A Q&A with UNSETTLED author Eric Tang for University Press Week

In this Q&A, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghettotalks with Temple University Press publicist Gary Kramer about the value of publishing with a University Press and the books that were influential to him as a scholar and reader.

GK: Why publish with a University Press? 

ET: Professors are expected to publish (their first book at least) with a University press. The expectation is that our books should be making a contribution to a certain academic field. At the same time, however, there’s this pull I feel to speak to a much broader audience—especially because I situate myself in the field of race and ethnic studies—and this led to my decision to publish with Temple.

GK: What made you choose to publish Unsettled with Temple University Press?

Unsettled_smET: Temple University Press has a long track record in race and ethnic studies. Its Asian American Studies history and culture series is the oldest and most established of its kind. When I first started reading about race, racism and social movements as an undergrad in the 1990s, TUP published some of my favorite titles. But more importantly, I noticed how those outside of academia were also familiar with these TUP titles—activist, community organizers, and artists were also reading the Press’ books. So I’ve always thought of TUP as more than an academic press; it was clear to me that it had a reach with other audiences, and this is why TUP was at the top of my list when I was looking for a home for Unsettled.

GK: What observations do you have about your experiences with a university press?

ET: There are a lot of things that go into making one’s decision on which press to sign with. Having gone through the process, I feel certain that the decision should hinge on whether or not the editor you will be working with really wants and gets your project. You can tell from your initial conversation with the editor if they are excited about the unique argument and contribution you desire to make in your book—if they would actually look forward to reading your book regardless of who you published with. Granted, professors are known to have healthy egos and many of us believe that everybody wants to read our books, but there’s a way in which that initial conversation with a potential editor should go—I would define it as less salesmanship and more geek—that should tip you off and make you feel certain that this particular editor and press is right for you. That’s the kind of situation that I had with my editor at Temple.

GK: What do you see as the benefits and challenges of university press publishing?

ET: The clear benefit of publishing with the university press is that it gets your book directly into the hands of your core audience: colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The press promotes your books through academic journals and at conferences, and it gets your book reviewed by peers. The university press is set up do to all of this, which is terrific.

As for challenges, the university press is obviously smaller than the trade press and therefore under-resourced. This means that whatever advance you might receive will be relatively small (and usually a first-time author won’t receive any advance) and there is very little money they offer to support authors on the production end—with essential pieces like paying for permissions and indexing. Authors have to absorb the cost of these things (or find external funding to support these items).

Also, the university press does not have a lot of advertising dollars to promote your book beyond the core academic audience. Still, if a certain university press has a marketing team with extensive experience and contacts, this can more than make up for what that press may lack in raw dollars. I think it’s a mistake to think that a small university press can’t get a book reviewed in the New York Times or covered on National Public Radio. I’ve seen it happen a lot, and TUP is an excellent example of a press that reaches large markets despite its relatively small size.

GK: How involved were you as an author with elements such as cover design, editing, layout, endorsements, and other aspects related to the publication of your book.

ET: As for the cover design and other design elements, I think it’s important for the author to be very clear about the look he or she desires. Pick out some images that you wish to have on the cover, and present the press with some examples of other book covers that you really admire so that its design people have a clear sense of what you want. Even go so far as to make some font suggestions. However, once you do this—once you are clear about what you want—I think it’s important for you (the author) to get out of the way and let the press do its work. Don’t try to micro-manage the process or think that you are in a position to go back and forth a dozen times with the designer until they get it just right. This was my general disposition to the book design process with TUP, and it paid off for me. I was very impressed with the cover they came up with and I didn’t ask them to change a thing.

GK: How has university press publishing helped your career?

ET: To the extent that publishing a book with a university press is essential to meeting the criteria for promotion and tenure at a major research university, then publishing with TUP has already paid off for me. But beyond climbing the career ladder, it has also put me in touch with other scholars who I would have never met or heard from otherwise. In fact, the other day I received an email from a faculty member from the University of Hong Kong who read Unsettled and gave me wonderful feedback.

GK: What are your thoughts on the university press community as a whole?

ET: I think the university press has been in a steady process of moving away from its reputation as publishing house for arcane scholarly work that isn’t accessible to the public. Increasingly, I see it taking on issues that are at the center of the public discourse: police violence, immigration, LGBT issues. But as is it takes on these issues, it holds its authors accountable to scholarly rigor. Writers are expected to tell new stories, offer new ways of looking at these matters, while at the same time being in conversation with the existing scholarship. In other words, one gets the best of both worlds with the university press.

GK: What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently re-reading two disparate works in preparation for my next manuscript. I’m putting these two works in conversation with each other (at least in my own head!): Sylvia Winter: On Being Human As Praxis edited by Katherine McKittrick and Mike Tyson’s autobiography Undisputed Truth. Both books are revelatory and devastating on their own, and placed together they are a true gift.

GK: Was there a particularly significant titles that influenced your work and career? 

542_regET: George Lipsitz’s A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition was formative for me. For an example of how good scholarship should read—how it should hew to the sensibilities of  those it writes about—I consistently turn to Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels. For pure inspiration, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! made me understand what writing was all about, what it does for the political. Of course it made me want to be a writer, and at the same time scared me to death about what that meant, what it really takes. I guess you can say I am still stuck in the mid-1990s! It’s true for the music, too—hip hop between 1994-1996 is still the pinnacle for me.

GK: What would folks be surprised to discover you reading/on your bookshelf?

ET: I will read anything. From the brilliant books mentioned above to worst, most destructive self-help books you can imagine (precisely why I get to airports early for my flights — to catch up on the latest self-help degeneracy). I’m also a bit of a fanboy, I read comics. Right now, I love Saga (Image comics): all about race, gender, biopolitics and liberal warfare. I will teach it one day. The X-Men, of course. I’m staring at a stack of comics about Wolverine I just picked up at Austin’s comic con, they are resting on top of Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents.

Coming soon to a Philadelphia library near you

This week in North Philly Notes, we preview three  forthcoming events at Philadelphia area libraries featuring Temple University Press authors.
The Outsider_smWednesday, August 19 at 6:30PM

Dan Rottenberg, The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment

At the Community Room of the City Institute Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1905 Locust Street.
Cost: FREE, No tickets required.

In The Outsider, veteran journalist and best-selling author Dan Rottenberg deftly chronicles the astonishing rises, falls, and countless reinventions of Albert M. Greenfield, a Russian immigrant outsider, and combative businessman.

“With The Outsider, Rottenberg [shows how] Greenfield carefully managed his public image, from the time of his emergence as a real estate trader pledged to the corrupt Vare Republican political gang of the 1910s and ’20s, through his emergence as a banking and retail baron and patron of FDR’s New Deal, to his post-World War II national prominence.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

MayanDriferFriday, September 18 at 7:30PM

An Evening with Juan Felipe Herrera, US Poet Laureate and author of  Mayan Drifter 

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
Ticket and Subscription Packages

Tickets on sale Thursday, September 3 at 10:00 AM!

“Grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual” (New York Times), Juan Felipe Herrera is the virtuosic first Mexican American U.S. Poet Laureate. The son of migrant farm workers, his writing is strongly influenced by his experiences in California as a campesino and the artistic movements he discovered in 1960s San Francisco. His poetry collections include 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007,Senegal Taxi, and Half the World in Light, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of several works of prose, short stories, young adult novels, and bilingual picture books for children, Herrera joins the Free Library for a celebration of identity, cultural perspective, and the verses of a lyrical life.


Wednesday, October 7 at 7:30PM

Beth Kephart | Love: A Philadelphia Affair

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia

Cost: FREE
No tickets required. For Info: 215-567-4341.

In conversation with Marciarose Shestack

“A gifted, even poetic writer” (New York Times), Beth Kephart is the author of 18 books across a wide range of genres, most notably the memoir. The award-winning Handling the Truth offers a thoughtful meditation on the questions that lie at the heart of the genre. Another memoir, A Slant of Sun, was a National Book Award finalist. A writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kephart is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. From the suburbs to SEPTA to Salumeria sandwiches at the Terminal Market, Kephart’s new volume of personal essays and photos is an ode to all things Philly.

Paying Tribute to The New York Young Lords

This week in North Philly Notes, Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, author of The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, provides an introduction to this almost forgotten liberation organization.

On July 26, 1969, the New York Young Lords announced themselves to a public audience at a Tompkins Square Park rally. The next day, they were blocking the streets of El Barrio with trash, protesting both their unsanitary living conditions brought on by willful neglect of their community and the sanitizing force of “the system” — it’s capacity to nullify resistive movements and homogenize difference.

The first New York-rooted, radical Puerto Rican group of the post-McCarthy era, the Young Lords were central to a set of transformations in their community and beyond. This group of young people spoke truth to power and mobilized thousands of supporters in the communities to which they anchored themselves and their activism.

But why, after all of these years, has still so little been written on the New York Young Lords (and even less on the original Chicago chapter or the branches in Philadelphia, Bridgeport, etc.)? Appearing as the main subject of only a handful of articles and book chapters — and appearing, more frequently, as an aside or summation — the memory of Young Lords has circulated like a ghost for leftist Puerto Rican academics. Is it because the group, ultimately, wasn’t instrumentally “successful” in many of their specific interventions? Is it because so much of the scholarship coming out of Puerto Rican studies has focused on older histories, literary and cultural studies, and so on? Who knows; but more work needs to be done.

New York Young Lords_smMy recently released book, The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, is one such effort at filling out the history of the Young Lords in New York. Focused largely on the group’s early activism, I craft a critical-interpretive history of the Young Lords to help introduce them to a broader audience. Beyond the historical point, the book is also an effort to enrich our understandings of decolonial praxis and its potentials. Decolonial theory — especially as engaged by scholars from Latin American and Latin@ contexts — has evolved well over the last couple of decades. I believe it can be pushed further via engagement of particulars, of the grounded ways in which people and groups seek to delink from modernity/coloniality in their lived environments.

In the fourth chapter of book, I examine the Young Lords’ “garbage offensive” as an activist moment that speaks to/through multiple gestures of decolonial praxis. As their first direct-action campaign, the Young Lords helped craft the space of El Barrio as a colonized place, one in which broader based efforts at politicizing the residents would be necessary. Crucially, rather than merely asserting themselves in El Barrio, the Young Lords listened to the people in order to discern their needs, which is how they came to the issue of garbage in the first place. In listening to the cries of the dispossessed, the Young Lords engaged in a key practice of decolonial love and went on, further, to model such love in the immediate community and beyond.

Now, there is some question as to how unique activism around garbage was to the Young Lords. As I talk about in the book, there is evidence that a branch of the Real Great Society has engaged in similar garbage protests earlier than the Young Lords. What’s important here, however, is not the question of who did it first, but the different issue how they came about the idea, gave it priority and presence, and cultivated political transformations in the community that could transgress constructions of Puerto Ricans as a political, docile, and so on.

Although my book engages in detailed analyses surrounding the garbage offensive, the church offensive, their transformations surrounding gender, their articulation of revolutionary nationalism, and their engagements of history, more work remains to be done. Aside from a brief mention, I devote little attention to their takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. I barely write about the branches that sprouted up outside of New York City. My hope is that others will continue to add to the breadth of the Young Lords’ history in ways that scholars have done with the Black Panthers, the Chican@ movement, and beyond. As one recent report puts it, “The time is ripe for a look back at one of the most potent and political organizations of the 20th century.” Running now through October, ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York is a multi-site exhibition of Young Lords art and activism at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio, and Loisiada Inc. Through such exhibitions and more scholarship, my hope is that memory of the Young Lords can live on and continue to inform public debates and activism now and into the future.

Celebrating Gay Pride Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Gay Pride. Temple University Press has a long history of outstanding and award-winning LGBT titles. Each title documents and explores the struggles and victors of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community as we reflect on the strides the community has made and the work still needed to be done.

December 17, 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Yolanda Prieto, author of The Cubans of Union City discusses President Obama’s landmark Cuban policy change, while reflecting on her own experiences as a Cuban American.

As a Cuban American who favors the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, I choked up with emotion when watching President Obama’s historic television address on December 17, 2014 announcing that he was changing the policy of isolation towards Cuba. After all, Obama explained, more than 50 years of acrimony between the two countries had not accomplished anything. Instead, engagement could lead to a more fruitful relationship, and it could possibly bring economic improvements and more freedoms to the Cuban people. Americans could also travel to Cuba under a broader range of categories, which could generate more contact and understanding between the two countries. These changes would happen even though the economic embargo, imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, would remain in place. To lift the embargo, Congress would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and extended the existing embargo on the island. Regarding the embargo, Obama urged lawmakers in his speech to lift it because the law was anachronistic and it no longer served any real purpose.

At exactly the same time, President Raul Castro made the same announcement on Cuban television. In both countries, the news was received with great surprise. The road ahead would be difficult, but these steps marked a historic beginning.

Cubans of Union CityIn Cuba, people were elated. Praise for President Barack Obama abounded, and American flags were displayed on balconies and bike taxis. In Miami, where most Cubans outside of Cuba reside, the reaction was mixed. Many Cubans approved of President Obama’s plans, but many others disapproved. Relations with Cuba, they think, would only serve to enrich the coffers of the Cuban government in Havana.  But the majority of Miami Cubans favor normalization of relations. A survey conducted by Bendixen and Armandi International in March, 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Cuban Americans support the efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while 49 percent do not. Approval for the politics of normalization is growing among Cubans who do not live in Miami; 69 percent of Cuban Americans who live outside of Miami support normalization.

Although approval is high among younger generations of Cuban Americans, it is declining among the older population. Disapproval is also vociferous among Cuban American Congress members. In Cuba, some dissidents oppose normalization while others welcome it. It is also possible that some in the Cuban government do not agree, especially those hard-liners that see any contact with the United States as detrimental to Cuba.

What led to this change in the American position toward Cuba? According to William Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh’s book Back Channel to Cuba, there has been ongoing, secret, often surprising, dialogue between Washington and Havana. Along with the invasions, covert operations, and assassination plots, there have been efforts at rapprochement and reconciliation. However, most of these efforts had fallen through the cracks. Discussions between the two governments have been largely limited to specific problems, mainly in times of crisis, such as migration talks and more recently, talks about drug trafficking.

Recently, there were rumors that President Obama might tackle the U.S.-Cuba relations issue during his second term. Many believed that the incarceration of Alan Gross, the American contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the main obstacle to a change in policy. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and then prosecuted in 2011 for bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the island against Cuban law.  At the same time, there were three Cubans jailed in the United States. They were part of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in 2001 for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to commit murder. Two had already been released.

The December 17. 2014 announcements were preceded by 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.  They met in Canada and in the Vatican. Canadians helped, as did Pope Francis, who wrote letters to Obama and Castro urging them to work for an end to the impasse. Finally, on December 17, Cuba and the United States announced that they had agreed to exchange prisoners: Cuba would free Alan Gross and a high-level Cuban working for the Americans serving time in Cuba for espionage. The United States would in turn free the three jailed Cubans. Additionally, Cuba would free 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Since December 17, 2014 there have been talks between U.S. and Cuban officials to work out the details of normalization of diplomatic relations. There have been two meetings in Havana and two in Washington, with an additional one scheduled for May 21 in Washington. One topic of concern has been the reopening of the embassies. Simultaneously, a flurry of activity has taken place. Trips and delegations of politicians, businessmen, artists, have arrived in Cuba looking for their space in this new climate. Representative Nancy Pelosi went down with a delegation early this year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, visited the island in April accompanied by business leaders, including some executives from pharmaceutical companies. A number of officials, from government to private industry are urging that the embargo be lifted to completely normalize relations. Other major changes have taken place or are in the works. For example, President Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. There have been advances in the area of telecommunications, banking, trade, U.S. exports to the private sector in Cuba, and travel, both by air and sea.

Among recent visitors was French President Francois Hollande who met with Raul and Fidel Castro.  He also urged the United States Congress to lift the embargo.  More recently, Raul Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The reason for his visit was to thank the Pope for his efforts to promote rapprochement between Cuba and the United States and to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of the Pontiff to the island in September, 2015.

Who benefits from normalization? First and foremost, the Cuban people. One expectation is the increasing economic development of Cuba through investment and trade. Hopefully, ordinary Cubans will gain through an improvement of the economic situation, both in terms of greater possibilities for consumption and possibly the creation of jobs, especially for the poor, who lack material resources due to meager salaries and lack of money through remittances from relatives abroad. The very poor and non-whites are often the ones who do not have family in the United States. There is also a very positive effect on Latin American regional relations. Obama probably had that in mind all along, as the Summit of the Americas in Panama revealed. Most Latin American countries wanted the return of Cuba to the Latin American family. The United States had opposed that. The meetings in Panama showed how the change in the U.S. position positively altered the climate among all nations.

Finally, these changes could be very beneficial for the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and other members of Cuba’s civil society. The Catholic Church already participated in talks with the government in 2010 to release political prisoners. Before and after those talks, the Catholic Church and the government have maintained a constructive dialogue. In the words of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, “for the church, the improvement of bilateral relations will be very beneficial… It will be easier to obtain help that we receive from other world churches to do our charity work in Cuba. The dialogue between church and state will not be broken, it will continue.”

Normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will not be an easy journey. For one thing, the U.S. embargo of Cuba presents legal obstacles to many of the changes that the two governments want to implement. But the process has already started, and it seems that there is no way back.

The Political Power of Music in Chile

In this blog entry, J. Patrice McSherry, author of Chilean New Song, explains how this music revolutionized Chile’s cultural scene.

Can music be a testament to, and record of, a historical period? Can it be a motivating force in the mobilization of people for a common cause? Can music speak to, represent, and translate the dreams and hopes of people for progressive social change?

Chilean New Song_smIn Chilean New Song, I show how the Chilean New Song movement did all of these things. The music was born in the 1960s, blending traditional Chilean and Latin American folk rhythms, indigenous Andean music, and classical influences with original songwriting, new forms of harmony and chord progressions, and ancient indigenous instruments. Many of the young musicians were talented songwriters and poets, and in Santiago during this epoch there was much interaction, experimentation, and collaboration among them. A major contribution of New Song was the wealth of original music and beautiful poetry produced by the artists. The music of New Song revolutionized Chile’s cultural scene at the same time as large numbers of Chileans were actively engaged in a peaceful political and social revolution. Social sectors long excluded from political participation were demanding, and winning, more social justice and a larger political voice. The New Song movement was born of, and expressed, the struggle for the deeper democratization of Chilean state and society. These popular movements, of which New Song was an organic part, converged and grew stronger, and in 1970 succeeded in electing democratic socialist Salvador Allende as president.

Violeta Parra, Víctor Jara, Patricio Manns, Ángel and Isabel Parra, Quilapayún, Inti-Illimani, and so many other groups and soloists were well-known and beloved figures of the musical movement, and their songs embodied the ideals and the hopes of millions. As Víctor Jara said in 1973, “It was song that was born from the necessities of the country, the social movement of Chile. It wasn’t song apart from that.” The New Song movement inspired masses of people to visualize alternative possibilities and act to achieve them, helping to create, and not just reflect, the social mobilization of the epoch. The musicians’ singing, their performances on street corners, at festivals and political rallies, at campaign stops, before gatherings of unions and students: all these musical events became part of the political mobilization of the era in Chile.

Ángel and Isabel Parra had founded la Peña de los Parra in 1965 as an intimate venue for the new music, which was met with indifference by most major media and industry outlets. Students in universities and popular organizations quickly followed with their own peñas from the north to the south of Chile. Peñas and the new music appeared in schools, community centers, working class neighborhoods, small municipalities, and union locals, moving beyond intellectual circles and into the popular sectors. The peñas were the first innovation from the grassroots that allowed the movement to supersede the blockages of the mass media.

The Allende government, committed to reducing social inequalities in the country, instituted new social programs and nationalized large monopolies. The administration faced increasing enmity from the upper classes, industrialists, and the military. The Nixon administration had tried for years to prevent Allende’s election, and then worked to undermine his government. The Chilean armed forces staged a bloody coup on September 11, 1973. Tens of thousands of Chileans were “disappeared” and tortured, some 3000 killed, and hundreds of thousands forced into exile. The dictatorship outlawed the music and even the indigenous instruments associated with New Song. Its acts to silence, exile, torture, and kill the musicians demonstrated the military’s fear of the political power of music.

Víctor Jara was one of the regime’s first targets. Jara was taken with thousands of other government supporters to Chile Stadium, where he was tortured and killed. The perpetrators of that crime, which horrified the world, have never been tried or sentenced. Only in the past few years have Chilean judges issued warrants and detained suspected perpetrators. In April 2015, a U.S. judge ruled that one officer, Pedro Barrientos, who has been living in Florida for decades, should stand trial for the torture and extrajudicial killing of Víctor Jara.

The artists of the New Song movement, through their music, honored the lives and struggles of ordinary people, communicated their hopes and aspirations, denounced unjust power relations and the stark conditions of the vast majority, and challenged the prevailing system. The 17-year Pinochet dictatorship was unable to erase New Song from the hearts and minds of the people of Chile. Tens of thousands of students—young people not yet born in the 1970s—sang the New Song anthem “El Pueblo Unido” during the massive 2011 marches to demand quality and free public education. New Song is alive still because it continues to express through its stirring and beautiful music the solidarity and determination of social movements, and continues to evoke dreams of a different future. Perhaps most important, it conveys a profound commitment to the lives of el pueblo, the vast number of people who still experience social injustice.

Searching for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro

This week in North Philly Notes, it’s “Carnaval in Rio!” Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, pens an entry on this year’s annual celebration in Brazil.

CARNAVAL is a summons to enjoy ourselves. It is supposed to bring easement, at the very least a few brief days to forget personal and collective worries. It’s out with the Apollonian, in with the Dionysian. Above all, Carnaval means dancing. So what does an old gringo like myself do in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval? The easy and obvious thing is to be an observer and to watch the televised transmission of the escolas de samba or samba schools as they parade in the Sambodromo of Rio de Janeiro. If you follow the selling of Carnaval in Rio, especially to tourists, the Sambodromo is where it largely takes place. This venue is a couple of long city blocks of viewer stands (there are also VIP boxes), and parade grounds designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), Brazil’s master architect and designer of the buildings of modernist Brasília. The complex was completed in 1984, expanded in 2012, and has space for 108,000 spectators. They come to watch 12 schools parade, each of which will be graded on the quality of its performance. Two nights starting at 10 pm and finishing at dawn are necessary so that each school gets 90 minutes but no more to perform. The school with the highest score is the champion. These 12 belong to the “Special Group” membership in which is by no means permanent. Each year the two schools with the lowest scores will fall out to be replaced by two from a group that strives “for access” to the Special Group. Competition between the samba schools in the Special Group, and among schools striving for access is fierce.
Layout 1As a friend pointed out, a samba school parade is a great dancing opera. A visual wonder of luxurious costumes and floats, with dancing and music making provided by several thousand participants. Every year each school offers a new production. There must be a new theme, and a new theme song. You need not join a samba school to participate. Anyone including a foreigner can buy a costume and take part in the performance. But this entails months of rehearsals including at the Sambodromo.

The samba schools and their parades in the Sambodromo have been marketed as the glory of  Rio de Janeiro Carnaval, and they go a long way to allowing the city to claim it has the greatest celebration and party in the world. But there have been troubling issues. A recurrent one has been sponsorship. Many  schools are sponsored by gamblers or bicheiros who virtually own them. Bicheiros originally organized a version of the local numbers racket. However, people bet on animals (bichos) rather than numbers. Everyday there is winning animal. Winning bettors bring their receipt and leave with their payoff. No wait, and no bureaucracy. There is more to gambling in Rio de Janeiro than this popular betting game which though illegal is nonetheless allowed partly because it is said to be rooted in Brazilian culture. However, illegality has led to a corrupt relationship between bicheiros, police and public officials. So it is that gambler sponsorship of samba schools, and the purported influence of bicheiros on samba schools becomes a reason to criticize and even investigate samba schools. There is also an issue of foreign sponsorship. In 2006, Venezuela led by its president Hugo Chavez sponsored the winning Vila Isabel school with the theme “Soy loco por ti America.” It was a  Spanish, not Portuguese title which some people questioned. But sponsorship money and the popularity of Hugo Chavez spoke louder. Nor was Spanish an obstacle to winning. Vila Isabel was judged as having the most original and best realized parade performance, and became that year’s champion. This year the Beija Flor (Humming bird) school, a perennial favorite to win the competition, was criticized for accepting money–an estimated $4.5 million at the current exchange rate–from oil rich Equatorial Guinea. But Equatorial Guinea is governed  by a decades old personalist dictatorship widely condemned by human rights organizations though now striving  to improve its image. Beijo Flor spokespeople argued its script was meant to celebrate west Africa, not Equatorial Guinea, and that the importance of west Africa for Brazil long preceded Equatorial Guinea’s appearance as an independent nation in l968. Would this sponsorship prevent Beijo Flor from being selected once again champion of the Special Group? In fact, Beijo Flor won the prize with a characteristically impeccable parade performance enhanced by sumptuous costumes and imaginative floats (carros alegoricos). However, the contradiction of a substantial gift from a notorious dictatorship to a samba school where participation and creative freedom are supposed to be prime examples of popular democracy was glaring, and the controversy has continued.

While always enjoyable, even astonishing as spectacle, anyone who only watched the Special Group samba schools on parade would miss much, even most of Carnaval in Rio. With all their opulence, artistry and creativity in choreography, samba schools are only part of the party. A bigger part is mass participation in blocos. These are community organized street dancing groups that materialize during Carnaval. In fact, as the famous samba schools have become more commercialized, so have blocos grown in importance and number in reaction to excessive commercialization. Sambodromo commercialization works to exclude rather than include popular classes among the spectators. The high price of admission can reach a thousand dollars and more for the best seats if purchased from scalpers. The samba schools on parade at the Sambodromo are no longer within easy reach of middle and lower class wage earners.

There are currently more than 94 registered blocos scattered throughout Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs, and still more uncounted “rebel” groups not yet registered. Blocos are easy enough to locate by consulting listings in newspapers that state where and when they will gather. Each day of Carnaval, thirty or more will be on the street. Participation is open to everyone, and it doesn’t cost anything. Carnaval for me finally became a matter of seeking, finding and participating in one, then another, then another bloco.


If you are interested in Brazilian music, check out this related Temple University Press book, The Brazilian Sound, by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessnha

Each bloco at the very least has a band, a male singer (some version of a tenor), and a sound truck. Everyone seems to wear some sort of costume (fantasia). None of my blocos required a fantasia which can be as simple as headgear, perhaps a wig, feathers, a pirate’s hat or a king or queen’s crown. I wore an old pink and green hat of the famous Mangueira samba school. And not without some trepidation. The hat is at least 30 years old, a relic that might be better off in a display case. Given its age and good condition, might it not be coveted by a fanatic follower of Mangueira recognizing the hat as something  different from today’s Mangueira paraphernalia, something from the past, and therefore of special interest. History counts when discussing the samba schools. Might someone snatch this cherished hat off my head? As I walked along the street on my way to the first bloco, one car slowed and people cheered this gesture celebrating Mangueira. Other people noticing the hat smiled, gave the thumbs up sign, waved. Nothing untoward happened.

The bloco prepares to move and dance down the street. The musicians and singer warm up, the revelers or foliões keep arriving, and the loud speaker primes us: “Just five more minutes, and we’re on our way.” Finally, there is movement. I decided I wouldn’t shy away from strenuous dancing if I fell in with others who were doing it. I was soon to be tested when a handful of young people dressed as harlequins placed themselves at the head of our bloco and danced with vigor and imagination, and with some improvised steps I had never seen. Some of us picked up the enthusiasm wanting it to continue. Suddenly I was dancing with an energetic woman in her mid, or perhaps late 30’s. Certainly she was much younger than myself. Could I keep up? You watch and match the other’s steps. I even tried to incorporate a step of our dancing  harlequins. This stimulated my partner, and we danced on for a while. Great fun. Finally, I found what I was seeking in the joy and participation of the bloco. 

The neighborhood blocos are more and more becoming the heart and soul of  Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval. They are magnets that attract large numbers of revelers all over the city. They have I think added vitality to the Rio de Janeiro carnaval, as they are doing in other large Brazilian cities notably São Paulo. Some occupy a special niche such as the Cordão da Bola Preto which was said to attract a million people on the early Friday morning in downtown Rio, even in sun drenched 100 plus degree heat. At the other end of the spectrum is the bloco of Carmelitas (Carmelites) much smaller, but the object of growing interest. The bloco pays homage to the cloistered nuns in the local Carmelite convent with a simple, highly appropriate story that has captivated followers. A Carmelite nun suddenly flees the convent to join the revelers. People start looking for her including the Pope. The bloco does this part of the story on Friday, the first day of Carnaval. On Tuesday, the last day of Carnaval, the bloco is on the street for a second time when the nun returns undetected to the convent. Of course, the bloco is largely celebrating the escaped Carmelite nun and wishes to protect her identity. How?  With their fantasia: a veil of the Carmelite order. “Genial” (ingenious) as Brazilians might say.


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