Category Archives: San Luis MO

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.

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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.

La guerra contra las hormigas

I survived my finals this week only to face a battle with a ruthless bunch of hormigas (ants) pouring into our kitchen through a crack near a garden-level window that happens to lead right into the space behind our sink. While I generally find insects a fascinating lot, I don’t take well to them getting into our cabinets, counters, and food. So I did what any red-blooded American would do…I bought a big can of Raid® (sitio en español).

It still amazes me how much Spanish appears on consumer products and in the commercial world these days. Our local Trader Joe’s grocery store, for instance, just added Spanish translations to all their store signage. And Lowe’s® has been doing the Spanish signage thing for some time—what a great way to build vocabulary!  But the impression of this dilettante is that insecticides have led the way in bilingual packaging for years now, and my big can of Raid® gives equal time to Spanish and English on its label. ¡Mata al contacto!

Now while I don’t like hormigas traipsing around my kitchen and I’ll quickly rush out to buy insecticide to stop them from doing so, I’m pretty paranoid about spraying poisonous chemicals all over mi cocina. My OCD immediately kicks in after applying the stuff—I wash my hands over and over after using it. I also tend to avoid the sprayed areas for days after laying down the lethal justice. So I was shocked when I went looking around YouTube for old Raid® commercials and found that people used to be encouraged to spray the poison like air freshener in the past. Take this ad for instance…

Am I crazy? Or is this señora inviting some form of cancer with her liberal use of the stuff?

A revolutionary drink

I met some friends for drinks last night at the Royale in el sur de la ciudad de San Luis (South St. Louis City). The place is known for its unusual cocktails, and there was one that immediately caught my eye: the Soulard Sling. One of the ingredients in this drink is Angostura bitters, a liquor which has an interesting place in Latin American history.

Angostura was developed by a German doctor named Johann Siegert in the early 1820s while he was living in Venezuela. He had moved to that country to help famed South American liberator Simón Bolívar fight against the Spanish crown and establish his Gran Colombia state. Bolívar was a creole from an aristocratic family, and he discovered the power of racism and oppression during a visit to Spain in his young adulthood. During that trip, he was stripped of his goods and put in jail basically for being a creole with nice stuff. In that one act, Spain had created their own worst enemy. Bolívar would help liberate five different South American countries, and he is still celebrated today in South America as the key to independence on the continent.

During Bolívar’s revolutionary days, Johann Siegert served as his Surgeon General at a military hospital in the city of Angostura, Venezuela—hence the name of the bitters. (By the way, the city of Angostura is now known as Ciudad Bolívar.) He was trying to develop a medicinal potion to use with his patients when he came up with a recipe for aromatic bitters instead. Shortly thereafter, he began exporting the stuff. And by 1850, Angostura was popular enough that Siegert resigned his military post to dedicate his time solely to manufacturing and selling his creation. Its production is still overseen by the Siegert family today.

Dr. Johann Siegert

As for the Soulard Sling, like Bolívar’s passion for South American independence and liberty, it was strong stuff. But like his dream for a unified South America, the drink fell apart for me by the end. Too much bitters is not a good thing.

¿Qué hora es? : Who do you practice Spanish with?

Lately I’ve been having a back-and-forth with a couple of my classmates about who is and isn’t acceptable when looking for a speaking partner to practice with. In particular, one of my Spanish buddies thinks practicing with anyone other than a native speaker or someone with near-native fluency is completely unacceptable. She says, “why would I want to talk with someone who can’t correct my mistakes? We’ll just be speaking Spanish-like gibberish with each other all day.” While I don’t have a firm opinion on the issue myself yet, I do know these 5 things…

1. Practicing speaking is good with just about anyone or anything if it gets you to break out of your shell. Heck, I was speaking Spanish with the squirrels in the park the other day—not that they responded. The point is to start thinking in the language. If you don’t put yourself out there (and make mistakes), you’ll never speak any language very well.

2. Practicing with someone who butchers grammar and pronunciation can be helpful when you  want to sharpen your thinking skills. But it can also sometimes hurt you. Before a test last semester, I met with a student who really struggles with the language, in order to give her a bit of help with the oral portion of the exam. I found that after an hour of speaking with her, I was actually less prepared myself. I was losing my pure vowel sounds and confusing my conjugations. I was starting to mirror her abilities. Luckily, I pulled it together at the last minute. Ja! Since then, I’ve continued to have some one-on-one meetings with classmates and have found the experiences to be sometimes rewarding and sometimes frustrating.

3. On the other hand…I’ve been taking part in a Spanish conversation club lately that has all levels: native speakers, people who only know a few words, intermediate-level students, high-school language teachers, etc. I’ve found this to be a really good situation. As you move around the room making conversation, sometimes you are the one helping others piece together thoughts and words; other times you’re the one getting help. Basically, you can build your confidence by speaking with others at your level but then challenge yourself by having conversations with more advanced speakers.

4. While native speakers are obviously a great resource, they make mistakes, too. I’ve also found that they often don’t correct your grammar, pronunciation, etc. without being asked. So speak up when you’re looking to be right…not just understood.

5. Don’t throw any old Spanish word into a sentence just because it’s a Spanish word. This can lead to…¿Qué hora es?

My Own Comunidad

So I’ve been taking Spanish classes through the local community college for almost a year now. That happens to roughly coincide with the run of NBC’s Community, a program that is based around a misfit Spanish study group at a Colorado community college. Recently, I’ve started wondering how my own experiences relate to this television show.

Mostly I’ve been having an existential crisis about which character I’m most like. I’m not a disgraced lawyer like Jeff, though I am going through a kind of “starting over” period in my life. I’m certainly not an Adderall addict like Annie or a middle-aged divorcee like Shirley, but I do have some pop culture issues like Abed. I’ve had my humor fall flat like Pierce, but I don’t think I’m as socially awkward as him, nor am I a moist towelette tycoon or any other type of tycoon for that matter. I never played sports like Troy, and I don’t drink like Britta. But I have dropped out of society like her before, only to discover that I also was flat broke. Though all the characters are really only caricatures, I don’t think they are that far removed from reality. I do see a little bit of all of them in the students around me at school. There are certainly the retirees keeping themselves active, the middle-age-crisis folks, and the lost youth. Many of them make attending a community college fun and a lot more interesting than my experiences at traditional four-year colleges. I’ve gotten to know high-school teachers, exchange students, nonprofit managers, and fresh-faced idealists through just the few classes I’ve had already.

With that said though, I’m awfully glad that I don’t have Señor Chang as an instructor. He seems more interested in torturing his students than actually teaching them Spanish. However, I should say that I don’t think my instructor from last semester actually likes teaching Spanish. Often we got a lot of stories about UFOs and all-night dance parties more than practical things like learning how to conjugate irregular verbs in the present tense. Luckily, that’s not the case with my current instructor, who came to this country forty years ago to “get the education to become President of Colombia” (that would be the country) and has stuck around to teach us dilettantes his native language instead. I must say that community college instruction appears to take a lot of patience.

Jarabe de Palo : Bonito

I’ve had Spanish group Jarabe de Palo‘s 2003 song “Bonito” stuck in my head for over a week now. I think that the weather has been so cruddy in San Luis this winter that I just needed a pick me up.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.
Bonita mañana
bonito lugar
bonita la cama
que bien se ve el mar
bonito es el día
y acaba de empezar bonita la vida
respira, respira, respira.

El teléfono suena, mi pana se queja
la cosa va mal, la vida le pesa
que vivir así ya no le interesa
que seguir así no vale la pena
se perdió el amor, se acabo la fiesta
ya no anda el motor que empuja la tierra
la vida es un chiste con triste final
el futuro no existe pero yo le digo.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.

Bonita la paz, bonita la vida
bonito volver a nacer cada día
bonita la verdad cuando no suena a mentira
bonita la amistad, bonita la risa
bonita la gente cuando hay calidad
bonita la gente cuando que no se arrepiente
que gana y que pierde, que habla y no miente
bonita le gente por eso yo digo.

Bonito todo me parece bonito.

Que bonito que te va cuando te va bonito,
que bonito que te va.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.

La mar la mañana, la casa, la samba,
la tierra, la paz y la vida que pasa.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.
Tu cama, tu salsa, la mancha en la
espalda, tu cara, tus ganas el fin de semana.

Bonita la gente que viene y que va
bonita la gente que no se detiene
bonita la gente que no tiene edad
que escucha, que entiende, que tiene y que da.

Bonito Portel, bonito Peret
bonita la rumba, bonito José
bonita la brisa que no tiene prisa
bonito este día, respira, respira
bonita le gente cuando es de verdad
bonita la gente que es diferente
que tiembla, que siente
que vive el presente
bonita le gente que estuvo y no esta.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.

Que bonito que te va cuando te va bonito,
que bonito que te va.

Que bonito que se esta cuando se esta
bonito, que bonito que se esta.

Bonito, todo me parece bonito.