Immigration is in the news. This is thanks to the loathsome actions by Trump which have included banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, talk of changing the rules regarding visas, and moves to build a wall between the US and Mexico. All of this is separation and discord. It pushes people in the US away from each other and from the rest of the world. This is terrible for many reasons. One of them is that by closing doors on newcomers, we’re losing some of the strongest people in the world. When you hear an unfamiliar accent on the street, you’re listening to the words of a brave person. He or she has left a homeland to fight for him or herself. The goal is no doubt to pursue dreams. To reach that goal requires sacrifice. These are qualities we need to make our society a better place. With that in mind, here is Dominican immigrant Junot Díaz describing his experiences of being new in the US.
The press is reading between the lines of every word, gesture, or silence produced by Trump. This is understandable. The man is unpredictable. It often seems that even he doesn’t know what his next act might be. Thus, people who are supposed to help their readers and viewers makes sense of the world feel a need to grasp whatever signals the new president creates.
This understood, there are many positions that Trump stated early and that have remained unchanged. Regarding Spanish, he has been consistent since the debate in September 2015 when he criticized Jeb Bush for speaking a language other than English. On that day, he said that the US “is a country where we speak English, not Spanish”. From that point forward, according to at least one article, Trump kept his campaign entirely in English:
Trump has not only failed to buy any Spanish-language television or radio ads, he so far has avoided even offering a translation of his website into Spanish.
With this in mind, it should not be a surprise that today’s news reports that the White House webpage no longer has an option for Spanish. While this could be a temporary consequence of his people making changes, it feels more likely that it is the continuation of the attitude that he has shown the language since at least the debate with Bush.
Sadly, it seems that we have a president who not only is happy to make citizens feel excluded, but who intends to emphasize that feeling.
Goldmacher, Shane. "Trump’s English-only Campaign." POLITICO. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
Wine is something that I know little about, but that I enjoy. Sports are similar. You could ask me to name players, statistics, or team records. I would do badly. Yet I love to watch on television, cheer in person, or play myself. Running has become my personal choice for exercise and while I’m not fast, I can go a long way. There are many things in life that I enjoy, but happily know little about. If I were to become a connoisseur, the wine would likely taste better, but also somehow worse. There is something lost when one becomes proficient; as if there is a point where you know so much that you cannot partake with the same innocence.
Music is another space where I have fun, but have avoided going too deep. In college I took a course in jazz history. It guided choices in the music store and the reading I’ve since done informed my tastes. That understood, I have no clue, but I do know that both my son and I love jazz on a lazy afternoon. Somehow it is an excellent backdrop to each of us doing our own thing at home. With this music we can be together while also occupy our own space.
Today I got to see the documentary about Nat Hentoff, The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Loved by those who love the music, Hentoff was also an influential writer and defender of free speech. He did not avoid controversy and thanks to the content of his character, got to meet many of the most important figures in US underground culture during the second half of the twentieth century.
Hentoff’s life was a remarkable one and with his recent death it is worthwhile to see this film and -whether you love it or love spending time with it- to listen to the music that was so important to his life.
A friend, who by no means supported our incoming president, celebrated Trump’s victory. If I understand correctly, my friend’s position was that the government’s actions would become so ham-fisted and extreme that people would be shocked out of their political lethargy. His desire -again, if I am not misinterpreting- is that activism from the streets is the only thing that can push the political class -coopted by money, no matter the party or persuasion- to find solutions to people’s problems.
There are many ways to take the US’s temperature. One that has appeared frequently in the news is the income-equality gap. This is the fact that a small percentage of the population controls an extraordinarily large amount of wealth. Political environments with income distributions that are considered unfair are recipes for social instability. Or, in the succinct words of a study by Alesina and Perotti that examined the evolution of 70 countries over time: “Income inequality increases social discontent and fuels social unrest”. This graph, from the Institute for Policy Studies, shows average income in the US in 2014. As can clearly be seen, 90% of the population earns considerably less than the rest, with the top 1% receiving a huge advantage. In other words, there is income inequality in the US and, as the study showed, this can lead to social problems.
Yet for people to take to the streets, the economy cannot just be unfair, it must be perceived as unfair. Is this happening? Last February, Pew Research published a survey that demonstrated that most Americans consider the economy to be unjust. According to their article, 65% of the country “say the economic system in this country ‘unfairly favors powerful interests’”. In other words, in the opinion of a majority of Americans, instead of justly providing for average people, the system gives an advantage to those who are close to power.
This understood, while 65% is a majority, the opinion that the US economy is unfair is not shared by everyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was more likely to find people who felt that things were going well among those who have enjoyed the benefits. The Pew survey found this particularly to be true among wealthy supporters of the Republican Party: “Republicans and Republican leaners with family incomes of $100,000 or more are more likely than any other income group in either party to say the system is fair to most Americans”. In other words, the conclusions of the Pew survey are that while most Americans feel the economy unfairly favors the powerful, Republicans with above-average incomes consider the system fair.
These were the conclusions in February. Since that time, the Republicans have had important political victories and the incoming administration is being populated by people who are, by any definition, rich and politically influential. One Boston Globe article from December 20th calculated the net worth of the twenty people who so far had been chosen for the new presidential cabinet to be worth at least $13.1 billion. Or, in the article’s words: “more than the annual gross domestic product of about 70 small countries”. While there have long been wealthy people in power, the people that Trump has picked are likely to be the wealthiest we have ever seen.
Income inequality increases social instability and the US income distribution is unequal. In the US there is a majority that already felt the economy was unfair last year. Since that time, a wealthy man has won the presidency and he has peopled his cabinet with wealthy peers. Research has shown that Republicans with a lot of money are more likely to disagree with the majority who feel that the economy is unfair. Taking all of this together, it feels logical to conclude that in the coming years income distribution will continue to be unequal and social instability will therefore worsen. A majority who does not see its opinions reflected in its leaders does not feel represented. This can lead to people taking paths outside the political system to force their voices to be heard. The first step for this is protest.
Yesterday leaders from the NAACP were arrested in Alabama as they protested Trump’s pick for Attorney General. It is interesting to consider the words of the organization’s president as he described their motivations: "As a matter of conscience and conviction, we can neither be mute nor mumble our opposition to Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions becoming attorney general of the United States". In other words, his organization chose public protest -in this case occupying Sessions’s office- as the only alternative to make their voice heard.
Similarly, on the day after Trump’s inauguration there is going to be a large protest in Washington DC. While it has become a meeting point for many causes, the central theme of the protest is focused on women’s rights. Notice how much the words of one of the organizers resemble the quote in the previous paragraph: “We plan to make a bold and clear statement to this country on the national and local level that we will not be silent and we will not let anyone roll back the rights we have fought and struggled to get”. Once again, this is a person who feels that her feelings and opinions are not being reflected by the political class and that protest on the streets is her best recourse.
Judging from the above, it feels likely that our country will see the protests that my friend desired. The outcome of these voices on the streets is uncertain. It will be influenced by how the politicians react. The nature of politics is to marginalize any voices with which the speaker disagrees. Yet the fact that people are taking to the streets means that these voices already feel that they are on the margin. Will further marginalization silence them? Yesterday the NAACP leaders who would not leave Sessions’s office were arrested. This was an example of the use of the law to quiet a protest. It ended a protest, but nobody believes the people who went to jail have changed their opinion. Will the new administration do more of the same? How will the protestors answer?
Alesina, Alberto, and Roberto Perotti. "Income Distribution, Political Instability, and Investment." (1993). Print.
Fingerhut, Hannah. "Most Americans Say U.S. Economic System Is Unfair, but High-income Republicans Disagree." Pew Research Center. 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
"Income Inequality." Inequality.org. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
Rocheleau, Matt. "Trump’s Cabinet Picks so Far Are worth a Combined $13b” BostonGlobe.com. 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
Stein, Perry and Sandhya Somashekhar. "It Started with a Retiree. Now the Women's March Could Be the Biggest Inauguration Demonstration." The Washington Post. WP Company. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
Stokes III, Prescotte. "Police Arrest NAACP Protesters at Sen. Jeff Sessions' Mobile Office." AL.com. 03 Jan. 2017. Web. 04 Jan. 2017.
In what is widely considered his last interview, Roberto Bolaño was asked how he envisioned hell. He responded by connecting the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez to the rest of the world. Bolaño stated that hell is “like Ciudad Juárez, which is both our curse and mirror, the uneasy mirror of our frustrations and our odious understanding of freedom and ambition”. It could be argued that this idea that Ciudad Juárez is a reflection or product of the rest of the world was the backbone of Bolaño’s novel 2666. This 900-page book is many things to many people, but it is difficult to miss the author’s effort to link the city’s violence, corruption, and particularly the murder of countless women to the twentieth-century’s historical evolution through World War II, capitalism, and relations between the US and Latin America. In other words, what was at the time one of the world’s most troubled urban centers was represented by Bolaño as the natural result of history and therefore was a problem for which all of us possess a portion of the responsibility.
Last spring I presented my Spanish Composition Through Film course with a combination of cinema and readings that addressed the issues of machismo, dictatorships in the Southern Cone, corruption, and the too often brutal realities of immigration. At more than one point the students reacted by arguing that the version of Latin America that I offered was depressing and some complained that they did not see a connection with their own lives. The argument was that Latin America had lots of problems, but that the films and texts in our class supported the idea of building a wall to keep those problems from crossing the border. My response was, of course, quite to the contrary and more in line with Bolaño’s thinking. The US plays a role in every one of the issues that we covered. Or, as one of the class readings by William Finnegan put it by citing statistics: 90% of the cocaine consumed in the US comes through Mexico and is exchanged for tens of billions of dollars while 80% of traceable guns used in Mexican crime come from the US. Indeed, Finnegan summarizes the importance of the US’s role in Mexico’s problems with a quotable sentence: “Our appetites, our wealth, our laws seem to be conspiring to destroy their country”. It is no coincidence that Ciudad Juárez and its troubles are located on the US’s southern border; the US plays an important role in every aspect of the city. Bolaño knew that and it was important to me that the students saw the connection as well.
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to comprehend the separation that people in the US feel from these issues. Mexico is another country. One that does not widely speak English. It is a place with a very different culture and, for many Americans, Mexico expresses itself with traditions that feel exotic and foreign. Engaging with these traditions and the Spanish language is, of course, an important component of our department’s work and it forms the crux of several of our classes. However, we go beyond mere contact by helping students draw the lines that link their lives with those of people in other parts of the world. Indeed, our advanced students reach a point where they become participants in the dialog of the Spanish-speaking world. Or, in the words of our university’s mission statement, our department plays an important role in helping our graduates “to contribute responsibly and creatively to a global society”. Like it or not, our world is globalized and while we do not have to choose to interact with people who are different, eschewing the opportunity does little more than isolate and limit our options in the future. Personally, I am both encouraged and proud of the enthusiasm Salem State students display daily as they reach outside their comfort zones to interact with a larger world.
It is with the above in mind that I write to recommend a book. While it is a text that follows the depressing examples of last spring’s class, part of growth is taking risks and engaging with subjects that make us uncomfortable. Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys relates the story of Rafael Cardena and Bart Reta, two US-born teenagers who became assassins for the Zeta drug cartel and Robert Garcia, the Mexican-born detective who eventually arrested them. The photos of the young men shocked the US as their icy gazes met an American population frightened by the notion that teenagers born in the US could become murderers that answered to the orders of cross-border crime. However, killers they were and the impact they had on their hometown in Texas can be measured in the before and after nature of their detention. One New York Daily News article about the story noted that “the murder rate in Laredo had dropped by half since [Cardena’s] arrest three years before”. However, as shocking as their story was for many, Slater’s book places it at the crossroads of the decades-long drug war and the centuries-old history of border politics. It is not a foreign place, but a part of the United States. Or, as Slater describes it: “An America of fatherless families and unintegrated families and sprawling immigrant families all trying to survive, in this case, on the sinking edge of an empire that’s built and maintained off their backs yet wants to keep them out” (324). Indeed, despite the blood and money spent to eliminate this reality, Slater’s book helps to see not only that it continues to exist, but that it appears to be a necessary part of our culture. Garcia, the police officer who stopped the boys’ killing observed: “We must like the Cartels [...] We must in some way want them, or need them” (329). As Bolaño seemed to want to communicate, the border is a sort of hell, but in many ways it is our hell. It is a hell capable of producing teenage assassins, but that we cannot live without if we want the US to continue to be the same. If we want to alter this reality, Slater’s book appears to suggest, the first step is to change ourselves.
"About Salem State." Salem State University: Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Bolaño, Roberto, and Ignacio Echevarría. Entre Paréntesis: Ensayos, Artículos Y Discursos (1998-2003). Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2004. Print.
Connelly, Sherryl. "Teens Trained as Brutal Assassins by Mexican Drug Cartel: Book." NY Daily News. 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.
Finnegan, William. "Silver or Lead." The New Yorker. 24 May 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
Slater, Dan. Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico's Most Dangerous Drug Cartel. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. Print.
Pequeño vals vienés
En Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals con la boca cerrada.
Este vals, este vals, este vals,
de sí, de muerte y de coñac
que moja su cola en el mar.
Te quiero, te quiero, te quiero,
con la butaca y el libro muerto,
por el melancólico pasillo,
en el oscuro desván del lirio,
en nuestra cama de la luna
y en danza que sueña la tortuga.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals de quebrada cintura.
En Viena hay cuatro espejos
donde juegan tu boca y los ecos.
Hay una muerte para piano
que pinta de azul a los muchachos.
Hay mendigos por los tejados.
Hay fresas guirnaldas de llanto.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals que se muerte en mis brazos.
Porque te quiero, te quiero, amor mío,
en el desván donde juegan los niños,
soñando viejas luces de Hungría
por los rumores de la tarde tibia,
viendo ovejas y lirios de nieve
por el silencio oscuro de tu frente.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals del “Te quiero siempre”.
En Viena bailaré contigo
con un disfraz que tenga
cabeza de río.
¡Mira qué orillas tengo de jacintos!
Dejaré mi boca entre tus piernas,
mi alma en fotografías y azucenas,
y en las ondas oscuras de tu andar
quiero, amor mío, amor mío, dejar,
violín y sepulcro, las cintas del vals.
3 Days 1 hour 3 minutes and 43 seconds. According to the New York City marathon web page that is how much time is left before the twin howitzers sound and 50,000 people begin to run. At least that is what the clock indicated when I begin to write this post.
Why do you run? Mostly due to the fact that I keep my running private, this isn't a question that I get a lot. With the exception of a few friends in Spain and one or two here in the United States, mostly I run alone. It isn't that I prefer solitary exercise, although the focus and time for myself are indeed things that I enjoy, but it is more because of busy lives and the difficulty of finding time to share with others. I also don't talk a lot about running. Perhaps this is because I feel that each of us has our relationship with our own body and it really isn't something that we should expect others to comprehend.
Answering the question of why I run is difficult. The few times that I have been confronted by it, I have jokingly responded by talking about slowing metabolism and a desire to eat whatever I want. The truth, of course, is more complex. Health plays a role, but not so much in regard to my belly (both its size and what I fill it with), but more my mind and sense of self. At least in my case, exercise of this nature does wonders in regard to happiness. I am happier when I run.
This year I was honored that Boston Children's Hospital invited me to join their marathon team. In their name, this Sunday I will be running my first marathon in New York City. It is wonderful that the money raised goes towards such a good cause that is it once close to me personally as well as geographically.
Although I have participated in many races, including numerous half marathons, I have resisted calling myself a runner. Playing with language, I have said things like “I am a guy who runs, but not a runner”. This was, in part, due to the respect that I have for the many people who can run faster, further, and better than I. However, the public nature of the fundraising for the race and seeking my family’s support for the training has created a situation in which more and more people are aware of the running and some of them ask me why I run. While I'm not sure that I will be ready yet to answer this question, I have made a promise to myself: If I finish on Sunday, I will allow myself to be called a runner. Hopefully this is the first step towards being able to explain why.
In the short-term, the following is an entertaining and heartening video. It was made by a Spanish television presenter and humorist who obviously likes to run and somehow convinced some producers to pay for him to travel around the world and run in races. This is the pilot episode and I think it does a fine job of painting his subject within the very human space that it should occupy. It is inspiring for those who run as well as those who do not.
It is not uncommon to hear about the “Latino vote” when discussing next month’s election. This is unsurprising because the perception is that the number of Latinos in the US has grown and it is possible that they will have an impact on the results. A few facts from the Pew Research Center:
“According to Pew Research Center projections, a record 27.3 million Latinos are eligible to cast ballots, representing 12% of all eligible voters”
How will this diverse population vote? They will, of course, cast ballots for all the candidates. Some will undoubtedly vote for Trump. They are not, after all, a monolith. That understood, there is no better way to push a diverse group in the same direction than to connect them via some sort of common attack. The Republican candidate’s comments about immigration, Mexicans, Spanish, and the construction of a wall on the US’s border will, for many, influence votes. In regard to this, Pew provides one more fact:
“Three-quarters of Hispanic registered voters say they have discussed Trump’s comments about Hispanics or other groups with family, friends or coworkers”
In this context a unique concert took place over the weekend. It happened at the Mexican/US border between Tijuana and San Diego. Called “RiseUp AS ONE” it was at once a celebration of Latino identity and a call for political action. The San Diego Union-Tribune provided a partial list of the musicians who were present:
“The lineup included Spanish singers Miguel Bosé and Alejandro Sanz, Colombians Carlos Vives and Juanes, Mexico’s Natalia Lafourcade, Mexican-American Lila Downs, Tijuana-raised Julieta Venegas, San Diegan Andra Day, Mexican-American singer Lupillo Rivera, the famed Norteño band, Los Tigres del Norte and Puerto Rican rapper Residente”
One after another, the people on stage communicated the same message that was succinctly summarized by one of the 15,000 people in attendance: “It’s time for Latinos to vote and to make our vote count”. This message was broadcast around the world thanks to the Univision and Fuision television stations. It is important because, as another Pew article informs us “Latinos’ voter turnout rate continues to lag other groups significantly”. No doubt, with this in mind, the concert happened so soon before the election.
Also, fortunately, the entire show can be found online here:
Dibble, Sandra. "'RiseUp AS ONE' Concert Bridges U.S.-Mexico Border." Sandiegouniontribune.com. 16 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Krogstad, Jens Manuel. "Key Facts about the Latino Vote in 2016." Pew Research Center. 14 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
Lopez, Mark Hugo, and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. "Inside the 2012 Latino Electorate." Pew Research Centers Hispanic Trends Project. 03 June 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
As the Republican presidential candidate moves from bragging about sexual assault to facing one woman after another who accuse him of having acted on his terrible words, our country’s citizens seek succinct ways to comprehend just how low our national debate has sunk. In August Time magazine thought he had reached meltdown. Recognizing that things have gone much further, they revisited the summer issue with this week’s updated version. They have done a good job, but I think The Economist gets the prize. Those quotation marks on the floor are just poetic!
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.