Thursday, September 26, 2013

Public Diplomacy

The Foreign Service has five "branches" (called "cones" or career tracks) of generalists (different from specialists), and as you all probably know, I'm Consular-coned. However, we are considered generalists which means that we're supposed to be willing and capable of filling any position: Consular, Management, Political, Economic and Public Diplomacy. In Ciudad Juarez, our primary function is Consular, especially considering that we process 25% of the world's immigrant visas and a whole heck o' tourist visas. But we also have a Political/Economic office with two officers and a Public Diplomacy office with one officer and a host of super local staff. Their job is to let the local public know about the U.S. (cultural affairs) and also to let them know about the services the Consulate offers - namely visas.  Quite frequently a call for volunteers goes out to the crew of 45 entry-level officers here (which means on their first or second tour) asking for people who want to do public outreach events regarding any number of subjects. Recently I took up the challenge: first it was with visitors to our Benjamin Franklin Corner in the capital city of Chihuahua where folks come to practice their English or to learn more about American culture. I spent a few afternoons discussing via digital video conference with visitors about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and what the Civil Rights movement meant/means to the U.S., and another time we chatted about the lighter topic of popular movie themes. These two outreach events were in English, no preparation required and enjoyable - easy peasy, right?

So a few days ago I decided to risk putting my hand up and volunteer for an in-Spanish presentation on student visas at a large annual book fair here in Juarez. Along with one other Consular Officer, we were to discuss the how-tos of applying for a student visa to prospective Mexican students. Fortunately we had a Power Point presentation to follow along with, but it still entailed standing with a microphone in front of a (small, but interested) crowd on a stage.  I think it went well, actually, and I don't think I shamed my FSI teachers nor promised visas to any and everyone. Okay, it was actually kind of fun. We have these opportunities come up frequently and I guess it's time that I keep trying to push myself to do something slightly uncomfortable.  Heck, many of my coworkers do radio interviews, online Facebook chats and even TV spots on popular topics, usually visas.  But in the back of my mind is our "Composure Under Fire" segment of A-100 where we practiced being cornered in a public event by someone who is particularly ticked off with some recent U.S. policy. So far, the crowds have been very kind - but still - I'm waiting for that luck to run out and for someone to mention something very political or, well, something I haven't exactly been keeping up on. 

However, because I'm a pinky-sworn generalist, I have to be ready to take an assignment outside my particular cone. I've been testing the waters a bit, trying to imagine if I could be an Economic officer or Management Officer, and now I'm seeing if Public Diplomacy might be something I could wear, even if just for one tour. Jury is still out, we'll see.

In the meantime, it looks like my time in the non-immigrant section will come to an end shortly as I've been slated to rotate over to the immigrant section in the coming months. Once again, it feels like as soon as I've gotten comfortable somewhere - it's time to move on. But that's what keeps things interesting, right?  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

El Grito!


¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Víva Hidalgo!
¡Viva Morelos!
¡Viva Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez!
¡Viva Allende!
¡Vivan Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la independencia nacional!
¡Viva México! 
¡Viva México! 
¡Viva México!

Thus goes "El Grito," the call that goes out on September 16th at 11:00 pm in towns and cities across Mexico to cap the Dia de Independencia. First delivered in 1810 by Miguel Hidalgo in the town of Dolores, it is traditionally a call-and-respond, with the President (or town mayor) calling out the names of revolutionary heroes and the crowd responding with a loud "Viva!"  In Mexico City, this takes place at the city center (the zocalo) and is delivered by the President in front of a massive crowd, accompanied by the ringing of a huge bell and followed by an equally impressive fireworks show. 

My husband and I only learned of this tradition a short time ago, and decided we'd love to see it first hand from Mexico City. However, by the time we learned of it, it was too late to book tickets or a hotel room in Mexico City anywhere near the zocalo. So instead - we got to take part in much smaller gritos that gave us a taste of the excitement. Yes, a very small taste, but we got the idea.

The first was last weekend in our neighborhood when the park near our house was transformed again into a party stage decked out in red, white and green bunting with decorated tables. Our neighbors handed out patriotically-colored beaded necklaces to the women and kerchiefs to the men. Like the Mother's Day celebration earlier this year, everyone gathered for food, music and dancing, this time to a live mariachi band that played until at least 02:00. Live mariachi has its place and time, let me say. In Bogota live mariachi in the apartment directly beneath ours in a sound-magnifying brick building = not so much fun. In a community park, under stars and waving flags, surrounded by your dancing neighbors and enjoying the warm evening breezes = yes. Granted, we left shortly after midnight and the party was still in full swing, but we were able to sleep courtesy of our white-noise producing air purifier machine in the bedroom. 

Community park getting dressed up for the party

Our neighbors' balcony carrying the colors

Party decorations: Mariachi dress

The spread! Traditional dishes served up by our kerchief-clad neighbors

Not exactly the President, but rather the homeowners board delivering el grito.

Patriotism under twinkling lights

The second grito was yesterday in the small northern California town where I'm staying visiting my father and sister. My husband stayed behind in Juarez, so I went down to the town park in my sister's town alone (which has a majority Mexican population) to see their version. There were booths selling tamales, tacos, elotes and all sorts of fruity drinks and a small (non-Mariachi) band playing. Instead of waiting until 11 pm, el grito was delivered at about 6:30 by the public affairs officer from the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco. She waved the Mexican flag as she called out the patriots names, and the crowd called back the obligatory "Viva!" after each name.  It was a far more subdued crowd than in our Juarez neighborhood, maybe because most of the families present have lived in the US for many years, their kids being born in the US, so it felt a bit more like a celebration of "things we used to do" to keep up the tradition. It was fun, nonetheless. However, no matter that I spoke in Spanish to the ladies selling the tamales, they always answered back in English. Ah well.

The color guard delivers the flag... the Public Affairs Officer from the Mexican Consulate for the call. 

Next year we hope to take in the event from Mexico City itself. We'd better make hotel reservations about now. See if you can catch it on the news tonight wherever you might be.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Road Trip: Puerto Penasco, Sonora

It is with great pleasure that I tell you that I'm writing this from the 11th floor condo overlooking the Sea of Cortez, about 20 miles south of the Sonoran resort town of Puerto Penasco. Yeah, I had never heard of it before either, and unless you're from Arizona or this corner of northwestern Mexico - it's a pretty good secret. 

Well, as much a secret as a fully-developed beach resort within four hours' drive from two major Arizona cities can be, which is really not a secret at all, then is it? (Okay, okay, so it was a secret to US!) Before I go too far, I'd just like to set the scene so you can have an image in mind as you continue to read:

Anyway, it's been well over a year since my husband and I had a true vacation, even if only for a long weekend. Mostly because popping away for the weekend is always easier in theory and our daydreams than in reality due to the whole find-a-good-cat sitter dilemma. The Tabbies have become pretty high-maintenance in their old age. Dodger doesn't want to eat, Toby will eat everything, and Daphne is somewhere in between. So last time we headed out to Marfa, TX, we hired a young co-worker to come in twice a day to feed, water and scoop litter boxes. Which he did. What he didn't do was clean up the puddles of barf that Toby left after he inhaled Dodger and Daphne's unattended meals and promptly got sick to his stomach. (Note to self: Never hire young folks whose mothers still do all their cleaning and cooking to keep your pets and home in ship-shape. Lesson learned.)

But this time we rolled out of town full of confidence that the mother and two young daughters from the neighborhood with whom we left our key (along with two pages of detailed instructions and one test-run under their belt) would take excellent care of the fur family. 

So back to the vacation: We drove north into El Paso, and then west through New Mexico and Arizona before turning southwest across the Tohono O'Odham Indian Reservation, then due south through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the small border crossing at Lukeville, AZ on one side and Sonoyta, Sonora on the other. The whole thing took nearly 10 hours, longer than expected, but it was also far more beautiful than expected. Join us en route:

And you already figured that he has the naked babe painted on the gas tank, right?

Really? Right where we're headed. Awww man. 
As luck would have it... the wind blew in our favor

Stunning backdrop to the Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was, from our quick drive-through view, really spectacular. The Organ Pipe cacti are about 12-15' tall and apparently come in all shapes and poses. While I was privately anthropomorphisizing the cacti into humans in all sorts of he-larious poses, I then glanced at the horizon and saw an even more surprising backdrop of mountain peaks and ranges. Man, who knew this was all here? Gorgeous. 

So we get to the border crossing, and by now all the traffic that we'd missed by leaving Juarez early had caught up with us coming from the nearby Tuscon and Phoenix. They were there in force, and they brought their toys. All I was thinking was, "Damn! What are the chances that these yahoos are going to be staying in the same condo with us and will be ATV'ing their way up and down the beach in front of us?!"  

The crossing at Lukeville, AZ is much smaller than any of Juarez crossings, and the little town on the Mexican side was colorful, pleasant and quite a bit tidier. But it still had that familiar hard-scrabble, nursing-stray-dog-trotting-down-the-sidewalk, concrete-brick-house feel to it that we're used to and we felt at home at once. Not tempted by dentists or inexpensive pharmacies so popular in the border towns, we were through Sonoyta quickly and back onto the wide-open desert highway towards a coastline that if I hadn't already read the map - I would never have believed existed so close by. (What a surprise it must've been to the first explorers. "Well I'll be... Hey guys, would ya' come take a look at this!")

Mexicans head north for cheap shopping and Americans head south for affordable medical services.

Colorful roadside offerings for those stuck in cross-border traffic. 
We got to the outskirts of Puerto Penasco, turned left at the roundabout that the nice guy in the rental office told us to look for, and headed again into the desert (as in "totally deserted" kind of desert) on a road paved only with packed sand, towards the hope of the condo we'd rented popping onto the horizon sometime soon. And after forging a handful of  "water over roadway" sections that made me glad we hadn't bought a sports car, we found the property. Not too shabby, eh?  We're on the second-to-top floor, far left. In case you're interested, here it is. 

The plus side is that the place is serene, directly on the beach, nearly vacant and with so many pools to pick from that this afternoon I just didn't know where to start. So I used them all and then read and napped in the little shady chair casitas.

I'd like to state for the record that we're not luxury resort kind of people. So this felt like we'd stepped into an episode of International House Hunters by accident. (Which, by the way, I can now watch from one of the condos two TVs with Direct TV. Will the wonders never cease?) 

We visited the town of Puerto Penasco twice: once for a quick look-around and grocery shopping and the second time for a sunset dinner on our last night. The malecon (downtown waterside walkway) was busy with bars, restaurants, souvenir vendors, and hawkers of all sorts. If that's the scene you want -  then stay in town. We enjoyed it for one dinner and quick look around; I loved seeing the pelicans perched atop each mast of the fishing fleet in the small harbor, but personally, the tranquility of being isolated was more our style. This is how we prefer to see a beach, and did, just by turning our heads to the right from the balcony:

While I was happy to indulge in some HGTV catching up, Tim got to see his alma mater play on Saturday college football. Can you guess who we were rooting for? He dared me to make this statement in the sand below our balcony. Let's just say that ain't no Tide gonna' Roll over this! (For at least 12 hours that is...)

But all vacations must come to an end, and so on Monday morning, we reluctantly packed up and pointed the car back towards the border. Sonoyta was bustling with business, loaded with roving vendors selling pottery, ice cream, carvings and baskets. We resisted, even the fusion US-Mexican Dia de los Muertos painted pottery skulls wearing NFL helmets and the life-sized iron T-Rex.

Man, I'm glad he's chained up!
We pulled into our rugged city and then our tidy neighborhood, to find that the kitties had been beautifully cared for and were happy to see us again. They all three slept on the bed with us and only got just a bit of revenge at 03:00 when they decided it was time to be let out of the bedroom. 

You know, Mexico is really an awesome place. You all should come see more of it.

C'mon back down an' see us again!