In March of 1999, the Indigo Girls were invited to participate in a song-writing workshop and cultural exchange program in Havana, Cuba, called Music Bridges. This program hopes to transcend political barriers through art. Although we were specifically instructed to approach this journey with an apolitical attitude, I could not help but see the trip as an opportunity to look deeper into the effects of U.S. policies in Cuba.
I found that it is not possible to be in Cuba as a U.S. citizen and not acknowledge the political implications of. These are some of my observations and are not intended to reflect or encompass all of Cuba or it's political situation. Although I had a full experience, it was actually very limited by time and geography. I was only in Cuba for a week and did not travel outside of Havana. I encourage everyone to discover Cuba for themselves and to learn more about U.S. Cuba relations.
Met at Miami International. We were picked up at our arrival gate and shuttled to a special holding area to wait for our charter. Our bags were retrieved and put on the plane-I didn't have to lift a hand...hmmm. The escalator down to our gate was guarded by the police, I am not sure at this point who or what they were guarding. The first faces I saw were Gladys Knight and Bonnie Raitt. Me'shell Ndegeocello is here as well as Pete Buck and a seemingly endless list spanning musical genres, ages, and color. (Burt Bacharach arrived later. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, as we all know, he is the king of bird chattering pop, but when he wasn't floating around Havana on a yacht, he was going two hours over on studio time.) The host of the tour-Alan Roy Scott-gave a speech explaining that this is the first trip to Cuba of its kind and that we should behave ourselves and not be snotty American tourists demanding our way-we are to be good ambassadors. He failed to warn us against the "we are the world syndrome" and the trap of "American self importance." The two guys seated behind me on the bus to Havana failed the good ambassador test and made bigoted comments the whole way into town.
There are two currencies in Cuba-the Cuban peso and the U.S. dollar. I guess this is one way to get U.S. trade without actually trading. Evidently there were so many dollars coming though that they had to start recognizing them. The U.S. embargo is absolutely absurd. The resulting two currency system has created a war time black-market and an economic apartheid. Although the U.S. is not the only source of technology and products, we have levied our economic might against other countries and corporations who might trade with Cuba. My hero Jesse Helms created this famous set of oppressive rules in the Helms-Burton Act. We have all heard the stories of old American cars from the pre-revolution 50's and 60's in need of parts and the unavailability of certain American medicines, but the far reaching effects of the embargo seem impossible to illustrate with any degree of graphic accuracy. There is a profound lack of materialism in Cuba and it is hard to suss out what is the result of the embargo and what is the result of communism.
People outside of Cuba have a tendency to either demonize or romanticize Cuba (I am certainly guilty of the latter), but most Cubans I talked to simultaneously spoke of their love and hate of the system, leaving me in a constant state of confusion. Cuba is a country of extremes. The positive extreme is represented by super-high literacy rates, free and equal access to food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care, and a strong sense of community and culture; the negative is represented by repressive rules (especially in times of economic hardship such as these-Havana is literally crumbling down), a ruling elite class (what's new), and lack of capitalist competition creates a certain blandness in some areas such as the service industries. Cuba's poverty is not necessarily a result of communism. I will always romanticize the revolution-the "peasant rebellion"-and I got goose skin when I saw the monument to Jose Marti and the big metal sculpture of Che Gueverra's profile. While the heart of the revolution is beautiful and noble, I seek to humanize this place in my own mind.
The Hotel Nacional, where we are staying, is a beautiful art deco structure that was built by Americans before the revolution. In its heyday, it was bustling with celebrities and world leaders. It is still the fanciest in Havana but there's no way they could recapture the pre-revolution glamour, simply because Cuba is so poor. The Malecon, which runs beside the ocean in front of the motel plays host to late night strollers and lovers. The Florida keys are only 90 miles away, but it might as well be another world. To think that a country can be so close and so off limits...Who are we to say how they should run their country? What are we so afraid of? I wonder if we have to wait until the cold war generation passes to be rid of this paranoia. When I look outside my window, the old American cars give me a sense of being frozen in time; but then I remember that it isn't nostalgia that keeps things this way.
This morning we had the song-writing lottery. We put all the Cuban names in one hat and all the non-Cuban names in the other. At first the non-Cuban hat was called the American hat (which seemed perfectly typical for self-centered Americans). The director drew two names out of each hat to designate the first writing groups. Each group is to write and record at least one song over the next two days. The oddest thing happened...Emily and I were chosen together. I didn't know if it was a set up or what but I gladly accepted it as a gift, the reality being that Emily and I don't ever actually write together. At first we were put with this guy named Equis (X)-a rap artist-but he traded off with someone so he could be with Me'shell. At first my feelings were bruised and I was disappointed because I liked the idea of working with a rapper, but I realized that he is a big fan of hers and felt okay about it. The two Cubans in our group ended up being Luis de la Cruz and Yosvany Terry. They are both very talented. All of the Cuban musicians who are participating are the cream of the crop of Cuba. I will say, though, that the Cuban side was sorely lacking in women. If it weren't for the diligence of Jeff Cohen, a songwriter from BMI who invited most of the women (among them Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, and us), the non-Cuban female contingent would be lacking as well. In the end there were more male than female lead players on both sides.
A good friend of mine, Giacomo, came over from Guatemala. We met down in Chiapas, Mexico, where he came to my rescue and acted as a translator. Giacomo was also in great demand at our writing sessions in Cuba. Luis doesn't speak English and my Spanish stinks! When Luis first came into my room, we were the only two there ; we just started playing because we couldn't speak to each other. Well, its sort of true about music being a universal language...of course this only goes so far with me and Cuban music...I could barely keep up. Emily's arrival helped a lot. She seems to understand the structure of this music pretty well. We ended up working on a blues/rock/Cuban style song. Luis is kind of "street" and a rocker. Yosvany, a virtuoso of many instruments, showed up late and we were well into the song, but his arrival helped us to settle on a structure. The idea is to each write our own verse and put it all together tomorrow.
Some say that the hotel is bugged and that there are cameras everywhere, so the Cubans seem very careful about what they say and do. Many of the musicians seemed uncomfortable with political questions. No system of government is good unless people are free to speak uncensored.
I ran today by the ocean towards old Havana. All the magnificent Spanish colonial buildings are falling down into dust and there is no money to fix them. Some of the more tourist-oriented sections of old Havana are being propped up, but the amount of rebuilding that needs to be done is beyond comprehension. The emissions from polluting cars along with the unchecked industrial smog really take getting used to. I felt sick to my stomach after every run-like a hot august day on the Los Angeles freeway. I would love to see the Cuban mountains and countryside.
When walking around Havana I get the sense of Fidel desperately trying to hold on to his vision, becoming more like a dictator and scared of losing control of his people who are holding on by the skin of their teeth. The Cuban spirit is unmatched. They have education and culture but also have their freedom constantly challenged. To remain true to a vision of community pride and involvement, this is a trick for anyone. Luis, my collaborating partner says that in truth, he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Tonight I am tired and disoriented but I am pledging to get out and see more tomorrow. I have got to learn to speak Spanish...the language barrier really wears me down.
I am not sleeping much at night.
I went running by the ocean again today on the smog infested Malecon. I saw lots of school kids (mostly boys) wearing skimpy bathing suits, playing a sort of game that involved diving off the wall as the waves washed in. Most of the kids I see here are very lean, but in an athletic way rather than a malnourished way. Of course, one does get the feeling after being here a few days that food is pretty scarce.
While I was running many guys would make cat-calls and say things in Spanish to me. My inability to understand the language made it hard to know how to react but my general feeling is that this is some universal rudeness on the part of the male species. It's hard to be a woman in a foreign country; sexual context is always the lowest common denominator. Giacomo says that it is "the Latin way"...we often discuss this issue of cross cultural oppression. The men over here say that the women love it... hmmm... that's what they say in the States, too. I have also been told that the lack of sexual boundaries is due to the heat. I understood some of this as we jammed earlier tonight in Luis's band rehearsal space. Emily and I with a bunch of sweaty shirtless guys packed into a small room, making music. I felt the allure and infectiousness of Cuban culture - the African rhythms and the Spanish melodies. I felt the erotic energy as the percussion section rose to a climax, everyone was dancing and all ideas of self seemed to escape us. We worked on a song of mine just for fun called "Compromise." It took on this Cuban-punk vibe that we all were digging. The other song that we are writing together is coming along , but Luis is the only one who has finished his lyrics.
The rehearsal space that we used today (which is very nice) is provided by the State for Luis's band-Bolsa Negra. It seems that musicians are supplied with some basic needs and extensive training but in return they play for next to nothing (Luis makes $5 for a show). We met two guys who are with some sort of ministry that is in charge of producing shows for the State. They seemed to hang around the rehearsal space making sure that the bands have what they need. The musical/recording equipment used in Cuba is mostly substandard and very limited. Nice instruments are appreciated and coveted in a way that American rock stars can't understand. Luis did not own an acoustic guitar, Yosvany did not own a keyboard.
Musicians and artists are treated relatively well in Cuba. My theory is the "Fidel's coffee theory"-everyone in Cuba drinks coffee one way and it's probably the same way that Fidel drinks his. It's a metaphor for the material side of life in Cuba, which is mostly bland, minimal, and non-experimental. Cubans express their individualism through art, music, and sports. The culture here is so deep and so revered-your art reflects who you are and takes on more significance and respect in this environment as opposed to the commercialism that co-opts music in a more materialistic (read: capitalist) setting.
We had a new lottery today. It was sad to leave our dynamic duo - Luis and Yosvany Terry - behind, but we all felt that it would be in the spirit of things to throw our names back into the pool. Emily was paired with Ray Guerra and one of the Lowenstein twins. Ray is a true virtuoso on the guitar and has played with such Latin American greats as Silvio Rodriguez. I ended up with four collaborators-Fernando Bequer, Harold Payne (nice guy, speaks great Spanish), Gary Burr, and Alfonso (I didn't catch his last name). Gary and Harold are from a very different school of song-writing then I am. They also seem more familiar with the process of collaboration. Fernando struck me the most with his eccentric punkesque/avant-garde Cuban music. He was also likely to go into a vintage 50's Cuban/American nightclub vocal style-imitating the Las Vegas greats that, in turn, imitated his forebears. Fernando was not as animated during our session but at the end we abandoned our song to listen to him play.
I find writing with others to be hard. Lyrics often end up being clichéd. The subject matter of this team's particular song was a love affair between a Cuban and an American, and the ocean that separates the two (everyone wrote about the damn ocean...jeez ...even me...). The song was a little too "straight " for me which was partly my fault since I had to be late for the session. In the midst of the session, some sexist remarks were made ("I like to try the word bitch after every line to see if its a good line," said Gary) and our group would of been better off without them. But my introduction to Fernando Becquer made this session a worthwhile experience.
Before our rehearsal session, documentary film-maker Haskell Wexler and musicologist/documentor Greg Landau took me and Emily to a house of Santeria in Old Havana. They were hoping to show some of the culture outside of the walls of the Hotel Nacional. I can't say enough good things about these two radical documentarians. Greg was influenced by his father-Saul Landau, another film maker-and has spent most of his life helping to illuminate the obscure folk traditions and music from places of political upheaval and disenfranchisement. He speaks fluent Spanish and has spent a lot of time in Cuba. He also spoke a little about his experiences in Nicaragua working with a Sandinista band. His work is very important, he rescues songs and rhythms from obscurity, much the way that Alan Lomax did, but he also fights the good fight. Haskell is an older gentleman who came up through the activism of labor politics, opposing McCarthyism, civil rights, etc. He is reminiscent of Pete Seeger-handsome and distinguished, with a lot of charisma and style.
The house we went to is in the old slave quarters of Havana. Greg's wife had lived with the families we visited, so they were actually all friends with Greg. The homes are like a maze of connected tunnels and rooms-like a little secret neighborhood. You feel as if you are underground and in another world. There is a open air common area where people are doing everything from hair styling to laundry. I am assuming that most of the people in the maze of rooms are participants in the Santeria tradition. The "mother" of the house, Felicia, invited us in to visit. Felicia said that her mother had been a slave and had died with a brand on her leg. The tradition of Santeria came directly from Africa. The religion focuses on the worship of Yoruba deities these deities represent forces of nature. The Catholic saints became attached to specific deities of Santeria over time-a by-product of having to disguise their religion. Santeria people will tell you that Catholicism really has nothing to do with this faith-the saints/deities are not persons but rather forces. It seems over time as the religion has become "legal" to practice they have hung onto and become comfortable with some of the hybridization of Catholicism and Santeria. Felicia told a story: during the time of slavery, when the practice of Santeria was illegal, the people would gather five stones and each stone would be possessed by a deity. They would place the stones around a specific type of tree and dance. The master believed the dance was for him, but it was really for the deities. This is one way they would disguise their rituals-the self centered masters would never guess that the music, rhythms, and dancing were all tied in with their slave's faith.
This house is special for many reasons, one of them being the dance and percussion that is taught here. Two masters of drumming-Pancho Quinto and Octavio-live in this community. While they are not well known in the mainstream world, drummers come from miles around to learn the traditions from them. Felicia has five sons and a daughter. All her sons play the drum, I gathered her daughter was musical as well because you can't really practice this tradition with out the music. We were shown a special African (Yoruba) drum called a Bata . Only men are allowed to play it because of the spirit that is inside it. I asked Felicia if women also had some special privileges or responsibilities, but she wouldn't answer and kept evading my question. However her daughter, Santica, the resident feminist did wish to talk about it. She said that women were really the ones in charge... hmm... I've heard that one before... but its really the same old story - the delicate balance between oppression and cultural tradition.
We went back to the Santeria house the next day to hear the drummers. The whole neighborhood gathered in the common area to dance and to listen while Pancho Quinto's band played. They play music in a crazy combination of rhumba, Mexican, American folk, Cuban, and African traditions. The singers, Lazardo and El Negro, had a touch of lounge "camp" in their act . They were dressed to the nines in leisurely clothes. All the songs were sung a cappella to the drums. Michael Franti, of the group Spearhead, did some rap over the drum beats. It was nice to see the merging of traditions-or reuniting might be a more accurate word for it. Lazardo and El Negro tried to teach us to sing "Cotton Fields Back Home" in their style, but we couldn't quite get it. I wanted to try some of our melodies and words over their beats, but they didn't offer. Either we failed the test or as women we were assumed into a backseat role. Michael has a strong connection with Cuba and he became sort of an ambassador from our group. The band performed a song, written by Santica (Felicia's daughter), that the whole neighborhood seemed to know (The song was about the black-market that has gone on in their community the men trading in liquor, cigars, etc.) and the police coming to get them. Some of the lyrics were sung in slang to hide the meaning of the song. The neighborhood was described as a "smoky cave." Santica wrote a verse or two about the men as "hustlers" which I guess wasn't so flattering , so they censor them out when they sing it. Even though she wrote the song, Santica did not sing a verse, but only joined in on the choruses. There are so many occurrences and omissions that scream sexism but once again its not in my cultural context. My girlfriend Jennifer and I hung around the artist market for awhile, where we were approached by a Cuban male prostitute/escort, called a jinetero. We were looking lost and he came over and made some suggestions for places to dine. He tried to hire himself out to us. As soon as I caught on that he intended to accompany us the rest of the night I thanked him for his help and informed him that we were on a private date. These Cubans for hire are very persistent and plentiful. Given the right situation, I imagine an escorted night could be fun. Before he left us to our own devices he did talk a bit about "his Cuba." He didn't like the system at all and said that he would like to get out where he could have something more to work towards. He hated the idea of working all his life with nothing material to show for it. I told him that a lot of impoverished Americans feel this way too, and when they get old they can sometimes fall through the cracks of our system and have no institutions or family to take care of them. I guess the idea of Cuba is that the people all take care of each other in one way or another and old people are respected. Still there doesn't appear to be much outside incentive to compete or rise above in your career unless its an artistic profession. There is obvious natural competition in both sports and the arts, but professions such as teaching or medicine are invested with an aversion towards competition (which is not such a bad thing). I like living in the U.S., but I could stand a more socialist and caring government. After eating some really bad food at a top notch "tourist" restaurant, my beautiful girlfriend Jennifer and I headed home on the exhaust-ridden Malecon. We came upon two men setting out on Styrofoam rafts for an unknown destination. Our imaginations went wild as these two men lowered their raft over the wall into the water. They climbed in after their boats with fins on and bags in hand. As they paddled away, they waved an apparent good-bye to their friends sitting on the wall. The little lights of their cigarettes glowing in the night, floated slowly away. Of course, we thought they were headed to Florida, but they were only going fishing. For one thing this would be the wrong part of the coast to leave from and also the success rate of rafting to Florida is pretty low these days.
I had a full day today. Emily, Jennifer, and I went down to Old Havana again. In the old cathedral area we went to the Museum of Colonialism. Like the Museum of the Revolucion, parts of the Colonialism museum are also open air. It is in an old palace type building, set up like a Spanish colonial house. The constant exposure to the elements from the open courtyard areas takes its toll on the contents of the museum (the artifacts of the oppressor - but we coveted them in all their splendor). I actually enjoyed the Museum of the Revolucion, which housed the whole history and timeline of Fidel's revolution, much more than this one. The Museum of the Revolucion was housed in the old palace which was reclaimed for the people after the revolution. There were still bullet holes in the stairwell from the taking of the palace. The relationship between Cuba and the U.S. was well documented from the Cuban perspective - something we never get to see. Our government has been hell bent on defeating Fidel and his communism for a long time and there are many atrocities and covert activities to show for it on display at the museum.
Next on the agenda was sound check and rehearsal. No one seemed to know the schedule so we just headed to the Karl Marx Theater. The venue seats about three thousand and is nice but very modest and with an eastern block vibe. Most of the government buildings have this certain look. The fancy buildings are mostly diplomats homes and newly renovated Spanish colonial structures.
As the week progressed things are beginning to, as Emily said, "shift." Artists are starting to lose sight of why we are here and are vying for good placement in the show and many soap operas and weird dynamics reared their heads. The program unfolds itself at sound check. They have to cut some songs to get the show down to a realistic length. At first the song we wrote with Luis (St. Elixir) was cut, but only because we lacked assertiveness at that point. I decided that, due to the fact that we were trying to get Luis's rock band (Bolsa Negra) in to play the show, we should insist on playing our song. Giacomo and Yosvany were instrumental in making this happen. Our song was in.
Meanwhile, a question was posed as to whether the tickets were ending up in the hands of the elite (and tourists) instead of the people. Bonnie rallied a lot of us to take a stand for the people and insist that the promise of free admission on a first come first serve bases. As a point of graciousness, the show was to showcase as many Cuban musicians as possible as well as to present the result of the creative collaborations. Some people who knew the ropes took advantage of this and teamed up with more Cubans just to increase their visibility in the program. Ego seems to creep into everything.
We ran the song and it went without a hitch. We decided to add Barrett Martin on a second drum set. The Cuban musicians learn parts so fast. For example, Yovany brought an extra keyboard player and taught him the song so that he could be free to play saxophone. His friend learned the song almost instantly. If the embargo is ever lifted, American musicians will be given a run for their money. I guess the cultural embargo is lifted. But although you can record Cuban musicians, they are not allowed to make money on the records, nor from licensing and distribution. They get paid in per diems and a place to stay. Usually you can get around this by setting up a special account for the artist in the States. Touring is especially hard. The U.S. State Dept. makes it harder by waiting till the last minute for the special visa to go through. The American promoter takes a big risk in booking the tour and putting up the money, they could lose everything if the visa doesn't come through. On the other hand, some promoters get away with making thousands and paying the Cubans next to nothing with the rationalization that its within the law.
After the rehearsal, Giacomo and Emily went to party given by a gay couple. Being gay is hard here, but there is a community in Havana. A law was just passed that you can be gay, but not in public...hmmm...
We went to Luis and Elizabeth's (his wife) mother's apartment for dinner. Elizabeth is a community doctor. She wishes she could specialize in sexual dysfunction, but she is restricted to practicing general medicine. Despite the restrictions imposed by communism and Latin machismo, Elizabeth struck me as very in tune and confident. Although there is so much machismo here, but in terms of jobs there is a certain communist equity between the sexes. Sexism manifests itself in complicated ways within the dynamics of relationships. For instance, Luis feels free to strut around in the face of fidelity, and often sees women as sexual prey. At the same time, if this is possible, Luis respects Elizabeth as a peer and for the fact that she is a doctor.
We walked from the hotel through neighborhoods into a Cuban night. We saw once-grand homes that had been owned by the very wealthy which were turned over to the people after the revolution, and are now often shared by multiple families. The dilapidated state of the houses is an apt metaphor for the revolution - through the revolution they seized autonomy, but fell out of favor with capitalist countries and don't have any access to materials that would maintain their infrastructure. When we passed one housing area, a bunch of men yelled out to us laughing, "We have everything!" The Cuban sarcasm and defiance is intriguing and fun. On the Malecon, there was recently a billboard facing the curious embassy-like office that gives the U.S. a presence in Cuba which said "Imperialistas! We are not afraid of you!"
We saw a business with the sole purpose of cutting washer/dryer combinations in half. The appliances came from Russia, but only the washer half works so people have the dryers cut off. We also saw a place that fixes cigarette lighters. The Cuban's fix everything; nothing is thrown away.
Elizabeth's sister lives in an ominous Ayn Randian building. The lights in the hallways were all out, because tenants take the light bulbs for their own homes. The elevator only stops every three floors, so we made our way through the darkness with only the dim flickering lights from old television sets to light our way. When we got into the apartment, Elizabeth discovered that the gas had run out, so we had nothing to cook with. It was a bummer seeing as how she had bought the food already. Cubans live in a constant wartime ration situation. Still, while Eliza describes the "transitional times" (a term sometimes used since the fall of Cuba's main economic ally, Russia) as negative in many ways, she then will point to the kids laughing and playing unattended in the parks with no fear of crime. Kids are cared for well here because there is an excellent healthcare and education system. Cradle to grave policies in Cuba insure that the very young and the very old are not neglected. Cubans are instilled with a sense of community. After the hurricane in Honduras so many doctors left Cuba to volunteer their services that Castro passed a temporary resolution forbidding doctors to leave the country. It's actually easier for homemakers to travel abroad because they aren't formally connected to a job ministry and its obligations.
We didn't think twice about the lack of food as we congregated with our new friends. The discussion went all over the place from serious to hilarious about music, politics, and society. The young musicians here are struggling for freedom and acceptance of their own expression-might it be rap, reggae, or rock. I pointed out that we struggle in the states to not lose our folklore traditions, and that through gaining freedom of expression, we sometimes lost sight of our traditional roots in the midst of our rebellion. Liven, the producer of Bolsa Negra, literally willed himself to speak English, his eyes welling with tears as he described the purity in his heart, his love of music, and his ambitions. The effects of the U.S. embargo spill over onto everything and dampens a thriving arts community. Someone said its like the Cubans are given the bat, the ball, and the glove, but nowhere to play.
We went to Luis and Elizabeth's (his wife) mother's apartment for dinner. Elizabeth is a community doctor. She wishes she could specialize in sexual dysfunction, but she is restricted to practicing general medicine. Despite the restrictions imposed by communism and Latin machismo, Elizabeth struck me as very in tune and confident. Although there is so much machismo here, but in terms of jobs there is a certain communist equity between the sexes. Sexism manifests itself in complicated ways within the dynamics of relationships. For instance, Luis feels free to strut around in the face of fidelity, and often sees women as sexual prey. At the same time, if this is possible, Luis respects Elizabeth as a peer and for the fact that she is a doctor. After "dinner" we took a Cuban taxi to see Yosvany's band play. There are two taxi systems in Cuba-the peso and the dollar cab. Most of the peso cabs are rickety old American cars (1950's) and are much cheaper. Americans aren't allowed to ride in the peso taxis, the drivers get heavy fines for carrying them. We piled in to the 57 Chevy anyway and tried to keep our mouths shut-three Cubans, three Americans, and one Guatemalan. Riding around in Cuba feels like a time warp, with the old American and Russian motorcycles and cars, even the signs and souvenirs look like they are from a time gone by.
Yosvany's gig was at a remodeled sports club (or "remodelated" as Yosvany would say) - its heyday was in the 1930's. Now it is a joint venture between the Cuban government and a Spanish corporation. It only serves the very wealthy-diplomats and foreigners-although I don't know how you get rich in Cuba. The contrast was absurd, going from the streets of Cuba to a palatial, exclusive club that was otherwise off-limits to our friends. The gig was a family experience, with kids running around and Yosvany's dad, a legendary Cuban folk/country star, playing percussion, singing, and dancing. They played a mixture of Cuban jazz, African, and traditional tunes.
my friends and I shared
the folkloric homegrown
in grimy best dressed postures
the elevator counting
in bars of three
cha cha cha
we needed help finding the one
Signs At The Ballgame-
XXXIII SIERA NACIONAL DE BEISBOL
DEPORTE PARTICIPATIVO DEPORTE DE PUEBLO
HOMBRES DE ESPIRITU Y CUERPO FUERTE
DEPORTE SOCIALISTA CUBANO
CUBA VS. BALTIMORE 1999
our wallets bulge
we have dollars to spend
the exchange only one better than
starving them out
we know they are better
they let us win sometimes
we talk in romantic terms
time seems to stop
the fairy dust of pre-revolution splendor
we might feel better for the moment
as we infantalize
but finally our lungs burst with toxic smog
our stomachs reject the sameness
our grasp of the language falters
our attention to detail
catches us off guard
when the dog with bleeding testicles
walks by again
we are bound to lose our appetites
for this art
and pledge allegiance
to the cleanliness of home
The Indigo Girls return to the US
Peace and quiet at last... I never thought I could embrace an airport yuppie fast food joint. Cuba is in my head now. I am OK to go, but the images will never leave. At the Jose Marti airport this morning, we stood in one line after another paying airport taxes, going through the departure routine, jammed into a very small space with hundreds of people. I watched large extended families breaking down in tears as their loved ones left. I overheard some stupid Americans complaining about the incompetence of communism-but they missed the point. The lines blurred and moved slowly as families crowded around saying good-bye. This wasn't a time for expediency.
Last night I met Fidel Castro. After the show, we were bussed over to the presidential palace. The bus was crowded and some were complaining of having to stand and it taking so long. We are so spoiled. We were led into the palace and our bags were left at the counter. The security was very unintimidating. The artist were set aside to meet him first-which seemed fitting somehow for this country. We approached Castro one at a time and got to spend a minute of one-on-one time with him. I was visibly shaking and my eyes teared up as I introduced myself. I know that this man has participated in his share of violence in the name of the revolution, but his ideals (a "man of the people") seemed to overshadow the reality of war-this I have to ponder. I feel the same way about Che-a man who was dedicated to fighting the brutalities of imperialism but who also got lost in his own machismo and violence. The Zapatistas seem to be the purest movement that I have been exposed to. I think of Ingrid Washinawatok who recently was kidnapped and killed in Colombia, South America, and one reason to meet Fidel is in her memory. But how disillusioning that a women who fought for the people and sympathized with the Marxist vision would herself be killed by leftist guerrillas. This is the mix up of war. Giacomo decided not to meet Fidel because he had been touched too closely by his wars. Fidel funded the left-wing guerrilla movement in Guatemala and the U.S. government funded the corrupt right-wing Guatemalan government army. So many people were caught up in the middle. I told Fidel that I appreciated what he stands for and that I would go home with a bigger heart, then I kissed his hand...hmmm...I don't know what got into me, and I don't even remember his response. He had a peaceful demeanor and struck me as an old spirit who had been through a lot and sometimes may have lost his way. He was very otherworldly yet human.
The reception afterwards was lavish by Cuban standards but not the gluttony we are used to. The palace is very mod and communist in its decor with large dark rock formations inside and big white globe lights hanging from the ceiling. Emily and I left early and played guitar on the steps of the palace-this would never happen in D.C.
The concert was a mixed experience, like everything else. There was some posturing but I tried to ignore it and take in the last hours with my new Cuban friends. Since we could hardly speak to each other, we just kept saying "hola" and "como esta" and hugging - I love my new friends. I met a Cuban teenager in the lobby who was a big fan. He had heard only one song of ours-"Fugitive" - off of some Argentinean CD sampler. I was flattered and excited that he had heard of us. I promised to send some music over to him via Guatemala. One thing I noticed about the show reflected back to our late night discussions with Luis and company was that the audience didn't know what to make of the harder-edged rock and rap, but loved the softer pop, blues, and traditional Cuban music. The younger kids do have to go against the tide to express themselves. The older generation may fear Americanization of their music, but much of the Cuban jazz is also hybrid from pre-revolution days. Another highlight of the show was when Me'shell introduced me to Assata Shakur - an ex-political prisoner of the U.S. living in exile in Cuba. It was a massive honor to meet such a dedicated and self-sacrificing civil rights activist.
we swear that we will remember
promising God everything
but we go through customs
and open our big fat impatient mouths.
1997: Chiapas, Mexico- Emily's Entry
I had never been to Mexico. The night before we left, my Dad got out the road Atlas and we pored over the names of tiny southern towns. " That's where we're going" I told him "Somewhere down there." You try to picture a place you've never seen, but it's mostly dreamlike images. Places with catholic sounding names, songs in Spanish, I pictured guns. Little by little, as we traveled in our motley bunch, real images presented themselves, physical things that could be touched or smelled or heard; the bustling Mexico City Airport, thick, wavy heat and the smell of jet fuel, the names of airlines painted in bright blue & green on planes, policeman walking in twos, menacing and masculine. Some of us were like kids on field trip. A little sleepy from all the excitement, buzzing with anticipation, slumped & reading, comparing the contents of back packs, loading film.
The flight from Mexico City to Tuxtla was short. We flew by a very tall, pale mountain, singular peak. The landing involved a very sharp turn left and severe descent, finally onto what looked from the air like a tiny black paved strip in the middle of nowhere. As we taxied in, I saw men with machine guns strapped across them, dark blue uniforms against a white building. Nameless men with guns. We must have been a strange sight, a bunch of Americans some with guitars, multi colors of back packs following the direction of two women Cecilia and her friend, who led us into three VW vans and an old Dodge car/truck whatever it was. Then we headed towards San Cristobal.
Night time had come as we wound our way up and around an endless mountain on a two lane road with no rules. Little lights twinkled below in the valleys. Again, in darkness everything became dreamlike with us three in the back-seat asking endless questions of Cecilia who answered them from the front patiently, as her friend played the cassette tapes of music and we ate plain crackers. A break in questioning and the two women spoke in Spanish, laughing, gesticulating, speaking of serious things. We learned about the history of the Zapatista movement, what promises had been made by the Mexican government; all broken, the women from villages who been raped on roads and were afraid to travel anywhere, the struggles of the Mayan people, the racism against them, a battle for dignity and the restoration of indigenous ways of life, a fair distribution of land. Cecilia talked on and we asked on and jostled about in the back seat, leaning into the curves, the music like a soundtrack to some enfolding film of discovery.
To reach the village, we drove, finally, down a dusty, pothole marked road in the pitch blackness and passed two or three trucks, loaded with the trunks of freshly fallen trees, stolen from the jungle. They only go in and out at night taking away their spoils and bringing nothing back. They slunk past us stealing distance between us as fast as they could. In the rearview mirror I could see the headlights of the three vans, illuminated like familiar faces, carrying our envoy of seekers. It was the darkest of nights and all of the road looked exactly the same through five hours of broken sleep as Cecilia and her friend sang songs in Spanish, swooping melodies and passionate entreaties, laughing when one messed up the lyrics, chiding playfully. So many, many songs, all different and yet strung together. It felt like music that keeps people alive, familiar beyond thought, perfect under the bold light of the moon, in the mist of green tree slopes, barely perceptible outside the car windows. It felt like the longest drive I had ever taken, a strange mix of monotony and mystery and wonder at what lay ahead.
We rolled into the village around 3:30 am, Cecilia and her friend speaking to three or so young men whose faces were beautiful and kind and laughing. From then on, it was a sort of catatonic hum of activity as many unrolled their sleeping bags onto the large empty floor of the school room. Belongings were set aside, cool air came in through the open windows and door. I set up a small tent right outside the schoolroom, all cockeyed and unbalanced but shelter nonetheless, and crawled inside to sleep. It was 4 am and we were painfully tired.
When I woke, I sensed people stirring outside the tent. It was 7:30 am - I remember unzipping the tent and almost holding my breath, not knowing what I'd see in the bright morning sun. As I first stood and stretched and looked all about, I was immediately struck by how green it was. The outlying jungle was the thickest green I had ever seen, rising up high hill slopes. It looked both tropical and forest like. The sky was cloudless blue and small streams of smoke rose from the village. Someone far off was chopping wood. Huts were scattered about as far as I could see and a small river or stream was in the near distance. A big fat tree with long arms and twisted branches stood in front. There was perfect early morning quiet and the sun's promise of a very hot day coming.
Soon we were headed off in small groups, lead down over the stream, past the little shop (where they sold sodas, eggs, batteries, chips and other goods) to a large table. A family served everyone eggs tortillas and coffee. Those are the staples of the villages' diet: beans, tortillas and coffee. It was a most beautiful feast, served in simple bowls and mismatched cups. Chickens clucked about and kittens lazed under foot. Dogs, very skinny with rib bones showing, hovered, hoping for scraps or scratches. A small boy with no clothes held a ball tightly and stared at us. I can't imagine what we must have looked like to him, even though visitors come and go on occasion. Behind him a man was working on wood. Colorful clothes hung from rafters. Insects buzzed in the heat.
For the next two days we stayed in the village, at one point gathering under the big tree by the river, pulling out tiny chairs from the schoolroom and asking questions of Cecilia. Cecilia answered countless questions during the trip. I think there were those of us who wanted to visit, collect all the information we could and then return to the states where we would immediately effect change by writing letters, making calls, getting articles published, doing, doing, doing. This, however, was a place with history etched in its trees, with the ageless lives of the indigenous peoples swirling through the river water, with a social movement that had been planned for years, it was the beginning of the 'revolution before the revolution' and there was absolutely no way to absorb it all in a matter of a few days. So while we sat around and sweat through the thick heat and thought and questioned and prayed and ate and tried to speak to the children who hovered at the doorway to the schoolroom, I simply tried to be in it. "Listen with your hearts" Cecilia implored.
About the children: they were the most beautiful children I had ever seen, each one special, as at first one ventured to the outskirts of our camp, then two, then a few more until there were many, always around, by the end of the trip. Most hated to have their pictures taken, so I tried to etch the image of their faces into my memory. Kathlyn spoke Spanish to some, but mostly we made hand signals, and various things our big gangly group did made the kids laugh, which made us laugh. The kids all hung very closely to each other, some carried their baby sister or brother tucked comfortably inside large pieces of cloth, hanging from their shoulders. In the later hours of the days, boys appeared and played soccer together.
One of the nights we gathered with people from the village, to play some songs, hear some of their music, talk and so on. We were led to the gathering place by a Zapatista soldier on a horse. From every corner people appeared, walking down the path to the gathering place, almost by magic... There had been no announcements. It's hard to explain. Things are unspoken there. The power within the community is an intangible thing, although you can see it in the eyes of the commandantes, the rest of their faces hidden by black masks.
We performers, Zapatistas, and some members of the village gathered on the stage, overlooking the men, women and children below. The women wore dresses in beautiful, vibrant colors. Luis did theater, people spoke in Spanish over the mic, Amy, Michelle Malone and I played a few songs and Sara Lee held the extra mic for us. Then the local band played. Women moved to the back of the field. They wait to be asked to dance. Some of us began to play with the children by the front of the stage, until there was nothing but a whirling dervish of running, spinning, shrieking kids and a few visitors from another country. Meanwhile, in the back, men and women began to move in the shadows, dancing. Cecilia told me that they dance for hours during these gatherings. The evening was beautiful, like everything else, too much to fully absorb. There's so much to tell! As I think back now, memories flood me, but I don't possess the language to respectfully recount them.
Commandante Tacho spoke with us, telling us about the struggle. About how people had very little land to farm, all of it rugged. They could not afford tractors, they received no help from the government, people were dying of disease, everything transported on foot or by horses so that the people worked and worked and worked and barely survived and often didn't. Systematic oppression of the peoples who had first inhabited the land. Ingrained racism. A terrible struggle over a long period of time for people who wanted no more than to farm the land and live in their communities, continue a respectful way of life. To live fully.
The indigenous peoples of Mexico have suffered a long time, and the Zapatista movement exists to free them from an often brutal way of life. In the midst of this struggle, the people carry on with spirit that cannot be described. They meet when they can to dance. The songs echo through the village. The Zapatista way is a way for both men and women to live with equal dignity and respect.
I don't know, the more I talk about it, the more I swim in it. We came as visitors to listen and to learn and to absorb and observe, and if you go there to visit, you will not return the same. You will see the Mexican army parade through the middle of the town with their obscene tanks and machine guns and menacing cameras. You will see villagers gather to watch them pass. You will see the faces of children you will never forget, even if you take home no pictures, you will meet members of the Zapatista army so kind, gentle, patient and generous that it seems strange they should have to strap a gun across their shoulders. You will hear the melodies of songs that stir unnamed places inside and women who dance even though they have spent all day hauling wood across their backs for miles.
You will taste a way of life profoundly nourishing and from your tongue may spring a song or poem or sentence or word or maybe nothing but silence. Silence only the heart can turn to song.
1997: Chiapas, Mexico - Amy's Entry
Dear Participants -
Here are some visuals and a selection of words to go with them. My mother always said "Haste makes waste" but all I seem to have is haste at this moment... so enjoy and learn but please be flexible. Good Day.
My first trip to down to the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico was almost a year ago. I attended an international conference on the effects of neo-liberalism hosted by the Zapatistas. I could never quite sink my teeth into the term neo-liberalism but it seemed to be reflected in policies such as NAFTA - basically a globalization that creates the disenfranchisement of women, gays, people of color, indigenous peoples or anybody else that doesn't fit into a homogenized culture or an economy motivated and run by transnational corporations. The trip was crazy with hundreds of people from all over the world crammed into buses trucking into the rainforest through military checkpoints, spot searches and as much hassling as possible by the Mexican government. It took 20 hours to finally arrive at one destination that was actually only 200 miles away. I slept that same night on the porch of an abandoned Mexican government hospital before being allowed onto the meeting area for reasons of security.
At the conference, we met in small focus groups split up among the five centers of resistance set up by the Zapatistas. The centers were impressive; they were complete with stage facilities, latrines, a clinic, a library and makeshift shelters. I began my conference at an area called Oventic, focusing on women's issues. I ended up at La Realidad for the final gathering where all the resolutions of the separate focus groups were read. I left the conference transformed by the dignity and gentle discipline of the Mayan peoples I encountered. I was honored to interview four women commandantes from the Zapatista army. Honor the Earth had granted the women in the Oventic community money to help with their artist co-op. Although I could only see their eyes, there was a certain sparkle and life to them.
My most vivid and constant memory comes from the morning I left Oventic to travel to La Realidad. After assembling the night before, the Mayan people slept in their seats at the meeting grounds. They got up at the crack of dawn and lined the path that led out of the center of Resistance. After gathering my tent and pack, I walked to the buses with the whole community clapping in rhythm as I walked, sending me on my way.
The way of the Zapatista movement is a way that is easy to embrace. They espouse equality between the sexes, self-discipline, a strong work ethic, tolerance for differences and a high morality. The Zapatistas want the people of Mexico to turn their own country around. The Mexican government is corrupt with no regard for the voice of the common person, no respect for the environment and no recognition of its own indigenous populations. Along with the jobs NAFTA has created in Mexico, it has also brought devastation to the environment and to indigenous communities. NAFTA has created a boomtown effect with no long term vision. To secure our own corporate interests, the USA. sends tax dollars down to the Mexican military. The money supposedly used to fight the "drug war" is mostly used to secure valuable resources for American corporations and some of these tax dollars fuel the constant war fought against the Mayan peoples. The Mayan villages are constantly surrounded by the military, women are harassed and raped daily, and movement between the villages is almost impossible at times.
The Mayan peoples who make up the Zapatista movement want a voice - that is all. They want access to education and health care and they want their land to remain their own - not in the hands of wealthy ranchers or transnational corporations. They want training in new farming techniques so they can compete in today's markets. Their needs are very realistic and modest. The Zapatistas call their reform movement " the revolution before the revolution." I go down to Chiapas to protest the U.S. government's involvement and to learn more about grassroots organizing. The lessons learned in Chiapas can be applied generally to almost any movement.
My most recent adventure in Chiapas was with a group of 20 or so friends including Emily, Sara Lee, Michelle Malone and a Native North American contingent. We played music and interviewed many people including Commandante Tacho and our hostess Cecilia Rodriguez. After returning from the trip each person is now using their own resources and communities to initiate projects to help the Zapatista's communities. There are documentaries being made; doctors, dentists and vets volunteering time; articles written and stacks of photos to remind us of our intense weekend. The trip also is a source of inspiration for activism within our own communities, whether it be gay rights issues, indigenous issues, or other social causes. This is the essence of grassroots organizing - passing the torch - movements grow outward and from the bottom up. We must all empower each other.
2006-02-10: Notes From Amy
I Started the season out with a trip to Chiapas, Mexico with a small delegation of artist and activists from Indigenous communities and the U.S. The trip was sort of a fact finding mission to check out some the good work being done down there, make connections, and find inspiration.
Trip to Chiapas
We met some of our travel companions and caught a ride together into town. It was a beautiful, mountainous drive. All of the drivers I have ever had in Chiapas have been skilled at going very high speeds up and down mountain roads that are barely visible in the nighttime, and teaming with various people and animals in the daytime.
We settled into quaint little hotel in San Cristobal and then went out to eat dinner and meet some of our hosts. My old friend Giacomo Buonafina showed up from Guatemala. He is currently an actor, but has also been a record engineer and producer with his own indie label. I met him on my first trip top Chiapas, so it felt like coming full circle.
We spent the day at a place called CIESAS (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Anthropologia Social del Sureste)- a center for research and advanced studies in social anthropology. My take is that there is a relatively new movement in anthropology of activist-anthropologists who's work is dedicated to helping community development and cultural sustainability, rather than the old negative associations of colonial/voyeuristic anthropologists, studying people like wild animals for imperialistic gains. CIESAS allowed us a place to meet and talk with community activists. Most of the folks we met with are indigenous. It was a very diverse group of anthropologists, midwives, Mayan doctors, videographers, feminists, coffee growers, and agro-economists. We took turns introducing ourselves and giving presentations. There were translators to bridge the language gap between Spanish, Mayan languages, and English. Our host from CIESAS, Xochitl Leyva said she felt our purpose in meeting was to construct common agendas between artists, activists, and academics. Winona represented our delegation and helped start the discussion off with a brief overview of Ojibwe struggles and successes in the U.S., as well as the work of Honor the Earth. It was a very full day with over 15 presentations.
We heard from a member of OMIECH, an organization of indigenous doctors of the state of Chiapas. She talked about the importance of recovering traditional medicines and protecting them from patents and exploitation by other countries. We learned a lot about the tradition of midwives in the Mayan communities and how important they are. We saw the merging of art and activism when Agripino Bautista, presented a video about Mayan midwives. The video was made through the Indigenous Videomakers of the Southern Border Project (PVIFS). This project trains indigenous people to use cameras and equipment in order to let them document themselves and show us more accurately what their vision is of their own communities. We also saw another video funded by PVIFS by a young Tsotsil filmmaker, Pedro Lopez in which he returns to his homeland to interview his Grandfather and Great Grandfather about cultural / spiritual practices. These two films were incredible in their beauty and depth and showed a much more intimate picture than an outside non -indigenous filmmaker could ever show.
There were strong women at the gathering who spoke of their struggles for rights and dignity and ultimately their success with the Declaration of Women's Rights by the Zapatistas. There are still many issues and problems but the movement is so determined and creative and really seems to be gaining ground on their own terms. There were some interesting differing opinions among the women who spoke with us. Some felt that the movement had become less unified and the Zapatistas had failed to follow through with their goals and that there were a lot of marches but not many concrete results. This was not meant to undermine the Zapatista's intent but to say that some women felt it was important to move on and form their own independent groups to achieve economic sustainability through art co-ops and other projects (This sort of made sense later to me as the Zapatistas declared a 6th Declaration and a new work plan because they felt the old one was stalled by the lack of government support). There are mixed feelings about the traditional roles of women changing and how it affects the family structure. Most of the women want to have more self-determination than they have had, but also want to keep the traditions of their families alive.
We also heard an overview of the history of southern indigenous peoples' process of resistance and decolonization in the face of globalization. The need for self-representation and control over choices and access to technology and resources was emphasized. It was a good companion piece to Winona's presentation. We traded back and forth as the day went on, sharing our political work and art. Anne White Hat spoke of her work with Sicangu Way Of Life, an organization committed to re-establishing and strengthening sustainable communities grounded in Lakota thought and philosophy. We also shared songs, more film, and visual art. That night we went back to our hotel and decompressed. the Zapatistas declared a 6th Declaration and a new work plan because they felt the old one was stalled by the lack of government support). There are mixed feelings about the traditional roles of women changing and how it affects the family structure. Most of the women want to have more self-determination than they have had, but also want to keep the traditions of their families alive.
After breakfast we loaded into taxicabs and went to visit CIEPAC, The Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action. They define themselves as "a civil organization that accompanies the social movements of Chiapas, Mexico and Meso-America, as well as the global struggles that seek to build a more democratic world, with justice and dignity for all." Their main activities are research, information dissemination, education, training and analysis. They help the activist achieve their goals by providing hardcore facts to help communities make informed decisions. The information they provide can help you understand the relationship between U.S. Economic policy and Meso-America.
I felt like I was back in school, attending a really cool class. We went into a small room with benches facing a lecture area. We were given the history of Mexican economics in the context of the greater world, since the 1940's. We learned about Keynesian Economics vs. the most recent system of thought-Neo-liberalism, with it's devastating effects on indigenous peoples and Mexico. When the lecturer, Miguel Picardo began his lesson, it was so laden with facts, charts about economic growth, and academic lingo that I couldn't tell where it was heading. I feared we were in a subtly pro-neo-liberalism lecture, but as I opened my mind and just listened, I realized he was building a story and illustrating for us why the policies of NAFTA have been so destructive. NAFTA really has been about rewriting the laws to favor the corporate sector. A great example is the Mexican corn industry, which was completely gutted by the lifting of trade barriers by NAFTA. Mexican farmers can't compete with the cheap, subsidized corn produced in the U.S, so they've lost all of their domestic sales as corn makes its way over the border. I want to be careful not to be anti American farmer here, but there has got to be a better way. Another thing we learned is about the provision in the NAFTA agreement that allows corporations to sue governments for loss of future profits when they aren't allowed to do business somewhere. In the example of a U.S. corporation: Metalclad sued the Mexican Government and won when locals protested the toxic dumping in their town and the Mayor wouldn't allow the company to operate there. Metalclad won damages of over 15 million for future loss of profits. It seems ridiculous but it happens.
Miguel ended his lecture by taking questions. We shared the lecture time with a group of students from Wisconsin, so afterwards we exchanged stories in a sunny little courtyard. We left soon after that and headed to our next stop, The Center for Women's Rights in Chiapas.
Centro Derechos de la Mujer-
The meeting at the Center for Women's Rights in Chiapas was truly inspiring.
This Center traces its roots back to a Women's Forum in 1999 that was attended by a surprising 4,000 (they only expected 300). The forum produced a book of testimonials covering many topics including domestic abuse, forced sterilization, low intensity warfare, and government injustices. The forum resulted in many marches, workshops, and protests. The Center grew out of that activism and began operating in 2002.
We met with three women, Gabriella, Lordez, and Doni who split their emphasis between three things respectively: research, networking, and a legal work. According to our hosts, the Mexican feminist movement is still relatively young. They believe they are in a unique position to start a fresh movement that has the chance to be more cognizant of race and class in their organizing and activism.
Gabriella explained that as a researcher she is studying things such as property rights of women and their effects on women, the issues of the Indigenous Women's movement, the effect of globalization on women, and women's access to resources. Lordez uses networking to create relationships with government, religious groups, and autonomous communities. She is hoping to create more understanding of their issues, an open space for their work, access to jobs, and access to the system. She also works with NGO's and union organizers, and public health groups. She communicates with the press and produces educational materials. Doni is in charge of the legal side of things and tries to educate the government officials, judges, and lawyers about women's issues. She hopes that they can start to see the importance of women's rights and the government's culpability. She wants to show how the current government and legal system is set up in a way that exacerbates these problems through marriage laws, domestic abuse laws, lack of protection, and property rights. She includes an analysis of race, class, and gender in all of her discussions.
It seems a lot of the work being done by the center is educational. Abuses against women have not been seen as crimes in society, they are seen as private affairs. In some indigenous communities, domestic abuse is justified by rituals or traditional systems. As women participate in public spaces they seem to be accused of more crimes like having affairs. All of these situations can be improved by the research, education, and activism of the center. After the meeting, we went to a co-op café for home-style healthy fresh food. It was a time for socializing and letting the intensity of the day slip away. There is no way to immediately absorb all the things we are learning from these meetings. Taking notes and then going back to them and reflecting seems to be the best way for me to work.
05/25 & 26/2005
We ate breakfast at our favorite little spot-yogurt, eggs and beans with toast. Then we got taxis down to a makeshift bus station, where people can catch rides in vans into the highland communities. The buses are small, old diesel vans that can cram about 12 people inside. The drive was just stunning, a beautiful day with plenty of activity along the road. We passed several Pentecostal churches on the way up. It seems the Pentecostal tradition has really taken hold in some areas, so much so that there are whole communities of people living outside of their traditional villages because they were asked to leave due to the conflicts between Mayan spirituality and Pentecostal faith. Many of the Mayan traditions have assimilated Catholic traditions into them, but the Pentecostal religion doesn't seem to be taking this kind of path.
When we got to Oventic, we were greeted and asked to wait at the main gate for further approval of our visit. The Zapatistas are very cautious about outsiders and have a whole system of protocols around visitors. Before many of us arrived in Chiapas, Dana Powell, along with translator / local activist Eva Flor, and some indigenous representatives met with the Zapatistas to arrange our visit. Now we were in the last step of the approval process. I had a lot of anticipation about visiting this particular community. I had been here 9 years ago for an International Encuentro hosted by the Zapatistas. A lot had changed in this community stronghold. For one thing, these areas used to be called Aguascalientes and now had been renamed Caracoles (snail shell or conch shell). The new name reflects a further evolution of the movement, where these areas are not just safe zones and meeting areas, but rather have much more community infrastructure and serve as places to look out from, windows to the world, loudspeakers from which to speak, many worlds within one. These areas are like big communal gathering places where the schools, clinic, art co-ops, snack bars, and centers of government activity are. The Zapatista communities themselves lay all around us in the highlands and rainforests. Each of the 5 caracoles serves it's own municipalities.
So this is where we came to meet with the Zapatista representatives, ask questions and learn of their recent activities. Since my last visit, they had built a big secondary school, a medical clinic, basketball courts, a coffee co-op, and many new buildings for art co-ops and meetings. It was quite amazing to see the progress of this autonomous community. The secondary school and clinic are run by teachers, doctors, and nurses from their from their own community. They do use some outside help but are working towards a goal of complete autonomy. They use a blend of traditional Mayan medicine and Western Medicine in the clinic and serve many people, Zapatista and non-Zapatista alike. The school takes kids from all over the area and teaches them a curriculum that emphasizes their way of life, their history and the life skills they need to strengthen their communities. They really encourage the youth to stay around and not just abandon traditional ways for the city life. There were a few non-indigenous people working at Oventic as sort of interns. I do feel like an interloper sometimes, especially when I see other non-indigenous folks in these settings. My whiteness is reflected back to me. Are we all wayward souls at one time or the other? Can we hold a simple intention without co-opting or exploiting oppression? I have to just be clear and listening and honor my own traditions as well as others.
After a few hours of hanging around, watching a basketball game, eating snacks, and visiting the art co-ops, we got a meeting with the Junta de Buen Gobierno (JBG), which basically means "good government". We went into a small room with wooden benches; there were about 15 of us. There were 3 Zapatista representatives, one woman and two men. At some point one of the men had to leave. They wear their bandanas over their faces when they meet with outsiders, especially in situations like this where we might be taking photos. There is always a little bit of revolutionary mystique created by the bandanas. The room was dimly lit by bare light bulbs, so the whole thing felt otherworldly. My experience has been that the comandantes and representatives are always so soft spoken with a twinkle in their eye. You can see them smiling, even through the bandanas. But at the same time, they are very serious about their work and have a lot of composure and dignity. I find the women to be especially compelling, because in the autonomous communities there is a special effort paid to feminism and equity in the government, military, and civil sector.
Winona introduced our group and gave them some gifts of wild rice and a poster from one of her campaigns. She talked about her indigenous community of White Earth, and some of the other native folks we had with us, then she introduced the rest of us and explained that we were activists working in the U.S. with some common goals especially around autonomy for indigenous communities and environmental concerns that affect public health.
The Zapatistas welcomed us and then asked Winona a few questions and then we all exchanged questions. We talked about a wide variety of things ranging from coffee growing to women's issues. The discussion around coffee brings up issues of land ownership, the environment, and fair trade. The Zapatistas are trying to get their land back that was taken by corporations, ranchers and large farmers among other things. Part of the failure of NAFTA was that it dissolved much of the communally held land and made it harder for indigenous communities to farm and live as they once did. Many of these people lost land in the lowlands that was good for coffee growing and farming. Now they are trying to recover some more land for this. They tend to grow corn and beans for their families but only on small plots of land in the highlands. It really is remarkable to see some of the small farms that sit on the side of steep mountains. The farmers in the autonomous communities have agreements not to use chemicals and to control erosion. They get a better price for organic coffee, so there is economic incentive as well as concerns over protecting public health. The conversation that really resonates with the work Honor the Earth is doing was the one about electricity. To be autonomous, the Zapatistas will eventually need to own and control their own power source. Currently, in some autonomous municipalities, the Zapatistas refuse to pay the government for power, so the power is cut in the region. Some people chose to pay, so when the power is cut, conflict is created between the non-Zapatistas and the Zapatistas. These communities need a consistent and independent power source to help alleviate potential conflict and to get them off the grid, so they are not at the mercy of the Mexican government. We talked to them about Honor the Earth's work with solar power and offered to help out with an alternative energy project.
After this last discussion, the meeting was ended and we went to the little café to eat some food, which consisted of fruit, tacos, eggs and beans. We had some free time to look around and set up our hammocks for the night. We slept in a big barn like structure that serves as a place for big meetings. I had slept in here 9 years ago after hearing Comandante David speak about the Zapatista movement. That was one of the best speeches I ever heard. He talked mostly about their evolution from an armed movement to a civil movement with peaceful goals.
As night fell, some of us hung hammocks from the rafters and others slept on the floor. It was very cold that night, but I awoke in a drenching sweat, delirious with fever. My stomach was killing me and I was dreaming of Mayan women giving me herbs for to cure me. I spent the whole night trudging back and forth to the latrines- little wooden building among other little wooden buildings which became increasingly harder to find each time I went. I was so relieved when morning came. Luckily, we had some medicine with us and soon I was able to stay out of the latrine and get some relief.
The drive back was long due to my ailment, some kind of typical traveler's diarrhea. I spent the next day in bed while the others went to the Mayan Medical Museum and learned about OMIECH and their work to revive and sustain traditional medicine. I was pretty bummed to miss it, but in no shape to be anywhere but in bed.
We left our hotel and took taxi back to the airport to leave Chiapas. I was still pretty sick, so I felt a mixture of relief and frustration that I would have such an inauspicious ending to this journey. I was tired to begin with, so this really took me down for a week or so. I could tell it would take me a while to absorb the trip and take the next step.
Bringing it up to date...
Not soon after we got home, the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) issued a "red alert" through out all rebel territory and urged international solidarity project workers to leave the area in order to insure their safety and give the Zapatistas the space and time to reconvene and plan their next step. Analysts with the Mexican Solidarity Network saw this as a preventive measure, with the Zapatistas beginning some reorganization of their communities, distinguishing specifically between the civil sector and the military sector, and also moving the members of the Juntas of Good Government into more clandestine areas from which to continue their operations and future planning. Social/world systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote an eloquent analysis of the situation.
"... suddenly, in June 2005, the Zapatistas proclaimed a red alert, calling all their communities to leave their villages and come into the forest for a massive "consultation" of the base. The reason? They said they could no longer afford simply to wait indefinitely as the Mexican state ignored the promises they had made a decade earlier in the truce agreements. They declared themselves ready to "risk the little they had gained" (that is, the de facto limited autonomy which had no juridical base) in order to try something new. The Zapatistas declared that they had ended the first phase of their struggle, and that it was time to move on to a second stage, one that would be political and not military, they added. In the third and last part of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacondona Forest, issued on June 30, 2005, the Zapatistas have given us a clear indication of the political line they are advocating. It makes no mention of any political party, either in Mexico or elsewhere. They tell people everywhere who are struggling for their rights, who are on the left, that the Zapatistas are with them. They talk of creating a vast political alliance in Mexico - we are Indians but we are also Mexicans. And they talk of creating a vast political alliance in the world. They use a language that is at once inclusive - inclusive of all strata and all peoples and above all, of all oppressed groups - but that is resolutely on the left, not however, necessarily tied to any party."
Currently, all across Mexico, the Zapatistas are beginning to launch a new national initiative called "The Other Campaign". It brings together a broad based coalition of groups on the left to create a grassroots political movement from the bottom up and a new way of doing politics since the current system is broken. They have been having meetings since August and plan on traveling across Mexico to bring people together and get ideas and strategies to bring the movement to a new level. It's a long-term plan to build a system that works to replace the one that doesn't. There is an invitation, reaching out to groups in other countries to sign onto the 6th Declaration, meaning that they agree with the basic ideas laid out there and would like to be a part of this new coalition in some way.
Honor the Earth has just given a grant to OMIECH, whose work this year is focusing on reducing infant-mother mortality rates and on researching and promoting the use of medicinal plants for family planning. We have been invited back to Chiapas to visit some of the communities they work in and observe what they do. The JBG (Junta de Buen Gobierno ) has confirmed that they are interested in Honor the Earth's proposal to support a solar project in the autonomous communities. They are very interested in doing something together, and talked about the difficulties they have been having in Oventic due to electricity being cut regularly. Several times a month their electricity is cut for hours, days, or at times up to a week, interrupting the activities of the Autonomous Council, the Health Clinic, the school, and other activities. Communities down the road are also affected. HTE has secured some funding and is discussing sending down a group of indigenous solar technicians to team up with their technicians and do some solar installations.
SUMMER TOUR 2005
During the course of the summer tour, we went to Capitol Hill twice, once to lobby on behalf of Low Power FM radio and once to fight against the Energy Bill.
June 9, 2005
Indigo Girls were invited by The Future of Music Coalition to join a group of activists in support of an upcoming Low Power Fm bill proposed by Senators McCain, Leahy, and Cantwell. Low power Fm radio service came about as a response to the huge media consolidation allowed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Many communities saw their voices disappear as radio stations were bought up and controlled by huge companies. When the FCC wouldn't allow new stations to be built, many communities started their own stations, operating without a license what we know of as "pirate radio". In response to this activism, the FCC proposed a service that would open up the airwaves to small stations and called it Low Power FM. When large stations stepped in and said they were worried about interference from new small radio stations, some members of Congress challenged LPFM. The licensing process was allowed to happen in some areas, mostly rural, but was cut short until studies could be done about this supposed interference. When studies could not prove the National Association of Broadcasters' claims of interference, a new bill was introduced that would continue the process and open up more licenses, this time including urban areas. Our purpose was to encourage members of Congress to get involved and embrace LPFM and pass this new bill. The LPFM movement has some big foes in the National Association of Broadcasting. The NBA is a powerful lobby, but the beautiful thing about this campaign is the non-partisan, populist nature of it. Our group included a man from a community Christian radio station, representatives of the Prometheus Project, the Future of Music Coalition, and both Republicans and Democrats from the Hill.
We had meetings with Senators and Representatives and played some songs at a lunchtime gathering of folks working at the Capitol. We visited the offices of Congresswoman Slaughter, Congressman McCain, and Representatives Bono and Schakowsky. All of the conversations were fun and positive. It's hard to believe this bill would have any opposition. It seems since our summer visit this bill has still not passed. Evidently, Congress is also working on a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act that will establish the future rules of advanced telecommunications services. This rewrite is very important and has sort of taken the focus of the Senators for now. It is important to keep working to pass this bill and it becomes even more important as the discussion on media consolidation comes up again. The Future of Music Coalition and the Prometheus Project are both great resources for news on these issues. The Prometheus Project actually goes out and has old fashion barn raisings to help communities build and start their own stations. Below are some suggestions from the FMC website:
What You Can Do
Let members of Congress know that access to the airwaves impacts your livelihood and that you are concerned about the availability of low power FM radio licenses in your area. Urge them to support the pro-LPFM legislation that was introduced last year:
Senate: The Local Community Radio Act of 2005 (S 312)
House: The Enhance and Protect Local Community Radio Act of 2005 (HR 3731)
July 25, 2005 - Fighting the Energy Bill
We were invited by The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) to join a team of activist lobbying against the new Energy Bill. An old friend from the early days of Honor the Earth, Susan Alzner is now working for NIRS. Susan spearheaded and helped to organize what turned out to be a great lobbying day. A coalition of groups including, NIRS, PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), Public Citizen, and Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance helped to organize the events, which included meetings and presentations to members of Congress and staffers. The goal of the day was to defeat the proposed energy package and to replace it with one that emphasizes renewable alternative energy. This was part of our press release:
Washington, DC—As the U.S. Congress works to finalize an energy bill that could include more than $10 billion in subsidies for the nuclear power industry, musicians Ani DiFranco and Indigo Girls, actor James Cromwell and Native American advocates Winona LaDuke and Margene Bullcreek decried the expansion of nuclear power and the industry's legacy of waste at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill.
The Senate version of the energy bill contains massive subsidies for building a new generation of nuclear power plants, including loan guarantees, tax credits, limited liability in the case of an accident, research and development funding, and demonstration projects.
Highlighting the long history of problems with nuclear power in the U.S., the group of artists and advocates drew special attention to a nuclear utility consortium, Private Fuel Storage's proposal to dump 44,000 tons of highly radioactive atomic fuel from nuclear reactors onto the Skull Valley Goshute Indian reservation, located 45 miles from Salt Lake City. A final decision on the proposal, which would require 4,000 rail shipments of radioactive waste over the next 20 years, is expected soon from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
In contrast to the expensive and dangerous history of nuclear power, the presenters emphasized the readiness of renewable energy and energy efficiency. In 2004, newer technologies such as renewable energy and co-generation already provided 92 percent as much electricity globally as nuclear power did, according to a recent Rocky Mountain Institute report.
It was definitely an ambitious goal, quite different from our LPFM lobby day. We met with the staffs of 12 Senators and some folks from the Department of Interior. Our group of 25 or so split up into two teams and developed strategies for each office we visited. We had a list of questions about the energy bill and our goals with each visit had some variation depending on what committees the Senator was on, how they had voted in the past, and where they currently stood on the new energy bill. We carried notes with us to remember the details of each office. We asked them to give us some kind of assurance that they would either oppose the energy bill, oppose subsidies for new nukes, oppose nuclear waste dumping on Skull Valley Goshute land, and /or vote for the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Act, a part of the Defense Authorization Bill that would disallow the Bureau of Land Management from approving the right of way for a 30 mile railway that PFS (Private Fuel Storage) would need to build in order to deliver waste to the Skull Valley Goshute community. Also, there were requests for public health hearings or BIA hearings about the Skull Valley nuclear waste dump.
t seemed like it would be very choreographed, but in the end we had some quite animated, spontaneous conversations. Sometimes it was discouraging because staffers said that the Senator was on our side but felt that his or hers hands were tied and they had to vote for this bill. Some of them said that they hadn't heard enough dissent from their constituents to vote against it. Most of them expressed a desire to support alternative energy, but I got the feeling that many of them weren't convinced it would work or were so beaten down by the political climate in D.C. that they just saw our efforts as very idealistic and naïve.
This was more of a partisan issue than the LPFM campaign. I recall being in John McCain's office a month earlier and having him bring up his fear of global warming at the end of the LPFM meeting. I told him I didn't think think Nukes were the answer, but he ended up being one of the main supporters of nuclear energy as a way to reduce green house gas emissions. Of course this is a total myth since the processing and production of uranium for nuclear power creates tons of green house gases and the transportation of the wastes, a large amount as well. Even so, he was the lead sponsor of a bill to reduce global warming that contained huge subsidies for new nuclear power plants. We knew he was not going to be convinced to stand against the Nukes so we tried to appeal to him as a the Chair of the Indian Affairs Committee. We asked him to look into the BIA's questionable support of the dump at Skull Valley and the breaking of its trust relationship with the tribe to protect their wellbeing. All in all the day was educational and inspiring even if it was extremely discouraging. I just felt good being part of something positive in the face of all the cynicism and defeatist attitudes. We didn't end up winning, the bill passed not long after we were there. The irony being that it included a big grant for a wind turbine on Winona's reservation. She just found this out recently and we all laughed-that was some good karma.
Another victory was that the Cedar Mountains Wilderness provision was included in the Defense Authorization bill, protecting this area from the proposed transportation route and in doing that virtually shutting down the possibility of transporting waste to Skull Valley. Four of the seven companies that make up Private Fuel Storage have given up and dropped out. So even though the Energy Bill passed, the Skull Valley Goshute issue is looking better.
I asked Susan Alzner to write up something on the resulting Energy Bill that did pass.
In poll after poll, Americans have called for a US energy policy that prioritizes clean, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency. But in July 2005, Congress instead passed an energy bill that provides more than twice as many tax breaks to the polluting nuclear, coal, oil and gas industries as it does to clean alternatives and efficiency. Why? Because energy companies helped write the legislation and have showered federal politicians with $115 million in campaign contributions since 2001 – with three-quarters of that amount going to Republicans.
This energy bill did not increase the automobile fuel efficiency standard and did not contain a renewable energy portfolio standard. Therefore it did not protect consumers from rising gas prices, did not reduce America's dependence on oil, and did not address global warming pollution.
What did the 2005 energy bill do? It gave $12.8 billion in tax breaks to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear power industries. In comparison, the bill included $5.3 billion in tax breaks for renewables, energy efficiency, and clean vehicles combined.
Here are a few examples of energy bill handouts to the nuclear industry:
- It subsidizes the construction of six new nuclear reactors.
- It gives the nuclear industry risk insurance, which means that if construction of a new reactor is delayed by public challenge or lack of regulatory approval, the nuclear utility will be compensated with taxpayer money.
- It extends the Price Anderson Act until 2025, which limits the liability of the nuclear industry to $12 billion in the case of an accident such as meltdown. This act also prohibits homeowner and business insurance policies from covering damage caused by nuclear accidents.
- It guarantees loans for new reactor construction with taxpayer money. If a nuclear utility defaults on a loan, the federal government will reimburse the lender up to 80% of the loan.
As a result of these provisions, the nuclear industry is now seeking to build one or more new nuclear power reactors in each of the following 11 states:
MD, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, LA, NY, IL
However, the construction of new reactors is heavily dependent on Congressional appropriation of subsidies authorized in the energy bill. This means that public outcry can still prevent this regressive and dangerous plan for new nuclear reactors from becoming reality.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of clean energy advocates, the energy bill did contain some good renewable energy and efficiency provisions, though they were significantly scaled back from original hopes, and represent only 25% of the tax breaks in the bill. Here are a few examples:
- $250-$3,400 tax credit for hybrid vehicle purchases (depends on fuel economy and vehicle weight).
- Tax credit of 30% of cost of qualified photovoltaic and solar water heating property
- Production tax credit for renewable energy extended for two years
- 10 percent investment credit for energy efficiency improvement to existing homes
- Small manufacturing credit for energy efficient appliances
The Rest of the Summer...August 2005
We had a really full August. It started out as a month off, but things kept coming up that we wanted to do.
On August 1st, we drove up to Nashville and recorded a cover of Mrs. Robinson for The Desperate Housewives soundtrack. It was never used on the show, just the record. I haven't even heard the record, so I can't report on that. It was fun to record the song though. We worked in two studios, Blackbird Studio and East Iris Studio with our old friends David Leonard and Peter Collins.
n the midst of the recording, we drove south to Murfreesboro, Tennessee and visited The Southern Girls' Rock and Roll Camp (SGRRC). The camp empowers young women through music and art education. Their mission statement says: "We provide girls with the opportunity to learn an instrument, form bands, write songs, publish articles, record their songs, and perform at the final camp showcase. We feel that by accomplishing new skills and attempting new endeavors, girls walk away from the rock n roll camp experience with an improved self esteem and limitless opportunities ahead of them." We played a few songs and answered questions from the campers. I love these rock camps for girls. They seem to be popping up all over the country, run by a lot of older rockers and young activists who understand the need for an arena that focuses on girls and music. If you want to get involved with this one, the web site is: www.sgrrc.com
On August 6th, we participated in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition march and rally in Atlanta to promote reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA is 40 years old now and some of its important provisions are due to expire in 2007. It is viewed as the nation's most effective civil rights legislation. It removed voting barriers for minorities and enabled them to have a voice in local and national elections. This is a crucial issue and could really affect the outcome of progressive politics.
We headed to Michigan Womyn's Festival the next week. I love this week - long festival. It has become a touchstone for my year, a taste of renewal and a chance to reunite with some good friends and awesome artists from every generation and genre. It was the 30th anniversary of the festival, so there were a lot of exciting concerts. I saw Le Tigre, Ferron, Tribe 8, God-des, The Butchies, Ulali, Bitch, Holly Near, and Gail Ann Dorsey, just to name a few. The culmination of the festival was a 30th anniversary celebration of Cris Williamson's album, The Changer and the Changed. Cris played the whole record live with many of the musicians from the festival joining her on stage. The cross pollination was intense.
Earlier in the summer tour, we received a surprising invitation to join pop star Pink in the studio to record a song for her upcoming release. I was flattered and excited to work with a radio star whose music I could really appreciate. The song is called Dear Mr. President. It's obviously political but has a tone that I think will enable it to slip under through the corporate radio censorship radar. I applaud her for putting this tune out there. Let's hope Clear Channel lets it fly. We got together in Atlanta on August 15th and put down harmonies and guitars under the guidance of her and producer / co-writer, Billy Mann. The record is due out in April.
We ended the summer up in Minneapolis for 2 days of Honor the Earth meetings just as Hurricane Katrina was hitting the Gulf.