Appreciating Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30

In this blog entry, David Updike, co-editor of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts @ 30, offers his thoughts on the book and what he learned about Mural Arts along the way.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last thirty years, Philadelphia has become a city of murals. As you crisscross the city, you find them in just about every neighborhood, often where you’d least expect them. They’ve become a part of our landscape, and something that people here and elsewhere associate with Philadelphia. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jane Golden, because it wouldn’t have happened without her energy and her vision, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if the city itself hadn’t embraced the idea that public art matters. And it matters, not just because it improves our aesthetic environment, but more importantly, because it has a lasting impact on the people who participate in the process.

The Mural Arts offices are a buzzing hive of activity. In the hallways you pass a steady stream of people coming and going, to and from mural sites, or classes, or canvassing neighborhoods. And these are people who, to borrow an old phrase from Bill Clinton, look like Philadelphia. They’re young and old, they’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And they all carry themselves with a sense of purpose. In the gallery downstairs you’ll see exhibitions of art—some of it quite remarkable—made by everyone from elementary school students to inmates serving life sentences at Graterford. And then there’s the room upstairs with the very skylight under which Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic. And I suspect that our city’s greatest painter, were he alive today, would approve of this populist endeavor, which seeks to embrace the city he loved in all of its aspects.

I’m very fortunate to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of our city’s other great cultural institutions. And it occurred to me as I started working on this book that, in a way, the Art Museum and the Mural Arts Program have opposite but entirely complementary missions. At the Museum we work very hard to get people to come to us and experience great art. But Mural Arts brings art to the people in the places where they live and work. And what Mural Arts brings to these communities is not a particular product or aesthetic. Rather, it’s a process of engagement and dialogue and co-creation that takes place over months and years, and whose effects remain long after the paint on the walls has dried.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis book seeks, above all else, to document what takes place off the walls. And really, this gets to the heart and soul of what Mural Arts does. Yes, it’s about transforming places, but mostly it’s about transforming people. We wanted to look at that process and its effects through many lenses, so we brought together a diverse group of authors from different disciplines—social sciences, public health, art education, restorative justice—to paint as broad a picture as possible of what a socially engaged art practice looks like, and what it can do, especially when it works in tandem with other organizations to address big issues like homelessness, youth violence, or urban blight.

In the book, Jeremy Nowack aptly refers to what happens in the course of creating a mural as a kind of “social contract” that arises between all of the stakeholders involved in a project—neighbors, business owners, community leaders, schools, artists. And the key word here is “stakeholders.” People feel a sense of investment and ownership in the murals. They take pride in them. They show them off to visitors. New stories and rituals grow up around them. People now ride the Market-Frankford El in West Philly just to see Steve Powers’ 50 Love Letters unfold. Inspired by the murals, couples have gotten engaged and even married on that 20-block stretch along Market Street.

Other stories around the murals are more painful, more challenging, but also rewarding in ways that aren’t necessarily visible to someone looking only at the end result. A particularly poignant example is James Burns’s Finding the Light Within, which took on the issue of youth suicide, not just with a very powerful and personal mural, but also with community meetings, writing workshops, collage workshops, and a participatory blog, all of which provided safe, supportive spaces in which survivors could share their stories. More than 800 people participated in those activities, and hopefully found some measure of healing in the process.

Elizabeth Thomas begins her essay with a provocative question: “Who makes culture?” In other words, Who decides what messages we see and read and hear? Whose stories count? Every day we’re bombarded by images and messages that tell us what we should wear, eat, drink, watch, listen to. But how often do we see our own struggles and achievements reflected in our environment, or our own stories projected into the public discourse? Socially engaged art practice has begun to address this problem of who gets represented—and who does the representing—in public culture. It’s happening in different ways in different cities around the country, but in Philadelphia its most visible proponent is the Mural Arts Program.

Much of the work that Mural Arts has done in recent years has sought to expand the definition of what a mural is and what it can do. For the mural project called Peace Is a Haiku Song, the poet Sonia Sanchez initiated what became, in essence, a citywide collaborative poem cycle. She began with a mental image of haiku by children hanging like cherry blossoms from the trees in Philadelphia. This evolved into an invitation to people of all ages to contribute poems in a series of community workshops and through a dedicated website. The poems didn’t end up hanging from the trees, but many of them ended up on posters around the city that were created by youth working with graphic designer Tony Smyrski.

The experience of seeing your own words and your own images projected into the world is an empowering one, especially for young people. As Cynthia Weiss points out, kids participating in mural projects often gain practical, real-world skills, like photography and graphic design. But they also gain a sense of agency that may be hard to come by elsewhere in their lives. And that type of experience can have a lasting impact on a person’s life in ways that we’re really only beginning to understand.

This is the essence of what Mural Arts does. It’s about creating situations in which people are drawn out of their everyday selves and both challenged and empowered to reach for something more. So while this book marks a milestone in the history of the Mural Arts Program, our hope is that it also points the way forward for others who want to use the power of art to change things for the better.

To listen to a podcast of David Updike and Jane Golden’s presentation at the Free Library of Philadelphia from March 26, click here:

Temple University Press staff selects the Books of the Year to give, get, and read

As we wish everyone Happy Holidays and happy reading, the staff at Temple University Press selects the memorable titles of 2013.

Micah Kleit, Executive Editor

The Press published a bounty of riches this year, from Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer’s Envisioning Emancipation to Dean Bartoli Smith’s Never Easy, Never Pretty, an exciting account of the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl win. But the book I’d most like to give as a gift is Philipp H. Lepenies’ Art, Politics, and Development: How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World. It’s the kind of work that represents, to me at least, the best of what university presses do in advancing scholarship.Art, Politics, and Development_sm

I’d love it if someone bought me a copy of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  It’s just the kind of inside-publishing book that reminds me of why I love what I do!

The book I’m planning to read over the holiday — in preparation for the “sequel” that’s due early this Spring –  is Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists.  It’s one of his earliest novels, and I’m excited that he’s returning to this story and continuing it, since it speaks (like so much of his work) powerfully to the ideas of what makes up the American character.

2013 was a great year for big novels from emerging and established writers, and the very best I read this year had to be Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, a book that was at once really economical in style but epic in scope: about 70s radicals, motorcycles, Italy and America.  I don’t think I’m the only one who thought of Don DeLillo when reading Kushner’s wonderful novel.

Sara Cohen, Rights and Contracts Manager

G-000865-20111017.jpgThe best TUP book to give?   My loved one are going to have to wait until Presidents’ Day to receive their Christmas gifts so that I can give them Thomas Foster’s Sex and the Founding Fathers.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays? The first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. A friend sent me Zadie Smith’s New York Review of Books piece “Man vs. Corpse,” which cites My Struggle, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I also hope to receive a vegan cookbook (maybe Veganomicon)  so that I can start the new year off with good dietary intentions.

The book I plan to read over the break?  I’m supposed to be reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn with my husband and one of our friends.  I’m going to spend the break trying to catch up to the two of them.

Aaron Javsicas, Senior Editor

MoreMuralsEarlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. It’s engrossing historical fiction about what it might have been like to live in the Khrushchev-era Soviet Union, and to feel real optimism about the country’s future even while beginning to see cracks that would spread and destroy it.
I look forward to reading and giving Temple University Press’s Philadelphia murals books Philadelphia Murals and the Stories they Tell, and  More Philadelphia Murals the the Stories They Tell, as a new volume, Philadelphia Mural Arts @ 30,  is forthcoming in 2014. I’m from Philadelphia but only recently moved back, after thirteen years in New York, to come on board at the Press. The terrific Mural Arts Program expanded a great deal while I was gone, and I’m excited to catch up with it through these beautiful books.

Charles Ault, Production Director

This year I read A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, which is now on my all-time favorites list. Ruth Ozeki is a 40-ish Buddhist priest who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver, Canada. Her book features a writer named Ruth who lives with her husband on an island near Vancouver. She discovers the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl in a waterproofed bundle that washes up on the shore. The girl is contemplating suicide and has decided to write down the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, as her last act. We (the reader) read pieces of the diary as Ruth does and then we read Ruth’s reaction to the same thing we just read (and reacted to). But I haven’t mentioned the Zen philosophy and ritual that pervades the story. Or the discussion of quantum mechanics. Or contemporary Japanese pornography….

Joan Vidal, Production Manager

Justifiable Conduct_smThe best TUP book to give: If you have a group of friends who like to read and discuss books, I recommend Erich Goode’s Justifiable Conduct . Filled with examples from the memoirs of public figures who seek absolution for their transgressions, this book is sure to spark conversation.

The book I most want to receive for the holidays: I would like to have The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, by Theodor Geisel.

The book I plan to read over the break: Next on my list is Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

Don't Call Me_smThe best book I read this year?  The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. This year’s National Book Award fiction winner is the wild story about John Brown and his raid, narrated by a freed slave boy masquerading as a girl.  It’s hilarious.

The best TUP book to give? Don’t Call Me Inspirational, Harilyn Rousso’s compelling memoir.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

The book I plan to read over the break: I will finish Edwidge Dandicat’s
Claire of the Sea Light and begin Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck.

Brian Murray, Marketing Assistant

How We DIe Now_smThe best TUP book to give this season is Never Easy, Never Pretty by Dean Bartoli Smith. My father has been a Ravens fan his whole life and reminisces about going to games with his father when he was growing up. This book is perfect for him and perfect for any other Ravens’ fan or football fan in general.
The book I plan to read over break is Karla Erickson’s  How We Die Now. What better way to celebrate the holidays with my immediate family and older relatives than to evaluate my own mortality and the cost of living longer? Also a perfect gift for my great Aunt Lenora who will be celebrating her 82nd birthday this January.

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

WHAT I WILL GIVE: Music, Style, and Aging by Andy Bennett. Because holidays should be filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll and reading, right? Music Style Aging_sm

WHAT I WILL READ: Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias (one of the co-authors of 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia by the staff of Al Día). Ink looks at immigration issues through multiple lenses and I really admire Vourvoulias’ work.

THE BEST BOOK I READ IN 2013: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, is not so much a book you read as a story you investigate. It involves a disgraced journalist and a cult filmmaker, whose daughter has died—or possibly been murdered. What’s intriguing is not just the mystery, but the format of the book: an impressive collection of photographs, website downloads, dossiers, missing persons reports, institution assessments, and created articles. It’s a fascinating interactive experience.

WHAT I WANT TO READ: I’m almost ashamed to admit that I really want to read James Franco’s Actors Anonymous.  I’m an unabashed  Francofile and a completist. I’ll also likely see his film adaptation of As I Lay Dying over the break as well.

Maybe Alligators Don’t Mind Toxic Pollution

In this blog entry, Stephanie Kane, author of Where Rivers Meet the Sea, offers advice on how to clean up Guanabara Bay for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Alligators thrive along Rio de Janeiro’s coastline and even the most famous beaches are subject to swimming advisories for pollution. Although the Brazilian constitution promises the right to clean water and habitat, up and down its coast, wherever urbanized rivers meet the sea, industrial and household toxins and sewage degrade water habitats. Brazil is not unique. Worldwide, cities destroy the habitats and hinterlands upon which they depend.

That statement did not constitute news until November, when a story came across the AP newswire: Sailors, who had begun training in Guanabara Bay, became more than a little concerned about the bay’s pollution; the visuals startled them although the contaminants that frighten health professional are visible only through microscopes, especially fecal coliform bacteria that could cause dysentery and even cholera. Rio organizers pledged to clean up and monitor Copacabana, the designated swimming venue. But consider: INEA, the state environmental agency, “has classified nearly all the 13 bayside beaches it monitors as ‘terrible’ for 12 years running. . .” AECOM, the company that built London’s Olympic Park, designed the Olympic Park site for Rio 2016; although lovely, as Oliver Wainright noted,  the design does not convey the stagnation of the surrounding Jacarepaguá lagoon. The video-plan evokes AECOM’s  “water strategy” with a visual gloss of rainfall—captured, filtered, recycled and revitalized. Really?  Carlos Minc, state secretary for the environment, says for 20 years, everyone has known that the “bay is rotten.”  This time, he adds, there is something new in the government’s response.  Landfills around the bay have been closed (at least legal landfills), some industrial pollution has been “curbed” and programs to collect floating garbage and install “river treatment units (RTUs)” are in the works. Built over rivers, the RTUs are meant to filter garbage and human waste as it slides by on the way to open water. But contaminated water flows everywhere, above and below ground, through the dense, diverse human development spreading outward from the bay’s edge. How can AECOM’s site-specific water strategy possibly trigger significantly cleaner water for the Olympian swimmers and sailors in 2016  or more importantly, the people of Rio who will still be there in 2017? Will there be RTUs installed on every stream and river? Can RTUs substitute for centralized urban garbage and sewage infrastructures that retrieve and manage waste before it befouls the water?  Even if those responsible manage to keep the water looking clean enough for a few days, is that really a good enough aim? Couldn’t the “legacy” of Rio 2016 be a serious effort toward functional urban infrastructure and to implement and enforce anti-pollution laws?

Where Rivers_smThe special few apparently believe that they are protected from regional water degradation. Earthworks, filtration, labs to monitor fecal pathogens, gestures toward environmental law enforcement—this infrastructure sustains an unequal, exclusionary and paranoid security logic: urban elites wall themselves off within zones deemed free of toxins and criminals and wall out the masses who are left to struggle, to effect real change, to invent and extend sustainable habitat—or merely to withstand and survive. Although well-funded materialized illusions  may make it seem so, islands are not separate.  Rain, mist, subterranean fossil water, cycles, tides, and surges—water brings back whatever we give.

The image of Olympian athletes skimming along the murky surface, intermingling with the city’s disgusting outpourings warns of a dangerously unhealthy situation requiring either sure action or speedy retreat. Surely, the catastrophic air pollution in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a clue: the environment cannot be ignored. Who knows? Out of pure pragmatism, the International Olympic Committee could actually transform itself into a global engine for start-up urban environmental sustainability projects that could lead to larger projects after the Olympians have gone home (like Bahia Azul, a project that cleaned up the Bay of All Saints in Salvador). Political will and imagination is what is needed here, installing a few RTUs simply won’t cut it.

Honoring Mexico books in honor of Mexican Independence Day

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate ten Temple University Press’ titles about Mexico to commemorate Mexican Independence Day.

urban leviathanUrban Leviathan: Mexica City in the Twentieth Century by Diane E. Davis

Why, Diane Davis asks, has Mexico City, once known as the city of palaces, turned into a sea of people, poverty, and pollution? Through historical analysis of Mexico City, Davis identifies political actors responsible for the uncontrolled industrialization of Mexico’s economic and social center, its capital city. This narrative biography takes a perspective rarely found in studies of third-world urban development: Davis demonstrates how and why local politics can run counter to rational politics, yet become enmeshed, spawning ineffective policies that are detrimental to the city and the nation.

effects of the nationThe Effects of the Nation: Mexican Art in an Age of Globalization edited by Carl Good and John V. Waldron

What is the effect of a “nation”? In this age of globalization, is it dead, dying, only dormant? The essays in this groundbreaking volume use the arts in Mexico to move beyond the national and the global to look at the activity of a community continually re-creating itself within and beyond its own borders.

Mexico is a particularly apt focus, partly because of the vitality of its culture, partly because of its changing political identity, and partly because of the impact of borders and borderlessness on its national character. The ten essays collected here look at a wide range of aesthetic productions—especially literature and the visual arts—that give context to how art and society interact.

Ethical Borders sm compEthical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization, and Mexican Migration by Bill Ong Hing

In his topical new book, Ethical Borders, Bill Ong Hing asks, why do undocumented immigrants from Mexico continue to enter the United States and what would discourage this surreptitious traffic? An expert on immigration law and policy, Hing examines the relationship between NAFTA, globalization, and undocumented migration, and he considers the policy options for controlling immigration. He develops an ethical rationale for opening up the U.S./Mexican border, as well as improving conditions in Mexico so that its citizens would have little incentive to migrate.

Sounds Modern Nation smallSounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico by Alejandro L. Madrid

Sounds of the Modern Nation explores the development of modernist and avant-garde art music styles and aesthetics in Mexico in relation to the social and cultural changes that affected the country after the 1910-1920 revolution. Alejandro Madrid argues that these modernist works provide insight into the construction of individual and collective identities based on new ideas about modernity and nationality. Instead of depicting a dichotomy between modernity and nationalism, Madrid reflects on the multiple intersections between these two ideas and the dialogic ways through which these notions acquired meaning.

MinichCompFinal.inddAccessing Citizenship: Disability, Nation, and Cultural Politics of Greater Mexico  by Julie Avril Minich

Accessible Citizenships examines Chicana/o cultural representations that conceptualize political community through images of disability. Working against the assumption that disability is a metaphor for social decay or political crisis, Julie Avril Minich analyzes literature, film, and visual art post-1980 in which representations of nonnormative bodies work to expand our understanding of what it means to belong to a political community. Minich shows how queer writers like Arturo Islas and Cherríe Moraga have reconceptualized Chicano nationalism through disability images. She further addresses how the U.S.-Mexico border and disabled bodies restrict freedom and movement. Finally, she confronts the changing role of the nation-state in the face of neoliberalism as depicted in novels by Ana Castillo and Cecile Pineda.

Mexican Voices Border Region compMexican Voices of the Borders Region by Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras

Mexican Voices of the Border Region examines the flow of people, commercial traffic, and the development of relationships across this border. Through first-person narratives, Laura Velasco Ortiz and Oscar F. Contreras show that since NAFTA, Tijuana has become a dynamic and significant place for both nations in terms of jobs and residents. The authors emphasize that the border itself has different meanings whether one crosses it frequently or not at all. The interviews probe into matters of race, class, gender, ethnicity, place, violence, and political economy as well as the individual’s sense of agency.

Mexican American Women Activists: Identity and Resistance in Two Los Angeles Communities by Mary Pardo

mexican american women activistsMexican American Women Activists tells the stories of Mexican American women from two Los Angeles neighborhoods and how they transformed the everyday problems they confronted into political concerns. By placing these women’s experiences at the center of her discussion of grassroots political activism, Mary Pardo illuminates the gender, race, and class character of community networking. She shows how citizens help to shape their local environment by creating resources for churches, schools, and community services and generates new questions and answers about collective action and the transformation of social networks into political networks.

nothing nobodyNothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake by Elena Poniatowska

September 19, 1985: A powerful earthquake hits Mexico City in the early morning hours. As the city collapses, the government fails to respond. Long a voice of social conscience, prominent Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska chronicles the disintegration of the city’s physical and social structure, the widespread grassroots organizing against government corruption and incompetence, and the reliency of the human spirit. As a transformative moment in the life of mexican society, the earthquake is as much a component of the country’s current crisis as the 1982 debt crisis, the problematic economic of the last ten years, and the recent elections.

Musica Nortena sm compMúsica Norteña: Mexican Migrants Creating Community Between Nations by Cathy Ragland

Música norteña, a musical genre with its roots in the folk ballad traditions of northern Mexico and the Texas-Mexican border region, has become a hugely popular musical style in the U.S., particularly among Mexican immigrants. Featuring evocative songs about undocumented border-crossers, drug traffickers, and the plight of immigrant workers, música norteña has become the music of a “nation between nations.” Música Norteña is the first definitive history of this transnational music that has found enormous commercial success in norteamérica. Cathy Ragland, an ethnomusicologist and former music critic, serves up the fascinating fifty-year story of música norteña, enlivened by interviews with important musicians and her own first-hand observations of live musical performances.

New ImageSurviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’ s Memoir by Alberto Ulloa Bornemann

This is the first major, book-length memoir of a political prisoner from Mexico’s “dirty war” of the 1970s. Written with the urgency of a first-person narrative, it is a unique work, providing an inside story of guerrilla activities and a gripping tale of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Mexican government.

Alberto Ulloa Bornemann was a young idealist when he dedicated himself to clandestine resistance and to assisting Lucio Cabañas, the guerrilla leader of the “Party of the Poor.” Here the author exposes readers to the day-to-day activities of revolutionary activists seeking to avoid discovery by government forces. After his capture, Ulloa Bornemann endured disappearance into a secret military jail and later abusive conditions in three civilian prisons.

Why Borders Should Not Be Barriers

In this blog entry, Jane Juffer, author of Intimacy Across Borders, considers immigration reform, and asks, “Is it necessary to link legalization to border security?”

I followed the recent Senate debates on immigration reform with a familiar sense of foreboding. Whatever cautious optimism I might have allowed myself early in the debates dissipated with each step of compromise and concession—the “path to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented people already in the U.S. coming with the very expensive price tag of $46 billion in border reinforcements.  The historical pattern continues: when Congress considers expanding opportunities for legalization, they must simultaneously show that they are “securing the borders” against too many brown people from the south.

Hence the border control amendment: 700 more miles of fencing and 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, double the current number. In addition: observation towers, fixed cameras, drones, helicopters and planes, mobile surveillance systems, seismic detectors and ground radar. Proponents claim this investment would lead to “100 percent situational awareness, or full monitoring along the 1,900-mile southern U.S. border, and 90 percent operational control, or a 90 percent apprehension rate of those seen crossing.” Such rhetoric seems intended to produce the kind of anxiety about national borders and security that followed 9/11, an especially opportunistic move since border crossings now are at an all-time low. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, for example, told ABC News in January that he would not support immigration reform without border reinforcement, based on his belief that the “porous” border could leave the U.S. “vulnerable to the sorts of attacks that we sustained on 9/11.” Even more egregiously, in the Washington Post, Iowa Rep. Steve King shamelessly used the Boston Marathon bombing to say that national security should be the focus now and that any talk about a path to legalization should be put on hold. “We need to be ever vigilant,” he said, echoing President Bush’s call for vigilance after 9/11 (which, in turn, became the motto of the Minutemen border vigilante group). Added King: “We need to go far deeper into our border crossings. . . .We need to take a look at the visa-waiver program and wonder what we’re doing. If we can’t background check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background check the 11 to 20 million people that are here from who knows where.”

King’s warning reveals that the border control amendment will affect the same people who will have the opportunity for legalization because it casts all immigrants under the same suspicious eye. The irony, even the hypocrisy, of the deal is that in order to recognize 11 million people who are already within the borders of the nation, it must cast aspersion on their home countries. In making immigration reform contingent on a further militarization of the border, the Senate reinforces the discourses and material effects of xenophobia derived from the categories of Us and Them—even as it proclaims the nation’s inclusion of those already here. These othering discourses affect people perceived to be Other whether are not they are legal; just ask Latinos in Arizona stopped by police under the auspices of the infamous SB 1070.

Intimacy Across Borders_smThis reliance on categorical ways of thinking is the very issue I challenge in Intimacy Across Borders, where I draw on the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to explore the idea that face-to-face encounters between peoples of different cultural backgrounds has considerable potential to break down identity categories. In the towns that serve as the focus of the book—small agricultural communities in northwest Iowa—Latino migration has transformed previously all-Anglo populations. While racism and xenophobia do of course exist, the everyday encounters that characterize life in a small town are more often characterized by mutual concerns and the desire to build community: has there been enough rain for this year’s corn crop to flourish? What are the prospects for this year’s high school football team? How will the local elementary school accommodate the growing number of children in each grade? When I return to visit my parents and take my young son to the park, he is just as likely to play with a child who speaks Spanish as one who speaks English, or, more likely, one who speaks both. The congressional obsession with border security seems so far removed from this life.

Yet of course legalization would make a big difference to the large number of undocumented Latinos in these small towns. People who fear being stopped by police and asked for their licenses would have some peace of mind. The meat-packing plant and the dairy farmers would need to worry less about their workers being deported. Children would need to worry less about their parents being deported.

Why, then, given the seeming congressional recognition of these concerns (as well as benefit to the U.S. economy), is it necessary to link legalization to border security? It seems ultimately that the latter will undermine the effects of the former, as anyone who at one point came from south of the border could still be linked to the threat of terrorism. When will the need to construct racialized and feared categories of Others no longer serve as the basis for U.S. immigration policy?

Millennials come of age in immigrant families

In this blog entry, Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez celebrates coming of age ceremonies and discusses what prompted her to write Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras

When I first pitched the project that has become Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras to my dissertation chair, the feminist in me worried that I might be judged as a phony because of my interest in traditions so associated with sparkles, poufy dresses, and curtsies.  Fortunately, my chair had just finished organizing her daughter’s bat mitzvah, so she didn’t need much persuading when I proposed studying “debuts” and “quinces” to better understand gender and American immigrant adaptation.  With this book, I now have the exciting opportunity to show readers how much more there are to debutantes and quinces than meets the eye.

Celebrating DebutantesIn some ways, this task seems more daunting today than when I started my fieldwork—a decade before Joel Stein lead Time readers to consider whether young adults are more entitled than ever or “will save the world” (2013).  And long before internet commenters blasted Ms. magazine for daring to call pop superstar Beyoncé a “fierce feminist” (2013).  But, amidst the hand-wringing over young people and what advocating for women’s equality should look like, Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras shows how some American immigrant families have managed to indulge their daughters without producing narcissists. These families observe old-world female coming-of-age traditions without imposing old-school limits on what females (and feminists) can be in a number of creative ways:

1.     They tie personal success to collective success.  Although female coming-of-age parties are framed as “for the girl,” the immigrants I studied organized these events as collective endeavors, designed to showcase the beauty and success of their families and cultures, as well as that of their daughters.  This requires celebrants to recognize what they want as inextricable from their parents’ and communities’ desires, needs, and goals, and, ultimately, it imparts a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those around them. This is remarkable when one considers that the majority of my subjects are “millennials,” teenagers who have been accused of being  more self-involved and significantly less civically and politically engaged than the generations before them.

2.     Debuts and quinceañeras also re-establish first-generation authority.   Viewers of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and Quiero Mis Quinces (which paint debutantes and quinceañeras as teenage divas who control their parents via tantrums and manipulation) might be shocked that the immigrant parents I observed actually exercised a good degree of influence and control over their daughters.  During preparation for their events, for example, daughters often came to appreciate their near-total financial dependence on their parents.  And, by stressing the “tradition” aspect of their daughters’ celebrations, immigrants asserted themselves as “cultural experts” who their daughters needed to properly understand the traditions they were taking part in. This is vital for children of immigrants who are at risk of “downward assimilation.”  Inter-generational collaboration is also healthy for all youth because of how “cyberculture” has enabled many young adults to evade meaningful contact with anyone beside their peers, though healthy maturation requires youth to relate to older people and things.

3.     And quinces and debuts enable daughters to experience obstacles and figure them out.   Though these events allow some parents to establish greater authority over their kids, the immigrants I studied were not “Tiger” or “helicopter” parents.  In fact, the young women who experienced the best outcomes in my study were those who were granted some autonomy during their debut or quince preparation and performances.  Letting young women to take some financial and/ or organizing responsibilities and enabling them to respectfully voice their disagreement during planning helped cultivate leadership, money-management, communication, and conflict-management skills.  And these are all aptitudes those on either side of the Beyoncé-as-feminist debate should be able to agree are vital to women’s social, political, legal, and economic equality.

Of course there are other ways immigrant-organized debuts and quinceañeras avoid (and do not avoid) producing millennial narcissists and chauvinists.  Nevertheless,Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras should give the hand-wringers some pause—and maybe a little hope.  Because, as I write in the last pages of my book, the advancement of the communities I studied, and of our society in general, depends on how we enlarge our culture to accommodate diverse forms of expression—including feminists in sparkle dresses, being American and Filipino and/or Mexican at the same time, and learning to care for others by organizing a birthday party.

The Filadelfia Story

In this blog entry, Sabrina Vourvoulias, the managing editor of Al Día, describes the stories that can be found in the photo history, 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia
I am enamored with stories. My own and my family’s, certainly, but also the stories my friends and neighbors tell. And the ones I overhear when a grandparent explains to a child why something is significant, or a beloved custom.
Even more, I love the stories that emerge when many of us sit together leafing through photo albums — remembering food, festivals, people — in community.
For the past twenty years, Latinos in Philadelphia have read and seen their stories appear weekly in Al Día newspaper. The book 200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia is simply an extension of that work of documentation. Book_cover_ok
In it you’ll find stories about Latinos in Philadelphia that go back to the time of the founding fathers: Like Manuel Torres, for example, the first diplomatic officer from Latin America recognized officially by President James Monroe, who was a resident of the city and is buried at Old St. Mary cemetery alongside Commodore John Barry and Thomas Fitzsimmons.
You’ll see a cabinet card of of Samuel Cruz and his family, newly arrived from Puerto Rico. He would go on to become one of the best respected of the butchers working in the meat-packing district of Northern Liberties, and an integral member of the Puerto Rican community that opened bodegas and settled their families in North Philadelphia. You’ll also see photographs of community-wide celebrations, like the annual St. John the Baptist parade, that took place along Spring Garden Street because that’s where La Milagrosa — the first church in the city to hold a regular Spanish-language Mass and considered “the Plymouth Rock of Latino Catholic Philadelphia” — was located.
la_milagrosa2012030510 SamCruz
There are stories, too, in the photographs of the Puerto Rican community taken by local photojournalist David Cruz in the decade before the Al Día newspaper was established, and in the profoundly moving photo stories he’s shot for Al Día since. In these — many of them focused on the Mexican community — you’ll find stories of tragedy, and resilience, and of the hope for a better life every immigrant packs in his or her bags when they come here.
A day without an ImmigrantThe value of this book isn’t as an exhaustive history — it isn’t one — but rather it is in the glimpses it provides of the everyday lives of Latinos of the city. It also handily refutes the erroneous assumption that all Latinos are recently arrived, unskilled laborers and undocumented immigrants. There is both honor and great joy in the way every member contributes to the vitality of our community, but our diversity is also a point of pride.
As you leaf through the pages of this book, I hope you’ll see what I did when I took on the task of editing it: There are a million stories in these images. They are worth telling. And worth hearing.

Asking how and why industrial hazards persist

In this blog entry, Dangerous Trade co-editor Christopher Sellers discusses industrial dangers, past and present, and how people have sought to discover and correct these hazards.

Over the past few months, a burst of stories have made headlines in the New York Times and elsewhere about dangers of what we buy and use have posed to those in foreign lands. First came a harrowing report last December about what was happening to car batteries that Americans had used up and discarded.  A growing business has emerged of shipping these batteries to Mexico, where around disassembly plants, lead has been steadily escaping into the air and soil, to poison neighborhood children. Then came the coverage of China’s Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple’s i-pad.  We learned that this latest, dazzling digital wonder, brought to us by one of America’s most respected and successful firms, had come with a cost none of us knew about or had bargained for.  Workers in China had paid, instead, with lengthy work-days, exploitative and sometimes toxic working conditions, and distress that could reportedly turn suicidal. 

Scientists and scholars who have followed these industrial dangers for years have to applaud the media’s new in the distant hazards imposed by our own consumer purchases.  The rising awareness suggests the prospect that, finally, more effective ways of mobilizing and intervening against them may arise.  Those of us who have followed this kind of issue, and sought to dig up its history, have to conclude that these sporadic reports offer only a visible tip of what is likely a global iceberg.  International studies suggest that occupational diseases alone kill more throughout the world than malaria.  These numbers do not include the many additional casualties from contaminants in the air, water, and soil.  With rebounding economic growth throughout the world, this toll is no doubt on the rise once again, especially in the developing world.

A starting point for understanding how and why these dangers continue to recur is to recognize that this problem is far from new.  Dangerous Trade: Histories of industrial hazard across a globalizing world, is the first book to take a genuinely global approach to their history, one that encompasses both the developing and the developed world.  

Dangerous Trade explores the contours of this kind of problem not only in our contemporary world, but historically, through the past century and more of what has been a long-standing trade in industry-derived dangers.  In every period when international trade has picked up, the most hazardous industries have tended to cross national boundaries, to gravitate to where regulation and awareness of the attendant hazards remain less.  Looking at examples from colonial Malaysia’s mining industries to the extraction of oil in Mexico, this book’s essays offer rigorously documented accounts of just why and how these dangerous industries arose where they did, and the ways in which locals strove to cope with them.  As these essays make clear, the ways and means by which dangerous activities travel has nevertheless been shifting over the last century. As technology has changed, nations especially in the developed world have come up with new and more effective ways of recognizing and correcting the worst hazards.  The result, however, is hardly one of unadulterated progress. Instead, these hazards endure, if in changing and ever more wily ways. They get shipped elsewhere, where the companies that rely on them, and the consumers who give these companies their business, can once more put their dangers out of mind.  Hence, the resurgence of poisonings from lead, perhaps the longest known and most studied of industrial hazards, but still sickening workers and children from Uruguay to Mexico in our contemporary world.  

This collection constitutes a first effort to ask how and why these problems have persisted, even decades after new efforts have arisen around the globe successfully to identify and address them. A central concern of the collection, as well, is to generalize cross-nationally, about the evolving repertoire through which people in different times and places have sought to discover and correct these dangers, once they arise.  From the early health departments to worker compensation laws of the early twentieth century, to the environmental legislation starting in the sixties and seventies, to latter day campaigns to ban a dangerous substance like asbestos, the tools and targets of those who would ameliorate these dangers have constituted a work in progress.   Often it is precisely the loopholes in an earlier system of control that make a later one necessary.  But a key theme as well is that amelioration has not been a given even once the hazards became unmistakable to the experts and officials in charge.  Expert activism was often important in calling attention to new hazards, but as if not more important in stirring real change was the mobilization of the inexpert.  From the workers in Mexican oil fields to the environmental agitators in late twentieth century France and Uruguay, those who were themselves the victims of these exposures also had to mobilize, to marshal the available political tools to induce governments as well as scientists to consider their problems. 

If these histories suggest just how persistent industrial hazards like lead or asbestos can be, together they also offer many grounds for hope.  Not just failures but success stories abound here, of mobilizations fighting asbestos and lead battery-burning and pesticides and liquefied natural gas facilities. In addition to elucidating these problems’ persistence, these essays thereby offer an abundance of models that may inspire today’s practitioners, activists, policy-makers, and citizens, and on which they may build.

The Top Five Myths in Nursing

In this blog entry, Lisa Ruchti, author of Catheters, Slurs, and Pickup Lines  debunks assumptions about intimacy, race, gender and caring in the nursing industry.

With popular television shows about nursing today, e.g. Nurse Jackie and HawthoRNe, one might think that we know all we need to know about nursing. Even if we don’t watch television, we probably think we understand nursing when we consider how often we or our loved ones find ourselves under nursing care. The truth of the matter is that we couldn’t possibly understand nursing the way a nurse does simply because nurses hide many aspects of their work as part of their job. They know that patients and family members don’t need to be bothered with the specifics of nursing when patients are really interested in their own illness and recovery.

In my research for writing Catheters, Slurs and Pickup Lines, I found that most people did not understand nursing. Even the president of the hospital I studied said, “I don’t care how they do it; I’m just glad they do!” But after years of intensive study of nursing and eight months in a hospital setting, I can honestly say I understand some of the ins and outs of nursing. 

 Check these out. You might be surprised.

 One:  Patients are too weak to want sex.

 I know it is hard to imagine a patient sexually grabbing a nurse, making lewd comments, or even having sex with their visitors. We don’t tend to think of patients as anything other than needy so it might be hard to imagine that patients can exhibit sexual desire. Yet, in an eight month study I conducted, nurses consistently reported these behaviors to me. I found that if nurses were successful at gaining trust of patients, patients sometimes felt entitled to service, attention, or even sex. Interestingly, when patients engaged in sexual behaviors toward nurses, many of which were legally defined as sexual harassment, most nurses did not define these acts as sexual harassment. While new nurses were surprised at sexual behaviors from patients, experienced nurses negotiated them as part of their daily work.

Two:   Patients are never mean.

The majority of the 45 nurses I interviewed avoided describing patient care as involving conflict. They used words like nurture, kindness, and compassion to make it seem like nurses “being caring” was a natural personality characteristic characterized by goodness. Feminist philosopher Eva Kittay discusses this in her work: patients are not usually described as anything other than “needy,” and we don’t tend to think of needy people as causing conflicts for those who provide their care. In my study, however, I found that patients – “ordinary” patients, not “psychiatric” patients – yelled at nurses and even hit them. My focus on identifying conflict is as much about seeing patients clearly as it is about seeing the work of nurses clearly.

Three: Race does not matter in the provision of care.

Women of color nurses worked harder to negotiate racism and xenophobia from patients.  For example, sexual harassment of women of color nurses incorporated multiple aspects of their identities. It is one thing for nurses to manage sexually explicit language or touches; it is quite another when those are combined with racial slurs and epithets.  Imagine that a nurse not only walks in to check on a patient and sees him masturbating, but she is also called a “dirty foreigner.” Or, a nurse is giving a patient a bath, and the patient says you remind him of his mammy.

Four:  Male nurses aren’t as caring as female nurses.

My study shows that men feel called to care and also care well. All the male nurses I interviewed were in the job because they cared. I watched male nurses take great care with their patients. I also observed male nurses have what seems like a “knack” for care, but is actually simply skilled expertise. My findings on men challenge the idea that men don’t want to care or can’t care just because they are men.

Five:    You can’t teach someone how to be caring.

A lot of people, including nurses, think that the quality of care cannot be taught in nursing school. My study maps how experienced nurses care so that it can be taught in nursing school. When I first began the study I was not sure if and how a nursing student could be taught what is typically seen as a “caring quality”. But after the study I am convinced that if new nurses know to expect conflict on the floor and learn how they can negotiate those conflicts they will be better able to care.

The Cycles of the Haitian Vodou Ceremony

In this blog entry, Benjamin Hebblethwaite, author of Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, describes a recent vodou ceremony he attended at Société Linto Roi in Miami.

In this blog I want to tell you about the gorgeous beauty of Vodou, a systematic Haitian religion with roots in the Vodun of West and Central Africa. The ceremony and its rituals, music, dance, and possession events are key expressions of the Vodou religious and cultural system. The periodic Vodou ceremonies I have attended at Société Linto Roi in Miami, most recently on the eve of January 2nd and morning of January 3rd, 2012, are riveting experiences that start at 9 p.m. and go beyond 6 a.m. The ceremonies are literally founded on continuous drumming, singing, dancing, and ritualizing that leads to short and long possession events.

Kongo-style Vodou drum (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The ason rattles hang from the center post (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

 The white attire worn by the initiates, the temple’s most active members, indicated that the Rada rite of Dahomian origin, with its regimented line of Dahomian lwa (spirits), would begin the evening’s worship. Later in the evening, when the focus shifted to the Petwo-Kongo rite, the participants changed and wore multicolored attire. The oungenikon (the choir leader) led the songs and shook the sacred rattle and bells (ason ak klochèt) while the ounsi (initiated choir members) responded in song and dance. Four drummers thundered taught rhythms, intensifying their beating to heighten spiritual energy and urgency. The ountogi (drummers) are central as they pound the lwa into the heads of the Vodouists. As the music filled the temple with its cathartic power, the priests and priestesses—there are usually several working in tandem—began cycles of ritualizingthat endured throughout the ceremony.

A vèvè symbol consecrates the ceremony (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Each lwa in the Rada or Petwo-Kongo pantheon receives a handful of songs. As each spirit receives her or his allotted songs and praise, priests and priestesses skillfully wield their rattles and bells as they salute and honor the major stations of the Vodou temple: the drummers and drums, the center post (potomitan) which is the conduit of the lwa, the altar, and the audience. The salutation of each station—renewed with each new cycle of songs to a specific lwa—entails the synchronized dancing and ason-work of the priests and priestesses. The rattle and bells are held forward and shaken in unison; the priests or priestesses gracefully twirl, dance, dip and bow as they approach each station. At the station, the ason is shaken and touches the parts of the station, rum or water libations are poured out, gulps of rum are vaporized into a fine mist, candles are lit, and, in the case of the drummers, bowing takes place in which the head touches the ground.

The colorful attire indicates the Petwo-Kongo rite; the manbo salutes the drums (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The manbo salute the center post on which the serpent lwa Danbala and Ayida Wèdo are painted (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

The Vodou ceremony is cyclical ritualizing and dancing. For each lwa called upon—for example, Legba, Marasa, Ayizan, Loko, Danbala, Agawou, Agwe, Azaka and so forth—a series of songs are sung and the stations of the temple are saluted with renewed vigor. Although the lwa, the songs, and the rhythms change throughout the ceremony, the salutation of the stations in the Vodou temple remains constant. Cutting through the cyclical nature of the ceremony is the cyclical nature of Vodou songs which are condensed statements on the lwa and the Vodou universe expressed in 4-8 lines. The songs are cyclical as the lines are repeated; at the same time the lines of the songs can be slightly embellished as they recur. The salutation of the stations of the Vodou temple cycle from lwa to lwa; however, unique ritual elements specific to the honored lwa are expressed in each cycle. For example, candy is presented to the audience during the cycle for the Marasa (the Divine Twins) and a sword is presented during the one for Ogou. Another important cycle in Vodou is the dancing and worship that moves counterclockwise around the center post (potomitan).

The cyclical structure of the ceremony, of the songs and rhythms, and of the dancing around the center post all serve Vodou’s primary objective: to be the launch pad for possession by the Vodou lwa (spirits). They often appear in the sequence of ritual in which they are heralded, and they dance in the heads of those they ride, expressing their traits, traditions, wisdom and energies. Atibon Legba, the ancient one, comes stooped over a crutch, blessing worshippers who bow before him; the wide-eyed Èzili Dantò, exuding power, pain and strength, tightly grasps daggers at each side; Danbala Wèdo, the serpent lwa, writhes silently on the ground and is covered with a white sheet by worshipers. The appearance of the lwa is a sacred narrative that inserts itself into the course of worship. The various forms of cyclicity in Vodou ceremonies serve to insistently call upon the appearance of sacred narrative—possession.

The white attire indicates the Rada rite; Danbala has possessed a worshiper (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Danbala is covered with a white sheet as he writhes toward the altar room (photograph by Hebblethwaite)

Our book, Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English, is a diverse collection of texts that stem from Haitian Creole Vodou worship. The songs span Haitian and pre-Haitian history and preserve the sacred traditions from the African nations that Haitians descend from. As the Vodou ceremony is grounded in song, including during possession events, they are literally the main body of the religion’s sacred literature. The mythologies, histories, epistles, prophesies, and commandments of religions like Islam, Christianity or Judaism are not found in Vodou sacred literature; instead, songs and prayers dominate the religion’s literary output. To know Vodou theology, mythology, history, culture, and language and to grasp Vodou ceremonies, one should read, listen to, and sing Vodou songs. The songs repetitively cycle in order to heighten trance states of mind and open the way for possession performance. Vodou ceremonies and songs are beautifully preserved illustrations of the African wing of humanity—the cyclical structure of Vodou worship is a unique dimension of this sublime World Religion.


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