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Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition – A Review

3 Oct our lady of controversy

Published in Aigne: the online postgraduate journal for the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Sciences, University College Cork.

University of Texas Press, 2011
Paperback, ISBN No.: 9780292726420 Price: $27.95

The image of La Virgen de Guadalupe is highly visible in Mexican and Mexican American culture, as evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of statuettes, portraits, memorabilia, tattooed bodies and graffiti art. She has been connected to notions of identity and nationalism as well as religious tradition, with visual representations appearing in prominent national and social events such as the Mexican Revolution and the United Farm Workers protests in California. In their edited collection, Our Lady of Controversy: Alma López’s Irreverent Apparition (University of Texas Press, 2011), Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Alma López provide a unique and intimate view into the consequences of visual feminist revisions of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Written as part of the Chicana Matters Series, this collection gathers a host of respected scholars in the field of Chicana feminism, history and theory. Both López and Gaspar de Alba are noted Chicana lesbian feminists and students of Chicana feminism will be familiar with the works of novelist and theorist Emma Pérez and historian Deena Gonzalez (recently listed as one of the fifty most important living historians in the U.S. today).

The piece of art at the centre of the controversy, entitled “Our Lady”, was part of the exhibition “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology”, held by the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The inclusion of “Our Lady”, a digital image of a brown-skinned woman with bare midriff and legs, standing proudly and gazing out at the viewer, angered local Catholic representatives and Chicano nationalists to such a degree that their vocal opposition to and organised protests against the artwork brought the Museum to the attention of the national media. The controversy raised a myriad of issues including the separation (or lack thereof) of state and religion, freedom of speech, artistic expression, religious expression, gender, sexuality, economy, immigration, race and tradition.

The book is structured around the notion of chiasmus, a figure of speech that offers a way of exploring opposing ideas by reversing the second half of an expression, thereby offering a new insight into the original idea. Gaspar de Alba offers Mae West’s famous line “It’s not about the men in my life, but about the life in my men” as an example of chiasmus in her introduction to the collection. In a similar way, each chapter takes arguments made in opposition to the art of López and repositions them from a feminist perspective. Five of the eleven chapters also employ the chiastic structure in their title and as a structuring trope. While most of the arguments against “Our Lady” bemoan the lack of respect for the traditional Catholic representation of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Our Lady of Controversy confronts the heteropatriarchal structures of the church, reinforced by traditional ceremony, and asks: Who owns the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe? Why can’t women re-imagine her in ways that enable identification and not just veneration?

Luz Calvo’s essay Art Comes for the Archbishop: The Semiotics of Contemporary Chicana Feminism and the Work of Alma López, provides a solid grounding of the Nahua and Hispanic religious and artistic symbols found in both the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that is said to have miraculously appeared on the tilma (cloak) of a native Indian in 1581, and also in the digital image of “Our Lady”, created by Alma López in 1999. The layers of storytelling, history and mythologies woven into the artistic images expose the reader to the complex nuances at play in the work being protested. For readers unacquainted with the story of La Virgen de Guadalupe, this essay also provides a glimpse into the social, cultural and historical issues at play as well as the religious. All of these points are taken and expanded on by other contributors to the collection. The problematics of male-centred discourse in issues of female representation are discussed by Clara Román-Odio, Emma Pérez, Christina Serna, Kathleen Fitzcallahan Jones and Catriona Esquibel Rueda. The more personal writings by Alma López at the beginning and conclusion of the book decisively outline the personal impact of the protests on the artist, while curator Tey Marianna Nunn provides an insightful reflection on contemporary Latina/o art as well as the personal and political implications of her involvement with the “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology” exhibit.

Each chapter, original in its own right, builds upon points and opinions raised in other chapters, giving the entire collection a sense of communal dialogue and debate rather than simply a collection of isolated voices speaking within the rubric of a common theme. This idea of community is furthered by the inclusion of an 18 page appendix of ‘Selected Viewers Comments’ from the original exhibition. Both positive and negative remarks are transcribed into this section, giving a chance for both sides of the community to carry their point even into the publication of a book clearly arguing in favour of the art and artist. Moreover, included in the book is a CD of ‘I Love Lupe”, comprising a video interview with artists Ester Hernandez, Alma López and Yolanda López (no relation). This digital chapter integrates the notion of the original exhibition, “Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology”, by combining digital technology with the traditional book format. By allowing a community of artists speak directly to the reader, the DVD also illustrates how Alma López is actually part of an ongoing Chicana artistic tradition of reinterpreting La Virgen de Guadalupe.

The book constitutes a rich source of historical, political, feminist, religious, social and artistic issues pertinent not only in New Mexico but also in the wider Chicana/o community. The recent protests in opposition to “Our Lady” being exhibited in University College Cork as part of a Chicana exhibition give testament to the importance attributed to the representation of the Mother of Christ in patriarchal Catholic communities. They also highlighted the necessity for a book like Our Lady of Controversy in other Catholic communities, in order to create spaces for women to openly question that patriarchal tradition. The editors have provided a comprehensive, scholarly rebuttal to arguments against feminist revisions of a female figure within their own religious tradition. A definitive read for anyone interested in American and Mexican religious studies, feminism, Chicana art, history or political science.

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Blowout! Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice: review

12 May Blowout!

BLOWOUT!: Sal Castro & the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice.

by Mario T. Garcia and Sal Castro

Blowout!

Blowout! is the testimonio of American educator and activist Sal Castro. A phrase adapted by a Garfield High School student from a jazz term that means “to be expressive”, Blowout! was heard from tens of thousands of high school students, primarily Chicano, as they walked out of their classrooms in 1968 in protest at the poor quality of education they were receiving in East L.A. Carried out over a ten year period, this book is the result of hundreds of hours of recorded conversations compiled by historian Dr. Mario Garcia with Sal Castro as well as with a wealth of other students, teachers, administrators, artists and activists who knew Sal personally, many of whom had also been part of the 1968 High School Blowouts.

These blowouts are hailed as the impetus of the urban Chicano Movement, following on from the rural Chicano Movement that had begun some time earlier with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers thus placing Sal Castro as one of the most important Chicano Civil Rights activists of the 60s and 70s. This is the first time his story has been written.

Garcia frames the main autobiographical text of Blowout! with an introduction and epilogue that situate Castro’s story within that of the larger Chicano Movement. In the afterword, Garcia outlines the strong links between Castro’s approach to teaching and the theories of Brazilian pedagogue and educational theorist, Paulo Freire. While Freire is no stranger to most educators today, during the 60s and 70s his work was not widely read outside of Latin America. Castro was completely unaware of his work. However, the concepts of conscientização (conscientization or critical consciousness) are undeniably present as you read through the testimony of Sal Castro.

Unlike most other testimonios, Garcia peppers Castro’s accounts with quotes from different people and news articles. While there is the obvious danger of fracturing the narrator’s story, in this case it has worked quite well and the fluidity of the text is maintained. Moreover, Castro repeatedly emphasises his desire to empower the students and community, to have them speak out so the infrequent additions adds a symbolic connection between teacher and community that suits the text.

Blowout! tells the story of Sal Castro from his early childhood in Mexico to his present retirement. His firsthand experience of discrimination in the U.S. educational system as both a student and educator; in the U.S. Army where he experiences Jim Crow during his travels in the South; and society in general like when his father is returned to Mexico after WWII as part of the “repatriation” program thus forcing his parents to separate, which ultimately leads to their divorce, all provide insights into the challenges faced by immigrant communities in the U.S. at the time. These experiences would also help Castro as he critically assessed and challenged the U.S. education system. He gives personal accounts of the Zoot Suit riots, the Watts riots, the Chicano Moratorium against the war in Vietnam and more. As a teacher of history and politics as well as his background in campaigning for various senators – including John and, later, Robert Kennedy – Castro masterfully contextualises the political and social climate of the 60s and 70s in the build up to, and the later repercussion of, the blowouts, all the while managing to maintain a sense of humour that can only endear him to the reader.

This book is a strong asset not only to Chicano Studies but also to U.S. History, Political Sciences and Education Studies. While it is the testimonio of Sal Castro, it is ultimately the story of young High School students who finally found a teacher who believed in them and gave them the courage and opportunity to protest the inequalities they already knew about and faced daily in their schools and colleges. Although many problems still persist in the education system, the enduring legacy of the blowouts is visible in the ever increasing enrollment of Chicanos and Latinos at third level institutions, a greater presence of Latinos as teachers as well as on educational boards and the emergence of Chicano Studies as an elective in High Schools.

SB 1070 hits Arizona economy and Arpaio gets Hollywood posse

18 Nov

It’s official, SB1070 has created economic havoc within the cash strapped state. While the national and global economic downturn certainly played their part in Arizona’s current situation, the immigration bill signed into law by Senator Jan Brewer this year has exacerbated the problem. A recent study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) [conducted by economic firm Elliot D. Pollack & Co.] reports an estimated loss of over 140 million dollars in the tourism industry in the four months since the bill was passed. Much of this comes from the cancellation of conferences and meetings from outside of Arizona in protest at SB1070. An estimated 15 million people visit Arizona each year and, according to the state’s tourism board, 16.6 billion dollars was brought into Arizona by conferences and other tourist related activities in 2009. Arizona’s Hotel and Lodging Association has reported losses of 15 million dollars, but CAP calculated these lodging cancellations as costing treble this – about 45 million dollars. It then also calculated the cumulative costs of food, beverage, transportation, entertainment and tax revenue which would also be lost due directly to the cancellation of these lodgings. This resulted in the overall 16.6 billion dollar figure. It has also led to the loss of 2,700 jobs.

According to the Pew Hispanic Centre (a nonpartisan organisation which draws from the national U.S. census bureau) the Hispanic community forms 30% of the state’s population, or around 1, 965,000 citizens. Ponte al Dia reports that 60,000 Latin American owned businesses have generated 34 billion dollars in Arizona in the last five years. The same article claims that the state of Arizona boasts the fifth largest birth rate of Hispanic born children – following New York, Florida, Texas and California and that as the Hispanic population is more optimistic about the recovery of the U.S. economy in general, they are the largest consumer market in Arizona at this time – many of those interviewed listed material or luxury items such as computers, digital cameras, televisions and package holidays as things they were planning to buy in the next six months.

So reports of an exodus of 100,000 Hispanics since the bill was written into law has given businesses and politicians a genuine cause for concern. After U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked some of the measures within the law on constitutional grounds some opponents of the law, like U.S. Rep Raul Grijalva, called for an end to the boycott. So far, this seems to have fallen on deaf ears, with sports and music ventures still opting out or simply not adding Arizona on their tour dates for the foreseeable future.

However, supporters of the bill have said that these short term costs do not outweigh the long term costs of illegal immigrants. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Arizona will pay 2.8 billion dollars on the health care, education and incarceration of illegal immigrants in 2010 alone. Time, and legal proceedings, will tell.

Meanwhile, controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio has been joined by some well know names from the entertainment industry to create the Maricopa County Sheriff’s 60th posse of illegal immigrant fighters. Steven Seagal, a deputy in New Orleans, and Lou Ferrigno (of “Hulk” fame), a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, were sworn in last week. They were also joined by actor Peter Lupus (from “Mission Impossible”), a man named Wyatt Earp – nephew to the famed lawman – and a retired Chicago police officer named Dick Tracy. Of the 56 new members 33 are already qualified to carry weapons. Arpaio hope the “high profile” of these recruits will help raise awareness of the illegal immigration issue.

 

What a difference an election makes….

6 Nov

In the same week as Obama reels from a “shellacking” by the electorate and Chihuahua elects a nineteen year old chief of police, the Washington Post reports that the U.S. has finally agreed to subject its Human Rights record to review by the U.N. council.

The GOP (Grand Old Party) as the Republican Party is also known, have taken the House of Representatives while the Democrats have retained the majority in the Senate.  A breakdown of the voting results is attached below, courtesy of electoral-vote.com

An interesting side note to the elections is the historic number of minorities and LGBT candidates winning races. US News writes, for example, about Nikki Haley the first female South Carolina representative elected by either party. She is also the first Indian American governor elect of the area. Allen West became the first African American House Representative of Florida since 1870. Susana Martinez became the first woman Hispanic governor from either party while Brian Sandoval became the first Hispanic governor ever of the state of Nevada. The New York Times has a full and thorough run down of the wins and losses of Latino politicians across the country.

The Tea Party also won 32% of the seats they ran for, an overview of which can be found on BBC News, though there is speculation as to whether or not they will actually be able to deliver on some of the promises they have made to their electorate. It is will also be curious to see how a small government political party will in fare in a political institution as large as the US.

With no one party having complete control it is now more crucial than ever for co-operation between the two main political parties in order to address important issues such as the economy, immigration and security.

The New York Times does an excellent run down of the election results. Below is the House map:

On November 1, 2010 Diane Dimond wrote an article for the Huffington Post entitled “A Mexican Savior or Sitting Duck?”. This may seem rather unkind given that the article is about the election of the new Chief of Police in Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. However, when you realise that this is a city a mere 35 miles southeast of Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and that the previous Chief of Police was kidnapped and beheaded, you begin to see where the writer is coming from.

Marisol Valles Garcia, a twenty year old criminology student has been elected to this new position. She boasts a squad of 13, nine of whom are women. They have one squad car and four guns. They patrol a population of approximately 9,149 who live terrorised by cartel violence. A Mexican Savior or Sitting Duck?

The plan seems simple enough – leave the cartels to the military and create a better relationship with the community. But with the fate of her predecessor and the rising death toll due to the cartels (two major cartels, the Sinaloa and Juarez are battling for control over the city’s main highway) combating fear in the community will not be an easy task, especially with events including the recent massacre in the nearby city of Juarez of a children’s birthday party (death toll at the time of writing was 16).

What seems evident from elections on either side of the border is the thirst for change and the drive of a younger generation to create it.

Oklahoma introduces Immigration Law HB 1804

11 May

After weeks of protest and unrest HB1804 (House Bill 1804) has come into law in Oklahoma. Following the signing of SB 1070 in Arizona and the high profile reactions to its introduction, it is not surprising that HB1804 has accrued similar sentiment from its citizens.

You can read the bill here at the United Front Task Force website [.rtf and .doc]. The site also contains the Memoradum of Agreement (MOA) between the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) [pdf).

As with the Arizona law there is wrangling between the different parties and officials as to the legitimacy, necessity and scope of this anti-immigration law. The problem of immigration being a federal rather than state issue has again raised its head with the National Coalition of Latino Clergy filing a suit precisely because they see the bill as the state overstepping their authority on a federal matter. Representatives like Randy Terrill, one of the authors of the bill has reiterated the failure of national legislation which has spurred this recent state action on immigration: “The states have to act because the federal government has refused to enforce our nation’s borders and turned every state into a border state,” he told reporters with the Washington Times.

However, NewsOk, an Oklahoma news site has stated that it is too late for legislators to tackle such a huge issue this session.

The Latino community, is duly concerned about the threat of racial profiling. With business members who work within primarily Latino areas claiming massive drops in profits since the introduction of the bill as Latinos stay at home more for fear of deportation. Indeed The Urban Institute, a respected national research organization,  hasjust released a study, commissioned by the National Council of La Raza, titled “Untangling the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act: Consequences for Children and Families” that looks closely at the effects of HB 1804. In it one of the major implications of the bill on the Latino community has been to instil fear; primarily of deportation and thus separation from children.

What it also finds, however, is that most of the legislation – such as the prevention of supplying state aid to undocumented immigrants – has already been in place since the 1990s.

With the furore in Arizona, Oklahoma’s geographical location and a massive budget crisis, why introduce an immigration law now? In Arizona the issue seems to stem primarily from a political manoeuvre to regain lost faith from a primarily republican electorate. But Oklahoma is not a border state, with a far smaller immigrant population, what has spurred politicians into looking at immigration when budgets are the primary problem? Or is that why immigration now seems like a good area to tackle?