Thursday, April 29, 2010

La campaña de difamación ya viene: ¡Prepárate!

In November of 2009 we saw the beginnings of a broad, intense, vicious, and, we now realize, sustained campiagn of defamation against Yoani Sanchez and other independent Cuban bloggers.

It seems that this campaign has only just begun.

A few weeks ago, Silam Lamrani, a French critic of Sanchez and great admirer of the revolution, published this interview with her in Rebelion (which has subsequently been reproduced at CubaDebate). However, Sanchez was quick to inform her readers that the interview was doctored before being published.

No surprise there given what Lamrani had previously written about Sanchez (see here for my own critique of his previous unsubstantiated accusations against her). What is surprising and impressive is her own willingness to grant him an interview with an open mind in an effort to dialogue with a known critic in good faith.

Thankfully, Octavo Cerco has just published an extensive new interview with both Sanchez and her husband and fellow blogger Reinaldo Escobar. Conducted by Cuban journalist Ernesto Morales, the interview focuses especially on the defamation campaign now underway, how they plan to respond to it, and how far they anticipate it will go. (So far the interview is only available in Spanish, but I'm sure that the intrepid folks over at the collaborative translation project HemosOido/Translating Cuba will have the English version up soon.)

Here's a translation of the opening section to give you a taste of what's in store:

The owner of the only radio station is a small town decides, one day, to launch a campaign against his neighbor. We don’t know what motivates his enmity, but it’s not important. What does matter is that this man holds significant power, and that his enemy is an ordinary man.

As a part of his plan, he decides to corrupt the image of his neighbor. He thinks: I will say that he is pervert. That he is a pedophile. From now on, he will use the programs with the largest audience to accuse his detested neighbor of sexually corrupting the children of the community. He will find friends and supporters (which every man has, particularly powerful men), and put them in front of the microphone: “Yes, that man is a pervert, he is a villain.”

Every day. Without rest. The owner of the station will enjoy thinking up new arguments to sustain the accusation about his neighbor’s perversions. He will not be able to respond publically to the lies, he has no way to do so. Even worse, he will have no way to prove he is NOT a pedophile, that he has never committed such a grotesque crime.

Few things are as difficult to prove as innocence.

You listen to the radio from time to time, and you know what they say about that man, who is also your neighbor. Truly, it’s not that important to you. When you run into him on the street he greets you kindly and has always seemed like a decent man.

But, if one afternoon your small son stays playing at the nearby park longer than usual, you run to look for him with a strange nervousness. A nervousness that would not have existed, certainly, if you hadn’t noticed that the neighbor, the one they were always talking about on the radio, was reading the newspaper on one of the benches in that same park. (Go here to keep reading in Spanish).

It also seems that Cuban national television, which until now had remained silent about the blogger, has begun its own defamation campaign.

And I just heard from a friend that the FEU (University Student Federation) has begun its own campaign of defamation against Sanchez among students at the University of Havana.

Finally, I have it on good authority that we can expect the campaign to fly into even higher gear come early May for reasons that I will expalin later.


While I will be using my own blog to counter these campaigns, I wonder whether they may actually backfire on their own since most Cubans I know on the island (especially university students) deeply mistrust the information they get from the government and the party especially when it comes in the form of these bombastic, demagogic, red-meat campaigns.

"You doth protest too much," quoth the bard.

All who know Cuba understand well that the "revolution" will defend itself against criticism, especially the sharp, eloquent, fearless, criticism by an insider spoken in a language that everyday Cubans can understand and relate to.

As they say: "En una plaza sitiada la disidencia es traición."

But we also know that Frederick Douglass had it right when he said:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand;
it never has and it never will."

Martin Luther King, Jr., echoed this exact sentiment in his Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, writing,

"We know through painful experience
that freedom is never voluntarily given
by the oppressor;
it must be demanded by the oppressed."

Can I get an amen!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Conferences: E-Revolucion and Cyber Dissidents (& a little something from Nelson Valdes)

Here are links to info on two conferences that both took place this past month, both focusing on the Internet and social change.

The first, "E-Revolucion: Camino a Una Nueva Era," was sponsored by the Cuban-American young professionals group Roots of Hope (Raices de Esperanza) and took place at Cornell Univeristy.

Photo taken from the blog of Ernesto Hernandez Busto, Penultimos Dias
He is pictured above second from the right.

The other, "The Conference on Cyber Dissidents: Global Successes and Challenges," took place in Dallas at the George W. Bush Institute.

Hernandez Busto has some interesting reflections on the Internet and socio-political change, "Cyber-dissidence in Cuba: At a Crossroads" (in English), up on his blog today.  He also is putting up his reflections on his attendance at the Dallas conference (see below and more forthcoming).

Sobre el encuentro de ciberdisidentes en Dallas: una crónica en primera persona (1 de 3) (more to come...)

En Dallas

De Viaje

Los limites de la ciberdisidencia: Una polemica (Las nuevas tecnologias en las sociedades autoritarias: un dossier necesario)

And for a completely different take on these same issues, see the work of Nelson P. Valdes, host of Cuba-L Direct list:

Cyber Cuba: The Internet, Broadband, and Foreign Policy (2009)

Cuba, Hurricanes, and the Internet (2009)

Cuba and Information Technology (Part I, Part II, Part III, & Final) (2001)

The Political Economy of the Internet in Cuba (1998)

Cuba, The Internet, and US Policy (1997)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yoani, the Blogger Academy, and Teaching Twitter on NPR and at the Global Post

I missed these two stories on Yoani, the Blogger Academy, and Teaching Twitter when they first came out on NPR and at Global Post in the last few weeks. But you can read the NPR story below and stream it by clicking here [4 min 57 sec]. The Teaching Twitter article is also pasted below, or you can read it at the Global Post. (Also see Yoani's latest post about Twitter, that savage beast, here).

(By the way, watch Nick Miroff of the Global Post, he has written a stream of solid reports on Cuba over the past few months.  Here's a link to one from last October.)

"Spreading Digital Revolution
In A Cuban Living Room"
by Nick Miroff for NPR, April 9, 2010, Morning Edition

Twice a week, Yoani Sanchez transforms the living room of her small Havana high-rise apartment into what she calls the Blogger Academy. About 30 students cram inside to learn how to use WordPress, Wikipedia and the other tools of a digital revolution that Cuba's government views warily.

The small group of young Cuban bloggers has drawn international attention to their campaign for greater freedom of expression and Internet access. The government treats them as a security threat, backed by anti-Castro forces abroad.

On a recent afternoon, Sanchez is teaching her students about Twitter. Few Cubans have an Internet connection, so Sanchez is demonstrating how to send tweets from a cell phone.

There are a handful of laptops in the room, along with photocopies of articles with titles like, "Can Journalism Be Participatory?"

Sanchez, 34, has long black hair and the weary intensity of someone who has been living on the edge for a long time.

"Unfortunately, in Cuba, the act of wanting to find out what the official media is hiding is viewed as an attack on the integrity of the state," she says. "But that's not our intention. This is an educational project, not a political one."

Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez teaches students in her Blogger Academy
how to use Twitter and other digital media tools.
(Photo by Nick Miroff - Gotta love those GY earrings!) 

Blogging Without An Internet Connection

Sanchez's blog, Generation Y, is political, but not with the kind of overheated rhetoric that has characterized the Cuba debate for so long. It's earned her several international awards, and though the blog is blocked on the island by the Cuban government, it's accessible through third-party Web sites.

Because she isn't allowed to have an Internet connection, Sanchez says, she writes her blog from home, then goes to tourist hotels and e-mails several postings at a time to friends abroad who run the blog for her. They send back reader comments, which often number in the thousands.

Among Cubans abroad, Sanchez has become the island's most famous symbol of opposition to the Castro government. But her name isn't mentioned in state-run newspapers or on TV here, and she's not widely known.

When her activism has moved from the computer screen to the streets, the response from authorities has been swift. The Blogger Academy has been left alone so far, though some students say they have been harassed by police and had equipment confiscated.

"We are Cubans ... We are living in the revolution — or maybe in the post-revolution — and we are good persons," says Orlando Luis Pardo, a 38-year-old blogger who is part of the academy.

"We don't [intend] to create chaos, social chaos. On the contrary, we [intend] ... that people in Cuba regain somehow their hope in Cuba, because a lot of young people that I know will say, 'When you get some money, find your way out of the country.' "

Countering Critics

Cuba's bloggers have attracted the attention of President Obama, and he gave Sanchez an interview by e-mail last fall. It's that degree of American enthusiasm for Sanchez that gives the Cuban government cause to view her and her group as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

In another apartment building on the opposite side of Havana's Revolution Square, journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde strikes back at Cuba's critics from a Macintosh laptop in her bedroom. She's the editor of Cubadebate, the pro-government Web site best known for its most famous contributor, retired President Fidel Castro. He writes a Web feature called "Fidel's Reflections."

Elizalde follows Sanchez's tweets and counters them with her own.

"We're not talking about some blogger in Sweden," Elizalde says. "We're talking about a blogger in Cuba, which the United States has been waging economic and political warfare against for the past 50 years. And this is just the latest form of that warfare."

Who's The Underdog?

Just as Sanchez sees her small group standing up to the power of the Cuban state, Elizalde sees Cuba as the underdog, besieged by a hostile media and the giant to the north. She says she doesn't have a problem with the Blogger Academy. But to her, Sanchez's overnight fame and the international support for her blog seem like a coordinated campaign to attack Cuba.

"I think she's a symbol that's been constructed for a specific political purpose, as part of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy," Elizalde says. "She obviously gets a lot of technical support if she's running a site that's being translated into 18 languages."

Sanchez says she will continue using the money she has made from her writing and her awards to help other Cubans launch their own blogs.

She says the waiting list for her next Blogger Academy course is nearly full.

Teaching Twitter in Havana
By Nick Miroff- Special to Globalpost, April 22, 2010

Graphic stolen from Yoani's latest post at Generacion Y.

HAVANA, Cuba — As an educational institution, Cuba’s Blogger Academy suffers from a few notable deficiencies. Its six-month course doesn’t grant an accredited degree, and its single, cramped classroom — the living room of founder Yoani Sanchez — isn’t even hooked up to the internet.

Then there’s the possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police. They haven’t shut down the Blogger Academy yet, but on this web-starved island — the least-connected country in the hemisphere — this classroom is a place where the digital revolution really feels like one.

At least the 30-odd students squeezed onto benches and chairs in Sanchez’s 14th-floor Havana apartment see it that way. They’re taking a risk to come here twice a week to learn how to use Twitter, or write code in Wordpress for their own blogs. That’s not because those software programs are illegal in Cuba, but because Sanchez, 34, is considered dangerous company.

Sanchez remains largely unknown on the island, where her award-winning blog, Generation Y, is blocked. But she has a huge following among Cubans living abroad, and she has used her literary talents and the power of the internet to become a potent symbol of opposition to a one-party socialist system run by men in their 70s and 80s. With the Blogger Academy, where the instructors are volunteers and tuition is free, Sanchez is drafting others to the digital cause.

“Today we're going to talk about Twitter,” Sanchez began on a recent afternoon, quieting the room. The students ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. One’s man late father had been a leader of the Cuban Revolution. Given the Castro government’s record of infiltrating opposition groups, it was also likely a few of the students were there to take notes on their classmates, not their coursework.

No one seemed too worried about that, though, and the atmosphere was friendly, almost festive. Sanchez used a projector to cast an image of her laptop screen onto the wall, displaying web pages she’d saved from the last time she was able to use the internet. Like most Cubans, she isn’t allowed to have an internet connection at home but can pay to go online at hotels and cyber cafes. “Who can tell me the difference between tags and categories?” she asked the class.

There were other classes that day on journalism ethics, photography, and Wikipedia. A nearby table was stacked with photocopied handouts of articles with titles like “Can Journalism be Participatory?” and a Twitter manifesto called “The revolution in 140 characters.” Students huddled to share the room’s few laptop computers.

At most journalism schools, it would be ordinary subject matter. But on an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 1 percent of the population has an internet connection, it seemed like the first tremors of a paradigm shift.

Cuban authorities, meanwhile, see it as little more than a new phase of an old fight. They view Sanchez’s rapid rise to international fame as part of the broader U.S.-funded campaign to foment anti-Castro activity on the island. Sanchez insists she funds the academy and supports other bloggers with the money she’s earned by publishing articles and a book abroad.

“We’re not trying to challenge or subvert the government,” Sanchez said in an interview. “This isn’t a political party. There’s no boss here, and no director. No one is telling us what to write, or what type of criticisms we can make. We’re just trying to create a virtual world that reflects the variety of views that Cubans really have — but are now suffocated and hidden by government controls.”

Rosa Miriam Elizalde, the editor of the pro-government website Cubadebate, said she views Sanchez as a figure who has been hyped up for a specific political purpose — to attack Cuba. Elizalde said there was nothing wrong with the material taught at the Blogger Academy, but she said Sanchez’s goals were hardly apolitical.

“You can’t criticize learning,” Elizalde said. “But you can criticize the intention behind her efforts, which are taking place in a framework of a U.S. policy of subversion and aggression.”

Elizalde also questions the international support Sanchez receives to run her blog, which is translated into 18 languages. “We’re not talking about some blogger in Sweden,” Elizalde said. “We’re talking about a blogger in Cuba, which the United States has been waging economic and political warfare against for the past 50 years. And this is just the latest form of that warfare.”

Several of the academy’s students say they’ve faced more than criticism in recent months, receiving threats and other forms of harassment from the government. A few said their computers and cell phones had been confiscated by state police.

“There are people who think I’m doing something wrong by coming here, but I don’t think so,” said Regina Coyula, 53, a housewife and former Cuban state security agent who now writes a blog, Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting), launched with Sanchez’s help.

“I think I’m giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren’t reflected in the official media,” said Coyula. “We’re people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.”

Sanchez said the academy's graduates are developing the skills to shape Cuba’s future media organizations. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo described their one-room school with a quote from famous Cuban novelist Jose Lezama Lima, likening it to “building a cathedral in the air.”

“Somehow this is the image that I have,” Pardo said. “Something very big and very beautiful that we are trying to build, and very fragile also, that could crumble to the ground at any time.”

“We hope not,” he said, “but it’s something very fragile.”

Corruption: The true counter-revolution? By Esteban Morales

Corruption: The true counter-revolution?
Translation from Progreso Weekly
Go here for original in Spanish.
Wednesday, 21 April 2010

By Esteban Morales
From the UNEAC website

When we closely observe Cuba's internal situation today, we can have no doubt that the counter-revolution, little by little, is taking positions at certain levels of the State and Government.

Without a doubt, it is becoming evident that there are people in positions of government and state who are girding themselves financially for when the Revolution falls, and others may have everything almost ready to transfer state-owned assets to private hands, as happened in the old USSR.

Fidel said that we ourselves could put an end to the Revolution and I tend to think that, among other concerns, the Commander in Chief was referring to the questions relative to corruption. Because this phenomenon, already present, has continued to appear in force. If not, see what has happened with the distribution of lands in usufruct in some municipalities around the country: fraud, illegalities, favoritism, bureaucratic slowness, etc.

In reality, corruption is a lot more dangerous than the so-called domestic dissidence. The latter is still isolated; it lacks an alternative program, has no real leaders, no masses. But corruption turns out to be the true counter-revolution, which can do the most damage because it is within the government and the state apparatus, which really manage the country's resources.

Otherwise, let us look at something very simple. When is there powdered milk in the black market (which has been rising in price to 70 pesos per kilogram)? When the powdered milk reaches the state-owned warehouses. There's no better example than that. And so it is with the products acquired in the black market by part of a majority of the population. In other words, at the expense of the state's resources, there is an illegal market from which everyone benefits, except the State.

And what can you tell me about the street vendors, outside the large hard-currency stores, offering to sell everything. It is a corruption in which almost everyone participates, generated by the corruption of state functionaries. Because, as far as we know, in Cuba there is only one importer – the State. I don't think that what comes in the packages from Miami can generate a market that big, much less a market of lasting products.

Observe, too, the movement of pork meat from state-run stores to private outlets, the prices of beverages and water sold at the various tourism chains. The suspicious differences in prices that we stumble on so frequently.

In other words, it is evident that there is an illegal flow of products between the state's wholesale trade and the street commerce. An entire underground economy that the State is unable to control and will be impossible to set aright as long as the big imbalances between supply and demand that today characterizes our economy exists.

This economy is, then, a form of counter-revolution that does have concealed leaders, offers alternatives to the State's offerings, and has masses that practice it.

But the situation sketched above is not the most dangerous part of the affair we are now dealing with. That's only its popular surrounding.

What was recently learned regarding the weaknesses of a group of functionaries at a very high level – having to do with favoritism, the buddy system, certain acts of corruption and carelessness in the handling of sensitive information, as well as some evidence of a struggle for power waged by those functionaries – was information that, lamentably, was passing into the hands of the Spanish intelligence services, even though those services were very careful not to enlist the officials' participation. Those are extremely serious matters.

In other words, matters as sensitive as the hunger and hope for power, favoritism, corruption and unseemly statements about the country's top leadership, which were already known by the foreign special services. A real “political merchandise” with extremely high added value in the hands of the enemies of the Revolution.

When the Cuban government turned over to the FBI all the information it had about the activities of the counter-revolution in the United States, activities that included even the possibility of assassination attempts against the U.S. president, what did the FBI do? Instead of taking steps against the counter-revolution, instead of acting against the Cuban-American Mafia, they sought to find out, like hound dogs, where the information that Cuba had given them came from, what were the sources. And there we have our five devoted, heroic compatriots who have spent more than 11 years serving unjust sentences in U.S. prisons.

After the statements made by Fidel about how we ourselves can destroy the Revolution, about the existence of reasons to think that our Revolution may be reversible, what the U.S. special services must be doing is looking for information that corroborates Fidel's concerns.

They're looking for confirmation for the words of the Commander in Chief, watching closely what happens every day in Cuba, digging into everything that may allow them to find out where is the real counter-revolutionary force in Cuba, a force that can topple the Revolution, a force that appears to be not below but above, in the very levels of government and the state apparatus.

It is formed by the corrupt officials, not at all minor, who are being discovered in very high posts and with strong connections – personal, domestic and external – generated after dozens of years occupying the same positions of power. Note than none of the men “defenestrated” until now (at least since Trials 1 and 2) was a simple employee.

Very recently, General Acevedo, director of the IACC (Institute of Civil Aeronautics of Cuba) was removed, and what is making the rounds in unofficial circles about the reasons for his ouster is enough to keep people awake at nights.

There must be some truth in what they say, because this is a very small and familial country. The affair still has not had an exhaustive public explanation, as the people expect, because – if it's like the rumors say – the people's money and resources were squandered amid an economic situation that's quite critical to the country. So, either to vindicate Acevedo or to condemn him, you have to explain it to the people, the people the Revolution has created and formed, technically and scientifically, and who are prepared and with sufficient ability.

In reality, I must say, as a hypothesis, that what happened in the IACC is not unique. It has been discovered in other places and there may still be companies where the same is happening, i.e., where the chiefs are receiving commissions and opening bank accounts in other countries. Which is a working theory valid enough to open other investigations so that such affairs will not catch us by surprise. In economics, there is a “surprise audit” that is not meant to offend anyone and should not annoy anyone. To audit is not to offend; it is a mechanism of precaution that contributes to honesty.

An element we mustn’t fail to consider is that the focus of the United States' policy toward Cuba changed long ago (1986-1994). Today, basic attention is paid to Cuba's domestic reality. It is not an absolute orientation but it is fundamental and prioritized. Everything that's happening domestically in Cuba is being observed, monitored by the American politicians and particularly by the U.S. special services.

For obvious reasons that need not be explained, the Americans know better than us what Cubans and how many Cubans have bank accounts abroad. Who receive commissions and what business they're in. Because all the companies with which Cuba does business have intelligence apparatuses and almost all of them coordinate with the U.S. services. And if they don't, there are officials who, as soon as they get hold of sensitive information about Cuba, link up with the American services, which, by the way, pay handsomely for that information.

What's most lamentable is that the American services are better informed than we are about all the possible movements of our businessmen. And that's information that, if left to run, in other words, accumulate, is an excellent conduit for bribery, blackmail and the recruiting of any Cuban official. This doesn't mean it always works; there may be someone who becomes corrupt but doesn't allow himself to be recruited, because it is a very subtle matter. But whoever turns to corruption to enrich himself will find it difficult to retain other values.

Any Cuban functionary who, in his relations with any foreign enterprise, becomes corrupt, should know that that information could fall into the hands of the special services of any country, and from there to the hands of the American services it's but an instant. A dossier is immediately opened, and it is filled with information until it is considered necessary or pertinent to subject that functionary to bribery, blackmail or recruitment.

This is not being paranoid. Only fools fail to realize that any sensitive information about Cuba, its activities abroad or regarding any Cuban functionary, that is considered to be useful is very well paid by the special services of the United States. And if we don't know this by now, we're finished.

It is, then, a covert area of the subversion against Cuba that, particularly in the medium and long run, produces very good political dividends. It is an area of the counter-revolution that has nothing to do with the so-called dissidence, the piddling groups or the ill-called “ladies in white.”

Observe how the weaknesses of some Cuban functionaries were being transferred to the Spanish intelligence services. Cubans in the FAR and the MININT involved in drug trafficking. Discovered by Cuba in 1989, but that was already privileged information in the hands of the DEA, the FBI and the rest of the American special services.

Actions of that type seriously affect the ability of the country to press forward. It is as clear as a mathematical algorithm that the ability of any nation to deal with international confrontation is measured, in the first place, by its internal fortitude.

If at least Cuba could discover its corrupt officials early, the damage could be slighter.

Esteban Morales, a Cuban academician, is honorary director of the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Havana.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Heads Up: GPW on Juventud Rebelde, "Viva La Evolucion" @ The Economist, Debate about Cuba's Telecentros @ Mediashift, Black Salsa @ EthnoCuba, QEPD Carlos Franqui, and the Cuban economy @ The Havana Note

With so much happening in Cuba recently, I figured I would take a hint from Phil Peters' blog The Cuban Triangle, which features a recurring "Odds and Ends" section and inaugurate one of my own, entitled:

"Heads Up"

While I can't possibly comment on everything going on with and in Cuba, I can at least direct readers of El Yuma to some of the more noteworthy and newsworthy stories and articles that I come across.

(Note: Some of these stories I learned about from other blogs on my blogroll - esp. Penultimos Dias - which is especially good at "filtering" the web and finding many of the best Cuba-related content out there).
Cuban Economists Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva and Armando Nova
with Katrin Hansing at the Bildner Center on Friday, April 16. 
  • Columbia Journalism Grad Student Alice Speri (That's pronounced "Ali-che," not Alice as she's Italian) just published this lengthy story on the Cuban press (esp. Juventud Rebelde) and the Internet/Blogger revolution at the Global Press Watch blog.
  • Here's a story from The Economist on recent protests and counter protests in Havana.
  • MediaShift has an interesting story on Cuba's Telecentros and their potential impact on Internet access on the island.  (Note: The story is followed by an especially rich comments section).
  • EthnoCuba highlights a new documentary entitled The Black Roots of Salsa that emphasizes the connection between Cuba's traditional neighborhood/solar Rumba and the birth of Salsa.  The post features a powerful trailer from the film and an interview with its director Christian Liebich.
  • The New York Times has a brief obituary for Carlos Franqui here.
  • Finally, I'll have a new post, "The Cuban Economy, Corruption, and Kiddnapped Information (again)," up at The Havana Note on Tuesday morning. 
(Note: go here for the full text in Spanish of "Corrupcion - La Verdadera Contrarrevolucion?" - the editorial critical of high level corruption originally posted at the UNEAC site by Cuban intellectual and party member Esteban Morales.  The op-ed quickly disappeared from that official site - see the screenshot below - but thanx to our blogger friends, it is now available in its entirety again at Desde La Habana). 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Trabajo Voluntario: Creoles, Cajuns, Treme, and Guest Blogging at The Havana Note

Readers of El Yuma might want to know that for the next week or so I will be guest blogging over at The Havana Note.

I'll still be posting the last installment or two on my experiences doing trabajo voluntario down in New Orleans, with a special focus on one of the neighborhoods where we worked, Treme, and the new HBO series of the same name that premiered last Sunday.

Now, however, I will begin to answer the question about the difference between Creoles and Cajuns by discussing what Tulane geographer Richard Campanella calls "a complex, fluid, and controversial identity, whose definition varies on the axes of time, place, context, and perspective": CREOLE

This quote is from Campanella's most recent and indispensible book on all things New Orleans Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (2008, Center for Louisiana Studies).  (See here, here, and here for more on the book).  Of the book's 68 semi-independent chapters, two in particular provide what is perhaps the most concise and comprehensive discussion of the evolution of this peculiar, place-based (and sometime race-based and occasionally racist and elitist) ethnicity: "Creolism and Place: The convoluted and controversial history of New Orleans' home-grown ethnicity" and "Nativity as Ethnicity in New Orleans: The significance of being - and not being - from New Orleans."

As what Campanella calls "the only American city that can reasonably claim to have rendered its own ethnicity," New Orleans has been home to people who identify themselves as Creoles since early in the 18th century when it was ruled and populated in turn by the French (and their slaves) and the Spanish (and their slaves).  Since then, the word and identity Creole has evolved through what I will identify as ten phases as described by Campanella.

1. Just as in colonial Latin America (including Cuba), Creole was the French and English translation of Criollo and was used in New Orleans to "describe those of Old World parents born upon New World soils."  Old Worlders were called peninsulares and ran the government, military, and clergy in colonial Latin America, while subsequent generations were criollos and often treated as second class citizens.  Thus, Creoles were defined in opposition to (and were initially seen as inferior to) those born in France or Spain.  This is similar to what many of my immigrant and children-of-immigrant students call "2nd generation" - or as Chinese New Yorkers often argue whether it's better to be a CBA or an ABC - that is, a Chinese-born American (a 1st gen who keeps the language and traditions but is often seen by ABCs as a bumpkin), and an American-born Chinese (a 2nd gen who is hip, modern, and upwardly mobile but is frequently seen by CBAs as hollow, fake, lazy, and disrespectful of sacred traditions and the all-important elders).

2. Later, after Louisiana became part of the U.S. and the Anglos began to arrive in New Orleans, the term Creole became more important in distinguishing the "ancient Louisianians" from the "modern Louisianians" - that is, the Franco/Hispano, Catholic Creole "natives" from the Anglo, Protestant Americans.  In this iteration, Creole became a synonym for native and applied equally to whites, blacks, and those of mixed racial heritage - especially the gens de couleur libre (free people of color).

3. This distinction between Creoles and Americans (not yet between white and black) actually politically fractured the city of New Orleans into three separate municipalities during the 19th century until the Americans gradually won the day both politically and economically. In turn, as the Americans took over they slowly began to replace the Creole/Caribbean/Latin American notion that there were racial gradients between black and white with a strict sense of racial separation a la the infamous "one drop" rule.

4. As a result, white Creoles attempted to re-define the Creole identity as strictly and exclusively one for people of pure French or Spanish blood.  This did much to threaten the earlier notion of what Campanella refers to as "pan-racial creolism" - that is, an understanding "in which peoples of different racial ancestries openly shared a common nativity-based ethnicity."

Homer Plessy's grave stone located in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the Faubourg Treme 
not far from the graves of Marie "Voodoo Queen" Laveau and
Ernest "Dutch" Morial (see below), two other famous New Orleans Creoles.

Keith Plessy, right and Phoebe Ferguson stand on the railroad tracks
at the corner of Royal and Press Streets where on June 7, 1892,
Homer Plessy was arrested after boarding a train
designated for whites only (see here for full 2009 article).

5. The "Americanization" of New Orleans' racial categories, identities, and social codes eventually led to the infamous 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson where the light-skinned Catholic Creole of color from Faubourg Treme, Homer Plessy, was ejected from a street car reserved for "whites" - yes that's a picture of Plessy above!

6. Even though many white Creoles of the city had previously tried to take ownership of the ethnic identity with a claim of pure French or Spanish blood, at the turn of the century they began to gradually melt into the white American population of New Orleans and stop identifying as Creoles, "removing all potential doubt of their whiteness by severing ties with the equally genuine Creoles of black and mixed-race backgrounds," according to Campanella.  This distancing in turn led popular usage of the term Creole to indicate a person who was Franco-African-American ("a local person of mixed racial ancestry, usually Catholic, often with a French surname, often well-established in business and society, and always with deep roots in the city's Francophone history") as opposed to the city's sizable non-Creole African-American population. 

A good example of a classic New Orleans Creole from this era is the jazz man Jelly Roll Morton (born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, Morton later Anglicized his stepfather's surname Mouton and took it as his own).  Morton, the Creole, can be contrasted with Louis Armstrong, the African-American grandson of slaves (both pictured below).

7. During the first decades of the 20th century up through the Civil Rights Movement New Orleans Creoles suffered the dual blows of out migration from their most traditional and concentrated neighborhoods to the expanding New Orleans suburbs (especially New Orleans East) and far away from Louisiana to places like Los Angeles and New York.  Anatole Broyard, the former New York Times book critic and the subject of the recent memoir, One Drop, written posthumously by his daughter Bliss Broyard, was one of these Creoles, born in the French Quarter but taken as a child by his parents to grow up in New York City.  In fact, he learned to "pass" from them since they would have been shut out of many jobs in Brooklyn had they "revealed" their Creole (translated as Black in New York) ancestry/ethnicity.  (See here for an essay from the New Yorker magazine by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the "Passing of Anatole Broyard.")

The criticism Broyard's passing has been met with since his death indicates another obstacle that served to neutralize the Creole identity.  Attacked as inferior for their common black "blood," the Black pride movement stressed unity and common cause thus viewing the notion of a separate Creolism (as a heritage, race, ethnicity, or identity) as potentially divisive and elitist.  In fact, historically New Orleans Creoles of color had often lorded their lighter skin and higher economic, social, and educational levels over their darker, less sophisticated brethren and so came in for criticism at this time.  Some departed New Orleans, others "passed" for white, while still others embraced their "blackness" in solidarity with other African-Americans.  All three of these choices for New Orleans' Creoles are illustrated in One Drop.  

8. Partly as a result of the success of the Civil Rights struggles of Black unity and as a result of the precipitous white flight from central New Orleans, 1977 saw the election of New Orleans' first black mayor.  Significantly, this "black" mayor was none other than Ernest "Dutch" Morial, whom Campanella describes as "a Creole of color who could easily pass for white."

Morial is pictured with his two young sons above and individually to the right.  Instead of dividing the city's Black community, Morial stressed the political unity of all Blacks, Creole or not, and had a huge following that began a powerful political dynasty - his son Marc (pictured below) served as mayor of the city in the 1990s and is now the president of the Urban League.
9. Campanella indicates that by the 1980s Creoles as a self-conscious ethnicity with a sense of place (in terms of neighborhood) had largely disappeared even if social, economic, political, and some residential patterns in the city still reflect the group's presence (if not so much its influence).  Campanella also indicates that there has been a fledging effort to revive the ethnicity and its traditions in the wake of the Cajun ethnic boom (more on that later).  However, the "Creole" of today has been more of a success as a tourist attraction than as an authentic ethnic community or movement.

10. Tragically, Campanella indicates that Hurricane Katrina dealt another severe blow to New Orleans' Creole population especially since it was a direct attack on the thing that had been the original and lasting basis for Creole identity - nativity, or a place to call home.  He ends his essay with the words, "Time will tell if Creole ethnicity, borne of a sense of importance attached to being from here, can survive being elsewhere." 

Still, many ethnic groups have reconstituted themselves as diasporas after being displaced from their original "homeland" - take the Jewish, Chinese, Cuban, African, or even Cajun diasporas as examples.  But the question is a good one, can Creoles still be Creoles if they do not live in New Orleans, or, better yet, if the city they once knew or their particular neighborhood exists only as a memory?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Trabajo Voluntario: Is Cajun is to Creole as Guajiro is to Criollo?

Readers of El Yuma will remember that early on I had a concurso etimológico to see who could tell the difference between guajiros and a criollos.  I later followed up with a post on the related words yankees, gringos, yumas, bolillos, gabachos, güeros, and guiris.

Well, recently while dancing to Zydeco and Cajun music in South Louisiana, it occurred to me that the relation between Cuban creoles and their less sophisticated rural brethren, the guajiros, is quite similar to the relation between Louisiana's own creoles and their swamp and tradition bound brethren, the Cajuns.

So, in my next post I will explain the difference between Louisiana's Cajuns and Creoles, but who can write me back in the meantime to give me their take on who these two key ingredients in the New Orleans gumbo are.

While we wait, here are a few more photos of my trabajo voluntario trek down in Louisiana.  Again, most of these photos were taken by my students.

Two photos of a Creole plantation in St. Martinville, Louisiana   

Gators in Barataria Preserve in Harrahan, Louisiana

A Recreation of a Cajun Fishing Camp in St. Martinville 

The Swamps of Barataria with New Orleans' Tallest Building 
"One Shell Square" in the background

This final group of photos are all from Eunice, Louisiana,
known locally as
"The Prairie Capital of Cajun Country."  
We spent an unforgettable evening at the local theater,
Liberty Center, 
where we attended a Cajun version of a cross between
"The Grand Ole Opry" and "A Prairie Home Companion":
The weekly "RENDEZ VOUS des CAJUNS."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Trabajo Voluntario: More from the New Orleans Second-Line

Photo of Jackson Square by Tiffany Wong

In this follow up post to last week's description of my annual service learning visit  to the Big Easy, I share a bit more of the color and sound of New Orleans.  The photos freatured here were all taken by my students while the video is what I could capture of the brass bands playing as the Revolution Social Aid and Pleasure Club second-line passed me by (Sunday, March 28, 2010).  Go here, here, and here for video of the group's 2009 second-line parade (much better than mine by the way) and here for a sample of something called "Baby Buckjump."

Following the video is a real treat - photos taken by my student Simon Mairzadeh of the Mardi Gras Indians in full regalia.  If you don't know what a Mardi Gras Indian is - I suggest you tune in to the premier of the new HBO series Tremé that debuts this Sunday, April 11, at 10 p.m.

Photo of Professor Ted taken by Tiffany Wong