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Fiestas Patrias & A Different Kind of Revolution

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The initial sign of Independence Day fervor is the appearance of itinerant corner vendors selling every conceivable item with the tri-colors of the Mexican flag. Coinciding with these symbols of Mexican Independence, another change was occuring in Pátzcuaro, but more on that later.

Frenzy and fervor mark the Fiestas Patrias in Mexico. El Grito issued by Padre Hidalgo from the bell tower of the parish church in the small Guanajuato town of what is now called Dolores Hidalgo started it all September 16, 1810. This was the call that began the eleven-year struggle to break the 300-year yoke of Spanish rule. Every year, the event is celebrated with great fanfare throughout the country.

 

About a week before El Grito, the various municipal governments begin adorning the cities with patriotic decorations in the green, white and red of the tri-color.

Mexico City's decorations are truly impressive but even a town like Pátzcuaro puts on quite a show.

The first ceremony occurs September 13th when many towns have an acto cívico to commemorate the anniversary of the death of los niños héroes. These were the six young cadets who jumped to their deaths from the tower of Chapultepec Castle, wrapped in the Mexican flag, rather than surrender to U.S. armed forces that surrounded and then occupied the castle in Mexico City in 1847.

One of the many monumets to Los Niños Héroes in Mexico City and part of the celebration in Pátzcuaro in 2005. Schools converged on the Plaza Grande marching from various points of the city in a grand cacophony of sound.

Photo of Monumento a Los Niños Héroes is from an excellent photoblog that you can find at www.foto.nadapersonal.net

A few days before El Grito, the covered archway in front of the government offices here in Pátzcuaro are decked out in preparation for the big event.

The ceremony for El Grito that takes place in Mexico City's Zócolo at 11:00 PM on September 15th is mirrored throughout the country in countless cities, towns and communities.

Padre Hidalgo's original cry, "¡Viva la religión! ¡Viva Nuestra Santíssima Madre de Guadalupe! ¡Viva Fernando VII! ¡Viva la América! ¡Y muera el mal govierno!" has been changed to simply, ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

The cry is repeated by the crowd in attendance and accompanied by bell-ringing, singing of the national anthem and fireworks and general fun for all.

Many celebrations also include the burning of a castillo, the intricately fabricated and always impressive fireworks tower. The delicate and interconnected pieces of the castillo are constructed ahead of time and assembled during the day. At the time of firing, the initial firecracker at the bottom of the tower is traditionally lit with the burning end of a cigarette and the exploding fireworks make their way upwards. The tower disintegrates as the fire moves skyward. The final section, a ring at the top, separates and spins off into the night in a dizzying display of color.

Parades mark the celebration for September 16th. In the larger cities, they are military in nature but smaller towns like Pátzcuaro bring out all the kids from every school, dressed in their uniforms, marching in formation with the school banner, and playing the same tune in varying rhythms and with varying degrees of success. It becomes a day filled with family fun. The favorite part of the parade here is always the appearance of the charos and excaramuzas.

 

During the furor of the September 15-16 celebrations, 2005, there was evidence of yet another kind of revolution in the small Michoacán town of what is now called Pátzcuaro. A female driver appeared behind the wheel of a bona-fide taxi in town, ending the male dominance that began with the advent of the taxi on the cobblestone streets of this colonial town.

 

Breaking new ground. Pátzcuaro's only woman taxi driver, María Esveida Zavala Valdez, with a friend, Georgina Palomares Peña, the first woman to work with castillos and other fuegos artificiales or fireworks here in Pátzcuaro.

It's not a move that can be equated with the insurrectionary zeal of Hidalgo, Allende, Adama and Jimenez, but is no mean feat, nonetheless.

Check out Google and other popular search engines and punch in 'women taxi drivers Mexico' and you will find entry after entry of travel advisory warnings and lurid crime tales experienced by women passengers at the hands of male taxi drivers in Mexico City.

It is not an idle warning. A store-owner in San Miguel related to me how she was on a buying trip to the Districto Federal with $3,000 (U.S.) in cash and made the mistake of hailing a street cab. She was relieved of this amount and forced to do the now famous 'lightning tour' of ATM's where she kept drawing out cash until the machines all concurred she had reached her limit for withdrawals. She ended up getting beat-up in the bargain as well for showing a bit of resistance along the way.

But back to the search engines. An entry like 'women taxi drivers Mexico' in Yahoo even pulls up articles right there on the first page on the use of vaginal creams in Mexico (opinions of male taxi drivers on the use of such creams by women); while any mention of 'women taxi drivers in Mexico' is singularly lacking.

They exist though. A friend recounted his surprise at seeing a female behind the wheel of one taxi he took in Mexico City a few years ago. He was more astounded, however, by the number of gold chains the driver was wearing and the presence of her Gucci loafers than by the incongruity of her sex. I myself have ridden in a female driven taxi in Morelia, Michoacán's capital. Once. Over the years, I've taken a lot of taxis in Morelia.

Check out 'women taxi drivers' on the Web and stories and statistics appear in, what to my mind, are the most incongruous places. One article cited 124 women cab drivers in Iran. The Weiza Zanan (women only) signs on their cabs easily identify them. New Delhi, Thailand, Dubai, Lebanon, Okinawa and China all boast female drivers in a field that has been one of the last bastions of male dominance over the ages and throughout the world. Even Fugairah boasts women taxi drivers. My research didn't include where I could find Fugairah. I just know that wherever it is, I could hail a taxi driven by a woman there.

In the U.S., where the first female cabby took the wheel in 1925, women taxi and limo drivers represented only 13% of the total work force in 2003. In larger metropolitan cities, the total fell precipitously to 1 or 2%.

One can see why. An Australian study by the International Labor Organization shows cabbies run 25 times the risk of non-sexual assault, 67 times the rate of robbery compared to the community at large and that during 1990-92, they had the highest rate of work-related homicides. One can see how anyone would feel a bit reticent about taking a turn at the metered wheel.

Yet by September 16th, María Esveide Zavala Valdez had already spent 16 days on the job.

Pátzcuaro is known for being muy tranquilo but accounts of robbery and physical attacks on taxi drivers still surface in the local papers and in the chit-chat of other drivers. More potent, perhaps, than the potential for violence is the time-honored belief of just exactly where a woman's place is. This is one conservative, provincial town where machismo is alive and well. Women in certain colonias still have to ask their husbands for 'permission' to visit, say, the local hairdresser unaccompanied. If it's given, they are allotted so much time and woe to those who tarry a bit longer.

Coming from a culture where I learned at my father's knee that women are just as capable as men and where my sister-in-law was shimmying up poles for Ma Bell in the 1970's, it is hard to comprehend how a woman's role is perceived in certain segments of Mexican society today. After years visiting, studying and living in the country, however, I know this view is a reality.

That was why I did the old double-take September 2nd as I was casting about for a cab in the Plaza Grande. I was so surprised, I barely could get out the question, ¿Estás libre?

It was Esveida's second day on the job. Gone was the nervousness she felt during her first ride.

"When I picked up that first passenger my hands were shaking so bad I didn't want to take them off the wheel. It was only a short ride from the center of town, down the Avenida de las Américas to IMSS (the government-sponsored clinic) but it appeared to last forever. The guy didn't say a word during the whole trip and when I stopped, he paid me and got out just like he would do with any taxi driver. That took care of my initial jitters."

Esveida's first passenger was probably the last who failed to comment on the novelty of riding with a female driver.

"I was afraid that people wouldn't want to take my cab; that they would think I wouldn't be a good driver. But that hasn't been the case. Passengers are happy with the way I handle my car. I started driving two years ago and learned the basics in four hours of class. After that, it was just driving that taught me what I needed to know."

The perception that women can't be good drivers is mirrored in accounts of women taxi drivers around the world. In interviews with passengers, however, it's been reported that females especially are relieved to see a driver who doesn't have the rep for reckless driving, doping or being drunk on the job or hassling women passengers as some male drivers do in various parts of the world. Nonetheless, when I mentioned to my dentist friend the news of Monarca's newest driver, her first comment was, '¿Maneja bien?' (Does she drive well?)

After only a litle more than a week on the job, Esveida already counts two regular clients on her daily route. "I've gotten almost used to female passengers applauding my entrance into the ranks of cabbies but I was truly surprised the other day when a young guy got in and the first thing he said was, 'All RIGHT! It's about time we finally have a female taxi driver in this town. Maybe it'll shake things up a bit.' I say a woman shouldn't have to don trousers and grow a moustache to show she can do the same job as a man."

Esveida, like most of her counterparts around the world, entered the field to make money. She had already had a position as an assistant public accountant and as a secretary and had worked a stall in Pátzcuaro's main market. At thirty-three, she was ready to try something else.

She was the owner of her own automobile and had the wherewithal to purchase una concesión or the equivalent of the New York City cab medallion. Although it doesn't cost the $100,000 to $170,000 (U.S.) like in the Big Apple, it sure as heck is not cheap. The minimum daily wage in Mexico still hovers close to 40 pesos (about four dollars U.S.) for a day's work. Accumulating the ready cash to purchase a car, pay for insurance and shell out a minimum of several thousand dollars for the legal license ($10,000 U.S. in Morelia) before collecting peso one is, therefore, fairly remote. Once that is out of the way, the trick is being in the right place at the right time and perhaps knowing the right people.

Of course, not all cabs are legal. The rogue or pirate cab is as common in Mexico as in New York. There are also the semi-legal cabs. For instance, those drivers owning one of the 4,000 concesiones that Tinaco Rubi gave out like ju-ju-bees at the end of his term as governor of Michoacán in 2002 are looked at with great disfavor by regular cabbies. Not only did this moment of largesse flood an already over-saturated market but it created a source of conflict between official, semi-official and wannabee drivers and an on-going headache for the new governor, which, of course, was Tinaco's intent.

Traffic is never a happy event in Mexico City but when taxistas and transportistas blocked the main arteries leading in and out of the city for seven hours August 29, 2005, it became a real nightmare. This was just one of a series of continuing protests regarding the giving out of consesiones. Pátzcuaro has even had its share of attempts to shut-down access to the town.

A rogue cab can be any car that is transformed ingeniously into a taxi by the application of some sticky lettering, stripes and assorted do-dads to the surface of the vehicle. Viola, you have yourself an instant taxi. The pirate cabbie doesn't pay the inscription fee or the weekly quota to cover the office expenses, is under no pressure to purchase insurance and can operate a car older than the driver. In past years, I've been in cabs where large segments of the road were visible from the gapping holes in the floor and where the doors had to be opened with a screwdriver from the outside or were held in place from the inside with wire.

Since the initial outlay of funds is absent, one assumes the price is cheaper…an assumption not always the case.

Esveida works for Monarca, a company trying to build its reputation for running a fleet made up of later-model cars (2000 or newer), driven by professional drivers (there's one dress code for Monday through Friday shifts, one for nights and one for weekends) and for quoting honest fares. For her, there is another advantage working for Monarca. Whereas at first there was a WHAT THE HECK?! reaction from some of her co-workers, they soon became a type of security blanket.

On the night shift when Monarca cabs line up at the dispatch headquarters, her male colleagues make a space for her cab at the beginning of the line where the light is strongest and she is wedged in between other drivers. This isn't to say they give up their space…everyone remembers which cab she came in after but she doesn't have to wait for her call on the outskirts where it is dark and isolated.

"I feel very secure. My family, especially my mother, still has concerns about this job move but I'm at ease. I know how to screen out undesirable passengers and Dispatch won't send me out to pick up anyone at iffy locales or let me take a client to certain neighborhoods.

"I didn't realize what was going on at first and got really pissed off when I figured it should have been my fare and Dispatch sent someone else. I complained only to hear that the place was a well-known hangout for drunks and troublemakers. 'You really want to take that call?' they asked. 'No thanks,' I said. 'I'll take a bye.'

"I know that if there's trouble, help is only a radio blip away. There are over 100 Monarca cabs in Pátzcuaro and one shout from me and I'd have back-up pronto."

"Don't you carry some sort of self-protection at all?" I queried.

"Naw. I figured the job sort of fell out of the sky, like from heaven. I'll count on getting protection from up there as well."

Outside of the risks that Esveida minimizes, there are the rigorous hours that can't be denied. "This job pays more than my others, but, man, the hours! You start the day either at 7:00 AM and go until 10:00 PM or begin at 8:30 and pack it in at 11:30 PM. You're allowed one hour to eat in the afternoon and that's it. If you report even five minutes late, the company fines you fifty pesos. The fine escalates to 100 or 150 pesos, depending on how late you are. They know how relaxed Mexicans are about time and they want to make sure we're reliable. I guess that's one way to do it."

Besides the stiff hours, all drivers do a night shift on a rotation basis. After a day shift ending at 11:30 PM, six of the company's fleet continue with what is called a guardia until 7:00 AM. Then you get to take one day off and return the following morning.

"Wow!" I think. "Such generosity."

"So, I ask, "Have you had many foreigners as passengers?"

"No, you've been the only one but you don't count. I can't speak English. I really should try to learn but hey."

Esveida mirrors the rationale of others who have entered the taxi-driver profession.

"If someone says I can't do something, I'm going to try," reports the 19 year-old daughter of Russian immigrants to NYC as she began her first shift as a New York City taxi driver about the same time as her counterpart south of the Río Grande.

A few years back, Esveida started a Rondalla or singing group made up entirely of women performers simply because it hadn't been done before.

"I really can't sing," she maintains. "But there had never been a group made up 100% of women. So why not?"

Since then, the group has won numerous awards in their competitive tours throughout the country.

But there is one area where, try as she will, Elveida, like her colleagues all over the world, simply cannot crack the gender barrier. A female driver in Lebanon spoke for all her sister drivers when she said, "It's so easy for a man to find a spot and just pee."

Nowhere in the world have I seen so many males assume the classic 'man peeing' stance right out in the open as I have in Mexico. That is one form of discrimination that no revolution has ever been able to cure.

Independence Day Puppies. These strays were abandoned at the doorstep of the home of a resident gringa September 15th. In the spirit of Fiestas Patrias, she decided to take them in and give them a home. ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

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