Category Archives: rant

The twit who tweeted

I just started a little Twitter account: @SpDilettante. Mostly I just use it to follow twittering news feeds and whatnot, but occasionally I’ll post or retweet something of interest about Spanish, Spain, Latin America, copyright information, dumb stuff, etc.

Advertisements

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.

Glenn Danzig: Pro Literacy, Pro Spanish

Does listening to Danzig count as a guilty pleasure?

I was in high school and suffering from a severe bout of heavy metal addiction when the first Danzig album came out in 1988—bluesy and heavy with horror show lyrics…it was like manna to my ears. Oh, and the classic rock side of me loved the fact that Glenn Danzig’s voice sounded a bit like Jim Morrison’s–only a Jim Morrison obsessed with Satan and demons. I’ve had a soft spot for that album ever since, and I often find myself spinning it when I’m pissed off about something.

If you’re unfamiliar with Glenn Danzig, you should know that he was the creator and intellectual force behind the Misfits, a horror punk outfit that first came together in the late 70s and whose colorful members over the years have included Franché Coma, Brain Damage, Dr. Chud, and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein. Danzig disbanded the group over personal disagreements between the members, and the world lost a great and original punk band…until they reformed without him.

So Glenn formed a new band using his own name and with a much less punky style. Unfortunately, between his bulging muscles, horror movie lyrics, and occult obsessions, the man himself comes off as a bit of a nut at times. Some people even like to poke fun at him—but not me! For example, I take the following PSA-like video featuring Glenn and his book collection very seriously. I mean, the man loves to read. How great is that? And who doesn’t show off their book collection shirtless in a b&w video? I know there must be some grainy film out there of this dilettante displaying his Spanish dictionaries and short story collections while wearing only black boxers and white tube socks. ¡Qué guapo!

Danzig should also always be respected for branching out musically. Recently he recorded a new version of “Hips Don’t Lie” with Shakira—a bold move. And as you can tell by the lyrics (luckily the Institute of Danzig Research provides captioning), he’s intent on adding Spanish language skills to a resume that already includes martial arts experience, master iron pumping, wolf whispering, and Wolverine comics reading.

Luckily Danzig also has a sense of humor, as he exhibited in a recent animated guest appearance on Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Back to the Future

A few years back a friend of mine and his wife spent their honeymoon in Cuba…and I’ve been insanely jealous ever since. My problem is that I’m too much of a good boy to get there the way they did—illegally through Canada. And while I know there are ways to get to the island nation legally (international conference, press pass, science research), none of them are particularly tempting or feasible for this dilettante at the moment. But there is one group who’s been increasingly hitting the Communist country for fun in the sun legally. Russians.

Though Cuban-Russian relations soured after the fall of the iron curtain, the last five years have seen significant mending between the two countries. Cuba, in particular, has been using that rediscovered goodwill to court Russian tourists, particularly ones who have a nostalgic feeling for the good old days of Communism…but who also want a little sun with their Marxism.

According to Agence France-Presse, there was a 22% increase in Russian tourists to Cuba last year, and Cuban tourism officials expect to see as many as 45,000 Russians travel to the country this year. While that might not seem like a lot of folks just yet, it’s still more people than live in my hometown! And here’s hoping Americans like me can join them soon. Come on, Obama!

Links:

*Cuba Libre? (NPR story about lifting the restrictions for Americans)

*In Cuba, Russian Tourists Peer Into Soviet Past (NPR)

*Why Russian tourists are returning to Cuba (BBC TV)

*RIA Novosti short piece on Russian tourism in the first quarter of 2010.

Oswaldo on Béisbol

When I was a kid growing up in Indiana, our Little League team took an outing every year to see a game at Old Comiskey Park in Chicago. While I wasn’t much of a White Sox fan, I did always enjoy going to see a game, and I particularly enjoyed watching the Sox’ shortstop Ozzie Guillén play. Guillén had a quick hand in the field and a light stroke at bat—something I appreciated since I wasn’t much of a power hitter myself. Guillén was from Venezuela and part of a sustained wave of players that came to Major League Baseball from that country in the 80s.

But Guillén is better known these days for being the manager of the White Sox. Through that role he became the first Latin-born manager to lead a team to a World Series victory when he took the White Sox to their first championship since 1917 in 2005.  Guillén is also known for being outspoken on…well, just about everything. He even tweets—both in English and Spanish. And he’s never had much love for umpires.

Recently, Guillén’s been making headlines for a comment he made in an interview about the treatment of Latino players versus other foreign-born, non-native-English-speaking players, particularly ones from Japan and Korea.

“I say, why do we have Japanese interpreters and we don’t have a Spanish one. I always say that. Why do they have that privilege and we don’t? … Don’t take this wrong, but they take advantage of us. We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid … go to the minor leagues, good luck. Good luck. And it’s always going to be like that. It’s never going to change. But that’s the way it is.”

You can hear that quote in context in the following video.

Usually when Guillén opens up like this he gets eaten alive by sports media. But he’s actually gotten a little support on this one from some in the sports journalism crowd, though he’s also been blasted by most. Guillén often touches a nerve when he rants about society or the state of baseball or just about anything else. But in this case, he irritated that racial sore that still won’t heal in this country. However, I think he’s also talking about one of the major economic truths of sport: players are products.

In the case of MLB, Asian players are seen by many in baseball management as a precious investment to be protected. Japanese and Korean players also come from industrialized nations, so playing the game in North America is often a career choice for them, not a means to escape poverty—a major bargaining chip when in contract negotiations. Latino talent, on the other hand, is plentiful. Latin American players are an inexpensive investment for teams because many are coming from nations in development or poverty, and they can easily be replaced because there’s always a large group of young players coming up behind them. It’s all about the marketplace. To put it in context, when the Oakland A’s signed Dominican star Miguel Tejada, they paid $2,000 for him. When the Boston Red Sox won the bidding war for Daisuke Matsuzaka, it cost them $102 million. That’s a big gap!

There was an interesting film about the subject of how Dominican players are recruited for the league a few years ago called Sugar. I recommend it. It paints a vivid picture of how baseball can eat up the hearts, minds, and talent of young boys from the island and then dump them on the street corner when their skills have been used up. It can be a brutal world.

The tie that sometimes binds

One of the more interesting things about the Spanish team that fought hard for its 1-0 victory over the Netherlands yesterday in a gritty, and at times violent, World Cup final is its apparent unity.

Xavi Alonso of Spain is kicked in the chest by Nigel de Jong. And it should have been a red card!

Now some people might say, “Well, why wouldn’t they be unified? They’re all Spaniards.” But anyone who knows a bit about Spanish history or has traveled around areas like Catalonia knows differently. Spain has several regions that speak their own language and have their own separate identity—most famously Catalonia and Basque Country—, and that’s a fact that has caused more than one political flare-up in España. A lot of animosity was particularly fostered between these areas and the country as a whole during the Franco dictatorship in the 20th century. Franco outlawed languages other than Spanish in most official situations and his government generally suppressed the cultural heritage of their associated regions. While these areas did gain semi-autonomous status in the late 70s after democracy was established, tensions over how much autonomy is enough continues—many Catalans, for instance, would like their region to become its own country.

Map of Spain. Catalonia is in red.

On the soccer field this has played out for decades through the great rivalry between Barça, the club team based in the Catalan capital Barcelona, and Real Madrid, based of course in the capital city of Spain. Barça elicits particularly strong feelings from the Catalans because it was the one cultural element they were able to publicly hold onto during the Franco regime, though the Catalan flag had to be removed from the team’s shield during that period. Even today the club’s motto is (in Catalan) “més que un club” (more than a club). The tension between Madrid and Barcelona was felt by the players as well, and squabbling between Barça and Real Madrid representatives on the National Team has often been cited as the reason Spain has routinely underperformed in the World Cup.

So it is to the great delight of many Catalans that the current National Team fields a smorgasbord of Catalan players, including several of the stars of the tournament: Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Sergio Busquets. Those four also happen to play for Barça, as do four other players on the roster, including goal-scoring phenom David Villa. And it is to the great delight of the country as a whole that they get along with their teammates from Real Madrid. So while Catalans generally have had mixed feelings about the National Team, La Furia Roja (The Red Fury—the team’s nickname) got strong support from that region during this World Cup run. An estimated crowd of 75,000 even packed the streets of Barcelona yesterday in order to celebrate their victory, and most of them were carrying…gasp…the national flag of Spain. The image of Catalans jubilantly marching through the streets of Barcelona with Spanish flags makes it seem that Spain is perhaps finally politically united.

But can a little soccer match really bring lasting unity, especially during a time when that country is experiencing massive debt problems and high unemployment? I’m certainly too much of a dilettante when it comes to Spanish culture and history to even begin to answer that question. One thing is for certain though, any lasting political unity will have to include harmony between Spain’s various languages—cause they’re not going away. The Catalan parliament, for instance, recently passed a law requiring film distributors to dub or subtitle at least half of the foreign films they release in Catalonia into the Catalan language. As Vonnegut would say…so it goes.

Óscar Romero vs. Texas Board of Education

Having worked in the book industry for most of my adult life, I have to say that textbook publishers have never been my favorite members of the community. (Disclosure: I used to be a vastly underpaid employee of one of the largest textbook companies in the US back in the mid-90s.) Mainly it’s because most are just lazy and see books as profit first, product second, and maybe a container of content and ideas a quite distant third. One of the laziest decisions they’ve made for a while now is allowing the Texas Board of Education to basically set content standards for textbooks for most of the nation because that state purchases so many books from said publishers. I mean, what’s good for Texas is good for…

Back in March the Texas Board had their regular ten-year curriculum review. One of the decisions they made was to remove Óscar Romero from the list of historical figures covered in their state’s history programs. So bye-bye Romero from the textbooks, too.

So why was Romero removed? Well, basically because board member Patricia Hardy thought he wasn’t famous enough. While a panel of educational experts and historians had chosen to include Romero in the Texas curriculum, apparently Hardy and other members of the Board of Education hadn’t heard of Romero before, and they decided to remove him. Now I should mention here that, unlike the panel that had initially added Romero to the curriculum, the Texas Board of Education is made up of elected officials.

Jon Stewart had a great comment about the incident: “And that’s how Óscar Romero was disappeared by right-wingers…for the second time.” (Watch the Daily Show cover of the Romero story here.)