Mennonite Cheese is Mexican Cheese

December 2018 – MAD Dispatches

It is seven a.m. in the Mennonite colonies, dead in the center of the northern Mexican state of Durango. In the Mexican settlement across the highway, where they observe daylight savings, it’s already eight and but nothing will open for another two hours. Here in the Mennonite colonies, it’s a different world: the morning still starts with the sun and work stops for no one but god.

Abraham Klassen started his day at five am, colony time, milking his eighteen cows then sitting down with his wife and , three children, and in-laws for a silent prayer and breakfast of coffee and homemade bread spread with homemade butter and homemade jam. Just before seven, he hitches a rickety wooden cart to the back of his brother-in-law’s faded orange tractor and heads out to collect milk from the neighbors.

Last night, giant storm clouds walked in on tall stilts of rain, leaving the oat fields drenched. Low stalks of corn, just a few weeks into their summer flush, were neck deep in standing water; the rutted dirt roads, cut with Teutonic rectitude past white fences and white churches, were totally waterlogged.

“Days like today, it’s too muddy to work in the fields,” Klassen tells me in Spanish as he hefts steaming metal canisters onto a rickety wooden cart hitched to the back of his brother-in-law’s orange tractor. He squints up at the clouds, rolling in like gauze to bandage the huge frontier sky. “There’s always something to do. You get a break from one thing, it’s just a chance to do another.”

Read more in the book You and I Eat the Same, published by MAD Dispatches

Escaping Hate: A Trans Woman’s Journey North

March 13, 2018 – The Nation

In the early hours of a humid morning in March 2017, Alexandra Acevedo made her way to the railroad tracks that skirt the edge of Tenosique, a border town in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. The sun wouldn’t come up for a few more hours, but the gravel path was already crowded with immigrants. Most of them were from Honduras like her, and all of them were trying to board the cargo train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, which they hoped to ride to the US border.

While Alexandra waited at the station, three masked men emerged from the darkness and dragged her to a hidden corner behind the platform, where they robbed, beat, and raped her. It was the worst attack she’d suffered in the months since leaving Honduras, but certainly not the first. When the assault ended, she gathered herself, and limped up the slope to a migrant shelter called La 72. Founded by Franciscan monks in 2011, La 72 was the first shelter in Mexico to open a dormitory exclusively for LGBTQ migrants like Alexandra; it was also the place where, as Alexandra tells it now, her new life as an openly trans woman began. (more…)

In Campeche, Pyramids Are Everywhere. Crowds Are Not.

February 2, 2018 – The New York Times

Of the nearly 1,000 registered archaeological sites scattered across the southeast Mexican state of Campeche, Xcalumkín is far from the most impressive. Just over 40 miles northeast of the state capital (also called Campeche), it looks, at first glance, like little more than a few half-excavated hillsides. On the stifling May morning that I visited, the scrubby forest was dry and radioactively bright, baked under a sky the color of a pilot flame. It didn’t take long for this abstraction of a city to come to life. Hills revealed themselves as pyramids. Fields became plazas. A cave opening suddenly in the ground — a tree, like an umbilical cord, growing from its center — became a reservoir.

I had come out that morning with Rubí Peniche Lozano, who runs a restaurant called Capuchino in the historic center of Campeche, an extravagantly pretty town on the west of the Yucatán Peninsula. She’d brought along her sister, Ada, a local teacher, and Lirio Suarez Améndola, a former delegate for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or I.N.A.H.

Ms. Suarez walked us through the site, pointing out the hidden mouths of cisterns and offering I.N.A.H.’s best guesses as to what each structure might have been. Xcalumkín, she told us, had likely existed since the beginning of the millennium but, like most settlements in this part of the peninsula, would have flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries, part of a vast network of city-states and vassal towns that made up the classical Maya world. By 950 A.D., that world had all but disappeared.

“To make the stucco they used to cover the buildings and pave the roads, they needed charcoal, so imagine how many trees they needed,” she said as we looked down into the reservoir that was now a cave. “They emptied their water sources, cut down all their trees. The temperature raised two degrees. They changed the climate completely.” She sounded almost exasperated. “Lots of people look at the Maya very romantically, that they lived with nature and all that, but it’s not true. They were just like us: human beings.”

Read more at the New York Times


The Lady of the Istmo has no patience for earthquakes

November 26, 2017 – Saveur

On October 4th, the Saint’s day for St. Francis, the village of Santa María Xadani in southern Oaxaca should have been thronged with devotees. The narrow streets should have been lined with vendors selling sweet buns and crisp rounds of masa called totopos, pulled straight from the hot clay walls of a tandoor-like oven called a comezcal. There should have been paper flowers hung between the houses, cases of beer to stave off the afternoon heat, and music late into the night. Instead, a small crowd gathered at 11 a.m. under a covered patio alongside the church of St. Francis. A somber mass echoed through an empty nave. The streets were lined with piles of rubble and empty lots and makeshift encampments, the scars of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of the neighboring state of Chiapas on the night of September 7th, bringing down half the houses in Xadani and decimating much of the surrounding area, a region of Oaxaca state called the Istmo de Tehuantepec. (more…)

After the Quake

November 12, 2017 – Roads & Kingdoms

The Istmo de Tehuantepec has always been a fiercely independent place. In the southern part of Oaxaca state, the Istmo is the narrowest point in Mexico, the cinched-in waist of the country’s reclining odalisque, a region known for its raucous parties and dark sense of humor and bold resistance to anything imposed from outside. In 1981, Juchitán de Zaragoza became the first municipality in Mexico to elect an opposition party to power. Nearly a decade earlier, San Mateo del Mar, populated by the twice-conquered Ikoots indigenous community, had developed and implemented an entirely bilingual preschool program, the first of its kind in the state. In the course of the 19th century, Istmeños resisted interventions and invasions by the British, the French, and the Mexican government itself (in 1850 Mexico’s first indigenous president and national hero, Benito Juárez, responded to a revolt to reclaim use of local salt mines by sending troops to burn Juchitán to the ground). The people are brash and combative, defiant and proud, a little difficult and wickedly funny. Above all, they are self-sufficient. But all of that goes only so far in preparing you for catastrophe.

At 11:49 p.m. on the night of Sept. 7, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of Mexico, the strongest to hit the country in a century. Felt as far south as El Salvador and as far north as Mexico City, no place suffered greater or more widespread damage than the Istmo, where more than 800,000 people were affected and more than 70,000 homes damaged, nearly 15,000 of them beyond repair. (more…)

The Prawn War

25 October 2017 – Roads & Kingdoms, Slate, CNN’s Explore Parts Unknown

(text and photos by the author)

Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.

Someone, after all, would have to lose. (more…)

One Last Night in Mexico City’s LGBT Time Warp

14 September Punch

At midnight on a recent Saturday—any Saturday, really—Avenida República de Cuba, near the sketchy northern edge of Mexico City’s Centro Historico, practically seethes with people. Twenty-somethings of every gender line up around the block outside El Marrakech and La Purísima, a pair of nightclubs that face each other across the narrow, construction-chewed street like Scylla and Charybdis (if Scylla and Charybdis were really good at voguing). (more…)

Resistance and Resilience at Temacapulín’s Chile Festival

12 September – Eater

At 9:30 on a startlingly bright Saturday morning, the children of Temacapulín, a minuscule village in the Mexican state of Jalisco, gathered under the pink stone arches of the municipal building to compete in the eighth annual Games of Chile and Water.

They threw wet napkins at a Skee-Ball target. They ran a sack relay carrying long, red árbol chiles, Temacapulín’s traditional crop, from one end of the sun-washed plaza to the other. They raced chiles up a pair of tables past levels marked VidaJusticiaPaz, and finally Victoria. And for the final game, they hurled water balloons to bring down a wall of cardboard boxes, each one marked with a word or a phrase: Corruption. Privatization of Water. Tricks of Politicians. Depriving Us of Rights. Injustice. Lies. (more…)

Heaven is a Place on Earth

August, The Music IssueThe Believer

The first thing I saw when I landed at Mizoram’s whitewashed bird’s nest of an airport—a concrete block nestled between steep, bamboo-covered hills—was a cross. It stood erect and blazingly white in a shabbily landscaped plot of grass between the terminal and the airport’s lone runway. Bold red letters printed across the patibulum—which, mercifully, I couldn’t make out until I was off the 30-seat propeller jet and walking across the tarmac—read THY KINGDOM COME.

Full essay available in print only. Purchase at the link above

The Comedy of Manners

Summer, The Class Issue Indian Quarterly

he last time I really fought with my older brother was back in March 2016, in a tiny restaurant somewhere in Provence where we—he and I and our younger sister and our parents—had gathered on one of our increasingly rare family vacations. The evening was raw and damp in the way that early springtime tends to be in temperate climates, but inside the restaurant was cosily anachronistic: ochre walls, wooden beams, smooth table linen, tiny glasses of purple blossoms scattered among flickering candles; there was white asparagus and red wine and not an exposed brick or Edison bulb in sight. If we hadn’t had the restaurant entirely to ourselves (the joys of low season), we would have been in breach of every rule of etiquette as voices and tension rose—ironically, since etiquette was precisely what we were arguing about. (more…)