Just a few days after Spain’s annual celebration of its connection to the international Spanish-speaking community, Mario Vargas Llosa published his thoughts about “hispanidad”. In general terms, he presents himself as a defender of both the word and the concept. While recognizing some of the prices that were paid for Spanish colonialism in the Americas, he points to the region’s cultural connections to the western tradition, all of the way back to classic Rome and Greece. He also mentions, more than once, the power and importance of the language. For some Spanish speakers, the word “hispanidad” evokes pride. For others, it is a reminder of a colonial past. This dichotomy feels simplified and false to me, but nevertheless it felt worthwhile to share this opinion piece. Not least because it was written by Vargas Llosa, but also because it was written well. It isn’t clear to me that the good mentioned by Vargas Llosa outweighs the costs, but I’m also not sure that this is the correct question to be asked. Spain’s colonial legacy in the Americas is one that all Spanish speakers must incorporate into our lives. To see it as simply a point of pride or a reason for anger is a way of avoiding the reality in its entirety. Whatever your feelings about “hispanidad,” reading Vargas Llosa’s writing can be fun. At the very least the experience reminded me of an observation made by a friend; one that once it was said to me I’ve never been able to unsee: Vargas Llosa is a great writer, no doubt. However, his books lack humor. It’s almost as if his words are proof that he’s a man who missed something beautiful in life. Ouch. Read it yourself to see if you agree.
Ismaël Lô came into my life thanks to Pedro Almodóvar’s film Todo sobre mi madre. His song “Tajabone” formed the background of a haunting scene of a taxi ride though Barcelona; beginning in the mountains, passing the Sagrada Familia, and ending in prostitution-filled outskirts. Lô is a Senegalese musician and it is the multilingual nature of his music that brings me to share him today. Years ago I was introduced to his duet “Without Blame,” sung with Marianne Faithfull. It is a song that soundtracked various moments in my life and yesterday returned when I was washing the dishes. There is just something special about music’s ability to meld two languages. Enjoy.
Today is September 11th. It’s the start of the school year and somewhere between unconsciously and consciously I have managed to think little about 2001. Many of this year’s students were barely alive then. That said, this evening I got home and had some time to myself. I read the following article which was published on September 16, 2001. It’s about people, their lives, and what happened when the unthinkable became real. Intellectually I can describe what the innocence of September 10th was like, but somehow I’m no longer able to feel it.
José Andrés has crossed my path several times. He’s from Asturias, a part of Spain where I have family and friends. It’s a region that likes to eat; a place where lunchtime conversation is about dinner and dinnertime talk focuses on tomorrow’s lunch. To be a chef that sticks out in that region means cooking well. His restaurants in the US have been successful and I was lucky to eat at one in Washington DC a couple of years ago. Since then, he has taken the special skills for cooking good food for lots of people to Haiti and Puerto Rico, places that had suffered natural disasters and were not receiving the help they needed. Today he was interviewed on NPR and it is worth hearing. It is exciting to find someone who so obviously feels strongly about good food and helping people.
Last year I wrote some thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of online learning. Suffice to say, I think the positive outweighs what is lost when taking a course via the internet. For this reason, I not only continue to teach online courses, but I’m trying to do it more often. Again, I don’t want to repeat what I wrote before, but it is wonderful how accessible online learning is for people who might otherwise have difficulty finding their way to a classroom.
With this in mind, it is exciting to announce that this fall I’ll be teaching a graduate-level course on Latin American and US Latino culture. You can find all the details at this link. I’m looking forward to the experience.
Whether or not it is okay to separate children from parents at the US border continues to divide opinion in the US. The back and forth between the various actors recalls countless political games, only this time children and families suffer through move and counter move. Greg Weeks created a good summary of the latest, but with the subject’s fast developments, he did not have a Pro Publica report that included audio of crying children and indifferent police.
Said simply, this has been created by Trump and the people in his administration. They decided to supercharge this divisive issue. They have the power to stop it at any time. However, in some unfathomable calculation, they have determined that it is not only a clever idea, but that it should continue. Perhaps the goal is, as Weeks suggests, to hold the kids hostage so Trump can force funding for his wall. Or maybe he wants the emotional reaction, so the public is distracted from his ever-growing legal issues. The math that went into the decision is not interesting to me. This is not a game. The result is child abuse.
Researching in the British Library has a lot of advantages. Beyond the enormous resources, there is also knowledgeable staff. It can be a little expensive, but the food in the cafeteria is excellent. There is also a museum section. This last one is particularly great when your mind needs to separate from work and wonder for a few minutes.
One thing that fascinates me about art in a museum is the ability to see the detail of a painter’s strokes or the marks of a sculptor’s fingers. I like the idea of thinking that the mad genius whose work I’m admiring had (Lovingly? Obsessively?) touched the object. This experience augments the human element in the artistic equation. In literature and music this isn’t common. We hear a piece or read a book. The composer or author is there in many ways, but often biography and historical context are the limits of his or her presence. The British Library, however, makes possible an experience akin to the art museum. They have handwritten music by Beethoven on display. You can see Stravinsky’s penciled corrections. There is a property deed with Shakespeare’s signature. Nearby, a letter Elizabeth I wrote rejecting the Duke of Anjou’s offer of marriage. One of my favorites to visit was a display on English literature. It included the original pamphlets where Dickens -paid by the word!- published The Pickwick Papers. It also had a manuscript of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, complete with the author’s corrections. Having already counted myself as one more person who tried and failed to read this book, it was wonderful to see the pages filled with Joyce’s inconsistently sized writing, crossed out words, and lines connecting thoughts with different colored notes. The words on the page did not move in straight lines, but in oceanic waves, floating from one side to the next. Every few weeks the people who curated the museum would turn the copy on display to another couple of pages. They were all the same. One after another, covered in corrections and wild writing. Years earlier, a professor had referred to Finnegans Wake as the exhaustion of the novel. For him, the book was a great scream that pushed the form to its limits. Seeing Joyce’s handwritten manuscript somehow made that argument seem even more precise.
This weekend I read an article in The New York Times. It was about a Boston professor’s efforts to create a definitive edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. The man was described in a way that evoked an eccentric genius who was consumed with the minutiae of his subject. He went so deep that he sort of disappeared and some of his colleagues even thought he had died. I won’t reveal what happened to him, but suffice to say, reading the article brought back memories of the British Library. I hope you enjoy.
Where is north on your moral compass? How well does it calibrate with the idea of a government official, someone acting in your name, forcefully separating a child from his or her mother? Language was where it began. Instead of referring to someone as a person, we forced them into the tight confines of labels like “immigrant,” “Hispanic,” or “illegal”. Once their humanity was displaced it became easier for these people to be treated in ways that are, said simply, inhumane.
In a healthy society, inhumane treatment should be rejected. When it is done by the government, that rejection should become protest. CNN has many faults. However, much of yesterday they dedicated their front page to humanizing the consequences of Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents. One article’s particularly heartbreaking headline: “She says federal officials took her daughter while she breastfed the child in a detention center”. The story contained details that deepened the cruelty: “When the woman resisted, she was handcuffed”. This is sickening.
In my mind, I want mothers to feed their children. It is natural and right that children are cared for by their parents. How do we justify breaking this bond? We hide behind legal terminology. The language of the law becomes a buffer between our actions and our moral compass. We need to reconnect to those morals and act accordingly.
CNN appears to be trying. This morning’s front page focuses on the same issues. This cruelty began with words. Let’s hope that more words can push us back towards our humanity.
A colleague has a quote on her door about accents being a sign of bravery. This idea struck me as a good one and I have interjected it into lectures and conversations. Rudy Francisco captured it poetically in this piece from his collection Helium. Anyone who has a relationship with immigration can relate to these words:
My mother’s accent is
the most popular brand
of salt in her country.
She gently sprinkles a little on
every word before she allows
them to pass her lips.
This is a ceremony that happens
every time she has something to say.
When foreign soil and home
are synonymous, your mouth
becomes a kitchen, each sentence
an entrée. Every time you speak,
you are preparing a meal, the conversation
is a dinner party and you are the chef,
that you used
all the correct ingredients.
In class, I recently played a recording of a poet reading one of his poems. The students should have already read the poem, but one girl admitted that she had not done the homework. She expressed sadness because she loved poetry, but did not like to hear someone else read a poem before she had had the chance to develop in her own head how she thinks it should sound. I respect this independent thinking. One of her classmates felt differently. The second student argued that poetry was born as song and the acts of writing it down or reading it on a page were putting limits on the words’ freedom and thus reductions in quality. This point of view also had a lot of merit. Of course, these two positions are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to embrace them both and we’re lucky to live in a world where poetry can reach us in so many ways. That what I was thinking today when I saw this video of Rudy Francisco performing at a poetry slam in Toronto. It was also what I was thinking when I ordered his most recent book online.