Southampton: Here Today


As the taxi drove up to 60 Radway Road, my brain started making connections and activating memories which had long been luckily stored in my head. Not forgotten, just put away for far too long.

It had been more 26 years since I was first here and ten since my last visit: Southampton, England. Home of Professor Arjan Shahani, an incredible, intelligent, knowledgeable and lovable man I am lucky to call my uncle and the one I proudly take my name after.

I pushed the green wood gate open and rang the doorbell next to the green door, excited to greet Prof. Shahani. While I was really happy just for the fact of seeing him, I did not anticipate I would find so many other reasons to be happy after I walked through the door.

The brain is an incredible organ. It is amazing how much it stores and finds special places inside your head for. I was quick to find that my brain had taken in so much and so many beautiful memories from the house I was walking into, as revisiting it quickly brought those memories back into the present through a series of brief but endorphin-filled flashbacks.

The creaks in the floor, the stairwell, the hanging closet beneath the stairs, the book-filled shelves, a very faint but distinctive aroma which you only find in houses where real Indian food is cooked and spices are stored, the sitting room where people actually do sit and where my dad and uncle shared so many cups of English tea, the window sill, the garden… yes, the garden most of all. A place I remember my aunt Sigrid enjoyed spending so much time in and caring for. While Aunt Sigrid is no longer here to share my trip down memory lane (which I am sure she would have enjoyed), in many ways her presence is strongly felt. Her signature is all over this house and it is almost as if she were still here. Uncle Arjan has made sure of that by placing pictures of her in different areas of the house, not mourning her departure but celebrating her life and joy. Her ever-present smile is in every corner.

Yesterday, Uncle Arjan took me to a park in the city center of Southampton and showed me the linden tree that was planted in honor of Auntie Sigrid. It is a young and strong tree, much like I remember her spirit was. Today, we sat on a bench in another park which was dedicated to her. Beautiful.

I did not spend a lot of time in Southampton as a kid (only visited a couple of times) and I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but from feeling what I am feeling and all the things coming back to me, I now know that the little time I did spend here, was truly significant and special to me. These moments matter and they are part of what defines one’s life story.

Running around the house and going up to the attic with my cousin Morwenna and sister Shanti, reading children’s books in the sitting room, eating raspberries from the garden even though we were not supposed to, going to the Southampton Common (“Park” for us non-Brits) for a walk under forest trees in a British afternoon… I never realized until now that these moments were so dear to me. I had to write about this.

This morning I woke up early, put on my running shoes (trainers as they are called here) and went for a jog in the Common. The mist was lifting from the pond where ducks waddled, squirrels running up trees while I ran past them. As I started taking long, deep breaths of the clean air and just taking in everything around me, my memories kicked back in and I remembered walking these paths with my mother and aunt. We didn’t do anything out of the ordinary… we just took walks and talked about trivial stuff but again, being here revisiting made me realize that those were some of the simple moments that made my childhood so incredible.

Throughout my life I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by very special and loving people and I haven’t been thankful enough. My conscious being has probably missed out of noticing how so many intimate personal interactions have positively shaped my life throughout the past 35 years. However, I’ve stored all of those interactions in my head and this trip has made me realize that.  This was only a 5K run but a much longer mental trip… is there an equivalent in kilometers for tracing back to your earliest memories and thinking of the hundreds of people you are thankful for?

There is just no way to individually name all of you but please know that even if I have not said it or not said it enough, I love you and I am happy you’ve been a part of my life experience. This life has been an amazing run and I am not even at the halfway mark yet.

I love you, Auntie S… And we are Here Today.


Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance


Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance“, published on March 8th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

If there is one thing Mexico’s men are famous for, it is the celebration of being macho. We see this everywhere: In telenovelas, the butch and handsome male protagonist becomes the hero only after he conquers the lovely señorita by wooing her with his macho chivalry. It is common to hear traditional male fathers telling their sons “real men don’t cry.”

A number of consumer products also cater to this very innate part of the Mexican heterosexual male’s existence through marketing, which might be considered as sexist in other cultures. The macho element also permeates humor; viewed through the optics of U.S. culture it no doubt be deemed much more than politically incorrect. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a plain and simple recognition of who we are as a culture today.

On March 6, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) took a decision that could lead to a shift in the way Mexican machos coexist with homosexuality, which today is regularly mocked. Mexican insults such as “maricón” or “puñal” (derogatory terms for “gay male”) are thrown around in colloquial talk with as much disdain as the word “pansy” in the English language. But the Supreme Court decided that such expressions are not protected by freedom of speech and can be subject to lawsuit on the basis of moral harm.

The split 3-2 judicial decision is probably an accurate proportion of how Mexican society would view the subject. Some view this as a step toward inclusion and tolerance. Others see this as unnecessary ruling and censorship of what has traditionally been acceptable humor.

The approved ruling states that “Homophobic expressions, that is, language consistent in inferring that homosexuality is not a valid option, but rather a condition of inferiority, constitute discriminatory manifestations. This includes the use of such terms in humorous use, given that through them, intolerance toward homosexuality is incited, promoted and justified.” The ruling goes on to acknowledge that these expressions are part of common use in Mexico’s culture by stating that, “while these expressions are strongly embedded in Mexican society’s language, practices by the majority of a population cannot validate violations to fundamental rights.”

As with most countries and cultures, gender diversity is slowly but surely (granted, more slowly than us progressive thinkers would like) moving forward.

The antigay sentiments and comments common in previous generations are less present with youth today, even if the male macho is still a predominant figure in our culture. But the SCJN’s ruling, if harnessed correctly, can be a powerful boost toward a more open and tolerant society. If really enforced, this ruling could create a huge shift in approved TV content for example, which is a powerful vehicle in our culture. Today, many humor programs make fun of LGBT individuals by portraying them as inferior and/or exaggerating stereotypical effeminate traits, thus teaching that these expressions are acceptable in society. With the ruling, this type of humor could hold TV companies liable and perhaps motivate them to change their content. In an ideal scenario, this would extend to TV companies that shield themselves from responsibility by stating, “we give people what they want to see.”

While enforceability of this ruling in everyday social interaction and situations proves complicated, the institutionalization of hate humor in printed media and television can be affected. This is, in a way, something similar to the shift made with regard to cultural acceptance of smoking. When did smoking stop being cool? Many would say it was when we stopped seeing it as acceptable in TV and later in social occasions. Even if it takes a couple of generations to accept, typifying homophobic slurs as hate speech is a celebratory step toward social inclusion and tolerance in Mexican culture.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

Seven lessons from Mexico’s electoral process


Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Seven lessons from Mexico’s electoral process“, published on July 2nd, 2012. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

With an estimate of around 37 percent of the votes, Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in Mexico’s presidential race will be analyzed from multiple angles, including what this will mean with regard to the war on drugs, the economic model in place, relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world, and many other topics.

For the most part, Peña Nieto’s tenure will not imply radical changes in Mexico, for better or worse but the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) to power does say a lot about the way Mexico’s society thinks and operates. This electoral process has opened up an interesting window into the Mexican collective psyche. These are some of the lessons from the 2012 election.

Debates are not yet a vehicle for voter decision in Mexico.  There were three presidential debates (two official ones and one organized by #YoSoy132 to which Peña Nieto did not attend) during the presidential race. Peña Nieto’s participation in these dialogues was considered lukewarm at best. His rhetoric was empty but his poor performance was not enough to shift voter preference away from him and toward a second viable option.

We still have a long way to go to build political awareness and education. Peña Nieto’s success cannot be attributed to a strong and enriched political platform or to his superiority as a candidate over his competitors. One could not say that he is smarter, better prepared or better equipped to be president than his competitors. Peña Nieto’s success shows that Mexican voters can easily be manipulated (or convinced) through robust campaigning, a large TV presence and looks. As different media showed when they interviewed people at political rallies (for the three major candidates), a large quantity of voters had no idea of where candidates stood on relevant issues. “I trust him,” “He’s cute” and “I’ll vote for him because the other one is crazy” were some of the compelling arguments that gave Peña Nieto a victory on July 1. Sadly, we still have a long way to go to create an informed voter base. The candidate you saw more billboards and TV ads from, is the one that came out on top in voter preference.

Short-term memory plays a more important role than long-term memory. Peña Nieto won for many reasons but one of them was definitely that voters wanted to punish the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) for its performance in the past 12 years and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for his lack of respect for the rule of law during his 2006 post-election shenanigans. Mexico was willing to forgive and forget and make peace with the PRI because as many voters put it “we were better off with PRI,” for the most part referring to the increasing levels of organized crime violence resulting from the active war on drugs set forth by President Calderón.

There is e-Mexico and then there’s Mexico. There is a clear divide among Mexicans with access to social networks and those without. On Twitter, users were appalled with the results. Even when all polls signaled Peña Nieto’s victory, Internet users were not willing to believe them. Conversations on Twitter and Facebook had been significantly dominated by AMLO and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN) followers.  A popular tweet on the night of the election was “I have no idea how they did it. Does anybody here know anyone who voted PRI?” For the most part, the answer was no. Peña Nieto was elected for the most part, by people who do not actively participate online. For upcoming elections, candidates should know that the segment of Internet users in Mexico will only become larger and they will need to actively engage them during the campaign.

The return of PRI does not mean the return of absolutism. This is not optimism; it’s just a very likely reality. Pessimists are evaluating the return of the PRI as a step back in our democracy because they remember the 70 years of absolutism; instead, it is yet another building block in our system which will put to the test whether or not we are a mature enough society to deal with altering power. The PRI will rule a very different Mexico from in the past. Civil society will be more vigilant and we will hold Peña Nieto accountable for his performance as president. Technology will play a significant role in maintaining a non-official discourse, with freedom of speech and free flow of information empowering a growing sector of society. Even with a party majority in Congress, Peña Nieto will have to answer to Mexicans who will either reward or punish his party in future elections.

PRI holding both the executive and a majority in Congress will be an acid test on government efficiency. Both Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón of the PAN had a very good excuse when their effectiveness was questioned. They could just say (and many times they would have been right) that Congress was blocking their ability to operate and put forth structural reforms.  Peña Nieto will have no such excuse with a PRI majority Congress to not pass and implement the labor, energy, security and political reforms that society has demanded and that have been paralyzed by a non-cooperative legislature during the Calderón government. This will also lead us to question if Mexico’s democracy could actually work and be effective if a real system of checks and balances is in place.

Most people did not vote for Peña Nieto. There were more votes against Peña Nieto than in favor of him. Just like Calderón, Peña Nieto will preside over a country that for the most part, did not want him to be president and did not choose him. This is why last night he went on national TV to say that we should “set aside our differences and privilege our common goals […] we may have different preferences but we have something that binds us together: our love for Mexico […] we share the same challenges and must work together to overcome them.” While his inclusive rhetoric is exactly what Mexico needed to hear last night as it attempts to move forward from electoral campaigning divides, the fact of the matter is that winning by a relative majority surfaces yet again the need to implement a run-off electoral process, just like Calderón proposed to Congress (and was blocked). Given the results of last night’s election, would Peña Nieto have won in a second round of elections running only against López Obrador?

Proud to be a T-Bird…


…and to be bound by the Thunderbird Oath of Honor.

Thank you, President Cabrera.