Virginity for Sale

Well well well . . . It was only a matter of time!

Last summer, I blogged about a case in France in which a young engineer had divorced his new wife because she was not a virgin on their wedding night. How did he find out? She failed to bleed properly from her vagina when they consumated their marriage on that auspicious night.

The case brought up all kinds of issues dealing with religion, sexual and reproductive freedom, and gender roles—particularly within some Muslim communities in which virginity is a prequisite for women’s marriageability. The case also brought up the issue of hymen reconstruction surgery, a procedure that restores the hymen and essentially gives women their virginity back, thereby allowing them a degree of sexual freedom without the risk of being stigmatized as unworthy of marriage.

A Chinese company, it seems, went one step further. Bypassing the surgical option, Gigimo offers an “artificial hymen,” designed to be inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse. According to the Huffington Post, the product “leaks a blood-like substance when . . . broken.” On Gigimo’s Web site, the artificial hymen is described as easy to use, non-toxic, painless, and hypo-allergenic—although a 2008 piece in Salon called attention to potential side effects.

At first blush, the artificial hymen might seem like a win-win situation for everyone. Husbands would be able to present a bloody sheet to their guests on the night of the wedding; women would be able to enjoy premarital sexual freedom without having to worry about a wedding-night divorce; and families would be assured that they had chosen good spouses for their children (IBN Live reported back in 2008 that Muslim women in Britain were already using the product to “fake their virginity”). Alas! Nothing is ever so rosy in the world of sex and marriage. Although having been around for a while, the artificial hymen is now making international headlines because conservative Egyptian lawmakers are seeking to ban its importation and sale in their country.

This case can be seen as an illustration of the ongoing tensions between tradition vs. modernity, men vs. women, religion vs. secularity, and the impact of science and technology on them all. Take, for instance, the role of culture: culture creates a need—in this case for virgin wives—which demands that women’s hymens be intact on their wedding nights. On the other hand, how does culture address those women who choose to exercise the right to decide when, with whom, and under what circumstances to have sex? Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between religiously mandated women’s roles and the expectations of—to say nothing of the demands on—modern women. In other words, how do traditional sexual and reproductive values play out in a modern society in which women may find them outdated and overly restrictive?

This line of argument, however, misses the point. The sad reality is that many, many women in Egypt and elsewhere do not have much—if any—say about when, where, how, and with whom they lose their virginity. This latter group has to answer twice: the first time for the actual loss of their virginity; the second time when they get married. Whether in the form of a reconstructed hymen or an artificial one, technology could have been a saving grace that spared these women the stigma of having lost their virginity before marriage and thus being rendered unfit to marry. In other words, the artificial hymen—while not restoring to these women the dignity they may have lost along with their virginity—might have given them a chance to leave the past behind (assuming, of course, they had any say in whom they married).

But alas! There are too many ifs and if-onlys when it comes to questions of sex and what women do with their bodies. Besides, the artificial hymen would have, at best, been of use to only the minority of women who could afford its $30 price tag. If the ban goes into effect, however, even they will have to do without its salvation. Instead, they will have no choice but to live with the consequences of decisions they made ages ago or—even worse—spend the rest of their lives having to answer for events over which they may have had no control.


Deja-Vu All Over Again: Still Killing Them Softly . . .

I originally wrote the post below on August 3, 2007. I have made only minor changes to the text to reflect the number of casualties and the location of the disaster, and to correct any anachronisms.

Today, 10 Sierra Leoneans drowned (many more are still missing) when their boat capsized on a sea journey from Shenge to Tombo, a village south of the capital, Freetown. Official sources claim the boat—which has not yet been recovered—was overloaded and did not contain lifejackets, in violation of the law. Many of the passengers were children. In spite of the shocking casualty figures, I am sure nobody will be held accountable for these disasters. People die, nobody answers for their deaths and nothing is done to prevent future deaths. In this way, Sierra Leone’s leaders continue to get away with murder.

Sure, the boat that collapsed today was—like all other means of motorized transport in Sierra Leone—old and rickety, overloaded with passengers and cargo. Sure, the water was rough where the Great Scarcies, swollen by recent rains, met the Atlantic. And sure, when God calls you, you can’t avoid it. Nonetheless, somebody should take responsibility for all this loss of life. Somebody should be held accountable. Somebody must be punished so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. But nobody will be.

Ultimately, no matter how this story is sliced or diced, one thing is certain. The government—the people who are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation—bears responsibility for this catastrophe. But one question will not be asked: “Why were there so many people packed into a rickety, overloaded boat traveling up the Atlantic coast during the rainy season?” The answer is simple. They have no choice.

And why do they have no choice? Because the government has not bothered to try to make sure that people can travel from one part of the country to another without taking  their lives into their hands. And because there is virtually no public transportation network in Sierra Leone. Or in most of West Africa. The old colonial highways (and I use “highway” loosely because these roads are seldom wider than one lane in either direction) are in poor condition, unpaved, bumpy and barely navigable at speeds greater than 20 miles an hour. To go by land, would-be passengers have to cram themselves into . . . you guessed it . . . old, rickety, and overloaded minibuses. Secondly, there are no major roads that run from Freetown due north. Passengers would have to go towards the center of the country and transfer at one of the major junctions. Finally, the transportation system is a neoliberal freemarketeer’s wet dream come true. Drivers only go where there is demand, and the evidence of demand is a full vehicle. Passengers wait, sometimes longer than an hour, until the vehicle cannot hold another person or item of luggage. If you’re traveling from Freetown to another part of Sierra Leone, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get there. Traveling by sea or road is a costly, crowded, and uncomfortable experience. And you may not survive the trip.

Since independence, the country’s infrastructure has slowly been falling apart. Official corruption and public apathy—more accurately fatalism—have resulted in the literal and physical deterioration of every aspect of social life: housing, health care, education, transportation. Everything is falling apart. The recently ended civil war, which raged for a decade and a half, did nothing to improve the situation.

Now the war is over. It’s been over since 2003. And what has this meant for infrastructure in Sierra Leone? Not much, except that the international community has done a good job of rebuilding and refurbishing the main commercial and administrative buildings in the capital’s city center. When I was there last September, my guide pointed out all the buildings that had been rebuilt by the British, the French, the EU, the UN but I didn’t see a single building that had been rebuilt by the Sierra Leonean government.

“But,” I hear you say, “isn’t it a lot to ask of the fragile new administration of a post-conflict-country to invest huge sums of revenue into reconstruction?” Fair enough. But if they can’t or don’t spend money on rebuilding the country, what can or do they spend revenues on? Last time I checked, it was the duty of a government to provide for the wellbeing of its people. Certainly I’m not naive enough to believe that the government must do so out of altruism but the Sierra Leonean government is failing at performing its basic role even if we look at it from purely economic terms. How can the country progress economically without a reliable and comprehensive transportation system, a requirement for even the most primitive systems of trade and commerce?

Besides, not having enough money is no excuse. Isn’t it part of the government’s job to have money? Whether through loans or foreign aid or domestic revenue generation, it is up to the government to generate revenue, which can then be reinvested into the economy. Despite what we hear about the role of government in the US, this is actually how modern, industrialized and—dare I say it—civilized countries function. Sure there’s a role for the market and the entrepreneur and all that good stuff but even the most die-hard advocates of the free market would never claim that the market exists to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs will tell you that they are in the business of seeking profits, not serving the public good. So, if the market won’t do it, who should? I say the government should. Find me one modern, industrialized, civilized country in which the government does nothing to provide for the public good.

Which brings me to my greater point. The government of Sierra Leone does not give a sh*t about the people of Sierra Leone. Since indepencence—46 years ago—Sierra Leone’s leaders (like the leaders of much of the “developing” world) have been busy enriching themselves. Sure, colonialism left homogenous, un-diversified economies throughout sub-Saharan Africa that were dependent on European economies for their survival. And yes, structural adjustments took a grievous toll on social welfare programs in developing countries but the time has come to call a spade a spade. African leaders don’t care about their people. They have never cared about their people. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sierra Leone was a decent place to live, with passable roads, round-the-clock electricity, and running water in the capital (the “provinces” were always a different story).

On my recent trip, however, Freetown had become like the provinces. Roads in the once-affluent western suburbs were now rutted and potholed, the asphalt broken up by tank treads from the days of the war and the soil underneath washed away by rain. Where there were once sidewalks, I saw deep ravines and gullies where water had eroded the soil on the side of the road. In some places, so much of the road had been washed away that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other along the same narrow stretch of road. And the roads are just the most visible part of the decay. Schools, hospitals, homes are all in a deplorable state of disrepair. More and more people live in slums and shanties.

Not everyone lives in dilapidation, though. I saw the president’s house. It’s a mansion that sits on a hillside overlooking the capital. Paved driveway, fence, swimming pool. But this man presides over a country that is slipping further and further backwards. But here’s the rub. The very poverty of Sierra Leone is what keeps these people in business. Millions of dollars and euros in foreign and development aid are funnelled into Sierra Leone—and many other impoverished countries—but how much of that money gets to the people who really need it? Having seen the president’s mansion, I have to say, not much.

The government of Sierra Leone is parasitic, and that corrupting mentality trickles all the way down through the society as low-level civil servants, underpaid and undertrained, scrounge around for scraps—bribes and other forms of official theft. How many people get into government because they want to make a difference, to help lift their country out of poverty? Not many, I imagine. After all, why has it taken so long to make that difference, and why is the country so much worse than it was at independence? Yes I know, colonialism and the international financial institutions must bear some of the blame but let’s not forget, Africa was not the only colonized continent. Yet today, Africa is by far the most impoverished region in the world.

Why do so many Sierra Leoneans who have attained professional and financial success abroad give it all up to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone? Because that’s where the money is. Take the former ambassador to the US, who had been a successful attorney and businessman prior to his appointment. Why did he go to Sierra Leone to try to get involved in politics? Why not lecture at the university there? He has a law degree and legal experience after all. Why not find investors and open a factory or some other revenue-generating business? After all, he had worked in the private sector before. Because he was not interested in doing anything to make Sierra Leone a safer, cleaner, or more comfortable place for its citizens to live. But he’s not alone.

Post-independence administrations—from Siaka Stevens’ on—have demonstrated a stunning lack of vision and imagination. As the rest of the world has moved forwards, Sierra Leone has slipped backwards. Why has no post-independence government implemented any policies for sustainable development? No large-scale, industrialized agriculture; no modern land, sea, or river transportation network; no new schoolhouses; no new hospitals; no modern air- or seaport; nothing! Just a government that maintains form without function.

When the president travels abroad, he is treated with all the respect befitting a dignitary. But every day in Sierra Leone, and in much of Africa, how many people die daily from easily preventable accidents and diseases? How many lives could be saved if the government committed itself to improving road networks and making transportation a faster and less dangerous business? Would the president be treated with such respect if he had lined the casualties of today’s boat catastrophe up against a wall and shot them all in the head? Sierra Leone boasts the world’s highest rates of infant mortality, with measles and malaria respectively accounting for 48 and 33 percent of all under-five deaths. What if, instead of having succumbed to easily prevented diseases, all these children had been gassed to death on the orders of the present government? There would be an international outcry, that’s what! No member of the Sierra Leonean government could travel abroad as smugly and proudly as they do now.

However, these people are not dying from accidents and disease. They are dying because the people who were elected or appointed to provide the basic amenities that would prevent their deaths are failing to do their jobs. Not having enough money to fix roads, build hospitals, or educate children should no longer be an acceptable excuse! Finding the money is part of the job description. Using the money to improve the country for everyone is another part of the job. Failing to do either of these things is the same as failing in the job. And failing to do one’s job is negligence. Every day, in Sierra Leone and all around Africa, people are dying from government negligence. But because they are dying from negligence instead of deliberate government action, the world looks the other way. Nobody is held accountable. The negligence goes unpunished.

Today, as 50 people go to their watery graves, we have seen one more demonstration of this negligence. With elections around the corner, let’s hope the next government is better than the previous ones. Let’s hope the next government values the lives of Sierra Leoneans enough to actively attempt to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Just Another Day in the Land of Hopes and Dreams

Something strange happened today. Something that very seldom happens to me. And when it does, it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly. Subconsciously even. Today, I felt a shift in my perspective. A small, subtle shift. But a shift nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to tutor immigrants at a community center not far from where I live. All the immigrants are getting ready for the naturalization interview, their penultimate step towards US citizenship. This community center provides free English-language lessons, lessons that will hopefully help them pass their interviews and become US citizens.

Today was my first time with this group. I’ve taught English to immigrants many times before, so the experience itself was nothing new. There was the familiar excitement of meeting new people, learning where they are from and what brought them to the US. There was the camaraderie borne of communion, of sharing my own story, telling of my own experiences as an immigrant, an outsider.

It was a small class, with about a dozen or so students, all roughly middle-aged. Each volunteer was assigned a small group of two or three students. I was matched up with Ferdinand and Isabella (not their real names). The routine was pretty simple. No need for materials or a lesson plan. They had their citizenship booklets and workbooks full of US history and various writing exercises. We would work from those.

After introductions and the customary initial awkwardness, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to loosen up. I started out with basic questions: what have you been working on in the class? Is there anything particular you’d like to work on? Both wanted to practise speaking. So we moved on to questions about them. Both are from a small Central American country. Both are divorced with children. Ferdinand has four from two previous wives. Isabella has two from her previous husband. They live in Europe. Isabella used to live in Europe with her sons but they’re grown now. I also learned that she and Ferdinand are married: he for the third time and she for the second.

Moving on to the more structured part of the lesson, I asked them both to write down a list of five things they liked about their country of birth. They talked about the weather (Isabella likes it hot), the food, the people, and the beach. Ferdinand said he likes the colors of the flag. I asked him what it was about the flag that he liked and he replied that as a kid in school, he’d have to look at the flag and pledge loyalty to it—just like in the US. Then he went to say that in his country of birth, you were allowed to look at the flag and maybe touch it. But you could not tear it or set fire to it. If you did, the army would take you away and . . . he made one hand into a fist and pounded it into the open palm of the other. Sometimes, a gesture speaks louder than words.

For the next part of the lesson, I had them ask each other questions about what they liked about the US. Isabella likes that there are people of many different nationalities. Ferdinand likes Atlantic City. And New York. He also likes the freedom, because he believes people should be able to express themselves without being pounded by the army. Isabella also likes that there are many opportunities here to have a good life. And she revealed that she would like to own a beauty salon someday. Ferdinand talked about how becoming a citizen would improve his chances of getting a better job. We continued to converse in this vein . . . while a realization slowly formed in my mind.

At several points in the hour-long lesson, I was deeply moved by this middle-aged couple, so different in so many ways yet so united in their belief in the potential of this country. He had come to the US as a young man in the ’70s but had chosen to return home, only to come back to the US six years ago. She had left her birth country at 15 and spent the better part of two decades in Europe, before making her way to the US. They had both lived elsewhere but had chosen to make the US their home.

And that’s when it hit me. This country’s strength, I realized, lies not in what it is, or even claims to be—lord knows, it falls far short of many of those claims. Rather, it lies in people like Ferdinand and Isabella, ordinary people whose desire for a better life gives them the strength to hope, the courage to follow their dreams wherever they may lead, and the determination to do whatever it takes to make them come true.

This Sh*t Makes Me So Mad!!!

Assiya Rafiq, right, in front of her mother, Iqbal Mai. (Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times)

Assiya Rafiq, right, in front of her mother, Iqbal Mai. (Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times)

After being kidnapped at the age of 16 by a group of thugs and enduring a year of rapes and beatings, Assiya Rafiq was delivered to the police and thought her problems were over.

Then, she said, four police officers took turns raping her.

The next step for Assiya was obvious: She should commit suicide. That’s the customary escape in rural Pakistan for a raped woman, as the only way to cleanse the disgrace to her entire family.

Instead, Assiya summoned the unimaginable courage to go public and fight back. She is seeking to prosecute both her kidnappers and the police, despite threats against her and her younger sisters. This is a kid who left me awed and biting my lip; this isn’t a tale of victimization but of valor, empowerment and uncommon heroism.

“I decided to prosecute because I don’t want the same thing to happen to anybody else,” she said firmly.

Read the full story here.

How come it’s the victim who has to bear the shame, has to suffer ostracism from her family and community, who has to commit suicide? Why aren’t the men who kidnapped, beat , sold, and raped her the ones who have to bear the shame?

Gates Case has Everything to do With Racism, Which is Probably why it Won’t go Away.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The ink had barely dried on Henry Louis Gates’ arrest record before people were falling over themselves to debate whether or not the arrest had anyhing to do with race. Even President Obama was asked to weigh in at a White House press conference. But at least one person involved in the scandal—the eminent Harvard professor himself—believes race was a factor.* In fact, expressing this opinion to Officer Crowley is what got him arrested.

Somewhere in this mess is Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller who’s been accused of racism for mentioning to the dispatcher that the suspects were Black. The recently released 911 tape provides some vindication—some vindication because, while she does not specifically use the word “Black,” she does tell the dispatcher that one of the suspects looked “kind of Hispanic.” Kind of Hispanic? What exactly does kind of Hispanic look like anyway? Because pictures of Gates’ accomplice have been hard to come by, it’s safe to assume Gates—with his mocha skin—was very likely the Hispanic-looking one. But it doesn’t matter because in Boston—which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for racial inclusivity—“kind of Hispanic” translates into “not White,” which pretty much answers the dispatcher’s question about the suspects’ race.

If race was not a factor, why then does a suspect’s skin color matter in the first place? Wouldn’t “what are they wearing?” be just as good for identifying suspects? After all, the police are perfectly capable of identifying suspects by their clothes, hairstyles, or physical features, no? Gates, for example, has a very recognizable limp. So again, if race didn’t play a role, why was it so important to the dispatcher?

But wait! Just when things couldn’t seem more cut and dry, genetics throws a spanner into the works. In an ironic twist, professor Gates has traced part of his genetic ancestry to an Irish warlord! Even more astonishing is the fact that Officer Crowley, who maintains that his decision to arrest Gates had nothing to do with race, is descended from the same warlord!!! This means that Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are related!!!

So the question becomes: if not for racism, how on earth could Officer Crowley and Professor Gates end up in the confrontation that splashed their photos all over the national press and got them invited to the White House for beers with the President? On the one hand you have Crowley, a White police officer, a symbol of law and order in his community. On the other hand, you have Gates, a Black man and a renowned Harvard professor—albeit surprisingly unknown and unrecognizable to Crowley. On the 911 tape, Crowley tells the dispatcher, “I have an ID of a Henry Louis Gates.” Apparently, he had no idea who this “gentleman” even was! So again, how did Gates become a burglary suspect in his own home? More importantly, how did these two men—who share DNA!—wind up on opposite ends of the racial binary, one presumed to be an upstanding, fairminded citizen and the other so easily mistaken for a burglar? It seems pretty cut and dry.

According to Officer Crowley, Gates was “uncooperative”—as anyone with any dignity or self-respect would have been in that situation—so the handcuffs had to come out. But giving a police officer a piece of your mind because he basically accused you of burglarizing your own home is not disorderly conduct, it’s freedom of expression. Expecting any person to grin and bear such indignity and humiliation is not only unfair and insenstive, it borders on tyranny. Isn’t protection from the caprices of an overbearing executive one of the foundational principles of the Constitiution, a document with which Professor Gates is no doubt familiar? Luckily, Cambridge PD sympathized with the professor and dropped the charges. That should have been enough vindication.

But not for everyone. In nearby Boston, Officer Justin Barrett was so incensed by a local columnist’s defense of Gates that he wrote her an email in which he called the professor a “banana-eating jungle monkey”! Even more troubling is Barrett’s assertion:

I am not a racist, but I am prejudice [sic] towards people who are stupid.

Apparently, Officer Barrett, despite his dislike of stupid people, is incapable of recognizing racism. He goes on to conclude that Professor Gates “has indeed transcended back to a bumbling jungle monkey,” and adds that, had he been in Officer Crowley’s place, he would have pepper-sprayed the professor in the face.

So we’re back to the same question: on what foundation did Barrett’s letter rest, riddled as it was with “frequent grammatical and spelling errors”? This barely literate man, despite having been an English teacher, does not even know the meaning of transcend—to rise above, to move onwards and upwards—or that it has a positive connotation (the word he was looking for is “regressed”). Yet for some reason, he confidently and mercilessly denigrates an acclaimed Harvard professor! In fact, this incident defies logic and can only be understood as an irrational emotional response born of prejudice and ignorance. Kinda like . . . racism?

But, lest anyone get the impression that this case is all about race and nothing else, it’s only fair to point out that Officer Barrett also had a few choice words for the columnist, Yvonne Abraham:

Barrett, who identified himself as a veteran . . . also took issue with Abraham’s journalistic ability, calling her ‘a hot little bird with minimal experience in a harsh field,’ as well as ‘an infidel.’ The rambling e-mail also suggested that she ‘should serve me coffee and donuts on Sunday morning,’ later returning to that line of thought with, ‘I like a warm cruller and hot Panamanian, black. No sugar.’

Good to see that Officer Barrett is well-rounded in his prejudice. After all, his sentiments give the impression that having been born with a penis—kinda like having been born with  the right skin color—entitles him to insult and dismiss a professional journalist for no reason other than that she was born with the wrong genitals. Oh, and he disagrees with her on the Gates issue.

The only good that might come out of this episode is that Officer Barrett will be removed from the police force, prompting a huge collective sigh of relief from “infidels,” “hot little birds,” and “jungle monkeys” all over the Boston area. In the meantime, I gotta cancel my subscription to Ms. Magazine and tear up my NAACP membership card. I won’t be needing those anymore!

*Considering Professor Gates has written books on the question of race and racism in America, I’m going to have to assume he knows what he’s talking about and agree with him.

R.I.P. Michael Jackson.

I’ve neglected T’ings ‘n Times for far too long and somehow, I thought my “comeback” post would be something of a masterpiece. Instead, here I am writing a quick, short post about Michael Jackson’s untimely death.

There’s not too much I can say. Is there a word for immense surprise mixed with sadness and disbelief? In German, maybe? I know the Germans have all kinds of words for ideas and emotions that cannot be conveyed in English.

It never occurred to me that one day, I’d have to live in a world without MJ. He’s always been there. Everywhere. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know of him. I can’t even remember when I learned who Michael Jackson was, it was so long ago. It would be like trying to remember my first words.

Even in Freetown in the ’80s, Michael Jackson was everywhere. Everyone knew his music. His picture was everywhere: on walls, on the sides of poda-poda minibuses, on barbershop signs . . .. It was as if he had always been around. And, despite his well-publicized fall[s] from grace, I suppose in many ways always will be.

Rest in peace, MJ.

This Is Mexico . . ..

I’ve been in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for four days now, and have only now had the time and ability to write a short post. I had intended to write a cheerful and upbeat post about how great Puerto Vallarta is, but made the mistake of checking my email first.

In my inbox were emails from several people who had sent me links to the latest news on the verdict in the Luis Ramirez case, which I’d blogged about since Ramirez, a Mexican, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. On a July night last year, he was walking home with a teenaged girl when he encountered a group of teenaged boys in a park. Words were exchanged—not a few of them racist insults hurled in Ramirez’s direction—and the situation escalated into an all-out fistfight that ended with Luis Ramirex laying on the ground unconscious and foaming at the mouth. He died in hospital two days later from severe head injuries sustained during the fight.

The jury was tasked with, among other things, sorting out who exactly delivered the blow that killed Luis, since at least three of the teens fought with him directly. They found the accused not guilty of all but the least serious charge: simple assault. I understand that sometimes, people make mistakes. But some mistakes are more serious than others. For example, someone might make the mistake of drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car. If they make it home safely, fine. But if they accidentally run over a pedestrian and kill him, they do not get off simply because they made a mistake. Yet here we have a case in which a human being’s life was taken by people using their fists and feet as weapons, yet they got off scott free.

So, as I sit here watching the orange sun set over a glassy bay, I find myself writing a very different post from the one I had intended. I wanted to write about how amazing Puerto Vallarta is. Every single person I have met here has been nothing but wonderful: warm, hospitable, generous, and good-humored. It was everywhere around me, once I left the taxi-and-package-tour-hustle-and-bustle of the airport. This was what I had planned to write about . . . before I checked my email. Now, the kindness and warmth of the Mexicans I’ve met stands out even more starkly when viewed against the backdrop of the Luis Ramirez case: I cannot imagine a situation in which six Mexican teenagers would find cause to make a disparaging remark towards me or any of the people I’m here with, let alone attack any of us so viciously as to leave us brain-damaged and dying in a park.

I know I’m here as a tourist and that tourist dollars are the lifeblood of the local economy. But I’m also here as a foreigner. I look physically different from every single Mexican I’ve seen, and my Spanish is far from good enough to allow me to pass. Yet nobody has yelled a racial slur in my direction, and nobody has told me—out of contempt or frustration—to learn Spanish. And, while I’m sure Puerto Vallarta has its share of crime both petty and violent, I haven’t found myself in a situation in which I’m made to feel uncomfortable or threatened because of my skin color, hair texture, or non-flueny in the local language.

After all, despite the obvious benefits tourists bring to the towns along Mexico’s coasts, there is more than enough reason for Mexicans to be hostile towards me. I’m a foreigner, a tourist, and an American. There is a long history of tension between our two countries, and I’m sure some tourists and foreigners comport themselves in a less-than-decent way with the locals. But none of this has been enough—in my admittedly limited time in Mexico—to cause the locals to treat me with suspicion, scorn, resentment, or outright hostility. When I attempt to communicate in my piss-poor Spanish, they listen patiently, correct me when I ask for correction and, when I eventually give up and ask if they speak English, graciously switch to fluent or near-perfect English.

I imagine that, had the teenagers who were found not guilty of beating Luis Ramirez to death ever found themselves in Mexico, they would have met the same reception as me and my fellow travelers. I imagine that Brian Scully too—the one who made the comment that started the fight and who yelled racial epithets while his friends were beating Luis Ramirez—would have been treated with nothing but kindness, warmth, and good humor.

Tragically, the reception Luis Ramirez got in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania was markedly different from the one I am getting from his compatriots in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In fact, his experience could not have been more different, a difference made even more grotesque by the fact that his attackers were ultimately found to be not responsible for his death.