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‘As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live’: Black mothers and the struggle for Black life in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Alysia Mann Carey, PhD Student, Political Science 

“To be a mother is a gift from God. A child is inside you and there is pain when they are born, but you are happy and you kiss their arms and legs. But when this happens, when you lose your child in such a tragic way, it is a pain and sadness that is unexplainable. You carry it with you. And more so when it is like my case, or Ana’s case, which is about a people and about security and those people that are supposed to give security are creating more misery and death for human beings, it is hard. When I heard pa-pa-pa-pa I looked around for my son. Where is My Son! It was then that I felt the hand of the government in my womb. And it is still there.” (Dona. Santana, Mother of one of the victims/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

“The pilgrimage from the Police Station-Hospital-morgue, or Police Station-Hospital-morgue-Child and Adolescent Foundation (FUNDAC), or Police Station-Hospital-Morgue-Cemetery, has been the routine for Black families headed by Black women.” (Andreia Beatriz dos Santos, Coordinator/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)

The above quotes from Dona. Santana (pseudonym), a mother-activist who lost her son in what has come to be known as the Cabula Massacre, and Andreia Beatriz, coordinator/militant for the React or Die Campaign, represent important starting points for theorizing state violence against Black women. This is a theme that my research directly engages. Both of these women’s narratives demonstrate that state violence penetrates intimate spaces for Black women: the body (through the womb, through the cries over the death of a child, through walking to and from various sites that signify death and violence) and the family (through no longer being able to mother a child, or young children growing up without a loved one). It is in this context that my research takes a Black feminist approach (i.) to understanding how state violence impacts Black women in intimate ways. Thus, using ethnographic approaches, I examine how Black women describe, understand, and navigate state violence, and other forms of violence in their daily lives. Further, I investigate how Black women also lead movements that connect and confront different forms of violence in their lives and communities.

Five months after the Cabula massacre, I traveled to Salvador, Bahia for the second time to conduct pre-dissertation fieldwork in June 2015. During this time, I met with organizers from the React or Die Campaign as well as the mothers or partners of those who were killed in the massacre. On Friday, February 6, 2015 military police officers from RONDESP (Special Military Operations Forces (ii) raided the working class, majority Black neighborhood of Cabula in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. The officers maintained that they entered into a gun battle with 30 men who were hoarding arms and criminal paraphernalia. However, witnesses claimed that they were unarmed.  In the end, police killed 12 Black boys and young men between the ages of 16 and 27. A separate investigation found that the police entered the community, rounded up the boys on a small plot of land, used as a soccer field by neighborhood youth, and executed them one by one (iii).

On Monday, August 24, 2015, React or Die held its 3rd Annual (Inter)National March against the Genocide of Black People. The March represented a culmination of yearlong organizing efforts, community work, and familial support for victims killed by state violence. The march was scheduled to commence in front of the Public Security Building downtown, but early on that Monday morning, around 9 a.m. I watched over 200 people gather outside of the State University of Bahia, located in Cabula. Organizers, supporters, mothers, family members, and loved ones were to walk through the streets of Cabula, to the community of Villa Moisés, where a memorial service was held for the victims of the Cabula Massacre, on the very plot of land that their lives were taken.

Preparations for the memorial stone in Villa Moisés, August 24, 2015 (iv)

Mothers March in front of PSB.png Prep. Memorial at Villa Moises.png

Forming two lines, organizers, mothers, friends, and other family members walked through the street chanting, “Against the Genocide of Black People, no step back” and “We want Justice.” Upon arrival in Villa Moisés, we stopped just before descending into the community. Around us, there were many two-story townhome-like structures. Hearing the chants for Black life and the demands for justice, an older woman came out and stood on her patio, looking over the rail. At that time, one of the coordinators of the React or Die Campaign took the megaphone to greet the community members: “Good Morning Villa Moisés. We are here in memory of the dead. We are marching today for our lives. Villa Moisés will not be forgotten.” The woman who stood out on her patio responded by raising her fist in support, giving us a blessing to enter.

The procession proceeded down into Villa Moisés. Upon arriving at the site where the 12 boys and young men were killed, four straight lines were formed. Mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, supporters, organizers came to the front to present themselves and to speak the names of those killed. After each person was named the galera (crowd) in unison yelled “presente (present):

Ricardo Matos, Presente! Júnior, Presente! Anjos, Presente! Adailton, Presente! Alessandra, Presente ! Fatima, Presente! Amarildo, Presente! Maria Vitoria, Presente!

One by one, family members, mothers, partners spoke up about their fight

"As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live. We have become the voices for our sons and daughters, and we won't allow the continued murder of young Blacks to destroy our lives. Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.”

“We cannot go one step back! We can't let this tragedy continue. Every single day, we encounter another mother grieving, another body laying dead in the street — we will not let this happen any longer. We have to fight, we have to react…While there is even one little voice screaming deep down there, in the end, that voice will be representing all of our dead." (Ana Paula)

The words of Ana Paula resonated with me, and reminded me of the first time I read Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany of Survival” in Lyndon Gill’s course on Erotic Subjectivities. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, Lorde tells Black women throughout the diaspora that we must speak, “remembering we were never meant to survive.” The words of Ana Paula and Audre Lorde speak to the transnational dimension of Black women’s power: Ana Paula’s words were a response to the poem, a continuation of a conversation across space and time. Andreia echoed the same conversation: “Our pain is transnational. Our fight is transnationalJoquielson, Presente! Jonathan, Presente! Rakia Boyd, Presente! Tony Robinson, Presente! Aiyana Jones, Presente! Everson, Presente! Kaique, Presente! Sandra Bland, Presente! Jackson Cavalho, Presente! Trayvon Martin, Presente! Mike Brown, Presente!”

The mothers and family members who spoke are experts in their own right—they have searched for children when they were disappeared, unidentified in city morgues, or located in clandestine graves in the outskirts of the city. These Black mother activists vocalized their criticisms of governmental impunity and necropolitics throughout Brazil. They exposed the particular experiences of Black mothers, a theme explored in the literature on gendered racial violence in the Americas (v.).

For me, it became clear that even in the face of government indifference and attacks, these women created a network of support and autonomous organizing, creating a grassroots organization fighting against a genocidal state responsible for the deaths of their children and thousands of others.  At the end of the memorial, people gathered around a plaque in memory of victims of state violence. The memorial stone read “’We continue to live and fight for Black people in the diaspora’ Campaign React or Die!” This inscription reminded me of Patricia Hill Collins’ words: “motherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting [themselves], the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment.” (vi).

As the memorial came to an end, everyone walked to Engomadeira, a nearby community where some of the surviving family members of the Cabula massacre lived, to have lunch.  Around two o’clock in the afternoon, we made our way to the headquarters of the Military Police, where the march itself would commence. More than 5,000 people gathered on the street. The march would end outside of the Office of the Secretary of Public Security for the State of Bahia. The beginning and end of this march were significant for many reasons. The women of Reaja directly confronted the state and the “official story,” not only of Cabula, but of other cases of anti-Black violence across Brazil, and throughout the African diaspora. Their physical presence in front of the Military Police Headquarters and the Public Security office was a practice of unveiling the intimate violence and suffering perpetrated against them, their families, their sisters, and their communities. Their presence highlights the central place that Black women occupy in the history of organizing, (vii.) making visible the pain, suffering, and violence that the state, reporting, and news media ridiculed and made to be a spectacle. Mothers were holding large signs depicting their slain children. Women spoke the names that the state tried to erase. Shouts erupted from the crowd, such as “They try to deny our humanity,” and “the dead too have a voice.”

Mothers marching in front of the Military Police Headquarters, August 24, 2015

 

 

 

Just like the land upon which the young people were killed in Cabula, the streets in front of the buildings were transformed into spaces of resistance against genocide. Through occupation of the streets, the courtrooms, government offices, Black women disrupted these spaces, reconfiguring them as sites for collective grieving. Their activism disrupts a narrative of “what (whose) life is worth, a narrative that says that Black life is worth less and that life itself can be valued based on race, economic status, gender, etc. (viii.) During the memorial ceremony, one of the family members said, “Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.” “As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live.” The acts of re-membering their loved ones, collective grieving and making public the pain and suffering at the hands of the state, provide a language (whether verbal, emotional, or embodied) for these women to articulate their experiences and to take political action. Organizing, activism, re/memory and grief are engaged as central, pivotal, and diasporic sites for theorizing Black politics and liberation (ix.). 

Footnotes

i. This approach draws on and contributes to scholarship that situates Black women’s organizing as key sites for the production of theory and knowledge. See for example, Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. "Amefricanizando o feminismo: o pensamento de Lélia Gonzalez." Revista Estudos Feministas 22, no. 3 (2014): 965-986; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab. University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Smith, Christen A. "Facing the Dragon: Black Mothering, Sequelae, and Gendered Necropolitics in the Americas." Transforming Anthropology 24, no. 1 (2016): 31-48; Collective, Combahee River. 'A Black Feminist Statement'. na, 1982.

ii. Similar to S.W.A.T in the US.

iii. Data released by the prosecutors in an interview to the press, published on May 12, 2015. (http://www.correio24horas.com.br/detalhe/noticia/morte-de-12-homens-no-cabula-foi-execucao-diz-mp-policiais-serao-denunciados/?cHash=9cc0567b569bdbe83b2aa06242ec07f5).  Also see http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2015/05/18/politica/1431971338_499756.html; According to Bahia's Government article (http://www.secom.ba.gov.br/2015/07/126443/Caso-Cabula-inquerito-conclui-que-PMs-agiram-em-legitima-defesa.html) Information released exclusively by El Pais newspaper   (http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2015/07/25/politica/1437834347_077854.html)

iv. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.

v. Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. "Facing the Dragon; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. "Outraged mothering: black women, racial violence, and the power of emotions in Rio de Janeiro’s African Diaspora." PhD diss., 2014; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. "Black mothers’ experiences of violence in Rio de Janeiro." Cultural Dynamics 24, no. 1 (2012): 59-73; Smith, Christen A. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press, 2016.; Also see the Transforming Anthropology special edition (24, no. 1) "Sorrow as Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror.

vi. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002.

vii. James, Joy. Shadowboxing: Representations of Black feminist politics. St. Martin's Press, 1999; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab;

viii. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. "We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996." PhD diss., Duke University, 2010, 50

ix. Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. Amefricanizando o feminismo; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. "Facing the Dragon; Collective, Combahee River. 'A Black Feminist Statement'; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. "Outraged mothering”

On May 25, CLAS will cosponsor "Grief as Resistance: Racialized State Violence and the Politics of Black Motherhood in the Americas,” a transnational conversation with Black mothers who have lost children to state violence. Mother-activists from the US, Brazil, and Colombia share their struggles and strategies of resistance against police violence, mass incarceration, and the unrelenting injustices facing Black communities around the world.

For more information please visit: http://events.uchicago.edu/cal/event/showEventMore.rdo

 

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago. 

The Emergence of Signs in Interaction: Shared Homesign Systems in Nebaj, Guatemala

Laura Horton, PhD Candidate, Comparative Human Development and Linguistics

As I make my way down the precipitously steep hill from the parque central towards the Xolacul neighborhood, I am grateful that the municipial government of Nebaj has seen fit to extend the concrete pavement this far. I jump out of the street, over the deep gutter, to avoid the tuk-tuks that race around a large truck unloading cases of Guatemala’s signature beer, “El Gallo,” at a local cantina. I hurry on, past where the pavement ends, to a deeply rutted gravel and dirt street up the hill and further away from the center of town.

I pass tiendas and tortilleras, opening up for business, as kids make their way to school in matching uniforms. I arrive at La Escuela Oficial para Educacion Especiál de Nebaj (EOEE), the local school for special education, around 8:30. The early-arriving students are sweeping up the courtyard and classrooms, sprinkling water on the covered porch to keep the dust down, and picking up trash from the road in front of the school. Older students lean on the front gate, catching up on yesterday’s news—their hands waving and pointing and gesturing fluidly, occasionally punctuated by headshakes, pushing, shoving and chasing. These students are deaf, and while some have deaf relatives at home, others only interact with other deaf people when they are at school, with other deaf peers.

The school enrolls students from the age of three with a wide range of disabilities including physical handicaps, learning disabilities and Downs syndrome. There are also 5–8 deaf students who attend, depending on the year. None of the deaf students at the school has enough residual hearing to learn Ixhil, the Mayan language spoken in the community, or Spanish, the language children learn when they begin attending school. None of the teachers at the school knows LENSEGUA, the official sign language of Guatemala, used primarily in Guatemala City, nine hours south of Nebaj.

The deaf students thus invent their own gestural systems to communicate—with their hearing family members, with their teachers and with each other. These gestural systems, called homesign systems (1), have been studied in many countries around the world where, like Nebaj, there are deaf children and adults who cannot hear the spoken language in their environment, and who are not part of a community that uses a national sign language (2). These studies have established that homesign systems created by individual deaf children and adults are often internally consistent and share many properties with established languages (3). When individual deaf homesigners are brought together in a community or institutional setting, like a school, they can converge on a shared sign language within a few age-cohort “generations.” The daily contact between homesigners, combined with transmission of the manual communication system to a new age-cohort generation of deaf children who enter into the community, gives rise to a new sign language, significantly insulated from contact with the surrounding spoken language(s) (4).

After school finishes for the day, I go to Ana and Emilio’s house to try a new elicitation task with them. I arrive with my video cameras, tripod and backpack full of toys and books. I chat briefly with their mom, who is headed out to the market, and then set up the cameras opposite to three plastic chairs dragged out onto the covered porch from inside the house. Ana sits at a table across from Emilio with a book of photos of familiar objects and places, including animals, vehicles, tools and food. Emilio sits next to his younger brother, Marco, who is hearing. They are facing Ana and Emilio holds a paper with a grid of 16 pictures. Ana describes each photo to Emilio and he then tries to select the correct picture from his array of photos.

This game helps me document and understand Ana and Emilio’s homesign systems in two ways. First, I am recording the signs that Ana uses to describe everyday things in her world. I will take this data back to Chicago and code it for features like handshape and movement to understand how his signs are similar or different from other homesigners in Nebaj, as well as other established and emergent sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL) or Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). Second, this “matcher” task allows me to observe Ana and Emilio interacting with each other, to observe how they resolve miscommunications and negotiate their homesign systems when there is confusion.

Ana turns to a page with a photo of a horse. She uses a gesture that many hearing people employ when talking about animals across Latin America, a flat hand extended from her body, with the palm facing inwards. She then gestures with her hands at her shoulders, a common description of a person or animal carrying a heavy load. Emilio looks up from the array, having missed this sequence, and Ana repeats only the carry gesture. Emilio points out a photo of a pile of firewood, often carried in the way that Ana demonstrated. She looks down, indicating that he has not selected the correct photo based on her description so he searches the array again. His little brother Marco taps him on the shoulder and gestures to indicate large ears, similar to a horse, then waves his hand in front of his mouth, a common gestural emblem to mean “eating” used by both hearing people and the deaf homesigners in Nebaj. Emilio looks back at the array of photos and points out a photo of a dog. Ana, frustrated, turns her book around to show Emilio the photo of the horse. He finds the matching picture in his array and points to it repeatedly.

This missed communicative exchange is interesting to me for a lot of reasons, not least because Ana had trouble picking out the same photo of a horse from the same array, moments earlier when Emilio was the one describing the photos to her. It may seem surprising that these siblings, the only two deaf children in a family of eight, do not share the same sign for an animal that they see every day in the roads and fields around their home. It is possible that, had Emilio seen Ana make the animal gesture before the carry gesture, he could have selected the correct photo from his array. It is also interesting that, when Emilio did not select the correct photo on the first try, Marco, his brother who is not deaf, recognizes the structure of the task and the fact that he must sign to Emilio to communicate a piece of missing information to him. Even when Marco supplies the information that Emilio missed when Ana described the horse the first time (that it was an animal and that it was eating) Emilio chooses a different animal from the array. Ana does not attempt to clarify for Emilio, instead showing him her photo of the horse after he has incorrectly chosen photos of firewood and a dog.

This brief interaction illustrates the fragility and contingent nature of communication for homesigners in Nebaj. They navigate their world trying to communicate with a variety of people who do not share their modality of communicating (visual-manual homesign versus oral-aural spoken language), much less their particular communicative system. Sometimes, it seems that even a sibling who is also deaf, and also a homesigner, does not automatically entail comprehension between homesigners. The question I seek to answer with my data is how these kinds of interaction, between siblings who are both homesigners, between siblings who are deaf and hearing, between homesigning children and their homesigning parents, and between homesigning peers at school, affect the structure and stability of emergent communication systems.

View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View of one of the main roads through Nebaj, Guatemala

The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The front gate of the Escuela Oficial para Educación Especial (Official School for Special Education, Nebaj)

Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students play a game in the courtyard of the Official School for Special Education, Nebaj, Guatemala

Footnotes

(1) Frishberg (1987); Goldin-Meadow (2003)

(2) Researchers distinguish “national” sign languages from local, village, and indigenous sign languages based on the number of users, the length of time the language has been in use, and the resources (use in schools, access to interpreting services) available to signers who use the language. In some communities, for example, there is a high prevalence of hereditary deafness and both hearing and deaf individuals are thus exposed to a shared sign language; these systems are often referred to as “village” sign languages.

(3) Goldin-Meadow et al (2009); Coppola & Newport (2005)

(4) A recent example is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), a sign language that started just 50 years ago with the first state-supported schools for special education in Managua. NSL has been extensively documented: Kegl & Iwata (1985); Senghas, Senghas & Pyers (2004); Polich (2005)

References

Coppola, M. & Newport, E. (2005). Grammatical Subjects in home sign: Abstract linguistic structure in adult primary gesture systems without linguistic input. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102(52), 19249-19253.

Frishberg, N. (1987). Home sign. In J. Van Cleve (ed.), Gallaudet encyclopedia of deaf people and deafness (Vol. 3) New York: McGraw Hill. 128–131.

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language: What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York, N.Y.: Psychology Press.

Goldin-Meadow, S., Özyürek, A., Sancar, B., & Mylander, C. (2009). Making language around the globe: A cross-linguistic study of homesign in the United States, China, and Turkey. In J. Guo, E. Lieven, N. Budwig & S. Ervin-Tripp (eds.), Crosslinguistic approaches to the psychology of language: Research in the tradition of Dan Isaac Slobin. N.Y.: Taylor & Francis, 27-39.

Kegl, J., Senghas, A., Coppola, M. (1999) Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In M. DeGraff (ed.), Language creation and language change: Creolization diachrony, and development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 179–237.

Kegl, J. & Iwata, G. (1989). Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense: A Pidgin Sheds Light on the “Creole?” ASL. In Carlson, R., S. DeLancey, S. Gildea, D. Payne, and A. Saxena, (eds.). Proceedings of the Fourth Meetings of the Pacific Linguistics Conference. Eugene, Oregon: Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon, pp. 266–294.

Polich, L. (2005). The Emergence of the deaf community in Nicaragua: "With sign language you can learn so much." Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Senghas, R., Senghas, A., & Pyers, J. (2004). The emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language: Questions of development, acquisition, and evolution. In S. T. Parker, J. Langer, & C. Milbrath (Eds.), Biology and Knowledge revisited: From neurogenesis to psychogenesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 287-306.

 

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago. 

 

Fighting the Good Fight: Keeping the Literary Fire Alive After Academia

Alexander Slater Johnson, LACS MA'14

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I stepped onto the University of Chicago campus back in the fall of 2013, I was ready to greet it and its atmosphere as if it were an old friend.  The well-trimmed gardens, the tree-lined paths; all of the UC campus immediately reminded me of my years at the University of Oregon.  The similarities, however, ended there.  I had returned to Academia after a three-year absence; an indulgent sabbatical where I worked and traveled around Spain, teaching the English language while improving my own knowledge of Spanish.  I decided to accept the University of Chicago’s offer to do a one-year Master’s program through the Center for Latin American Studies, otherwise known as CLAS, to continue my research interests in Latin American history.  I had completed my undergraduate thesis under professor Carlos Aguirre, who helped me in my writing on the role declassification has had on the official histories of the tumultuous and violent decades of authoritarianism in the Southern Cone.

When you spend time outside of the walls of the academy, its realities begin to take on a rather different, even romanticized look.  The razor-sharp, competitive edges are smoothed-over into a warm, inviting bear hug where everyone dives into their intellectual passions and research in an environment of a collaborative love of knowledge.  Or maybe that was just the University of Oregon.  The truth is, the University of Chicago was a different beast altogether.  The initial nine months (which invariably extended into my first sweltering Chicago summer), saw incredible mental stress, a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in my research interests, and a game I played with the undergraduates rest of the master’s students called “catch up.”

 I entered the CLAS Master’s program with a History degree and left one year later with an unbridled passion for Literature.  Indeed, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s book The War of the End of the World and subsequently Brazilian history at the turn of the twentieth century that motivated me to apply in the first place.  I was hesitant to focus on literature, however, due to my undergraduate background and a lack of confidence in my ability to assimilate into the world of literary studies.  But all of that fades away on a campus, and here is where that cold intellectual bubble began to warm up a bit.  It was post-doctoral lecturer Rosario Granados-Salinas as well as historian Dain Borges who encouraged my interest in literature, and supported what would become my rather arabesque thesis project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Studying the Humanities is a daunting proposition these days.  Unless you are sure about that PhD, about entering the tenure-track race, about conference circuits, and about the viability of your research interests, studying literature can raise not a few eyebrows —especially if you’re footing most of the bill for that Master’s degree.  Nevertheless, literature became my new field of study, and (as with any discipline) there are centuries of writers, theorists and academics you must have read or at least “know” in some ambiguous, head-nodding way.  This is when “catch up” began in earnest.  I took a variety of courses and checked out piles of books from the library.  And I had to learn Portuguese. It wasn’t my best idea.

Immediately the difficulty set in.  I felt inferior in almost every sense of the word, and while such a feeling is as isolating as it gets, the staff and professors associated with Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as a few generous souls in the English department, helped me settle in.  With their encouragement, I discovered new avenues of research and slowly gained confidence in working in the Humanities, a field constantly battling the forces of darkness, otherwise known as the social and hard sciences.

            My research eventually led me to a small field called Inter-American Studies, which studies connections across all disciplines between the North, Central and South America.  Vargas Llosa’s novel introduced me to the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, whose monumental text Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) is a generic anomaly on the War of Canudos.  As chance would have it, I took a course called “Marx and Melville in the Global Nineteenth Century,” and to this day I am not sure if it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or my love of Moby-Dick, but before I knew it I was finding connections between these two works and the historical moments that drew Euclides da Cunha and Herman Melville to write their “Great Pan-American Novels.”  That was what I said, at least, to my adviser, whose response will stay in my mind forever: “Far out.”

 

 

 

 

 

A Melville and da Cunha enthusiast himself, my adviser’s encouragement and his willingness to talk about role Herm and Euclides for hours in his office were invaluable to my year at University of Chicago and to my life outside of academia.  The excitement I felt and the inhuman amount of stress I put upon myself in writing my thesis are things I will never forget.  From within higher education, the passionate research you do seems like the most important thing you could possibly be doing.  Advisors and professors take issue for every argument you make and challenge you to articulate, research and think like you never have before.  The minute you step beyond those walls, however, the rigors of your daily life can easily relegate what was once so important to the backburner of your mind. 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  What might seem opaque in the moment becomes lucid in hindsight.  Although I still teach during the day, at night I put on my academic spandex and fight the criminal banality of daily life.  I have started a podcast called “The Casual Academic.”  At first, it was very challenging to put a show together from scratch and discuss literature for a wider audience.  But preparing each episode is a chance for me to do what rigorous research Google permits me, articulate my ideas both verbally and on paper, and feel more and more that my master’s was worth it.  There is an incredible amount of academic literature available on authors like Umberto Eco, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald, and those discussions are always fruitful.  When we do episodes on authors that are not household names (Venedikt Erofeev, Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector), I hear the voice of my adviser telling me to remember my training, and I get to work.  Will I someday go back and pursue my dreams of a PhD?  An open question, up for interpretation and discussion.  For now, there are many ways to follow my interests, and I have my year at the University of Chicago to thank for showing me how. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.