About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Don't Touch the "Tradiciones y Costumbres"

Catholics living on the edge of Toluca in San Cristóbal Huichochitlán are upset. It seems that somebody has been missing their history lessons on the Catholic Church in Mexico, and the priest in the area tried to mess with the customs and traditions of the congregation: He wanted to appoint his own fiscales and sacristanes. To put it in twenty-first century terms: Doh!

El Sol de Toluca has been covering the story since December, and it looked like the conflict might be coming to an end at the start of January. However, the priest with the backing of the bishop of Toluca has closed the church and moved to another chapel entirely.

So who cares? Well, aside from the folks in San Cristóbal Huichochitlán, this a great reminder of why the population of Mexico has a tradition of being Catholic and anti-clerical. In his EXCELLENT Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico. (Stanford University Press, 1996), William B. Taylor looks at the delicate relationship between parishioners and priests as they jockey for power and control of resources and influence at the community level. There are a couple of things that will get a priest "rode out of town," and messing with the selection of lay positions is one of them. Acting as a fiscal or sacristan is not only a route to prestige in the community, access to funds and resources, and a way of participating in the sacred, but it also gives communities a sense of control of their worship that is so dominated by a heirarchical religion. In other words, you're screwing with their cosmos, man. By taking the final step of shutting down the very place of worship the Madre Iglesia is delivering a brutal slap to the community. I'll be curious to see how this plays out.

A final note, El Sol de Toluca refers to the Catholics involved as "congregants" while La Jornada says it got a letter from Otomies in San Cristobal. It looks like the congregations is trying to go after the church for violating the traditions and customs (quoting La Jornada) "sustentadas en la Constitución, en tratados internacionales y documentos episcopales."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Traffickers Use Quake to Nab Children

Sitting in my little East Texas hideaway this weekend I told my spouse: Five bucks says that slavers use the quake as a way to snatch kids from Haiti.

The Australian news service, ABC, published a note on Saturday that Children are already disappearing from hospitals and UNICEF is worried. How many have been snatched from shanties or camps and will be presumed dead as part of the quake?
Trafficking networks were springing into action immediately after the disaster and taking advantage of the weakness of local authorities and relief coordination "to kidnap children and get them out of the country".
A note for all of these human interest "adopt a kid from Haiti" stories that are flooding the press:

"We have documented around 15 cases of children disappearing from hospitals and not with their own family at the time," said UNICEF adviser Jean Luc Legrand.

"UNICEF has been working in Haiti for many years and we knew the problem with the trade of children in Haiti that existed already beforehand.

"Unfortunately, many of these trade networks have links with the international adoption market."

The agency said it had warned countries during the past week not to step up adoptions from Haiti in the immediate wake of the quake.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haití, Francia y México

El Economista has an opinion piece reviewing the colonial past of Haiti and calling for France to cough up more support and cash. It made to final points - the first of which I expected, the second of which took me by surprise:
Dos apuntes conclusivos: a) Francia tiene una pesada responsabilidad histórica, que está lejos de asumir, para vergüenza propia; b) México ejercería un papel innovador y vital de liderazgo si promoviera una campaña para la restauración forestal y ecológica, y por tanto, de captura de carbono en Haití. Semarnat y Conafor pueden y deben hacerlo.
Arriba Mexico, hijos ... del arbol.

(Thanks to nicholson cartoons)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Religious Violence Continues in Chiapas: The Other Rights

Demonstrators in San Cristobal de las Casas entered their seventh day of protest for expulsions and violence done to them by local Catholics in Chiapas since mid January and earlier. Some families have been expelled from communities while others have been detained for failure to participate in Catholic community festivals.

Such violence is not new - we've seen Catholic on Protestant expulsions for twenty years now as well as pro-government Protestant on Catholic violence since the Zapatista revolution started. I once read in well regarded book by an even better regarded author of Mexican history that the local and the sacred had been replaced by the national and the liberal. Horse hockey. Evengelicals and Protestants in Chiapas, Luz del Mundo in Guadalajara, Nueva Jerusalen in Michoacan ... all of these show that the intersection of the sacred and the citizen are alive and well in Mexico and not relegated to a distant mid-nineteenth century past.

At any rate, while Mexico City frets about the rights of gays to marry, fundamental right of association and property are violated every day in the mas alla for religious reasons without much attention from DF. Most certainly the local and the sacred have not been relegated to the dustbin of Mexican history.

Think Shock Doctrine in Haiti

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine has been keeping up with attempts to capitalize on the quake in Haiti. From her site:
Readers of the The Shock Doctrine know that the Heritage Foundation has been one of the leading advocates of exploiting disasters to push through their unpopular pro-corporate policies. From this document, they're at it again, not even waiting one day to use the devastating earthquake in Haiti to push for their so-called reforms. The following quote was hastily yanked by the Heritage Foundation and replaced with a more diplomatic quote, but their first instinct is revealing:

"In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region."
When tectonic plates hand third-world nations lemons, capitalism makes lemonade.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quakes Shake More than Plates in Lat Am History

Looting is being reported in the press as Haiti grinds on into another day of paralysis. Campus Progress has a nice article on how the "looting" is being played up in Haiti and makes a great comparison to New Orleans after Katrina.

Still, should the folks in Haiti start getting a little grumpy about the paralysis of the central government in the face of a disaster, it wouldn't be the first time. Citizens are willing to put up with a lot if basic security is provided (security in Foucaltian sense of being the neutral response to incidents that harm the population). When that basic security is absent, things can get sticky. A reminder of the three biggees for Latin America: The San Juan quake of 1944 catapulted Juan Domingo Peron in to the spotlight in Argentina; the 1972 quake in Nicaragua highlighted for the world the limits and depravity of the Somoza regime; the 1985 quake in D.F. not only showcased the corruption, limitations, and callusness of the PRI but it also created a plethora of neighborhood organizations that helped propel the capital into the hands of the PRD in later years.

Is Haiti in for a lot more pain beyond the immediate effects of the quake? Possible. On the other hand, what would any sort of shake up yield but to put different people in charge of total poverty?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Remembering Ancash: Peru, 1970

It is possible that Haiti will surpass the destruction of what until now has stood as the most devastating quake of the Western Hemisphere in modern times, the 1970 Ancash quake near Chimbote in Peru. At 7.7 (richter) the under coastal quake took out 80% of the structures in the affected area, killing an estimated 60,000 people and displacing perhaps half a million (but probably more) people. The quake also shook loose an 800 meter ice sheet on distant Mount Huascaran that in turn sent 80 million cubic meters of material crushing down on to the countryside below, and the city of Yungay disappeared (though later rebuilt, the original site of the city is a national cemetery). Huascaran is an angry spirit, having smashed the area in 1742 and 1962, making Yungay the dominate municipal area - essentially herding people into a central area and wiping them out in 1970. The Cristo (below) on the cemetery hill (along with the four palm trees below) were the only surviving features in the town of Yungay.

The settling of ground sediment caused massive destruction in Chimbote as well as flooding. Flooding was also made worse by the combination of settling and the avalanche: Rio Santa sent a 20 meter high wave down to coast for a distance of 150 kilometers, wiping out everything on its banks. Here are some pictures from the US Geological Survey of the area.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

PBS on Haiti: Punked by Tectonic Plates

Poor PBS... forced not only to rely only on journalists as area experts, PBS wins the "Ouch - Bad Timing for News Feature" award for the new year:

Despite Years of Crushing Poverty, Hope Grows in Haiti (January 11th)

Kudos to PBS for trying to cover a nation, like Honduras, that is generally ignored until a major crisis strikes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Catholics and Living History

The debate between the PRD and the Catholic Church in Mexico is a great example (probably just to history geeks) of why history matters so much. The debate itself is gripping, but the response of people reading about the debate interests me even more. Responses to a column in Excelsior called Catolico y perredista generated some great statements like this one from 1857 ... oops, 2010:

Los prelados mexicanos son los seres más hipócritas del mundo... se desgañitan por temas como este pero olímpicamente se hacen pendejos cuando sus curas pederastras y lenones depredan a muchachitos.

Or this one from 1934 (though the enviado de Vaticano part is a little off):

¿Asi es que el enviado del Vaticano quiere que solo existan catolicos y neocristero?

Or this one from El Universal and 1946:

Por favor, les pido que actuen de acuerdo a los "principios" que rigen al partido que yo pense era de izquierda. Respeten el apoyo de quienes votaron por ustedes y actuen. ¿Qué no quieren confrontaciones con la iglesia? Entonces ¿ella es la que gobierna al país?

My favorite was the second part of the "neo-cristero" post:

¿Ciento cincuenta años no les han enseñado nada a la curia romana en México?

The recourse to history - the ever present use of it - is an amazing thing for an historian to see. Americans rarely take such a path, often going only as deep as some non-contextual quote from Jefferson. I know that author Richard Rodriguez has often argued that culture is the constant Janus of Mexico's existence, simultaneously binding and lifting Mexicans as opposed to history. I would argue that history is so much part of Mexican culture in a way that it has ceased to be in the United States. Our history is a closet of skeletons and ghosts trotted out to intimidate opponents while in Mexico the calaveras of history's dead dance in the streets like a Posadas engraving. U.S. history comes with interpretive panels and talking heads - Mexican history is waking up in the morning and lying down at night. And I don't mean this as some sort of attempt to romanticize the use and abuse of history in Mexico, but I do mean to say that it seems to be ever present in Mexican discourse in a conscious way, as opposed to the unconscious way it appears in U.S. life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Fifth Estate or Trailer Trash Nag?

A somewhat non-Latin America / Border Issues thought ...

As a guy who spent roughly ten years involved with newspaper journalism I never thought twice about the idea of blogs responding to reporters. I was always trained that if a reporter messes up s/he does so in a very public way and the readership will make you pay. I've done writing, photo, page design, and advertising design - all which require careful precision or the client (readers / ad buyers) will take have your head.

Therefore, when I saw MexFiles "Malcolm in the Muddle" post I was positively perturbed by rambling rumblings of a former News Nugget ... um, News Week editor claiming that foreign correspondents aren't experts, they just give a perspective, and any blog criticism of the coverage is no more than a nagging wife begging for attention. I myself had griped about PBS using reporter David Luhnow as an "expert" on Mexico - and in that Malcolm and I can agree: foreign correspondents are not experts. But should they bot be criticized for faulty "commentary?"

Yesterday NBC newscaster Brian Williams reflected on media criticism in the form of John Stewart of the Daily Show. Speaking on NPR, the transcript reads:
Williams tells NPR's Guy Raz that on occasion, when he feels his broadcast tap-dancing toward the precipice — tossing around a story idea for "what I call Margaret Mead journalism — where we 'discover Twitter,' " for instance, or entertaining some other unfortunate editorial possibility — "I will, and have, said that, 'You know, maybe we can just give a heads-up to Jon to set aside some time for that tonight.'

"I should quickly add, we have another set of standards we put our stories through," Williams cautions. "But Jon's always in the back of my mind. ... When you make The Daily Show, it's usually not for a laurel, it's for a dart."

None of this, the NBC anchor says, is to claim that Stewart and his crew have had some wholesale transformative effect on the news media.

But "a lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious," Williams says. "They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness. ... It's usually delivered with a smile — sometimes not. It's not who we do it for, it's not our only check and balance, but it's healthy — and it helps us that he's out there." Read more here.

Ok. I think for academics the blog component creates an interactive space with the world of our specialties beyond the classroom. My primary job is to research and disseminate that research. After that I teach students what historians do and what we investigate. Beyond that the blog offers me a chance to combine teaching and research to a larger audience (depending on if the post mentions sex or erotica). Commenting on what my students or the public hear about Latin America is a natural extension for academics, as well as a long tradition of press criticism in the United States.

As a reward - if you finished this post I'm mentioning a new resource on the links on the side. H-net lists blogs on Latin America by academics of Latin American topics.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Support the Friends - yes, Those Friends.

I rarely ever make a plug for a charitable organization, but today I want to make an appeal for the Casa de los Amigos in Mexico City. The Casa is run by the Society of Friends - the quakers - and has been a gathering place for people from around the world for decades. It is also a comfortable, clean, warm, friendly place to stay (as well as affordable - hola! 130 pesos a night or less).

More recently it has entered into an agreement with the UNHCR (yes, the UN refugee organization) to house asylum seekers in Mexico. The Casa de los Amigos is one of the shining lights of Mexican civil society, and could sure use some help right now with tools, volunteer work, and (of course) cash.

The history of Casa de los Amigos can be found here.

The Casa BIG WISH LIST can be found here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Happy Birthday, Belen - Now Go Away?

Belén Posada del Migrante is six-years old today (well, close enough). The program shelters and cares for mostly Central American and South American immigrants headed for the U.S. Located in Saltillo, Mexico, it has cared for nearly 50 thousand migrants, many of whom have traveled north on the tops of trains - one of the most dangerous and violent immigrant paths in the world.

Their arrival in Saltillo, however, has been less than heralded by the local population, and organized crime has often taken advantage of the immigrants by kidnapping them and extorting their families or just outright robbing and beating them. Back in July the coordinator of the house, Father Pedro Pantoja made public declarations against the treatment of the immigrants in the shelter and by November he was receiving numerous threats of violence against the program, the staff, and himself. The response of the Catholic Church was to back Pantoja and reinforce the legitimacy of the religious participation in an endeavor to care for "illegal aliens."

Well, here we have the Catholic Church clearly involved in a political issue of great importance to the people of Saltillo. Any invitations for the church to get out of politics on this one? What happens when local PAN candidates call for the control of migrants passing through Saltillo - will the church have taken a stand against a party? There seems a desire to pick and choose the political and human rights issues on which the Catholic Church can and cannot take a stand.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A New Resource... And Imagined Community

INEGI (the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography) is kind enough to put PDF files up of a number of its publications on the INEGI site. I'm adding it to my resources section (column on the right... your right). There are some interesting historic items in there (statistics from the porfirato, etc.) as well as some interesting new publications.

I decided to browse one of the books - a chronological history of the census in Mexico published in 2009. Reading it reminded me of the chapter in Benedict Anderson's revised edition of Imagined Communities in which he talks about the census, map, and museum as ways that colonial powers helped create the imagined nationalist communities of their colonies. Anderson makes his argument about the categorization of ethnicity and religion as a tool, but I wanted to go a little different direction than Anderson: How does INEGI think about the history of the census show how they think about Mexico?

First, INEGI starts their chronology in 1521. Since no true census "documents" exist in what is geographically Mexico exist from prior to the conquest this might make sense. Indeed, INEGI argues the first census-like document isn't produced in Mexico until the Huixquilucan in 1532. Nevertheless, they start the chronology eleven years earlier. Why not start with first contact on the coast years earlier? It seems that would be the place to begin discussing how the different parties involved in forming Mexico began trying to conceptualize and quantify each other. Instead, INEGI follows the same old (I would call it internal colonialist) line of pegging the entire nation's history and existence to the meeting of Spaniard and Mexica in Mexico City (often sans Africans despite a certain plaza in DF). INEGI can conceive of the geography and quantification of the nation from Mexico City, not from the Yucatan where first contact was made.

The second thing I thought about was the three column presentation of the work. Column A shows "census stuff," column B shows parallel "history stuff," and column C shows important developments in the world regarding the concept of the census such as mathematical concepts and the first modern census. As a person constantly referred to as the non-western historian in our department, I was somewhat warmed to see INEGI's "imagination" or conceptualization of Mexico as squarely in the Western tradition.

The part of me interested in World History grumbles at a lack of discussion of possible pre-contact census methods as well as non-Western comparisons. On the other hand, the INEGI document also highlights one of the things I have most appreciated about Mexico: The insistence that it belongs to the greater international tradition of "civil" society and the best that Western Civilization has to offer. There is no pretense to grumble and complain that Mexico exists as an "exception" to the rules of civilized existence but instead a desire to participate with other nations in a better world. In a time when the LA Times refers to Mexico as a place of "lawlessness" and "carnage" (I lived in East LA and the San Gabriel Valley in the mid 90s and the irony of that smear coming from an LA paper is not lost on me) it is refreshing to see Mexicans referencing themselves as part of a more "civil" world system (despite all the sinister Gramscian notions of hegemony that I acknowledge exist in those systems).