Friday, February 22, 2008

Power Tools for Justice

Hope is the difference between probability and possibility.

-Isabelle Stengers, A ‘Cosmo-Politics,’ Risk, Hope, Change

Bliss with 18 volts

My PhD advisor is fond of saying, “Use the wrong methods for the right questions.” I’ve taken this advice to heart: using hydrologic modeling to reveal the impacts of non-capitalist water economies, Q-factor surveys to gauge the role of the State, and ethnographic techniques to examine the roots of coastal estuarine pollution.

Most days this feels like trying to swat a fly with a ball-peen hammer. But in the spirit of possibility, today Oscar and I visited El Home Depot to spend part of my budget on tools. We bought the works: 18V drills, square shovels, and enough work gloves to outfit a small army. This equipment will be used in San Bernardo, a Tijuana community doing urban development through stormwater harvesting. We supply some necessary equipment, they provide the labor. And I now I'm an ethnographer with a proper tool belt.

Ethnography is dirty business. The idea behind the methodology is simple: muddy boots begat wisdom. Deep hanging-out is necessary to understand the people and places you study. “Participatory action research,” a type of ethnography, pushes this approach further. PAR implies that I, and not just Tijuanenses, pull on the boots as we labor to understand and make change.

Dirty business: Stormwater flows in Cañon Los Laureles

Take my project. One of my main goals is to understand how the informal water economy works. In an unregulated sector, who sets the rules for greywater reuse? Who rigs the rainwater cisterns? Does water harvesting provide a subsidy for household economies, and by how much? Does it follow capitalist logics or Mom’s list of chores? How do we think about the off-grid economy, which is not limited to Tijuana, but surfaces in spots all over the world, from New Delhi to rural Belize to my cousin’s backyard on Long Island?

Doing is thinking in PAR-speak. So in San Bernardo, I watch and work with their efforts to harvest stormwater. Bolstered by volunteer labor and donated funds, local folks are making permeable pavers (basically porous concrete) that will carpet their highly-eroded dirt streets (see above photo -yes, that's a road!), slow and absorb rainfall runoff, and create much-needed infrastructure. These efforts, in tandem with greywater reuse and rainwater harvesting, create what I like to call the “off-grid” water economy.

Pavers and non-capitalism in action

Stepping back, it’s fair to ask: what difference does one road make? If people are creating a non-capitalist water economy in the middle of a desert, so what? Besides cement, what makes change stick?

A few weeks back, I interviewed a U.S. volunteer. Bright-eyed and young, he accompanied about 80 UCSD students who spent the day repairing broken molds, mixing concrete, and casting pavers. I asked him why he sacrificed his Saturdays for hard labor in Tijuana, what motivated him to work on a tiny project that faced such great odds. The whine of power drills hung in the air around us. He thought for a few seconds, then looked me squarely in the eye. “I just want to be here,” he said.

Love, labor, and power tools: it just might be enough.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dune Buggies Might Fly

Q: What do you get when you mix sun, sand, 3,000 retired North Americans, and enough Pemex stations to fuel a battalion of RVs?

A: The town of San Felipe. Post-apocalyptic trailer parks. And extremely large cans of Tecate.

My friend Kiza came down to Baja for the week sandwiched between St. Valentine’s Day and my 31st birthday. We spent a handful of days exploring the cafes, cuisine, and jazz clubs of Tijuana.

Itching for a road trip, we pointed my truck southeast and headed for San Felipe, a small fishing/tourist town on the Gulf. Here, time is marked by the slow lapping of extreme tides, stark shadows moving across the arid mountains, and the migration of human snowbirds from the north (Canadians included). No whistle-blowing waiters and Señor Frog’s in this town: Kiza and I were the only foreigners under 65. Sort of like Mexico meets Green Valley, Arizona. With Tecate cans, larger than life.

Kiza: Where are all the young people??

Dawn on the tidal flats with Zuzu

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

KT on the Radio!

Making a particularly astute point

My Spanish is good. I’ve transcribed interviews, written love letters, dreamt-up surveys with minutes to spare. I’ve given public talks to youth groups, women’s groups, environmental groups, and a bunch of folks once gathered for a pig castration. I can talk down a sewer line from toilet to tap. I’ve haggled over centavos with the toughest Guatemalan fruit vendors –and these señoras eat gringas for lunch.

Put a microphone in front of me, though, and my Spanish goes to jello.

Monday morning I was the featured guest on “Mar Sin Fronteras,” a 1-hour radio show hosted by my friend and work compañero, Oscar Romo. The show is broadcast weekly on Tijuana’s FM 102.5 by the Instituto Mexicano de la Radio, sort of Mexico’s answer to NPR. “Mar Sin Fronteras” (Ocean Without Borders) typically focuses on environmental issues related to coastal management and has featured luminaries such as “El Hijo del Santo,” one of Mexico’s premier professional wrestlers. What, you thought green meant boring?

50,000 Tijuanenses got to hear my thoughts on rainwater harvesting, greywater, urban development, and the state of Mexico’s indie rock scene (prognosis: muy bien). One person even shot me an email, seeking more information on rainwater harvesting workshops. No one seemed to mind that I couldn’t remember how to say “and then you rig up a gutter system.” So despite my occasional mind-blanks and slang-slippages, I’ll chalk it up in the “W” column.

FM 102.5 is not currently streamlined, so unfortunately I can’t post a recording. But take a look at these photos for a quick glimpse into the world of Mexican public radio. Panic was never this photogenic.

Radio magic: Romo on left, Meehan on right

Trannies Eat Tacos, Too

Welcome to Tijuana, cabrón, where the zebras are donkeys and trannies eat at taco trucks, too.

I’ve been talking a lot of smack about my hypothetical blog lately. Now, finally, the rubber has hit the road: bienvenidos a Las Fugas. This blog will hopefully give you insight into my work, my experiences, and my life here in Tijuana. As the year unfolds, you’ll get a better idea of what I’m trying to study and accomplish: examining how people create alternative water supply (though water harvesting techniques) in low-income neighborhoods, often called “illegal” or “irregular” settlements.

As a laboratory of urban development, Tijuana blows the mind. It will make your knees knock, this clusterfuck of wealth and poverty. The city is a riot of garage-door shacks, babies wrapped in plastic to keep warm at night, lost tourists, new 2-ton pick-up trucks, posh mini-malls built on old landfills, massive luxury condos climbing the hills. From the border to my house, you will smell at least four different versions of sewage: dried, stormwater-diluted, faint, or fresh & putrid. No doubt, there are contrasts in this city that will stun you.

But despite the Tijuana of media lore, this city is a normal Mexican place. Posh, well-groomed housewives at Starbucks, children in uniforms shuffling to school, parks with tree trunks painted white, old ladies striking market deals over mangoes, men in post-lunch food comas watching telenovelas on the comedor’s TV. Quinceñera dress shops. Cafes serving organic coffee. Christian bookstores. Costco. Streets filled with people living out their everyday lives, moved by an extraordinary sense of hope and a bit of thick skin. I think you’ll like it.