once described by the current director of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Peoples as probably the most important case in the world” with respect to indigenous land rights, said Chávez. “If the case is resolved in the community’s favor, it will be of benefit to all indigenous people in the world.”

But this is only one of many strategies, one layer of the many layers of stories to be told about the Wixaritari people. I was fortunate to hear many of them in the past week, and I will be sharing them as time permits. Meanwhile, here are some images from the enormously resilient little community of Bancos.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

It’s not enough to be biodegradeable…

Life in Guadalajara is not so different from life in Houston. Sometimes, only the language is different.

My friend Alicia, like me, struggles to remember to bring the cloth shopping bags when she goes to the supermarket. This day, she remembered. Here’s a little reminder she likes to keep handy:

“It’s not enough to be biodegradeable; it’s necessary to be bioAGREEABLE.”

I liked the way this clever slogan captured one of the most important principles of sustainability: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” In that order.

The Rolling Cameras of Guadalajara

Camara Rodante
Last week I had the chance to visit with Carlos Ibarra, news photographer for El Mural and one of the founders of Camara Rodante (literally, “rolling camera”.)

Carlos with his collection of miniature bicycles and a photo of his father, an avid bicyclist.

This intrepid group of biking photographers is dedicated to promoting biking in a variety of ways. Besides their weekly outings, which traverse a variety of rural terrains around Guadalajara and further afield, they’ve organized get-out-the-vote campaigns, children’s outings, first aid workshops, bicycle repair workshops, and a fundraiser for Haiti – all aboard the seat of a bicycle.
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Guadalajara by night – and by bike

It’s not every day you get to ride with 500 enthusiastic bicyclists to the theater. But in Guadalajara, you can do it once a week.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

Matter of fact, you can ride with a herd of cyclists pretty much any night of the week – just pick your flavor. “Al Teatro en Bici” (To the Theater by Bicycle”) is one of a seemingly endless number of bicycle-oriented initiatives in Guadalajara. There’s Camera Rodante, a hard-riding group of biking photographers. There’s GDL en Bici, a group of young professionals dedicated to reclaiming the streets for all commuters, not just cars. Their nocturnal rides, each one with a theme and costumed riders, have drawn upwards of 4,000 participants.

Tuesday I got a taste of the Guadalajara bicycle explosion, as well as why it may have evolved. Guadalajara is a city that has evolved, like most U.S. cities, around the automobile, and public transit is somewhat disorganized. A morning taxi ride to Tonalá, a village on the southern outskirts, took me 15 minutes; the bus ride back, an hour and a half. It took longer than that to figure out how to take the bus back to Tonalá.

And that’s not even mentioning the aggressive stance a pedestrian must take in order to negotiate the glorietas, traffic circles where a seemingly endless churning mass of vehicles whirl past.

Little wonder, then, in a city where many people don’t have cars, that frustrated commuters turned to bicycles, then teamed up to find safety in numbers. It couldn’t have been easy, however; in a city where just a few years ago, bicycles were seen primarily as a vehicle for street vendors and poor people.

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On Tuesday, the first ride after the holidays, hundreds milled about with their bicycles in front of Punto del Arte, a classy cafe in the Centro. Suddenly a shout rang out – “Ya vamos!” followed by the voice of Aretha Franklin blaring from the loudspeakers attached to the lead bicycle.
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“What you want, baby, I got it… What you need, you know I got it. All I’m askin’ for is a little respect…”

I don’t know about the impatient drivers who waited as the wheeled hordes streamed through the red lights, but the message wasn’t lost on me.
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The eclectic soundtrack weaved from Rolling Stones to Caifanes, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Café Tacuba to Guns ‘N Roses, and the elation was so high you could feel it bouncing from the Beaux Arts decor in the old city streets. We plied those streets for about an hour before ending up at the spectacular neoclassical Teatro Degollado, where we piled in to see a free showing of ZaikoCirco, a surrealistic international troupe of circus performers who, of course, supported the effort with bicycles in their act.

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All in all, a phenomenal performance – beginning with the commute.

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From Mexico to Palestine: Carbon offsets

treeMuch has been written about the pros and cons of carbon offsets. The idea, if you haven’t been following, is that you pay money to a nonprofit organization to plant trees or invest in renewables or otherwise reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in an attempt to offset the carbon you’ve generated.

There are many calculators online that help you to figure out how much carbon you’ve generated and where you should donate it. Carbon Footprint is a nice flexible one that lets you calculate individual aspects of your life as opposed to doing a whole audit – both can be good, but since I’m on the road, my lifestyle doesn’t easily fit into many of these calculators. Since my main impact is travel, I figured my mileage and multiplied the air travel by 1.9 to account for the increased impact airplane emissions have (the amount used by Carbon Footprint). It then lets you select from a variety of worthy projects from Kenya to Central America.

Critics compare this system with the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences in Medieval times – a system that allowed people to “buy” forgiveness for their sins by making donations to the Church. They argue that there’s a wide variance among carbon offsetting groups, none of them are regulated and there’s no way to know for sure that the trees you’re paying to plant wouldn’t be planted anyway.
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La Condesa blooms through the chill

IMG_0049 My first 24 hours in Mexico City couldn’t have been more colorful. A cold front has settled in here, as well, with temperatures dipping into the mid-40s, and since there are no heaters, people are huddling over soups and hot coffees in the open-air cafes. Except for a few golden hours yesterday morning, a drizzly grey pall grips the city. Still, the flowers are blooming and a general air of cheerfulness has made headway against the gloom – especially on Wednesday, Dia de los Reyes, a Mexican holiday celebrating the arrival of the Magi to visit the baby Jesus.
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Southward Bound

backpack tracyST. LOUIS, MO. ­– Today’s the day.

I’ve made my list and checked it a million times; selected and reselected my gear; said my goodbyes and received good wishes and safe travel blessings from near and far. I’ve left my car keys, my smart phone and my GPS behind. I’ll be making my way by foot now and by mass transit; everything I’ll need is either in my pack or shoulder bag, or it’s something I’ll have to find along the way, or live without.
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