La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Travel

'Biutiful,' a stark look at the lives of migrants, opens film festival in Mexico

Biutiful morelia set joseharo

The Morelia International Film Festival opened here Saturday night with a lavish inaugural screening and the Mexican premiere of "Biutiful," the new film by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that is picked to represent Mexico at the 2011 Academy Awards.

The latest feature by Inarritu, director of "Babel," is another sobering look at the struggles of migrants in a globalized world. "Biutiful" stars Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem as Uxbal, who lives in a poor Barcelona neighborhood where he handles money and illegal work for African and Chinese migrants. Bardem's character, who also lives with the ability to communicate with the recently dead, must suddenly confront his own imminent passing.

The story, characteristic of Inarritu's other films such as "Amores Perros," is violent and filled with human despair.

That "Biutiful" was not filmed in Mexico, does not take place in Mexico and is a co-production with companies in Spain has sparked debate over whether it was a suitable choice to represent this country at the next Oscars. Inarritu, addressing reporters at a news conference Saturday afternoon, said his film is a story about a man and his love for his two children, as well as a journey toward death, therefore making it a universal film that transcends conventional borders.

He also compared his work to that of legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"Sixty years ago Bunuel came to Mexico and filmed 'Los Olvidados' ['The Forgotten Ones'], and now I get to go to Spain and film the forgotten ones, who are the migrants," Inarritu said.

The Morelia festival, now in its eighth year, has quickly built a profile as the most prestigious and sought-after platform for new cinema in Mexico. This year's invited special guests include celebrated filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state, has a sparkling colonial core with 17th century churches and lush plazas and parks. The festival is packed with screenings, round-table events, exhibits and parties, and runs through Oct. 24.

Check out the program here and live reactions at Twitter with the hashtag #FICM. La Plaza will be here all week, checking out new Mexican features and documentaries and bringing you daily updates.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: Actor Javier Bardem, seated, and filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, standing at right, on the set of the film "Biutiful." Credit: Menage Atroz films

Texan says 'adios' to life in Mexico City

Jesus chairez apartment flickr

Jesus Chairez, a native of Texas and longtime activist in Mexican American and gay rights causes, reflected recently on his decision to leave Mexico City, where he savored the expatriate life for nearly three years.

After first getting an apartment in the megalopolis in late 2007 and then discovering the charms of the Santa Maria la Ribera neighborhood, Chairez says that life here was in many ways a "culture shock." "Time to start another chapter in my unscripted lifestyle," Chairez writes in an "adios" post at his blog.


The word  Latino and most especially Hispanic does not exist here.  The whole time I was here I never heard these two words used to identify one, unless it was by a visiting friend from Texas.

I found it fascinating how I had been such a Latino activist in Dallas and then when I moved to Mexico City I was now considered a GRINGO -– no kidding.

I often got the nickname gringo and or güero, two common words I, as a Latino, would call white folks back home. I found my nicknames most interesting because I didn’t ever consider myself white, but those words have nothing to do with being white.

In his time in the Mexican capital, Chairez became somewhat of a fixture in the vibrant U.S. expat community, frequently hosting parties at his apartment in Santa Maria la Ribera, with plenty of domestic help.

"I will miss living the life of a rich white woman," he jokes at his blog, where he posted on art, food, and his neighborhood.

Chairez says he plans to write a book about his experiences, and tells La Plaza that he is settling smoothly back into life in Dallas.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A view inside Jesus Chairez's living room in Mexico City. Credit: Flickr, via

Mexicana Airlines suspends all flights

Mexicana Airlines suspended all operations Friday, ending a rapid financial unraveling for Mexico's oldest air carrier. The suspension affects not only the flagship airline but also domestic affiliates MexicanaClick and MexicanaLink. All flights were canceled as of midday Saturday.

"Financial deterioration and lack of agreements force Grupo Mexicana to stop flying," said a statement posted on the company's website. "Grupo Mexicana deeply regrets any inconvenience caused to passengers."

Mexicana employed 8,000 workers and flew approximately 11 million passengers a year. A group of investors had acquired the bankrupt company on Aug. 20 and said it was still seeking options for a restructuring, reported The Times and the financial daily El Financiero.

Meanwhile, competitor AeroMexico announced it was expanding flights and routes between key hubs and tourist destinations in Mexico, reported El Financiero.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Tourism to Jamaica drops after drug-lord clashes

Jamaica police headquarters may 2010

Tourism to Jamaica has dropped this year in the aftermath of a bloody government manhunt for alleged drug lord Christopher "Dudus" Coke, the Jamaica Observer newspaper reports.

Citing data released Wednesday by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the Observer says stay-over visits to the island dropped 3.3% in June. "Overall, more than 6,300 less individuals stayed over in Jamaica during the quarter when compared to the corresponding period in 2009," the paper said.

The drop is blamed on days-long clashes between supporters of Coke and government forces in late May that left 76 people dead. Foreigners on Jamaica's tourist beaches were not considered in danger during the battles. But the violence brought international media attention to the slums of Kingston, Jamaica's capital, and the role of powerful gang leaders, such as Coke, who control them.

Coke was captured on June 22 (while wearing a disguise) and now faces multiple drug-related charges in the United States.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A damaged police building in Kingston during clashes over Christopher "Dudus" Coke, May 25, 2010. Credit: Mark Brown / European Pressphoto Agency

Troubled Mexicana Airlines suspends long-haul flights

Mexicana plane mexico city

Woes continue for Mexico's oldest airline, Mexicana, which announced on Monday the indefinite suspension of all but one of its long-haul international flights to destinations in Europe, North America and South America. Routes affected include direct connections between Mexico City and Buenos Aires; Sao Paolo, Brazil; Madrid; London; Caracas, Venezuela; Montreal and Vancouver, Canada. The airline's announcement of the suspensions is found here.

What the airline said were high labor costs and competition from newer low-cost airlines thrust Mexicana into disarray last week. Cash flow troubles led to the suspension of numerous routes to and from the United States, particularly affecting airports in Los Angeles and Northern California. The airline filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and Mexico, and pilots and flight attendants staged protests at Mexicana's corporate headquarters in Mexico City. On Wednesday, the airline suspended new ticket sales.

The downward slide of Mexicana could have benefits for U.S. carriers but could leave Mexican travelers with fewer air-travel options overall, aviation sector analysts told financial news services.

The route suspensions and bankruptcy filings are now negatively affecting Mexicana's domestic affiliate airlines, Click and Link. Because the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Mexico's air safety rating on July 30, Mexicana competitors such as Volaris or AeroMexico are temporarily barred from expanding into the U.S. and possibly picking up Mexicana routes. Meanwhile, U.S. carriers already present in Mexico may see an increase in business with Mexicana's absence, analysts said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Mexicana airliner flies over Mexico City. Credit: Agence France-Presse

Bridge planned to link San Diego with Tijuana airport

Border Bridge San Diego Tijuana Airport

Development is underway for a border-crossing pedestrian bridge linking San Diego and the Tijuana airport, a plan that could potentially alter the landscape of travel options in the busy binational region.

Equity Group Investments, a major private company headed by billionaire investor Sam Zell (who took Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times, private), recently acquired key federal approval to develop the plan. With a U.S. State Department's Presidential Permit, the company has the go-ahead to seek approvals for the project from  U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from the city of San Diego.

Cost for the bridge is estimated at $77.9 million. The for-profit venture would include private Tijuana investors with ties to the Pacific regional airport authority in Mexico, Equity executives said. "There's just been overwhelming support for the project," Terry Holt, a company official, told La Plaza. "Usually you'd expect some kind of concerns."

The Rodriguez International Airport sits on the Tijuana side of Otay Mesa, just across the street from the U.S.-Mexico border fence in a flat and sparsely developed area of southeast San Diego. The planned 525-foot pedestrian bridge would go over the border fence and into a U.S. customs building on the San Diego side of Otay Mesa, about 1 mile from the 905 highway.

There probably would be a toll to use the bridge, but the fee has not been set, Holt said. The facility could open as soon as 2012.

U.S. travelers have been using the Tijuana airport for years for flights into Mexico and connections to other Latin American destinations, seeking lower fares and the ease of access to Tijuana's terminal compared to the relatively congested San Diego airport, which is squeezed in by the city's dense harbor and downtown. San Diego's airport also has restrictions on overnight departures for noise control.

Tijuana's airport, however, has room to grow. The Mexican airline AeroMexico has inaugurated direct flights from Tijuana to Tokyo and Shanghai, building significant new links between Mexico and East Asia. U.S. travelers heading to or from Tijuana's airport currently cross the border with regular traffic at either the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa international crossings.

San Diego's Regional Airport Authority has no direct relationship with the current cross-border terminal plan, but has long identified a growing demand for access to the Tijuana airport among U.S. travelers, said spokesman Steve Schultz.

According a feasibility study on such a project, as many as 2 million U.S. travelers are expected to use the Tijuana airport annually by 2020, even without a pedestrian bridge into San Diego. Such travelers are not limited to San Diegans, the study found. U.S. passengers head to Tijuana's airport from as far away as Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, and Imperial counties.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Rendering of the proposed pedestrian bridge and customs facility. Credit: Equity Group Investments.

Mexican airline in disarray amid flight cancellations, pilot protest

Mexicana pilots protesting

Financial troubles forced Mexicana de Aviacion, the first airline established in Mexico and among the oldest in the world, to suddenly cancel on Monday several regular flights to destinations in the United States, including Los Angeles, San Jose and Sacramento.

Confusion seemed to reign at the airline on Monday, as phone operators and a company spokeswoman offered differing information on which routes or flights were in fact canceled. By late afternoon, had listed updated flight schedule modifications. The list, currently only in Spanish, shows schedules affected on routes between airports in Mexico and Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, New York and Orlando.

Mexicana spokeswoman Theresa Bravo, reached in L.A., said the airline was making efforts to accommodate passengers on canceled flights while Mexicana attempts to restructure itself. "Mexicana laments the inconvenience to passengers with these cancellations," Bravo told La Plaza. "All passengers are being protected, either on other Mexicana flights or with our commercial partners."

No other details were available, Bravo said.

Mexicana de Aviacion executives and investors held an extraordinary meeting in Mexico City on Friday to assess options -- including bankruptcy -- amid the airline's financial struggles. Pilots and flight attendants were told that as many as 500 positions could be slashed in a restructuring, prompting Mexicana employees to stage a protest Sunday inside Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City.

The pilots and flight attendants unions have asked President Felipe Calderon to intervene, but the federal government has so far declined to step in to bail out the airline (link in Spanish). The airline is asking employees to agree to deep cuts in salaries.

Separately, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Friday downgraded Mexico's overall aviation safety rating, affecting code-sharing agreements with U.S. airlines and temporarily barring all of Mexico's airlines from expanding service in the United States. The agency's statement on Mexico's aviation safety rating is available here. "The FAA is committed to working closely with the Mexican government and providing technical assistance to help Mexico regain its Category 1 rating," the statement says.

Further adding to Mexicana's ills, three of its planes were grounded last week -- one in Chicago and two in Canada -- after requests from creditors, Reuters reported. The planes in Canada were seized over a dispute with lessor Air Canada, reports said. In a statement, Mexicana called the Air Canada actions "legally unjustified."


-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexicana pilots and flight attendants protest inside Mexico City's international airport. Credit:

Passion, and traffic: Holy Week begins in Mexico

Passion iztapalapaIt is the start of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Mexico, meaning a barrage of traditional Easter festivities and an exodus to Mexico's coasts or resort towns for city slickers with means. Streams of automobiles fled the urban basin over the weekend for popular Semana Santa destinations such as Acapulco or Cuernavaca.

Thursday and Friday are official holidays, and authorities expect more residents to scoot out of town for the four-day weekend. (Like an unwanted holiday hangover, the Monday after Easter is often taken as a holiday as well). Conversely, tourism to Mexico City ticks upward during Holy Week, creating a disorienting state of emptiness in the city -- emptiness with seemingly more vehicular traffic.

For those remaining in town, the municipal government is once again opening up artificial beaches with pools.

By far, the marquee Semana Santa event in Mexico is the Passion held at the Cerro de Estrella in Mexico City's Iztapalapa borough, the most populous in the Federal District. It is considered among the biggest Passion representations in the world, drawing about 2 million visitors, with the biggest crowds showing up for Good Friday, when a local "Jesus" is crucified -- with real nails and real blood. This year will be the 167th Passion held there.

On Sunday, 60,000 people attended Palm Sunday events in Iztapalapa, authorities said. Watch this La Plaza video report by Deborah Bonello on the Passion last year.

For a certain kind of jaded Mexican capitalino, however, the arrival of Semana Santa is not fondly looked upon. Writing in the daily Milenio, Juan Alberto Vazquez lists "What We Hate About Holy Week" (article is in Spanish). One thing he hates:

"That the newscasts, not having any news to share, gives us the same old stories about the beaches, the representation in Iztapalapa, and the same empty papal messages."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Palm Sunday in Iztapalapa. Credit: El Universal

President Felipe Calderon: Don't talk bad about Mexico

Felipecalderon If you don't have anything nice to say, then just don't say it, Mexican President Felipe Calderon seems to be telling his countrymen. Speaking Friday during an event to promote Mexican tourism, the conservative Calderon complained that Mexicans both here and abroad talk too negatively about their country -- unlike, Calderon said, Brazilians, who, as the president sees it, live in a more violent country than Mexico.

"The problem that is affecting us especially in tourism is perception and image," Calderon said. "Because, that's right, Mexico is demonized and reproached, even by Mexicans. But, that's right, Brazil, which has double [the homicides of Mexico], takes the World Cup and the Olympics Games. I've never heard a Brazilian speak bad about Brazil."

If those words sound a bit over the top to you, you're not the only one. Calderon's statements sparked a barrage of angry -- let's say "bad" -- reactions among Mexican Twitter users. One responded: "Someone tell Felipe Calderon we're not speaking bad about Mexico, we're speaking bad about him."

Mexico's president often stumbles when speaking off the cuff in public.

In January he sparked an outcry when he initially suggested the 15 young people killed in a mass shooting in Ciudad Juarez were narco-gang members. Turns out most were accomplished high school students.  Last June, he said in a public event that young Mexicans turn to a life of crime with the cartels because "they don't believe in God, they don't know him."

Calderon is understandably under a lot of pressure right now. Criticism is mounting and mounting on both sides of the border about his enforcement-heavy anti-narco campaign, which has resulted in more than 18,000 deaths since December, 2006. When and how will we know if we are winning against the drug smugglers? (We don't, and that's the problem, argues blogger and analyst Patrick Corcoran.)

And when, as citizens or concerned Americans, will it be OK to "talk bad" about the effort?

--Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City.

Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon scolds those who speak ill of Mexico. Credit: El Universal.

Latin America Digest: Chile's new president, illness on a cruise ship in Brazil and a Cuban hunger striker

Today's one-line news briefs:

Santiago, Chile -- President Sebastian Pinera, who met with his ministers until early Friday after temblors shook inaugural ceremonies, vowed “to work without rest” on relief and reconstruction, promising Chileans could sleep soundly, confident “a government team will be working so you and your children can have a better dawn.”

Sao Paulo, Brazil -- Nearly 50 passengers aboard a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship docked in Santos suffered vomiting and diarrhea apparently brought on by noroviruses that cause gastroenteritis, a health official said.

Havana -- Cuban hunger striker Guillermo Farinas was receiving fluids and medical care in a government hospital in Santa Clara a day after passing out at home, and has refused requests by other dissidents and religious leaders to abandon the protest he launched Feb. 24 demanding the release of 26 ailing political prisoners.

-- Times wire reports


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
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