Saturday, February 19, 2011

Finding Treasure in Mexico's Sierra Madre; Remembering Germany's White Rose; The Winter of Revolt: Tunisia to Wisconsin

The Welcome Mat On The Not-So-Great Wall’s Southern End
Basket-maker Manuel Valdez in Magdalena, Sonora

Crossing through Uncle Sam’s border wall into Mexico is a study in contrasts. In Mexico no one looks at your papers. Now there is even a line to leave the U.S. with agents lined up to inspect vehicles. Feels a little like breaking out of prison, fortress U.S.A-- United States of Alcatraz. 

I’ve never had a problem with Mexican law enforcement authorities, but in the U.S. everyone is part of an ongoing movie—on a good day it’s the Keystone Cops, on a bad one it’s Rambo. Once two Border Patrol vehicles with lights flashing converged on my truck. They yelled for me to stick my hands out the window before they would approach. I was hauling dangerous cargo-- a load of utility tables.

Another time I got pulled over as I was about to cross into Mexico—wouldn’t they be glad if you were smuggling people back to Mexico? But my best role was when an agent threatened to arrest me for illegal entry into the U.S.—I was taking photos along an unfenced section of border and he claimed I had stepped across the invisible line.

Another refreshing difference in Mexico is the change in collective mentality. For example most Mexicans are quite politically astute, and don’t expect much from government. Our friend Stetson Kennedy, Florida’s great folk historian, once commented that the U.S. population is the only oppressed people in the world who think they are free.

Mexicans still continue the legacy of resistance from the Revolution of 1910 that claimed a million lives. The Zapatista indigenous rebellion of 1994 remains alive. Popular uprisings have occurred over the past decade in places like Oaxaca in 2006, where a broad front tried to oust a corrupt governor, and Atenco, near Mexico City, whose residents rose up in 2002 and 2006 to block construction of an international airport.

Hot Springs in Aconchi, Sonora
However political reeducation is not the reason to spend time in Mexico---it’s the rich and beautiful culture found throughout the country. History is alive. There are many places where it seems like the clock turns back decades, even centuries. But it’s not a museum or some gentrified historic district common to the U.S; it’s the real deal.

Aconchi, Sonora
There are gems waiting to be discovered in every part of the country. I just returned from a couple of days spent in an area I’ve frequented over the years —La Ruta del Rio Sonora, the Sonora River Valley Route, which is promoted as a tourist destination (fortunately few tourists go there to spoil it). It’s only a few hours drive south of the Arizona border, and well worth it.

The area enjoys spectacular mountain scenery as part of the Western Sierra Madre. The jaguar roams here in the former lands of the Opata indigenous culture. The valley road winds through several beautiful little towns with ancient mission churches: Arizpe, Sinoquipe, Banamichi, Huepac, and Aconchi.

Some have migrated out of the area to find work, but many still cling to life here struggling to make ends meet, but struggle is part of life in Mexico. For those with fears of Mexico's potential for violence, here's my personal travel advisory for the area: In ten years of visits I can’t remember hearing someone even raise their voice towards a fellow human being (not counting my behavior with my own kids).

Banamichi, Sonora

My favorite destination are the wonderful hot springs in Aconchi, where camping is allowed. But avoid coming here on major holidays if you seek peace and quiet, because camping for Mexicans usually means an outdoor party. That’s when my cultural adaptation skills fail me: strike one-I don’t drink; strike two—I can’t sleep with loud music; strike three—I especially don’t care for the type of music one lies awake listening to--- ranchera.

Friends For Life Thanks To A Sack Of Chicken Feed

After a nice soak in the hot springs I headed home and stopped to pick up a couple hitchhiking, Jorge and Pancha, who were hauling a sack of corn they had bought for their chickens. As is common in Mexico, an instant friendship blossomed.
Jorge, Pancha, and their dog Pinto

Jorge spoke good English he learned while living in the American Northwest for ten years: Washington, Oregon, and Montana. His main jobs were tree planting and timber harvesting. He also worked two seasons in Alaska at a salmon cannery.

After the short ride they invited me in for coffee and sweet rolls. The house had one main room with a bed, kitchen table and stove, along with a TV and CD player. They had nearly finished a one-room addition to the house, which was built “paying for one block at a time.”

El Picacho, near Sinoquipe, Sonora
Jorge was missing a number of his front teeth which led to a story explaining their demise: “At the cannery I worked with people from all over the world—Chinese, Eskimo, the U.S. and other countries. We all got along great. The only trouble I got into was with some guys from the Philippines. When I was drunk I got in a fight with them and got beaten to a pulp.”  He added that getting kicked in the face by a horse made matters worse.

Jorge, who occasionally philosophizes with biblical references, has left those adventurous days behind to raise a family with Pancha. He works as a diesel mechanic in Hermosillo, four hours trip by bus. By working eleven days straight, he gets four days off to return home every two weeks. Jorge and Pancha seemed very content with their life—never heard a single complaint.

Remembering Germany’s White Rose 

“...why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right - or rather, your moral duty - to eliminate this system?”
From the White Rose’s Third Leaflet
Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Cristoph Probst
Feb. 22 will mark 68 years since three young German university students were executed in 1943 by the Nazi regime. Siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst, father of three young children, were members of the White Rose group that published leaflets condemning the Nazis and calling for people to rise up against Hitler. They also occasionally painted anti-Nazi slogans and “Freedom” on walls. The three were the first of their group to go to the guillotine.

As adolescents Hans and Sophie had briefly belonged to the Hitler Youth, caught up in the fervor of the moment. Their father, who opposed Hitler, refrained from discouraging them—he believed that experience was the best teacher—both became disillusioned and quit.

The members of the White Rose led lives of comfort as university students enjoying concerts and outdoor activities, but their underground work couldn’t have been more risky—if caught they would face certain death.

From June 1942 to Feb. 1943 the White Rose anonymously mailed and distributed five leaflets, as their group slowly expanded to include even some high school students. The White Rose was on the verge of working with the national anti-Nazi resistance movement, but the Nazis caught them the day Sophie Scholl threw a stack of their sixth leaflet from an upper level at the University of Munich. The Gestapo tried to break them to turn in their friends, but they couldn’t be broken.
Top (l to r) Hans and Sophie Scholl, Kurt Huber: Bottom (l to r) Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorrell, Willi Graf

 Sophie Scholl’s last words were "How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

One professor, Kurt Huber, had joined the students writing a leaflet. Before committing he had been at a meeting where the discussion had turned political and he spontaneously exclaimed, “Something has to be done, and it has to be done now!” He had crossed the line.

Awaiting execution,  Kurt Huber tried to finish a book he was writing, but he ran out of time. He wrote his wife Clara and his children a final letter thanking them for making his life rich and beautiful. “In front of me in the cell are the Alpine roses you sent...I go in two hours into that true mountain freedom for which I’ve fought all my life. May the Almighty God bless you and keep you. Your loving father.”

Huber was executed along with students Willi Graf and Alexander Schmorrell. The excellent book “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose” recounts a final visit by Alexander’s lawyer as he awaited execution: “Alex was calm and reassuring; he said he not only accepted death but welcomed it. ‘I’m convinced,’ he told the distraught attorney, ‘that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I would have to do on this earth.”

Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag was quoted in Newsday on February 22, 1993, that "It is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the 20th century... The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there, but I do not know why."
There is a stunning  Academy-nominated German movie about the White Rose, “Sophie Scholl, The Final Days.” Here’s the link to view the trailer:  

The Winds of Revolt in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain……..and Wisconsin

People power has been contagious of late in the Arab World. This blog avoids recycling news you get elsewhere, but here’s a good audio/visual piece "Spreading Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt"  from the New York Times (not a recommended media outlet). 

Also this interesting piece about the U.S. from New York Time's columnist Bob Herbert, "When Democracy Weakens":

Then there's the tens of thousands of teachers, students, and their allies in Wisconsin who are entering their fourth day of mass protest at the state capitol against a radical attempt by the legislature to end collective bargaining by public unions.  Democratic lawmakers fled the state to prevent a vote. Here's an inspiring thirty seconds of direct action from cold and snowy Madison: 

Finally here's the crowd as they disrupted business as usual inside the state capitol. Hundreds of students have been sleeping there.

1 comment:

  1. The movie Richard recommends, the White Rose, is very good. I recommend it highly.