Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alluvione: Reflections on an underreported natural disaster

I haven't posted in a while but I wanted to write something about the flooding in our area, which is causing such hardship and hasn't been covered much in the international press. 

In one day, the Grosseto area of Tuscany received the amount of rain that normally falls over an entire winter. Flooding reached three meters in some areas, at least four people were killed and nearly 3,000 left without water or power in the area of Albinia, the epicenter of the damage. Most of the people that were received by the hotel where I was when the flooding started -- and which opened only to receive the flooded and emergency workers -- were elderly women, many with disabilities. Towns throughout the area, including ours, remain largely isolated by closed roads and washed out bridges. 

It’s November.

The water is cold.

Every surface is reflective, glassy. What overrides is the unrecognizability, an unfolding mental failure that, burrowing deep, conjoins nodes of doubt, panic, any spare psychological detritus, and renders the world as strangeness in the sense of étrangeté -- unknown and outsider.

Nature, confident, exudes no great effort, but neither is deterred. Just blooms, engulfing.

The rest, instead, uprooted. Unlighted.

Thereafter, every high-pitched swish, every tenor of rumbling – rain? Thunder? Thankfully now just phantoms.

I wonder, Sandy, is this like you? Are we made distant Atlantic relatives, similar not in magnitude but in how we receive you, in ginocchio?

What we feel, what is dismissed, what merits newsprint and ambitious, white-teethed telecasters. And what does not.

Where are we? 

No sight of civil protection, no coordinator. Where are they?

For now just the unsteady, expanding of human emotion, scavenged constructions of care, the humble offering of our imaginations, of seeing ourselves in one another.

I understand more by watching than by hearing. It’s too hard to piece together through the layers of dialect, my own ignorance, confused retellings. But my gaze is less encumbered, and I watch the firemen’s eyes as they trudge in with midnight, glistening with fatigue, their gaits weighted as though by the mud they have battled since dawn.

It’s the hair that gives them away, the alluvionati. What is normally a source of Meridional pride now juts out in frizzy tufts, bathed but unwashed. The new snug-fitting, Red Cross clothing, awkward and transgendered, seems unmatched with its wearers. But what their usual attire is, I have no clue. They are all strangers to me.

A handful of weathered Maremman women populate the lobby of the (until now) shuttered Park Hotel. They converge in a corner, take up position, keep company. Maybe there were family invites, entreaties, insistence, stay with us. Some have accepted, but the few who remain seem resolute, even as they ask us again where they are. Gli uomini duri fanno le donne forti.

Two scale across submerged mulberries, loose their grip on the only donkey. One fights cancer; water reaches her chest. Another braves the window of her drowning car, never wavers that her husband is at home and safe.  

At the end of a long, shocked day, we sit together, unknown, unknowing, unrecognizing. Refugee upon refugee, fleeing, but with an expectation of return. Some flee floods, gather courage to face down loss. Others shirk shadows, duck ghosts, and slowly, gingerly, locate nodes and begin to untangle.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Date with Impunity

For some time, I had been wanting to write a post about impunity and 'insecurity' in Argentina, and the ways in which these discourses co-construct one another and materialize in everyday life. After a friend of mine was robbed by two different taxi drivers, we had discussed the reactions of her Argentinean colleagues which seemed to downplay the incidents. Indeed, my friend had the sense that her robberies were inquired about less seriously than how another colleague was recovering from a common cold. While street crime may be viewed simply as a fact of life for many urban dwellers which explains the nonchalance, I still wondered about the particularities of these silences and dismissals, and how narratives of crime and victimhood are gendered, racialized, marked by other social differences. And also, what is violence anyways, when and for whom?

Though I'm still ruminating on these questions, I did have the opportunity to engage with the material side of my inquiry at 10am last Wednesday. Returning from the park with my bicycle, I noted a young man crouching near the side of a battered blue car, two houses down from my own abode. As I neared my door, his crouching became the entry of a good portion of his torso into the passenger's side window, wherein his upper half was hidden by a windshield sunshade. I hesitated long enough to ask myself is this a bad idea? before taking my phone out and walking closer.

I stood several feet away from the torso and took a photo. I waited. The boy torso remained bisected by the window and continued about its business presumably trying to remove a stereo. As my silent photo-taking had shockingly little effect on either the torso or my ability to identify the thief, I ramped it up a notch with this no-nonsense reprimand:

"Que estas haciendo?" What are you doing? "Deja de robar este auto." Stop stealing that car.

No response. Boy torso continues its wriggling work inside the battered blue car.

"¡Hay policias a mitad de cuadro!" There are police half a block away! I said indignantly. It happened that at just that hour, less than a block away were two of Capital's finest metropolitanos helfpully directing traffic where stoplights had failed.

Still no response. But wait, a passerby!

"Che, señor, señor, este chico esta robandao de este auto. ¡Ayudame a avisar a los policias que estan alla!"
Hey dude, Mr., this kid is stealing from this car. Help me tell the police over there!

Passerby continues passing by.

"Hola. HOLA. Dije, SI ME PODES AYUDAR, este chico esta robando de este auto." Hello. HELLO. I said CAN YOU HELP ME, this kid is stealing from this car.

Passing by continues, with some mumbles.

I return to the torso and my ineffectual wining. I'm taking pictures of you, I tell him. Torso continues struggling to untether something inside the battered blue car. I continue my wining. After a few seconds, the kid withdraws from the car with a look of mild "no me rompes" annoyance and walks unhurriedly away.

With phone in hand, I cycle down the block to where the police are directing traffic, only to catch up with Mr. Fuckface Passerby on the way.

I can't resist, it just comes out: "Asi pasó la dictadura, gente como vos." I tell him. This is how the dictatorship happened, people like you. Strong words, no less complexified by the fact that I could make more or less the same argument about the U.S. to some U.S. citizens who have behaved in similar ways or worse.

Calling the police officer over, I explained what I had seen, showed him photos and impatiently answered his questions that, yes, this had occurred less than a block away. Yes, on this street. Yes, while you were here directing traffic. "And how was the boy dressed? In stripes? Oh, it's too bad that ...." He didn't finish his sentence/fashion judgement? just repeated "it's too bad" as he scribbled my details on the back of his traffic log, reassuring me that someone would get in touch. Right. Inútil.

Heading back down the block, I left a note in the car for the owner, telling him about the photos. When Pedro called, which I learned is the name of the owner of the battered blue car, I discovered that he works in the factory across the street, has an accent like he's travelled to work here and doesn't have access to a computer to view the photos. That is when it hit me, the tragicomical perversity of this mid-morning, midweek burglary: one poor kid steals from another while a rich girl takes photos it's possible no one but she will ever see.

At some point in living in Argentina, the question arises of who you think you would have been if you had lived during the dictatorhip, how you would have acted, would you have been politically active or just focused on surviving, staying safe? For a moment after the incident, I felt like I knew the answer, that I would be someone who gets involved. But my smugness was shortlived as I recalled my hesitation outside my door (¿me meto o no me meto?) and I felt that the impossibility of knowing who we might be in other times, as other selves, when there is much more at stake. It's relatively easy to intervene when a teenager breaks into a factory worker's battered blue car, at 10am on a Wednesday, in front of your house on an ugly block in Villa Crespo. It's easier still to approach the police if you're white, female and foreign, and show him photos on your iphone. It's easy to yell at the jaded, sleep-deprived gnocchi late on his way to work who treated you just like any other young person on this block in the V Crep -- with fear and withdrawal. It's intervening in violence that is less easy to see, that takes place in other kinds of cars, over days, in meetings and boardrooms, within families. Those forms of violence are the hard ones to denounce. You can't photograph them on your iphone.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Where Are All the Black People?"

"Where are all the black people?" V. said, as we rounded the corner to Palermo station. When her question met little more than vague murmurs from me, E. jumped in: "I think we're it." After a year and half in Buenos Aires and no good answer, it was about time to hit the books on this one.

If you'd like a laundry list of why Argentina has few Afrodescendents (1), Wikipedia is happy to oblige. But of course their positioning on matters of race and cultural difference is just a bit suspect given that 80% of their editors are male, (probably) white and their CEO possesess questionable political awareness (this photo speaks for itself). Laundry lists aside, that the Afrodescendent population in Argentina is small seems to be at odds with the history and visibility of Afrodescendents in neighboring countries such as Brazil and Uruguay. In 2010, Argentina's national anti-discrimination body (INADI) estimated that the country's "black minority" actually constituted two million people (2). A genetic study by the University of Buenos Aires estimated that 4.3% of people residing in the capital and its suburbs had "African genetic markers" (3). (I'll leave discussion of genetics and the construction of race for another post). While this isn't exactly the 10% reported for neighboring Uruguay, it's still significant enough to make the lack of political visibility all the more startling (4).

As one might imagine, there isn't much writing on this topic and one of the most useful resources I came across was actually written in English. A researcher named Claire Healy in her review essay on Afro-Argentinean historiography describes how writers on Afro-Argentines have variously linked their "decline" to "miscegenation," disease and warfare (Healy, pg. 113). She cites an author on the subject, George Reid Andrews, who posits "that death had less to do with the perceived disappearance of Afro-Argentines than [... racial] reclassification" into mestizos which "contributed to downplaying the contribution of black people to porteño culture and overlooking the patriotism and high level of integration of some black porteños." (pg. 114). Leaving Andrews' positive framing of 'integration' and 'patriotism' to one side, Healy goes on to note the literature doesn't address how the end of (forced) migration from Africa affected "the survival of the Afro-Argentines as a recognisable social group in the face of mass immigration from Europe." (pg. 115).

While clearly there were historical, material events such a disease and warfare that affected the survival of Afro-Argentines, Healy points out several key erasures or omissions at work in the writing itself on this topic:

Historiography on Afro-Argentines has concentrated almost entirely on their disappearance rather than on their existence in nineteenth-century Argentina. A vast problem when assessing the historiography of Afro-Argentines is the almost ubiquitous perception that they were the victims of history and that their ‘‘disappearance’’ was somehow inevitable. As such, analyses of their history frequently relate exclusively to their contribution to and acceptance within white culture, or to reasons for their alleged disappearance (pg. 113, emphasis added).

Indeed, once one begins to look for it, the influence of Afroporteños is immediately evident -- everyday Argentina Spanish words like quilombo and possibly even tango originate in the Afroporteño language of bozal (cited in Healy, pg. 112). Just as striking as the erasure of these contributions to wider Argentinean society, Healy notes a further omission:

One glaring void in the various theories that seek to explain the ‘‘disappearance’’ of Afro-Argentines is their obvious failure to account for a substantial proportion of the entire population of Afro-Argentines. That is, Afro-Argentine women (pg. 115).

Although Healy doesn't discuss it, this omission is startling given what has been written about " miscegenation," or more accurately blanquemiento, in Latin America. Blanqueamiento or "whitening" is the process through which a family lineage, and by extension an entire "race," is made "whiter" and "improved" through reproduction (5). This is distinct from a US racial system which uses the "one drop rule" whereby a person with even one drop of "African blood" is considered black. In Latin America, blanqueamiento generally involved Afrodescedant or Indigenous women giving birth to children by European men. With women tasked with improving the nation through reproduction, blanqueamiento opens the door for policies on marriage, divorce, rape, education, sanitation etc. that sanction violence against Afrodescendent and Indigenous women in the name of a whiter nation (Nelson, pg. 215). And the nation was all the whiter for policies massively promoting European immigration (Nelson, pg. 215), for which Argentina is notorious.

In failing to discuss Afro-Argentine women's historical realities, both Healy and the writers she surveys cover over what the statistics are saying: through enblanqueamiento, many Argentineans do have Afrodescedant heritage but this is rarely acknowledged and is not seen as "making someone black." Without acknowledgement and political visbility for Afrodescendencia, the violent history of blanqueamiento is occluded and its logic installed every time we ask and fail to answer "where are all the black people?"

To conclude, from my very, very brief google scholaring, it seems like there is a strong need for further research that connects Argentina's Afrodescendent heritage to wider conversations on race, nation and postcoloniality in Latin America and the Carribbean. And, just as importantly, to bring those conversations from the books to the streets of Buenos Aires.

Post-script: The Argentinean antidiscrimination body has recently launched a program "Afrodescendents Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism" to
coincide with 2011 as the UN-declared "International Year of Afrodescedants."

1. A note about terms. I'm a little at a loss here and so take my cue from the National Antidiscrimination body (INADI) and use an English translation of afrodescendientes for people who are descended from Afro-Argentines. Afroporteños refers to Afro-Argentines resident in Buenos Aires.


4. Although, this could also be said about Indigenous groups and I think comparing their political situation to that of Afrodescendents' would tell an interesting and important story.

5. You can read more on this in Nelson, Diane (1999) ‘Bodies that Splatter: Gender, “Race” and the Discourse of Mestizaje’, in A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala, University of California Press.

6. Nelson, pg. 215.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sexing the Sandwich

Like many feminists, I am all too aware of the ways in which everyday objects and spaces are gendered in unhelpful and oftentimes offensive ways. Try finding a pair of female running shoes in green or buying a bicycle without wondering why the placement of that middle bar is gender significant and you'll know what I'm talking about. Repeatedly coming into contact with theses objects and spaces is one way in which we become gendered subjects and how masculinity comes to be privileged as objects are designed for stereotypically male bodies. Of course, these processes are also racialized (I'm thinking about the color of bandaids here) and imbued with other social differences. And marketing is a practice focused on elaborating these differences and upholding highly problematic notions of gender, race, class, ability et al in order to sell more bikes. So, you say. What else is new?

Well, imagine my curiosity when the gendered world of objects took a bizarre turn during my Friday lunch break. It seems that one enterprising Argentinean establishment has taken it all to a new level -- that of the sandwich. In the menu above, you will see "group sandwiches" (sandwiches grupales) and below the words "for the boys" (para ellos) and "for the girls" (para ellas). Obviously, men get ham, cheese, bacon and green onion. Girls get smoked salmon, sour cream, greens and asparagus. Not only I am generally appalled by the gendered implications for cardiovascular disease and thinness that this implies -- the latter for which Argentina is so notorious, they had to pass a law mandating that clothing stores actually carry more than the smallest sizes -- but I'm also annoyed that ingredients in the "women's" sandwiches are slightly more expensive. Not only do I have to eat a certain way to maintain my femininity but I also probably have to shell out more money to do so -- a very tired truism for anyone with experience in attempting feminine appearances.

So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the culinary arts are not exempt from the processes of gendering so evident in more straightforward cases of design and advertising. It's just that I was thinking that friday lunches represented this brief little respite from the rest of the day, one space where I could enjoy the company of friends and indulge in some earthly delights. But it seems I was sadly mistaken. The next time I order that smoked salmon sandwich or quinoa salad or any other 'healthy' treat on a cafe menu with my three best girlfriends, I'll wonder if I'm losing the battle for gender equality with every bite.