Pérez Firmat is one of the country’s leading voices on these subjects and here you can see him in conversation with another: Richard Blanco.
Do you belong to a language or does language belong to you? Do you wield the words you speak as useful tools or are you somehow beholden to your expressive capabilities and limitations? Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s evocation of the immigrant reality suggests language’s power over us. He places it as particularly potent in the context of Latino experience in the United States. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that Junot Díaz included Pérez Firmat’s words as the epigraph for his book Drown. As a speaker of Spanish and English, I have often felt limited in conversations where I can only use one language. It is as if I’m constrained and unable to take full advantage of my expressive resources. Pérez Firmat’s words indicate a deeper problem: a person caught in a language that, for cultural and experiential reasons, does not feel like one’s own. His is the story of the Cuban immigrant who grew up in Miami within a family that hoped to return to life on their island. They saw their time in the US as temporary until eventually it became their life. It is the story of living in a place where you feel that you do not belong, but being unable to return to your home; a home that not only is no longer yours, but -in many senses- has also ceased to exist. This is a reality of living in between and this contradiction of pertaining but not belonging is common for the immigrant. It is easier to understand in the geographic sense, but Pérez Firmat’s words invite us to consider the issue from a deeper, more personal, and figurative perspective. Language is culture and it at once provides the power to express who we are while also giving contour to our identity.
Pérez Firmat is one of the country’s leading voices on these subjects and here you can see him in conversation with another: Richard Blanco.
Journalism is known as the fourth power in the United States. At its best it serves to counterbalance branches of government that have exceeded their responsibilities. In 2005 Glenn Greenwald might have been thinking of this role when he “was becoming increasingly alarmed by the radical and extremist theories of power the US had adopted in the wake of 9/11” (Greenwald). This reporter turned his growing fear first into a blog and then into a best-selling book. Both explored the subject of warrantless wiretapping done in the name of “keep[ing] the nation safe” (Greenwald). A few years later, Edward Snowden shared this sense of increasing alarm and disappointment. For him, the Obama years had begun with a sense of promise, but as the president expanded the War on Terror, Snowden grew disillusioned:
“Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly. Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge” (Politico)
Snowden’s loss of faith, of course, resulted in the biggest leak of secret documents in US history. US government surveillance was revealed and a before-and-after was forever marked in the debate between security and privacy. A great place to explore this subject is the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour which I have written about in the past (link includes the full film). In the present, journalists around the world continue to build on Greenwald’s work and Snowden’s leak. This is facilitated by the fact that Snowden makes himself available and seems to fully accept that the consequences of his actions could ultimately mean the rest of his life in prison. His belief that what he is doing is correct seems to supersede any fear about his future.
These collaborations included a humorous interview with John Oliver. Oliver aided Snowden to make the seriousness and complexities of government surveillance digestible for those of us who possess little technical knowledge. These efforts to succinctly summarize Snowden’s information have continued and the latest iteration was produced by Vice News. No matter where you stand in regard to the debate about security versus privacy, it is worth watching. Here it is in its entirety:
Today I worked. This semester I have an online Latin American literature course. It forms part of a MAT which means, thanks to the deep need for Spanish teachers in our region, that all of the students are professionals who have dedicated their lives to public service, intercultural communication, and language. Last week we spent time exploring the meaning of Latin America both outside and within the United States. This week we are tracing the evolution of literary expression in the twentieth century. In preparing for future lessons, much of today was used creating exercises that engage students with representation of marginalized voices. This is the nature of a Latin American literature course at the graduate level. It is a lot of work, but certainly worthwhile when the subjects and discussions are meaningful to the students.
Once I was done I visited twitter to see the news. At that moment the most noise circled around an interview Jake Tapper had done with Donald Trump. Tapper’s questions were aimed at forcing the candidate to address the racism implied by criticism of the Mexican heritage of a judge. There are certainly people who feel differently, but Trump’s fumbling answers were, for me, little more than confirmation of the prejudice behind his words. After spending a day focused on intercultural communication and pan-American connections, Trump’s argument that a judge’s Latino heritage essentially made him unqualified to do his job was saddening.
Among the people reacting on twitter was the journalist Jorge Ramos. He presented the theory that in today’s United States “no one can make it to the WH without the Latino vote”. The last census showed us that by 2050 our country will be a minority majority. Even earlier, by 2023, more than half of the country’s children will be minorities. Obviously a large percentage of this minority population is Latino and Trump’s language has the likely effect of transforming an important portion of this diverse group into a monolith focused on his defeat. Is it enough?
Fortunately I can write these words as I end the day watching the opening of the Copa América with a match between Colombia and the United States. Here’s hoping for the US!
People in the United States consume heroin and poor farmers in Mexico cultivate poppies. The distance -figurative and literal- between one and the other is great, but the connection is strong. On the journey wealth is created. Billions of dollars are generated and billions are spent in a futile effort to stop the process. On one extreme is the farmer and on the other is the addict. Both of these are linked by the process and lives lived on society’s margins. According to this documentary, marijuana’s evolving flirtation with legality in the US has meant a shift in Mexican drug production. More and more poppies are cultivated and black-tar heroin is what crosses the border. The headlines in the US announce an “epidemic” as use spreads from poorer neighborhoods to wealthier -and news-worthy- suburbs. What will break the cycle?
Classes with a focus on Latin American history, culture, or literature have long included the subjects of twentieth-century dictatorships. These lessons often make reference to “Operation Condor” or the “Plan Cóndor”. This was the collaboration between regimes in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil with the United States providing what has been called “technical support”. The goal was to suppress opposition to these dictatorships, often through state terror. The results were abduction, torture, and murder.
Students in my classes are sometimes impressed by how little they had learned about these subjects and are particularly impacted by the US’s role. The reasons secondary-school teachers do not include these subjects in their lessons likely range from ignorance to fear of parental reprisals. Either way, information is key and the more facts we have the more we can bring them into the classroom and thus create a space to debate the merits of our own country’s involvement in something that indisputably had grave consequences for many people. As our foreign policy continues to push for intervention in other parts of the world, this debate demands a constant update.
Argentina has, since 1999, been holding court proceedings meant to bring justice to the victims and to issue punishment to the responsible. Today the Spanish newspaper El País includes an article that summarizes the progress up until now. It also emphasizes the important fact that these cases are the first to legally recognize that Operation Condor existed. This reality, which has been left understated until now, has the potential to open the door to further court proceedings, including ones that might include US citizens.
Today the New York Times reminds us that Sunday is the deadline for the US government to reach a deal that addresses Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. The story is a long one and there is something poetically appropriate about the fact that last minute haggling in Washington is delaying relief for the islands suffering inhabitants. After all, while several Puerto Rican governments certainly played a role in creating the current situation, many laws created in Washington were also responsible. In his unique way, John Oliver makes an effort to describe how we have gotten to this point and makes a strong call for a solution to be found. The keys to that solution are currently in a small number of powerful hands that live far from the Caribbean.
Uki Goñi’s book The Real Odessa is a fascinating account of how Nazis fleeing Europe in World War II’s wake ended up welcomed in Latin America thanks to the help of officials in the Vatican and various other governments. His research is particularly revelatory in regard to Argentina and the anti-Semitic policies that drove decision making during this period. Beyond this important work, Goñi has also written about Argentina’s dictatorship. This second subject is one he knew more personally. During the 1976-1983 regime Goñi worked for the English-language Buenos Aires Herald. This newspaper was the only local press that published about the desaparecidos at a time when doing so meant taking severe risks.
Today Goñi published an opinion piece in the New York Times. It is in part a reaction to a letter written by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel asking that President Obama cancel his upcoming trip to Argentina. Pérez Esquivel was a victim of the Argentinean dictatorship and his lifelong struggle for human rights has earned him wide recognition, not least the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980. It was ironic and interesting to see one Nobel Peace Prize winner (Pérez Esquivel) requesting that another (Obama) not visit his country in the name of human rights. Pérez Esquivel was of course referring to the US’s role in funding, coordinating, and generally supporting the Argentine dictatorship’s widespread kidnapping, torture, and murder. While seeming to agree with this criticism, Goñi also draws attention to another side of US policy that, under President Carter, pushed the issue of human rights with the dictatorship’s officials and thus accelerated the end to those terrible years.
Obama will be in Argentina for the 40-year anniversary of the coup that began this reign of terror. It has been reported that he plans to announce the declassification of archives related to the US’s activities in regard to the dictatorship. This is a welcome step that echoes the one taken by President Clinton who published files related to the US’s role in the 1973 coup in Chile. While certainly this is an important gesture that, depending on what is released, could aid investigations into the 30,000 disappeared and 500 kidnapped babies, it is also a small step. Goñi points this out when he writes that the administration “clearly miscalculated the depth of feeling here that surrounds March 24”. As he has in the past, Goñi presents a viewpoint this could be characterized as a historically-contextualized balance. In this case his conclusion seems to be that the US did bad and good in regard to Argentina, but that Obama will have to go much further than publish some documents even to begin to address the harm that began on March 24, 1976.
My essay “Orientalist Rhetoric in Un cuento chino and Biutiful: Is it Possible to Turn the Discourse on Itself?” was just published as part of a collection titled Transnational Orientalisms in Contemporary Spanish and Latin American Cinema. After exploring narrative analysis that focused on cinema in a couple of conference presentations during the last few years, this essay is the first publication on the subject. Beyond the reflection on Un cuento chino and Biutiful, it contains essays that examine Marko Zaror’s films, Retorno a Hansala by Chus Gutiérrez, and the Brazilian film O ano em que meus pais sairam de férias. Congratulations and thanks are due to my colleague Michele Dávila Gonçalves who edited the collection and whose determination brought the project through publication.
An evening of quiet. One that comes after a day with tensions. Tensions that were unforeseen; the surprise driving the effect deeper. To be home and exhausted, but with thoughts caught in a loop. Dinner must be made and chores completed. Music takes the role of a salve. It focuses and contributes to peace after a storm. Tonight’s bálsamo de fierabrás came in the form of Icelandic piano artist Ólafur Arnalds - good for whatever ails you.
April is not far away. This means that we near the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Garcilaso de la Vega. The coincidence of them dying on the same day and the same year is something I wrote about before.
What brings me here right now is an article that I read today in the Spanish newspaper El País. It focuses on the reactions of members of the country’s intellectual elite to preparations for the celebrations of the anniversary. Better said, it is published as a criticism of the lack of preparation:
Escritores y miembros de la Real Academia Española (RAE) se muestran decepcionados, escandalizados y dolidos ante la falta de información, los retrasos y la escasa ambición de miras respecto al autor del Quijote.
There is, of course, much to be said about these criticisms. Not least, as Andrés Trapiello points out, is a comparison between the investment that the Spanish government made in retrieving the author’s bones during the last year and the one that they do not seem to be making to celebrate and promote the reading of his very living texts. Is it true that only 20% of the Spanish have read Don Quijote?
However, what seems to jump more off the page for me is the editorial tone that the newspaper has taken in regard to this subject. The headline –suggesting the British celebrate culture better than the Spanish- seems meant to provoke strong and very nationalistic feelings. This is not the first article that they have published about this anniversary and I doubt it will be the last. It appears that they have made a decision to push this issue with the goal of making it a subject of conversations in Spain’s cafés. This is an example of a newspaper playing politics and it is nice to see. This newspaper wants its readers to think critically about the relationship between the government and culture. Since the re-establishment of democracy, El País has played an essential role in the country’s national dialog. In the last few years, however, that credibility and sense of purpose seemed to have waned. Whether you agree with an editorial line or if it infuriates you, it is a sign of healthy debate when a country has newspapers that give voice to many opinions. It is refreshing to see El País newly bare some teeth.