On Hillary and Hispandering

A month ago, an article was posted on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website with the title: 7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela. The subtitle: She isn’t afraid to talk about the importance of el respeto. It continues: “She’s always happy to talk about her ‘beautiful, perfect’ granddaughter, she’s an eager volunteer for babysitting duty, and whenever she travels around the country, she makes sure to bring back a gift for Charlotte—sound familiar?”

Well, yes: it sounds like grandmothers of all times, races and ethnicities, including my own nonna (If the article had been “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your nonna, boy would I have been seeing red). What does it have to do with Latin grandmothers specifically? Nothing. There’s nothing in the article – unless a picture of Hillary with singer Marc Anthony at the end counts – that shows any awareness of (or senstivity to) Latin culture whatsoever besides a few, clumsily-placed token words in Spanish. This is a perfect example of Hispandering, a term defined by Shereen Marisol Meraji as “faking interest in Hispanic issues and culture for self-serving reasons”.

Hillary Marc Anthony

Photo: hillaryclinton.com

The social-media blowback against the piece was immediate, boosting the hashtag #NotMyAbuela into a trending topic. “Our experiences cannot be equated to those of a rich and privileged white woman. It’s shameful and disrespectful to try,” said one tweet. “Hillary is #NotMyAbuela because I was separated by mine by many miles, and a militarized border,” said another. Others took issue with her record as Secretary of State: “#NotMyAbuela does not support war/dronings which disproportionatly kill children;” “#NotMyAbuela because no one in my family ever overthrew (or tried to) democratically elected leaders in Honduras, Haiti, or Ecuador;” “Hillary tries outreach to latinos but doesn’t think they remember Bill’s NAFTA that made latinos economic refugees. #NotMyAbuela.”

And this, ultimately, is the point. On one level, the “Abuela” piece is simply a more cringeworthy example of what has been a remarkably tone-deaf campaign (in the same vein as dispatching Chelsea Clinton to New Hampshire to insist that Bernie Sanders wants to dimsmantle Medicare). But something more sinister is at work here. In 2009, I sat glued to the television as deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya circled the Tegucigalpa airport in a plane, trying to land. Zelaya had been removed for attempting to hold a non-binding poll on holding a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. In her role in supporting this coup d’état, Hillary has been remarkably frank: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico,” she writes in her book Hard Choices. “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” The winner of those ‘free and fair’ elections, Porfirio Lobo, “diminished [the] rule of law,” “tightened the noose on freedom of speech, assembly and association,” and “rewarded coup loyalists with top ministries,” according to an article by Honduran scholar Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs. Since 2011, Honduras now holds the title of murder capital of the world, with 169 homicides per 100,000 people.

honduras violence

Photo: Los Angeles Times

As for Mexico, where I live, then-Secretary of State Clinton affirmed that there was “no alternative” to carrying on with the U.S.-backed drug war that has killed some 100,000 people killed since 2006. “It is messy. It causes lots of terrible things to be on the news,” she said in 2011. I suppose “messy” is one way to describe it. Under the Mérida Initiative, the United States has funneled some $2.3 billion dollars to the Mexican government, thus underwriting governments that have shown no compunction in committing severe human rights abuses. As a recent article in Human Rights Watch puts it:

Since former President Felipe Calderón began a “war on drugs” in 2007, Mexican security forces have engaged in egregious violations, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch has documented such abuses by security forces throughout the country, including 149 cases of enforced disappearances. United Nations human rights monitors have found that torture is a “generalized” practice in the country, and that extrajudicial executions by security forces have been “widespread.”

Furthermore, through the release of State Department emails and Wikileaks cables, we now know that Clinton’s State Department worked behind the scenes to break up PEMEX, Mexico’s state-owned oil and gas company, thus paving the way for the privatization of the nation’s oil and gas industry. And not only that, but two of her former collaborators at State, David Goldwyn and former ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, now stand to profit from the oil privatization in the private sector, Goldwyn as counsel for the law firm Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and their clients in the energy industry, and Pascual as Senior Vice President of Energy Affairs at the for-profit consultancy IHS Inc.

mexico violence

Photo: Britannica.com

Let’s be fair: all candidates pander for votes, and no one person can be expected to be an expert on the intricacies of every culture represented within their borders. The Hispanic world, moreover, is a vibrant, diverse set of cultures spreading over several continents, hundreds of languages, and over 25 countries. But what is particularly galling about Hillary’s hispandering is the glaring disconnect between her rhetoric and her record, which includes decisions that have had a direct bearing on the very people her campaign is now pandering to. That’s not something my nonna would have done.

Oaxaca Occupied: In Photos

As the helicopters continue to buzz overhead, thought I’d post a few photos to accompany my most recent post on the Mexican midterm elections, Oaxaca Occupied. These are from our forays out and about in the city on polling day yesterday. Yes, that’s me voting.

Helicoptero 2 Kurt votando Convoy 3 Convoy 4 Convoy 5 DSCF0196 DSCF0202 DSCF0203 DSCF0204


On Workshops, Italian Literature and the Birth of the Short Story

Amongst the most pleasurable aspects of the life I’ve created for myself here in Oaxaca are the literature workshops I get to give in this venerable building, the Biblioteca Henestrosa, so named because it houses the book collection of Oaxaca’s centenarian writer Andrés Henestrosa, chronicler of indigenous legends and transcriber of the Zapotec language to the Latin alphabet. Here are a pair of photos, one of the exterior and the other of the room where I give my workshops:

Biblioteca_Andres_Henestrosa-300x199  biblio henestrosa interior

The workshop I’m kicking off this year with is called “A Tour of Italian literature”, what in the States would be known as a survey course. And at four hours a week over four months, 64 hours of class time in total, it really is more of a course than a workshop. But without the bureaucracy, the grading and the diplomas. The students are there because they want to be and for the love of learning, not because they expect to get something else out of it, be it course credits or a certificate: such a salutary difference from my days at the University. And the mixture of ages and experience – from college students to retirees, breaking up the artificial and isolating segregation by age our schools are so proficient at – adds a spirit of camaraderie and generational exchange to the educational mix. I love it.

Besides paying me to give the workshops (thus making it free for the students), the Biblioteca also has a great team of graphic designers making up the posters that go up around town promoting their events. Here, incidentally, is the poster for my workshop:

CARTEL The first question that confronts anyone when designing a course that purports to cover so much ground is, simply, where to start? With Dante’s dolce stil nuovo, with Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura? I did, in fact, start with a sonnet, but one with quite a distinct tone: “S’i fosse foco” by Cecco Angioleri. Here it is, with English translation, commentary and as set to music by Fabrizio de André, whose song “Fiume Sand Creek” song I referenced in my earlier post, A Sand Creek Moment.  This English translation of it admirably attempts to reproduce both the rhyme scheme and a consistent 10-syllable meter:

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

If I were Pope, I’d have a lot of fun
with how I’d make all Christians work for me;
If I were emperor, then you’d really see –
I’d have the head cut off of everyone.

If I were death, then I’d go to my father;
If I were life, I’d not abide with him;
And so, and so, would I do to my mother.

If I were Cecco – as in fact I am –
I’d chase the young and pretty girls; to others
Would I leave the lame or wrinkled dam.

If I were fire, I would consume the world;
If I were wind, then I would blow it down;
If I were water, I would make it drown;
If I were God, t’would to the depths be hurled.

My choice for starting with Angioleri’s famous sonnet was hardly a disinterested one: like De André, I love the irreverence and iconoclasm of it. Such a far cry from our standard notions of the Medieval era as a time of piety, plainsong and popes burning heretics at the stake. It was effective in catching the attention of my students right out of the starting gate, as well (and, to be fair, plenty of Italian lit anthologies start with it, so my choice was hardly original). From there, continuing in a straight line of irreverence, Boccaccio’s Decameron – that racy, bawdy treasure trove of tales that became an instant bestseller amongst the rising Florentine merchant class – presented itself as the next logical choice. Here are nuns organizing a schedule to make love with their gardener; an overprotected young girl persuading her parents to let her sleep out on the roof in order to rendez-vous with her lover; a sinner convincing a friar on his deathbed that he was a saint and becoming posthumously venerated as such; a man returning from the afterlife to visit his best friend in order to inform him that sleeping with your comadre doesn’t count as a sin; a lascivious priest attempting to transform a credulous peasant’s wife into a mare by fondling her and ultimately, “pinning a tail on her”… You get the idea. In choosing which of the hundred stories to assign, I was guided by the ones Pier Paolo Pasolini chose when making his film version of The Decameron, which we subsequently watched.

As Mario Vargas Llosa says in his account of the literary pilgrimage he made to Boccaccio’s hometown of Certaldo, it was the Black Death that got this bookish intellectual, Latinist, Hellenist, and yes, even theologian, to put down his books and not only to get out into the street to learn the stories of the people, but to write them down in their language: the Tuscan of Florence, later to become known to us as “Italian”. Thus, classical learning and a thorough understanding of medieval verse became wedded to a corpus of popular storytelling stretching back through the Arab world to ancient India. And the back of Latin had been broken to allow literature in “vulgar” languages to flourish. The Western short story had been born.

Let others begin with Heaven and Hell, divine allegory and lyric yearning. I’m following Boccaccio’s lead, out the door and into the street; see what kind of trouble I can get into.

¡Chingado! My Top Five Writing Challenges in Spanish

habla español

As of ten days ago, I’ve lived in Mexico for fourteen years. I conduct my daily life in Spanish and write, publish and perform in the language. And yet, to this day, there are elements of my beloved adopted tongue that continue to elude me. Following are my top five.

1.) Words that have different meanings in their masculine and feminine form. Like modern German, English once divided its nouns into three genders – masculine, feminine and neutral – but along the way, it ditched them. Romance languages such as Spanish retain the first two. And, of course, unlike the biological gender distinction of English’s he/she, his/her couplings, this type of gender is what is known in the lingo as “grammatical” gender: which means, for the most part, it’s completely arbitrary. Now, all of this is fine until they go and come up with words that have one meaning when they’re masculine and another entirely when they’re feminine. For example, the first sentence of my short story Fosa (“Grave” or “Pit”) reads as follows: Germán me llama después de que la primera de las palas toca hueso. Translated, it reads: “Germán calls me after the first of the shovels touches bone”. In my initial version of the story, I wrote el primero de los palos, making it masculine instead of feminine. Now, “un palo” is a stick; “una pala” is a shovel. Hence, unbeknownst to me, my first sentence originally had Germán calling the narrator after the first of the sticks touched bone. As this is also a plausible sentence, no one caught it. But it’s not what I wanted to say.

2.) The prepositions “para” and “por”: the bane of the existance of every learner of Spanish-as-a-foreign-language of all times. In the most felicitous of cases, “para” translates as for and “por” translates as by. Except when they don’t. When you vote for somebody (for whatever good that does), you vote “por” them. When you thank someone for something, you’re thanking them “por” whatever they did. Spanish teachers come armed to their “por/para” class with a whole laundry list of cases in which you use the one or the other, but unless you were born into it, it all seems like a giant conspiracy to wring two practically identical prepositions out of one. In a rather ironic parody of Stephen Pinker’s Words and Rules, unable to grasp the rule, I’ve resorted to memorizing individual cases. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can sort of “feel” the difference. But I still have to check every now and again.

3.) Register. Register is “a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting”. Basically, it refers to formal vs. informal language and all the shades and nuances in between. Mastering register – not what to say but how to say it – is one of the most challenging parts of learning a foreign language (a great deal of Monty Python’s humor, for example, comes from their deliberate manipulation of register; think “The Parrot Sketch”), and in speaking, I think I’ve got it pretty much down. In writing, however, things still come up. In another section of Fosa, I wrote:

Pero por más que Gil crea que su cargo de libros sin valor lo ampare del interés de cualquier malhechor, yo soy más abusado. Suscitar el disgusto de algún funcionario con ganas de lucrar con su mercancía presupone que llegue a buen puerto.

Tentative translation: “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am not so naive. Arousing the displeasure of some official desirous of profiting with his merchandise presupposes his getting there in the first place.”

Besides its more obvious meaning of “abused,” abusado also means “clever” or “sharp”. ¡Ponte abusado!, for example, would translate to something like: “Wise up!” Besides being a particularly Mexican slang term (see point #4 below), it is also a spoken-register word. Now, there is nothing wrong with using spoken-register words in writing (literature has been heading ever more in that direction over the last hundred years), but in the context of the high-register content surrounding it, and the arousing of displeasure that occurs immediately after it, it jars. When a trusted reader pointed this out, I went back and, after long deliberation, changed abusado to curtido en batallas. Now the sentence reads, “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am more battle-hardened.” Besides being more register-consistent, it is also, in my opinion, a straight-up improvement over the original.

It is worth noting, as well, that the average written register of contemporary Spanish tends to be higher than in contemporary English. This is not a value judgment, but simply a register measurement.

4.) Mexicanisms. Regionalisms abound in every language, of course. And not only is it a phenomenon of different words, but the same words meaning different things in different places: “pants” means one thing to Americans and something rather intimate for the British, I once learned to my chagrin while living in London. This is all the more true with Spanish, it being the official language of some 20 countries. One meaning of “pendejo” in Mexico is someone who is taken advantage of; a Peruvian pendejo is the one taking the advantage. A Mexican “huevón” is a lazy-ass; in Peru, that same huevón can be anyone, lazy or not.

I write – proudly – in Mexican Spanish. This poses some interesting dilemmas regarding when to use regional speech and when to hew to some kind of straight-and-narrow, though artificial, pan-Hispanic Spanish. Indeed, it is often difficult to know what may be a Mexicanism and what may not be! Case in point: in the original version of Fosa, Álvaro considers his son Gil to be precisely a “pendejo” for being willing to blithely deliver school textbooks to the most violent, ravaged parts of Mexico; in the published version, “pendejo” became replaced with the more pan-Hispanic “imbécil”. Consider, too, that Álvaro was born in Spain but came to Mexico as a child; to what extent would he retain his native vocabulary and to what extent would he have taken on that of his adopted country? In the story, he is back in his hometown in Spain; would that homecoming have triggered a renewed use of his childhood speech? And what would come out at a highly emotional moment? At the story’s climax, he shouts into the phone that the grave being dug up is located under a pinche olivo – a “fucking olive tree”. But pinche is very, very Mexican. Upon further consideration, I changed pinche to the more standard maldito, making the olive tree more goddamned than anything else.

(Mind you, I don’t always scrub out the Mexicanisms; this just happens to be two cases when I did. In the last movement of my Symphony in prose, currently in the works, the main character is a first-person, Mexican narrator, and there, I let the Mexicanisms fly.)

5. False Cognates: false cognates or, more dramatically, “false friends,” are words that look the same in both languages but have different meanings: classic example is the Spanish “actual”, which, actually, means “current” in English in the sense of something happening presently. Or, even more trickily, the word may be a true friend, meaning the same thing in both languages, but may not apply to all of the same cases. In Fosa, one of the characters above states that the fucking olive tree of Point #4 is not indigenous to Mexico. Following the same logic, I wrote: No es un árbol indígena al lugar. But in Spanish, indigenous is not used with reference to flora: the correct word is oriundo or perhaps endémico.

Needless to say, all of this is what makes me love writing in Spanish all the more.