New at PRI: What does protest sound like? For this Philadelphia activist, it’s the eight-string jarana.

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Yared Portillo, center, playing with other members of Son Revoltura at the former Taquitos de Puebla on Calle 9, South Philly’s Mexican immigrant business corridor. Photo: Son Revoltura’s facebook page.

Yared Portillo, a Philadelphia community activist, has four of them: One she built from scratch; two others were secured from renowned artisans; the final one — received broken and in pieces from a friend — she carefully repaired and made whole again.

The repaired instrument isn’t a bad metaphor for the role the jarana has played in the US immigration protest movement for the past two decades. It’s a small, eight-string instrument from Veracruz, Mexico, patterned after a 16th century baroque Spanish guitar that is often confused with a ukulele.

In the hands of Chicanos or recent Mexican immigrants, the jarana — as well as the son jarocho musical form with which it is inextricably associated — energizes rallies and undergirds the chants of those who want to repair not only a broken immigration system, but the increasingly broken relationship between two nations sharing both borders and histories.

Read the rest of the article at PRI’s The World: What does protest sound like?

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At Philly.com: These Latinas are the real heroes of the fight against heroin (and to build community) in Philly

“I kept asking [the organizers of the cleanup at Second and Indiana], ‘Where, where is the place that is going to take these individuals?’”

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Jessie Alejandro-Cruz (right) hugs Erica, a 33-year-old who lives at the underpass at Emerald Street. Photo courtesy of David Cruz

Everyone from Dr. Oz to the BBC has now done a piece on the heroin camp in Kensington. Some of the pieces have been good, others are simply poverty and addiction porn. All of them have come from outside the community most impacted by both the existence of the camp and its cleanup. To get beyond one-shot sensationalism, what we need now is coverage that centers the voices of people like Jessie Alejandro-Cruz and Charito Morales — who have been grappling with not only the implications but the actuality of this for decades.

Read my full commentary here.

Latino Genre Writers: Diversity in Mystery, Science Fiction, and Horror

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On the morning commute to work, this SEPTA rider I sat across from on the 44 bus had his phone, his lunch and Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”  Latinx lit is lit!

Latino/a writers discuss issues in writing and publishing genre fiction (mystery, science fiction, and horror) and celebrate a new collection of science fiction and fantasy stories.

The New York Society Library
53 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10075

Sun, September 17, 2017
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM EDT

Latino-Rising-Cover-webLatin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin@ Science Fiction and Fantasy is the first anthology of fantastic fiction written by Latino/as living in the United States. Fifty years ago the Latin American boom in literature popularized magical realism; Latin@ Rising is the literature that has risen from the explosion that gave us García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Carlos Fuentes, and others. The 23 authors and artists included in this anthology come from all over the U.S. and from eight different national traditions. They include well-known creators like Kathleen Alcalá, Ana Castillo, Junot Díaz, Giannina Braschi, and others; they also include new voices, well worth hearing.

Panelists
Matthew David Goodwin (editor and moderator) is an assistant professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico in Cayey, focusing on the topic of migration in Latino/a literature, particularly science fiction, fantasy, and digital culture.

Carlos Hernandez is the author of The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria (Rosarium 2016) and over 30 works of science fiction and fantasy, including poetry and drama. By day, he is an CUNY associate professor of English and has worked in game writing and game design.

Richie Narvaez is the award-winning author of Roachkiller and Other Stories. His fiction has appeared in Grand Central Noir, Plots with Guns, Sunshine Noir, and Spinetingler.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is the author of Ink (Crossed Genres, 2012), a novel that draws on her memories of Guatemala’s armed internal conflict and of the Latinx experience in the United States. It was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012.

This event is free and open to the public. Please register by emailing events@nysoclib.org or calling 212.288.6900, ext. 230.

Let’s talk the Cubs, Tuesday’s election and stubborn hope

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Jason L. Vourvoulias

The World Series winner this year — improbably, against the odds and in defiance of a 108-year curse — is the Chicago Cubs.

My father, a lifelong Cubs fan, would have been stunned by the win. And elated. And stunned. All his wildest, most stubborn hopes were vindicated … this year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad lately, and not only because of the Cubs. In his latter years my dad had become a political wonk, and he would have been riveted by this electoral season.

My father spent most of his adult life as part of multinational, corporate America. He rose through the ranks of Ray-O-Vac Company (at that time part of the multinational ESB), first in Mexico, then in Madison, and onto Thailand and Guatemala. He came to Philadelphia (where the international division had its offices in one of the Penn Towers) in 1975, to work as a vice president in charge of Latin American operations. Ultimately he led a management buyout of the international division and became CEO and chairman of the board of the resulting corporation.

My dad believed in corporate America, and he was loyal to it. He also believed in the Republican Party. He was a fiscal and social conservative — the quintessential first-generation American who had “bootstrapped” himself into success. And though he lived most of the first 48 years of his life “overseas,” he made sure to vote in every election. Most notably (at least for his liberal kids who never let him forget it), he voted for Nixon rather than JFK.

He loved being an American citizen in the way so many first-generation folks do — exuberantly and unabashedly.

My brothers and I were all born outside of the U.S. (Mexico, Thailand and Guatemala) but my dad made sure we were all American citizens  from birth (by jus sanguinis which accords nationality on the basis of a parent’s citizenship rather than birth place) because, he believed, why would anyone NOT want to be a citizen of this great nation?

So you are thinking right about now that my father, were he still alive, would be a Donald Trump supporter.

Not so fast.

“My father was a refugee’s son,” wrote my brother Alberto, in a brilliant and beautiful column published in June of this year at Fox News Latino. “Born in the U.S., he was proud to serve his country. […] in a frontline regiment with blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, children of immigrants and children of the native-born. For him, this mosaic was the strength and promise of America.”

A mosaic which Trump has sought to pull apart at every turn of this campaign. Mexican Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, immigrants and refugees  — time and again Trump has contrived (in word and proposed policy) to diminish and “otherize” the manifold greatness of America.

My father would have agreed with those who say that Trump knows nothing of real sacrifice: Refugees trying any way they can to keep their children alive; folks who have lost loved ones serving in the armed forces; he doesn’t even understand the sacrifice of veterans who have withstood torture and lived years as P.O.W.s… All of them have been fodder for hateful characterization and derision from Trump.

Trump knows nothing of the kind of hope that draws from the wellspring of love rather than hate.

He certainly knows nothing of the hope and promise of America that prompted a young man to serve his nation in two wars; that gave him the drive to go to college on the G.I. bill; that got him through jobs so ill-paid some weeks he could only afford to eat bread; that taught him to scrimp and save so someday he might be able to afford a radio on which to listen to a ballgame …

My father was targeted as an American while he was working for Ray-O-Vac in Guatemala, and was kidnapped. The details are terrifying, and throughout the time he was held his kidnappers made clear to him that my mother (a fierce and amazing Mexican-Guatemalan who would have been especially infuriated by Trump’s vitriol against immigrants and his entitled attitude toward women) and my brothers and I were next.

My father told me years later that he didn’t have time to despair while he was held, he was too busy trying to figure out what he needed to do to negotiate his release so he could whisk us all to safety. My father’s hope was as stubborn and resilient as he was — no kidnapped American had been released alive during that time in Guatemala — and, remarkably, he eventually succeeded. He managed to convince his kidnappers to release him and  for the ransom to be paid over a 12-month period. He also talked them into cutting the ransom by a third. (When I hear Trump describe himself as a wonderful businessman, I can’t help but think his negotiation skills have never truly been tested.)

Despite the ordeal I never heard my father speak of his kidnappers in the foul and hateful terms Trump has used to describe citizen and non-citizen, public figure and private, colleague and ally, during this electoral season.

Later in life, when board upheaval ousted my father as CEO of the company he had bought out and an equivalent position was slow to emerge, my father took on jobs at Wawa and Target to be able to pay bills and to fulfill his financial responsibilities to the country he loved and believed in.

Others were embarrassed for him, but he was not. He believed there was dignity in all work, and he witnessed that his coworkers labored as hard and as loyally at their low-income jobs as his executive colleagues did in their more exalted positions. By the time he returned to his next CEO position, he had reluctantly become a Democrat — because his beloved Republicans seemed out of touch with the economic challenges and realities of so many Americans.

My father would have been horrified that Trump has not only deliberately avoided paying income taxes that sustain everything from our nation’s armed forces to education to a fraying safety net, but that the billionaire business magnate has repeatedly welched on paying hard-working, ordinary people for the work they’ve performed for him.

I think most people are more like my father than like Trump.

I believe most of us will choose to act honorably rather than dishonorably when it comes to our obligations to our fellow citizens, and to the America we love.

And during those moments when I panic that the upcoming election may be as much of a nailbiter as the final game of the World Series was, I imagine my father as a young man in Chicago, listening to the Cubs game on his precious radio.

He never gave up on his wild, stubborn hope for the best.

And neither do I.

I believe most of us will vote against hate.

I hope we will.

I come by that honestly.

City & State PA: Immigration’s impact as seen through a trip to the supermarket

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When my parents moved us from Guatemala City to Chester County in the mid-1970s, we were the first Latino family to move into our neighborhood – and, undoubtedly, the first people to chatter with each other in Spanish at the annual oxtail roast at the local firehouse.

The area we moved to was rural, within hailing distance of the towns of Downingtown, Coatesville and Exton, and my mother haunted the supermarkets in each of them, searching for a way to make frijoles volteados, the refried black beans that are part of every Guatemalan meal. It is hard to imagine now, but those stores didn’t stock black beans back then. My mother resorted to scouring the canned soups, looking for Campbell’s black bean soup, with which she could (ingeniously and magically) replicate a passable version of the bean dish she used to call “the Guatemalan caviar.”

But had my mother lived long enough, she would have witnessed a sea change on those Chesco supermarket shelves. Because even more than the sudden (and gratifying) proliferation of small ethnic food shops, there is no easier way to mark demographic changes than by walking into a “general interest” supermarket and noting what is offered in its produce section.

Read the rest of this column at City and State PA.

My column at Philly Mag: When Philly Woman Reported Sexual Assault at the DNC, She Got Little Help

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Photo courtesy of Gwen Snyder

Gwen Snyder hopes to transform her experience into a movement toward justice.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines a sexual assault as any kind of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Snyder, 30, the executive director of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice and a Democratic committeewoman in the 27th Ward, said she knew she had just been sexually assaulted — what she didn’tknow was what exactly she could do about it.

“I just kept asking party leaders from Pennsylvania what the process was to address the attack and get my attacker’s credentials pulled, and no one knew how, or even if there was an official process,” Snyder said. “I was never put in touch with anyone trained to deal with sexual violence. After a reporter gave them the heads-up about me, a couple of DNC staffers did contact me to take a report, but didn’t make any commitments and didn’t seem willing to involve me in discussions about assault policies moving forward.”

Read the rest of the column here.

Readercon 27: Confronting the fails

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Reading “El Cantar of Rising Sun” on Saturday at Readercon. What a great audience I had! Thanks to each and every one of you who attended.

Readercon 27 just ended and I am trying to convince myself not to write this.

Here’s the thing, I love Readercon. My first year (Readercon 22) was a bit rough since I knew no one IRL (and precious few folks virtually), but it had enough substance and just enough fluff to hook me into returning every year (except last year, which I couldn’t swing for a variety of boring, mundane reasons).

The con has evolved a lot in those six years. It had a fairly major harassment fail that prompted it to revamp its safety policies and procedures so wholly it has become a model for other cons. The panels steadily grew more inclusive, and some even focused entirely on underrepresented groups (in  2014, the Thursday open programming track included a Latinx SFF panel, for example). Last year — in a welcome admission that even the intellectually predisposed need moments of bodily abandon — a dance party was added to the mix.

All of which is to say, that this year should have been great. And, in some ways it was. I spent time with a lot of wonderful people. The audience for my solo reading was fantastically supportive and appreciative. The new venue had better food, more lobby space and offered free wifi in private as well as public spaces.

But in ways that really matter to me, Readercon 27 wasn’t great at all.

There were more all-white panels than I remember from previous years. Microaggressions toward people of color became macro and played out in front of rooms full of people, and for the first time in my Readercon experience I came away from panels shaking my head at the stunningly unrepentant arrogance of members of the SFF community.

Others can speak to the panels they attended or were part of (the Readercon twitter timeline is full of incisive comment — I particularly suggest @ANerdCalledRage), I will stick to the worst of the ones I myself witnessed and have since been stewing about.

Beyond Strong Female Characters

This was a complete shitshow. Sorry, but there is no other way to describe it.

Within seconds of starting, the leader of the panel, Ellen  Kushner, silenced Mikki Kendall (the one Black panelist) as she was speaking about the trope of the Strong Black Woman.

When Kendall gave pop culture examples of the Strong Black Woman trope, Kushner demanded literary ones in a move that was 50 percent gaslighting and 100 percent intellectual hubris.

Instead of actually grappling fully and honestly with the trope, Kushner asked for a show of hands from the audience from those who had heard of the Strong Black Woman trope and those who had read N.K. Jemisin, and seeing many hands, dismissed the need to speak further about it, or the way a Black American author has addressed it in her work.

“Well, that was graduate level comment,” Kushner said to Kendall at one point, in a comment so wincingly condescending it hurt me, as an audience member, just to hear it come out of her mouth.

Kushner is someone who, at my first Readercon, held a reading so spectacularly wonderful it still lives vividly in my memory. I’ve always liked her work; I’ve always admired her talent. But … but … I will never be able to unhear this comment and the disgraceful stereotype it plays to.

Because of Kushner’s antipathy toward Kendall, the other panel members — Delia Sherman (Kushner’s wife), Kat Howard and Natalie Luhrs (all white-appearing folks) — got a lot more time to address the topic at hand than Kendall did. At the end there was time for only a few audience questions. Thankfully, Readercon’s Emily Wagner directed her question to Kendall, and so gave her some time to speak without constraint … but it was way too little and way too late.

The panel was real time proof that the online discussion of white feminism’s exclusion and dismissal of the concerns of women of color, particularly Black women, is sadly on point.

Blue Collar SF

I don’t actually know the name of the leader of this panel but not too long into the panel, the words “too many chiefs, not enough ‘injuns’” came unabashedly out of his mouth. My friends Ezzy Guerrero Languzzi (a Mexican-American writer who has been attending Readercon for the past five years) and Kay Holt (one of the publishers of Crossed Genres) got up and left right then. I’m sure others did too.

I did not, I stayed — because it’s hard to look away from an accident, and also because I am eternally hopeful that clueless leaders will experience a corrective from their co-panelists (all of them, at this panel, white-appearing).

After some time of bemoaning the lack of blue collar protagonists (the leader listed some five or six books he remembered with blue collar protags, and Bud Sparhawk spoke about his own blue collar characters) I thought we were finally going to broach the complexities of depicting blue collar protagonists of color when Marissa Lingen brought up intersectionality.

But I ended up feeling both disappointed and let down by the partiality of her plea to remember women are blue collar workers too.

Fran Wilde did mention a writer of color — Nisi Shawl and her steampunk novel Everfair (which will launch in September) — but as in the previously described panel, it was too little and too late.

Oh, and again, the leader of this panel made the point that books, not media or pop culture, were the acceptable references and subjects for analysis at Readercon. I’m not sure why this point was being made over and over again by leaders of panels this year in a way I don’t remember from previous years — is it about “making Readercon great again”? (Yes, that is a very intentional choice of words.) But, no matter its intent, it really sticks in my craw, as all such “purist” pleas do.

The panels I was on

Two of the panels I was on, Cozy Dystopia (about Harry Potter’s dystopian elements) and Fantastical Dystopia were inexplicably programmed one right after the other. They were pretty white (I’m a white-appearing Latina), which I think is bizarre given the ongoing discussion about erasure of people of color from post-apocalyptic worlds and dystopian literary constructs.

Cozy Dystopia was a great panel, thanks in part to Kenneth Schneyer’s leadership and his willingness to broach every we issue raised, no matter how fractious or complicated.

Fantastical Dystopia, on the other hand, was really quite awful. I took on the role of leader the day before, and consequently hadn’t organized it — and it showed. I truly value everyone’s contributions under less than optimal conditions, but things never meshed for us. On the other hand, at least nothing “outright barbarous” (to, fittingly, quote George Orwell) was said or enacted by any panelist — which reportedly happened at other panels on dystopia and apocalyptic fiction.

The third panel I was on — Who Gets to Tell My Story? — was terrific. The panelists were, without exception, great and it ended up being led by Julia Starkey, because Mikki Kendall (the scheduled leader) thought she was going to be late. Kendall actually arrived just as the panel started, and the session was lively and dynamic. This was the Readercon I remembered and loved so much.

I don’t know for a fact if the panel composition was less diverse this year, but it sure seemed that way to me, and much of what happened during panels felt like a huge step backward because of it. The tweets I’ve seen about The Apocalypse Is Already Here; It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed and other panels I did not attend, seem to confirm that others felt that way too.

Where to go from here

Because I love Readercon, I hope the folks in charge find a way to look at what failed this year and why, and to understand what it might have meant to the first-time attendee of color in the audience.

I think this deserves as much thoughtful discussion as what took place during the harassment situation from years ago. I’m thinking that in-depth conversations with Mikki Kendall and Vandana Singh (if they are willing)  and other folks who might have been subjected to public macro- and microaggressions are in order before next year’s planning begins.

Also, attendees of color should be invited to give their suggestions and recommendations to ensure that Readercon doesn’t garner — further? — a reputation as an unfriendly con for PoCs to attend.

There is an opportunity here for Readercon leaders to do better and to confront the damage done this year head-on. To paraphrase Dolores Huerta and conflate several of my favorite quotes from her: Every minute is a chance to change the world …now get off the sidewalk and march into history.

Updated 7/12/16 at 4:34: The leader of the Blue Collar SF panel was Allen Steele, per the comment on this post by one of his co-panelists.

Updated 7/11/16 at 2:38 p.m. to correct title of panel about which I’ve seen tweeted complaints.