Category Archives: Mexico

Black in Latin America

With a little break in the school year, I finally sat down and watched all of Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America PBS series this weekend. There are four 50-minute episodes, and each is worth your time. Luckily, they are all free to view on show’s website.

There are quite a few aha moments to be had in the series. For instance, I had no idea that Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for 22 years in the mid-19th century (episode 1)—an event that really began the shaping of Dominicans’ conception of “blackness,” as well as their feelings towards Haitians. I also learned about the racially charged character Negro Mama (episode 4)—a bumbling blackface thief played by comedian Jorge Benavides on Peruvian TV.

There is also quite a bit in the series about food, which meant that I was constantly hungry while watching it. At one point, Gates is having a discussion with a Mexican historian about fufu (episode 4), which is a popular savory dish in the Caribbean that has its roots in the cuisine of West Africa. Their discussion made me think of an entertaining episode of Internets Celebrities from a couple of weeks back about mofongo (just another word for the same dish) in Corona, Queens, NYC.

Gates himself seems most taken with the country of Brazil (episode 3), which has over 75 million people of African descent and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. Personally, I was  most interested in the complicated path of racial identity in Cuba (episode 2). But I got a ton out of each and every episode. Check it out!

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The ups and downs of a bittersweet and lonely harvest

Yesterday I made my way down to the Missouri History Museum in order to take in the exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964/Cosecha Amarga Cosecha Dulce: El Programa Bracero 1942-1962 and a special screening of the film Harvest of Loneliness. I’d had the date circled for weeks on my calendar because I was ecstatic that the museum had put together a program about such an important but not-well-known part of American history.

The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that brought millions of Mexican agricultural laborers into the United States in order to do field work for US companies. Initially this meant harvesting sugar beets in California, but eventually it meant just about any backbreaking job that food producers wanted done for as little pay as possible. During World War II, there was also a parallel railroad bracero program that provided Mexican labor for train track maintenance.

Braceros were supposed to receive decent wages, healthcare, and housing. In reality, most got ripped off and were forced to live in squalor and labor under dangerous conditions. Employers essentially had their way with them. They’d pay them whatever they wanted and made them sleep on planks, work in the burning summer temperatures of the US Southwest with no breaks or water, and would dump them back across the border if they got sick or died. In 1959 alone, at the height of the program, almost 450,000 Mexicans were brought to work in United States through the program.

Bittersweet Harvest (on display in St. Louis until July 31) brings together pieces from oral histories from former bracero workers and historic images from the time. The braceros’ experiences are culled from the Bracero History Archive, which is a truly awesome collection of oral histories, artifacts, and resources related to the Bracero Program. However, (*SIGH*) the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum isn’t very good. And my experience with the show even started out on a sour note because I couldn’t find it at first. When I asked an attendant at the information desk where it was, the person didn’t even know what I was talking about until I pointed to a reference to the show on a handbill. “Oh, that. It’s through there…all the way in the back.” And in the back it was. Located in a small gallery that’s connected to a room richly filled with artifacts from the World’s Fair (related to the braceros how?), fifteen banners with short quotes and a couple images each surround the walls of the room. And that’s it. No listening station. No objects. No books. No videos. For a brief moment I even thought to myself, “My goodness, they haven’t finished putting the show up yet.” You see, the exhibit is a traveling show put together with the help of the Smithsonian, and for that reason I was expecting more…much more. Below, for example, is what part of the show looked like when it was at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

But there was one huge saving grace to my day out at the museum…and that was the screening of Harvest of Loneliness. The film was made by Vivian Price and Gilbert Gonzalez and uses a combination of archival footage and recent interviews with former braceros to deftly tell the story of what the program was like—from the worker selection process in Mexico to the effect on Mexican families to the conditions in the field and the reactions of organized labor in the US to the program. The film is not apolitical, however. It clearly makes the argument that the Bracero Program was a lose-lose situation: both Mexican and US workers suffered because of it. It also argues that the Bracero Program institutionalized the exploitation of agriculture workers in the US and the naive expectations of Mexican migrants, which was only made worse by NAFTA—a formula that has led us to our current immigration situation. This point of view was reinforced after the screening by co-director Gonzalez during a Skype-based Q & A (Gonzalez is a Chicano Latino Studies Professor at UC Irvine). The following is the trailer for the film.

There was one disappointing thing about the movie though. Including me, there were only about eight museum patrons there—along with a handful of museum workers. Ugh, St. Louis! Seriously? We can’t even get a couple of dozen people out to see a free movie at the history museum? No wonder they didn’t feel the need to jazz up the exhibit.

Chupacabras in Maine!

During my webby absence I did some traveling around the US, including a nice jaunt to Maine. While there, I took in the International Cryptozoology Museum, which is located in downtown Portland. I came on a good day because I was lucky enough to get a personal tour with Mr. Loren Coleman himself, who is the founder of the museum and is perhaps the most famous cryptozoologist in the United States.

Cryptozoology, if you don’t know, is the study of animals whose existence hasn’t yet been proven or which are thought to be extinct: dinosaurs, Big Foot, Ogopogo, my imaginary dog from 5th grade, etc. Keeping that in mind, I suppose it wasn’t too big of a surprise to me that Coleman keeps a small collection of chupacabras-related items in the old house of mysteries. But I was certainly happy that he does.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that chupacabras (chupar  “to suck” + cabra “goat” = goat sucker) are mythical creatures that were first reported in Puerto Rico in the mid-90s and which pop culture in the US usually associates with Mexico and Texas. The nasty little fellows are known for sucking the blood out of livestock—particularly goats. But what I loved about the museum’s collection on the topic is that beer bottle in the top photo: Cucapá Chupacabras Pale Ale. I had never heard of it before.
Apparently it’s a Mexican craft beer marketed to Americans who want the rich flavor of goat’s blood in the form of a cold, refreshing ale. So…drink up!

Luchador Last Supper

Chris Parks’ skateboard deck art of Jesus and his apostles shown as luchadores is awesome! And just in time for Easter. (More and better photos here.)

What’s in My Bag?

There are a million and one ways of wasting time on the internet, but I find few as enjoyable and enlightening as watching Amoeba Records’ series “What’s in My Bag?”

(Venezuela’s Los Amigos Invisibles on a recent episode.)

Amoeba is, of course, the infamous California indy music store with locations in Berkley, San Francisco, and Hollywood. Each is gigantic (the SF store is in an old bowling alley) and filled to the gills with CDs, cassettes, records, DVDs, VHS tapes, and even laser discs. The selection is always deep and exotic—anyone could find at least one thing there that they’d like but have never heard before. That even goes for M.I.S.‘s Camilo Lara.

“What’s in My Bag?” is simply someone from Amoeba with a camera grabbing a famous patron and having him or her show off what they’re buying. Baggists include everyone: cartoonist Joe MattElviraElijah WoodDuran Duran, Robb Reiner from Anvil, the Roots’ Questlove, and on and on. I’ve never learned as much about music history and celebrity taste as I have from watching this fabulous series. And speaking of fabulous, here’s Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (¡en español!)…

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio

Latin Jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez

Pat Hoed…er, I mean Fantasma from the metal band Brujeria

Parroquia Santa Cecilia “Mexican Fish Fry”

I finally got off my rear and did something last night that I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years now: attend the famous “Mexican Fish Fry” at St. Cecilia’s Church (Parroquia Santa Cecilia) in South St. Louis City. And I made it just in time…it was the last one of the year!

In the last few years St. Louis has been catching up with all the other urban centers in the United States by attracting a large influx of hispanic and latino immigrants. This new population has centered its spiritual life around St. Cecilia’s Church, a once dying parish that is now thriving again because of this new membership. So a couple of years ago the church decided to revive its defunct Friday Lenten fish fry…only with a Mexican twist. Yes, you can get fried fish, shrimp, and the like…but the menu also features handmade chiles rellenos, tostadas, and quesadillas with a side of rice and beans. There are also Latin American dancers, a trio of Mexican musicians, and lots of Cerveza Tecate.

I had heard that the wait for food could be long—and they weren’t kidding! Exactly two hours and seventeen minutes passed between the moment my friends and I first got into line and the time two fresh-faced school children set our plates down in front of us. But no worries…there are plenty of chips and salsa, tamales, and beer stands, as well as aural and visual delights, to savor while slowly snaking through the school’s gym to place your dinner order.

Quesadilla frita, tostada, refried beans, and rice.

A lot of love and preparation for the event clearly came from the Latino community—Spanish menus were plastered to the walls and adornments of Mexican and Latin American culture were everywhere. However, gringos easily outnumbered Latinos at the event by at least a 10 to 1 margin. I hope that’s a sign that my little city is growing up and finally embracing diversity…but I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to practice my language skills with anyone or anything other than the menu and deciphering the romantic lyrics of the singers.

“Casa de mi padre” with Will Ferrell

YouTube will probably remove this trailer, so watch it while you can (Will Ferrell in a Spanish-speaking role!).