¡México! [en español & english]

la vista desde la casa de Gemma // the view from Gemma’s doorway

Ayer cruzamos la frontera a las 5 p.m. Tocamos unas canciones para (y con) los trabajadores de una tienda en la Avenida Revolución. Nos reunimos con nuestra amiga Gemma y fuimos a su casa para jugar una partida de poop smoothie, ver una película y hablar acerca de la locura de una sociedad en que la gente acepta niveles ridículos de desigualdad como si esto fuera justo.

No lo es.

Cuando vemos las películas, vemos las desigualdades del pasado y nos preguntamos cómo la gente aceptaba esas cosas como si fueran correctas. ¿Cómo es que la gente podría ver la esclavitud, el genocidio de los indios y las guerras imperialistas como cosas naturales y buenas? Pero no siempre notamos que seguimos participando en sistemas increíblemente ilógicos. Un sistema económico en que los asalariados sólo pueden trabajar si lo hacen para el beneficio de los que ya tienen todo. Un sistema en donde desperdiciamos el 40% de la comida mundial mientras mil millones de personas no tienen para comer.

La riqueza y la pobreza, juntas en el mismo mundo, en el mismo país. Y lo aceptamos como algo inevitable. Como la mayoría aceptaba la esclavitud como algo inevitable, algo necesaria, cuando no lo era y la desigualdad de hoy tampoco lo es. Es una elección y podemos elegir de otra manera. Juntos, enfatizando la cooperación en lugar de la competencia, rehusándonos a aceptar la moralidad, el marketing y el sistema que tratan de imponer los más poderosos, podemos resolver borrar la desigualdad, el aislamiento y el sufrimiento del presente como resolvimos borrar la esclavitud y la colonia  en el pasado.

A la revolución personal. A la revolución social.

– Adam
en Tijuana, Baja California, México

gemma & co.

—————TRADUCCIÓN/TRANSLATION—————-

We crossed the border at 5 P.M. yesterday. We played some songs for (and with) the workers at a store on Avenida Revolución. We met up with our friend Gemma and went to her house to play a game of poop smoothie, watch a movie, and talk about the craziness of a society where people accept ridiculous levels of inequality as if it were fair.

It’s not.

When we watch movies, we see the inequalities of the past and we ask ourselves how people accepted those things as if they were right. How could people see slavery, the genocide of the Indians, and imperialist wars as natural and good things? But we don’t notice that we continue participating in incredibly illogical systems. An economic system in which workers can only work if they do it for the benefit of those who already have everything. The waste of 40% of the world’s food when a billion people don’t have anything to eat.

Wealth and poverty, together in the same world, in the same country. And we accept it as something inevitable. The same way that the majority accepted slavery as something inevitable, something necessary. It wasn’t. And today’s inequality isn’t either. It’s a choice. And we can choose something else. Together, emphasizing cooperation instead of competition, refusing to accept the morality, the marketing, and the system that the powerful work to impose, we can resolve to erase the inequality, the isolation, and the suffering of the present like we resolved to erase the slavery and colonialism of the past.

To personal revolution. To social revolution.

– Adam
en Tijuana, Baja California, México

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The Hotel Experience

So we stayed Friday and Saturday nights at a hotel. Our friend James flew down to meet us from Seattle and decided it would be fun for all of us to stay together in a room at the Holiday Inn Express. We did have fun, but there was also horror.

Horror at the Holiday Inn, just in time for Halloween? You betchya. There was the kid who got stuck in the elevator, and his panicked screams. There was the television in our room, which replaced the Red Sox game with multiple channels of FoxNews, and the television in the lobby, whose flickering screen showed a painful Game 3 defeat on the eerie, rare call of obstruction. But things really went crazy Sunday morning.

At the end of a better than average continental breakfast, I threw the old “That’s not going in the trash is it?” at the nice woman taking away the huge trays full of scrambled eggs, sausage, gravy, muffins, and pastries. Knowing that most hotels give what’s left of breakfast to the workers at the hotel, I expected that kind of satisfying, non-wasting answer. But no! I hadn’t prepared myself for the worst. The scariest of answers pushed through her lips, warbled through the air, crashed into my inner ear, and sent a signal up the 8th cranial nerve that my brain understood and wished it hadn’t.

“Oh yeah, I have to throw all this out. They don’t let the workers touch it, and we can’t donate it to the homeless shelter a block away.”

Upon immediate, shaking inquiry, I realized management had again produced the canard that there was some sort of liability associated with donating extra food. This is not true! There is only a complete lack of willingness to bother to do anything that is not profitable. I rescued as much of the food as I could carry, with the help of the very friendly worker, on two large trays for the hot food and a bag for the pastries and muffins.

On my way upstairs, the full horror of this place of profit and inhumanity came into clear, ghastly view. One of the workers, Hispanic like all but the front desk staff, entered and without my needing to ask told me what a hard day of work this was. I asked him if they paid him well. He laughed and told me… (wait for it)(wait for it) …they did not! Shocking.

After placing the comestible bounty in our room, I sought out a housekeeper to inform her that there was food-a-plenty for her and the other workers in room 333. She was glad, and she herself brought up the injustice of delicious medium-quality food being thrown away while sometimes hungry, always underpaid people cleaned rooms and smelled the food without ever knowing what was on offer. She didn’t forget to mention that we live in a world where, “hay gente que no tiene para comer.” There are people who don’t have anything to eat.

I sat in the hallway to read while Jesse, Jess, and James slept in the room, but I was feeling shaken by the obviousness, stupidity, and absurdity of the wastefulness, so I got into more detailed conversation with the housekeepers. I learned some things. Most of them are single mothers and immigrants from Mexico. They are paid $8.45/hour, in which time they are expected to clean three rooms. The average nightly rate in each of those rooms? $210, though they charge up to $400/night when they can get away with it. So the housekeepers are paid 1.3% of the revenue from the rooms they clean. (Also, it seems the average tip for hotel housekeepers in the U.S. is less than $1.) A living wage for an adult with one child in San Diego County is $22.83/hour.

Now, obviously, the hotel company has other expenses beyond housekeepers’ wages, but they did make $989 million in profits in 2012, with $2.945 billion in revenue. That’s 34% of revenue as profits. If that ratio holds true at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown San Diego, that’s $71 of profit per room. That’s right, the company’s owners make $71 for every $2.82 they pay the housekeepers who actually do the work. Which means they could increase the wages they pay the housekeepers by $6/hour (to the still insufficient but WAY better $14.45) by reducing their profit per room to $69.

[Jesse: Of course, the owners are surely working 25 times as hard as the entire housekeeping staff combined, and thus deserve so much more. (<—sarcasm)]

Amazingly, their profit per room at this particular Holiday Inn Express is probably even greater. $210 per night is much more than most Holiday Inns, and there’s a Motel 6 a couple blocks away that manages to get by charging only $88/night. So either the Holiday Inn has WAY bigger profit margins, or its use of resources is so inefficient that their expenses are more than twice as great per room as the Motel 6. [Jesse: Maybe when they’re done throwing away pounds and pounds of food they burn all the bedsheets! (<—seriously)] And we know that high wages aren’t driving up their expenses. Actually, they couldn’t if they tried. According to the math here, they could pay the housekeepers $60/hour and still make $54 of profit per room!

One last way to think about the huge gap between corporate profits and worker wages here is this. If the hotel raised the nightly rate on the rooms by $10, to $220, and gave that raise entirely to the housekeepers, their wages would go up to a life-changing $38.45/hour. Yeah.

But the seeds of change are present. The workers are not content. They have not been tricked into thinking their poverty wages are fair. The middle class of this country, with their monthly student loan payments and giant mortgages, might have been convinced that our economic system distributes wealth fairly, that the wealthy have earned their power, whatever. And maybe that’s why the elites in Washington only ever mention the middle class while failing to acknowledge that a lower class must exist for there to be a middle. But tens of millions of workers have to choose between paying the rent and buying actually healthy food, between paying off medical bills and getting their kids clothes that actually fit, or between making enough to live and actually having the time to live. And these workers, who don’t make a living wage, or work three jobs to scrape by, or don’t have a job at all, aren’t hoodwinked.

They know the system is painfully rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful. This is especially true of those immigrants who didn’t grow up with the constant pro-capitalist, pro-wealthy propaganda of the United States. Their ability to fight back is limited by their immigration status and by the presence of a large unemployed and underemployed labor force desperate for work, but we can fix that. The millions and millions of us who care about each other, about social and economic justice, can change those factors. We can make this a society where every job pays a living wage and everyone willing and able to work has a job.

The market’s not going to do it for us. We have to organize for real progressive change. And I think we have to change the way we think about our responsibilities to each other and the morality of the systems we’re a part of. What if exploiting workers was as socially unacceptable as mugging? What if we felt a responsibility to call people out on participation in these systems (as owners, managers, customers) the way we’d say, “Hey, that’s not cool,” to a friend who pockets a candy bar at the supermarket register? And then we’ve got to act according to those conclusions and convictions ourselves. Maybe, if we’re willing to throw $210, or $88, at a corporation for a place to stay for a night, then that’s a sign that we also have enough to leave a $50 tip for someone who really needs it. Or maybe (especially in a world with CouchSurfing) we shouldn’t stay at Holiday Inns that pay their workers $3 for work that makes the company 25 times that amount.

Maybe someday the scariest thing about Halloween in San Diego will be the guy in Pacific Beach dressed like a bush who jumps out from a tree to scare the people walking from bar to bar.

bushman San Diego

– Adam (w/ Jesse)
from Chula Vista, California

Life on the Outside

After an epic set of days in the capital, it’s hard to resist the urge to elaborate on our experience here. But in an effort to remain chronological while giving time to process before immediate reflection, we’ll pick up where we left off in the last entry.

New Jersey warranted little worth mentioning beyond its fabled stank-lore that pretty much everyone is already aware of. Worthy of note, still, is the remarkable landscape of cookie-cutter corporate chains amidst a vast swath of concrete and industrial monstrosities shat out upon a landscape once known for its agricultural richness. Ah well. We’ve all seen the tele. Strip malls, like fake tans, remain the fresh standard for beauty in our misguided culture.

On the border with our evening’s destination state, we stopped off in Frenchtown- a quaint and quirky breath of fresh air along the Delaware River and home to What’s Brewing at Maria’s. Seeing we hadn’t earned any money yet on the trip, we thought it time to propose bartering something unconventional in exchange for a coffee, indoor warmth, and wifi.

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Adam did the brave work of ad-libbing his way through a sheepish request. “Soo- we don’t have any money. But we were wondering if we could trade you a book or two for some coffee?”

“You can just have some coffee,” replied the lady behind the counter matter-of-factly before turning to her left to continue a conversation in Italian. We were taken aback. We gushed our thanks, learning through a brief chat that she was Maria, as in the Maria; yet another example of a business owner not bound to notions of dog-eat-dog, compassionless capitalism.

After taking in the nifty European-looking architecture and the river, we set forth to Grantville, where our friend Romeeka left us the keys to her place for the night. As the next 24 hours drizzled along cold, damp, and gray outside, we laid low indoors and made some dinner for our host to come home to.

Jesse met Romeeka through Couchsurfing and she epitomizes the CS ethos. When she’s not playing music or working for her solar energy consulting company, she spends a lot of her time writing letters to prisoners. She writes to men and women either serving short sentences or life sentences; she doesn’t check what the lifers are in for because it “doesn’t really matter now anyway.” She discovered that people in jail are often more interested in talking about her life than their own and she says most people write back and stay in touch quite diligently until, for whatever reasons, they tend to stop writing once they are released.

These pen pal relationships help the prisoners feel like they’re still worth a damn to the outside world, the importance of which we probably have trouble grasping as free people. Romeeka told us of many things that never occurred to her to even consider until her letter exchanges. One woman, in prison for life, has a husband she can only see for occasional conjugal visits. They never had a wedding and will never have a date in the outside world. They’ll never pose for a cute smooch to nauseate their friends with on Facebook. So the woman had her husband take a photo of himself with his arm out to one side, and she asked ‘Meeka to photoshop it with a relatively recent photo she had from her previous life, so that she could hang a picture of them as a happy couple on the wall of her cell.

These exchanges can do wonders for those inside, and certainly benefit the writer on the outside as well. What better way to drive home our common humanity than to share it with people shunned and removed from our society, routinely belittled and regarded as horrible? So many awful things happen in the world because of the facile classification of people into worthy and unworthy, good and bad. As with terrorism, it’s easy to ignore our own role in creating the social contexts that foster these problems when we regard these people as naturally evil and inherently different from us. Convincing ourselves that everyone in prison is a “bad person,” solely responsible for their condition, is about the only way to ignore the pressing contradiction of a “land of the free” that has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Tack onto that an astonishingly high recidivism rate and it seems clear that our societal problems aren’t being solved by our penal system.

Simply developing a written relationship with a prisoner seems like a relatively easy way to better our understanding as well as their situation. As Adam’s grandmother D-D pointed out, “There is no one so good that there is no bad in them, and no one so bad as to lack goodness.” As we continue to wander aimlessly, it’s humbling to remember this. Not long ago, we’d have been wrangled up for vagrancy and put to task for a year or so of slave labor. Maybe we’d be the ones you see picking up garbage on the side of the highway. In fact, that’s how some of the highways we’re driving on now may have been built in the first place.

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After some epic billiards, we spent the night singing songs about Romeeka’s cat, Theo.