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SOANDRY DEL RIO
S A M P S O N I A WAY
Reporting from Mexico’s Murder Capital
Soandry del Rio Hip-hop Cubano and
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop By Joshua Barnes
Soandry del Rio in front of a mural on Pittsburgh’s Northside designed by Dan Wintermantel as a project of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council.
Fists pump the air. Flashing lights dance across the jostling crowd, and a rapper steps out on stage. His delivery is smooth: he is a virtuoso with rhyme schemes and tightly packed wordplay, and the crowd responds with cheers. But while his music will seem familiar to any American hiphop fan, this musician isn’t from New York or Los Angeles. He’s from Havana, Cuba.
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Soandry is a rapero, a socially conscious rapper from the growing Cuban hip-hop scene. After being included on the 2002 compilation “Cuban Hip-Hop All-Stars: Vol. 1,” he became more widely known in Cuba. He was also featured in the 2006 documentary “East of Havana.” In late October, he had his American debut at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh, as part of a residency sponsored by the Mattress Factory Museum, which is currently hosting the exhibition Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art. Soandry is tall, with a cloud of black ringlets and a row of gold teeth that can be seen on the rare instances when he smiles. He speaks with an uncommon intensity, whether rapping on stage or talking off-stage about the history of Cuban hip-hop. He described why American rap was so poignant to Cuba's youth since its beginnings: “Hip-hop resonates with people who need hope, people
Guitarists known as trovadores rambled the country playing songs about social problems and telling real-life stories. who don’t identify themselves with any of the rhythms that were available before hip-hop came.” When Soandry heard American rap for the first time, it was a revelation: “Suddenly there were guys like me, making music with language like mine, with struggles and experiences like mine.” “You need to have good lyrics to make people stop dancing and think.”
Hip-hop first came to Cuba in the 1990s via pirated radio from Florida. During that decade, illegally taped copies of the show Soul Train started to circulate underground. Albums from artists like Notorious B.I.G., TuPac, N.W.A., and Public Enemy were passed from hand-to-hand by impoverished Cuban youth.
According to Soandry, at the beginning of Cuban hip-hop even ambitious raperos couldn’t make complicated tracks. There were no CDs, no mixers, no multi-track recorders available on the island. The only way to make a track was to record the last few instrumental bars from the end of a pirated song onto a cassette and loop it for three or four minutes to make a beat. Using a dual cassette recorder, artists would record vocals onto another tape while the loop played in the background. With time, recording equipment was brought into Cuba from the States, but the process remains incredibly slow. Even today, Pablo Herrera, the biggest hip-hop producer in Cuba, operates out of his apartment. Because of these technological limitations, Soandry believes that some of the best lyrics in the world are coming out of Cuba right now: “Through speech we have to compensate for the lack of quality that we have musically. We also have to grab the attention of a population that is already a big consumer of salsa and reggaeton. You need to have good lyrics to make people stop dancing and think.”
“They were a crucial part of the Revolution; they questioned capitalist ideas. As raperos we are also questioning things both inside and out of the island; we are making a new kind of revolution,” Soandry explained.
“Through culture and words you can do more than through politics.”
Soandry’s songs, like much of Cuban hip-hop, are inflected with a social consciousness that comes from a long tradition of Cuban music. One of the earliest forms of popular song in Cuba was Trova, which originated in the late 1800s. Guitarists known as trovadores rambled the country playing songs about social problems and telling real-life stories. “They were a crucial part of the Revolution; they questioned capitalist ideas. As raperos we are also questioning things both inside and out of the island; we are making a new kind of revolution,” Soandry explained. Though raperos draw on traditional Cuban music, the influence of American gangsta rap on Hip-Hop Cubano is unmistakable—the driving beats, aggressive vocal delivery, and complex rhyme schemes are direct descendants of the American movement. However, it is unwise to perceive Hip-Hop Cubano as J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
“The Black Cuban wants to be white. He is fed Clorox since his childhood. He makes racist jokes about blacks who are in a worse condition than him.” Soandry del Rio from his song “Negro Cubano”
Photos: Laura Mustio Left, Soandry in front of the Mattress Factory museum.
simply on offshoot of American rap. While American groups are free to write songs calling for the takedown of the American government and its institutionalized racism, Cuban rappers don’t have the same freedoms of speech. Cuba consistently rates at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, and the rappers are not excluded from censorship. The rap group Los Aldeanos was considered “too critical” by Cuba’s authorities and, as a result, were banned from Cuban radio stations. Their albums still can’t be sold in stores on the island. Other rappers have encountered obstacles because of their lyrics. “There is not a single record label which dares to record us; we depend on clandestine studios,” says Raudel, a rapper from the group Escuadron Patriota. Soandry chose not to comment on the Cuban government’s tight restrictions. Nevertheless, censorship and limited possibilities for public performance have united the underground hip-hop community. “There used to be an East Coast / West Coast type rivalry between the cities of Alamar and Havana,” Soandry explained. “But, because of the scarcity of opportunity to play our music, everyone comes together.” Recognizing the power of the music, the Cuban government has also taken steps to encourage and promote rap for some performers. In 2002, authorities created the Cuban Rap Agency and established a state-sponsored record label, Asere Productions. A musician sponsored by the agency is guaranteed the ability to perform, and given access to recording equipment. However, sponsorship comes at a price: state-sponsored raperos must conform to the government's music standards. The government's censorship of social content in the lyrics and the pressure to hybridize Hip-Hop Cubano with traditional Cuban music like Salsa have left a bad taste in the mouths of edgier raperos like Soandry. “We are not political, but we must keep the energy of the streets,” he said. If not explicitly political, los raperos’ lyrics are certainly polemical. They take on subjects that the government media tries to hide: hunger, racism, class division, and the Cuban youth’s desire to re-organize Cuban society. Soandry is outspoken about these topics, but he rarely approaches them in a straightforward way. He sees racism as a kind of cancer in Cuba society, but he doesn’t simply blame the government or the white population. Instead, he raps about how Afro-Cubans have internalized racism. In his song “Negro Cubano” he raps: “The Black Cuban wants to be white. He is fed Clorox since his childhood. He makes racist jokes about blacks who are in a worse condition than him.” In his songs Soandry also expresses and celebrates his African identity. “Through culture and words you can do more than through politics,” he added. J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
“I have a map without a treasure...”
Like many of los raperos, Soandry maintains a degree of Cuban pride while rapping about problems in Cuban society. His song “Tengo” is based on a poem of the same name by Nicolás Guillén, the national poet of Cuba. Guillén’s 1964 “Tengo” extols the virtues of Castro's Revolution, but Soandry’s adaptation shows a more complex picture. Written during a time when over 30% of the Cuban population was unemployed, the song alternates between pride and frustration for Cuba: I have a flag and a coat of arms. I have a map and a palm tree without a treasure. I have aspirations without having what I need. The years go by and the situation stays the same. Despite the sentiment in the last line, Soandry feels hip-hop has brought new hope to the island. When asked how hip-hop has changed Cuba, his eyes lit up before his normally serious face returned. “We have rescued so many young people from the bad life—the hustling life. If you don't have any direction, you get stuck and wind up on the street,” he said. “Hip-hop helps you to find your own direction.” The future of hip-hop in Cuba remains uncertain; the government is notoriously tight-lipped about its plans, and, despite constant political coverage on state-sponsored radio and television stations, its citizens are routinely kept in the dark about the policies that will affect their future. President Barack Obama plans to relax restrictions on American travel to Cuba and ease the trade embargo may mean a thaw in relations between the two nations. However with the recent mid-term elections giving control of the House to the Republicans, the fate of these plans remains in doubt. Still, in the past ten years, Cuba has hosted American hip-hop groups like Dead Prez, Black Star, and Common, and recently allowed artists like Soandry to leave the country to perform. This might mean that the government is growing increasingly open to the genre. Soandry is interested in these tectonic changes, but more focused on how hip-hop can change individuals: “Hip-hop is the best way for people to understand that we have to respect each other. We bring the sounds of a non-violent revolution, new beats of freedom, and the chance to change the way we see each other.” SW
Just last November, Zimbabwean police launched a manhunt for an editor accused of publishing a false story during the 2008 elections. Are hopes fading for greater press freedom in the country? Two exiled writers discuss President Robert Mugabe’s ongoing repression of speech.
“You Must Face the Consequences.” The Price of Committing Journalism in Zimbabwe. By Elizabeth Hoover Chenjerai Hove (left) and Brian Chikwava, two Zimbabwean writers in exile, discuss government censorship and repression via Skype.
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In April 2008, New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak was arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, for the crime of “committing journalism.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter had been covering the elections, but, when the results weren’t what President Robert Mugabe expected, the secret police started rounding up reporters. Mugabe has kept his grip on power since 1980 with vote-rigging and intimidation. However, in 2008, he found himself in a run-off with opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. In response, Mugabe deployed militias to beat suspected opposition supporters, kill resisters, and arrest journalists. “Elections can be held in Zimbabwe, as long as Mugabe wins,” Bearak explained to Sampsonia Way via e-mail. Press freedom has been brutally suppressed since 2002, when legislations destroyed the independent newspapers and gave Mugabe control over the media. Knowing how the secret police monitors journalists, Bearak had been careful, but the demands of filing stories daily forced him to work in the open. “Necessity numbed my own caution,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2008. He would spend 72 hours in jail, swatting cockroaches, trying to keep warm, and getting an “insider’s perspective” on the archaic and arbitrary justice system. “Mugabe likes to maintain this veneer of legality; the courts can apply the law unless he decides otherwise,” Bearak said via e-mail. He secured his freedom with the aid of human rights lawyer Beatrice Mitta, who has survived multiple beatings by police. According to Bearak, a police officer told Mitta they wanted her to experience the brutality she protested. It turned out “journalism” was no longer a crime. “The magistrate considered the charges a bit laughable,” Bearak said. After he was released, he fled across the border, but has been unable to return since new charges against him have been concocted. Because of this, he preferred not to comment on the current situation inside the country. “This exclusion from Zimbabwe is very painful for me,” he said. “I am unable to report on a story that I considered then, and continue to consider now, the most compelling in the region.” The elections eventually resulted in a power-sharing deal with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minster. Under that agreement, the government pledged media reforms and independent newspapers have resumed publishing. However, Reporters without Borders calls the situation “fragile.” After their publications hit the stands, editors and journalists are arrested, threatened, and accused of leaking state secrets. On November 30, 2010, Nevanji Madanhire, editor of The Standard was arrested for publishing an article that was “prejudicial to the state,” a charge that carries a 20-year prison sentence.
Mapping the election conditions in Zimbabwe
“We have freedom of expression; what we don’t have is freedom after expression,” is how author Chenjerai Hove described the situation in Zimbabwe. Currently, Hove is a writer-in-residence in the Miami: City of Refuge, a project coordinated by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College with the financial support of the Knight Foundation. Hove is the author of four books of nonfiction, two plays, and four novels, including Bones, winner of the 1989 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. He left the country in 2002 to avoid arrest after refusing government bribes. By the time he left, Hove was considered a major voice in Zimbabwean literature and admired by young writers, such as Brian Chikwava. Chikwava first read Hove as a student in Zimbabwe and the two of them met after Chikwava moved to London and established his own reputation as the author of the critically acclaimed novel Harare North. They came together with Sampsonia Way via Skype to talk about the situation of writers in Zimbabwe. After facing technical difficulties, the conversation was completed over e-mail. Here are the perspectives of two Zimbabwean exiles from different generations on Zimbabwe’s uncertain future, resilience of the writer under oppression, and the broken promise of liberation.
A map prepared by Sokwanele tracking the over 2,000 cases of political violence and intimidation in the 2008 election. View the map on http://www.sokwanele.com/map/all_breaches their website:
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What is the situation like for press freedom in Zimbabwe? CH: There is climate of widespread fear dating back to white minority rule. The fear has grown during Mugabe’s government and created a kind of viscous self-censorship. During the 1990s I wrote my columns for The Standard and people would always ask me a terrifying question: “Are you still out?” I’d say, “out of what?” They meant the maximumsecurity prison. I was never arrested for those columns but everyone assumed I would be. BC: Chenjerai, when you were writing those columns did you think the authorities would eventually become more liberal or did you think they would come down hard on you? CH: I knew it was considered dangerous, but the small space that I was creating was necessary. Those in power have to develop the capacity to face criticism. Silence creates real dictators in society.
Are artists censored in the same way as journalists? CH: We have freedom of expression; what we don’t have is freedom after expression. Once a police officer said to me, “You can say whatever you want but you must face the consequences.” Those consequences include imprisonment, torture, or disappearance. BC: That’s true, but the authorities don’t spend as much time on creative writers because most people can’t afford books. If you’re a journalist, oh my god, the government really monitors you. This government thinks that you either work for or against the state.
The government will tell you they have balance freedom of expression and the need to protect the state from both internal and external enemies. However that balance is always tilted on the side of the conservative elements. CH: There are cases of artists being arrested. The painter Owen Maseko has been jailed because of his images of violence that the government denies. If he is found guilty he might go to prison for over 20 years. Most of the artists’ organizations have been infiltrated by the secret police, so they can’t defend Maseko. He is languishing alone.
Is there still a literary community in Zimbabwe? CH: They are trying, but the problem is the publishing industry. In the 1980s, the publishing industry in Zimbabwe was the pride of the continent. Now, because of the economic disaster and the repression, they are unable to publish books. I was chairperson for the writers union for four years and we had a very vibrant literary community with events where young writers, like Brian, could meet experienced writers, hear readings, and participate in our debates. By the time I left, people were too afraid to gather any more. BC: There is still the Book Café, where creatives hangout, and people go for music, poetry, or theater. Nevertheless, in the audience there would be agents wearing dark glasses, and the organizers stopped them from running amuck by having nice words with them and giving them drinks. When I left Zimbabwe, the number of agents in the audience was growing. First it was two, then four, then six.
CH: Those men in dark glasses follow people everywhere—meetings, home, church. For me, it was the worst torture. They used to keep two cars in front of my gate at all times.
Was the relentless surveillance part of the reason you left? CH: I went through some very frightening experiences—a secret police car smashed into my car, my house was broken into. The last straw came when I was the president of PEN Africa and the government offered me a lot of money—I think close to $200,000—to take writers from around the world to Victoria Falls so they would exalt the country. Of course I refused the money. Then the police accused me of smuggling drugs illegally to Botswana. I have never driven to Botswana! My informers in the secret police told me I should find a way to leave.
Brian, did you feel in danger as well? BC: No, I’ve always been a coward and never said anything that would offend the authorities. I left at the end of 2002 because I felt isolated. If your work feeds off the creative community and that community starts to disappear, your mind starts closing down.
That reminds me of Chenjerai’s idea of “internal exile.” What does that mean? CH: Since I was unable to engage freely in my country, I felt I was already in exile. For example, I was raising money for a school library, but couldn’t enter the school because the
Ministry of Education didn’t approve it. A teacher invited me to visit and was suspended. There is so much fear because the government has infiltrated every organization, even families. There are families where the wife doesn’t know if her husband is a government informer or not.
Mugabe claims that Zimbabwe is a liberated country. What is your perspective on Zimbabwe’s liberation? CH: I was heavily involved in the liberation struggle. When I was teaching in the countryside, I saw how the people sacrificed by feeding soldiers when they themselves had nothing. Then the leaders of the revolution monopolized and personalized the struggle. They think that people without guns didn’t contribute and that it is their right to rule forever, but in a democracy the right to rule is a privilege. Whenever you criticize the Mugabe government, they accuse you of not being grateful to them for liberating you. But I was not liberated by anyone. I liberated myself. BC: There are young people, like the Green Bombers, who are very pro-government, but others think the concept of a liberated country has been monopolized by a clique of people who hold power. This skepticism isn’t just among the younger generation. When the liberation “hero” Welshman Mabhena died in October, his family refused to bury him in the national cemetery. They said he didn’t want to be buried among dishonorable men and thieves.
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How would you describe the Green Bombers? BC: They are a group of young people who serve as the foot soldiers of the government and intimidate opposition politicians to keep them from campaigning. They started as part of a scheme that the government said would give unemployed people training while learning the history of the nation. These youths only got brainwashed. CH: They are paid according to the damage they inflict on government opponents. They have been destroyed by the system and it will be hard to reconstruct them into proper human beings with a sense of respect and dignity. Moreover, they are part of a cycle of oppression dating back to the colonial days and through the white rule. Those structures of oppression, torture, violence, and intimidation haven’t been dismantled. Ironically, the Mugabe government kept the same hangman who hung members of the liberation army during the war. They increased the prison population to the point where there were more people in prison than in universities.
What are your hopes for the country? BC: I hope out of the difficulties of the past 10 years, people emerge with a greater political maturity and can have a viable and self-sustaining democracy. Politics have turned out to be everybody’s problem. CH: I want opposition candidates to run without their friends and relatives being tortured, or their wives and daughters gang raped in front of them.
What can the international community do to help change the situation in Zimbabwe? CH: There are organizations like the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights who have the courage to defend victims of political intimidation and torture. They need financial assistance because they defend people for free.
How can writers like you create political change in Zimbabwe? BC: Independently minded writers have the ear of the people who trust them over the propaganda machine that claims the nation is always under siege. CH: Yes, writers also hold a mirror in front of society. When the country gets ugly, they record ugliness and when it gets beautiful, they record the beauty. We celebrated Mugabe as a hero because we were starved for heroes and writers must remind the people of the dangers of celebrating forever. I know one day I will go back to a truly liberated country, with the respect that every writer deserves. Then, as a writer, I’ll help people to say: We haven’t quite lost everything. As writers we can still sustain our vision and one day it will flower again. LISTEN TO CHIKWAVA READ AN EXCERPT FROM HARARE NORTH LISTEN TO HOVE READ HIS POEM ‘FLOWER’
Right: Chenjerai Hove © All rights reserved by Florida Center for the Literary Arts
Above:Chikwava reads at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, South Africa. Courtesy of Time of the Writer Festival/ J Ragjopaul J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
Under the Shadow of Drug 16
Judith Torrea: Reporting from Mexico’s Murder Capital By Silvia Duarte “Have you ever asked yourself why the President Felipe Calderon never tracked the money laundering in his socalled ‘war against drug trafficking’?”
Left: Luz María Dávila mourns her two sons. Photos: Courtesy of Judith Torrea
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Judith Torrea is a Spanish journalist living in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a city devastated by battles between drug cartels and the “war” that President Felipe Calderon declared against them in 2008. Ciudad Juárez has been called one of the most violent places in the world: between 6 and 27 people are killed there each day. “The danger there is to be alive,” Torrea told Sampsonia Way via e-mail. Every time Torrea opens her mouth or writes a story, you wonder which one of her many targets would like to silence her. “The Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, and the army are not fighting a war against drug trafficking. They are supporting the Sinaloa Cartel and its head, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, to defeat the Juárez Cartel,” she says while looking directly into the cameras of a Spanish TV program. Torrea, 37, covers the devastation of the drug war on the ground from Ciudad Juárez with her blog Juárez en la Sombra del Narcotráfico (Juárez Under the Shadow of Drug Trafficking), which was one of the finalists for the 2010 Best of Blogs Award (the Oscars of the blogs) in the Reporters Without Borders category. She also received the Ortega y Gasset’s digital journalist award from the Spanish newspaper El País, the highest recognition for Spanish-language journalists. This reporter, standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall, is from Pamplona, a city in the north of Spain where a single murder is front-page news for a whole month. Now, living in Juárez, she covers at least 6 murders every day. Why did Torrea end up in Ciudad Juárez? Why did she leave New York City to report from a place where more than 30 journalists have been killed or have disappeared over the past three years? In 1997, she took a sabbatical from her post at Euronews TV in Lyon, France and moved to Austin, Texas to work with the Texas Observer. Six months later, the Spanish news agency EFE hired her to cover the American Southwest. Death became one of the main themes of Torrea’s reporting when she covered the policies of Texas’ then-Gov. George W. Bush, who presided over more death penalty executions than any other governor in recent United States history. She ended up interviewing many prisoners sentenced to death, along with their relatives and the authorities. “If you are rich, you can avoid the death penalty in the United States. If you don’t have the money, you can’t save yourself from lethal injection,” she then reported. Torrea didn’t feel she could thoroughly understand her subject until she attended an execution: she became the first Spanish reporter to witness an execution in the United States. Three years later Torrea published an exclusive interview with one of executioners who said he regretted his participation.
Left: Children burying children; Judith Torrea
Torrea also reported on death from the other side of the border. One week after she arrived in Texas, she visited Juárez for the first time and reported on the poor young women—women younger than her—who were being killed in a series of femicides that are still going on today. During that time, Torrea fell in love with the people of Juárez. “Its inhabitants are optimistic and hard workers. They see life as a fantastic instant that can end at any moment,” she said. Since then, she would return periodically to live there and continue her reporting on other issues. The inhabitants of Ciudad Juárez were on her mind even after she moved to New York City in 2007 as a political reporter and joined the exclusive group of journalists in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s daily press corps. She later became a senior writer for the Spanish edition of People Magazine, but still traveled to Juárez every other month as an independent journalist. While trailing contemporary celebrities for a publication interested in gossip, controversial quotes, and fashion, she saw connections between celebrity culture and Ciudad Juárez. “In New York I used to go to celebrities’ parties, where people consumed the cocaine trafficked on the Mexican border. The United States produces the most consumers—and guns—and Juárez the most corpses,” she pointed out. In 2009, she left People, moved to Ciudad Juárez, and decided to start the blog Juárez en la Sombra del Narcotrafico in order “to publish the stories of a city in a war without having to wait for an editor.” She added, “I couldn’t continue living in the United States and watch from a distance, while the truth was not told about what was happening in Ciudad Juárez. I’m a journalist who believes that her mission is to give a voice back to those who are voiceless.” Despite the fact that many of her former sources were in coffins and that 116,000 houses had been abandoned after a massive civilian exodus to El Paso, Texas (the second safest city in the United States), Torrea doesn’t plan to leave. She remains the only international journalist living in Juárez. Some people may think she is imprudent for living there and some of her readers fear for her life. It doesn’t matter where these readers are living—New York, Spain, or France—they know that events in Juárez are not only becoming more dangerous, but they are also turning bizarre. Just last September, a photographer for the newspaper El Diario was killed. The newspaper ran a front-page editorial asking the leaders of organized crime: “What do you want from us? Tell us what we are supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by. At this time, you are the de facto authorities of this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.” READ MORE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S MURDER J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
An Independent Journalist
Torrea wakes up at 5:50 a.m., reads the newspapers, and leaves her home at 7:00 a.m. to start her daily reporting. Until few months ago, she used to tune into the local police scanner to track what was going on in the city. It was no surprise to Torrea that she and her colleagues were the first to arrive at the crime scene, even before the police. â€œThe queerest fact was that the scanner was really easy to access and the drug traffickers used it as well. If one cartel wanted to celebrate a killing, it interrupted the scanner signal with narcocorridosâ€”songs lauding the drug traffickers that evolved out of the traditional
folk ballads,” Torrea said. The police scanner was finally changed, but Torrea and her colleagues still arrive to the crime scene before the police most of the time. “I know about the murders thanks to my sources, but sometimes I’ll just discover another dead body in the road while I’m driving,” Torrea added. Every day Torrea travels long distances to interview people and post their stories on her blog or in one of the international newspapers and magazines that she contributes to. While Ciudad Juárez’s local newspapers cover the daily news with headlines like “Three Severed Heads Discovered in Ice Boxes,” Torrea uses people’s testimonies to show what causes the violence and its effects on people’s lives.
In Ciudad Juárez, 17,000 teenagers belong to gangs and 10,000 children have become orphans. Above: People gather in Juarez’s cemetery after the murder of eight people, including a 2-year-old child. Far left: Demonstration against violence. (Courtesy of Judith Torrea) Left: Ten thousand businesses have shut down in Ciudad Juárez. (Memo Leon)
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Torrea illustrates various political positions, frustrations, and trends through peoples’ quotes and anecdotes. For example, she writes in the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra about a sexy bartender who would flirt with and kiss any murderer, drug trafficker, lawyer, doctor, or married man—“even the fat and ugly”—but never with soldiers because, “they don’t do anything, they just sit in the bar, while we (Juárez’s people) are paying their incomes with our taxes.” One of her profiles focuses on Luz María Dávila, the mother of two murdered students, who confronted President Calderon at a public event. “Excuse me Mister President, I won’t shake hands with you. You said that my sons were gang members and that is a lie. My youngest son was in high school and the oldest was in the university. They were only students,” the mother stated. After attending the two boys’ funeral and interviewing the mother, Torrea published an article vindicating the mother’s story and showing that the president’s allegations were false. In her blog Torrea also describes complex characters such as a soldier who robs to eat, a confessed murderer who is free, and a chief of police who lived inside a jail for security reasons and just weeks ago was killed with his son. Torrea, the independent outsider, also writes about murdered journalists and lawyers, as well as the doctors who continue to care for the victims of violence despite the fear of consequences for aiding an enemy of one of the cartels. “My blog came out of a need to tell the victims’ stories without censorship because in Juárez there is no freedom of speech,” she explained. In Juárez, the local media fear reprisal from drug traffickers or corrupt authorities. Torrea acknowledges her risks. In one of her blog posts, she gives her rationale for facing danger: “I don’t know if publishing the profiles of the victims will help Juárez society, but I’ll be satisfied if some of my blog’s posts help people to reflect on Juárez society.” Torrea’s blog is not sponsored by any institution. Her only income comes from her sporadic assignments from international newspapers and magazines. “My blog is free; it doesn’t have any funding and I need freelance commissions to eat and pay my bills,” she explained. Thanks to her publications, her name shows up all over the Internet. Each day, she receives dozens of e-mails from journalists who want to interview her, researchers who want the contact information of her sources, and readers who want to show their support. “I answer everybody, but not immediately. If I do that, I won’t have time to do my work,” she said.
Torrea said some of the most poignant messages have come “from young people who—after reading my blog—have realized how many murders are needed in Mexico to enjoy a line of cocaine.” Torrea added that she is also compensated with hugs from mothers who have told her the stories of their dead children. “Those mothers who I sadly meet again at another funeral, come to hug me.” By speaking out, these mothers—and Torrea’s other sources—could be making enemies among corrupt authorities or cartel members. These criminals might feel attacked when Torrea’s sources’ quotes—and sometimes pictures—pop up on Juárez en la Sombra del Narcotrafico. Even though she doesn’t say it, Torrea could easily be labeled as an enemy as well. Torrea didn’t answer questions about if she faces direct threats to her life. She only emphasized: “I’m not afraid. If I was afraid I would not live in Juárez. I know I’m in danger and that the risks increase when you don’t sell yourself to the drug traffickers or the authorities.” During her interview with Sampsonia Way, she preferred to talk about the problems of a city she has reported on for 14 years and has come to call her own. She turned the conversation back to the enigmas of the president’s drug war: “Have you ever asked yourself why the president Felipe Calderon never tracked the money laundering in his so-called ‘war against drug trafficking’?” In her blog Torrea emphasizes that she has a Mexican heart. There is only one thing she refuses to adopt from Mexico, the expression “ni modo,” which can be translated as “nothing you can do about that.”SW
“Excuse me Mister President, I won’t shake hands with you. You said that my sons were gang members and that is a lie. My youngest son was in high school and the oldest was in the university. They were only students.” Luz María Dávila
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Aaron Jenkins: Getting Stuff Off His Chest
By Jen Lue
Entering East End Neighborhood Academy for the first time in months, 14-year-old Aaron Jenkins was at ease. It was clear that he still felt at home in this private school of seventy students. It was a Friday, and Aaron was wearing a white polo and khakis. In the hallway, he easily deflected catcalls from friends and former classmates about his choice of dress. “I’m getting my picture taken,” Aaron said. “I have to look nice.” Staff and students at the Neighborhood Academy are well aware of Aaron’s accomplishments. Last spring, Aaron wrote his final paper for Civics and Language Arts class on City of Asylum/Pittsburgh writer-inresidence, the Chinese poet and human rights activist, Huang Xiang. When choosing his topic from a list of prominent figures that included Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Aaron decided to avoid the obvious. “I wanted to go with someone I didn’t know,” he said. “I wanted to learn more.” Aaron went above and beyond the requirements. He took the initiative to meet with Henry Reese, director of COA/P, to hear about Huang’s life. He visited the house that Huang lived in for two years while staying in Pittsburgh’s Northside. After learning about Huang’s life, Aaron sensed that “most of it was pain but he made something of it. He didn’t let it get him down.” Huang is a survivor of the Maoist regime in China, where he faced imprisonment in forced labor camps and government persecution for his activist writing. His work continues to be banned in China. Aaron was inspired to write the essay in Huang’s own voice. He also included original poems based on Huang’s experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. The work paid off. Huang was so impressed with Aaron’s piece that he mentioned him in a lecture delivered in Spain this past summer. Aaron’s piece surprised not only his teacher and classmates, but also the director of COA/P. “I was not prepared for Aaron’s level of imaginative engagement or his sheer talent. Entering the house where Huang Xiang lived, Aaron seemed to enter into his mind, experiencing the repression and censorship personally,” said Reese. “His finished poem is more mature than anything I would have ever expected.” READ AARON’S WORK ON HUANG XIANG J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
Shout Out Aaron’s project is the result of East End Neighborhood Academy’s unique academic program. The Neighborhood Academy was founded in 2001 by Reverend Thomas Johnson and Josephine Moore as a college-preparatory school for low-income students in the Pittsburgh area. Their goal was to offer lowincome families the means to provide students with a private school education that would enable gradautes to attend college. Its curriculum seeks to integrate academics with elements of non-sectarian worship, counseling and career services, athletics, and the arts. As part of the school’s Arts Connection program, students have the choice of selecting from activities ranging from Photography to African Dance and Drumming. Emily Carlson, Aaron’s eighth grade Language Arts teacher, has brought poetry to the fore. Her Shout Out poetry reading series brings students together with local poets to share each other’s work. Previous participants include Terrance Hayes, Brian Francis, and Toi Derricotte. Carlson said that the aim of these readings is to “teach empowerment through the artistic expression of writing and reading poetry.” Two students are invited to share their work with the poet and the student audience at the beginning of each session. Brent Jernigan, Aaron’s academic advisor, praises the project. “It developed a different definition of poetry—that poetry is more than words. It’s community. It was great to see how these young guys were completely turned on to poetry at that time,” he said. Aaron was drawn to the work of Terrance Hayes. He read Hayes’ Muscular Music in Jernigan’s advisory, where students are encouraged to talk about their coursework as
well as their interdisciplinary interests. “He wrote about a lot of things I could relate to,” Aaron said. “Whether they were good or bad he would write about that.” Turning Points Aaron started writing poems at the age of eleven. He credits his mother for discovering his work and encouraging him to continue. “She told me, ‘You have a good mind. You should continue writing poems.’ That’s when I really started writing them and reading them,” he said. Most of Aaron’s poetry deals with his experiences at home or at school. His subjects range from tackle football to family confrontations. Aaron described writing as a way of working through the problems in his life. “Without writing, some people who don’t like to talk about their feelings would just be so down all the time and life wouldn’t be good for them,” he related. “Whenever I write about things it gets me to feel better. It gets stuff off my chest.” One of the most difficult subjects Aaron has ever written about is the death of his father, a police officer who died in the line of duty. “I started writing about that immediately,” Aaron remembered. “It was just painful. I didn’t read over those ones. I didn’t edit any of those ones. I just wrote about it automatically.” Aaron provided insight into his own writing process: “When I got angry I would just sit and write. Later I learned I would have to take time and cool down because if I wrote right away it wouldn’t be as neat.” Poetry gave Aaron a way to sift through the events in his life. “I was able to think about it more. It helped me to understand things more, understand what was happening and why it was happening,” he added.
‘The Lonely Boy’ When asked to draw similarities between Huang Xiang’s life and his, Aaron emphasized that, like Huang, he has moved around a lot. “When I moved I would make close friends and then I would have to move again,” Aaron said. “Some of it was good. Sometimes we would move to better places.” Aaron chooses not to dwell on the negative. In the case of Huang, he said, “Pittsburgh is the land of chance and freedom. Coming here could have gotten him a better job or made it worse. It got better.” The same sentiment goes for the Neighborhood Academy. In a poem titled “The Lonely Boy,” Aaron writes:
he also keeps them locked up hoping just one day there will be a better place where he can let all his thoughts out, but three years later he is at a private school expressing every thing he feels. READ THE REST OF AARON’S POEM
About the differences between him and Huang, Aaron stated, “My life isn’t as tough as his. I still have ups and downs and blockages but he had it worse.” Aaron sympathized with the fact that Huang was unable to go to school and write what he wanted to. “It was wrong,” Aaron said, about the persecution that Huang endured under the Communist regime. “Once he got here he had a little bit more to work with. He got a better life, a little bit.” Aaron currently attends high school at Woodland Hills, where he continues to write poetry. After the interview, he could be seen walking in and out of classrooms, laughing with former teachers and students. Outside the eleventh grade lockers, someone claimed that Aaron’s “star is on the rise.” He smiled and deflected the praise as easily as he shrugs off jokes. Aaron admitted that his feelings towards the Huang project were less than happy in the beginning. “I thought it might be a whole bunch of work for nothing,” he said. “Towards the middle, I started to like it. In the end, I wanted to do the best paper I could.” SW
Photos: Laura Mustio
J A N U A R Y 2 0 11
28 S A M P S O N I A
Women Who Don’t Bite their Tongues:
Writing Workshop Celebrates More Than Thirty Years By Elizabeth Hoover On a recent October morning, the Madwomen in the Attic poetry workshop began with an argument. A student shared a poem written by a man and some of her classmates took umbrage at its depiction of women. “He’s generalizing,” a participant argued. “It’s lovely; men don’t usually celebrate women this way,” someone countered. “It’s sexist,” another woman disagreed. One student balled up her copy of the poem and tossed it aside.
“Alright, we have an issue we disagree on,” Jan Beatty, the workshop's instructor, calmly said. The student who had balled up her copy smoothed it out, and the class came back to the task at hand: the discussion of the craft of poetry. The twelve women ranged in age from their early twenties to their late nineties. What brings them together—beyond their gender—is a commitment to good writing. The class laughed over shared jokes, good-naturedly lampooned poor word choice, and praised especially nice turns of phrase. This was a typical day, according to Beatty, who also directs the program. The Madwomen in the Attic started in 1979 at Carlow College, now Carlow University. Writer Tillie Olsen had given a reading on campus and was mobbed afterward by students with questions. Recognizing the need for writing workshops for women, Dr. Ellie Wymard, now director of Carlow's MFA program, and fiction writer Jane Coleman decided to start Madwomen in the Attic. The program is housed at Carlow, but is open to the public. Currently, they offer six different workshops that meet throughout the week on Carlow’s campus. Sixty-four students are enrolled in the current twelve-week session and there is a waiting list for the next round. Students can choose workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Coleman and Wymard took the name from a landmark work of feminist literary criticism: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert. The madwoman in Gubar and Gilbert’s title is the wife Mr. Rochester keeps locked in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Erye. By and large, participants have embraced the name. For Beatty, the moniker saves time. “If you call yourself a Madwoman, you don’t have to be presentable,” she said. “You can just write what you want and make sure it’s good.” Beatty came to the Madwomen in 1990, while still an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh. “Here I had the support of readers who had an understanding through shared life experiences,” she said. While the workshops are supportive, that doesn’t mean you can get away with bad writing. “If you bring in some poem about your grandkids with unicorns and rainbows, we’ll tell you it’s corny and it’s not working,” Beatty clarified. According to Beatty there is a “serious hunger” among female writers for workshops where they feel they are taken seriously. She has students who drive up from West Virginia or make a three-hour trip from Maryland. Other participants have formed ancillary groups of Madwomen that meet in each other’s houses.
Beatty started teaching at the Madwomen after receiving her MFA and struggled with teaching older students. “I have this thing about respecting my elders and I was too cautious,” she recalled. One day she brought a poem to class and warned them that it had some explicit language in it. Lucienne Wald, a student in her eighties, asked, “What do you mean?” Wald listed off words that would make a late-night comedian blush, then added, “Do you think that we haven’t lived?” Beatty said that it was a “turning point” in her teaching: She would no longer stereotype the older women. Shortly after, Beatty decided to change the program’s image. She started by asking her students if they wanted to be seen as old women writers or as writers. “They all started banging on the table,” she related. “They were chanting ‘writers, writers, writers.’” When longtime director Patricia Dobler died in 2004, Beatty stepped in to fill the role. She also edits the program’s nationally distributed anthology, Voices from the Attic. Over the years, she has heard countless stories of women fleeing sexist teachers, receiving patronizing rejection slips, or feeling unable to write with the pressures of being wives and mothers. “Sexism isn’t over,” Beatty remarked. “It’s especially poignant with women who come after their husbands have died because they feel like they couldn’t write before that. They are limited by their traditional roles.” Photos (top to bottom): Jan Beatty; at 97, Cay Hamilton is the oldest Madwoman; Lucienne Wald
Lucienne Wald: “Women’s problems aren’t men’s problems.” Tragedy brought artist Lucienne Wald to writing. After her 29-year-old son Phillip died in 1982, she could no longer paint. She saw an ad for the Madwomen workshop and signed up for a fiction class, where she started her novel. The book is loosely based on Wald's experience living in Japan in the 1950s with her husband, an Air Force physician who studies the effects of radiation. She is still struggling to finish the book, but has joined Jan Beatty’s poetry workshop and found a vibrant community there. “We get to know each other through poetry. It’s a different kind of family than a real family, but it is a family,” she said. At 88, Wald isn’t the oldest Madwoman, but she is the student who has been there the longest. She plans to attend the workshops for the rest of her life. “It’s like going into a womb with the Madwomen. It’s a little enclave,” she said. READ LUCIENNE WALD’S “KNOCK ON WOOD”
Tess Barry: “A woman is more than being 50 and pretending you’re 30.” Growing up in a family with ten children in Pittsburgh, Tess Barry saw how people “catered to the boys.” As an adult, that became “deferring to the men.” Barry, 39, described herself as a “strong woman who doesn’t take any shit,” but added that these culturally ingrained attitudes are difficult to escape. Barry attended New York University’s dramatic writing program, but finished her studies at the University of Pittsburgh to be near her family after her father died. She also has a master’s in literature. She lives on the South Side with her husband and works as the administrator of a legal mediation group. When she started attending the Madwomen workshop, she was surprised by the “level of commitment” from the participants. “The quality of writing is tremendous,” she added. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Barry is collaborating with her husband on a screenplay about street fighting in the 1960s. Barry loves the intimacy of an all-women workshop and finds the diversity of perspectives to be one of the most exciting aspects. In particular, she finds the mix of generations inspiring. “Culture is geared toward celebrating youth, especially for women. These women defy that,” she explained. “They bring in poems about being 70-years-old and still enjoying sex. They constantly reinvent themselves.” According to Barry, being a Madwoman means “accepting and loving yourself.” READ TESS BARRY’S “SHAGGING ALBERT EINSTEIN”
Liane Ellison Norman: “Get a life,” is Liane Ellison Norman's advice to young women who refuse to call themselves feminists. “If you care about women, you’re a feminist. If you care about human beings, you’re a feminist.” Norman, 73, is a retired literature professor who founded the Pittsburgh Peace Institute and ran for Senate in 1982. It’s not just women who suffer from sexism, Norman believes, but all of society. “There is always a masculine thumb on the scale.” “When you diminish or repress a whole group of people, you lose their talents. It’s stupid and it’s wrong,” she said. Although she has been writing her whole life, she turned to poetry in 2003 when her daughter Emily, died of cancer. She joined the Madwomen shortly thereafter. Norman said the Madwomen help her “be brave,” and for this intellectual that means exploring her emotions. By the time she came to the Madwomen, Norman had already published a novel, Stitches in Air and a biography, Hammer of Justice: Molly Rush and the Plougshares Eight. She credits the workshop with helping her develop as a poet. She said her early poems were “embarrassing,” but the workshop has helped her become a more sophisticated writer. Since joining the Madwomen she has published two volumes of poetry, The Duration of Grief and Keep. READ LIANE ELLISON NORMAN’S “POOL”
Sarah Williams-Devereux: “These women will be damned if they will be silenced.” Sarah Williams-Devereux began her literary career at age of 3 with a story called “Gonzo and the Thunder.” Now this 31-yearold visual artist is taking her writing to the next level in the Madwomen’s workshop. She joined in 2003 and found that she could have conversations there that she couldn’t have with a man in the room. “With men, there’s another gaze and you realize that you are being watched,” she said. “You’re almost stepping outside of yourself to see yourself through that other person’s eyes.” At the Madwomen workshops she found a “sanctuary.” Now she is the administrative assistant in the English department at Carlow and works closely with the women she called “brutally and lovingly honest.” She is working on a chapbook, which she hopes to publish soon. While hoping for a publication, Williams-Devereux draws inspiration from working with older women, some of whom started publishing in their 70s. “Just because you come to the party late, doesn’t mean you can’t bring the best dish,” she added. She was also quick to add that the workshop is also a lot of fun, even “bawdy.” According to her, Madwomen not only have a serious commitment to poetry, but also an enthusiasm for literature, friendship, and immeasurable joy. READ SARAH WILLIAMS-DEVEREUX’S “EXODUS”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Sarah Williams-Devereux Carlow University English Department Phone: (412) 578-6346 Email or visit their Facebook page
Photography: Renee Rosensteel
Published on Jan 17, 2011
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