June 13th, 2016


This post is only tangentially about Mexico. I wanted to find some way to join my outraged voice to the millions of others over Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to sentence Brock Turner, the former Stanford student, to six months in a county jail for three counts of sexual assault.

In my work as a mitigation specialist, I have often represented undocumented Mexicans accused of capital murder. I have talked to many Mexicans about this work, and they are usually surprised when I go into details about the corruption of the judicial system in the U.S., as if they believe those problems were exclusive to Mexico. In my work I have dealt with prosecutors who hide evidence, judges who evidently favor the prosecution, and, once in a while, court-appointed defense lawyers whose efforts have been detrimental to the clients.

Suffice it to say that in none of my cases has the client been dealt with anything approaching the sympathy or leniency displayed by Judge Persky for Turner, the college-boy rapist. This article by Ken White, a criminal defense attorney, goes a long to way explain Persky’s decision. 

As if we need any further evidence of the hideous inequality at the core of many U.S. courts, take a look at this story from the New York Times of June 10. It is about a 14-year-old boy who was coerced by the Detroit police into confessing to murders that he did not commit, and who remained in jail for nine years. This was notwithstanding that on the week of his sentencing, another man confessed to the crimes supposedly committed by the boy. It should come as no surprise that Devontae Sanford, the defendant in that case, is black.

What the Times story doesn’t say is whether Sanford spent those nine years in an adult or a juvenile jail. In adult prisons, minors, and even young adults, are frequently brutalized by both guards and older inmates. Would that some judge had had any compassion for young Sanford. But of course he wasn’t white, blond, blue-eyed or a Stanford student.

Labels: Mexico City



A class act

June 7th, 2016


Photo by Proyecto40.com

A little while ago a friend called because he had an extra ticket for the opera at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Would I like to come? I’m embarrassed to admit that I know nothing about opera and this was only the fourth time I’d been in my life. But I was game, and so had the good fortune of seeing Bellini’s I puritani with Javier Camarena singing the part of Arturo.

Camarena, a 40-year-old tenor from Xalapa, Veracruz, has become a huge star. He is the third singer in the entire history of the Metropolitan Opera in New York to have been cheered enough to perform an encore, and only the second to have performed multiple encores. As I am an ignoramus about the opera, I cannot say anything authoritative about his singing. But it was clear to even me that, no matter how talented the rest of the ensemble, Camarena was in an entirely different league.

I puritani is set in the 1640s during the Civil Wars in England between the Roundheads and the Royalists. The plot is numbingly convoluted but mostly centers on the love between Arturo and Elvira, who are separated after he heroically escorts the widow of the murdered king of England out of the country. Elvira’s and Arturo’s arias — about love, loss, exile — are terrifically moving. In the aria where Arturo returns to England, at one point, Camarena kneeled, kissed his fingers and touched the ground.

The Mexican audience, nearly always generous, cheered wildly over Camarena. Like all opera stars, he leads a peripatetic existence — just this season he has been to Zurich, London, San Sebastian and New York, among other places. But at the end of the day he is Mexican. As the crowds yelled “Bravo,” he got to his knees, kissed his fingers and touched the ground. Mexico doesn’t have very much to be proud of these days. Javier Camarena is on that very short list.




Labels: Mexico City




March 21st, 2016


Photo by Enrique Metinides

In 1942, when Enrique Metinides was eight years old, his father gave him a camera. The family lived near a police station in Mexico City. A year or so later, the cops let little Enrique inside so he could take his first picture that would be published in the newspapers: that of a detective holding up the severed head of a man who had been murdered in the neighborhood. For the next fifty years Metinides would take pictures for the police blotter section of the city’s grisliest newspapers. He shot photos of people who had been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death; of children whose hands had been mangled in meat grinders; of cars and buses that had crashed and been split in two. He took pictures of train derailments, airplane crashes and gas explosions. All of them were influenced by the black-and-white movies he saw as a child. Enrique Metinides: The Man Who Saw Too Much, a retrospective exhibition of his work, is being shown at the FotoMuseo Cuatro Caminos (Ingenieros Militares 77, Lomas de Sotelo, Naucalpan, Edo. de México). Curated by my friend Trisha Ziff, it’s an incredible show — a sort of collective catalogue of our traumas. Don’t miss it. Trisha also directed a breathtaking documentary about Metinides, also called El hombre que vio demasiado, which will be shown at this year’s Ambulante documentary festival. Click here for the schedule.

Labels: Mexico City



Goodbye to El Caballo

February 25th, 2016

El Caballo

Photo: La Opinión

When I first visited Mexico City in the late 1980s, there were no multiplex cinemas like Cinemex and Cinépolis. You saw movies at ratty-ass theaters that cost about a dollar per ticket, projected films in a strictly out-of-focus fashion, and with sound systems that threw voices at different areas of the house at will. Projectionists sometimes were oblivious as to whether they were showing the third reel first, or the fifth reel second. When you stood up to leave at the end of the movie, your shoe would be stuck to the floor with Coca-Cola that had been spilled in the era of Pancho Villa.

Among the films I saw in those days were sex comedies with titles such as Un macho y sus puchachas and Dos nacos en el planeta de las mujeres. They tended to feature male characters who tried to have sex with as many women (as incredibly sexy as they were compliant) as possible — no matter whether they were the wives of their best friends — meanwhile trying to avoid work at all costs. I believe these movies depicted the aspirations, if not the reality, of a significant part of the audience. If they were morally indefensible, the films were indisputably funny. I remember once my Mexican ex-wife scolded me for enjoying these things. I connived to get her to watch one with me, and was relieved to hear her laugh loudly and often.

A skinny character called Alberto Rojas “El Caballo” pranced, skipped, slid and skidded through many of these pictures as a protagonist. He racked up as many conquests as the rest of the cast, but in a more underhanded fashion, usually getting women on his side by “pretending” to be a sashaying, ass-shaking hairdresser, or indeed by dressing as a woman. (Some would say that this duality confirmed a secret reality or at least a desire of a significant segment of Mexican machismo.) Rojas’s comedic timing and split-second command of albures — Mexican double entendres — served the dual purpose of reliably making me smile and helping me learn the (no pun intended) ins and outs of Mexican slang.

Rojas died of cancer last Sunday at the age of 72. I had the good luck of running into him in the Mexico City airport a few years ago, and having the opportunity to tell him how important he was in terms of my education in Mexican culture. He seemed quite amused at the idea of having a gringo fan with a strange accent.




Labels: Mexico City

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Bye bye Bowie

January 14th, 2016

David Bowie 1982  NYC  cliff

Photo by David McGough

When I was 20 years old, I lived in New Orleans and waited tables at a place in the French Quarter called the Café du Monde. Nearly every tourist who passed through the city stopped there, to sample French doughnuts called beignets covered in powdered sugar, and café au lait mixed with chicory. I worked the shift between midnight and eight in the morning, mostly waiting on drunks, but so avoiding the busloads of sightseers who trooped in during the day and early evening.

          One night a startlingly beautiful man arrived with what was clearly his retinue of three or four other people. They all ordered coffee but eschewed the beignets. The beautiful man — who earlier that night had played a concert in Baton Rouge — was in one of his more conservative periods, his hair straight and parted on the side, dressed in a brown jacket, a plaid shirt and a woven necktie. I realize that this is dating me, but this was back before he got his teeth fixed. The crooked choppers were the only imperfection in an otherwise flawless appearance, and sort of served as a reminder that he was an actual human being and hadn’t arrived from Olympus.

          Now I am really dating myself: in those days, the total charge for all of their coffees was $2.98. After I served them, one of the group gave me $3.00 and told me to keep the change. I never blamed David Bowie for getting my tip stiffed from me. The boor was a member of his entourage; the man who sold the earth couldn’t have been bothered to handle the money.


Labels: Mexico City