Sunday, December 30, 2018

What books tell you about your life

My joy-inducing book collection. 
After the painters got done, shortly before Christmas, I expected that putting the books back on the shelves would be a mindless task but then, as I slowed down to dust off each one— and briefly think back why I had bought it and kept it—it became an unexpected exercise in introspection. The books whispered to me about the various stages of my life, my aspirations, what I'd achieved and what didn't work out, and reminded me why I like to read. 

My library is not a large one but rather what's survived a couple of moves, including the big one from Chicago to San Miguel, when we did a lot of last-minute purging of stuff, including books. Reading in my Amazon tablet also has dramatically reduced my impulse buying of ink-and-paper books. Plus there are no bookstores in San Miguel or nearby to tempt me with a cappuccino, a cushy chair and the new-print aroma of thousands of new books and magazines  waiting to be leafed through.

One of the first books I discovered during this latest perusal of my collection was a faded copy of the "The New Cuban Reader," wrapped in a battered plastic bag, along with a tiny prayer book, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, from my First Communion.

The Reader had a lovely inscription, in flawless Palmer Method script: "Congratulations to Alfredín Lanier! His teachers, Bros. Leonardo and Miguel, congratulate him with all their hearts, for having learned to read in such short time. Santa Clara, January 26, 1953."  Seems I was hooked on reading from an early age.  

"To school!" the blonde girl says 
Some time ago, when I showed the Reader to eagle-eyed Stew, he noticed a glaring incongruity: All the children pictured are white and many are blond, as if this slim textbook had been destined for schools in Norway or Iceland.

What happened to the large population of African-Cubans, the mulattos of various hues or the sizable population of Chinese-Cubans whose forebears were brought to island as slaves? 

The answer, I suspect, lies in a sort of racial don't-ask-don't-tell on the part of the Cuban middle class. In fact, at my solidly middle-class Catholic school, I can't remember even one black classmate, and only one Asian boy, last-named Ley and forever nicknamed "El Chino Ley."

recall learning to read quite early, certainly by age five, maybe even earlier, thanks in no small part to relentless pressure from my mom, an elementary school teacher, and an early prototype of what would be called today a "tiger mom." She was determined to turbo-charge the education of her only child. I even skipped second grade, with disastrous results: I had to repeat third grade, a damaging experience that later in life provided much fodder for therapy, and still claws at my self-esteem.

Stereotypes aside, Salgari made
 for great childhood reading.
My dad was a reticent autodidact who barely finished high school, but possessed limitless knowledge, or so it seemed to me, on a myriad topics, from auto mechanics, space travel, animals, carpentry, chemistry, scientific trivia, literature and classical music.

I credit his quiet encouragement for instilling in me a love of words and books, and even teaching me the value of curiosity. He subscribed to newspapers and magazines, including the Spanish-language editions of Reader's Digest and Life magazine. There was always something new to read lying around the house.

Though he never read to me before going to sleep, as soon as he noticed I could read he discreetly began buying me books, most memorably those by the Italian adventure writer Emilio Salgari, whose homey prose took me on flights to exotic locales, inhabited by pirates, pharaohs, maharajahs, and even Indians and Mexicans duking it out in his "Las Fronteras del Far West." As soon as I finished one, a new one mysteriously appeared. I wish I'd kept one of them.

Rockets and space travel, at that time unimaginable fantasies, also were part of my reading repertoire, and I imagine my dad's imagination. By age ten or so, I remember drawing rockets, fueled by firecracker powder, a small camera and a small parachute to return the payload back to earth, a precursor to a Cuban space program that, literally, never got off the ground. 
Today, when I need to prune my book collection, I defer to the advice of Japanese decluttering madonna Marie Kondo, who urges her millions of followers—mostly Americans whose homes are choking with crap—to consider which objects, in my case books, bring "joy" to their lives. Those that do, you keep, the rest go. Silly, but it's a helpful tack.

Good books, even some college textbooks, can indeed rekindle transcendent memories of a great class taught by a great teacher. I still have, for example, the two volumes of Donald Kagan's "Problems in Ancient History." Instead of a thicket of dates and odd names soon forgotten, Kagan presents history in terms of questions and riddles some yet to be conclusively solved. This course was taught by one Bro. Austin O'Malley whose sense of humor, despite a pronounced stutter, made the material even more memorable. I doubt I'll reread Kagan—now retired from Yale—but his books are part of my permanent collection.

Another keeper college textbook is "Understanding the Old Testament," by Bernhard W. Anderson, which discusses the historical and archeological context of the first part of the Bible. Along with that, I've kept the "Oxford Annotated Bible" with lots of underlines and marginalia suggesting that, at one point in my life, I was far more interested in ol' time religion than I am now.

Other books are so beautifully written that  I often reread a line or a paragraph, in awe of the author's genius, all the while wishing I could write half as well. Jhumpa Lahiri, author of "The Namesake" and "The Interpreter of Maladies," about the Indian immigrant experience in America, falls in this category. Those books you don't dare let go. Chilean magical realist writer Isabel Allende's books are also keepers.

More recent is "Educated" a memoir by Tara Westover, which I read in the electronic version. Stew has a standard for deciding whether a book is worth reading: He has to be "hooked" by the first fifty or sixty pages of the story. "Educated" does that and much more; both her prose and her life story soar and hold your attention right up to the last page.

"Educated" also makes a case for buying "real" books, that one can keep on the shelf and leaf through periodically to remember the joy of reading them. Somehow electronic books, which anymore are not that much cheaper, and reside in Jeff Bezos' ethereal Amazon cloud, are more likely to be forgotten.

Hotel Oloffson, the gingerbread grande dame at
 the center Graham Greene's "The Comedians", and
which survived the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. 
As a former reporter, I cherish Graham Greene's novels, most of which are a mix of fiction, foreign reporting and travelogue. I have eleven of his books plus a collection of short stories, and they brought me back to some of my travels.

Reading Greene is a double kick. His writing and characters are memorable but I also get the  vicarious, I-wish-I'd-been-there thrill, as in "The Comedians" (Haiti); "Our Man in Havana"; "The Power and the Glory" (Mexico); and "The Quiet American" (Vietnam).

When visiting Haiti, some twenty years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the gingerbread Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, where Greene stayed and whose swimming pool plays a role in the opening chapters of "The Comedians." Greene's books are not throwaways.

A large portion of my book collection, I found, falls in the category of voyeurism. Two shelves-plus hold gardening books, most of which I drooled over when I first got them but seldom actually read, cover-to-cover. Many I still leaf through occasionally, to rev up my limited horticultural vision.

So are the three-dozen photography books on another shelf. I go through them occasionally, and ooh and ahh about the beautiful shots I could get if I were a National Geographic photographer with $10,000 dollars worth of equipment and the talent to properly use it.

If you're wondering how Stew figures in our book collection, let me say he probably reads more than I, but goes for the murder-mysteries-suspense-and-general-mayhem genre. This sustains his annoying habit of picking out the culprit in mystery films and TV programs about fifteen minutes after the opening credits, while I'm still scratching my head at the end.

He mostly avoids non-fiction about current events and politics, insisting that reading for him is an escape from reality, and a morning's worth of The New York Times and Washington Post provides far more than his daily requirement of really alarming news. And when Stew finishes a mystery paperback, he doesn't get sentimental about tossing it or donating to the shelf full of English-language hand-me-downs outside the office of our mail service.

By contrast, my collection is jammed with non-fiction about politics, history and travel guides, including, naturally, about twenty or thirty books about Cuba. Some of these supposedly "non-fiction" books  should more properly be filed under "premature prognostication": "Castro's Final Hour: The Secret Story Behind the Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba" by Andres Oppenheimer, published 26 years ago, and "After Fidel," by Brian Latell, published in 2005. I can imagine the Bearded One giggling in his grave at the mention of these and many other premature obits.

Ikebana: beautiful but
A few other books in my collection illustrate my insatiable curiosity, which a psychiatrist probably would rather describe it as either Attention Deficit Disorder or Acute Tendency to Piss Away Money at Bookstores.

How else would one explain my having copies of "Ikebana: Japanese Flower Arrangement" and "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies"?

Let me try.

The Ikebana book brings back the joyful memory of a course I took at an Asian tchotchkes store, near my home in Chicago, owned by of Iva Toguri D'Aquino, known during World War II as Tokyo Rose, and who was falsely accused and convicted of treason, and stripped of her American citizenship. Toguri was formally pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977 and the story of  her indomitable fight to put her life and reputation back together remains gripping, especially since I remember her as a small and shy person who so much seemed to be hiding in her store.

Iva Toguri's shop on Belmont Avenue in Chicago
The flower-arranging course was inspirational too, albeit quite mystifying. The teacher—an elegant, middle-aged Japanese woman, as delicate and beautiful as her minimalist floral creations—could not speak a word of English. She mostly pointed at her arrangements, said something in Japanese and giggled nervously. Her classes, though, were entrancing as we watched her pick out a flower, a piece of straw and a leaf and magically transform it into something that was pure art.

The memory of that course, and the Toguri story, are worth keeping. I'm hanging on to the book, and the two ikebana vases I bought along with it.

My interest in chicken coops arose from reading about the hellish conditions in which chickens are raised in factory farms, and also from Stew's complaints about the puny size of eggs sold here. In the States you might get to choose from medium, large, extra-large and Jumbo-sized eggs but in Mexico they come only in one size: Mexican-size.

So I bought two books, about nine years ago, one about building coops, the other on raising chickens, to start our own egg production. Stew sighed and rolled his eyes, but our gardener Félix was ready to go at it. We never figured out, though, where to find the fancy breeds of big-ass American chickens capable of laying such enormous eggs. This idea didn't prosper, but it might. Meanwhile we'll buy organic eggs that are still puny, but supposedly laid by happy hens roaming around somewhere in Mexico. I'm keeping the books, just in case. 

The compulsion to buy books one may never fully read, or read at all, has a name: tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that one has purchased but not yet read. I found this out by reading, of course. It sounds a bit like a compulsion or mental affliction, like collecting stray cats, but it's not. It's a good intellectual exercise, and nothing to be ashamed of, according to partakers of the hobby. I have a friend in Chicago who must have four hundred cookbooks, most of which he hasn't read, but he is still a great cook. The books must telepathically inspire him in the kitchen. 

I can't say I'll ever reach the point of acquiring books by the thousands. But I'm keeping the chicken and ikebana books, along with another surprising find in my bookshelf: a copy of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"—in Spanish, no less—that someone gave me as a gift during one of my trips to Cuba.

Holding this dog-eared book, in a plastic bag, brought me a strange joy, though I must tell you a secret: This late in life, I'm far more likely to raise chickens or practice ikebana than tackle Joyce's impenetrable prose, in Spanish.


Bonus reading about books:

Donald Trump's and Barack Obama's favorite books. Alarming but hardly surprising, as told to Fortune magazine:

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Gears of Mexican justice grind on. Very slowly.

As we head for the Christmas holidays, when the Mexican government practically goes into hibernation until the Feast of the Three Kings on January 6, we paid a visit to our lawyer to discuss the status of the litigation over the piece of land someone is trying to steal from us.

It was mostly good news, but... We're pretty much assured of winning the dispute but it's going to take four or five months of additional legal back-and-forth, unless the parties on the other side opt to throw in the towel. For those readers curious and patient enough, a summary of the case follows.

We have filed complaints and lawsuits at three different venues: At the Ministry of Urban Development, which handles building permits; at the State Attorney's Office, which deals with criminal complaints; and at the local court that decides civil disputes.

Move faster, goddamn it.
Urban Development early on issued an "Obra Suspendida," the equivalent of a cease-and-desist order, banning any work on the land by the interlopers. To overturn that, they would have to present a deed to the land—the all-important escritura—which is under my name. Hah.

The rancher, who illegally tried to execute the sale of the land to the developer without an escritura, last week filed a petition to subdivide it, essentially to sever it from the rest of my ranch.

No luck there either. Our lawyer heard about this Hail Mary stunt from a friend at Urban Development, and promptly filed a complaint, to the effect that the land was in my name and could not be partitioned without my approval.

One pointer if you find yourself in a legal tangle in San Miguel: Get yourself a quick-thinking lawyer with connections. Through some friends at Urban Development, ours expedited the cease-and-desist order, and presumably the same friends alerted him about the rancher's latest stunt.

Though we haven't specifically discussed any propinas, or "gratuities" to grease things along, I have the impression our lawyer would not be averse to using them.

At the State Attorney's office, we filed lawsuits against the rancher, for attempting the sell a piece of land he'd already sold to us, and the developer for invading a property that didn't belong to him.

The Mexican legal system prescribes mediation between the parties before cases proceed to trial.
During the one and only mediation meeting, the developer's lawyer said they would give up if we could demonstrate that the land in question was in my escritura. 

Enter a surveyor from the State Attorney's office who came out and emitted the pretty lame conclusion that both parties were fighting over the same piece of land. Duh.

So our lawyer deposed the surveyor and posed the simple question. Is that piece of land covered in my escritura? Yes or no? The answer came back "yes". Though the other side claimed to have a buy-sell agreement signed by the rancher, the escritura trumps that, so we won that round.

But for the time being, the State's Attorney has deferred a decision until the civil suit is settled. That suit was over financial damages to our property caused by the developer's invasion of it and other maneuvers.

The developer, in turn, sued me, I'm not clear on what basis, but the suit states that he wants our land to establish a servidumbre, or "right-of-way", and offers to grant us permanent access to our ranch, presumably through the existing gate and access road, if we would stand down.

Two problems with that. By accepting such offer from the developer we would, ipso facto, be admitting that the piece of land belongs to him. No way, said our clever lawyer.

With regard to the right-of-way, there is already a ten-meter-wide public access road abutting the disputed land. There's no reason to carve out another servidumbre. 

We will be filing a response to the developer's suit by January 7, and from there on, wait to see what happens. If this goes to trial, our lawyer warned us, it could take until June to get a verdict, which he assures us will be in our favor for two reasons. We have the escritura, and we've held the land for over ten years.

"We shall not be moved"
Unless, of course, the other side decides this dispute is not worth pursuing, this matter is bound to drag on. The zigzags in their claims would seem to indicate that, for the rancher and the developer, this may have become a manhood issue, similar to what Rep. Nancy Pelosi attributed to President Trump regarding his insistence on a $5 billion appropriation to build a piece of his wall along the Mexican border—even if he has to shut down the U.S. government to get his way.

Back in June of last year, the developer offered to exchange part of the land he had illegally taken for a fifteen-meter-wide strip along the western side of my ranch, so he could build an access road to parcels behind us. The whole thing was a land invasion compounded with an attempt at extortion. Some deal.

Despite all the upsets, I consider myself lucky. First, I have had Stew by my side all along, providing needed hugs and emotional support. Second, we got ourselves a good lawyer, quick on his feet. Finally, and very important, I can speak Spanish, which has enabled me to follow the oral and written twists-and-turns of this case. I can't imagine where we'd be if this were taking place, say, in Japan or Poland and I couldn't understand either the system or the language.

Words of encouragement from friends and neighbors also have been key. Our good friend Ron Anderson gave us perhaps the best advice, seconded by our lawyer: Just stay calm and wait for the legal process to play out. Yea, easier said than done.

Meanwhile, we're having the inside of the house painted in preparation for a nice dinner with friends on Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Putting wonder and wandering back in retirement

When we first moved to Mexico some 13 years ago (!) Stew and I used to be far more adventurous. On weekends, or even weekdays, we used to leave town and point our car to wherever, in search of whatever. Sometimes there were quaint towns, tumbledown churches, markets selling weird stuff, stunning landscapes or, sometimes, nothing much except a place to stop and have lunch.

It was fun, certainly cheap, except for the cost of the gas, but for some reason we stopped doing it. A recent post by Bloggista Extraordinaire Barbara Eckrote put the idea in my head to start such wanderings again. Barbara talked about the joy of her wanderings, primarily through Mexico and Guatemala, and the new places and people she met along the way.

Mexican gray fox: Why don't you come and
see me sometime?
I was reminded about our escapades too, when I gave a brief talk at our church about the regenerative power of keeping the Sabbath, regardless of your religious persuasion, if any. Pausing from the humdrum of daily routines and reconnecting with friends and loved ones, and new experiences, can recharge your emotional and spiritual batteries.

I talked about how I wanted to re-embrace the Sabbath habit, on Sunday, Saturday or any other day of the week, Being retired and having no work schedules, meetings or whatever, allows one to do that. That resolution, like most others, never materialized.

It turns out that keeping a day of rest is difficult. Retirees who have fled workaday obligations, almost instinctively develop a new round of routines, by joining organizations or even taking on a new job. In fact, I suspect the myriad volunteer organizations in San Miguel—animal shelters, churches and other charitable groups—are largely populated by expats going through some level of Post Retirement Tedium (PRT).

Stew and I went through PRT and accordingly oversubscribed our time to two animal welfare groups in town. At the church we've been attending, we hear about—and shudder—at the number of committees, subcommittees and other time-consuming progeny even a small organization can engender, until it becomes an octopus devouring a disproportionate amount of the time and energy of many of its members.

Mexican gray wolves, waiting for us to visit. 
No doubt some people have a commendable inner need to teach, host weekly meetings at their home, or do pro-bono financial planning for a not-for-profit. I respect that. Stew and I are generous with our donations and devote quite a bit of our time helping individuals in need, whether they be indigents begging for coins at an intersection, or shut-ins who appreciate a visit, a shipment of stuff from Costco or some Chinese take-out.

Yet when Stew and I see a volunteer sign-up sheet coming our way—for the outreach, long-term planning, or finance committee, of this-or-that organization—we run for the nearest exit. During our forty-some years of working full-time, we suffered through too many meetings, office politics and other time-wasting aggravations, to spend the last ten or twenty years of our lives doing the same thing.

So let's wander, as Barbara suggested.

Right next door to San Miguel, about 45 minutes from our house, is Querétaro, a city of probably close to a million and growing almost daily, like a hyperactive teenager. Every time we visit it we stumble across some attraction, not necessarily a landmark, but something we'd never realized was there. A Greek or Spanish restaurant, an Oriental food market (probably aimed at the growing number of Asians working in the city), a new fine arts center, and a vast colonial center we've visited only a couple of times and then briefly.

Hola: Meet the largest bird in Mexico. 
In the other direction, the countryside can be just as surprising and worthy of a visit. Restored chapels, colonial ruins, splendid haciendas of all sizes and if nothing else, beautiful landscapes.

The last time Stew and I tried such a directionless expeditions we had two surprises. Our low-slung 2003 VW Passat station wagon nearly got stuck in the mud, but in the middle of that mess, a Mexican gray fox with a luxurious tail came out of nowhere and looked down at us from the branch a tree, if only for a minute. What a gorgeous creature.

Yesterday, by the shore of a large reservoir on the highway to Querétaro, we spotted a chorus of white pelicans sunning themselves. We'd always associated pelicans, gray or white, with the ocean and were surprised to find them so far inland. Our friend Luke, a master birder, politely punctured our bubble of ornithological ignorance by assuring us it was not some hallucination: American White Pelicans are regular visitors of Mexico's inland waterways during their migration.

The most precious gift of retirement is the freedom to organize your own time and activities, and let surprise and serendipity be your only guides: After all, when you don't have to go to work, you can invent your own Sabbath any day of the week.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

It's 11 a.m. Do you know where your car went?

Crime in Mexico is a topic expats would rather not talk about, particularly when visiting the U.S.

"Aren't you afraid to live in Mexico?" we're asked frequently, and annoyingly. Perhaps it's a matter of pride, of not wanting to admit that yes, we're often afraid, or worse, that we sometimes wonder if  moving down here was such a clever move after all. So we clear our throats, ahem, and rave on instead about San Miguel's perfect climate and low cost of living.

It's an awkward conversation topic alright, like bringing up the murder rate at a dinner party in Chicago, or mentioning the perils of obesity to customers moseying around a Walmart in Texas. 

Denial often rules even among long-term expats, who suppose they won't be affected by the latest rash of crimes. If there's an outbreak of burglaries in Colonia A, they interject that, thank God, they live in Colonia B. Or if a friend who lives in the country got beat up during a home invasion, they mention that whew!, they live in the Centro. 

Of course, it's all a game of whack-a-mole, a feeble attempt to vouch for our own safety when, in fact, crime is an endemic problem in Mexico that affects everyone, unless you live in a gated community, never step outside and survive on home deliveries of pizza and Chinese food.  

Carjackings are the crime du jour. Two or three weeks ago, someone went shopping at the Costco in nearby Celaya and on the way back their supposedly "luxury" car was intercepted by four guys wiedling long firearms—and there went the victim's car, wallet and, along with it, probably a thirty-roll bundle of Kirkland toilet paper, two jars of Hoody's peanuts and other precious cargo. This incident, which took place at about 11 a.m., was supposedly witnessed by a line-up of cars and even a police patrol that sped by in the opposite direction.  

Reaction to the news was typical. "I'm glad I don't drive a fancy car," or sillier still, someone suggested driving to Costco in a "caravan," as if the sight of three or four carloads of frightened, elderly gringos wringing their hands will scare off young thugs.  

Climb aboard our vintage 1960 Suburban.
Then on December 4, at 11 a.m., a Chevy Suburban belonging to the local shuttle operator BajíoGo, was intercepted, also on the road to Celaya, by three armed gunmen who took the vehicle and all its contents, and left the driver and the four passengers stranded. A 500-word statement from the owner of BajíoGo provided all sort of details about the incident though it didn't mention whether, as they sped away, the assailants wished bon voyage to the hapless travelers who, for sure, missed their flights in Mexico City. 

The expat conjecture machine immediately kicked into high gear. Why did the BajíoGo van go through Celaya en route to Mexico City instead of through Querétaro? Probable answer: because of road construction. Do late-model Suburbans call too much attention, as if they had a sign, "Rich Gringos Aboard!"? 

A safer ride to the airport and all 
the white bread you can eat. 
Two options occur to me. BajíoGo could use old, beat-up Suburbans, with loud Mexican music playing, and carjackers surely won't bother such a jalopy. Better still, it could transport frightened gringos in retrofitted Bimbo bread trucks.

The security dilemma now hits us close to home. Stew and I had reserved two weeks in February at a Barra de Potosí beachfront resort, south of Zihuatanejo, and just this morning I received an email that a family of Mexican birdwatchers from San Miguel—birdwatchers, for Chrissake!—were assaulted on the way to Barra. Their binoculars, cameras, luggage and car are gone, along with, I imagine, their birdbooks. 

Should we load up our late-model Audi and barrel on to Barra as planned, seven-plus hours of driving 80 m.p.h. through Michoacán, Guerrero and other parts of Narcolandia? Or fly out of Querétaro and rent a cheap car in Barra? That would be about a thousand dollars more expensive, but not as much so as losing the Audi and a suitcase worth of tee-shirts, shorts and underwear. Then again, some BajíoGo vans also have been carjacked on the way to the Querétaro airport so we might not even make it to our flight in the first place.

Good luck, Gen. Hidalgo
Amid this panic about carjackings, San Miguel just announced the appointment of retired Army Gen. Rolando Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy, to the newly invented post of "Security Czar." He has an impressive résumé that includes battling drug cartels in the state of Sinaloa, when "El Chapo" and several other narcos ruled the day. He performed so effectively that he was subsequently detailed to the Mexican embassy in Moscow "for his safety," according to Atención, a local newspaper. 

Not mentioned in the article is that the general bears an unsettling resemblance to the typical Latin American military dictator, perhaps the late Augusto Pinochet of Chile without the moustache. But maybe that's what we really need. 

Atención devoted a great deal of space to the topic of public safety in San Miguel, including the general's plan to set up a "Social Proximity Police" to better interact with residents of high-crime neighborhoods. He also promises to set up a Center for Communications, Computing and Command. I couldn't figure out what any of this meant or, more important, how it's going to make it any safer for us to get to the beach in February.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Looking for Pancho Villa

My feelings are torn regarding the "caravan" of Honduran immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. I see them begging at busy intersections in San Miguel and can't help remembering when I arrived from Cuba alone, when I was fourteen years old, with a nickel in my pocket and my head crammed with fears and dreams about the future.

Today, as an American citizen, my sympathies are still with the Hondurans—and the Syrians, Ethiopians, Russians and other refugees making similarly desperate and perilous crossings to find a better life for themselves and their families.

But I also recognize the impossibility of "opening up the borders" to all comers, a far-fetched prospect used by the sludge pot of nativists, xenophobes and white supremacists on the American right, as a rationale for slamming America's door shut to any immigrants, as if they were vermin.

You again?
The debacle still unfolding along the U.S.-Mexican border around Tijuana should strike fair-minded Americans as shameful if not criminal.  Children separated from their parents, presumably as a deterrent—or ransom. Tear gas canisters tossed at unarmed migrants, many of them women and children, running for cover. Miles of concertina wire, and thousands of troops behind it, deployed under the guise of an imminent invasion of the U.S. mainland, leaving what is normally one of the busiest international border crossings in the world looking like the perimeter of a concentration camp.

The rhetoric coming from our increasingly unhinged president, and his acolytes, is often so untethered from facts or reality, that it evokes images of barbarian hordes poised to breach the eastern flanks of the Roman Empire.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis attempted to rally the troops by invoking a raid by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa one hundred years ago, when 18 Americans and 80 Mexicans were killed. Then, ICE Queen Kirstjen Nielsen, asserted that the migrants were using children as "human shields" in confrontations with U.S. border guards—a baseless claim—some suspect to placate Trump who has publicly criticized her for not being tough enough on immigration, and to save her own skin.

There is also the politicizing of the issue by the Republicans. According to one count, in the days before the midterm election the boot-licking team of "Fox & Friends"—one of the president's TV favorite shows—mentioned the threat of the migrant caravan 21 times per episode, but the coverage dropped to one per show afterward. Did the migrant crisis abate after the election or its usefulness as political red meat?

Truth is that neither party has anything resembling a cogent policy on immigration. If Trump is a unprincipled, racist demagogue, the Democrats look like a bucket brigade criticizing his daily outrages but with no fire prevention strategy to solve the larger problem.

America needs immigrants—hundreds of thousands of them—at both the unskilled and skilled ends of the labor market. It's that continued influx of immigrants that keeps large segments of the American economy going, from nurses aides who clean up after our elderly in nursing homes, and turkey-pluckers in North Carolina, to South Asian engineers to work in Silicon Valley on new computer applications (as if we needed any more apps!)

Two Honduran migrants I 
photographed in 2014, 
by the San Miguel train yard. 
Though the focus is now on the "caravan" gathered in Tijuana, a steady stream of Central American, and particularly Honduran, migrants has been wending its way north through San Miguel for the past several years. Four years ago,
I met a group of Honduran migrants who had arrived in San Miguel aboard one of the freight trains that chug through Mexico from its southern border with Guatemala up to Texas.

More recently Stew and I picked up another Honduran migrant headed north, who was panhandling at an intersection on the road to Celaya, about an hour from San Miguel. and bought him lunch at a ramshackle roadside carnitas restaurant.

We talked for about a half hour and heard the archetypal immigrant story of a poor bastard who was barely scraping a living in Honduras and was headed toward Houston to join two brothers already there washing dishes at a restaurant.

Stew's lunch with "Pancho Villa"
It's a mind-boggling trek from Honduras to the U.S. border—approximately 1,200 miles—that these folk cover on foot, by hopping aboard freight trains or hitchhiking, while sleeping outdoors and panhandling along the way to get food money. 

Carlos Raúl Piedras Flores, 26, had spent exactly 53 days traveling when we took him to lunch. Even with a favorable tailwind he's got another four or five weeks to go before he gets to the border. He was on his own, and not part of any "caravan" and his trip certainly was not subsidized by the Democratic Party or Jewish billionaire George Soros, as some of the more wacko right-wing groups have claimed.

Carlos was very dark skinned, I suspect a combination of genes and sunburn topped with a substantial layer of road dirt. His equally dark-brown eyes reflected a mix of exhaustion and determination: He was a man on a mission. Nothing I could suggest about the dangers or the implausibility of his journey, particularly under the Trump administration, seemed to faze him.

The long way north: Starting in Honduras, across Guatemala, and 
usually following the route of one of the freight trains north, 
past San Miguel, to Piedras Negras or thereabouts, 
on the Mexico/U.S. border.
Rather than feel threatened, both Stew and I were awestruck by Carlos' unmitigated cojones. This guy didn't appear to be a menacing Pancho Villa-type, but of course we could be wrong.

What we saw instead was a human being clawing his way to a better life.

Over a lunch of carnitas, some of the best Stew and I ever ate, with the usual sides of l frijolitos, cebollitas, tortillitas, nopalitos and the obligatory bowl of hot sauce, we talked with Carlos who was polite but ate like a hungry animal, scooping everything up with tortillas, ignoring only the hot sauce, which he said Hondurans don't like.

He showed me his national ID, and also a good-luck necklace that had a crucifix along with a perforated U.S. quarter. Carlos talked about saving money and returning to Honduras to set up some sort of business.

He said Mexicans had treated very well along his travels, except for the police who sometimes assault migrants to steal their money. Pause and think about that: Armed law enforcers robbing defenseless migrants.

At the end of our brief meal, we bought Carlos another kilo of tortillas, with all the fixings, to take on the road. The middle-aged woman who ran the restaurants gave him the package with a motherly smile, and wished Carlos God's blessings during the remainder of his travels.

He said he plans to enter through the U.S. by Piedras Negras, east of Laredo and expects one of his brothers to pick him up on the American side. I suspect he faces better odds than his compatriots massed in Tijuana.

What's America to do with Carlos and the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.? To stop the race-baiting and demonizing of immigrants would be a start—to treat them with the dignity and respect any human being deserves. Then we could attempt to rationalize the labor needs of the U.S. and along with it, regulate immigration flow accordingly.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman advocated as much by proposing an immigration policy that includes a "high wall and a big gate." Easier said than done, but there are no other alternatives.

As we left, Carlos gave me a handshake/fist bump and told me he'd never met a Cuban before, but would fondly remember my home country after our lunch. For his part, Stew put the debate about "legal" vs. "illegal" immigration aside and gave Carlos $400 pesos, about $20 dollars, and wished him luck.

In return, a teary-eyed Stew got a prolonged, tight—and smelly—bear hug.


For stirring photos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island early in the twentieth century check this link: