Friday, November 5, 2010

Brad Will -- Why? Who? When?

Four years ago last week journalist and activist Brad Will was killed while covering anti-government demonstrations.  The case remains unsolved today:
Here is my report at the time, including words of Will written in the days before he died.
Journalist's Death Bringing Oaxaca to World's Eyes
New America Media, News Analysis, Mary Jo McConahay, Posted: Oct 30, 2006 

Ten days before he was killed on Oct. 27, journalist Brad Will posted a news report on the Internet called "Death in Oaxaca," about a 41-year-old man shot as he manned a barricade with his family and neighbors, much as thousands of Oaxacans have been doing for five months. Will, 36, from New York, had "not seen too many bodies in my life -- eats you up," he wrote in his dispatch to Indymedia. (

The Oaxacan man Brad Will wrote about was "one more death -- one more martyr in a dirty war -- one more time to cry and hurt." Will himself was shot with a camera in his hand. Photos taken by others show him thin and glassy-eyed, lying on a sidewalk stripped of his shirt as two others try to help, bullet holes ringed with red blood on his solar plexus, as if targeted by a sharpshooter.

The Oaxaca stand-off has been a hidden story, largely ignored by the U.S. press. What has been silenced with the death of an independent reporter like Will, unfunded by any large organization, was one of the few voices that has tried to tell the story to the world. Teachers began the strike in May by requesting a salary raise and peacefully occupying the city center. In the following weeks Gov. Ulises Ruiz ordered the teachers forcibly removed, which drew other demonstrators to join the occupation and eventually paralyzed the city. Paramilitary and off-duty officers have shot at the demonstrators -- at least 13 deaths, including Will's have been counted. Residents called for the resignation of Ruiz, an iron-fisted governor blamed for the deaths, and for a corrupt administration. The strikers insisted on non-violence. Now President Vicente Fox, with just one more month in office, has sent in federal troops to re-take the city.

The conflict in Oaxaca is part of a larger movement of demands for wider democracy in Mexico, often spearheaded by indigenous groups, the most well-known of which is the Zapatista movement in the Lacandon jungles and other areas of Chiapas, south of Oaxaca. Of some 500 Oaxaca municipalities, more than 400 are overwhelmingly Indian; among the 70,000 teachers affected by the strike, many of the activists are bilingual indigenous teachers. While teachers voted last week to return to work, others have vowed to continue to paralyze the city until demands are met. Now that Fox has sent in federal riot police with automatic weapons and military helicopters in the wake of Will's and two other deaths, it's not clear which direction the Oaxaca story will take, but it's clear it will not disappear.

puppetThe Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan Peoples, known by its Spanish acronym APPO, a collection of activist groups, has said it will maintain the occupation. Monitoring its radio station Asamblea Popular de Oaxaca ( as federal troops came to the city, a listener could hear a town at war, and the sounds of resistance. Light small fires to make smoke and obscure the vision of helicopters, announcers advised, give blood, and bring food to strategic points. There were warnings about neighborhoods being searched ("Police in ski masks dressed in grey are going house to house in Colonia Aleman"), and reports of federal troops' movements at various sectors. There were also constant calls to remain peaceful, to avoid anyone who suggested violent reaction, to avoid provocations that might call down reaction from troops and police. Sugar and sand might be thrown in front of vehicles, an announcer suggested, to slow their progress.

"It is clear that this is more than a strike, more than expulsion of a governor, more than a blockade, more than a coalition of fragments -- it is a genuine peoples revolt," wrote Brad Will in the days before he died. "After decades of...rule by bribe, fraud and the bullet the people are tired -- you cannot mistake the whisper of the Lacandon jungle in the streets -- in every street corner deciding together to hold -- you see it in their faces -- indigenous, women, children -- so brave -- watchful at night -- proud and resolute."

Small demonstrations are taking place in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, deploring the Oaxaca deaths and Fox's decision to send federal police and soldiers to Oaxaca. The Spanish language daily La Opinion said 70 persons from the Oaxacan community demonstrated in front of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, and quoted Odilia Romero, a representative of the Binational Indigenous Organizations Front, made up largely of Oaxacans in Southern California and the agricultural Central Valley. "There is no need to repress the people of Oaxaca, who are a peaceful people," Romero told La Opinion. Strikers have blamed Gov. Ruiz for acts of violence before and since the strike began. Ruiz is a member of the PRI, the party which has governed Oaxaca for 70 years. "If he stays the repression is going to be stronger against those who are against him," Romero said.

The Fox administration began with hope, because he was the first to break the 70-year stranglehold of the powerful PRI party on Mexico's presidency, and because President Bush gave strong signals then about immigration reform, which would benefit Mexicans. Fox is leaving with no immigration reform in the north and a fence going up on the U.S. border; and in the south, a former tourist mecca occupied by federal troops holding off a disgruntled population. It has taken the death of an American to shine a light on the struggle in Oaxaca, where demands for "direct democracy," more autonomous rule that answers local needs without corruption, are not likely to go away. "What can you say about this movement -- this revolutionary moment," Brad Will asked in his last dispatch. "You know it is building, growing, shaping."

poster: Arnoldo, Caracol de La Mission, 2006

Thursday, October 28, 2010

In Peten, Interesting Times

From ReVista, Harvard's Review of Latin America, Fall 2010-Winter 2011

May you live in interesting times.
                            --Chinese curse

In Petén, Interesting Times
 The Vast, Breathing Rainforest is Changing

I first came to Petén in the 1970s, reading a found paperback of The Exorcist to pass a long, dreary bus rideon pocked roads from Belize. Stepping off at Tikal, breathing the jungle air, I immediately felt the rainforest’s richness, its promise of discoveries to come. Later, the night called mysteriously with cries of birds and unseen animals. “There is no place like this on earth,” I thought. Archaeologists and workmen outnumbered tourists like me, who had come to see remains of ancient Maya civilization. 
The Petén of those days is gone. Since the 1990s I have reported on the region, drawn by its persistent frontier character, the beauty of still-extant jungle, and most recently, the sensation of being a witness to history in a key corner of the continent. Petén is the center of the largest tropical lowland forest north of the Amazon, a continental lung stretching from Mexican Chiapas to western Belize. It is one of the earth’s remaining safeguards against radical temperature variation. What becomes of its verdant carpet, the concentration of trees that absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide, links Petén directly to global concern about climate change.
When I arrived more than 30 years ago, tomb-robbing and animal poaching worried Petén. Today it faces challenges so much more fundamental, that failing to meet them means Petén is likely to disappear in the near future as the unique jungle outland of Guatemalan history. 
Since 1998, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Petén’s geography and lack of law enforcement has made it a key transit corridor in the international drug trade. Always a pioneer destination, so many peasant farmers continue to arrive, pushed out by Guatemala’s dramatic imbalance in land ownership elsewhere, that forest goes up in smoke at an increasing rate and precious species, some unique to Petén, face extinction. Ranchers destroy forest for pasture. In addition, likely unintended consequences of proposed tourist megaprojects disenfranchise the community and threaten to further upset ecological balance. Official corruption and traditional impunity mean more of Petén each year is sold to highest bidders or crooks who trade in serious threats. Drug-trafficking families are rooted in patches of land they call their own. Petén is presenting a challenge to governability and rule of law. 
The spirit of the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the 36-year civil war remains less than fully implemented nationwide. In Petén, the failure takes a special character. Entire communities claim violations of the right—guaranteed in the Accords—to consult on government-granted projects that affect their lives and livelihoods. One example is the recent extension of the Perenco Oil Company concessions in the Laguna del Tigre area. Another is President Álvaro Colom’s multi-million dollar mega-tourism project, Cuatro Balam, involving the region’s biggest private companies, but lacking local input, according toPeténeros.
For all its strategic importance and place in the Guatemalan imagination, the Petén region has been the most hidden in the country’s history. Petén covers a full third of national territory, 23,000 sq. miles, but for the first century and a half of independence, it was the Wild North, the ultimate unknown. Roadless tropical forest infested with deadly vipers, ruled by the kingly jaguar. Better to stay home.
Novels by Virgilio Macal Rodriguez, for instance, still taught in Guatemalan schools, portray the northern jungles as lands of mystery and raging beauty, their inhabitants wise with forest knowledge and instinct, but not always trustworthy. As a young boy, Guatemalan-born writer Victor Perera recalled seeing Lacandón Maya, who once lived from Petén to Chiapas, exhibited in a cage at a fair in the capital. Later, Perera wrote of their hardy culture and developed cosmovision. 
During the 1960s and 1970s, Petén’s military governors regarded the Petén’s largely unpopulated tracts as an ideal social safety valve. Landless peasants nationwide had been left with little hope after the 1954 U.S.-orchestrated coup against democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz; the end of the “Ten Years of Spring” had also reversed land reform. Encouraged by the military, peasant farmers in cooperatives, or individually, moved to the North, where they were given titles to parcels but little or no support. Nevertheless, along the Pasión and Usumacinta Rivers, and inland at places like Dos Erres, some cooperatives and communities grew and thrived, despite the jungle soil’s shortcomings for agriculture. 
Not incidentally, the existence of population along rivers marking the border was intended to act as a weight against Mexico’s hydropower plans, including a dam that could flood Guatemalan land. In the 1960s, Guatemala City also distributed concessions for oil production to foreign companies under a post-coup petroleum law. The recognition of Petén as a land rich in natural resources, besides hardwoods, had begun.
Tropical rainforests cover only five percent of the earth, but nurture half of all animal and plant species. Petén is home to endangered species, some found nowhere else. When Vinicio Cerezo took office in 1987, heading the first civilian government in a generation, he wanted to be seen as the “green President.” National and international NGOs arrived to help save the rainforest. In 1989, the Law of Protected Areas aimed to prevent timber companies, cattle ranchers and farmers from destroying trees. The following year‘s creation of the four million acre Maya Biosphere Reserve aimed to protect jungle, stop new settlements and provide development assistance to already-resident communities, giving them a stake in conservation. A new entity, the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), was created to keep watch over Guatemala’s reserve of global genetic patrimony.
Those were heady days. International journalists, including myself, reported on a new kind of no-go territory, at least for migrants. The northernmost third of the Petén became devoted to parks, biotopes and multiple-use zones. We watched an influx of environmentalists, scholars and scientists. I visited communities where artisan families, supported in business methods by outsiders, learned to live for a year from products of a single tree, instead of slashing and burning dozens to plant corn. I met women trained to use solar ovens and easily made, low-smoke stoves that replaced open cook-fires, saving not only the forest, but the women’s eyesight as well. In multiple-use zones, communities received concessions for sustainable forestry projects. 
In the wake of all the investment and hopes, Petén’s 21st century began with the unexpected—the bolder presence of a global drug trade feeding the U.S. market. Petén has also become clearly marked by the inevitable consequence of Guatemala’s own irrepressible history of violence, and historic imbalance in land ownership: struggles for land are taking place, mostly on the part of poor farm families. 
Recently, talking informally with a CONAP official, I mentioned a 1990s visit I had made to the Biosphere’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. The park is among the most important sweet wetlands in Central America, a paradise for bird watching and home to puma, jaguar, and a scarlet macaw sanctuary. I recalled that I had a peaceful run-in at the time with a coyotesecretly crossing an Asian client into Mexico, and also that someone had just burned down a CONAP guard station. The official laughed bitterly.
“I wish those were the problems we had today,” he said.
A visit to Laguna del Tigre revealed what he meant. Entering the park area by car, I saw no forest in two hours of driving, only tree stumps sticking up from the ground like amputated thumbs. Stunningly healthy-looking Brahman cattle roamed, eating spiky pasture grass. A new CONAP building, a handsome one-story cabin-like structure, stood whole, but empty. 
In Laguna del Tigre, ranchers abound, and drug families use the cattle spreads as a screen for runways to transport drugs. The small planes may be damaged on landing or simply abandoned once a drop is made, leading Drug Enforcement Agency Operations Chief Michael Brun to characterize northern Guatemala as “an aircraft graveyard.” A vast majority of the cocaine destined for the United States now transits Central America, reports a 2010 U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute monograph. In a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on International Relations, Rep. Robert Menendez (D. NJ) asked, “ What will happen to the people of Guatemala if 75 percent of the cocaine arriving in the United States continues to pass through Guatemala?” Between 2006, when that hearing took place, and 2008, reports the Army institute monograph, cocaine transit through Guatemala jumped 47 percent. 
The CONAP administrator said one drug lord offered him a deal: goons would police the rainforest against destruction, if CONAP would ignore drug drops. “I told him no,” said the official, shrugging his shoulders ruefully.
CONAP, unarmed, has little effective authority and often not even enough gas for its vehicles, although it does manage to capture ill-gotten timber, often from trucks. Police authority remains unrespected. To hunt down a farmer suspected of cutting trees, for instance, it is the army that goes in, accompanied by CONAP and police. The sense of 1980s-style militarization returns. Drug traffickers appear to remain unaffected.
When I arrived to live in Guatemala in 1989, many new acquaintances told me the political violence of the 1980s unfolded in the capital and the highlands, and in the Ixcán, not Petén, honestly seeming to believe it was so. This was prior to the appearance of comprehensive reports such as the Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), and the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH). Traveling in the north, however, I soon realized the war hit communities once invited to make a new life on the land. Hundreds had died, the majority at army hands. The region’s displaced, and many others uprooted when hundreds of villages disappeared elsewhere in the country, sought survival in Petén’s remote jungle, where they have lived as farmers, some for more than twenty years, without electricity or medical clinics. In 1990, eleven “illegal” communities existed in Laguna del Tigre. Today they number thirty-seven, with a total population of about 45,000.
Even Peténeros with legal land titles do not always rest easy. Parcel holders outside the protected areas, in a block of communities south of Las Pozas, battled the bureaucracy’s famous trámites (paperwork) for twelve years until receiving proper documentation for their land. Now many say they are under pressure to sell, including threats of violence. The sold land becomes part of the growing African palm oil industry, held by private companies.
Petén is not only Guatemala’s largest department, but also the fastest growing in terms of population, from just 25,000 in the 1960s to an estimated 614,000 residents today. The Cuatro Balam initiative, announced with much fanfare in 2008, plans to meet job and development needs for Peténeros by expanding tourism, granting rights to private companies for business in the rainforest area, and aiming to bring up to a million tourists to Petén each year. (Tikal, the best-known ancient Petén Maya site, currently draws between 140,000 and 180,000 visitors yearly.) Cuatro Balam plans include a university specializing in environment studies, a belt of hotels and resorts, and an agricultural sector to keep farmers out of the core area. 
 Critics say such development by private companies will destroy much of what is left of the Petén rainforest. Local residents complain they are not consulted about plans that may change their lives considerably. It remains a question whether Peténeros, traditionally farmers, cattlemen and others who work with the land and forest, will easily become a tourism workforce, or even be interested in the jobs. 
Cuatro Balam is set to be anchored by the sprawling El Mirador archaeological site, with the Maya world’s largest pyramid, Danta, and many smaller sites. Deep in thick rainforest seven miles south of the Mexican border, El Mirador is reached by three-day trek from the nearest town, or by helicopter. By 2023, however, Cuatro Balam expects to run a train at ten miles per hour on jungle tracks, with noise “imperceptible,” to El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal and Uaxactun. Critics suggest tracks may interrupt some animal trails, maintenance access roads will destroy more forest, and question to whom the train’s noise will be “imperceptible.”
Details are hard to pin down. “There is much yet to get concrete,” said Alexander Urizar, director of the Institute of Anthropology and History. “The vision of the Maya Biosphere was protection. Cuatro Balam is a way to conserve it, to make sure people know about it, and make sure it generates resources.” 
The Global Heritage Fund has named the Mirador project area as one of the most important endangered world cultural heritage sites. It is indisputably the country’s highest profile archeological enterprise. An executive director of the foundation that sponsors the Project is actor and director Mel Gibson, who produced the 2006 film, Apocalypto, controversial among Maya scholars. Archaeologist Richard Hansen, the project director who has worked in Mirador for thirty years, emphasizes the need to preserve Mirador’s rainforest environment, not simply structures. He has said he envisions a five-star eco-lodge developed by Guatemalan entrepreneurs as an example of the kind of tourism that could draw in funds to help preserve the Biosphere. 
“This is the last gasp,” Hansen told the Guatemala magazine, The Revue, in June. “If we fail, we lose the whole basin. I want to preserve it for the future.” 
Cuatro Balam itself, however, can arguably be seen as a development project and investment opportunity rather than a conservation effort. The idea behind it is that poor countries cannot afford to rope off sensitive land, that it must produce some economic gain for a nation and its people. Colom has emphasized partnership with private enterprise; already supporting the El Mirador “centerpiece” are major partners such as Wal-Mart Central America, construction material giant Cementos Progreso and several banks, with the Inter-American Development Bank matching private funds.
Residents of Laguna del Tigre worry. “Cuatro Balam is the biggest monster,” said one long-time area farmer. He was attending a meeting with 25 men and women in La Libertad, to discuss challenges to their vulnerable situation. “What they want is to eliminate our communities, but we will defend life.”
A government video describing Cuatro Balam in the year 2023 (, calls its land “free of invaders,” operating under the “rule of law.” 
On the feast of St. Amelia, patron of one Laguna del Tigre community, a Catholic priest baptized babies, asked a blessing for wild forest animals, and addressed the congregation’s concerns in a homily. “First before all is the human being,” he said, “and then companies. We can join with other groups in the monte to make our situation known.”
Petén will continue to be a promised land for Guatemalans looking for work and land. It will be a proving ground for commitment to the Peace Accords, a test of will and capacity to fight drug traffic and corruption. Guatemalan and international visitors, meanwhile, will come as I once did, for the love of sites of ancient Maya civilization, the adventure found on Petén’s rivers and in its wildlands, and the chance to know Central America’s own enchanting rainforest, vast stretches of jungle that exist much as they did at the time of creation. 

Monday, August 30, 2010

Franz Schurmann and the Shaman

Franz Schurmann and the Shaman

            Everything written about the learnedness and perspicacity of our late friend and colleague, Franz Schurmann, founder of Pacific News Service, is absolutely true.  What I also valued in Franz is that he believed in magic.
            Several years ago on a reporting trip to Central America, Franz visited our family in Antigua, Guatemala, where we lived for ten years.  In desultory after-dinner conversation, I mentioned the name of a comadrona, or midwife, whom I sometimes visited at the foot of a volcano called Fire, Fuego.  Then in her 70s, Basilia had delivered a large percentage of her village’s inhabitants, and she was generous about sharing talk of customs, herbal cures, the recent past.  Sometimes she allowed me to watch as a client came with a query, existential or quotidian, and Basilia twirled an old pair of scissors in a shallow basket, divining an answer.  Since the age of fifteen, villagers said, she had exhibited a special don, an inborn gift, not only a midwife’s, but a shaman’s skill.
            The conversation with Franz at our table moved on, until we finally rose and walked across the courtyard to the door.
“Good night, Franz.  See you tomorrow.”
 “My mother is not well,” he said.
            “Oh.” I felt taken aback by news that seemed to come from nowhere. “I’m sorry.”
            “The woman, in the village,” he said.  A long moment later, I realized he referred to the Maya Indian, Basilia.
            “Could we go to her?”
            This was not Franz’s renowned and insatiable curiosity talking, but the voice of a son, well into middle age, asking on behalf of an elderly mother. Franz intuited Basilia might have special strength, or the ear of the gods. Or represent one more way of sending positive mojo to his mom.  What he did not think was that the idea was ridiculous, or unworthy of him.
             Basilia had no telephone.  When she opened the split-log door to her yard next day, however, she appeared unsurprised.  Franz didn’t need me to translate; Spanish was one of the dozen languages he spoke.  We followed the thin woman across the dirt yard, chickens running underfoot.  She removed an apron and flung it across a line, becoming a figure that might have stepped out of a scene a thousand years old. She wore a square huipil blouse, handwoven with chevrons and circles in bold purples and reds, long indigo skirt and caites, rude sandals.
Inside a windowless shack, Basilia swept back a wisp of gray hair and set to “the work.”  Franz handed over white votive candles we had bought on the way into town, and tiny incense cones.  Basilia lit all, and as we stood, prayed in her native K’akchikel Maya language, gesturing in communication with figures of saints and holy pictures on a makeshift altar.
            “Not yet,” she said to Franz when she finished.  The candles had melted too quickly.   We would have to return for another session in order for “the work” to be effective, she said.
            On the next visit, Basilia broke an egg into a glass of water to read the ways its white fell and streamed.  This procedure produced no alarming news, but the candles – again, they burned too fast.  My cynical side suspected my dear friend, the shaman, of requiring more certitude than usual about Franz’s case, because of course, each time we came I brought a gift of food, and Franz pressed money into her hand.  But Franz said he bore no suspicion, and agreed to a third meeting, which Basilia said should do the trick.
            In three days time we were to travel to the shrine of Maximon, a kind of counter-saint revered by ordinary people but unsanctioned by any church.  Maximon was big league, where Basilia seemed to think she could do “the work” best. This was joy to Franz’ ears, an adventure, a journey under the surface of things few travelers come to make.  It was the kind of journey Franz liked best.
 Nevertheless, we worried that even a trip to Maximon could be sabotaged by quickly melting candles, wax that did not aguanta, bear up. Once begun, no one wanted to leave the enterprise unfinished. But in a couple of days, Franz would have a plane to catch.
            “Freeze them,” said my husband.
            “What?” I couldn’t follow.
            “Of course,” said Franz, without hesitation.  “We freeze the candles, and they’ll take long to melt.”
            Franz was not above assisting the supernatural.
            Inside the shrine of Maximon, smoke filled the air from hundreds of candles set up before the icon, a top-hatted, life-size figure seated in a stiff-backed chair, smoking a huge cigar, bottles of moonshine at his feet. On a big metal table, the candles glowed in colors reflecting the intentions of believers: yellow on behalf of children, for instance, red for love.  A hand-written sign forbade black candles, warning against the desire to wish someone bad luck.  Black candles outnumbered the others.
            Basilia had worn her good, bright huipil. She spoke to the wooden Maximon, throwing cane liquor on him from a bottle. Franz handed her the candles; she took her time lighting the wicks, eying their flames.  Franz stood nearby, watching his shaman, observing the others.  The smoke finally got to my asthmatic lungs, and I headed for fresh air.
            When they emerged from the shrine, Franz and Basilia were talking animatedly.  “How did it go?” I asked.
            Bueno,” said Basilia.  “Good.”
            Franz squinted in the sun, but he was smiling, extending his arm to help the shaman down the steps.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Bothering with the Commotion -- A Polish Wedding



            My cousin wears white, even though she and Piotr had been married in a civil ceremony six months ago.  “Here I am a bride almost 50 years old,” she says in the vestibule, as if suddenly embarrassed to cause everyone the trouble of attending a formal wedding.
            But this is her first marriage, she sparkles, and I tell her that is all that matters. The bridegroom, a widower with three daughters, looks respectably nervous. He allows his girls, dressed as bridesmaids, to fuss over his collar, and place a pink rose in his suit jacket pocket..
            Inside the church on Chicago’s North Side, women compare amber.  “Mexican?” asks the mother of the bride, raising a young girl’s hand to examine a bracelet.  “Polska,” says the girl, as others approve.  We finger our necklaces.  Polska, polska,” we say, Poland being the only legitimate provenance of the genuine article.
            The organ fills the church with a hymn. I hear a woman’s voice in the pew behind us whisper to a neighbor, “I don’t see why they bother with all this commotion, since they’re already married.”  I know the person behind the voice. She is not Polish.
            The wedding procession slowly descends the aisle of the century-old church, walking through variegated light from stained glass windows.  During the Catholic Mass, the priest takes one end of the narrow white stole he wears about his neck, and wraps it around the joined hands of the couple, who face each other to repeat the words of promise.  I would like to tell you what else the clergyman said that brought tears, and a couple of rounds of laughter, to the church, but my Polish is so poor I just didn’t get it.
                Hours later, in a neighborhood ballroom, guests shimmer in cocktail dress under crystal chandeliers. Older relatives pour shots for all  from vodka bottles on white-clothed tables. I know the homes in Poland from which some here come. Small, fourth floor walk-ups in Soviet-era apartment blocks. Farm houses where bags of wheat lie stored in the attic, and in the cellar, potatoes.  Celebrations like this must ooze glamour and joy.

            And food.  Thick, fresh mushroom soup, slaw and chopped beets with more horseradish than an ordinary mortal might consume in a year. Jacketed waiters bring oval main dishes of hearty winter food -- never mind that it’s August. We pass them around, commenting aloud on which aunt or grandmother had made a special version of just such a dish: pork with baked apples; garlic mashed potatoes surrounded by slices lightly fried; tender veal; steamed carrots and cauliflower, pirogy stuffed with potato; steak rolls on barley.  We toast with the shots, and drink clear rose, or spumante.

            After the couple’s first waltz, dancing swings into high gear.  The singers turn everything into Polish, including Lady Gaga.  Babies are passed to others as parents hit the floor. The noise is deafening, so men and women in their 80s and 90s answer questions never asked, conversing pleasantly as ice cream in glass bowls appears at each place.  Meanwhile, a train of waiters is wending its way to a serve-yourself section, carrying a dozen more kinds of desserts, like apricot and raspberry kolatchkis, cheesecake, huge chocolate truffle drops, dark and white.             
            The atmosphere of a Polish wedding, whether here in Chicago or in Krakow, is a mix of stories told by the old, and memories in the making by the young.  It was at such a wedding that my grandfather taught me to polka, and to waltz.  I remember the thrill as if it were yesterday.

            At my cousin’s wedding, while most adults sat about recovering from dessert, children filled the dance floor and the bridal couple wandered the tables greeting guests. Meanwhile, waiters carried in more and different foods for the vodka-drinkers and anyone else to pick up at will: salmon; egg halves with caviar, black and red; crakowski; ham; salmon roe; polish sausage.  We left before midnight because my daughter had an early flight. The Slavic tunes were just beginning.
            There was no easy way to reach the bride and groom, so I waved goodbye across the room to my cousin in her white satin dress. Malagoshia and Piotr waved back, looking tired but ecstatic.  The memorable day, I supposed, was the reason a civil ceremony had not been enough, and they had bothered with all the commotion. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It's the Sauce

Hello--Thanks for coming back.  
I know I said GlobeWatch would return in June, 
and apologize for being a little late.  
But the book is finished!  
Meanwhile, I'm thrilled to be back at the blog.
                                                                              ---Mary Jo

It’s the Sauce

            The great rainforest land once called Gran Peten has never been known as a gourmet’s paradise. Whatever might be plucked from trees, or shot with gun or bow, is what landed on plates from southern Mexico’s Chiapas state, across Guatemala’s northern Peten to Belize. Beans and rice might accompany deer, rodent or bird, but roughly the same kind of meals appeared on the menus of indigenous Maya, and after the sixteenth century, of Europeans who came to stay.  Things haven’t changed much.
            The first petenero food I tasted was tepesquintle, a 40-lb rat that roams the jungle at night.  It didn’t taste like chicken.  It wasn’t gamey or beefy.  It tasted like nothing I had experienced before, rich without being heavy, meaty but light.  I ate under the unblinking stares of various antlered heads, hanging on the walls of a traveler’s restaurant that also served armadillo.  The cook told me she used the same sauce for both dishes. When I asked for the recipe, she straightened her spotted apron, placed hands on hips and recited the ingredients.  Like the best international chefs, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say how much of each.
                               Tepesquintle Rodent Sauce

Thyme, laurel, cumin, black pepper, garlic, green (or red) pepper, tomato, onion, V-8 juice, white wine, cinnamon, honey, consommé, saborin (like Accent).  For armadillo sauce, replace the wine with vinegar.
A few days later, I attended a gathering of twenty-five peasant farmers attempting to discover if oil operations caused their allergies and stunted harvests. Metallic odors from a refinery wafted among the benches and blackboards of the open-air meeting place.  When the pleasing aroma of black beans and garlic became stronger than the smell of gas, we knew it was time for lunch.
            At an outside sink we washed our hands using a gourd to  pour water.  We grabbed plastic bowls.  In a cooking shed a woman and her young daughter scooped out poor but hearty fare from metal pots, putting all into the single bowls: rice, beans, and whole potatoes fried in batter, swimming in a soupy sauce of herbs, tomato and onion.  We grabbed hot tortillas, the only utensils.  Honestly, it tasted great.
            Breakfast was always bread and coffee, dinner always rice and beans. The midday meal, however, was a series of tours de force, including one I never thought I would eat: beans, rice, and spaghetti in a tomato sauce, fresh of course, thickened with flour, tarted up with half-inch slices of hot dogs.
            In San Cristobal, the small and elegant colonial capital of Chiapas, sauces graced small and elegant meals, sometimes enjoyed at sidewalk tables on a cobblestone promenade.  In fact, the meals were peasants’ food, glorified with sauce.
Like squash flowers on a bed of sharp cheese, drizzled, or puddled, with liquefied black corn fungus.

Or molletes, refried beans spread on bread cut in triangles, or on halves of a bolillo  (a kind of dinner roll) topped with melted cheese (manchego is good), and finely-chopped tomato, spooned on to taste.

For breakfast, there might be cactus leaves (nopales) drained of their sticky juice, boiled and scrambled with eggs, or covered with Oaxaca cheese and green chile sauce. 

Too tired at night to think about sauces, I would simply ask for that wonderful stand-by made of day-old tortillas torn and sautéd with onion, chopped tomato and consommé, and topped with sliced avocado.   The best of all fast food: sopa de tortilla.
And what about red meat?
On a Sunday morning I drove on a bumpy oil company road into a rainforest area which was turning into cattle grazing land.  Some of the land belonged to drug lords using “ranches” as a screen for airstrips.  Some was in use by landless campesinos trying to scratch out a living.
I went to Mass in a small church in a forest settlement where the congregation was celebrating its local patron saint.  Afterward, we all gathered at outdoor tables to feast upon beef from a cow killed the night before.  The smell of the grilling meat was heavenly, but pieces were tough to eat, especially without knife or fork.  Some of us picked off bits and put them on plates for the elderly with few teeth.  For my own portion, I tore at each hunk, masticating until my jaw hurt.
“They must have picked the oldest cow in the pasture,” said one campesino.
I recognized the problem immediately. No sauce. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Coming up...

Hello, and thanks for visiting.
I am on a book deadline, for the manuscript of my travel and history narrative, Maya  Roads, which will be published next year by Chicago Review Press.  That's why my blog site has comments and stories few and far between, until June.
Hope to see you then.