Category Archives: Featured Faculty

The CLACS Featured Faculty series highlights one member of our Faculty or Affiliated Faculty members and the new projects s/he is working on.

Aquarius by Kleber Mendonça Filho, or what should have been Brazil’s Oscar nominee

ladjaneBy Ian Merkel, PhD Candidate, History and French Studies, New York University

The Brazilian film Aquarius, released internationally last October, has been celebrated  by critics worldwide after its standing ovation at Cannes. On the front cover of the September edition of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Aquarius was applauded as “a marvelous and surprising act of portraiture”[1] and considered “triumphant, a one-woman show of strength, sensuality and indomitable staying power”[2]. This very Brazilian film managed to do something that Brazilian film historically has often failed to do: to present stories, characters, scenarios, and aesthetics that a more global audience can identify with. In the United States, Aquarius deserves our special attention after having been deprived, by the Brazilian government, of the possibility of competing for an Oscar.[3] But while almost all critics, Brazilian and international, mention the presence of the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga)’s maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto), few[4] analyze the relationship between them. In this article, we propose to demonstrate the very centrality of this question, as well as a broader critique of upper middle class privilege[5], within Mendonça Filho’s film.

International critics, to a large extent, have failed to address this question as they did for Mendonça Filho’s previous film, Neighboring Sounds (O Som Ao Redor), where themes of labor relations and the legacy of slavery were much more central.[6]  This may be because Brazil’s institution of domestic labor is unfamiliar to them and the film, unlike Domésticas (2001), and the more recent Casa Grande (2014) and Que Horas Ela Volta (2015), does not deal with it directly.  For most Brazilians critics, the institution of domestic labor is perhaps so banal, so omnipresent not simply in the film but in their daily lives, that it fails to garner special attention. These critics have reason to focus their energies on the larger politics of the film, particularly in the aftermath of the recent impeachment, considered by many to be a coup d’état.[7] But critics should also remember that Clara, the very protagonist of the film, is not without her own ambiguities. Although she resisted the military dictatorship[8]— and we imagine her to be a music critic and writer critical of inequalities on so many fronts– Clara proves incapable of criticizing the very institution of domestic labor that she depends upon in her daily life.

Identifying Clara as “good” and the real estate speculators as “evil” misses one of the essential takeaways of the film: namely, that all of us, to varying degrees, are caught up in a social and economic system that is exploitative, segregationist, and, although not overtly, racist.  This exploitation most often takes place at a distance. We know that the clothes on our backs are made by slave labor in Asia; the cellphones in our hands, with materials mined in precarious conditions in Africa and the Middle East; the produce we consume, cultivated either by poorly paid and mistreated labor, by multinationals that are destroying our planet (Brazil being a poignant example), or by both. We choose, however, not to remember these things—in psychology, to repress them— so that we can live our daily lives.

In the case of the Brazilian upper-middle classes, such daily exploitation is often much more intimate. In Aquarius, without cheap domestic labor, who would wash Clara’s clothes, cook her meals, clean her home, and allow her, as a woman, to have been able to pursue her aspirations as a writer? Clara, by most standards, is not only a good, but an excellent employer. Nonetheless, she is still the beneficiary of extreme inequality that makes it feasible (and in her mind necessary) to have someone working at her personal service, day in and day out.

Clara, like her friends, is conscious of this. Mid-way through the film, in the midst of growing tensions with her landlord, Clara dreams of an employee (a black woman) rummaging through and stealing her jewelry before her own eyes. The real thief throughout the film is the real estate company that owns her building. The company pressures Clara to leave her apartment and, when persuasion fails, make her life there a living hell. But in Clara’s dreams, her feelings of vulnerability are symbolized by a much more petty form of theft by an employee in her own home. Her friend Fátima (Paula de Renor), when looking over a family album of photographs in which she comes across an old employee, says quite nonchalantly, “we exploit them, they sometimes steal from us”. The naturality with which Fátima expresses this fact assumes a series of unspeakable truths: the recognition of employee underpayment, the expectation that employees will periodically steal, and the assumption of a given’s employee’s ability to be replaced when this inevitably happens.

Clara’s confrontation with Diego (Humberto Carrão), the grandson of the real estate mogul who is actively working to disappropriate Clara from her apartment, reveals director Kleber Mendonça’s not-so-stereotypical exploration of the upper-middle class existence of people like Clara. While certain critics regret Kleber Mendonça’s stereotyping of the young Brazilian businessman as a typical coxinha[9], Diego’s response to Clara’s provocations are indeed quite profound. Clara’s invective against Diego as an inheritor of family fortune, disguised in the language of “business” that his training in the U.S. allows him to use, certainly finds echo among the Brazilian left. But Diego’s bitingly sarcastic response to Clara, “you obviously had it tough,” gesturing toward Clara’s maid Ladjane who accompanied their argument, is equally powerful. Clara’s monopoly on morality against the exploitative capitalist crumbles in the face of her own reality.

After watching Aquarius, we obviously gain sympathy for certain characters and kinds of personalities more than others. Clearly, Mendonça Filho’s film is situated to the left of the political spectrum. But the film’s strength is to nuance our preconceived notions of good and evil. Clara, even as a woman on the left, a cultivated feminist who represents, to a large degree, progressive forces within Brazil, is still dependent on the exploitation of labor. In the United States, we have our own systems of exploitation laborer that that prop up middle class existence. In Brazil, however, such exploitation is often much more intimate, occurring within the confines of ones own home.

In recent years, the Worker’s Party government has brought domestic laborers out of the shadows and officially into the Brazilian workforce. Now, these workers are ensured, at least on paper, basic standards such as paid overtime, vacation, and employer contributions to social security. Many middle class people complain of the rising costs of having full time maids, and it may be the case that the current economic crisis forces even more of them to go from having someone work for them everyday to only once or twice a week. Nonetheless, domestic labor, as so many other employer-employee relationships in condominiums, houses, and businesses, remain the norm in Brazil. It is so utterly banal that even the left-wing critics of Aquarius are blind to it.

Mendonça Filho’s film is incredibly nostalgic for Brazilian cities in the 1980s and 1990s. His memory of a much safer, more humane Recife, less affected by real estate speculation and violence, may be accurate. However, it must not be forgotten that in those years, employees like Ladjane were considered as much appliances as they were as people. This, of course, is inseparable from the long history of slavery. According to architect, Lúcio Costa, “The Brazilian machine of housing, from the time of colony to Empire, depended on this mixture of beast and person that was a slave… he is what made the house function: there was a Negro for everything—from the little Negros always at hand for messages to the Old Negro nanny. The Negro was plumbing; he was running water in the bedroom, warm and cold; he was the light-switch and the doorbell; he sealed leaks and lifted heavy windowpanes; he was the washing machine and fanned better than a fan itself. Even after the abolition of slavery, the bonds of dependence and the comforts of patriarchal life […] persisted. During the first Republican period, the low cost of domestic labor continued to allow the bourgeoisie the maintain, without officially having slaves, the easy life of the previous period.”[10]

Aquarius, surely, may have its plot centered on Clara’s disappropriation. But it is much more than about the plight of the middle classes caused by real estate speculation. It is, in many ways, about the necessarily exploitative lifestyle of the middle classes, and the Brazilian middle classes in particular—even when they think of themselves as leftists. Aquarius will surely go down as a Brazilian and international classic. Aesthetically, its value is already recognized, as are Sônia Braga’s performance and the excellent soundtrack. But if Aquarius is to have a more profound impact politically, critics and viewers alike would do well to consider the exploitative nature not only of the real estate industry[11], but of people like me, you, and Clara.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/movies/aquarius-review.html

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/sonia-braga-makes-a-triumphant-return-to-the-screen-in-aquarius/2016/10/20/0966195e-948d-11e6-bb29-bf2701dbe0a3_story.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/world/americas/brazilian-politics-smother-a-films-oscar-ambitions.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/may/17/aquarius-review-rich-and-mysterious-brazilian-story-of-societal-disintegration

[5] revistacinetica.com.br/nova/o-pais-do-cinismo/

[6] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/neighboring-sounds-2013

[7]http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/24/glenn_greenwald_brazils_democracy_is_under
http://nacla.org/news/2016/09/07/brazil-impeachment-president-and-future-country
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/dilma-rousseff-pt-coup-golpe-petrobras-lavajato/

[8] http://www.cartacapital.com.br/cultura/aquarius-e-o-dever-da-resistencia

[9] http://g1.globo.com/pop-arte/cinema/noticia/2016/09/aquarius-faz-reflexao-poderosa-mas-tem-vilao-simplista-g1-ja-viu.html

http://cultura.estadao.com.br/blogs/estado-da-arte/aquarius-e-a-regressao-do-cinema-politico/

[10] “A máquina brasileira de morar, ao tempo da colônia e do império, dependia dessa mistura de coisas, de bicho e de gente, que era o escravo. Se os casarões remanescentes do tempo antigo parecem inabitáveis devido ao desconforto, é porque o negro está ausente. Era ele que fazia a casa funcionar: havia negro para tudo – desde negrinhos sempre à mão para recados, até negra velha, babá. O negro era esgoto; era água corrente no quarto, quente e fria; era interruptor de luz e botão de campainha; o negro tapava goteira e subia vidraça pesada; era lavador automático, abanava que nem ventilador. Mesmo depois de abolida a escravidão, os vínculos de dependência e os hábitos cômodos da vida patriarcal de tão vil fundamento, perduraram, e, durante a primeira fase republicana, o custo baixo da mão de obra doméstica ainda permitiu à burguesia manter, mesmo sem escravos oficiais, o trem fácil da vida do período anterior.”

COSTA, Lúcio. “Depoimento de um arquiteto carioca”. In: Centro dos Estudantes Universitários de Arquitetura. Lúcio Costa: sobre arquitetura. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 1962

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/world/americas/brazil-president-temer-corruption.html?_r=0

Paraguayan Student Movement Promises Political Awakening During “la Primavera Estudiantil”

By Gustavo Setrini, a Paraguayan political scientist and Assistant Professor of Food Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, Culture and Human Development and a Faculty Affiliate of the NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies

University students are making history in Paraguay in what is being dubbed La Primavera Estudiantil (the Student Spring). Over the last weeks, they have mobilized one of the largest protest movements in the country’s history, demanding democratic reforms to the governance statutes of the National University of Asunción (UNA). Should they succeed, it will arguably mark the first time in the country’s modern history that major national reforms result from social movement pressure. The success that student protesters have had in mobilizing massive support and sympathy both reveals important changes in Paraguayan politics and has potential to transform it further still.

Over the last weeks, protests have attracted upward of 10,000 students and unified the university’s 12 schools in a strike and a campus sit-in that has paralyzed the university. Students have pledged to lift the strike only when university leaders accept four basic reforms to university governance: the elimination of the absolute majority currently held by professors in the university governing assembly that is composed of elected representatives of the professors, students, and alumni from each of the 12 faculties; term limits for elected university leadership positions; a ban on the “personal appointees” (“cargos de confianza”) of university leaders running for and occupying elected voting positions in the university governing bodies; and the creation of an independent electoral commission to regulate university elections.

In response to student mobilizations, the university assembly has called a meeting today to debate and vote on the proposed changes to the university statutes. On two earlier occasions in the last two months, the assembly met and voted down the students’ proposals, provoking further mobilization from the students.

marcha

A march on September 20, 2016 drew thousands of students and supporters. Photo by La Chispa

 

 

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Kreyòl @ NYU

This academic year, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies began offering Haitian Creole language classes to students at New York University. Students at Lehman College and Columbia University can enroll in the classes as well thanks to the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Consortium. Kreyòl is one of Haiti’s two official languages and is spoken by around 10 million people worldwide, including the large Haitian community in New York.

Wynnie2A course is not a course without a teacher, and on fall of 2015 we were delighted to welcome Wynnie Lamour to the CLACS faculty. Wynnie is the founder of the Haitian Creole Language Institute of New York, where she offers Kreyól language classes and cultural events. CLACS MA student Brendan Fields talked with Wynnie about her experiences and expectations regarding Haitian Creole at NYU.

 

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Las implicaciones contextuales de las traducciones al quechua

 

Post and interview by Raúl A. Rodríguez Arancibia, MA Candidate at CLACS – Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU

Para más información sobre la presentación del estudio crítico del Dr. Odi Gonzales en NYU el 18 de noviembre de 2015 visite http://ow.ly/Ufutn.

Los textos literarios no pueden ser únicamente comprendidos y traducidos exitosamente sin su apreciación dentro de un contexto cultural como resultado de un proceso histórico. Por lo mismo, cierta sensibilidad frente al texto también es requerida al traductor cuando se enfrenta a la labor de traducir los códigos de una cultura hacia otro lenguaje donde no ha sido predominante el “logos” y el individuo, como axis de la producción de conocimiento.

Este es el caso de la literatura castellana traducida a idiomas indígenas de las Américas. En estos casos, la traducción más allá de ser una preparación humanística es, en el contexto post colonial Latinoamericano y específicamente el Andino, una zona de contacto, de luchas interpretativas, e intertextuales y un compromiso con los actores involucrados.

Esta noche, la presentación que brindará el Profesor Odi Gonzales, que es una mirada crítica a la traducción del clásico de Cervantes El Quijote, nos sugiere una mirada crítica de las nuevas aventuras interpretativas que se están dando en los Andes que proviene desde el mismo locus de enunciación indígena.

 

 

 

Ada Ferrer’s Book Wins Prestigious Prize

Ada Ferrer's book, Freedom's Mirror, won three awards from the American Historical Association.

Ada Ferrer’s book, Freedom’s Mirror, has already won four prestigious awards.

Ada Ferrer, professor of history and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University, has been selected as the winner of the 2015 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for her book “Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution” (Cambridge University Press).

The Douglass Prize was created jointly by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. It is awarded annually by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition. The $25,000 prize will be presented to Ferrer at a reception sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute in New York City on February 4, 2016.

In addition to Ferrer, the other finalists for the prize were Ezra Greenspan for “William Wells Brown: An African American Life” (W. W. Norton), and Michael Guasco for “Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World” (University of Pennsylvania Press).

This year’s finalists were selected from a field of more than 80 books by a jury of scholars that included Douglas Egerton (chair) of Le Moyne College, Rosanne Adderley of Tulane University, and James Sweet  of the University of Wisconsin. The winners were selected by a review committee of representatives from the Gilder Lehrman Center, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Yale.

“Freedom’s Mirror” offers “a fresh perspective and links these two nations together in a complex web, in which sugar slavery declined in Haiti just as it rose in Cuba,” commented the jury. “Ferrer’s research is most impressive; she fills her pages with proslavery Cuban generals, African slaves in both colonies, refugee ‘French Negroes,’ and Haitian leaders who hoped to weaken slavery on the islands that surrounded them. ‘Freedom’s Mirror’ will force even specialists to reconsider this era.” The jury also praised Ferrer’s “rendering of the complex politics in a beautifully written and understandable way that will be readily followed by readers with minimal knowledge of 19th-century Cuba, Haiti, and the Spanish Caribbean.”

This Ferrer’s book has already been awarded with other prestigious prizes. For instance it won the Friedrich Katz Prize in Latin American and Caribbean History, the Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History, and the James A. Rawley Prize for the History of the Atlantic Worlds before the 20th Century.

The Frederick Douglass Book Prize was established in 1999 to stimulate scholarship in the field of slavery and abolition by honoring outstanding books on the subject. The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the slave who escaped bondage to emerge as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the 19th century.


*Re-blogged from news.yale.edu. See original post here.

Prof. Katherine Smith’s Presentation on Haitian Freemasons at the 40th Annual CSA Conference

Freemasons parade in Jacmel, Haiti, 2013. Photo by Katherine Smith

Freemasons parade in Jacmel, Haiti, 2013. Photo by Katherine Smith

On May 25th, Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow Katherine Smith presented her research on Haitian Freemasonry at the 40th Annual Caribbean Studies Association Conference in New Orleans. The Freemasons claim historical roots in medieval stone masonry guilds of Europe and mythological origins in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. However, the organization, as it is known today, descends from lodges founded in England and Scotland in the 18th century. Masonic symbolism and rituals embodied Enlightenment ideals such as truth, reason, and liberty. The participation of Africans and their descendants in Freemasonry, and other fraternal organizations, complicates our understanding Enlightenment thought and, by extension, the historical formation of modernity. Smith’s paper focused on Haiti and the legacy of the Enlightenment as expressed in Masonic philosophy, aesthetics, and ceremonies in the present.

Freemasons celebrate the eve of Saint John's Day with a traditional bonfire. Jacmel, Haiti,  2013. Photo by Katherine Smith

Freemasons celebrate the eve of Saint John’s Day with a traditional bonfire. Jacmel, Haiti, 2013. Photo by Katherine Smith

On “The Cuban Moment”

On “The Cuban Moment: Conversatorio on Cuba”

By Patrick Moreno-Covington

On December 17th President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Head of State, Raúl Castro, made simultaneous announcements of a diplomatic normalization in the relationship between the United States and Cuba. The surprise announcement was the culmination of 18 months of backroom negotiations between the two governments. As part of the new agreement the United States removes or reduces restrictions on travel, remittances, and banking, while Cuba has promised increased internet access, and the release of 53 people identified as political prisoners.

In the first of a series of discussions on Cuba planned by CLACS and the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, a distinguished panel of guests discussed the implications of the new agreement, recent experiences in Cuba, and the potential for a new “Cuban Moment.” The panel, gathered on January 28 at the KJCC Auditorium, included renowned Cuba scholars Odette Casamayor Cisneros, Ariana Hernández-Reguant, Jacqueline Loss, and Noelle Stout, the author Enrique del Risco, artist Coco Fusco, Damien Cave of the New York Times, and Ana Dopico, director of the King Juan Carlos Center, moderated by Jill Lane, director of CLACS.

In a packed house, each speaker had the opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives from their respective fields of expertise. One common thread through each of the presentations was that this “Moment” was not singular or particularly unique in Cuban history. For many on the panel, the opening of diplomatic relations reflects an “American Moment,” one moment in a cyclical period where the American populace has their collective imagination focused on the Caribbean island once again. Another common theme between the panelists was a sense of reserved optimism for the improvement in opportunities for the majority of Cubans. Many on the panel acknowledged that an increase in American banking opportunities, remittances, and the potential to import more foreign goods, could exacerbate existing forms of inequality. In this regard, this “Cuban Moment” could be a repetition of the many previous Cuban moments, as well as potentialities that have yet to be fulfilled.

Below are some pictures of The Cuban Moment: Conversatorio on Cuba.

To stay up to date with our Cuban Moment Series, follow CLACS on Facebook and Twitter. Join our mailing list for updates on all CLACS events.