Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Railcar Fever


If I were to have a mid-life crisis (which I will not: my mid-life is terrific), it would be with these little railcars. I am especially wistful when I see them in this terrific location near the Cape Cod Canal. For now, I have to satisfy myself with the recent blog post I published on Wiley's GeoDiscoveries: Real Toy Trains.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

Last week, walking through my "idyllic" campus, I found a lot of plastic, including this bottle near a storm drain. What really caught my eye was the cigarette right on the edge, ready to become part of the local stream network. I posted the photo on the Wiley Concept Caching site, to which I am a regular contributor, hoping to get students nationwide to think about this problem. 

I am not terribly optimistic, however, since the offending litter was just feet away from the building in which we do much of the environmental education on our campus. Moreover, we seem to be losing the educational battle around plastic, as we actually encourage the sale of beverages wrapped in plastic -- five minutes of refreshment followed by centuries of degradation.

The Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. mantra is well known, but it is not widely understood that with respect to plastic (and many other materials) this is a best-to-worst ranking. The only real way to eliminate plastic from the oceans, land, and waterways is simply not to produce it. Reusing plastic items delays the path to the hydrosphere. Recycling shortens the polymers, making them progressively less useful, but does not eliminate them.

Certainly, once something has been produced, reuse and recycling are to be encouraged, but they are not really sufficient measures to protect oceans, and institutions that do environmental education have an obligation to reduce demand where possible.

Brazil Grows Westward

See interactive map on Globo.com
My 1998 dissertation analyzes the urbanization of Rondonia, a state in the western Amazon region of Brazil. I chose Rondonia because it was experiencing extremely rapid rates of deforestation and urbanization at the same time, and I wanted to examine connections between the two. Among my conclusions were that the cities themselves were not contributing substantially to the growth of the forest and that the cities had taken on a life of their own and were poised for substantial further growth.

That early work led eventually to the establishment of the U.S.-Brazil Consortium on Urban Development, which I founded with fellow geographers at four universities in both countries (none of them in the Amazon). One of the first student participants was Rodrigo Capelani, whom I count among my many amazing friends in Brazil. After finishing our semester program, he graduated in Brazil and then completed his master's at Miami University of Ohio, where I had received my master's twenty years earlier. This evening, this came full circle, as Rodrigo showed me this map based on the work of the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), and pointed out that it shows the remarkable growth of population in the western Amazon.

very preliminary look suggests that this bears out my conclusion growth in the region. The greens of the map show population gains, while the reds show losses. Porto Velho, the urban area where I lived during my 1997 field work, gained over 27 percent in the past decade -- almost 100,000 more residents. That increase alone exceeds the population of the entire state of Rondonia in 1960. Some other municipalities even farther from the historic core of the country have increased even more rapidly. The data in this form cannot validate my hunch that most of this growth is urban; I look forward to examining the data to find out.

More importantly, I look forward to revisiting the region (which I last saw in 2003), and especially the later frontiers in the far northwestern Amazon, to see for myself. I plan to do so when my friend Miguel and I publish a second edition of our book about perceptions of the Amazon region. Both perceptions and reality have changed significantly since we first published Olhares Sobre a Amazonia a decade ago!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Geography of Coffee Tables

The So Sylvie design/culture/babel blog has a great little craft project that brings together the three words in this title. What is more perfect than a coffee table in a coffee shop, covered in maps? I've actually seen variations on this in a few places, most notably in the original Ben Linder Cafe in Leon. I hope that Sylvie's post encourages more people to try this. I also like that Sylvie supports her local coffee shop!

Shopping Saturday, not Friday

I am happy to say that I have never stood in the pre-dawn cold, waiting for a store to open. For many years, in fact, my (immediate) family has done no shopping at all on the day after Thanksgiving. What others call "Black Friday" we have called "Buy Nothing Day." We did make an exception to buy medicine for our daughter once, but we take this pretty seriously, making sure on Wednesday that we were prepared to avoid buying anything for the rest of the week. (For those confused by the term: it refers to the idea that businesses would reach profitability on this date, moving from "in the red" to "in the black" as sales grew, with sales for the rest of the year representing annual profit margins.)

This is, in fact, a movement that has now been around long enough that the original posters are called BND Classic. We knew it was a major movement, but it was not covered much, and we heard relatively little about it from our friends or colleagues. Even NPR, which prides itself on independence from advertising, we can count on a flurry of reports about shopping on this holiday weekend, with little, if any, mention of those who are purposely opting out.

We did notice, however, that the day after Thanksgiving is no longer the busiest shopping day of the year -- despite all the hype -- and we were thinking that people like us might be part of the reason. Of course, a bigger factor is the growth of online shopping, of which we do a fair bit (but not on Thanksgiving or the day after). Again, NPR and other media have focused on every possible cause except for the Buy Nothing Day movement.

Today I received a message from Heifer International, mentioning that the Black Friday haul probably exceeded $10,000,000,000, and suggesting an alternative way to give gifts. We have enjoyed giving and receiving Heifer International gifts over the years, and I recommend it as the perfect gift for people who already have everything they need (which is myself and most people I know, honestly).

This year, it seems to be different. We have heard more this year than ever before about people choosing not to participate in "Black Friday." We think this is something more than the usual, echo-chamber effect of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. As people in the United States are just beginning to believe that an economic recovery may be occurring, it seems that more thought is going into purchases -- not only in terms of household solvency but also in terms of the broader implications of consumerism. I am especially proud -- and encouraged -- to see this thoughtfulness among my university students. In fact, one of my former students contacted me for more information on the movement, remembering that I had mentioned it when he took my class years ago.

We spent the Thursday holiday with friends, cooking, sitting by the fire, and enjoying great food -- much of it local -- and conversation. (In one concession to what has become the mainstream pursuit of the holiday, we were in a house with television, and did not completely ignore the football games.) We spent Friday doing not much of anything. Then we spent Saturday taking a pleasant drive to the South Coast and supporting several local and regional businesses on Small Business Saturday -- a new and welcome tradition.

We learned of the day from a local small business, the Rockin' K Cafe in Bridgewater, whose owner went out of her way to promote other local businesses to her regular customers. I have found that a lot of local business owners, especially cafe owners, are keen to support one another -- yet another way in which a local coffee shop can be the heart of a community. What surprised us was that Small Business Saturday has has a major corporate sponsor: American Express. We bought some pet supplies from a pet store just a couple blocks from our house. It does not have the volume to match the prices of the big national pet stores, but we frequent this store because of the proximity and the terrific service that has often been quite helpful to us and our menagerie.

Stretching the definition of "local" just a bit, we drove south to Westport, a town that really values its local businesses, particularly those related to agriculture. The main attraction was an open house at Westport Rivers, a vineyard where several of the staff recognize us on sight. Hmmmm. Seriously, it has been our privilege to support a winery that not only takes care of its own land and product so well, but that also supports many other local businesses, from suppliers for its excellent dinners to exhibitors at its public events. In this case, we were introduced to Golden Touch Farm, which sent its darling alpacas over to the vineyard. We are now the proud owners of a lovely alpaca basket and some truly amazing wool socks! We were winding our way home from the open house (and warming up from a brisk hayride through the 90 acres of vines), when we remembered another great business in Westport: Partners Village Store and Kitchen. We enjoyed a light lunch and bought some lovely gifts there.

We started to fantasize about retiring to a community that is part of a "Farm Coast" region that is very focused on the protection of open space and the promotion of healthy, local food. Unfortunately, retirement is a long way off, and this kind of community has become so rare that it is actually quite expensive to live there, so for the foreseeable future we will continue to work with our neighbors to try to help Bridgewater live up to its potential. The most selfish and narrow-minded interests have had the upper hand for decades, but we see some signs of hope in local efforts to promote fair trade, land protection, civic involvement, neighborhood improvement, and social justice.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Coffee Shops and the Space Program

"Chance favors the connected mind."


Thanks are again due to my friend Carol in Texas, for sharing this intriguing video about coffee shops and innovation. Apparently I am not the only academic to have noticed the sensual dimensions of coffee. Steven Johnson calls the coffee house the "conjugal bed of ideas." His talk starts and ends with coffee houses, with interesting diversions to rural Africa and outer space along the way.

The stimulative effect of coffee houses is not so much about the caffeine (though this is certainly preferable to alcohol) as it is to the conversational networks that they foster. This has been increasingly recognized among academic architects, so that the coffee shops are now integral to a lot of academic buildings. This is even being done on my own campus, though in a very limited fashion. An innovative idea for a coffee shop in our new science center was bureaucratically trimmed to a generic shop the size of a single sheet of plywood, but we are still hoping to make the best educational use of that small space and the surrounding lobby.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Civil War Coffee

My work on coffee comes at an ideal historic moment, in which social networks are helping to build support for fairer trading systems in coffee. Those same social networks help me to be better informed, in part because they allow for friends near and far to share coffee stories, including some rather unusual ones. (Just enter "coffee" in the search bar above to get a sampling.)

The latest is a story that is nearly 150 years old and comes from a friend who is over 2,000 miles away. The story is from CNN, and describes the peculiar geography of coffee during the civil war. Soldiers on both sides were addicted, to the point of chewing the beans when brewing was not feasible. Then, as now, suppliers were apt to cheat if they could get away with it, cutting coffee with anything to add weight -- even sand! Soldiers wisely sought whole beans, so that coffee might be the only relatively fresh ingredient in a soldier's ration. (Paula McCoach, who prepares coffee for Civil-War re-enactors. The article does not mention that any pan used for roasting should not be used to cook other foods. Garlic coffee, anyone?)

Early in the war, however, the northern army realized that the soldier-baristas were spending more time grinding and roasting that was deemed appropriate, and a "coffee essence" was devised. It was, according to the article's description, similar to -- and even a bit worse than -- the "coffee melt" that is offered in some restaurants and by Sodexo on my own campus. (Thanks to local managers and my marvelous students, Sodexo also offers some real coffee, but not campus-wide.)

As the Civil War dragged on, the coffee supply became one of the casualties, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. This important commodity was blockaded, creating a black market for real coffee (with 300-fold price hikes) and a creative, if disgusting, array of alternatives. The article concludes with a positive result that occasionally followed -- soldiers would create temporary truces in order to trade coffee for tobacco, each being available only on one side of the line. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Palin: Bread & Circus

Who is more frightening?
Which one of these makes you angrier: Bristol Palin or Jeff Immelt? At least one Wisconsinite was incensed enough about Bristol Palin's Dancing with the Stars coup that he shot his television set. Palin used politics to steal the spotlight, Immelt is trying to steal $25,000,000 from Massachusetts taxpayers in broad daylight, and Joan Vennochi asks, "Where's the outrage?"

It is a classic example of Bread and Circus -- diversions that keep people focused on frivolities and meaningless scandals, leaving little attention for outrages that really matter. For those who missed the story, Jeff Immelt is CEO of General Electric (famous for river pollution). The company attempting to extort money from Massachusetts state government. If the protection money is paid, only 150 workers are likely to be laid off in GE's Massachusetts factories. If not, well, somebody could get hurt.


Guess which of these stories is more likely to impact fees for university students, hours at the local library, or the cost of property taxes.

True Cost of Farm Subsidies

The United States Department of Agriculture provides both price guarantees and direct subsidies to farmers in the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development provides aid to people worldwide, in part to alleviate the problem of hunger. In her article US Farming Subsidies, blogger Guari of  the beinformed journal provides the best explanation I have yet seen on the perverse connections between the two. Her bottom line is this: the amount of aid we give is exactly the amount of their wealth that we destroy.

Beginning in the 1940s, the Green Revolution exported the model of highly productive, research-centered agriculture from the United States and Western Europe to developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The purpose to decrease starvation and malnourishment by helping farmers to produce more food locally. In some places, this goal was reached and even exceeded, as famine-prone countries such as China eventually became food exporters. Some of the negative consequences stemmed from the expansion of monocultures in mainly tropical locations, with single crop species replacing intercropping and single varieties replacing mixed strains of a given species. This led to a heavy reliance on pesticides. Other negative consequences arose from the increased yields themselves, which were often supported by increased mechanization, increased use of artificial fertilizers, and increased demand for irrigation.

Throughout the Tropics, the net result of all this has been a consolidation of farmland and a steady increase of urbanization. Subsistence farming has been replaced by commercial farming at a much larger scale, and many urban dwellers are people who would have been food producers but have become food customers instead. In some situations, this might not have been such a bad thing. After all, most people I know are food customers. In combination with our own heavy subsidies and trade policies, however, this situation has been disastrous, because the farmers in developing countries are dependent on urban customers in their own countries who can now buy food more cheaply from the United States. This is hard to believe, but efficiency and subsidies make it all-too true.
As the film King Corn makes clear, subsidies that were meant to ensure food security in the United States contribute to poor health while enriching a small number of wealthy corporate farmers and flooding the market with corn, corn syrup, and other products that are already dangerously abundant. Blogger Guari continues the story, showing how the damage goes beyond our our tax bills, waistlines, and diabetes cases. The efficiency of U.S. agriculture combine with the subsidies to allow corn, wheat, and other basic grains much more cheaply than even the lowest-paid farmers working some of the cheapest land on the planet.

Because politicians from across the rather narrow Republican-Democrat spectrum in the United States have  become true believers in the superiority of "free markets," those rich farmers are now in direct competition with poor farmers worldwide. As she demonstrates, all of the money we give in foreign aid to farmers is lost through this unfair trade.  I put the phrase "free markets" in quotes because a single, critical piece is missing from the discourse. As told in the coffee film Black Gold, the United States and other rich countries define the term to the disadvantage of developing countries, forcing them to accept terms of trade that are neither free nor fair.

See a 2004 report from Amber Waves for a more detailed explanation of how this has impacted corn farmers in Mexico. I spent the summer of 1989 in the Valley of Puebla, where corn was first domesticated, and where corn farmers can no longer compete against federally-funded corporate farms in Iowa. A villager in Cholula will pay less to have corn shipped over 1,000 miles from a rich farmer than he would pay to get corn from a poor farmer he goes to church with every Sunday. This is what "free trade" has come to mean.

"Securing borders" would be much easier without the added pressure, but it is politically more expedient to fund the border wall and corporate farm subsidies than it is to reduce funding for both.

Thanks to Thetis Sammons of Food Fight fame for pointing out the subsidies article.

Peruvian Cocaine

I play a lot of music in my classes, particularly in my Geography of Latin America course, and I often learn of interesting songs from my students as a result. Thanks to my student Heather for sharing this song from  Immortal Beloved, in which a variety of characters represent differing perspectives on the problem of violence related to the drug trade in Peru (see lyrics at A-Z Lyrics). Also see the Time to Debate a Change analysis from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Drug War Refugees


View Larger Map

Over the past couple of months, I have posted quite a few stories about the growing war on the northern edge of Mexico, within the borderlands region where I lived for the seven years prior to moving to Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1997. We had spent four years in Tucson, in the middle of the Gadsden Purchase, followed by three years living in Pharr and working in McAllen and Brownsville. I mentioned my Brownsville teaching job last week, because of the cross-fire that had shut down my former campus. We lived on the U.S. side of the border, which remains remarkably safe (El Paso, for example, is on track to be the safest large city in the United States this year, and McAllen has a crime rate that is relatively low and declining), but our neighbors just across the border were part of a shared cultural landscape, and what is happening on the southern side of the border affects the community on both sides.

Recently I heard the most disturbing story yet, this one from about 50 miles up-river of our old home. The U.S. town of Roma is located just where the river -- and Route 83 -- takes a jog to the north towards Laredo. In other words, it is the last in the east-to-west string of towns, of which we were in the center. It is known as one of the locations in the 1952 film ¡Viva Zapata! and the excellent 2004 documentary Mojados: Through the Night. As the first title and many of the place names in the area suggest, it was in the thick of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and as the second title suggests, it is one of many places that has for the past few decades been a pivotal stopping point in cross-border migration.

We had passed through Roma many times in our travels, but the town across the border -- Ciudad Miguel Alemán-- just once. We had visited on our way to see the Falcon Reservoir, where drought had exposed long-flooded places such as Guerrero. I remember Alemán as quite a quiet, dusty little town. I remember having a nice lunch at a restaurant that would have served very well as a revolution-era movie set.

"Cartel de Golfo" and a heart mark the territory of the
former town of Mier.


It was from Miguel Alemán that a most chilling is now emerging. In "An Entire Mexican Village Flees Mexican Drug Violence," veteran NPR reporter compares this tiny town to many he has seen in the aftermath of natural disasters. Violence in the nearby town of Mier has been so ghastly that most of its 6,500 residents have fled, as from a flood or fire, and many of them are now in Miguel Alemán. In a broader story on the perception that the Mexican Revolution has failed, the turmoil in Tamaulipas is cited as a reason that centennial celebrations have been suspended. The Revolution killed a million people, and though the numbers today are not at that level, with 28,000 dead, comparisons are starting to be made.


Although NPR and I are willing to use the term "refugee," it will be very interesting to see whether it is formally applied to those fleeing violence. As long as the refugees remain in Mexico, the formal term would be "internally displaced persons," a term that the United Nations Refugee Agency is not yet using anywhere in Mexico. If it does, the U.N. would be obligated to help them in Mexico, and the potential exists for them to seek asylum in the United States. I imagine all efforts will be made to avoid describing the situation in Ciudad Miguel Alemán with any kind of candor on the part of U.S. or U.N. officials.


It is difficult to know exactly why such intense violence has erupted in this particular part of the world, making it more dangerous than Baghdad or Kabul. Several factors clearly are at work, including very lax gun laws in the United States and the ever-higher prices people here are willing to pay for drugs. This combines with global race-to-the-bottom labor policies, "free trade" agreements that work against agriculture in Mexico, and the maquila program that brought millions to the border seeking employment. Endemic corruption in Mexico's public institutions is also certainly a part of the problem. No single explanation is satisfactory, because all of these things were true long before the violence reached this level. It is clear, though, that the greed and ruthlessness of the cartels exceeds their humanity.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Geography Themes and Frameworks

I belong to two groups that seem to have a constant need to explain themselves: Unitarian-Universalists and geographers. I'm not sure which is more anxious to be convey its essence in the form of lists. For example, UUs have no creed, but we could not help writing down our non-creed as Seven Principles, which in turn draw on (about) six kinds of sources. Simply to call it a "free religion" is too simple.

Vermeer's
Geographer
Similarly, geography could be described simply as "Geography is what geographers do." And in fact, I have seen as much variety in the practice of geography (from studies of snow or mud to studies of graffiti or lawn ornaments to studies of trade agreements or electoral strategies) as I have in the practice of the UU faith.

When pressed to elaborate, I might try to describe the geographic imagination or sense of place. In some ways this entire blog is meant to exemplify those concepts, by applying a geographic perspective to a very wide range of stories, and a major section of my own home page includes a few special examples of "what geographers do."

To give a bit more shape to the discipline,  I start small, with what I call geography's Three Questions:
  • Where is it?
  • Why is it there?
  • So what?
I think that all geographic work addresses one or more of these, about one or more things that vary across the earth's surface. I have also frequently cited Pattison's four traditions, first offered to teachers a half-century ago. As an educator of geographers and of fellow geographic educators, however, this is far from satisfying, and it certainly does not satisfy the managerialist style of today's education bureaucracies. I have therefore had to delve into the more structured ways of describing, defining, and even defending the geographic perspective by enumerating its parts.

It is good to start with the five themes, before moving on to the eighteen standards (falling into six elements) which are the distillation of the work of several committees and even committees of committees. 

Each of the 18 standards is associated with a list of specific tools and approaches with which a "geographically informed person" should be familiar at each of three benchmark stages: 4th grade, 8th grade, and 12th grade. These benchmarks are described in detail in the book Geography for Life, which has sold over 100,000 copies since 1994, but which has not yet pushed back the frontiers of geographic ignorance

In Massachusetts, for example, geography is usually taught only at the 6th or 7th grade level. A teacher even told me once that her lesson -- which was about the geography of water resources -- was not geography because of the grade level at which she was teaching it. The limitation to one grade -- and the lack of certification in geography for many teachers at that grade -- have created special challenges for geographic education in Massachusetts. The main one is that many students arrive in seventh grade without the tools they need to study geography, but then are driven through an entire curriculum in one year, often by teachers who have minimal background in geography themselves. Then, they will typically not have a geography class again until college, if ever.

Our department is working with geography educators statewide -- through the Massachusetts Geographic Alliance -- to improve upon this rather dire situation. First, we provide direct outreach to K-12 students (especially middle school) through Project EarthView, an inflatable globe classroom we take to a different school almost every week. Second, we provide seminars and graduate courses for in-service teachers to improve their understanding of geography. Third, we provide two courses at the undergraduate level as part of our BA in geography. At the moment, this is available to students majoring in elementary, special, or early-childhood education. My friend Vernon teaches a course focused on teaching methods and materials, and I teach one based on the frameworks. Eventually, we hope to offer a graduate certificate as well. 


In my frameworks class, I am fortunate that National Geographic Society has made it easy for me to find examples that fit the frameworks, through its Xpeditions program, which is an online version of the Geography for Life program. Teachers from all over the United States can submit lesson plans to a database that is searchable by grade level and geographic standard. This provides  a wealth of opportunities for my students to understand how to bring geographic concepts to bear in a wide variety of circumstances.

National Geographic's curriculum work compliments its advocacy in the My Wonderful World campaign that it leads in partnership with other geography educators.

Meanwhile, at BSU and Massachusetts Geographic Alliance, we are dedicated to a campaign to restore licensure at the high-school level. No amount of self-study and weekend seminars (even our superb ones) can equal the preparation of a full degree in geography. Learning about the world is both essential and fun, and students are eager to learn more. It is the adults who are failing at geographic education, not the children. In sharing EarthView with over 20,000 students in the past couple of years, I have literally seen thousands of young people who are thrilled to learn geography and want to learn more. In Massachusetts, the state education bureaucracy has gone out of its way to limit these opportunities, but the students and teachers are keeping us focused on the goal of a sound geography education for everyone in the Commonwealth, and we will succeed!
High School student leaders from all over Massachusetts
party with EarthView at Middleborough High School

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ignorance is Seen as Strength

South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis has a 93 lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, but he was not "conservative" enough to be re-elected in these toxic times. One of only two Republican members of Congress to be voted out of office, he is also one of only two who "believe" in human-induced climate change.

In the interview A Republican Swamped by the GOP Wave, Rep. Inglis explains how the current movement is a corruption of what he, his father, and Teddy Roosevelt understood as conservatism. His discussion reminds me of an elderly Republican lady I met at a state-wide meeting on environmental conservation about a decade ago. The keynote speaker was Massachusetts Environmental Secretary Bob Durand, a Republican official appointed by a Republican governor. As I sat with this lady at lunch, she asked why Republicans had gotten such a bad name among conservationists; apparently, she had heard other attendees expressing surprise that we would be addressed by a Republican, and she could not figure out  why. After all, she knew that Republicans were among the leading conservationists in New England, and conserving the Earth was, well, conservative. As I explained to her at the time -- and she wistfully accepted my explanation -- a group of nihilists had decided to take over one political party or the other back in the 1980s, and they had chosen her party.

Rep. Inglis is among a dwindling number of Republicans to understand what "conservative" actually means. Like his father, he thinks that conserving resources is conservative, but he is being replaced by those who think it is conservative to waste resources and send other people's kids abroad to defend the right to do so. Sadly, his brand of conservatism is on the wane in Washington.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

¡Viva México! 100 Años

We visited one of our new favorite restaurants last night -- El Mariachi in Easton -- and from promotional signs learned that today is the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Although we have spent a lot of time in and around Mexico, this date had somehow escaped our notice. It is easy to see why: Mexico had three major transformations: Independence (from Spain), Reform (reducing the political power of the Church), and Revolution (against the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled for three decades on behalf of the most wealthy). Each movement has various monuments and anniversaries, and we had somehow missed the importance of this date, which marks the start of a decade-long struggle, from 1910 to 1920. (To learn more, see the narrative at MexConnect and the online bibliography at Latin American Studies.)


The Mexican Revolution was exceptionally long and violent, with perhaps a tenth of Mexico's citizens dying in the process. The purposes of the Revolution were to end the dictatorial rule of Díaz and, more fundamentally, to reverse the extreme concentration of land holdings in the country. As in many parts of Latin America, the wealthy exhibited and maintained their wealth by controlling very large tracts of land. (One reason for the Church's power, in fact, was that children of the wealthy were routinely sent to religious orders so that they would not divide land by inheritance.) 


The problem of land distribution in Mexico is known as the minifundio/latifundio problem -- meaning small-farm/big-farm. As with the concentration of wealth in other contexts, the concentration of land ownership at one of the social spectrum contributed directly to the paucity of land ownership at the other end -- and vice-versa. The rich would use some of their land to produce wealth, but they would leave even more of it idle, so that peasants could not find enough land of their own to farm. This would keep the cost of labor low -- sometimes lower even that it would be in slavery, because peasants would work on big farms just for the right to have some land, which they would also work on. Even some farmers who owned a small parcel would need to work on the latifundio, to compensate for what they were unable to produce on the minifundio.


This unpublished cover by
Jhinuk Sarkar captures the magic
realism and many other themes
of the book and film.
The Mexican Revolution was in some ways the template for many uprisings elsewhere in Latin America, as the problem of concentrated land ownership has been -- and continues to be -- an important aspect of social injustice throughout the region. Many outside observers -- particularly in the United States -- have ascribed  ideological motivations to movements that really began with people seeking the opportunity to grow their own food. A century after the Revolution, I would argue that its promise remains largely unfulfilled. The Revolution ended in 1920, and led eventually to the 1929 emergence of the oddly-named PRI: the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Essentially subsuming the peasants, the workers, and the chamber of commerce, the PRI became extremely adept at co-opting the demands of each constituency in turn, and in building a network interlaced, corrupt relationships that allowed the PRI eventually to become the longest-ruling political party in the world, outlasting even the Communist Party in the USSR.


During our meal, we talked about the revolution and about our wish for a return to the Mexico we have loved and enjoyed. Although I have been filling this blog with the many current troubles in Mexico, it was the introduction to Latin America for both of us, and we enjoyed living in and near it through much of the 1980s and 1990s.


Waxing nostalgic, we went home to watch one of our very favorite films, Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), the 1992 adaptation of Laura Esquivel's novel. The film is set in the border city of Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas and about 200 miles north of our old home in the Valley. We love the movie because it bring together familiar landscapes and traditions, along with food, romance, and insights into the revolutionary period a century ago.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Loko = Crazy

Like many people of a certain age, I learned about the Four Loko phenomenon only at the backlash phase. That is, I never heard about caffeinated malt beverages until health, safety, and legal alarm bells were all ringing. Even though I have an interest in coffee and many concerns about college drinking, by the time I heard of Four Loko, it had already become one of the top "Hot Topics" on Boston.com.


AllPosters.com
The problem with Four Loko, it seems, is the combination of caffeine and alcohol. "Wait a minute," I thought, "hasn't that combination been part of one of my favorite beverages for a long time?" After all, I've often joked that Irish Coffee has the four essential food groups: caffeine, fat, sugar, and alcohol. (In moderation, of course; this is a "favorite" that I enjoy about once a year, if that.)


It turns out that the caffeine/alcohol combination per se was not the problem with Four Loko: it was the way this combination was marketed and in turn the way the product was actually used. Each can of Four Loko is almost twice the size of a normal can or bottle of beer, with an alcohol concentration almost three times as high. This means that a single can nearly matches the alcohol content of a six-pack. With its sweet flavor, it would go down much more quickly than the equivalent amount of beer (or even a similarly charged half-pint of whiskey). And the key concern: stimulants including caffeine allow the consumer to drink many more of these than would otherwise be possible before noticing signs of intoxication. In other words, the caffeine removes even the limited amount of self-awareness that usually accompanies heavy drinking. As has been demonstrated, the results can be dangerous. I am not aware, however, of any direct comparisons between this mode of intoxication and more traditional social lubricants, such as cheap beer.


The comparison to traditional coffee is much closer to my area of interest, and a few key distinctions are worth noting. First, for those interested strictly in the deliver of caffeine and alcohol, traditional coffee cocktails or liqueurs are more expensive than the current wave of party drinks. (Four Loko, of course, is just one of several brands available.) The higher prices are supported by a completely different demographic, willing to pay more per drink for the flavor, and perhaps for the oddly soothing combination of stimulant and depressant in an Irish Coffee or White Russian. These have roughly the equivalent of one cup of coffee and one beer or  1/10 cup of coffee and 2 beers, respectively, compared to one cup of coffee and six beers for the Four Loko can).


I emphasize per drink because consumption of specialty coffee cocktails is very likely to stop at one, perhaps two servings. As noted in the NY Times Spiked Coffee story, these beverages are typically consumed between 10 and 11 p.m., an hour suggesting the slight extension of an evening out, rather than a party-til-dawn rave.


In addition to a difference in dose, of course, is a difference in flavor and quality. I have to admit that I have not tried Four Loko, but I am pretty nonetheless pretty certain that the focus has not been on these factors. The caffeine in these drinks does not even come from coffee, but rather from the process of decaffeination. In the case of Kahlua, the caffeine comes not merely from real coffee, but from real, shade-grown Veracruz coffee. Similarly, the bartenders covered by the NY Times are using specialty coffee, including some from one of my favorite coffee companies.


It is for these reasons that -- although they seem similar at one level -- brands such as Kahlua and Allen's Coffee Brandy are likely to be on shelves for years to come. 


It appears that Four Loko's producers are determined to stay on shelves as well. Having built a brand but facing serious state and federal sanctions, the company has decided to cut its losses by eliminating three of the four key ingredients. Which did the company decide is most important? Alcohol.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

One That Got Away

Followers of this blog know that my interest in coffee began with economic and environmental conditions of the coffee trade, but eventually grew to encompass the beverage itself and the coffee shops that so often become the hubs of local communities. For the past several years, in fact, students in my coffee seminar have been charged with bringing me stories about coffee shops, and last spring we started putting those stories on a dedicated Yelp! channel for my students (to complement the Yelp! channel that carries my own reviews.)
From today's Boston Globe I learned of a shop that did not come to my attention in time. The Allston Cafe, in the eponymous neighborhood of Boston, served its last customers this week, some with tears in their eyes. As is always the case with the best coffee shops, regulars -- such as "Mail Box Mike" above -- helped to make the business what it was.

Owners Page Masse and Derek Brown faced steadily-increasing food prices and rapidly-increasing rent, as their landlord attempts to profit from a planned expansion of Harvard University in the neighborhood. They hope to re-open nearby (with a more humane landlord, it is to be hoped). If they are able to do soon enough,  their loyal customers might just enable them to re-create some of what has been lost. If it happens, I plan not to miss it next time!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Boston to the Other Side

Elijah Wald was a reporter for the Boston Globe who had little experience in Latin America prior to becoming interested in narcocorridos, a sub-genre of the traditional corrido that may be on its way to becoming better known than the original form. I am probably not helping matters, with my recent post about the most famous of these songs, Reina del Sur.

In the course of Wald's research, he established himself as an authority on corridos in general and narcocorridos in particular. His web site includes information about recordings (I have both the book and its companion CD, for example), a chapter that was considered too hot to publish in the original book, and corridos about special stories, including the women of Juarez and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A corrido has even been composed about Wald himself! (See my post about Private Felix Longoria for another special corrido story.) The Smithsonian's Corridos sin Fronteras exhibit is a another educational resource on this art form, which continues to be an important cultural sounding board.

The narcocorrido story is also told quite effectively in the POV film Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side). The film describes the phenomenon from the point of view of a young songwriter who sees this art form as his ticket out of poverty (as traffickers will pay handsomely for songs about themselves). Unfortunately, the film is difficult to find, except in an educational version that costs almost what a coyote would charge!

A South Texas Veteran, Forgotten & Remembered

I took some time this Veteran's Day learning the story of Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American who lost his life in the Philippines during a valiant and dangerous mission during that summer between the end of World War II  Europe in the Pacific. The short promo below hints at the broad, historic sweep of the Longoria story, as told by filmmaker John Valadez of Independent Lens. Have a look, and then make plans to see the full documentary, in English or Spanish.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.
Pvt. Longoria lived in Three Rivers, Texas, a town that was not officially segregated, but whose founder, Charles Tips, had gone to the trouble of giving Spanish names only to streets west of the railroad tracks -- a legacy of his racism that is present to this day. The town is on the northern edge of South Texas, 50 miles north of my old teaching job (at Texas A&M-Kingsville, Alice Extension) and 200 miles north of our former home in Pharr.
It is a place we passed many times without knowing its significance. When Pvt. Longoria's body was sent home in 1949, the new funeral director in town was afraid to let his wake be held in the chapel. This film tells the story of how that refusal helped to galvanize Mexican-American veterans -- who had fought and died in disproportionate numbers in the war -- around an effort to have his sacrifice recognized. Ultimately, Felix Longoria was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The film explains why Senator Lyndon Johnson was present for the burial, but not visible in news coverage of it, and how his involvement on behalf of the Longoria family helped to bring both JFK and LBJ to the White House.
Woven throughout the film is the story of Santiago Hernandez, a resident of Three Rivers who has sought to memorialize Pvt. Longoria, first by having the local post office named for him. Early in the film, we learn of his frustration at being denied this opportunity to recognize his town's hero, with no satisfactory reason given. He composes a corrido in Pvt. Longoria's honor, and ultimately succeeds in having a state historical marker erected. Pieces of the song are played in various scenes (at 10:00, 28:45, and 49:00 to the end).

I was interested in the Hernandez side story for two reasons: first, I have been teaching some of my students about corridos recently, but mostly the narrow sub-genre of narcocorridos, and it is good to have an example that is a bit more typical of what corridos are all about. Second, I have recently been involved in trying to have something named for a hero of mine, though it was a coffee shop instead of a post office. I am learning to look for a way to get past the frustration over a bad decision, as Hernandez had to do, and look for other ways to honor a legacy.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Los Tigres

In Murder City, my recent post about the eruption of violence on the US-Mexico border, I mentioned the band Los Tigres del Norte, the best known exponents of the narcocorrido sub-genre. I knew about corridos from prior experience in both Tucson and South Texas, but my introduction to narcocorridos was their song La Reina del Sur, about a trafficante's girlfriend who becomes a big-time dealer in her own right. I remember the day I purchased my CD of this transgressive music, in a Borders store on the border. The well-dressed lady next to me was not pleased to hear me ask for it.

The NPR story on narcocorridos explains how the old border radio phenomenon has been reversed, and how the art form can be just as dangerous as the trade itself. Although the phenomenon is found all along the border, the heart of this musical form is in the Rio Grande Valley, where a German influence in the music can still be heard, and where I lived for three years before coming to Bridgewater. Learn more from my Elijah Wald post.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Life Behind the Wall


For forty years, Doonesbury has chronicled applied dry wit to the folly and arrogance behind some of our country's most tragic mistakes. His recent strip in about civilian casualties in Iraq is particularly cogent -- and geographic. The cartoon president's "gated community" in many ways represents the U.S. as a whole, seeking isolation rather than grappling with the realities of our privilege (yes, even during a recession we are privileged) in a world of great disparity.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

American/Sandinista Viewing

The film American/Sandinista will be shown this Thursday evening, November 4, in the Library Lecture Hall. Refreshments will be served. See the Geography Department blog for more details.

Murder City

Photo: NPS
Ciudad Juarez was once one of my favorite places. Many years ago, I read Tom Miller's On the Border, about a journey in which he traversed every border crossing, from Tijuana to Matamoros, from Brownsville to San Diego. After years living in the Gasden Purchase section of Arizona -- where my wife Pamela actually got to work with Tom on one of his books --  and in the southmost tip of Texas, I realized that I had been through most of the border crossings. Los Ebanos with its hand-drawn ferry was a favorite, but so, too, was through the Chamizal Peace Park between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez.
Map from Guest Life: El Paso
It erroneously suggests that El Paso is bigger than Ciudad Juarez
Almost all of the cities on the Mexican side of the border are bigger than their U.S. counterparts, and Juarez is no exception. It is the largest border city in the world, with 2/3 of the population on the Chihuahua side. Despite its sprawling size, I enjoyed several visits in the 1990s, and walked around comfortably in the sunshine and even in the evenings. In those days, even the crossing back into the U.S. was simple and easy.

View Larger Map


In the 13 years since we left the borderlands, Juarez has become a tragic place -- one of the few I would rather not visit for a while. Jennifer Lopez has told the story -- at some risk to her own safety -- in Bordertown. I highly recommend both the fictionalized account (see trailer) and the DVD extra feature that explains how the film came to be made. The otherwise infamous narcocorrido singers Los Tigres del Norte told the story in the CD Pacto de Sangre. Both of these refer to the hundreds of young women who have been kidnapped, raped, killed, and left in the deserts surrounding Juarez over the past decade or more. Many of them have been attracted to the area for maquila manufacturing jobs, working long hours for low pay in factories that do not provide them adequate protection. It is thought that a conspiracy among very elite men is responsible for the failure to solve these crimes -- about two thousand women who have disappeared. The image at left is from a blog post called ¡Feminicidios sin resolver! -- one of many that expresses outrage and sorrow about the loss of innocent young lives in this once beautiful city. This particular image is remarkable for the way it integrates motifs representing femininity and veneration of the dead at one level, along with representations of crime scenes and of the border itself. The accompanying narrative is focused on the fact that many of the victims were killed going home from jobs that they were far too young to hold legally.


Pam reminded me that the first time we heard about the Juarez killings was through a performance of Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues (an important program that is put on each February at BSU). Each year, the VDAY show focuses on a cause, and in 2004 the women of Juarez were that focus. One of the monologues, The Memory of Her Face, honors women victims of violence in Islamabad, Baghdad, and Ciudad Juarez, with a stanza of the reading representing a woman in each of these cities in which violence against women has become a consequence of wars -- declared and undeclared. Read more about the Women in Juarez Spotlight and about the 5,000 shows performed in Mexico City in support of Juarez women (second item on this news page).

In the past couple of years, this already tragic and violent story has gotten much worse -- probably ten times worse. The murder rate in Mexico as a whole remains relatively low, in part because firearms are very difficult to procure. But the murder rate in Ciudad Juarez has become much higher, as it has in other border towns. The reason: the Sinaloa drug cartel, which formerly operated with impunity throughout the northwest of the country, is in a battle over territory with a group called the Zetas in the northeast. I met a few of the Zetas during an inspection stop near Monterrey in the 1990s, when they were legitimate narcotics police. They eventually cooperated with the Gulf Cartel, and still later took it over. Now shootouts are so common in Matamoros, across the river from my former job at UT-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College that the campus has actually been hit by stray bullets.
Borderland journalist Charles Bowden describes the killing in Juarez in his book Murder City, which is at the same time compelling and unbearable. He explores the dynamics I outline above, but goes beyond this to put the brutality in the context of even larger forces related to economic exploitation. He discusses his claims -- and explains why he keeps going back to Juarez -- in an interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly that was recorded after three people affiliated with the U.S. consulate were killed last April.


View full gallery at
MexConnect
I argue, with Bowden, that  is not possible to understand violence on the border without acknowledging the transformation of the border itself from an edge situated within a bicultural zone of transition to an increasingly impersonal sieve that separates humans from their labor. It is also not possible, however, to understand death along the border without understanding the distinctive attitude toward death in Mexico, as exemplified by the Dia de los Muertos. November 1 is a colorful holiday -- as suggested below -- in which the dead are honored, celebrated, visited, and consulted.

Map from USGS Colonia-monitoring project
As reported last spring in a fascinating article in National Geographic, the increasing brutality of the drug war has created a class of wealthy and youthful criminal class who are full of both bravado and fear and at the same time increasingly status-conscious. In this context, graves -- while always important -- have become sites of obsessive competition among traffickers. The focus of the article -- Troubled Spirits -- is on the veneration of Santa Muerte, literally Saint Death. Even in the panoply of images that embrace the figure of the skull, the imagery of Santa Muerte is remarkably chilling. Whether standing in a gown in a tiny living room or being carried on the shoulders of mourners at a gangster funeral, figures of Santa Muerte are arresting. Although not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, Santa Muerte is an increasingly important object of adoration and supplication, as traffickers seek both protection and riches through her. And although many assume Santa Muerte to be a very recent phenomenon, at least one Hoodoo practitioner claims several generations of veneration of Santa Muerte.

See the amazing, complete photo gallery at NGS Magazine

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