Culture

A Victor’s Narrative

The narratives we are given about the state of civilization in the continent later baptized America is a narrative designed to obscure the truth of one side in favor of another. Our text books refer to it as the “New World” and to the first Western European arrivals as “settlers”. These terms elicit a certain imagery in our minds of virgin lands, unperturbed by man until the “Christians” came.

The superiority of European technology and culture was such – the story goes -, that the genocide, ethnic cleansing and erasure of indigenous culture, which followed was an inevitable consequence of contact. It follows an accepted line of Western thought, which states that the “victor” always writes history. But, the concept of victory, itself, is part of the things that separate these two sides of the world.

Few dare question the narrative. Indeed, most are not even aware it is a narrative at all. It is simply assumed to be a historical fact. Should it be challenged, many will instinctively come to its defense with vitriol and utter contempt for whoever has the gall to inject even the slightest doubt into the conqueror’s tales. They will point to the brilliant scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, like genetic sequencing and the moon landing, as proof of their civilization’s clear primacy and advantages.

Defenders of the narrative will rally around these ahistorical claims, shrouded in racial supremacist thinking and take them as gospel. The cumulative effect of knowledge transfer over the course of millennia between multiple civilizations completely escapes them. And it is no wonder, since this too, is a feature of the narrative of so-called Western civilization.

The idea that “rational” thought and the fruits of the Enlightenment are part of an unbroken civilizational lineage, that stretches back to Ancient Greece is nothing more than part of an overarching theme of the birth of “Academia” emerging out of 19th century Germany, where the modern-day seminary-style university model was developed. Martin Bernal dispels this myth in his seminal, two-volume work, “Black Athena – The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Western Civilization”.

The Saviors

Another oft-repeated refrain are the radical improvements in life-expectancy and medical advancements brought forth by our White brethren. And indeed, Europeans’ life expectancy and general health did improve dramatically as a result. But, here’s the part that is ignored: It was Europe that was sick and dying, struck by the plague and chronically ill. It was their societies, which were failing and caught in a spiral of death and wars of attrition.

What they found on the other side of the Atlantic were thriving, healthy civilizations living in harmony with their environment. So healthy, that the diseases carried by the invading foreigners killed them by the millions because they had never been exposed to them. Just like the rats carrying the bubonic plague into Europe, European “settlers” brought sickness into the Amerindian societies.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – Dead man floating under I-10. New Orleans, La. Sept. 3, 2005 – PHOTO CREDIT: THOMAS DWORZAK—MAGNUM

Columbus and all who followed him also found copious amounts of food and agricultural technologies, that supported populations in the millions. Crops in varieties and numbers unheard of in their pastoral homelands. Vegetables, fruits and nuts in such abundance, the “Conquistadors” could barely believe their eyes.

When Hernán Cortez wrote about “El Nuevo Mundo” to his royal benefactors in Castile, he was literally describing a new world. A world that represented nothing less than a lifeline for a decaying world, rife with war, hunger and disease.

It is, perhaps, one of history’s greatest ironies, that Western Europeans would sail thousands of miles across the ocean with their horses, swords and guns under the banner of Christianity, purporting to bring salvation to a “savage” people.

Revisiting the accepted historical narrative, even superficially, reveals this to be a classic case of projection. The ones who needed saving were the Europeans themselves and it was the Native people of the American continent who saved them.

A Retelling in Time

Narratives are important. It is the stories that we tell ourselves, which determine the actions we ultimately take. As we stand on the threshold of an environmental catastrophe, we are beginning to understand that our actions are leading us down a dangerous road. It is in these moments, that we must re-examine our motives. We have to revisit the narrative and identify the points that are not congruent with our reality.

FILE PHOTO – A poster promoting the first Earth Day
in the United States, which took place in April, 1977

The climate disaster, which is presently unfolding on this planet is the consequence of the same unsustainable way of life that led to the near collapse of Western European civilization at the dawn of a renaissance underwritten by Native and indigenous people.

Our increasingly polluted rivers, oceans and air; the rampant deforestation and resource extraction; the unsustainable fossil fuel energy paradigm that is not only driving wars around the world, but is also causing our atmosphere to warm and threatens to extinguish life on earth as we know it. These are all manifestations of the same spirit that crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago as a self-destructive civilization survived its imminent demise by leaching off of societies working successfully to reach an equilibrium with nature.

A Call to Action

My documentary Ghost on the Water revisits the Colonial narrative in order to expose the lies we continue to tell ourselves about how we got here and where all this is leading us. If you feel this is a worthwhile endeavor, consider making a contribution so we can continue production:

Kickstarter Campaign

Where Are We?

We’ve all been in that Uber, looking down at our phones and playing Candy Crush or whatever, when we look up to see that our gig-economy cabby is taking the absolute weirdest route to our destination. They don’t know the area and rely on the algorithm to tell them where to go. And the algorithm doesn’t know shit.

I get it. GPS can be a very useful convenience and might even save your life, in certain situations. But, is it really much more different than carrying a printed map in our glove compartment or pockets?

Knowing the terrain entails so much more than just finding the right intersection. It’s about recognizing the landmarks, engaging with the memories and feeling the feelings a particular place, neighborhood or city elicits.

I’m no Luddite. Much of my work depends on all the technological “wonders” of our time. I use digital cameras, lots of different software and I know how to code. But, I’m also keenly aware of the price we are all paying for making them such a prominent feature of our lives.

I was here before all of this and I remember what it was like to get lost in a city with only my wits to carry me through. You see the world in a far different light when you’re the only one looking. Today, we have a million eyes looking along with us. A million different opinions to color or override your own.

This may sound like an advantage, but it is most definitely a curse. At least, it is a curse for the individual. Only a hive mind can thrive in such an environment. The further we go down this road, the more the individual human recedes and blends into the amorphous nothingness of single mindedness.

FLIE PHOTO – Movie still fromthe 1972 film Network. Towatrds the end of the film, the protagonist, Howard Beale, delivers a speech to his audience declaring that the individual is finished.

Nowhere is this so apparent than in the contrast between the popular music of the late 20th century and that of the early 21st. It is becoming nearly impossible to find musicians these days. People who express a creative urge through instruments and song are being replaced by the algorithm, that know-nothing know-it-all infecting our real lives. I have written about this before, but I want to do more than that.

The Creative Impulse

Many of the creative ideas I have revolve around ways to mitigate the alienating aspects of this tech-infused world. It is an instinct, more than anything. Like all creative endeavors, it is an individual journey of self-discovery that may or may not yield a “piece of art”.

If I was a sculptor, perhaps I would chisel away at a big rock that would end up on a street corner. And it would end up there so other people could see it and appreciate it. Make it part of their inner landscape. The algorithm has no use for my art.

So, the question is why do we make art to begin with? Why make music in the first place? We have gone from using technology to make art to making art for technology. And that, in my opinion, is complete insanity.

I have just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project many years in the making called Inspired Ground. And as the name implies, it has to do with the literal ground we walk on and the value of the unexpected. It is about an art form the algorithm is intent on destroying: Street musicians, colloquially known as “buskers”.

Buskers are the very definition of what we call the “gig economy”, except that what they do falls short of perceived notions of value in our algorithmically-driven world. While some people are too captivated by their devices to listen to a man rocking it on the sidewalk, even those who do stop can’t give the performer a tip because they’ve pretty much gone cashless.

Inspired Ground is a musical anthology/film documentary project that will take advantage of all the technology available (Internet, crowdfunding, digital cameras) for a chance to create a lasting space outside of it.

Drew Dunbar

The pilot of what I hope will turn out to be an ongoing series is about the busker who inspired it all, Drew Dunbar.

Five years ago, I was in Las Vegas doing some video production for a mobile technology company – ironically enough. After the conference I was covering was over, I had some time to kill before heading to the airport and decided to take some pictures around town. That’s when I spotted Drew jamming on one the pedestrian bridges along the strip and I recorded him doing a great cover of the classic rock song, “Hey Joe”.

I had also recorded an original tune of his, but had not uploaded it to my YouTube channel because I wanted to establish a line of communication with him in case there was any ad revenue he could collect. I was never able to find him until now, when a fellow busker emailed me back in May.

But the story is already on the Kickstarter campaign page. Go there >>

Sacred Writ

We all remember the droning, repetitive ritual of indoctrination known as the Pledge of Allegiance that our school teachers forced us to recite every morning. This compulsory mantra is used in homerooms across the nation to introduce young, pliable minds to the hallowed compendium of American scripture, which include tracts like the Gettysburg address, the Federalist Papers and, of course, the U.S. Constitution.

All of them are rooted in re-imagined narratives of Calvinist-infused Christianity. Concepts such as ‘Predestination’, – man’s incontrovertible fate as determined by God at the moment of creation – or the ‘Elect’, a select group of people known only to the almighty who are to be spared eternal damnation.

Over time these ideas were re-fashioned to fit America’s political narrative. The “god-fearing” puritan ethos of the first settler communities mingled with Locke’s quasi-theological empiricism and his novel take on private property, which was broadly used to justify the theft of Native lands.

Predestination became “manifest destiny” and “land of the free” worked well as a catchy twist on the idea of “the elect”. Together with other rehashed biblical plot lines, they formed what has been referred to as Covenant ideology; less an organic, cultural construct and more a facile tool for the manipulation of the American public by unscrupulous politicians. More alarming still, is its spread to other parts of the world and a deliberate push to bring “adherents” together as a single global entity.

In the United States, specifically, the contours of this informal state doctrine have taken the shape of a cult. Since the 70’s the inexorable decline of American manufacturing and exponential rise of household debt coupled with stagnant wages has left millions of disaffected citizens ripe for radicalization. A fact no one who witnessed the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath can deny.

But, most revealing of America’s descent into ideological madness is the continued apathy and even active resistance to address the epidemic of gun violence and mass shooting events in this country.

The priests of America’s state religion preach from their pulpits in the Capitol and other state churches across the country. They quote foundational scripture to their followers who rationalize the gun massacres taking their young men, women and children in workplaces, schools and churches.

In spite of the mind-boggling frequency of mass shootings and persistence of gun-violence in poor minority communities, the gun-control debate rages on. Meanwhile, as the stone-faced deities hewn on a mountain once revered by the native people of this land continue to ask for more blood, “believers” continue to offer it.

Origin Stories

Through the sacrament of marriage and the concomitant prohibition against its dissolution, the Catholic Church had controlled the whole of Christendom for centuries. It was the fulcrum of its power and riches. The Church’s monopoly on the family unit allowed it to dictate the socio-economic dynamics of Europe’s disparate monarchies and, in turn, dictate to the monarchs themselves.

The Reformation was the beginning of the end for this arrangement and, in many ways, for the Catholic Church, as well. The fatal blow was delivered by Henry VIII, who empowered a competing ministry by divorcing five times under the authority of the upstart Anglican Church.

Statue of John Knox at Edinburgh University

What followed was a series of bloody and protracted wars across Europe and the British Isles, in particular, as an emerging class of merchants and landed aristocracies vied for control. Religious doctrine became atomized as the different regions in Europe adopted their own more culturally relevant versions of Christianity.

John Calvin’s unique re-interpretation gained popularity towards the end of the 16th century and attracted adherents from all across the continent. Among the French theologian’s most ardent students and supporters was a Scottish theologian named John Knox, who would go on to form and lead the Protestant Church in Scotland.

Knox’s reactionary and misogynist brand of Christianity would permeate the culture of Lowland Scots who would eventually immigrate across the Atlantic. The hyper-moralist Puritanism of New England’s first settler communities can be traced back to Knox, whose particular take on Calvinism colored the worldview of their direct ancestors who were part of the Plantation of Ulster, a state-executed campaign of dispossession and land theft meted out against the Irish and a virtual dress rehearsal for the colonization of North America.

After the British experiment in Northern Ireland foundered, a great many Ulster Scots chose to test their fortune in the colonies as indentured servants. The Scots-Irish, as they would call themselves, would end up representing a majority of early colonial settlers and their state militias.

Meanwhile, Cromwell’s revolution had set the stage for British preeminence in a post-Catholic Church world. New forms of economic organization were displacing older feudal methods as the seeds of capitalism were being sowed.

Most significantly, it was the eve of the Industrial Revolution; driven not by the cotton gin, but by the evolution in the manufacturing processes of the single most important tool of the imperial model: the gun.

The Force of Lead

By the time war had broken out in New England, a proto-military industrial complex had already begun developing in the mother country. Sprawling colonial enterprises were putting pressure on London gun makers who tried to keep up with demand, while the state sourced its needs both at home and abroad. Gun makers not only had to fulfill ordnance requests from the Royal armory, but also from the chartered merchant companies stretching from subcontinental Asia to the Hudson river. Inevitably, artisanal gun making slowly gave way to more efficient modes of fabrication.

The Seven Years War in the mid-eighteenth century saw the largest conscription of British troops ever to that point, with over 100,000 men deployed throughout Europe. All of them needed guns. The Napoleonic wars further pushed firearm-manufacturing into standardization. The French, themselves, had made large strides in the area of factory-style production, while Britain relied more on a loose network of independent contractors designed to keep the cost of manufacturing low by inciting competition for state contracts.

This incipient arms industry produced innovations in iron smelting, casting and other manufacturing processes, that would prove indispensable for the realization of the Industrial Revolution. By 1776, every British soldier was carrying an identical, mass produced muzzle-loading musket known as the Brown Bess. Over 4 million were made.

As gun manufacturing was perfected, revolvers and other short guns democratized the ability to kill at a distance. By drastically reducing the skill and proximity required to exact lethal force upon others, guns allowed Locke’s theory on private property to fully manifest itself in the world. Defending the “perimeter” would now be an individual prerogative and the very foundation of our present economic paradigm – codified into law by America’s founders – became possible.

Codification

The U.S. Constitution was completed after two weeks of intense, cloistered brainstorming and foisted on a largely unsuspecting public. During the Convention, the issue of an armed citizenry didn’t even come up. The second amendment itself was only later included to address the contentious issue of standing armies, opposed by most states but favored by the Federalists.

Firearm ownership was taken for granted and its relative ubiquity was such, that certain groups, like the Quakers, had found it necessary to claim their “right” to NOT own a gun. For the better part of a century afterwards, courts would rule time and again, that the second amendment applied only to Congress in the context of militias and was irrelevant to the issue of personal gun rights.

The Abolitionist movement, westward expansion and the Union’s push towards the consolidation of a true federal structure all converged to produce a spike in gun violence and its gradual welding with patriotism, politics and religion.

Just before the Civil War, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, an outspoken Abolitionist, organized a gun-drive from his Congregational church in Brooklyn, declaring that there was “more moral power in one [rifle],… than in a hundred bibles”. The guns, destined for free slaves in Kansas, were dubbed “Beecher’s Bibles”.

As the Union claimed victory and inaugurated the nation’s first federally-funded army, the Industrial Revolution began to hit its stride. The quality, accuracy and availability of guns all increased. In the space of less than a hundred years, the gap between the government’s weaponry capabilities and the people’s grew exponentially.

The second amendment languished in irrelevance. As a strictly Congressional matter, it was understood to have no bearing on individual gun rights. Nevertheless, the issue of personal gun rights did come up in the infamous Dred Scot decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court recorded the young nation’s racist foundations for posterity. The court concluded that black people could never be citizens and, therefore, had no right to carry a gun. While the decision was later overturned, the underlying sentiment that made it possible in the first place would express itself after the Civil War, when so-called “Black Codes”; laws that were widely instituted across the country to disarm returning black Union soldiers.

The defeated Confederacy re-emerged as the Jim Crow South after Reconstruction. It formed the base of the Democratic party for decades, thereafter, until the second half of the 20th century when a reshuffling of political alliances took place as a result of a re-alignment of national priorities following the Allied victory in World War II.

The Big Rebrand

The National Rifle Association makes much of its longevity. But, for most of its history, the NRA was little more than a club for enthusiastic game hunters and largely supported gun-control laws. Its current incarnation as a polarizing influence in American politics began in the late 1970’s, as part of a larger, calculated conservative backlash against liberal policy momentum accrued since FDR’s New Deal.

Racial tensions caused by the Civil Rights movement were motivating millions of Southern White Democrats to abandon their party and join the Republican side of the aisle. Simultaneously, fundamentalist Evangelicals asserted their leadership over the Southern Baptist Church, spurring the rise of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and his so-called “Moral Majority”.

In 1977, a shakeup of the NRA during their annual convention known as the “Revolt in Cincinnati” replaced the group’s leadership with hardline gun-rights advocates, who transformed it into a politically active organization. The second amendment would serve as the lynchpin for the upturning of the prevailing liberal order and the creation of a new voter base, which would bring the Neocons into power years later, via Reagan.

The late Charlton Heston, the former actor and head of the National Rifle Association, addresses gun owners during a “get-out-the-vote” rally in New Hampshire in October 2002.

The romanticizing of gun-culture and its amalgamation with Judeo- Christian belief systems would continue apace when Moses, himself, came down from Hollywood Hills to become president of the NRA in the late 90’s. Outspoken gun advocate, Charlton Heston, would use the platform to lead the national pro-gun conversation, leading the flock into the new millennium with an iconic performance during the contentious election of George W. Bush.

Just after the end of Bush’s second term, and on the heels of the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the United States, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling, conferring Constitutional protection to individual gun-owners, based on a so-called “originalist” reading of the Second Amendment. More than a win for gun-rights advocates, it was an epic victory for the broad coalition of conservative voices, groups and think tanks behind the emergence of a fundamentalist political ideology, which has successfully radicalized millions of Americans.

The rise of the “Tea Party” and other fringe right-wing groups would follow in tow. Explosive events like the siege at Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing and, crucially, the September 11th attacks galvanized these groups, taking them further down the road of biblically-induced madness. Their cause for “freedom” at gunpoint is now a global affair, as they batten down the hatches to engage “evil-doers” and “bad hombres” in a predestined “clash of civilizations”.

Spoiler Alert – This piece is only for those who have seen Roma. If you haven’t yet experienced Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and most acclaimed motion picture, I recommend you do so in a movie theater, before you consider watching it on television. I will not get into the Netflix distribution debate in this article. There are already more than enough takes about this issue.

A Strange Place

The film is enigmatic. Cuarón achieves visually captivating moments throughout the two hours and change he prepared for us. From painstaking recreations of 1970’s Mexico City streets, to sweeping sequences and arresting cinematic frames, that we’re sure to continue seeing years from now. But, the choice to go monochrome creates an unnecessary distance between the story and the viewer.

Color is not incidental in a place like DF (Distrito Federal); it is part and parcel of everyday life. The color is still there in the film, but one has to have already seen it to recognize it.

The movie takes place in the neighborhood my mother grew up in. My aunt lives there, in the same two-bedroom apartment, to this day. “La Roma”, as it’s more popularly known, is a place I know as if I had grown up there myself, even if reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The only permanent abode I ever knew. A bastion of stability in the otherwise centrifuge of chaos that was my life.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Marco Graf as Pepe in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

Only those of us who are from there can see the pinks and the greens and the blues. We can see the multi-colored tiles of the opening shot. Beyond this, we can see the real stories being told through the lens of a semi-autobiographical work by a director who emerged out of that same, colorful, primordial Mexican sap.

Through his personal story we find the story of all Mexicans. What follows is an interpretation of these stories, from my own personal perspective and perched on a precipice at the edge of the universe.

La Colonia – The Allegory of the Still Birth

The correct translation of neighborhood in Spanish is “vecindario”, but in Mexico City, the term “colonia” is an official designation representing a specific area within the huge metropolis. The relationship is similar to that between counties and cities in America. Nevertheless, the word also carries the more familiar, political definition.

The colonial theme is inevitably present throughout Cuarón’s film, whether he intended it or not. Aparicio’s character, Cleo, is an indigenous servant in a criollo (European-descended people) household. Aparicio, herself, is a real-life actor in the ongoing colonial drama that Mexico continues to live. The state of Oaxaca, where she hails from, remains one of the country’s most indigenous regions.

Classism is rampant in Mexico. The rich and upper middle classes segregate themselves both physically and culturally from the rest. The media, especially, is guilty of projecting a completely false image to the viewing public. If you were to judge the Mexican population by the people cast in its television shows, you’d likely assume most of the country is blonde and blue-eyed. The pernicious influence of the “Telenovela” genre and other cultural Trojan horses have contributed to a widespread, and largely subconscious pathology of self-hatred in the mostly dark-complexioned Mexican population.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

The oft-repeated, quasi-historical myth of “La Malinche” is the archetype Cleo embodies in the film. She is a bridge between the natives and the foreigners. It is the foreigners who comfort her when her offspring is born dead. And this is the first allegory of Roma:

She tells us, herself, that she did not want the child to be born. Her destiny is to clean Borras’ shit off the garage floor. Borras is the master’s dog’s name, which loosely translates from the Spanish to “Erase”. Her people will not go on.

Children of the New World – The Allegory of the Astronaut

The astronaut theme comes up several times throughout the movie in the context of youthful imagination.

In one example, he shows us two children playing astronaut. One wears a space-man costume with all the bells and whistles, “exploring” a swampy part of his extended family’s beautiful, sprawling property somewhere in the country. The other, wandering about in a dirt-poor area on the outskirts of Mexico City as if in zero gravity, wearing an improvised space helmet fashioned out of a bucket. Just before this, we see a man shoot out of a canon and land in a net – a scene, which followed a frame of the Hollywood classic “Space Cowboys”, in something of a homage to Kubrick’s famous montage in “A Space Odyssey”.

Underneath, these instances speak to a very particular form of classist indoctrination prevalent in Mexico City’s private schools, in particular. Social status signaling is cliche among school-age kids everywhere, but in Mexico this sort of peer pressure takes on a deeper meaning, encompassing the country’s unique relationship to its only neighbor to the north.

Clothing is often at the center of these contests of social acceptance. Wearing a national brand of shoes or jeans instantly relegates you to the bottom of the social ladder. American brand names, conversely, propel you to the top. ‘Hecho en México’ is only for “nacos” – a derogatory term for the dark-skinned lower classes.

I had a front-row seat during my elementary school years as both witness and participant of this grotesque dynamic. Attending one of the city’s top private schools alongside the children of rich foreigners or high-ranking politicians, we were the kids with links to the “otro lado”. We took shopping trips across the border and had family in the United States. We wore our American brand name clothes to school and compared our American school supplies. We had Trapper Keepers and collected Garbage Pail Kids. We listened to Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins. Belting out the words to “El Rey” and other classic, truly Mexican Rancheras was only done after a few Tequilas.

The allegory of the astronaut represents the negation of self through the pursuit of the unattainable. Cuarón reveals a subconscious reality, that afflicts the upper classes in Mexico. A profound racism rooted in self-loathing and false identification with a different culture.

Bastard Machos – The Allegory of the Dead-Beat Fathers

Visiting my great aunt’s house in La Roma was, at once, entertaining and terrifying. Her son, my second cousin, had an inclination for mechanics and a bit of a prankster streak, which expressed itself in fun ways, like a pulley system he’d made to open the front door of the house from upstairs and frighten anyone who came knocking. The real hair-raiser, however, was in a room on the second floor where a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ stood in full catholic regalia on an altar surrounded by candles. The figure had been sculpted by my great grandfather after “supposedly” having a religious epiphany on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo and Jorge Antonio Guerrero as Fermín in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

The skepticism came directly from the women in the family, who seemed to doubt the sincerity of the man’s spiritual awakening and, rather, believed it was a momentary lapse in an otherwise steady pattern of drunkenness and adultery.

Mexican “machismo” is a world-famous stereotype, which is often accompanied by images of large hats and long mustaches. But, there is a much more mundane face to the pervasive reality behind the caricature.

On my mother’s side of the family, men were hard to find. My own grandfather had two families, simultaneously. He would only “visit” my grandmother in her two-bedroom Roma apartment every weeknight after his pediatric practice. She would make him supper and they would watch the “novela” together. Once the soap opera was over, he would wash up in her tiny bathroom and leave to spend the night with his other family. He seemed completely content with this arrangement and never appeared to have a shred of self-consciousness about it. To me, it was completely normal. I never thought to question why he was just coming in the evenings for a short while and leaving. Only later did I find out what a pathetic man my mother’s father was. My grandmother’s humiliation had become a part of her personality, so I never noticed that, either.

The absent father figure would manifest itself down the generational line in different ways. And it certainly isn’t exclusive to my family.

In the film, the chain-smoking father who abandons his family provides the inciting incident from which the rest of the story unfolds. The huge car, that barely fits in the car port, symbolizes the inflated sense of the Mexican male ego, too unwieldy to be part of a balanced family unit. When he leaves them, it is in a Volkswagen Beatle. But, his estranged wife still has to drive around in the massive vehicle, battering it as she comes to terms with her emotions and, finally, beaching the enormous four-wheeled animal.

PHOTO – Movie still of Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, Marina de Tavira as Sra. Sofía and Fernando Grediaga as Sr. Antonio in Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma

Cleo’s love interest embodies the unfortunate archetype of the Mexican macho, as well. But, he also represents the larger context of the conversation. He tells us his story. How “martial arts” saved him from a dissolute life; a metaphor about the Mexican military and the thousands of young, disenfranchised men who make up their ranks. This is apparent when Cuarón makes him one of the plain-clothed gunmen chasing the activists through the furniture store – a scene, which makes little sense unless we consider the totality of the character’s symbolism and the actual history of state repression during those years in Mexico.

The allegory of the dead-beat fathers is the story of Mexican maleness. It is the historically ambiguous relationship with power, that stems from a 500-year old identity crisis borne out of the still unresolved trauma of colonialism.

Interpreter’s Disclaimer

Art, once it is completed, renounces ownership. The artist has no more say about how his or her work is seen, absorbed or interpreted than anyone else. I do not ascribe any of the above to the director’s original intentions or ideas when making his film. It is simply what I saw, as I saw it.

Distance is one of those factors that favors lying. The farther away you are from a person, circumstance or situation, the easier it is to believe completely untrue assertions regarding anything and anyone. Rarely is this fact more obvious than with political propaganda. History is full of mendacious leaders and politicians looking to provoke conflicts by disseminating patently false claims about an enemy.

Often, whole-cloth lies are used to instigate ill will between two factions by a third party who stands to benefit by their mutual destruction; a tactic frequently used by the British Empire in India throughout Victorian times. One such incident led to a deadly escalation between two warring camps, when the Her Majesty’s minions spread parallel rumors, telling one side their enemies greased their gun barrels with pig oil and the other, that cow grease was used by them for the same purpose. Since either side held each particular animal sacred, the results were predictably bad.

When the distance is both spatial and cultural, a lie is almost impossible to expose. Such a great advantage has been enjoyed by the United States for decades. The targets of their Tomahawk missiles and drone strikes have been, generally, very far away from the its shores. The horrific profiles painted in the mainstream press of their chosen antagonists are laughably absurd, yet completely believable to the vast majority of Americans, who are fed a steady diet of Hollywood stereotypes and hero-worship. Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad, Putin, and so many others are the devil incarnate for a gullible, TV-guzzling, social media-crazed public, unimaginable to Howard Beal himself.

The so-called Military Industrial Complex – a fancy term for a crude partnership between government and the arms sector – has ridden this wave of cognitive dissonance to an unprecedented expansion of muscle around the globe. With over 800 military bases erected o virtually every continent, only the most alienated still challenge the fact that the good ole’ US of A is an empire.

But, thanks to the relentless indoctrination afforded by the most sophisticated storytelling machine in the history of humankind, hundreds of millions actually believe in the fairy tale of a benevolent overlord. Like Madeline Albright, they consider the murder of hundreds of thousands of children the price of freedom and democracy.

Americans are either ignorant of the crimes committed in their names in countries they’ve never heard of or they accept the ludicrous premise offered by their leaders: “They’re bad, we’re good”. Holding fast to such a simplistic concept of the world calls sanity into question. At the very least, it points to the stunted development of critical faculties. The increasing frequency of mass shootings and extreme polarization around relatively inconsequential issues is a symptom of a society running out of coping mechanisms.

Now we have Venezuela on the threshold. Another resource grab by the most energy-intensive economy on the planet, cloaked in the reliably effective fable of good and evil. The usual covert activities to vilify and uplift the proper parties has been ongoing for over a decade, but the U.S. public will only hear what has been curated for them.

As the cultural distance grows by leaps and bounds, the physical distance becomes less critical to maintain the lies. Trump’s wall has already shown this to be true and as the border discourse grows louder the distance between us becomes greater. We can expect, in turn, for the lies to get bigger and the false threats to get closer.

If you were dropped in the middle of Mexico City, Buenos Aires or Bogotá and tried to find a Latin American, you would never come across a single person who described themselves as such. No matter how deep into Rio’s favelas or the most recondite parts of the Nicaraguan jungle you looked, such a creature would be more elusive than the Loch Ness monster.

Although coined by the French during their Napoleonic bid for a world empire the term has seeped, naturally, into the lexicon of the current and far more powerful global hegemon, the United States of America. Its purpose then was much the same as it is now: to homogenize a plurality and subsume separate and distinct peoples under a singular socio-political paradigm, based on etymology. Never mind that millions of the region’s inhabitants – the original ones, in fact – spoke and speak their own native languages, which are completely unrelated to the romance varieties imported from Europe.

Latin Americans, Latinos and the more recently concocted Latinx are all things, that only exist here in the house McDonald’s built; an expedient way to identify television market share, with no real social value. Second and third generation immigrants might adopt the format in public. But, behind closed doors, at family reunions and when they go back to visit grandma in the old country, nobody claims to belong to a contrived pan-lat-am diaspora. They are loyal to their own vocabularies and songs, unique to the places they come from.

The American penchant for lumping people from different backgrounds and cultures together is not new, of course. Their infamously bad grasp of geography is often on display and hardly draws any shame. On the contrary, they seem to relish it; as if not knowing where Peru is on a map is a sort of humblebrag display of domination.

Just yesterday, none other than the éminence grise of American broadcast journalism, Tom Brokaw, revealed his own cultural chauvinism when he tried to backtrack from comments he had made about Hispanics on a TV show. The comment itself calling on “Hispanics” work harder on assimilation, while reeking of MAGA-esque intolerance, was not particularly noteworthy or unexpected. It was his clumsy Twitterpology (yes, I made it up), that perfectly encapsulates my argument.

Historians typically frame Simon Bolivar’s attempt to bring every nation of the Americas under one flag in a noble light. But, it was just another imperialist doing what imperialists do. I didn’t work then and no amount of Latin Grammy award shows will make it work now.

Feeding Trough

There is a beast lurking under the Internet. A leviathan thrashing about in a colossal, silicon cage. An elite group of gate keepers guard against its discovery. The big data Brahmins, with their clickers and turtlenecks, distract us with fancy lingo and shiny toys as they lead us to the slaughter. Stupefied, we line up like cows; vacuum tubes attached to our proverbial udders.

Unaware of its very existence, we give it nourishment day after day. All of our insights, thoughts and attention – the milk of humanity – is usurped to satisfy this monstrosity. Instead of enriching our real lives with our conscious awareness, we forfeit the pleasure of our own company to rub and tap our fingers on a screen for hours on end, producing the binary coded sparks devoured by the grumbling behemoth.

So massively and so quickly does the creature grow, that its abode must be expanded almost daily. Warehouse after warehouse is commandeered to accommodate the arrays of plastic and metal, which make up its gargantuan presence. Its scale has no limits and as long as we continue to provide it sustenance, the enormous obscenity will keep getting bigger and bigger.

They call it Artificial Intelligence, and virtually every social media platform we use is a front for its development. Any ostensible uses Facebook, Twitter or similar websites claim to offer are simply hooks to entice us. They are designed to approximate actual social interaction and fool us into “talking” to the machine. Our “friends” and “followers” may or may not see our posts, but the machine is always listening, always watching and always recording. Even what we catch and delete mid-post is kept in its memory bank.

The quality of your connection to other human beings is of no value to the Big data Brahmins. They aren’t trying to help you talk to your neighbor or achieve meaningful social rapport through their sites. They are just after your social cues and responses, and they will come up with any and every trick to get you to engage with their big data-crunching machines. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, death itself; you name it… Any excuse is good enough to prod you into engaging. ‘Like’ buttons, emoticons, share functions, photo filters; all of these are just peripheral user-experience tools, that allow them to manipulate the instinctively human need to belong, and trick you into feeding the machine.

Snake Oil Transhumanism

Animating the covert motivations of this latter-day Sanhedrin is a quasi-ideology based on a childish notion of existence; one that flagrantly ignores the unfathomable mystery that operates human consciousness.

The idea of “Transhumanism” has been floating in the world’s collective consciousness for a good while, now. With Hollywood, as usual, churning out one cheap plot after another with some variation of a human-robot amalgam over the last half-century. From Star Trek to Ex-Machina, the concept is well-ingrained in popular culture, and buttressed by pseudo-academics like Raymond Kurzweil – the leading transhumanist evangelist – who present ideas such as the “singularity” with the hubristic inflection of a fiat accompli.

The tenor of inevitability many of its evangelizers employ is, frankly, offensive. Just a few months ago, I witnessed as much at a conference for one of the world’s most important financial organizations. The closing plenary speaker introduced herself as a “Cyborg Anthropologist”. Whether this was a cute, made-up title she gave herself to sell more books, or an actual degree issued by Harvard – the institution said speaker graduated from – is not something I’ve yet decided to research. It’s enough, for now, that she used it to identify herself before the representatives of the world’s financial elite.

In her address and subsequent Q & A with the organization’s CEO, the charming young lady framed her comments about the merging of technology into our daily lives with the same casual inevitability of her peers. In this particular case, she was speaking to the fusing of banking and payments into the fabric of our normal, day-to-day routines, so that such “mundane” tasks could be as seamless as possible. To illustrate her point, she told the audience about a smartlight installed in her kitchen, which automatically shifted hue and temperature depending on the time of day. She remarked how comforting it was to wake up in the morning and make her coffee under the warm glow of a time-appropriate light source – which, she emphasized, didn’t require any thought or effort on her part or even the unwelcome intrusion of real weather conditions, which might affect her artificially preordained atmosphere.

Presumably, this would be the goal for a technologically-enhanced life. The elimination of perceived inconveniences or undesirable conditions through algorithmically programed delegation. Like paying those pesky banking fees, for instance.

For decades, film buffs and critics alike, have been trying to figure out the meaning behind the next-to last scene in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001 – A Space Odyssey”, where astronaut, Dave Bowman, appears to spend his last few hours of life in a room featuring 17th century European decor, but with a markedly futuristic feel. All creature comforts seem to be available to the frail man until his death finds him lying in bed, surrounded by what can only be described as a morbid sterility.

When that movie was made, our current state of technological dependence was still decades away. But, perhaps because 1968 was close enough to glean the possibilities, a visionary genius like Kubrick could easily intuit the ultimate consequences of life fatally tethered to technology.

The big data Brahmins believe their programmatically modulated LED lights are an acceptable substitute for the sun, just as they think a silicon circuit board or other substrate moving binary data around is an acceptable substitute for the human brain. Ultimately, these are nothing but the megalomaniacal musings of insane individuals, who have lost touch with reality – or perhaps sold their soul – and should be treated like the good Dave Bowman treated the HAL-9000 super computer.

Shut Down

Have you ever considered the fact that millions of people are working to provide corporations, like Facebook and YouTube with the product they turn around and use to make vast fortunes – for free? Why are we investing our time creating content so that the Zuckerbergs of the world can get filthy rich?

There’s nothing social about our “social media”. At most, it magnifies the worst about us and their ubiquity provides cover to the shameless propagation of our vanity, pettiness and self-pity. Only momentum, falsely-inflated user numbers and the device-consumption cycle has allowed it to persist to this point.

But, what are these shiny, colorful, computerized objects if not just interfaces to get your data into the data aggregators, and data aggregating devices themselves? Every release will have some new bells and whistles to help close the sale. Usually, a marginally better camera to “up” your Instagram game, or some other unnecessary “convenience”.

Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) in the sights of the onboard computer HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” | Warner Bros.

Not everyone will have the wherewithal to understand the implications of what the big data Brahmins want to impose on us. Most, in fact, will readily brush off any concerns as the paranoid thoughts of neo-Luddites. Others may actually want such a world to come to fruition, whether as a result of their own ignorance or because they are somehow invested in its implementation. Only a few of us will comprehend what is really at stake.

Big data has its uses. And fantastic uses they certainly are. From Google Earth to real-time parsing of information for complex systems like agriculture or genetic sequencing, big data is a revolutionary leap forward in technological capability. But society and community, are no place for big data.

In as much as society constitutes an interconnected cohesion among groups of people, big data is a detriment; a peerless tool for pattern analysis and broad scheme implementations, it is, nonetheless, a poor social glue. After all, what does an algorithm know about the enigma of life? Absolutely nothing. We cannot rely on the law of averages or geo-location to determine who we will fall in love with; who our friends or even our enemies will be. These are strictly human endeavors and no amount of so-called social concept-sites will ever replace the journey we undertake as individuals to find ourselves and each other.

Open the pod bay doors, Hal. I’m getting out.

American Dream

In Miami, one of the most popular phrases used by our political class is the ever present “American Dream”; the go-to euphemism for social mobility and odd rebuttal to the residents’ continued demands for better public transit.

A Better Life?

Cars, according to County Commission Chairman Esteban Bovo, are part of the so-called American Dream. For the people who move to Miami from all over the world, toll-roads, expressways and bumper-to-bumper traffic on Bird Road is the fulfillment of a yearning they carry over from their respective Latin American ‘shit holes’. Buses and trains? That’s just a bad dream.

While Bovo pays lip service to the transit-challenged population, engaging in visible marketing bus adventures, the pervasive mentality among his ilk – who otherwise never step foot in a bus – is decidedly anti-public transit.

Just a few days ago, Bovo put out this telling tweet:

Perhaps the commissioner is unaware that most people in Miami have children, too, and taking “meetings all over town” is about as feasible on a Miami-Dade bus as getting to a 9-to-5 on time. Perhaps the bus “doesn’t work” for him because it doesn’t work for anybody.

El Sueño Cubano

With few exceptions, wherever you look on the County Seat dais, instead of representatives we find agents of developer interests masquerading as elected officials, who carry a chip on their shoulder about a boogey man in another country altogether. It’s almost as if these guys have been making policy in Miami for the last 30 years just to ‘stick it’ to Castro, and show him how capitalist capitalism can be. To them, public transit is an expression of socialism, it seems. The car, on the other hand, embodies the ‘free market’ ethos they ostensibly champion, while rigging the game for their developer friends in back room deals.

American Dream
CORAL GABLES, FL – May 10: Man in a wheelchair waves a large American flag on the corner of Ponce de Leon and Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida on May 10, 2017 | PHOTO CREDIT: Raul Diego for deepcitychronicles ©2018 Deep City Chronicles. All Rights Reserved.

The Mayor, who staked his entire re-election campaign on public transit, has invoked the so-called American Dream to excuse one of the most unbelievable about faces in recent memory, comparable only to George Bush’s “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Giménez even had the audacity, after circulating campaign materials with the words “More Rail Lines” directly above his pepper shade comb over, to dismiss rail as “19th century technology”, shortly before taking a publicly-funded trip to China with a 15-people entourage. The two-week sojourn was billed as a fact-finding mission for innovative transit solutions; a laughable premise, which never seemed to produce any kind of official – or unofficial- report of their observations. The only notable fact to come out of the Asian vacation was the Mayor’s absolute silence about the tragedy of the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge. Despite having direct family connections to the company, which designed the ill-fated structure, not a single word came from Beijing or wherever in the Middle Kingdom Carlos Giménez happened to be at the time.

It’s also not a trivial matter that the Mayor traveled to a communist country to conduct business, and everyone who lives in Miami should get the joke. As a member of the world’s leading anti-communist exile community, Carlos Giménez and the rest of the Cuban-born gang who presides over the vast majority of local government seats have made a living backing a five-decade old economic embargo on ‘la patria’, and condemning everything left of your right hand’s pinky finger.

Cars Killed the Dream

The irony is that the automobile itself is to blame for the demise of the so-called American dream.

For close to a century, the American working class managed to gain benefits and increase wages, while reducing the number of hours they had to put in each day. This, in turn, resulted in the creation of the biggest middle class in modern history. The automobile was a big part of that process, spurring growth and entrepreneurship.

The federal highway system and urban roadway development gave rise to the car-based, American lifestyle characterized by suburban sprawl, malls and the big box store. It was an ode to prosperity as each generation bequeathed a higher standard of living to the next. This was the American Dream, and for a few decades it actually worked.

American Dream
MIAMI, FL – February 25: Metromover travels south in front of the newly built shopping mall, Brickell City Center in Miami, Florida on February 25, 2017 | PHOTO CREDIT: Raul Diego for deepcitychronicles ©2018 Deep City Chronicles. All Rights Reserved.

As Dr. Richard Wolff from the New School so clearly lays out in this lecture from 2009, the 1970’s was the beginning of the end. Since then, corporate profits have consistently soared while wages have stagnated, remaining at virtually the same level. The rise of productivity coupled with flat lining wages allowed corporations to acquire massive wealth, while the workforce they employed had no choice but to turn to credit cards to bridge the gap between income and their desire to continue to living the American Dream.

General Motors, was among the first companies to take advantage of the American working class’ new plight, and decided to go into the mortgage lending business, expanding the scope of their original car loan business, GMAC. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation kick-started what would become the credit card/debt boom in the United States. The automobile, in particular, would be used as the asset, which underpinned the burgeoning credit-based economy. Linchpin of the small loan industry, cars have been used to both issue loans and secure credit lines using the vehicle as collateral.

Television is riddled with car commercials, that flash financing and leasing terms on the screen. Every movie and TV series, almost without exception, promotes the idea of car ownership as a status symbol, rite of passage and the key to all your dreams come true, especially as it relates to sexual prowess. Anyone who knows the history of the diamond trade and how DeBeers manipulated public perception through movies and stealthy advertising techniques to literally create a market out of thin air, knows this is not an accident.

The unpolished truth is that cars are little more than debt traps. Gateway credit drugs designed to hook people on a lifetime of interest payments and modern-day indentured servitude. The literal American nightmare.

Recalculating

The children and grandchildren of the ‘exilio’ have heard the stories of dispossession and betrayal. If “El Sueño Americano” makes a cameo, it carries with it a certain melancholy, double entendre that reveals the real dream of their redemptive return to the island. This place called Miami is really just a way-station. It was never part of the plan. Smart or otherwise.

If the past keeps informing our actions in the present, then we are simply sowing the seeds for history to repeat itself. At some point, you have to let go. Miami is ready to move on. Francis X. Suárez is the first Miami-born Mayor the city has ever had. His father, County Commissioner Xavier Suárez, is one of the few voices in the County who seems resolutely against building more toll roads and regularly advocates for better transit solutions, though he, too, has been known to indulge in the occasional fawning over personal internal combustion engines.

American Dream
MIAMI BEACH, FL – July 29: Girl bikes down Washington Avenue as a Miami-Dade Transit bus speeds by next to her in Miami Beach, Florida on July 29, 2017 | PHOTO CREDIT: Raul Diego for deepcitychronicles ©2018 Deep City Chronicles. All Rights Reserved.

The Columbus High alum, Francis Suárez, has hitched his wagon to Beckham’s soccer stadium as the first major project of his era. The wisdom of this move is yet to be seen, but the city’s very recent history with sports stadiums does not augur a good outcome. A serious lack of transparency in the process and the young leader’s full-on support of the massive development is concerning, to say the least. Hopefully, as the first native mayor, he will identify as a resident of this city first and foremost, understanding that Miami is not Havana 2.0 anymore.

Miami needs leadership that sees the city as more than a tourist trap or a preferred destination for asset flight of Latin American grifters. It’s time for the people of this community to stand up and demand a public transit system on par with the enormous potential of this beautiful place. The cost of neglecting transit for decades is already manifesting, and will ultimately inflict a terrible toll on the future of Miami if nothing is done to stop the irresponsible, short-sighted and tone-deaf approaches we have endured for years.

Our commissioners and representatives keep dreaming about America. But, this is our bed and we’re the ones laying in it. It’s time to wake up.

Ultramiami

It’s Ultra Music Festival time, and the kids are back with their short shorts, fishnet stockings and lollipops to let loose for a few days in Downtown Miami. We took some pictures as Ultramiami kicks off, and thousands descend on the Magic City for their annual EDM ritual.

Lucky Stars

Once in a while, you get lucky in Miami. No, not that kind of lucky; the kind that lets you escape the ubiquitous flashiness and frivolous pursuits that characterize our touristy enclave. Last night, at the North Miami Beach Bandshell, everyone got lucky and witnessed a virtuoso performance by acclaimed Iranian musician, Sahba Motallebi, who was accompanied on stage by Naghmeh Farahmand, an accomplished percussionist trained by her father, Mahmoud Farahmand, considered a master of ancient Persian drum music in Iran.

Motallebi’s story is one of resilience in the face of religious and gender bias in her country, which she left in 2003 to pursue graduate studies. Although her supreme talent was recognized by winning the Best Tar Player award in the Iran Music Festival for four consecutive years, the graduate of the Tehran Conservatory of Music was impeded from continuing her studies as a result of being part of Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority, the Bahá’í. The fact that she was also breaking into the traditionally male-dominated world of Tar playing, made her advancement that much more difficult. At the age of 27, she left Iran for Russia, and later Turkey to further her musical education. Motallebi would eventually emigrate to the United States, where she resides today with her husband and two daughters.

Beyond the strings

Sahba Motallebi travels the world performing her beautiful compositions for the Tar, which means “string” in Persian, and is one of the oldest known musical instruments. The Tar is both the literal and linguistic ancestor of the guitar (gui-tar), which was brought to Spain by gypsies, and is the direct progenitor of Flamenco and other rich musical traditions of the Iberian Peninsula.

 

Naghmeh Farahmand
MIAMI BEACH, USA – JANUARY 27: Naghmeh Farahmand on stage playing the Daf, an ancient Persian drum, at the Bandshell in North Miami Beach, Florida on January 27, 2018 | PHOTO CREDIT: Raul Diego for deepcitychronicles.com ©2018 Deep City Chronicles. All Rights Reserved.

 

In a recent interview with the Miami New Times, Motallebi said that she sees herself as an ambassador for Iranian culture: “Naghmeh Farahmand and I are trying to introduce audiences to Iran through our music.” As well as a role model for Iranian women: “They are going to see me as a person that is going to talk on their behalf, on behalf of women who don’t have civil rights.”

Her passion for music and learning has led Motallebi to impart her knowledge through online instructional materials, which she does whenever she’s not on tour. Fortunately for us, she came to our little slice of dubstep hell, and graced the audience at the outdoor beach venue with a magical and inspiring performance many won’t soon forget. The first piece of the concert is presented in the video, and if you find yourself wishing you could listen to the rest of the show, all I can say is, better luck next time.

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