China Dolls by Lisa See

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2015-01-18 03:09Z by Steven

China Dolls by Lisa See

Discover Nikkei
2015-01-15

Leslie Yamaguchi

Fans of best-selling author Lisa See will not be surprised by her diverse background, the source of the unique perspective readers inevitably find in each of her novels.

Born in Paris but raised and residing in Los Angeles for most of her life, she is part Chinese. Her great-great-grandfather came to the United States to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad, and her great-grandfather was the “godfather” or “patriarch” of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. About 400 members of her large Chinese American family currently live in the Los Angeles area.

Despite her appearance—red-haired and freckled—Lisa See has always been strongly influenced by her Chinese identity. In a recent interview, the author explained, “I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family. My Chinese background influences everything in my life. It’s in how I raise my children, in what I eat, in how I remember the people in my family who’ve died. It’s in what I plant in my garden and how I decorate my house. I have a western doctor, but my main doctor is from China and practices traditional Chinese medicine.” Of course, her Chinese heritage is also an integral part of her writing.

See does not set out to educate her readers about Chinese culture; instead, she views her books as a reflection of her own personal journey, a journey in which her culture has played a significant role. “All writers are told to write what they know, and this is what I know. In many ways I straddle two cultures. I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, but perhaps the American side of me is able to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign.’ In other words, what I really want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.”

Through these reflections about her writing, Lisa See captures the essence of her latest novel, China Dolls. Within the narrative, the author provides readers with a glimpse into the history of both her own Chinese American heritage as well as the Japanese American experience during World War II. The novel revolves around three Asian American women who meet at an audition at The Forbidden City, a nightclub and cabaret in San Francisco that featured Asian performers from the late 1930s to the 1950s. The three women—Grace Lee, Helen Fong, and Ruby Tom—share the role of narrators, creating a kind of symmetry within the novel which is itself divided into three sections—the Sun, the Moon, and the Truth…

Read the entire review here.

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A True History Full of Romance: Mixed marriages and ethnic identity in Dutch art, news media, and popular culture (1883–1955) by Marga Altena (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Europe, History on 2015-01-14 20:46Z by Steven

A True History Full of Romance: Mixed marriages and ethnic identity in Dutch art, news media, and popular culture (1883–1955) by Marga Altena (review)

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Volume 15, Number 3, Winter 2014
DOI: 10.1353/cch.2014.0039

Eveline Buchheim, Researcher
NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Altena, Marga, A True History Full of Romance: Mixed Marriages and Ethnic Identity in Dutch Art, News Media, and Popular Culture (1883-1955) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012).

Even before the Second World War, cases of interracial unions had been recorded in the Netherlands, but the greater part of the Dutch public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries still considered these bonds extraordinary. If the possibility of such unions crossed the minds of common Dutch citizens at all, they were mainly associated with colonial life in the Dutch East Indies. Although certainly not unambiguous aspects of colonial life, mixed unions were part and parcel of the Dutch colonial experience. Even in this colonial context, however, unions of White women with Indigenous men were extremely unusual. A European woman who entered such a marriage excluded herself from the community of Europeans. In the Netherlands itself, the term “mixed marriages” was used during this period primarily to refer to unions either outside the individual’s social class or with spouses of a different religious background, an important distinguishing feature in strongly “pillarized” Dutch society. In her book, Altena presents three cases of Dutch White women who, against all odds, married men of color. They did so in a period when it was still quite unusual and—perhaps as a result of this uniqueness—all three of the analyzed marriages figured prominently in the news. The unions were also represented in other cultural media expressions such as fiction. This gives Altena the opportunity to analyze how ethnic identity was constructed in Dutch media from various angles.

Altena’s first case concerns the marriage of Frederick Taen, the son of a Chinese father and an English mother, to the Dutch woman Mia Cuypers. It is interesting to note that Taen’s partial European roots were apparently completely lost in the public representation. Was this something Taen did on purpose? He might have deemed Chinese roots favorable for his business trade. Cuypers was the daughter of a famous Dutch architect, P.J.H. Cuypers, known among other works for building the Rijksmuseum. The artistic background of the bride and the affluence of the groom made the union interesting enough to be represented in several instances of cultural expression. Mia Cuypers was a special woman in other respects as well; she went against the grain multiple times, first by marrying Frederick Taen, then by divorcing him, and, later, by not totally denying the misalliance.

The second case is the marriage of Johanna van Dommelen and Angus Montour (Twanietanekan), also known as American Horse, in 1906, the bride an unmarried mother from The Hague, the groom a Mohawk widower from eastern Canada. Altena analyzes the press coverage in both countries. She makes it very clear that for both the bride and the groom their union had several advantages, and shows how they used the media attention to improve their lives.

The last case that Altena describes is that of the marriage between Marie Borchert and Joseph Sylvester in 1928, in the town of Hengelo. Borchert was the daughter of a well-to-do local family, Sylvester a salesman and entertainer. This couple clearly orchestrated their public performance. This is understandable partly because of how Sylvester earned a living. The case gets really interesting when Altena recalls how the couple used press coverage to raise awareness among their fellow citizens about the use of Black stereotypes.

By analyzing the three marriages on the basis of how they figured in the public domain, Altena wanted to investigate the representation of ethnic identity in Dutch culture between 1883 and 1955. Altena’s period of research seems rather arbitrary, and primarily relates to events in the personal lives of the three couples. Taen and Cuypers met in 1883 at the International Colonial and Export Trade Exhibition in Amsterdam. The year 1955 marks Joseph Sylvester’s death. In her analysis, Altena focuses on the micro-histories and does not pay much attention to the influence of the spirit of the age under investigation. Her paragraph on the historical and sociocultural context provides a broad outline, but does not really elaborate on the appraisal or disapproval of foreigners in relation to larger historical events. There is no special attention paid to the changing colonial relationship between the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands of the late nineteenth and early…

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‘A Tale of Two Plantations,’ by Richard S. Dunn

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2015-01-04 18:21Z by Steven

‘A Tale of Two Plantations,’ by Richard S. Dunn

Sunday Rook Review
The New York Times
2015-01-02

Greg Grandin, Professor of History
New York University

Dunn, Richard S., A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

For enslaved peoples in the New World, it was always the worst of times. Whether captured in Africa or born into bondage in the Americas, slaves suffered unimaginable torments and indignities. Yet the specific form their miseries took, as the historian Richard S. Dunn shows in his painstakingly researched “A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia,” depended on whether one was a slave in the British Caribbean or in the United States. The contrasts between the two slave societies were many, covering family life, religious beliefs and labor practices. But one difference overrode all others. In the Caribbean, white masters treated the slaves like “disposable cogs in a machine,” working them to death on sugar plantations and then replacing them with fresh stock from Africa. In the United States, white masters treated their slaves like the machine itself — a breeding machine.

Dunn began working on this comparative study in the 1970s, around the time historians like Winthrop D. Jordan, Edmund S. Morgan and Eugene D. Genovese were revolutionizing the study of American slavery. Drawing on Freud, Marx and other social theorists, these scholars painted what Dunn calls the “big picture,” capturing the psychosexual terror, economic exploitation, resistance, and emotional and social dependency inherent in the master-slave relation.

Decades of extensive research led Dunn, a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, in a different direction, away from making large historical claims or speculating about the “interiority” of slavery’s victims. Instead, he’s opted to stay close to the facts, using demographic methods to reconstruct “the individual lives and collective experiences of some 2,000 slaves on two large plantations” — Mesopotamia, which grew sugar on the western coastal plain of Jamaica, and Mount Airy, a tobacco and grain estate on the Rappahannock River in Virginia’s Northern Neck region — “during the final three generations of slavery in both places.”…

…Likewise, Dunn’s discussion of interracial sex seems tone deaf to decades of scholarship on the subject. Forty years ago, Winthrop D. Jordan wrote about the libidinal foundations of white supremacy in America. More recently, the historians Jennifer L. Morgan and Diana Paton have explored the linkages between ideology, law and sexual domination in slave societies. Dunn devotes a chapter each to two slave women, empathetically tracing their family history and considering the many hardships they endured. He mentions rape and “predatory” whites and discusses the sharp differences in the way mixed-race offspring were treated on the two plantations. Yet at times he plays down the varieties of sexual coercion that enslaved women lived under. At one point, he calls the relationship between a white overseer, his black “mistress” and his distraught wife a “ménage à trois.”…

Read the entire review here.

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‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng: Unspoken Thoughts About Being Mixed-Race

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2014-12-30 00:30Z by Steven

‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng: Unspoken Thoughts About Being Mixed-Race

Hapa Mama: Asian Fusion Family and Food
2014-12-28

Grace Hwang Lynch

Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You: A Novel has been at the top of many best books of 2014 lists — and for good reason. It’s a quick read, without feeling cheap. It’s a mystery, without falling into genre. It’s a critique of race in the United States, without sounding shrill or academic.

The small Ohio college town in 1977 in which the Lee family lives will feel familiar to any Asian child who grew up in the Midwest. The story opens with the stark sentence “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Starting from a description of a very ordinary family breakfast, Ng gives us glimpses into the world created by the marriage of Marilyn and James Lee.

The couple meets at Harvard, where Chinese American James is a Ph.D. student and Marilyn, who is white, is his student. Their whirlwind romance leads to a shotgun wedding in 1958, in a sly nod to Loving v. Virginia. When Marilyn’s mother, a Southern white single-mother, meets James on the wedding day, she pulls her daughter aside.

It would have been easier if her mother had used a slur. It would have been easier if she had insulted James outright, if she had said he was too short or too poor or not accomplished enough. But all her mother said, over and over, was, “It’s not right, Marilyn. It’s not right.” Leaving it unnamed, hanging in the air between them.

These doubts about the suitability of an interracial marriage and the inability of society to grasp mixed-race identity pop up over and over throughout the novel. In the 1970s Midwestern town Ng conjures up, there are only white and not white. There are so many aspects of this novel I can’t stop thinking about, from the threads of Betty Crocker homemaker versus 1970s feminism to the deft way Ng has crafted the details to unfold in sort of a spiral fashion. But I am most interested in the undercurrent of interracial marriage, assimilation and mixed-race identity…

Read the entire review here.

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‘Race Unmasked’ explores science’s racial past, present

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2014-12-29 02:41Z by Steven

‘Race Unmasked’ explores science’s racial past, present

Science News: Magazine of the Society for Science & The Public
2014-11-30
Magazine Issue: Volume 186, Number 12, December 13, 2014

Bryan Bello, Editorial Assistant

Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the 20th Century. Michael Yudell. Columbia University Press, $40

It’s 1921 and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is packed with visitors eager to learn about the hot science of eugenics. AMNH staff dubs its conference and exhibit “the most important scientific meeting ever held in the museum.” In his new book, Yudell, a historian of public health, argues that the complicated interaction of science and race visible in the eugenics movement is still playing out. “Thinking in the natural sciences has influenced the continued evolution of racist ideology in the United States,” he writes.

An inversion also holds true: Racist ideology has shaped — and continues to sway — the evolution of science. The result is a constant trade-off of influence between popular culture and science.

Yudell dissects key moments in innovation. For example, Mendelian genetics arose and was appropriated by eugenicists to falsely link complex personal attributes to heredity.  In addition, by midcentury, leading anthropologists accepted Africa as the birthplace of the genus Homo, but then several researchers spun off theories positing that different races are Homo sapiens subspecies…

Read the entire article here.

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Lacey Schwartz came to terms with her true racial identity in ‘Little White Lie’

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2014-12-23 14:38Z by Steven

Lacey Schwartz came to terms with her true racial identity in ‘Little White Lie’

The New York Daily News
2014-11-30

Justin Rocket Silverman, Senior Features Writer

Documentary film chronicles how she grew up believing she was a white Jewish girl and then learned her biological father was black

Lacey Schwartz didn’t know she was black — until the college she applied to classified her as that.

“I come from a long line of New York Jews,” the 37-year-old filmmaker says in “Little White Lie,” her new documentary feature. “I wasn’t pretending to be something I wasn’t. I actually grew up believing I was white.”

The story of how Schwartz came to understand her real identity is the subject of “Little White Lie,” now playing in select theaters. The movie is more than a decade in the making, as Schwartz began filming herself in her college dorm room and in sessions with her therapist, often in tears, as she struggled to understand who, and what, she is.

That story began in 1968, the year her white Jewish parents were married. Her mom got a job that same year at a playground in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and met a black man there who would become Schwartz’s biological father. But Schwartz’s mom never told her husband that her child wasn’t really his. Instead, the baby’s dark complexion was explained as a genetic echo of an Italian grandfather…

Read the entire article here.

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Anomaly dir. by Jessica Chen Drammeh (review)

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2014-12-17 18:25Z by Steven

Anomaly dir. by Jessica Chen Drammeh (review)

African Studies Review
Volume 57, Number 3, December 2014
pages 274-275

Manouchka Kelly Labouba, USC Provost’s PhD Fellow
Critical Studies School of Cinematic Arts
University of Southern California

Anomaly is a personal documentary featuring mixed-raced people who discuss the complexities and challenges of defining their identity across the different races and cultures they belong to. They talk about the limitations and prejudices of the mainstream approach to race, which makes individuals like them feel like misfits. The director, Jessica Chen Drammeh, is a biracial Asian-Caucasian woman. She introduces herself as “unidentified,” and calls herself an “anomaly,” because she is “difficult to classify,” as she does not fit into any of the six ethnic and racial categories officially recognized in the U.S. Hence, Drammeh and her participants explain how they have learned to deal with people’s preconceptions, reticence, and narrow-mindedness about their racial mixture. They explain how being of mixed-raced heritage ultimately renders them both invisible and hypervisible. They are invisible because their multiracial background tends to be unacknowledged, as they feel socially compelled to identify with one race only. Yet they are also hypervisible because their distinctness is so apparent. Eventually all of Drammeh’s subjects share how they have come to terms with their multiracial identity and developed a sense of pride about their genetic makeup, which they consider makes them culturally rich.

Although the documentary does not specifically focus on multiracial Americans of African descent, the film does feature one biracial Congolese-American, a young man named Pete [Shungu]. He is a saxophonist who plays jazzy melodies with a big uncombed Afro hairstyle. His parents separated when he was ten, and he grew up in New Jersey with his Caucasian mother. She appears in the film and talks about how she would dress up in a Congolese outfit, put a baby doll on her back, and come to Pete’s class to talk about the Congo and its customs. Pete was proud of her and loved that none of his friends had a problem with his white mother dressing in African clothes. His mother explains how she felt that it was important for her to understand the culture of Pete’s father, as well as for Pete and his brother to understand their own culture. In a poem titled “Third-Eye Identity,” Pete describes how being multiracial has helped him become more open-minded. He explains how “his roots extend far beyond the places he lived in,” making him a “complex individual, not just a category.” Yet because of the way race is perceived in society, denying his blackness and identifying only as multiracial would be unrealistic. Only in his senior year in college, having enrolled in a course on the subject of mixed-race heritage, is he finally comfortable identifying himself as multiracial.

In the 2010 U.S. Census more than 9 million Americans identified themselves as multiracial, making them one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country. Thus Drammeh’s documentary is a valuable contribution in what should be a national effort to perceive and acknowledge this segment of the population, as well as understand what these individuals experience as minorities. Many movies have thematized the moral barriers and societal challenges faced by interracial couples in America, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1967), Jungle Fever (dir. Spike Lee, 1991), Mississippi Masala (dir. Mira Nair, 1991), and the documentary The Loving Story (dir. Nancy Buirski, 2011), about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose Supreme Court ruling in 1967 put an end to antimiscegenation laws. However, few films have focused on how the offspring of such relationships are integrated in U.S. society. Though Drammeh’s documentary does not try to fill that void on its own, it does give an insight into what many have called “the changing face” of America.

However, Drammeh’s work unfortunately does not tackle its subject matter in the most effective manner. The film resembles more a student project on this assigned theme, rather than a documentary targeted at a broad audience. As a filmmaker, she chooses to intertwine extensive personal interviews with poems and songs by the participants, on the one hand, and with a few contributions by scholars, on the other. By doing so, she makes her movie slightly too personal and informal, which eventually diminishes…

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Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present by Jeffrey Lesser (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Slavery on 2014-12-16 01:58Z by Steven

Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present by Jeffrey Lesser (review)

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume 45, Number 3, Winter 2015
pages 449-451

Samuel L. Baily, Professor Emeritus of History
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Jeffrey Lesser, Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity in Brazil, 1808 to the Present (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Lesser’s book is an ambitious, commendable effort to explain the complex evolving relationships between immigration, ethnicity, and national identity in Brazil since 1808. Over that period of time, 6 million immigrants entered Brazil. The large majority of them were of European descent—slightly fewer than one-third of them from both Portugal and Italy, 13 percent from Spain, and 4 percent from Germany. Non-Europeans comprised nearly 20 percent of the total—Japanese about 5 percent, and Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs, Chinese, Latin Americans, and Americans the remainder. The flow of each group varied in intensity over time. Most of the immigrants settled in the southern part of the country and in the state and city of Sao Paulo, but others spread into other areas as well. Lesser seeks to analyze the impact of migration both on the immigrants themselves and on the evolving meaning of Brazilian national identity.

As daunting a task as Lesser’s may seem, the topic is further complicated by the fact that approximately 30 percent of Brazil’s population at the time of its independence in 1822 were African Brazilians, who served as the primary workforce for the colonial economy. Thus, race became intimately linked to immigration, to ethnicity, and ultimately to definitions of national identity. Immigrants did not provide labor in Brazil alone; they did so in the United States as well. But conceptions of immigrants’ standing in these two societies differed considerably. The United States saw itself as the “promised land” where immigrants could immediately improve their prospects, whereas many of the people who constituted Brazil’s host society hoped that immigrants, by virtue of their physical and cultural presence, would gradually improve an imperfect nation by ameliorating its mixed racial composition. They adopted a “whiteness model” of development. Lesser correctly insists that immigration and national identity cannot be understood separately from the broader context of race.

The book includes many important statistical tables and interesting illustrations (postage stamps, postcards, maps, photos, magazine ads, and cartoons, among others). At the end of five of the six chapters are appended relevant short primary documents related to the topics that they discussed. The work also includes a useful, comprehensive historiographical essay on Brazilian immigration, ethnicity, and national identity, but also sufficient citations to facilitate comparisons with the United States, Argentina, and other New World countries that experienced major immigrations.

Lesser previously published three books on major aspects of his current subject—one about Jewish rnigration to Brazil, the second about negotiating national identity in Brazil, and the third about Japanese Brazilians. In the present volume, he builds skillfully on this foundation of primary data and analysis to deepen our understanding of these complex issues. He organizes his book in loose chronological order beginning with a chapter about Central European and Asian migration schemes (1822–1870), followed by chapters about mass European migration (1880–1920), Middle Eastern migration (Arabs and Jews) (1880–1940), and Asian migration (especially Japanese) (1900–1955). The epilogue focuses on the post–World War II period, bringing the story to the present day. All of these chapters examine the evolving patterns of national identity, but Chapter 4 is specifically focused on the creation of Euro-Brazilian identities.

Lesser’s book has much to offer to both specialists and general readers. His overview carries profound insights about the problems of national identity in Brazil and elsewhere. One of Lesser’s greatest contributions is his effective use of comparative methodology. He clearly delineates the similarities and differences between the specific European, Middle Eastern, and Asian groups within Brazil regarding such important matters as intermarriage with Afro-Brazilians, “whiteness,” the relationship with country of origin, et al. His revealing comparisons between Brazil, the United States, and Argentina provide an important international perspective on immigration and the evolution of national identity…

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‘Who We Be,’ by Jeff Chang

Posted in Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2014-12-13 21:18Z by Steven

‘Who We Be,’ by Jeff Chang

Sunday Book Review
The New York Times
2014-12-12

Tricia Rose, Director
Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America
Brown ­University, Providence, Rhode Island

Who We Be: The Colorization of America. By Jeff Chang. Illustrated. 403 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $32.99.

The dramatic changes spurred by the civil rights ­movement and other 1960s social upheavals are often chronicled as a time line of catalytic legal victories that ended anti-black segregation. Jeff Chang’sWho We Be: The Colorization of America” claims that cultural changes were equally important in transforming American society, and that both the legal and cultural forms of desegregation faced a sustained hostile response that continues today.

According to Chang, the author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” multiculturalism challenged who and what defined America, going straight to the heart of who “we” thought we were and who “we” aspired to be. Attacks on exclusions by multicultural scholars and artists were taking place everywhere. University battles raged over whether the Western literature canon should continue to be elevated, or imagined ­outside the politics of racial hierarchies. Artists confronted the nearly all-white and all-male elite art world. Chang even ­describes Coca-Cola’s influential 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” advertisement as a signal of how profitable a “harmonious” multicultural marketing plan could be. But over the next several decades, all the way through Obama’s elections, powerful counterattacks were launched, increasingly in racially oblique language. “Both sides understood that battles over culture were high-stakes,” Chang writes. “The struggle between restoration and transformation, retrenchment and change, began in culture.”…

…Surely our national fabric is more racially diverse than ever before, and a few more people of color have access to powerful cultural institutions. At the same time, “Who We Be” left me wondering about the resilience of power. It is possible but not inevitable that multiculturalism will fuel the creation of an anti-racist and fully inclusive society. But it is also possible that we could ­become the kind of multiracial society that keeps its darker-skinned people at the bottom to provide cultural raw material to a powerful white elite that celebrates the diversity on which it depends…

Read the entire review here.

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‘Pelo Malo’ Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations

Posted in Articles, Audio, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive on 2014-12-13 20:57Z by Steven

‘Pelo Malo’ Is A Rare Look Into Latin American Race Relations

Morning Edition
National Public Radio
2014-12-10

Jasmine Garsd, Reporter and Host
NPR Music’s Alt.Latino


Actor Samuel Lange Zambrano plays Junior, a boy who becomes obsessed with relaxing his hair. Courtesy of the artist

“Pelo Malo” means “bad hair” in Spanish. It’s a term that is commonly used in Latin America, and it’s also the title of a new Venezuelan film that tackles racism and homophobia.

Junior is a 9-year-old living in a poor neighborhood in Caracas. School is about to start, and he has to have his picture taken. Junior, like many Venezuelans, has European, indigenous and African ancestry, which gives him thick, tightly curled hair. He becomes obsessed with straightening it, trying everything from blow-drying to applying gobs of mayonnaise. That last attempt drives his mother, a struggling widow, insane; she threatens to “cortarle el pelo,” just cut all his hair off.

Pelo Malo is a rare look into identity politics among Latin Americans, where racism is often a taboo topic. Despite the taboo, director Mariana Rondón says, the term “pelo malo” is common currency. “The origin of the term is very offensive. It’s very racist. But it’s also true that in Venezuela, we are so mixed, that in every single family there is someone with … ‘bad hair.’ We joke that the second most profitable industry, after oil, is hair straightening. Because everyone here wants to have straight hair.”…

…The film is very Venezuelan, but many Latin Americans can relate to it. Bianca Laureano is the founder of The LatiNegr@s Project, a virtual space that aims to discuss history and current events in the Afro-Latino community. She says the battles over hair are very much present in her own life: “I have family members who I have never even met. And I meet them, and part of the conversation will be, ‘I don’t like your hair the way that it is.’ ”

Laureano says while she wishes the movie had dealt with its issues in more depth, she thinks it’s representative of a sea change in the way Latinos discuss race. “What I definitely see an increase of is people who identify as Afro-Latino. This is who I am, this is my story. We take part in this as well.”…

Read the entire article here. Listen to the story here. Download the story here.

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