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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.

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

Jack Mensik, MA Student, LACS

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

[3] Barkin, David. 2004. “Mexico City’s Water Crisis.” NACLA Report on the Americas 38, no. 1: 24-28.; Connolly, Patricia. 1999. “Mexico City: Our Common Future?” Environment and Urbanization 11, no. 1 (April): 53-78.; Kahn, Carrie. “Mexico City Goes Days Without Water During Maintenance Shutdown.” NPR.Org. Accessed November 10, 2018.

[4] Interview, August 27, 2018.

[5] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[6] Interview, August 14, 2018.

[7] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[8] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[9] Interview, August 24, 2018.

[10] Interview, August 22, 2018.

[11] Interview, August 15, 2018.

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

Isabela Fraga, PhD Student, Romance Languages and Literatures

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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