Friday, September 25, 2015

Jimmy Morales: the Comedic Actor Who Could Become President of Guatemala

Jimmy Morales, a comic actor who once starred in a slapstick comedy as a cowboy who ran for president, is the surprise winner of the Guatemalan elections held on Sept. 6.
Morales, of the minuscule Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), is running for office in the midst of the greatest political crisis in the country’s recent history and has successfully portrayed himself as an outsider. However, his critics have warned that most of his party members are right-wing Army veterans and that, given the country’s recent history of authoritarian military regimes, Guatemala could be heading for a repeat episode.  from NotiCen, September 24, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
The string of protests that have consumed Guatemala in the aftermath of the scandals involving ex-President Otto Pérez Molina and his former vice president Roxana Baldetti includ what  some journalists and academics have called it ‘the Guatemalan Spring and the emergence of  a fascinating political leader, comedic actor Jimmy Morales. Morales is famous for playing a bumbling cowboy who accidentally becomes president. Well, after Morales garnered 24% of the votes cast in the recent Sept. 6 national election, his famous comedic interpretation in Presidente de a sombrero (“President in a Cowboy Hat”) may become real life, just without the cowboy hat. Here is a trailer.

Born James Ernesto Morales Cabrera in the capital city of Guatemala in 1969. Morales spent his earl school years at the Evangelical Institute of Latin America. If elected president, Morales would become the third Evangelical President of Guatemala. Before beginning his career in television and film, Morales went on to earn various degrees, including a bachelor’s in Business Administration and Theology, and a master’s and doctorate the University of San Carlos in Strategic Security, focusing on security and defense.

Morales entered the entertainment industry alongside his brother, Sammy Morales, with the still popular television series Moralejas (“Morals”), a comedic show that centers on satire of society and government. In addition to this series for which he is best known, Morales has appeared in seven Guatemalan films, including Manzana güena en noche buena, La misteriosa herencia, Detectives por error, “Ve que vivos, una aventura en el más allá, Repechaje, Gerardi, and Un presidente de a sombrero. He has also starred in the movie Fe as a morally bound priest, directed by renowned Guatemalan director Alejo Crisóstomo.

The 2011 casting of Morales to this role as priest-protagonist displays the artistic reach of his acting, which goes beyond comedic satire into the profound and dramatic nuance of Crisóstomo’s internationally awarded films. That same year he changed his name to Jimmy Morales and ran for mayor of Mixco as the candidate for the Acción de Desarrollo Nacional (AND) political party. Two years later in 2013, Morales was elected as Secretary General of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) party, a post he currently holds.

Jimmy Morales’ emergence as a political leader and serious frontrunner in Guatemala’s presidential race places the actor, writer, director, producer and politician in a group of memorable moments throughout recent history – when democracy crosses the paths of popularity with professional entertainers and artists. Here is his campaign Web site.

Morales joins list of entertainers running for office
Earlier this year we published a blog post on the story of Haiti’s pop music icon and President Michael Martelly, who has led the Haitian government since 2011. In 2010, popular Haitian-American hiphop artist Wyclef Jean had attempted to join the fray of presidential hopefuls, but was turned down by the national election committee.

Elsewhere, we have seen actors make their way into the top offices of government: Eva Peron, although never president, maintained a great degree of power and popularity in Argentina; actresses Silvia Pinal and María Rojo both became senators in the Mexican National Congress. However, India and the Philippines top the list with famous actors turned politicians. The United States is a  close third. We all know about Ronald Raegan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Jerry Springer (mayor of Cincinnati) and Sonny Bono (US representative in California). In the current election cycle, Donald Trump has emerged as political player. Trump might claim to be more of a businessman than an entertainer, although many would disagree.

Some US news outlets have begun to dub Morales “The Donald Trump of Guatemala," but there are stark differences between the two politicians, namely: money. A first-round win by Morales was a remarkable achievement considering his party spent around US$480,000 for the campaign through July, according to electoral records. In contrast, Manuel Baldizón, of Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER), who came in third, spent US$5.3 million.

Part of Morales' appeal is that he has centered his campaign on convincing the electorate that he is not part of the elitist political establishment. His slogan, “neither corrupt nor a thief” could earn him some support in the runoff election. However, his conservative views on social issues, including his anti-abortion stance, could alienate voters who lean left, and especially the youth student movement, which is looking for a change. His primary opponent is Sandra Torres, ex-wife of former center-left  President Álvaro Colom (2007-2011).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Meet the Fire Expert Behind the Investigation at the Garbage Dump in Cocula, Guerrero

A report from a group of independent experts working under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has cast doubt on a Mexican government report regarding the fate of 43 students from a teachers college (Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa Raúl Isidro Burgos) in Guerrero state. An investigation from the IACHR-sanctioned Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), however, challenged the administration’s version of the events, including the official conclusion that the students had been killed in Iguala and taken to the garbage dump in Cocula where their bodies were burned to ashes. The GIEI based its conclusion on an investigation of the site conducted by José Torero, a renowned Peruvian expert on fire, who visited the site on July 13. Torero’s report said, "The minimum amount of fire needed to cremate the bodies could not have occurred" at the dump in Cocula, not even enough to burn one body.  -SourceMex, September 16, 2015

Photo: University of Queensland
 By Jake Sandler
 The decision by the IACHR to hire José Luis Torero as a consultant gives the investigation significant credibility. After all, Torero has done extensive research on fire safety, arson and other matters related to the incendiary sciences. He has  published 20 book chapters and over 300 articles on subjects relating to fire protection and fire safety engineering. His specialties include “fire dynamics, flame spread, microgravity research, smoldering combustion, smoke detection, structures and fire, suppression systems, contaminated land and education in fire safety engineering.

Torero has conducted work on prescriptive and performance based design, forensic fire investigation and product development, conducted detailed structural response to fire, fire resistance evaluation, material selection, life safety analysis, smoke evacuation, detection and alarm design as well as standard and advanced fire suppression systems.” Over the years his numerous awards and honors include a NASA-Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to Space Shuttle Mission (1995).

Born in Lima, Peru, Torero graduated with a Masters Degree in Engineering from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (1989), MSc. from the University of California at Berkeley (1991), and a PhD. from the University of California at Berkeley (1992). In 2001 he took a position as Associate Professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland. That same year he was also awarded a position as researcher with the National Center for Scientific Research in France. That began his move into European research communities, where since the 1970s the University of Edinburgh had established the most state of the art Fire Safety Engineering program in the world. His current positions include a Chair and Directorship of Fire Safety Engineering at the Building Research Establishment at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also head of the Institute for Infrastructure and Environment.

His expertise on this specialty subfield in engineering is extraordinary and rarely matched throughout the globe. The question is, has he had experience intersecting his work and research with a volatile and politically charged issue such as that which Mexico has contracted him? Although it can be said that fire safety and protection are socially loaded fields everywhere, it seems most of Torero’s work had been in aerospace engineering, urban planning and fire suppression systems, not necessarily this more forensic and criminal angle at play in Guerrero. Although this is a somewhat new position for Torero, he will be utilizing his expertise in the same way he has in his previous studies, focusing on patters and nature of the flames themselves, and the materials that were burned in an attempt to construct a better overall understanding of what actually happened.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Food and the Politics of Identity in Mexico: The Paradox of Turtle Eggs from El Istmo

The Mexican government has launched a campaign to protect several species of threatened and endangered sea turtles that reproduce on the country’s beaches, enacting measures to prevent poaching of eggs in Oaxaca and other areas. The government’s primary effort involves a scheme to increase monitoring beaches where turtles make their nesting grounds, particularly the olive ridley turtle. The Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) recently acquired two drones from the Secretaría de Marina (SEMAR) to monitor the Escobilla and Morro Ayutla beaches in Oaxaca during the summer months. The two beaches account for 90% of the olive ridley turtle’s nestings in Mexico. SourceMex, Sep 2, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
“Hrutuaa’ dxitabigu’, dxitabigu’ guero!” shouted an older indigenous Zapotec vendor outside of the central marketplace in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico. ‘I’m selling turtle eggs, I’ve got turtle eggs white boy!’

She knew just by looking at me that I was not from around there, not so much because of my physical appearance but because of the clothes I wore, or even more so the way I wore them, the way I walked through the market, looking excitedly around at everything. I had been living in Juchitán for over a year, and I had bought turtle eggs from that same woman several times before. But they never stopped being a very special treat. And I never stopped being a güero.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Turtle eggs are not to be eaten all the time; they are precious, relatively expensive, and, after all, should not be over hunted. This is known locally and is a part of the cultural knowledge that surrounds them in the Isthmus region of Oaxaca. For instance, it is known that these eggs are incredibly high in cholesterol, fats and other things to be eaten in moderation. This helps keep consumption down to a level that ultimately would not seriously harm the local population of turtles and the surrounding ecosystem. Furthermore, they are regarded locally as an aphrodisiac, a sort of Viagra for the pre-pharmaceutical age. Therefore, unlike iguana meat or other local specialties, the consumption of turtle eggs is linked to gender and sexuality; men typically eat them, but they may also be considered a special and spiritual stimulant for woman. In any case, they are to be eaten with care and treated with reverence (at the end of the article, look to see the typical way to eat a turtle egg). However, despite this local reverence and moderation, the recent growth of interest and demand in the turtle eggs from outside has caused an economy of export in which the turtle eggs are being over hunted.

This is part of a much larger pattern in which objects imbued with cultural meaning find demand in cosmopolitan centers where a high price is placed on their exoticness and cultural value, while from the very same cosmopolitan centers emanates the environmental reform movement and the discourse against poaching and over-fishing. However, there is a distinction between, on one hand, black market trade in exotic foods and animals and, on the other hand, foodies who simply enjoy consuming pre-Hispanic or otherwise culturally loaded gastronomical products.

In other parts of Oaxaca, platos típicos (“typical dishes”) include pollo con mole coloradito (chicken smothered in a dark sauce made from dozens of local ingredients that include chocolate, chiles, bananas and peanuts), chapulines (grasshoppers, toasted and seasoned), nopales (pads of the Opuntia “prickly pear” cactus, sautéed and served with an egg omelet), huitlacoche (corn smut, a naturally occurring black corn fungus, served as a filling in quesadillas) and perhaps the most internationally recognized mezcal (a liquor distilled from an agave mash, using multiple species of the plant).

Photo: Jake Sandler
Unique offerings at the market in Juchitán
In turn, none of these dishes are considered iconic of the the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region, or simply el Istmo en local parlance. Rather, at the marketplace in the center of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the cultural epicenter of El Istmo, los platos típicos include huachinango al horno (red snapper fried in a light batter) and camarón fresco (fresh shrimp from the lagoon, sometimes served in a tomato cocktail), or you can have a stew with your choice of meat: ngupi, leshu, or guchachi’ (armadillo, rabbit or iguana, respectively).

One of the most prized of all Isthmus gastronomical specialties is turtle eggs. Turtle eggs are called dxitabigu’ (pronounced jee-tah-bee-goo) in diidxazá, the Isthmus Zapotec language, and they are consumed as much, if not more, for their medicinal or spiritual value as they are for nutrition. Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state, and it is the largest state south of Durango. It is also one of the three poorest states in the nation, along with its neighbors Chiapas and Guerrero. Aside from long stretches of Pacific coast, all three of these southern states are mostly mountainous, relatively difficult to traverse and contain rural populations and communities that are spread out over great distances. Lacking the wide scale industrial development of northern and central Mexico, these southern states rely heavily on tourism for economic revenue.

But no other state has conquered the tourism market of southern Mexico like Oaxaca. Oaxaca’s cultural bureaucracy has worked within a national project of indigenismo, a particular ideological interpretation of indigenous culture that has been central to national politics and tourism marketing since the Revolution in the early 20th century. Arts and crafts took center stage in this nationalized exhibition of culture – the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, the woven wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and the flower embroidered huipiles (traditional women’s blouses) of the Isthmus. In time, a number of important artists emerged from this climate of cultural production and promotion, including perhaps the most famous, Francisco Toledo, an Isthmus Zapotec, or binnizá, born and raised in Juchitán de Zaragoza.

Graphic arts, poetry musicians and journalism united the cultural commodities that the national government had promoted and funded since the post-Revolutionary era with their own desires for local autonomy and the political power to fend off the increasing presence of multinational interests. Through the work of artists like Toledo, an entire visual lexicon was created, a sort of catalogue of symbolically, and therefore politically, important objects. Toledo often drew the figures of the iguana and the turtle. Poets, too, used those animals as metaphors, and even musicians used the bichuga bigu, a turtle shell used as a musical instrument.

The turtle, the iguana and other small game and fish popular in the cuisine of Juchitán took center stage in the cultural symbolism deployed throughout the grassroots resistance movement that was taking place. By 1980, Juchitán became the first municipality where the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was defeated in municipal elections since the revolution. The PRI lost to  COCEI Coalición Obrera, Campesina y Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI), a leftist party that used the diidxazá language as their principal mode of communication and the central marketplace in Juchitán as its soapbox, staging grounds and performance center.

Photo: Jake Sandler
Environmental hypocrisy?
Not coincidentally, the late 1970s and early 1980s was the time that a movement for environmental awareness and policy reform began to represent an important role in global economies and domestic political discourses. Therefore, the success of politically and culturally organized juchitecos to imbue their material world with real political significance was running head on with emerging discourses about resources and the environment.

While the juchitecos were using consumable objects such as turtle eggs as symbols of resistance against the salt mines and petroleum refineries in Salina Cruz, transgenic corn seeds from Monsanto, and Latin America’s largest wind park in La Ventosa, the national government was enacting policy reforms that favor capitalist interests in salt, oil, corn and wind energy as commodities while making the sale and consumption of turtle eggs illegal. An important question for Mexico’s national government arises: If you are going to actively police turtle egg poaching because of its environmental danger, why not do the same for transgenic corn?

However unfortunate or ironic, turtle eggs find their way to markets outside of Juchitán in a more environmentally detrimental way than, say, a painting, a book of Zapotec poems or a music album. No matter how politically important it is for juchitecos that elements of their local cuisine are being demanded and consumed in the cultural and fashionable hearts of the national capital, the Mexican government’s priority is stopping turtle egg poachers. Whether in terms of gastronomy, language, dress or artistic styles, el istmo is a region of its own within the state of Oaxaca, and although it is not significant part of the state’s tourism economy, certain elements of the iconic istmeña culture, such as turtle eggs, cannot help but find their way into the vogue of the nation’s capital from time to time. Turtle eggs are only the latest example.