Dispatches from a Cultural Guerrillera

De músico, poeta y loco todos tenemos un poco.

Deborah Méndez Wilson

Deborah Méndez Wilson
Denver Metro Area, Colorado, USA
August 24
Colorín Colorado Communications
I'm a fifth-generation Coloradan whose Spanish/Pueblo Indian family roots run hundreds of years deep in the U.S. Southwest. I am a Westerner, through and through, and can't imagine living anywhere else in the United States. The Colorado/New Mexico territory is my ancestral homeland. _______________________________ I am a mother of two and grandmother of one, but don't expect me to conform to anachronistic, enshrined stereotypes of what a woman is supposed to be or do in the autumn of her life. _______________________________ I am a professionally trained journalist who loves to blog, too. I earned my 10,000 hours while working as a daily journalist, and unabashedly worship at the altar of English. _______________________________ Though English is my native language and I adore it, I am fluent in Spanish because I lived in South America for a decade, and revel in the vibrant, haunting beauty of Castilian and Latin American cultures, histories and dialects. ¡Que viva el Español! _______________________________ Follow me on Twitter: @DebMendezWilson


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 4, 2012 8:24PM

My Petty Crime: Riding With Bad Girls

Rate: 34 Flag



Penélope Cruz in espadrilles, carrying a red tote, and wearing hoops in the 1992 Spanish film "Jamón, Jamón."  

   When I was detained for my "petty crime," I was sitting on a packed bus, heading south from Caracas to Ciudad Guayana, which is some nine hours south of the Venezuelan capital over land.

I was working as a bilingual journalist at The Daily Journal, and was on my way to interview an executive who was overseeing the development of several metallurgical companies. My editor had asked me to write a series of feature stories about heavy-metal mining, and how the industry fit into the future of oil-rich Venezuela. At the time, Ciudad Guayana, which sits at the confluence of the Orinoco and Caroní rivers, was held up as a shining example of Venezuelan progress.

The details I remember about that trip are funny. I was wearing one of those sleeveless New Wave sheath dresses that were popular in the 1980s, matching, striped espadrilles, and large, white hoop earrings.

OK. In retrospect, maybe my outfit was a bit flashy, form-fitting and matchy-matchy, but, back then, I had youthful curves to show off, and I was living in the tropics, where everyone was body-conscious.

All I carried was a plastic red tote that held my wallet with my Venezuelan identity card and several hundred Bolívares in cash; a Nikon camera; a tape recorder; several cassette tapes and reporter’s notebooks; and a few pens. My sunglasses sat on my head. Obviously, in tech time, it was eons before the advent of gadgets that make reporters' jobs easier today: the Internet, digital recorders and cameras, Facebook, Twitter, and Google apps, laptops, iPods, iPhones, and iPads. It was an era when most of the world lived off the grid, and when things happened to you, you could wait for hours, days, and even months to tell your story.

A few hours earlier, I had kissed my English anthropologist boyfriend goodbye wistfully, feeling sad that we’d be separated for several days as I worked on assignment. But I was also looking forward to being on my own for awhile, getting out of Caracas, and seeing a few old friends who lived in "the interior," where I had resided for six years.

The bus departed from Caracas uneventfully, though I did notice that it seemed to be bursting at the seams with women. In fact, the only men on the bus were the portly driver, who smoked and swayed through traffic, and a quiet man sitting next to me, wearing aviator sunglasses, a canvas jacket and a Lacoste polo shirt.

As we made our way to the main coastal highway that would drive us east along the Caribbean toward Barcelona before veering south, I noticed that the women on the bus were young and gregarious, and talked excitedly about their trip to Ciudad Guayana, and points south, near the Brazilian border. As we settled into the trip, the quiet man next to me began talking to me, and immediately noticed my accent. The eye tricks the mind, and because I look Latina, Latin Americans inevitably try to place my accent when they hear me speak Spanish.

“Where are you from?” he asked immediately.

I gave him my standard response. “Guess.”








“No,” I blurted, laughing at the absurdity that South Americans actually entertained the idea that I was from Japan, and not the United States. I have almond-shaped eyes, but I don't look Asian.

Soy gringa,” I teased. “I’m American.”

On cue, his eyes widened, he looked me up and down, and shook his head in confusion. You see, Latin Americans (at least back in the 1980s) are as myopic in their stereotypes of U.S. citizens as Americans are of them. Because of the images perpetuated by Hollywood, Latin Americans believe all Americans are tall, blond and blue-eyed. They can’t wrap their brains around the notion of someone being Latino and American.

Soon, the man’s questions took on a sense of urgency: Why are you on this bus today? Where are you going? What will you do when you get there? Where did you buy your ticket? Who dropped you off?

I had been living in Venezuela for eight years, and was used to the overt friendliness and inquisitiveness of Venezuelans. By then, I had shed the “personal space” shield ingrained in all of us in the United States, whether we recognize it or not. I had gone native, and his probing questions didn’t bother me as much as they might bother me now that I have returned to American life, where such questions are considered rude.

I told him I was a journalist on my way to an interview, and he seemed surprised by my answer. Again, he looked me up and down. Then he leaned in closer and whispered, “I’m a police detective,” as he opened his coat quickly and flashed a badge. I don't remember a sidearm.

“Everyone on this bus is a prostitute," he said, adding politely, "except for you, of course.”

“They are heading to the gold-mining camps near the border. If the bus stops, just do as you are told," he told me conspiratorially.

I don’t remember much else about our conversation after that revelation. I remember turning around and glancing at the women around me, and wondering how the detective knew about them. Who had arranged their trip? How much money did they expect to make? How often did they make the trip south to provide lonely gold miners with company when they weren't toiling in open-pit mines that looked like something out of Dante's Inferno on the edge of the Amazon?

A few hours later, our bus rolled into Ciudad Bolívar, just a few hours away from our final destination. We drove over the city’s iconic Puente Angostura, a suspension bridge that spans the Orinoco River, and came to a stop at a road check. We were all ordered to exit. I grabbed my wallet, but left my tote with everything else in it.

As I stepped off the bus, an armed guard ordered me to put my hands on my head, and line up with all of the other “ladies” standing near the bridge. I put my wallet on the ground between my feet, and complied with his orders. As I stood there, with my fingers laced on my head, my espadrilled feet spread wide, I watched as the other women filed out of the bus and followed suit, grumbling the entire way.

With our hands on our heads, our elbows akimbo, and our feet spread apart, we looked like a chain of paper women stretched wide.

Through the windows, I saw one of the women rifling through my tote, her face grimacing in disgust as she rejected my tape recorder, notepads and other journalist’s accoutrements one by one. She stepped off the bus in a hurry, casting disparaging glances my way. Back in Colorado, we called those looks from other girls “crusties.”

The guard went down the line checking each woman’s identification, ordering some of the women to step aside. I can only imagine that they were being arrested for high crimes and misdemeanors of the shady kind.

Along with several of the other women, I was allowed to get back on the bus to complete my journey. I had dodged what would have been my only arrest of any kind, petty or not, anywhere.

A few hours later, I made it to Ciudad Guayana, where I completed my assignment, and my friends teased me about “the gringa reporter who almost got arrested for prostitution on the Orinoco.”

Years later, I got thrown out of a Denver pub for "soliciting" while I tried to interview the general manager of the Denver Nuggets while he had lunch. Another time a court administrator threatened to have me arrested for trying to use a court telephone to phone in a verdict.

A neighbor slammed a door in my face as I tried to interview her on the first anniversary of JonBenét Ramsey's death; and a clutch of fellow reporters nearly crushed me as I kneeled in the snow, nearly nine months pregnant, at a media briefing outside a federal post office during a hostage standoff.

It hasn't always been easy being a girl reporter, but it's been interesting.  Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


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I have a story about nearly being busted as a "John" in Hollywood... another tale for another time. Excellent post.
Form fitting flashy clothes were part of the times. I even had some. I fell off my only pair of platform shoes and sprained my ankle. That should have been a petty crime.
Fascinating account Deborah. One has to wonder at the logistics of arranging such a trip. Who rounded up the women, paid for the bus, made arrangements at the destination and worked out something with the cops. We must have been in Venezuela around the same time. I had work stints there in 83, 84 and 85. Never traveled into the interior though.
wow...you have certainly lived a life of adventure, I could only wish to be so well traveled. What an excellent post with fun little details along the way--the girl giving you the crusties was a fantastically fun image ;)
Very interesting. An English Anthropologist boyfriend? Sizzle.

Sounds like a groovy and exotic life.
Watching the idiot celebrtiy apprentice show and Venezuelans do seem warm and friendly.

Would love to hear more about your work on the Jon Benet Case etc.
Jmac: Can't wait to read that one!

AKA: Too true. A lot of the fashion from that era should have been petty crimes.

Abra: I was there from 1979 to 1988. We may have been two ships passing through the night.

Jon: Thanks, but the eds have gotten really picky of late. :)

Pensive: Not so much. Living abroad automatically injects an aura of exoticism, but even paradise can get boring. I haven't traveled to many countries, but I did drill down deeply into Venezuela.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
Intriguing and certainly exciting stories, D. Yet, if I were you I would find that editor who sent you to Ciudad Guayana and kick his ass. Fun post. R
¡Puta madre!

..........sorry, couldn't resist!

Past midnight here, Chávez en cadena nacional just back from radiotherapy in Cuba (landed in Barinas) now saying a few words.

That story may have been in the mines (almost all of which have now been nationalized)... perhaps, but not in their front office.

October 2011, in the upper Paragua (Bolívar state) a group of indigenous Pemón, wearing war paint, disarmed 19 or so soldiers at arrow, blow dart and spearpoint, tied them up and held them captive for awhile, in protest over their alleged illegal extraction of gold in Pemón tribal territory...

The leader, of the Pemón, still in detention.

The Daily Journal, formerly, widely distributed (in Venezuela). An english language paper, rare in Latin America, passed through many hands, had it's penultimate moment, perhaps, during the "Caracazo", but has long since morphed, and disappeared from view.

@Inverted: La puta madre, indeed. Lucky you, living in the Orinoco Delta. I'd give anything to visit again, and see some old friends who still live there. Some fled "La Republica" long ago, and are dispersed in the United States, Spain, and Mexico. Lots of good memories. Wish I'd had the Internet back in the 1980s to blog about my experiences while they were happening. Don't ever take that powerful communication tool for granted. Ciao, pues.
Poor women. For that matter, poor miners. They weren't getting any that night. Fascinating that there is a culture where such questions are not considered intrusive and damned odd.
I too was in Guayana in t?he 80s was visiting Caracas with girl friend.
We wore a lot of silk dresses etc. Were always isolated in restaurants, now I know why. We booked a trip to Angels Falls through American Express but the trip was cancelled and were sent to a city
called Ordaz? We were headed for the disputed territory and the Gran Sabana. Had a private driver who wore army fatigues. Had no idea where we were. 20 k from Jonestown I was told later. Crossed through several check points. Stopped for petrol once and I jumped out. It was one of those mining towns. I went into a "saloon" to get a beer and was immediately hauled out of there....over the shoulders of our driver. Admonished.....NO, NO, NO Annie. NO. More about this trip another time. Loved the pasta in Venezuela. ;)
@Sirenita: Is that your real name? Love it. ... Guess the detective felt within his rights to ask questions in the line of work. Venezuelans can be very disarming, but they are, generally, among the sweetest people in the world. They are so fun-loving and full of life. I was accepted there by everyone, arms open wide.

Ande: The Gran Sabana is my favorite place on earth, and one of the most spectacular. It is routinely ranked as one of those places on earth people should see before they die. I feel privileged to have been there. Angel Falls is spectacular. Weren't you disappointed when "Up" came out and changed the name to "Paradise Falls?" Ridiculous. .... Puerto Ordaz. Ciudad Guyana is made up of the two cities of Pto. Ordaz/San Félix.
HaHA! love the bad girls, really good read and I hope this is the beginning of some more adventures in journalism, my dream job.
What journalists have done for stories. And not done. Still, seeing as though you came through things in one piece, it was a very entertaining story. And it also is a story about how things have changed and not changed very much with regard to how so many of us perceive women at work. Or on travel.
Great post, Deborah! It must have been the white hoop earrings that made you "suspect." Rated.
Rita: I made it into journalism before the industry imploded. I was lucky to have had the experiences I had, though they were not as extensive as what others have experienced. I never won awards, worked as a war correspondent, or covered the White House. I did get to interview many interesting people, and work alongside many gifted writers and editors. So I'm grateful for that. Now, we are lucky to have avenues like OS that enable us to share our stories and express our viewpoints, without gatekeepers (editors, publishers and their business associates, and advertisers) to stifle and censor us.

Mary: My little stories are nothing compared to the men and women who have died or been beaten and raped in the name of truth telling. You are so right. What journalists have done to expose corruption, hypocrisy and crime has been important, but the work of many citizen journalists at places like OS is important, too, and is adding a richer dimension to the way we gather, disseminate and absorb information. Some of the stuff I've seen here at OS might never get covered by the mainstream press, but it's been a revelation, nonetheless.
@Thoth: Fort got to acknowledge your comment! LOL. I wonder what happened to him. He was one of those drunken editors with a larger-than-life personality. I loved him. Poor guy. Funny thing is, anytime I tell these stories to editors, they just laugh their asses off.

@Erica: Yup. No doubt. Though, hoops are still my guilty pleasure of a fashion accessory. I try to keep them smaller and in better taste these days. :)
Great story, well done!
(Shakira and Penelope Cruz... I would be the meat in that sandwich any day... if I wasn't in a relationship that is-- HI BABY!)
@Tr ig: You are too funny, man!
That's quite a story--putting yourself right there in the action, even if not intentionally. Sounds like you've had an interesting career. And I see a definite resemblance with Penelope.
JL: Re my purported resemblance to Penélope: LMAO!! I wish. I've read that rich Spanish women are going under the knife to look more like her. ... No. The only thing I had in common with her were the espadrilles, that exact tote, and the hoop earrings. :)
You really know how to tell a story, Deb. What an adventure! I would love to have been there just to see your face when that detective revealed the profession of your travel companions. Great job!

fascinating story and commentary about life "elsewhere".
You have lived an exciting life, my friend!
Lezlie: Thanks, I appreciate that coming from someone who always writes intriguing, thought-provoking posts. (Love the hoodie).

Walter: We all carry these stories and experiences inside us, and it seems sad to just let them die in our minds. I enjoy reading other people's posts about experiences that really take me out of my "normal" and put me in another time and place. Thanks for stopping by.

Bellwether: I'm torn between feeling contempt that I find myself already (in my 50s) wandering so much to my past for inspiration. But, as writers, we are told to write what we know. I suppose my critics might argue that the most exciting bits of my life are already behind me, but I'd like to think life still holds a few surprises. We can only hope, right?
Fabulous post! Love the term "crusties" too. I'd love to read more about your time in South America.
Wow! This is rich for the likes of us! Congrats on the EP.
Firechick: I want to read more about your hotshot experience!! Now, that's exciting!

Zumalicious: Thanks. I thoroughly enjoy your posts, too!

Cepi145: Thanks!
Fascinating story, well told. I share Abrawang's curioustiy about the backstory, too.I have found that even when I thought I was sufficiently immersed in a foreign culture and knew the language, oftentimes I would find out belatedly that situations were not at all what I thought they were. By the way, can you introduce me to Penelope? I mean, you're Hispanic so you must know her, right? [R, por supuesto]
Great story. A woman of adventure. Cool~
Donegal: I wish I knew the back story! But, I swear, this is exactly how it happened, and I spoke fluent Spanish, so there was no room for misunderstandings. I just don't remember my entire conversation with the detective, and how he knew the women were prostitutes, or even how he wound up sitting next to me. Maybe it was something they had been investigating for awhile? Maybe it was part of a huge joke by my then-boyfriend? (If so, he never confessed.) This was 25 years ago! I remember details about my interview with the CVG executive, and a stupid typo that I put in my stories that my editor failed to catch with spellcheck. I can't even include those stories among my newspaper clips now. ... And, no, I don't know Penélope. :)

Scanner: I used to be so adventurous! I suppose that by writing about youthful adventures, I'm reliving them. :)
What a story! What an adventure - and other adventures spoken about at the end, to boot! I have to say, I hope never to be removed from a bus in a foreign land and potentially arrested, but it does make for one heck of a life experience, even so. Glad you came out okay, though.
"A girl reporter..." is that what you are/were reduced to? Great story(ies) and a wonderful punctuation of how jail is filled with the innocent. Well done!
Alysa: After that, I pretty much stuck to driving my Renault Le Car, which my friends had to push to help me get started. They'd push, and I'd shift into second, and sputter on my happy way. Ah, youth. :)

Princess: Yes. Damn it, and I'm proud of it! :) After years of struggling to "make it" by working for the man, I've decided to spend the next half century being an artist. I'd rather live in poverty as an artist, than earn a fat paycheck to put on appearances. I've gone back to my "girl reporter" roots as a freelance writer. ...
Fabulous story Brenda Starr would be envious of! (And this description that I am envious of: "With our hands on our heads, our elbows akimbo, and our feet spread apart, we looked like a chain of paper women stretched wide." ) You and Penelope~ tres chic for any decade :)
Now I know why I didn't get an EP for my "Petty Crime"! As they say, "Can't get arrested"! Great story. R
good god, you ought to confabulate some new identities on os
in order to tell your tales..

"we looked like a chain of paper women stretched wide..."

Traveling on urgent business to the Pits of Hell,
& still hassled! Poor ladies..i guess, poor guys,

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in.
Canto III, line 9. dante, "inferno".

u=lois lane!
superman gotta be protecting u on the sly...?........
Dirndl: Thanks. We were standing so close to each other we could have been a chain of paper dolls. Under that hot tropical sun, it's a miracle we didn't burst into flames!

Marilyn: I've never really been arrested, so it's just nice that the eds even included my story among the "petty crime arrests." Believe me. I'd rather not include that among my life experiences!

James: I swear, if this happened to someone now, they would probably look for a camera to see if they were being punked!
Great adventure and post! Hello neighbor!
My husband was a reporter for many years and although he may have been late for dinner occassionally, he always had the best story. I'm sure you can relate. Good story.
Susie: Howdy neighbor! Thanks for stopping by. :)

Brianna: Yes, I can. How nice that your husband had you to share them with. Not everyone appreciates a good war story. I'll be he appreciated that. :)
Susie: Howdy neighbor! Thanks for stopping by. :)

Brianna: Yes, I can. How nice that your husband had you to share them with. Not everyone appreciates a good war story. I'll bet he appreciated that. :)
Wonderfully vivid crime! Enjoyed it, as you may, in retrospect. These kinds of things make the best stories.
Lea: Thanks. It still seems surreal. :)
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