Tag Archives: Los Estados Unidos

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.

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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?
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Chupacabras: Into the belly of the beast

Bicycling recently had an interesting article by Lou Mazzante about a crazy bike race held in Ciudad Juárez every October called Chupacabras. The 100-km-long mountain bike race draws as many as 3,600 riders and 45,000 spectators for one of the longest single-day bike competitions in the world. The course itself runs through both the city and surrounding desert and features some pretty harsh terrain—both urban and mountainous. But hey, it’s only $30 to participate, and the event is a source of pride for the city.

One of the coolest things about the race is that the riders themselves include everyone from professionals like Tinker Juarez to total amateurs. Here’s Mazzante’s description of a participant named Domingo Brito.

I met the short, wide-eyed man yesterday at registration. Huge bar-ends protruded from his handlebar and pegs the size of beer cans extended from this rear axle. His chrome bike cost maybe $100 new, and new was a long time ago. Even more improbable than his bike was Brito’s right shoe, which had a protrusion of its own: 3-inch-thick orthotic sole, the result of a broke femur 22 years ago that left one leg shorter than the other.

I’m not a mountain biker myself, but it was nice to read something about Cd. Juárez that wasn’t about kids getting killed at a high school party by a drug cartel or the discovery of a mass grave in the desert filled with missing female factory workers.

Nuestro superhéroe…¡El Dorado!

I could pay my mortgage with the money I’d make if got $1 for every cheap attempt at diversity made in television. One of my favorite blatant attempts at courting a specific demographic is from my childhood when the Hanna-Barbera television program Super Friends added the Latino character El Dorado to the show.

Super Friends was basically an all-star team of superheroes from DC Comics banded together to fight crime, evil scientists, etc. It included Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman at its core, and some version of the show ran on Saturday morning television between 1973-1986 (the title changed a few times along the way, and the superhero line up varied as well).

In order to spice up (ha! ha!) the formula the geniuses at Hanna-Barbera decided to add a character of their own making in 1981 that had never appeared in any DC Comics publications—the mysterious El Dorado. Now there are several wonderfully awful things about this character:

1. He spoke a heavily accented form of English and punctuated most of his lines with “sí,” “amigo,” rápido,” or “muy bien.” Similarly, I have a habit of injecting words like “yes” and “friend” into sentences when I’m speaking Spanish with someone. It’s only natural.

2. He seemed to appear only when the Super Friends needed help in a Latin American country or they were dealing with some piece of Latin American culture…say a stolen Mayan artifact from Metropolis’ anthropology museum. However, El Dorado himself seemed fairly ignorant of Latin American culture and history. Often he would say something like, “this is a mysterious artifact of my people,” when explaining to the rest of the gang what something was.

3. His powers were ambiguous and never clearly defined. And the ones that were apparent sucked. His most used skill was transporting himself through space, along with anything else wrapped inside of his cape. We knew he was teleporting because little speckles of light appeared where his body once was. He also had some sort of ability to create illusions. I mean, I’d love to be able to create illusions myself, but when you compare that with Superman’s strength and X-ray vision, it’s pretty weak.

4. His name. El Dorado? Give me a break.

Here’s his first appearance on the show. You’ll quickly see what I mean about the lack of cultural understanding—keep an ear out for the phrase “these are the mysterious ruins of my people.”

Despite the shallow character development (or perhaps because of it), El Dorado has become a bit of a cult favorite, even though he has never appeared in any DC Comics. Later this year, Mattel is releasing an El Dorado figure in its DC Universe Classics line of toys. And like the original animated character, he has NO nipples! ¡Muy bien, amigo!

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.

SpanishDict iPod/iPhone App

I’ve always had hand-me-down computers, so with the school year starting I took advantage of Mac’s educational discount to buy myself my first brand new laptop. The sweet part of the deal is that I got a free iPod touch with the purchase (offer ends September 7), so I’ve been having a grand time going through all the various apps that are available for the little gadget. And in a quest to find good ones for Spanish learners like me, I landed at SpanishDict’s offering.

Now I’ve already been using SpanishDict’s website for quite a while. Though the dictionary part of the website can be a bit buggy at times, it generally gives good and quick definitions that often include examples of the word in context. (A good example is the page for hablar.) But the site goes beyond being just a dictionary, it also has active message boards and a pretty well structured self-study course that allows learners to interact with fellow travelers, as well as native speakers. So checking out their app was a no-brainer for me.

There are basically four components to it: a dictionary (see picture above), a word game (see picture below), a phrase book, and a daily word calendar. The dictionary is, not surprisingly, more basic than their web version, but it’s still handy. The word game is interesting because it assesses your skill level as you play and adjusts its questioning based on its findings. (I’ve enjoyed playing it during short breaks.) The phrase book is concise and generally covers travel situations: getting directions, emergencies, finding transportation and accommodations, food, clothing, colors, etc. Each phrase also includes audio, so beginners can work on their listening skills, too.

The great thing about the app is that it’s free. So there’s no need to throw down a couple of bucks just to take it for a drive. Just pull it up, and if it’s not for you, get rid of it. But even better than that, it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. So once you have the app running on your iPhone or iPod, you basically have a dictionary and phrase book with you wherever you go—WiFi coverage or not. And you can’t beat that!

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.

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.)