Category Archives: Reviews

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 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.

Information wants to be free

I’ve been doing English- and Spanish-language proofreading for Project Gutenberg for a little while now, so I figured it was well past time to put in a plug for the site…because it’s awesome.

PG is the largest collection of free ebooks anywhere. Currently their catalog contains over 36,000 titles, and it grows every day. What’s better is that PG titles are usually available in multiple formats: everything from plain, simple-text ASCII code that can be read by even the most ancient computers to files for portable devices like Kindles, iPads, iPhones, and Android OS toys. And again, it’s all free! The catalog even includes audiobooks.

But more importantly, there are a tons of free Spanish-language ebooks. Here’s a highlight of some titles:

Cervantes’ Don QuixoteZorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio (bilingual); translations of Voltaire’s Candide and the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Valera’s Pepita Jiménez; Alarcón’s Novelas Cortas (good intermediate text with vocab help); Colección de viages y expediciónes à los campos de Buenos Aires y a las costas de Patagonia (edited by Pedro de Angelis).

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!

Las mujeres de Almodóvar : Chus Lampreave

I was going to start this post off by saying that I’ve been in a real Almodóvar-watching mood recently, but that would be a ridiculous thing to say because I’m always in the mood for watching his films.

More accurately, I’ve been in the mood for rewatching some of my favorite films by him, including Volver, Oscar winner Hable con ella (Talk to Her), and Oscar nominee Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). And if you haven’t seen any of those, please rush out and do so immediately.

Almodóvar’s films always have a few elements in common: humor, passion, bright colors, Madrid, men who make bad decisions, and women who have to deal with the repercussions of those bad decisions. But it’s not just themes that pop up over and over in his work. Actors also often appear regularly in his productions—he started the careers of Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas after all. But one of my favorite character actors who appears in almost every Almodóvar film, including the three I’ve rewatched most recently, is Chus Lampreave.

Lampreave is a veteran Spanish actress whose career dates back to the 1950s, including extensive work in Spanish television, and who usually shows up in an Almodóvar film as some batty landlord or crazed relative. I first saw her in Mujeres al borde 10 years ago; she plays a stubborn Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to lie for the philandering Iván in that movie. I’ve kept a keen eye out for her ever since. And in my opinion, one of her best roles is as tía Paula in Volver.

Lola Dueñas, Penélope Cruz, Yohana Cobo, and Chus Lampreave in "Volver"

Paula is a nutty old aunt to sisters Penélope Cruz and Lola Dueñas (another Almodóvar regular who kills it in everything she does) who lives in a small village in La Mancha—a town whose inhabitants suffer from chronic insanity caused by strong winds. It’s a classic Lampreave role in a Almodóvar picture: old, stubborn woman who is out of her mind. Paula has been talking to the ghost of the sisters’ mother lately. It’s probably just the wind, but of course…you should see the movie yourself! Lampreave’s character isn’t in much of the movie, but for the few scenes she has, she absolutely steals the show. That’s saying a lot when she’s sharing the screen with Penélope Cruz, an actress who garnered an Oscar nomination for her role in the film.

Mis Cositas

A friend of mine who is pursuing an education degree recently told me about MisCositas.com. The site was created by a New York educator named Lori Langer de Ramirez for bilingual teachers and parents in need of extra resources for the classroom or home: workbooks, vocabulary lists, videos, etc. But there are some great things to tool around with on the site for learners of all ages—especially beginning Spanish students—, such as the digital collection of realia (bus tickets, shop receipts, stamps, bank notes, etc.).

Although Spanish is the main target language on the site (I mean it’s called “Mis Cositas”), there are also ESL, French, and Chinese language resources. Of it all, I particularly love the site’s videos, which can be awfully entertaining for even advanced-level language students.