Los movimientos y las deudas

Por Lucía Cavallero

Foto de la manifestación por el 8 de marzo en Buenos Aires, 2021. Un grupo de manifestantes muestra una gran bandera verde que dice "¡Vivas, libres y desendeudadas nos queremos!". (Foto de Sofia Besandon.)
Manifestación por el 8 de marzo en Buenos Aires, 2021. (Foto de Sofía Besandon.)

Durante la pandemia, el gesto mismo de moverse, de desplazarse, señaliza una división de recursos. La interpelación a quedarse en casa es también un llamado generalizado a volver objeto de pensamiento el mínimo movimiento.

Nunca antes estuvimos tan situadxs, a la vez que hiperconectadxs, en nuestros movimientos y gestualidades. Debido a que, dramáticamente, cualquier movimiento puede ser razón de un contagio, nunca habíamos vivido la vida tan desagregada en mínimos gestos. Así, mi propuesta es pensar esta situación excepcional a partir de una economía de los movimientos que está referida directamente al dinero en una doble clave: renta vs. deuda. Y, dando un paso más, mi hipótesis es que, en vez de una interrupción generalizada, resulta más adecuado pensar la cuarentena como una suspensión desigual de ingresos y rentas. De allí que las preguntas que resuenan son: ¿Qué movimientos se remuneran? ¿Qué movimientos generan deudas?  Y en contrapunto: ¿qué inmovilidades generan rentas y qué inmovilidades provocan deudas? ¿Qué rentas ratifican la familia como única posibilidad de refugio?

Mi investigación previa, realizada con Verónica Gago y situada en Argentina, ha detectado que el endeudamiento doméstico se ha vuelto fundamental para acceder a bienes tan básicos como alimentos y medicamentos. Esto sucedió en un contexto marcado por la inflación y la consecuente pérdida de poder adquisitivo de subsidios y salarios, desatada por las políticas de ajuste y endeudamiento externo del gobierno de Mauricio Macri.

Así, antes de la pandemia, el endeudamiento de las economías domésticas era ya un paisaje extendido. Sobre esta situación, las restricciones a la movilidad produjeron una pérdida generalizada de ingresos originada por despidos y rebajas salariales que incrementaron la crisis social y económica. Pero no sólo eso; la inmovilidad de los sectores precarizados, donde las mujeres y personas LGTBI+ son mayoría, generó la aparición de nuevas deudas.

La cuarentena, así, puede leerse así desde el punto de vista de cuáles son los movimientos que generan deudas y cuáles los que generan rentas. Con ese método, no sólo se evidencia quién puede quedarse en casa y quién no. También demuestra cómo moverse o fijarse tiene efectos diferenciales en términos de ingresos y deudas.

De este modo, el endeudamiento doméstico se diversificó e incrementó durante la pandemia, donde las deudas “no bancarias” por alquileres y servicios de luz, agua, gas, crecieron a ritmo acelerado, lo cual se hace aún más fuerte en los hogares monomarentales, con mujeres a cargo de niños y niñas, convirtiendo al endeudamiento en otra de las formas de intensificación de las desigualdades de género.

Así, el espacio doméstico, que las masivas movilizaciones feministas habían señalado como espacio donde se combinan formas de explotación y opresión, fue indicado por los gobiernos como el lugar de refugio frente a la posibilidad del contagio. La paradoja reside en que ese espacio “seguro” devino, al mismo tiempo, territorio de conquista para el capital financiero (el incremento de la deuda por alquileres es elocuente en ese sentido). 

De este modo, quisiera postular que el endeudamiento privado interviene con una función eminentemente política: opera re-configurando el ámbito doméstico. Esto es así porque las mujeres realizan múltiples actividades para asegurar el pago de la deuda, lo cual se traduce en una sobreexplotación de trabajos históricamente desvalorizados que conjugan, en muchos casos, trabajos reproductivos con formas de virtualización del trabajo. De este modo, es en ese espacio donde se combinan, de forma más evidente, mandatos de género y obligación financiera. Porque la deuda aprovecha el mandato que recae sobre las mujeres de sostener las economías domésticas en situaciones de crisis y, a su vez, activa el incremento de los trabajos reproductivos y desvalorizados.

A su vez, la crisis habitacional por acumulación de deudas intensifica la división entre propietarios y no propietarios en una clave familiarista. Esto es así, porque cuando no se puede pagar el alquiler por la restricción de ingresos, la vivienda heredada o conyugal se refuerza como único modo de asegurar la casa, excluyendo realidades como las de la población LGTBIQ+ generalmente desheredada y con otras formas de convivencia más allá de la conyugalidad heterosexual.

De este modo, es urgente enfrentar esta desigual distribución del riesgo de la inmovilidad, condonando las deudas domésticas acumuladas durante la pandemia. Necesitamos que nuestro cuidado no genere deudas porque Vivas, Libres y Desendeudadas Nos Queremos.

Fotografía de la autora del blog, Lucía Cavallero.

Lucía Cavallero es socióloga e investigadora de la Universidad de Buenos Aires y de la Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero en Argentina, y miembra del colectivo feminista Ni Una Menos. Es investigadora asociada del International Consortium of Critical Theory (Consorcio Internacional de Teoría Crítica) y autora de “Una lectura feminista de la deuda”. Se especializa en economías feministas, deuda y género y es parte del Group for Feminist Research and Intervention (Grupo para la Investigación e Intervención Feminista, GIIF).

Posted in Argentina | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Not Your Typical Food Conference: A Reflection on the Biomigrations Conference

By Jesús I’x Nazario, Dhruv Patel, and Irene Farah

Flyer for the Biomigrations Conference: Food, Sovereignty, Security, and Justice in the Americas. (Image courtesy of Jesús I’x Nazario.) Flyer image shows a map of the Americas made of seeds, as well as information on dates and co-sponsors.
Flyer for the Biomigrations Conference: Food, Sovereignty, Security, and Justice in the Americas. (Image courtesy of Jesús I’x Nazario.)

Rich or poor, Black, brown, or white, we all need to eat to survive. But food’s enduring presence does not insulate it from the systemic biases that plague our society. Although the industrialization of agriculture has produced record-breaking national harvests, millions of people go hungry every day. Inequities are rampant not only in the hierarchical structures that produce our food, but also in which populations have access to nutritious fresh produce in the first place.

Through the Berkeley Food Institute Graduate Council’s (BFIGC) inaugural conference, “Biomigrations: Food Sovereignty, Security, and Justice,” we wanted to make space for Black, Indigenous, women, and queer leaders that are transforming our understanding of food. By bridging academics, community leaders, consumers, and other vital actors within our food system, we sought to reinforce the goal of the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI): to understand and transform food systems in a cross-disciplinary manner in order to build a more resilient and equitable future within and beyond academic institutions.

Biomigrations was the theme used to explore the ideas of food sovereignty, food security, and food justice. Each conference day began with a land acknowledgement, in honor of the living and ancestral Ohlone-speaking Indigenous peoples, whose land the University of California-Berkeley campus occupies. The term Biomigrations, introduced on Day 1, set the tone of the conference by offering a reconsideration between Life and Movement. While its definition was not fully elaborated, the question posed was: how has violence, refusal, and Indigenous rooting been a part of the actualization of one’s self and community?

Throughout the two-day conference, we had the honor of welcoming two wonderful keynote speakers Elizabeth Hoover and Elsadig Elsheikh, two scholars who discussed the importance of challenging contemporary global food systems paradigms. Dr. Hoover emphasized the value of Native seed sovereignties and Mr. Elsheikh elaborated on the intersectional opportunities for food movements in the context of corporate power and the climate crisis.

In addition, five panels with a mixture of academics and plant workers/farmers spoke from their own experiences and research sites. We also had the pleasure of hosting a book presentation on Teotihuacan Cuisine, a recipe book gathered from locals living in the Teotihuacan Valley in Mexico. The screening of the documentary Raspando Coco was another community-focused event that showcased the health impacts and cultural and culinary traditions surrounding the coconut among Afro-Ecuadorians in Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

Ultimately, this conference exemplified that food is more than what we eat. Food is who we are and what we can be. As laborers, artists, community members, scholars, and consumers, we all play a critical role in defining the priorities of our food system. The range of panels and events in the Biomigrations conference exhibited that biodiversity. While food is a lens through which we can understand the inequities embedded in the complex fabric of society, it also sheds light on what needs improving in our communities. As such, the conference became a sanctuary for all of those interested in these improvements, showing paths for more inclusive and transformative food systems. For that reason, we will continue promoting these spaces where we can integrate knowledge, bring in different communities, and plan for more equitable societies.

To end on a note of gratitude, we would like to acknowledge that the Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), through financial and organizational support they offered to the BFIGC, helped make the Biomigrations conference possible. In addition to BFI support, the Biomigrations conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies, the Native American Studies Program, the Latinx Research Center, the Multicultural Community Center, the Graduate Assembly, and the Native American Student Education Enrichment Grant. Together, we pursued an interdisciplinary path with the goal of understanding transformative food systems in a holistic manner — something we at the BFIGC will continue to do to understand and improve food systems while widening the dialogue across disciplines and communities.

Jesús I’x Nazario (jehj/jehj’s) is a first-year PhD student in Ethnic Studies studying Indigenous (Nahua) food and political sovereignty in the United States and Mexico. Jesús has studied with small-holder Nahua maize farmers and is interested in linking seeds with people across settler-colonial borders. 

Dhruv Patel (he/him) is a fifth-year PhD student in Plant and Microbial Biology studying the regulation of photosynthesis in algae and crop plants. He is interested in learning how we can use molecular biology to support the development of locally adapted and culturally relevant crop varieties. Dhruv was brought to BFIGC by his desire to ground scientific innovation in interdisciplinary conversation, working towards a more sustainable and equitable food system.

Irene Farah (she/her) is a second year PhD student in City & Regional Planning. She is currently studying the intersection of work opportunities and food justice. In particular, she studies street vendors in Mexico City, and how their physical and political positions impact their access to healthy food. She joined the BFIGC because she believes that multidisciplinary efforts are needed to ameliorate spatial and social inequities.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Moral Licensing and Impunity: Reflections on Colombian Security Sector Narratives

By Alejandra Ortiz Ayala

“Peace in Colombia is peace in our America,” in Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo by urban_lenny/Flickr.)

On March 18, 2019, I was doing fieldwork for my Ph.D. research at Colombia’s Escuela Superior de Guerra (Superior School of War), a military academy for training high-ranking officers. That day, The New York Times published an article in which some officers reported instructions to increase efforts to “secure peace” by stepping up attacks and doubling the number of criminals and militants killed, even if this implied weakening their procedures for preventing the killing of civilians. Concerned members of the Armed Forces feared that these initiatives would revive the logic that led to one of the Colombian Army’s most prominent scandals, the falsos positivos (false positives).

As part of a strategy to fight left-wing guerrillas and reestablish state control of violence across its territory, top-down government evaluations adopted body counts as key measures of good performance among military units. State forces, mainly the army, systematically killed civilians and then claimed they were guerilla fighters. These “combat” killings earned soldiers medals, promotions, congratulations from their superiors, and vacation time, among other compensations.

In reply to the Times article, the former Commander of the Army, Major General Nicacio Martínez, tweeted from his personal account quoting Elbert Hubbard, an American writer: “an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness”.

Major General Nicacio Martínez's Tweetm metioned above. (Capture by the author of this blog post. Retrieved on 5/18/19.)

Major General Nicacio Martínez’s tweet. (Captured by Alejandra Ortiz Ayala, retrieved on 5/18/19.)

The soldiers and civilians that surrounded me at the School of War reacted to this article with defensiveness. For most of these soldiers, civilian ignorance of the military world is the reason for those scandals; they see the reporting as an effort to affect the legitimacy of the military as an institution. I asked about the sources that contributed the information, telling the soldiers that the article was based on interviews with insiders concerned about the High Commander’s new approach. Without hesitation, they accused them of being traitors and disociadores (disruptors.) Few acknowledged the possible connection to the falsos positivos, and many declared that those were behaviors of the past, and that soldiers had already learned the lesson.  

On February 18, 2021, a press release from the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP, Special Jurisdiction for Peace; the judicial institution of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition created by the Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in November 2016) reported 6,402 victims between 2002 and 2008. During this time, members of the military lured primarily poor young men with false job offers and other promises, and then murdered them. The JEP began functioning in March 2018, and among the matters that they prioritized for investigation, Case 03 addressed extrajudicial executions. After the publication, the new High Commander of the Colombian Army, General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano, tweeted from his account, accompanied with a picture of snakes:

We are soldiers of the Colombian Army, and we will not allow ourselves to be defeated by poisonous and perverse snakes that want to attack us, point at us, or weaken us. Officers, sub-officers and soldiers do not give up, we do not lose heart, always strong with our heads held high. God is with us. (Tweet translated by the author of this post.)

Tweet by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano mentioned above. (Capture by the author of this blog post. Retrieved on 02/20/2021)



Tweet by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano. (Captured by Alejandra Ortiz Ayala, retrieved on 2/20/2021.)

Among societies that aim to transition away from long-lasting conflict to re-establishing peaceful and positive relations, defensiveness and a lack of willingness to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past perpetrated by the self or one’s group are often amplified. Studies in socio-psychology and intergroup conflict show that individuals attempt to defend the self or the in-group from responsibility using psychological mechanisms such as dehumanization. In post-conflict contexts, in-group favoritism is even more pronounced, and is particularly prominent among those who experienced combat situations. It is not surprising, therefore, that soldiers tend to develop deeply held, rigid, and polarized views about the conflict, and often distort and selectively process information into congruence with their perceptions. State forces involved in irregular warfare often wear the law as an armor of impunity that allows them to draw a moral boundary, where acts of violence perpetuated by the in-group are more justifiable and less cruel than those committed by the out-group. Then the enemy occupies the space outside the law, and the unpardonable violence only happens outside the state institutions. That moral license encourages narratives that help soldiers deal with cognitive dissonance when they feel accused or persecuted for doing things that contradict their positive self-image. Thus, the feeling of genuine justification is common among soldiers, as is the perception that they are either within or above the law.

But this is not only about soldiers’ responsibilities; civil authorities are complicit in enabling that feeling of immunity among security forces when they minimize state responsibility. For instance, the former Minister of Defense, Guillermo Botero, may have covered up the knowledge of children being present in a camp of FARC dissidents in Caquetá, Colombia that was bombed in a 2019 military operation. After an investigation, it was confirmed that military intelligence was aware that dissident groups in that region recruited minors, and that seven people who died in the operation were between 12 and 17 years old. In similar circumstances, another group of minors died in the bombing of a dissident camp in February 2021. The current Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, called the minors “war machines,” and argued that the operation was legal. In addition to the fact that an illegal group committed a war crime by recruiting children, the state did not protect the children by preventing their recruitment in the first place. Further, considering the indiscriminate effects of using bombs, state forces have a duty to protect children by considering other military options. The Observatorio de la Democracia (Democracy Observatory) in Colombia reported that fewer than 4 out of 10 Colombians believe that the armed forces respect human rights, which suggests a problem of legitimacy for this institution. 

Graph indicating percentage of Colombians who believe that the Armed Forces respect human rights, 2012-2020. (Image courtesy of Observatorio de la Democracia.)Graph shows 55.1% in 2021, 30.6% in 2013, 35.4% in 2014, , 35.6% in 2016, 37.1% in 2018, and 37.1% in 2020, with a 95% confidence interval.
Percentage of Colombians who believe that the Armed Forces respect human rights, 2012-2020. (Image courtesy of Observatorio de la Democracia.)

Studies argue that policies aimed at breaking state impunity for past human rights violations make new violence less likely, and are more effective at fostering peaceful democracies. There is a long journey ahead, but the evidence tells us that a state incapable of recognizing its contribution to internal conflict is condemning all of us to unbreakable cycles of violence.

Note: By the time I finished writing this piece, the Colombian judicial system decided to end the investigation against former general Nicacio Martínez who stepped down from the Colombian Army on December 27, 2019 after a national magazine reported the use of illegal use of intelligence equipment to spy on politicians, magistrates, activist, human right defenders and journalists. He denies being involved in any of these scandals and argues that his resignation was for family reasons.

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala is a Research Affiliate in Political Economy and Transnational Governance (PETGOV) at the University of Amsterdam, and a Ph.D. candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

Posted in Colombia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Title 42 Continues, and So Does the Suffering at the Border

By Katie Sharar

A photo taken through the Nogales wall, showing the town separated by the border.
A lens through the barrier: The Nogales wall separating border communities. (Photo by Avery Ellfeldt.)

Over the past year, the most salient political reality of U.S. border and migration policy is Title 42. This policy, enacted by the Trump administration in March 2020, invokes a 1944 public health statute to close the border to “nonessential” travel indefinitely. Since then, the border has effectively been sealed off to migrants and asylum-seekers, using the pandemic as a pretext to justify this extreme measure. Many senior health officials dispute that there is any credible public health basis for this order. Several months into President Biden’s term, the policy remains, and the violations of people’s well-being and their access to fair legal processes continue. Migrants from many countries are returned shortly after crossing the border to Mexican border towns, where they are often victims of violence at the hands of organized crime. And with no concrete plans to unwind Title 42, migrants are living in dangerous limbo that makes planning for the future nearly impossible.

Almost all adults who present at or cross the border are immediately sent back to Mexico, with no opportunity to ask for asylum or present claims of fear of return. However, Title 42 can play out in different ways for families with young children. Some families are released to spend a day or two in shelters in U.S. border states, before traveling to the places where their sponsors live and where future court dates can be scheduled.  Other families are returned to Mexico, though that country has pushed back on its willingness to accept people returned by the U.S., particularly families with small children. Who is sent back to Mexico and who is allowed to remain in the U.S. appears to be highly random.

In a reversal of the Trump administration’s application of Title 42, children traveling alone are now allowed to remain in the U.S. and continue their cases in the country. They are processed at the border before being sent to shelters where efforts are made to reunite them with family members. However, the process is often riddled with delays and mistreatment; children are frequently held in the holding facilities for far longer than the 72 hours mandated by law. Many detained children also report that they lack access to food, water, medical care, or other basic necessities.

Near where I live in Tucson, there are several humanitarian aid centers that receive many of the migrant families released by Border Patrol. In Tucson and Phoenix, as in multiple cities in the southwestern U.S., there are coordinated efforts and levels of infrastructure to ensure that people have meals, COVID tests, a change of clothing, the chance to sleep and shower, and to connect with their families to make travel arrangements. However, the U.S. Border Patrol has also dropped families off on the street in very remote towns, where there are few, if any, services available. In the small town of Gila Bend, for example, the mayor and members of the community banded together to help migrants that the Border Patrol left there — including providing meals and driving them several hours to Phoenix, where far more services, such as lodging and bus stations, are accessible. Though there is a long history of struggle and cruelty toward migrants in the Southwest, there is also a history of hospitality, and of people rising to meet the needs of travelers.

A mural painted in vibrant colors at a shelter for migrants in El Paso, Texas.
Artists painted vibrant murals throughout a shelter for migrants in El Paso. (Photo by Katie Sharar.)

Several weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso to visit friends and family. I spent a weekend volunteering with Annunciation House, a hospitality center for migrants. It has been working to serve people in migration in the border community for over 40 years, and I have volunteered there off and on for nearly 20 years. On my recent visit, we received mostly Central American families because of the Title 42 policies mentioned above. Nearly all of the families had crossed in South Texas — hundreds of miles away from El Paso — and then had been flown west. Everyone, including infants and toddlers, wore identical outfits: royal blue T-shirts, grey sweatpants, white socks, and ill-fitting flip-flops. The adults also wore ankle monitors that require daily charging. The monitors are to ensure compliance with court appearances, but they are a cumbersome physical — and emotional — weight.

One day, after my shift at Annunciation House, I walked across the border to the city of Juarez, Mexico. Though the border is closed to immigrants, asylum seekers, and many others, U.S. citizens are able to come and go as they please. As I was returning to El Paso, I saw a group of families with small children being led back into Juarez by a U.S. agent. I later heard that when they arrived back in Mexico, they approached an acquaintance to ask where they were. When she told them the city and the country, they burst into tears — they had no idea where there were being taken, or even that they had been returned to Mexico. This happens regularly, sometimes multiple times daily. Migrants are left to fend for themselves, do whatever possible to avoid becoming victims of violence, and figure out their next steps from a place of terrific uncertainty.

Returning home is rarely a conceivable option. Conditions in sending countries remain highly precarious: the pandemic wreaked havoc on already marginalized economies, people continue to be at risk for profound violence, and climate change has made survival nearly impossible in many communities. Climate disasters like the hurricanes in Central America and rising rates of hunger and malnutrition combine to make conditions at home unlivable.

As avenues to seeking protection in the U.S. remain restricted, conditions in sending countries worsen, and waiting in Mexico continues to be life-threatening for migrants, people do what humans have nearly always done: what is necessary to survive. Any policy based in denying this reality will only result in more suffering and loss of life. Indeed, the summer of 2020 — the hottest and driest on record in Arizona — was also one of the deadliest summers for people crossing the desert.

As the wall has been expanded, there are also more injuries as a result of falls; those with “minor” injuries such as broken bones are generally sent immediately back to Mexico. Others suffer life-changing injuries. A young woman from Guatemala who fell from the 30-foot wall outside of El Paso suffered a spinal cord injury and was recovering at Annunciation House. As a result of her injury, she is in a wheelchair, and needs assistance with bathing, using the restroom, and many other daily necessities. She left Guatemala because of crushing poverty, because she dreamed of saving money to support her family and to put a little aside to pursue her dream of being a dancer.  

Photograph of the border wall with razor wire.
In many areas, the border wall has been extended, built higher, or outfitted with razor wire to “deter” crossing. (Photo by Katie Sharar.)

The U.S. must answer questions about the border and migration in a way that minimizes suffering, avoids preventable deaths, recognizes root causes, and promotes the well being of people and communities on both sides of that boundary. Repealing Title 42 is a necessary beginning, but there is much more to be done, and this question only becomes more urgent as inequality and climate change worsen.  If the U.S. is to reimagine border policy in the direction of greater justice, we must listen to the voices of migrants and asylum seekers, honor their agency and their rights as humans, and uplift the interconnectedness of people and communities throughout the Americas and beyond.

Photo of author Katie Sharar.

Katie Sharar lives in Tucson, Arizona, and has engaged in border and immigration work for nearly 20 years in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. Through various nonprofit and community-based organizations, she has worked to provide humanitarian aid to people in migration on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border,  researched and written about current border trends, and supported people in immigration detention and upon their release.

Posted in U.S.-Mexico border | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Colombia, Ecuador | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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 julia.byrd@berkeley.edu.

Posted in Guatemala | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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. www.lailaespinoza.com

Posted in U.S.-Mexico border | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Mexico | Tagged | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment