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The Wire: When Journalism Meets Drama.

“American Cultures course,” I said, “and I get to watch TV for class?” I enrolled immediately, the excitement radiating through me from the onset of the semester. I was being forced to take in visual stimulation. As if it weren’t enough to study under William Drummond, a legend in the field of journalism, our curriculum included plenty of boob-tube time and out-of-the-classroom activities. Now this is learning. I wonder, does Harvard do this?

The Wire has received critical acclaim as being a too true to life depiction of “the war on drugs” in the US. Set in streets of Baltimore, we track the crews of cops and crooks, watching the lifestyles they live, the families they keep, the intertwined relationships between doing good and doing wrong, while subtly intaking a commentary on everything else that falls in between the lines -oh the many things that are not shown, not spoken, but are daring to be made visible through this drama.

“Sheeee-it.”

The Wire follows the BPD as they chase the lives of “every part of the drug food chain” (IMDB.com). We are introduced at the midlevel drug trade, where the environment is exactly as media portrays it to be -full of crime, hate, retaliation, and poor black folk. As the season unfolds, we move through the many tunnels of criminal activity associated with the drug world, from children, to corner boys and hoppers, to muscle, through the many cogs of the game (def. 6), to the prime beneficiaries of the trade, to addicts, and ultimately to the doorstep of the Baltimore Court House.

Spoiler and radical opinion alert:

The final season was perfectly inconclusive. Youngins most vulnerable fall victim to their environment whereas those most equipped with survival skills rise up to be the next generation of criminals. The toughest man in the game dies at the hands of a child and the man with no consciousness becomes protected by the law and an investor in city development. So what makes this perfect? Our focus has been on the streets and stopping the game by stopping the pieces on the board, but the game exists beyond what we can see or have permission to investigate. The game we recognize as “the war on drugs” but it is that only for midlevel critics and below. Recently, I argued for the legalization of the drug market. I still stand by that opinion. After watching all five seasons,  drama has played a part in renewing my advocacy. Yes, I go to Berkeley. No, I do not use and I am quite sober when saying so.

In The Wire I have found three things to remain consistent with reality:

1. The illicit drug trade is racialized outwardly to protect a diverse interior

2. Structural inequality leads to illicit opportunity

3. The children, it’s all about the next generation

The boys in the hood

The kids don’t stand a chance. -BOB 

(“The Kids”) -BOB 

I decided to do some research, I decided to be a journalist for a day (after all this is a journalism class!) which turned out to be enough get a cross-country sense of the relationship between some police and African-American men in the US. I interviewed three men, varying in age, education, and socio-economic position. Their stories were un-relatable in almost any one area except three: profiling, personal responsibility, and some sort of connection to interracial relationships.

The first interviewee was George Pruden from Washington DC. Born and raised in the suburbs of DC now living on the West Coast, “I had the tools to succeed,” he recalled acknowledging that his rearing under an ex-military father was the main instrument for preparing him to defuse and avoid negative police interaction.

The second interviewee was W. Anthony Davis from Berkeley, California. Born and raised with a Black Panther father and Hippie mother in the Bay Area, he has had a unique upbringing in a renowned ultra liberal community and is now raising his son in the same neighborhoods that fostered his upbringing. “[It] doesn’t start or end with police, it’s just a part of it,” he commented on the systematically deficient policing standards. “When the description [of a perpetrator] reads: black male, 5.5 to 6 feet tall, slender, athletic build, I think shit, they’re looking for me and every other black male friend I have…for me, you have to prove your innocence, it’s not enough just to be innocent.”

The third interviewee was Casey Gittens from a suburb of Dallas, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee. Mr Gittens is the son of immigrant parents and has had the most culturally segregated upbringing of the three, “In order for us to get ahead, we had to move to an area that was predominately caucasian…white.” He was in a graduating class of 695, but only 15 were of African-American heritage. “At times I felt the policing system was against me…they didn’t necessarily have justifiable reasons to behave the way that they did,” he stated. His first negative experience with the police, admittedly, was in a adolescent precarious situation, but his treatment was “degrading.” When asked about racial profiling, there were two experiences that rung a bell louder than the rest, his response to these experiences were “the world is not based on these microcosms of events, and not everybody and everything is based on these events.”

These three men have found that their personal appearance may help deter attracting unwarranted police attention, so they dress consciously to avoid image based profiling; one gentleman even goes at length to wear prescription free glasses. The inevitability of police interaction is certain, but taking steps to lessen its frequency continues to be of daily concern. During the interviews, the three men commented on the role of parenting and striving to see people beyond racial distinctions.

I closed the interviews asking each man about their feelings towards media and drama representation and misrepresentation. I got candid remarks, my favorite of the lot was Pruden’s closing statement quoting Paul Mooney:

“He was watching the Sopranos. It’s a bunch of white people running amuck; running around; causing mayhem; making money; killing people; they’re at home. You watch OZ. there’s nothing but niggas in jail. Doing the same shit, but they’re in jail.”

(The full interviews will be posted soon.)

Drama can access the minds of millions, opposed to the 15 that this blog may reach. It has the power to be part of the virus or, like The Wire, part of the social discussion. Where The Wire concluded brought the conversation to whole new area for investigation, but true to reality, that is where it comes to an end.

Background Information

Villa La Tela is a squatter settlement just outside of central Córdoba (See photo/s below). The National Secretary of Public Works of Argentina has reported this area to have been illegally settled on for over 20 years. In these years, they have remained without basic infrastructure such as proper homes, schools, etc. This area exists but not “visibly.” To explain, Villa La Tela does not exist on Google satellite or rather it has been removed. This is neither a joke nor an exaggeration. Below is a satellite image next to an area blueprint of Villa La Tela. The satellite image shows a large field to the left and a main road to the right. Well, between the two of these lies a section of earth that has been removed. These non-existant or non-visible peoples are referred to as the people from La Tela.

Mapping and Counter-Mapping

(The University put together a video to bring awareness to La Tela <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSqjlopF-ms&gt;)

Regarding the Work

I have struggled everyday in the field.  I work with my hands tied behind my back in this “development limbo.” I’ve imagined how I could be more useful and involved hands-on in a sustainable manner.  But, the barriers have been many and the direction unclear.

19-June, Mackenzie from Nashville, TN, arrived.

20-June, Scarlett from Sydney, Australia, arrived.

On Monday, June 20th our augmented group went into Villa La Tela together. We walked down the pavement until we reached dirt roads, which signifies the entrance. As usual, we advised the newcomers to watch their step to avoid coming in contact with human wastewater pooling in the natural gullies. Though none of us are expert environmentalists, the odor rising from the soil is the first indicator of improperly disposed waste, then of course the location and color of these pools, and the reported presence of illness from contamination.

Entry into Villa La Tela

Entry into Villa La Tela

Returning from La Tela, Mackenzie and I questioned our level of involvement in Córdoba since we have both participated in human development projects in the past and understand the importance of participating in sustainable works.  The dilemma we faced was this: our focus has been on education, however, volunteer presence throughout the year varies with the change of seasons – thus the sustainability of these projects are probable at best and impossible at worst.  Was this the most beneficial use of our time and energy for the betterment of the people of La Tela? With the absence of basics, such as toilets, why wasn’t sanitation/health education our focus?

Contaminated Water Pools in the Street

Contaminated Water Pools in the Street

Sitting on top of the kitchen counter, Scarlett, Mackenzie and I had an improbable and outrageous idea that what La Tela needs most is a sustainable, compostable, and non-proprietary latrine system. Our dilemma: does the technology exist and could we draw on our resources, education, and prior experiences to accomplish this fairytale idea? (Could we bring toilets to La Tela?)  A frenzy of emails ensued to anyone that may have knowledge of sustainable technologies – friends, family, civic and environmental engineers, authors on the subject (think Rose George), and human development organizations local to Córdoba.

The key is health. Eating shit, via street to feet to hands to mouth, causes illness which is debilitating and sometimes fatal. That’s a fact. According to the Centro Experimental De La Vivienda Economica “Experimental Center for Affordable Housing” (CEVE), 31% of all the homes in La Tela are without any bathroom facilities or toilets.  We are in the process of obtaining the full census and therefore at this moment our information on the remaining 69% is incomplete, however the presence of illness throughout La Tela warrants our suspicion of there being any functioning system that properly manages human waste.

That first night bore an idea that has developed into more than a possibility and is now a community-wide human development project.  In addition to the interest pooling within La Tela, this project has excited others to become involved.  That is, we have organically encountered local organizations, community and political leaders, lawyers interested in social development, civil and environmental technicians, professors, and individuals from metropolitan Córdoba that understand the importance of sanitation and share our concern for the people of Villa La Tela.  Now nearly twenty-persons large, we are about to hold our first official roundtable meeting to establish the course of action we will take in the coming weeks. Something to note, the latrine system is our first priority, however cleaning up the already existing pools of contaminated water is a necessary process to address in conjunction with this venture. This project will not be accomplished before I depart, but it has given me reason to return.

The Future for Proyecto: Villa La Tela

First step: The Community, Education, and Mapping (or counter-mapping).

-Is this a project that the community of Villa wants and supports?

-How to access the expertise for education and implementation of “legit shit” practices/systems?

-Mapping La Tela and getting an accurate count of the populace.

Second step: Legalities and Team Building.

-Securing our team players: volunteers, professionals, organizations, etc.

-Project Proposal (drafting will begin during our first roundtable meeting).

-Government, permits, and lawyer nonsense (obviously, I say this in the most lovingly way).

Third step: Negotiations, Fundraising, and Social Media.

-This is a project for Superman, or Lotay Yang (Black Card Circle Foundation).

While we understand this is a serious undertaking, we are reassured by the fact that similar projects have been accomplished in all regions of the world. I am excited to have joined forces with so many wonderful and dedicated people and look forward to the days ahead.

Literally, a 12 hour drive to La Plata.

My house director, Denise, arranged for me to share costs with a “friend of a friend” to drive to Buenos Aires (BA) for the weekend. After taxing to this friend’s apartment (Luciana is her name), I was informed that she doesn’t drive and that she found a ride-share on CouchSurfers.com.  My initial response was to remain in Córdoba, but the purpose of me going to BA was to welcome Jacquie, my friend from Berkeley, and that outweighed my hesitance.  Plus, when my face casted a dubious expression Luciana’s face replied with a “please don’t go.”  So I decided to go along and allow fate to guide the way.  The other two travels soon arrived, Lucho, a male ballerina from Córdoba, and Julian, a backpacking biologist from Columbia.  Our long car ride in a 1990-something white four door Honda Civic.  It had a sunroof and a state of the art 2oo5 GPS, the kind you attach to the windshield and that shows your car as an airplane. I hate those contraptions, but it did the job and the car found it quite exciting and new. I have to admit, being in the car with four strangers and driving across country was nerve wrecking and one of the most freeing experiences of my life. I had no control or any idea where I was and it was grand. The adventure kept going even after our departure in BA.  Lucho, the driver, pulled over on the autopista and sent us on our way.  This was the scariest moment, trying to climb over the autopista and walk across the brush to find the street where the collectivo (bus) would be.  I thought at this moment I should have remained in Córdoba, but Luciana, Julian, and I stuck together until we reached central BA.  In BA, we ate dinner together and then I caught a cab (not crabs) to La Plata.  (We are now friends on FB so you can see them through my profile.)  I finally arrived to my destination after getting lost in a shanty town and circling the city for an extra 30 min.  Tired and hungry and ready to unwind, I discovered that Jacquie had not arrived in Argentina. Her plane was delayed thanks to Puyehue-Cordon Caulle and there I was alone and without a place to stay.

In the common area of the hostel, there was a little get-together happening and the owner of the hostel, Patchi, came over to talk to me.  After checking me into my room, he invited me back to the common area to have a drink and meet his friends.  His friends were between my age and his and they were internationals mixed with locals. Surprisingly, I could understand their Spanish, as it was much clearer and slower paced.  I went with the party from the hostel to a birthday party in a home on the edge of La Plata.  The celebration was in a beautiful home and filled mostly with business professionals and lawyers.  I met Lucia.  She’s the newest addition to my life.  She is amazing, someone I clicked with right away.  I came away from the night having a base of friends to call when I’m in their city. I spent the next two days with Lucia exploring La Plata and meeting her friends. My last night in paradise, Patchi had an asado (BBQ) and my new friends, Lucia, Santo, Renit, and others were in attendance.  It was delicious and disappointing since it was my last night with them.

Coming back to Córdoba has been hard.  Here, I have difficulties with the local language, little nature to explore, and a house  full of different Spanish dialects to decipher.  Tough.  But, the work I’m doing here makes the experience what it is.  Tomorrow I will spend most of the day at the home for disabled women and I’m excited to return to them.

 

My eyes. My lungs. My sinuses.

The airport is still closed.

Middle-class Córdoba

I have a huge walk-in shower.

Walking down the streets of my middle-class neighborhood, I feel transported back to the States as if I were lost in some LA barrio.  The streets occasionally break into rubble and weeds that are spotted with enough [animal] feces to start a manure company.  Entrepreneurs, it’s here for the taking.  When I reach my destination, I see that Córdoba has all the conveniences of the modern world with a 15 century alley charm.  These worlds don’t seem to connect.  They share so little in common.  I face this everyday but in more challenging ways than street walking.  I haven’t been able to adopt the appropriate vocabulary for Córdoba.  Literally.  They speak a form of Spanish that is as foreign to me as it is to neighboring cities.  That is, they speak with prison slang, Lunfardo to be precise.  If you’re not familiar, you soon will have enough clarification to join me in my frustration.  Lunfardo was a language created in the prisons during the 19oo’s that combines words from Italy, France, Africa(sorry this is so broad), Portuguese, and Spain with the indigenous indian languages of Argentina.  (You can find an incomplete description on WiKi.)  Then after you mix these together, you drop the phonics of letters c,s, and z. Welcome to hell. I have been taking Spanish lessons with Gisela on Lunfardo so that I can improve my understanding.  Here are a few examples of the language:

1. The word for professor is “profesor or profesora” but in Lunfardo it’s “profe” (w/out gender distinction which can be difficult to understand to whom the child is speaking)

2. The word for pencil is “lapiz” in Lunfardo it’s “lapi” (easy example of no c,s, or z)

3. The word for stupid is “estupido” in Lunfardo it’s “pelotudo” (a whole new word)

4. More difficult distinctions: you may hear “loombre” or “lou umbre” for los hombres or “alelga” for the verb hacer.

This list can go on for two and a half pages (cause that’s what I was given from my Profe).

Other than my language frustrations, reconciling the the variances in development is really difficult. Córdoba has first world infrastructure and little access to it.  In other words, the products and tools that are needed to maximize one’s full potential are on the other side of glass walls.  They’re visible and surely within reach once you’ve pressed yourself against the surface.

In the early 2000’s, Argentina decided to strengthen her infrastructure by restructuring the school system.  By taking a long-term poverty alleviation approach through developing her children through education, Argentina hopes her children will be able to better compete in the global market system. So you have children with access to education, good instruction, supplies, and then…. these children are going home to 3rd world environments. Malnutrition, exhaustion, violence, sexual abuse, unstable living environments, and no healthcare (remember the phrase “is it gonna kill you?” well it exists here in its literal context).  It’s strange, you have children with books and supplies that come for instruction while literally starving and unable to concentrate.  But you can buy Ponds cream for wrinkles or Hannah Montana apparel for super cheap.  Marketing is everywhere.  Consume, consume, consume. The influence of US is sometimes so obnoxious, I want to return home where I can just speak my English and be understood! I’m having a hard time making sense of this development limbo.

Journal entry: PT for disabled women, day one.

Once upon a time in a far off barrio lived a special home filled with magical women. The table was set for afternoon tea and when the guests were to arrive each would take a turn pouring the tea and slicing the cake.  There was enough for everyone and yet, happily, everyone shared.  Each embraced the other’s laugh with the complement of their own. While every smile was mysterious, no one had to explain what it meant because everyone was confident that they were part of the glee. The conversation soared across the room and down the corridor where it eventually made its way out onto the back patio. The orchard was fertile, and the women ate from the trees their fill.  Afterwards, there was singing and dancing, stretching, and reading.  Then, when it had grown quite dark the spirit of Apollo filled the women with tears and the guests went on their way.

In Córdoba…

Be ready to learn, willing to try something new, and go with the flow.

We went back out into the neighborhood Villa La Tela yesterday.  Instead of tutoring, we were going to clean the field the kids play in as it is covered in animal feces and sewage water empties along one side of the field.  We had just entered the neighborhood when an older farmer pulled over in his truck and came to meet us in the road.  We could tell immediately that he was intoxicated, his words were slurred and his breath was perfumed with whiskey.  As he approached us, we thought he was just going to chat with us for a while and then be on his way (yes, back into his truck to drive away half-cut).  But it wasn’t that easy.  To keep this story short I’ll tell you the abridged sequence of events. Drunk viejo (old man) proclaims his love for me. Group walks away in direction viejo came from.  Approximately 10 shacks down, group runs into a mother of one of the girls we tutor. El viejo makes a 30-point turn and charges at us in his truck.  The mother pulls us inside her house to keep the viejo from us. An hour later the police arrive to arrest the man and we return home instead of cleaning the field at the request of the police.  We are meant to return today to clean and sanitize the field. I’ll post photos if possible.  I have only one photo of this area as of now because I was advised not to make visible my valuables.

The Dog on Roof

This home is at the entry of Villa La Tela.  As we move down the road homes become less developed.  I hope to secretly capture the environment, it is quite fascinating.  People know they don’t have much, but they survive like everyone else.  Homelessness doesn’t exist here because here you are allowed to occupy an undeveloped area and create some kind of structure for living in.  People even create their own street names and addresses so that the post will find them.  Let me explain that a little better.  One house will say “4646 Cote Viejo” and the house next to it says “1001 Felizes.” Most addresses are written on paper and fastened to the door somehow.  I will try to get photos.  I’m baffled that there is a functioning post system in this neighborhood. I don’t understand how. My best guess is that everyone knows each other here and that there’s not a lot of mail to be delivered.  That is, though Argentina is an emerging economy and one modeled on the US system they don’t have junk mail, yet. I will comment on this in more detail later.  I need to compose my thoughts better on some of these issues.

Last night the group cooked dinner together and played darts.  After dinner, we went to the Troubadour, I mean, some Argentine rock club. Hipsters everywhere. Super hipster clothing and haircuts everywhere.  Cigarettes behind ears, in hand, being passed from one person to the next. I needed an inhaler at first, but then I decided to take up second-hand smoking.  Sorry mom.  Naturally, I’ll quit when I get back to the States. The band came on stage and I was transported back to my teen years watching Phantom Planet or Kara’s Flowers perform.  Which country was I in?  The scene here is no different from the scene in LA, except they speak a different language and don’t dance to the American club hits, but they do sing along to them.  I wanted to ask if they knew what the words meant, but that would translate as me being pretentious.

My schedule will pick up next week.  Obviously, since I’ve just arrived I am not in rotation yet.  Monday I will be assigned to a project for the week, so for now I’m acclimating and going with the flow.

 

the ride in…

A new journey has begun.

My airline.

Just before boarding

24 hours ago I wrote an email to my family and dearest friends claiming my preparedness and expressing my enthusiasm for this opportunity.  Well, as I sat in row 39 seat C, second to last row on a 7-something, I realized that I was experiencing shock prior to departure.  All the attendants were native Latinos and most the passengers were returning home, they were not US citizens or aspiring tourists from other parts.  Luckily, I was neither between a belcher nor a farter as I was, thankfully, in a two-seat row. My neighbor was Elisa, a Peruviana, who was returning home from New York where she had been helping to move her daughter (name escapes me) to move into her new apartment at Columbia University.  Needless to say we hit it off, and in Spanish.  Looks like I’ll have a place to stay after Argentina when I visit Peru in my last week of not-in-America, yea!!  Anyway, I found myself amazed before I left US soil. The atmosphere had already changed for me while we remained grounded and seated next to my red pill. (If you don’t know the reference, lo siento.) Other than my favorite and most kind Peruvian, my favorite part of the ride was when the flight attendant switched from Spanish into English to ask if I wanted “beef wit rice” or “beef wit mah-patoes.”  Naturally, I responded, “que?” Upon me hearing my own voice question the attendant, I quickly blurted out, “no importa.”  I got beef with mashed potatoes.

Red pill

Elisa, me amiga.

After landing in Lima, Elisa and I parted ways with a kiss.  The first of many.  I barely made it to my next flight, but fortunately I did and while I was trying to navigate I helped other passengers, worse off than I, to find their terminals as well.  I felt pretty  confident, too bad it was shortly lived.

Arriving in Argentina was a relief and a huge stretch of character.  The aduana (customs agent) was so kind that I thought I had it made the rest of the trip.  Then I met Julio, the director of Fundaction AFOS, outside of customs and I quickly learned that my trip here will be as wonderful as I make it.  That translates as: I can be an “american” or participate. In few words I understood that wanting to be catered too was not part of the program.  Thank god I have no intention of being lazy.  Apparently, US citizens don’t like to get involved or  will have such strong reactions to the cultural differences here that the org has had to refuse to work with those volunteers again.  I thought I was going to be alone over here, and then I met the crew.  Though everyone here is fluent in Espanol, 3 out of 6 of us are from EE.UU. (United States). I feel at home, other than the language barrier, which I’m working on closing asap.  Tomorrow I meet my Profesora de Espanol, and I can’t wait.  It is the beginning of the end of my anxiety regarding the language.

I haven’t been idle in the one day that I’ve been here.  I went out with local volunteers to a school and tutored children in Espanol grammar and mathematics.  There were definitely challenges, but the group helped me overcome them, quickly.  Tomorrow we’ll return and I already anticipate having more control over my fear.

crew

The crew

After the school, we went to eat and to a movie.  Not much to report.  Food was delicious and the movie was in English with Spanish subtitles.  Easy.

A great ride in and wonderful first day.