Insidious invisibility

I love newspapers. One of the most joyful sounds of my late childhood was the thump of The Wichita Falls Times, artfully folded into a kind of double boomerang that eased its flight from the hand of the boy on the bicycle to our front porch. I would retrieve the folded newspaper, unfold it, and plop myself down on the living room floor to peruse the headlines, read Dear Abby, Dr. Crane, letters to the editor, a few comic strips and cartoons, and, on Thursdays, the high school news roundup, “Teen Times.”

My family was too busy for the morning newspaper, The Wichita Falls Record News, but on Sundays, the two newspapers were combined into an extravaganza for all subscribers to either or both papers: The Sunday Times-Record News. It was rolled, not folded, because it was so thick, and it hit the porch with a thud rather than a thump. On rainy Sundays, it came encased in plastic.

After church on Sunday mornings, my family members would divide the paper into sections and then exchange them as we finished. I always wanted first shot at the full-color comics or the society pages. I was enthralled by the photographs of beautiful brides in full wedding dress and the artfully retouched portraits of brides-to-be with their engagement announcements. I would watch for news and photographs of the Junior Forum Debutante Ball in May and the more elite Cotillion Debutante White Tie Ball in December.

Before 1964, black people were required by law to live in designated sections of town. In Wichita Falls, that area was east of the railroad tracks, Flood Street and beyond. Mexicans lived there too, by custom rather than law, clustered on the side closer to the tracks. A few of them lived in the “white” part of town, like Dr. Martinez from Mexico City and his pale and elegant wife and daughters, whom the town people called “Spanish” to distinguish them from darker and less prestigious “Mexicans.”

There were two high schools in Wichita Falls then, but if you ask any white citizen over 65 how many there were, he or she will invariably answer, “One.” Wichita Falls High School was not the white high school. It was the high school. Booker T. Washington High School had excellent facilities, although even now I can’t say where they are located–somewhere, I assume, way beyond Flood Street. I have never seen them. Booker T had a championship football team, an outstanding marching band, and a choir that was recognized statewide and occasionally came to sing in the elegant churches of the white people.

This is where my love of The Wichita Falls Times connects with the myth of one high school in Wichita Falls. You see, the newspaper was, for me, a mirror of my world. I knew that there was Flood Street and beyond. I knew that kids who lived there went to Booker T. Washington High School. I even ventured a few times to their home football games to watch the jazzy marching band. There were black people in town working in the few jobs open to them. I went on mission expeditions to teach Vacation Bible School in the Projects. Some white people even trekked across muddy Flood Street to benefit from the excellent work and lower prices of the “colored” dentist at his elegant home with a built-on clinic.

I didn’t hate black people. I thought racism was evil and spoke against it on occasion. I didn’t hate or dislike black people, but I didn’t see black people. The mirror of my world, The Wichita Falls Times, didn’t report Booker T.’s sports news. Their many band and choir awards got no recognition or photographs in “Teen Times.” There were no photographs of black students doing anything at all. Black brides and debutantes were never featured on the society pages. Black churches were not included in Saturday’s “guide to worship services.” Even black crimes were usually reported only in the police notes at the back of the news. Black people were not allowed to patronize the same local restaurants where I ate or the stores where I shopped. When I traveled by bus, they had their sections in the station and on the bus, and they used the toilets and drinking fountains marked “colored.”

No, Wichita Falls, Texas, had no problem with black people. We simply ignored them to the point of near non-existence. There were no black faces reflected in our mirror on the world.

Keep that stub!

You will receive a form like this either before you board, while you are on the plane, or when you land. Fill out both parts. When you go through Mexican immigration, they will ask you for one part, and they will stamp the other one and hand it back to you. Keep it in a safe place. It identifies you as someone who has entered the country legally, and you will be required to turn it in when you leave Mexico. Immigration officials in a few airports are experimenting with an automated version of this process. Instead of the second part of the two-part form, you will get a receipt similar to the ones you receive at US automated Customs stations. That is the paper you should keep for your departure from Mexico.

If you lose the form, you can get a new one for about thirty-five US dollars at your point of entry. If you had a connecting flight within the country before reaching your final destination, that means you will have to apply for the replacement form at the airport where you first landed. To avoid this kind of delay and inconvenience, take care of that little piece of paper! Keep it with your passport or in a place where you can find it at all times.

Packing tips from a veteran stand-by

Packing can be stressful. What should I take? What if I forget something? I can’t guarantee that all stress will disappear if you follow these packing guidelines, but they should help. They have been gleaned from years of traveling, including a lot of stand-by travel as the fortunate relative of an airline employee. A lot of my own stress and a few mishaps have made me think about ways to avoid unpleasantries.

Don’t worry too much about forgetting things

Make sure you have your passport and tickets and your money and credit cards. You can buy a toothbrush! The same friend who gave me that advice also suggested this: when you think you are all ready, take twice as much money and half as many clothes! Not always possible, especially the money part, but worth thinking about.

If you travel often, keep your packing supplies–travel sizes of toiletries, plastic bags, shoe bags, and so on in your favorite suitcase ready to organize for your next trip.

Invest in a really sturdy rolling carry-on and a large-capacity personal item

I like a backpack as my personal item so that I can have my hands free when I need them and because I can carry more weight comfortably on my back than on my arm. My purse is packed away until I arrive. For short trips these should be all you need. You can always check the rolling carry-on if you want to, but you have to check a big suitcase or leave it behind. Ask your airline about rules, limitations, and extra charges for checked bags before you buy, pack, or check that bag. A foldable extra carry-on or suitcase is very useful if you find that your luggage expands during trips because of rushed-up packing or souvenir purchases at your destination.

Having to riffle through everything in the suitcase when you need one item is annoying, so I put things that are alike together to save time. The zippered compartments on the outside and inside of luggage are helpful, but I have never found a suitcase that has enough organizing pockets, so I use mesh laundry bags for different categories of clothing–one for underwear and socks, one for pants, one for tops, one for accessories. I include an extra one for bringing dirty clothes back home. A thick sealable plastic bag for a wet swimsuit or sweaty shirt is also a good idea. Shoes should have their own bag, so you don’t mix shoe sole street germs with your nice clothes. I have a big zippered plastic pouch for toiletries with smaller pouches inside for bath things, hair things, and make-up.

Airline standbys have to be prepared for an overnight stay if they don’t get on a flight, but regular passengers can also experience delays or get separated temporarily from their checked baggage. (I learned this after an uncomfortable night in La Quinta, sleeping in the buff and heading out the next day without face cream or makeup.) So…

Always carry these items in your carry-on or personal item

  1. change of underwear
  2. comfortable sleepwear
  3. small sizes of indispensable toiletries, including a toothbrush and small toothpaste
  4. swimsuit (opportunities to swim can happen unexpectedly when you get the standby bump)
  5. socks, and a light jacket or wrap for the flight. Airplanes can be cold even in the hottest weather.

Limit what you pack as much as your fashion needs will allow

You may want to re-think your fashion needs in exchange for more freedom, but that’s your choice. Making a day-by-day wardrobe plan helps me make choices while I’m still at home, not on the road so I avoid hauling unnecessary articles around. Here are my personal basics:

  1. underwear for every day of the trip if possible. It doesn’t take a lot of space, and it is the one item that I want fresh every day. Laundering in a bathroom sink or a relative’s washing machine is a possibility but not something I want to spend my valued vacation time doing.
  2. comfortable walking shoes to wear on the trip and just ONE pair of presentable shoes in a go-with-everything color. Shoes take up valuable packing space. A really special occasion like a wedding might call for one more pair of shoes.
  3. sleepwear, already packed in your carry-on. A bath robe takes a lot of space, so I choose pajamas or a nightgown with a light robe decent enough for sharing coffee on leisurely mornings.
  4. bottoms (pants, skirts, shorts) in neutral colors, maximum of four. For short trips, limit of two or three. My preferred tone is black, but if you like white or tan, go for it.
  5. no-iron tops, the fewer the better. It’s okay to repeat. Four or five work for me, with multiple uses on longer trips. It gets boring, but the freedom is worth it.
  6. an easy-to-wear outfit for an unexpected dressy occasion. For men, a sports jacket that can pass for a suit.
  7. accessories, as needed
  8. make-up, bath needs, and hair tools and products. A hair style that can be air-dried is a great asset when traveling. I stopped carrying a hair dryer when hotels started to include them as standard equipment, but if you must have one, invest in the smallest and lightest one that will do the job.

Happy Travels!

The wailing woman of Tenochtitlan: la Llorona

Stories of mothers who kill their children, whether news reports, fiction, or myths and legends, awaken our primordial fear of all mothers’ power over their children. The unquestioning and unavoidable trust of an infant for the mother can be terrifying to a grown-up child who realizes that his own mother should not have been trusted with a helpless infant. According to the American Anthropological Association, more than 200 women kill their own children every year in the United States. La Llorona embodies the mythos of that fear. Stories of La Llorona have passed from generation to generation, starting long before anyone wrote them down. There are slightly different versions throughout Latin America and in regions of the United States that were once part of New Spain. The details vary, but the heart of the story remains the same: a loving mother has killed her children and cries out for them in the night. This is one Mexican version.

Along the streets where canals once carried water from Lake Texcoco into ancient Tenochtitlan, a soul-chilling sound can sometimes be heard, the voice of a woman shrieking and wailing, Ay! Mis hijos! ¿ Donde están mis hijos? (My children! Where are my children?) Some say they have seen a woman in white floating along those streets. She is La Llorona, the Wailing Woman. Some say she is the soul of indigenous Mexico, lamenting the loss of her descendants to European assimilation. Others tell a horrifying story of a woman whose spirit cannot rest because, in a moment of rage, she did the unthinkable.

A beautiful Aztec woman and a handsome aristocrat, a conquistador, loved each other. The Spaniard was not bold enough to make her his wife, but they had three children together. She waited eagerly for his visits, but one day he stopped coming. The young mother learned  her beloved conquistador had returned from Spain with an aristocratic Spanish wife. He loved his Aztec concubine, but he had agreed to an arranged marriage so he could secure his fortunes and his status in the New Spain’s colonial society.

The Aztec woman, devastated by her lover’s marriage, took their three children to one of the canals and drowned them. Realizing too late what she had done, she jumped in and drowned herself.

They say she still walks the streets where the canals used to flow, wailing eternally for her lost children through the dark windy nights.

See more posts at How about Mexico?

Testimonies, miracles, and green pastures

Reportable miracles are the material of “testimonies,” a staple of old-fashioned Southern Baptist culture, but they seem incoherent in the narrative of a life that doesn’t report steady progress heavenward. Twice-divorced, vain, intermittently unchurched, often confused, I have fewer answers to the really big questions than I did when I was nineteen.

Sometimes guest speakers came to my church–missionaries who lived and worked in other countries. They showed slides of themselves in exotic settings among dark-skinned people and told many wonderful stories of living by faith. They spoke of miracles: instant healing in response to a prayer; an exact amount of money that arrived soon after a prayer for that amount; an urge to go to a specific place where they found someone waiting to hear what they had to say. I wanted to be like them, but the people I prayed for died anyway, I had to work for the money that I needed, and what I thought were divine appointments sometimes ended awkwardly.

I’ve experienced a few reportable miracles: doors opened to a university that seemed out of my reach; a life partner with faith greater than mine; material goods to supply specific material needs; an unexpected intervention from a person of power to solve a problem, but these reportable miracles recede against the backdrop of larger miracles: an invisible hand and a still, small voice of a shepherd much larger than I who has guided me, not skipping joyfully from sunny hilltop to sunny hilltop, but trudging through valleys of shadows of death and evil; the incredible journey of the earth around the sun every twenty-four hours; the exquisitely-formed human beings who grew inside me and who have survived to middle age and produced their own exquisitely-formed beings; sunlight and shade; water and food; trees and flowers; work and provision; family, friends, pets, and love.

I am not blessed because I have special spoiled-child status with the Almighty, but because I have been willed into existence and consciousness by a power that I cannot possibly understand. I am blessed when I stop insisting on comprehension and start to accept and experience the wonder and the terror of the Universe and its Creator. My wishes to be a missionary or a pastor’s wife or the leader of some great ministry have not been granted. My life is not a running report of dramatic miracles and unmitigated progress toward heaven.

I sleep. I get up. I drink coffee. I eat. Most days, I read a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament, and, more often than not, far from being instantly inspired and filled with wisdom, I find myself wondering what THAT was about. I worry about car accidents and climate change and epidemics and the economy and politics. I wonder if my life makes any difference. I wonder if I should do more and, if so, what I should do. But sometimes I think of a lamb, trembling as she walks through the shadows, trusting in a shepherd whose ways she cannot know, comforted by rod and staff and food and green pastures.

Thoughts about Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”

Roma is fictionalized autobiography written, co-edited, co-produced, and directed by internationally acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who lived in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City when he was a child. It is a silvertone tapestry of sights and sounds recreating the feel of Mexico in 1970 with details that bring back the rich texture of ordinary days—the shrill whistle of the knife-sharpener, the soprano beep of the camotero’s bicycle, a sing-song voice hawking miel de colmena, children shrieking, cars honking, a radio blaring “Espera un poco, un poquito mas,” the rhythmic thump of damp laundry on concrete lavaderos, the visual messes of life in a surprisingly small kitchen, a rooftop work area, a narrow courtyard, a dining room and a TV room–where people gather in a mostly presentable and almost luxurious house. Cuarón explores the awkwardly intimate relationships of his middle-class Mexican family–parents, maternal grandmother, three brothers, one sister, and a dog–with their indigenous servants, Mixtec girls from Oaxaca, in particular Cleo, the character based on Cuarón’s nanny, whose real name is Liborio (Libo) Rodriguez.

A dramatic work should have a beginning, rising action, climax and conclusion. Real life, on the other hand, just goes on and on. In a dramatic work, significant scenes foreshadow things to come. Life sometimes foreshadows terrible or wonderful things, but then more often than not, nothing happens. Something terrible or wonderful happens when you least expect it, and at times it happens in such small installments that you miss the terror or wonder of it. Life goes on, zigzagging haphazardly through highs and lows, with no discernible rising and falling action or clear denouement, no background music to signal how you should feel. But every now and then, the richness of an ordinary sight, sound, taste, texture, event, or emotion takes your breath away. That’s what Roma is about.

Subtle visual clues and ominous silences had me waiting expectantly for something terrible to happen. During the long opening scene, I think blood may start to flow with the water cascading over the tile floor and down the drain as Cleo prepares the narrow courtyard for the day. I’m afraid Borras will run out and get hit by a car, or mild-mannered but edgy Papá will step in Borras’s poop, explode in a rage, and beat the poor animal to death as the horrified children look on. Sofía, like an arrogant villain in a telenovela, will probably treat beloved Cleo with cruelty and injustice. Then there’s the raging New Year’s Eve fire at the Norwegian relatives’ luxurious rancho that will certainly wipe out the family fortune. I am convinced that at least one of the children will drown in the ocean on a beach holiday. My expectations are influenced by scenes from thousands of movies and years of real-life maternal fretting about the real and imagined dangers of growing up human, especially in Mexico.

There is no blood in the opening scene, just a lot of water, Ajax, grime and dog poop. Borras survives; his one escape to the street ends with the kids unceremoniously hauling him back. Papá does indeed step in caca, but his rage emerges as a whining complaint about disorder in his house, implicating Sofía and the maids, and weakly justifying his decision to seek domestic order elsewhere. Sofia is not a telenovela villain; she is a kind woman who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, to behave like a proper middle-class matron. She is more egalatarian with the housemaids than I ever was with our own Esperanza. The raging fire at the Larsson rancho was a Scandinavian New Year custom that got out of hand. It is extinguished with buckets of water wielded by shouting, laughing family members and houseguests, including small children. It ends with Uncle Ove in Krampus costume singing poignantly Eg veit ihimmerik ei borg (I am longing for a heavenly home), echoed by the nostalgia in Cleo’s quiet comment, “This reminds me of my pueblo.” The near-tragedy at the beach is frightening, like a few scenes from almost anyone’s childhood, but Cleo, thrashing about, unable to swim and with no real lifesaving skills, manages to get Paco and Sofi back to safety on the shore.

Commonplace events are the real drama in Roma. Antonio leaves on a business trip and never returns. Fermín, a street kid saved from drugs and bad companions by martial-arts training, gets Cleo pregnant, and when she whispers during their Sunday movie outing that she has “missed her month,” he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and doesn’t come back. These events are so common in real life that it usually takes a good backstory to make them into movie material. Cuarón, nevertheless, has created an engaging film without much of a backstory. That little Pepe, who regales Cleo with disconcertingly detailed descriptions of real or imagined past lives, grows up to become an acclaimed filmmaker might be a good one, but we don’t learn Pepe’s destiny from the story line.

The climax, if there is one, is Sofía’s universal cry, “We are alone. No matter what they say, we are always alone.” The grammatical gender of solas–alone–tells us that this is about women–women who from the time they were little girls have been trained to find Mr. Right and hitch their lives to his dreams. The cry is almost comical. Sofía is a little tipsy and has demolished part of the car and part of the courtyard wall, attempting to navigate Antonio’s unwieldy Galaxy into the narrow space. She squeezes herself out of the car on the passenger side (an essential measure that she learned from Antonio), grasps Cleo’s face, and utters those words. Days later, in a burgeoning spirit of emancipation, she shows up in a brand new Renault, which fits nicely into the courtyard-garage.

A bloody event of historic proportion intersects with the household drama, but it remains a backdrop. On June 10, 1971, paramilitaries, government-trained in martial and other military arts, responded with violence to a peaceful student protest at the National Polytechnical Institute. The paramilitaries, called Halcones, attacked protestors first with bamboo sticks, then knives, then firearms, following some of them into hospitals and gunning them down in front of horrified patients and staff. The Mexican government denied responsibility for the massacre, and the press played it down, but forty-seven years later people are still asking questions.

On that real day, our semi-fictional Cleo, with the help of live-in grandmother Teresa, is shopping for a crib. The protests turn violent in front of the furniture store. Fermín, Cleo’s erstwhile lover runs into the store brandishing a pistol in pursuit of terrified protestors seeking shelter. For a moment, he turns the pistol on Cleo; he freezes and their eyes meet before he turns and runs. Cleo’s water breaks. Grandmother Teresa, with some incompetent flapping about, competently manages to guide Cleo out of the store and into the car that takes an excruciatingly long time to reach the hospital. She gives such information as she can to get Cleo into the delivery room, where the drama of any birth for the woman experiencing it contrasts starkly with what is just a day’s work for the hospital staff–even the calmly professional attempt to resuscitate an infant. The child, a girl, was stillborn.

The near-tragedy at the beach takes place after that, on a holiday for Sofía, the children, and Cleo. When the danger of drowning has passed, Sofía, Cleo, and the children huddle on the shore, sobbing and laughing with relief. Cleo says something that sounds like an apology for letting the children go out too far, but it is really a confession. “I didn’t want it,” she sobs. Sofía replies that the children are fine. Cleo insists, “No. I mean I didn’t want her to be born. Poor little thing. Pobrecita.”

“We love you, Cleo. We love you mucho,” Sofía assures her. Cleo probably would have cared lovingly for her daughter, but her honesty sears through eons of maternal myths. Earlier, Sofía had also turned some female myths around as they were relaxing in a little oceanfront cafe, and she tells them that Papá will not be coming back, that they have taken this holiday so he could pick up his books and things. She could have indulged in pity for herself and her abandoned children, poisoning them with bitterness toward Antonio forever. Instead, she affirms that he loves them very much and assures them they will survive no matter what. She has taken a full-time job, and everything will be a new adventure for all of them. There will be tears and changes, but they will survive. No rising music and bucolic landscapes tell us that from now on everything will be okay, but we know it will.

Life will go on because that’s what life does. If we’re lucky, we will occasionally perceive the richness of ordinary days and the terror and the wonder of it all.

In 1970, the time of the setting of “Roma,” I was the wife of a medical student in Guadalajara, Mexico, with two small children and another on the way. We were a few years younger than Sofia and Antonio, the fictional parents in “Roma.” Esperanza Zamora, from the pueblo La Granja, took care of the children, cooked, cleaned house, and washed and ironed our clothes. The sensory nostalgia of the movie is piercing. “I can almost smell the places in the movie,” says Rubén, here with Esperanza in 1971.

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