The answers to all of your (food related) questions. Month one, in food and parenthetical exposition (an experiment in data collection, writing styles, and responsive web layout).
Inspired by the work of Nicholas Felton, I decided to take obsessive record of everything that I do while in Mexico, with the intent of creating interesting infographics at the end of my journey here. I got as far as “food eaten” before giving up on anything even aspiring to the glory of the Feltron Report. Cockroaches killed, games of soccer played, and time spent with specific people are probably far more interesting as memories and stories anyway. Right?
“I am vegetarian which means I don’t eat. What do I eat, if I do not eat meat?”
As a fact, Mexican sweet bread is magical. Conchas, specifically, are the most magical of all. Warm, moist, fluffy, nutritionless buns that fill your soul with the very essence of eternity, covered in a crust of crumbly sugary goodness. It is one of many breads that has blessed and yet cursed my tongue with its unforgiving commentary on the transience of pleasure, and one of many breads that has been present at dinner conversations that I’ve relished just as much. Viva la concha. For death is no novelty in these parts.
The young and half-Mexican man pondered long. what would he do? How would he stay strong?
I am used to feminism, and the valiant efforts of countless women to not serve lonely second-shifts in the kitchen and in their homes. I’m used to fending for myself, and while I am not the romantic ideal of a gentleman that can cook lavish meals with ease, I am often capable of making myself a really good bowl of cereal. Occasionally, when I feel like treating myself, I will make myself a sandwich, and other times, when I’m trying to cope with particularly difficult circumstances, I’ve been known to bake a mean batch of bread.
I am used to doing things myself. I am used to cooking and washing and cleaning and drying and putting-away I am used to all the many small and great victories of feminism.
That is what I am used to.
I am not used to having every single meal prepared for me. Every single item served. Ever single dish washed. Every single spill cleaned.
But do I throw the women out of the kitchen? Do I, the foreigner, in all my colonizing superiority, begin a revolution to liberate women from domestic labor, into self-actualizing independence and freedom? Is that my place? As a foreigner? As a male foreigner? As a foreigner who will far too quickly leave these women in the throws of a society that is drowning in a machismo that is supported by immeasurable amounts of gel? Is that what I do?
Or do I just sit, and watch, as everything is done for me—as a culture operates as it always has and as it will for long after I leave?
After thinking for days, spending weeks in a fast, “Cheese!” he exclaimed. Cheese he settled, at last.
In a month, I have eaten a lot of food. That’s not all I have done, but it is a lot of what I have done. It is around food that people talk. It is around food that I learn my grandfather owned seven motorcycles, long before the wrinkles crept over his face and his knees were changed for ones that will last much longer than him. It is around food that I talk to my grandmother about her past, and about my future. It is over food that we talk about how she has to stay alive until I get married.
It is through food that, eventually, I win little, precious Pacito over, giving him Globitos until he despairs over how to express all his happiness towards me.
It is around food that we talk about the violence, about this project of mine, about my cousin’s new baby, about my parents, about the letters—and when I leave I know that it will and yet won’t be the food that I miss. I will miss the convivencia, the way we lived together, around this food. The way we lived together, before I went went to America.
‘I tell you, twelve years ago it wasn’t like this,’ my uncle says, as we drive through the city. ‘Fifteen years ago you never even heard about this sort of thing. But things have changed here. Things have changed a lot.’
Fifteen years ago, I came to this same city at night with my family. There were Power Wheels in the city square, and I drove around with my cousins for as long as our parents would let us. My uncle tells me that those days, people would linger in the square until two or three in the morning. The place would be filled with people, enjoying themselves, living life. But these days, the streets begin to empty around ten. By midnight, they’re cleared. By two or three in the morning, if you’re walking these streets, you’re an angel, a demon, or a ghost. Or you’re about to become one.
We came to drop my cousin off for a study group. After taking care of a few errands, we’ve just been driving around, my uncle telling me about the state of things. ‘By day, it’s entirely safe,’ he says, pointing to one of the crowded commercial streets. ‘Everybody lives their lives like normal when it’s daytime.’
Another uncle is a taxi driver in this same city, working from two in the morning to two in the afternoon. And he’s told me just as much. He drove by four heads just over a week ago, right before the authorities blocked off the area. As he drove away, he saw a kid taking a picture with a cell-phone.
‘It’s all between them, though’ my uncle continues. ‘There’s the possibility of stray bullets, but you just have to be careful where you are.’
At one point a few years back, the authorities, unable to respond quickly enough, and with enough force, enacted a curfew for the city, during which they would not respond to any calls, which they did as much for the citizens as for themselves.
But it’s not all between them. Not really. The crimes of taking people’s belongings and the crimes of taking people themselves, that’s a different set of people. That’s the set of people that loots during wartime. That’s the set of people that capitalizes on the suspension of morals
Then again, those sorts of crimes aren’t contained within the city limits, or to certain times of day.
We continue to drive through and around the city, passing through the square, taking the peripheral road, as my uncle tells me about the man who runs the city from a high security prison. He tells me about the wealthy neighborhoods that have been deserted as people have fled to safer areas. He tells me about the groups of citizen vigilantes that have risen up.As we pass through another commercial street on the way back into the city center, he points to the shops lining the streets. ‘I’m sure that every one of those shop owners is paying protection money. Every single one. If you have a business, they’ll make sure they’re getting a cut too.’
‘What they do,’ he says, ‘is that they learn everything about you.’
They learn how much money you make, what your wife is named, where you live, where your kids go to school, everything. And then they tell you to pay them so that you can still have kids that go to school, a wife to love, and use for a house.
A lot of people end up closing down and leaving. No point making money if it all gets taken from you.
We park on a side street near the center, and we walk around as my uncle points out some of the important buildings. We end up at a paleteria near the city square, one I remember from the last time I was here with my family. He orders a paleta de coco.
As he peels the wrapper off, he tells me that this—this peeling back—is what the demons do with the skin of people’s faces.
Ivan Ruiz is a sometimes college student who bills himself as a multidisciplinary storyteller. He has spent the last two months in the south of Mexico, collecting stories as part of Descent, a self-initiated mixed-media project to explore his Mexican roots. Buried in something of a small obscurity as of late, we decided to catch up with him to ask him about his progress so far.
So it’s been about two months since you left for Mexico, and hardly anyone has heard from you. What have you been up to?
Shoot, that’s tough! (laughing) I don’t know, I think, more than anything, I’ve done a lot of hanging out with family. Of course, doing a project like this, that would be expected, but there’s been a lot of non-project, off-the-record hanging out—a lot of spending time with family members who I’ve consciously only seen for a total of maybe six weeks of my life before starting this project. Looking at it now, that’s a tragically small amount of time to have spent with cousins, aunts, uncles, and more than anything grandparents.
I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with people, and in talking through it it’s come up that those few two week visits we did when I was younger were always so scheduled. They were always attempts to spend time with as many people as possible in the little time there was, and when you are very intentionally trying to catch up with a person there’s something kind of staged about it. You hit all the major topics, find out who’s been doing what since when, and when you do that sort of visiting, it’s a different sort of getting to know a person than when you’re around them enough to pick up on things.
On this trip, these five months of vaguely described and somewhat unplanned “getting to know the family,” I’ve somewhat unintentionally just been around people a lot, without any agenda or schedule or goal, and it’s allowed for all sorts of moments and conversations that you don’t have when you’re visiting for a few weeks at a time. There’s a beautiful Spanish word that describes it well—convivencia. It means something like the way we live together. I’ve been doing a lot of that. Conviviendo with my family. Being around long enough that silence stops being uncomfortable.
What sorts of things have you done when you’ve convivido (is that how you conjugate that?) with your family?
I have no idea if that’s how you conjugate it (both laughing). Wow, where to begin? I’ve eaten—I’ve eaten so much food— I’ve played soccer, ridden horses, gotten in a few fights (friendly), ridden some motorcycles, seen some really beautiful places, and of course a lot of talking. I usually prefer to listen though, and, also, I’m not as vocal in Spanish.
That’s right, you were pretty clear early on that your Spanish wasn’t that good. Why is that?
I’ve been answering that question a lot here (laughing)! Short version is that my parents never went to the United States intending to stay: My dad studied to be a pastor in Mexico, and when he and my mom went to the United States it was so that he could continue studying—graduate and post-graduate stuff. The idea was always that he would finish and then we’d move back to Mexico. When my sister and I were born, a friend of my parents suggested that they teach us only English, so that when we went back to Mexico we’d end up being bilingual, since, of course, we would pick up Spanish lighting fast once we moved there.
And, well, we never moved back to Mexico. But if was a long time before that became intentional—it was always “two more years and we’ll go,” which always became two more years of just English. When it finally happened that they decided to stay in America, it was kind of late.
They didn’t teach you Spanish after that?
Well, no. It was kind of habit at that point to just speak English, and we never switched back. My parents have always spoken to each other in Spanish, and had Spanish-speaking friends, so we’ve always understood Spanish, but when they speak to us they still speak in English, and we still speak back in English. It’s a mistake we’ve all regretted, but I may yet redeem myself.
So you can understand fine, it’s just the speaking that’s hard?
Yeah, basically. Here where I am though there are a lot of words and phrases and idioms that are specific to the region, things I’ve never heard before, and so that’s been a bit tricky. Usually, if someone asks or tells me something and I don’t understand, I’ll ask them to repeat themselves or explain what they mean, and at a certain point if I still don’t understand I make calculated guesses at what sort of listening sound to respond with (both laughing). I noticed the first few weeks that I was just very agreeable about everything, because I figured “si” was probably the best way to respond to questions and statements. I throw in wonder and I-didn’t-know-that sort of noises a lot more frequently now, but I’ve also become more comfortable telling people that I have no idea what they’re saying.
And for the speaking, yes, it’s hard. I have been getting significantly better though, to the point that, along with the slicked-back hair and mustache and jeans in ninety-degree weather, my Spanish skills have caused people incredulity when they’re told I speak English.
The rolling Rs are still killing me though.
You have a mustache?
Yeah, what about it?
Nothing. How is the story-gathering going?
Incredible. There are so many things I’ve learned and seen and experienced and I’m really grateful to have had the chance to do this. It’s been really interesting, too, taking on a project of this scale with different mediums, especially with film—a medium I’m not as familiar with as others. I’ve been able to capture a lot of great moments, but the style of documentary I’m aiming for involves a lot of waiting—a lot of patience and persistence and a lot of guessing too. There have been a lot of moments that I’ve been lucky to enough to capture, and plenty of moments where I’ve kicked myself for not having the camera with me. It’s been a mixed bag, but comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the different forms of storytelling has really strengthened my skills as well as helped coalesce the myriad of thoughts on what some of the end products will look like.
What has been one of your favorite moments so far?
I’d say after dinner, one evening, with my dad’s side of the family. We were sitting around the table, conviviendo, and my baby cousin Paquito was sitting on top of the table. I was trying so hard, like always, to get him to like me, and there was finally a glint of recognition in his eye, and he was happy.
And it was so beautiful, and then so upsetting at the same time because I won him over with food, and anybody could do that. It didn’t matter that we were cousins. And the layers, the tensions, the triumph and agony of that whole moment was kind of just everything ever.
Have you had any struggles or difficulties with the project?
I think the anxiety of missing things on camera has definitely been one of the major struggles for me. When life only happens once and the moment has passed and you can’t get it again, that’s kind of painful. And film isn’t truly that fixed of a medium, and so it doesn’t ruin things necessarily, but sometimes there are moments so beautiful that you wonder.
That and the heat. I made a joke about the heat on the last Kickstarter update, about how its responsible for my lack of updates, but part of it isn’t really a joke. It’s around midnight as I’m writing this and it’s 88°.
Oh, and it was impossible to find postcards—but that’s been taken care of now (laughing). Backers should be seeing those soon.
Well we look forward to seeing and reading the stories you will tell. Thanks for sharing with us Ivan. Could you leave us with any last thoughts or hints at upcoming content?
Sure thing! Thanks for the opportunity. I’m a big fan of your work and it’s an honor being featured.
Coming up in the near future on the Descent blog will be a somewhat more hopeful follow-up to Paleteria (a somewhat uninspiring post going live this Sunday), some motion work (at long last), and some typography work inspired by all the painted signs.
I tell him hi. I tell him I’m his cousin.
‘I don’t buy it,’ I can hear him thinking. ‘You look nothing like me. Where have you been all my life?’
I honestly had no idea he existed. My parents didn’t know he existed. They didn’t ask, I guess, but to be fair, no one told them. And he’s only existed for six months. You catch up once every few years, I guess that can happen. But you’d think that would be important—a birth—another member in the family. You’d think someone would mention that.
My Spanish isn’t that great, and maybe my accent confused him. I try again. Primito. Little cousin. And I call him this in that tone that you talk to things that are small and make you unreasonably happy. And he stares at me, upset, incredulous, skeptical—whatever those adorable furrowed brows mean.
A few days later I run into him at church. I’ve become immensely proud since meeting him that I am related to the most adorable baby cousin ever, and I again tell him hi. Again, he stares back, confused, or upset, or offended, or in disbelief. I tell him I’m his cousin. His face stays the same. I ask if I can hold him. He says no, but my other cousin hands him to me anyway. He begins to cry.
I begin to see him more frequently. I say hi; I tell him I’m his cousin; he looks at me, doubtful. Always. When we’re sitting around, with our uncles and aunts, I look at him, and make faces, hoping he’ll start to recognize me. And every time he sees me, he insists he doesn’t know me. And every time I hold him, he cries.
‘Don’t worry,’ his mother tells me. ‘He just needs to get used to you, is all. Give it some time.’
So I give it some time. For weeks, I come over to play soccer with my other cousins, and I keep saying hi, and I keep telling him I’m his cousin, and he keeps denying it. It’s like he doesn’t even know I exist. And I can’t get over this. We’re family. I swear we’re family.
And this is the aftermath of movement, I guess.
But it can’t be that simple.
It can’t be that final, that irreparable.
There has to be redemption, right? Even if it’s just one baby cousin feeling safe enough to fall asleep in my arms. At least that. At the very least, that.
It’s late afternoon. I’m at my cousin’s house again. We’re inside, taking a break from soccer, and little Paco floats through the room, safe in his mother’s arms. I tell him hi. I tell him I’m his cousin. He stares at me, furrows his brows, and begins to cry.
The noise of large trucks rattling past mixes with the barks of dogs and the songs of birds and the blares of speakers mounted on slowly moving pickup trucks, announcing the price of queso.
Against the walls of a small room, painted half red and half white, sit silent the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of a woman who is now carried in by four men in a stained wooden box.
Into a small tienda walks a sixteen-year-old boy in school clothes selling pens to pay for his tuition. He shares that his father lives in los Estados Unidos and is a wealthy man, owning land and trucks, but the man spends all his money on himself and a woman who isn’t his wife. Money makes people, bad, doesn’t it? he asks.
The baby, a boy, looks with an enraptured gaze about the harshly-lit room, intent on the faces of his many relatives. His eyes are wide, and the shock of life has not yet worn off for him. He sighs happily as his uncle smiles at him.
The date is now finalized, and on the twenty-seventh of January I will depart on a journey that is both modest and yet, in some ways, perhaps entirely impossible.
I know I’ve said this, but thank you, again, to all of you who have and are supporting this project. As the equipment has begun to arrive in the post, and I’ve started to see the ‘last’ instances of so many familiar things, the force of all that is about to change is suddenly becoming very real. Tangible, even.
Thank you to everybody who contributed to the Kickstarter Campaign! We completed the campaign on Christmas day at 105% with 140 backers.
Nina Marie Rambo
Ronald and Esther Knott
Becky and Japhet De Oliveira
Sandra Da Silva
Debbie & Jean Michel
Steve and Sandy Hansen
Justin Z. McAuliffe
After many months of research and planning, the Kickstarter campaign for Descent: A Film about Origins is now live.
Many thanks to everyone who has contributed with the campaign process, especially my professor and mentor Paul Kim as well as Catherine Tetz.
Also, thank you to Norton King, Jason Lemon, Joshua Sanabria, Stephen Erich, Camden Bowman, Tiffany Evering, Livvy Knott, Adam Sawyer, Elisabeth Sherman, Heather Tucker, as well as anyone who I can’t think of quite this second. Your input and support are much appreciated.
Thanks as well to the J.N. Andrews Honors program and Dr. L. Monique Pittman who have provided me with invaluable insight and direction.