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February 20, 2004

note received february 20, 2004


February 2, 2004

At the end of the last report I filed, I was in Redford, Texas. From Redford, you can proceed through Big Bend National Park or return via Presidio and some beautiful lonely highways and the Interstate. The night before I left Enrique had explained the use of some local plants and minerals in cooking. Though he does not drink, he brought out a bottle of Sotol Coyamito, a distilled alcohol made from a plant that grows in Chihuahua state. It is related to the agave from which tequila is made, and with the price of that drink still climbing, there is some fear that this raw white liquor might be "the next yuppie drink." After repeated sampling I don’t think that’s a problem. One leading indicator is that an MIT graduate from Chihuahua is starting a sizable plantation to increase production. Judging from the fact that the bottles I saw were reused tequila containers, that should not be too hard.

I decided to cross over to Ojinaga just across the Rio Grande from Presidio. Depending on where you cross and how, the post Sept 11 delays to return to the U.S. can be very lengthy. I remember seeing web cams as well as text updates on the wait at each main border crossing. Tijuana and Juarez are very congested. Columbus, NM. and Presidio, Texas were not. I parked my car at a run down trailer that served at the Presidio tourist office, grabbed my passport, and walked toward the bridge. Then I remembered I had a .30-06 cartridge in my pocket. I had picked it up the day before when Enrique and I were visiting the place where the U.S. Marines shot the shepherd kid. No guns or ammunition are allowed into Mexico without a permit, so I put the cartridge at the base of a palm tree near the international bridge. As I reached the line of brass markers in the center of the bridge I notice a bulging back pack sitting on the trash can. You have to wonder why someone would abandon a pack just before crossing into Mexico.

Just past the money changers I passed a man selling ornate cemetery monuments, and a little beyond was the first liquor store where I found a bottle of Sotol for about $10.50 for a liter. Passing back across there was a small booth to collect $1.10 for the state of Texas and 25 cents for a Mexican toll across the bridge. I can understand why the people in Redford are very inconvenienced when they can't wade across the shallow Rio Grande and have to travel at least 35 miles and pass through the official border control. Once back in the U.S. I retrieved my souvenir rifle cartridge and headed toward McAllen.

February 3

In 2001 I had visited a number of rural projects sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation. Their support encouraged rural citizens to organize, learn some new skills, and plan for modest ICT projects in their village or region. The book I wrote about this project on behalf of the foundation never went further than the program officer who hired me, but I had very fond memories of one particular project in south Texas near McAllen. Llano Grande was based in a high school and run by a teacher named Francisco Guajardo. In 2001 the Morino Institute had paid for a team of young people from Llano Grande to present their project at the Internet Society annual conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

What impressed me then (and now) is how the Internet was a supporting piece of their many activities and not the main focus. This baffled the Internet Society audience who judged programs by how much people were using the Internet and how it was spreading and what kind of great web sites were available. The young people at Llano Grande were doing web sites and digital storytelling and online publications, but the thrust of their activities was emphasis on local activities, local resources, and local culture. That is not to say they are parochial. There is a very successful program to help the students find places at top ranked universities all over the U.S. but even if they go away the network and the ethos of the members encourages young graduates to come back to help and to stay in contact if they decide to live and work elsewhere. I have a whole chapter on this project that dates form 2001, if any of you want to read it.

The purpose of this trip was to meet Francisco's parents because they do not use the Internet, while all their grown children are teachers or professors and are deeply immersed in the technology as all of you are. Since my visit in 2001 both Francisco and Miguel, his brother, had received their Ph.D.s and were on the faculty at University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg in the school of education. Llano Grande had purchased a large house from Dr. Trueba, an anthropologist and supporter of Llano Grande and the organization had expanded its programs to include more seminars and community projects run by graduate students. Miguel now served at head of the board of directors of the Loka Institute, a nonprofit that encourages community research by universities.

Francisco, Miguel, and I drove to their parents house (which Miguel built with his father) and I was greeted very warmly by both the mother and father. What I noticed first as I entered was the wall of family photos with the top row reserved for the grand parents, and a youthful photo of the parents, then the brothers, and children, cousins, grandchildren. It was clear: here was the network that mattered most.


Jose Angel Guajardo was born in 1936 in Tamaulipus state, the youngest of 14 kids and only went through the third grade. He took it over several times because he enjoyed it, not because he was held back. He still had his workbook with all the arithmetic, spelling, and geography lessons from 1948. He made sure I noted the “B” on different lessons. This was the teacher noting “Bien” (good) for his answers. He became a heavy reader but did not attend school. Instead, at the age of 16 he began crossing to the U.S. to work for very low wages in the Rio Grande Valley. Frequently the immigration service would send him back. Eventually he acquired a permanent resident status and through hard work (care taking, maintenance, janitorial services) he saved enough to buy land.

Jose only spoke Spanish with me, and everyone in the family conversed in Spanish, though the sons would use more English when they were in the university office or riding together in the car. Miguel said that when they came for a meal they would hear all the news and gossip of what was happening in the community long before they could learn any other way. The implication was that besides a close-knit family, Jose had a strong network of friends who kept him informed. I asked about his reading habits, and he showed me "La Mañana" the daily paper from Reynosa (just across the river from McAllen). As for television they were able to get enough Spanish channels with an antenna, through there was good natured disagreement on who liked to watch telenovelas. They had a fixed line telephone too.

On the wall next to the family photos the different degrees earned by the children were on display around the door frame: B.A., M.A. Ph.D. for several different people. I asked Francisco how all of them made the jump and all achieved so much education and recognition when their parents had so little. "Unconditional support" was his answer. Beside the right family environment, it was clear that the parents may have lacked opportunities for education when they grew up, but they knew the value of it and encouraged it in their children. As for the Internet, Jose's needs were being met by the strong family and social network and with books and newspapers for information and the television for entertainment.

February 6, 2004

After a very long drive I ended up in El Paso again. I went to drive near the bridge to Juarez. In downtown El Paso there were hundreds and hundreds of jornaderos (day workers), many beckoning to me in hopes of getting work. My new but dirty van stood out. I drove near the walkover bridge but decided not to park and visit Mexico this time. Instead, I went to the library and read some of the works by border scholars like Oscar Martinez, author of Border People. Mary Helen Michaels was working reference. She helped me find an address (using a book rather than the Internet), and then we began talking about computers and reference work. She said that many people did not want to touch the machines and asked them for help. Some would go downstairs to use the Internet but not have any idea how to proceed. The Internet room staff could not provide instruction, so some of these people would be sent to reference for help.

Michaels told me about other kinds of training offered around El Paso and pointed me to the Literacy Center which is housed in a relatively new branch a few miles away in a poor neighborhood very close to the border. I first met Margarit Hewitt who when asked if she was Martha Toscano, the director, replied, “I wish!.” Hewitt showed me the computers for public use, the computer lab, and then Toscano introduced herself and went into detail about their many programs:
-teen hang out
-art gallery
-English literacy programs with teachers or CAI
-computer classes
-cultural events: illustrator signing, dances,

In the late 90's she approached a community group at one of the local Levi's plants and they did a fund raiser that brought $55,000 which was enough to buy all the equipment for the lab. All the Levi's plants are gone now. She seemed adept at getting grants, and I told her about the Beaumont Foundation and a couple of other sources. I mentioned that Llano Grande had some programs that were similar, and she seemed most interested in the digital storytelling workshops. Mary

Santa Fe, New Mexico. February 6

I had lunch with Richard Akeroyd who had left the Gates Foundation and is now New Mexico State Librarian. He seemed to be enjoying this job a great deal. I talked about the small libraries I visited in Deming, Animas, and Columbus. We discussed the sustainability of technology projects, and how the current economy is making it hard for libraries that received computer labs from the foundation to continue full service. I said I felt the complexity of these technological systems are more more of a burden than most planners and funders realize. The problems show up faster in poor countries where the labs are almost totally dependent on outside flow of support.


I made a brief trip to Taos, did not find a friend who started La Plaza Telecommunity and is now importing Indian textiles, nor did I connect with a noted techno-critic, Dr. Chellis Glendinning. At least her answering machine worked, so I still hope to talk with her by telephone at a later time. Since I was there in 2001 the number of Indian casinos had increased. Even the conservative Taos Pueblo has one. On the way up, I kayaked in the cold waters of a small river outside of Espanola. The banks were covered with snow, but I stayed dry and warm. A storm has passed, and even the farm animals did not seem to mind the weather.


February 7 Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico

I made the wonderful wide open drive toward Acoma Pueblo to the west of Albuquerque and Gallup (KGAP-Navajo Radio 24 hours a day). This road still has dinosaurs and odd signs to attract us tourists.


I saw several signs for Indian art at the Laguna Pueblo so I took that Interstate exit and found two stores right across from each other. The one I chose was run by a middle aged guy wearing a Sonora, Mexico, baseball hat. Armando Quiroz is from Chihuahua and married Janice Quiroz, a Laguna Indian. They decided to open this store on the rez, and they have two sons. The store was full of different art and weavings from Mexico and the NM pueblos, mainly Laguna, Acoma, Zuni, and Navajo. Nice quality (to my untrained eye). There was an odd carving of a U.S. soldier, sort of sharp angles in a naive style. I saw a Zapotec rug and began talking with Armando about Oaxaca, Mexico. He had been there and commented that prices had risen greatly, and that rugs were close to what Navajos were charging. Something I had paid $30 for ten years ago was going for $200 now. It was a nice rug but a bit overpriced.


I asked if had heard of Mata Ortiz and he pointed to a book of the pottery of the place, and said they too were getting aggressive in their pricing, that their pots were getting expensive. I saw a nice small seed pot with marbling, made by rubbing a stone on the fired pot, and it was marked $48. “I’ll give you a good price; that’s the gringo price,” he said. “But I’m a gringo too,” I answered but only paid $30 for the little pot. We talked about how much knockoff stuff was made in China and how India was copying Zapotec designs and selling the rugs very cheaply. It reinforced the impressions I had when I wrote “Arts, Crafts, and Globalization” for Cadre, an online pub at San Jose State University.

We talked about learning Spanish and he wants his kids to attend language school in Tepotlan near Cuernavaca because they don’t speak Spanish much at home. I asked if he used the Internet and he said no, but his kids do. They had found the language schools online, and he said he had no use for email but he did complain about the high cost of remesas to his mom in Chihuahua. About $30 for to send and convert $300 to pesos. I told him about Scott Robinson’s hope of moving money via the Internet and telecenters. He did not know about people getting ATM cards and sending one to a relative in Mexico. This is a technique a lot of immigrants use when their relatives are near ATM machines. I asked he has considering trying to sell his wares on the Internet, but it seemed the roadside advertising was sufficient. So here was another person whose family made use of the Internet while he saw no need himself.

February 8, Quartzite, Arizona

This small town near the California border is a magnet for RV owners and rock hounds. There is an ongoing swap meet/flea market where many of the stands sell all sorts of local and imported minerals such as trilobites from Morocco and amethyst from Brazil, and onyx spheres the size of beach balls from Pakistan.


However, there are other booths selling animal skins, herbal supplements, “Amish” quilts, Chinese tools, nuts and dried fruit, identity decals for your truck (“Eat fumes Ford boy”), and clothes, videos and DVDs and used books. The population grows to more than 100,000 people, all living out in the desert in their RVs, but they all seemed to be in town causing a traffic jam with the numerous semi-trucks that had stopped for lunch.


I walked to a long bus parked some distance from the flea market because of the banner advertising “satellite Internet” on a self-aligning rig being marketed by Scott Whitney (dustyfoot.com) a web site designer from Oklahoma. He has been hanging out in Quartzite for several weeks and planned to spend two more before moving on. Most of the RV people wanted a two way VSAT dish that they could set up and aim, but this is considerably more complex that the little Dish network one way receivers for television. The monthly connect fee is about $90, but the outlay for Scott’s gear is several thousand. A number of RV parks have cable or DSL and offer connections to those renting hookups.


There is an interesting monument to a 19th century Syrian camel wrangler who took care of the camels the U.S. Army bought in Aleppo and tried out in the southwest desert. After the beta test failed, Hadj Ali (he had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) became a prospector and much later died in Quartzite.


I drove about 30 miles south toward Yuma and saw a dramatic range of mountains thrusting out of the desert floor. This was the Kofa Wilderness Area, and I decided to spend the night at the isolated camp site at the foot of the mountain. Narrow canyons protected the palms which are the only native palms in the southwest. It was a beautiful evening, clear and cold. The wind jostled the van but I slept well.

February 9, San Ysidro, California

The crossing from Tijuana to San Diego county is here, and it probably the busiest border in the United States. Casa Familiar is a full service nonprofit started many years ago by Andrea Skorepa who is still director. I had been on a program with her at UCLA and decided to drop in.


I met Carmen Fernandez who had worked with another nonprofit that united with Casa Familiar. She was doing outreach with K-8 schools, and she had just had a visit from the library literacy liaison. It seemed that CF was involved in many different activities:
-building some low cost homes
-fitness center
-teen hangout
-computer labs including a multimedia production lab
-classes in English, Spanish, citizenship, dance, and several aimed at seniors
-social services related to housing, tax forms, referral services
-parent organizations
-job development
-festivals such as dia de los muertos

In other words, all sort of community glue, with strong links to government and other social service agencies. However, they need volunteers, especially for the computer facilities, some of which are not being used because of staff shortages.

Most of the computer instruction is geared toward job placement, but some of the seniors want to overcome their reluctance to use computers and the Internet. An older woman came in to sign up for a class, and seemed to want to take more English and computer classes. From the offerings, most of the students seem to have a practical desire to learn tools and acquire basic educational certificates, including Mexican equivalents, though various online programs now offered to Mexican citizens living elsewhere.

We talked about the other programs I had visited in Edinburg, El Paso, Redford, and Sylmar. Carmen gave me a copy of the twelve page monthly newspaper “Borders Fronteras”.

February 15

I am back in San Jose for my wife’s break from school. Next stop is Eugene, Oregon, and then to Mexico.

03:19 PM in steve's letters | Permalink



Enrique didn't tell you that Redford is served by LLnet, or the Los Lipanes network out of Presidio? Anyone with a telephone can purchase service. Most people don't because what's the use? You have to have a computer first and a reason to have a computer second. Padre Mel has access and most people go to him to file a complaint or make a long distance phone call.

What we really don't have is wireless service. The signal cuts out around Estrada's Arroyo, that's right where the county road to Casa Piedra is.

For many years I resided in Redford and I had a small television that barely got a signal from El Mulato. I got used to just reading books from the Madrid Store and listening to the shortwave radio.

About Sotol, most people don't or won't drink it. Sotol is more of a Northern Mexican drink than something J-A's want. The people around El Polvo strangely prefer brandy or mescal.

The next time you make a trip down to Redford, look up Padre Mel.

Posted by: Joseph La Follette at May 5, 2004 12:32:51 PM