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Romance in Absentia: A Cultural History of Puerto Rican Cinema Found and Lost

Pedro Noel Doreste, PhD Student, Cinema and Media Studies, and Dalina Aimée Perdomo, Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts, Museum of Contemporary Photography

Figure 1. Romance Tropical theatrical poster (Juan Emilio Viguié, Latin Artists Pictures, 1934)

 

Romance Tropical (1934), directed by Juan Emilio Viguié Cajas, is the first feature length Puerto Rican sound film and, at the moment, the earliest extant Puerto Rican film. The film was thought lost for over eighty years when it was accidentally found in the University of California, Los Angeles Film & Television Archive. The locating and restoration of Romance Tropical is an invaluable addition to the ongoing discourse surrounding Puerto Rico’s national cinema, or lack thereof, yet it also raises questions of ownership due to the complicated geopolitical relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The terms of how the film was found adds to this context, as it was “lost” to Puerto Rico and then given new life by a process of being found, verified, preserved, digitized, screened, and ultimately “rescued” by American institutions such as the UCLA Film & TV Archive and the Packard Humanities Institute, among others. [1] In addition to the troubled nature of the film’s rediscovery and delayed re-exhibition, there remains the fact of the film’s problematic content. The film itself perpetuates certain imperialist and racist ideologies typically associated with the Unites States’ treatment of its unincorporated territories—a relationship of occupation, discrimination, and othering—as it allows a suspiciously white and wealthy Puerto Rico to imagine itself as the metropolis, invading and plundering a different island populated by a black, “uncivilized,” and possibly indigenous society. But such a discussion about Puerto Rico’s own racist history and the politics of film preservation did not take place in the 80 years during which the film was lost, and it appears as if the film’s rediscovery has yet to catalyze it. As of this writing, Romance Tropical has yet to re-premiere in Puerto Rico as the island continues to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane María.

Given this context, the ultimate intent of this project, here published in summarized form, is to issue a necessary corrective to these entities’ teleological understandings of recovery—from decay, disaster, or neglect—as well as to push back against the cult of resilience, here understood as the people’s will to survive in the face of imposed fiscal austerity and state dereliction of duty. The first priority is to complicate the uncritical celebration of this film’s rediscovery given its racist representations of Black Puerto Ricans (in a private conversation, one archivist remarked that it may be one of those films that should’ve stayed lost). The second part will revisit the eight decades during which the film was written about—or more accurately, written around—by the Puerto Rican intellectual class in the absence of the film itself, taking pains to include ancillary discussions in which the film is mentioned, if only in passing, to reconstruct the film’s reception and its many afterlives. The third portion is an ongoing report on how to lose a found film. We trace the rediscovery of Romance Tropical in the Krypton vault in 2016, its inertiatic attempts at repatriation, and the Puerto Rican government’s retaliation against the cultural workers responsible for identifying the film. This, of course, against the backdrop of Hurricane María and the continued destabilizing of Puerto Rican autonomous governance after the imposition of a foreign Fiscal Control Board. Although we are not sure how the recent political turmoil in the island will affect the repatriation of this film, we hope to wrench the colonial archive from its function as cultural sanctuary, a function for which it has proven itself to be miscast.

Set in the capital city of San Juan, Romance Tropical is a story about a young, wealthy woman named Margarita, who falls in love with a struggling writer/musician, Carlos, who is rejected by her father due to his status. Margarita and Carlos are distinctly members of the criollo social caste (Puerto Ricans of white, Spanish descent), albeit of different class positions. Carlos soon devises a way to marry into the family. The simplest way, he discovers, is to follow in the footsteps of white men before him: sail across an ocean, invade an island, and plunder. After he crosses the Atlantic on a sailboat and reaches the Isla Mú, he is briefly captured by the island’s inhabitants, who are all black, coded as an exoticized mixture of indigeneity, African, and West Indian (but played by actual black Puerto Ricans). He is saved by the island’s only inhabitant of mixed descent, Aluma. Aluma confides in Carlos the location of her people’s treasure and, true to form, Carlos steals the pearls and encourages Aluma to try to run away with him. Aluma ultimately loses her life in her attempt to elope with Carlos. Upon his arrival to the white, Hispanic country, Carlos is welcomed with no regard for his newfound wealth, as Margarita finds herself near death due to heartbreak, but the stolen pearls nevertheless ensure their blissful future together. What is remarkable about Romance Tropical’s narrative is the potential reading of Puerto Rico reimagining itself as colonizer, San Juan as metropolis, in the context of the tumultuous ’30s when its citizens were confronting the idea of a Puerto Rican identity as doubly colonized, Spain’s forced assimilation of Puerto Rico interrupted by an American military invasion and their subsequent withholding of civil and human rights.

Figure 2. From the script of Romance Tropical [2]

 

The script was written by none other than Luis Palés Matos. Palés Matos’ literary imaginary is a catalyst needed to view his work on negritud as more than just trailblazing or artful irony, and is instead, as Mayra Santos Febrés describes it in her writing on race in Puerto Rico, “an expression of the unintelligible.” [3] On the page, Palés Matos’ skillful rhythmic verses can be appreciated in their original format, as experiments in poetic form. These experiments, of course, almost beg to be spoken out loud—shouted even—which is another typical mode of expression in which Palés Matos’ poems have been performed. However, in performances of Palés Matos’ poetry, the work is provided a chance to be interpreted onscreen as the reciters give it its own life. What Romance Tropical provides is a visual and sonoric interpretation of Palés Matos’ work through a script he crafted with the specific intention for it to be produced for the cinema. After decades of debates regarding his status as a pioneer of Afro-Antillean poetry, Romance Tropical offers new insights into these longstanding literary and theatrical depictions of race (while revealing the mode’s blatant racism).

Figure 3. Film still

 

In late 2016, archivists at the UCLA Film & Television Archive stumbled upon Romance Tropical, which at that point been considered lost for 83 years. It was found by archivist Jan-Christopher Horak while searching for material to feature in an ongoing film series celebrating the Spanish-language film culture of downtown Los Angeles. Horak was aware of Romance Tropical’s status as a lost film and he knew the work of Puerto Rican film archivist Marisel Flores, the Chief Archivist of the Moving Image Archives at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Flores was the first person he contacted to assist in verifying the print’s authenticity. Shortly after, the Executive Director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) traveled to Los Angeles as a representative of the institute—chaperoned by an ICP official since she was not allowed by the institute to travel alone—to formally confirm that it was indeed the lost film. The initial response to the rediscovery of Romance Tropical was unfettered glee, which could be called naive, given both the problematic representation of the very people the film’s restoration purports to inspire and the seedy figures that have commandeered the film’s re-exhibition in Puerto Rico. Horak describes the find as a “miraculous rediscovery” and a product of “archival serendipity.” [4] It was called a “wonderful motivator” in Hurricane María’s aftermath by ICP executive director Carlos Ruíz Cortes. [5] The latter interprets the news as a good omen, not merely because of the sudden enrichment of the island’s cultural history, but also its material recovery from the effects of natural disaster. He appropriates the popular rallying cry created by volunteer groups and aid organizations in the wake of the hurricane: Puerto Rico se levanta (Puerto Rico rises). In an article for the most widely distributed Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día, Ruíz Cortes gushes about how the film’s restoration affords viewers the “wonderful opportunity of watching the Puerto Rico of the 1930s and enjoy what so many generations were unable to see,” but perhaps there are more similarities between the Puerto Rico of the ’30s and the current moment than the director would care to admit. [6]

Despite the discovery and its importance to Puerto Rico’s national cinema, the film remains the property of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. In fact, its momentous re-exhibition of the film at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles in November 2017 was intended as a fundraiser for the Moving Images Archive in Puerto Rico, but we have been able to independently confirm that no funds were ever given the archive. Though the film has finally been found, the island has had to experience its loss in a double manner: Romance Tropical’s Puerto Rican re-premiere was canceled due to the effects of Hurricane María in 2017 and no print has yet to be donated to the island. The Director of the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, Roberto Ramos-Perea, has informed us that UCLA stipulated that the film would be screened in Puerto Rico after the island hosted an official—and UCLA-sponsored—event on the occasion of its re-premiere. UCLA’s own press materials state that “The institute will repatriate a print to the island when the Archivo de Imágenes en Movimiento has recovered from Hurricane Maria.” [7]

It is estimated that 95% of Puerto Rican cultural institutions suffered physical damages attributable to the hurricane, including flooding, mold, etc. Beyond the devastation caused by natural causes, however, the current administration’s austerity measures and general antagonism toward arts and cultural institutions deserve an equal share of the blame, and neither of the two American institutions charged with the film’s restoration and preservation have insisted on the film’s repatriation. Moreover, the building that houses the Moving Images Archive is currently set to be rented out to a private hospitality company, putting its suitability as steward of our cinematic heritage into question, but these cultural institutions have long been suffering from imposed austerity and political maneuvering. The storm became an opportune excuse to treat the fragile state of our archives not as a result of administrative shortcomings and decades’ worth of neglect, but solely as a result of natural disaster. It is clear, storm or not, that Puerto Rican cultural workers who long sought the film and are now advocating for its recovery are attempting to do so in a hostile political environment.

While archivists at UCLA nostalgically wrote about their encounter with Romance Tropical, this process of hollowing out began to take a historical—and human—toll among their Puerto Rican counterparts. Marisel Flores, the aforementioned archivist who played a catalytic role in the discovery of Romance Tropical, was reassigned last year. Her colleague, Roberto Ramos-Perea, wrote to us, in the typical tone of a former stage actor, “The premiere of Romance Tropical in Puerto Rico is no longer in our hands… It’s yet another thing that María has taken from us…” [8] In a private conversation with us, Flores stated that she has unofficially been placed in charge of the film archive once again, due to the fact that FEMA had taken an interest in the archive’s collection since many of its prints were directed by American filmmakers. Flores has quietly served in this ambassadorial role while attempting to work behind the scenes with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and other entities to locate and preserve Puerto Rico’s cinematic heritage, lost or found, though she indicates some reluctance as to whether the political conditions are ripe to continue this search. When asked how she reconciles her role as steward of Puerto Rican film history with her career as a public servant, Flores bluntly states, “This administration does not deserve another achievement.”

Part of the reason that Puerto Rican cinema remains an understudied history is that there has not been a tradition of documenting the many mishaps, false starts, and failures in our attempts to establish a national cinema. This project will attempt to open the conversation concerning Puerto Rican cinema by admitting the miscellanea of our stillborn national film history and the transnational residues of film history, prying the study of Puerto Rican film from a long-calcified canon. Further, the timeline of the discovery of Romance Tropical has become inextricably correlated to discussions of preserving important cultural artifacts in times of natural or financial disaster. The ultimate goal of this study is to question the very idea of “recovery,” both in the sense of reclaiming a slice of film history and rehabilitating from national and supranational crises, natural or otherwise, and inquire further as to what it means to recover histories under the specter of colonialism. In the case of Romance Tropical, we argue against recovery for its own sake and propose that its full recuperation is contingent on other forms of recovery, of which repatriation and reparations are part and parcel.

 

Footnotes:
[1] Jan-Christopher Horak, “How to Find a Lost Film,” Archival Spaces, last modified November 10, 2017, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2017/11/10/romance-tropical-how-to-find-lost-film
[2] New York State Archives, Tropical Love Motion Picture Case File, File-Box# 16897- 2839.
[3] Mayra Santos Febres, “Raza en la cultura puertorriqueña,” Poligramas 31 (2009).
[4] Horak.
[5] “Encuentran ‘Romance Tropical,’ la primera película sonora puertorriqueña,” El Nuevo Día, last modified April 28, 2017, https://www.elnuevodia.com/entretenimiento/cine/nota/encuentranromancetropicallaprimerapeliculasonorapuertorriquena-2315719/
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kelly Graml, “Landmark Puerto Rican film thought lost, now restored,” UCLA Newsroom, last modified November 3, 2017, http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/landmark-puerto-rican-film-thought-lost-now-restored
[8] Private e-mail correspondence with Dr. Roberto Ramos-Perea, April 16, 2018.

Land and Water: The Property Dilemma Underlying Mexico City’s Water Crisis

Jack Mensik, MA Student, LACS

“This is the water!” Elena exclaimed. She scurried back to the living room from the kitchen and excitedly set the glass down on the table in front of me.

“Wow, it looks pretty clean,” I responded. I was not exaggerating. Specks of distant sunlight shimmered in the translucent water, whose unblemished appearance belied the fact that it had been collected from rainfall in a city notorious for its air pollution. For the past few years, Elena and her husband, Antonio, have relied on a household rainwater harvesting system to meet a substantial portion of their family’s water needs. Isla Urbana, an organization dedicated to the proliferation of rainwater harvesting in Mexico City, designed and installed this system, which captures water from Elena and Antonio’s roof, passes it through a series of filters, and stores it in a 5000-liter plastic cistern in their backyard. In their kitchen, another set of filters purifies the water to a quality suitable for drinking. They’ve done tests, Elena told me, and the quality is consistently excellent.

 

Figure 1. A household rainwater harvesting system that serves as an important source of clean water for residents of Mexico City’s periphery.

 

In truth, the clean water contained in the glass offers Elena and Antonio more than just good health. It affords them the possibility for a stable livelihood amidst circumstances in which they enjoy only marginal access to the rights and privileges promised to citizens of North America’s largest city. Reliance on the rain has meant that the family is no longer at the mercy of a government that is unsure of whether their household is deserving of piped water service. Yet, as Elena beamed with pride over the immaculate glass, I also wondered whether this newfound stability would make their otherwise rightless status more tolerable. After all, why would the family bother to seek legal recognition from government authorities if a public service like water was no longer urgently needed?

Elena and Antonio’s lack of formal land tenure explains how they discovered rainwater harvesting, and why they are so enthusiastic about it. The family’s home sits in a rolling mountain valley on the southern periphery of Mexico City within the city’s “ecological zone”, a conservation area in which human habitation is prohibited. Elena, Antonio, and their young children settled the unoccupied piece of land without legal sanction in the early 2010s. The growing family had become too big for their small house in San Gregorio Atlapulco, an urbanized area located a few miles away in the borough of Xochimilco. They had to build a home from scratch on the mountainside, but they found relief from the cramped conditions in which they had been living. Yet, because they had illegally occupied their land, they were ineligible for almost all government services. Elena and Antonio felt the absence of piped water most acutely. They narrowly missed an opportunity to enroll in a municipal program that would have offered them a monthly delivery from water trucks (locally known as pipas) at a subsidized cost. Meanwhile, the full cost of a monthly pipa delivery was more than they could afford on a regular basis. So, they would make trips down to a pump in San Gregorio, fill up a half-dozen or so 19-liter jugs with water, and either hire a taxi to bring them home or haul the jugs back uphill themselves in a cart. It was tiresome work, but unless the city government redesignated their community’s land tenure status as part of the “urban zone”, rather than the “ecological zone”, avenues for improvement remained limited.

 

Figure 2. An example of a pipa, or water tanker truck, that delivers water to many of Mexico City’s residents.

 

Elena and Antonio’s decision to seek a better life on Mexico City’s geographic and legal periphery repeats a logic that has been commonplace in the city for nearly a century. Since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, inner-city residents have looked to the city’s periphery as a place where single-family home ownership could be realized, far from predatory landlords, burdensome rents, and squalid living conditions. Meanwhile, since the end of the Second World War, informal settlements on the periphery have also absorbed influxes of rural migrants seeking economic opportunities in the national capital. Over time, many informal communities have received legal recognition from the state, and have been integrated into the city through the extension of public services. These patterns of migration, settlement, and eventual legalization have played a key role in the Mexico City’s rapid expansion from a contained city of 369,000 in 1900 to a sprawling megalopolis of over 20 million today.[1]

Yet, city and municipal governments are often hesitant to recognize informal settlements. In decades past, officials marshaled concerns about sanitation as a justification. Today, environmental considerations, specifically those surrounding water, occupy a central role in government discourse. The vast majority of the “ecological zone” occupies territory in the southern portion of Mexico City comprised of rural towns, farms, and mountain forest. The area’s vegetation plays a vital role in absorbing rainfall and recharging the subterranean aquifer upon which the metropolis depends for its water supply. Authorities are concerned that unrestricted settlement will lead to urban sprawl and loss of this important green space. [2] These apprehensions are justified, as the future of Mexico City’s water supply looks bleak. Decades of intensive extraction to quench the city’s thirst, coupled with miles of paved surfaces that prevent replenishment, have severely diminished water levels in the aquifer. In fact, this drop has caused parts of Mexico City to physically subside—the sight of uneven streets or buildings tilted at alarming angles are fairly common. Aqueducts that supplement the city with water from neighboring states are inefficient and costly.[3] Indeed, Mexico City is running out of water, and years of unsustainable growth have threatened the city’s survival.

 

Figure 3. The “ecological zone” found prominently in southern Mexico City in which vegetation plays a vital role in absorbing rainfall and recharging the subterranean aquifer.

 

However, the city’s vigilance over the aquifer also means that residents living in hundreds of informal settlements within the “ecological zone” are unlikely to receive the adjusted land tenure that will be necessary for basic improvements in water services and infrastructure. “It puts us in a dilemma,” one municipal official told me, “because on one hand, [water] is a right that everyone has. But by beginning to recognize these irregular communities, then what becomes of the conservation of natural land? Yes, [water] is a right, we cannot deny it. But also, there are certain limits that we cannot exceed through our actions.”[4]

Isla Urbana’s rainwater harvesting systems offer one solution to this dilemma, as the contraptions can expand water access without placing additional stress on the aquifer. “Rainwater harvesting gives you a tool that you can select exactly the houses or neighborhoods that are most problematic, or for any reason the city has failed to supply adequately,” explained the organization’s founder, Enrique Lomnitz. If these water stressed areas are supplemented with rainwater, he reasoned, it would reduce the burden on Mexico City’s water supply and infrastructure.[5]

Most of Isla Urbana’s work consists of government-sponsored programs, in which they install rainwater harvesting systems in formally recognized communities where water infrastructure performs poorly. Yet, through private donations, Isla Urbana is also able to service informal communities, many of which are in the “ecological zone.”[6] After connecting with Isla Urbana through mutual acquaintances, Elena and Antonio rounded up enough interested neighbors to begin a project of their own. The couple had to pay 3050 pesos (about $150 US dollars) to cover part of the cost of their own system, but they began harvesting rain shortly after its installation.

So far, Elena and Antonio are thrilled with the results. During Mexico City’s rainy season, roughly between June and October, powerful rains fill their cistern up with water that lasts into the dry season, meaning they save money they spent on pipas and time they spent on trips to the water pump. In the coming years, the couple hopes to expand their storage capacity so that their supply will last even longer. “To this day, we don’t suffer from water,” Antonio declared, “The system is very good and it has helped us a lot.”[7]

While rainwater harvesting has brought greater stability and comfort, the couple still expressed a desire for legal land tenure and improved infrastructure. They would like to see some form of piped water service, or at least more pipa trucks. “We all have rights to these things,” Elena argued, “Just as we have a right to light, we have a right to water. We have rights to urban services. And just because we live up here doesn’t mean we have no rights. We have the same rights as those who live down [in the city].”[8]

I sensed a gap, however, between Elena and Antonio’s belief that they had these rights and their ability to live without them. Previously, I had spoken with numerous residents of formally recognized communities, most of whom saw rainwater harvesting as more of a temporary fix that could never truly substitute for efficient piped water service. Elena and Antonio, on the other hand, seemed committed to rainwater harvesting for the long-term and relatively unfazed by the improbability of infrastructural improvement in their community. When I asked them why, they stated that they were concerned about the dwindling aquifer, and felt that rainwater harvesting and water conservation were essential steps for a better future. Even if their land tenure changed and services arrived, they said, they would continue to harvest rainwater. “We have [rainwater harvesting], it has helped us a ton,” Elena explained, “But yes, if piped water came, then that too. But also…as we said before we have to be conscious, right? Although we have piped water, save it, right? Take care of it.”[9]

Residents of other informal settlements echoed Elena and Antonio’s enthusiasm for rainwater harvesting, as well as their ambivalence toward legal land tenure and improved service. “I am doing very well with rainwater harvesting. I’d neither ask nor demand much else,” one woman told me, “If they come to tell us, ‘Guess what? They’re going to install pipes,’ I’d say, ‘Well, That’s fine. That’s good, isn’t it?’ But if not, then no. Because…with the rainwater harvesting system, well, the truth is that I’m fine.”[10]

Others expressed a similar dedication to rainwater harvesting on account of environmental concerns. “Sure, I would like to see it regularized,” one man said, “but I will keep collecting rainwater. Yes, I would keep doing it. Why? Because this way I am helping out the environment a bit, I’d say. Because sometimes you talk and you don’t do much…”[11]

These comments reveal the extent to which Mexico City’s water crisis is not simply an environmental issue, but cuts to the core of the city’s longstanding struggle with social inequality. Rainwater harvesting appears to do an excellent job of meeting informal residents’ water needs, and provides them with a greater sense of security that they can remain in their homes for the immediate future. Yet, the systems do not resolve critical legal issues surrounding land tenure in informal settlements that would establish permanent residence. Residents’ ambivalence toward resolving these issues may simply reflect doubt that their day of recognition will ever come. Their passion for rainwater harvesting is inspiring, but laden with resignation toward a tolerable, but rightless, livelihood on the periphery.

Both authorities and residents of Mexico City care deeply about their city’s environmental future. However, reaching a sustainable solution to an increasingly dire water crisis will require reckoning with difficult questions about what it means to be a full citizen of Mexico City and who can acquire this status. Until then, every raindrop that falls in the Valley of Mexico will be worth saving.

 

 

[1] Matthew Vitz, City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 4, 89-92; Thomas Benjamin, “Rebuilding the Nation,” in The Oxford History of Mexico, ed. William H. Beezley and Michael C. Meyer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 470; Wayne Cornelius, Politics and the Migrant Poor in Mexico City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975), 16-17, 27-28.

[2] Jill Wigle, “The ‘Graying’ of ‘Green’ Zones: Spatial Governance and Irregular Settlement in Xochimilco, Mexico City: Irregular Settlement in Xochimilco, Mexico City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38, no. 2 (March 2014): 573–89, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.12019.

[3] Barkin, David. 2004. “Mexico City’s Water Crisis.” NACLA Report on the Americas 38, no. 1: 24-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10714839.2004.11722401; Connolly, Patricia. 1999. “Mexico City: Our Common Future?” Environment and Urbanization 11, no. 1 (April): 53-78. https://doi.org/10.1177/095624789901100116; Kahn, Carrie. “Mexico City Goes Days Without Water During Maintenance Shutdown.” NPR.Org. Accessed November 10, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/10/31/662786981/mexico-city-goes-days-without-water-during-maintenance-shutdown.

[4] Interview, August 27, 2018.

[5] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[6] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[7] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[8] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[9] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[10] Interview, August 22, 2018.

[11] Interview, August 15, 2018.

Slave Nostalgia: When the Plantation Doctor Tries to Read the Minds of the Enslaved

Isabela Fraga, PhD Student, Romance Languages and Literatures

Alfonso Congo was only 17 years old when he died. He was a slave to María del Carmen Cabanillas, a Cuban woman who, with her husband, owned some of the most important sugar plantations in the Cienfuegos region (located southeast of Havana). As is often the case with chattel slavery, there is little information pertaining to Alfonso’s life. All we seem to know is that he was born in the Kingdom of Congo (hence his last name) and that Cabanillas had contracted an insurance policy on his life (“number 16,892”) that obligated the company La Providencia to pay her 560 pesos upon his death on May 7, 1860. We also happen to know the cause of Alfonso’s death: nostalgia.

All of this I learned by consulting La Providencia’s monthly administrative bulletins preserved at the Cuban National Library and National Archive, which contain a list of all the insured slaves who died in that period, the causes of death, and the monetary compensations paid to their owners (see Figures 1 and 2). I found some of those documents on my recent trips to Cuba in 2017 and 2018, unaware that the old, rotten papers of a company specializing in slave insurance could reveal such unique traces of lives and experiences largely erased from the archive.

 

Figure 1. First page of the La Providencia bulletin that contains the register of Alfonso Congo’s death (Credit: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, La Habana, Cuba)

 

From the little there is to learn about Alfonso, one specific piece of information called my attention: Alfonso did not die of “dysentery,” “pulmonary phthisis” or some other organic disease that killed so many slaves at the time. Instead, he died of nostalgia: an illness of the mind.

In his 1794 medical treatise, Francisco Barrera y Domingo, a Spanish surgeon working in Cuba at the time, wrote that nostalgia is “a great sadness that takes over the slaves’ mind” in the form of a deep longing for a “return to their beloved homeland.”[1] How odd… It turned out that nostalgia, which we know today as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,” had been an illness that affected African slaves throughout the Atlantic world. They would refuse to eat, drink or work (an important problem to planters), and would ultimately die of starvation or commit suicide.

Nostalgia and its many names—banzo, melancholia, fixed melancholy—appear surprisingly often in both Cuban and Brazilian (the countries I study more closely) as well as French and North-American archives. In the second edition of his best-seller Diccionario de Medicina Popular (1851)—which, incidentally, I just found in the Brazilian National Library—the Polish-Brazilian physician Pedro Luiz Napoleão Chernoviz states that nostalgia was a very common affliction among “blacks newly-arrived from the African coast.” He adds that the illness worsened when slaves were badly treated by their masters. The cure, we learn, is not achieved through “pharmacy recipes” but through “a simpler, more elevated medicine”: good treatment.[2]

Unlike other common organic illnesses that required “pharmacy” treatments or a change in the physical condition of the enslaved, nostalgia invited physicians to imagine in their own medical idiom how the enslaved felt, thought, and reacted to the horrible experience of enslavement. In Cuba, Barrera, for instance, proposed “affability, humanity, tenderness” as one of the treatments to nostalgia, so that the ill slave would understand that their master (or the master’s proxy) regretted treating them poorly. Chernoviz, in Brazil, offers a similar method: at the onset of the illness, the sick slave should be “treated with care, easing on the punishments, and giving her permission to have fun.” No drug, herb, nor pill would suffice. In order to cure nostalgia, one must demonstrate care because one recognizes that the enslaved suffers from being forcibly taken from their homeland and losing their freedom. It is worth noticing that this gesture of looking beyond the aching surface of the enslaved body into the slave’s ailing mind appears in a moment in which their deaths—and thus their lives—only amounted to the “compensatory value” eventually paid to their owners by insurance companies.

 

Figure 2. Detail of the La Providencia bulletin from 1860 with the note on Alfonso Congo. This is how much we know about him. (Credit: Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, La Habana, Cuba)

 

No wonder nineteenth-century British and French abolitionists came to adopt this illness as the basis of their discourse. As Thomas Dodman writes in his recent book about nostalgia, these abolitionists flooded the streets with “gruesome stories of men and women jumping overboard in the Atlantic or of plantation owners mutilating their slaves to shame them out of wanting to return home.”[3] After all, nostalgia was far from being unknown at the time. Surely, educated individuals in the American colonies had heard of this European disease that had long afflicted young soldiers, servers, and students leaving home to work elsewhere.

The question, however, is to understand how this seventeenth-century-military-born condition came to be one integral to nineteenth-century racial slavery. More importantly yet, I wonder if this dramatic shift allowed, perhaps, for the creation of a new type of subjectivity otherwise forestalled by the realities of enslavement. This is something I would like to explore in my dissertation. And to do so, Alfonso’s story—one that remains buried behind policy numbers and compensatory values—may in fact be a good starting point.

 

[1] See Barrera y Domingo, Reflexiones Histórico Físico Naturales Médico Quirúrgicas: prácticos y especulativos entretenimientos acerca de la vida, usos, costumbres, alimentos, bestidos, color, y enfermedades a que propenden los negros de Africa, venidos a las Américas. Havana: Ediciones C. R., [1798] 1953.

[2] See Chernoviz, Diccionario de Medicina Popular, em que se descrevem, em linguagem acommodada à intelligência das pessoas estranhas à arte de curar, vol. III. Eduardo & Enrique Lammaert, 1851, pp. 92-93.

[3] See Dodman, What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion. University of Chicago Press, 2018, p. 90.

Past and Present Perceptions of the “Police Problem” in Mexico City

Keegan Boyar, Doctoral Candidate, History

Late one night this past summer, I was in the back seat of an Uber, returning home along the streets of Mexico City. Chattier than most, the driver asked what brought me to Mexico. I told him that I was here for dissertation research. “What’s your project?” he asked. “Well,” I said, trying to think of how to summarize it quickly and wondering how well it would go over in my functional but inelegant Spanish, “I’m researching the history of law and policing in Mexico City in the late 19th and 20th Centuries.” “Oh, the police,” he scoffed. “You know, there’s only one word you need to know to understand the police here in Mexico. Do you know what it is?” “No, what?” I said. He dramatically turned his head to face me. “CORRUPTION!”

For the rest of the trip, he expounded at length on his views about the problems with the police in Mexico—their inefficacy, their insufficient training, their frequent use of violence, and above all, their corruption. Although there were some novelties (notably, he briefly suggested that the Freemasons were ultimately to blame, although he refused to expand on this), by and large it was nothing I hadn’t heard before. What might be termed the “police problem” is a well-known issue in Mexico City. The police are widely distrusted by the broader population, and many people have their own stories, or know the stories of friends or family, about police extortion, abuse, and incompetent and/or insufficient service. Such issues frequently come up in news and writing about the city, as well.[1] Throughout, there is often a certain tension in these stories, in that residents widely believe that the criminal justice system does not function, yet also frequently complain about the perceived lack of police.

I think about these stories often while I work on dissertation research. My project, to give a more complete description, examines the institutional and social construction of public order and security in Mexico City and the surrounding Federal District from about 1870 to 1950. These were years of dramatic upheaval. The capital went from a stagnant city of a couple hundred thousand residents, still mostly concentrated near the old colonial central district and surrounded by farmland and lakes, to a bustling metropolis of millions that sprawled outward, building over former farms and drained lake beds and absorbing many of the once-distant suburbs into the rhythms of urban life. With this urban growth came the perception of supposedly “new” problems, including crime, unequal access to public services, and urban poverty, as well as the development of “modern” institutions to deal with them, such as new legal codes and professional police. Yet the reach of these institutions remained limited. Many city residents lived in a state of quasi-illegality, their survival dependent on informal relations of clientelism and unofficial toleration from authorities that could be revoked at any moment. People used, debated, and at times resisted these institutions in a variety of ways, shedding light on the tensions between the formal order set forth by the state through legal codes and institutions, and the informal but no less regulated order carried out in the practices of daily life in the city. Ultimately, the conversation between informal practices and formal regulation came to be at the heart of everyday life in Mexico City, and embedded in the foundations of the Mexican state.

 

Figure 1. Much of my research has been in the National General Archive, or AGN, which is housed in the former national penitentiary–apt, considering my project.

 

Understanding the history of the “police problem”—and of police-public relations in general—is of course a major part of my project. As historians have shown, the Mexico City police (as well as laws and regulations more generally) largely functioned to target the urban poor and working classes for scrutiny, arrest, and abuse. Yet this did not preclude these same residents from trying to make use of the police and criminal justice system as they struggled to survive. Indeed, a variety of sources suggest that, while those who lived on the margins of society were the most likely to be victimized by police abuse, their marginal status limited their access to some other forms of authority, and they therefore often had to turn to the police to mediate their disputes or use the police in concert with other tools.[2] Meanwhile, residents of all classes in newly constructed, sometimes unlicensed neighborhoods on the outskirts of the expanding city frequently wrote in to request police services, complaining that they were targeted by criminals in the absence of police.[3]

It was this environment, where fear of crime met fear of police abuse, that gave shape to many of the documents that I have found in my research. One that stands out in particular comes from the personal correspondence of Félix Díaz, the nephew of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and, prior to the Revolution, the police chief of Mexico City.[4] On August 18, 1910, a man named Carlos Espino Barros wrote a letter to Díaz. In it, he said that he had heard from an eyewitness about “a savage attack committed by several police against a decent young man, of recommendable appearance,” on August 16. He had come to suspect that the assault had been “a true crime,” and as the witness thought that the young man might have died of his injuries, Espino asked Díaz if that was in fact the case. Although Espino’s poor health prevented him from going in person to talk to Díaz, or going before a judge to press for an investigation, he invited the police chief to send “a person of your confidence and who you know to keep secrets” to his home to discuss the matter further with him. Discretion was of the utmost importance, Espino wrote, because “I do not want to provoke the vengeance of the alluded-to police”. Despite the danger, he wrote to inform Díaz to show him how “certain police” dealt with “defenseless drunks, above all if they are decent and find themselves far from the city center,” as was the case in the attack in question. In response to the letter, Díaz sent the head of the Reserve Police (the investigative branch of the police) to investigate its claims. After checking with other police officials, he concluded that the young man in question had not been killed or injured, and had been released the following day. The official also interviewed Espino, who said he had heard about the incident from a young woman whose address he did not know.

 

Figure 2. “First page of letter, Carlos Espino Barros to Félix Díaz, August 18, 1910.

AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.

 

Several points stand out in the letter and Díaz’s response. Espino’s fear of reprisal for speaking out about police violence suggests the high degree of distrust many residents felt toward the police, as does his belief that “certain police” routinely mistreated those they arrested. Yet this distrust was not absolute: not only did Espino take care to specify that it was only “certain police” (and not a systematic problem), but the fact that he wrote to Díaz with the evident hope that the police chief would listen and take action demonstrates some level of trust in police authorities. Similarly, Espino’s emphasis that the victim was “decent,” and his charge that police especially targeted “decent” people who were drunk, suggests the ways in which social status shaped perceptions of policing. While the police regularly and violently arrested those who were drunk in public[5], this instance of police abuse was particularly intolerable because it transgressed class boundaries, subjecting a member of the “decent” classes to the same violence regularly meted out to the urban poor. It’s also possible that this concern was animated by anxiety over Espino’s own social status. Although he did not specify his work, he was literate in a society with high illiteracy, indicating more education than many, but lived in a predominantly working-class neighborhood. Clearly striving to assert his own respectability, he may have seen police violence against the “decent” classes as a sign of the fragility of his own social status.

Finally, Espino’s letter sheds light into how knowledge of policing was constructed. Discussions of police violence spread along social networks, as people discussed incidents they had seen or had heard about from friends, neighbors, or other city residents. Rumor and fact mixed with residents’ preexisting anxieties and prejudices. In many ways, the stories people told about police violence, corruption, and incompetence parallel the stories that are told by residents of Mexico City today. While Espino may not have thought that freemasons were ultimately behind everything (or at least he didn’t say so in his letter), had he been able to meet the talkative Uber driver, he may well have found many other areas of agreement.

 

[1] For instance, the author and journalist Héctor de Mauleón recently reported on a failed attempt to film a nighttime special in the neighborhood of Tepito, an area with a longstanding reputation for crime. Upon arriving and asking a passing police patrol if they would be patrolling there that night, the journalists were told that the police would not be back until the next morning “due to the insecurity.” http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/columna/hector-de-mauleon/nacion/una-cronica-involuntaria-de-tepito

[2] Working- and lower-class women, in particular, often had to turn to the police to intervene in domestic disputes, where the patriarchal power of the husband over the family normalized domestic violence against women. In one example from 1904, a woman asked the police to arrest her husband for verbal and physical abuse. However, the husband’s friends, family, and neighbors, variously claiming that there was no reason to arrest him or that they did not know why he was being arrested, intervened, allowing the husband to escape. Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) / Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal (TSJDF) / Siglo XX (S.XX) / Caja 14 / Exp 1067.

[3] For a 1916 example, see: Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de México / Municipalidades / Tacubaya / Policía / Caja 374 / Exp. 36.

[4] The following information comes from: AGN / Archivos Privados / Félix Díaz / Caja 7 / Exp. 61 / Fs. 704-705.

[5] See, for example: AGN / TSJDF / S.XX / Caja 326 / Exp. 58694. In this case from 1904, police arrested a woman for public drunkenness and for supposedly attacking the arresting officer. She, in turn, argued that the police had assaulted her and she was merely defending herself. Despite medical examination revealing substantial evidence that she had been beaten, the judge threw out the charges against her but also refused to investigate the possibility of police abuse.

Of fruit and flesh, bananas and bodies

Maggie Borowitz, PhD Student, Art History

What is it about fruit that offers such striking comparisons to flesh? The apples of cheeks, peach fuzz, the comparison of breasts to mangos or melons. Soft innards protected by skins that are prone to bruising and easy to puncture.

I walked into the LAXART gallery last fall during the run of an exhibition called Video Art in Latin America. It featured three main screens that each ran through a loop of about 20 short films, in addition to several longer videos that looped on stand-alone monitors. In other words, it would have taken a whole day to see the entirety of what was screening in the gallery. Nevertheless, I was prepared to devote several hours to it.

And yet, I barely lasted an hour.

In the center of the gallery space was a work by the Colombian artist José Alejandro Restrepo titled Musa paradisiaca. Originally installed at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá in 1996, Restrepo recreated his video installation for LAXART in 2017. It consisted of bunches of bananas hanging from the ceiling that the viewer could walk between and amongst. At the bottom of the bunches were small screens that faced downward, towards small, round mirrors that reflected the video back up to the viewer. “Over the course of the exhibition, the bananas rot and fall, leaving the stems bare,” the gallery guide commented.[1]

Figure 1. José Alejandro Restrepo, Musa paradisiaca, 1996/2017. Installation view at LAXART. Photo by John Kiffe for the L.A. times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-jose-alejandro-restropo-review-20171015-story.html

I was there about two months in to the three-month run of the show, and indeed, the bananas were rotting. The smell was subtle at first, kind of sweet and powdery. I couldn’t quite locate it when I first walked into the darkened space out of the LA afternoon sunshine, but its sickly sweetness soon became overpowering. Fruit flies buzzed lazily around the galleries, and as I watched the other screens, I tried to breathe through my mouth, then covered my nose with my hand, and then my shirt.

Restrepo’s piece was powerful in its physical affect and the way it shaped my experience of the exhibition in its entirety. And it brought my thoughts again and again to a series of paintings by the artist Antônio Henrique Amaral, produced in an entirely different context.

Figure 2. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Penca com 2 bananas (Stem with 2 Bananas), 1967. Oil on Duratex. Installation view at Oca do Ibirapuera.

Beginning his artistic career in the 1950s, Amaral was born and lived much of his life in São Paulo, Brazil. He is best known for a series of paintings that span from about 1967 to 1977 that depict bananas—single bananas or several, occasionally a whole bunch, but always large scale oil paintings that are filled to the edges with the fruit (e.g., figure 1). As the Brazilian military dictatorship increased in severity over the course of the years he was making this series, Amaral’s banana paintings became darker and more sinister. The bananas began to rot and to bruise, to be wrapped in constricting ropes, to be cut with knives and speared with forks. The viewer is forced closer and closer to the flesh of the banana, no longer able to avoid the association between bodies and the vulnerable fleshy fruit.

Figure 3. Antônio Henrique Amaral, Bananas e cordas 3 (Bananas and Ropes 3), 1973. Oil on Canvas. Installation view at Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

The comparison between Restrepo’s video installation and Amaral’s painting series is, on the one hand, superficial. But I wonder if there is something productive in thinking through my inability to prevail against my gag reflex induced by the sickly sweet rotting banana flesh of Musa paradisiaca and Amaral’s paintings that make my nose scrunch and my skin crawl. Perhaps it is simply organic matter in general that produces such a visceral reaction in the viewer. But perhaps there is something more specific in terms of fruit.

Bananas in particular bear the burden of a specific set of metaphoric meanings, especially in the context of Latin America; e.g., the somewhat disparaging term “banana republic” and its gesture towards the problems of underdevelopment that are tied to a single-export economy and US imperialism, which cannot be completely separated from the lighter-hearted tropical kitsch of Carmen Miranda and her films of the 1940s, considering that her image was quickly appropriated by the United Fruit Company for their Chiquita Banana logo in 1944.[2]

Both Restrepo and Amaral are highly attuned to those meanings. Restrepo’s downward-facing monitors in Musa paradisiaca show archival footage of a massacre that occurred in the Colombian town of Ciénaga in 1928 when a group of workers went on strike at a United Fruit Company banana plantation.[3] Amaral, with respect to his series of banana paintings, comments, “What did the military dictatorship do in Brazil? In 1964 Brazil was an optimistic place with the building of Brasília, for instance, and a vital automobile industry. We had a kind of a future, and suddenly the military transformed us into a big banana republic!”[4] Amaral continues, “It was something I wanted to show sardonically. It was subtle. I was not going to jail—forget about that. Because it was ridiculous to censor bananas!”[5] Yet, there is something powerfully discomfiting about his paintings and their metaphoric potential that reaches far beyond critique of economic policy and the notion of a “banana republic.” There is a way in which I cannot un-see bodies once I see them––the way the rope digs into the soft flesh in Bananas e cordas 3 (figure 2), the way it chafes against the bruised skin.

Amaral’s paintings are far from innocuous in their subject matter; there is a long history of comparison between fruit flesh and human flesh that points to the very vulnerability of the human body, especially in its most tender form (the fruit of the womb, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). So while Amaral might claim that “it was ridiculous to censor bananas,” there is a way in which his paintings offer a cutting move in their use of fruit that, like Restrepo’s installation, mobilizes physical affect in order to induce empathy. It is a move that takes a step from object toward subject, a step from still life toward portraiture, but that exists in between those categories. For a portrait is a portrait of someone, and the power of these bananas is the combination of their soft, yielding flesh and their unyielding anonymity—their ability to evoke bodies that are any body and every body that has suffered, but no body in particular.

 

[1] “Video Art in Latin America,” Pacific Standard Time: L.A./L.A.: Latin American and Latino Art in L.A. (The Getty Foundation, 2017), 10.

[2] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 2000), 222–23.

[3] Jennifer Burris, “José Alejandro Restrepo: FLORA Ars + Natura, Bogotá, Colombia,” Frieze 183, Nov-Dec 2016, https://frieze.com/article/jose-alejandro-restrepo.

[4] Bartholomew Ryan, “Homage to the 21st Century,” Sightlines, April 30, 2015, https://walkerart.org/magazine/brazil-pop-art-antonio-henrique-amaral.

[5] Ryan.

 

 

 

CLAS launches new podcast, entreVistas, featuring Miguel Caballero in first episode

Ámber Miranzo, LACS MA’18 / Communication at CLAS

EntreVistas, chats about Latin American politics, culture and history’ is the new series of podcasts of the Center for Latin American Studies, where once a month we sit with professors to talk about some of the most exciting topics they research. Decolonization, police reform, Latin American citizenship, and patronage relations in Bolivia are some of the topics coming up in the next issues.

You can subscribe to the series in iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play.

* * *

Episode 1. May 2018.

What do we do with monuments? What do they represent? In this first interview, we talk with Miguel Caballero Vazquez about how these issues were addressed in Brazil, Mexico and Spain in the mid-20th century. In this period, political regimes thought of monuments not as artifacts to merely commemorate the past, but as tools to change who they are.

Image 1: Map of the pilot plan of Brasília, designed by Lúcio Costa, 1956. Image 2: Torre Latinoamericana, Mexico City. Image 3: Protective armor of the Cibeles Fountain
during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

How is that change performed? The city of Brasília constitutes a case where a whole city was conceived as an intimate monument, a monument to live in. Miguel Caballero discusses with us the ideals behind Lúcio Costa’s plan of 1956 and some of the controversies they generated.

We move on to Mexico to comment on the meaning of Latin American skyscrapers. Are they symbols of US capitalist ideology? Do they represent something else? Architect José Mújica, in Post-Revolutionary Mexico has a perspective on how skyscrapers are both modern and a salvage of the pre-Columbian past.

Last, the case of Madrid during the 2nd Republic (1931-1936) and the Civil War (1936-1939) sparks questions about what happens when the meaning of existing monuments change. When the Republic arrived, there was a discussion about what cities look like, and how cities represented oppressive regimes from the past. What do you protect and what do you destroy? Miguel Caballero comments on the contending perspectives in this period, as well as some of the actions the government followed.

Miguel Caballero Vázquez, Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, is currently completing a book manuscript titled Monumental Anxieties, on the controversy of monumentality and the reinvention of monuments between the 1920s and 1970s.

 

 

 

Following the Chocolate Trail: Cacao in the Amazon and the Origins of a Popular Confection

Kerry LePain, LACS MA’17

Figure 1: The Transamazon Highway at the crossroads of rainforest, ranching, agriculture, and regrowth

Where does our food come from? I immediately think of two ways to answer this question – one in the sense of where the food was grown, and another farther off response concerning where a specific foodstuff or plant originated. It was this second question that brought me bumping down an ocher, dusty road on a motorcycle, arms wrapped around the waist of Seu Pedro, a proud grandfather and pioneering farmer to the Transamazon Highway region in the Brazilian State of Pará, as he took me on a show-and-tell trip through his cacao forests, locally known in Medicilândia for their distinctive cabruca agroforestry configuration.

Figure 2: A rich red earth side road leads toward Seu Pedro’s agroforestry plots and a towering skyline of rainforest trees.

While much of the margins along the Transamazon Highway are lined with sweeping expanses of electric green pasture, palms, and equally garish red earth, our trip along a northern side road led through increasingly towering and lush vegetation. Bright yellow piles of recently harvested cacao pods lay in piles, dappled by green light filtering down through the boughs of the surrounding cacao trees. Following Seu Pedro as we now walked through the forest, he gestured toward the crunching leaves underfoot—natural fertilizer from cacao and larger trees that served as a breeding ground for cacao’s main pollinators—and to massive fallen bromeliads that recently tumbled from the crown of a Brazil Nut Tree about one hundred feet above.

Figure 3: A scene from the cabruca agroforestry patch, as collected cacao is piled atop leaves beneath the rainforest trees.

Pedro’s cacao agroforestry belongs to a larger regional history intricately interwoven with the environment and is part of a growing drive to work with(in) the Amazon’s native vegetation and ecosystems. Brazil’s 2012 Forest Code requires that agricultural properties maintain an area of native vegetation as “Legal Reserve” corresponding to quotas established on a regional basis. At least on paper, landholdings within the “Legal Amazon” should reserve 80% of their total area as a forest preserve. As an answer to the question of environmental origin, cacao occupies a privileged place within Amazonian agriculture under the Forest Code. Cacao is native to the Amazon, and cacao trees count as reforestation and count toward the native vegetation “Legal Reserve” quota. Medicilândia, a municipality at Kilometer 90 of the Transamazon Highway largely blessed with rich soil, has leaned heavily into cacao agriculture, earning the reputation of Brazil’s “Cacao Capital,” while other neighboring communities have followed suit in attempts at prosperity and a rewrite of the Transamazon’s failed agriculture narrative.

Brazil’s military regime began construction of the Transamazon Highway in the early 1970s as part of a large-scale agro-colonization scheme designed to alleviate land crunches and leftist worries elsewhere in the nation, occupy the vast “empty” Amazon interior, and create a new Brazilian breadbasket. Much attention was focused on the modernization of the Amazon—long perceived as decadent, folkloric, and lackadaisical—but little planning attention went toward understanding the micro-regional specificities of a greater region that covers roughly 30% of South America’s total area. Erroneously viewed as one big forest, the Amazon is a conjunction of highly diverse—and diverging—forests, rivers, climates, and soil types, constituting a variety of ecosystems and agricultural potentials. When limited preliminary soil analyses along the Transamazon Highway around Medicilândia indicated rich soil, these results were extrapolated as representative of the entire region, and used as justification for agricultural projects without properly taking into account climactic variation, potential pests and diseases, and the possibility of soil inconsistency. The military regime and its colonization agency, INCRA, recruited large numbers of colonists from the South and Northeast and incentivized waves of commodities because they grew well elsewhere in Brazil. Medicilândia’s farmers tried their hands with rice, beans, black pepper, tomatoes, guaraná, coffee, and sugarcane, but their efforts were frustrated by heavy rains, hungry animals, diseases, and patchy soil conditions. The dirt roads frequently washed out following heavy Amazonian rains, and construction on the gargantuan network of planned roads could not keep pace with demand and stalled out after 1974 when the government prematurely classified the entire colonization project as a failure and largely left agricultural colonists in the Amazon, Brazil’s Wild West of sorts, to their own devices.

Distinctly wild cacao trees grow throughout the forests surrounding Medicilândia, but it was in the late 1970s that several colonists from the State of Bahia, historically associated with cacao agriculture, planted Medicilândia’s first commercial cacao groves. Elisangela Trzeciak—a regional government representative, member of a nascent cacao cooperative, and a daughter raised between ranching and cacao agriculture—claimed that cacao used to fetch a price equal to a kilogram of meat, an important benchmark as the trees fell and the Transamazon region increasingly gave way to cattle ranching. As with other previous commodities, Medicilândia’s cacao farmers have confronted obstacles to their success with cacao: at home in the Amazon, cacao is subject to indigenous pests, and prices have at times plummeted so low that some farmers took to cutting their cacao groves and abandoning their investments. By and large, however, Medicilândia’s cacao has been highly productive in comparison to other Brazilian regions and has allowed farmers with smaller plots of land to earn livable incomes that would be impossible with cattle. With groves of cacao trees, farmers are able to maintain gardens alongside and, in some cases, among the trees, supplementing their income and providing additional food for the families. Because cacao naturally grows as an understory tree, beneath the Amazon’s vaulted canopy, cacao naturally lends itself to agroforestry initiatives like Seu Pedro’s cabruca plots, where cacao trees are mixed among native vegetation, remaining hardwoods from before the plot was cleared, and new palms, hardwoods, and vines that have returned, making Seu Pedro’s plot a commercially productive interpretation of the regional forest ecosystem.

Figure 4: A young Brazil Nut Tree already towers above a farmer’s cacao patches.

It is in large part because of this “re-agro-forestation” potential that cacao has increasingly garnered attention within the Amazon, however the environmental services provided by properly managed cacao agroforestry plots and the farmers who work them underscore problems in the ways we purchase and know our food. Fair trade and organic agriculture receive attention as ethical choices available to consumers and as more equitable, environmentally sound means for growers to sell their products. Ivan Dantas came to the Medicilândia region as a young boy with his family with the onset of colonization and has been awarded prizes at Paris’ International Chocolate Fair (Salon du Chocolat) for the quality of his cacao beans. He is a staunch advocate for environmental stewardship of the forest, which he calls his “paradise,” but he also laments the local infeasibility and high cost of organic agriculture. Although the majority of cacao grown in the region is de facto organic, organic certification requires farmers to follow strict sets of regulations, to use specially designated fertilizers, and to front the cost of pricey inspections and certifications. Ivan explained that farmers within the Medicilândia region had inconsistent access to the organic fertilizers necessary for productive cacao, and due to falling yields and exhausted soil, he explained that he was leaving the town’s organic cooperative.

Figure 5: Seu Ivan’s prize winning fermented cacao beans are spread out to dry.

Throughout my time with Medicilândia’s cacao growers, their stories called into question the sufficiency of existing certifications, and the necessity of more comprehensive ways of differentiating products, educating and informing consumers, and justly compensating higher quality cacao and the environmental services that accompany it. Seu Pedro’s cabruca agroforestry cacao, for example, comprises a far greater effort and renders a much larger service than either organic or shade-grown agriculture. His trees are shaded in rehabilitated forest, designed to replicate as best possible the Amazon’s native vegetation while still permitting cacao agriculture. Because an accurate certification and label does not exist, Pedro’s cacao is sold alongside conventional, full sun cacao beans grown on deforested land and he receives no larger monetary return, despite the substantial investment required to restore the forest. While Pedro’s cacao and pocketbook can benefit from increased productivity, pollination, and soil fertility as a result of the restored forest, farmers such as Pedro could stand to benefit a great deal more if their environmental services were labeled, marketed, recognized, and sold.

Figure 6: Seu Pedro beside a large rainforest hardwood planted in his cabruca agroforestry patch

Stepping away from my research in the Amazon, I see the problem come full circle, returning to the question of our food’s origins. While consumers may appreciate picturesque nature photos adorning an organic bar of chocolate or a packet of coffee, they are able to abstract themselves from the realities of labor and production wrapped up in the package. The fundamental problem with these certifications, their fairness, and their value to farmers is that they come with a choice. Save money today, or reward a distant farmer with higher wages? Save money today, or compensate a farmer somewhere for an environmental service? In this sense, justice becomes the prerogative of the consumer, and not the right of the farmers. The burden of the origin of food, how it is made, and caring for the environment that supports it falls to farmers, whereas consumers have the right to choose to not understand their food.

 

 

 

 

 

La Saya: Afro-Bolivian Performance

Danielle M. Roper, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, Romance Languages and Literatures

The drumming gets louder as I walk through the doors of the popular night club Malegría in La Paz, Bolivia. A carnivalesque beat, it is the type of rhythm that makes you want to sway your hips, throw your hands in the air and march down a street. Boom ba da boom ba da boom. You cannot escape that beat of the drum.

But Malegría is too small for marching. Instead, I dance my way through the thick crowd of tourists and patrons to the front of the circle they have formed around the group of black drummers and singers performing the “Saya.” The Saya is the signature dance and musical genre of Bolivia’s black populace. The word ‘saya’ is the name of the music and dance form, the term for the cyclical call-and-response in the music, and it also refers to an ensemble of musicians who perform the genre. This performance troupe is the Movimiento Cultural Saya Afro-Boliviana (MOCUSABOL)—the most important troupe in Bolivia.

When the lead singer sings, the drummers respond in unison. A dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks bangs the tambor mayor (large drum). Another man with tightly braided corn rows grins and chuckles. Suddenly, he starts to rapidly scrape the cuancha—a long wooden instrument that he holds on his shoulder. It sounds like a record scratching against the booming of the drums. The lead singer suddenly belts out a high-pitched tune and the chorus responds loudly. My friend Coral—a member of MOCUSABOL—turns on the light of her phone to help me record the performance. But upon seeing the performers up close, I am confused. Why are these black performers dressed in traditional indigenous clothing?

I am a performance theorist whose research focuses on the relationship between racial formation and performance in Latin America and the Caribbean. I came to the Saya through my work on racial impersonation in Bolivia and Peru. In my investigation of blackface in the Andes, I examine imitations of blackness by indigenous and mestizo subjects in two neo-folkloric dances: the “Tundiki and the “danza de caporales.” Many of the performers I have interviewed have erroneously claimed that these dances emerge from or are based on the Afro-Bolivian Saya. In acts of impersonation, the Saya functions as a stand-in for blackness itself. Such distortions of the genre and of blackness have sparked bitter controversy. When the Saya emerged in the 1980s, it became a crucial counterpoint to stereotypical representations of blacks and a central platform for black activism. Its popularity also indexes the role of performance in the articulation of black racial projects in the Bolivian context.

The Saya surfaced after Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform in 1953, when many black cultural practices and forms had disappeared as blacks migrated to the capital. In 1976, a group of elders from Coroico—a town in Nor Yungas—re-constructed the Saya for a coffee festival. Six years later, under the guidance of the elders, a set of Afro-Bolivian high school students decided to perform the Saya for the annual patron saint fiesta dedicated to the Virgin de la Candelaria.  When they danced in the town’s parade, the Saya was reborn. These students would found Movimiento Negro which would later become MOCUSABOL.

At Malegría, the lead singer of MOCUSABOL is a young light-skinned black girl wearing a pollera (a traditional indigenous skirt) and she has two long trenzas (plaits) in her hair. The men wear sandals, traditional pants and a large belt.  Coral explains to me that these are Aymara (indigenous) impositions on the black community. The Saya is from Nor Yungas—a province of La Paz whose population is largely comprised of descendants of enslaved blacks and indigenous people. Through its fusion of Aymara and black cultural forms, the dance encapsulates the fraught relationship between black and indigenous subjects in the region and in the broader nation-state.  The lead singer’s mother is indigenous and her father is black. For many mixed-race people of African descent, like the lead singer, to perform the Saya is not only to embrace one’s black heritage, but it is also a means of publicly declaring one’s blackness. In sites where racial categories are nebulous, performance can function as a device of racialization and of racial differentiation.

Given Bolivia’s celebration of a mixed white and indigenous polity, the Saya became a crucial mechanism for countering the erasure of blackness in the national imaginary. The lyrics of many of the songs invite black Bolivians to join in and dance the Saya, and to publicly embrace their own blackness. As more blacks joined and formed dance troupes, the Saya facilitated the formation of black publics and black collectives. Today, there are several Saya ensembles across Bolivia including Saya Mauchi, Tambor Mayor, Orisabol, and others.  These groups offer support and resources to Afro-Bolivians particularly black migrants to large cities. They typically use the income from performances at night clubs and fiestas to fund anti-racist organizing, cultural education, and programs geared towards black empowerment.

Their performances operate as sources of transmission linking the historical and contemporary struggles of black Bolivians.

One song says:

Ahora ya no es el tiempo de la esclavitud

¿Por qué tratas a mi gente con tanto rancor?

 Now is no longer the time of slavery

Why do you treat my people with so much hatred?

Songs often recount the story of black liberation and will offer praise to Manuel Isidoro Belzu—the Bolivian president who freed enslaved blacks in the nineteenth century.

MOCUSABOL shouts Belzu’s name tonight and suddenly, the lead singer dances the pracan[1] —a set of fast circular turns marking the end of the performance. Its circularity is an apt metaphor for the cyclical nature of the Saya itself, the back and forth of cries against racial oppression and celebrations of black liberation, and the temporal shifts that seem to merge the past with the present as performers tell the stories of black experience.

[1] The turn is also danced at the beginning of the performance and is also referred to as the ‘praca.’

Templeman, Robert. “We Are People of the Yungas, We Are the Saya Race.” In Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations, by Norman E. Whitten and Arlene Torres. Indiana University Press, 1998.

 

 

 

 

A New System of Imperial Government for Spanish America

Fidel J. Tavárez, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, History

The eighteenth century was an age of imperial reform throughout the Atlantic world but especially in the Spanish Empire. Indeed, during this period, Spanish ministers made a concerted effort to transform Spain’s far-flung composite monarchy into a modern commercial empire capable of competing with Britain and France. Where did this interest in creating a Spanish commercial empire come from? What were its intellectual origins? These are some of the central questions that my research addresses and that I would like to explore very briefly in the paragraphs that follow.

I will begin by defining what I mean by “modern commercial empire.” The term does not simply refer to an empire that engaged in trade. What empire hasn’t? Rather, a modern commercial empire was a kind of polity that first took shape at the turn of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment statesmen began to distinguish “empires of conquest,” which were almost exclusively focused on hoarding silver, from modern “empires of commerce,” which focused on promoting economic improvement through labor and trade. While British and French thinkers initially developed this modern ideology of empire, it was Spain that carried out the largest experiment of the eighteenth century with modern commercial imperialism.

In spite of its far-reaching nature, this new vision of empire had inauspicious beginnings in Spanish administrative circles. Its origins are to be found in the 1740s, when a manuscript titled Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América circulated in the court among Spain’s most important statesmen. Indeed, the Nuevo sistema contained a basic blueprint of reform, which ministers of the second half of the century followed almost to the letter. It is surprising, to say the least, that few historians have attempted to reconstruct the intellectual context in which this relatively unpretentious but essential manuscript was written.


To understand the intellectual context that gave birth to the Nuevo sistema, it is necessary to provide a brief inventory of the most important versions of the text. While the first printed version of the Nuevo sistema dates to 1789, the most important manuscript versions allegedly date to 1743. There are at least two known versions of this 1743 manuscript, one at the Biblioteca Nacional de España and another at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real in Madrid. Additionally, portions of the Nuevo sistema appeared in the second half of Bernardo Ward’s Proyecto económico. There is a manuscript version of Ward’s Proyecto at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real, and a printed version appeared in 1779.

Scholars have assumed that the author of the Nuevo sistema was José del Campillo y Cossío, who is listed as the author in the manuscript versions of 1743. Given Campillo’s reputation as a respectable, hardworking, and learned minister, the attribution is not entirely unwarranted. However, upon close inspection, Campillo’s authorship becomes increasingly implausible. In particular, a passage within the Nuevo sistema alludes to a report written by Antonio de Ulloa, which likely refers to the celebrated Noticias secretas. This report was written in 1747 or 1748, which means that the Nuevo sistema could not have been written in 1743 and consequently that Campillo could not have written the text, especially considering that he had died in 1743.

The author of the Nuevo sistema probably was Melchor Rafael de Macanaz, a prolific writer and adviser to Philip V, the king of Spain until 1746. Among other reasons, Macanaz’s authorship can be proven by the existence of two manuscripts signed by the aforementioned adviser: 1) Discurso sobre la America española, held at the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, and 2) Nuevo sixtema para el perfecto gobierno de la América, which currently sits in the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan in Madrid. Both texts coincide almost to the letter with the manuscripts signed by Campillo. It is likely that Macanaz wrote the text earlier in century and continued to update it until the late 1740s. At that point, someone else, whose identity we may never recover, circulated the text as if Campillo were its author.

The fact that Macanaz was the original author of the Nuevo sistema provides a rich context from which to reconstruct the main ideas of the text. Although Macanaz was a faithful adviser to Philip V, he lived in exile in France from 1715 until 1748. In France, he experienced firsthand what contemporaries called the “John Law system,” an innovative scheme of administrative reform for the French Monarchy designed by the Scottish projector John Law. Law’s system included a national bank, a credit-based circulating currency, and a commercial company.  Although Macanaz did not agree with everything the Scottish projector proposed, the fact that he used the concept of a “new system” clearly shows that the experience in France inspired him to design a project for a Spanish commercial empire. The notion of a “new system” allowed him to rethink the very foundations of the Spanish Monarchy, while portraying the king as a political engineer and his ministers as scientific advisers.

The key idea proposed in the Nuevo sistema was that Spain had to abandon the “spirit of conquest,” associated with the pursuit of mines and territories in Spanish America, and adopt the “spirit of trade and industry,” which was concerned with stimulating economic improvement by creating synergy between the colonies and the metropole. The reason behind this proposal was simple. “Real wealth,” the Nuevo sistema suggested, “consists in the products of the land and the industry of men,” not in hoarding bullion.[1] And the most efficient way to stimulate work was to promote commerce, “for it [commerce] revitalizes agriculture, the arts, factories and the manufactures of industry.”[2] Macanaz had a specific kind of trade in mind: comercio libre (free trade within the bounds of the empire). In fact, he continued, it was important “to think of liberty as the soul of commerce, without which it [commerce] could not prosper nor live.”[3] Commercial liberty, he concluded, “is the soul of all the improvements which we argued will occur in Spain’s agriculture, manufactures and other significant matters.”[4]

Macanaz’s new system had many more dimensions, among which we can cite the institution of a new administrative apparatus for the New World. However, for our purposes here, we should keep in mind a few of the tenets of commercial empire that Macanaz put forward in the 1740s: 1) that to become powerful Spain had to acquire markets, not bullion, 2) that Spain had an abundant source of markets in the colonies, and 3) that the best way to control colonial markets was to implement comercio libre between the metropole and the colonies. According to Macanaz, what would come about as a result of instituting comercio libre was a highly integrated imperial economic system in which the colonies and the metropole worked in concert to stimulate economic growth. This new vision of empire is what subsequent ministers had in mind when they issued and implemented decrees or charters of comercio libre in 1765, 1778, and 1789. As an exiled intellectual who lived in France during the first half of the eighteenth century, little could Macanaz have suspected that his advice paper, the Nuevo sistema, would transform the political culture, the administrative system, and the economy of Spain’s vast empire for the rest of the century.

 

[1] José del Campillo y Cossío, Nuevo sistema de gobierno económico para la América (Mérida, Venezuela: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Humanidades y Educación, 1971 [1789]), p. 209.

[2] Ibid., p. 95.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

[4] Ibid., p. 146.

The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

The Confession of an Indigenous Witch in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Daniela Gutiérrez Flores, PhD Student, Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Studies 

During the first half of the sixteenth century and before the establishment of the Inquisition in New Spain, idolatrous practices carried out by indigenous people were punished with extreme severity. This sparked a religious debate on how to deal with the newly converted subjects. American Indians, because they were considered ignorant new Christians, would be excluded from the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, whose operations pertained only to mestizos, Africans, creoles and Spaniards. Instead, a tribunal was specifically created to attend to the indigenous population: the Provisorato de Indios.[1] 

Among the activities of this institution was the vigilance and extirpation of idolatry among indigenous peoples. The processes carried out by the Provisorato were commonly initiated by accusations made by individuals to fellow members of their community and, if grave, ended in an auto de fe. There were some cases, however, in which people turned themselves in. Such is the case of an indigenous woman who confessed to being a witch before Juan Ignacio Castorena y Ursúa, head of the Provisorato de Indios from 1709 to 1728.

The eighteenth century saw big changes in the configuration of Mexican cities. Indigenous people had formerly occupied the margins of urban spaces, but gradually, many of these villages were integrated into bigger cities. This resulted in the introduction of syncretic unorthodox religious practices into urban life, a situation that certainly troubled religious authorities. The Provisorato was a key institution in the attempt to suppress the heterodox religiosity of the “rustic” groups that suddenly erupted in the cities. This is the context surrounding this indigenous woman’s confession.

The confession is preserved in a 1736 manuscript I have recently begun to examine. Because it is a testimony in the first person, it serves as a fascinating window into colonial religious practices and the process of self-fashioning before ecclesiastic authority.

The woman begins by narrating her childhood. She was born, we are told, in a family with a long tradition in sorcery and witchcraft. While she was still a baby, her parents gave her away to Lucifer, who became her “nagual.” This syncretic representation of the devil takes us back to the first contact between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples, when practices such as nahualismo were amalgamated under Catholicism as evidence of the devil’s presence in the Americas. In the religion of the Ancient Mexicans, the term nahualli designates the spiritual companion or “alter ego” of a person, which usually takes the form of an animal.[2] From the beginning of her confession, the woman represents herself through duality. The devil is certainly an intrinsic part of who she is, but reason—and with it, the possibility of redemption—still lies within her.

She then goes on to tell us how Lucifer raised her: he taught her to walk, to dress, to make her bed. He gave her baby animals to play with and took her on walks through the maize fields. The devil is portrayed as a maternal loving figure, a “chichigua” (wet nurse) who nurtured her with knowledge about witchcraft, but also with practical everyday-life skills. Perhaps one of the most interesting characteristics of this testimony is precisely the connection drawn between the fantastic world of flying shape-shifting witches and the mundane life of common individuals. The devil and the witch, far from being esoteric figures, are placed here in the concrete, familiar contexts of colonial life.

When the woman grows older, she marries Lucifer in a big celebration in which guests danced to the dance of the Moors and the Christians (a traditional Spanish dance that enacts Christian domination over the Moors, but that in the Americas was adapted to dramatize the process of colonization). In this dance, our witch plays la Malinche—Hernán Cortés’s famous interpreter and mistress—and, thus, the devil plays the conquistador. Through this dramatization, both Cortés and La Malinche emerge as demonical figures. Her union to Lucifer mirrors that between Spaniards and Mexicans, symbolically making mestizos the offspring of a diabolical alliance.

As a wife, the witch gains deeper knowledge about demonic customs, acquiring higher powers and ascending in satanic hierarchy thanks to her superior talent. She recounts explicit tales about raping sleeping nuns, eating babies in tamales, using their blood to knead tortillas and even murdering her own mother at her father’s request (he had grown bored of her). She becomes the new head of her family and a sort of “First Lady” of the Satanic Church, accompanying Lucifer in his travels around the world.

Out of this document emerges a strong female voice that freely brags about her power and talent with deep pride. Her association with Lucifer allows her to occupy a position in society that is not typically reserved for women: she replaces patriarchal authority in her own family, annuls her maternity by eating her children, satisfies her sexual desires unrestrictedly and even challenges the authority of Lucifer himself. When demanded to sacrifice the only son she has ever been fond of, she protects the baby by offering him to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Reciprocally, the devil does not act according to “traditional” masculine roles. He helps women in domestic tasks—such as grinding nixtamal to make tortillas—so that they do not exhaust themselves with too much housework. At Lucifer’s side, the woman has radical liberties that she does not find in her earthly Christian marriage to an Indian cacique. With her human husband, who ignores her true identity, she says the “worm” of her desire has died and she feels condemned to die “dumb.”

How were all of these tales received by the authorities in the Provisorato de Indios? The final whereabouts of this witch are a question I have yet to answer. She may have been processed, or perhaps the gravity of her crimes was lessened by the fact that she confessed. Indeed, her insisting reiteration about her demonic lineage, along with her representation of confession as an act of rebellion against Satan, seems to constitute a strategy for attenuating her culpability. In representing herself as an ignorant, irrational woman who was “fooled” into worshiping the devil by her family, she would have been able to protect herself while simultaneously talking extensively about her past. Regardless of her final destiny, this unique document shows how colonial subjects manipulated existing religious discourse to negotiate their position in an ever-changing society.

[1] See Gerardo Lara Cisneros, ¿Ignorancia invencible?: superstición e idolatría ante el Provisorato de Indios y Chinos del Arzobispado de México en el siglo XVIII, UNAM: México D.F., 2014.

[2] See Roberto Martínez González, “Bruja y nahualli: versiones y perversiones en el proceso colonial,” Cyber Humanitatis, Universidad de Chile, Nº48 (Primavera 2008).