Tag Archives: St. Louis

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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Mi chanchito : Art museum patron is sucker for adorable pig

So I was down in Forest Park yesterday to check out Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea at the St. Louis Art Museum, and it was great. The show includes dozens of pieces of Mayan art related to the sea, rain, animals, and the gods that have never been shown in the United States before.

There are crocodile sculptures, funerary statues, duck-head vases, a pelican head…frankly it was a bit overwhelming because almost every piece has a rich mythic backstory and is executed with fine and complicated detailing. The whole time I was mesmerized by geometric configurations, stories of gods emerging from sharks, the idea of a cosmic turtle, and just how lovely a bloodletting ritual could be. Honestly, I need to go back to take it all in more fully. But I’m running out of time because the show is only in St. Louis until May 8…and then the world ends in 2012.

But it wasn’t until I hit the show’s gift shop that I became a true sucker. Usually I fly right past all the goodies laid out to tempt museum goers, but not this time. Delicately placed on a pedestal at the front of the store was a basket of adorable three-legged ceramic pigs from Chile called chanchitos. The name comes from the diminutive of chancho, which is a word in parts of Latin America for “pig” (both the four-legged version and the guy who your mother always warned you about). Normally the word chanchito refers to a piggy bank, but the chanchitos at the art museum were ceramic art obejects made in Pomaire, Chile that are exchanged between family and friends as good luck symbols. I was smitten and had to have one. And personally, I don’t think there is a luckier or more attractive swine than the one my wife and I picked out of that sales basket. (Though this Facebook page would take issue with us.)

Chanchito con sus nuevos amigos

Bringing our chanchito home made me do a little more investigation into Pomaire. The village is about 60 km west of Santiago and is home to some really amazing potters and pottery studios. It is also famous for its almost two-pound empanadas. My goodness, it’s almost lunch time and I’m ready to book a flight to Chile right now! (Here’s a great blog about the cuisine of the village and how to cure any cooking vessels you might buy there on a future trip.)

(Five-minute video en español on pottery arts in Pomaire).

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.

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.