Cinco de Mayo

4 May

In 1862, France is considered the greatest military power in the world. It has not lost a battle in fifty years. On May 5th, a force of 6,000 French soldiers confronts a troop of 2,000 poorly armed Mexican militia in the town of Puebla in Mexico. If the Mexican side loses, Mexico becomes part of the French empire and the confederacy will win the U.S. Civil War.

Some background:

At this point in history, Mexico has already been Independent since 1821, it has survived the U.S. – Mexico War (1846-48), which has massively decreased its territories, and is tentatively piecing itself together after a bloody civil war (1858-61) – otherwise known as the “War of Reform”. The country’s economy is in such bad condition that the newly elected President, Benito Juárez, declares a moratorium on all foreign debt.

In response, France, Britain and Spain land in Veracruz in October 1861 and begin an occupation of the Mexican Gulf Coast. The diplomatic representatives from Spain and Britain come to an agreement with Juárez and leave. France, however, remains and, aided by conservatives (who had been on the losing side of the War of Reform), sets out to occupy Mexico. The Emperor of France, Napolean III, is aware of the growing power of the U.S. in the Western world and wants to use the payment default as a reason to occupy Mexico and install his relative, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Habsburg of Austria, as Emperor. Once that plan was in place, France could then turn north, aid the confederacy and divide the U.S. into two smaller, less threatening countries.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is aware of this threat and sympathetic to the Mexican cause, but has to depend on Mexico to keep France at bay until the confederacy is defeated and he can provide direct intervention.

On May 5th 1862, the French army reaches Puebla, a town only 100 miles from the capital. Expecting the attack is Texas-born Mexican, General Ignacio Zaragoza who has fortified the city and waits with a militia of men – mainly poor, of indigenous or mixed heritage, from an agricultural background, and armed with antiquated rifles and machetes. They defend Puebla against a highly trained, well provisioned French cavalry with heavy artillery, under General Laurencez.

La Batalla de Puebla (The Battle of Puebla) lasts from dawn to evening, by which time France retreats with close to 500 casualties. Mexico loses fewer than 100 men in the encounter.

Although the win is shortlived – Napolean III uses the defeat to send more troops to Mexico, and succeeds, briefly, in making Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian ruler of Mexico –  the battle bolsters Mexican resistance. In 1866 France begins to recall its troops to Europe, the U.S. is able to lend more political and military aid, and in 1867 Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian is tried and executed by order of Benito Juárez.

Cinco de Mayo today:

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated annually in Puebla, where re-enactments, parades and other activities are organised. In the 1960s, many Chicano scholars and activists realised the potent symbolism of the battle – Mexico versus an invading European force – and promoted Cinco de Mayo celebrations as a source of ethnic and cultural pride. Today, it has gained widespread popularity in the U.S., though there is, at times, some confusion between Cinco de Mayo and Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16th.




Pedrolo Translation Project

15 Mar


For the past few weeks I have been involved with a digital project initiated by my colleague, Pedro Fernandez Dorado. Inspired by Catalan writer, Manuel de Pedrolo, the project, Temps Obert v 11.1, this week celebrates 50 posts since its inception.

Catalan original with some quick Catalan grammar explanations!

Catalan original with some quick Catalan grammar explanations!

Coincidentally, as well as being St Patrick’s Day here in Ireland, Monday March 17th is also Catalan Poetry on the Internet day. To honour the project, the artist behind its inception and Catalan Poetry on the Internet Day, Fernandez asked each of the six writers involved in Temps Obert v 11.1 if they would translate one of Pedrolo’s poems into their native language (Spanish, English, Swedish, Galician, Catalan and German). We all readily agreed, and so, every day from Monday 17th to Friday 21st, there will be a new translation of Ésser en el món (1949).

I was given the duty of creating the English translation. This translation will be used by the Swedish and German language writers to create their own versions of the text.

As poetry translation is something quite new to me, and because some of us on the Temps Obert project, including myself, have no knowledge of the Catalan language, I thought it would be an interesting side project to record the translation process and post it here.

The Process:

To begin, Fernandez gave me two copies of the poem – the original Catalan version and his draft of the Spanish translation. Having the Spanish version gave me clues about verb tenses and vocabulary, which was an incredible help. I referenced the Catalan version as much as possible, using the Spanish text primarily because of the lack of resources I could easily find on the internet – on some occasions, the Catalan word simply was not translated at all.

First draft with notes.

First draft with notes

I also chose to write the draft with pen and paper rather than online. This was purely a personal preference.

From the two versions of the poem I was given, I was able to draw up a very rough first draft.

The next step involved asking Fernandez for some basic Catalan lessons, especially for areas that involved words where the Spanish translation of a Catalan word was different to what I had found when looking for the English translation – e.g. sorrudes which was either translated as “small minded” (Catalan – English) or “frowning” (Catalan – Spanish – English). Or when the poet appeared to be playing with word meaning e.g. lentament, secreta… in the first stanza or membres carnívors in the third stanza.

While this helped with some areas – vocabulary primarily, but also for identifying prepositions and tenses – it also raised more questions. For example, in the sixth line of the second stanza, we find a l’hora. In Catalan there is also alhóra, which has equivalent differences in Spanish (al mismo tiempo and en el mismo tiempo). However, the poet is apparently infamous for playing with and breaking grammar rules, so how to transmit this in English?

These look angrier than the conversation! Getting to grips with double meanings and reflexive verbs.

Words, words, words. Getting to grips with double meanings and reflective verbs.

By combing through the language more meticulously, and being able to question each others reasons for choosing particular words or for structuring sentences in such a way, we were able to refine both translations

By the end of our session, progress had definitely been made, however, there were still some lines I felt were not coming together, so I took some photos and decided to take a step back from the poem until the following morning.

The original poem is online from today. The Spanish translation will be uploaded tomorrow and the final English language version will be uploaded on Wednesday, 19th March 2014, followed by the Galician, German and Swedish).





Smile Now, Cry Later: Freddy Negrete and Chicano Black-and-Gray Fineline Tattooing

5 Jan
smile now, cry later

Smile Now, Cry Later

If you’ve ever seen an image of a chola with smoking guns or two theatre masks- one smiling, one crying, joined with the phrase “smile now, cry later”- you’ve seen an original Freddy Negrete work of art. The tattoos in Blood in Blood Out (1993), Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Blade (1998) are also his handiwork. He has appeared on the television series Marked (2009), been a guest judge on shows like “Ink Master” (Season Two), and more recently been a central figure in the feature documentary on American tattooing, Tattoo Nation (2013).

He is one of the pioneers of Chicano black-and-gray fineline tattooing, one of the most commonly used styles of tattooing today, yet for all his impact on the world of tattoo art, Negrete remains relatively unknown to the general public.

Freddy Negrete

Freddy Negrete

The son of a Jewish mother and Mexican father, Freddy Negrete grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Frequently in trouble with the law, he spent time in and out of juvenile halls. While there, he became fascinated with the tattoos of the other men, so much so that he decided to try it out for himself. He was shown how to put a basic tattoo machine together, using different items available – tattooing is illegal in the prison system, but more on that later – and taught some basic application techniques. He started tattooing himself at the age of eleven and by the age of eighteen he was almost completely covered in handpicked tattoos. During his time in youth authority, Negrete was moved to a program for the “criminally insane”. In an interview with Kristie Bertucci, he explains that the staff at this program were more lenient when it came to tattooing and so he spent nearly every day of the next three years honing his skills.

When he was finally released, he continued tattooing from his apartment. As gang member, Negrete’s customers were often fellow gang members and his tattooing regularly included images associated with Chicano street gangs, many of which drew from their Mexican cultural hertiage: portraits of La Virgen de Guadalupe and Jesu Cristo, Aztec gods, Adelitas, Zapata and other Mexican revolutionary figures, as well as images from lowrider culture, gang affiliation symbols and ornate calligraphy.

Unlike conventional tattoo shops of the time, which only used tattoo machines that worked with groups of needles, Negrete used the ‘prison-style’ tattoo technique, which used a single needle – because tattooing was illegal within the prison system, inmates constructed machines from different odds and ends available to them. This could include the engine of a radio or cassette player, a toothbrush, pen, guitar string, pencil eraser. It always meant a single needle. This single needle application allowed inmates to produce finer line work and detail in their tattoos than contemporary tattoo shops.

Homemade tattoo gun.

Homemade tattoo gun. Image via Temporary Service.

Ink was also a highly prized commodity in prison. It was sometimes made using the rubber of boot heels or burning baby oil and cotton in a metal tin, using the blackened dust that remained after burning the oil and cotton mix, soot mixed with shampoo, pen ink, melted styrofoam. The black ash was then mixed with water to create ink. This restriction in colour and tones meant tattoo artists in prison had to find new ways of dealing with shading and light. Gradation techniques differed from artist to artist, and was accomplished by watering down the ink, changing the depth of the needle penetration or shading over sections in order to build up darker tones. Although some shops now use whites and grays when tattooing black and gray tattoos, black ink and water alone remains the traditional method.

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Sailor Jerry

Traditional American tattoo flash. These usually had a nautical theme and were popularised by artist Norman Keith Collins aka Sailor Jerry (1911 – 1973)

Around this time, Traditional American, with its thick blue-black lines and bold, solid colours, was the popular tattoo style. It had a strong connections with the US military, especially the Navy. Black and gray tattoos were associated with gang members and prison convicts. However, the combination of fine line work, precise detailing and new shading techniques meant that ‘prison style’ quickly started gaining favour outside the prison system, with members of the public actively looking for shops that could, and would, replicate this style.

Negrete’s work eventually came to the attention of Goodtime Charlie and Jack Rudy – who is best known for inventing the single needle for the professional tattoo machine – in Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland on Whittier Boulevard. As he tells Kristie Bertucci:

They discovered that the people in East L.A. didn’t want color work and just wanted black, and the reason for that was because everybody wanted it to look like they got it done in prison. They saw tattoos that I did and sent word for me to go over there and eventually they gave me a job there.

When Goodtime Charlie decided to retire, Don Ed Hardy bought the business and renamed the shop Goodtime Charlie’s Tattoo Land. Hardy was fascinated with the new style coming out of East L.A. and decided to help push it out onto the international stage.  Negrete, for his part, was amazed at the colours and scale of Hardy’s work. Negrete was used to small scale tattoos. Prison tattoos were generally small so they could be completed quickly, reducing the risk of getting caught. Hardy’s influences came from Japan, where full body suits are common practice. By working together, both artists learned much from each other in content, form and technique. Hardy also advised Negrete to change the name ‘prison style’ to ‘black-and-gray fineline’ tattooing, which it is most commonly referred to today.


Japanese body suit.

It was not always such a clear path for Negrete, however, either professionally or personally. An Evangelical movement called Victory Outreach visited and converted many gang members in East L.A., including Negrete. He used his new faith to help him fight his alcohol and drug addiction. He even quit tattooing for ten years when he was told that it was a sin. During this decade, he kept busy in other ways, earning a bachelor’s degree in biblical literature and a master’s degree in apocalyptic literature. Eventually, however, he began to question the arguments he had been given against tattooing, and decided to return to his craft.

In 2005, tragedy struck home, with Negrete’s eldest son killed in gang violence. The death hit him hard. He returned to heroin and found himself back in prison. “Here I was — 50 years old, back in prison, tattooing with a homemade machine for soup, just like I did when I was a young kid” (bound by ink).

After his release, Mark Mahoney offered him work in the Shamrock Social Club. Negrete took the job and works from there today,

Front part of full Chicano body suit

Front section of a Chicano body suit

along with his son, Isaiah. He also runs a tattoo shop apprentice program with the Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish treatment centre for teenagers struggling with heroin addiction. “I have these kids as young as 18 years old in my group that are already heroin addicts”, he explains to Mike Landers. “During our meetings, I always find an opportunity to give them actual lessons from my life, so they look up to me because I can relate and I make the group fun”. Negrete credits this program, and the founder, rabbi Mark Borowitz, with his own addiction recovery.

Although his life has all the makings of a classic Hollywood movie, his place as a pioneer of Chicano black-and-gray fineline remains too far in the shadows. With an autobiography in the pipeline, and the growing demand of his work by celebrities, this may be set to change.

I never thought that prison-style black-and-gray would get mainstream, but now it’s worldwide. It was just some troublemaker east L.A. cholo art, but black-and-gray and I are here to stay. (inked magazine)

For more on Freddy Negrete and other Chicano tattoo artists, check out Tattoo Nation:

Call for Papers

26 Nov

The Irish Centre for Mexican Studies is hosting a research symposium on Mexican and Mexican American Studies in June, 2014. We’re very excited and honoured to confirm Chicana / Native American poet Lorna Dee Cervantes as our keynote speaker!

Pathways, Explorations, Approaches



4-5 June 2014

This symposium invites participation from scholars working both in the area traditionally constituted as Mexican Studies and also in the area of Mexican-American and/or Chicano Studies. Its focus is deliberately expansive and we welcome proposals that will illuminate current approaches to, explorations of and pathways through these rich multidisciplinary fields that are underpinned by work in both the social sciences and humanities.  The symposium aims to showcase research into Mexican and Mexican-American Studies as currently conceptualised, studied and taught in the academy. The symposium provides the opportunity to debate and discuss scholarly research and inquiry on Mexico from a diverse range of disciplinary perspectives. Interventions in the areas of cultural studies, literatures, art, theatre and performance, history, political science, anthropology, sociology and digital humanities are welcome. Papers that problematise area studies’ approaches or that chronicle the issues…

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How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang

25 Nov

Alexandre Afonso

In 2000, economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the internal wage structure of a Chicago drug gang. This piece would later serve as a basis for a chapter in Levitt’s (and Dubner’s) best seller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.) The title of the chapter, “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, was based on the finding that the income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor  of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated 3.30 dollars as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms). [2]

If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or…

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How (not) to Organise an Academic Conference.

28 May

A quick online search will lead you to a list of sites with great advice about how to put together a great conference. And it’s something I would definitely suggest that postgraduate students consider taking part in.

GradHacker outlines the pros and cons of conference organising, The New Academic even gives you a pre-prepared checklist. Donna Alexander in Americasstudies gives tips on the use of social media and ‘Storyifying’ your conference. Catherine Armstrong’s article on the website stresses its value for new academics, while Gary DeCoker’s piece in  The Chronicle shows that even tenured academics find themselves facing the same problems – and rewards – that graduates do when organizing a conference.

However, even with the best advice, mistakes can and will be made. The following is a list of examples of what NOT to do when organising a conference. They are tried and tested paths to some hiccough or catastrophe. They are mistakes that I have come across as a speaker, ones that  I have made myself as an organiser or ones that I have heard about through a third party. Hopefully, they will help budding conference organisers in the future avoid the same pitfalls.

If you have more points you think can be added, please do so in the comments below!


  1. Don’t take on a conference if you have little time to dedicate to it – organising a conference is time consuming.
  2. Don’t refuse other people’s help. Even if it’s just a small colloquia.
  3. Don’t go over budget.
  4. Don’t assume that when a plan of action is agreed upon that it will be carried out. Seriously. Delegate. And make sure whoever is delegated the job knows that they have it!
  5. Don’t think that making a room booking means everything will be fine. Book early and then check back with whoever handles booking a week or so before the conference. Usually, one office books rooms for a variety of groups so always double check.
  6. Don’t forget to keep all your receipts in case you need to claim money back after the conference.
  7. If you are going to charge participants, don’t forget to tell people how they can pay as well as how much they must pay.
  8. If you need people to pay before the first day of the conference, state this on your website or circulars.
  9. Don’t forget to have change in the kitty if you plan on accepting cash on the day.
  10. Don’t assume the electronics will work. Go to the rooms where your speakers will be presenting. Check all the equipment. Don’t just look to see if it’s there, actually use it. Do this the morning before (so there’s time for relevant media dept to come and fix whatever may be broken/missing/faulty).
  11. Don’t forget to ask plenary speakers if they have any media requirements for their presentation – or dietary requirements for the conference meal later!
  12. Don’t assume your first programme will be the last.
  13. Don’t think the programme you make two days before the conference will show exactly how the proceedings will go.
  14. Don’t get mad that people pull out, want to change times, have problems with their PowerPoint, change their paper title, change their paper altogether…
  15. If you receive and accept panel submissions, do not them break up into other panels, add or remove a speaker, change the title of the panel or change the topic of the panel  without first contacting the panel members.
  16. Don’t put similar panels on at the same time.
  17. Don’t forget the maps, posters, arrows, SOMETHING to tell people where the conference is actually being held once they get on campus.
  18. Don’t feel you have to present a paper as well as organise the entire event.
  19. Don’t forget the food and beverages, even if you’re only doing the coffee breaks – conferencing is hungry and thirsty work!
  20. Don’t forget to actually go listen to some papers.
  21. Don’t forget to breathe!

Should I Blog? Reflections of a Doctoral Student

7 Apr


My blog has lain barren for several months now, one of the many victims that fell in the final push towards the completion of my doctoral thesis and preparations for the viva voce examination.

Recently, a colleague @americasstudies wrote a piece on her experience as a blogger and the friction that lies, still, in academia when the term ‘blogging’ or ‘blogger’ comes up in conversation. This is a recurring debate – both for students and academics – and one which is, I feel, is an important discussion.

As I have just completed the doctorate, and am looking back on the experiences that I have had with social media and blogging during this time, I have decided that my re-entry into blogging will be with a post about blogging and the potential benefits this area holds for research students.

Fear of the white page and the red ink.


The one thing that plagues every graduate student – the feeling that you need to read more.

‘I need to read more on these topics’ / ‘If I read x then I can write a better chapter about p because z mentions it’ / ‘I keep hearing this person’s name come up in conferences, I should read them before I write anything else in case I have to change something later’ / ‘I don’t really deal with that area but y is a big name and may be useful later on’…

The excuses are endless, and the sentiment isn’t (always) a reticence to write but rather a fear to write something that won’t be good enough. Unfortunately, a thesis cannot be written by reading alone.

The white page looms large. Not only do you have to write about something, you have to make sure you write using somebodies, even more worrying, the right somebodies. The true idea of a draft, especially to those starting out, is a concept not fully appreciated.   Before I met with my supervisor to talk about the first piece of written work I had submitted to her, I received one of the best pieces of advice about the drafting process:

“The more red pen you get, the better”.

Your first draft will have red ink. Hopefully, a lot. This is especially true if you have more than one supervisor.

I can see the dubious faces out there, but think about it. Take a look back at some of the essays you wrote as an undergraduate that received good marks and look at your work now. Would you receive the same mark for that undergraduate work if you handed that up at postgraduate level? 

Your supervisor has to read the work properly, not just gloss over it, to see the mistakes. Red ink means your supervisor/s care/s enough to help you learn and push your abilities to higher standards.

red ink

Blog posts are generally much shorter than academic papers. They can be multidisciplinary; you can add images, imbed videos, hyperlink to other information or people. They can be fun. The white page becomes less confrontational and more interactive. Blog posts do not require the same rigour as academic writing. That said, they can also be the beginning of an idea that you decide to expand into a larger, more formal written piece, later on.

Blogging makes you the writer, editor and publisher all in one. It makes you more self critical. It makes you demand more from what you write. Structure, tone, style, content, all become more intimately assessed. Nobody wants to publish something bad.

Blogging gives you the red ink.

What do I write and When? Shut Up and Write!


The focus of a student’s blog does not necessarily have to directly reflect the student’s research. My thesis is entitled “Oppositional Consciousness, Dialogism and Re-membering in the novels of Helena Maria Viramontes“, my blog does not reflect the novelistic concerns or theoretical tools I engage with in that work, at all.

It does, however, deal with contemporary and historical Chicano/a concerns, which loosely ties in with Viramontes, who identifies as a Chicana writer. It has also allowed me to keep abreast of other research interests, such as border studies, the immigration debate, U.S. and Mexican politics, the media, education and digital technology in the humanities.

Not only that, it has given me a space where I can think about these things critically, and actively engage with these discussions rather than allow the information to passively pass me by. This critical engagement also complements the analytic skills you need to write a thesis.

When you write is different for everyone but, if you have time to procrastinate, you have time to blog.

There are also groups like the Shut Up and Write! movement, #AcWriMo on Twitter, and possibly a similar group or activity in your own university (if not, why not make one?).

Things I learned about my own writing through blogging:

A) I waffle.

B) I have a habit of swapping between US and British English spelling.

C) I have the ability to write something to completion.

D) Editing takes longer than writing.

E) My conclusions need more work.

F) I need to write more.

Blogs reflect the skill of the blogger. The more you write, the better you become.

gaiman writing


13 Nov

This site is on hiatus until January 2013.

The new year will bring updates on Breaking Bad, Junot Diaz, the U.S. presidential election and Mexico’s response to the legalization of marijuana in several U.S. states.

Until then, I found a video on YouTube with some familiar faces and fascinating stories:

Free Online Language Classes

12 Oct

I’ve been following Open Culture on Twitter for a while now and they have some excellent resources for scholars. This is a link that was recently tweeted by them to free online languages, there are some very good Spanish links.

Postgraduate Hispanic Studies Conference for Ireland and the UK

14 Feb

Our call for papers deadline has passed for the conference. We are very excited by the quality and diversity of the submissions received –  Spanish and Latin American film studies, history, social science, Human Rights Law, Chicana/o Studies, Pedagogy and peninsular art to name but a few of the categories. Abstracts will be published in the conference blogsite: and we encourage anyone with an interest in any of the papers to join us in conversation on twitter with the hashtag #hispcon