Transcript

520:

No Place Like Home
Transcript

Originally aired 03.14.2014

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

I grew up in Baltimore. And I remember in the 1970s, at a very low moment, the city commissioned a slogan and a song and an ad campaign called Charm City, USA. And at the time, Baltimore was grimy and run down and still recovering from the riots and white flight of the 1960s. I have never met a single person who took this slogan seriously.

And I always thought that that's how it goes. Right? My wife has told me how pathetic Detroit's slogan, "Say Nice Things About Detroit," seemed to her even as a kid. That's where she's from. This kind of forced boosterism arrives precisely when things are at their worst in a city.

So I wondered if there are actually cities where these campaigns work. And somebody told me that Calgary, Canada, was a place like that. And we looked for a born-and-bred Calgarian to tell us whether or not it was true. And that is how we found Ken Lima-Coelho. And he said yes. He said back in the '80s, they had a feel good song. At the time, he says, they only had three TV channels, and it was on two of them.

Ken Lima

So I've probably heard it-- I'm not even exaggerating-- 1,000 times. Everybody knew it. Everybody knew it. And there was this kind of weird pride around the song. And I actually remember that. We used to sing this with our friends. And my mom used to talk about this song.

Ira Glass

Wait. You would sing this song with your friends?

Ken Lima

Oh yeah. Absolutely. And somebody would start, and we would sing it, and we'd all laugh. I loved it. I loved it then. I kind of love it now. Just when you hear that "bling," those first little strains of the mel-- I'm right back there.

[MUSIC - "HELLO CALGARY"]

Ira Glass

Of course, there was a video, which at the time seemed very fresh and new.

Ken Lima

Kind of a prairie scene. And there's this beautiful sunset. A guy throws a football at McMahon Stadium, which is our big football stadium. And the guy who's supposed to catch it gets bonked on the head. It's really cheesy.

[MUSIC - "HELLO CALGARY"]

Ira Glass

Do you have a favorite part of this song?

Ken Lima

Oh yeah. Right here.

[MUSIC - "HELLO CALGARY"]

Ha? She's just giving her.

[MUSIC - "HELLO CALGARY"]

Ira Glass

Did the song seem cheesy at the time?

Ken Lima

No. The song seemed very genuine at the time.

Ira Glass

Early in our interview, I asked him if he knew any of the words, and he sang me the entire song from memory perfectly. He says now and then, one of his friends will post the song to Facebook. It was a really big deal back then, he says, because before then, Calgary didn't have much pride at all. The city wasn't doing great. Their nearby archrival, Edmonton, which was smaller, and which he'd been raised to think of as a poorer cousin, seemed to get all the glory.

Ken Lima

You have to remember, at the time, Edmonton was it. They had the Edmonton Oilers, the most famous hockey team on the planet-- Wayne Gretzky. They won four Stanley Cups. They had a sign, as you drove into Edmonton, that said "Edmonton, city of champions." And that drove us crazy. I mean, they did win every Stanley Cup in the era. But that drove us really nuts.

And then here comes this song that oozes pride. And it sort of captured the spirit of, hey, ya, we are the best hometown we know. Darn it.

Ira Glass

So Ken, now, I want to play you something else. And I think you've never heard this.

[MUSIC - "HELLO MILWAUKEE"]

Ken Lima

[LAUGHS] Milwaukee?

Ira Glass

This is the original song that the Calgary song is based on.

Ken Lima

What do you-- really?

Ira Glass

Yeah, it was Milwaukee first. And then we're told by the songwriter-- he can't remember if Utah was second or Calgary was second.

[MUSIC - "HELLO MILWAUKEE"]

Ken Lima

Whoa, whoa, whoa. How can there be two best hometowns I know? That can't be right. I'm glad they didn't use the same woman, though. That would have been really bad.

Ira Glass

Let me play you something else now.

[MUSIC - "HELLO PITTSBURGH"]

[MUSIC - "HELLO INDIANA"]

Ken Lima

[GUFFAWS] No!

[MUSIC - "HELLO PHOENIX"]

[MUSIC - "HELLO TULSA"]

[MUSIC - "HELLO ROCHESTER"]

Oh my-- ah! I don't know what to say.

[MUSIC - "HELLO ATLANTA"]

How many versions are there?

Ira Glass

There are over 100.

[MUSIC - "HELLO KNOXVILLE"]

Ken said that he was 2/3 bemused by all this and 1/3 actually sort of mad. He had really thought of it as Calgary's song.

Ken Lima

For me, this is like finding out that your childhood teddy bear was owned by three other people on the weekends when you weren't there. I don't know.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Ken Lima

You know what would really get me? There isn't a "Hello Edmonton," is there?

Ira Glass

No, there isn't.

And Ken does not begrudge the song's composer his success at selling the song in all these different cities. He just felt dirty and betrayed by this song that claims that each city is unique and special, but then, by telling 100 other cities the same thing, proves that the opposite is true. When we tracked down the song's creator, a guy named Frank Gari, no relation to the architect, I was surprised when he described the customization that he said that he gave to each city's version of "Hello."

Listening to a few dozen of the songs, the only changes that I found were that he would change the name of the city. And then usually, he would just change one geographic detail. So "from the mountains close at hand" would become "from the golden countryside" or "from the bayfront shore" in places where there were no mountains. Though he described his process this way.

Frank Gari

I would fly to the city. I would meet with the people, study the area, location, the lay of the land, the people. And that would inspire me to write the lyric, the new lyric, the new customization. It was really a geography history class. I learned a tremendous a lot about this country.

Ira Glass

Frank Gari said that actually they usually would not change the lyrics that much because the feelings in the song were so universal. He said feeling pride about Calgary is not so different from feeling pride about Baltimore or feeling pride about Detroit.

Frank Gari

You know, it's the same. It's the same. It may be snowing in one area, and it might be 80 degrees in another. But people are people, and they're going through the same-- absolutely. And that's the same thing with keeping certain parts of the song.

Ira Glass

I mean, it's funny. I think the fact that this works, that you could have a song and have all of these local places attach, and have people really like it in all these local places, I feel like it really shows that people want to connect with a song like that.

Frank Gari

Well, there's no question about that. I mean, people want to attach to a positive vibe about the place where they live. Absolutely, absolutely. That's what "Hello" did. And that's what we tried to incorporate.

Ira Glass

Lots of people, of course, have very strong feelings about where they live. And lots of people will, of course, do all kinds of things to hold onto that feeling of place. And today on our program, we have three stories of people doing some very unusual things, including, for example, staging an exit from their own country, though all in pretend, as a way to stay in their country and their hometown.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Flight Simulation.

Ira Glass

Act One, Flight Simulation. For lots of small towns in Mexico, so many people leave that leaving becomes one of the defining parts of being from there, even the people that have strong ties to home and family members who stayed behind. James Spring went to a town like that recently in Mexico for an event organized by the people who stayed behind.

James Spring

A lot of people are going to yell at me tonight. One of them is this guy, Mateo. He's 19, and he's rolling past me in a pickup truck with blue and red flashing lights.

Mateo

Come out with your hands up. I want to see your hands up. [SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

There's a US Border Control emblem on the door of the pickup. But it's fake. Just like Mateo's Border Patrol uniform. We're hundreds of miles from the actual US border in a tiny Mexican village. It's called El Alberto. And it's known for a really specific kind of tourist attraction, a simulated illegal nighttime border crossing. They call it the Caminata Nocturna, the Night Hike.

I'm the first one here. So I'm just standing around with 40 or 50 locals, all of them dressed up in their costumes. Fake border agents wearing Vietnam-era camo, blinged out drug cartel thugs, and migrants, and human smugglers.

A few years ago in the US, there were some news reports about the Caminata, and right wing blogs jumped all over it. They accused the organizers here of running a training camp for illegal migrants. But most of the people who go on the Caminata are middle class Mexicans and university students, people who can afford the 200 peso ticket, about $16, people who would probably never need to actually sneak into the US.

For instance, tonight, we're waiting for a group of salespeople from Mexico City that's coming to do the Caminata as a [SPANISH], a corporate team building exercise. The people in costume are joking around with each other. And I speak Spanish, but I don't get any of the jokes, because they're not speaking Spanish.

These are the Hnahnu, an ancient tribe, here since long before the Aztecs. They run the Caminata on their land, which is a federal territory grant, almost like an Indian reservation in the United States. The land isn't much good for farming or cattle, and there are almost no paying jobs in El Alberto.

So at some point, the Hnahnu became experts at crossing the border into the US. Pretty much everyone around me now, they've done the real crossing, many of them multiple times. And it's been killing the village.

There are only about 2,500 of the El Alberto Hnahnu left in the world. And 80% of them now live in the US in Vegas, around Arizona and Utah. The Caminata Nocturna is part of the Hnahnu elders' plan to turn the villagers' expertise-- leaving-- into a money maker so that the villagers will stay.

Brigilio

Hello, hello, hello.

James Spring

A guy named Brigilio is one of the Hnahnu who's playing a migrant. He's 33, lanky, with a wisp of a mustache. He's going to be my own personal crossing buddy tonight.

James Spring

I'm wearing these clothes. Are these clothes going to work OK? Is this--

Brigilio

Yeah, looks good.

James Spring

During his four border crossings through the desert into Arizona, Brigilio's been robbed at gunpoint, had a knife held to his gut. He showed me the scar. Other people that he's crossed with have faced worse.

Brigilio

One of my friend, her hands-- como se dice?

James Spring

Broke?

Brigilio

No.

James Spring

Sprained?

Brigilio

Get paralyzed?

James Spring

Oh. Was it from the cold?

Brigilio

Yeah, from the cold.

James Spring

Frostbitten.

Brigilio

Frostbite.

James Spring

One of Brigilio's cousins was in a pickup that was chased by the Border Patrol. The truck rolled over, and his cousin died. Brigilio says there's no way to plan for every danger on a border crossing.

Brigilio

When the cartels come, we don't know what's going to happen. Or when the gangsters come to us, sometimes you'll see a beautiful girl or a woman, sometimes violate these women. Or sometime, undress-- como se dice? Undress?

James Spring

Mhm.

Brigilio

Undress the clothes in front of the group. Or touch her. That happened to my kids, one of my kids. And--

Is she OK now?

Brigilio

She's OK.

James Spring

Brigilio told me he never wants to do the crossing again. I believe him. He looks exhausted just talking about it. But he says he doesn't mind faking it for the Caminata.

Brigilio

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Brigilio asks me in Spanish if we're going to turn off his mic. I tell him we're just going to leave it on. Because the salespeople are going to arrive any minute, right? He's been getting updates on a VHF radio. Yes, he says, they'll be here in a few minutes. The salespeople are a few minutes away for more than two hours.

It's just past 10:30 at night when their bus arrives. The sales team disembarks, men and women, about 50 of them, bearing zero apologies. Just a sea of polo shirts embroidered with the name of a big international corporation. Most of the Hnahnu actors have long since taken their positions out on the trail. The lead coyote, a short wiry guy, doesn't waste any time.

Coyote

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

Do any of you know what the Caminata Nocturna is, he asks. The salespeople do not. They make stupid guesses. I hate them.

The coyote is all business. He explains our objective. Tells us all that he and his pals will be leading us across the border this very night. But crossing the line is not the hard part. No, that's just the first step. After that, the trek will be tough, fraught with danger.

The salespeople look more like they've prepared to trek to the lobby bar of a Radisson. One of the saleswomen asks if we're going to have to negotiate any stairs along the way, because stairs might present a problem for her. I look to Brigilio to see if he hates these people as much as I do, but he gives me nothing.

The coyote tries to impress upon all of us the gravity of the situation. Crossing the border is only for the most desperate of souls.

Coyote

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Saleswoman

No.

James Spring

He asks us if we're desperate. The salespeople don't get it.

Coyote

No? [SPEAKING SPANISH]

James Spring

The coyote says we can stay here all night then. It takes asking them three times, but the group finally agrees to be desperate.

Coyote

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Saleswoman

Si.

James Spring

So the coyotes introduce themselves.

Coyote

El Chiquilin.

James Spring

Chiquilin, El Guero, El Tigre. The salespeople clap after each one, like they're being introduced to Bob in Accounting. And then, in an instant, everything changes.

Coyote

[SHOUTING]

Brigilio

Let's go, James, let's go!

James Spring

The coyotes start yelling for us to get down low. It's time to move. We all run willy-nilly, like lunatics rushing the asylum gate. Brigilio and I are pretty fast. We pass a dozen of the saleswomen. Chiquilin, the lead coyote, signals for us to follow him behind a bluff where we all hide. Our coyotes know the schedule of the border patrols.

One truck passes us, flashing lights and sirens. We all sprint to an abandoned building. A coyote hisses at us to hide, and we try. But two of the fake US Border Patrol trucks are racing toward us. And then the agents are out of the trucks and chasing us. And they're on us. And we're trapped. There's only one way out. And it's right through the middle of the Border Patrol.

Our coyotes run, so we run. Five or six Border Patrol agents are grabbing the rest of the salespeople right in front of me. One agent gets a hand on me, but I make it past him. There's gunfire, like I'm sure they're shooting blanks, but it's loud and it feels real. We all race away from the Border Patrol and lose them in a thicket of spiny plants. All I can think is, what the [BLEEP]?

The salespeople are dead silent. Brigilio and I find each other, and I follow him up a narrow, rocky trail about mid-pack in the sales team. We walk a long way. It gives me time to recognize that the real US Border Patrol would probably not have blasted their sirens when they snuck up on us. And they probably wouldn't shoot into a crowd of migrants. This is the Mexican telenovela version of a border crossing, a dramatic reenactment. This is what sells tickets.

That said, the salespeople have fully suspended their disbelief. They look totally freaked out. There's a barbed wire fence in front of us. We all scamper beneath it and circle around the eroded edge of a cliff. And then the coyotes start going crazy, motioning for us to get down. Before us, there's a dying campfire and a shack, like a little log house. And then there's this.

Man

[SHOUTING]

James Spring

It's an old Indian man, not like a Hnahnu Indian, like an American Indian, like in the year 1823, an old Western, with a feathered headdress and a loincloth. He's carrying a rifle, an old Red Ryder looking thing. And he is not happy. He lights a torch. Chiquilin tries to tell him that we're just passing through, trying to get north. The Indian fires back with an angry bunch of words.

And then this small Indian woman comes out of the log house. There's just a lot of arguing, and I'm not understanding a word of it. The Indian shoots the old rifle into the air. Then two more shirtless Indians show up on the scene, like warriors. One's carrying a spear. This feels really fun to me, like John Wayne's going to come over the hill next.

The warriors grab one of our coyotes, El Tigre, I think. They tie him up to a cactus. Maybe it's a post. It's dark. One Indian holds a gun to his head, and the other holds a spear. A saleswoman beside me is clearly into it. She pleads our case, saying that we are Mexicans, and we're lost, and we just want to pass north.

Mexicans? The old Indian says, like it was the magic word he'd been waiting for all along. He tells us to prove it, by singing the Mexican national anthem. Before the weirdness of that can sink in, Chiquilin starts us out. And the salespeople warm to it.

Chiquilin

[SINGING "HIMNO NACIONAL MEXICO"]

James Spring

The old Indian decides to let us pass, with a little more gunfire to help shoo us off.

[GUNSHOT]

James Spring

And we're running again. We run for a long time. Like, I don't even know why we're running now.

Brigilio

Faster, James. Faster.

James Spring

I ask Brigilio if he ever went through an Indian reservation when he crossed the real border. Once, he said, in Arizona. They didn't care. They just waved them through.

When we stop running, we walk. We walk for a long time. The walking is the opposite of exciting. It is monotonous. It's drudgery.

The salespeople are showing wear, shuffling their feet like prisoners in leg irons. One of the women appears to have twisted an ankle. She's leaning on another one of the salespeople for support. I'm not sure that this was the kind of team building they signed up for.

There's a mountain up ahead. I ask Brigilio if that's our destination. He says yeah. And I say I'm happy, because it looks close. Brigilio tells me he remembers having that exact same feeling looking at mountains when he crossed the border for real.

Bragilio

You say, oh yeah. It's close. But it's not close.

James Spring

I ask him if seeing the Border Patrol brought back any memories for him. He says no. But the walking does. We climb more hills, more rocky ledges, more dusty trails, more mud.

All the jostling makes my recorder switch itself on and off, and it makes me lose a pretty good chunk of important stuff. For example, I don't capture the sounds of the five guys who stop us on the trail, tattooed gang members like from the streets, with the baggy jeans and tank tops. When they can't find our money, they steal food from our coyote's backpack.

I also failed to record the encounter with the 20 members of a powerful drug cartel that surrounded us. These guys had everything-- big gestures, really angry voices, automatic weapons that looked really real. And the cartel boss wore gold chains, and he had this great aura of evil. They even took one of the women from our group and shot her in the head.

The salespeople were really traumatized by this one. She was one of the actors, and the cartel guys fake-threw her body off a cliff. Then after we ran some more and got ourselves clear of the murderous cartel, my recorder started working again.

Coyote

Vamos! [SHOUTING]

James Spring

It was nearly the end of the night. We reached a bluff that overlooks the highway. Our transportation, our ride, is scheduled to meet us here and deliver us to fake Phoenix. Brigilio tells me that this is a hot corridor, heavily patrolled by border agents. Chiquilin whispers that when the coast is clear, we'll go in groups of 10.

The first group of salespeople scurries down the hill and is just about to jump in the back of the truck when trouble appears. Two Border Patrol trucks box them in. An agent speaks through the PA, tells the other agents to search them all. He asks where the coyote is and if there are any more of us. But nobody rats us out. They're all loaded into the Border Patrol truck and taken away.

[SIRENS]

We are, all of us, in disbelief. We've been walking for three hours. Everyone is silent. Brigilio signals that we're in the next group. It strikes me that I really want to make it, that I don't want to be one of the ones who gets caught. Three white pickups appear in the distance, our ride. 30 of us run down the hill. I'm waiting to hear the siren.

Brigilio and I jump into the bed of the third truck. We force ourselves as flat as we can, and then I feel the truck shift into gear, and we're driving. We're going to make it.

We arrive at the safe house blindfolded. That's how coyotes protect the location of a safe house.

Coyote

Vamos, vamos.

James Spring

Brigilio says that at a real safe house, we'd all be jammed into a room with a bunch of other migrants and forced to wait until our relatives paid off the final balance to the coyotes. And of course, that would be after two days and nights of walking through the desert, not just three hours.

But we're led down a path to what feels like a grassy field. It sounds like we're next to a river. Chiquilin tells everybody to keep their blindfolds in place. And he says, tonight we gave you just a small sample of the dangers of crossing the border. Maybe 5% of what the real experience is like.

He delivers this rousing speech. This message is like a patriotic stay-in-school kind of thing, that Mexicans have a moral obligation to stay here in Mexico, to not cross the border and give all of their energies to another country. Give your energies to your own community, he says. Make this country great. He tells everybody that he's going to count to three, and then we're all going to remove our blindfolds.

Chiquilin

Uno, dos, tres!

Saleswoman

[SHRIEKS]

James Spring

Across the river in front of us is a tall bluff, maybe 200 feet high. It's covered top to bottom with hundreds of flaming torches, maybe thousands. The firelight dances on the surface of the river. It's surreal. Chiquilin asks if we know what the torches represent. One of the salespeople guesses correctly. Yes, Chiquilin says, we do it to honor our brothers and sisters who've lost their lives crossing the border.

The salespeople, they're really moved by all of this. Some look sort of misty-eyed. These stories are a big part of their national heritage, even though the reality of it's so far removed from their own lives. Chiquilin calls all of the salespeople to huddle in a big circle and hold hands. For the second time tonight, they sing Mexico's national anthem.

All

[SINGING "HIMNO NACIONAL MEXICANO"]

James Spring

The other message from tonight is not about the future of Mexico or the dangers of a real border crossing. It's just about the reality of the Caminata itself and the fact that it even has to exist, the whole elaborate thing with all of its actors and costumes and staging and props, the endless reenactment of something that none of the Hnahnu wanted to do in the first place.

Chiquilin said to the tourists, we started doing the Caminata because we were becoming a village of ghosts. This is all we've got. We have no professions, no education, no industry. This is what we have to do to survive here. But it's an experiment that hasn't paid off yet. They advertise these Caminatas, but sometimes they go for weeks without enough tourists to run one.

And when there are enough tourists, like tonight, none of the actors gets paid by the village. This is not a job for anyone yet. Things here are still desperate. People go hungry. And the village still depends on money sent from the 80% of the Hnahnu who are living in the United States. Some of the actors from the Caminata told me that very soon they're heading north to try to cross the real border again.

Ira Glass

James Spring in Hidalgo, Mexico. In July, the Caminata Nocturna will celebrate its 10th anniversary. James has done a Spanish language version of this story for Radio Ambulante, which is a radio show and a podcast modeled after our radio show but all in Spanish. If your language skills are good enough, you should check him out. We'll link to the Spanish language version of the story on our website, or you can just google your way there.

Act Two. Phone Home.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Phone Home. So now we have a story about people moving the other way across the border, from the US to Mexico, yearning for homes here in the US, not there in Mexico. We deport from the United States about 250,000 people every year to Mexico. Over 100,000 more leave on their own. And there's an entire industry that has grown up around the fact that there are now tons of people living in Mexico who speak perfect American English. And that industry is call centers.

Over the last decade, American companies like Best Buy, Dish Network, Time Warner have been outsourcing their call center jobs to Mexico. And at first, these call centers just handled Spanish language calls from the United States. But then everybody realized, oh, they've got lots of really good English speakers there. And that became a big part of what those call centers now do.

Seth Freed Wessler has talked to dozens of people in these jobs, though. And he says it can be a little weird for the people who work at the call centers.

Seth Freed Wessler

These are pretty good jobs except for one thing-- they make you homesick. Lots of people who work at these call centers have just moved to Mexico, and they miss the United States. They miss their old lives. And at work, they spend hour after hour, call after call, talking to people who still have those lives. Maru Ponce left New York for Mexico when she graduated from college with a business degree and couldn't get a job because she didn't have papers. She got hired in Mexico taking calls for AT&T.

Maru Ponce

One guy who called and he's like, oh, yeah, we're going ice skating. And then we're going to dinner at Olive Garden or something. And I was like, oh, I used to do that with friends. So I would feel this churning. And sometimes I would stop listening to what they were saying, because in my head I'd be like, this memory and that memory when I used to go out with my friends. And they'd be like, hello, hello, are you still there?

Seth Freed Wessler

When Maru would work the evening shift, over the phone she could hear customers doing the same things her family used to do back in Queens, like watching boxing matches.

Maru Ponce

In the back, you hear the TV, like really loud. And I just remember thinking, oh, I wonder if my dad is watching it right now. Like I remember him leaning down on the couch, and he'd be like, oh, get me some soda, or get me something to eat. And it would be very clear in my head, seeing this family in this room that brought me back to the apartment that we used to live in in Astoria, Queens.

Luis Roldan

You're like, oh, man, these people are calling from over there. And I just wish I could just go through this phone and be over there, you know? It's an overwhelming feeling of sadness.

Seth Freed Wessler

This is Luis Roldan. He grew up in Orange County, California, got into some gang-related trouble, missed a court date, and got deported. And he says what makes these calls hard is that people call when they're out doing stuff, American stuff, running errands, driving, shopping. Sometimes they're waiting in line at fast food drive-throughs, ordering hamburgers or whatever. Like this lady.

Luis Roldan

She called about her internet working. Oh, I'm just sitting here in the drive-through at Taco Bell. I'm like, oh man, are you kidding me? They have no Taco Bell here. It's just taco right here. There's no Bell. It's just taco. [LAUGHS]

Seth Freed Wessler

What is it about Taco Bell?

Luis Roldan

I don't know. American food itself. Jack in the Box, In-N-Out, Burger King, Carl's Jr. I mean, how many times I remember going through drive-throughs, you know?

Seth Freed Wessler

Luis isn't kidding. This came up again when I went out with him and his call center friends. We were eating at the best taqueria I've ever been to in my life. And this guy from North Carolina said, yeah, he also really misses Taco Bell.

Man

Actually, I do. I'm going to be honest, I do. I don't know, it's just a different flavor. It's the States flavor. You know you're in the States.

Seth Freed Wessler

Luis says sometimes it messes with his head, hanging out with people who remind him of his friends in the States. And then speaking English all day to customers in an office that looks like a cheesy American startup. There's a ping-pong table outside the cafeteria. Walls are painted neon green.

Luis Roldan

I don't know. I'm taking a call, and I'm just thinking, ah, I'm going to go home. And I look out the window, and the Mexican flag's right in front of me. Pwish. Reality just melts. And I can't believe I'm in Mexico City. I even say, what the hell am I doing here? I can't believe I'm in Mexico City.

Seth Freed Wessler

Angel Perez came to Texas when he was two years old, lived in a small rural town called Graford, Texas, population 600. He spent his whole life there, graduated from high school, had a couple of kids. But then he got into some trouble, and eight months ago, got deported. Angel ended up in Mexico City, working for one of the biggest call centers, TeleTech.

Lots of people told me they're supposed to keep conversations short, to around eight minutes. But Angel keeps his calls to two, because he's saving up his minutes. That way, he says, he can drag out calls with customers who remind him of home. Mostly people who live in the country, like this guy named Jim from Alabama.

Angel Perez

He kept calling me Bubba. And that's one of my words that I use too, because I was raised with them redneck boys. So they use Bubba a lot, or Bub.

Seth Freed Wessler

What did he call in for?

Angel Perez

Well, he called in, just saying, hey, listen here, Bubba, like my bill's up. I don't even know why, and this and that. Man, I'm a country boy here. I don't know none of this technology.

I said, I know, I feel you. I said, I'm in Mexico City right now. And I was in Texas, out in the country. And he goes, oh, Bubba, man, you need to go back. Hurry up and come back to Texas. I said, I know. I am, I'm trying. So--

Yeah, we talked I'm going to say at least 25 to 30 minutes [INAUDIBLE] on that call, just talking about hunting, fishing, out in the river swimming. I used to just lay back on a roof, on a car. And we'd just sit there and just look up there and see shooting stars, because it's so black, and everything's so clear. And here, you don't see nothing. Well, I still haven't seen-- I don't even bother looking up at the sky at night no more.

Seth Freed Wessler

Right now, there's a $6 billion a year industry in Mexico that does customer service calls, billing, and IT for people who don't live in Mexico. At the rate it's growing, the industry will double in the next five years. And it's benefiting from the hundreds of thousands of people who get deported from the US each year.

One of the companies told me that the Mexican government sometimes gives out job information at the border about call centers to deportees. And the outsourcing companies, they're keeping track of the cities where people are settling and then opening up new facilities there. When Angel arrived, he found odd jobs, like moving furniture for $15 a day, which is typical. Other deportees told me about working at a car wash or a soap factory, at a restaurant or hauling fish off a boat. All those jobs pay $10 to $20 a day.

Call center jobs start around $40 a day. That's a good middle class wage in Mexico. These jobs are desirable. Mexican kids come out of college and try to get them. But for the most part, these call centers are like little islands of expats in Mexico. The agents who work there, they hang out with each other. They date each other. Sometimes they even marry each other.

Angel's group of friends are all guys from Texas, just like him. Only most of them aren't from the country like Angel. They're from cities, Dallas and Houston. A lot were in gangs. Now that they hang out all the time, Angel's been trying out their shtick. Like he's thinking about becoming a rapper. One Tuesday night, I go out with Angel and his friends to a bar that looks like an American diner. They sit in a booth getting wasted off 40's.

Angel's Friend

We put music on. We smoke weed. We drink. We rap. (RAPPING) I'm a Texas boy that wasn't born, but I was a Mexican man that was deported from the TX--

Seth Freed Wessler

They go on like this for about half an hour, getting louder. Almost all of their lyrics are about Texas. Then some preppy Mexican guys at the table next to them start getting annoyed and shush them.

Angel's Friend

--way back in the gang.

Preppy Mexican Guy

Shh!

Angel's Friend

Hey, man, that be the name--

Preppy Mexican Guy

Shh!

Seth Freed Wessler

Eventually, the bartender gets fed up too, and goes to the music system.

Angel's Friend

--and they free-styling about my lifestyle. Stand up, and I'm gonna shoot you, bitch--

[MEXICAN MUSIC PLAYING]

Seth Freed Wessler

Here in Mexico, some of these call center workers still make a turkey every year for Thanksgiving. Remember, these are people who couldn't even get driver's licenses when they lived in the US.

Other Mexicans notice they're not from here. They stick out. They dress differently. They walk differently. Their arms are covered in tattoos. And they go around in big groups speaking English. That can make locals mad.

This happened to Luis the other day, when he was on the subway. His girlfriend, who's also from the States, called him on his cell.

Luis Roldan

I answer the phone call. Hello? And this guy notices my accent right away. I noticed him from my periphery. He just turned around, and he starts staring at me. So I keep talking, oh, I'm going to be home in the next 10 minutes, whatever. And he told me, you're in Mexico. You need to be speaking in Spanish. He used the word "bocho," which is a word that they use towards Mexican-American. It's a derogatory term.

Seth Freed Wessler

Locals look down at people who have come back. They see them as screw-ups who got kicked out of the US and can't speak proper Spanish. But it's complicated, because they also resent the advantages these returnees have, their English and these jobs that pay so well.

People see them as uppity. They're too American. But actual Americans also give them attitude. They get flak all the time from callers in the States who are annoyed to find themselves talking to someone in Mexico.

Luis Roldan

The other day, in fact, I had a call. It was a customer. He's like, well, you have an accent. And I was like, well, I'll do the best I can. And he said, where am I calling to? Mexico City, sir, in a very pleasant tone. He said, why, you [BLEEP] wetback. And I took off my earpiece. And he hung up.

Seth Freed Wessler

I talked to over 50 call center workers, and the ones who've been here the longest said it gets easier after a while. The job becomes just what it is, short transactions over the phone with strangers. Eventually you don't get so homesick. Maru says that's how it worked for her. She's been here for eight years now and no longer wishes she lived in the US.

Maru Ponce

And it's also like this thing where it's like there's this country that didn't want me. Why do I want to go back to somebody or to something that didn't want me and accept me? Like if it was a relationship, it's like, why go back to my ex when there are so many better things? And there's a world out there.

Seth Freed Wessler

Angel has only been living in Mexico for eight months. And every day at the call center is still a struggle for him.

Angel Perez

I hate this job. I hate it. I hate it with a passion, but it's the only thing that helps me make money here.

Seth Freed Wessler

I mean, do you think about going back to the US?

Angel Perez

Yeah, I think about going back every minute. Every time I take that call, first call, I want to go back. I don't care if I have to carry a big old bag of drugs. I don't care what I have to do. If they gave me the opportunity to go back, I'd go back. But I know I can't. There's this thing telling me, just don't-- don't go back.

Seth Freed Wessler

How long do you think you'll live in Mexico?

Angel Perez

Well, probably the rest of my life. That's another thing that bugs me when I take calls, knowing that this is it. This is as far as you're getting is you're going to be here for the rest of your life in Mexico taking calls.

Seth Freed Wessler

Lately, Angel's been missing a lot of work. But he doesn't care if he gets fired. He says he'll just find another job at another call center. There's more of them all the time.

Ira Glass

Seth Freed Wessler. Coming up, it's hip to be square and made of carbohydrates. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. The Hostess With the Toastess.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "There's No Place Like Home," stories of people doing unusual things to create or preserve or hold onto a home for themselves. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, The Hostess with the Toast-ess.

John Gravois moved with his wife and daughters a year and a half ago across the country to San Francisco. And he has been very aware of the ways that San Francisco seems different from the rest of the country. Recently, he noticed something new happening around the Bay Area, which turned out to be not what he thought at all. Here's John.

John Gravois

A few months ago, I was standing in line at a coffee shop on my way to work. And I couldn't stop staring at this guy behind the counter. He was cutting inch-thick slices of bread, putting them in a toaster, and spreading stuff on them.

But it was the way he did it that caught my attention. He had the solemn intensity of a ping-pong player who keeps his game very close to the table, knees slightly bent, wrist flicking the butter knife back and forth, his eyes suggesting a kind of flow state. In front of him, laid out in a neat row, were a few long Pullman loaves, that boxy Wonder Bread shape, but recognizably handmade and freshly baked.

On the menu, toast stood all on its own as an option at $3 per slice. So I ordered some. It was good. It tasted like toast, only better.

A couple of weeks later, I stumbled across another place with a self-described toast bar. Then another. This third place I went to was like a temple to hot, sliced bread. It was called The Mill, a big, light-filled cafe and bakery with exposed rafters and polished concrete floors, like a rustic Apple store, with a small chalkboard listing the day's toast menu.

I asked the manager at one of these places what was going on. Why all the toast? Tip of the hipster spear, he said. And then I realized what this meant. Toast, like the cupcake and the dill pickle before it, had been elevated to the artisanal plane.

I had two reactions to this. First, of course, I rolled my eyes. How silly. How precious. How perfectly San Francisco. Artisanal toast. And second, despite myself, I felt a little thrill of discovery. As a 35-year-old guy with a wife and two kids, I'm usually the last to find out about a trend.

But here I was, apparently standing up on the artisanal toast wave, way before it crashed into Brooklyn, Chicago, and Los Angeles, before the inevitable article in Slate telling people that they're making toast all wrong, before the even more inevitable backlash by angry bloggers.

I decided to go looking for the origins of the fancy toast trend. How does such a thing get started? What determines how far it goes? Maybe I thought it would help me understand the rise of all of the seemingly trivial things that start in San Francisco and then go supernova across the country. And just as I began searching, the backlash arrived.

The local media started running articles with headlines like "$4 Toast-- Why the Tech Industry is Ruining San Francisco." And almost all of the blaming fingers pointed at The Mill. So I figured, bingo. That's Ground Zero.

[TRAFFIC NOISE]

John Gravois

Wow. It's really crowded.

[DOOR OPENS]

But one of the owners there, Josey Baker-- yes, he's a baker, and yes, that's his name-- told me he was not the originator of this craze.

Josey Baker

Yeah, I mean, there was one other place here in the city, and they mostly do cinnamon sugar toast.

John Gravois

No, Josey wasn't the Chuck Berry of fancy toast. He was more like the Elvis of fancy toast, a guy who caught the trend when it was already on an upswing. The place he first saw it, four or five years ago, is out in one of San Francisco's windiest, foggiest, farthest-flung areas, the Outer Sunset. Other toast professionals sent me to the same cafe.

It's completely different from any of the other places serving toast. For one thing, it's about 10 times smaller. In fact, it's nothing like what I expected. And the story behind it-- the story of the person who started this trend-- made the trend itself feel like an embarrassingly tiny thing to focus on.

So I'm going to tell you that story. But first I should tell you the name of the place. It's called The Trouble Coffee and Coconut Club, otherwise known simply as Trouble.

Trouble's really popular. It always seems to have a line going out the door. And because the shop is the size of a single car garage, it's cramped and crowded with artifacts and wall hangings, like a very personal museum.

Waiter

I got two toasts on the bar.

John Gravois

On the menu are four main items. Coffee, cinnamon toast, coconuts, and shots of grapefruit juice named after Yoko Ono.

Waiter

One toast for David.

John Gravois

The founder of Trouble is Giulietta Carrelli. And every one of those menu items has a defined significance to her, as does her never changing wardrobe. She's always in a sleeveless crop top, ripped jeans, and a head scarf. She's covered in tattoos, including her cheeks, which are tattooed with freckles and always flushed, like a biker Pippi Longstocking.

Giulietta Carrelli

We're going to have to move the drum kit today.

John Gravois

And yes, she confirms it. She says it took a long time for the rest of San Francisco to copy her toast idea. Trouble is the kind of place where you might walk in and feel excluded, like I guess I'm not hipster enough for all this. That's kind of the way I felt at first.

But then Giulietta told me something that made Trouble and the purpose of it snap into focus. Trouble isn't just the name of Giulietta's coffee shop. Trouble is her word for a psychotic episode, the kind she's had since she was 16, growing up in Cleveland. Her official diagnosis is schizoaffective disorder, but she only learned that recently. And back when the episodes first started, in high school, she had no idea what was wrong with her.

Giulietta Carrelli

I started having these things where I thought people were putting LSD in my beer. I was hallucinating. And so when things would get weird, I just thought that's what was happening, that people put acid or that I drank mushroom tea. And I was hanging out with people who partied pretty hard, so I thought that's what was happening.

I would try to be in class-- let's say it's an English class or something-- but I was outside of my body watching myself be in the class. And that's what happens to me a lot. And all the voices were very, very, very loud. And like if you could hear people crumbling the paper, and it was just so uncomfortable. This is where I was just yesterday, sitting outside, not being able to even go to Trouble. I was in that state of mind yesterday.

John Gravois

During an episode, sometimes she hears voices or gets the sense that she doesn't actually exist. Also, eating is difficult. She can't stand the sound of her own chewing. After ruling out her LSD theory, she thought maybe she was just having lots of nervous breakdowns. Then came the theory that she was bipolar. She was even medicated for bipolar disorder.

Giulietta Carrelli

Then I just thought this is me. And everything's my fault. I just destroy relationships. I can't hold an apartment. I can't hold a job. I'm nice enough. I try my best. This is just who I am. So that's how I went about.

John Gravois

She somehow managed to put herself through college, three different colleges, in different corners of the country, by booking shows for underground bands and working at record stores and coffee shops. But Giulietta's illness was a kind of time bomb that eventually leveled any structure in her life. Roommates kicked her out. Romances fell apart. Her bosses either fired her or quietly stopped scheduling her for shifts.

A lot of the time, she was pretty much homeless. She slept in her car, on lots of couches. For a little while, she slept in a tree. By the time she hit 30, she had lived in nine different cities.

She first came here, to the Bay Area, as a student at Berkeley. And she remembers this one episode, a long, delusional walk through San Francisco, during which she called the police to let them know a tree had fallen on top of her, which it hadn't. And finally Giulietta found herself at China Beach, in the northwest part of town. On the sun deck was an elderly man sitting on a towel, wearing a Speedo, sunbathing on a cloudy day that suggested anything but. This would be the beginning of the beginning for Giulietta and for Trouble Coffee-- the moment she met Glen.

Giulietta Carrelli

Little, little man. Really petite. White hair. His socks always matched his sweater, no matter what. I was always amazed by that. But he was mostly in a Speedo, tanning. No tanning lotion, like no SPF for Glen.

John Gravois

Glen, whose real name is Gunther Neustadt, was a Holocaust survivor who escaped Germany as a boy. Anybody who went to China Beach regularly back then will tell you he was a fixture there. But more than Glen that first day, Giulietta was struck by a pair of Russian men, climbing out of the ocean after a swim. I should mention here that almost year round, the water at China Beach is cold enough to make you hypothermic after a few minutes.

Giulietta Carrelli

These strong men, just coming out of the ocean. And I was so weak. I was the walking dead. I wanted to be that strong. And they came up onto that sun deck, and they were so alive.

So I started asking Glen about these men. And he told me that people swam there regularly, all these people. And I was like, this is what I want to do. But anyways, I didn't last in San Francisco. I went on to all my little stints.

John Gravois

First to South Carolina, then Georgia, where she hit upon the first in a series of coping mechanisms that she still uses-- coconuts. For some reason, coconuts are the one food that doesn't feel like poison when Giulietta is in an episode. And the chewing sound isn't as bad. And not to sound like an infomercial for coconuts, they're really nutritious. Giulietta says you can survive on them, provided you have a source of Vitamin C, hence the grapefruit juice on Trouble's menu.

Another great thing about coconuts, people talk to you when you're holding one. Giulietta has studies to prove it, studies she performed herself, standing on a sidewalk, noting down how many strangers engage with her when she's holding a sandwich versus when she was holding a coconut. It wasn't even close.

Giulietta Carrelli

All of a sudden, I found something that would keep me alive. It didn't bother me chewing. I felt great. And people talked to me. I was like, this is working.

John Gravois

Still, she was barely sleeping and self-medicating a lot with pills, mostly Vicodin and whiskey. She was away from San Francisco for four or five years.

Giulietta Carrelli

Then one day, I was at a party, and I thought about that old man and those old Russian men at China Beach. And the next day, because my roommate was pretty much done with me, I rented a car and went straight to China Beach.

John Gravois

And then when you got there?

Giulietta Carrelli

Glen was there. And he told me that it took me a long time to come back. He was like, where have you been? So actually, this is Glen's corner.

John Gravois

Giulietta took me to China Beach, to the spot on the sun deck where she started hanging out with Glen after she came back. Talking with him every day, the routine of it, was the next thing she found that really helped her. At the end of every visit, he'd say the same thing. See you tomorrow.

Soon she started joining the other swimmers at China Beach. She swims every day now at about the same time. When she's having an episode, the cold water can shock her out of hallucinating.

Giulietta Carrelli

It's fu-- oh man, I'm cold. [SHIVERING]

John Gravois

Giulietta got the idea for Trouble in 2005. But it wasn't so much an idea as a whirlwind of coconuts and strangers meeting each other and cinnamon toast, all swirling around in her mind. She was working in a coffee shop at the time, always button-holing customers and coworkers about her plans.

She did the same with Glen, who brought the idea down to earth, telling her point blank to open a checking account, go to City Hall, and ask them about starting a small business. And her boss at the coffee shop found her sleeping there once or twice, and rather than say you're fired, he said, I think it's time for you to open your own place.

Giulietta Carrelli

Then he told me, he was like, just get some cups, brew some coffee. When you run out of cups, close the door and go get more cups.

John Gravois

[LAUGHS]

Guilietta Carrelli

And that was my business advice.

John Gravois

With barely any money, she landed a five-year lease in the Outer Sunset, in a former doggy day spa that seemed to have been a front for some kind of crystal meth operation. So here was a shop that sells coconuts and toast in a crummy part of town that nobody went to, run by a person with a significant mental illness.

Giulietta Carrelli

But I never, ever, ever thought that it was going to fail. Everything that works for me, I put in one little spot. And I thought, well, if it works for me, it'll work for other people.

John Gravois

She put coconuts on the menu because of the times she'd relied on them for easy sustenance. And because they did help her strike up conversations.

John Gravois

What about toast?

Giulietta Carrelli

My mom used to make me toast. And so when I was first opening up Trouble, I wanted to feel safe. Toast was that for me. And I also knew it was going to be that for a lot of people. Nobody can be mad at toast. I mean, it's toast. It's cinnamon toast. Everybody's stoked.

John Gravois

In 2012, so just two years ago, Giulietta finally got the definitive diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and medication that genuinely helps keep the episodes at bay. She stopped drinking and taking drugs a long time ago. But the major way she's managed to cope with her episodes when they happen is by creating a network of people and turning herself into a local institution, which is what she's been doing, bit by bit, ever since she came back to San Francisco from New York. At first, it was just the people she saw in her daily bike route to and from China Beach.

Giulietta Carrelli

And I would talk to the city workers who were building things. So just in case I wasn't doing well, they would remember me. They saw me every day. And sometimes I would ask them if they could help me get somewhere.

John Gravois

Huh. What do you say?

Giulietta Carrelli

I tell them that I can't see very well right now. My mind is racing. I'm supposed to make it to work. I'm late. Can you help me? I've knocked on people's doors.

John Gravois

You just knock on their door and say--

Giulietta Carrelli

Excuse me. I don't know where I'm going. Can you help me?

John Gravois

This is why she wears the same outfit every day-- the crop tops and the head scarves. It's why she's covered herself with tattoos-- so people will recognize her. And it's why she takes the same routes, day in and day out, around San Francisco-- so she can be recognized. When people interact with her, say hello on the street or call her name, it can do the same thing that cold water does when she swims-- knock her back into herself. It can mean the difference between her getting home or wandering lost around the city. And it's one of the reasons why she created Trouble.

Giulietta Carrelli

There's just so many people connected through this network of Trouble Coffee. I may just be a little tiny place, but it's pretty well-known, because I need to be well-known. I mean, I was just walking to my house before you guys got here. And it was this man with his son, and he goes, hey, you're Trouble, right? And I just went, I sure am.

John Gravois

Fancy toast isn't what Trouble's about. It's just the weird chunk of the spaceship that broke off and landed in the rest of the world's front lawn. But in a way, it makes perfect sense that the trend started with Giulietta. Most of us dedicate the bulk of our attention to a handful of relationships-- with a significant other, children, parents, a few close friends. Social scientists call these strong ties.

But for Giulietta, those kinds of strong ties have a way of buckling under the weight of her illness. So she's adapted by forming as many relationships, as many weak ties, as she possibly can. And webs of weak ties are how ideas spread, ideas like, in this case, toast.

Ira Glass

John Gravois. He wrote a version of this story, a great version, for Pacific Standard Magazine, where he's an editor. By the way, you can't really live on coconuts and grapefruit juice. Not for long. Don't try it.

[MUSIC - "COMIN' HOME" BY ROBERT ELLIS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, the program was produced today by Ben Calhoun, with Alex Blumberg, Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Allison Davis. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant.

Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help today from Michelle Harris and Julie Beer. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Torey Malatia. You know, why does he always look so great? Well, it's because he spends his workdays outside with his computer, no matter what the weather is.

Giulietta Carrelli

Mostly in a Speedo, tanning, no tanning lotion.

Waiter

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "COMIN' HOME" BY ROBERT ELLIS]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.