Writing Changes Your Life

by Gabriela Polit

“The most important weapon a person has,” the program coordinator said, “are words.” With this mantra, Ethel Krauze has developed a methodology to help women from the Mexican states of Morelos and Guerrero tell their stories and empower themselves through writing.

During the first week of April, Adriana Pacheco (UT International Board of Advisors),   and I spent time in Morelos following writing “instructors” (I use this word for lack of a better one to describe the role of the workshop conductors) in Cuautla and Cuernavaca. Under the guidance of the program’s coordinators Lidsay Mejía and Ana Morales, we were able to observe several workshops and meet the women who participate in them. Sharing the space at these workshops were a retired physicist from the UNAM, a retired housekeeper from a state-owned hotel chain, a young mother, a retired beautician, a rural single mom who had lived as an undocumented immigrant in New York in the 90s, a housewife who decided to become a workshop conductor herself, an illiterate 82-year-old woman who decided to dictate her amazing story to the instructor and handcrafted her own little book, an English woman who used to host international students and came to learn Spanish in Cuernavaca, the list goes on and on. The women were of all ages and came from all walks of life. They all listened with respect and learned from the others’ stories.

Every woman is trained by either Krauze herself or by those who have become certified trainers under Krauze’s guidance. The women in the program have created a community without hierarchies. Some of them continue to meet, expanding the initial workshop experience into other activities related to the literary creation (for example, in Cuautla, they organized events to commemorate Mexican writer Elena Garro’s birthday). The forms of recruitment vary according to the context: there is one strategy to recruit university college students, another to gather women in the central area of a small city like Cuautla, or a rural community, etc. Each demands a different form of communication. Usually, it is the instructors themselves who look for a place to meet and who convene the participants. Now that the program has been running for over nine years, recruitment is easier. For many women I met, it was a poster placed in front of the local movie theater, a friend who had participated in the program and persuaded them to join, or the instructor herself who drew them in.

Women meet two hours per week over a period of ten weeks. The objective is that each of them writes her story, following the methodology Krauze developed, which seeks to help women overcome their fears, enabling them to tell their innermost secrets in a community-based environment. The most important thing is to empower women by helping them to take command of their words.

The program is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the state of Morelos. Lidsay and Ana are the coordinators as well as the editors of the book that comes out of each workshop, in which each woman is granted four pages. Each anthology has 1,000 copies, and every woman receives ten copies of the book that contains her story so that she can share it with her loved ones. They become the authors not just of these small stories, but also of their own lives. I came back from Morelos with almost a dozen books from the different workshops.

When I asked Lidsay and Ana if most of the stories were about violence, they said that 50 percent are about domestic violence, incest, and other forms of violence, but most of them are also about a culture that has educated women to live without recognition, to have low self-esteem, and to internalize those things as natural, both within the family and at work. But even when the stories are directly about violence, writing enables women to transform themselves into strong subjects, and not to see themselves as victims.

Why aren’t men included? I asked. They have been, Lidsay told me. They come to the first and second sessions and then they leave. Women have been socialized to share their emotions easily; in the span of two hours they can go from doubling up with laughter to quiet tears of sadness. That is overwhelming for Mexican men, who, on the other hand, do not possess the cultural tools that would help them deal with strong emotions. It is hard for them.

Krauze is a poet, a professor, novelist, and the mind behind the methodology of the program, named Mujer, escribir cambia tu vida (Woman, writing changes your life). She has been able to share her passion for writing with women who—for reasons that are not only economic—have not been exposed to the virtues of literary creation. She sees this project as a community-building effort, a wave that expands only if the people who sit at a workshop take on the mission of becoming a trainer and make the community bigger and stronger.

I came back from Morelos more convinced than ever that words are certainly our most powerful weapon. The query that the experience posed, however, was neither how to teach students the importance of creativity and words in the learning process, nor how to teach them that words are equally important in engineering, music, biology, the arts, etc. The real question that this visit raised was how to make our students realize that the privilege of their education should inspire and equip them to bring something to the communities that lack it.

Here in Texas, many of the most vulnerable people don’t speak English, so how could they be empowered with words if their words are not the “proper ones”?

Learning Spanish is about much more than the technical elements of a language. It is about connecting to and empowering oneself and others through that language.

Ethel Krauze will be at UT this fall, conducting an intensive three-hour workshop in Spanish for students from all majors. This time the workshop is called Writing Changes Your Life, and its purpose is to empower UT students to write their lives with the hope that they will pay the new skills forward.


For more information:
Professor Gabriela Polit
Department of Spanish and Portuguese

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¿Por qué el plebiscito?


Gabriela Polit

Hace unos años, en su visita por esta universidad, Francisco Thoumi dio como una de las explicaciones a la rápida expansión del narcotráfico en su país, el hecho de que Colombia no había logrado construir una idea hegemónica de nación. Atribuía a esa carencia el que no hubiese un vínculo moral que sancionara la actividad ilícita. Thoumi se refería a ese poder simbólico que se produce y reproduce desde el estado y que hace que la gente de un determinado territorio se identifique como parte de una nación que los hace iguales en sus valores y derechos. Esa carencia explicaba que el uso de la violencia por grupos particulares que quieren conseguir algo, ha estado presente y ha operado con una legitimidad no hablada durante toda la vida republicana de Colombia. Aunque la propuesta era sugerente, el término nación sonaba muy parecido a la idea de “comunidad imaginada” de B. Anderson, que a mi entender, poco aclaraba el problema del narcotráfico del siglo XXI.

Después del estupor por los resultados del domingo, de la desazón de estos días, recordé la explicación de Thoumi: esa carencia de una idea de nación. Quizá eso era lo que Juan Manuel Santos buscó con el plebiscito. No había figura legal interna o internacional que exigiera al Presidente convocar a una consulta popular. Es más, expertos  dicen que estadísticamente las posibilidades de una victoria en una consulta de este tipo era muy baja.

¿Qué hizo, entonces a Santos tomar la decisión de pasar un proceso de cuatro años por el colador de una consulta popular? ¿Qué lo llevó a hacerlo a sabiendas de que su gobierno no goza de popularidad? ¿Buscaba acaso, no solamente abrir el camino para la paz, sino hacer que la paz se convirtiera en el proyecto de nación (como la describió Thoumi)? Esta vez legitimada por el voto democrático de una república moderna ¿que se diera la oportunidad de imaginar vivir en paz? Buscaba acaso, que la Colombia remota, el no país dentro del país, el de los lugares más afectados por la violencia no solo reconociera la firma de un tratado entre el Jefe de estado y el líder de la guerrilla más antigua del hemisferio, sino que ¿lograse reconocerse en la manifestación general de una voluntad por la paz? Que todos fueran reconocidos como ciudadanos que merecen vivir en paz (Colombia es le país de mayor desplazamiento interno en el mundo).

El plebiscito era el primer paso para reconocer que los intereses individuales no pueden reclamarse con las armas. El Sí por la Paz no era solamente aceptar el tratado con las FARC, sino aceptar los retos de un compromiso de paz como nación.

Para algunos analistas, la convocatoria al plebiscito fue algo menos idealista, era la manera en la que Santos llamaba a un duelo personal a su adversario Álvaro Uribe. Un duelo narcisista entre la derecha de antaño, arraigada en la historia de desigualdades del país a la que él representa y la nueva derecha, representante de las fuentes de desigualdad más recientes y los valores de los nuevos dineros de la ultraderecha populista de Uribe. En este terreno, Santos perdió.

La campaña del Sí no fue clara, quizá porque la carga simbólica de la pregunta llevaba implícitamente estas cuestiones: el tratado firmado con las FARC, el compromiso a la paz que iba más allá de esa firma y una afirmación al gobierno de Santos. Al estar estas preguntas implícitamente sobrepuestas, hubo poca claridad en la información sobre la consulta. Se escuchó más sobre los curules que se les daba a las FARC en el congreso, y no sobre  los verdaderos logros de acuerdo: devolución y repartición de tierras en las zonas de conflicto, desmovilización de gente en el campo; el primer paso a la integración de estas zonas que han estado bajo control de la guerrilla; la posibilidad de las víctimas de encontrar los cuerpos de sus seres queridos desaparecidos por el conflicto. Perdió el Sí además, por un pésimo accionar de las encuestas,  y por su puesto, un bombardeo en las redes sociales de mala información por parte de los adversarios que competía a la par que la verdad del contenido del convenio que correspondía aclarar a la prensa y al Sí (algo parecido a la campaña por la presidencia actual).

En la lógica de que el plebiscito buscaba constituir una idea de nación en la que se reconoce más la violencia privada como el camino para reclamar derechos. En ese contexto llama la atención la altísima abstención de votos. Quizá esa es la manifestación fehaciente del más de medio siglo que el país lleva en guerra.

Si la literatura es, como explicó Anderson, un bastión fundamental para imaginar la nación, eso explica las decenas de frases de García Márquez que se usaron de lado y lado en la firma del acuerdo el 26 de septiembre. El es el escritor colombiano que imaginó la paz. La derrota del Sí en cambio, nos devuelve a lo que colombianos y extranjeros repetimos como la frase que define la Colombia del siglo pasado y lo que va de este, que José Eustacio Rivera escribiera a propósito de la explotación del caucho, con la que Arturo Cova comienza su relato “Antes que me hubiera apasionado por mujer alguna, jugué mi corazón al azar y me lo ganó la Violencia”. (Rivera escribe la violencia con mayúscula).

La derrota del Sí se convirtió en el capital político de la ultraderecha. Como todos tenemos memorias cortas cuando llega el momento de ir a las urnas, no importó que el vocero del NO que reclamaba castigo ‘justo’ para la guerrilla fuera quien, siendo gobernador de Antioquia, diera carta blanca al quehacer de los paramilitares en su provincia, enviando un mensaje claro e implementando una política local que legitimaba el uso privado de las armas para combatir la guerrilla. También quién años más tarde, integrara a los paramilitares – en cuyas manos murieron miles de colombianos – a la vida civil, sin los castigos que merecían. Y que lo hiciera bajo el amparo de una ley llamada “Justicia y Paz”. Así es el juego de la política y la victoria del NO fue la victoria de la ultraderecha irresponsable con las víctimas, e irresponsable con el país. A este grupo la idea de una nación que reconozca que el uso privado de la fuera armada no es la manera de construir democracia, parece tenerle sin cuidado.

La derrota de Sí fue el triunfo de la ultraderecha.

La derrota del plebiscito fue la abstinencia de los colombianos.


Gabriela Polit
Profesora Asociada
Departamento de  Español y Portugués
LLILAS Benson Colecciones y Estudios Latinoamericanos






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Has Latin American Populism Come to the U.S. with Donald Trump?


People have worried for a while that the United States is coming to resemble some of the worst aspects of Latin America in economic and social terms: increasing income inequality, the growth of an economic elite that is more or less permanent as those who have either great wealth or educated, professional status pass that along to their children, cities divided to reflect those inequalities, growing numbers of rich people afraid of poor people behind the walls of gated communities, greater police violence against minorities. However, we did not worry, until recently, of the dangers of Latin American populist, strongman rule coming to the U.S.

People have increasingly begun to worry about Donald Trump in terms of European fascism. A Washington Post story on July 22, 2016, observes, “Successful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how. Today, there is Putinism, which also has nothing to do with belief or policy but is about the tough man who single-handedly defends his people against all threats, foreign and domestic.”

Trump reminds me less of classic European fascism than a Latin American populist. The unique individual strongman who will fix all the problems because his is so strong and capable. Like many in LLILAS, I have lived and traveled extensively in Latin American countries for 40 years, and have seen this up close. In case after case, Argentina for almost 50 years after Perón, Vargas in Brazil on and off from 1930 to the 1950s, Venezuela in the last twenty during and after Chávez, these populist leaders often gravely damage the institutions of the country and leave it far more dysfunctional than they found it. Beware the strongman as solution. He is very pleasing to a mob of angry people but can do great harm.

Part of the problem is that populist strongmen are less about ideas or proposals than about their individual charisma and strength to change things single-handedly. The same Washington Post article notes, “what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.”

While I fear the Latin American precedent for strongman rule and its usually disastrous aftermath for democratic institutions and the national economies themselves, there is also an interesting strain of concern about mob rule leading to strongman rule within U.S. history and those who have observed it since its beginning. The Post also observed, “But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms. As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold, he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people.”

It would be interesting to compare these distinctive U.S. roots for concern about populism with how it has developed in Latin America. This is a good moment for rigorous academic work on this. But this is also a moment to take action against the concrete threat of Latin American-style populism this year in the form of Donald Trump.


Joseph Straubhaar
Amon G. Carter Centennial Professor of Communications
Department of Radio-TV-Film
The University of Texas at Austin






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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LLILAS Benson and the Repatriation of Indigenous Cultural Patrimony of Mexico.

The Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)

Kelly McDonough

One of the main attractions of the Rare Books Collection at the Benson is a group of late sixteenth-century rare manuscripts and maps known as the Relaciones Geográficas (or RGs for short). As described in the Benson’s web portal to the RGs, these manuscripts are responses to a fifty-question survey sent by the Spanish Crown in 1577. The survey requested information about Spanish-held territories in the Americas. Many of the questions focused on the population, cultural practices, physical terrain, vegetation, and other material resources. The Benson holds 43 of the 167 extant responses and accompanying maps (the rest are in archives in Spain). Scholars travel from around the world to Austin every year to work with the RG maps. Recently, however, one of the RG maps did some traveling of its own. On October 5, 2015, as part of a tribute to Mexican Indigenous Studies scholar Dorothy Tanck de Estrada at the Teatro de la Ciudad in Puebla, Mexico, I had the honor of presenting a stunning reproduction of the 1581 RG map of Cholula to eighteen traditional indigenous authorities (fiscales and mayordomos) of San Pedro and San Andrés Cholula. The theater was standing room only – more than 200 attendees witnessed this return of historical memory to the people of Cholula.

Question number ten of the survey requests a pintura or a painting—meaning a map—of the town(s) in question. The map was to include “the location and center of said towns, if the area is highlands or lowlands, or plains; with a sketch of the design, painted, of the streets and plazas and other places such as monasteries, however one might easily draw this up on paper, and that it identifies which part of the town faces north (“El sitio y asiento donde los dichos pueblos estuvieren, si es en alto o en bajo, o llano; con la traza y designio, en pintura, de las calles y plazas y otros lugares señalados de monasterios, comoquiera que se  pueda rasguñar fácilmente en un papel, en que se declare qué parte del pueblo mira al mediodía o al norte”).

The resulting maps were for the most part drawn and/or painted by anonymous indigenous men, providing rare insight into indigenous perspectives of cultures in contact during the first century of colonization in Mexico (for more information and to see several of the digitized RG maps, click here).

Entrega RG

Kelly McDonough presents a reproduction of the Relaciones geográficas map of Cholula to traditional indigenous authorities of Cholula in Puebla, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Miguel Ángel Ruz-Barrio.

One of the things I like most about my research is that I don’t just study indigenous sources from Mexico, but I try to ensure that indigenous peoples have access to these sources as well. Since coming to UT Austin in 2012 it has been a goal of mine to return a reproduction of each of the 43 RG maps to their communities of origin. Knowing that I would be in Cholula for a conference this fall, I asked Julianne Gilland, the Director of the Benson Latin American Collection, if we might begin with the map of Cholula. She enthusiastically agreed and swiftly oversaw the beautiful reproduction and framing of the map. Gilland also wrote a generous letter in Spanish on behalf of the Benson. Her letter, also signed by the men and women who received the map with great reverence and emotion, is being translated to English and Nahuatl as well, and will soon hang framed next to the map in the Casa de Cultura in Cholula.

RG Cholula

Relaciones geográficas map of Cholula 1581. https://www.lib.utexas.edu/benson/rg/rg_images2.html.

The seven major barrios of Cholula are depicted on the 1581 map, each with its own Catholic Church and mountain, the latter representing the pre-Hispanic indigenous place of worship. It was common practice to build the churches directly on top of such places of worship. Whether the indigenous map-maker / painter meant to suggest that the churches were simply built at these already-sacred sites, or perhaps that the Catholic religion had not eliminated earlier forms of worship but instead joined them, we cannot know.

The Convento de San Gabriel presides in the center of the map, illustrating Spanish dominance in the region. In the upper right hand corner, however, we see a depiction of a mountain with grasses and reeds: Tollancholula, the tlachihualtepetl or man-made hill, the largest pyramid in the Americas. The mountain spills into the quadrant to its immediate left, and is connected to a snaking shape used in indigenous painting to represent water. This association between water and the pyramid evokes the Nahuatl term for a socio-political unit: altepetl, literally water-mountain (atl-tepetl). With this in mind, even though it is not physically represented at the center of the map of Cholula, the great pyramid is the most important image on this map in that it signals this socio-political unity, or the peoplehood of Cholutecas.

This reminder of the unity and interdependence of the major barrios comes at an important time in Cholula’s history. As we speak, state and local government officials in Puebla have begun the desecration and destruction of the platform of the pyramid of Cholula to make way for tourist attractions and commercial development. Traditional authorities and concerned citizens of Cholula have protested these activities vehemently over the past year, both in the streets and in the courts.

Two Cholultecas, father and son Paul Xicale Coyópol and Adán Xicale, have been imprisoned for over a year for their participation in protests aimed at protecting the sacred site from commercial development (read more about the Xicale cases here; See a twenty-minute documentary treating the destruction of the archeological site of Cholula here). While the courts have temporarily halted construction, on a visit to Cholula in August of 2015 I saw trucks delivering ready-mixed concrete to the base of the pyramid.

What does the gift of a reproduction of a map have to do with the crisis at this archeological site? It is the traditional indigenous authorities of Cholula that have spearheaded the movement to protect the pyramid and its environs from commercial development. At times, I am told, they feel as if they are unable to stop their culture from slipping away, or in this case being covered in concrete to make way for a Starbucks. But the return of a forgotten map some 435 years after their anonymous ancestor sketched out the town and the people has given the fiscales a renewed sense of hope that their histories and ways of life can survive, even flourish.

Kelly McDonough
Assistant Professor
Department of Spanish & Portuguese








DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

The Archive, the Neighborhood and Some Questions About García Márquez’s Legacy


Dr. Gabriela Polit and Dr. José Montelongo. Feria Internacional del Libro de Bogotá, 2015

Gabriela Polit
The visit to the Bogotá Book Fair last April was full of surprises. Organizers celebrated this year’s fair, as it was the most successful in history. The records of visitors and sales were the highest ever. The explanation for this phenomenon was simple: the invited country was Macondo, the legendary town created by Gabriel García Márquez. Book fairs in Bogotá and elsewhere usually invite a country that becomes the theme of the fair. This is a way to celebrate the guest country’s literature, promote its authors, and strengthen cultural liaisons between host and guest. Rumor had it that this year the original invitation went to Spain, but due to its economic crisis Spain had to withdraw its participation three months before the fair’s inauguration.

With no time to invite another country, organizers decided that this was the opportunity to celebrate Macondo and its recently deceased creator. In three months they put together an amazing space recreating Macondo. Thousands of Colombians strolled through the streets of the town, sat at the cockfight ring (gallera) to listen to authors and critics, admired the objects that old Melquíades used to bring to amuse locals and strangers in Macondo, played with some of those unusual objects, and were even able to put in their pockets replicas of the goldfish that the first Aureliano Buendía obsessively made in his room when he was not fighting a war. It was a real feast.

Given the love for the author and the emotional attachment that Colombians have shown to their beloved Macondo, it should come as no surprise that the news that the writer’s private archive was coming to UT was not received with joy. Quite to the contrary, Consuelo Gaitán, Director of the National Library, told us that the day the New York Times broke the news that García Márquez’s papers were coming to UT, she received several phone calls from people questioning her lack of diligence. “You should have told me in advance,” she pleaded, “I needed to be prepared.” Even national newspapers published inquisitive articles regarding her role in this “unfair” business. As we know, Gaitán had nothing to do with it. It was the heirs’ decision that the papers should go to the Ransom Center.

Benson librarian José Montelongo and I went to the Book Fair to represent UT, to talk about the neighborhood where this important collection would be kept, and to quench the Colombians’ understandable frustration over the events. Ultimately, an archive is the symbol of the fundamental ideals of origin and authenticity, two elements that are at the core of everyone’s national loyalties.

By then, the story of how and when the negotiation of this amazing acquisition took place was well known, but there was still some dust in the air regarding what many Colombians (and Latin Americans for that matter) thought was not right. Keeping the archives of their most beloved writer within national boundaries was important.

During our visit and without being fully aware of it, we were dealing with the topic of the archive as a fetish. The idea that keeping those papers means getting hold of the magical moment of creation that lies somehow hidden in the corner of that bended piece of paper where the author put his hand, or in that scratched word, or in the tiny drop of coffee that he must have drunk while thinking about this or that particular character. Everyone, including us, talked about the archive as if it could give us the answer about where and how the spark of magic happened.

There we were, José (a Mexican native) and myself (Ecuadorian), sitting at the gallera in the middle of Macondo, the invited country to the city’s Book Fair, talking about why it wasn’t bad at all that these papers were held at UT, an institution that is home to the largest body of Latin Americanists in the US (if not the world), so close to the Benson, which is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) Latin American collections in this country, at the Ransom Center, where García Márquez’s archive would be kept beside the papers of his most admired writers, in a beautiful building that stands on the corner of 21st Street and a street called (of all names) Guadalupe! What we couldn’t see at that moment was that as our conversations evolved, we were all under the spell of García Márquez’s fantastic imagination. We were living-characters of his true legacy, a legacy that goes well beyond the papers of an archive and a place in a museum. Sitting at that gallera in Macondo at the Book Fair in Bogotá, we were all touched by the magic of his fiction.

See here details about the participation of Dr. José Montelongo and Dr. Gabriela Polit

540881_10151285466432267_444634091_nGabriela Polit
Associate Professor
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese



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Insights into Teen Suicide in Argentina

Image Source: http://bit.ly/1hSHIcm

Lauren E. Gulbas


On July 16, 2012, two teenagers—Luján Peñalva and Yanina Nüesch—were found hanging from a tree in Salta, Argentina. Investigations that followed declared their deaths to be the result of a suicidal pact. A media frenzy ensued as the city grappled with the idea that two young women committed suicide together. Their stories consumed Argentinian newspaper headlines for months, bringing much-needed attention to the soaring increase in teen suicidal behaviors throughout Argentina. Here in the U.S., what insights might we gain from an exploration of youth suicide in Argentina?

  1. The need for interdisciplinary approaches. When it comes to understanding mental health and illness, current trends in the U.S. emphasize the perspectives of molecular psychiatry and neurobiology, and there is a major push to identify biomarkers associated with suicidality. These explanations make little sense in Argentina, a country that continues to prioritize psychoanalytic and social interpretations.1 Many of Argentina’s leading psychiatrists view the rise in teen suicide as the result of a crisis in the nation’s psyche. To appreciate suicide in ways that acknowledge different cultural ways of knowing, an interdisciplinary perspective that highlights suicide in all its complexity might be most productive.
  1. The importance of culture. Elevated rates of suicidal behaviors among teens are not isolated to Argentina. In the U.S., adolescents disproportionately experience a burden of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and deaths. This disparity is not equally shared, and Native American, Asian American, and Latina teens have all been shown to be at increased risk for engaging in suicidal acts.2 Making sense of these disproportionate rates of suicide calls for an understanding of culture, but not in the usual sense of the word.3 Since the 1960s, anthropologists have embraced a conceptualization of culture that is interactive and intersectional, with an increasing focus on the relationship between culture and power.4 A study of teen suicide in Argentina throws into relief the ways in which “youth culture” confronts the realities of coming of age in a time and place overshadowed by political and economic uncertainty.5
  1. The significance of context. Cross-cultural analyses of suicide have demonstrated widespread differences in the circumstances that engender suicidal acts, and studies of suicide ask us to consider the diverse contexts and experiences under which individuals come to see suicide as an option.6 In Argentina, an exploration of the meanings and motivations surrounding decisions to attempt suicide reveals how teens envision different ways of living—lives free from violence, poverty, marginalization, and discrimination. With funding from the Argentine Program of LLILAS, it is my aim to contextualize the various meanings of teen suicide in Argentina to appreciate how suicide is understood and conceptualized from different points-of-view: person-centered (patient narratives) and expert-centered (clinical profiles). Doing so not only brings visibility to the issue of teen suicide in Argentina, but opens the door for a critical conversation about the ways in which intervention programs should, in the words of Arthur Kleinman, “respond to the problems that suicide articulates so fatally and finally.”7

1     Lakoff, A. (2004). The anxieties of globalization: Antidepressant sales and economic crisis in Argentina. Social Studies of Science34(2), 247-269.
2     Romero, A. J., Edwards, L. M., Bauman, S., & Ritter, M. K. (2014). Preventing adolescent depression and suicide among Latinas: Resilience research and theory. Cham: Springer.
3     Zayas, Luis H. & Gulbas, L. E.  Are suicide attempts by young Latinas a cultural idiom of distress? Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(5), 718-734.
4     Gupta, A., & Ferguson, J. (Eds.). (1997). Culture, power, place: Explorations in critical anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
5     Sutton, B. (2010). Bodies in crisis: Culture, violence, and women’s resistance in neoliberal Argentina. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
6     Chua, J. L. (2014). In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
7     Kleinman, A. (2014). Afterword. In M. L. Honkasalo & M. Tuominen (Eds.), Culture, suicide, and the human condition (pp. 199-206). New York, NY: Berghahn Books.


 Lauren Gulbas
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work



DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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Cuba in Question (Yet Again)  

Image courtesy of   Martha M. Montejo Pizarro

Image courtesy of
Martha M. Montejo Pizarro

César A. Salgado

Why is Cuba so special?  (I’m quoting here—with a twist–the title of a New York Times opinion piece about the U.S. “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants published yesterday.[1])  Since the Spanish American War of 1898 but especially after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, the question of Cuba has generated fierce debates and even deadly confrontations in the United States and in the world at large. Lines have been drawn and trenches have been dug over Cuba on the arenas of Cold War and post-Soviet conflict in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia since the 1960 start of the U.S. embargo, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  In the United States the disputes over this question—why and how should Cuba remain special–have led to the arrival of several waves of exiles and immigrants that have transformed the ethnic, cultural, social, and racial fabric as well as the electoral tendencies of communities in Florida, New York, New Jersey, and, yes, the great state of Texas (perhaps not demographically but certainly politically—or, shall we say, senatorially).  Some argue that this question has over-influenced the outcome of some presidential elections.

The question of Cuba’s exceptionality again excited a great deal of media speculation after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early nineties.  How long would Cuba’s communist regime last? Could we all meet again next year in Havana?  The almost miraculous sustainability of Cuba’s socialist gamble throughout the harrowing economic privations of its Special Period in Times of Peace has transformed those questions into a discussion about the pragmatics of gerontocratic rule and the limits of resuscitation.  How special can Cuba remain after the passing of Fidel’s and Raúl’s generation of revolutionaries?

Picture courtesy of Mario Mercado-Diaz

Picture courtesy of Mario Mercado-Diaz

The announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 17 has again unleashed a great frenzy of speculation in world media regarding what Cuba would be like if the U.S. embargo is finally lifted. Will the Cuban Adjustment Law be rescinded?  How will the new Republican U.S. Congress respond to Obama’s “diplomatic” challenge?  How much of Obama’s three billion shot-in-the-arm of the Cuban economy will benefit el cubano de a pie over the regime official?  What will these new circumstances mean for the Afro-descendant inhabitants in the island, clearly the worst off under the current “Special Period” conditions?  The question of Cuba has now gone supernova, exploding throughout the blogosphere and spreading everywhere like a nasty computer virus. In response to this media overload, instead of a panel of policy experts, we have decided to invite colleagues who both analyze and suffer witness to Cuba, gente cubana de Texas que siguen cargando por acá el peso de su isla.

You will have the opportunity to see the faces and hear the voices of a sector of the Cuban population that bears the brunt of the issues at stake here, artists and academics working on Cuban topics who are also “life experts” representing the full spectrum of their diaspora through the state.  We have asked them to come together in a round table to speak out their views, hopes, and reservations and help us generate useful questions for a consequential, long term conversation about Cuba’s future.

[1] Ann Louise Bardach, “Why Are Cubans So Special?”   New York Times, Jan. 29, 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/opinion/why-are-cubans-so-special.html?_r=1

You can watch here the video of the Roundtable Imagining Cuba in a Post-Embargo Era: Ideas from the Cuban Diaspora in Texas. This event took place on Friday, January 30, 2015 at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections.


César A. Salgado
Associate Professor
Department of Spanish and Portuguese, College of Liberal Arts




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.


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The Remittance Landscape

Sarah Lynn Lopez


This book began in a small café kitchen in Berkeley, California, where I worked as a cook with three migrants from a village near Leon, the capital city of Guanajuato, Mexico. Over time, I learned about their aspirations to build new homes—not in Berkeley—but in their hometowns. My co-workers earned meager salaries, lived in cramped apartments in Oakland, and had been in California for over a decade. Why, then, were they investing in new homes in rural Mexico? As a historian of the built environment, I was curious about the homes themselves. What did they look like? Who built them? How did my co-workers (undocumented Mexican migrants who did not travel home) manage the construction process from a distance?

Upon further reflection, this book began long before I ever spoke with my co-workers about their uninhabited dream houses. I am the product of the aspirations, ambitions, and discomfort that come from such spaces of migration. My mother is a Cuban-Jew, born and raised in Havana, whose parents fled Poland and Romania in the early 1930s. My father’s family made their pilgrimage from a Chihuahuan mining town in Mexico, to strawberry fields in south Texas, and ultimately to the mining and refinery town of Trona in the Mojave Desert, arriving in the 1950s. I grew up reflecting on how processes of migration, the adjustment to radically new and different contexts, shape one’s experience of everyday life. This project borrows from such reflections, interrogating what the spaces of migration mean for migrants themselves.

The culmination of ten years of research into these questions has resulted in an interdisciplinary book called The Remittance Landscape: Spaces of Migration in Rural Mexico and Urban USA. International migrant remittances have received much scholarly attention in the last ten years as—according to the World Bank—flows increased from $72.3 billion in 2001 to an estimated $483 billion in 2011. Yet, the remittance landscape—new architectural and landscape elements financed by dollars migrants earn in the US—has been largely ignored. In 2012, Mexican families received over an estimated $22 billion dollars sent by migrants working in the U.S. New homes, roads, cultural centers, rodeo arenas, and more, have fueled a construction boom across rural localities. From the repaving of roads to the building of opulent cultural centers, migrants are crystallizing their aspirations and desires into built form and assuming new roles as town boosters and developers. These projects are sometimes aided by the Mexican government’s Tres Por Uno(3×1) program, which incorporates remittances into public policy by using municipal, state, and federal funds to quadruple remittances dedicated to development projects. Conducting fine-grained ethnographic research on the construction process, embedded aspirations, and subsequent use of remittance architecture reveals how social worlds in Mexico and the US are increasingly structured by the logic of remittance, a logic in which distance is normalized. Rather than overcome, distance is incorporated into a way of life—remitting becomes a way of life—that manages separation, dispersion, fragmentation and ambivalence on a daily basis. Through analysis of the remittance landscape, this book unveils the experience of migration from the perspective of both those that migrate and those “left behind” in emigrant villages.

Modified Prologue to The Remittance Landscape


Sarah Lynn Lopez
Assistant Professor
School of Architecture




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.



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Mexico’s Agony: Ayotzinapa and Beyond

By Ricardo Ainslie

Image: Manifesto 43.

Mexico is still reeling from protests in the continuing aftermath of the September 26 disappearance and apparent murder of 43 students at a teacher’s college in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. The search for the missing students has led to the discovery of a series of previously unrecorded mass graves around Iguala, the city where the municipal police initially apprehended the students. Those graves are symptoms of a failed system when it comes to citizen security and the rule of law.  The disappearance of the students has ignited a firestorm of indignation, disgust, and outrage, resulting in nation-wide demonstrations that have been ongoing for weeks. An entrance to the National Palace in Mexico City was set afire by protesters, the state legislature in Guerrero was also set ablaze, and victims’ families and activists temporarily shut down Acapulco International Airport. President Peña Nieto was forced to postpone a state visit to China and Australia due to the uproar. In a rare move, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States issued an extensive statement detailing what was known and what the government was doing to address the Ayotzinapa tragedy, but it did little to tamp down national and international activities in support of the students and their families.

Having endured years of violence on a national scale, Mexicans appear to have been jarred out of the haze of fear, numbness, and denial that has helped maintain the status quo in a nation where the rule of law remains tenuous. With a clear nexus between local and state government officials, local police, and organized crime groups, Ayotzinapa exposes unresolved problems that continue to haunt Mexico.  Citizen demands go beyond the fate of these students; they are pressing for an end to endemic corruption and the implementation of judicial and law enforcement reforms. Throughout Mexico, Ayotzinapa has become emblematic of these failures.

The outrage is not new. Ten years ago a million citizens marched to Mexico City’s Zocalo, the country’s spiritual and political center, to demand an end the epidemic of crime that had engulfed the country since the 1990’s.  Police collusion with crime, corruption in general, and failed institutions were the targets of the largest march in Mexico’s history. Two years ago, millions of Mexicans supported Mexican poet Javier Sicilia’s “Caravan for Peace” that crisscrossed the nation with similar demands following the murder of his son (LLILAS hosted a visit to campus by Sicilia in mid-November). There have been many other protests. The fact is that Mexican citizens have been demanding that the government live up to its most fundamental obligation, the protection of its citizens, for a long time.

But governments are averse to change. In 2007 the Mexican government acted to suppress my documentary film, Ya Basta!, which chronicles the 2004 million-person march and the tragedies that had led its leaders to form Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) in an effort to pressure the government into action. The husband of one had been kidnapped for 29 days during which four of his fingers were cut off to pressure the family into paying a higher ransom. Another’s daughter was kidnapped and murdered despite his having paid the agreed upon ransom.  Just weeks before the film’s premier in Mexico, I screened it for then president Felipe Calderón’s chief of staff under the impression that the new administration was eager to pursue the reforms championed in the film (and by MUCD). Not long after, the MUCD leadership, which was negotiating with the administration over judicial and law enforcement reforms, was told to distance themselves from the film or else risk not having “a seat at the table,” leaving them no alternative but to comply.

Ten years after the Ya Basta march, Mexico’s cancer remains the country’s most important challenge, one that has profound implications for Mexico’s economy, as well. Energy reform, on which Mexico is pinning great hopes, will falter if organized crime controls the territory within which companies must work, or if cartels continue stealing oil and gasoline with impunity. Tourism has been hit hard by Mexico’s crisis (tourism if off by 65% in Acapulco, for example). Corruption and violence are costing the Mexican economy dearly. If president Peña Nieto is serious about addressing these issues he and his party must lead by example. That daunting challenge has been made even more difficult by recent revelations alleging that the Mexican company partnering with the Chinese to build a three billion dollar bullet train also built a seven million dollar home for Peña Nieto and his wife in an exclusive Mexico City neighborhood (the exposé went viral on youtube).

Whether the Ayotzinapa crisis leads Mexico toward real change remains to be seen. The nation may well fall back into silence and resignation as it has in the past following equally horrific moments. What the events at Ayotzinapa make clear is that it will take more than marches and protests to bring about the changes for which Mexicans hunger. Groups like Mexico Unido Contra la Delicuencia and other civic organizations must take the lead in pressuring the “three levels of government” (municipal, state, and federal), making them transparent and accountable to citizens.

Ricardo Ainslie is a native of Mexico City. His latest book, “The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War”  (University of Texas Press, 2013) explores crime and violence in Mexico.

Ricardo C. Ainslie, Ph.D.
M.K. Hage Centennial Professor in Education
Email: rainslie@austin.utexas.edu
Twitter: @RicardoAinslie
Website: ricardoainslie.com






DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.


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¿Por qué Ayotzinapa?

Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba


Image Source: http://bit.ly/1CcjcvA

El caso de la desaparición de 43 estudiantes de la escuela normal de Ayotzinapa, Guerrero,  México, a manos de policías municipales de Iguala, no es sino una mínima muestra de la gran cadena de violaciones a los derechos humanos registradas en México, por lo menos desde la década de 1960. Cabe aquí la afirmación que, con o sin guerra fría, con o sin neoliberalismo, el estado mexicano es sistemáticamente un estado policial, esto es, un estado donde las decisiones de la policía en contra de los ciudadanos están ampliamente protegidas por el estado, por más ilegales, inconstitucionales y de lesa humanidad que resulten. Lo extraordinario de la tragedia de Iguala no es precisamente el abuso policial contra estudiantes, las desapariciones forzadas, la confusión intencional en torno a las investigaciones, la indolencia de las autoridades: estos hechos se han incorporado ya al inventario de abusos naturalizados en la historia reciente del país. Lo extraordinario ha sido la atención mediática, con la imagen del país de las matazones que circula en la prensa internacional, las redes sociales, los campus universitarios, la protesta de la calle, etc. Sin esta amplia visibilización, las autoridades mexicanas ni siquiera se hubieran molestado en llamar a ruedas de prensa, ni en lanzar declaraciones falaces frente a una opinión internacional que ya ha aprendido, como la opinión nacional, a escuchar con escepticismo sus posturas. No fue así con la noticia de más de 300 cadáveres encontrados en fosas clandestinas de Durango, en 2013; ni con la de las fosas de San Fernando, Tamaulipas, en 2011, con 183 cadáveres, que aunque también le dio la vuelta al mundo, no mereció una protesta social tan amplia como el caso de estos jóvenes. Tampoco los más de 100 000 muertos registrados en los últimos 8 años han parecido indignar tanto a gobiernos ni organizaciones como para emitir recomendaciones, declaraciones, y críticas tan contundentes como las del Parlamento Europeo y el gobierno norteamericano, que tras un mes del evento de Iguala externa su preocupación.

¿Qué exactamente explica este abuso contra los estudiantes?, ¿cuáles son los conflictos que han llevado a que se sumen estos jóvenes al alto número de los desaparecidos en el país? Las normales rurales de Guerrero tienen una vieja tradición de resistencia frente a las políticas educativas del estado. Un evento de protesta en diciembre de 2013, en demanda de mejores condiciones para los normalistas llevó a que dos estudiantes de la misma escuela normal de Ayotzinapa resultaran asesinados por policías. Pero más aún, estos hechos pueden remitirnos a los conflictos de los años setenta en que cientos de guerrilleros, comandados por Lucio Cabañas, un maestro de escuela primaria egresado de una de estas escuelas normales, fueran también desaparecidos. Fue en Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, donde en 1985 se registró una masacre contra campesinos que viajaban a participar de una protesta. Fue en parte por la defensa de campesinos ecologistas de Guerrero, que denunciaban a compañías desforestadoras ligadas a organizaciones criminales, que la activista de derechos humanos Digna Ochoa fue asesinada en 2001. Esta costumbre de criminalizar la protesta y aplastar con toda la fuerza del estado los descontentos sociales estaba sin duda vigente la noche del 26 de septiembre en Iguala.

Por otra parte, no podemos ignorar que es la región de Iguala la mayor productora de heroína en México, considerado el segundo productor mundial de esta droga. Esto ha creado un aparato de corrupción tal que el propio alcalde de Iguala es señalado como protector del cártel local Guerreros Unidos, quienes tienen a su disposición los cuerpos policiacos para ejecutar acciones criminales. Esta relación corrupta tampoco es excepcional, sino parte de una vieja tradición de complicidad entre autoridades y criminales que data desde los mismo inicios del narcotráfico en este país, en los años de la revoución mexicana. Es, en todo caso, la evidencia de que las autoridades y criminales no solamente se asocian para hacer negocios ilegales y realizar ejecuciones relacionadas con esos negocios, sino que ahora están coludidos para emprender una guerra contra la sociedad civil, o más precisamente: para continuar, con más armas y más desfachatez la guerra sucia iniciada hace casi medio siglo. Ya hay quienes hablan de narcodictadura.

Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba
Associate Professor
Dept. of  Spanish and Portuguese

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.
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