Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory

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The Forward March of “Free” Walking Tours

a rich Spanish family’s house on the plaza as they memorialize themselves and their conquering of the Maya underfoot and the “wild men” outside their gates

Merida   I’ve had some interest in the concept of “tours” for some time. The way in which a people, a neighborhood, and a city are presented is not a trivial concern either for those doing the looking and listening or for those being observed, usually silently and sometimes like animals in the cage.

the “weight” or responsibility for the building is pictured on the architect

There is a historic arch across the street from our house in New Orleans. On a normal day several local bicycle tours stop to look at the arch commemorating soldiers from the 9th Ward who fought in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the explanation of the guides and the stories they tell and sometimes fabricate about the arch. On the street side the names listed alphabetically are all white. If anyone happens to walk to the other side of the arch, the names listed alphabetically are all black, and so it states clearly. Some guides stand in front of the arch and lecture their riders without ever suggesting they get off the bike and walk to the other side. Others see the arch as simply a rest stop and offer the opportunity to rubberneck at the houses surrounding this one block green square as they talk generally about the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the fact that the arch was moved to its current location from the center of what was known as McCarty Square. The history that led to it being fenced and gifted to the school board from the city because neighbors on the square became afraid of too many people, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, using the park day and night is never told. The very issue of the separate spaces for the names of neighborhood soldiers, black and white, is never mentioned or condemned, nor the relative irony that even listing the names at all and allowing them in the center of the small park might have been a bit radical for that time almost one-hundred years ago either.

Our union represented New Orleans buggy drivers for a while, and some of them were clear that they unabashedly made up stories and stops based on favors from businesses and tips along the way. In the Lower 9th Ward now the post-Katrina tours are a constant issue for neighbors, because they receive no benefits from the gawking and pointing. In the coming issue of Social Policy we offer an excerpt of a book dealing with slum tourism, pro and con, which includes a long interview with ACORN’s Vinod Shetty about our members’ view of tours in Mumbai’s giant Dharavi slum where we work. At the first Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Brazil, my companera and I spent several days in Rio de Janiero and took a so-called “slum tour” of the favelas as this trend was beginning. My point is simple. All of this is happening in the cities around you, perhaps off your radar, but has impact both profound and political, and benefits that are either nonexistent or minimal to the those living and working while the objects of the tourists’ gaze.

pieces of Mayan temples are used to build the church walls

And, I say this after our family enjoyed and learned from a free walking tour in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan that essentially walked among the buildings, churches, parks, and cathedral located around the city’s central plaza. Free walking tours are sometimes touted as having begun in Berlin in 2004 and according to various websites exist in 18 cities around Europe and 60 cities around the world, although a quick look reveals that this is just hype and marketing. The US National Park Service has done an excellent free walking tour around the New Orleans French Quarter for decades for example. Our Merida tour in Mexico is not on any lists.

I’m not an advocate of free labor, but it is hard to deny that having the guide dependent on tips creates incentives for an excellent presentation. Our guide in Merida was Mayan, but his thousand watt smile didn’t disguise the political and religious facts of the Spanish colonization and enslavement of Mayans, the destruction of Mayan temples to build the churches, the apology of Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral for the historic abuses, the conflict of beliefs, his derision of the city’s upper class 19th century love affair with everything French from architecture to fashion, and more.

In his case, the two hour bilingual tour was a service to the city, and should have merited the guide a position on the municipal payroll. As free walking tours are exploding around the world, if communities want to receive benefits for their people as well as make sure that the whole story is told and the contributions go to the community and the organizations making a difference, rather than see their history and futures as little more than a gratuity, they need to take their messages more seriously and recognize the power they pack.

murals in the governor’s house depict the Mayan creation story

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Trump’s Plan to Stop Muslims at Passport Control

New Orleans   Hey, good news Muslim brothers and sisters. President-elect Trump’s tweet about Germany claiming how right he was all along to argue for refusing to allow any more Muslims in the country was rephrased by his team at the southern White House in Florida. They claim, oh, no, not everyone, just the Muslims from countries which are hotbeds of terrorism. Ok, I hope that’s clear to everybody.

But, we have to wonder just how many countries that might exclude?

Take the fact that his latest outburst was prompted by an incident in Germany by someone originally from Tunisia. Does that mean Tunisians who are Muslims are all barred or does that mean Germans who are also Muslims are barred?

Take France and Belgium where there have been terrorist incidents over recent years triggered by individuals with roots in the Middle East, but citizenship in these countries. Does Trump mean to exclude all French Muslims or only those from all of the North African countries like Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, and the like? Or, what the heck, all the French! Add Great Britain to the list, we’ve had Muslims involved in terrorist incidents even in the United States with connections there, and of course remember 9/11, Saudi Arabians surely will trigger separate screening and a rough road towards entering the United States, no matter how much money they spend here.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Are they good? Now, Turkey has had one incident after another including a recent assassination of a Russian ambassador, are we barring all of them as well?

Russia has been involved in an internal civil war with its ethnic and Muslim population, and there have been numerous terrorist acts. Are Russian Muslims also going to be barred? How about China, they have some internal issues along the same lines? Ivanka, bar the gate, right?

Syria, Jordan, and the like can forget about visiting the United States, and I’m not sure what Trump would have passport control do about Palestinians from whatever country is willing to claim them. Cross them off the list, right?

And, what about Americans? If any US Muslims visit family or friends in any of these countries in Europe, Africa, or Asia, will they be able to come back, and if so, at what cost.

What template is the Trump team following? Are they reviewing the playbook for handling the comings and goings of Japanese during War World II? That worked out well for everyone didn’t it. Or maybe North Korea is the model that appeals: just don’t let anyone in or out.

Trump team, let the rest of us know when anything even remotely sounds like a plan, rather than more hot air triggering climate change every time the President-elect speaks or tweets.

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Looking for the Kindness of Strangers – Think France!

business-aviation-operations-for-france-customs-immigration-agricultureNew Orleans   Over the last two years with an emerging affiliate in France, I’ve now been on the ground working in Grenoble or Paris there a bunch of times, well for me a bunch anyway, like five or six times over two years approximately. My comrades and colleagues there are wonderful people of course, but that’s true of all the people with whom I organize, but on the train the other night from Paris to Amsterdam to fly home, I found myself reflecting on the reputation the French have for being unfriendly to strangers. It’s a bum rap!

I’ll pass over the common courtesy and generosity of our organizers and their friends when I’m passing through who are constantly offering tea or coffee or in many cases surrendering their beds and bunks to an unexpected American squatter. Within the organizing culture that’s pretty standard and to the degree “birds of a feather flock together,” it shouldn’t be a surprise that it rubs off on their friends and supporters.

My brief for a new and friendlier France is not because this has been a big push from the tourism industry or the government, both of which are true, and both of which are undoubtedly totally ignored by the French people, but is based on my experience in the endlessly confusing Metro and train stations, particularly in Paris. On several trips, I’ve been flummoxed by the problems of getting Metro tickets from the machines. Several times I’ve been helped through a tough spot when someone employed by the metro system or the state railway came to save the day, but I started counting the times it was just random situations where I was bailed out by complete strangers passing by when it was obvious I was clueless who wordlessly stepped in to save me.

In the giant Paris Nord on this very trip, I had jumped off a bus and had gone in the first door to the station with the crowd to catch my train and somehow had ended up in the Metro complex rather than the city to city train station. I followed folks through the turnstiles, but then I was caught going through successfully, but not getting my bags through that were stuck on the other side. While wrestling with the situation a man coming through the other way saw me, and without saying a word, walked over and waved his pass across the scanner so the gates opened allowing me to go through. Having found out from an information officer how to get to the train station, the ticket from the bus, which should have worked, but didn’t, I was stranded in between another set of turnstiles unable to move forward or backwards. A woman, her baby in a carriage and a friend saved me there. I wish I could say these were isolated examples, but I’m afraid they weren’t. I could easily cite another three or four times when total strangers have stepped forward and gotten me on my way, as I thanked them profusely in English, as they politely waved me off and walked away.

The one common denominator in all of these situations has been that virtually every one of the folks. epitomizing the kindness of strangers, have almost all originally been strangers themselves at one time. They have almost all uniformly been Afro-Caribbean or Afro-French or possibly just Africans and presumably as foreign to all of this in the past as I often am now.

I don’t want to extrapolate past the point of all reason, but just maybe this kind of empathy with the lost, confused, and foreign by others who have been in the same boat will be one of the saving graces of not only French civility and manners, but also the same in the United States and other countries. Utah will invariably not end up in the Clinton column, but the fact that many citizens there thought about it because their foreign experience was such that they were unwilling to join the Trump anti-immigrant call, might offer us hope here as well. The French like the English, Americans, and other countries are all dealing with waves of anti-immigrant feeling, but it may be the empathy of those who choose our countries, rather than many of the natives who want to return to some foggy, archaic times in the past by forgetting about their own experience in order to adopt a bankrupt and false ideology, that end up saving all of us at the end of the day.

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The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

***

Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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The Activists of Paris Are Ready for a Movement Now

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a workshop for activists at the labor union hall

Paris   On the bus to our meetings in Paris we were clogged up in a huge traffic circle where the Bastille, the infamous prison of the French Revolution was located. On that site now is a quite grand appearing Opera House. My colleague had earlier reprised stories of Charles De Gaulle and his comeback after the worst defeat of the French Army “in 2000 years,” as he called it. We met members of several local political parties in the afternoon at a café, where even I could translate the original sign saying this was the Café of the Unions. Down the street we met that evening in the a vast building constructed by the unions after the mid-1800’s Paris Commune, when workers concluded that they had insufficient space in Paris to meet, discuss, plan, and take action. In the room where we met a score of local activists, a translation of the sign on the door was that this was the room “of the little strike.” History seemed everywhere around us, but even surrounded by history, this is where things start.

DSCN2020

In Grenoble, our leaders were focused on the hard problems at the basics of organization. How to build their local groups and keep the members active? How to balance growing the organization with maintaining the existing pace? How to navigate their role as leaders between the staff and membership? In Paris, our colleagues had vast political experience in the labor movement, student unions, mobilizations, political parties, and more, but they were looking past the grassroots specifics to the grander vision, and they were hungry to ignite the movement that would bring back the good times and create the big changes of our dreams. They knew the work of our affiliates and partners, Alliance Citoyenne and ReAct, and the idea of ACORN excited them about the possibilities they could see in the future.

Answering Questions

Answering Questions

The questions probed recruitment, campaigns, and of course politics and how ACORN handled these issues around the world and historically in the United States. Ironically, where with the leaders I had tried to gently pull them towards looking at the bigger picture of their opportunities, with this crowd of seasoned activists I found myself pushing them to the concrete realities of the work and what it took to realize those dreams.

For example, one great question spoke of the decline of the workers’ movement in France and Europe and seemed to ask if ACORN could be the modern vehicle to revive those times of sweeping change. The question took my breath away with its excitement, but the enormity of the project and our place in it, forced an answer that must have disappointed many, when I argued that we would simply be one force of many and that we in fact couldn’t make it all happen without a wider array of organizations, especially labor, moving in the same direction. I had to remind my new friends that despite the growth and success of ACORN in the USA over its years, there was still galloping and growing inequity, the end of welfare, stagnant wages, declining incomes for many of our families, and abandonment of support for much of the urban America where ACORN members struggled and fought.

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN's affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

one of our leaders in Aubervillers and Solene Compingt of ACORN’s affiliate Alliance Citoyenne

Nonetheless, this was a hopeful crowd ready to do the work, and that was exciting in itself, and challenges us to do more in Paris and across France and Europe. It was refreshing finally to answer questions that came from one of our leaders in attendance from Aubervilliers, a Paris suburb on the brass tacks of negotiations, something I could handle more confidently. I even got a question on whether dues should be lower for a 23-year old member where with relief I could simply answer, “No.”

As we left in good spirits together after several hours of dialogue, we passed the door to the giant auditorium on the main floor. A peek inside saw people lined along the walls of the great expanse. They were singing, and we left the building to a joyous noise.

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

adrien roux of ACORN partner ReAct listens in on a small group at the end of workshop

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