Category Archives: st. louis

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Go North Along the River

One of my favorite bike paths in the area is the Riverfront Trail that runs along the Mississippi from the old Laclede Power Station to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. For me, it represents all that’s good and bad about St. Louis: its industrial and shipping past, its neglect of most things north of Delmar Boulevard, its beautiful vistas, and its (surprising) optimism about the future. The trail is well designed and should provide plenty of connections to St. Louis and Illinois in the future. And the rest stops along the way have water fountains for dogs!


Heading north, the first five or six miles are industrial, and it’s pretty amazing to see and hear all the scrap heaps, coal cars, payloaders, and railroads at work. It can also be pretty smelly and even a little dangerous if you’re not watching at the points where the trail crosses industrial traffic. Running above part of this section is an old train trestle that connects to the McKinley Bridge. Both the bridge and the trestle will soon be open to bike traffic, and there should be pretty amazing views of the Mississippi River, downtown, and smashed up cars from up there. I can’t wait.


The next leg runs along the top of a grassy embankment. There are good opportunities to see turkeys and deer along this stretch. There’s also a good opportunity to get windburned. Mrs. Jason and I were out there on Sunday, biking to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge to have a picnic, and it must have taken us twice as long as normal with the headwind that day. She swears that the wind was so strong it stopped her completely at one point, even though she was still pedaling. This section is also completely exposed to the sun. I, of course, forgot to put on sunscreen this go. Ouch.

After a quaint winding pass through North Riverfront Park, which always seems to be populated with the nicest walkers in the City, the trail comes to the jewel of the bike path–the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. The bridge was an important part of Route 66 because of its unique bend in the middle. Though it closed with the building of the New Chain of Rocks Bridge for I-270 and was unfortunately the site of a gruesome double murder back in 1991, it’s rocking and rolling with bikes, walkers, picnickers, rollerbladers, and the like these days, thanks mostly to the good folks at Trailnet.