Friday, October 29, 2010

Globalization and the Local Church

The Table is a non-profit organization of volunteers from throughout southeastern Massachusetts that has operated a soup kitchen in Brockton for 30 years. For the past several months, its leaders have been seeking a new location that would make its meals more accessible while also providing additional services to the community.

News from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts is pushing the group to move sooner rather than later, as the 117-year-old church that has housed The Table is about to close.

So, what does this story have to do with globalization? Globalization is a process that has unfolded over centuries, particularly since the expansion of European empires about five centuries ago and most especially since the acceleration of technological change in the past generation or two. The most robust definitions recognize the role of communications, transportation, and institutional change in fostering an increasingly complex web of global connections.

An important thread running through all these changes is the extension of the tentacles of the world space-economy; the penetration of global capitalism into every nook and cranny of human and physical geographies. This has led steadily to the commodification of relationships that previously did not involve money. Direct relationships between people and the land are replaced by commercial relationships, as subsistence farmers become customers. Relationships of generalized reciprocity -- in which members of a family or clan or village care for each other without tracking the details -- are replaced by relationships of exchange.

And apparently, even a church can become so fixated on money that the vicar of St. Paul's actually wrote of her own church:
Episcopal churches do well in affluent towns and suburbs. Brockton, at present, is too poor and its residents struggling too hard to make ends meet, to create here an Episcopal church like the ones that now exist elsewhere in the Diocese of Massachusetts.
This assertion goes beyond ordinary stewardship of the church's resources by identifying believers more strongly with their socio-economic status than with their faith.

While looking for a nice image of Jesus feeding the multitudes to contrast with this story, I had the great fortune of finding the blogger Prairie Preacher. His article What Would Jesus DO? is directly relevant to the topic at hand, and just skimming his February 2008 archives makes me want to read more of what this genuine Christian has to say. His is a refreshing voice at the end of a tough week in which some of my own social-justice projects have been running aground on the MONEY TALKS gestalt of this era.


Squeamish about Good Coffee?

In a report on the final week of campaigning for mid-term elections, Melissa Block indicates that candidate Tom Perriello was understandably squeamish about being seen purchasing a "fancy latte." He was buying it from a locally-owned business that promotes literacy and buys its coffee from roaster that supports -- to a considerable degree -- fair trading practices and sustainable economic development approaches in coffee-growing communities. That "fancy latte" has more potential to support working people than does more ordinary coffee.

If he should be squeamish about anything, it should be the bottled water he is carrying. More to the point, candidates think nothing of buying low-grade, commodity coffee in diners from coast-to-coast, most of which is grown by people living in poverty, sometimes at the very edge of survival. A cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee -- which promotes poverty and lines the pockets of investor Mitt Romney -- should get more negative attention.

By purchasing a quality latte, Rep. Perriello is supporting the economy of central Virginia and doing more to address illegal migration than all of the grand-standing and wall-building that his opponents can muster.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bikini, the place

I recently posted an article connecting the bikini to the geography of coffee shops, but of course there is another Bikini, with its own geography: the Bikini Atoll. The connection between the two is an historical accident, linking the exuberance of post-war sexual liberation in Europe with post-war nuclear paranoia in the U.S. and resultant calamity in the Pacific. According to Zachery's bikini history, French engineer Louis Réard was four days away from the debut of his daring new swimwear in Paris, when a nuclear explosion in the Marshall Islands made "Bikini" the hottest word on the planet.

Réard and countless others have profited from the catchy name, which vaguely suggests "two-piece" and which will forever connect sensuality and apocalypse. The video above shows the incredible destruction unleashed upon Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads, the first of 66 or 67 nuclear-weapons tests carried out by the United States in the Marshall Islands, of which Bikini Atoll is one province. Unlike many of the tests that we conducted underground, some of these tests eliminated entire islands.

Jack Niedenthal is a former Peace Corps volunteer who now has dual citizenship in the Marshall Islands and clearly is passionate about the archipelago and its people. His Bikini Atoll web site is the definitive resource for learning about this intriguing place.

For example, the provincial flag is based on that of the United States, which held the atoll in trust at the time of its destruction. The 23 stars on the field of blue refer to the the remaining islands in the ring, with the three alone in the top-right representing Bokonijien, Aerokojlol, Nam -- three islands that were vaporized in a 1954 blast. The words are those uttered by the Bikinian leader on the day his people were asked to abandon their islands for the "good of all mankind" in the form of nuclear testing. Juda's words to Commodore Wyatt translate as "Everything is in the hands of God."

Because our society's folly so completely uprooted Bikini society (some survivors and descendants have been resettled elsewhere in the Marshall Islands; others are scattered throughout the world), we owe it to them to learn their story. Mr. Niedenthal has made that easy with his well-written and informative web site, which even includes a discussion of the possible return of tourism. He is both a cultural ambassador and a geographic educator, with a "basic facts" page that centers on a series of maps at progressively greater scales, so that the reader can grasp both the site and the situation of the Bikini Atoll and its remaining islands.

Update 1: Maps

I should have included maps in the original post (Oct 27, 2010). Most Pacific archipelagos are difficult to represent cartographically because they include very little land spread out over vast areas of ocean. The Marshall Islands are a good example -- about 70 square miles of atolls are scattered over close to 750,000 square miles of ocean. That is as if Washington, DC were divided into 29 large tracts of land and a few thousand small ones, and then scattered over all of Alaska.
Learn more about the Marshall Islands at WorldAtlas.

Update 2: Lagniappe

Nearly 60 years after the last nuclear tests over these islands, journalists Zoë Carpenter and Sarah Craig tell the story of the Marshall Islands from the point of view of Marshallese who migrated to the United States, particularly to Enid, Oklahoma. Akin to the victims of the Tuskegee experiments, residents of the islands were involved in a catastrophic, unregulated experiment without their permission. Despite some token gestures of restitution, many continue to suffer poverty and ill health. The photo essay on Narratively describes those effects and the efforts to help from both inside and outside the migrant community.

La Llorona


Guitarist Pat Mendoza recorded this poetic retelling of the story of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. In this haunting version, he equates La Llorona to La Malinche, but also suggests that versions of the tale are connected to bodies of water throughout the Mexican cultural sphere.

The ubiquitous nature of the legend is revealed in its use as part of the edgy "Got Milk" campaign. This version aired in 2004:


UPDATE (June 8, 2013)

I recently learned -- from my favorite librarian -- of La Llorona in a bit of slam poetry, in which she is a metaphor for the victimization of youth by drug addiction. Because the audio is not perfect in the clip below, it may be helpful to read the text of No Longer a Myth before listening. But definitely listen, as Olivia Gatwood really delivers the "llora" in this piece:



Lagniappe

And to complete the set, a chilling rendering of the story by the inimitable Tish Hinojosa.

Twisted Logic on Taxes

I always read Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby because he usually writes effectively and makes the best possible case for his conservative positions. A couple of times each year, I actually agree with him. Last Sunday was not one of those times, nor did his article on halving the state income tax rise to his usual rhetorical level. If Jacoby cannot make the case, the case is not to be made.

First, he resorts to an ad hominem attack on the opponents of Proposition 3, which would reduce the state sales tax from 6.25% to 3%. The fact that the state's teachers, firefighters, and police officers are among those oppose the rollback is not -- in and of itself -- a reason to be for it. In fact, these are the people who best understand what is at stake, as they have seen local aid from the state cut to the proverbial bone in recent years. Further cuts to local aid amount to millions of dollars for most communities (see map).

From this classic logical fallacy, Jacoby moves on to a number of other errors. Drawing on several mythical analogies and metaphors, he claims that previous predictions about the damaging affects of tax cuts have not come true. False are the claims, he says, that cuts will lead to "ravaging police and fire departments, throwing the sick and poor into the street, and reducing public infrastructure to rubble." Of course, we are facing all of these as a result of Proposition 2-1/2 and the Romney-Swift cuts, but the last of them really caught my attention. If he does not believe the public infrastructure is crumbling, he has has been very selective in his automobile driving of late, and he certainly has not been in the parking garage under UMass-Boston in the past decade!


Even more problematic is Jacoby's division of the populace into "taxpayers" and "tax-eaters." I am both, and so is he. We all pay taxes precisely because we all benefit from public services.Even those services we do not "eat" directly, such as the education of the next-door neighbor's kid or the treatment of the addict around the corner, benefit us all. In Jacoby's view, the only beneficiaries of public expenditures are public employees. This is one aspect of an increasingly popular libertarian fantasy that places unwaivering faith in the superiority of the private sector.


Jacoby compounds the error by arguing that tough times require that the public sector cut back its spending. In fact, the tough times we currently face are the result of unregulated private-sector shenanigans that increase, not decrease, the need for public spending. Even if one doubts -- contrary to all available evidence -- that counter-cyclical, Keynesian spending carried the United States from the Great Depression well into the post-war boom, it is quite simply the case that recessions create greater demand for important services that the private sector does not adequately provide to unemployed people. Libraries, for example, are highly counter-cyclical, as people who never visit during economic good times find them a very useful place for enrichment, entertainment, and job-hunting tools during downturns.


Jacoby attempts a serious slight-of-hand when he asserts that Massachusetts has "one of the highest sales-tax rates in the country." He must know that this is not an apples-apples comparison. As his own paper has reported, "taxachusetts" is a myth, with the Bay State placing right in the middle of states when all taxes are considered. Not only does Jacoby choose not to consider other major tax categories, such as the Bay State's low income tax, he does not even represent the sales tax fairly. Even if he is correct that the rate is high, he should mention that sales tax is not collected on food or clothing. The former exemption is fairly common, but I know of only one other state that exempts clothing. After 13 years here, I am still surprised when I buy a pair of shoes or a jacket, and pay exactly what is on the label -- getting a penny back, rather than paying a couple of bucks in taxes. 


So Jacoby should be honest: Proposition 3 is about slashing public support for public education and other needs, in order to save a few pennies on the dollar on non-food (except restaurants), non-clothing purchases. The last point in his article is that this is needed to "send a message" to Beacon Hill about wasteful practices, such as the near-fraudulent games that have been played with pensions over the years. Some of those practices have already been curtailed; to eliminate the rest, advocates should write a proposition that identifies them and eliminates them. That would be a proposition -- an honest proposition -- worthy of support.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

More Living; Less Parking

Commonwealth magazine editor Paul McMorrow begins his column in Sunday's Boston Globe with the observation that South Boston has a well-earned reputation for being obsessed about parking. This is true, and all the more profound in that South Boston stands out in a country that is obsessed with parking. This is a country, after all, in which one can get run over by someone trying to dart in to the closest parking spot at a gym, in order to reduce the amount of walking to and from the workout.

The photo above is a file photo used in a 2008 story about the seizure of 220 placeholders in South Boston that were clearly illegal but to which people felt entitled. Actually, they are still legal within the first 48 hours of a storm, a compromise with tradition that would not be tolerated in many other cities, even in the U.S.

It is in this context that McMorrow bravely suggests an area of the city in which available parking should be reduced. As his title "Minimize parking, maximize the city" suggests, in certain places -- even certain places in South Boston -- the space devoted to cars is keeping out something else. He refers to the waterfront, where parking lots are more abundant, and where developers and city planners agree that minimum parking requirements no longer make sense in some urban settings. In fact, he suggests, if appropriate infrastructure is provided -- such as bike trails, bus lines -- parking minimums might eventually be replaced by parking maximums. The unwritten subtext is that rising prices of gasoline are helping to push us -- at least in some circumstances -- away from automobile dependency.

As explained in Joel Garreau's Edge City, automobile dependency has been a vicious cycle over the past half-century, pushing the urban fringe to previously un-imagined distances from the urban core in many U.S. cities (and worldwide, as our worst habits have become so attractive to others). As we spread out, we needed cars to get around, so we devoted more space to them. As we devoted more space to cars, we tended to spread out more. In systems analysis, this is positive feedback, but such loops are never infinite; in the case of automobile-driven sprawl, it appears we may be nearing a number of thresholds that will curtail the spiral.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Geography Games

As I hope my various blogs and web sites make clear, modern geography is about far more than learning place names and capitals. It is also the case, however, that learning where places are, what they are called, and what they are next to does matter. Place names are to geography what the alphabet is to reading. They don't give out Pulitzers for knowing the alphabet, but Hemingway surely knew his.

With that in mind, I offer some games that I consider both fun and useful. A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to recommend a couple of online geography games for his children, and I realized I had very few to recommend. So I did a little digging, and created my Geography Games page as a result.

My favorite librarian recently recommended a new, elegantly simple game, inspired by a paper-based game. A blogger and professional photographer known as Ironic Sans describes how he created this simple game, which requires the player to list all 50 states in 10 minutes. He writes that even he has trouble getting beyond 48. Although I'm a geographer who regularly aces some other, more "sophisticated" games, I found myself in the same boat. It took me a few tries to get a perfect score -- using the updated version of the game. I am still not a consistent winner, though I did recently complete the list with 7:08 to spare. I can only do it by starting in Maine and tracing my mental map around the country, but it is amazingly easy to miss some -- even though I know my way around the country.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Good Hair

I believe it was from Bob Mondello's review on All Things Considered that I first heard of Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair (IMDb listing includes trailers), and with that my first inkling that hair care among African-American women is an issue particularly fraught with risk and controversy. 


Mondello -- and many other reviewers -- see Rock (who is a comedian, after all), as treading lightly on the deeper meaning behind the trends that he describes. I disagree -- I think his demeanor is light-hearted, but he puts some important issues of identity and justice on the table in this film. I think he went to "Michael Moore school" for this project, by which I mean he does many things exactly as I would imagine Moore (my hero) would do them. The NPR producers, by the way, could not resist a little fun of their own, closing Mondello's review with a bit of the theme from the 1972 musical Hair.

The environmental geography of this film includes the caustic nature of the chemicals needed to straighten hair that naturally forms tight curls. Rock asks a chemistry professor about one of the most commonly used compounds, and the chemist appears astonished to learn that it would be directly used by humans. The implications for human health and the environment are dramatic, particularly among those -- men and women -- who keep the straightener in their hair until they can no longer withstand the pain it causes.

The cultural questions are at least as important. Do African American women really eschew natural hair styles as much as the film implies? If so, do the reasons have to do simply with aesthetics, or is it a means of coping with racism at some level, whether explicit or implied? The word "nappy" is used throughout the film with only a mild suggestion that the word -- or any particular hair texture -- is transgressive in any way. But it was only a couple years before this film that the word was part of the slur with which Don Imus insulted the Rutgers basketball players.

In Good Hair? HardlyEntertainment Weekly writer Alynda Wheat agrees with Mondello that the film is often funny and with me that it raises some important issues. She goes on, however, to raise several serious shortcomings, not the least of which is the fact that the show was driven almost entirely by men. This leads him, Wheat argues, to exaggerate the scale of the hair-treatment phenomena he describes, and to read too much into the choices African American women make about hair. At the same time, she faults him for not analyzing those choices carefully enough. Still, I recommend that Wheat's article -- along with the various critiques posted on the IMDb site -- be read and taken to heart.

Related, perhaps, to some of the sexism in the film is the absence (notice by my wife Pamela) of Rock's wife, Malaak Compton-Rock. This would not be noteworthy were it not for the fact that the film is supposed to have been inspired by Chris Rock's concern over how their daughters' hair might be treated. It seems odd that this led him all over the world rather than to his wife, who is after all an African-American woman, the main subject of the film. Several explanations are plausible, two of which are that she has exactly the kind of long, straight hair that is the subject of the film and that her philanthropic projects include providing salon services to disadvantaged women. The third possibility is that rumors of their estrangement are true; it is sometimes impossible to tell whether celebrity couples have remained married in reality or only on paper.

I watched this film just as I was discussing race in my course on the geography of Latin America, in which I told students what I learned from a Brazilian professor years ago: in Brazil, hair texture quite often varies from person to person within a family, as does skin color, and is one very important aspect of defining racial identity. That same professor taught us that over the course of her adult life, educational attainment, economic status, dress, and make-up contributed to a gradual shift in how her own race was described on her identification papers.

Sesame Street muppeteer Joey Mazzarino had an experience similar to Chris Rock's when his young, African American daughter began to express a desire for longer, straighter hair. "Your hair is beautiful," he assured her, and wrote a little song for her, and put it on the show, sung by an unnamed Muppet with natural-style hair. As he recently told NPR's Melissa Block, I Love My Hair has become a far greater sensation than he could have guessed.



Clearly, Good Hair has struck a chord. There is something important about hair, and the conversations about it should continue. It is also clear that although hair may have special importance among African American women, the care and feeding of hair is important -- probably too important -- to many other people as well. The environmental and health risks of curl relaxer might be extreme, but it is not unique, as the Story of Cosmetics explains. Hair-straightener is far from the only cosmetic compound whose health and environmental effects are poorly understood.

Autum Homage in Need of Geography Lesson

The October 17 Pickles comic is a delightful homage to autumn, and a geographic teachable moment.

The grandfather character waxes poetic about fall, revealing that cartoonist Brian Crane shares my love of te season. Throughout the autumn, we enjoy the crisp days, cool nights, and marvelous colors, both in our little corner of New England and on the many day and weekend outings we pursue throughout the region. A real autumn is something we missed when living in the Southwest!
Of course, autumn is brief, with several months of alternating cold and wet weather headed our way, as our little spot between Boston and Cape Cod always seems to be on the snow/rain line, famous for a "wintry mix" that resembles a perpetually falling Slurpee(TM).

So the grandfather in the strip shares an autumnal fantasy, borrowed from the 1966 surfer movie: he wants to travel the world in search of endless autumn, just as Bruce Brown's surfers traveled the globe, following summer.

The problem is that although Brown was correct that it is always summer some place, the same is not true for autumn. Today's post poses a question, rather than an answer: what is the difference? Why could this grandpa not find autumn year-round, even if he had unlimited funds for travel? How close could he come to his dream? That is, where would he go each month to maximize the autumn experience? (Use the comment link to respond.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Library Bashing -- again

The sometimes acerbic but usually rational Brian McGrory has turned his rhetorical sights on librarians, specifically of the refusal of Bridgewater-Raynham teachers to accept the superintendent's firing of all librarians in the district. Parent volunteers want to step in to help, which is understandable but not acceptable in the long run. McGrory clumsily attempts to tie teachers' rejection of the volunteer solution to unrelated disputes in the King Philips district. It is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that does his readers a disservice. The teachers are not rejecting the help because they want a huge raise; they are rejecting the help because it would undermine teaching effectiveness.

Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker has weighed in, arguing that teachers have put their own interests above those of the children. Actually, he has this backwards. Teachers understand that libraries cannot be run long-term with volunteers, but that volunteers can create the illusion that a staffing problem has been solved. Superintendent Jacqueline Forbes has said that the volunteers are assisting proctors, but proctors are not librarians.

She tried something similar a year or two ago, when she attempted to rid the district of social studies teachers, to be replaced by teachers from other disciplines. At the time, she exhibited a fundamental failure to understand what teachers do, and a reckless disregard for the students under her charge. Of course a library can remain "open" for a day or two without librarians, just as a classroom can be covered by a substitute for a day or two, and a newspaper could run briefly without any original writing.

But no RATIONAL educator with students' best interest in mind would throw out the librarians or the teachers in any given subject. The books, periodicals, and electronic resources of a library are selected by librarians, who also instruct students and teachers in their effective use. This is not the job of volunteers, and the teachers at B-R are to be commended for saying so. Librarian Richard Smyth has also made the case, in a subsequent letter to the editor.

A more effective way to save some money would be to reduce the number of superintendents in the state -- we have about 250, ten times more than we need in a state this size. See my regionalization post for more on how to solve that problem.

This is Coffee 1961


Among several video entries in the new MaxGuide to Coffee, the 1961 promotional piece "This is Coffee" from the Coffee Brewing Institute stands out in several ways. SPOILER ALERT: near the end, the grandiosity reaches full throttle as the narrator intones, "Perfect coffee: sending its glow into our lives around the clock."

In 12 minutes, this film covers the waterfront of thinking about coffee a half-century ago. (That is, right around the time I was born.) Most striking to me is the way that the film constantly refers to the importance of proper care of the coffee in order to ensure quality. I always associate these words with each other and with the philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which Robert Pirsig claims that caring is the inside of a structure whose outside is quality -- that is, they are deeply intertwined and both require focused attention and observation. Pirsig's work has had a profound influence on my thinking in general, and more recently I have explained how it relates to the preparation of coffee at a spiritual level.

Because of the deep meaning I associate with coffee care, it is especially jarring to see how the concept is used here. Rather than advocating that the consumer become deeply educated about the beverage, the 1961 Gestalt is one of reliance on experts, precision, and technology. Coming in the last year of innocence between Rachel Carson would pull the plug on blind faith in technology with Silent Spring, this video conveys what people had every reason to believe at the time. Precision in the measurement of water, coffee, and time are seen as the key to coffee perfection. The narrator alludes to the relevance of choosing an appropriate grind for the brewing method chosen, but goes on to suggest that careful measurement can somehow yield perfect coffee from a percolator, which is the electric chair for coffee -- where even the best coffee will go to die!

The film alludes several times to the rich story behind the cup, but glosses over most of the more interesting parts, characterizing the geographic variation with such sweeping, even offensive, broad brushes as the exotic Orientalism in the case of Turkish coffee and the zesty, dark vigor of Latin American coffee.It emphasizes good coffee while showing the harvest of mixed ripe and unripe, sun-grown coffee (as opposed to shade-grown coffee harvested at full ripeness, which really is good coffee). At 02:40, women are shown at a sorting table while the narrator extols the devotion of millions of men to the production of coffee.

A montage sequence near the end of the film is a transparent effort at up-selling, showing the virtues of coffee throughout the day, from the well-known morning wake-me-up to other uses throughout the day. At one point, the mood even turns to coffee romance!

Despite the many misgivings that come from a half-century of hindsight, I recommend this film for its broad coverage of coffee and for its glimpse into an earlier era. For further viewing, I recommend my coffee and tea film page, as well as the library guide from which I first learned of this CBI item.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Coffee Shops and the Bikini Anniversary

This summer, I saw a news item about the 64th anniversary of the bikini (though one source argues that the Romans really invented it), and began to contemplate its connections to geography -- specifically to the the geography of coffee. The connection is not obvious, unless one considers the geography of coffee shops and the long-standing associations and suspicions related to coffee, romance, and sexuality. From the evolution of the Starbucks maiden to the emergence of "steaming" espresso shops in the Northwest, Chile, and elsewhere, the field for research is as rich as a frothy cappuccino, which is why it took me three months to write this post!

Louis Réard is thought to be one of the 100 most influential people in fashion, in large part because of his introduction of the two-piece bathing suit in July 1946. In Paris, just a year after the end of devastating war, he decided it was time for a bold fashion statement (decades before that became a cliché). He was so sure that Micheline Bernardini would make a splash in his new design that he used fabric covered in newspaper headlines.

In Cossie Oscars, Australian writer Maggie Alderson explains what she sees as the proper role of bikinis and other swimwear in movies, and provides her list of the ten most memorable cinematic swimwear moments, from Ursula Andress to Jude Law. Of course Deborah Kerr's "cossie" (this is Aussie slang for swimsuits) in From Here to Eternity is mentioned as memorable, if dowdy.

In A Little Skin with Your Latte?, NPR's Heather Murphy compares the bikini barista scenes in Seattle and Santiago. Her blog post follows Sara Lerner's Leg Up story, which examines both the cultural clash over the shops themselves and the argument that they provide economic opportunities that young women may may have a difficult time matching elsewhere. I have recently expanded my Coffee & Tea Romance page -- which explores licit and illicit sexual and sensual aspects of coffee, as well as the various roles -- by turns provocative and misogynist -- of sex and gender in coffee marketing.  


Related to all of this is the evolution of the Starbucks logo, which began as something quite earthy and became increasingly sexless over time. Starbucks Logo Mania presents the history of the Starbucks logo in general, with quite few unauthorized and quite interesting variations. How the Starbucks Siren Became Less Naughty is focused more specifically on the puritanical direction it has taken over the decades. Finally, in The Mermaid, Heinz Insu Fenkl discusses the origins of the Starbucks siren in the context of a fascinating examination of mermaids and related figures from quite a variety of mythologies and traditions.

1971-1987
1987-1992

1992 - present

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

I, Rigoberta Menchu

One of the most important books I read in graduate school was I, Rigoberta Menchú, the 1983 autobiography of an indigenous woman whose tireless work on behalf of her people helped to end the civil was in Guatemala and earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Even with that recognition by the international community, however, I find that her story is largely unknown.

The countries of Latin America vary widely in the proportion of European, African, and indigenous racial heritage. In Guatemala, mestizos have always formed the ruling and land-owning classes, but the vast majority of the population continues to be indigenous. In telling the story of her struggle against unbelievable violence -- 200,000 Guatemalans were killed in the war, including much of her family -- she also tells the story of her people, their beliefs, and their relationship to language.

Her story is also essential for understanding the current plight of coffee farmers in Guatemala, and in fact it was Dean Cycon's work with her and others who resisted the tyranny of the U.S.-allied elites that eventually led to his emergence as a leading purveyor of justly-traded coffee. The connection is explained in his book, Javatrekker, which is required reading in my coffee classes, and whose back cover includes endorsements from both Rigoberta Menchu and Susan Sarandon.

Learn more about Menchú and her legacy from the Western Michigan University Colonial & Post-Colonial Dialogues project, the Riboberta Menchú Tum Foundation, the Nobel Committee, and World Trek.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Beyond Tuskeegee

This week saw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issuing an apology on behalf of our country to the people of Guatemala. Sadly, she was repeating a duty of her office that echoed something her husband had done 13 years before. They both were apologizing for dangerous medical experiments conducted decades before on people who were considered so marginal at the time that they were not given the chance to consent.

In President Clinton's case, it was for studies conducted from 1932 until 1972, in which 399 African American men were known to have syphilis but were given neither the diagnosis nor treatment. It is a tragic irony that the town associated with the proud history of the Tuskegee Airmen is also the location of this atrocity. The history of the Tuskegee Experiment is explored on the "Bad Blood" site at the University of Virginia, where the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library has been actively involved in documenting the experiments and their aftermath. More detail is provided in the article Research Ethics, hosted by Tuskegee University. NPR's Alex Chadwick reported on the study in his 2002 Remembering Tuskegee report.

This week, Secretary Clinton found herself in a similar position, apologizing for a similar but perhaps even greater atrocity. In the 1940s, medical researchers from the United States ran syphilis and gonorrhea experiments in Guatemala. With the cooperation of public health officials there -- perhaps in return for promises of penicillin, not all of the motives are yet clear -- they actually infected subjects without their consent or knowledge. The infection was introduced through prostitutes and through by pouring germs directly onto researcher-inflicted skin abrasions. The subjects included soldiers, prisoners, and mental patients -- that is, people seen as marginal in a country that was itself seen as peripheral. As reported in the Boston Globe, the study was discovered a few months ago by a Wellesley College historian who was studying the Tuskegee case. Secretary of State Clinton broke the news Thursday evening to Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom, to whom President Obama issued an additional apology the following day.

As I witnessed during my 2008 visit to Guatemala, most of the country's population continues to suffer unreasonable levels of poverty, largely because the United States perpetuated its peripheral economic position in the pursuit of cheap breakfast foods. We backed elites at the expense of peasants in a civil war that lasted 36 years, so we have MUCH for which we owe Guatemalans apologies.

The gruesome experiments of the 1940s, however, add significant insult to injury, and this week's apology should be only the beginning of an effort to make amends.

Blog Ideas

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