Sunday, September 14, 2008

Movie Ratings Signify Torture Years

In September of 2001, I moved in to what my father jokingly called an artists' commune. My husband and I, along with four other musician, artist and filmmaking friends, piled all our belongings into a cool two-flat in Jersey City, hoping that the (ad)venture would lessen the blow of rising rents. The apartment was spacious but not exactly spacious enough to hold the larger-than-life personalities that were housed in it. Still, things seemed to be going well at first. We had regular band rehearsals in the basement, one of the roommates was attempting to make his first film, and I was starting a new job at Hudson County Community College, a school in the heart of the very diverse Journal Square.

We were all surprised one September morning when a cloud of mischief began to blow over the Hudson toward us. One roommate was preparing to take the PATH train to the World Trade Center in order to get to his job as a server in a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Vincent was going to take the same train to start his work with DreamYard, an artists-in-the-schools organization. I was already teaching my morning ESL class. My supervisor came in to tell me that a plane had flown into one of the WTC towers. We continued class, confused. Five minutes later she came in to say a second tower had been hit, the first was collapsing and that we should dismiss class. As I was hearing those words, Vincent and several other roommates had just witnessed the first tower collapse. Our filmmaker roommate got footage of the first tower going down. I walked outside and I saw the second tower collapse and the smoke billowed toward Jersey City. We would breathe the toxic fumes for months afterwards. Everyone was out in the streets attempting to use cell phones in vain. I ran home, hoping to find Vincent there. We hugged when we saw each other and watched conflicting newscasts for most of the rest of the day. One roommate looked shocked when I said, "We did this."

No one could get along after that day. When Vincent returned from a residency with Saul Williams in Florida (which he had to drive to because of flights being blocked), all communication had broken down in the apartment. We separated the flats and a year later, when the lease ran out, we moved a few blocks closer to the PATH to an apartment which came to be known as the Chateau Boogie. It was a great apartment and a lot of creativity happened there. For our housewarming, which was also a celebration of my birthday, we had friends create a mural on our kitchen wall and we regularly played and recorded music in a room we called the Loop Hole (because we usually used loops of recorded music). One of the creative endeavors I embarked on was making a list of movie rating descriptions.

I was once a film major at Columbia College Chicago, and now Vincent shared in my joy of viewing and dissecting all aspects of film. We watched a lot of movies and I decided I wanted to list all the different things the movie ratings people thought we should be warned of (this desire to understand ratings was echoed years later in "This Film is Not Yet Rated"). I listed these descriptions as they came to be known. So, for example, if "sensuality" was seen as a description, it was written down and never written down again. I only listed descriptions that were new to me. I did this from the year 2002 to the present; roughly, the years of the Bush administration. Vincent kept asking me why I was doing this and I said I didn't know yet, but it was very entertaining. The phrases are so ridiculous and some of them have no meaning at all, I wonder what exactly I'm being warned of. However, a meaning did become clear to me about a month ago. I was reviewing the list and I noticed a change.

When I began making the list, just about a year after the 9/11 farce, the descriptions were pretty predictable. There were things like "brief language" (God forbid we should have language in a talkie film!) and "drug use." However, as we got further into the the Bush Years and the Iraq War, really disturbing descriptions began to crop up. Remember, I only recorded descriptions as they became known to me. That means, I didn't repeat descriptions I'd already seen; I only recorded new ones as I saw them. Now, one could argue that I went through a horror film phase or that films during this time were bringing up topics that were relevant to public discourse. I've always chosen a nice variety of films: foreign ones, documentaries, funny ones and stand up, action/fantasy, animation, and even really horrible "chick flicks" (because they make me laugh). I actually don't rent a lot of horror films unless they are bad ones from the 1970s, so my discovery is not necessarily skewed in that way. I should also mention that a lot of these descriptions are for films I didn't even see; the descriptions were gathered from preview ratings. In terms of Hollywood bringing in public discourse into its films, that may be the case, but I'd like you to notice exactly how they decided to bring in public discourse.

Hollywood, during the Bush Years, has pummelled us with torture in every kind of film imaginable. Is this because we've been trying to discuss the issue of torture in Iraq? Perhaps, but the way the torture has been presented in films has absolutely nothing to do with having an informed discussion about whether Bush has allowed waterboarding. Torture has been introduced just for its own sake. A family goes camping and gets tortured. Travelers go to Europe and get tortured. A man gets tortured by a woman with a feminist agenda. Films involving such themes have always existed, but during the Bush Years, torture became an everyday occurrence and my list shows how movie rating descriptions signify the inclusion of torture in everyday films. The list follows. It is in chronological order.

We must warn you of:

thematic material
some material
some scary images
brief mild language
drug material
some sexuality
graphic sexuality
strong brutal violence
some drug use
sexual content
brief language
mild thematic elements
strong sexual content
some language
brief violence
depiction of strong thematic material
pervasive language
strong violence
drug use
some violent images
brief strong language
some sexual content
adult situations involving sexuality
some substance material
some violence including domestic abuse
some mild crude humor
strong sexuality
some violence
strong language
thematic elements including suggestive material
mild language
intense creature violence
rude humor
disturbing images
racial issues including violence and epithets
mature thematic material
intense sequences of violent action
intense horror
suggestive humor
crude and sexual humor
sequences of violent action throughout
partial nudity
intense sequences of violence
bloody horror violence and gore
aberrant behavior involving nudity
some strong killings
drug material
brief sexual images
sequences of terror and violence
some sensuality
graphic battle sequences throughout
sexual references
some suggestive references
intense sequences of sci-fi action violence
brief sexual humor
some rude humor
references to D.H. Lawrence
horror violence and gore
strong, brutal and bloody violence
some graphic sexuality
violent and sexual images
grisly violence including torture and disturbing gory images
sci-fi violence
violent and disturbing content
an accident scene
momentary strong language
sexual material
strong sadistic violence and gore
some drinking and smoking all involving teens
reckless behavior
nude images
strong thematic material including the sexual assault of a child

Starting from about "intense creature violence," the list takes on an incredibly disturbing turn. Even though I was renting the same kinds of films I always rented, the new descriptions I was exposed to signified a strange turn in the types of films that were being made. The words "violence" and "intense" are used more than any other words. And I remember feeling it at the time. Whenever Vincent and I read the description of a film in the past three years or so, we would scan to see if it was a "torture" film. We learned to steer away from them because they just weren't fun for us. However, this was difficult for us to do because the torture wasn't just in films like the "Saw" series. It seemed to permeate everything.

Our unfortunate conclusion as to why this has happened reminds me of a question that Vincent asked me when we were riding on the A train in Manhattan years ago. After looking at the Bud Light ads that were plastered all over the interior of the train car, Vincent asked, "Doesn't everybody know about Bud already? Why in the world do we even need Bud ads anymore? Don't we all know about it?" I answered, "Yes, but five year olds don't know about it yet." He wondered for a minute why a five year old needs to know about beer but quickly figured out that she'll remember the name when she reaches an older age. It becomes something within us, inseparable from our psyche. Even those of us who don't like Bud know exactly what it is. So why are we being bombarded with torture films? The same reason history is presented as a series of wars: so that it seems like something absolutely normal, something that has always existed and will always exist.

Even though films can be entertaining, they are not just entertainment. If there is a somewhat large budget behind them (not necessarily meaning big stars; if the shots and editing are done nicely, that means money), films are promoting a point of view that the often unidentified producers hope the viewers will unwittingly take on. Will the generation brought up on these torture films think that torture is okay? I have no idea, but people outside of the United States have been commenting on the amount of violence in our films for decades. Now that this violence has taken on a torturous turn, I'm not sure what the outcome will be. I don't like to see anyone suffering, not even in a film. I recently read an article in The New York Times Magazine about young people who purposefully go on blogs and MySpace accounts in order to harrass people, just to see if they get a rise out of them. One such incident ended up in the suicide of a young girl. Is our empathy at stake? I've heard statements from young people to the effect of, "Well, if they're too stupid to figure things out, they deserve to be messed with. I'll screw with someone just because I can."

I'm not blaming the end of the world on young people. That's silly. But I think it is ridiculous for Oprah to have a show on bullies and to question the kids and parents, for example, when we as a country promote bullying. I think it's silly to expect the majority of young people to have worthwhile relationships when our leaders are caught in bathroom stalls and our television soap operas show men and women sleeping with everything but the family dog. Therefore, we cannot expect young people (or anyone else, for that matter) to have empathy if we bombard them with films that continually expect them to be un-empathetic in order to watch them.

I hope the torture years are over. And I hope this doesn't mean that I can expect a ton of censored, sappy drivel. If the audacity to hope means more of the same in just a different, smiling package, keep the torture. At least that allows me to see exactly where our minds are at.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Sounds of Manipulation (Let the Bodies Hit the Floor)

Rayguns being used to control the masses, hidden radio frequency towers and a couple who constantly hears a strange noise that cannot be placed. Are these plot points in a new sci-fi novel? What is all this noise stuff about? These are not the sounds of music but the sounds of manipulation.

My last post was about the positive effects of musicians who strive for excellence and put on a good show. This post is about the exact opposite: how sounds can also be used to influence people in an entirely different manner. Now don't think that I'm about to get all Tipper on you and say that Ozzy or Jello Biafra must be censored. C'mon now, you know me better than that. Let me go through a seemingly unrelated series of discoveries so that maybe you can bounce up to my idea bubble.

1. Years ago, our friend Charles mentioned to Vincent and me that sounds were being used to manipulate people. Charles is an amazing musician, DJ, artist, and is light years ahead of many of us in the thinking department, so I trusted what he said, although I wasn't sure what he meant. I figured, okay, I can see that some music causes people to act one way, other music has a different effect, and people have probably studied that and made certain choices based on that. After all, we have certain kinds of music being played when we go shopping in certain places, when I was kickboxing the trainers played a certain kind of music to get us pumped (and it worked). This, and his own general brilliance, influenced Vincent to write a poem about how different sounds have different effects on us. But this idea was pretty much left at that. Until...

2. ...we moved to San Antonio. As I've mentioned before, San Antonio is a military town and, in my opinion, decisions are made in order to keep people in a military frame of mind. The main thing that I've noticed is that if you look at our free radio stations, we only have one jazz station and it was only started about two or three years ago, if I heard the DJ correctly. There are a ton of hard rock, classic rock, and metal stations. Now, I like this music and I don't think that in and of itself, it causes people to be violent, okay? That is not what I am writing here. However, because this music is played repeatedly and the actual selection of songs is limited, it does tend to limit ideas. When Vincent and I initially had people over to our place or drove new friends around, they had no idea what we were playing on our stereo or car MP3. They literally had less access to ideas. Furthermore, the kinds of repeated songs are of the "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" nature. I used to really like that song, until I heard it for the 500th time in less than a few months. I mean, it's old and they still play it out here. But finally, what we must consider is that there is no alternative, literally. It's either pop hits, country/Tejano, or the rock I write of. There is an "alternative program" on one of the low end stations, and I never know exactly when it is going to be there or how long it is going to last, although the schedule posted claims to have a lot more than the bluegrass music I usually hear. Now, the importance of this hit home while watching "Stop-Loss" last night. One of the prominently featured songs was, you guessed it, "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor." Who would've thought that music that was supposed to be counterculture would actually become useful to the military? I've heard that they even use Rage Against the Machine music when torturing, er, um, questioning detainees of the military (note the posts at the link).

3. The Blue Boogie, our loft, needed to detain some of its own prisoners when we first moved in. We had a bug problem. Nothing serious or gross, just annoying. We had a ton of little fruit flies that would get drunk on our dollar. Not kidding. We'd leave a wine glass to go get something across the room and little flies would be swimming around in the glass seconds later. I thought it was funny but this was not where I was going to live. A loft is cool, but I got standards. Bombing the place didn't work and we didn't like the idea of harsh chemicals possibly affecting us or our kitties, so we bought these little Black and Decker items that scare away bugs and rodents by emitting sounds at a frequency that disorients the little buggers. It worked! Occasionally, we get a resurgence but once they hang about and hear the noise, they all die and/or leave. I casually asked Vincent one day if these little wall units could have an affect on us, or if there were different items somewhere that had a freaky frequency just for humans. We knew the answer to that one.

4. Activate, a good little email newsletter, sent me a link to this article. Basically, a company has made a device that can beam microwave sounds into our heads. The article speculates how it will be used. Military functions are primary, but they are not opting out of possible uses for advertisers. Some experts complain about fried brains, but hey, we're already doing that.

5. Vincent and I have always been against the idea of government-tracking devices (cell phones) but due to the horrendous looks we get when we travel and have to borrow a line, I ended up buying one that I just use when on trips. However, even if you don't own one, you may be exposed to towers that connect these devices and what effect these towers have on your brain remains to be seen. Charles sent me this link on the hidden towers (The news report begins at 1:15; I also recommend looking at the video on GMOs hidden ingredient and TV, the drug of the nation). Now, when you look at the video on these towers, it is important to note that these radio frequency beams are often hidden in church towers. Yes, it brings in revenue for the church, but the place is what struck me when I read...

6. ...this article today. It goes to show you that even Yahoo! can have a decent article every now and then if you know what to look for. Leona and her husband cannot concentrate and even have trouble sleeping because of a weird noise. The noise started after their local church had some work done. No one seems to want to give them an answer as to where the noise is coming from.

So all this info., 1-6, spells something pretty obvious to me. Sound, that we may or may not be aware of, will soon be used or is already being used to influence us. Perhaps one day this will be more obvious to all or perhaps it will become wallpaper, background fuzz that isn't even heard anymore. Kind like how cell phones were once obvious, something to giggle at or be annoyed by but are now a part of the elaborately designed wallpaper, background, not even offensive at the dinner table. What will these frequencies be used for? What are they already being used for? How have they already influenced our actions? How do we counteract it if we don't even know exactly what to counteract? Do they just make us sleepy? Or do they keep us working? Or do they keep us apathetic or self-centered? Do they keep us from fighting or do they cause fights?

Any ideas? Or is that what these frequencies have already limited?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

For the Love of Concerts: Peter Murphy, 80s Nostalgia and Shining

I have a friend, through my husband, named Thaxton, who loves to go to concerts. He has to go to several concerts a month in order to feel sane and, given that he is an adult like Vincent and me, it can sometimes seem like a bit of a task. Thaxton does, after all, have a super amazing wife and three gorgeous kids. However, the family knows how important this is to him and agrees that it makes a happier hubby and daddy. I certainly understand Thaxton's need. In high school, concerts were a regular staple for me, although they were a constant struggle because I could never find the variety of friends to represent my musical tastes. I had a crew that I would go with to the hardcore punk concerts, I had a couple of friends I could take to lighter fare like U2 or the Cure, I could never find anyone to go to classic rock concerts and usually resorted to bribery for that, and if there was jazz in the park I usually went with my mom or a DJ friend. (I won't even get into the slew of people I had to rotate regarding house music clubs and stuff like that.)

All of that sort of died as I got older. It became just too difficult to find people who shared my diverse interests. Thaxton will go to a concert alone and while I've gone dancing alone, I haven't ventured into the concert arena without someone to share the joy with. I like dancing alone - there's more space. But I can't imagine loving a concert moment with no one but myself, although the idea is growing on me. Ultimately, through the college years, I went to less and less concerts. There'd be a Lollapalooza here, a Warped Tour there, maybe a jazz-dancy thing I could take a date to, but the punk and goth stuff was OVER.

Luckily, moving to New York City changed that. That is where I met my husband and I quickly learned that Vincent loved concerts, just like me, and he was quite impressed with my ticket stub collection, even though I assured him that it was only a fraction of what I had experienced, given that most of the concerts I went to I paid at the door, hence, no stub. Most impressive was my $3 Jane's Addiction bargain show at Chicago's Cabaret Metro, although it really was worth $3 or less because the band was loaded and sounded terrible, which made me wonder in 1987 what all the hype was about this new band. Vincent and I quickly began to share our love of concerts together. We saw amazing shows, including Living Color, Erykah Badu, Radiohead, G.Love and Special Sauce, Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Roni Size (feat. Zack de la Rocha!), Lovage, Mike Patton and Rahzel, a jazz tribute to Nina Simone (which included Tracy Chapman, Odetta, James "Blood" Ulmer, the late Oscar Brown, and Vernon Reid), Ministry (2X!) and Zero 7, just to name a few.

Our move to San Antonio seemed to promise more of this in a different setting. As soon as we got here, we got excited about the live music capital of the world, Austin. We had a rollicking night full of heavy rock (as noted in a previous blog about Southern Freaks) our first summer here. At the beginning of my first semester in school, the Austin City Limits Festival was on our agenda and we got to see the Raconteurs, Massive Attack, TV on the Radio, Aimee Mann and so many others. But then the real work started. We planned on going to South by Southwest several times, but it didn't happen. Often, we were just too tired to drive and get worked up for a concert. Truthfully, the Peter Murphy concert that just happened this past weekend in Austin, was not something I planned on simply for myself. We have a couple of friends who are around my age and like that sort of thing, so I thought, hey, this might be a good time to finally get together with Faye and Ted, I'm sure they like Peter Murphy. Well, Faye is five months pregnant (congratulations!) and needs her rest, okay? Something compelled me to buy the tickets anyway, although I didn't think much of it. Eh, some 80s nostalgia, right? Whatever.

Boy, was I wrong. I did my usual ritual, got dressed up, deep blue shadow, blood red lips, black dress, very goth, indeed. I looked good and I knew it. Gotta revel in those moments at my age. Vincent was exhausted from work all day and I felt like I was imposing this on him, but the tickets were bought. We took off to Austin and once we got to Emo's, we noticed the place was already packed. It was a sort of 80s nostalgia night with current "80s sounding" bands inside (Cute is What We Aim For, Danger Radio & others) and Peter Murphy w/Ali Eskandarian outside. All the kids, and I do mean kids, inside were dressed in day-glo and pomp a la "Pretty in Pink" and "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Outside, black, black, black. It was just like the damn split rooms in McGreevy's. I guess they needed to be nostalgic about music segregation, too. I guess that has never really left us. Still, in order to see what's current and to indulge in the air conditioning, we watched some of the inside bands, which sounded a lot like an updated Simple Minds. The audience sang along with corny, ironic lyrics layered on top of sweet melodies. I even bought a dress with the phrase "Cute is What We Aim For," but not because I liked the band; I thought the statement worked for me.

Later on outside, when Ali E. opened up, Vincent and I couldn't help being drawn in by the scrawny, Afroed, Middle Eastern gyrator. His words were abstract and his body was violating the mic stand. I thought that Peter Murphy, or his management, was pretty cool for having this guy open. My energy started to pick up. Instead of having the glued-to-every-Texan's-hand-usual-beer, we had Absolut Mandarin on the rocks and people-watched. There was the trash rock lady: a lumpy woman with disparate tattoos, hair pulled up in a scrapply way, messy eyeliner and leathery skin. I loved her. There was the can-kick-my-ass rock chick: a very, very big woman with stringy black hair, dark make-up and a mouth that doesn't move past a straight line unless a beer is in it. I loved her and even got goose bumps when she walked past me. There was the don't-really-want-to-know guy: A man in his 50s-60s wearing devices in his ears that Vincent said our friend Andrew uses to hold up tarps when we go camping. They were big and heavy! Reached his shoulders and he'd swing them around purposefully when he'd turn to this or that friend. He looked like he'd try just about anything, and I don't really want to know what that might mean. I loved him, but not that much. Then there was the 80s GQ guy: He still has the short on the sides and back, wavy and combed up and back hairdo. He probably really likes Depeche Mode, too. He probably thinks he's really hot and probably feels sad if his look isn't just right. I loved him, too, but not enough to give him my number. Not that kind of love, yo. And there was the out-there-artsy-druggy-interpretive-dance-weirdo: He had sort of blond, sort of black, sort of long in places, sort of short in places hair. He had on lace and leather and denim and probably some mesh, too. He had both pants and a skirt on. He was dancing with arms-a-flailing all night. He was a sweaty, eyelinered mess. I LOVED him. I so would've given him my number, if only so Vincent and I could pretend like we'd actually go to his house to see what is inside. Again, not that kind of love, yo. The love I'm talking about is love of people not giving a f***. I love it. I love them for it. I could also mention all the women, including myself, who have the standard diagonal forward bob, but that makes us seem like we're uncreative when what it really means is that we have few options now that we're in the workforce.

But onto Peter Murphy himself. My friend Jennifer, after the concert, asked if he was great or just old and sad. Old and sad are not words that describe one of the greatest songwriters I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. I saw Peter Murphy for the first time when I was 15 years old. I was with my friend Elaine and we were at the Cabaret Metro. It was during his "Should the World Fail to Fall Apart" tour. I remember him under that blue, smoke-filled light, singing "Confessions" and thinking he was amazing. But in my limited concert-going experience then, I thought all "famous" people were amazing in concert. He was so honored at that concert, that whenever he spoke, the audience hushed. And this was an audience of high school and college kids. This weekend, at Emo's, he was clearly given similar respect, although there was a section of people out from under the outdoor roof who talked throughout the entire concert. I was pretty surprised at that. The people under the roof, however, were pretty reverent and the acoustics were that he couldn't hear the noise just a few feet away. Peter Murphy is better today than he's ever been. He is such a skilled songwriter and his voice is really beyond belief. I don't know what he's done to protect it, but it is richer and more complex. During the concert, I found myself in a place that was not exactly 80s nostalgia anymore. This was a totally new and current experience. Peter Murphy was shining in an entirely new way for me. He played acoustic sets, dark tunes, upbeat melodies, a really varied and thoughtful program. I kept thinking of how professional this man is.

I recognized several tunes, such as "Cuts You Up," "She's in Parties," and Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," but most of the songs were new. None of the records I have were for sale, just his newer stuff, including "Alive Just for Love" (2001), "Dust" (2002), and "Unshattered" (2006). All the stuff he sang from these records was beautiful and this made me wonder about the separate groups inside and outside within Emo's. Why did the kids inside cling to a sound that actual "80s bands" had moved on from? I suppose the sound is new to them, but why try to make a replica instead of just be influenced by it? And why didn't the crowds mix more? I was curious about the younger version but I didn't see a lot of the people in black go inside. Similarly, the kids inside absolutely did not go to the outside stage and see someone who was actually creating the music that influenced the bands they came to see. Why not? Weren't they curious? Did they not get the connection that the venue owners were clearly making? I felt like Peter Murphy deserved a bit more, really. There he was, sweating onstage, just past 50, making sure his voice was hitting each note perfectly. And making sure not one bit of his performance was stale or nostalgic at all. He deserves to be honored like David Bowie, no? Ah, yes, the ever-present comparison.

In an interview here, he mentions that his work is a bit more like Judy Garland instead of David Bowie. He states that Bowie is more calculated (that's a polite way of putting it) and that he just can't help what he does onstage, that something just comes out of him. He shines. And that is so inspirational. Grad school really beats something out of me, at times. People can be so condescending. Texas isn't a bowl of bon bons, either. It offends people just to be who you are. And no one wants to give props to a hardcore chica with a brain, considering all the sexism and racism down here. But Peter Murphy shines, despite people ripping off his stuff, despite not being as famous as others, despite the heat and less than ideal circumstances. And it isn't calculated and it isn't stale. He was doing his unique performances (androgyny, cages, goth, etc.) before Bowie (although Bowie is older), before Ministry, before Nine Inch Nails, and even though he doesn't go there anymore, what has remained constant is the originality of his songs, including lyrics, melodies and arrangements. He totally remains true to the voice he has, and this is what inspires me. I often doubt myself, feel like it's not worth it to keep writing because so many people don't get me, are downright rude to me. But I found myself smiling, smiling wide at this concert. I didn't expect it. Vincent said he hadn't seen me so happy in a long time and the truth was I hadn't been.

So maybe Thaxton is onto something. Sometimes you just have to keep doing what you love - even if people try to beat it out of you - because it keeps you sane. I've kept writing, despite considerable pressure from people who'd rather keep me quiet. On a previous post, about the Caribs and Misery, I wrote a bit about this, about a paper that brought me lots of drama. A prof made life hell for me and devalued my work. One of my sources, a person who I researched but never met, found me and left a comment on the blog. His name is Ben Palacio, and he said that this paper that basically cost me credit for a class because of its politics "deserves five stars." I don't have a big audience, but maybe I need to value the quality of the audience I do have. And maybe I just need to keep on shining because it keeps me sane. I thank Peter Murphy, Ben Palacio and, most of all, my husband Vincent, for helping me see that.

Austin City Limits, here I come!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Deciphering the Image: Road to Reality

Images play an important part of our learning. They are studied by journalists, advertisers, visual artists and filmmakers. Humans learn by copying and oftentimes we find ourselves copying our surroundings without even realizing it. This can be seen if we examine how people dress in one office as opposed to another, or if we look at how people dance in different nightclubs. Without any verbal conversation, people end up copying each others looks and moves. It isn't that we're unoriginal. It's just how we learn. However, what we must also realize is that sometimes we mimic things before we completely understand what the meaning behind them is. No one knows this better than parents who are completely horrified when they hear their two or three year-old child say a bad word. The innocent doesn't understand what he or she is saying, but if there is a group of people who hear the verbal flub, the resulting horror (or laughter) is beyond the control of the well-meaning parents.

Let's take this same idea and apply it to adults. Adults probably don't swear without knowing what they are saying, but how often do adults repeat things they have heard without really understanding what they are saying? The jargon of "WMDs" and "superdelegates," for example, catches like wildfire because of the constant repetition that occurs on TV, the radio and in print media. The attached article doesn't really matter. It could be complete babble as far as political press writers are concerned; all that is necessary is to repeat the word that they want you to repeat. How often do you find yourself singing a song that you don't care for? Music companies have paid stations to have the song played multiple times an hour so that you will know it whether you like it or not. It is what our brains naturally do.

Therefore, the images that we see over and over, if you think about it in this context, are VERY influential. So influential that many times what we see will supercede what we hear. It doesn't matter that the shows on TV are fictional. When we see African Americans and Latinos in raggedy clothes with guns over and over, despite all of the educated African Americans and Latinos in the world, we will immediately associate African Americans and Latinos with the images we've seen on TV. Videogames, too.

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a trip along the Texas-Mexico border in order to look at conservation practices on both sides and to try and understand how the efforts can be joined. This is part of the honor I have as a fellow in the Hispanic Leadership Program in Agriculture and Natural Resources, which will soon be known as the Hispanic Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment. There were a couple of conversations that really made me think that I would like to share with you.

The first conversation was about the film Babel. I'm not sure who brought the film up but it was clear that everyone thought the film was interesting. I was once a film major, so whenever I look at a movie, my critical analysis runs pretty deep, but I try not to take it all too seriously. However, I found it really interesting when several people insisted that a certain scene, one where two boys irresponsibly shoot at a bus, took place in the Middle East. I thought to myself, "I wrote a paper on this movie, I could've sworn that the two boys actually weren't in the Middle East and that was part of the irony of the movie." See, the film was trying to show that the resulting chaos, where the careless but ultimately harmless boys, were considered terrorists even though they lived nowhere near the Middle East. I tried to say this to my fellow moviegoers. I said, "Um, weren't the boys actually in a country in Africa?" But no one wanted to believe me, so I just stayed quiet. Well, if you look at the "Morocco Text" section of the link to Babel above, you can see that the scene I'm describing does, indeed, take place in an African country. It takes place in an African country that is over 3,000 miles away from Iraq and the supposed "terrorists" we are trying to subdue. Why didn't anyone believe me? This really perplexed me upon confirming what I already knew. I had to face the fact that they were only looking at the image. They saw two boys in sand, shooting at a bus and regardless of the dialogue in the film, they equated the image with the Middle East. The propaganda, the repetition of a certain image on TV and in the news has been repeated to such an extent, that even when these folks were given different information that should've broken the stereotype, the stereotype stuck.

I have to admit, this disappoints me. The next conversation that I will share, however, didn't just disappoint me. I have to admit, I was dumbfounded. A few of us were eating breakfast at our hotel and the morning news was on. All the same rhetoric about Obama, Clinton and McCain was being repeated and, unfortunately, Rev. Dr. Wright's name came up again. I asked someone if she had heard about the controversy and she said she had. In her opinion, the image of Obama and Wright fighting in the media was equivalent to "divide and conquer" and was in line with "how to create a slave," the racist practice by Willie Lynch that our country was founded on. I thought she had a valid point, but I thought, from a PR standpoint, there might be more to it. When another person asked what we were talking about we mentioned the topic and he immediately called Wright arrogant and selfish. This person maintained that Rev. Dr. Wright made controversial comments in order to become famous. This is when I had to reveal my own relationship to Rev. Dr. Wright. I mentioned that I had been to Wright's church and that he was an excellent preacher and I also mentioned that my dad had worked with Wright (not in any official capacity). It was quite clear that my own personal experience with Wright was less important than what others had seen in the media. In other words, the image was more important than actual physical contact with the man. I can't necessarily argue with that. I've been guilty of the same thing.

Let me explain how Rev. Dr. Wright helped my father, Rev. Dr. Samuel Acosta. My dad is a very educated man, even though he doesn't tell people this. I take every chance to tell people this because they never expect to hear it. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary and Chicago Theological Seminary (which is part of the University of Chicago). He is a minister and a pastoral counselor. Dad's goals, as a young leader, included helping Latino families who had just moved to the United States stay intact despite cultural differences. As he was building his church and clientele in Chicago in the 1970s-1980s, Papi (Dad) approached Wright, who had a successful church, with some questions. Lutheran General had approached Papi with an opportunity to have a practice in one of their hospitals. This would be lucrative but Dad was unsure. Rev. Dr. Wright told him that the real work was with the people at the groundlevel. He said that the work would be much harder and thankless, oftentimes, but that if he did his job well, he would be able to create a strong community base and really help people. My dad ended up following Wright's advice and opened a practice in Logan Square instead of within the suburban hospital. Papi often charged his humble clients well below the standard rate. He's the only therapist I've heard of who would charge $20, sometimes $15. But his clients came back, they set goals, and they reached those goals (very different than therapy that goes on forever as an exercise in self-indulgence). And our church, First Spanish United Church of Christ, grew and was completely self-sustained. I did not share this information with the folks I spoke with because it seemed that the image of Wright was more influential than anything that I could say and I wanted to respect their knowledge, but I didn't understand why they seemed uninterested in my family's experience with the man. Or with my journalism/PR background.

Advertisers and publicists know that there is no bad publicity. It doesn't matter if the publicity says something controversial or if the publicity seems to ruin someone's credibility. Ultimately, the goal is name or phrase recognition, and this is why we must consider that Wright and Obama may be much smarter than we give them credit. We could look at it as Wright just wanting to become famous, or we could look at it as two African American men using this opportunity to speak about issues that the majority of United States citizens have never spoken about. For example, some of the soundbites show Wright talking about the possibility of the U.S. government creating AIDS to hurt certain populations, or talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or other controversial issues. These topics have been talked about in the circles I've lived in, roughly, for the past 20 years or more. Still, there was a huge population of U.S. citizens who NEVER mentioned AIDS being a racist lab experiment. Now that population mentions it all the time. Yes, they mention it in association with Wright; yes, they mention what an appalling notion it is; yes, they mention it with anger and without the least bit of understanding or desire to consider its possible truth. But they mention it. Like an overplayed Britney Spears record. And they never did before. Did Wright and Obama stage their dispute in order to get people talking about stuff they didn't talk about before? I don't know. But I do know that the result is that some different words are being repeated as a result of their public "dispute."

My own work, with the Hispanic Leaders program and in the English Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, involves teaching young people how to decipher what the truth is in the midst of stereotypes in texts (novels, TV shows, films, music). For example, Esmeralda Santiago's novel, America's Dream, could easily be interpreted as another novel about a battered Latina. However, in it she hints at truths: the U.S. Navy in Vieques; depression caused by Latino populations moving from rural to urban environments; and the unhealthy overcrowding of the Bronx. Through some basic tenets, I'm helping students figure out how to squeeze the truth out of the constant propaganda we are exposed to. One of the tenets directly relates to my Hispanic Leaders work and it is very simple: just look at the environments in these texts (some folks have been doing this through ecocriticism). I'll be presenting on this topic in Chicago next month at the International Conference on Teacher Education and Social Justice. Please feel free to stop by.

While the tenets are meant for high school and college-age students, I'm beginning to realize that perhaps there are some other people that might benefit from them, too.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Justified Murder, Slave Quarters and Apartheid

Last December I had the wonderful opportunity to visit one of the greatest cities on the planet, New Orleans. Nola is a world-class city and the people who live there are some of the most beautiful people I have had the honor of meeting. I just fell in love with New Orleans and I don't think anything will ever make me change my mind.

Now, we all know that New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and many other musical art forms. This is due to the many cultures that are represented there. You have the French and Spanish influence, the African influence (most important, I'd say), and the Caribbean influence, just to name a few. This is a colonial town but we also must remember that it was Louisiana before it was part of the United States. The French, who went back and forth in power in this area with the Spanish, did not want the territory to become part of the U.S. and to this day, it is not unusual for anyone born in the area to consider themselves Creole instead of American. Above, you can see a typical colonial house; it has been transformed from the original Caribbean structure that was the norm in the area when the French colonists came. They were influenced by the architecture in Haiti/Dominican Republic and when they came up North, most of what was built was Caribbean in influence. According to one Old River Road guide, the architecture in the French Quarter is actually quite Spanish and one can see many of the former Spanish names of the streets along with the current French names. The plantation home above is called Evergreen and what is unique about this place is that the very wealthy lady who owns it has also preserved the 22 slave quarters that are also on the property. You can see one of them below. The cabin is meant to house two families and you can see the size of one of the sides of the cabin; not much space, at all. These cabins are entirely original - the cypress wood is very strong - and sharecroppers still lived in them in the 1940s. I was totally humbled when I stepped inside.

Matilda Gray Stream is the woman who has made sure that this only collection of slave quarters of its kind has been preserved. In the main house, she also has a collection of dolls that a local African American artist fashioned after the actual slaves who worked on the plantation. She used the names and work information found in business documents. Many of the records are well-kept. We can see exactly who lived on the plantation, what work he/she did and what his/her monetary value was. Laborers were worth what they could do (a blacksmith was worth more than an elderly field hand, for example); house slaves were considered "private property," which meant that if the owner went bankrupt, they could not be taken as collateral. When one of the previous owners of Evergreen did die, his "private property" had stayed with him but had decreased in value because of aging.

There is a reason I am bringing up New Orleans and the idea of slave quarters and private property today. First of all, what I've been given the chance to learn in New Orleans is that the real issue about the Katrina tragedy is not that the levees broke or that funding for repairs has not come through yet - that is a tragedy, of course, but the real tragedy is that African American folks were given subpar living conditions to begin with. There is no difference between the Lower 9th Ward or the 7th Ward and the slave quarters you see on this page. The residents who lived in the 7th and 9th Ward shacks lived dangerously close to factories and, of course, to the water. Just like the slaves living close to the master's mansion, the folks who lived in these wards lived close to where their work was. What has changed is that the mansion is now safely away from the hazardous living conditions of where the "slaves" live. That is, the people who profited from the work of the honorable people who lived in the Lower 9th Ward, for example, did not live in the risky area. I had the awesome opportunity to go on a tour of the Katrina damage. The activists and leaders at the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center gave me and others at the National Performance Network Conference the tour and showed us how the land in the Lower 9th Ward is not fit to build on because it is too low and there are laws that prohibit this. Nonetheless, the city has not raised the land to regulations and there are still folks living on it (even though most of the area is overgrown grass, despite Brad Pitt's efforts).

New Orleans, in general, is having a difficult time finding and maintaining homes for low income residents. This trend in the greater United States has been well documented for the past decade and a half and the articles on it continue today. Add this to the healthcare crisis and our poor public education and what it all adds up to for people of color (Blacks, Latinos, Asians and all imaginable impoverished races and combinations of said races) is one thing: APARTHEID. Yes, I believe that this is what we are living under and what is happening in the U.S. today (what has been happening, yo!). My old Webster's College Dictionary defines apartheid as something uniquely South African, but expands it to include all forms of segregation. And we are definitely segregated in terms of healthcare, education and housing, but more importantly we are segregated in terms of JUSTICE and INFORMATION.

How else can we explain a New York judge finding it perfectly permissible to shoot an unarmed Black man 50 times? I read somewhere that Sean Bell was supposedly unruly; couldn't they just beat him up, then? If you're going to be unjust, can't you temper it with a little sanity and sanctity for life? This is one kind of justice for one kind of citizen and a totally different kind of justice for another kind of citizen. An unruly Black man gets murdered and an unruly White murderer gets acquitted. Note that the link to above also announces the Bill Moyers interview with Rev. Dr. Jeremiah White which airs tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. (not sure what time zone that is, so check your local listings). Here is another perfect example of how Rev. Dr. White, Senator Obama, and now my former professor, Dr. Bill Ayers, have been used to discredit the work African American men have accomplished. Senator Hillary Clinton, no less, is the one to have tried to discredit Obama by associating him with Ayers. Who discredits the information provided by White and/or rich/powerful people who manipulate the media? No one. If someone tries to point how how the White House hires military men to conduct supposedly unbiased investigations of how the war in Iraq is being conducted or if abuses are occurring in Guantanamo, that person is a conspiracy theorist at best (a terrorist sympathizer, at worst).

If the information comes from a person of color, it is discredited. If the information comes from the good ol' boys club, it is applauded, even if it is wrong. If the unruly person is a person of color, we can kill the guy. If the unruly person works for the good ol' boys, get some good lead out, sharp-shooter! If the housing or education is for the poor or the public, good luck finding something of value. If the housing is for the rich, sleep easy, you don't have to worry about floods or poisoning from the local factory a few yards away. If that doesn't sound like apartheid to you, I don't know what it will take to convince you.

What is interesting to me is that while I was getting a really educational tour of New Orleans by Ashe' and by the wonderful tour guide at Evergreen (This lovely White Creole woman literally said, "Look, the slaves here were treated somewhat better than the slaves that were owned by the English, but they were slaves and in the end, that is despicable. I work here and I show these cabins and I have to live with seeing the cabins every day. I have to remember." I think it makes a big difference if someone can own up to that.), at Oak Valley, the other plantation tour I took, the tone was VERY different. At Oak Valley, the tour guide wears a crinoline hoop skirt, offers tour-goers mint juleps and paints a lovely picture of plantation life, along with the imagined slaves fanning you on the porch, okay? How absolutely sick is that? Well, how is that any different from what is going on in the U.S. right now? Some of us want to face the past, honor what happened and move forward honestly, while others would like to build upon the lies and keep things just as they have always been - very segregated, an apartheid.

You wouldn't believe all the middle-aged White people who loved the tour at Oak Valley, an estate that has been featured in "The Long Hot Summer" with Cybill Shepard and in "Interview with the Vampire," with Brad Pitt (he keeps popping up). One woman told me on the bus that she had always fantasized about sitting on the wrap-around porch, relaxing to the breeze, looking over the estate. I wanted to ask her, "And were the slaves part of that fantasy?" Our memory in the U.S. is quite convenient.

If you're interested in seeing all the New Orleans pictures that I took, click on the link to gpwriters (on the right) and join the group. There is a link to the pics on the main page of the group. The pictures include shots of documents that list the value of the slaves on the plantations. Note that a skilled slave could be valued at over $1,000 and this is back in the 17 and 1800s, so imagine what the work of that person is worth today. Probably a lot more than the average person of color gets paid. I would say it is worth better housing, better education and definitely having one's life intact on the eve of one's marriage.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Silencio Real and the Afro-Latina Voice in Film

Free Ph.D., yo! Here's the scholar in training, sending you some of the stuff she's been looking at. It's long, but it should be easy to read, and it's about Afro-Latina's, man. Where you gonna get words on mis mujeres? There are not a lot of places, but that's changing. Anyway, let me know if you think this work is hot, 'kay? I'm gonna present this at a conference in less than a week and girl is nervous. Wish me luck!

(I apologize if the formatting gets funky.)

Silencio Reál: The Historical Afro-Latina Voice in “I Am Cuba” and “Anne B. Real”

It was a typical workday evening in Jersey City for my husband and me. We had our meal, talked of our day and then walked over to Gandhi – our video rental guy – to see if there was something worth seeing. Gandhi was very kind to us and often bought films for the store that he knew only we would rent – the art films. He didn’t have any on this day, so we had to rent a movie about another an inner city kid trying to make it. I was expecting to make my wisecracks about the inspirational teacher who chooses to live in the projects just so he can relate to his students, or the trash-talking comic relief sidekick who only serves as an extension of the main character’s personality, or the hokey line that gets said at the beginning of the film by someone who later dies and then is later repeated by the main character at a poignant moment in order to create a circle of closure. I expected all of this from Anne B. Real, but as the film progressed, I found myself saying things like, “There are all kinds of Latinos in this film” and “They show the difference in class between White and Black Latinos!” I was shocked because I had never seen any other film depict race or class within the Latino community as this one does. Well, that is not true, but I will get to that later. Anne B. Real soon became a film that I used in my classrooms in order to address the various ways in which Latinos speak and act based on class and race. I have not encountered a student who is not inspired by the film.

I mentioned that I had, indeed, seen one other film that presents Latinos of different races in varying situations based on class and color lines. This film is I Am Cuba/Ya Kuba. I Am Cuba is a more complex film than Anne B. Real and much has been written about its being propaganda and ineffective in terms of character. I agree with Martin Scorsese, in the DVD’s special features section, and other critics in that the film is a poem – it was written by Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet and Russian poet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko – but my main concern in examining the film is the Afro-Latina who is at the center of the opening sequence and who graces the cover of The Ultimate Edition DVD of the film. After seeing Anne B. Real, I thought of the parallels between its Afro-Latina main character, named Cynthia/Annie B. Real, and I Am Cuba’s main Afro-Latina character, named Maria/Betty. Both live in impoverished conditions, both have a difficult time speaking due to fear and multiple language usage, both are being exploited by men, and both have lines of dialogue that use signifying, or double meaning. If one looks at the two films, one could easily come to the conclusion that Maria/Betty represents the Afro-Latina’s silenced voice in history and that Cynthia/Annie B. Real represents the Afro-Latina taking back ownership of her words, but the fact that the two films were primarily written by men creates a problem with this interpretation. However, I believe that because genuine Afro-Latinas were cast in these roles (unlike Angelina Jolie’s turn as a Black person in A Mighty Heart, for example), the Afro-Latina voice does come out despite the scripts that would imply otherwise. This creates a jarring effect, especially in I Am Cuba when the script contradicts a voice that is so clearly there.

I will first attempt to examine the silences that both of the characters in the two films exhibit. Maria/Betty lives in a shanty town in pre-revolutionary Cuba and she is working as a prostitute in Havana. She speaks Spanish and some English, but we rarely hear her speak at all in the film. Similarly, Cynthia/Annie B. Real lives in the projects of Washington Heights, her family is on welfare, and she is a struggling student since her father died. Before that, she was a straight A student. Cynthia speaks Spanish and English and she can speak varying dialects of the two. Her art is poetry and rhymes, but she also plays with sounding like a radio announcer, a scholar, and a ghetto girl. Lisa Delpit, in “The Silenced Dialogue,” states that, “There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a ‘culture of power.’ The codes or rules I am speaking of relate to linguistic forms, communicative strategies, and presentation of self” (25).

Both Maria and Cynthia are well aware of this culture of power in their environments. This is why Maria, when prostituting herself, becomes “Betty,” and Cynthia, when attempting to become a more powerful alter ego rapper, becomes “Annie B. Real.” The two women are presented as silenced because of the culture of power; they are poor, Afro-Latinas with limited options. Maria/Betty has resigned herself to being exploited and Cynthia/Annie B. Real has resigned herself to giving her poetry/raps to her brother so that he can sell them for money. Her brother repeatedly states throughout the film that “no one wants to see a girl rapper.” When Maria, as Betty, is asked if she wants a drink at the nightclub she works at, thinks about it and answers “yes” in English, even though it seems she could care less about the drink. She is performing for the culture of power that surrounds her in the form of men from the United States who want to have a good time. Both Maria and Cynthia often appear to hesitate when speaking, as if they are thinking of which language to use and how to use the language properly. They appear nervous and hedge often. I argue that when a woman has to traverse between various cultures – Black, White, Latino, Americano, male, female, urban, rural – she will remain quiet and observe and it will take her longer to understand how to deal with certain customs than someone who has only one culture to learn.

I also argue that, within the Afro-Latino culture, once these varying cultures are reconciled, a successful Afro-Latina will orally express her understanding of what is going on, of her role within the culture of power. Victor Villanueva, in a speech at the University of Texas at San Antonio, stated that, in terms of Western composition, we currently get stuck in the first three parts of the Latin model: inventio, which is ideas; dispositio, which is organization; and elocutio, which is style. People of color, who often come from an oral culture, however, do move on to the next step, pronuntiatio, which is delivery. This, in turn, creates memoria, which is remembering. Memoria is, historically, a female muse, and Villanueva argues that we must not exclude these last steps because they are what create understanding at the cellular level; when someone delivers something orally and it is combines all the previous steps, we feel it within our DNA, we remember. Maria and Cynthia do this in their respective stories, despite scripts that do not include many facts about women in their positions and that, in fact, use the ideas from other cultures to tell their stories.

Before I get into how the women are successful in presenting a historical Afro-Latina voice, I will explain how the films fail the stories of the two women. I Am Cuba, we already know, is written by two men, one of which is not even Cuban. If we really want to get into silencing the Afro-Cuban voice, we can also choose to view the DVD with the Russian dubbing, which creates a linguistic confusion that puts the viewer in the same bind as Maria/Betty. However, if we view the film in Spanish, the male perspective dominates the screen and the exploitation of Cuban women is center stage. This causes the authors to make some mistakes. They use Afro-Cuban rhythms to represent Maria/Betty’s anger at having to be a prostitute and create a scene where she dances madly and, “Afro-Cuban essence surges out of her. This exaltation of the unique, essential qualities of Cubans to heighten the sense of their exploitation contributes unwittingly to the film’s opposition” (Ching, Buckley and Lozano-Alonzo 263). This is the only moment when Maria/Betty gets aggressive and it is constructed as out-of-control. In another scene, when she finds out that her boyfriend is part of the revolution, she says she is scared. According to Ching, Buckley and Lozano-Alonzo, she “becomes immediately marginal to this revolutionary endeavor for stating her fear” (262). Maria/Betty has been represented as a victim and a very quiet, half-crazy one, at that. This does not depict the historical reality of Cuba at the time. According to Ilja A. Luciak, in “Gender Roles in the Revolutionary War,” women were vital members of the movement and nearly 1/3 of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front combatants were women. While it is true that the majority of these women were from privileged backgrounds, the tone in Cuba was that women were not naïve bystanders (4-11). Furthermore, prostitution did not carry the puritanical shame that would drive a mind crazy as implied by the film.

According to Isabel Larguia and John Dumoulin, in “Women’s Equality and the Cuban Revolution, 13.7% of women were economically active in Cuba in 1953 and “[r]egistered prostitutes comprise a significant number” within this percentage” (346). However, Larguia and Dumoulin also acknowledge that “[t]he concept of the woman as an exclusively sexual, dehumanized biological being was reinforced by extensive prostitution” (346). Despite this, women were clearly poised at this time to begin to make changes in their sexist world. After the revolution, by 1970, 18.5% of women were working and by 1980, 31.3% of women were working (Farnós, González and Hernández 200). By 1986, women in the education, public health and social assistance, and finance and insurance industries in Cuba outnumbered the men (Safa 30). In other words, Maria/Betty represents the moment in history when working women were poised to make many gains in Cuba, and this is not at all in the script of the film.

The way in which Maria/Betty does show deeper understanding of the situation comes through pronuntiatio and memoria, but first let’s take a look at how Cuban and Dominican culture are related linguistically. This is important because Cynthia/Annie B. Real is Dominican and she and Maria/Betty use a similar technique to demonstrate deeper understanding that is not necessarily written into the script. According to John M. Lipski, in “Africans in Colonial Spanish America,” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, native speakers of Haitian arrived in Cuba and they learned Spanish as a second language, exhibiting similar traits documented for the Dominican Republic (110). Immigration from Cuba and Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic was documented, too (112-113). Lipski further states that “[t]he major extra-Hispanic influence on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dominican Spanish was Haitian Creole (114). Esther Figueroa, in “Rude Sounds,” cites the importance of silence and what is not said when referring to practices in Haiti and Barbados and other countries in the Caribbean (85). If we synthesize what these scholars are saying, it is clear that African languages have influenced the way both English and Spanish are used and that Cuba and the Dominican Republic, through waves of immigration and similar ancestry, share in this influence. More importantly, they share in the way silences are used.

According to Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, in “Gender Dynamics in the Film Anne B. Real,” Cynthia “must be able to function as a performer in order to empower her status as a creator….She must actualize her rhymes in a physical performance before they are legitimate” (70). In other words, Cynthia must work against being silenced or choosing to be silent in order for her words to have any significance. What we also must consider is that Cynthia is being silenced as a character, just like Maria/Betty, because her role was written by two Latino men and a Jewish woman. In the film Cynthia believes she must compete in the male-dominated rap world in order to be successful because she was written that way and one has to wonder if most female writers in Washington Heights actually believe that. Several scenes that depict Cynthia in the bathroom, show her singing R&B, rapping, and mimicking a radio announcer in Spanish. She is skilled linguistically but when she is in public, she says very little. The bathroom scenes also depict insecurities that question beauty notions and racial identity. When Cynthia does become Annie B. Real and raps, the raps that she has are “clean” and empowering to women without being insulting to men. Janice Richardson, even though she is a singer/songwriter, did not write any of the rhymes in the film. The rhymes were written by two men: Canadian rapper Verse and Luis Moro, who also wrote the screen story for the film. According to the commentary on the film’s DVD, Verse also trained Janice to rap. Interestingly, Moro states on the commentary that when Janice does rap, “it gives new female dimension to the rap.” Exactly how much female dimension – specifically, Afro-Latina dimension – can exist in Anne B. Real when so much of the work is written by men? Yes, there is a female director but why did the female director, Lisa France, decide to tell an Afro-Latina story through the framework of The Diary of Anne Frank? Why did Antonio Macia, the story writer, choose to tell an Afro-Latina story this way? He is a white Latino; why the Afro-Latino subtext? We stretch this question into our analysis of I Am Cuba, as well. Why is the first segment of the film so strong in its Afro-Latino subject matter? The later sequences only show the Black population of Cuba as a backdrop, with an occasional speaker here and there. And why does I Am Cuba show two out of its three female main characters as being exploited by men? A White Cubana escapes a troop of seedy Naval Officers with the help of another White Cuban, but Maria/Betty has no such defender.

I believe our filmmakers which include the already named Lisa France, of Anne B. Real, and the famed Mikhail Kalatozov, of I Am Cuba, were drawn to the Afro-Latina as subject because they realized that there are truths that Afro-Latinas know that have not been voiced. Because, perhaps, these filmmakers did not feel comfortable with actually asking Afro-Latinas to contribute to their projects in terms of writing, they probably felt that some of that knowledge would come through if they casted actual Afro-Latinas. Given the critical success of the two films, I do believe the directors were right in their casting choices. There are specific ways of speaking that the actors provide that are distinctly Afro-Latina, in that they merge influences from Africa and Latin America with women’s ways of speaking. There are two scenes, one from each film, that reflect this historical voice. In I Am Cuba, Betty is about to go to a hotel with her scholarly Americano, who has shown a great interest in her crucifix because he collects them. He suggests that instead they go “to her place” because he “wants to see how these women live.” He then translates the word “interesting” to Betty, so she will understand why he wants to go to her home to solicit her services. Betty pauses, looks away, and then says, “No, no es interesante.” We know that Betty understands conversational English for her job. She could have spoken in English and said, “No, it’s not interesting.” It is not a difficult phrase. But Betty wasn’t really speaking to her john because she knew he wasn’t really listening anyway. The silent pause is what signifies the phrase to have a multiple meaning. Betty, who is disgusted by the tourists, hates their world and probably thinks of her shanty town as more honest and honorable than the world of the tourist. She knows it is a place of many interesting truths that she could never explain to the tourist and she also knows that the tourist suspects that but instead of wanting to truly understand that, he’d rather buy a little excursion into poverty. She says her home is not interesting and this means, “What do you care? You don’t have to live there,” or “No fancy cocktails for you at my place,” or “I don’t want you telling anecdotes about my life because you don’t have your own ‘interesting’ life.”

In Anne B. Real, Cynthia has a similar moment with a teacher who happens to be the White Latino who abandoned Cynthia’s sister who was pregnant with his bi-racial child. In the scene, this teacher is talking to her about what she needs to do in order to pass high school and get into college, implying that he knows what is best for her. She agrees to return to classes but she has many things to take care of first. The teacher clearly wants to know more, so she humors him by telling him the problems that she has been having with her drug addict brother. Cynthia says all of this while looking away from her teacher. He wants to help and asks if her brother has hurt her, and this is where she turns to him, she simply says, “Thank you, Mr. Dominguez.” This “thank you” has multiple meanings, as well. We know from a conversation with Cynthia’s sister Janet, earlier in the film, that Mr. Dominguez has changed his name from Miguel Dominguez to Michael Smith. Because he is a White Latino, this has allowed him the education and career that he wanted to pursue. When Cynthia calls him “Mr. Dominguez,” she is saying, “How dare you accuse my brother of hurting me, you can’t judge him” and “You are trying to do something now when it is too late,” and “How can you expect to care for me when you got my sister pregnant and abandoned her and your child,” and “We’ve gotten along fine without you,” and “You aren’t fit to help me until you atone for your mistakes,” and “I have grown recently and I am ready to do what I need to do.” When Moro commented that Richardson brought something uniquely female to the role, he might have been neglecting the fact that all of her material had been written by people who were not specifically Afro-Latina, but he was right in that she does frame all the words within the Afro-Latina context. Luz María Collazo does the same as María/Betty.

What these Afro-Latina actresses bring to the voice of their Afro-Latina characters is something that happens when one, historically, has dealt with multiple languages and communities and has been treated as if one’s knowledge is not worth knowing. Yes, both Maria and Cynthia have been silenced to the extent that they are not noticed unless they wear alter egos that go by the names of “Betty” and “Annie B. Real.” But they have learned to use those silences, along with language, in order to create meaning that they know but that others will not understand and cannot get offended by. Maria can blame her silences on not understanding the foreign language that has intruded on her territory. This is the colonial past in our Afro-Latina timeline. Cynthia, however, has actually mastered all of the languages she has been exposed to and feigns ignorance in order to avoid confrontation. However, when she finally decides to become confrontational, she can not only use silences, but she melds all her languages into a rap that comes off as tough, sweet and humorous at the same time. Their words and silences, if read correctly, contain wisdom can end up silencing the audience. The fact that the writers and filmmakers did not use Afro-Latinas to write the scripts or raps is sad because it does dilute the Afro-Latina voice, but the voice is still there. Indeed, the Afro-Latina has historically had to use languages and dialogues that were not of her own construction, but the trick in their language construction is that they will make do with what is given to them. According to the commentary on Anne B. Real, Luis Moro and Lisa France attempted to put in references to Anne Frank’s diary throughout the film, including a plaid diary, chain link fences, and eating potatoes, however the Jewish voice is not the voice that resonates with the audience. It is the Afro-Latina voice that stays with the viewer, even though it was not written in.

This is where Villanueva’s pronuntiatio and memoria come in. When Collazo and Richardson voice the lines out loud, a remembering occurs. Ed Morales, in “Toward a Spanglish Hemisphere,” states that “there exists very little understanding in North America that the everyday salsa or merengue star is actively engaged in a project of multicultural artistry. He/she is completely fluent in the language that celebrates a union of and contradiction between European romanticism and African call and response” (286). I add to Morales’ statement that the everyday Afro-Latino/a is engaged in this multicultural linguistic artistry and I would include the influence of the indigenous populations of the Caribbean and the Americas, as well. The signifying, or double meaning, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has defined it, has grown into multiple meanings. The silence, which Lisa Delpit attributes to interactions with the culture of power, has changed into a pause that informs, a pause that mimics the calm before the Caribbean storm that has something to say. The use of language has turned into a stew, a sancocho, where the exploited Afro-Latina knows that she is going to get someone else’s leftovers, but she is still going to make it into her own creation, and it will taste good. The historical voice that we hear in these two films is definitely incomplete, but it is some of the very little that Afro-Latinas have been allowed to depict in film and if we are to learn from it, we must understand what part of that voice has come through. We must learn this if only to ensure that one day, the script will contain all of the missing parts.

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