Category Archives: Recent Research

The Politics of Black Hair in Havana: Reflections on Sisterhood and Diaspora Solidarity

 

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August 2017 Hair Natural Hair Conference – Hair model from Mariano, Cuba

Posted by Moriah Ray, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Carribean and Latin American Studies. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

In the Summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Havana, Cuba for three months. To prepare myself for my journey, I did what many black women do in preparation for travel; put my hair in braids. This is one of the multiple popular protective styles that black women commonly use for travel because they are low maintenance and last a long time. I assumed that this style would last me through the three months, but with the hot Havana heat, they did not last as long as expected. Before I could even get my braids out multiple women asked me for the extensions that were used to braid my hair. The first two times I was asked I assumed I misunderstood the women. How would my braiding hair be of any use to them? In the U.S when women take out their braiding extensions they normally throw the hair away. I told them that I could not give them my hair but when my Mom came to Cuba in September I would ask her to bring some. I continued to get stopped and asked about my hair. Who did it? Could they use the hair when I take out the braids? Could I do their hair? My hair connected me to diverse black women throughout Havana. I got their numbers and promised them I would return with packs of hair. After two long months, I ended up taking out my braids. I gave my hair to a close friend of mine who was thrilled to have it. She is still using it now, two years later!

I went to the Centro Comerical in Nuevo Vedado, one of the few “shopping centers” in Havana, to look for some hair products to do my hair. I wrongfully assumed that in a country that is majority black there would be hair products catered towards black women’s hair. There was absolutely nothing. The majority of the products had keratin chemicals to “treat” natural curls. After the centro comerical failed me, I looked in the “black market” stores I knew about, but found nothing. Discouraged, I asked my friend what she used in her natural hair to moisturize it? She told me that she used “cocinero,” a brand of cooking oil! How on earth did black women manage to maintain their natural hair in Cuba? 

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Rebelling and Resisting

Posted by Michelle Hurtubise, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

When I said I wanted to go to a protest against Michel Temer this summer a mentor gently said, well just stay on the fringe.  Or in other words, this is Latin America young white one, you have no idea what you’re getting into.  I cared, I wanted to witness, what did it mean to protest in Rio de Janeiro?  There had been many a protest in New York in my recent past and I was curious.  Let’s just say that while I may be skittish, good thing I’m not a cat. 

I was surprised by a few things June 30, 2017.  One, what a great idea to sell drinks and snacks at a protest! Everyone gets hungry and needs a beer once in a while.  Two, seasoned journalists knew how to wear their riot gear as well as the police, only the press were the ones wearing blue helmets.  Three, you are never too old for more stickers. Four, fireworks thrown at police is a very effective scattering method. Five, do not be an undercover policeman discovered in a protest, ever. Six, tear gas does in fact make you cry.  But it wears off pretty quick. Seven, trash cans are usually removed from the path of the protest so as to decrease the amount of readily available material to set on fire. Eight, the sound of glass being shattered repeatedly can be oddly soothing in contrast to things exploding. Nine, I am definitely afraid and way out of my small sphere of limited existence.  Scaredy cat, check! Ten, I have never had something at stake in the same way these courageous Brazilians have.

 

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Strength at Posto 9

Posted by Michelle Hurtubise, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

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Photo by Michelle Hurtubise

I was sitting on Rio de Janeiro’s rightly famed and beautiful Ipanema Beach, crafting lofty academic thoughts while humming Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema” when I heard clapping.  I looked around, thinking someone was performing and could not find the source.  As more and more people began to stand up clapping, I too kept my energy focused on an unknown event.  Something was happening.  I stood up.  And then I saw where everyone was looking, a tiny happy boy was perched on someone’s shoulder, raising his toy word high in the air.  His skinny arm was straight and strong, raised in a triumphant gesture of confidence. The clapping got louder and louder until a man trailing a few other kids in tow calming walked up and the tiny boy climbed down for a hug.  A family was reunited.  The clapping turned into a few happy cheers and then everyone went back to their beach chairs, beer, and high academic musings.  I stood stunned, tears stinging my eyes as I witnessed something normal to the people of Posto 9 at Ipanema.  

As I sniffled I thought how easily the community here could transcend language and class, culture and borders and help a lost child out with a simple clap.  And why not? Posto 9 has a history of being a gathering place for liberals and countercultural movements, but a friend also said this kind of clapping happens all over Latin America. After all, it is the most logical, easy, and cost effective solution.  Forget fear and shaming, isn’t it more productive to NOT instill fear in a lost child or shame the parent when these things happen all the time and with no ill intent?  When everyone gathered together, the solution was simple and clear.  Just clap, people will look, and everyone gets to share in the joy of reunion.  Never before have I seen such a instinctual, genuine, and collective responsibility for the young.  No one tried to pass the responsibility off to another, no one had any fear of being held responsible for someone else’s problem.  Higher authorities were not turned to for a solution, the little boy was not handed off to the Police.  And a child learned that he had neighbors, he had people he could turn to who would actually help him.  He belonged.  He knew the land was his, the people were on his side, and while things new seem as simple when we are grown, for a moment he was the center of a movement.  Where the state often instills a culture of fear and shame, the community overcame and the people stood in joy.  In five minutes my whole notion of what is possible was turned on its head, and I was so grateful to be in Latin America where people graciously showed me more truly is possible.

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Photo by Michelle Hurtubise

Maré at Night

Posted by Michelle Hurtubise, MA Candidate at NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

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Photo by Michelle Hurtubise

My day started sleepily, having fended off an annoying mosquito all night.  I was gathering my strength, ready to encounter an unknown world, putting on first world makeup on to cover the bites when I heard the twerp again.  Oh I was ready.  Slap, blood, and thank goodness the mirror I hit with all my morning force didn’t shatter.  As I wiped up the mess I had the odd thought that I was cleaning up my own blood.  Forget about the mosquito, poor me.  I just spilled my own blood.

Recently I had seen BOPE (Special Police Operation Battalion) roll their tanks through the Maré Favela in Rio de Janeiro.  A school had closed because when a fire had started in a wastebasket, the firemen refused to come put it out.  They feared the favela.  So they called the police.  When BOPE rolled in, the community knew there would be trouble.  And then the shooting started.  So a school closed for the day because someone was scared to put out a fire in a wastebasket.  The tanks rolled by, and fanned the flames higher and higher and then bullets flew.

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Looking for Asian ‘mestizaje’ in Mexican History

By Emilia Sawada, PhD Candidate in Social and Cultural Analysis. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

Although I spent only two weeks in the field (Mexico City, Mexico), this research expedition generated a wealth of information about two subjects of interest: post-revolutionary Mexican public art and the influence of the latter on contemporary Mexican and Japanese artists. In fact, I collected such an overwhelming amount of information from Mexico City’s museums, art fairs, and government buildings, not to mention my ethnographic interviews with contemporary artists, that I hardly know where to begin this blog post. I spent the entirety of the first week at museums and other landmarks in the historic center, photographing artworks and looking for examples of Asian mestizaje in Mexican history. Although I am particularly interested in post-revolutionary Mexican aesthetics, I found abundant examples of Asian influence in colonial ceramics and furniture—perhaps most obviously, the biombo, an Asian-style folding screen imported to New Spain in the fifteenth century. However, I had a more difficult time locating Asian subjects, or even Asian themes, in the public works of post-revolutionary muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Some of the subjects depicted in Rivera’s murals, for example, look Asian, but are more likely indigenous Mexicans. I wonder if the post-revolutionary muralists consciously mobilized this racial ambiguity in their work? Interestingly enough, some of my Mexican interviewees noted that their collaborations with Japanese artists had brought them closer to indigenous culture, suggesting that such Asian-indigenous connections persist into the present.

Even more striking is the history of Asian and Asian American participation in the Mexican muralismo movement, of which I was unaware until my visit to Mexico. Apparently, Los Angeles-born Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi actively participated in the muralismo movement, executing some of Rivera’s designs at sites like the Rodriguez Market in Mexico City. In fact, not only Noguchi, but Taro Okamoto, Koji Toneyama, Luis Nishizawa, and Shinsaburo Takeda also participated at least transiently in this 1920s-1930s post-revolutionary movement, which coincided with the mestizophilia (national obsession with racial hybridity) of the early twentieth century. This penchant for cross-racial public art continued for Japanese Mexican artist Nishizawa, who created a number of—unfortunately, unrealized—sketches for mural projects in the 1960s-1970s, at the height of postwar decolonization and the student liberation movements. Although an extensive body of literature exists on post-revolutionary muralismo, less work exists on the enduring influence of artists like Rivera on late twentieth-century and twenty-first-century Mexican and Asian artists. These historical moments promise a potential counterpoint to the concurrent 1960s-1970s U.S. public arts movement and its enduring legacy in California.

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What We Talk About when We Talk About Development

Posted by Sam Kellogg — MA candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at NYU. This post was written in the summer of 2017, based on research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

On paper, and according to many observers, the Cuban Internet is many years behind the times, behind the curve. In a formal sense, and according to a linear development model in which countries must develop one step after another along a set path, this is true. Infrastructure is certainly lacking, though this is changing—new fiber-optic cables have been laid in Habana Vieja and new public (though not free—see my previous blog post) wifi hotspots and Internet cafes have been opened across the island. The reasons for the lack in infrastructural development are multiple and layered: government hesitance to adopt the Internet is certainly part of it, though the long-term effects of the US economic blockade have inarguably been devastating to Cuba’s ability to build a robust web architecture, particularly because so much of the Internet’s global development (in terms of physical infrastructure but also in terms of intellectual property, patents, and standards) has been dominated by the United States. There isn’t time to go into further detail here, but regardless of the reasons for Cuba’s relatively slow Internet adoption, what I like to call the “back in time” narrative can be summed up well borrowing the words of a friend of mine, a well-respected Cuban. He told me that Cuba’s Internet infrastructure is about “twenty years behind,” pointing out that the public wifi hotspot model is fundamentally the same one used by other Latin American countries like Perú a couple decades ago. Larry Press has written astutely from this perspective, arguing that Cuba might be able to leapfrog development stages in order to catch up with the rest of the world.

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Poster art in Clandestina: “Welcome to Prehistory!”

While this modal developmental model could be useful when comparing countries on a macro scale, it is limited if we want to understand what’s happening on the ground in Cuba. I would argue that the changes that the Internet has already wrought in Cuban society can hardly be appreciated if we stay at a high level, and argue instead for a ‘thicker’ approach of social and cultural change. From a hardware perspective, the antennas that the Cuban telecom company ETECSA is using in public wifi parks, mostly from Chinese technology giant Huawei, are fast and functional, and while the scratch-off, single-use login card system I described in my last blog post might seem antiquated, the system sits within a line of tried and true models for selling pre-paid access time going back to phone cards in the 1970’s. As a Cuban blogger and independent journalist I spoke with put it, “at least it’s something,” and compared with five years ago when access in cities was almost exclusively through expensive tourist hotels, the difference is almost night and day. Beyond that, though, the Internet and technology that Cubans use to connect is unrecognizable from those of 1997, and it is this fact that makes Cuba’s integration into the global internet at this moment so difficult to understand using linear development models.

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Impunity Makes Mexico Dangerous for Everyone

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Lesvy Osorio was killed next to a telephone booth on the UNAM campus, long considered a sanctuary by students and the intellectual community. (Nidia Bautista)

Posted by Nidia Bautista – MA Candidate in Global Journalism and CLACS at NYU. This post was written in August, 2017, based on summer research funded by the Tinker Grant. 

Mexico has become a dangerous place for everyone. This summer, during the time I spent investigating feminicide in Edomex, has been terrible for human rights and crime in the country. Ten journalists have been killed this year and Mexico is fast becoming the deadliest country for journalists in the world. Candido Rios, a crime reporter, is the latest journalist killed this month in Veracruz. He was murdered despite being placed under government protection. Mexico’s murder rate has also reached a record high this year. The government has recorded more than 12,100 homicides, with 2,234 murders in June alone. It was the deadliest month in twenty years.

The violence is also ravaging Mexico City, ranked New York Times number one city to visit in 2016. Just this month, patrons of a trendy theater and restaurant called Cine Tonala in the Roma Sur neighborhood were robbed by armed gunman. I used to live in the neighborhood and would often visit Cine Tonala and like many others, up until this summer, I didn’t think this kind of violence would happen in the capital. Previously, it has been easier to relegate this sort of violence to the peripheries. I have spent this summer monitoring and compiling a long list of stories and cases of extreme violence against women in one such periphery. The stories are appalling.

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