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Summer in Mexico City!

Many mornings I left from the hotel and walked across Paseo de la Reforma just after dawn...

Many mornings I left from the hotel and walked across Paseo de la Reforma just after dawn…

Sitting in the airport getting ready to leave Mexico City after seven weeks here. What a great time! I came to take a Spanish class at the UNAM, actually in the Centro de Enseñanza Para Extranjeros (CEPE) which I highly recommend. I was placed in Básico 4, and I think that was exactly right. I ended up with 93/100 on the final exam, good here for a B+ (shocking to Americans used to our extremely lax grading standards, where anything over 85 gets an A). The grade was of no importance of course, but the test helped me know if I’d gotten anywhere during the 6 weeks of 3 hours per day classes. Apparently yes!

I certainly feel like I can speak and understand much better than earlier, and now the task is to keep it alive and growing at home. I’ll actually have to have some real discipline, dedicating at least an hour a day to reading Spanish language books, newspapers, or websites, as I’ve been doing all summer. And speaking much more when I’m among Spanish speakers, not uncommon in our daily life in San Francisco. Finally I think I’ve put away the horrible shame I was trapped by when it came to speaking another language. We’ll see.

Early morning on the UNAM campus.

Early morning on the UNAM campus.

Famous murals by David Alfaro Siquieros on the campus.

Prominent murals by David Alfaro Siquieros on the campus.

The famous mosaic murals made entirely of natural stone except the blue, which is glass, covering the 1950s UNAM library.

The famous mosaic murals made entirely of natural stone except the blue, which is glass, covering the 1950s UNAM library.

Spending nearly two months in one of the world’s greatest cities has been an incredible thrill apart from the enjoyable success with the language. Mexico City, famous for its horrendous traffic, air quality, and water problems, is still one of my favorite cities. There are so many gorgeous parks, tree-lined boulevards, neighborhoods of all sorts sporting fantastic architecture from many eras, more museums than any other city, and of course the food! The food here is off the hook. You can indulge in fantastic street food practically any time, and the enormous range of restaurants and bars makes every meal a treat, often accompanied by live music. This place is a cultural powerhouse, and it’s so vast that I barely scratched the surface. But I did manage to get to know a few neighborhoods pretty well, and according to my phone app that is monitoring my walks, I walked over 260 miles since July 1!!

You can't go anywhere in Mexico City without running into traffic jams and gridlock.

You can’t go anywhere in Mexico City without running into traffic jams and gridlock.

I spent some of my time reading "The Interior Circuit" by Francisco Goldman (this is a photo of it, a circular freeway around the city).

I spent some of my time reading “The Interior Circuit” by Francisco Goldman (this is a photo of it, a circular freeway around the city), first in English and then in Spanish after I left it on the plane!

I took this photo inside a morning commute on the Metrobus, shooting into the mirror that looked up towards the front of the articulated vehicle.

I took this photo inside a morning commute on the Metrobus, shooting into the mirror that looked up towards the front of the articulated vehicle.

Having a daily routine where I had to make my way from the city center to the campus at “Ciudad Universitaria” far to the south was a great way to integrate into daily life here. During one of my last rides crushed in a Metrobus, always amazingly overcrowded just like the underground Metro is too, at least anywhere near commute hours, I found myself feeling this great affection for everyone around me. I suppose that when you are pressed together day in and day out, there’s a certain intimacy and shared tolerance that we all have to cultivate, and it left me feeling a weird kind of love. I don’t know if that happens to folks here but there’s no question that Mexican culture is far more polite and generally indirect than most places. I retained a sense of wonder at my daily experiences, and never really felt close to be a “chilango” (a local Mexico City person), but I did feel that I shared the daily life here for this time, and I loved it.

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Solicited and Rejected by the NY Times!

I was very surprised when about two weeks ago an editor of the op/ed pages of the New York Times sent me an email asking if I’d write an editorial. The topic was supposed to be how the anti-trade politics of both Sanders and Trump were wrong, and that I should endeavor to write something akin to a “wobbly” (IWW) perspective about why internationalism was a good thing and that somehow the anti-trade politics were missing this… or something like that! I told them I couldn’t do that, but I had things to say about this political moment and they wouldn’t find it predictable. The editor, who once wrote a review of Processed World, encouraged me to proceed and I sent in a draft, which he edited and pitched to his editorial group. Unsurprisingly they turned it down. So I sent it over to The Guardian in case they might be interested, but they didn’t want it either. So here it is!  With a variety of photos from the past two months in Mexico City. More to come shortly on Mexico and the teachers’ movement and my many wonderful experiences here.

Hilariously I got to stay in the Sheraton near the Angel de la Independencia for some time... constant amazing views of the stormy evening clouds and the crazy mix of quinceanaras and political protests at the monument.

Hilariously I got to stay in the Sheraton near the Angel de la Independencia for some time… constant amazing views of the stormy evening clouds and the crazy mix of quinceanaras and political protests at the monument.

Neoliberalism and Populism: Is That All There Is?

There are stark differences in personality and political style between Clinton and Trump, and most people who vote will choose one or the other. But millions of thoughtful people, probably a large majority, feel shut out, left to ponder how we might reorganize the way we live, from the bottom up.

For decades, there has been a mainstream neoliberal consensus, which holds that global trade is good and markets are more efficient than governments at meeting human needs. With the choice limited to centrist Democrats like Obama and the Clintons or ever more right-wing Republicans from Reagan to G.W. Bush, there has been no room for a critical alternative to the assumptions that government’s overriding priority is to facilitate the success of corporations and that the U.S. military should be used to police the world on their behalf.

Neoliberalism — a term widely used around the world, though less so in the United States — is an ideology Margaret Thatcher summed up in the early 1980s as “There is no alternative” to market forces. The reality that a tiny few have grown incomprehensibly wealthy while millions live at the edge of losing everything and millions more are in dire poverty (in the U.S. and the rest of the world) is dismissed as unimportant by the proponents of capitalist globalization. They continue to insist that the rigged game they’re playing will eventually benefit everyone, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

A government dominated by millionaires, who fill most seats in the Senate and many in the House, has eroded belief in the system. This simmering rage against the corrupt and the rich found its voice during this election campaign. Both Sanders and Trump hammered at the trade deals that have been the cornerstone of global neoliberalism. Sanders managed to force Clinton to repudiate the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), though everyone knows that if she is elected, she will continue the Obama administration’s embrace of international trade pacts. Trump has upended the Republican establishment and their support for corporate freedom from government regulation nationally and internationally. No one can predict what he would actually do if he is elected, but he has put opposition to trade agreements like the TPP or NAFTA at the center of his campaign.

This nationalist economic rhetoric, which includes on the right the scapegoating of immigrant workers, has a long and sordid history. It is not surprising that a right-wing demagogue could find support by tapping into this century-old wellspring of animosity and resentment, used again and again to divide workers from one another. Even Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union, still revered by people on the left who support unions, scapegoated immigrant workers and engaged in their own border patrols to stop them in the early 1970s.

One hundred thousand farmworkers gathered in the center of Mexico City a week ago to demand resources and policy changes from the government.

One hundred thousand farmworkers gathered in the center of Mexico City a week ago to demand resources and policy changes from the government.

Few remember now that, 17 years ago, it was the left-wing critique of trade deals that originally united the “Teamsters and turtles” in Seattle to halt the World Trade Organization talks in 1999. The common argument of organized labor then demanded “fair trade” rather than “free trade,” but many of us went to Seattle to reject that simplistic choice. The Committee for Full Enjoyment (not Full Employment) argued for “Life Not Trade!

The anti-globalization movement with its cacophony of critical ideas and demands appeared many times in the years since, from the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington DC in 2000, to the violent confrontations in Genoa, Italy in 2001, to a whole series of G-8 and other “summits” that faced major social resistance in Sweden, Quebec, Germany, Thailand, Miami and so on. The movement had deep roots in the Zapatista rebellion against NAFTA in Mexico in 1994, as well as uprisings in dozens of countries against IMF-imposed “structural adjustment programs” — the privatization of public works and public services, according to the neoliberal “Washington Consensus.”

Unlike mainstream unions (which usually avoided these protests) the anti- or alter-globalization movement didn’t reject internationalism; the World Social Forum emerged from it as a rejoinder to the elite’s annual gathering in Davos, Switzerland under the rubric of a World Economic Forum. The World Social Forum, which convened in Montreal, Canada last week, is a regular global meeting of movements focused on defining and constructing real alternatives to the way we live today. This process of knitting together global networks committed to a post-capitalist future has held its own summits in Brazil, India, Kenya, Mali, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Tunisia, but has fallen far short of everyone’s most cherished hopes.

Spent a fun afternoon with my classmates and other friends visiting Xochilmilco, the famous waterways south of the city.

Spent a fun afternoon with my classmates and other friends visiting Xochilmilco, the famous waterways south of the city.

Classmates and friends and more!

Classmates and friends and more!

We even hired a mariachi band for a tune!

We even hired a mariachi band for a tune!

It was a gorgeous afternoon.

It was a gorgeous afternoon.

Where can we look for change? Not in the form of mass organizations or political parties that contest directly for state power (though halting efforts towards this have emerged in Spain and Greece for example), but perhaps in the decentralized network of social movements that are difficult to recognize as such. One example would be the myriad groups trying to address the catastrophic ecological predicament we’ve put ourselves in. Jonathan Schell, writing in The Unconquerable World more than a decade ago, suggested that there were about 30 million such organizations worldwide.

Activists like these share some key characteristics. Many people are taking their time and technological know-how out of the market place and engaging in useful, practical projects to improve lives in the here and now. People want an alternative to just surviving on flat wages and with inflated housing costs. Many find it by working, usually for free, on projects that address the ecological crisis, social dislocation and the meaninglessness of most jobs.

The madness of perpetual growth as the raison d’etre of our economic life is never questioned. When we are urged to vote for Clinton or Trump, neither vote will challenge this reality.

The system is failing. Eventually, an alternative to the corrupt kleptocracy that runs it will emerge from the enormous creativity and compassion, daily cooperation and mutual aid that already undergirds much of our social life. The change is all around us as millions of people already participate in networks of mutual aid and solidarity, creatively reappropriating technology and skills to address their problems. These are the seeds of a new way of life.

Even my daughter came along!

Even my daughter came along!

Returning to dock, what a sky!

Returning to dock, what a sky!

Never Too Late? Estudiando Español en Mexico!

Lago de Cuitzeo on the road near Morelos, during the bus ride from Mexico City to Guadalajara.

Lago de Cuitzeo on the road near Morelos, during the bus ride from Mexico City to Guadalajara.

I’m in Mexico City. I arrived a couple of weeks ago and will be here until mid-August. I’m enrolled in a Spanish class at the UNAM, Mexico City’s enormous free public university, and I’m staying in a very gentrified neighborhood called La Condesa, in an apartment that is a bit of a dump, but it’s working out ok.

Learning Spanish has been a goal that I’ve intermittently felt committed to since 1979. As it happens, I’ve had many experiences in Spanish-speaking countries, and living in the Mission with a Mexican wife gives me lots of regular opportunities to be in Spanish speaking situations. Still, in spite of all that, I have always had a lot of trouble speaking, and my comprehension is very unreliable, going from 25% to close to 80% at times. After my visit to Chile in March/April of this year, I finally broke through a persistent ceiling and found my tongue. It doesn’t mean I don’t speak very garbled Spanish, but at least I can generally make myself understood and I can usually understand what people are asking of me. Now I’m in a Basic 4 level class, and once again am face to face with the task of memorizing long lists of verbs and conjugations, something I started to do 36 years ago when I was in a Spanish program at SF State, but haven’t really tried to do since then.

So far, after two weeks with four to go, I’m feeling happy about my progress. I still can’t come up with the correct verb forms most of the time, but I do feel more in the moment and capable of interacting with people as needed. I also have to face the fact that I’m actually not that extroverted when it comes to just walking up to total strangers and talking to them.

The ongoing nationwide protests by teachers against the neoliberal reform program installed by the Federal government has brought thousands of teachers from near and far to a huge camp-out near the Ministry of Education.

The ongoing nationwide protests by teachers against the neoliberal reform program installed by the Federal government has brought thousands of teachers from near and far to a huge camp-out near the Ministry of Education.

We took a walk to the center of town a couple of days ago and accidentally found ourselves passing through riot cops and giant metal barricades. After we emerged from that (they were all lounging around and nothing was “happening” at the time) we found ourselves a couple of blocks later in the midst of a sprawling tent city of striking teachers from all over Mexico that have gathered in the area to pressure the Ministry of Education and to demand that the neoliberal program of education reform be rescinded. It was interesting, though I didn’t get into any conversations as we wandered around amidst the many tents and small tiendas.

Countless tents and banners proclaiming the goals clog several square blocks in the heart of Mexico City.

Countless tents and banners proclaiming the goals clog several square blocks in the heart of Mexico City.

The demands are everywhere... release the teachers jailed during protests, halt the reforms, etc.

The demands are everywhere… release the teachers jailed during protests, halt the reforms, etc.

Since arriving I’ve been following the movement of teachers in the excellent local newspaper La Jornada. There have been daily blockades in many Mexican states, from Oaxaca and Chiapas to Nuevo León and Michoacán. In Oaxaca there was another massacre in a town called Nochixtlán where a half dozen teachers were gunned down, apparently by goons employed by the former governor of the state. The teachers movement is complicated by the fact that there are two unions claiming to represent them, the state-run, top-down SNTE, and the independent union that most of the active teachers are affiliated with, the CNTE. It is the latter that is camped out in Mexico City over several square blocks.

I am far from expert about the struggle underway, but clearly the teachers are demanding the rollback of the neoliberal reforms that have been established by federal law. The reforms subject teachers to testing and suspend their labor rights under previously established labor law, typical of neoliberal, market-inspired reforms. The CNTE doesn’t recognize the negotiations that are underway between the Ministry of Education and the SNTE, and are involved in their own three-part negotiations with subordinates of the Education Minister. The blockades have stopped major highways in many parts of the country, and clearly the government is backtracking and trying to find a way to wait the movement out, or to offer minor concessions that don’t affect the deeper attack on teachers, but the teachers are so well organized and so well informed, it seems unlikely that the Mexican government will be able to avoid re-doing the entire package of educational reform. For now, it’s a high tension game of negotiations and direct action, fascinating to see.

The teacher fighting is also teaching.

The teacher fighting is also teaching.

I saw in the paper a few days ago there was going to be a book launch for a new book called “Mexico Armed,” by Laura Castellanos. I went to the event at the publisher’s offices at the edge of Colonia Roma, where two rooms were jam-packed with over 100 attendees. It was extremely interesting for me, and happily, I felt I could understand nearly everything, even the jokes! So a real sense of progress. The discussion by the four different speakers, including the author, emphasized that the sclerotic Mexican political system had again and again met civic protest with violence and that it was state violence that preceded the emergence of armed struggle groups in Mexico in every instance covered in the book, over 30 different examples between 1943-1981.

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