Latinos on Mars

By Milo Buitrago-Casas

An illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover making its final descent to Mars. (Image by NASA.)
An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover making its final descent to Mars. (Image by NASA.)

Worldwide press headlines announced the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on the Red Planet a few weeks ago. This landing marked a new milestone for investigating Mars’ capability for supporting life (as we know it), exploring signatures of the presence of earlier microbes, and testing oxygen production. In addition to the scientific relevance of setting a new rover on Mars, the landing set a benchmark for future NASA communications outreach. Perseverance’s landing was the first-ever event broadcast simultaneously in English and Spanish via official NASA social media. Without a doubt, watching a scientific event of this magnitude in our mother language has a profound significance for Latino and Hispanic peoples. It also leads to inquiries into Latin America’s role in scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, particularly in space exploration.

Diana Trujillo, aerospace engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Screenshot from "Juntos perseveramos: El aterrizaje del rover Perseverance en Marte" ("Together We Persevere: The Landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars"). (From NASA En Español YouTube Channel, February 21, 2021.)
Diana Trujillo, aerospace engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Screenshot from “Juntos perseveramos: El aterrizaje del rover Perseverance en Marte” (“Together We Persevere: The Landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars”). (From NASA En Español YouTube Channel, February 21, 2021.)

Colombian Diana Trujillo and Ecuadorian Elio Morillo are among the several Latinos affiliated with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) working on the Perseverance rover. NASA chose Trujillo to lead the official Spanish language transmission of the rover’s landing. An aerospace engineer, she joined NASA back in 2007. Since then, Trujillo has served as the Surface Sampling System Activity Lead and Dust Removal Tool Lead Systems Engineer for programs like Constellation of NASA. Currently, the engineer is the team leader in charge of one of Perseverance’s robotic arms. Trujillo has become an outstanding role model for younger generations, especially for Latinos and women who dream of working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Hard work, talent, and good opportunities took her to leadership positions at the world’s most remarkable space agency. Like Diana, who came to the U.S. at the age of 17, other talented Latinx children and youth visualize themselves contributing to future scientific breakthroughs. How can they achieve their professional goals when many of them are growing up in communities where high-level education and investment in science are not a priority?

In the coming months, system engineer Elio Morillo will be one of the few “pilots” sending commands to the Mars Helicopter System “Ingenuity,” which is the first device ever designed to fly on the Red Planet. Ingenuity’s primary goals are to demonstrate the feasibility and utility of flying probes on other planets, and to scout locations of interest for Perseverance.

An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter. (Image by NASA.)
An illustration of NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter. (Image by NASA.)

Morillo and Trujillo are two of the very few Latin Americans that, coming to a country with a high level of investment in science like the U.S., can participate in space projects that push the frontier of human knowledge. They both are outstanding engineers, and we celebrate their achievements. However, uncomfortable and inevitable questions arise: Could they have accomplished similar goals if they had stayed in their home countries? What current opportunities are out there for other talented people who do not migrate to the U.S. or other countries with heavily-funded science programs? Ecuador invests 0.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in science and technology; Colombia, only 0.28% of its GDP. In contrast, the U.S. invests over US$ 600 billion in research each year (3.1% of its GDP).

For a nation to transition from “developing” to “developed,” it must commit to serious and ongoing investment in both basic and applied science. That commitment can only be achieved with solid political support. Policymakers will care enough about science when science becomes a common topic of interest among the general public. Only then will voters select political leaders with concrete programs involving progress based on science and technology. In this context, role models like Trujillo, Morillo, and other scientists encourage younger generations of Latin Americans to advocate for and participate in scientific progress in their own countries. Those youth are the future voters and scientists. We must ensure that communities that have been historically underrepresented in STEM can reach their highest potential. And Latin American members of the academic community at UC Berkeley have a social responsibility to use all tools available to help our home cities and towns’ scientific transformation.

Photo of author Milo Buitrago-Casas.

Milo Buitrago-Casas is a Ph.D. in Physics candidate at the Space Sciences Laboratory – UC Berkeley. His work focuses on space sciences, particularly solar high energies. Milo is part of a team that tests instrumentation for future spacecraft missions to observe the Sun. He is also a board member of Clubes de Ciencia Colombia, a STEM program for youth in Colombia.

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Qo xnaq’tzan tuj tzalajb’il tu’ntzan tjaw ch’iw qchwinqlal: We teach with happiness for a better future

By Henry Sales and Tessa Scott

Front cover of a Mam language and culture book titled "Qo xnaq'tzan tuj tzalajb'il tu'ntzan tjaw ch'iy qchwinqlal: Aprendemos con alegría para un futuro mejor." (We learn with happiness for a better future.) Comité Nacional de Alfabetización — CONALFA (National Literacy Committee - CONALFA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization —UNESCO. Guatemala, 2015.

The front cover of a Mam language and culture book; the title translates to “We learn with happiness for a better future.” From Comité Nacional de Alfabetización — CONALFA (National Literacy Committee – CONALFA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization —UNESCO. Guatemala, 2015.

Henry Sales: My name is Henry Sales and I am from a small town in the highlands of Guatemala called San Juan Atitán. I grew up with the name Mintz, a name that was given to me by my grandparents. When I moved to the city to learn Spanish, I was taught to be ashamed of my Mam language and culture. Every time I spoke Mam (a Mayan language) in Guatemala, I was a victim of racism and discrimination. I moved to Oakland, California in 2011 and I always had in my mind that if I didn’t speak Spanish, I was stupid. However, as a native speaker of Mam, I never wanted to give up on my language and culture. I wanted to stay alive along with my culture. It hasn’t been an easy journey to keep my language alive.

As one of the newest immigrant communities in Oakland, we the Mam students and people face great barriers to prosperity and power. Those barriers include language, as many speak Mam only, and are not fluent in Spanish or English. Another barrier is literacy, as many men, women, and youth never attended or completed school, because we come from impoverished backgrounds where work was prioritized over education. Our biggest barrier is oppression, as we come from a place where, as indigenous people, we are discriminated against. We the Mam people are afraid to raise our voice due to these various challenges. I highly believe that by providing an opportunity for us to practice our language and celebrate our cultural traditions, we foster a sense of pride in our community, and help our Mam students recognize their own strength, beauty, and power.

Tessa Scott: On the first day I met Henry in 2017, in my graduate level linguistics field methods class here at Berkeley, he taught us how to count to five in Mam: “Jun, kab’, ox, kyaj, jwe.” Those words felt so foreign in my mouth that day, and now, almost four years later, they feel like second nature. I knew by the end of that year-long class that it was only the beginning of my relationship with Mam and knowing Henry. That class was also a turning point for Henry. As the students in that class became excited about every word we learned in Mam, I watched Henry open up and begin to unlock that excitement and passion within himself for his language and culture.

Henry: In 2018, I wanted to teach Mam. The biggest question was, how to begin? I want to thank Professor Arturo Dávila and the Latinx Cultural Center at Laney College for helping to create an unofficial Mam language course.

Tessa: Fast forward one year and Henry is inviting me to Laney College on Saturdays, where he is teaching Mam to a few teachers and volunteers who want to learn. Neither of us really knew how to teach Mam, but with my linguistic background and Henry’s passion for keeping Mam language and culture alive, our teaching journey began. Two years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are teaching unofficial Mam language and culture classes through Laney College on Zoom. We’re joined by Silvia Lucrecia Carrillo Godinez, who is a Mam language teacher in Guatemala and a wonderful addition to our teaching team. We are also grateful to work with four undergraduate linguistics research apprentices who help run the classes: Samba Kane, Jay Urbano Gonzalez, Nina Sirna, and Xingyue Tu.

The vast majority of students who take our classes do not already speak Mam. Our students are teachers, health-care professionals, and lawyers, for example, who have Mam-speaking students, patients, clients, and friends. They use their ability to speak Mam to greet, connect with, and get to know the Mam people in their lives. For Mam people, many of whom do not speak English or Spanish, connecting in Mam lets them know that they are cared for, respected, and valued.

Henry: Teaching Mam unofficially at Laney helped me to get a job at Oakland Unified School District to teach Mam. The impact of teaching at Oakland High School has been empowering because many Mam students now dream about becoming Mam teachers in the future. The most important part of the Mam language high school class is that students are learning to empower and strengthen themselves, learning who they are as Mam people, learning more about who they are as human beings. Today, we have non-Mam speakers learning our language, and it gives us hope that there will be a day where we will not face discrimination while speaking Mam. We do not want the language just to survive, but to expand to other non-indigenous communities because “we are not one or two of us, but all” (Popol Vuh)[1]. Chjonte! (Thank you!)

Tessa: Our unofficial Mam class at Laney College is just one effort of so many in the Bay Area to support and celebrate not only Mam language, people, and culture, but also Mayan culture and anyone who identifies as indigenous. These efforts include: the Oakland Mam radio station Radio B’alam; a Mam dance group which performs cultural enactments as well as dances; and Mam and Mayan cultural festivals. Henry also holds several positions in local high schools teaching Mam and supporting Mam students. Before Henry’s involvement, none of these radio stations, classes, and festivals existed. His leadership and passion inspire indigenous and non-indigenous people alike — teachers, doctors, children, high school students, and friends and family — to see the beauty, strength, power, and value in Maya Mam language and culture. Chjonte!

A group of friends from various Mayan cultures (Mam, K'iche', Ixil) after a performance at Urban Promise Academy Middle School in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Henry Sales). 
A group of friends from various Mayan cultures (Mam, K’iche’, Ixil) after a performance at Urban Promise Academy Middle School in Oakland, California. Henry Sales is in the first row, second from left. (Photo courtesy of Henry Sales.) 

[1] The Popol Vuh is a foundational sacred narrative of the Maya Kʼicheʼ people.

Photo of author Henry Sales.

Henry Sales is an Oakland-based activist and Mam speaker from San Juan Atitán, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Henry is a Mam teacher, interpreter, and a volunteer on behalf of minoritized Mayan populations.

Photo of author Tessa Scott.

Tessa Scott is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at UC Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization whose work focuses on morphology, syntax, and Mam language revitalization. 

Mam courses at Laney College are supported in part by the UC Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies through the Collaboration for Native Cultures and Languages in the Americas (CENCLAS) with Laney College. To learn more or become involved, email Julia Byrd at

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Public and Intimate Performances of Gendered Violence: HerStory of Feminicide in Ciudad Juárez

By Laila Espinoza

A magenta cross reads “Not one more!” at the Paso del Norte International Bridge, which connects El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

There is a city on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border where over 3,000 girls and women have gone missing since 1993, and 913 women have been reported murdered since 2010. This city is Ciudad Juárez, the “sister city” of El Paso, Texas which, in the starkest contrast, has ranked as the fifth safest city in the U.S for a number of years. Between 2008 and 2010, Ciudad Juárez became an international headline. Reports about the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels fighting over trade corridor turf, rampant criminality, murder, and public displays of violence and torture made Ciudad Juárez the talk among all spheres of society. The public performance of excessive, unrestrained male violence and domination seduced the international media. This social performance reaffirmed, if not glorified, already existent notions of the Latin machista male in the Western imaginary and equally condoned the already existent gendered forms of violence against girls and women so prevalent in Ciudad Juárez. It is notable that, in the year 2010, the number of feminicides peaked significantly. Even so and ever since, the recurring and continued violence and forced disappearance of girls and women has continued and remains quiet and invisible. The feminized body was again forced to exist as another object of exchange, production, reproduction, and consumption caught in the middle of a war between two cartels over the frontier of the world’s most lucrative traffic of drugs and bodies, echoing a long history of colonization.

The stage had to have already been set so that the public exhibition of male violence against a woman’s body appeared as just another consequence of war over a territory. Spectacular scenes of men killing men, hangings, and drive-by shootings broadcast internationally covered a long past of gendered violence prior to the cartel with a sheet of silence.

In 1993, when the bodies of girls and women started turning up dead, maimed, and showing signs of atrocious rape and torture after having been missing for weeks, it was easier for not only authorities but also the media to look the other way. The little that the media would say about it was that these girls and women had been “mujeres de la calle” (women of the street). A social image of the victims of femicide as “indecent” women was scripted by the media and local government officials and transmitted to the community of Ciudad Juárez and across the border. Most people internalized it and echoed it back again among their neighbors and inside their own homes without reservations, given that there was an already existent strong ideology of marianismo persistently promulgated by the church and characteristic of colonial methods for patriarchal domination.  Marianismo, stemming from the Virgen María, means to be chaste, virginal, giving, and a self-sacrificing caregiver. I remember at 13, when the first bodies were found, hearing comments all around me every time the body of another girl or woman was found and identified. These types of comments expressed another form of violence, attacking the girls and women who were alive and had survived. A girl growing up in an environment that upholds severe standards on what is considered a “respectable, good woman” and punishes the “bad, disobedient woman” by means of unrestrained violence becomes a woman who is trapped not only in a society and in her house but in her own gendered body.

As the years passed, with more and more bodies of girls and women found dead and many more missing, some people in the community (mainly those who had lost daughters, sisters, and mothers) began to question their own beliefs about who were really the victims of the feminicide. More importantly, they began to question the definition on what is a “good” and a “bad” woman.

Bodies were found in the desert on the peripheries of the city and in the desert by the U.S border. Daughters, mothers and sisters were last seen on their way to work at the maquiladoras (factories), and some of their bodies were found dead in maquiladora parking lots. Girls as young as thirteen were found in vacant lots in the colonias (peripheral under-developed and impoverished settlements), and some were found dead in their own homes while their mothers worked at the maquiladora. Some of these girls as young as twelve had also worked in the maquiladora.

Pesquisa (missing person flyer) in downtown Ciudad Juárez, 2006. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

What social and economic conditions needed to exist in a city to be the birthplace of an industry that exploits human life, in particular the female body?

In 1993, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was ratified between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, which led to the growth of the maquiladora industry into Ciudad Juárez. There are over 300 of these factories operating in Ciudad Juárez – which is known as “the official birthplace of the maquiladora” – most of these settling in the colonias. The maquiladoras started operations in the colonias in 1993, the same year that the first bodies of girls and women were found. In recent years, graffiti artists have written “STOP MAKILLAS” on the walls of maquiladoras and muralists have painted mega-murals of the rostros (faces) of the girls and women who have been victims of femicide, visually echoing the magenta wooden crosses that have been planted all over the city and at the Paso Del Norte Bridge on the U.S.-Mexico National border.

Actions such as these mobilize a public visual protest against gendered violence and are a necessity for creating social awareness and solidarity, as well as for denouncing the government’s impunity. The time is also critically overdue to create and nurture intimate and tender spaces for girls and women for addressing and healing the effects that the feminicide has had on our self-image, our ability to be in our bodies, our psyche, our sexuality and our relationships with ourselves and with each other.

“Be An Active Witness,” performance in Ciudad Juarez by Laila Espinoza, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.) 

In 2016, I began to create a series of costumes, rituals, and performances in order to address the feminicides in Ciudad Juárez. My first ritual performance, titled “Be An Active Witness,” took place in downtown Juárez near the Paso Del Norte Bridge at the Mexico-U.S. National Border. It was a ritual of performing witnessing of the altars painted on each electric post in a very slow, intentional, and public way. By active witnessing I mean seeing with attention and care. I performed this witnessing by walking slowly, stopping at every altar, spending time looking at the faces of each girl and woman in the pesquisas, and reading each of their descriptions softly and tenderly. I used my own body as a moving altar by wearing my “Huipil Fronterizo” (Border Huipil), which I spent three months designing and constructing out of the curtains in my kitchen in preparation for the performance. I hand-painted and embroidered my Huipil with symbols that tell the story of the border, placing each symbol on the garment in relation to my body. For example, I embroidered a magenta cross on the area of my chest, and painted several white crosses representing immigrant lives lost across the desert and the 18-foot wall. I chose to make the Huipil for this ritual because of its historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. The Huipil is a type of dress traditionally worn by girls and women in Guatemala and Mexico, and it is meant to act as a shrine or protective enclosure for the sacred body. The Huipil also acts as a codified and embodied story of the girl or woman who wears it. Wearing my Huipil in Ciudad Juárez while performing “Be an Active Witness” created an intimate public space where the passive spectator becomes active by seeing the altars again through me. In other words, the ritual caught the attention of many passersby and their curiosity about the spectacle drew their attention to the altars again. These altars have been there for so long that they are not generally seen anymore, but the feminicides continue.

The ability to simply go for a walk, to be in the workplace and other public spaces without anxiety and fear is denied to the girls and women of Ciudad Juárez every day. Talking about the feminicide is very painful, and is considered a taboo subject for many members of the local community because it touches on physical, emotional, and sexual violence inside the home as well, itself a taboo topic. And yet, the magenta crosses all over the city are there to remind us not only of the dead and the disappeared, but also of the living girls and women who fear for their safety, and whose integrity is defined by those who see them only as objects. Art-making, ritual, and ceremony offer gentle and loving ways of facing, creating awareness, and eventually healing personal and social trauma such as gendered violence and the feminicide in Ciudad Juárez and beyond.

“Be an Active Witness” and “Huipil Fronterizo.” Performance and costume by Laila Espinoza,
downtown Ciudad Juárez, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

Laila Espinoza is a scholar as well as a visual and performance artist who grew up in Ciudad Juárez. Her research and practice are concerned with the politics of gendered violence, Indigenous Spiritualities and embodied art making.

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Song: Niahciz (Nahuatl for: I will arrive)

By Ever Reyes

First Chorus: The Past

The warm grains of sand swish under our feet as we walk through the New Mexico desert. My grandfather kneels next to me as his hands wrap around a dry weed. This memory rattles like an old film reel at the end of a movie. He shares with me a message, a way of knowing, a philosophy about the desert. I often share this story with my son, never really sure if it will take hold the same way. I keep my grandfather’s words close to me: not all things are up for academic extraction. 

First Verse: Connections

I have a personal connection to Indigenous language. My grandfather spoke Rarámuri. He kept the details of his Indigenous heritage from his children. Still, he could never hide his excitement when speaking Rarámuri with the community on family visits to Chihuahua, a state in northern Mexico. By the time I was born, my grandfather had gone entirely deaf, so the only communication I had with him was through sign language. 

I was never able to learn Rarámuri from my grandfather, but when I had the opportunity to take a Nahuatl language class at UC Berkeley, I jumped at the chance. Nahuatl is an Indigenous language spoken largely in Southern Mexico in the Huasteca region. However, the language is spread around Mexico and travels with the Mexican diaspora to the United States. Though the languages are not the same, I feel connected with him every time I speak Nahuatl. There is a harmonization I feel between us [1]

When first learning the language, I journaled about my experience: 

“It’s like I can taste the words. The words carry with them a legacy and sweetness. They are a testament to something I cannot yet explain but that I feel to be there. The words whisper a message underneath the sounds, something I am close to hearing.”  

I did not grow up in Rarámuri culture, nor did I grow up in Chihuahua, Mexico. As a result, learning Nahuatl provides me some connection to Indigenous culture in Mexico. And since my grandfather was multi-lingual, I relish in the thought that he may have spoken or understand Nahuatl. 

Second Chorus: The Present

I put my son on my back as we race for the bus. I push his stroller in front of me and chuckle. It’s only on the days that we are running late that he refuses to ride in his stroller. We see the 52 bus sitting at the bus stop. The sliding doors squeak as they flop open. I hop onto the bus frazzled and with urgency. Out of breath, I swipe my AC transit pass as my son is giddy with joy. Our weekly routine is running after the bus, so we are not late for class. We ride the 52 to the UC Berkeley Latinx Research Center to take a Nahuatl class. Professor Arturo Davila-Sanchez graciously teaches the course as my son wanders around the room, asking the question: “how do you say cat in Nahuatl?” I know that I will retain less information as I try to learn Nahuatl and watch my son. But it is far more important to me that he hears Nahuatl. 

Every now and then, he falls asleep on the bus ride back. He snuggles with me tightly as the bus bounces around University Ave. The moments I share with my son remind me of the early memories with my grandfather in New Mexico. I feel the past and present harmonize or rhyme and ponder about the future. My heart warms as I think about how my son will carry our memories and Indigenous ways of knowing forward. I can’t even imagine the future that will come from us learning Nahuatl together.  

The photograph depicts the author and his son riding the bus after Nahuatl class
The author and his son riding the bus after Nahuatl class. (Photo by Ever Reyes.)

Second Verse: Importance  

Indigenous language revitalization is powerful because language provides a connection to culture while paving the way for Indigenous futurism: it creates a possibility for healing. By speaking Nahuatl, I actively participate in this future: and it is in this space of possibilities that my research grows.

My research focuses on how Indigenous language and sound/music sustain Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Currently, I am in the early stages of creating a collaborative documentary about Indigenous radio in Canada with Brian Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishnabe) and Dave McLeod (Ojibway/Métis).  For my dissertation, I aim to examine how Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination are accomplished through Indigenous language revitalization, music, and technology. I am interested in what Trevor Reed calls sonic sovereignty and how music and performance create a type of Indigenous governance in opposition to settler law. For me, sound, law, and sovereignty are interrelated and a point of resistance for Indigenous artists across Turtle Island. 

Third Chorus: The Future

It’s Fall 2020. The tiny little boxes on my blue screen move every time a new student enters the Zoom classroom. I move around in my seat and try to get comfortable as Professor Abelardo de la Cruz goes over the syllabus. The Nahuatl course I took with my son was not a formal class. As I go back and forth over the Nahuatl workbook, trying to understand the language’s pronunciation and agglutination, I realize that this is the first time the university will formally recognize my Nahuatl studies. Receiving credit for my work on Indigenous language gives me a sense of pride. But even if the class were not recognized, my body would still be in front of that screen.

A semester later, I still struggle with identifying intransitive words, but the language is sticking. In the mornings, I say to my son, “Queniuhqui tiitztoc?” (How are you?) “I’m good,” he says as he runs off to play. Professors Davila-Sanchez and de la Cruz give me a gift that I can pass down to my son. 

I am grateful that the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) supports the Nahuatl language course in partnership with the University of Utah. As I reflect on CLAS and Nahuatl’s importance, I think of Beth Piatote’s (Nez Perce) book, The Beadworkers: StoriesPiatote writes about the sweet and often overwhelming feeling of language revitalization. She writes,

“There were times I was discouraged, when I faced the entire ocean of words and I feared the undertow would pull me under, like an eagle who is dragged into the current of a river, talons locked on the back of a salmon. Later, I would learn another word, and I would hold it just as close, say it to myself, to the sky, say it to Phil and those who spoke: pá·yca pá·ytoqsa. I am coming. I am coming back

 I hold close the word, niahciz. Nahuatl for, I will arrive. The ‘z’ at the end of the word denotes the future: I look forward to the possibilities I cannot even imagine. 

The cover of “The Beadworkers: Stories” by Beth Piatote. (Photo courtesy of
the author.)

[1] This harmonization is reflected in the choruses. The similarity between these themes is meant to mimic the rhyming of choruses. Yet, the content is different, moving along the song.  

Ever Reyes (Rarámuri descent/Chicanx) is a Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination through music and technology. He is studying Nahuatl and is part of the Indigenous Language Revitalization Designated Emphasis and Indigenous Sound Studies Working Group. 

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Decentering Colonial Languages as a Pathway to Delight

By Julia Nee

Zapotec language flashcards created by children in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Julia Nee.)

As an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, I had always thought that when I studied abroad in Mexico, it would be to practice my Spanish – not any other language. Mexico was one of the many Latin American countries that I had colored in on the “map of Spanish-speaking countries” in my seventh-grade Spanish class, and I had never questioned whether or not that designation was a complete truth. But one Saturday in Juchitán, Oaxaca, I found myself trying to communicate in Spanish with an elderly hostel owner who seemed intent on not understanding me as I asked for a room. My frustration grew, as I perceived discrimination against my “gringa Spanish,” until the woman’s daughter came out, spoke to her mother in a language I had never before heard, and then attended to me with great care.

These two women were speaking Zapotec, one of 68 linguistic groups recognized by the Mexican government as Indigenous languages of Mexico. While millions of people in Mexico speak Spanish, 7.3 million people speak Indigenous languages, including over 865,000 people who – like the hostel owner I met in Juchitán – are not Spanish speakers. But despite this linguistic and cultural diversity, Mexico is still often portrayed as a monolithically Spanish-speaking nation, a representation that is not only inaccurate, but also contributes to Indigenous erasure and can result in harm for Indigenous language speakers, like the elderly hostel owner who I had ignorantly misunderstood and mistreated.

Children labeling the parts of the body in Zapotec in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Julia Nee.)

A 2003 Mexican law, Ley general de derechos lingüísticos de los pueblos indígenas (General Act on the Linguistic Rights of Indigenous Peoples) – and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Mexico is a signatory – protects, at least in theory, the right to use and promote Indigenous languages. And it’s not just Mexico – King and Arnal (2016) report that “with the exception of Uruguay, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, all Latin American and Caribbean governments now formally recognize within their constitutions the multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual nature of their countries.” In practice, however, Indigenous communities are still fighting to gain the linguistic equality they have been promised, including access to educational, medical, and legal services in Indigenous languages.

These efforts are taking place not only in Indigenous communities in Latin America, but also in the US, and even right here on the UC Berkeley campus. Since Fall 2019, Martha Schwartz and I have been co-organizers of the Language Revitalization Working Group (LRWG), a group of individuals who are interested in promoting minoritized languages around the world. One aspect of this work that I have found particularly rewarding has been our efforts to decenter dominant, colonial languages. In a recent talk given by Zapotec author Víctor Cata and translator Rosemary Beam de Azcona, and sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Center for Race and Gender, our conversation took place in Zapotec, English, and Spanish. While some aspects were translated, others were not. This put English speakers particularly in the interesting position of not being accommodated linguistically. But this experience – hearing a language you don’t understand – is a common occurrence for speakers of minoritized languages who are not also speakers of dominant languages. Why should minoritized language speakers, but not English speakers, be put in this position?

This question is also put forth in Cata and Beam de Azcona’s book We’re Only Words, the English translation of Cata’s bilingual Zapotec-Spanish collection of short stories Sólo somos palabra. As Alberto Quintero Soriano writes in the prologue for the English translation, “Rather than think of translated texts solely in terms of how they will be consumed globally, we conceive of translation as a form of cultural exchange in which difference is not repressed but respected. Translation in this perspective is as much a means to defamiliarize English as it is an act of transferring Zapotec meaning.”

The cover of “We’re Only Words” by Víctor Cata, translated by Rosemary Beam de Azcona. (Photo courtesy of Alberto Quintero Soriano/Literalia.)

As both a native English speaker and a language activist, I find this perspective particularly refreshing, and, in my opinion, Cata and Beam de Azcona have achieved something remarkable with their work. They have provided English readers with a chance to experience the delight that comes with a new perspective. Instead of allowing English readers to sit comfortably with familiar English-language metaphors, they push readers to digest Zapotec conceptualizations, such as the interrelation between the meanings of the Zapotec word ruaa, literally meaning “mouth” but extending to “entrance,” “edge,” and “opening,” as in “the mouth of my ear.”

I hope that as we move forward, we can continue to find and share moments of delight like those in We’re Only Words, moments that celebrate the abundance, creativity, and complexity of Indigenous languages.

Julia Nee is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at UC Berkeley with a Designated Emphasis in Indigenous Language Revitalization whose work focuses on Zapotec language revitalization in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The Language Revitalization Working Group is co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley.

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Bolsonaro’s Response to Covid-19: The Political Tools of Inaction, Obstruction, and Blame

An informal fish market  in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules.  (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)
An informal fish market in Manaus, on September 19, 2020. There is a municipal law that requires citizens to wear protective masks, but many people ignore the rules. (Photo by Raphael Alves/ IMF.)

By Elize Massard da Fonseca and Andreza Davidian

Brazil has been one of the countries most affected by Covid-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro has taken controversial measures to obstruct a coordinated response, adopted a denialist and anti-science discourse, and personally interfered in health policymaking.

His government’s position has been surprising, given Brazil’s previous successful responses to epidemics such as HIV/Aids, its large public health system, and an expert health-sector bureaucracy. It is therefore natural to look at explanations for Brazil’s response in the content of the president’s politics: populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

However, together with colleagues from the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Harvard University, we propose a different question to explain the controversial reactions of Brazil, the U.S. and India to Covid: Who can decide these policies and what they can do? We focus on the institutional politics of agency, who acted instead of the content or health effects of their decisions.* In this blog post, we will explore the case of Brazil.

Brazilian presidents loom large in their country’s politics. Jair Bolsonaro, the current chief executive, holds far-reaching constitutional and para-constitutional powers to push forward his controversial, inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Brazilian presidents are endowed with strong constitutional powers, including the allocation of positions in the vast federal administrative empire, which are usually filled in alignment with the share of Congressional seats of their party coalition members. Presidents also have the prerogative of issuing decrees, as well as exclusive initiative over budgetary matters. They also hold reactive power, such as the ability to partially or totally veto bills passed by the Congress. As in other countries, the chief executive also holds non-legislative prerogatives that give them great visibility in speaking directly to Brazilians through speeches on the radio and television. These are powerful instruments that allow the president to push forward his agenda, whether for the public good or for more particular interests.

Subnational governments in Brazil — the federal states and municipalities — are a prominent check on presidential power. Coordination among these levels of government is a major challenge in policy and administration. For instance, the Ministry of Health has the constitutional mandate of coordinating Brazil’s extensive public health system, which includes 27 states and more than 5,000 municipalities, with both levels having elected leaders with responsibilities for healthcare provision.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil's Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)
Luiz Henrique Mandetta, then Brazil’s Minister of Health, March 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

Bolsonaro’s interference with the Minister of Health has no precedent in Brazil. In April, with the number of Brazilian Covid-19 cases second only to the count in the U.S., Minister of Health Henrique Mandetta was fired for threatening the President’s political dominance and undercutting his pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Mandetta, a physician, was a member of the Democrats party, part of the president’s coalition. The president then appointed another respected physician, Nelson Teich. However, due to his vehement disagreement with President Bolsonaro’s plans to adjust clinical protocols for Covid-19 treatment, Teich resigned less than a month after taking the position. Teich was replaced by General Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army officer who publicly expressed his lack of previous knowledge about the Brazilian public health system when already in office. Pazuello yielded to the adjustment of the clinical protocols; reformulated the disclosure of epidemiological data, to announce only information about death and confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours; and ruled out vaccines that could be included in Brazil’s immunization program because they were produced by China and distributed by the state of Sao Paulo, both seen as enemies by the president.

Eduardo Pazuello speaks as Minister of Health, September 2020. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

It was thanks to the authority of state governments over health policy that Brazil was able to secure some level of social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), and to coordinate with WHO measures. For almost three decades, state governments have had limited influence on Brazilian national politics, given the institutional powers of the executive and the way that tax resources are distributed. But in the vacuum of federal NPI leadership, they began to enact measures and communicate public health information. The President tried to challenge the authority of subnational governments over pandemic management, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of governors.

A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)
A drive-through testing facility for Covid-19 in Águas Claras, April 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Bolsonaro then used his decree power to list essential business that should remain open (including gyms and beauty salons), arguing that subnational governments went too far in social distancing measures, damaging the economy. Most state governments remained firm in their support of social distancing, business closures, and warnings against therapies that had yet to be tested. That is why we observe a large disparity between the severity of social distancing measures supported by the federal government and those enacted by subnational authorities, with the latter contributing more to Brazil’s scores on country-level stringency measures.

Taking advantage of the uncertain division of authority over Covid-19, the president adopted a blame-avoidance strategy. Bolsonaro used his power to address the nation on national TV seven times between March and September 2020, attacking subnational governments, sowing doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic, and fostering public demonstrations against social distancing. He also vetoed several parts of Covid-19 related legislation passed by Congress (e.g. mandatory use of masks in religious sites, and compensation for health professionals permanently harmed by the pandemic).

We argue here that centralization of agency in the president does not explain necessarily the policy outcomes, but his action — and inaction — were in the power of that role. Bolsonaro and Trump are controversial leaders, incapable of managing the pandemic or of coordinating effectively. We call attention to the importance of observing political institutions that enable agency, and that federalism, as a check on federal power and in interaction with other variables, can safeguard public health and political order.

A sign warns residents of Brasília, “Stay at home.” (Photo by Leonardo Sá/Agência Senado.)

*This essay was adapted from a manuscript co-authored with Scott Greer (University of Michigan), Mina Raj (University of Illinois), and Charles Willison (Harvard University) about the politics of agency in COVID-19 responses, which is submitted to a health politics journal. EMF is funded by the Sao Paulo State Foundation (2020/05230-8).

Elize Massard da Fonseca.

Elize Massard da Fonseca is Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and a non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Latin America and Caribbean Center at the London School of Economics. She was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019. Together with Scott Greer, Elizabeth King, and Andre Peralta, she is the co-editor of The Comparative Politics of COVID-19: The Need to Understand Government Responses, forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in Spring 2021.

Andreza Davidian is a doctoral candidate in Public Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. She is a Visiting Research Student at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France.

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An unexpected landslide in Chile: 78.27% versus 21.73%

By Enzo Nervi

The two parts of the ballot for the Chilean constitutional plebiscite: first, whether there should be a new constitution and, if so, what form the process should take. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)

Despite the expected triumph of approving replacing Chile’s constitution, everyone was surprised by the overwhelming margin of victory: 78.27% voted “approve,” to proceed with the process, against 21.73% who voted to “reject” an attempt. It was to be expected that many would jump on the victory bandwagon to align themselves with the majority and not lose their political capital. Such was the case with President Sebastián Piñera, who, despite not revealing if he voted to approve or reject — referring to his vote as “a bedroom secret” — mentioned that “this is a triumph for all Chileans who love democracy, unity, and peace.”

Simultaneously with the approve option’s victory, the last survey by Plaza Pública Cadem, released a day after the plebiscite, revealed that Piñera’s disapproval rate reached 78 percent. Immediately after the results, in a speech from Palacio de la Moneda, Piñera not only denied being part of the problem that led to the plebiscite and to the start of the protests last October, but also proclaimed, “Today is the time to heal the wounds of the past, to unite hearts and wills, and to look forward to the future.” Between the lines, the president was dismissing his responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated by the state against the protesters, even when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, concluded that “there are well-founded reasons to believe” that a high number of human rights violations have been committed by the police and the military in Chile since October 18.

Despite the president’s positive words, his disconnect from the majority of citizens is evident. Discussions of a deep polarization in Chilean society for and against the old system no longer have a place, and Piñera’s well-remembered phrase, “We are at war against a powerful enemy,” uttered during the protests exactly one year ago, seems increasingly remote from reality. The overwhelming result of the plebiscite showed that Chileans are not divided or polarized, but that they had not had a real opportunity to achieve change since the return of democracy. The fact that only 21.73% of the population voted to reject writing a new constitution shows that those who want to maintain the model inherited from the dictatorship are a minority. The disconnect between the president and the citizens was also reflected in the attitude of the elites, giving rise to the hypothesis that their stance was more than simple disconnection; it was a desire to cling to power for their personal interests. As a surprise to some, but revealingly for others, three of the four districts in Chile where “reject” prevailed are the richest in the country. “The street,” as we popularly refer to the people who go out to protest, has interpreted the localized results of the rejection in the wealthiest districts almost metaphorically. The elites seek to maintain power while the people demand change. In this way, these results became evidence of who benefited for years from the current constitution: those who voted for the rejection option.

For the first time since the return of democracy, Chileans felt that their vote would have a significant effect on their lives and went to the polls en masse; the plebiscite had the highest electoral turnout since voluntary voting was established in 2012. Gone are the times in which the traditional left, the Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, had to reach consensus with the right without being able to carry out major reforms due to the constraints set by the legacy of the dictatorship and its constitution. This time, the elections were not between choices that would lead to similar outcomes, in which even with victory for the left and a majority in Congress, the neoliberal model would continue to prevail.

The overwhelming triumph of the approval shows that Chileans understand the economic model. The threats that the right used in its campaign of rejection — an alleged increase in unemployment, the much-announced end to economic growth, or the most popular of all, that we would become another Venezuela and be another failed attempt at socialism in Latin America — did not prevail over the evidence that the current subsidiary state system benefited only a few who have been overrepresented in Chilean politics. Perhaps Chile did wake up, as the slogan of the protests says. Or maybe the common citizen had never felt the opportunity to make real changes to the country with his or her vote, and therefore had not gone to the polls.

Chileans not only seem to be leaving behind the last legacies of the dictatorship, but are also convinced that they can forge a new identity, away from the limiting stigmas of the past. The Mapuche flag was noted among the apruebo (approve) celebrations, almost outnumbering the Chilean flag. The racist stigma created in colonial times against the Mapuche as a lazy people, as not conforming to Western values — in the words of the renowned historian Gabriel Salazar — seems to have no place in the new Chile that at least 5,886,421 Chileans expect to build.

The Chilean people celebrate the overwhelming triumph of working toward a new constitution for their country. (Photo courtesy of Janet Waggaman.)
Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi is a student in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practices Program and is originally from Valparaíso, Chile. After receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Administration and a Master’s Degree in Economics and Public Policy from the Adolfo Ibáñez University, he did an internship at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was also a teaching assistant for the UC Berkeley course “The impact of globalization in Latin America.”

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No había tal polarización: 78.27% versus 21.73%

Las dos partes de la boleta para el plebiscito constitucional chileno: primero, si debiera haber una nueva constitución y, de ser así, qué forma debería tomar el proceso. (Foto por cortesía de Janet Waggaman.)

Por Enzo Nervi

A pesar del esperado triunfo de la opción apruebo por una nueva constitución, a todos sorprendió el aplastante porcentaje de victoria: 78.27% contra un 21.73% de la opción rechazo. Lo que sí era esperable era que muchos se subirían al carro de la victoria para alinearse con la mayoría y no perder su capital político. Tal fue el caso del presidente Sebastián Piñera, donde a pesar de no revelar si votó apruebo o rechazo y referirse a que su voto “es un secreto de alcoba”, mencionó que “este es un triunfo de todos los chilenos y chilenas que amamos la democracia, la unidad y la paz”.

Coincidentemente con el resultado de la opción apruebo, la última encuesta de Plaza Pública Cadem, difundida un día después del plebiscito, reveló que la desaprobación del presidente Sebastián Piñera alcanzó un 78 por ciento. Inmediatamente después de los resultados, en un discurso desde el Palacio de la Moneda, Piñera no sólo negaba ser parte del problema que llevó a la realización del plebiscito y al inicio de las protestas de octubre pasado, sino que proclamaba “hoy es tiempo de sanar las heridas del pasado, de unir corazones y voluntades, y de alzar la vista hacia el futuro “. Entre líneas, el presidente estaba desestimando su responsabilidad sobre las violaciones a los derechos humanos perpetradas por el Estado a los manifestantes, aún cuando la Oficina de la Alta Comisionada de las Naciones Unidas para los Derechos humanos, Michelle Bachelet, concluyó que “existen razones fundadas para creer” que desde el 18 de octubre se han cometido un elevado número de violaciones de derechos humanos a manos de Carabineros y militares en Chile.

Más allá de las actuales palabras del presidente, su desconexión con la ciudadanía se hizo evidente. El discurso de polarización en la sociedad chilena ya no tiene cabida, y su recordada frase, “estamos en guerra contra un enemigo poderoso”, por las protestas de hace exactamente un año, parece cada día más alejada de la realidad. El aplastante resultado del plebiscito demostró que los chilenos no están divididos ni polarizados, sino que desde el retorno a la democracia no habían tenido una oportunidad real de lograr cambios. Por otro lado,  el hecho de que solo un 21,73% de la población votó rechazo, demuestra que aquellos que quieren mantener el modelo heredado de la dictadura son una minoría. La desconexión del presidente con la ciudadanía también se vio reflejada en las élites, dando paso a la hipótesis de que más que desconexión era querer aferrarse al poder y a sus intereses personales. Sorprendentemente para algunos, pero de manera reveladora para otros, tres de las cuatro comunas de Chile en que ganó la opción rechazo son las comunas más ricas del país. “La calle” como se refiere popularmente a la gente que sale a protestar, ha interpretado los localizados resultados del rechazo en las comunas más adineradas casi de forma metafórica. Las élites buscan mantener el poder mientras el pueblo pide lo contrario. De esta forma, a quiénes benefició por años la actual constitución se hizo evidente según quienes votaron por la opción rechazo.

Por primera vez desde el retorno a la democracia, los chilenos sintieron que su voto tendría un efecto significativo en sus vidas y salieron en masa a las urnas, registrando la mayor participación electoral desde que se instauró el voto voluntario en 2012. Atrás quedaron los tiempos en que la izquierda tradicional, la Concertación de Partidos por la Democracia, tenía que llegar a consensos con la derecha sin poder realizar grandes reformas debido a las ataduras dejadas por la dictadura y su Constitución. Esta vez, las elecciones no eran entre opciones similares, donde incluso si salía la izquierda o ésta tenía mayoría en el Congreso, el modelo neoliberal seguiría primando.

El avasallador triunfo del apruebo demuestra que los chilenos entendieron el modelo económico. Todas aquellas amenazas que utilizó la derecha en su campaña del rechazo, como por ejemplo, un supuesto aumento del desempleo, el tan anunciado fin al crecimiento económico, o el más popular de todos, convertirnos en otra Venezuela y ser otro intento fallido de socialismo en América Latina, no primaron sobre la evidencia de que el actual sistema de Estado subsidiario beneficiaba únicamente a unos pocos, sobrerrepresentados en la política chilena. Quizás “Chile despertó”, como lo dice el lema de las protestas. O quizás el ciudadano común nunca había sentido la oportunidad de cambiar el país con su voto ni de ejercer cambios reales, razón por la cual no acudía a las urnas.

Los chilenos parecen no sólo estar dejando atrás los últimos legados de la dictadura, sino que están convencidos de que pueden forjar una nueva identidad, alejados de los estigmas limitantes del pasado. La bandera mapuche se hizo notar entre las celebraciones del “apruebo”, casi superando en número a la bandera chilena. En esta nueva etapa, el estigma racista creado en la época de la colonia hacia los mapuches como un pueblo vago, al no ajustarse éstos a los valores occidentales, según palabras del connotado historiador Gabriel Salazar, pareciera no tener cabida en el nuevo Chile que al menos 5.886.421 chilenos esperan construir.

El pueblo chileno celebra el abrumador triunfo del apruebo de una nueva constitución para su país. (Foto por cortesía de Janet Waggaman.)
Enzo Nervi.

Enzo Nervi es estudiante del Programa de Maestría en Prácticas de Desarrollo de UC Berkeley y es de Valparaíso, Chile. Después de recibir una licenciatura en Economía y Administración y una Maestría en Economía y Políticas Públicas de la Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, realizó una pasantía en la Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe de las Naciones Unidas. También fue asistente de enseñanza para el curso “El impacto de la globalización en América Latina”.

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A Pioneer on Climate Change and Renewable Energy

A magnificent solar flare, or coronal mass ejection, erupts from the sun. (Photo

A magnificent solar flare, or coronal mass ejection. (Photo by NASA/GSFC/SDO.)

It is hard to fully describe the feeling of stepping into the world of Stan Ovshinsky. I have driven that hydrogen-powered Prius described by Avery Cohn in his 2008 article and marveled at the compact hydrogen storage system that Stan had designed. I sat across the desk from Stan in his office as he showed me the simplified diagram that seemed to sum up the opportunity that the universe has laid out before us – a hydrogen-driven, solar fire radiating energy that makes its way to earth and can easily be converted to electricity, which can then separate hydrogen from water molecules for our clean energy use – a virtuous hydrogen cycle.

What was immediately evident was his passion, his deep and profound knowledge, and his intellectual generosity. It was impossible to talk to Stan and not want all of his dreams to come true – because his dreams should be our dreams.

Ben Chao presents a prototype hydrogen-powered car to (from left): Christopher Edley, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and Roberto Dobles. (Photo by Cristel Heinrich Bettoni)

Stan Ovshinsky’s hydrogen-powered Prius is demonstrated during a visit to Detroit organized by CLAS in 2008. (Photo by Cristel Heinrich Bettoni.)

We are a funny species, we humans. So much potential. So many astounding accomplishments. And yet, it is so very hard to come together to support solutions that would make life better for all of us. Call it a challenge of vantage points – there are so many perches from which to observe the world. Call it an outgrowth of dramatically different life experiences. If failing health, oppression, bigotry or economic circumstances make us unable to dwell on the forest beyond the trees, chosen priorities can be very short-term and the focus, by necessity, may be insular. Whether it is a common agreement to wear cloth masks to curb a pandemic, or a clear dedication to ending our use of fossil fuels, it does not seem to be in our nature to place our trust in those who have worked through these problems and offer us sound solutions.

In his play An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen observed that it will take anywhere up to fifty years for any new truth to take hold and guide societal action. The characters in his play did not have the luxury of waiting that long in order to preserve public health. And neither do we.

Ibsen wrote in a different time when information-dispensing media were far less pervasive. The challenge now, of course, is there is little filter on the streams that bring information to us within seconds that might help us to identify what is true or that might help us, as a society, to continue to value the truth.

Stan Ovshinsky at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Matty Nematollahi.)

Stan Ovshinsky at UC Berkeley in 2008. (Photo by Matty Nematollahi.)

What has been missing is empowered leadership on climate issues – the kind that California has experienced for many years, but on the national level, where state borderlines don’t get in the way. How tragic that “trust in science” has become a political identifier and that denial of clear fact is allowed to pass unchallenged. It does not have to be that way. A strong leader can change the conversation, embrace the gifts of knowledge and invention provided by experts present and past, acknowledge the outsized obligation of the United States to act decisively, and set a clear path forward. In my mind, a clear path does not involve keeping the door open to “all of the above,” or hoping that market forces alone with take us in the right direction at the needed rate of change. There is more than one acceptable way to get to a decarbonized world – with effective leadership, we need to choose one path, and get started.

The feeling that one had after talking to Stan Ovshinsky?  It was the sense that he and others have handed us the keys to a better future, and that we are obliged to get in and drive.

Steve Weissman.STEVE WEISSMAN is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as the co-creater and former Director of the Energy Law program at UC Berkeley School of Law, where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from the California Public Utilities Commission, where he was an administrative law judge as well as policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners.

Stan Ovshinsky spoke at Berkeley in 2008. CLAS published several articles about his visit:
· “A Revolution Fueled by the Sun
· Physicist Arthur Bienenstock on Ovshinsky
· “The Einstein of Alternative Energy?”
· Video of Ovshinsky’s talk, “Alternative Energy and the Americas”

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The Abyss of Normality: Social Crises, Environmental Injustices, and Resistance in Contemporary Brazil

By Leonildes Nazar Chaves

Cars travel through subterranean roads in São Paulo in more normal times. (Photo by Fabio Barbato.)

Critical times guide us to feelings of rupture and reinvention. The horizon that we were unable to envision as the possibility of a more just and equitable future, today dwells inside of us with apathy and distrust.

Everything passes by at high speed. The disillusionment with liberal political and economic models; the inadequacy of public social protection policies; the lack of response from public bodies and the global system’s institutions; the ruin of the social pact of democracy; the high degree of insecurity due to socio-environmental impacts; the continuity of threats to the lives of people across borders and territories.

In Brazil, the emerging Covid-19 pandemic unveiled this critical reality even more clearly. As Carlos Milani points out, the virus alone does not single out individuals, “but pre-existing and enduring cultural, social and economic inequalities ensure that the virus discriminates. Because the world is shaped by economic power, nationalism, gender, racism, xenophobia and ecological injustices, the virus does not spread along virgin territories. It empirically validates the reality of preceding and continuous social and economic systems.”

These social inequalities are deep inside the Brazilian sense of normality. For many people in Brazil, the 120,000+ Covid-19 deaths as of September 1, 2020 are just numbers to be updated. It is also expected that those numbers are even bigger than those publicized by the authorities.

But it is difficult to assimilate to what is normal. That difficulty is mainly due to two themes, which I will try to address below: one more structural in nature; the other, more junctural; and both critically highlighted by the current pandemic as challenges.

Dressed in white, with masks and red balloons, artists pay homage to the people killed by Covid-19 in Brazil, May 2020. (Photo by Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado.)

Brazil owes itself many debts. They are the expression of the invented national idea of Brazil as a democratic country, that respects diversity, and whose structural problems, caused by historical inequalities, have been repaired. According to this view, the Brazilian system of exploitation and subordination of non-white people no longer exists.

The abyss of Brazilian normality is the perpetuation of this mistaken and dangerous nationally hegemonic thought. The invention of this idea began to take shape as soon as the colonization project of the Americas and its peoples succeeded. The project of civilizing logic, expropriating resources, and social war gave the country a basic configuration that even today reproduces violence to non-white bodies and dreams. As anarcotransfeminist artist Bruna Kury and afrotransfeminist intellectual Walla Capelobo emphasize, this is a process observed from slavery to the new faces of racism in contemporary Brazil.

Many actors intertwine and fight for power to maintain hierarchies and racist and anti-democratic narratives in the country. Among them are political groups of significant influence and public mobilization, such as the “5B” interests represented in the Parliament: Bullet (pro-guns), Bible (religious), Boi (ruralists, from the Portuguese for cattle),1 Banks, and Bula (the health industry, from the Portuguese for “leaflet”).

Public flogging of an enslaved person in 19th-century Brazil, from a painting by Johann Moritz Rugendas. (Photo by wilfredo.)

Contemporary Brazilian problems have very old roots that are still perpetuated by the force of highly active and continuously reinvented political agendas. Fabiano Santos and José Szwako argue that, in recent years — which include ex-president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 — Brazil has experienced: the worsening of a political, fiscal, and economic collapse; a crisis of representativeness of the democratic system and its institutions; and the emergence of sinister forces supported by elites, conservative, and reactionary groups.

Some contextual factors must be taken into consideration when analyzing the deepening social-political conflicts we face today: the further aggravation of conflicts by the murder of city councilor and political activist Marielle Franco, the electoral climate of 2018 and the profound crisis in the political dimension — that is, in a system that breaks down in its democratic essence.

In other words, in addition to social disruption and the last economic crises contributing to the current chaotic scenario, the politics and the political regime add to Brazil’s critical situation. There is a political system that calls its policy a reform because it is colonialist, oligarchic, elitist, and corrupt. And the challenge is real: even the fields of information and knowledge are in dispute because these political actors organize their truths (in general fake news) in association with reactionary, medieval minds.

The intensification of economic activities, such as agribusiness, infrastructure and mining, in addition to the spread of associated illegal practices, are another challenge of the present time. The escalation in violence against and persecution of marginalized populations in the countryside and cities, reinforced by the historical genocide of black and indigenous people, are observed in parallel with the current criminalization of social movements, activists, and civil society.

Brazilian politics and society are also being challenged by the reformulation of Brazilian foreign policy, as well as education, science, and technology policy guidelines. These are part of the bureaucratic institutional reform efforts recently implemented.

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro at a March 2020 press conference. (Photo by Isac Nóbrega/PR.)

In 2019, the newly-elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, began a series of changes that disrupted the administrative and institutional body of the Brazilian state, initiating his political project to dismantle the bureaucratic functioning and organization of previous governments.

In the new structure proposed by President Bolsonaro, political and democratic institutions are divided between the three main groupings of his power base: the military, (neo)liberals, and dogmatic (reactionary/religious) groups. This new framework for public bodies also reflects certain Brazilian social groups — such as non-progressive sectors, political and institutional elites, and ideological radicals and reactionaries — and the historical inequality at the core of Brazilian society, mainly mobilizing the middle classes.

The bureaucratic reforms have profound impacts, due to the elimination of national councils, committees, secretariats, and ministry programs. The Ministry of Environment, for example, dismantled the Secretariat for Climate Change and Environment Quality, and several of its responsibilities were incorporated into the Ministry of Agriculture, the bureaucratic home of ruralists.

Today, even while Brazilian society has more than 1 million people infected by Covid-19, the inability of the Brazilian government to move beyond its electoral campaign and its intolerance of critiques has made the dream of a more democratic country more distant. This scenario, however, does reflect what the current government seems to represent: Brazil is trapped by the political, economic, cultural, environmental, and symbolic aspects of racism and anti-democracy.

On the environmental and climatic faces of racism, we can point out that the Brazilian government sets out guidelines that seem to have encouraged illegality, impacting the lives of several peoples. The flexibilization of policies for environmental protection and conservation is one of the government’s strategies that have been contributing to the escalating number and severity of violations.

According to a report presented in May 2020 by MapBiomas – an initiative of several scientific entities, companies, and civil society – 99% of 2019 deforestation in Brazil was illegal. More recently, in a meeting with Bolsonaro, the Minister of Environment Ricardo Salles defended the government’s taking advantage of the media’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic to approve a “simplification” of environmental legislation that would benefit the agribusiness sector.

Fires in Rondônia, São Miguel do Guaporé county. Recent wildfires burn scars in reddish brown. On the bottom left is Guaporé Biological Reserve, to the right Rio Branco Indigenous Land. (Photo by Oton Barros, DSR/OBT/INPE.)

The government of Jair Bolsonaro has succeeded in deepening the threats to national biomes such as the Amazon and the Cerrado, as well as to several populations: Indigenous and forest peoples, quilombolas,2 peasants, and the inhabitants of favelas and urban peripheries. Increases in wildfires, deforestation, and conflicts between traditional communities and criminals (such as land grabbers) have become further examples of what we can no longer consider “normal.”

The fire that threatens the existence of Brazilian forests is a danger on many fronts: for the people who live there, experiencing constant tension and changes in habits; for the expansion of greenhouse gas emissions; and for the rise of climate impacts on a global scale, which are potentially more threatening to populations already vulnerable to structural racism, economic interventions, and a disregard of their knowledge and traditions.

Data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) indicate that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon grew 171% compared to April 2019. In May 2020, the non-governmental organization SOS Mata Atlântica presented updated data from its atlas for the most devastated biome in the country; the numbers were not favorable. Between 2018 and 2019, deforestation in the Mata Atlântica Forest, which is already down to 12% of its native cover, grew by 27%. It is worth remembering that Minister Salles gave an amnesty to Mata Atlântica’s deforesters amid the pandemic at the end of April 2020.

The deforestation process occurring in Brazilian biomes during the current Covid-19 health crisis has been identified as a criminal campaign. Different community leaders have claimed it is a potential agent of the genocide against Indigenous, quilombola, and other vulnerable communities.

According to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (Apib), 29,609 Indigenous people have already gotten the novel coronavirus, with 156 Indigenous ethnic groups affected and 779 deaths (as of August 3, 2020.)3 In data from the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Conaq), there were 4,504 registered cases of infection and 155 deaths in Brazilian quilombos by September 1, 2020.4

In times of environmental and climatic emergencies intersecting with a pandemic, vulnerabilities intensify, and it appears that political and economic forces have continued to reproduce their project of subordination and subjugation of natural resources, cultures, and peoples. Under the new atmosphere brought about by Covid-19, we are witnessing a chaotic state of political instability, increasing inequalities, institutional fragility, and human insecurity.

Water scarcity and severe droughts endanger the right to wash our hands and food. Intensified by emissions from deforestation, climate change has also increased severe rains and floods, leaving whole families homeless and often in spaces which lack basic sanitation, further exposing them to disease and other traumas. Furthermore, worsening air pollution makes normal breathing impossible, and almost a privilege these days.

A dry lake bed in Parana, Brazil in 2015. Climate change has intensified both rain events and drought in recent years. (Photo by Otávio Nogueira.)

In urban agglomerations, cities with neither sufficient infrastructure nor appropriate housing, environmental impacts cause displacement and forced migrations, which inevitably lead to human exposure to inhospitable contexts. The effects of climate change also intensify food insecurity, a state detrimental to healthy living and commensality, the better cooperative relations and interaction between individuals arising from eating together, as political scientist Tassia Carvalho explains.

Nonetheless, these impacts challenge us to prioritize both the creation of effective policies for social justice and the defense of collective health. Doing so could help to prevent more uncertainties in our social system and minimize vulnerabilities to conditions of a better life: safe domiciles and resilient infrastructures; labor, education, and ecosystem protections to guarantee communities the ability to survive and remain on their historical territories; energy distribution; water access; food sovereignty, and so on.

Among all this, community mobilization and collective action remain acts of survival and care. Initiatives have come from popular forces, such as the mobilization of the Brazilian Network of Environmental Justice in partnership with the National Campaign in Defense of the Cerrado, the National Committee for the Defense of Territories Against Mining, and the National Articulation of Agroecology. They have mobilized with local collective health committees in regions across the country, involving more than 80 leaders and actors to create and exchange actions throughout the territories.

These experiences move us to think of another way forward, not only through state institutions but also socially: the anti-racist and pro-democratic pact that Brazilian society needs to create to translate the reinvention of the country into responses and policies. The maintenance of social inequalities and the public permanence of authoritarianism and denialism are the two dimensions that anti-racism and democracy can face together to guarantee social rights and defend diversity and freedoms.

This perspective, resisting reactionary logic, operationalization, culture, and ideas, involves not only not being racist but also being actively anti-racist, as Angela Davis teaches us. The restructuring of the political system, for example, is a turning point and opportunity for reinvention. However, the project for silencing and excluding Black and Indigenous peoples, for creating policies that do not include the poorest, for not emancipating workers into a more dignified life, and for eradicating a country’s arts and cultures is continuous and systematic.

In Brazil, the forest struggles to stay alive, as do the most peripheral peoples in cities and communities. Lives have been interrupted and trivialized. But there are young people who want to stay alive and experience other horizons, not abysses. They deserve a real normality.

A participant in the Indigenous Women’s March in Brasilia, September 2019. (Photo by Katie Maehler.)


  1. Ruralists represent agribusiness actors and have a prominent political power derived from their economic position. Ruralists are an influential group in democratic institutions in Brazilian society, and their influence is found not only in local but also national politics.
  2. “The word quilombo comes from the African language Quimbunco, which means: society formed by young warriors who belonged to uprooted ethnic groups in their communities. Quilombo remnants are defined as ethnic-racial groups that also have their own historical trajectory, endowed with specific territorial relations, with a presumption of black ancestry related to the resistance to the suffered historical oppression, and their characterization must be given according to criteria of self- attribution attested by the communities themselves, as also adopted by the ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.” (CONAQ, 2020, Available in:

Leonildes Nazar, a political scientist and internationalist, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). Her work is focused on: foreign policy actors and agendas; international cooperation; and climate change, environmental justice, and human rights, especially as related to race and gender issues. Leonildes has a degree in International Relations from the Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro and a master’s degree in Political Science from IESP-UERJ. A member of the World Political Analysis Laboratory (Labmundo) and the research platform Latitude Sul, she is also a collaborator researcher at the Interdisciplinary Observatory on Climate Change, and a member of the Brazilian Association of Black Researchers (ABPN.)

Leonildes was a Visiting Scholar at CLAS in 2019–20.

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