Monday, April 21, 2008

El Chile King Comes to Tijuana

Kraig Kraft, PhD student and fellow Fulbrighter, spent the past year criss-crossing Mexico in search wild chiles for his dissertation research on the secrets of pepper genetic diversity. 28,500 miles, 30 states, and countless tacos later, Kraft stopped by Tijuana en route home to UC-Davis. Joined by his wife/research partner Heather and dog Ceniza, we spent Semana Santa (Holy Week) searching for the perfect beach vista, shrimp taco, and –of course –chiles.

Use the force, Katie (Photo by Heather)

KM: Kraig Kraft, welcome to Tijuana.

KK: Thank you for having me.

KM: First, tell me, I’ve always wondered this: what do you look for in chiles when you’re shopping?

KK: [Chuckles] You’re looking to purchase fresh chiles. The skin should be fairly taut. If they’ve been sitting around for a while, they start to lose water, they start to wrinkle. And feel kinda soft.

KM: Shriveled? [Laughs]

KK: Exactly, shriveled. You can see how easily this fits in with all the jokes. You want it to be stiff and rigid. Full of turgor.

Taut chile güeros on left, taut güera on right (Photo by Heather)

KM: And what if you’re buying dried chiles?

KK: You don’t want them to be so dried that they’re brittle to the touch and break easily. Then they’re a pain in the ass to clean and to use in recipes. Except for chile arbol: that will be fairly dry. But the larger chiles you want to be pliable, have a little bit of moisture in there. You want to feel that there’s a lot of carne beneath your fingers when you’re squeezing it.

KM: Even though you’re an old, dried chile. [More ironic snickering]

KK: Exactly. You want it still to have some meat in there. So you know that when you put it in your mole or salsa that there’s a lot of flavor coming out.

Got any carne left in them dried chiles? (Photo by Heather)

KM: What turned you onto chilies?

KK: I spent my formative years in New Mexico. When you go to eat a New Mexico restaurant, the waitress will ask you after you’ve placed your order “red or green?” Meaning what sort of chile sauce do you want on your food.

I’ve always been into spicy food. But it was dumb luck that I got into this project. Basically, my first choice for a dissertation topic only lasted for a couple months. When my advisor and I realized that it was going to be a little polemic and political to try and find funding. Switching to the chile pepper…

KM: Wait, hold up. Were you looking at the cultivation of opium, marijuana, or something?

Lil' nuggets of fire: Chiltepín for sale (Photo by Heather)

KK: No, no. I was looking at the presence of genetically modified foods in centers of origins. Specifically, I was going to try and follow up with some of the Berkeley studies done in 2001 or 2000 where they discovered the presence of genetic material from transgenic corn in maize land-races in Oaxaca. Heritage variety of maize cultivated by farmers with seeds saved from farmers. [The researchers] thought they saw signs of contamination with genetic material from transgenic seeds.

KM: Yeah, that would’ve gotten you on a lot of NPR shows. So, what’s your favorite chile?

KK: Well. It’s funny that you ask that. I’m actually partial to the wild chiltepín of Sonora and Sinaloa. It’s harvested wild, sells for up to 600 pesos a kilo as we saw here in Tijuana’s Mercado Hidalgo.

As my friend Kimberly would call it, it’s very important non-timber forest resource for those living in northern Sonora. There are stories that during harvest season there’s no labor to be found for maquiladoras or for anyone looking for jornaleros. Everyone is out picking chiltepín.

KM: You’ve been telling me that chiles in Mexico are also associated with male genitilia. This is real source of amusement for a lot of Mexicans. Can you share some of your favorite chile jokes?

KK: The chile is definitely wrapped up with Mexican identity and Mexican machismo. Usually if you talk about “el chile” or “chile”… it has a double meaning with “penis.” I don’t know, Mexicans are really into having el doble sentido… it’s one of their favorite jokes. I get all sorts: mostly that when I’m being introduced to someone, they will say that I’ve been over the country “in search for chiles Mexicanas.” Which is a source of a lot of amusement.

Vegetable humor in the market (Photo by Heather)

Additionally, it’s really easy to make these jokes about how spicy or bravo Mexican chiles are. And then of course there’re endless jokes about the different sizes… telling someone they have a chile-quin or chile ancho.

KM: So if I went to the market and wanted to buy some chiles, like in real life, is there a way I can ask the vendors for “x” amount of chile güero without them laughing at me?

KK: It depends. If you start asking them how spicy each pepper was and that you were looking for “el chile mas picoso, mas sabroso de todo Tijuana,” you might become really popular in the market there.

KM: Okay. I’m looking to become popular in Tijuana. I might use that tactic. Speaking of, what were your first impressions of Tijuana?

KK: Tijuana is a fairly large city. We were approaching from the east. As soon as the highway ended in an industrial area, we were stopped for a good 5-10 minutes. There was a huge traffic jam, people honking horns, doing all sorts of things in traffic that only Mexicans can. Like were pulling out to side into the emergency lane and backing up because they decided it wasn’t worth to sit and wait in traffic.

Finally things started moving, we get to see what the hold-up was. Everyone in our lane was rubbernecking at a section police had roped off. It was a balacera: which translates into a shooting. But not just any type of shooting.

KM: An automatic rifle shooting! [Laughter]

KK: Right! Shooting with automatic weapons. We find out the next day it was a city official of Otay who was gunned down in his vehicle. 52-100 rounds into his van. It was like, “Welcome to Tijuana.” No, seriously, it was not even 500 meters from the “Welcome to Tijuana” banner.


Nice, soothing photo of the Baja coast

KM: You’ve been in Tijuana for a couple days now. What are your favorite parts?

KK: I definitely love the revelry on the beach right up until the fence. People selling churros, cocos, right under the gaze of the border patrol on the other side. I can’t really quite describe it or put it into words –what is wrong and yet all okay with that image. But there’s definitely more to Tijuana than balaceras and the zebra-donkeys.

Want more Kraig? Check out his blog, Chasing Chiles.

Frijoles en el Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana (Photo by Heather)

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Cerrajero

My old Toyota key finally wore out this afternoon, in a parking lot run by a one-armed man from Veracruz, across from my dermatologist’s office in la Zona Rio.

Phone calls and a short wait later, a cerrajero (“key-maker”) roared into the lot driving a diesel-belching Rabbit, his young daughter, Salvadoran apprentice, four toolboxes, and three cellphones (a TJ staple) in tow.

Key whittling is the safe-cracking of trades. The cerrajero strained for inaudible clicks, wrenched open my driver’s side door panel, popped off the lock mechanism, and shaved a new key by sight –carefully eyeing to ensure all the locking parts didn’t “flotar” above the appropriate line. He labored like a heart surgeon. I was mesmerized. The key slipped in like butter and the ignition lit.

In the 3-hour interlude, I learned 3 peoples’ life histories, shared admiration for bochos (VW bugs) and Belizean weed, gave quick tips on greywater reuse, and shot the breeze about potholes, politicians, and government corruption.
These are the days when I love Mexico the most.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Waivers Make Good Neighbors?

The war against terrorism has landed in my neighborhood. Last week homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff issued two waivers to bypass federal environmental legislation to speed construction of the border fence. The waiver covers 470 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border (approximately 2,000 miles long) from California to Texas and a 22-mile stretch in Hidalgo County, Texas.

Fences make good neighbors, so the saying goes. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to construct fencing up to 18-feet high, through private and public lands, including wildlife refuges and other protected areas. Fence materials range from tall metal barriers to “impede” pedestrians (see photo at left, from my neighborhood), to stubby concrete posts designed to block cars, to the much-hyped “triple fence” –a mixture of three parallel barriers that give border agents extra seconds to nab crossers.

Why all the cement and barbed wire? “Border security” -that vague term that somehow collapses economic migration with terrorists. “Congress and the American public have been adamant that they want and expect border security,” insists Mr. Chertoff, “We’re serious about delivering it.”

Note Mr. Chertoff and allies (such as Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego) carefully avoid using the waiver and fence as a promise to curb illegal immigration.
That’s because, as experience proves, the fence doesn’t stop migration. Recall President Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper (fences are not just Republican initiatives), which intensified fencing in border twin cities, such as Tijuana-San Diego. The response? Undocumented migration simply shifted streams to dangerous Arizona deserts. Push and pull factors across the Americas are still stronger than steel.

So what work does the fence do?
Some of us sleep better at night. For the rest of us, “border security” makes geopolitical and everyday trouble. People migrate in life-threatening environments. Coyotes and polleros, the human smugglers, charge higher prices. Habitats and wildlife are adversely affected. I cannot walk the 2 direct miles to my office at the Tijuana Estuary; instead, I drive 24 miles round-trip, wait 2 hours at the San Ysidro garita, and am often searched by an INS agent (I think they don’t like social researchers).

Protest art on the fence (Photo by Heather Z.)

But within and beyond the borderlands, it’s the waiver that works the hardest. With the passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005, Congress granted DHS the authority to waive federal legislation to pave the way for fence construction. DHS has since expanded the boundaries of this authority to trample a lot of local and federal regulation. Most recently, on April 3, Mr. Chertoff neatly stepped over 36 laws, among others, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The spatial and social reach of these effects should deeply alarm democracy-lovers. We (in particular our elected representatives) have created a Leviathan in the US: an agency with the power to trump public laws and legislation (and therefore other branches of government?), to sink millions into a project that, at best, allows fence-lovers to sleep soundly. Apart from ethical commitments I feel we are failing to meet, one of my greatest worries is the uneven political geography we are creating within our government.

Robert Frost questions his fence-loving neighbor in the poem Mending Wall:

Spring is mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows?

But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out…

People, are we listening?

Hey man, where are the cows? (Photo by Heather Z.)