Tag Archives: mexico

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!

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!

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.

Easy Spanish Reader/¡Así leemos!

A nice break in homework this week allowed me to finally finish ¡Así leemos!, which I first wrote about back in November (!). By the way, McGraw-Hill has updated the book since my copy was purchased, and it is now called Easy Spanish Reader—not really a title that inspires much passion from this dilettante, but as I said recently, publishers don’t always make the most interesting choices in life.

Whatever name you want to call it by, the book is a three-part graded Spanish reader that is pretty good for exercising your reading skills. Though I should probably say again that the first section of the book, “Enrique y María,” is rather dreadful unless you’re a preteen, a very low-level beginner, or someone with a preternatural interest in teenagers and high-school Spanish clubs. The second section, which is a short history of Mexico, and the third section, an abridged version of Lazarillo de Tormes, are much more worth your time.

One of the nice things about the book for a self-learner or someone using the text as a compliment to coursework is that it is broken up into very digestible chunks of text—usually only one page with a large font—and each chunk has a series of questions that do a decent job of testing comprehension. While the ¡Así leemos! version of the book that I have doesn’t contain any kind of answer key, McGraw-Hill promises that Easy Spanish Reader does. I also see that the edition sold on Amazon contains some kind of CD-ROM. Either way, it’s a nice addition to your language library if you fall somewhere between beginning Spanish speaker and lower intermediate learner. It gets you reading and introduces some good vocabulary into your lexicon. But if you have a decent grasp of core Spanish grammar, the book will probably bore you a bit.