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Strong Leaders in Decline? It’s Complicated: A look at Brazil’s Evangelicals and the Election of Jair Bolsonaro

Guilherme Baratho, MAPSS MA’20 and PhD Student (entering 2021), Sociology, Northeastern University

Jair Bolsonaro hands yellow soccer-style t-shirt to Donald Trump during a meeting.
Figure 1. Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump exchanging soccer-style t-shirts during a meeting. Source: Evan Vucci/AP.

Naively, I believed Trumpism would be a relic of a defunct political moment. Yet, it has endured. The appeal of “strong leaders” who operate under the guise of a “politics of discipline” has repeatedly shown that their influence is here to stay. While evidence can be found in cases such as the United States, prominent manifestations of support for these types of candidates have also emerged in the Global South. Inevitably, certain political traits may overlap across different regions, but to establish a thick account, support for “strong leaders” should be understood as contextually specific. Moreover, I would argue, their political appeal is waged on democratic attitudes that are intrinsically fluid.

Politics does not reset, clearing errors and normalizing conditions to a state of resolve after every election. Consider my study on Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Beginning in 1985, Brazil’s re-democratization reveals how theoretical propositions based on “conservative wave” theory or claims of political transition catalyzed by class-actors are insufficient (Soares 2017; Saad-Filho 2018). While those aspects may be included in the overall analysis, alone they obscure local dynamics and critical junctures that amass overtime. Post-dictatorship, Brazilians steadily elected center to center-left presidents while political structure reflected Ann Swidler’s (1986) definition of “unsettled times”—a state of disorder, where “natural” or “expected” processes are in flux. Although corruption and protests alike contributed to this unsettled disposition, my point is to establish an analytical range that is broad, yet contextual. By following the trajectory of Brazil’s democracy and recognizing the complex formation of electoral dispositions over time, we can better identify the conjunctures that led to the rise of Bolsonaro and Brazil’s far-right in 2018.

Marco Garrido (2020) recently presented a conjunctural account of Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, elected in 2016. Establishing a logic of conjuncture, Garrido argues, two components are required: sequence and interpretation. Both are predicated on an understanding of causality that is processualist—”a contingent series of actions unfolding over time” (Garrido 2020: 3). The underlying impetus for Garrido’s explanation is a notion of time that is both lateral and retrospective. Through interviews with upper- and middle-class actors, Garrido provides insight on how they negotiate their support for Duterte. Their fluidity is based on an understanding that is predicated on both current and historical events, as well as contextually political and social ones. Ultimately, Garrido’s account yields a more comprehensive understanding behind Duterte’s appeal and consequent political success, but he also offers fellow researchers studying “strong leaders” a more robust approach to studying their appeal.

Timing is not only critical to when things happen, but also to how and even why they happen. Practically speaking, realizing that support crystalizes over time, with respect to a series of “interconnected reactions to antecedent actions,” reveals a logic to Bolsonaro’s political appeal that stems beyond his actual politics and more so, is tied to Brazil’s political disappointments (Glaeser 2005: 18–19). Frustration alone cannot explain Bolsonaro’s electoral win, but used as an Archimedean point, it can serve as the foundation to examine the trajectory of Brazil’s democracy and the contingency of support for Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Bolsonaro is a political outcome that was constituted in relation to a host of various other events. After Fernando Collor de Melo in 1992, Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment marked Brazil’s second impeachment in less than 33 years since re-democratization. Both politicians were indicted on allegations of corruption, but this is something Brazilians had already become acutely familiar with. A few years prior, Dilma’s predecessor and Brazil’s most popular president to date, Luiz Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula, was also accused of corruption in a scandal that would be known as mensalão (roughly translates to “big monthly payment”). Prior to Lula’s presidency, however, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was also accused of corruption when decentralized cash-transfer programs had been co-opted by the state and municipal politicians began re-directing distribution circuits from their intended outcome, causing a resource “leakage” (Lindert et al. 2007: 46). Despite the primer of these allegations, Dilma’s malpractice had greater repercussions, as her involvement would be affiliated with Brazil’s biggest political corruption scandal to date, known by its neologism as petrolão (roughly translates to “big oil”). With Dilma impeached, Lula was later found guilty on money laundering charges and received a sentence of twelve years in federal prison (Cowie 2018). These events marked the demise of Brazil’s political left.

Bolsonaro faced off against Fernando Haddad, who had been appointed by Lula to represent the Workers’ Party on another executive ticket, a relation that was clear to most voters. Consolidating a clear lead over his opponent early on, Bolsonaro sealed the presidential victory with approximately 55 percent of the votes (Simões and Huang 2018). Yet despite the decline of the center-left and left over the years and the lateral comparison to Haddad, another aspect stood out in this unprecedented victory. In comparison to all previous presidents of Brazil, Bolsonaro  “benefited like no other [presidential candidate] from the support of a large section of the Evangelical electorate” (Zilla 2020: 6). From evangelicals alone, Bolsonaro received an 11.6 million voter advantage (See Table 2; Datafolha 2018). Conclusively, this figure is larger than the roughly 10.7 million vote difference in the final result between both candidates. In other words, these numbers constitute Bolsonaro’s true win margin, taking into account voter disenchantment where 20.3 percent of Brazilians abstained from voting and removing the national average of 9.5 percent of blank and null ballots. Approximately 31.6 million evangelicals cast valid votes in the 2018 election. With Bolsonaro netting close to 22.1 million of those votes, he garnered roughly 70 percent of the total evangelical support (Fernandes et al. 2020; Datafolha 2018).

Table 2

Distribution of electorate per type of religion
Religion Votes for Bolsonaro Votes for Haddad Difference
Catholic 29,795,232 29,630,786 164, 446
Evangelical 21,595,284 10,042,504 11,552,780
Afro-Brazilian 312,975 755,887 -442,912
Espírita 1,721,363 1,457,783 263,580
Other Religion 709,410 354,549 363,862
Without Religion 3,286,239 691,097 -871,142
Atheist or Agnoistic 375,570 691,097 -315,527
Total 57,796,074 47,080,987 10,715,087
Source: DataFolha, October 25, 2018

Graph originally in Portuguese, translated by author.

Brazilians evaluated Bolsonaro “laterally” and “retrospectively,” that is, in relation to the political actors around him and preceding him. However, as demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves argues, “the evangelical vote was [the] definitive [vote] of the presidential election in 2018” (2018; translation by author). Indeed, the question is one that is contextually specific, but standing on the foundations of sequence and interpretation. My research attempts to make sense of Brazil’s evangelicals’ embrace of politics while inquiring into this moment of significant mobilization in support of Bolsonaro’s candidacy.

Peculiarities have inevitably emerged, such as Brazil’s increasing popularity of Evangelical Protestantism at the expense of nominal Catholicism and the expansion of Pentecostals and “neo-Pentecostals” into more affluent neighborhoods (Pew 2013; Guadalupe 2019: 35). These are major shifts given that Brazil is considered the most Catholic country in the world per population and that, historically, evangelicals in Brazil have been characterized by a majority that is black and female, with low education and low income levels (Llaneras 2018; Machado 2012: 73). Therefore, the face of Evangelical Protestantism, along with the traditional discourse of evangelical conservatism, is rapidly evolving and, in this regard, their support for Bolsonaro indicates how rather than just influence, they are seeking to achieve political power.

Political counter-imaginaries abate where discreditation of transcendence is widespread. In Brazil, the opposite trend abounds. This is why evangelicals must be considered a catalytic political force in Bolsonaro’s emergence along with the political right-wing. Subsequently, to critically understand evangelicals as political agents, “everyday interactional contexts and in the workings of organizations and institutions” must be investigated (Brubaker 2006: 72). It could be said that perhaps Bolsonaro’s presidential victory was in part due to a “negative” vote: he won, but more importantly, the Workers’ Party did not. Indeed, there is power to the idea that people voted for the “lesser evil” and through their vote rejected Brazil’s political corruption and expressed their disaffection with the traditional political class. Although Bolsonaro is far from a political outsider: he is, in fact, a career politician, serving twenty-seven years in Congress prior to his presidential candidacy (Prengaman et al. 2018). Nevertheless, the measure of a thick account is “multiple registers of causation” (Garrido 2020: 18). Therefore, global cases of exclusionary politics would benefit from elevating local dynamics and accounting for the contingencies tied to historical and current events, such as I have attempted to demonstrate with my study on Bolsonaro in Brazil. Then, the outcome is something that is wonderfully complex but more authentically complete.



Alves, J.E.D. (2018). “O voto evangélico garantiu a eleição de Jair Bolsonaro,” EcoDebate. Retrieved from

Brubaker, R. (2006). Ethnicity without Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cowie, S. (2018, April 5). “Brazil’s Lula ordered to surrender after court backs jailing,” The Guardian. Retrieved from

Datafolha. (2018). “Bolsonaro chega à véspera da eleição com 55% dos votos válidos,” DataFolha. Accessed December 16, 2019. Retrieved from

Fernandes, A. S., Teixeira, M. A., & Palmeira, J. D. (2020). “A Longa Conjuntura Crítica Brasileira Desde 2013: Crise e Castigo,” Cadernos Gestão Pública E Cidadania, 25(81), 1–19.

Garrido, M. (2020). “A conjunctural account of upper- and middle-class support for Rodrigo Duterte,” International Sociology, 35(6), 1–23.

Glaeser, A. (2005). “An Ontology for the Ethnographic Analysis of Social Processes: Extending the Extended-Case Method,” Social Analysis, 49(3).

Guadalupe, J. P. (2019). Evangelicals and Political Power in Latin America (J. Butler, Trans.). Lima: Instituto de Estudios Social Cristianos.

Lindert, K., Linder, A., Hobbs, J., & Brière, B. (2007). “The Nuts and Bolts of Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program: Implementing Conditional Cash Transfers in a Decentralized Context,” World Bank Group, (0709), 1–143.

Llaneras, K. (2018, October 30). “Bolsonaro divide o Brasil: Arrasa nas cidades mais brancas e mais ricas,” El País. Retrieved from

Machado, M. D. D. C. (2012). “Evangelicals and Politics in Brazil: The Case of Rio de Janeiro,” Religion, State and Society, 40(1), 69–91.

Mannheim, K. (2015). Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.

Pew. (2011). “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” Electronic Article, December 19. Retrieved from

— (2012). “The Global Religious Landscape.” Electronic Article, December 18. Retrieved from

— (2013). “Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Electronic Article, July 18. Retrieved from

— (2013). “The Global Catholic Population.” Electronic Article, February 13. Retrieved from

Prengaman, P., Silva De Sousa, M., & Christofaro, B. (2018, October 01). “In Brazil Congress, Bolsonaro’s record thin; army was focus,” AP News. Retrieved from

Saad-Filho, A. (2013). “Mass Protests under ‘Left Neoliberalism’: Brazil,” Critical Sociology, 39(5), 657–669.

Saad-Filho, A. (2018, October 27). “Privilege Versus Democracy in Brazil,” Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved from

Simões, E., & Huang, H. (2018, October 28). “Brazil election,” Reuters. Retrieved from

Soares, J. M. M. D. S. (2017). “A onda conservadora: ensaios sobre os atuais tempos sombrios no Brasil,” Em Pauta, 15(39), 271+.

Swidler, A. (1986). “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273–286.

Zilla, C. (2020). “Evangelicals and Politics in Brazil: The Relevance of Religious Change in Latin America,” SWP Research Paper, 1.

The Corridors of Funk in Rio de Janeiro: Meaning, Violence, and Contestations of Space

Patrick Murphy, PhD Student, Music

The empty space separating the two throngs of fighters always seems tenuous during a Rio de Janeiro corridor event. The empty corridor is not officially demarcated, but rather has a sinuous imaginary band of unoccupied space which narrows and widens as it cuts through the galeras, the groups of hundreds of young men participating every weekend who come together under the banner of neighborhood pride. Galera members do not establish themselves inside the corridor space. On the contrary, the corridor is where they dash through to throw punches and kicks against rivals before quickly returning to their side. Sometimes small groups will thrust forward as a larger mass, and it is at these moments that it seems as if the event will erupt into a generalized brawl—but that seldom happens.[1] Instead, what occurs is a winding movement of the corridor as the groups move forward and backward while off-duty cops, hired as security, hold off the most agitated fighters.[2] What is so surprising, however, is how the corridor space is restored after the most agitated of clashes, reestablishing the dividing line between the opposing groups.

Music is fundamental. During events, loud Rio de Janeiro funk is played over and over. The music is not to be confused with what a typical American listener might understand to be funk. Instead, it more closely resembles rap, dub, or hip-hop—black electronic musics that emerged slightly earlier than Rio funk. In funk played at corridor events, lyrics reinforce the power and virility of the participating galeras. Songs may also ridicule rivals, but the music—sung by men, played by men, and performed for men—seems to instill in the participants the will to fight and to win. These funk montagens, as they are called, are produced specifically for the brawls, and signal, once they begin to play, that the fighting is about to start. Every galera has its own montagem, and they each feature lyrics referencing particular neighborhoods or favelas. Their sheer loudness and fast tempos inspire fighters to engage more readily, while their throbbing bass sounds resonate throughout the large warehouses or gymnasiums where corridor events are usually held.[3] In attempts to cool down spirits, DJs sometimes switch to music which does not reference the galeras, but this is usually not the case. What we see and hear time and again in the corridors are DJs stimulating the participants, playing montagens referencing the participating galeras, and playing them louder and louder.[4]

Corridor events in Rio made their first appearances in the 1980s, and became extraordinarily popular during the following decade.[5] However, by the end of the 1990s, corridor dances came to an abrupt halt, giving way to other manifestations of festive funk.[6] It is only in the past couple of years that the corridors have once again received major media attention, raising the question whether they are making a full-blown return. Here you can see footage from a corridor event occurring during the 1990s:

Figure 1. Screen shot from corridor dance available in YouTube. CW: Physical Altercation

My overarching concern regarding corridor events, prior to my fieldwork, is to investigate the meaning of these popular cultural manifestations for the city of Rio. Why did corridor dances occur in Rio during these particular periods? In what ways are they in dialogue with the history and social conditions of the city? I seek to better understand what stimulated their emergence in the 1980s, grasp what conditions led to their demise at the end of the twentieth century and, finally, shed light on the circumstances which have led to their recent return. Furthermore, given the rise, fall, and rise again of corridor events, I ask how this popular manifestation has adapted throughout the years in response to its social settings. And I ask, perhaps more importantly, in what ways it has acted upon those very same circumstances.

While much research and in-the-field investigation are yet to be done, I have a few preliminary ideas as to what corridor events represent for Rio. I hypothesize corridor events, at least in their earlier iteration in the 1980s and 1990s, were performances connected to the Brazilian transition from a military dictatorship into a democratic regime. The circumstances of Brazil’s emerging democracy, after a period of military rule that lasted more than 20 years and the ratification of the celebrated 1988 Constitution, nicknamed the “Citizens” Constitution for having been written during the period of redemocratization, served as important conditions that set the stage for this cultural manifestation. As a performance where participants dispute space through violent confrontation under the rubric of informal rules, and where neighborhood identity stands as a fundamental feature, I believe corridor events served in the 1980s and 90s as symbolic claims over city-spaces by groups who have repeatedly had their living arrangements contested legally and, at critical times, violently by authoritarian governments. Corridor events thus can be understood to represent the increasing degrees of rootedness in the city of Rio by neglected groups, usually black and impoverished citizens who, since the beginning of the Brazilian Republic (1889), have been targeted by eviction procedures designed to push them out of the city center, toward peripheries. With the coming of democracy, corridor events functioned to symbolically clamor for a place in the city, given that the newly established democratic condition increasingly sheltered favelas from evictions as the previously disenfranchised gained electoral power through the ballot box.[7]

But even though the corridors were popular throughout the city, they were eventually outlawed by the state of Rio de Janeiro. Law 3.410 of the year 2000 stated that “the police force may interdict the club and/or place where acts of encouraged violence, eroticism, and pornography occur, as well as where the so-called corridor of death dance is found” while also “permitting the occurrence of bailes only with the presence of police officers and previous authorization from police authorities.”[8] According to a corridor participant I interviewed, the law was effective. Events he attended shortly after the law was passed were targeted by police, who fined the organizing parties and, at times, simply shut down entire events.[9]

Although the law played a critical role in shutting down the corridors, events were already going through important transformations. In her revelatory research, social scientist and scholar Carla Mattos shows how the competing drug factions of Rio, as they gained control over different neighborhoods and favelas throughout the 1990s, urged galeras to fight groups living in neighborhoods under the control of rival factions.[10] According to a former corridor participant she interviewed, these new impositions buttressed the dismantling of the corridors, since galeras had to follow the rules of the factions instead of basing their participation on previous alliances and rivalries. What eventually happened, according to this informant, is that the corridors ceased to symbolize neighborhood identity and became tethered to competing drug groups, a condition which, along with the aforementioned legal changes, contributed to the demise of corridors in the early twenty-first century.[11]

Law 3.410 of 2000 was repealed in 2008 but that did not mean the corridors made a timely comeback. On the contrary, there was not much talk about corridor events until 2019, at least to my knowledge. The same informant with whom I spoke reinforced the notion that they have remained a thing of the past.

But much remains to be investigated regarding contemporary corridors. Although at first glance recent footage[12] reveals that corridors share similarities with the events of the 1980s and 1990s—two competing sides fighting across an empty space policed by informal security guards continues to be the norm—one can’t help but ask if they are indeed the same. Have the drug factions successfully implemented the changes suggested in the research presented by Carla Mattos? If so, how have corridor events changed in their organization and, perhaps more importantly, their meaning? These are my initial questions concerning contemporary corridors, questions which, in my view, will require further ethnographic research to be answered.



Alvim, Rosilene and Eugênia Paim. “A Febre que nunca passa: O Funk, a sensualidade e o ‘Baile do Prazer.” Revista Diálogos, no. 2 (2010).

Cecchetto, Fátima. “Galeras funk cariocas: os bailes e a constituição do ethos guerreiro.” In Um Século de Favela, edited by Alba Zaluar and Marcos Alvito, 145–165. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 1998.

Cecchetto, Fátima. “As galeras funk cariocas: entre o lúdico e o violento.” In Galeras cariocas: territórios de conflitos e encontros culturais, edited by Hermano Vianna, 93–116. Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1997.

Fischer, Brodwyn. A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. 2008.

Mattos, Carla. “Da valentia à eurose: Criminalização das galeras funk, ‘paz’ e (auto)regulação das condutas nas favelas.” DILEMAS: Revista de Estudos do Conflito e Controle Social 5, no. 4 (2012).

McCann, Bryan. Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Perlman, Janice. Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge of Rio de Janeiro. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Vianna, Hermano. O Baile Funk Carioca: Festas e Estilos de Vida Metropolitanos. Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 1987.

Ventura, Zuenir. Cidade Partida. São Paulo: Editora Companhia das Letras, 1994.


[1] There are several videos of corridor events on YouTube. A good written description of corridor events may be found in Cecchetto, “Galeras funk cariocas: os bailes e a constituição do ethos guerreiro.”

[2] Ventura, Cidade Partida, 122.

[3] Examples of corridor montagens may easily be found in YouTube searches. The following link has several montagens strung together.

[4] Vianna, O Baile Funk Carioca, 82.

[5] Cecchetto, “Galeras Funk Cariocas,” 106.

[6] Alvim and Paim, “A Febre que nunca passa,” 41.

[7] For deeper discussions concerning informal living and government policy concerning land tenure in Rio, see Fischer (2008), McCann (2014), Perlman (2010), among others.

[8] The online archive of the Legislative Assembly of the state of Rio de Janeiro lists laws both for the state of Rio de Janeiro and the municipality of Rio, accessed on November 26, 2020,

[9] Phone interview on May 18, 2020.

[10] Carla dos Santos Mattos, “Da Valentia à Neurose,” 669-70.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Recent footage was widely circulated by mainstream media outlets, such as UOL, Globo, and Record. A link follows.

Criminality and Evangelisms in the Favela: Ethnographical Notes from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Ana Beraldo, PhD, Sociology, Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil/ Former Visiting Student, CLAS (2018–19)

Figure 1. Morro da Luz, picture taken by the author, April 2019

A Fortress of Crime

“We live in a fortress of crime,” said Thiago (pseudonym) as he tried to explain to me how daily life works for those who live in favelas. He is a 23-year-old black man who I met while conducting my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork at Morro da Luz (fictitious name), a large shantytown in the city of Belo Horizonte[i], Brazil. I myself grew up in the same city, in a middle-class neighborhood not far away from Morro da Luz, and yet I noticed that Thiago was making an effort to translate so that I could really grasp the reality he was portraying, at the same time so close and so distant from my own.

When Thiago described the favela as a “fortress of crime,” he was talking about how criminal groups, especially the ones involved in drug trafficking, create order in the territory by establishing moral parameters of rightness and fairness. Through actions such as punishing those that rob inside the community, killing socially recognized rapists, quickly taking sick people to the hospital, or making sure public service workers are well treated while performing duties that are important for neighborhood residents, criminals exert a governance that goes far beyond the limits of the criminal groups themselves and that regulates behaviors and relations in the peripheries in a broader sense.

Since these groups are heavily armed, their actions are anchored in the possibility of the use of force, and, not infrequently, in the actual use of it. But that alone would not be enough to form an effective criminal governance. Not just at Morro da Luz but in many similar places around Brazil and Latin America, criminal organizations have managed to successfully build for themselves a level of legitimacy that, although far from being total or hegemonic, is definitely significant.

Often enough, the governance exercised by criminal groups offers some protection—albeit in problematic ways —to a population vulnerable to many types of violence, from police brutality to insufficient access to rights. While there is a socially shared image of “favelados” (favela dwellers) as potentially dangerous people from whom the rest of society should be sheltered, and while this representation is deeply connected to security policies that are based on incarceration, persecution, and murder of this fraction of the population, criminal groups acting in those territories (whose members usually grew up in the same neighborhoods in which they now engage in illicit activities) are able to differentiate between the poor and act more accordingly to what is constructed as right. Thiago explains it once again: “Here there is no mugging, there is no rape, there is no this and that, but this is not because the police provides security for us, it is because the criminals don’t let it happen…we know that if it weren’t for them, things would be worse.”

A Battle against the Devil

As Thiago described those dynamics, he constantly emphasized that he does not approve of criminal activities nor does he agree with the violent ways in which criminal groups relate to each other, the police, and the community as a whole. As proof of that disagreement, he reminded me that he and his nine siblings grew up immersed in an evangelical environment, very much engaged with the activities of the church they attended on a daily basis— one among many scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Over the last five decades, Brazil has been experiencing important transformations, most strongly in the popular classes, both in regard to the religiosity of its people (with a reduction of Catholicism and a broadening of the evangelisms) and in regard to the dimensions and types of criminality and violence that characterize the country (with an expansion of illicit markets and an intensification of violent relations that are not exclusively, but considerably, related to those markets and to the ways they came to be structured in poor territories).

Interestingly, evangelical churches promote themselves precisely around the idea of a “battle against the devil,” and the devil, when it comes to places such as Morro da Luz, is profoundly linked to drug abuse and criminality. This has to do with Thiago’s argument that, since he was raised as a devoted evangelical, he could not agree with criminal activities. In Thiago’s claim, and in the discourses that circulate among poor Brazilian circles, crime and evangelism appear as rival sides of an everyday war for subjects and subjectivities. In that scenario, how can criminality and evangelism expand simultaneously in the same portion of the population?

Evangelisms in the Fortress of Crime

Figure 2. A pastor and an armed drug dealer talking, favela da Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Picture by Alan Lima, published October 19, 2017, available at

Through the ethnographic study I conducted in Morro da Luz, I identified that evangelisms and criminality are entangled, and that they connect with each other by two main phenomena: the conversion (from criminal, drug dealer, addict, to believer, evangelical, pastor)[ii] and the figure of the outlaw evangelical, increasingly common in the urban outskirts.[iii]

The converts experience a transformation of who they are, a construction of a new identity that is formed in opposition, but always attached, to the old one: they are and forever will be “ex-criminals,” “ex-traffickers,” “ex-addicts,” and so on. The converted bodies and presences in the favela seem to be signified as the living proof of the religious capacity of “salvation.”

At the same time, there are subjects that are “bandits” and “believers” who, while immersed in criminal networks, are also evangelical religious. In fact, for those who are inserted in illegal markets and in violent sociability, religious spaces can be one of the few places where they can take a break from the constant and tiring task of avoiding death[iv].

Both the convert and the criminal believer are usually very well received and integrated in evangelical temples and social relations. In my fieldwork in Morro da Luz, I realized that this is socially possible because the war the evangelisms are fighting is not between pastors and drug dealers, nor between religious and sinners, but between god and the devil. That is why Thiago could, at the same time, disapprove of criminality and recognize the criminals as a source of protection for the favela. The combat that goes on is otherworldly, transcendent. In the mundane sphere, they are all flawed humans, and, most importantly, they are all “favelados.”

[i] Belo Horizonte, a city with 2.5 million inhabitants, is located in the southeast of Brazil.

[ii] Also see: BRENNEMAN, R. “Wrestling the Devil: Conversion and Exist from Central American Gangs.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 112–128, 2014; and TEIXEIRA, C. A construção social do “ex-bandido.” [s.l.] Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2009.

[iii] See also: VITAL DA CUNHA, C. Oração de traficante: uma etnografia. 1. ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Garamond LTDA, 2015.

[iv] See also: RUBIN, J. W., SMILDE, D., JUNGE, B. “Lived Religion and Lived Citizenship in Latin America’s Zone of Crisis: Introduction.” Latin American Research Review, v. 49, n. Special Issue, p. 7–26, 2014.


Making Wind Energy with Venezuelan Horsepower

Steven Schwartz, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

In the arid peninsula of La Guajira, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, wind energy is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Since the early 2010s, over a dozen corporations have been in the process of licensing up to 57 wind farms, valued collectively at over US$6 billion (González Posso and Barney 2019, 18, 28). In the coming years, thousands of turbines are expected to appear in the constitutionally protected territory of the Wayúu—the largest indigenous people in Colombia and Venezuela. The strong and steady trade winds that traverse this indigenous land are capable of fulfilling Colombia’s national electricity demand (UPME 2015). During 2018–2019, I conducted ethnographic research among Wayúu communities and wind energy corporations venturing in La Guajira to learn how low-carbon energy regimes are reshaping people’s everyday lives, economic horizons, and imagined futures.

Fig 1. Department of La Guajira, Colombia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One overlooked aspect of the renewable energy boom is the dozens of vehicles that keep the flow of workers, goods, and equipment for current and future wind farms. The cars, driven almost exclusively by men, are critical for visiting prospective Wayúu hosts, carrying out community workshops and consultation meetings, and marking points on the GPS for future maps. The preferred vehicles are Toyota SUVs—4Runners and Fortuners—which are viewed as capable of navigating the rugged, unpaved, and heavily eroded roads of the rural peninsula without breaking down. Their air-conditioned and musicalized interiors (with non-stop Vallenato tunes) insulate staff workers from the extreme heat, the dusty wind gusts, and the bodily pain of long and bumpy rides. The nascent wind energy economy is intimately dependent on these cars: they are “unlikely nonhuman collaborators in the development of renewable energy” (Howe 2019, 74).

Toyotas embody the promise of prosperity, development, and the good life that is commonly attached to wind energy in Colombia. In fact, owning and driving a car for a wind energy company is a key source of income for many Wayúu and non-indigenous guajiros (as rental fees can go as high as US$135 per day). However, for NGOs, journalists, and indigenous leaders that are skeptical of the wind energy boom, the cars portend a wave of conflicts and territorial dislocations: they are a fossil-fuel technology aiding a novel form of energy extraction with potentially violent effects.

The extractive imaginary surrounding Toyota SUVs was vividly captured in a newspaper ad I came across by chance while reviewing old editions of Wayuunaiki—a bilingual monthly newspaper published in Venezuela aimed at a Wayúu readership. The ad, published in the early 2000s, had an image of a Toyota 4Runner and the phrase: “How far would Christopher Columbus have gone if he had had a Toyota? Till the end of the world, because Toyota is the most comfortable and resistant vehicle on the market.” A few weeks later, I heard the postcolonial version of this ad on a morning radio show broadcast from Riohacha, where Christopher Columbus had been replaced by Simón Bolívar—who led Colombia’s independence from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. Both iterations capture the ambivalent nature of these cars: while they crystallize rousing economic possibilities, they also evoke foreign and colonial actors that have arrived to capture a natural resource.

Fig. 2. Toyota Ad. Source: Wayuunaiki.

Yet, the Toyotas moving across the peninsula have another layer of ambiguity surrounding their identity. About 70 percent of all cars in La Guajira are Venezuelan (Benjumea Brito 2006), which is visible in their license plates—distinguishable by their white background and blue letters, the Venezuelan flag, and the Venezuelan states from which they originate. Most, if not all, of these cars also have a dark past: they were either stolen in Venezuela, or fraudulently reported as stolen to insurance companies, and then resold in the Colombian black market. The appeal of these vehicles is mainly their price. They can cost between 10 and 30 percent of the market price of a Colombian car (thereby making cars with Colombian license plates a sign of distinction). For this reason, the Colombian Guajira is filled with all kinds of Venezuelan vehicles, from motorcycles and old Ford-350 pick-up trucks to Toyota 4Runners and Fortuners.

Fig. 3. A Venezuelan Fortuner on the side of the road from Uribia to the Upper Guajira.

Most of these cars live relatively undisturbed due to a peculiar legal exception. Per numerous regional decrees, starting in 2003, these vehicles can go through a bureaucratic process—called interning or internación—after which they can move around legally, but only within the department of La Guajira. If they leave for the interior of Colombia, the cars will be detained. Ironically, they cannot circulate in Venezuela either, since owners fear that if they cross the border the police can easily confiscate the cars (since they remain reported as stolen). Neither fully Venezuelan nor Colombian. These are authentically guajiro cars that occupy a liminal space.

Since the 2000s, state governments in La Guajira have periodically attempted to legalize all Venezuelan cars, through the interning processes, yet new cars keep arriving. At several times in the past, they have also announced measures to eliminate their legal immunity to curtail the binational black market of stolen vehicles. Yet, these actions have been temporary and have almost always been met by protests (e.g., El Tiempo 1993, 1995). Interned cars are such an essential part of the social fabric of La Guajira that blocking their movements disrupts the entire region: it keeps children from going to school, people from going to work or to the doctor, tourists from reaching hostels, and kin and friends from visiting each other. Mobility in La Guajira is deeply intertwined with Venezuelan cars.

Interned cars are emblematic of the binational dynamics that have come to define La Guajira. They reflect the long and rich history of illicit flows that flourished since colonial times, from the smuggling of pearls and cattle to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century (Polo Acuña 2012) to the recent bonanza of marijuana (Britto 2020) and gasoline (Orsini Aarón 2007). The cars are both licit and somewhat illegal, periodically persecuted by state regulatory agencies, and yet a pillar of people’s mobility and social life. These cars also disclose the lurking and unexpected presence of Venezuela’s petro-state in fueling Colombia’s transition to a low-carbon energy future. In fact, most of them run on subsidized Venezuelan gasoline that has been smuggled across the border and sold in small plastic containers (see Fig 4). Subsidized Venezuelan gasoline provides up to 90 percent of the demand in the Colombian Guajira, powering many of the vehicles used to license, assemble, and maintain wind farms. Together, Venezuelan cars and gasoline demonstrate the “dim line between fossil-fueled modes of modernity and non-carbon-based forms of power” (Howe 2019, 75). They also suggest that Colombian wind farms are, perhaps inadvertently, a binational undertaking.

Fig. 4. Venezuelan Gasoline sold in Coca-Cola containers (called pimpinas) at the Jepirachi Wind Farm of Empresas Públicas de Medellín. Source: Photo by author.

Benjumea Brito, Paola, “En La Guajira 7 de cada 10 carros son robados,” El Tiempo, April 6, 2006,

Britto, Lina. 2020. Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

El Tiempo, “Controlarán carros venezolanos,” September 23, 1993,

El Tiempo, “Dueños de vehículos venezolanos tomaron ayer las calles de Maicao,” May 26, 1995,

González Posso, Camilo, and Joanna Barney. 2019. El viento del este llega con revoluciones. Multinacionales y transición con energía eólica en territorio Wayúu. Bogotá: Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz.

Howe, Cymene. 2019. Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Orsini Aarón, Giangina. 2007. Poligamia y contrabando. Nociones de legalidad y legitimidad en la frontera guajira siglo XX. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.

Polo Acuña, José Trinidad. 2012. Indígenas, poderes y mediaciones en la Guajira en la transición de la colonia a la república. Bogotá: Universidad de Los Andes.

Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética. 2015. Plan energético nacional Colombia: ideario energético 2050. Bogotá: Unidad de Planeación Minero Energética.

On Archives, Dissertations, and All We Cannot Control

Hanna Manente Nunes, PhD Candidate, History

I started archival research for my dissertation roughly two years ago in the Summer of 2018. At that point I had no such thing as a project, although I did have ideas, some better articulated than others, and I had questions, though none of them were particularly clear. With this, I spent three months at São Paulo’s Judicial Archive (ATJSP) photographing over 500 criminal cases (Figure 1). At the beginning of the following Spring quarter, I received a text message from one of ATJSP’s archivists. The state government, she wrote, was shutting down the archive’s operations in order to cut costs. Documents would be transferred to a private storage facility in a neighboring city, but it was unclear when and under which circumstances they would be made available again. If I still had work to do, she warned, I had to do it soon because in three weeks’ time the building would be closed. From Chicago, all I could do was delegate the data collecting to others. The coordinated effort of a good partner and four willing undergraduates led to almost 200 cases being sorted and photographed in those three fateful weeks. It was out of luck that I began my research when and where I did, befriending the right person at the right time. I was lucky to find five people willing to fully dedicate themselves to my research for almost a month. Luck, I have learned, is an intrinsic part of the process. 


Figure 1: Unsorted criminal cases at the now deactivated São Paulo Judicial Archive, taken in the Summer of 2018


When Spring of 2019 came after what felt like a long-lasting winter, I had more pictures than I could possibly read stored in the cloud. I also, quite surprisingly, was convinced I had a plan and foundation for my dissertation. Somehow, I managed to successfully convince others of my plan, and so I became a candidate. Instead of haphazardly-put-together ideas, I had ideas. Instead of convoluted questions, I had questions. With these ideas and questions, I walked into the city of São Paulo’s Municipal Archive. Two weeks in, my plan began to falter. The documents refused to conform to my beautifully formulated inquiries. They kept stretching me toward the margins of pages, making me scribble thoughts as they came in. Days passed in a haze, partially due to the unforgiving arrival of the Brazilian summer in that tiny room with no A/C and a barely functioning fan, but also due to the daily exercise of letting go. Every document that went from a dusty box to the cloud moved me further away from the plan that had made me a candidate. I had invested months in pulling my best thoughts together into one cohesive narrative, but the documents did not seem to care. When I finally gathered up the courage to send a report to my committee, it read “(all) things have changed.” The haze, I have learned, is an intrinsic part of the process.

I had very few project-related certainties left when the world as a whole lost its footing in the Winter quarter of 2020. I knew, for instance, that my dissertation was going to be about consumption, popular commercial practices, and material exchanges that mediated São Paulo’s urban space in the early twentieth century. I knew, based on more than 200 gigabytes of photographed documents I stored in the cloud, that the picture I will eventually sketch is one of a city largely connected by criminal, illegal, and informal economic activities. I knew, as annotated on a lost and found book kept by São Paulo’s Central Precinct, that on February 22, 1928, thirteen people had forgotten their umbrellas in the city’s trams (Figure 2). But I did not know if it actually rained on February 22, 1928, and that was key. While the forgotten umbrellas seemed to indicate so, that was not definite proof. Looking for weather forecasts, I found a column at the Correio Paulistano newspaper which luckily stated on February 23rd that on the previous day the sky had been overcast and rainy (Figure 3). Digging a bit deeper, I found several news reports published by the Estado de São Paulo which made note of a severe thunderstorm that had befallen the city. Bingo! 


Figure 2: A 1928 page of the “lost and found” logbook kept by São Paulo’s First Precinct, held in São Paulo’s Public Archive


Figure 3: The meteorological report published on February 23, 1928, in the Correio Paulistano


I have come to accept uncertainty, luck, and being dazed and confused as intrinsic parts of the research process. All that I cannot control plays as formative role in my work as all that I can control. The line, however, needs to be drawn somewhere. For now, I have drawn mine at having the first sentence of my dissertation’s opening chapter being factually right. The sentence might very well change in two weeks’ time. It quite likely will, but until then, no other words will ever sound so accomplished. To say that it rained on February 22, 1928, would be an understatement. On that day, in the dazzling city of São Paulo, it poured. 

Powers of Terror: Esotericism and the Argentine Dictatorship

Laura Colaneri, PhD Candidate, Romance Languages and Literatures

In an elegant apartment in Madrid in 1971, several prominent Argentines held vigil over an old and battered, but still preserved, corpse. Missing for 14 years, the embalmed body of Eva Perón, Argentina’s widely beloved first lady from 1946–1952, had finally been returned to her husband, the former Argentine president, General Juan Perón, who was living in exile with his new wife, Isabel. Upon its arrival, they had laid it out on a marble table on an upper floor. Isabelita spent days cleaning the dirt from the disinterred body, washing, drying, and brushing out its hair.1 The cadaver’s presence in the house, one of the other Argentines claimed, would help to fortify Isabel and give her the deceased’s strength. Evita’s spirit would enter into Isabel’s body and work through her, with his help. He conducted rituals to aid the transference of the deceased spirit into the body of the living, making Isabel lay down head to head with the corpse as he passed his hands over her and intervened with the spiritual world. Jorge Paladino, an Argentine politician, later claimed to have witnessed this scene, calling it a session of “magia negra.”2

These spiritual sessions were conducted under the influence of the Peróns’ private secretary, José López Rega, whose esoteric beliefs and practices would earn him the nickname of el Brujo, the sorcerer. Only a few years after these rituals held over Evita’s body, he would become the most powerful man in Argentina, reviled and feared for his role in directing a right-wing paramilitary group, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA), in activities that included the murder, disappearance, and forced exile of thousands of Argentine citizens. These actions characterized a bloody period of state-sponsored terrorism that would continue and worsen under the subsequent military dictatorship, which came to power after a 1976 coup and justified its government takeover largely as a response to the chaos of the years in which el Brujo reigned as the Peróns’ closest adviser.

Figure 1: José López Rega, Argentine Minister of Social Welfare (1973–1974), 24 September 1974, Wikimedia Commons

To this day, references to el Brujo—be they biographical, journalistic, political, cultural, or literary—often mention his sinister political power, this period of terror, and his dalliances with the occult in the same breath. He appears as a character in several literary works, most notably Luisa Valenzuela’s Cola de lagartija, in which he is depicted as megalomaniacal, hermaphroditic monster working dark magics to gain power. López Rega’s beliefs in the spiritual realm, and in his own ability to control it, are intimately linked with his actual rise to political power in the Argentine cultural imagination.

My research revolves precisely around these associations with unseen, sinister forces that are often highlighted in literature, film, and cultural discourses related to the Southern Cone dictatorships. López Rega is a fascinating figure for this reason: although the AAA operated under the democratic government that preceded the 1976 coup, thus prefiguring the much larger scale detention, disappearance, and murder of 30,000 people under the military government from 1976–1983, he is often remembered and represented with a notable level of mystery, superstition, and fear. One archivist that I worked with during a research trip to Argentina noted amusedly that the lights in her building had even briefly gone out when she went to fetch a copy of López Rega’s 758-page spiritual magnum opus, Astrología esotérica, for me to peruse—a strange omen.

On one level, an interest in López Rega’s biography and uncommon beliefs form part of a search for an explanation for his unexpected rise to power. A relatively uneducated, working class man, who was completely uninvolved with politics before the mid-1960s, it seems somewhat unfathomable that he should reach such a position of power and influence between 1965, when he met Isabel Perón, and 1973, when he was named Minister of Social Welfare. Faced with this trajectory, historians and journalists have examined el Brujo’s published texts and stories of his behavior seeking to shed light on his biography and personality. For example, sections of Astrología esotérica were reprinted, with commentary, in a July 1975 pamphlet as a “type of mental history, of intellectual identification of its author” that would “constitute a small contribution toward better analyzing the current moment in Argentine politics.” The pamphlet advised “that the reader come to his own conclusions,” but notably included quotations from more renowned astrologers who reviewed the book and declared him a charlatan, inept in the methods of “rational astrology.”

Like the compiler of this pamphlet, some writers have implied or openly concluded that López Rega’s behavior and professed beliefs were all part of an elaborate performance meant to manipulate and impress those around him, particularly Isabel Perón. Isabelita, who, as her husband’s vice president, would become president after his death in 1974, is repeatedly portrayed as having been impressionable and, as the adopted daughter of Spiritists and purportedly a believer herself, particularly susceptible to this type of performance.3 Others have treated them as the genuine, though absurd, illusions of an irrational narcissist. Whether they view him as a calculated manipulator or un loco, many writers, impressed by the terrible impact of el Brujo’s actions, tend to portray López Rega as a sinister force impacting the era’s political landscape.

On another level, an emphasis on linking López Rega and Peronism more generally to esoteric practices might very well have been a discursive strategy employed by the military government after the 1976 coup, which was explicitly and even aggressively Catholic, to further justify its takeover and position itself as a break with the earlier chaotic government. In July of 1975, López Rega was forced to resign from his position and fled Argentina in the face of accusations linking him to the AAA, among other crimes. In March of 1976, the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón, installed a junta in her place, and carried on the repressive activities of the AAA with the full force of the state and organization of the military. López Rega would remain in hiding until 1986, but his crimes and his spiritual beliefs would periodically return to the public eye. In May 1979, for instance, some of his belongings were seized by the federal police from a residence where they had been  kept and exhibited to the press: stories in major newspapers and magazines highlighted texts on masonry and astrology, various rings, capes, and stoles, and a mysterious doll resembling either Juan Perón or López Rega that articles speculated may have been used in occult rituals.4

Figure 2: A cartoon depicting el Brujo López Rega, published in Flash, February 29, 1996. López Rega, José, Fondo Editorial Sarmiento, Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno.

Finally, cultural interest in José López Rega may indicate the way that sinister, otherworldly conspiracies and esotericism are felt to reflect the lack of transparency of power under political conditions at the time. One writer has argued that López Rega’s behavior was reflective of Perónism itself, a political movement that often “resolved itself in privacy, traversed by esotericism.”5 In every dictatorship of the Southern Cone, and even under Argentina’s democratic government in advance of the coup that brought the military governments to power, political events were unduly determined by unaccountable groups of oligarchs and military men, not to mention US intervention. The AAA and the Argentine military government’s kidnappings and murders of alleged subversives were open secrets, conducted in broad daylight and in plain view of witnesses, but responsibility was repeatedly denied by those in charge. The power wielded by the authoritarian regimes depended upon this ability for paramilitary groups and secret services to instill fear and uncertainty in citizens and thus control their movements and limit dissent, even as the regimes themselves claimed plausible deniability or blamed their own actions on guerrilla opposition forces. In the face of this level of terror, confusion, and outright gaslighting of the population, it is not hard to believe that sinister forces are at work—whether they are wholly human or somewhere beyond.

1 Pressly, Linda. “The 20-Year Odyssey of Eva Perón’s Body.” BBC News, BBC, 26 July 2012,

2 Larraquy, Marcelo. López Rega: La biografía. Sudamericana, 2004, p. 175.

3 See for example “Cantor, policía, ministro, hoy requerido.” El Mundo [Uruguay], Nov. 4 1976. López Rega, José, Biografía, Fondo Editorial Sarmiento, Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno; Vicens, Luis. El Loperreguismo. El Cid Editor, 1983; and Feinmann, José Pablo. López Rega, la cara oscura de Perón: Apuntes sobre las Fuerzas Armadas, Ezeiza y la teoría de los dos demonios. Editorial Legasa, 1987.

4 See La Crónica, May 3, 1979; La Nación, May 2, 1979; La Nación, May 3, 1979; La Prensa, May 3, 1979; Clarín, May 3, 1979; Diario Popular, May 3, 1979. López Rega, José, Curanderismo, Fondo Editorial Sarmiento, Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno.

5 Feinmann, p. 70.

A Language Puzzle in Panama

Carlos Cisneros, PhD Candidate, Linguistics

Humans around the world vary immensely in their preferences for organizing information through language. Regional languages can have unique words that are difficult or impossible to translate. They might even bear grammatical features that challenge the way we think about how words can be put together in meaningful ways. I was drawn to research on the native languages of Panama by such a phenomenon.

Early in my graduate career, I read J. Diego Quesada’s (2007) The Chibchan Languages, a terrific survey of the characteristics found among many indigenous languages in and around Panama. In a section on the grammatical structure of numerals, Quesada provided the following example sentences from the indigenous Naso (or Teribe) language. For each example, the first line is the Naso sentence, the second line gives the individual translations for each word (called a gloss), and the last line is the English translation of the full sentence. In both sentences, the speaker expresses that they engaged in an activity involving a single item.

(1) Shwong        ko      plublun        ĩ-no-r                      k-ara
dress            color   white          see-PERF-1SG      CL.WIDE-one
‘I saw one white dress.’
(2) Dröng           twlẽ-no-r                  pl-ara
machete       buy-PERF-1SG       CL.LONG-one
‘I bought one machete.’

(Quesada 2007: 60)

Note the word order in the glosses, which are noun-verb-numeral for both Naso sentences. The numeral and noun are not adjacent. They instead occur on opposite sides of the verb, completely separate from each other. In sentence (1), the numeral kara ‘one’ occurs after verb ĩnor ‘I saw’, while the noun shwong ko plublun ‘white dress’ occurs before the verb. Likewise, sentence (2) has the numeral plara ‘one’ occur after the verb twlẽnor ‘I bought’, while dröng ‘machete’ occurs before.

I had never seen such data before this, and the phenomenon appeared especially exotic to my biased worldview as an educated English and Spanish speaker. This option of separating numerals from nouns is not available in my languages. In English, it would be like saying ‘He three bought machetes’. But English numerals are adjectives, and they must occur adjacent to the noun denoting what is being counted, as in ‘He bought three machetes’. Naso, on the other hand, seemed to have numerals as adverbs: words like quickly and completely which attach to verbs and add details about events that verbs describe. I asked myself how Naso speakers could interpret numerals as adverbs, while still interpreting that they indicate count for nouns. I decided to investigate this phenomenon further, both through searching the possible literature on the topic and by traveling to Panama myself to interview speakers.

The literature showed me that Naso was not unique in having this feature. It is common among languages of the Chibchan family (Uhle 1890; Constenla Umaña 1989, 1991, 1995), a group of related languages extending from eastern Honduras south to the northern regions of Colombia and Venezuela. Below is a selection of further data on adverbial numerals from three different Chibchan languages: Guaymí (or Ngäbe) in (3), Buglé (or Buglere) in (4) and (5), and Cabécar in (6).

(3) Kirabe          ni             nigui          iti       krare
long.ago       person     go.REC    one     hunt.FIN
‘Long ago a man went to hunt.’
(Quesada-Pacheco 2008: 147)

(4) Kuang          muire          ete       chula    doe      gada-de
person         woman       one      cat        carry    CL.LONG-one
‘A woman carries a cat.’
(Quesada 2012: 73)

(5) Koikeba          je         du               gaba-taugobobu       cha     ke
egg                 those   give.IMP      CL.ROUND-twelve   1SG    to
‘Give me those twelve eggs.’
(Quesada 2012: 74)

(6) yis-të              pũ        sũl       mãñã-tkö
1SG-ERG       hawk    saw    three-CL.FLAT
‘I saw three hawks.’
(Bermúdez 2016: 12-13)

As the glosses show in each example, the numeral occurs after the verb, while its associated noun occurs before the verb. Other common features among these languages include the placement of the sentence object before the verb, as well as the presence of numeral classifiers, which are the markers you see on these numerals, indicating the shape of the objects being counted.

I also learned about the linguistic debates regarding the status of adverbial numerals as true adverbs. Beyond the Chibchan language family, adverbial numerals have been identified in Japanese and are a favorite topic among researchers of Japanese linguistics. Researchers disagree on whether Japanese adverbial numerals are true adverbs, with some proposing instead that they are really adjectives, only having the appearance of adverbs due to the noun moving away from the numeral. This would mean that adverbial numerals in Japanese are nearly the same as adjectival numerals in English and Spanish, differing only in being subject to a special Japanese rule that requires nouns to shift away from numerals. The details of Japanese grammar often obfuscate the facts that could lend support to one hypothesis over the other, and the debate persists without much input from work on other languages.

Meanwhile, my visits to Panama provided me with a much broader understanding of both the Chibchan languages and their speakers. In Panama, I was lucky to find speakers of Guaymí and Buglé to interview. They were all internal migrants from the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, a relatively large indigenous autonomous zone in Panama. They moved frequently around the country for work and often took on jobs at the various fincas ‘farms’ that brought in many multi-ethnic migrants from across the country. As with many indigenous Panamanians, they traveled with their families and absorbed the Latino/Hispanic culture they encountered together. Life outside the comarca benefited their families with greater access to health and social services, as well as Spanish language schools that their children could attend. As parents made greater effort to communicate with their neighbors in Spanish, their native languages took a more subdued role in their lives, and some of their children have not acquired fluency in the mother tongue. This pattern is typical of languages in danger of disappearing, and although Guaymí speakers number over 150,000 people, Buglé speakers number only around 2,500 (Quesada 2007: 34-35). It is uncertain how much longer these languages may be around for study or for appreciation as a cultural heritage of Panama and surrounding countries. All the more motivation to document what I could about these languages and find material to get more researchers interested in them!

My interviews with the Guaymí and Buglé speakers illuminated much about the details of adverbial numerals missing in previous work, and I gained a better understanding of the phenomenon as a whole. At least for Guaymí, adverbial numerals turn out to be very grammatically similar to adverbs, especially those indicating numbers of events, like twice and three times in English. It would seem then that Guaymí simply has an expanded inventory of this adverb type, lacking in most common languages. This clarified the picture somewhat regarding the status of adverbial numerals as truly adverbs, but it did not answer my original question of how exactly these numerals attach to verbs while also indicating count for nouns. Several months after my last trip to Panama, I took a long break from this work to concentrate on other research topics and allow myself more time to interpret the data that I had collected. It was not until recently that I came back to this work, more mature in my thinking about the highly creative human language faculty, and benefiting immensely now from collaboration with colleagues. We hope to reveal our answer soon in upcoming publications.

Bermúdez, Natalia (2016) Diachronic development of isthmic numeral classifiers. Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin MA thesis.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1989) Subagrupación de las lenguas chibchas: Algunos nuevos indicios comparativos y léxico-estadísticos. Estudios de Lingüística Chibcha 8:17–72.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1991) Las lenguas del área intermedia: introducción a su estudio a real. San José: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica.

Constenla Umaña, Adolfo (1995) Sobre el estudio diacrónico de las lenguas chibchenses´ y su contribución al conocimiento del pasado de sus hablantes. Boletín Museo del Oro 38-39:13–55.

Quesada, J. Diego (2007) The Chibchan languages. Cartago: Editorial Tecnológica de Costa Rica.

Quesada, J. Diego (2012) Gramática del buglere. Quito, Ecuador: Editorial Abya-Yala.

Quesada-Pacheco, Miguel A. (2008) Gramática de la lengua guaymí (ngäbe). Muenchen: Lincom Europa.

Uhle, Max (1890) Verwandtschaften und wanderung der tschibscha. In Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists 7 (Berlin 1888): 446–489.

Hearing, Seeing, and Smelling 1950s Tijuana: An Exercise in Historical Imagination

Christian Rocha, Doctoral Candidate, History


Figure 1. The inner courtyard of the Archivo Historico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT), former site of Tijuana’s municipal government.


To visit the Archivo Histórico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT) is to experience the sensory overload typical of urban life. The building itself is an uneventful structure painted in pale brown, a color devoid of any obvious political party associations. The surroundings of the complex, however, teem with life. The archive is located in the midst of the old centro, uncomfortably close to the epicenter of the city’s red-light district. The AHMT shares the intersection of Calle Segunda and Avenida Constitución with a 7-Eleven, a supermarket that has a name with regionalist undertones, and a pharmacy that displays ads in English. The border wall dividing Tijuana from San Diego is less than a kilometer away. Plastic papel picado in the Mexican flag’s colors hangs by a nearby McDonald’s, the obligatory reminder that one is still in Mexico. Even the mere act of walking into the archive’s building triggers the senses. One has to navigate the throngs of pedestrians marching along busy Calle Segunda, hear the noise of traffic rushing away from downtown, and even smell the invariably nauseating stench emanating from the trash can at the corner of the block. A more adventurous researcher may even decide to savor the taste of the city during lunch by eating a shrimp taco at a neighboring “hole in the wall.”

As a historian of Tijuana’s urbanization, I am particularly concerned with depicting the texture of city life in my account of the boomtown’s history between 1955 and 1993. Yet, how can a historian access the sensorial experiences of the past? How can we bring the smells, colors, or sounds of 1950s Tijuana back to life without ever having been there?

The interior of the bland AHMT building holds the key to tapping into the historical sensory experience of the period: the permisos de ambulantes. These documents are the result of a bureaucratization of street life that started as early as 1955. The typical application contained information about the ambulante’s place of residence, the goods he or she wanted to sell, and the area of town where the person would work. Some of the folders also include relevant documents regarding potential organizational memberships or letters of recommendation supporting the applicant. Most of the permisos also contain a picture of the vendor. One can even verify an applicant’s literacy status by checking whether he or she was able to provide a signature. The permits, and the paperwork necessary to obtain them, then, are a singular window into street life during the period between 1955 and 1982.


Figure 2. The inner courtyard of the Archivo Historico Municipal de Tijuana (AHMT), former site of Tijuana’s municipal government.


A sensory portrayal of Tijuana’s centro can be reconstructed in part from the information in the permisos de ambulantes. The documents suggest a vendor’s contribution to the city’s cacophony, odors, or visuals. Three elements have to be considered. First, the specific itinerant has to be identified and associated with a given space that can be described and analyzed. It is difficult to account for a vendor’s contribution to the overall urban atmosphere otherwise. A second step is to appraise the sensory output of the items or services sold by the vendors according to the permit. Distinct goods contributed to the area’s smell in different ways. The stench of shoe polish, for instance, was not the same as the aroma of fresh fruit. Similarly, a trinket was more likely to make clanking noises than a bag full of cigarette boxes. The third element is to consider the mere impact that the vendor had by performing his or her role at a given site. A taquero by a row of bars was likely to attract clients. The sounds of drunk customers ordering tacos contributed to downtown’s cacophony even as the rest of the city slept.

The files of just three street vendors help us recreate the atmosphere of the blocks near the AHMT building during 1958. At the time, the complex served as Tijuana’s municipal seat of government. Ramón Arroyo was a constant presence at the corner of Calle Primera and Avenida Revolución. He stood at the invisible boundary between the respectable side of downtown and the edge of the red-light district. A blind cigarette salesman, his voice should have served as a warning to the respectable tourist that he was approaching the lurid underbelly of the city.[1] The next block over, closer to Tijuana’s seedy district, Javier Loza Bustamante sold tacos and other comestibles.[2] The third itinerant worked just one street north from the AHMT building. Alejo González was a shoeshine on Calle Primera and Avenida Constitución.[3] It is conceivable to imagine how a municipal employee may have walked down Avenida Constitución for a quick lunch at Loza Bustamante’s stand just two blocks away. The bureaucrat could have passed by González’s chair, possibly overhearing him talk with a customer or smelling the shoe polish, before crossing Calle Primera. At this point, the employee may have been able to overhear Ramón Arroyo as the cigarette salesman walked his predetermined route centered around the intersection of Calle Primera and Avenida Revolución. It was only a few steps to the bureaucrat’s lunch destination after this. The alluring smell of grease and meat would have welcomed the hungry employee. We have no record of the quality of Loza Bustamante’s food. Yet, his relatively short stint as a documented downtown taquero suggests that the taste of the tacos may have been not the best in town.

We get another glimpse of the area’s density of street commerce from the complaint of an itinerant candy saleswoman. María del Refugio Pérez worked at Parque Teniente Guerrero, located five blocks away from the current AHMT building. Frustrated with the high density of ambulantes in the area, she requested the municipality to change her zone of operations in March of that year. She asked the authorities if she could instead work one block away from Alejo González’s shoe shinning operation.[4] It was a fruitless effort. The authorities promptly rejected her appeal claiming that Calle Segunda was already overwhelmed with itinerant salesmen.[5] Then, our hypothetical bureaucrat would have encountered many more ambulantes on his way to lunch at Loza Bustamante’s taco stand. Each one of these vendors could have further contributed to the overall sensory overload of the centro.

Ultimately, the permisos de ambulantes are just one of the different tools available to feel 1950s Tijuana. They bring together the lives of Tijuanenses otherwise absent from the historical record, the quotidian experiences of the old centro, and the sounds, smells, and sights of a past living city.

[1]     AHMT, PM 411.5/2426

[2]     AHMT, PM 411.5/2657

[3]     AHMT, PM 411.5/3051

[4]     AHMT, PM 411.5/2451, “Tijuana, B.Cfa a 19 de marzo de 1959”

[5]     AHMT, PM 411.5/2451, “2622 a 20 de marzo de 1959”


Figure 3. The permiso de ambulante for María del Refugio Pérez for 1958-1959. AHMT, PM 411.5/2451

Photographs of the Castillo: Close Looking at the Art and Architecture of Chichén Itzá

Frida Plata, Student, MA Program in the Humanities (MAPH)

In order to study Mesoamerican art, we must frequently ask ourselves an important question – what elements can we derive from the objects themselves, and what are we deriving from our imagination to fill in the gaps of knowledge? The buildings and art of Chichén Itzá can help us consider how the imagination fills knowledge gaps, especially for a discipline like Mesoamerican art history that requires a substantial amount of information derived from the object itself. Close looking of the objects at Chichén Itzá helps us to reconsider posited theories about the site’s art and architecture, especially because of the limited primary sources available to us about Chichén Itzá. Much of the site’s documentation was destroyed by Diego de Landa (a Spanish Bishop who proselytized to the locals and helped colonize the region) upon his arrival during the sixteenth century. So, the codices that would have helped us decipher Mayan script have left us with many unanswered questions about the history, architecture, and art of Chichén Itzá [1]. Still, despite our limited primary sources, Chichén Itzá’s remains provide the visual information that can allow us to decipher the site’s meaning and aesthetic contributions to Mesoamerican art. In the fall of 2019, the Art History department offered a traveling seminar, led by Associate Professor Claudia Brittenham, to conduct the close looking necessary to reconsider methodological approaches taken thus far toward investigating Chichén Itzá and Mesoamerican art.

One different methodological approach when examining Chichén Itzá’s material evidence includes re-visualizing the site through the eyes of other artists. One artist in particular, American photographer Laura Gilpin, captured images of Chichén Itzá that allow us to see the complex designs of the site’s art and architecture. In 1932, Gilpin captured the first important documented photograph of the Castillo before sunset during the equinox [2] (Fig. 1). The north side of the Castillo depicts a serpent made from light and shadow that appears to slither down the pyramid’s west balustrade. This sophisticated projection of the great “Plumed Serpent,” an important supernatural figure in Mesoamerica, just begins to demonstrate Chichén Itzá’s sophisticated and fascinating architecture.

Figure 1. Laura Gilpin, Steps of the Castillo, Chichen Itza, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 35.4 x 26.7 cm

Another one of Gilpin’s significant images of the Castillo is Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan (1932) (Fig. 2). The photograph depicts six people scaling one of the Castillo’s stairways at Chichén Itzá. Even though the Castillo technically has four stairways, Gilpin features only one of the stairways in her photograph, thus simplifying the use of the space and eliminating any other possible processional pathways leading to the temple that sits on the ninth (and last) platform at the top of the building. From the top of the building to the bottom of the stairway, Gilpin photographs the Castillo from a centralized low angle, making the stairs seem gargantuan and thus seeming to create a monument of the Castillo while also adding a sense of drama to the long and steep trek to building’s entrance. Despite the elaborate, open-mouthed serpent heads on either side of the stairway entrance, Gilpin crops out most of the serpent heads from the photograph, emphasizing the stairway in the photograph more than any other architectural or ornamental feature of the Castillo.

Figure 2. Laura Gilpin, Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan, 1932. Gelatin silver print, 34.5 x 24.3 cm

As one moves their eyes towards the top of the Castillo’s stairs, they notice the temple’s entrance, awaiting the people scaling the stairs to enter it. The temple’s entrance appears perfectly aligned with the stairway, emphasizing a centrality and symmetry in the photograph. Symmetry and centrality are further emphasized by the design of the temple itself—two rounded columns evenly divide the temple’s entryway and help to unify the symmetry of the photograph.

One can also note the symmetry in Stairway of the Temple of Kukulcan by the linear repetition throughout the photograph. For example, the repeated horizontal pattern of the stairs helps to emphasize the symmetry of the photograph as the pattern takes up the center of the page. In addition to the repeated horizontal linear patterns in the photograph, the vertical lines that comprise the balustrades also play an important role within the photograph. The vertical lines in the image not only frame the symmetry of the repeated pattern of the stairs, but these vertical lines contribute to the monumentality within the photograph. They provide a sense of stability and strength to the image, much like the rounded columns at the temple’s entrance also provide a sense of stability, strength, and monumentality to the photograph. With the way that Gilpin utilizes line repetition to frame the stairway that leads to the temple, in addition to the people scaling the stairs that look toward the temple’s entrance, we are compelled to consider what resides beyond the temple’s doorway. Though one can visibly see the doorway’s entrance at the top of the stairs (as this photograph was captured during the day), they cannot see within the building because it is concealed in complete darkness. Still, even though we cannot see inside the building, we cannot help but wonder how the Maya utilized the space within and what they conceived when they were constructing the Castillo.

Regarding the people photographed in this image, they all wear seemingly traditional Maya dress. The women in the image appear to wear huipiles, the traditional white and embroidered dress of Maya women, their skirt hems decorated with detailed embroidery [3]. The men wear huaraches and straw sombreros (though short pants and tunics are more common), providing some shade against the strong Yucatec sun as they scale the Castillo’s steep stairway. As these people scale the stairs, their bodies create a diagonal line across the stairway, breaking the centrality and symmetry of the photograph. The young boy sitting and leaning against one of the serpent heads at the end of the balustrade at the bottom of the stairway also functions within the image in a similar manner, breaking the symmetry in the photograph as he sits alone, observing the others scale the Castillo’s stairs. In addition to breaking the centrality and symmetry within the photograph, the diagonal line created by the people in the photograph gives the image a sense of action and dynamism, which contrasts the stability provided by the horizontal linear repetition of the stairs and the vertical repetition of the balustrades.

Upon actually seeing the Castillo during the traveling seminar, we realized just how the ancient Maya strategically employed certain optical illusions to emphasize the pyramid’s monumentality. For example, the area surrounding the Castillo remains empty, thus making the Castillo appear much larger than the other buildings distantly placed from the pyramid. In addition, the Castillo itself incorporates an optical illusion of sorts in its design. As one moves their eyes form the bottom to the top of the pyramid, they can observe that the squares on each platform incrementally decrease in size toward the top, thus making it seem as if the Castillo is much larger than its somewhat modest size, especially compared to other pyramids in Mesoamerica (such as Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon and the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Puebla). Naturally, actually being able to visit Chichén Itzá through this traveling seminar opened up many more questions about this fascinating site. It will certainly continue to perplex and fascinate art historians as we continue to investigate and uncover its meanings.


[1] Linnea Holmer, et al., Lanscapes of the Itza: Archaeology and Art History at Chichen Itza and Neighboring Sites (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018), 37.

[2] John B. Carlson, “Pilgrimage and the Equinox ‘Serpent of Light and Shadow’ Phenomenon at the Castillo, Chichén Itzá, Yucatán,” Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture 14, no. 1 (1999): 138.

[3] Phillip Hofstetter, Maya Yucatán: An Artist’s Journey (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 107.

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.


[1] Jan-Christopher Horak, “How to Find a Lost Film,” Archival Spaces, last modified November 10, 2017,
[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,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kelly Graml, “Landmark Puerto Rican film thought lost, now restored,” UCLA Newsroom, last modified November 3, 2017,
[8] Private e-mail correspondence with Dr. Roberto Ramos-Perea, April 16, 2018.