Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?

The question most asked of me by people in the U.S. is this—”Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?”  I am baffled by this question.  At root, I think I doubt the motive of the question.  I wonder if there is another question that they’d actually like to ask but don’t dare.  I speculate if what people crave to ask is “Isn’t everyone in Mexico a criminal, because after all poverty floods the country?”  Or maybe they are thinking of the evening news and the latest Netflix series that tells the stories of the drug trade and cartel life in Mexico and want to demand “Aren’t the cartels everywhere?”  Or perhaps they are thinking of the Mexican elite and long to say, “The wealthy live behind electric fences and security guards, are you sure you should be there?”  Or possibly they really are concerned about sanitation and truly want to pose the question, “What can you eat without getting sick?” A narrow and limited view forms each of these questions.  At play also is an ethnocentric perspective and perhaps a false presumption that life in the U.S. is safe.

To be fair, life is safest in every country in the world for those who can buy their safety and for those whom society seeks to protect.

We need to be honest and recognize that society does not seek to protect us all equally.  And, we might assert that money cannot buy happiness, but with certainty it can buy a place to be safe (even if we might be miserable).

As a woman, I face a risk everyday regarding violence.  As a lesbian woman, I am sometimes even more exposed to society’s hostilities in multiple forms.  However, I am white and this gives me an invisible shield that I am often unaware exists.  I also have a decent amount of money.  I don’t live my life in pieces, though, nor do any of us.  So, I do not actually experience a moment only when I am a woman without the other qualifiers of my life.  Every moment is an intersection and depending on the situation the matrix gets formed anew.

In the U.S., I could never afford to live in a gated community or purchase a house in most of the major U.S. cities.  And as much as I might want, I can’t afford to eat in socially responsible restaurants all the time.  I can, however, walk into any public establishment and be accepted and know I belong to the point that no one looks twice when I use the public restroom.  I know explicitly that the sign “Restrooms for customers only” does not apply to me.  In this same breath, though, depending on how I am dressed, I can experience visual assault if a customer perceives me to be using the wrong restroom.

If I want to understand violence, I need to understand what this means for me and the privilege I have that frequently protects me from that violence.  I then must turn and recognize from where the privilege comes and how it gets sustained.  Then, I can move on to address the larger questions of systemic violence.

The question, “Aren’t you scared to live in Mexico?,” neglects this complex experience and reduces Mexico to a unidimensional reality while also presuming, perhaps, that everyone in the U.S. experiences the same level of safety as the speaker of the question.

I think there might be folks who really want me to address the violence of Mexico or for me to write about my own level of daily comfort.  I can certainly do this.  Though I won’t without also recognizing the multifariousness of the U.S., Mexico and the dynamic relationship between the two that creates situations in which we must live.


We are the call to democracy and we must answer

I wrote the below about six months after the 2016 elections.  I didn’t post it.  Perhaps because I wasn’t certain it was appropriate or that it might not be received well.  Then I came to recognize this is my blog, I started to write and to engage folks…so, here it is.

I haven’t been able to write for the last six months or so as everything I write comes out angry, dismayed, and frustrated with the world.  I have been putting despair and disbelieve above other things like hope and action.  I am not entirely sure that this blog will be about anything in particular other than me sorting out how to write again in a world that seems so very different than it did six months ago.

I often tell my students that while sociologists study the social world, there is a day when I’d like to be able to tell them about how we became an egalitarian society, how we abolished hunger, how universal healthcare came to pass, and how we resolved the issues of borders and immigration.  I look towards a day where I will no longer need to teach about social inequality to a classroom full of students who will have more debt from student loans and less opportunity to earn a living to pay those debts than any generation before them.  I’d like a break from having to teach about the insidious patterns of racism, the fight for women to control their own bodies, and the persecution of people from non-Christian cultures.

I’d like to give a lecture about how democracy works in practice and not just in theory especially in a country where more than 3 million votes were cast for someone other than the person in the white house.  The same country that might criticize the democratic process of other countries or interfere with their democratically elected governments.  We spoke at the ballot boxes in November 2016 and then again on January 21, 2017 and then again on March 8, 2017, and….

At what point do we stop pointing the finger at other nations and turn the examination on ourselves.

I’d also like to write something that is smart, maybe witty, that gets us to think about where we are and what we’ve done…then it occurs to me that I don’t have that kind of power…yet, maybe I do have a clear directive to speak out in a democracy.  I had said that this blog wouldn’t be political; perhaps what I should have said is partisan.

I am amazed at how little I know and yet how what I have studied, explored and helped my students to understand about the past is here present before us.  Our breath has been squeezed out almost to the point of abandon.  Yet, we are here and we are breathing.  We must find strength in this moment to act–for in acting we save ourselves.  We are the call to democracy and we must answer; if we don’t, history cannot be written because our stories will not be told.

“Did you vote for Trump?”

Even though I noted that this blog was not a political platform for partisan politics, it seems crucial that I address something.  Prior to my Fulbright Scholarship which has brought me to Xalapa, Mexico for six months, I had traveled quite a bit in Mexico since Trump’s election.  Everywhere I have been I am asked questions, but the questions I have been asked the most are: “How did Trump get elected?,”  “Did you vote for Trump?,” and “Will the wall really be built?” Sometimes they are asked by people I know, like my friends in Puerto Vallarta, who really do want me to explain from a sociological perspective the details of the electoral process and my theory as to how it actually happened from a demographic and ideological perspective.  Then there are those complete strangers who I literally meet on the street, the bus, or the beach, who after discovering I am from the U.S., ask me these questions right on the spot.  Then there are the university students I have met while in Xalapa, who tentatively ask me because they are intensely curious yet recognize there is a level of distance and respect between professor and student.

So, why these questions?  And, why with the Mexican presidential elections happening this year in July, is there not the same level of interest by folks in the U.S. over Mexican politics?

In answering these, I recall the first time I heard about Arizona’s State Senate Bill 1070 which sought to “discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States,” signed into law by Governor Brewer in 2010.  I was in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico hanging out with the women at Centro Tonantzin in Colonia Plutarco.  One of the women had heard about the passage of the law on the news that morning and asked me what I thought the implications were going to be.  I was speechless (temporarily) because even though I knew of the potential law, I was unaware of its passing.  In that moment, I recalled my first trip to Bogotá, Colombia decades earlier when I learned more about the U.S. influence in Central and South America then I ever learned in school, save my year of studying with Liberation Theorist, Frederick Herzog at Duke University.  Everywhere I have travelled in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, the interest in U.S. politics is intense.  From my vantage point, the average citizen in Latin America and the Caribbean knows more about U.S. politics and economy than the average U.S. citizen knows either about Latin American developments or the politics and economy in the U.S.

An obvious accounting of this disparity emerges if we recognize the power and economic differentials between the U.S. and Latin America.  The citizens of those countries with less leverage need to be keenly aware of the shifts in the U.S. because these often have more impact on their lives than the political and economic processes in their own country.  This assertion has validity (and many annals of academic writing have fleshed out this position).  And, in turn, we could say that because there is less effect on the average U.S. citizen regarding the developments in Latin America and the Caribbean, the average U.S. citizen may only know if they are news or political junkies.  Yet, missing in this, I would purport, is the answer to the question, why does the average U.S. citizen know so little about U.S. politics and economy?  And, further, why do we not understand how the decisions made in Washington D.C. and the 50 state capitals across the U.S., which do impact Latin America and the Caribbean, then come back to impact us as well?

The politicians and business leaders grasped the importance of this impact and, in the mid-1960s after the Cuban missile crisis, universities across the U.S. opened Latin American and Caribbean Studies programs in the hopes that through studying these countries more deeply, they could identify the steps that needed to be taken to keep another crisis like that from happening again.  Clearly this is a protectionist move and we might be able to justify this stance.  Though we might want to investigate thoroughly it’s impact on us.  How do these decisions impact our daily lives?  Our interaction with the economy such as wages and the price of goods?

More importantly, though, I would encourage us to ask if we can morally justify decisions being made in our democratic nation that profoundly impact folks who had no say in the decision being made?  How do we morally defend not being aware of policies and decisions that affect people whom we probably will never meet?  In asking this, I hope we can understand the urgency in which people ask me, “Did you vote for Trump?”




Live to Work / Work to Live

Over the next several months, I will be teaching U.S. history, culture, and politics in Xalapa, Veracruz at the Universidad de Veracruzana as a Fulbright Scholar.  Specifically, I will be teaching acourses on U.S. Interventions in Central America, U.S. Regional Differences, and U.S. Latinos.  As I am settling into a routine here in the capital city and as I have multiply social interactions, I am struck by a statement a friend’s sister said a while ago after she had moved back to Mexico: “In the U.S. people live to work; in Mexico, people work in order to live.”  As I prepare my various classes and reflect on the theory that seeks to explain the emergence of the U.S. as an entity distinct from its European ancestors and certainly from that which it conquered, I realize anew that both Weber and Tocqueville are correct in their assessment of the United States made over 100 years ago. Our Protestant roots built the cultural value of hard work as a means to be recognized, as a means to be valued within the community, and as the primary reason for living.  This value has shaped our behavior–formed our institutions, our ways of relating and our relationships (both familial and non-familial), and ultimately what we want and desire out of life.  What do I mean?  Values in a society set the base for what is prized.  And from that belief, we set the standards of expected behavior.  And, we then positively or negatively reward people based on how well they exhibit behavior that embodies what we value.  I would purport as some of the founders (and many of my contemporaries) in my field of sociology claimed, hard work is a central or core value in the United States.  We value hard work as good, right and true.  Therefore, we reward those who exemplify this behavior.

The U.S. has other core values as well.  And, yes, sometimes these values clash and are counter to one another.  Sometimes we say we value one thing and do not reward it accordingly.  For instance, a worker in the service industry may work 60 hours a week and fully exert themselves throughout their time at work, but the wages for that type of work are not commensurate with the quality or quantity of work.  In this case, other cultural values enter in and crosscut one another.  Still, we do value hard work and reward it (enough of the time, anyway), which in turn compels us to work hard and order our lives around our work.  This value of hard work informs other aspects of our life and shapes our behavior and attitudes in those areas.  In turn, we use this value (as well as our ethnocentrism) as a means to evaluate others as well as other cultures.

Many U.S. tourists to Mexico note the laid-back relaxed attitude.  They muse that this is the life and relish in the time away from it all.  Yet, this very delight often does not carry into a complete or positive evaluation of the culture as a whole or of Mexican immigrants to the U.S.  We often forget that the experience we are having is rooted in a living culture fueled by values, which hold the same level of importance as the values in our own culture.

As I begin to teach classes about the U.S., in another country, it seems vital that I help students to understand the core values of the U.S. Without this knowledge, we fall short of understanding the basis for our actions and behaviors—including even the course of action of our own government.

Cultural Leveling

In the last couple of weeks, the first commercial flight to Santa Clara, Cuba from the U.S. landed.  While other flights from Miami to Havana had already taken place earlier in the summer, this flight into the interior of Cuba continues to make history as there are now more than 300 flights from multiple airports in the U.S. to numerous destinations in Cuba.  Touted widely are the economic changes that await Cuba and the potential trade opportunities for U.S. companies and businesses.  What has been less discussed are the potential cultural transformations that will occur in Cuba—how Cuba’s values and norms will shift and change.

The social sciences focus a great deal of attention on a culture’s (or society’s) values and norms.  Values function in a variety of ways.  One thing they do is tell us what we, collectively, (that is our culture) hold to be right/wrong, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, etc.  For instance, in the U.S., by in large, we hold the value that politeness is a good thing.  The only way we see evidence of politeness is through behavior.  The norms of a society are our expectations of behavior.  So we believe that politeness is good and we measure this politeness through behaviors.   In our society, we expect people to say good morning, ask how someone is, and respond to that individual.  Right now, we are still in a transition around what behaviors are considered polite or impolite regarding cell phone use.  Cultures do change and establish new norms of behavior around a value.  We still believe that politeness is good; though at the moment what evidence counts as politeness is shifting.  We might ask, “Is it polite to talk on our cell phone in a restaurant?”  “Is it polite to text at the dinner table?”  These questions help us define boundaries of behavior and reinforce our values.  Sometimes it feels as though our values are changing when shifts in behavior begin to occur.  In this case, it isn’t so much what we value that is changing as how we see evidence of those values through our behaviors.  So, before, there was a clear line of behavior around phone use.  Now, as accessibility to phones has changed we are in a period of readjusting what behaviors constitute politeness in regard to phone use; we are deciding what constitutes new norms.

Values do change in cultures, too.  New values are added and others do begin to slip away.  Shared values are crucial to a culture.  Shared values help us to feel integrated and a part of our culture.  When we all believe the same or similar things we feel a sense of belonging and unity.  What we value and how those values are manifested through behaviors identify us and bring us together.  As values change and new norms of behavior are established, we often struggle as a culture.  Ideally this is a give and take process as groups negotiate for a value and definition of behavior.  Yet, as we struggle collectively we may wonder or notice if one group has more influence than others in terms of the way we change those norms.  In our modern society, media always plays a role in shaping new values and norms.  Other entities influence values and norms, too, such as policies, laws and economics.  In turn, one can see how each entity folds into the other with the influence of each magnifying—such as the commercialization of media.

As various commercial flights land in Cuba, many suggest that the influx of capital is a good thing.  Capital brings Cubans a wide variety of products from which to choose. And, this, in turn, is believed to enhance their life.  While in the U.S. having name-brand cereal to choose from may be of importance, for the current populace in Cuba name-brand food is not valued and subsequently buying it matters very little.  Yet, as media opens up and trade policies change, what is valued and consumed will undoubtedly change as that which is available changes.  Some may argue that the change in types of goods matters very little and that the abundance and the abundance of choice is what is significant.  Two things seem important here—one, that the change in products available comes from outside the culture itself and two, that the value of variety and choice (and the subsequent value of competition) gets infused into a culture whose values have been making sure everyone’s basic needs are met.

A direct result of focusing on basic needs, and manifested in Cuba, is the belief of everyone as equal or as every life having the same worth.  Worth is not measured by material goods, name brands, or individual achievement.  Rather, the whole is esteemed by attending to an equal measure of society’s resources for everyone.  Enter the conversation of media.  At present citizens of Cuba do not have access to the global media as we do.  Yes, there are national television stations and yes, there is access to the internet—though only in public spaces and nationally serviced—individuals are not wired continuously.  At the moment there is not a commercial market for cell phone service, internet access or cable television…though all of this is changing as I write.  I understand that media, especially the internet, can offer a democratization of information and access to cultural productions.  For instance, I can now watch the Metropolitan Opera on YouTube.  I no longer need to have the money to travel to New York and purchase a ticket.  Yet, in a culture, like Cuba, where this democratization of goods has already been occurring, what will the effect of global media be?  And, how will the opening of trade change existing values and norms?  Perhaps more importantly, will there be space to manage and control this development?  Or will the influx of the global market via the U.S. and global media produce the same effects that we have seen before?  That is, the loss of a unique culture with distinct values and norms and a cultural leveling whereby the rest of the world looks and acts increasingly like the U.S.?

What to expect from this blog…

I chose to write a blog for a couple of reasons.  One, I want to write regularly.  Usually when I have a perceived audience (even just in my head) and deadlines (even self-imposed ones) I am a much more consistent writer.  Two, I wanted an avenue for writing using the perspective I’ve gained from over fifteen years in the academy, but I don’t want to get caught up in academic jargon.  In short, I want to write intelligently for intelligent people.

All the blog experts say to have a successful blog it needs a definitive theme or subject.  Hmm…I thought, how narrow does this theme have to be?  After all, I am a sociologist with (as I tell my students) the social world as my laboratory.  I do have a definitive theme for this blog, and I am probably breaking all the blog rules, since my subject is the social world.

So, I aim to write about the social world from a smart, critical perspective that occasionally asks questions and gets us to think.  I will tell funny stories for sure, with hopes of there being a larger point.  I’ll use my students, family, friends (anonymously, of course) and myself! as overtures for topics.  And, of course politics (though candidates will not be endorsed) and economics are fair game.  As some of my students rightly point out—everything about sociology is political because we question the status quo on a regular basis.  Indeed!  Which leads me to this disclaimer—I am not the queen of the social world nor do I want to be!  I do want to think and write and do both of these things well.


Cuba has held a fascination in the American imagination for many years—long before the infamous revolution of 1960.  The revolution perhaps heightened this fascination in the way we all might love James Dean—he is oh so bad, yet oh so handsome, and oh so bad.  The U.S. ideology, since World War II, has defamed and vilified the non-capitalistic economies of the world and linked this animosity to the perceived undemocratic governments of those countries.  In part, we might say that this disparaging process has been done outside the understanding of history or perhaps our role in that history.  Take Cuba, for example.  Like many of the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s, U.S. tourism and investments (in mines, public utilities, railways and the sugar industry) real estate and bank holdings played a key in Cuba’s “market” economy (to the tune of about $1 billion).  Americans flocked to Cuba as a playground to our south where, perhaps, all the social rules did not apply.  Some historians have likened Havana from the 1920 to 1960 to Las Vegas where all that we would not pursue in our normal lives, we partake of in Las Vegas, because, after all, it is legal.  A military coup in 1952 foisted by General Batista declared Batista President of Cuba.  (General Batista had done this before in 1933 and proclaimed Mendieta president and seemingly ruled the country from behind presidents for a decade).  During this period, little can be seen in way of a response from the U.S. against this very undemocratically elected president.  Investments continued.  Development continued.  Tourism continued.  All the while, regular Cubans in the countryside and in Havana itself drastically suffered economically (ultimately living in abject poverty) under President Batista and they also disagreed with the very amoral behavior of the foreigners and bourgeoisie.

The story of the 1960 revolution in Cuba that I learned in school never took into account the conditions that hundreds of thousands of Cubans lived in nor told of the economic investments of the U.S. and our complacency with a sitting president who took his position by force.  My history lesson slandered the revolution and its leaders—Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara (also completely ignoring his iconic status in numerous Latin American countries).  I was taught that this government was violent, ousted the President and at base was in complete opposition to democracy.  The culmination of this lesson was solidified in the said audacity of the revolutionaries to distribute goods (food and housing) and services (education and healthcare) to the vast numbers of people in poverty.   My history book never pointed out that the anger and the even further position of the economic embargo of the U.S. government rested on the reality that the goods and services distributed belonged to U.S. citizens and corporations gained under undemocratic governments who ignored the needs of its own people for the favor of the U.S.

Now, as noted in my disclaimer, I am not supporting a political candidate nor government.  I am not, in this piece, a blind cheerleader for Castro.  Rather, I am thinking about this history and how we frame what and how we think about things.  This past June, I traveled to Cuba.  I am still astounded by the number of people who have remarked to me—“Oh, yeah, now that Cuba has opened itself up to us.”  I have tried with all tact to say, “Cuba has never closed itself to us or to other tourists.  We, as U.S. citizens, have always been allowed to travel to Cuba.  It is the U.S. Government that has forbidden re-entry into the U.S. directly from Cuba.  And, in addition, we have not been allowed to bring goods from Cuba into the U.S.”  In other words, the policy has forbidden us, as free people, to travel where we like and spend our money how we like.  Cuba has always welcomed us.

I am well aware of the critiques lodged against a socialist economy.  However, I think it is vital that we not rant against an economic system and claim our distrust of it is because we assert it is undemocratic.  This is a logical fallacy.  Economic systems and governments are not the same thing.  After all, the U.S. invested in a pre-1960 capitalist Cuba when a very undemocratic government ruled.  We have since 1960 not supported a socialist economy in Cuba, despite the fact that it was regular ordinary people who supported and constituted the revolution; and, it is the people, now, who elect representatives to their local governments and to the national committee.  My question, have we not supported Cuba because it has a socialist economy?  Or is it because we have named and acted toward the government as though we believe it to be undemocratic?  If it is the latter, which is what I learned in school, then we must account for all the decades of supporting an undemocratic government in Cuba, which also happened to support capitalism.  In addition, how do we explain the current democratic processes in Cuba today?  And, if this is our line of thinking, at what point do we need to examine (and possibly critique) our own seemingly democratic processes in the U.S.?  Or, perchance, do we not support Cuba because we feel as though goods have been stolen from U.S. citizens?  If this is the case, then, we must keep better accounting books and first pay for all that was acquired from the Cuban people at unfair prices or with no payment at all prior to demanding our own reparations.