Category Archives: politics

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!

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.

England 3,139 Argentina 1

“No hay mucha diferencia entre Patagonia y las islas. Somos Latinoamérica.”–James Peck

In a major PR coup for Argentina and President Cristina Fernández yesterday, James Peck, who was born in the Falkland Islands, received an Argentinian national identity card, which gives him official status as an Argentine. He’s the first Falkland Islander to do such, even though Argentina has been offering the Islanders that opportunity since…basically forever. And this all fascinates the heck out of me.

As you probably know, the Falkland Islands (called las Islas Malvinas en español) are an archipelago off the coast of Argentina that have been recognized as British property since the mid-19th century…except by Argentina. Argentina ill advisedly invaded the islands in 1982 in order to recoup their property (called the “Falklands War”) , but weren’t around very long before the British army gave them the boot—though not before roughly 1,000 British and Argentine soldiers died in the process. The vast majority of those who live in the Falklands (perhaps everyone) sees themselves as British subjects and has no interest in becoming Argentines. At least that was the conventional wisdom until James Peck came along.

Peck with la presidenta

Peck was not only born in the Falklands, but his father fought there for the British military during the Falklands War. However, Peck’s situation is a bit more complicated than all that. His ex-wife and children live in Buenos Aires, so he moved there a while ago in order to a part of the children’s upbringing. So he doesn’t actually live on the islands anymore anyway. Nonetheless, it makes a good story, especially during a time when President Fernández has been working hard to get the British government to resume talks over the disputed territory.

Los Isleños in Louisiana

I gave a presentation in Spanish class today about the Isleños community in Saint Bernard Parish, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I told my fellow classmates this morning.

File:DelacroixTrapper1941WolcottA.jpg

Los Isleños are the descendants of Canary Islanders (Canarians) who came to the New World in the 18th century. Many settled in parts of the Caribbean and Venezuela, as well as Mississippi and Texas. They were instrumental in founding San Antonio, for example. But between 1778-1783 about 3,000 hardy Canarians (called “Isleños” or “islanders,” as opposed to “Penisulares,” which are people from the Spanish mainland) made the trek to Louisiana in order to build four colonies for the King of Spain in attempt to secure Spanish territory against possible British incursions into the region. The population grew from there and mostly in Saint Bernard Parish. Amazingly, they were able to maintain many of their cultural traditions, as well as their form of the Spanish language, throughout the next couple hundred years.

Perhaps the most important part of Isleños culture is their music. In particular, los Isleños sing songs called “décimas,” which were originally ten-lines long—hence the name. The singers, of course, are called “decimeros.” Décimas are about Canarian and Isleños history, interesting characters in the community, and the day-to-day working life of the people. The most famous decimero of late was Irván Pérez (he passed away in 2008), a fierce protector and promoter of Isleños history and traditions. (You can hear Pérez singing the décima “El trabajo de Welfare” here, and that’s a picture of him below.)
Every March Saint Bernard Parish throws a Los Isleños Festival that attracts visitors from all over, including quite a few musicians and other attendees from the Canary Islands, as well as other Spanish dignitaries…even the King and Queen of Spain if it is a particularly good year. Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, along with other Isleños groups, has done a good job maintaining strong bonds between the community in Louisiana and all the other places in the world touched by immigration from the Canary Islands. Though a bit dated, there is interesting documentary about los Isleños called Mosquitos and High Water: El mosco y el agua alta that you can watch for free here. The following is a trailer for the film, and it starts with Irván Pérez again!
Unfortunately, los Isleños have had a rough time of it over the past half decade. First, Hurricane Katrina ruined large portions of Saint Bernard Parish, and many feared that the population was going to have to effectively flee the area. Then, just as things were beginning to look up, the BP oil disaster last year contaminated much of the traditional fishing and hunting grounds of los Isleños. Historically the community has consisted primarily of trappers and fishermen, and they are particularly well known for the skills in hunting and trapping ducks, muskrats, and mink. With all the environmental destruction of the area, however, a lot of young Isleños have left. So, will the Isleños form of the Spanish language and the cultural traditions of the community live on during this new diaspora?

RNE Spanish Radio App is…awesome!

If you’ve spent any time cruising through the Spanish-language media apps for an iPad, iPod, smart phone, etc., you’ve probably noticed that most are connected to either Mexican or Puerto Rican media outlets—and that’s great! But if you’re looking to expand your language horizons a little bit and want more European perspectives in your media diet, I highly recommend RNE‘s radio app (available from iTunes here). How amazing is it? Well, it’s frickin’ free for one thing, so even if you end up hating it you should at least check it out.

Simple user interface!

The app streams six different channels live on your device, and programming includes news, sports, music, and Catalan language (!) treats on Radio 4. I haven’t been using it all that long myself, but I’m already in love.

Ron English on the border

Ron English is deliciously subversive with his art. He throws billboard-sized bombs at advertising design and brand culture through public (often illegal) art that twists images of Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse, and Joe Camel into cancerous agents of obesity, disease, and brand subservience. If you’ve seen Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me, then you’ve seen his work.

Here’s a short film about the man:

Recently English decided to play an April Fool’s prank related to the immigration debate through a series of works that popped up at the US-Mexico border. Below is my favorite…though I fear that some in the US will take it seriously and want this sign permanently installed at all border crossings.

Vonnegut 2081

One of Vonnegut’s most famous short stories, and one of my favorite short stories period, is “Harrison Bergeron.” In HB, society has achieved equality for all…by force and by lowering people’s capabilities to the most basic level possible (the only way to achieve true “equality” in skill). The agile and strong are weighted down. The intelligent have buzzing noises forced in their ears. Those with excellent vision are given lenses to distort it. And so on. The piece can be found in many collections, including Welcome to the Monkey House. So go read it!


Vonnegut first tested out the idea of equal disability in The Sirens of Titan through his description of some believers in the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent:

Everyone wore handicaps of some sort. Most handicaps were of an obvious sort—sashweights, bags of shot, old furnace grates—meant to hamper physical advantages. But there were, among Redwine’s parishioners, several true believers who had chose handicaps of a subtler and more telling kind.

There were women who had received by dint of dumb luck the terrific advantage of beauty. They had annihilated that unfair advantage with frumpish clothes, bad posture, chewing gum, and a ghoulish use of cosmetics.

One old man, whose only advantage was excellent eyesight, had spoiled that eyesight by wearing his wife’s spectacles.

A dark young man, whose lithe, predaceous sex appeal could not be spoiled by bad clothes and bad manners, had handicapped himself with a wife who was nauseated by sex.

The dark young man’s wife, who had reason to be vain about her Phi Beta Kappa key, had handicapped herself with a husband who read nothing but comic books.

Redwine’s congregation was not unique. It wasn’t especially fanatical. There were literally billions of happily self-handicapped people on Earth.

His idea was then used as inspiration for the 1995 film Harrison Bergeron. Now, in my humble opinion, many attempts at adapting Vonnegut’s material to film have been greatly flawed. I would include the 1995 Sean-Astin-vehicle Harrison Bergeron in that category. Nonetheless, there’s a new production based on Vonnegut’s famous work in the works. This one is called 2081. And I gotta say, in all fairness, the trailer looks kind of intriguing. (Gulp!)