Everything I Know About Spanish I Learned from AMLO

Some people learn Spanish by memorizing verb conjugations and vocabulary lists. Others – the more fortunate among us – seem to just soak it in through books, movies and songs. Still others go the language-exchange route, honing their Spanish chops with a conversation partner in what often turn out to be transparent preludes to a pickup attempt.

Me? I learned my Spanish from AMLO.

AMLO is Andres Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican politician, former mayor of Mexico City, two-time Presidential candidate and two-time victim of electoral fraude. This post isn’t about his politics, though, but about his language.  You see, unlike the technocratic, triangulating, telepromptered, say-nothing-but-say-it-pretty crowd of formless fluffballs that have come to occupy our television screens like scarecrows in a fallow field, AMLO has a way with words that years of media feeding frenzies have been unable to hammer out of him. He’s from the coastal state of Tabasco, you see, where saucy speech comes with the territory. All of which makes him, hands down, the best Spanish teacher I’ve ever had.


It was AMLO, for example, who taught me that a good for nothing is a mequetrefe.mequetrefe who steals an election is an espurio (yes, the word “spurious” also exists in English, but without anywhere near the same edge to it). But the real power behind the throne is the mafia de poder, the power mafia, making the espurio nothing more than a pelele, a rag doll. And when the power mafia and their allies amongst the delincuentes de cuello blanco (white-collar delincuents) put on their little ceremonies like the Grito de la Independencia as if the espurio were actually legítimo, such spectacles are nothing more than faramallas, empty shows, or rather, numeritos – “little numbers”.

As you can imagine, AMLO’s plain-speaking ways have at times gotten him into trouble, as when, during the 2006 presidential campaign, he referred to then-president Vicente Fox as a chachalaca, apparently a rather noisy little bird and the rough equivalent of a chatterbox. Pretty mild stuff from an extranjero‘s point of view, but in Mexico, where the figure of the president has been historically sacrosanct, it amounted to high insult.


Undeterred, AMLO has continued to tour the country, calling a spade a spade. Legislators – or anyone – who need to show some backbone need to fajarse los pantalones, or tighten up their pants. In order to keep an adversary under close watch, AMLO recommends that you traerlo a mecate corto, or keep them on a short rope. In the fight against drug trafficking, one must be intelligent in order giving un garrotazo a lo tonto al avispero, or  stupidly whacking the hornet’s nest. President Peña Nieto, who has a penchant for skipping the country when things get hot, is a candil de la calle y oscuridad de la casa, or, roughly, the “lamp in the street and the darkness at home”. In a neat example of a culinary metaphor, the unconditional support Peña – who is famed for having very little between the ears – received from the television station Televisa during the campaign of 2012 was a case of inflar a un merengue, or inflating a meringue.

And, of course, all the spicy language that is to come as AMLO gears up to run for president again in 2018. A feliz navidad to all, and happy Spanish learning!


10 Reasons Why the PRI Won the Mexican Midterm Elections


A deeply unpopular privatization of Mexico’s energy industry. A highly unpopular president mired in a series of high-profile gaffes and scandals. A series of unresolved killings in places with names like Ayotzinapa, Apatzingán, Tlatlaya and Tanhuato. An economy stuck in underdrive. Violence, insecurity, and a general sense that things are getting worse. So how, in God’s name, did the ruling PRI party win this last Sunday’s midterm elections? Here are 10 reasons that should clear things up a little:

1. They didn’t actually win. The PRI’s vote share, both in terms of percentage and eventual seats in the Camara de Diputados, was actually down from the last elections in 2012. The fact that they will have a majority in the lower house in the coming session is due to…

2. The PRI’s alliance with the Green Party. Knowing that they were likely to be the victims of a protest vote, the PRI poured resources into their affiliate, the Greens. Despite its deceptive name, the Green Party has nothing whatsoever to do with ecology, but is simply a stooge of both the PRI and the Televisa broadcasting company (see point #9). The Greens racked up a series of electoral law violations, including lavish overspending, the distribution of personalized, discount debit cards to would-be voters, and a failure to respect the three-day campaign blackout before the election: on polling day, a series of hack celebrities were trundled out to tweet in favor of the Greens, tweets which received an estimated 100 million views. And the strategy, literally, paid off: the Greens racked up some 7% of the vote. It is fair to assume that a substantial number of those voters were not aware that they were effectively voting for the PRI, but their votes were enough to give the ruling party its majority. And all of this was made possible thanks to…

3. The Haplessness of the National Electoral Institute. Faced with the avalanche of irregularities committed by the Greens, the National Electoral Institute (INE) did what they always do: fined them. To which the Greens shrugged and said, “Fine”. With so much to gain by breaking the rules, any fines generated are simply factored into the electoral accounting. It’s all public money, anyway. As I pointed out in my previous post, the parties this year will receive 5,356 million pesos in public financing; with such a bonanza of funding at their disposal, what’s a little more or less? The real sanction that the INE could mete out would be to revoke the Green Party’s registro, their party registry and the public financing that goes with it. But when citizens and representatives of the other parties brought this request to the INE, it refused to even consider it. And even if they did, the Greens could always count on…

4. The Haplessness of the Federal Electoral Tribunal. The Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF is its juicy acronym in Spanish) has the final say on all electoral questions in the nation. It was the court responsible for rubber-stamping the electoral frauds of 2006 and 2012. Its justices are the highest-paid “public servants” in the nation, earning, including benefits, 563,416 pesos ($40,244 dollars) a month. That’s per month, not per year. During this electoral cycle, it busied itself by swatting down, often without debate, several of the fines against the Greens imposed by the INE for violations such as the transmission of political ads veiled as “legislative reports” and taking advantage of federal programs in campaign advertising.

 Partido Verde Tarjeta

5. The Inequities of the Voting System. Mexico uses the relative majority, or first-past-the-post voting system to elect 300 of its 500 deputies. The unfairness of first-past-the-post has been widely discussed, primarily because of how unrepresentative it is: candidates can win their districts, and parties can win elections, without winning anywhere near a majority of votes cast. All it takes is that they win one more vote than their closest rival. In the case of Mexico, with some ten parties in contention this time around, winning parties were able to win their districts with vote percentages, in competitive districts, in the twenties percent. (Add to this that the primary supposed benefit of first-past-the-post, the direct link between the individual representative and his or her constituency, hardly applies to Mexico, where the representative-constitutency link is virtually non-existent). First-past-the-post was particularly merciless with Mexico’s sadly divided left, with four nominally center-left parties drawing and quartering the vote: the PRD (10.74%), Morena (8.37%), Movimiento Ciudadano (6.11%) and the Worker’s Party (2.82%). Total them up and the left pulls just about level with the PRI’s share.

6. Low Voter Turnout. Some 47% of registered voters turned out for the midterm elections this year. Because overall turnout was about on par with previous midterms, this is being spun as some kind of democratic success story. In truth, the PRI “victory” looks all that much more hollow. Of the 47% of voters that bothered to turn out, the PRI won 29% of that. As the table here shows, this actually brings the PRI victory down to about 14% of registered voters or, if we take into account the 5% who spoiled their votes (making “none of the above” the third or fourth-place finisher in a number of states), even less. Why less? Because of…

7. The Catch in the Electoral Law. According to Mexican Electoral Law. spoiled votes are taken into account when calculating overall turnout, but when calculating the seats, benefits and money assigned to the parties, only “valid” votes – that is, votes clearly cast for someone – are taken into account. So ironically, although vote spoilers were attempting to voice their protest against the system in the clearest, most forceful way possible, the PRI wound up with an extra percent of vote share as a result of their efforts.

fraude electoral

8. The Voto Duro. Historically, the PRI – the “party of the state”, the only one many older voters really knew for most of their lives – could count on a built-in block of unconditional voters. In the post-revolutionary era, this “hard vote” was organized in a series of corporatist structures, organizing workers, farmers and other non-salaried workers, such as taxi drivers, whose benefits were conditioned on their casting their votes, as a block, for the PRI. This structure is not what it once was, although it is still estimated that the PRI can count on a 10 million-vote bank. And it is a truism to say that, especially in low-turnout elections, getting out the core vote is key. Add to this the voto verde, or rural vote, still predominantly loyal to the ruling party in many parts of the countryside where the PRI is the only party with a genuine presence and where critical media does not reach. But what does reach is …

9. Televisa and Media Control. Televisa, the monster of Mexican television broadcasting controls some 68% of the Mexican television market and receives 70% of its advertising, mostly from federal and state governments. It uses this revenue to feed its massive audience a steady stream of denigrating game and reality shows; sensationalistic, misleading news programs; and, its crown jewel, a steady stream of maudlin soap operas that openly reinforce sexist, classist and racist stereotypes. In a country where an overwhelming majority receive what news they get from television, the control Televisa (and TV Azteca, the other member of the television duopoly) has over the flow of information is truly sinister. One only need recall the famous quote of Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, father of the current president of Televisa: “Mexico is a country with a modest class of very screwed people, who will always be screwed. The obligation of television is to provide these people with entertainment that takes them out of their sad realities and difficult futures.” And Televisa, of course, is not only strongly allied with President Enrique Peña Nieto, he is practically a creation of theirs. During the 2012 campaign, The Guardian newspaper revealed a secret pact between the television station and Peña Nieto dating back to 2005, when he was governor of the State of Mexico, to provide him with favorable coverage on its news and entertainment programs. In March of this year, popular independent journalist Carmen Aristegui was fired from her national radio program by her employer, MVS. The firing took place just in time to ensure that her program would not be on the air during campaign season.


10. The PRI Mindset. Former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari once (in)famously said, “The PRI is the way it is because that’s the way Mexicans are.” One doesn’t have to agree with him to recognize that the kind of actions we associate with the PRI – corporatist voting, vote buying and coercion, the use of public funds and programs to finance campaigns and condition votes, mafia-style intimidation tactics and even killings – occur in other parties as well, indeed, with some of the same people who jump from party to party as convenience dictates. What is clear is that the supposed “transition” to democracy that supposedly occurred in 2000 (between one right-wing party and another, hardly a transition in the sense of an alternation of right and left) has not occurred at the level of how party politics is practiced. And this is precisely why so many people, from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the Oaxacan communities that practice town-meeting democracy, have turned their backs on a party structure which they perceive, reasonably, to be hopeless.

Ominously, there are signs that Peña Nieto is not only treating Sunday’s elections as a “victory,” but that he will use them as a pretext to crack down on those he didn’t manage to get into line in the first half of his presidency. Just yesterday, the government announced it will break off dialogue with the striking teacher’s union (CNTE). It is also to be supposed that the train of privatizations – with water the next item on the table – will move ahead with that much greater steam. Beware the electoral mirage: it produces consequences that turn out, in fact, to be very real.

Oaxaca Occupied

As I write these lines, the State of Oaxaca, Mexico is being occupied by a combination of army, navy and federal police Units. Some 7,000 troops are being sent in order to guarantee the right to vote in the midterm elections for a Congress that will continue to get high on the government hog while leaving the rest of us to deal however we can with the effects of the nation’s ongoing disintegration.

President Enrique Peña Nieto needs the elections to go on as scheduled in order to maintain the charade that Mexico is a functioning democracy rather than what it really is, an autocratic narcostate on the verge of collapse. He needs the “legitimation” that a good electoral show can put on. Unfortunately, some wayward characters have decided to deviate from the script. Among those is the Sección 22, Oaxaca’s Chapter of the National Teacher’s Union. In recent days, members of the union have occupied the local gas distribution plant, causing gasoline shortages and gas station closures, have occupied the state’s 12 district election offices (3 of which have now been “liberated”), and have blocked the highway between Oaxaca and Mexico City, requiring the troops to land by plane.

INE ejercito

Critics have pointed out that the teacher’s union is acting out of self-interest, pressuring the federal government to drop an evaluation process for hiring, promoting and awarding tenure to teachers, one which the government announced last Friday that it will suspend. Although the criticism is undoubtedly true, the fact that a union – or any organization of any kind – is acting out of self-interested motives is hardly a revelation. What is more surprising is how much Mexican citizens have been willing to put up with for so long, to wit:

  • It pays to be a congressperson. In 2015, a diputado, or representative in Mexico’s Congress, earns 1,264,536 pesos a year, after taxes. This translates to 160,833 pesos (some $11,488 dollars) a month. Senators earn 2,729,099 pesos a year after taxes, some 262,337 pesos ($18,738 dollars) a month. These figures include the following benefits: four different kinds of insurance, a meal budget, savings fund, transport reimbursement, and a Christmas bonus worth 40 days of salary. The minimum wage in Mexico is between 68-70 pesos ($5 dollars) a day, or some $100 dollars a month. This is one of the lowest figures in the OCDE, and not enough to acquire a canasta básica of daily food intake.
  • In its issue #1969 of July 2014, Proceso newsmagazine reported a special bonus of $300 million pesos paid out to Congressional parties that voted in favor of a series of reforms, including the crown jewel, the Energy Reform Bill that privatized Mexico’s lucrative oil industry. For his part, Ricardo Monreal, head of the Movimiento Ciudadano party in the lower house, reported having received $15 million pesos in unsolicited funds. When he tried to return them to the treasury, he was denied.
  • The Mexican “partidocracy” will receive 5,356 million pesos in public financing this year. While the idea of public financing of campaigns is a good one in principle, parties in Mexico use this generous funding to maintain their stranglehold of the political process and lock other actors out. As there is no open primary process for selecting party candidates, party bosses tend to decide who receives the nominations, leading to a revolving-door rotation of many of the same names between the lower and upper houses. And although independent candidacies were finally allowed as of this year, would-be candidates are required to collect 1% of the nationwide voting roll to do so, some 780,000 signatures. This they are required to do in 120 days, with their own funds.

This not to mention the deep pit of disrepute into which the National Electoral Institute (INE) has fallen. The Institute has been responsible for two fraudulent presidential elections in a row, those of 2006 and 2012, and has proven typically negligent in policing the actions of the Green Party – a satellite of the ruling PRI party – in its multiple violations of electoral law this time around. Its head, Lorenzo Córdova, was recently recorded making disparaging comments about indigenous people. And, incidentally, the 11 councilors of the Electoral Institute take home a cool 182,212 pesos ($13,015 dollars) a month while the actual poll workers are lucky to get a sandwich and a coke.

But yes, the elections must go on. Unresolved killings across the country, the case of 43 missing students being covered up until it’s forgotten about, but the elections must go on.  I will vote tomorrow, but I understand the millions of people who will abstain or spoil their ballot. Not everyone has as high a tolerance for farce as a playwright.

“Please Malala, Don’t Forget About Mexico”

joven bandera mexicana

Last Wednesday, December 10th, a 21-year-old international relations student from Mexico’s National Autonomous University, Adán Cortés, stood up and approached the microphone at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with the Mexican flag in his hands. His request was a simple one: that the prize’s recipient, Malala Yousafzai, not forget what is happening in Mexico. With all due irony for a ceremony ostensibly celebrating world peace, Cortés was hustled forcibly from the room, fined a hefty sum for daring to interrupt the big show and is currently sitting in jail, awaiting expulsion from Norway. But his gesture has seared itself into national consciousness. It is Mexico’s version of the shot heard round the world.

As the world now knows, 43 teaching students from the Normal School in Ayotzinapa were disappeared on the night of September 26th, 2014. Only one of them – Alexander Mora Venancio – has been confirmed dead by an Argentine forensic team; the fate of the other 42 is still officially in doubt. Although thousands upon thousands have lost their lives since Mexico embarked on its ill-fated, US-backed drug war in 2007, the case of the 43 has galvanized public attention like none other, bringing together as it does all of the elements of the national nightmare: collusion at all levels of government with the drug cartels; a historical, reflexive and well-founded mistrust of the police; and a criminal investigative apparatus neatly melding buffoonish incompetence with outright malfeasance.

The official version of events runs this way: that the students, who were comandeering buses in order to attend the October 2nd ceremony commemorating the 1968 massacre of students at Tlatelolco, were rounded up by municipal police on orders of the mayor of the town of Iguala, José Luís Abarca. The police then handed over the students to members of the criminal organization Guerreros Unidos, with whom Abarca and his wife María were in cohoots, in order to be dispatched. This the cartel was to have done by burning the bodies beyond recognition in a local garbage dump while the army, cocooned in its garrison in the same town of Iguala, did nothing to intervene. (In a now-infamous declaration, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Kuram baldly stated it was a good thing the army didn’t intervene, “or it would have been worse”.) This is the federal government’s version of the “lone gunman” theory: it was one crazy mayor that done it, conveniently from the left-of-center PRD party. Nothing to do with us.

Mutliple sources have confirmed the swiss cheese-like consistency of this official version of events. First of all, according to the weekly newsmagazine Proceso and citing a report by a UC Berkeley investigative team, the Federal Police were involved in the operation from the get-go, monitoring the students along with state police as soon as the students left their school. There is certainly no lack of motive for the federales to have been involved: the rural normal schools, established in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution to train teachers to work in rural communities, have long been a hotbed of radical social criticism. According to journalist Sanjuana Martínez writing in online news website Sinembargo.mx, there is a plan afoot to close the 17 rural normal schools that remain. And secondly, a report released this week by the National Autonomous University’s Institute of Physics concluded that it would have been impossible to burn 43 bodies to unidentifiable ashes in the garbage dump without the use of 33 tons of logs and 53 kilograms of gas per body, or if, as the story goes, the burning was done by tires, 995 would have been needed with a plume of smoke that would have been seen for kilometers around. Even the Argentine forensic team who identified the remains of Alexander Venancio carefully noted that their identification does not constitute proof that he was actually killed at the dump site.

Meanwhile, as La Jornada columnist Julio Hernández López notes with typical astuteness, the Peña Nieto administration is attempting to “dosify” the tragedy by releasing news a little bit at a time, essentially running out the clock on the story in the hopes that the public will lose interest over time. It is, needless to say, a strategy that has been used effectively enough in the past. But that, as the story unfolds, may actually be giving the government too much credit, presuming that it is interested in releasing information at all rather than stonewalling its own complicity in the case. Given the collusion of the judicial and executive branches in Mexico, given the absence of an independent investigative apparatus, it is hard to imagine Peña Nieto’s government moving forward with anything approaching a real investigation without international pressure added to domestic protest. And that is why it is so important that Adán Cortés did what he did at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony: keeping the story of the 43 front and center in international attention, foiling any attempts at dosification and keeping the pressure on an administration already being rocked by a conflict of interest scandal involving favors provided by the Grupo Higa construction group to first lady Angélica Rivera and Finance Minister Luis Videgaray.  The story of Ayotzinapa is one that cannot and must not be forgotten. And by reminding us of that, Adán Cortés deserves all of our commendation. Norway, take notice.

*UPDATE Monday, December 15: Adán Cortés has been officially expelled from Norway and is due back to Mexico this evening.

The Story of “The Francophone Baby” or The Vagaries of Literary Translation


In late 2002 or early 2003, when I was living in Italy and before the thought of seriously writing in Spanish had ever occurred to me, I wrote a short story called “The Francophone Baby”. This was the era of the run-up to the Iraq War, let us recall, when nativists were rushing to subsitute “freedom” for “French” in our fries, much as their great-grandparents had tried taking the linguistic knife to sauerkraut and hamburgers a hundred years before in the context of World War I – and with the same success. I don’t recall that I planned it the way, but the story of an all-American family who freaks out becasue their baby is born inexplicably speaking French turned out to be delightfully timely.

More than political, however, the story was inspired by my reading of the work of Joseph Chilton Pearce, in particular his book Magical Child, which discusses the importance of the mother-child bond which forms, in part, by the fetus synchronzing right from the womb with the mother’s speech pattern (a fact I put into the mouth of my fictional pediatrician). Pearce has written extensively on the breakdown of that fundamental bond, and children’s subsequent development, through such factors as hospital birthing, television and day care. So “The Francophone Baby” itself was born as a thought experiment of what might happen if this rupture were taken, not to its logical extreme but to its illogical one.

The story was published in the online magazine “The Adirondack Review” in that same 2003 under the admittedly clunky pseudonym of Archibald Graham, the doctor played by Burt Lancaster in the movie Field of Dreams.  And there the story sat, basically ignored, until I began my first serious attempts to publish in Mexico five or so years later. As is logical, I started out by translating some of the stories I already had, and as “The Francophone Baby” was short and possessed the advantage of having already been published, I started there. The first translation of the story was published in 2008 in El Ciclo Literario.

A couple of years later, as I began gathering together the material that would become Interrumpimos este programa (in English, We Interrupt This Program), I revisted the translation, both expanding the dialogues and making some key changes to the translation itself:

  •  Tweaking Mr. Johnson’s idiomatic language. Although a Mexican character in as agitated a state as Johnson might very well say pendejadas and maricones, the character is, in fact, American. This is a conundrum I have come back to over and over again in my writing since: how to render the idiomatic language of a character when the language he is presumably speaking within the story is different from the one the story itself is written in?
  • Re-translating the language joke. In the original English version, the language spoken by one of the babies is the hypothesized root language of humanity: the Ur-language. But whenever someone says the word Ur, Mr. Johnson accuses them of trailing off (my homage, conscious or unconscious, to Eric Idle’s reading of the cave script in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). As the joke does not translate, I have Mrs. Johnson confusing the Spanish equivalent of the hypothesized language, proto-sapiens, with the much more common term homo sapiens.
  •  Integrating the story with the rest of the collection. As I put the collection together, the idea gradually ocurrred to me of finding a way to link the stories together, to interlace them. As baby Jacques recurs later in the book as an adult in a specific geographical location, I found it expedient to sell him off to the Province of Quebec instead of France’s Culture Ministry – a switch which wound up eliciting a lively protest from a francophone friend in Montreal!

As it’s turned out, “The Francophone Baby” or, in its Spanish incarnation “El bebé francófono” has become the most popular story in the book by far (not least due to the fact that it’s the first and shortest story), and my go-to story for most readings. As an interesting mini-case study in the evolution of stories and their translations over time, following are links to the three versions of the story:

1.) The original English version in the Adirondack Review.

2.) The 2008 translation in El Ciclo Literario.

3.) The final published version in Interrumpimos este programa.

Until next time!