In the weeks before the pandemic forced the western hemisphere into our houses, protests surrounding a cancelled election in the Dominican Republic echoed throughout Latin America and the Dominican diaspora in many parts of the world. Locally, Lawrence and Boston joined these protests. So, what is all the noise about? NPR’s Latino USA provides us a good panoramic view of what is happening:
In a whirlwind of currents that start with race, cross with immigration, question the publishing industry’s biases, lay bare marketing’s cynicism, and ultimately reflect into our faces many of the US’s tensions, the publication of Jeanine Cummings’s novel American Dirt has provoked controversy.
Myriam Gurba wrote a review that was considered so scathing that one webpage refused to publish it unless she included at least something redeeming. Gurba refused and eventually “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature” was published elsewhere. David Schmidt wrote not one, but two pieces on the novel, with the second suggesting that Cummings repurposed passages that had appeared in books by Luis Alberto Urrea and Sonia Nazario. David Bowles was interviewed about it on NPR and Esmeralda Bermudez wrote that her "skin crawled after the first few chapters".
At the same time, American Dirt has been selected for Oprah’s coveted Book Club and Sandra Cisneros wrote a blurb that includes the claim that Cummings’s book is “the great novel of las Américas”.
Helpfully, Maria Hinojosa put Gurba, Urrea, Cisneros, and Cummings herself to difficult questions. The answers she got spoke far more about issues haunting the US than the novel itself. The interviews are certainly worth hearing:
Culture is what we teach. Most often it is conveyed through literature, cinema, and music. Language almost always plays an important role as well. However, often times one of culture’s most present aspects is overlooked or, at best, a decoration in the background.
Food and, more specifically, cooking, are part of daily life. They are more central to a culture than any of the aforementioned expressive representations. However, it is difficult to put food in a book and more difficult still to read about food and somehow understand; imagine the difference between a description of a dish and its consumption.
Nevertheless, the University of Texas at San Antonio has done a great service to anyone interested in the history of Mexican cooking. Their library has digitalized more than 1,800 cookbooks that date from 1789 to the present.
Here is the webpage that provides access and an inspirational video. It is difficult to explore this and not get hungry.
As students learn a new language, they increasingly become aware that vocabulary is the largest obstacle. At first grammar feels overwhelming, but there is a point where -even unmastered- it wanes in comparison to the never-ending battle to transform new words into part of one’s vocabulary. Despite what many apps and online teaching tools would like you to believe, there is still nothing like vocabulary lists and old-fashioned memorization. That understood, technology can still have a place. Today I came across this tweet that explains how to transform Google Sheets into a translation tool. Indeed, Google’s translation skills can sometimes fail, but generally speaking, this strikes me as a useful tool. Happy translating…
Mexico has long been one of the most influential sources for Spanish-language literature. Just one recent example is Guillermo Arriaga’s 2016 novel El salvaje, which I’m halfway through as I write these words.
The upcoming holiday period means both students asking me about books to read during vacation and others seeking gift ideas. Helpfully, Spanish newspaper El País has provided us a list of some Mexican authors and their books which have recently garnered some notoriety.
Here it is:
The first time I heard the name Fritz Haber was on a run a couple of years ago. Running outside the US often includes downloading whatever podcasts I can attain without having to use phone data. In this case, I ended up listening to NPR’s Radio Lab. I remember being affected by the story's surprises and ironies.
The program is short and worth your time. Not only is Haber’s story fascinating, but they present it in a provocative way which asks listeners to balance his most positive achievement -harnessing nitrogen to make fertilizer and thus feed billions of people- with other actions that saw him accused of war crimes. It would be a bad idea to overly summarize the program because they narrate his biography’s twists with surprise, and I don’t want to ruin the impact.
Haber’s story is so interesting that it has been represented multiple times. Radio Lab’s rendition is just one of the more recent. There are other radio programs that have told it, theater and cinema have portrayed it, and it has been the focus of fiction. Recently I was reminded of the story when I came across it in one of the chapters of Daniel Immerwahr’s book How to Hide an Empire. Immerwahr writes about the expansive US in the wake of the Spanish-American War. It tells the tale of how we became an empire and the more subtle form that empire takes in our modern world. Addressing Haber’s story feels like a bit of a detour in Immerwahr’s book, but he reveals it to be a very personal one.
Said simple, both the radio program and Immerwahr’s book are worthwhile. It would be wonderful to see Haber’s story one day form part of a novel.
In recent weeks conversations I have had with a filmmaker friend and a historian turned my reading towards Native Americans. In their professional lives, each had researched aspects of Native American culture; the first making a film about its current state and the second uncovering silenced pasts. At the same time, my own research has been contrasting literary expression with non-fiction forms of writing like history and journalism. The goal of my research is to better define the purpose literature serves. What does it contribute to our lives that other forms of writing cannot? These unrelated strands -conversations and research- brought me first to the novel There There and then to the non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon.
The novel is about modern Native American life in the Oakland area. The characters are urban Indians. There are twelve of them, with very different lives, but all moving towards a powwow. Their day to day is not easy and as their collective representation forms into a profile of a community, all are informed -sometimes directly, at other moments subtly- by their experiences as Native Americans. Killers of the Flower Moon, on the other hand, is a book about the past. Specifically, it explores a series of murders that took place outside Tulsa, Oklahoma in the first half of the twentieth century. The victims were Osage Indians and the motive was to steal their ownership rights to oil-rich land. As background, both texts represent the US’s racism -personal and systematic- and hundreds of years of exploitation of Native Americans. Taken together, the non-fiction book provides context that helps explain the novel’s bleakness.
Both books were excellent. At once they brought me to new information about the tensions between fiction and non-fiction while also, more importantly, helping me to better perceive Native American voices from both the past and the present.
Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? Republican or Democrat? We know the world is filled with infinite shades of color, but we work hard to reduce it to dichotomies. Black and white is easier than the complexities of grey. Perhaps this attractiveness of the simple is the reason that Mexican cinema has recently presented us with two black and white visions of Mexico City in the form of the films Güeros (2014) and Roma (2018).
Instead of the simplicity, however, that colorless films might suggest, Güeros and Roma are movies that embrace the ambiguous. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the image they present of Mexico City is multi-layered and contradictory to such a degree that they are impossible to reduce to succinct description. This invitation to manifold interpretations is frustrating for some. With this in mind, after seeing Güeros, I asked an advanced course on Latin American culture this year how they felt about watching a movie that challenged and pushed them to reach an interpretation that might be impossible. The conversation that ensued illustrated a point: Artistic films like these are understood in personal ways. The complexities and depth of the movies provided space for students to each develop their own interpretations. Their ideas were very different, even flatly opposed at times. In the end, I suppose, their readings of the films reflected more who they were and their cultural baggage rather than the films. In other words, instead of changing forever our comprehension of the movies, the deepest and most valuable insights were personal.
This embrace of the ambiguous is important. Human nature seeks simplification. We prefer life to be clean and neatly organized. Yet the world pushes back, knocking things out of well-defined categories or presenting something that does not fit in any of our pre-established boxes. I used to laugh at the story of Barnes and Noble versus the Bible. Where should they put the Bible in the store? Which section is appropriate? If they put it non-fiction, they will offend some people. Fitting it on a shelf in fiction would satisfy some, but anger others. In the end, they spread it about the story. There is a copy in fiction, non-fiction, even self-help! This anecdote is humorous, but it also illustrates the point: Even as we seek to reduce the world into simplified categories, it resists.
With this in mind, I encourage you to see Güeros and Roma. They are films that at once are excellent and merit criticism. It is possible to say that they are artistic. This is true insofar as art should help us see the world for what it is and thanks to movies like Güeros and Roma’s use of black and white, we can better explore the infinite tones and layers of grey in our multifaceted and contradictory world.
A couple of years ago I read a biography of Walter Benjamin. It told the story of him being pursued by the Nazi’s growing influence on Europe. First he left Germany as Hitler came to power. He went to Spain where things were okay for a short period, only to witness the country also turn Fascist. So it was off to France, first Nice and eventually Paris. In the end, with Germany invading France, both Fascism and death surrounded him on the Franco-Spanish border where, today, you can visit his grave in the Catalonia town of Portbou.
The biography relied heavily on letters that Benjamin wrote during this increasingly desperate period. Something that jumped out to me was the frequency with which he mentioned belongings. There were multiple times he listed his meager possessions. These lists also included laments about needing something -a book, a tool, an article of clothing- that he had left behind in one place or another. This made me reflect on an important question: What would you bring? If you suddenly had to leave your life. If unexpectedly the political winds shifted in such a way that your family was in danger, what possessions would you pack into the bag or two that you could carry?
The question is difficult, but I think it is valuable because it has the potential to humanize the experience of exile and immigration. While the foreignness of a country and culture we do not know might make it difficult to imagine the life of a Central American who feels the need to flee, it is possible to reflect on our own lives and what it would mean to leave. At least this is what I hope. We need to think about these situations in as human a way as possible. The news this week brings us more than one tragedy and it is important not to ignore what is happening.
The Trump administration has been separating immigrant children from their families. This in itself is tragic. However, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency decided to take advantage of this by using these children as bait. 170 immigrants were arrested by ICE when they volunteered to take care of the children held by the government. In other words, the government separated children from their immigrant families and then used the kids to ensnare more immigrants. Of course, this also means that the children continue in government custody and now it is little likely that others will volunteer to help them. Here is an article that describes this heartbreaking scheme.
This week also brought us news of the death of a 7-year-old girl. She was Guatemalan and had been detained by Border Patrol. In their custody, she began to have seizures that were possibly caused by dehydration and hunger. The death has newly brought attention to the border and the detention of thousands of people in questionable conditions. Here is an article describing the story in detail. In response to the child’s death, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s political appointee responsible for this situation, took advantage of the the 7-year-old’s death by transforming it into a warning for people considering immigration:
The common theme here is children not being children, but being used by the US government as something else. In the first case, as bait to trap immigrants. In the second, as a warning to make others who might follow think twice. We need to think about our humanity. What would you bring if you had to leave your home? What would you pack in your bag?
Soon after his death, I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. His television programs and a few of his articles had already given me a good idea as to who his public persona had become. The book filled in spaces and, taking the things together, I developed quite a bit of respect for him. A couple of years ago I was fortunate to eat at a José Andrés restaurant in Washington DC. The food was great and the experience of sharing it with family was even better. Lately, the extraordinary work that he has done helping feed people in disaster areas has pushed his name onto the nominations list for the Nobel Prize. Said simply, both Bourdain and Andrés are inspirational people.
Remarkable people are often linked to impressive places. Andrés lived the first five years of his life in northern Spain in a region called Asturias. On a personal level, Asturias changed my life. It is a part of the country that surprises people whose vision of Spain is populated by Hemingway, bulls, and sangria. When I first arrived in the late nineties, my vision was even more limited. The rugged mountains, rainy climate, and Celtic culture broadened my conception of the country and the years that I spent there were, as I have written about elsewhere, key to becoming who I am today.
Fortunate for us, Bourdain, Andrés, and Asturias recently came together in one of the last episodes of the food and travel show Parts Unknown. Andrés and his larger-than-life personality are host and guide as he introduces his homeland to Bourdain. Seemingly unsure at first, it feels genuine as the combination of enthusiastic guide and amazing place endear themselves to even an experienced traveler like Bourdain. Knowing that not long after this show was filmed, Bourdain would commit suicide adds poignancy to their experiences. I hope you enjoy.