Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dilma and the Doctors

Last night, we scored another victory. The Federal Chamber of Deputies voted 430 to 9 against proposed constitutional amendment PEC 37 that would have gutted the Public Ministry’s ability to independently investigate crimes and wrongdoing by public officials. While I do not believe for a second that all of those “no” votes were sincere, I do give credit to the people in the streets for this. Having won another round, let us turn to the subject at hand: health care.

During her speech to the nation last Friday evening, Pres. Dilma Rousseff offered a series of platitudes, made some vague promises and mentioned a few ideas for action that she would undertake in response to those protesting throughout the country. One, a plebiscite to elect a constitutional convention to deal with political reform has already been largely set aside. Another,  her proposal to import physicians to help counter inadequacies in the public health sector, is being greeted with a large degree of skepticism. (Plans previously announced in Congress talk about bringing in up to 6,000 doctors from Cuba and other countries.)

The public’s response to this is perhaps best summed up by an internet meme that goes something like this, “Where are all of these new doctors going to treat their patients? In stadiums?” Another photo making the rounds shows Dr. Alex Araujo’s office in rural Minas Gerais (see accompanying photo). It is in a space which also serves as the local school’s library and kitchen. You can readily see cracks in the walls, a two-burner cook stove with a small gas tank next to it, numerous plastic pails, buckets and other types of containers, a storage shelf in the corner that seems to double as a book case, an extremely small wooden table behind which Dr. Araujo is sitting, and a chair in which we see a patient. There is also an open window that appears to have no glass in it.

A large part of the skepticism greeting Pres. Rousseff’s initiative to improve the country’s public health system (SUS – Unified Health System) arises from its crumbling infrastructure and the corruption within it which (like with many other public services) further diminishes its already inadequate resources. In other words, we need to improve what we already have on the ground before we bring more doctors into the system. If we don’t, where are they going to work?

Don’t get me wrong. I really like SUS. We don’t have anything like it in the United States. With all of its failings and all of its problems, even the poorest in this country are treated free of charge. They will be attended to – if there is a clinic within a reasonable distance and if it is staffed, of course. (We won’t even ask that it be adequately staffed at this point. That’s an altogether different question.) Here, for instance, you won’t be driven into bankruptcy if you develop cancer. We cannot say the same thing back home.  One of the reasons my family and I came back to Brazil was the availability of good medical care at an affordable price. I’ve already stated elsewhere that my wife and children benefit from private health insurance and, for a variety of reasons, I rely on SUS. I have had no complaints, but my situation is not the norm. I want to see SUS benefitting everyone in this country because most of the population does not have the means to pay for private health care.

Let’s take a look at a few numbers. According to its own statistics, 80% of Brazil’s population depends on SUS. That means SUS is the only option available for almost 160 million of Brazil’s 196 million people.  (Remember that over 72% of Brazilians make US$605 / month or less – mostly much less. It is their only option because private health insurance is out of their reach. Without SUS, they would have no access to health care at all.) Roughly 130 million people have access to SAMU (Mobile Emergency Service), which means they can take advantage of services analogous to EMS (Emergency Medical Services) in the United States. That population is essentially concentrated in urban areas, which also means that people in rural areas are not as well served, if they are served at all. In a similar fashion, the bulk of SUS’s six thousand hospitals are located in urban areas, as well as their 45,000 clinics. There are, however, a couple of problems. First, the rural population is largely left out of the loop and, secondly, what infrastructure there is, as stated earlier, is poorly maintained and understaffed. SUS has an extremely difficult time attracting doctors, particularly young doctors at the beginning of their careers, to rural areas. When you also consider the facilities, or rather, the lack of facilities awaiting them, coupled with extremely low pay, it is a small wonder there are any doctors willing to work in SUS in the first place.

For an example of a rural facility, all you have to do is reread my description of Dr. Araujo’s clinic above or just look at the accompanying photograph. Facilities in urban areas are hardly any better. The news media has been having a field day of late showing legions of broken down ambulances that have been scrapped due to little or no maintenance, warehouses filled with defunct hospital furniture and equipment. They are also reporting on under staffing. News stories abound, telling drastic tales of massive waits in grossly understaffed emergency rooms, about sick and injured patients who have to wait for hours on end to be tended to, insufficient beds, people being given IVs that are suspended from nails pounded into walls while they sit on wooden benches or, if they are lucky, metal folding chairs, patients stuck in rickety wheel chairs because the stretcher they should be lying on simply doesn’t exist – and, from time to time, patients dying while they wait. All of this makes for sensational journalism – and that sells, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the nations’ journalists don’t have to look far to find something to report on.

And the doctors? What of the doctors? How do you attract good doctors when the average pay in SUS is US$884 per month.  (Average salaries per state range from $329 to $1,883. Those on the lower end of the scale are often in rural areas.)  How do you attract doctors to horribly under served rural areas when, in addition to the paltry salaries we have already mentioned, the working conditions are on par with – or even worse – than those Dr. Araujo faces day in and day out? Nevertheless, all of the doctors I have met in Brazil are qualified, highly trained professionals. Let me repeat that: they are qualified, highly trained professionals who, at least in the public sphere, are also used to working under adverse conditions. When the fancy equipment breaks down in US hospitals, our doctors often don’t know what to do until a replacement unit is found. SUS’s doctors don’t have that luxury. They often don’t even have the equipment. They have to practice medicine based on their knowledge, training and experience. And, yet, they are still there, practicing medicine. Brazil has been blessed with many dedicated doctors for whom their profession is a calling. Those are the doctors who have attended me. Dr. Araujo, whom I do not know, is a shining representative his profession in this country.

How are doctors reacting to President Rousseff’s proposal? Not well would be an understatement. Here in Juiz de Fora, SUS’s doctors will be joining their colleagues on July 3 in a twenty-four hour strike across the country to protest what many see as a slap in their face. (Emergencies will be treated. Optional procedures will not be performed.)  Dilma spoke of bringing in “médicos de qualidade”, which can be translated as either “quality doctors” or "qualified doctors”. Either way, those here are both – and SUS’s doctors are outraged. They are asking the same thing the rest of us are: where are these imported doctors going to work if our infrastructure is inadequate? What they want are investments to improve the hospitals and clinics, to provide adequate equipment and to maintain that equipment once they get it, money for medications that patients need, etcetera, ad infinitum. For them, importing doctors can wait. Without structural improvements, bringing more in will not make much of a difference.

In the meantime, construction on pharaonic and overpriced facilities for both the upcoming World Cup and Olympics is continuing – and we are still in the streets.

Dr. Alex Araujo's clinic in rural Minas Gerais.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jô Soares’s Twenty Cents

The day after the current wave of protests began, an official in President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet, Minister Gilberto Carvalho gave an interview in which he exclaimed that he didn’t understand why these protests were taking place. Jô Soares, a noted comedian, author and talk show host, as well as a renowned intellectual, made a point of explaining cent by cent why people are outraged.

Jô offered this explanation, as he stated, “For those who haven’t understood yet: the twenty cents, one by one.

 1¢ – Corruption.
 2¢ – Impunity.
 3¢ – Urban violence.
 4¢ – The threat of inflation returning.
 5¢ – The amount of taxes we pay, seeing nothing in return.
 6¢ – The low salary of public school teachers and public service doctors.
 7¢ – Politicians’ high salaries.
 8¢ – Lack of opposition to the government.
 9¢ – The absolute shamelessness of those governing us.
10¢ – Our schools and the poor quality of education.
11¢ – Our hospitals and the lack of a dignified health system.
12¢ – Our highways and inefficient public transportation.
13¢ – The practice of trading votes for public positions in the centers of power, causing distortions in the way things work.
14¢ – Those with little education trading their votes for small improvements in public services (paid for with public monies) that always put the same people in power.
15¢ – Politicians who have been convicted of crimes and are still in office.
16¢ – Those involved in the Mensalão corruption scandal, who, having been tried and convicted, are still free..
17¢ – Political parties that look like organized crime.
18¢ – The price of stadiums for the World Cup, overpricing and poor quality of public works.
19¢ – A tendentious and sold out media.
20¢ – The perception that we are not represented by those in government.

And, if you need it, I have another twenty cents here. All you have to do is ask.”

For those non-Brazilians who might not quite understand what Jô was talking about or be able to put this in context, let me add to these, penny by penny:

 1¢ – Corruption syphons off at least US$25 billion dollars in public monies every year.
 2¢ – The wealthy and powerful rarely, if ever, go to jail for crimes they commit. Only 10% percent of murders are prosecuted, for openers.
 3¢ – High crime rates, in part resulting from extreme disparities in wealth and, in part, from a failed judicial system.
 4¢ – Brazil suffered from hyperinflation from 1980 until 1994. During the time I lived in São Paulo (1989-1994), inflation averaged 40% a month and the national currency was changed five or six times.
 5¢ – See 1¢ - corruption, 6¢ - teachers and doctors salaries, 10¢ – Hell, everything on this list qualifies for this one.
 6¢ – The base salary for teachers in Minas Gerais, where I live, is about US$530 a month and the average salary for doctors in the public sector is about US$870.
 7¢ – The salary of a federal congressman is about US$12,000 / month, not counting fringe benefits – and they are not the highest paid politicians. The legal minimum salary in is US$303 / month. 72% of the population earns US$606 or less per month (two minimum salaries or less.) Need I say any more?
 8¢ – There is no real opposition to the status quo in the government. Politicians are universally seen as corrupt and unwilling to cut their own privileges.
 9¢ – All you have to do to see this is look at how much politicians pay themselves and how much they steal – and that is just for starters. You can add nepotism and a few other things to the list as well.
10¢ – See 6¢ for salaries. Students in public schools receive such poor instruction that very few gain entry into state and federal universities, which are the most prestigious in the country and are free of charge. Most of the slots in those universities are filled by students whose parents could afford to send them to excellent – and expensive – private schools. Shouldn’t graduates of public schools naturally be those eligible for admission to free public universities?
11¢ – At least 72% of the countries population cannot afford health insurance and, therefore, rely on the national public health system. Hospitals are poorly equipped, understaffed and falling apart to the point that the ill have been known to die while waiting to be attended through no fault of the medical staff on duty. There are just too many patients for them to attend to. Rural areas are also  grossly undeserved.
12¢ – Highways are poorly constructed and maintained, and public transportation is inadequate to serve the needs of the population relies on it – the vast majority of Brazilians. Prices, for those receiving the lowest pay – again, the majority of the population – are already too high for them. Remember, the catalyst for the current wave of protests sweeping this country was a 20¢ increase in the bus fare in São Paulo.
13¢ – This speaks for itself.
14¢ – This also speaks for itself.
15¢ – See 2¢.
16¢ – See 2¢.
17¢ – See 1¢ and 9¢.
18¢ – The current estimated price for the 2014 World Cup is equal to the total price of the last three World Cups combined – and we are seeing that a lot of the work being done is shoddy. Can anyone say “corruption”?
19¢ – All you have to do to see this is follow, among others, Rede Gobo’s poor coverage of current events. The vast majority of the ongoing protests have been peaceful, but that is not what is being reported both here and abroad. (In this aspect, social media is being extremely useful in getting accurate information out.)
20¢ – This is not a perception. It is reality.

And that, my friends, hopefully will help you understand why we are in the streets.

Jô Soares

Sunday, June 23, 2013

PEC 37 - Another Reason We Are in the Streets

Yesterday, Brazil witnessed another round of protests. Although neither as large nor as widespread as those on Thursday, they are continuing. News coverage, however, was spotty and, as always, tended to focus on unrepresentative acts of vandalism and violence.

One of the major focuses of these demonstrations was PEC 37 (Proposta de Emenda Constitucional 37/2011), a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Public Ministry’s investigative powers. This proposed amendment is enough of a threat to the Public Ministry (PM) that it ran a full page ad in the news magazine Veja this week. (See accompanying photo.) In order for non-Brazilians to understand this, we need to focus on three things: what the Public Ministry is, why the PM has been targeted and what this implies for Brazil. We also need to look at the process by which Brazil’s Constitution is amended.

First, the Public Ministry (O Ministério Público in Portuguese), is body of independent prosecutors at the federal and state levels. As such, it is independent of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The very reason for this independence is to inhibit coercion by any branch of government that could, in turn, impede investigations into crimes potentially committed by its members. The PM’s purpose is to uphold justice, whether this means bringing charges and trying cases or requesting acquittal if prosecutors later become convinced of a defendant’s innocence. Although Public Ministry prosecutors are allowed to investigate criminal activities, they normally do so only when those under suspicion are police officers or public officials. When involving members of the national congress, presidential cabinet or the President, the Procurador Geral da República (Attorney General of the Republic) files those charges and tries those cases before the Federal Supreme Court, which brings us to why this particular amendment is being pursued in Congress.

There has been a corruption scandal rolling around this country for a number of years. Know as the Mensalão, or the Monthly Allowance scandal, it includes many present and former members of Congress and the Executive Branch. This scandal initially broke in late 2004 and resulted in investigations by the Public Ministry which then issued indictments in 2007. The case has revolved around alleged monthly payments involving many millions of dollars by members of the governing Workers Party (PT) to political allies in exchange for votes in Congress. Those investigated include a wide-ranging list of members of the PT and other political parties, large business enterprises, prominent businessmen and underworld figures. After many delays and frequent attempts to prevent the trial, the case was finally heard last year, 2012, before the Supreme Court. A number of those accused were convicted, some of whom are still serving in Congress and who will be voting on PEC 37. So far, none of those convicted have gone to jail. Sadly, when this scandal broke, it really surprised no one in Brazil. Corruption is part and parcel of how the government operates. It, by no stretch of the imagination, began with the PT and, if changes are not forthcoming, it will not end when the PT eventually relinquishes power. The PT did, however, bring corruption to new and absurd heights.

And now we come to the amendment itself. The Brazilian Constitution can be amended after four rounds of votes, twice in the Senate and twice in the Chamber of Deputies, in which the proposed amendment must receive at least 60 percent of the votes cast. (I will not dwell here on how amendments are proposed.) Although this might seem to be a daunting task, the Constitution has been amended 72 times since its adoption in 1988. To put this in perspective, remember that the US Constitution has been amended only 27 times since its ratification in 1791 and that ten of those amendments were included in the Constitution’s initial ratification.

And what is PEC 37? Quite simply, it would strip the Public Ministry of its power to investigate. Public prosecutors have called this the Impunity Amendment, as it would limit the power of investigation to the federal and civil police, although Congress would still be allowed to investigate matters due to other provisions in the Constitution. Many here see PEC 37 as revenge for the Public Ministry’s role in investigating official corruption. It is a clear and direct response by Congress to the Mensalão scandal.

There is a saying in Brazil that “everything will end up in pizza,” in other words, nothing changes. If this amendment passes, that is exactly what will happen in terms of corruption – nothing. There will be no impartial investigative body to keep an eye on, among others, Congress. The fox will be left guarding the hen house and only he will be able to investigate who killed and ate the chickens. The farmer would only be able to stand by and watch.

In addition to PEC 37, there is another proposed amendment, PEC 33, that would subject decisions by the Supreme Court to Congressional approval. We will discuss this amendment at a later date.

The next vote in Congress on PEC 37, originally scheduled for Wednesday, July 26, has been postponed until the first week in July due to the ongoing protests.

See you in the streets.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Brazil – If They Think We’ll Go Away Quietly...

Tonight, I witnessed something breathtakingly beautiful – 15,000 people marching in the streets of Juiz de Fora for a better Brazil. 15,000 people –  peaceful, cheerful, jubilant because the street was ours. 15,000 united in trying to change this country because it is time to do so. 

When you read or watch the news tomorrow, you will probably see reports about vandalism, rioting, looting – sensationalist stuff, reports that would discredit us if it were representative of who we are, but it is not. Yes, some of that did occur in other places, but in this country, we know that it is a very small faction, that it is totally unrepresentative, that some of it is probably planted to make us look bad. So, rather than dwell on this,  let me tell you about my evening, about our march, about who we are. We are everyone. We are Brazil.

I’ve been to demonstrations before, here and elsewhere (mostly elsewhere), but tonight, oh let me tell you: we were one. There were no political parties spouting their rhetoric, there was no “unified agenda”, no single demand. There were signs about everything but they all pointed in one direction, to one idea – a better Brazil. And, so we took to the streets.

We took to the streets signing and chanting. At one people, a young man handed me a small plastic whistle. He had a bag full and he was handing them out left and right. And so we walked on, now singing, and chanting, and blowing our whistles. Some were even dancing. Soon, a few marchers began intoning the national anthem and everyone joined in. Believe me, I’ve never heard that back home – singing the national anthem during a protest march, much less singing it with a lightness of heart and with joy. Here, it is natural. These people in the streets, these people demanding justice, can only be called one thing. They are patriots, but they aren’t grim faced about it. Theirs is a cheerful, spontaneous patriotism. 

And so we marched, or rather, walked. There was nothing martial about us. We were festive. Every once in a while, people would start applauding, so I would look around to see what was causing that applause. Often I had to look up. Families were on the balconies or at the windows of their apartments along the streets lining our route. They were also applauding, waving white cloths or Brazilian flags. People working in restaurants and stores would stop and applaud. Those workers were joined by the customers they were serving. They were of all ages: elderly with youngsters by their sides. In many apartments, those living in them flipped their lights on and off as a way to signal their support. And then there was the confetti. I don’t know how many times I looked up to see confetti wafting through the air, tossed from on high in a show of solidarity.

Tomorrow, you will read about the vandals. Here there weren’t any. I saw only one incident in which a couple of young men began attacking a structure at a bus stop. When we saw them, everyone sat down in the street and began to boo them. Sheepishly, they quit what they were doing and slipped away. End of story, end of vandalism.

Oh, and one more detail. It might not seem important to you, but to me it is. As I was leaving the area of the protests, I passed by a group of six or seven policemen. I wished them a good evening. Each and everyone of them returned my greeting with a smile and a friendly tone. You see, they, too, are Brazilians. This, too, is their country.

So this was my evening, but it didn’t happen just in Juiz de Fora. The news here is reporting that there have been demonstrations in over one hundred cities all over the country involving more than one million people. Our demands, though varied, are all for a better Brazil. As Brazilians are saying, the giant has awakened. We want an end to the waste and corruption that has wracked this country for too long. We want an end to the impunity enjoyed by the politicians and businessmen who are robbing this country blind. We want an end to attempts to undermine the concept of an independent judiciary. We want hospitals and schools, a living wage and adequate housing. And, most of all, we want Brazil to have the chance to be the country we all know it can be. We want a Brazil unencumbered, able to reach its potential

If they think we’ll go away quietly, they are mistaken. We will be heard.

See you in the streets!


For photos from today's demonstration in Juiz de Fora, please use this link (Juiz de Fora na luta!):

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Brazil: No, It’s Not about 20 Cents.

A few days ago, I shared a photo of Dona Nair from São Paulo, 101 years young, on my FaceBook page. In it, she was holding a sign that read, in Portuguese, “I’ve seen two world wars and the Depression of 1929. I lived through the Revolution of 1932. I survived the Dictatorship. Believe me: it’s not just about 20 cents. ".  I neither translated nor explained her sign. It is time I do so.

Last week, the streets of São Paulo exploded with rage when the municipal government announced an increase of R$0.20 (about 10¢ of a US dollar) in bus fares. The police were liberal in firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds without provocation. The media and the local government were long on showing scenes of random acts of violence and vandalism and horribly short on context. In fact, one photo published was labeled to the effect that demonstrators were knocking over a small structure when, in fact, the sequence of photos clearly shows they were setting it back upright, after someone else had turned it over. Protests have since spread throughout the county. Yesterday, over 250,000 took to the streets in at least 25 major cities. So, what is going on?

People are frustrated. People are angry. But why? Well, like everything else here, it gets a little bit complicated. Even if it were just about twenty cents – which it isn’t – that would amount to a significant increase. Consider that the bus fare was already R$3.00.  (To convert Brazilian reais to dollars, simply divide by two.) In a megalopolis like São Paulo, with a population of over 17 million, those who do the work do not live nearby. The poor tend to live in slums on the outskirts of the city and they will might well have to take a combination of at least two buses and/or subway trains to get to work and two more to return home. That’s four fares a day, five times a week, at least twenty times a month. In other words, they are paying at least eighty fares in a month, which already amounted to some R$240. And this in a country where the minimum legal salary is R$678. That is how much many of them earn. A hike of R$0.20 knocks at least another R$16 – another two and a half percent – from their already paltry wages,

As for the transportation itself, trust me, I know it well. I have ridden those buses and subways. Frequently. Sometimes 12 to 17 times a day. They are overcrowded, uncomfortable, and, consequently, not an experience to be enjoyed. While living in São Paulo, I would spend a minimum of three hours a day on public transport – if I was lucky enough to avoid rush hour. When I wasn’t, that time would easily double.

But, remember, this is not about twenty cents. Nor is it about just about public transportation. It’s about health care and education and public safety and crime and violence. And, ultimately, it is about corruption.

I have been reluctant to talk about some of these things to people in the United States because I love this country, because I don’t want to create the wrong image of this nation. I don’t want you to think badly about where I have chosen to live and raise my family. Where I will probably be buried after I die.

This also isn’t about all the bad things I will inevitably have to talk about. It’s about human dignity. It’s about perseverance. It’s about recovering the values that have made this the land where I want my children to grow up, where I want them learn what it means to be a citizen.

So, what is it about? We’ll have to answer this bit by bit, a piece at a time. A comprehensive examination is beyond the scope of what I can do in the small space provided here – but at least we can make a beginning.

It’s about health care. Brazil has a system of universal free medical care. That’s good, isn’t it? Well, that depends. If you are moderately well off, you can afford health insurance and, consequently do not have to depend on the public health care system. Here, once again we need to talk about dollars and cents, or, rather, reais and centavos. The 2010 Census shows that 39.2% of the population earn one minimum salary a month or less and another 32.9% earn between one and two minimum salaries. To put that in perspective, my wife and children have health insurance with moderately good coverage. It costs roughly one half of a minimum salary to insure them. (I depend on SUS – the public health system,) What this means is that roughly three quarters of Brazilians cannot even consider affording the luxury of not depending on the public health system. And what about how they, we, are being treated by that system? The country’s population has grown significantly, but funding for health has not. Public hospitals are overcrowded and understaffed. Infrastructure is crumbling as insufficient resources are not funneled into upkeep and updating what there is and corruption tends to chip away at those resources that are provided. If you are sick or injured, you will be cared for, but sometimes the wait is excruciating. On a recent Saturday evening, there was only one doctor on duty at one of Rio’s busiest public hospitals. One doctor to take care of all the accident victims, heart attacks, comas, children with flu or diarrhea, mothers in labor... One doctor for everyone... And, this, in a hospital damaged by a fire two years ago which still shows the effects of that incident. Yes, it’s about health care.

It is also about education. The base salary for a public school teacher in the state of Minas Gerais, where I now live, is R$1,178.10 for a twenty-four hour work week. That comes to less than US$600 a month. Schools frequently hold two session of classes per day, which means that a teacher can sometimes work two shifts and receive double the base salary. As a teacher, if you want to be able to pay a few bills and, just maybe, support your family, you really have no choice but to do so. For the record, Minas Gerais is one of the better paying states in the country. We are also talking about the earnings of professionals with at least a four year college degree. The infrastructure of Brazil’s public schools is on par with that of its public hospitals. Needless to say, public education at the primary and secondary levels is not really a priority and, like public health, those schools are understaffed, overcrowded and falling apart. On the other hand, at the university level, it is another story.  You see, if you want to get into a public university – which is free to those who qualify, you need to attend a quality private school. This, once again, is out of reach for the vast majority of the poor, the majority of Brazil’s population. If they can’t afford decent health care, they also can’t afford to send their children to better schools. So, those who can afford to send their children to private schools are the only ones who can afford to prepare them to study in the country’s best universities – free of charge.

It is also about public safety and the law.  Brazil has a wonderful constitution which is an example of social guarantees. Unfortunately, the country is also saddled with a morose and woefully ineffective justice system. Impunity is rampant. Money buys delays which prevent the wealthy from facing serious consequences for wrong doings. For the poor, however, justice is swift... and the prisons are cruel. And that impunity, which runs from top to bottom, means that crimes aren’t prosecuted and that the police are often as ineffective as the courts. They are poorly trained and poorly paid. I have had the privilege of meeting a small number of policemen who are truly committed to a just and democratic society, and yesterday, there was photo published of uniformed officers sitting and conversing with protesters in São Paulo, but, as policemen and woman, they are fighting an uphill battle. They are, if we believe what the media tells us, a very small minority.

It is also about the enormous corruption that seems to be endemic in Brazil and how that affects the population as a whole. During the current protests, I have seen a plethora of signs with the following message: “The World Cup – R$33 billion, The Olympics – R$26 Billion, Corruption – R$50 billion, Minimum Salary– R$678. And you still think it’s about 20 cents?” Some are crudely scrawled on posterboard, while others look like they were professionally printed, but they all point out the same thing.  A recent study by the São Paulo State Federation of Industries (FIESP) estimates that corruption sucks up R$50 BILLION a year. That’s 50 billion down a toilet hole that benefits only those who are already at the pinnacle of society. That is enough money to build 57 THOUSAND schools a year in a nation whose public school system has been turned into a scrap heap.  Combine that with the other billions being spent on the World Soccer Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics –figures cited in the sign that are also presenting succulent opportunities for syphoning off even more money into the black waters of corruption. Compare that to a minimum salary of R$678 per month. No wonder people are angry. After all, those glorious stadiums and sports facilities will lie idle and deteriorate after these events and the cost of living in the cities where they are being built is already being driven up. All we have to do to see that is look at the twenty cents that broke the camel’s back last week. The people who are paying for all of this with their taxes see little or no benefit from them. Most – the 72% of the population that earn minimum salaries a month or less – won’t even be able to afford tickets to see the offer of “bread and circus” that is being now being rubbed in their faces when those events do take place. And afterwards? Please...

And, finally, it is about the Dona Nairs, the João da Silvas, the Josés and Marias  who make up this country’s population. It is about my children – Jack, Melissa and Georgia, all Brazilian citizens – and their future. It is about a population that wants to recover its dignity and its humanity. It is about people who have long endured and have finally begun to shout “Enough!” at the top of their lungs. It is about remembering courageous examples from Brazil’s past: Tiradentes, the Cabanagem and Farrapo Revolts in the 1830s and 1840s, popular resistance to the Estado Novo in the 1930s and ‘40s and the military dictatorship that governed this country from 1964 through 1986, resistance that helped bring about a return to democratic rule. And it is about many, many other examples throughout this country’s history. People here and around the world have commented that this is the first widespread social movement to rock Brazil since the caras pintadas took to the streets over twenty years ago to demand the impeachment and removal of any extremely corrupt president: Fernando Collor de Mello. Millions marched and eventually Collor fell. I was one of them. We have done this before. We can do it again. Brasil, presente!

No, as Dona Nair says, it’s not about twenty cents.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

English is the Hardest Language to Learn. Oh, really?


Growing up, I constantly heard people saying “English is the hardest language to learn”.  Inevitably, all of the people making that claim were monolingual English speakers and their point of reference for making it was our orthography. English spelling is, admittedly, not the easiest thing in the world, but those claiming that it made English the most difficult language never took into consideration anything else: grammar, pronunciation, proximity to a person’s native language. Theirs was a narrow, one point focus. It also showed their lack of knowledge about language acquisition. I’ve often wondered if this claim was their way of justifying their monolingualism. After all, if they had already mastered the world’s “hardest language”, then they were ... well... better than everyone who hadn’t, right?

Now, let’s look at this claim for what it is. The difficulty you have in learning a language really involves many factors – the age at which you begin learning the target language, its proximity to your own language, the amount you are actually exposed to your target language – which includes but is not limited to where you are living. Are you in a place where that language is widely spoken? Do you already speak more than one language? Do you have a natural facility for learning languages? The list goes on and on. No two second language learners are alike and, consequently, no two second language learning situations are alike. There are children who learn two languages simultaneously and grownups, illiterate in their own languages, who learn another, often after immigrating as adults. Frequently the children of immigrants in the United States who are schooled in English never learn to read and write the language they speak at home.  In short, it’s all relative.

If we look at the single factor of spelling, we are not considering that we learn our first language before learning to read and write. In fact, literacy is not required to learn a language. Of the more than 6,000 languages in today’s world, it is estimated that at least twenty percent have no written form. How do the speakers of those languages learn them? The same way you and I did. Babies are remarkably good listeners and are equally good at mimicking what they hear. We hear, we associate and we repeat. That’s how it works for everyone. It is only as adults trying to learn another language that many of us link literacy with language learning. Consequently, we associate our difficulty in learning another language with the difficulty we have in learning to read and write it and that is further complicated by our own often stubborn insistence on trying to apply our native language’s phonetics to the target language – something that rarely ever works. Is Chinese inherently harder to learn than English, when we consider that one needs to learn three to four thousand characters to be considered literate? I honestly do not know, but if that is the case, then English, with its twenty-six letter alphabet, should be a snap – even if there are languages, like Spanish and Portuguese, that use the same alphabet but are far more phonetic than English.

If we truly wanted to know which language is the hardest or easiest, we would need to isolate the intervening factors that have already been mentioned: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. The closest we can come is, perhaps, compare the relative ease with which children who are being raised with at least two languages simultaneously learn and even then, we can only compare the languages in that specific case. In my home, we have an almost perfect laboratory for such a comparison. Both Jack, who is now five and a half, and Melissa, three and a half, have heard both English and Portuguese in fairly balanced amounts since birth. Their mother Rosangela has spoken to them only in Portuguese and I have spoken to them only in English since both were in the womb. Although they were born in the United States, we made every effort for them to hear and experience Portuguese in all forms: children’s books and videos, songs, television, etc. Before moving to Brazil, in turn, we stocked up on English language books, videos, educational toys and other assorted paraphernalia. We use the SAP button (second audio program) whenever possible so they can see programs originally recorded in English in that language and we are meticulous in maintaining both languages separately, not mixing them. Both children know that English is for Daddy and Portuguese is for Mamãe and ne’er the twain shall meet.

So how is that working out? Well, it’s fun. We enjoy watching them learn to talk – and talk, they do – in both languages. Jack started off slowly. He didn’t really say much until he was about three, but when he did start speaking, he had already separated the two languages. As for his delay, research indicates that it was fairly typical for a child growing up with two languages, as is the clear separation of those languages when he finally did begin. That same research also shows that this has absolutely no negative impact on language learning. Melissa began speaking much earlier than Jack and, she, too, separates both languages. It’s instinctive. Daddy talks this way, so that’s how we talk to him. Mamãe talks that way and, with her, so do we. Even when we are having three and four way conversations, Jack and Melissa use the appropriate language with the appropriate parent. They simply don’t mix them. (Melissa will occasionally say something to me in Portuguese when she doesn’t know how to say it in English. All I do is say it back to her in English and she repeats it. That goes to learning.)

And which language seems to be easier for them? English. Most adults enjoy hearing the mistakes their children make when they are first learning to speak. In our case, it is doubly so, because those mistakes come with two flavors, two accents, two everything. Their mistakes are typical for small children in the two respective languages. In other words, Jack and Melissa make the same mistakes in English that are typical for children of their age. Ditto for Portuguese. And why do I say English is easier? Observation of those mistakes, which are related to the different grammars in question. Because of his relatively more advanced language skills, at five and a half years of age, I will focus on Jack, rather than Melissa. Remember that Melissa is at a much earlier stage of language acquisition.

In order to understand my contention, we need to look at grammar. I know. Grammar is probably the least sexy and potentially most boring of topics, unless, of course, you are a language freak, which is my case. In broad strokes, we will look at two aspects: the declension of nouns, adjectives and articles and also the conjugation of verbs.

English has no gender and modification of number affects only the noun. Portuguese has gender (masculine and feminine) and, hence, all adjectives and articles must agree with the noun in gender and number. Let’s take two phrases in both their singular and plural forms: the red ball and the red cake. In English, if I make those plural, I only need to change the noun from singular to plural – in this case by adding an “s”: the red balls and the red cakes. The article “the” and the adjective “red” do not change. Now, in Portuguese, it is a tad more complex: the word for ball is the feminine noun “bola” and the word for cake is the masculine “bolo”. (Please note that gender has nothing to do with male and female. It is merely a grammatical construct.) Thus, with “bola” we must use the feminine forms of the article (“a”) and the adjective (“vermelha”) to say “the red ball” – “a bola vermelha”. One letter differentiates the feminine word “bola” (ball) and the masculine “bolo” (cake). Thus, “the red cake” becomes “o bolo vermelho”. We have to make the article and adjective masculine (“o” and “vermelho”). In both phrases, we are using the singular form. When they become plural (“the red balls” and “the red cakes”), we have to change all the singular articles and adjectives to plurals, while retaining their respective genders, i.e., “as bolas vermelhas” and “os bolos vermelhos”. Sound complicated? For an adult, not some much, but for a five year old, definitely. Jack tends to make mistakes in gender and in number in Portuguese, which is typical for young speakers. After all, we are not born knowing all things. We learn them as we grow. Those mistakes are not possible in English simply because the distinction does not exist in our language.

And, now for verb conjugation, which  is an even stickier wicket.

English is relatively simple, even in its irregular verbs, which we will not examine here. We will continue with our red cakes and red balls by “having gotten them”.

I got the red ball. You got the red ball. He got the red ball. We got the red ball. You all got the red ball. (Substitute cake if you prefer. It is, after all, tastier.)

That’s easy enough. In the simple past tense, we merely change the subject noun or pronoun. The rest remains the same. Even in the present, we only change the verb in the third person: I get the ball. He gets the ball.

In Portuguese, we have to change the verb: Peguei (I got). Pegaste. (You got.) Pegou. (He or she got.) Pegámos. (We got.) Pegastes. (Y’all got. What can I say? I’m Southern.) Pegaram. (They got.) Notice that we do not need to specify the subject, as the verb form itself contains the subject. Eu (I), tu (you), ele (he), nós (we), vós (y’all), and, finally, eles (they) – just to use only the masculine forms – are all understood, contrary to English.

The same holds true for the present: pego, pegas, pega, pegamos, pegais, pegam. Without even touching on the addition of “red balls” and “red cakes”, we can see that, for a five year old, this can be – and is – a little daunting. In time, it becomes second nature, but for a child, just beginning to talk, it is a lot to get wrap your head around. Language acquisition is a long-term and very complex process. It takes practice. It is also a long road upon which both Jack and Melissa have just begun to tread. I am certain both of them will eventually speak flawless, accent-free Portuguese and English. They have the advantage of having no choice in the matter. Two languages are natural to them. And, besides, their big sister Georgia, now 21, walked the same path. She has now added a third language to the mix: Spanish.

And, in the final analysis, what is the impact of these mistakes Jack now makes? None at all. In English, when he says, “He don’t know”, he sounds like many adults back home. And, in Portuguese, when he says, “Pegueio as bolo vermelho,” from what he has in his hand, we know whether he is going to play with them or eat it.  Context is everything. Besides, he’s only five, right?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Religion in Brazil

Religion is a frame of reference. Our choice of religion or lack thereof determines how we see the world. It frames our view. Familiarity with religions allows us to at least attempt to see the world from different perspectives, much like speaking different languages does. If we can cross the boundaries of the religions we were raised with, if we were raised with one, or cross the barrier imposed by non-belief if we weren't, and become "fluent" in another faith, then we can begin to better understand that religions' practitioners. We will be able to think like they do, feel what they feel and be moved by what moves them. In other words, we will be able to have a meaningful dialogue with them, especially when we disagree.

I have long questioned those who refuse to read someone else’s sacred texts or visit their temples and abodes. When they tell me that their religion forbids them, that they cannot, I have to question the strength of their faith. Are they actually afraid that they will be led astray by "Satanic" forces? Are they so weak that the least little exposure to something else will destroy what they hold sacred. Are they in fact, of little faith? On the other hand, those who engage with others, pray and play with them, learn from them often strengthen their own faith. They learn to look back at themselves and analyze what it is they truly believe. It's a lot like learning another language. All of the sudden you better understand why you put the adjective where you do or what that strange word really does mean and, conversely, what it doesn't in both your native language and your target language. I am reminded of a scene in the movie The Shoes of the Fisherman when Anthony Quinn, in the role of the newly elected Pope Kiril, a Russian and former political prisoner, sneaks out of the Vatican dressed as a common priest and winds up helping a doctor in an emergency. The patient is dying, so Kiril begins to give the Last Rites. The man's family informs him that they are not Christians. Upon realizing that the dying man is Jewish, he covers his face and begins to intone the Shema in Hebrew.  He is "bilingual". He "speaks" their religion and, thus, is able to help them in the hour of their need in a way that is meaningful to them. By praying as a Jew, he is the ultimate humble Christian. Pope Kiril is, obviously, a fictional character, but he gave me an example of what we should all strive to be and how we should all strive to act, whatever we believe.

It is in this spirit of "multilingualism" that we will look at religion in Brazil.

Perhaps we should begin with a short overview of Brazil’s  religions. This is nominally a Catholic country. A recent census indicates that 64% of the population is Catholic and another 22% is Protestant, divided amongst the many and varied Protestant groups in the country. This leaves another 14% that, theoretically, embraces the non-religious, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Spiritists, macumbeiros – practitioners of religions derived from those brought over by enslaved Africans, and so forth and so on. It would be easy to simply leave things at that and move on to another topic, except that we are talking about Brazil, where, as I have said elsewhere, things aren’t that readily separated. The lines here are often blurred. Syncretism is – after soccer, of course – Brazil’s favorite pastime. Catholics and macumbeiros sometimes inhabit the same body and do so quite comfortably. And tolerance is a given. On the street 25 de Março in São Paulo, a street not only noted for its commerce, but also for having many Jewish and Arab merchants, you will often see them – Jews and Muslims – sitting together, drinking coffee, sharing the most spirited of friendships.

After my seemingly bizarre assertion above, perhaps I should explain myself a little. First, when the Portuguese arrived, they brought their religion with them and encountered a native population that wasn’t the least bit enthusiastic about working for them or praying like they did – all for no pay. Hence, the importation of human beings from Africa began. Since those Africans also weren’t overly thrilled about being ripped from their homes and their cultures, sprinkled with a little water and being told they were Christians, they found subtle ways to resists. Theirs was the way of “If you can’t beat them, make them think you’ve joined them.” And, so, when their masters and priests would visit the senzalas, the slave quarters, they would look on approvingly at the altars the slaves had erected. They featured the images of various saints and were always lovingly covered with a cloth. What the masters and priests either did not see or, perhaps, simply chose to ignore, were the offerings underneath, hidden by the mantle – offerings to Iansã, disguised above as St. Barbara, Xangô as St. John, Ogum – St. George, Iemanjá – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception... And, thus, African religions survived. In time, different versions developed, some of which included syncretizing with Native religions. Today, we have both Candomblé and Umbanda, among others. The former is much closer to its Yoruba origins, while the latter is a thoroughly Brazilian adaptation of the same. However we look at it, Africa’s influence in Brazilian culture is pervasive. In many ways, we can thank those priests’ and masters’ “blind eye” and the slaves determination to keep on being who they were for the beginnings of Brazilian tolerance. That is something that cannot be said about the relations between masters, preachers and slaves in the United States, where attempts to root out every last vestige of African culture were largely successful. In Brazil, they simply weren’t – and that is a good thing.

Many years ago, I went to a festival put on by Alcoholics Anonymous in São Paulo. I very quickly noticed that there were strings of popcorn everywhere. In fact, popcorn was the central motif for the decorations. Being new to Brazil, I didn’t think about it much, other than to see it as being somewhat cool. When I mentioned this to a friend, who is both an anthropologist and a macumbeira, she explained to me that popcorn was the favorite offering to the orixá Obaluaê, the Lord of diseases and, consequently, of their cures. Popcorn not only is good to eat, it symbolizes conquering our problems. Most of the good folks at that festival probably considered themselves Christians and, yet, they chose to celebrate their overcoming one of life’s most devastating afflictions by using the symbol of an African god. That, my friends, is religious “multilingualism” at its best. And that is Brazil.

There are many, many examples of this multilingualism and tolerance to be explored. We will, however, close here. We will later talk about the Catholic Church, Afro-Brazilian religions and other manifestations of spirituality and religion in Brazil in separate articles. All I wanted to do today is give you a small taste of what is to come. Popcorn, anyone?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Brazil Is Not for Beginners

I have had a long interaction with Latin America in general and with Brazil specifically.  It all began in 1970, when I participated in the Civil Air Patrol’s International Air Cadet Exchange, spending a month in Costa Rica and passing through Panama and the Canal Zone both going and coming.  I went on to spend three years in Mexico City from 1977 through 1980. While there, I traveled extensively throughout Mexico and visited Guatemala frequently. My interaction with Brazil began in 1986, when I took a course on Brazil at East Tennessee State University, which resulted in a lifelong friendship with Brazilian professor, political scientist and anthropologist, Maria Lúcia Montes.  I began a master’s degree in Brazilian Studies at the University of Texas’ Institute for Latin American Studies that led to my first visiting the country during the summer of 1988, after which I then proceeded to Guatemala City to do archival research for a local organization for five weeks. I came back to Brazil in 1989 as an exchange student at the University of São Paulo, where I was to take classes for a year, do research, and return to the University of Texas to write my master’s thesis.  I did take the classes and did do the research, but, instead of returning to Austin, I remained in Brazil for another four and a half years.  The thesis, of course, fell by the wayside.  I had contracted a non-curable disease – Brazilianitis, for which I also desire no cure.  I returned to the US in 1994, with a Brazilian wife and three-year-old daughter in tow, by then having also visited Paraguay and Argentina.  The wife, like my thesis, fell by the wayside, my daughter grew up, but my fascination with Brazil remained.  Over the following 17 years, I would visit Brazil many times, using the pretext that I had to return at least every two years in order to not loose my permanent residency visa, but that was just an excuse.  I had to get my periodical Brazil fix.  During those years, I remarried (in a small city in rural Pernambuco, which is a story unto itself), had two more children and eventually retired as a public school teacher.  My wife, our two small children and I returned to Brazil to live in 2011... All three of my children speak English and Portuguese and are dual US-Brazilian citizens.

When I first visited Brazil in 1988, I began to note “differences” between this country and both the United States and others I had visited. Over the years, I have continued to do so. The idea for something called “Brazil Is Not for Beginners” first surfaced in discussions around 1990  with Maria Lúcia Montes. I hope to write a series of blog entries exploring Brazil and my experiences here. As time goes on, I do believe that you will come to believe, like my friend and I, that Brazil is not for beginners.

Perhaps the best way to begin is by giving an overview of a few things on which I will be focusing. Let us first look at identity. How do Brazilians identify themselves? In order to understand that, we need to first examine our own definition of that concept. We Americans are extremely Manichaeistic. Everything is black and white, “either-or”. There is no gray,  no “additionally”.  We tend to identify ourselves in opposition to something else. We are Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Mexican Americans and so on. Often, when we hear “American”, what is really meant is White Anglo Saxon Protestant, or someone similar. By declaring ourselves to be hyphenated Americans, we are also telling you what we are not. I am American (i.e. WASP). Therefore, I am not African American. I am not Mexican American. I am exactly what I am telling you: no more and no less – all though, the truth is obviously far more complex. In other words, Barack Obama is our first Black President, our first African American President. We conveniently forget about or simple disregard the fact his mother was not and proclaim him to be our first President of African descent. Although it is true, we do so at the expense of fully half his family tree... Our standard is, like it or not, the old “one drop of blood” rule. If you’ve got any of this, you cannot also be that.

On the other hand, identity is much more fluid in Brazil. Here, we don’t find hyphenated Brazilians. We are all Brazilians, including often those of us, like myself, who are not. Identity is far from being in opposition to something else. More often than not, it is complementary. Like the United States, Brazil is a country of immigrants from all over. The same countries that disgorged millions of their citizens who then either crossed one of the two oceans or came by land sent them here as well as to the United States. (Uruguay and Argentina also received many of those who came from Europe. From Asia, not so much.) The result is a mix that is typically, well, Brazilian, as people are also not afraid to or are ostracized for mixing. (Remember that miscegenation was still illegal in parts of the US until 1976.) Maria Akemi Nishimura da Silva is a name that would surprise no one here. People often use nationality or race as a description rather than as a classification. “Oh, he is German and she is Italian” is used here simply to say the people in question are of German and Italian descent. In fact, many are both “German” and “Italian”. This has nothing to do with their brasileiridade, their “Brazilianity”, if you will. You, quite simply, can be more than one thing. The city of São Paulo has a wonderful neighborhood, Liberdade, that is populated by many people of Japanese descent and the state of São Paulo hosts the descendants of Southerners who fled the “heel of Yankee oppression” after our Civil War.  In southern Brazil, there are cities that were founded by Germans, Italians, Russians, and others. Not infrequently, the descendants of those original immigrants speak the languages of their ancestors in addition to Portuguese and, yet, no one would even consider claiming that they are not really Brazilian or demand that they learn to speak Portuguese – apart from the fact that they already do. Some twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to meet some of those “Southerners” I just mentioned. They had learned to speak English at home and Portuguese in school. They spoke a wonderfully preserved antebellum Southern English, complete with “y’all”, a drawl and many of the folksy expressions I grew up with. Their Portuguese was also perfectly rural, reflecting the area where they were raised.

All of this means that Brazilians are far more tolerant of differences and even ambiguities than Americans. This can be seen in religion, attitudes towards sex, and, to a certain extent, in racial relations. Brazil’s history is replete with what we would see as contradictions but Brazilians take as par for the course. Here are some small examples we will later explore: It is not uncommon for people to be both practicing Catholics and to frequent a terreiro, where they openly participate in African religions brought here by slaves. Brazil, supposedly a Latin and macho country, not only hosts the world’s largest gay pride parade, São Paulo’s municipal government underwrites it to the tune of one million reais (about half a million dollars at today’s exchange rate.) The most democratic ruler Brazil has ever had – who did more to promote true republican values than any other – was Brazil’s last emperor, Dom Pedro II, who reigned for 58 years. The advent of Brazil’s republic when he was deposed in 1889 was more reactionary rather than progressive. Another head of state worth looking at is current President Dilma Rousseff, whose father immigrated here from Bulgaria. Ms. Rousseff was a guerrilla in the late 1960s. Arrested in 1970, she spent three years in prison during which time she was tortured. In 2010, she was freely elected president. To put this in perspective, we need only look at the violent criticism our own President Obama has been subjected to for merely having had contact with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who admittedly committed but was never convicted of any crime. To close out this section on contradictions and tolerance, when Brazilians butt up against a pigheaded and unyielding bureaucracy that is so very characteristic of many Third World countries, they frequently resort to the jeitinho - a very Brazilian response to what would otherwise be an immovable object. After all, here, there is almost always a way around those rigid rules.  We will also look at the changes Brazil has undergone since the early 1990s until today – changes that include going from an economy in free fall with inflation running at forty percent per month (not year) and a nascent democracy that saw its first freely elected president in thirty years impeached and removed from office for corruption to a nation with a stable, growing economy and a more mature, functioning, though still young, democracy.

As we explore these and other aspects of Brazilian culture, I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I will. Trust me, this is going to be fun... at least for me.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Being from Oklahoma

The last few days have been trying. Half a world away, I have been transfixed, watching the news about the EF5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma with a mixture of horror, fascination and awe that only someone raised in tornado alley can understand. The news, devastating as it has been, has had a certain degree of familiarity about it. It is something we know all too well. We grow up with this. It is part of who we are. It is something that will create a profound depth of pain and sorrow, but we also know that life goes on. We will mourn and bury the dead, rebuild our homes if we lost them or reach out to those who did if we did not. We will pick ourselves up, knock the mud and dirt off and go on living, but we will do so knowing that we will see this again. It is all part of being from Oklahoma, but what does that mean. What does being an Okie mean? What does it mean to me?

I have a few treasured possessions. One is, of course, my birth certificate. It states categorically that I was born very early one morning in Ardmore's Hardy Sanitarium approximately twenty minutes after my mother was admitted. The hospital was torn down in the early 1960s but I have carted around a brick taken from the wreckage of that structure for the past fifty years. It is with me today, within reach, some 6,000 miles and a lifetime away from where it originally stood. That is my real birth certificate.

Another possession is also a certificate, this one signed by Oklahoma's governor Dewey Bartlett in 1969. He officially declared that I was - and still am - “an honored citizen from Oklahoma”. In other words, according to Gov. Bartlett, I am entitled to use the honorific of “Okie”. That is something we affectionately call each other, but woe to he who should proffer that name as an insult. As we like to say, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

I have numerous other bits and pieces of memorabilia from back home, which includes the belt buckle I’ve worn everyday for well over twenty years – the Great Seal of the State of Oklahoma, several state flags, books, postcards, refrigerator magnets, and what not. The greatest memorabilia, however, is stored in my head: memories, images, sights, sounds, tastes and smells, stories told by many different people. Those are... well, let’s just talk about some of them.

We have been in Oklahoma for a long time, at least on my mother’s side. James and Mary Willis, my great-great-great grandparents, came in 1832 as Cherokee Old Settlers. James, a non-Cherokee who died in 1836, is my first ancestor buried in what today is Oklahoma. This means that six generations of my family’s bones rest in the red dirt back home. In addition, a number of Mary’s close relatives – and, consequently, mine, too – walked the Trail of Tears a few years later and settled in the Cookson Hills. My grandmother, who was born in Porum, Indian Territory, used to brag that she was the valedictorian of her high school class. She wouldn’t even wince when we reminded her it was a class of four. She went on to study at the Cherokee Female Seminary. My other grandmother - my father’s mother, raised in Arkansas, used to regale us with stories about spending nights in the storm cellar with copperheads near Spiro. She would keep them at bay on the other side of the cellar by throwing dirt clods. She also made the best pickles in the world.

As a child, I played with the requisite reptiles: terrapins, lizards and, my favorite, horny toads. At school, we reenacted the Land Run in April and the Civil War at recess the year round. Of course, the South always won – and teachers would let us stockpile our toy guns in the classroom. We started our days with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, even for a few years after the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings to the contrary. We practiced tornado drills – and learned to watch the sky. And those schools were segregated until 1965, eleven years after another Supreme Court decision: Brown v. Board of Education.

My state is conservative, but, somehow, it imbued me with the liberal and humanitarian values I hold today. I didn’t learn them elsewhere. They came from home and school. When we were taught that “All men are created equal”, I took it quite literally. As for the Constitution, that most sacred of secular documents, I believed it too – lock, stock and barrel. I was either naive, blind or simply did not accept the restrictions many of my fellow Oklahomans seemed to put on those things. It didn’t cross my mind that you could interpret things any other way. Of course, Martin Luther King and his allies were seeking justice. If rights were being denied, that had to be fixed. It was unconstitutional. It went against the spirit of why our country was founded. I still believe that, even if I am somewhat more cynical today about how evenly those guarantees are applied.

Do I get frustrated with many of my fellow Okies’ bigotry, intolerance and narrow mindedness? Hell, yes! Sometimes I get down right angry – and then something like the May 20 tornado happens. We put those differences aside and become what we are supposed to be: brothers and sisters. That is what we are seeing now. We saw it after the bombing of the Murrah Building on April 19, 1995 and after the May 3, 1999 tornado in Moore. We will see it again and again. At the worst of times, we become the best we are capable of being. It’s that simple. It is who we are. It is what we do.

I love my state. I could go on and on in this vein, reminiscing, telling stories – most of which would be true because I don’t need to embellish them to tell you about Oklahoma. I love my state for what it is, warts and all. We have everything from mountains to plains, from swampland to desert. We have virtually any type of weather that you could ever want, and a lot that you wouldn’t. Sometimes we even have it all in the same day. Our summers are blistering, our winters are frigid. When it rains, it often floods and, when it doesn’t, things dry up and die. We have wild fires and thunderstorms, hail the size of baseballs or larger, ice storms that stop everything. And we have tornadoes.

We are used to adversity. We weren’t the best and brightest when we originally came to populate our state. We were outcasts, the disinherited, the dispossessed: tribes expelled from their homelands, followed by settlers who had nothing to start with. We had to learn to live and prosper in a land that many people considered uninhabitable. That’s why they gave it too us.  Our original settlers – Indians, Black and Whites – had a hardscrabble existence. They had to be stubborn, doggedly persistent to survive – and they passed that on to us. Sometimes it is not such a good thing, but this week we have been reminded that, at times, it is absolutely necessary.

Just to finish the thought begun above, there is an apocryphal story about our panhandle being offered to other states that refused it, so we were stuck with it. I don’t know if the story is true, but I do know that the Panhandle has a singular beauty, unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. It is solitude at its peak - a solitude so breathtaking that it makes you realize how insignificant we are in the universe, how man is a small speck of nothing. It is a place where, to quote Scott Momaday, “Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is
where Creation was begun”. Momaday spoke for many of us when he wrote that. He, too, is an Okie. He was writing about his – and our – home.

You can take this boy out of Oklahoma, but you can’t take Oklahoma out of this boy.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Language and Identity

Our very first contact with language begins while we are still within our mother’s womb. Studies indicate that by sixteen weeks, an unborn infant is “particularly receptive to its mother’s voice”. It is not until 20 to 24 weeks that the same infant recognizes it’s father’s voice. Once we are born, our first and most intense contact with language continues being our mother. The songs she sings and the coos she emits to soothe us, put us to sleep, form our very first steps on the road to language acquisition. It is no wonder, then, that we often refer to our first language as our mother tongue.

After our mother, our language learning continues in our immediate and extended family and, later, in school.  Thus, we grow up and the oral traditions that are handed to us by way of songs, fairy tales, stories our parents, grandparents and teachers tell us become intrinsically intertwined with who we are. The basis of our becoming  patriots - or not, religious - or not, and a whole plethora of other things begins in our mother’s womb and then extends outwards. Our cultural influences are also mediated by language more often than not.  All of those times my parents took us to the park to eat watermelon were influenced by language. My dad would walk in with a watermelon and ask who wanted to go to the park. Although we knew what was coming because of that large green object under his arm, it was the words “Let’s go!” that put everything in motion. My mother would gather up a large knife, the salt shaker and some old newspapers, and off we would go.

The silly songs that my father would sing (my mother always said that she was tone deaf), like “Old Joe Clark” were also fundamental. “Old Joe Clark, he had a hen...” formed part of my early indoctrination into what music is. It and “Soldier’s Joy” are still two of my favorite songs.

The same could be said about our city’s Fourth of July Celebrations. They too were mediated by language. We were taught to recognize our nation’s symbols meant through the use of language, and that teaching was reinforced by language when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. (We also recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, in spite of the First Amendment.) We were taught history through both oral story telling and reading our textbooks. Without language, we would have not known why or what we were celebrating. It had been told to us. We might have learned to question the official narrative later, but, as children, we believed what we were told – and language was the instrument for telling us, for explaining the meanings of the songs, symbols and images.

And what happens if we throw another language into the mix?  That  may well depend upon how old we are when another language is introduced. Although I was always interested in languages as a young child (A friend of mine and I used to utter unintelligible sounds to each other in grade school, pretending that we were speaking some other language), by the time I began studying Spanish in high school, my cultural identity was already firmly established. American by birth, Southerner by the grace of God. Even though my “self-identity” has shifted and expanded as I have learned other languages and have become assimilated into other cultures – I lived in Mexico for three years, Canada for almost a year and have been in Brazil now for a total of seven and a half years, at the end of the day, I still say “y’all” and speak with a drawl. Although I have learned to appreciate and to truly love music from around the world – AfroPop, Andean folk music, samba, la nueva canción, among others, a good country song still makes me homesick and, for however politically incorrect it might be, the sound of “Dixie” still stirs my blood. (Not too worry, my leftist friends. “The Internationale” does the same trick for me.)  These are all the sounds of my childhood, of my roots.

For my children, the experience has been very different. I will leave their experience for a future article. After all, Jack and Melissa, at ages five and three, are still very much forming their identities. Georgia, at age 21, has established her identity, but her experience is also different from Jack and Melissa’s.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Random Notes from South of the Equator

In 1972, while a fourth class cadet at the US Air Force Academy, seven third classmen and I decided to publish an underground newspaper in order to generate meaningful discussion on controversial topics both on and off campus. We named it "Random Notes" after the Rolling Stone column and intentionally made our first (and only) issue as moderate and balanced as we could. Well, needless to say, we weren't very successful. Before we had even distributed all of our 500 copies, two cadets were threatened with courts-martial and we ceased to exist forthwith. Within a couple of months the other seven cadets had resigned and I was dismissed.

I have named this blog in honor of that newspaper. If God is so gracious as to grant me a little self-discipline - I know, I'm asking for a lot - I intend to write an entry once a week or so about those things I am passionately interested in: social justice in all of its ramifications, culture, living abroad, language and identity. Of course, you'll also probably learn more about my children than you care to.

I hope you enjoy this little endeavor, or at least get something out of it.

Peace. Salaam. Shalom.