How Mexico’s Union Boss “La Maestra” Inspired a Mystery

How Mexico’s Union Boss “La Maestra” Inspired a Mystery

When fellow fiction writers ask where to find inspiration for characters I usually reply “minor league politicians.” There is always something to be found in the actions and words of those hungry for political power. In the same spirit, I channeled Elba Esther Gordillo, head of Mexico’s national teacher’s union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), when creating the character of Victor Obregon Sosa, head of the police union for the state of Guerrero in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Here’s how Obregon is introduced in CLIFF DIVER, the first book in the series:

The two newcomers surveyed the room. One of them looked vaguely familiar, as if he’d been in the newspaper lately. He was in his late thirties, with longish dark hair slicked back from a high forehead and the sort of angular cheekbones that spoke of a strong indio heritage. He wore a black leather blazer over a black tee shirt and cuffed pants. There was a slight bulge under the left arm. He looked around as if he owned the place. Emilia stopped typing. The man exuded power.

La Maestra

Elba Esther Gordillo, nicknamed “La Maestra,” (The Teacher) has been head of the teacher’s union for more than 20 years; wheeling, dealing, passing out favors, burying bodies, and living on the national stage. Obregon, a continuing character throughout the Emilia Cruz mystery series, borrows much from her:

  • Expensive trappings of office—cars, clothes, attitude
  • Enough money and political power to manipulate politicians and keep them in his pocket
  • Able to effectively block reform and initiatives that could threaten his kingdom
  • Rewards loyalty with best jobs, gifts, favors
  • Likes power and isn’t shy about showing it off

Elba Esther Gordillo photo courtesy of

Imagine my surprise—the imagination reels at what I can do with this via fiction–when Elba Esther was arrested on embezzlement charges last week. The shock wave is still rippling over Mexico where Elba Esther is as famous and powerful as Jimmy Hoffa at the height of his Teamsters power. She is charged with embezzling millions in union funds to support a lifestyle that includes private jets, plastic surgery, luxury homes in San Diego, secret bank accounts in Switzerland and a nearly $3 million credit-card bill at Neiman Marcus. The SNTE has around 1.4 million members and apparently that translates into a lot of dues.

Fictional Education

Of course, it’s not like Elba Esther’s profligate lifestyle was only recently discovered but as they say, timing is everything. (See article on La Maestra corruption from April 2011) The day before her arrest, President Peña Nieto signed into law a major education reform that the SNTE had aggressively opposed. It would allow teachers to be evaluated and possibly fired. This is a big blow to the union’s current status quo: teachers don’t have to have a degree, can never be fired, and high rates of absenteeism are tolerated.

While the president may be sending the message that he’s serious about corruption, Elba Ester’s excesses would have been easier to tolerate if Mexico’s education standards were in better shape:

Looks like Elba Ester has alot to account for and no doubt she’s working up a slick defense as she waits in a woman’s prison near Mexico City. I’m sure it will be inspiring . . . at least to a mystery writer!

2016 Update

Mexican President Pena Nieto’s education reforms have sparked a slew of protests across Mexico, as teachers protest a system overhaul, including evaluation tests every three years. The reforms also include competitive hiring, more control to the federal government, and a salary system to protect against graft and waste.

But in southern Mexico, this past summer protests got violent. Nine people were killed in clashes with police in Oaxaca. Highways were blocked, leading the government to airlift food into rural areas around the city.

While the main union has fallen in line with the reforms, combatative factions are leading the protests and vowing to close Mexico’s highway system. This comprehensive NY Times article from June 2016 focuses on the violence and extremism in Oaxaca.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

Comparing Crime Rates: Acapulco vs Points North

In mid-February, prompted by a spate of news reports on crime for 2012–including a list of the top 10 most violent cities in the world, discussions of violence in Chicago and Detroit, and school closings in Acapulco due to security problems–I posted this picture and the following question on my Facebook fan page:

Acapulco nightAcapulco, setting for my EMILIA CRUZ mystery series, has been named the 2nd most DANGEROUS city in the world! Have you been to Acapulco? Do you agree?

The Facebook Response

At present I have 1898 Facebook fans, spread across 7 countries. More than half are in Mexico. 291 fans “liked” the post. Responses included:

  • “Beautiful paradise turned into hell.. where teachers are being extorted . . taxi drivers are decapitated, where many women have been raped, but only when happened [sic] to foreigners the authorities reacted as if the lives of poor, common Guerrero women were worthless.”
  • “Acapulco is violent and dangerous yes, indeed!”
  • “I think people over [exaggerate] things ‘cause look what happened to those kids in school. It’s always dangerous people make it that way in Mexico everywhere not just Acapulco.” (translation)
  • “I love the photo. Just . . . Perhaps . . . this is now the motherland of Mexicans. And you have to love her as such. First, individuals must be better in order to first form a society.” (translation)
  • “The whole world has violence not only Acapulco.”

Related post: Chain of Fools

Comparing Crime

The “it’s not just Acapulco” comments made me wonder. Were Acapulco’s homicide numbers really so much worse than Chicago or Detroit? Moving further north, what about Canada? What does high crime there look like? I had more questions than ever after that simple Facebook post.

Here is what I found when I compared the homicide rates in key cities in North America:

                           Winnipeg       Chicago         Detroit          Acapulco

Population:           700,000           2,851,265         700,000          880,000

2012 homicides              39                 500                 411                 1170

Percentage        1 in 17,948           1 in 5,702        1 in 1,703         1 in 752

I was looking for context and what I got was a shocker. Unless math has changed since I went to school, Acapulco is far and away the winner of this gruesome challenge. Winnipeg has the worst homicide rate of all Canadian cities but is incredibly low in comparison.

Are Local Gangs the Key?

What will it take to make a dangerous city less violent? Gangs fuel the homicide rates in Chicago and Detroit, according to many news reports, and it is well known that Acapulco’s gangs feed drug cartel violence. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced a new $9 billion crime prevention strategy to combat the rise of gangs in 57 poor neighborhoods and hotspots including Acapulco. Will it work? While homicide rates never tell the whole story, let’s hope next year the numbers are smaller.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Friday Fiesta: Saving the Food Chain, A Language, Literary Thought and Your Self-Esteem

dog with sifesaver

As the author of a mystery series I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Join the movement and share your stories on Twitter with hashtag #FridayFiesta.

The Fish at the Bottom of Your Food Chain

The Peruvian anchovy, known as anchoveta, lives at the bottom of a global food chain you probably have never thought about. According to AP, the little silver fish “thrives in the cold, plankton-saturated Humboldt Current along the coast of Peru and Chile and accounts for about a third of the global fishmeal industry used to fatten farmed seafood and livestock, from salmon in Norway to pigs in China.” But due to overfishing, the anchoveta population is about half what it was 10 years ago. That’s a serious concern for people who know what a food chain is and Peru is taking action by setting quotas, levying fines for illegal harvesting, and making the fish more accessible to its own population to combat childhood malnutrition. Paul Phumpiu, Peru’s vice minister of fisheries, framed the situation: “It’s a paradox, having a resource so rich that it feeds other parts of the planet but barely reaches Peruvians.” A little fish with a big job, it seems.

Saving the Language of Jesus

Writer Ariel Sabar recently followed scholar Geoffrey Khan of the University of Cambridge through Chicago in his quest to find speakers of pure Aramaic, the 3,000-year-old language of Jesus. Aramaic, the language in which Jesus uttered his last words, is down to its last generation or two of speakers. Khan looks for “elderly folk who had lived the better part of their lives in mountain enclaves in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Turkey” and records those whose language skills have not been diluted by slang or dialects. His work is “an act of cultural preservation and an investigation into how ancient languages shift and splinter over time.” This terrific article, published in The Smithsonian, is beautifully researched and written.  I loved this line: “the sounds of a language in twilight.

Be Proud, Get a Badge is an online social community of people who share life experiences and get real badges for those experiences. You can join the social community and store the story about how you earned a certain badge like Sky Diving, Haunted House, Swimming With Dolphins, etc. More are added every month. Each Lifescouts badge costs 3.00 BPS and comes as a round enamel pin. I love Lifescouts for two reasons: 1. Find other folks who have similar experiences and 2. My daughter realized that she’s accomplished more than she sometimes gives herself credit for. A couple of little pins is a terrific reminder of our Small Victories. And some big ones, too.

A Literary Festival in Myanmar. Really

Myanmar recently held its first literary festival, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival. As reported by Publishing Perspectives, it drew “thousands of attendees attracted by the opportunity to hear speakers ranging from Vikram Seth, Timothy Garton Ash, William Dalyrmple, to the festival’s patron, Nobel Peace Prize winner and worldwide icon for democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi.” It was organized by the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar, Jane Heyn who saw opportunity in the country’s recent loosening of censorship. Two years ago, such an event—attended by previously jailed writers and others who once had to hand out their works in secret–would not have been possible. While creatives still must tread carefully in Myanmar, the literary festival was “a platform to exchange ideas,” according to Heyn. That can only be a good sign.


The Friday Fiesta: An Outdoor Seat, Music, Chocolate, and a Story

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Have a Seat

The website brings us a montage of park benches around the world that is surprisingly startling and thought-provoking and nearly had me running for my passport. From a bench that looks as if it is part of a giant slingshot by German artist Cornelia Konrads to book-shaped benches in Istanbul and a shark attack bench in Bangkok, these photos and the imagination behind them are a guaranteed smile. Check it out—there might be a bench near you.

The Landfillharmonic

There are a few YouTube videos on the small orchestra created in Cateura, Paraguay, using instruments made from trash from a local landfill. I recommend a quick view of this 3 minute short. The stringed instruments sport odd shapes and labels from the boxes, cans, and other containers cannibalized to make them but the music—and obvious dedication of the music teacher–is worth celebrating. You can check out this Facebook page for more about the orchestra and the documentary about it from an often overlooked part of the world.

Saving Chocolate

The online magazine—one of my favorite feel-good online locations—carried this interesting story about cocoa farmers in the impoverished Democratic Republic of the Congo. Candy maker Theo is producing two new organic, fair trade certified chocolate bars: Pili Pili Chili, “an intensely warming blend of cocoa, vanilla, and spicy peppers; and Vanilla Nib, a scrumptious mix of cocoa, creamy vanilla, and crunchy cocoa nibs.” The website reports that Theo says the “fast-growing, high-yield crop requires minimal re-planting, prevents deforestation, commands solid global prices, and is a major source of income.” Theo chocolate is sold online and at Whole Foods Market stores.

Story Sees the Light of Day

“The Tallow Candle,” a handwritten early story by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson—author of “The Little Mermaid” and other famous tales–was recently unearthed in a box of miscellany by local historian Esben Brage in the National Archive in Odense, Andersen’s home town. Published in English by Danish media outlet after validation by experts including Ejnar Stig Askgaard of the Odense City Museum, Bruno Svindborg of the Royal Library and Professor Johan de Myliu, you can read it here. As the UK’s reported, “The story tells of a little candle, dirtied by life and misunderstood, which eventually finds happiness after a tinder box sees the good at its heart and lights it.” Given the news lately, this discovery is pretty timely. We all need a little more light in our lives.

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The Mary/Mujer Paradox

Madonna statueDecember is a big month for Mary, the mother of Jesus. On 8 December Catholics celebrate the Immaculate Conception, the day She became pregnant with the son of God without benefit of sex. On 12 December there is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe to commemorate the day She appeared to the humble San Juan Diego in Mexico. And of course on 25 December we celebrate the day She gave birth in Bethlehem to Her son Jesus.

The feast day of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a major event in Nicaragua, with celebrations dating to colonial times. My neighborhood, like so many others, enjoyed about 40 hours of intermittent fireworks (which reduced the dog to jelly), late-night festivites the evening before and a Mardi Gras-like celebration at the church up the road on the actual feast day.

The build-up to the weekend was as big a deal as for Thanksgiving in the US. For weeks the newspapers reported preparations across the country. Major stores ran related ads. Billboards and banners strung across telephone poles repeated words like joy, purity, conception, virgin, sainted.

The news reports were detailed—guardians of the tradition were interviewed, one chuch had a special “washing” of the silver before the big day, in many parishes the faithful carried the church’s statue of Mary in local pilgrimages, others planned concerts or novenas, the capital’s cathedral would feature a statue of la Santísima Virgen de la Purísima that is three meters tall and weighs two tons. The faithful call known as La Gritería was everywhere: What causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!

I grew up with Catholic ritual and love the traditions and symbolism. But this weekend, as the fireworks boomed, I found it hard to reconcile a fixation on feminine purity with the high rates of violence against women in Nicaragua.

And along the same lines, I can’t help but link violence rates with the societal attitude that brings us the sex position of the week in the newspaper. Once a week, there’s a “tasteful” drawing of a couple doing it, with tips for getting it right.

Femicide rates in Nicaragua have exploded in the past ten years. Univision reported recently that there were 29 cases of femicide in 2000 and 89 in 2010. While this may be less than on a bad week in Chicago, this is a significant trend for the relatively small Nicaraguan population.

Newspaper La Prensa reported in August that 48 women were murdered in Nicaragua during the first half of 2012, including two under 12, while some 96,000 women are in a “vulnerable state.” Of the 48 murdered, eight were raped before getting killed and 14 were known to the National Police to be victims of abuse, according to a report by the non-governmental organization Red de Mujeres contra la Violencia. The organization also noted that 78% of violence against women occurs in their homes and females between 18 and 45 years account for 61.25% of all assault victims.

I’m a little worried about what will be in the newspaper in the coming week. Univision reported that the special prosecutor for Women in Nicaragua, Deborah Gradinson, said that gender violence is multiplied by three when there are major celebrations.

So Mary’s on a pedestal as the woman who never had sex, real women are available to be kicked around, and new ideas for the sex beforehand are right here in the paper.

What causes so much joy? The conception of Mary!

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

The Friday Fiesta: An Odyssey, An Artist, Manners, and the Radio

dog and globeAs a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

His Odyssey Expedition

Daily Telegraph reporter Graham Hughes started 1 January 2009 on a trip that would take him around the world without any airplane travel. After 1,426 days on the road and more than 200 countries across six continents, Hughes wrote this fabulous wrap-up in which he said: “I undertook this challenge for many reasons: to set a Guinness World Record, to raise money for the charity WaterAid, to have great stories to tell the grandchildren. But the main reason was that I wanted to prove it was possible: to show that all the great travel adventures have not already been done; to show that the world isn’t the terrible scary place so often portrayed in the media; to show that, yes, with a British passport, a fistful of dollars and the right amount of tenacity, grit and patience you can – if you really want to – go anywhere.” Hughes’ determination, accomplishment and the resulting article are all terrific.

 In the Tradition of Art Saving Wildlife

Following in the tradition of the Audobon Society and the World Wildlife Fund, both rooted in work by noted wildlife artists, California artist David Tomb has started a conservation effort called Jeepney Projects Worldwide to save endangered birds including the great Philippine eagle. A Huffpost article quoted him as saying: “Making artwork of the birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing the birds . . . The ultimate goal is to have people think: ‘That animal is incredible.'” Tomb’s artwork, included in the article, is also incredible and worth a look, if for no other reason that the Philippine eagle, weighing in around 18 lbs., is an arresting and unique creature.

 Asian Etiquette

Did you know that religious views play a role in good manners in Asia? The website, devoted to Asian travel, writes “The sole of the foot is considered such a dirty thing that it is even seen as an aggressive, rude gesture in Thailand to show someone the sole of the foot – similar to ‘flipping the bird’ in the USA, or ‘putting two fingers up’ in the UK. Continuing the theme on feet, shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s house in Asia, and in Thailand never, ever stand on anything with an image of the King on, like money or postage stamps for example.” This short and useful article gives other good tips for showing good manners when travelling in Asia. Related to this is my Rude in Any Culture post, with a similar foot warning.

Salaryless Radio Host in Peru Still Going Strong

Peruvian radio host Maruja Venegas has been on the air for 68 years, making her the longest-running radio host ever, according to Guinness World Records. Venegas is 97 and her fans are still listening to her show “Radio Club Infantil” which airs Sundays at 6-6:30 pm on Santa Rosa, a religion-oriented station. The show, which started in 1944 as a broadcast for sick children, has expanded and contracted over the years—impacted by Peru’s political and economic circumstances. Venegas, who has never been paid for the show, is her own producer and has got her formula down; the show now always includes a story, music, advice and commentary. The story is a salute to tenacity and for doing something you love and think is important enough to do, regardless of the reward.

The Mexican Scatter Plot Diagram

Blood spatterDedicated news junkies like myself can generally identify trends. But this week the news about Mexico has some of everything—the good, the bad, the hopeful and the bleak. If I was an infographic specialist and did a scatter plot diagram of Mexican news stories, the result would be either a blood spatter or a constellation, depending on your point of view.

What to make of it?

A. Possible changing Mexican narrative: economy vice drugs

B. Dead women in the news get more attention than dead men

C. I’ll never run out of grist for the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Here are some of the stories in the news this week:

Port-mortem on death of Maria Santos Gorrostieta

The UK’s Daily Mail online edition carried the most comprehensive story I found. CNN had a video story and Fox News Latino carried some of the same pictures as the Daily Mail. BTW, I wrote a blog post when the news of her death broke last week.

Drug deaths and debate

Miss Sinaloa is killed: Fox News Latino reported that the local beauty queen had a gun in her hands at the time of her shooting.

Mass graves in Chihuahua: Fox News Latino story

Noted law professor on drug war tactics in The Daily Beast

Jailed cartel leader La Barbie accuses top officials with bribes/corruption

Mexican police deny La Barbie charges, reported by CNN

Pres-Elect Enrique Peña Nieto Goes to Washington

Peña Nieto met with President Obama and lawmakers with a message of expanding economic ties. Here are stories by ABC/Univision and the BBC which often has an interesting perspective on Mexico.

And for fun: Senator John McCain’s picture of EPN and new friends:

The Economist on the US-Mexican relationship

The Coming Presidential Transition

LA Times on How Times and Ties have changed

Noted author Alan Riding on the shift in the NY Times

The Washington Post: Mexico “subdued” ahead of ceremony

Outgoing President Felipe Calderon

Calderon will take a 1 year fellowship to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where according to Reuters he will “meet with students, collaborate with scholars and researchers and help develop case studies on policy challenges.”

Defending His Record, from CNN

Mexico Through the Lens of a Survey

Management consulting firm Vianovo, together with national marketing communications and advertising company GSD&M, conducted a survey on US views of Mexico. Upshot: 50% unfavorable rating, only 2 points below Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden’s birthplace.

At the Table

Calvin Trillin writes enticingly about food in Oaxaca in this week’s New Yorker

23 Chicago-area Mexican restaurants to receive awards


ABC/Univision profiles a designer in Oaxaca


Mexican start-ups seeks social change

The Friday Fiesta: Turkish Delight, Brit Food, Art and Drink

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Not Everybody’s Eating This Turkish Delight

Muhtesem Yuzyil, or Magnificent Century, is either a blasphemous mess or a cultural revolution, depending which side of the television the viewer is on. Magnificent Century is a primetime soap opera about Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem, the slave who became his powerful wife, set in the mid 1500’s with the same production values and historical punch of the BBC’s Henry VII series The Tudors. The show debuted in January 2011 and immediately elicited 70,000 (!!) complaints, including from Turkey’s prime minister, according to the online edition of The Guardian newspaper. picked up the story this week, noting that the show sparks both controversy and huge audiences (a recent episode was watched by 85 million viewers in 45 countries including half of all Muslim women over the age of 15)  because “the show presents women as equal to men. There are scenes of kissing, drinking and sex that are formerly unheard of on Middle Eastern television, and, in the case of Magnificent Century, a Muslim leader famous for his religious tolerance and ability to work with people of other faiths.” Popularity and controversy = cultural change? Yikes. Stay tuned.

Surprising British Food

I’ve spent a lot of time in London and generally avoided restaurants with traditional Brit fare (except for Fortnum and Mason, of course) because Brit food is doughy, tasteless, and unchanged since the Battle of Trafalgar.

But is convincing me I’m wrong with a great story entitled “Why British food isn’t as bad as you think.” The post lists the best Brit food, including fish and chips, bangers and mash, chicken tikka masala, Yorkshire pudding AND tells you where the best can be found. With pictures! That actually look good!

The Middle Eastern Art Scene

Abu Dhabi leads the arts and cultural preservation scene in the Middle East and does a great job of tracking developments. The website recently ran journalist Jessica Holland’s guide to buying Middle Eastern art. Holland advises collectors to look for a story related to the artwork and understand how the value will be impacted by the country the artist is from. Trending now: art by Syrian and Egyptian artists. Nice to know there’s more going on in the region besides what’s on CNN.

Drinking Advent

I love advent calendars. Remember the bit from the BBC show The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French?

Geraldine: How many chocolate advent calendars should a greedy person have?

Alice: I don’t know. I should think about 30.

But’s Cocktail Culture has something even better than chocolate. The ultimate in advent calendars is the Whiskey Advent Calendar! A dram of single malt for each day. One season, two religious experiences.

© 2016 Carmen Amato.


I’m author Carmen Amato. I write romantic thrillers and the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

Be Angry and Pray Hard

Be Angry and Pray Hard

Maria Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, 36, who for nearly 4 years had served as the mayor of Tiquicheo, Michoacan, Mexico until early 2012, was found murdered last Friday. Her body was discovered in a remote area of the state and bore signs of torture.

An earlier attack on the politician in October 2009 left her wounded and killed her husband, another former Tiquicheo mayor, Jose Sanchez.

Organized crime elements–not further identified–are likely responsible, according to the Michoacan State Attorney General’s Office.

I learned about her death from the website DrugWar101, which does an amazing job keeping us up to date on things that often do not make it into the American mainstream press, despite the whole doorstep issue. Meanwhile, more Mexican drugs get gobbled up by American consumers. Don’t read my blog post on that. It is unkind.

I never knew this woman and I’ve never been to Tiquicheo. But her story made me so angry my vision blurred. Mexico is an amazing country, with a rich culture, beautiful artwork and crafts, food, history, museums, resorts, beaches. By killing Maria and others who are trying to maintain civil society, the cartels are destroying the country’s soul.

This is why I write the books I write, why I try to use fiction to show that good people are getting swallowed up whole by cartel violence and money. Fiction can be a catalyst. Maybe I’m dreaming that this will ever make a difference but hopefully it can be a way to get more people to pay attention.

Related: Book Review: Federales by Christopher Irvin

Please light a candle tonight for Maria. Maybe one to Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


The Friday Fiesta: Travel, Time and Not Enough Sparkly Wine

As a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating.The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Are You This Kind of Traveler?

The online Sydney Morning Herald reported on a Skyscanner survey of flight attendants that revealed the top 10 most annoying things that air travelers do. Snapping fingers at flight attendants is number 1, not a big surprise. Trying to get out of the plane before the light goes off and stuffing too much into the overhead bin are numbers 2 and 3.

I read the list with great smugness until I came to number 7: leaving trash in the seat pocket. Er, um, yes, the used tissues, empty sugar packets, and crumpled newspaper from seat 7B were gifts from me.

For more tips on how to be a bad traveler read my list of 25 Ways to Be the Worst Traveler in the World.

Not All Time is Equal

I’m often struck by cultural differences in time management. For example, in one country the gardener wanted to come every 15 days, rather than every other Wednesday (but mostly he never showed up at all) while in another place the cable TV bill was not always for the same duration, making each a surprise. The website had a thought-provoking article entitled “How Language Can Shape the Perception of Time” that is worth a read. It is an excellent discussion of how different cultures have different perceptions of time and how language feeds into that. This issue is a small but meaningful part of interacting with people from different cultures on a daily basis. Related to this is my post on cultural differences regarding money.

Changes in Latitude

The codesign website brings us a gallery of photos from 70 degrees north latitude. I clicked through the photos, riveted by the simple images that represent a photographic line through the United States. From N 40° 00’ 00” W 97° 00’ 00” Hollenberg, Kansas, 2007, to N 40° 00’ 00” W 109° 00’ 00” Rangely, Colorado, 2000 and so many other locations, this imagery collection is a significant achievement in terms of research, photography, and curation.  What I didn’t expect to find but did: a view into the culture of rural America. Added cool thing: website scrolling is horizontal, mimicking the concept of latitude. Check it out. Just lovely.

The Coming Champagne Crisis

The Huffingpost Post reports that hail storms and fungus due to overly wet weather will reduce France’s champagne grape harvest by 40%. Champagne takes at least 15 months to ferment, meaning that champagne prices for the summer of 2014 could be higher despite a reserve built up by lowered demand in previous years due to recession in the US and Europe. But demand is on the rebound at least in the US. So what’s a discriminating consumer to think?  Spoiler alert for weddings, graduation parties and book launch events.

The Friday Fiesta: A Ride, A Book, Olives and Remembrance

Party tootsAs a fiction author I love to weave unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

Would You Ride?

The world’s longest and highest cable car service will reopen early next year in Merida, Venezuela, according to a BBC report. The cable system is more than 7 miles long, rising to more than 15,330 feet above sea level at the summit of Pico Espejo — one of the highest peaks in Venezuela’s Andean mountains. Originally built in 1960, the trip of around 2 hours takes intrepid travelers from Merida to the magnificent scenery of the Andes. From the report: “On a clear day, the craggy outcrop of Pico Espejo — where the resident Virgin Mary statue is sometimes covered in ice — provides panoramic views of the surrounding range, as well as a bird’s-eye view of Merida in the distant valley below.” Equal parts amazing and scary.

War and Remembrance blog gave us a unique take on war museums this week, including some little known museums that capture events and places that are all too easily forgotten. I’ve been to three museums on the list: the Imperial War Museum and the HMS Belfast, both in the UK, and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin and recommend them all. But of special note is the JEATH Museum, Kachanburi, Thailand. “JEATH stands for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, which represent the nationalities of the prisoners of war forced to work on the construction of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.” It wasn’t just a movie.

In the same vein, here’s my blog post on resistance museums.

The Olive Harvest

Did you know how olives are gathered to make olive oil? Check out the blog post by @ItalianNotes for beautiful photographs and a video on how “In our part of Puglia the old contardini swears by the scopetta. With an old organic broom they sweep a circle around every single olive tree making the red earth hard, smooth and clean, so that olives can easily be gathered, when they are ripe and ready to fall off the tree.” The post is lovely—a simple snapshot of a an industry that reminds us of the value of tradition and the calm that comes from living close to the earth.

The First Book and it’s Not the Bible. 

John Wainwright, a computer specialist, ordered the first book from in 1995. Do you remember amazon’s radio ads from that time? They were in an interview format, with the interviewee claiming amazon had enough books to fill an aircraft carrier and other huge spaces.But I digress.

According to The Atlantic online magazine, which has a photo of the book and the original packing slip, the book Wainwright ordered was Douglas Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought. A bit of light reading. But that first book illustrates that amazon has been so successful (the website sells my books so of course it is successful!) because it carries something for every interest.

Book cover The Hidden Light of Mexico City“Romantic and suspenseful! A great mix!”


Chain of Fools

Chain of Fools

The little church in Mexico City was decorated for Christmas with 100 red poinsettias. Every pew was filled, many with sleepy but excited children, for a special Christmas Eve midnight mass. Father Richard was leading us in the Prayer of the Faithful when a man staggered up the center aisle, his limbs jerking as he alternately murmured and shouted incomprehensible words. We all shrank back as he made his way towards the altar, an unexpected and volatile presence.

As the congregation looked on in growing panic, the man accosted Father Richard on the altar. The priest didn’t move or stop the prayer, just dug through his robes for a pocket. He pulled out a few pesos and pressed them into the man’s hand.

By that time several of the male congregants had come onto the altar as well and they gently propelled the drug-addled man down the altar steps and through the church to the rear door.

We continued Christmas mass and the addict remained nameless to the shaken congregation. But he was evidence that Mexico’s own drug problem was growing as more and more drugs transited the country en route to the United States.

So the question of the day is what does this anonymous addict, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, slain border agent Brian Terry, and 17 mutilated bodies found this month in the Mexican state of Jalisco all have in common?

The answer is that they are all part of the chain of American demand and Mexican supply of illegal drugs. The links are forged by the unthinkable amounts of cash and pop-culture icon status to be made in Mexico from satisfying that American demand. And until that demand is eliminated, the rewards will always be greater than the risks for many Mexicans who have little upward mobility in their country’s formal economy.

But is reducing American demand a real possibility? Although President Obama discussed it in a recent interview with Univision, drug policy isn’t a deal-breaker in the US presidential elections.  Hollywood–the arbiter of too many things deemed cool in US pop culture–is hardly a force against drug use.

But CNN reported this week that the term “war on drugs” is giving way to “prevention.”

I hope there is something tangible behind that word. It’s a very strong chain.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Carmen Amato at Spring Hill

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