Tag Archives: rant

The tie that sometimes binds

One of the more interesting things about the Spanish team that fought hard for its 1-0 victory over the Netherlands yesterday in a gritty, and at times violent, World Cup final is its apparent unity.

Xavi Alonso of Spain is kicked in the chest by Nigel de Jong. And it should have been a red card!

Now some people might say, “Well, why wouldn’t they be unified? They’re all Spaniards.” But anyone who knows a bit about Spanish history or has traveled around areas like Catalonia knows differently. Spain has several regions that speak their own language and have their own separate identity—most famously Catalonia and Basque Country—, and that’s a fact that has caused more than one political flare-up in España. A lot of animosity was particularly fostered between these areas and the country as a whole during the Franco dictatorship in the 20th century. Franco outlawed languages other than Spanish in most official situations and his government generally suppressed the cultural heritage of their associated regions. While these areas did gain semi-autonomous status in the late 70s after democracy was established, tensions over how much autonomy is enough continues—many Catalans, for instance, would like their region to become its own country.

Map of Spain. Catalonia is in red.

On the soccer field this has played out for decades through the great rivalry between Barça, the club team based in the Catalan capital Barcelona, and Real Madrid, based of course in the capital city of Spain. Barça elicits particularly strong feelings from the Catalans because it was the one cultural element they were able to publicly hold onto during the Franco regime, though the Catalan flag had to be removed from the team’s shield during that period. Even today the club’s motto is (in Catalan) “més que un club” (more than a club). The tension between Madrid and Barcelona was felt by the players as well, and squabbling between Barça and Real Madrid representatives on the National Team has often been cited as the reason Spain has routinely underperformed in the World Cup.

So it is to the great delight of many Catalans that the current National Team fields a smorgasbord of Catalan players, including several of the stars of the tournament: Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Sergio Busquets. Those four also happen to play for Barça, as do four other players on the roster, including goal-scoring phenom David Villa. And it is to the great delight of the country as a whole that they get along with their teammates from Real Madrid. So while Catalans generally have had mixed feelings about the National Team, La Furia Roja (The Red Fury—the team’s nickname) got strong support from that region during this World Cup run. An estimated crowd of 75,000 even packed the streets of Barcelona yesterday in order to celebrate their victory, and most of them were carrying…gasp…the national flag of Spain. The image of Catalans jubilantly marching through the streets of Barcelona with Spanish flags makes it seem that Spain is perhaps finally politically united.

But can a little soccer match really bring lasting unity, especially during a time when that country is experiencing massive debt problems and high unemployment? I’m certainly too much of a dilettante when it comes to Spanish culture and history to even begin to answer that question. One thing is for certain though, any lasting political unity will have to include harmony between Spain’s various languages—cause they’re not going away. The Catalan parliament, for instance, recently passed a law requiring film distributors to dub or subtitle at least half of the foreign films they release in Catalonia into the Catalan language. As Vonnegut would say…so it goes.

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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.)

Red Hot Americas

I hope to goodness that you’re watching the World Cup this year because it’s mighty exciting. Especially for us folks in the Americas. With only two days left in the opening round of the tournament, teams from the American hemisphere collectively have 12 wins, 5 draws, and only 3 losses (2 of which came from the highly disappointing Honduran National Team—I expected so much more from los Catrachos!). Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States have already advanced to the next round. Paraguay and Chile should join them on Thursday and Friday. Only Honduras is likely to be left out of the Round of 16 party. Wait…you say you didn’t know the US had qualified for the next round of the tournament? Really? Watch this…

While I hope the Yanks go far, I’m not naive enough to think they’ll win the whole thing (actually, maybe I am at the moment, but I’ll come back to Earth in a few days after the euphoria of that Donovan goal wears off). Brazil is always the favorite at these things, but I think folks should keep a close eye on Argentina. They’ve been clicking as a team already, and they’ve got one of the most exciting playmakers in the world on their team…Lionel Messi. And if it’s not the US, we want a Spanish-speaking country to win, ¿no?

Personally, I’ve been watching soccer ever since I took my first trip to Europe fifteen years ago. But if the sport doesn’t float your boat normally, I would still suggest checking out a few games or keeping on top of the latest action in the World Cup. Talking fútbol with folks is almost always a great way to break the ice with locals when you’re traveling anywhere outside of the US or Canada. Unless you support the wrong club team…then it might actually get your legs broken.

Intense Summer Spanish : ¡Dios mío!

I’ve been taking an intense Spanish course this summer, and I would have never guessed how much such a thing could kick one’s butt!

In a mere six weeks, we’re covering all the compound tenses, all the uses of the subjunctive mood, the future tense, and a heavy dose of the imperative mood. ¡Ay! Basically, we’re ransacking almost half of a textbook in daily increments of three hours during the course of a summer…it’s awesome! In the fall, since my cohort will have finished covering all the basic elements of Spanish grammar, we’ll be able to move on with more interesting tasks: reading short stories, watching films, giving speeches, and writing essays. You know…real Spanish! I can’t wait.

The extra speed and intensity has already forced the students in the class (including this dilettante) to think more and more in Spanish—there’s no time to translate in your head, just say it! After a blitz of present perfect and present perfect subjunctive work last week and the beginning of this one, we took our first test yesterday. Luckily, we’ve got a bit of a breather ahead for the next week or so: the rather simple future tense and the conditional. But considering that we have two heavy doses of new vocabulary each week, I have been left to wonder how much that part of the class will stick in my brain. I guess I’ll find out in August?

¿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?

Cocalero : A film by Alejandro Landes

I was greatly disappointed by this film. The trailer intrigued me and reviews like the following post from Netflix made me jump to rent it.

This film provides an opportunity to witness the road to the presidency of an unlikely candidate in Bolivia. The filmmaker’s access to Evo Morales and some of his supporters and allies provides a window into a political process that is both organic and extremely organized and hierarchal. The power of community organization seems to outshine education, money, even ideology. The film also shows us the lives of women and men who live off of coca production, whose business has become more profitable as a result of the US crackdown on cocaine production. This relative profitability is also a powerful political tool to rally farmers behind this candidate.

The problem is that Cocalero is actually quite different from this description, in my opinion. Yes, the film does show Evo Morales, the first fully indigenous president elected in Bolivia, during his first successful presidential campaign. But we don’t get any insights into the man really, nor do I think the political process in that country is shown in any detail. Most of the film is either Morales in down moments like getting haircuts, playing ball, swimming in the river, etc. or scenes of rural coca workers in the field or his party’s political events with little to no context. So for this viewer, I was often lost. Why is he speaking to this group? What group is this? What are the politics here? It’s really a shame, because the story of Evo Morales is an interesting one, and he’s tightly connected to figures like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. I’d like to know more.

Often contemporary documentary filmmakers like to remove any outside authoritative voice from their films: no narrator or textual description. Subjects are left to shape the narrative of the film, which is the case with Landes’ movie. I think it stems from a fear that is a byproduct of postmodern criticism, which has tried to swing an intellectual pendulum away from ethnocentrism, male-oriented narratives, Western ideology, and the director-as-character phenomenon (think Michael Moore). Personally, I think it often leads to failure. In Cocalero, for instance, the filmmaker perhaps tries to hint at criticisms of Morales by briefly (very briefly) showing a Catholic priest talking about unionist tactics, a scene of Morales ditching an event in the indigenous community, and another at a voting instruction class at the union. But the scenes felt thrown in. I kept wondering what Landes was trying to say. Why are these here?

Well, I’ve got another film about Bolivian politics in the aughts on order, Our Brand is Crisis. I have high hopes.

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.