2001 Book Reviews

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In this section, we publish short reviews of books on Latin American media. These reviews will be valuable to people who are seeking to learn about Latin American media because very few published resources exist on the subject, and they are not widely known or available. We also hope to introduce some books which are not completely about Latin America, but contain interesting sections that are relevant or pertinent to Latin America. Following the grand tradition of our beloved New York Review of Books, these reviews are also excuses for engaging in critical discourse.

We should point out that these reviews are completely independent of the book authors and publishers, and the views represent only those of the reviewers.

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TRUE TALES FROM ANOTHER MEXICO.  By Sam Quinones.  University of New Mexico Press.

This book is a collection of journalistic reports about a Mexico that probably does not get reported in the same way otherwise.  In between the traditional Mexico of the past and the modernized Mexico of the future, there are other Mexicos that are surprising in many ways.  For example, Chapter 6 of this book is about the basketball scene of migrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca in Los Angeles.  Ordinarily, in such a book review, we would have attempted to provide some brief summaries about the chapters.  But this book comes with a website (www.samquinones.com), from which the interested readers can find out about the 15 chapters and an afterword about the electoral victory of Vicente Fox.  This is one way in which the World Wide Web has changed the way in which printed books are marketed these days.

Of the fiftteen stories, some are international cause célèbres (e.g. the Juarez sex murders in Chapter 7) while others are unlikely to have been covered elsewhere (e.g. the West Side Kansas Street gang of Zamora, Michoacan in Chapter 8).  What is the sum total of the impact of these disparate stories?  Perhaps the idea is that one should not expect that all nations would follow the same paths of modernization as other preceding examples.  The Mexican stories show how general developmental processes can interact with local circumstances to produce quite unexpected outcomes.  If such is the lesson, then the optimistic tone of the afterword on the election of Vicente Fox ("In my opinion, the great Mexico story of the next decade will be watching a country, backward for so long, begin to develop and not just lurch haphazardly between uncontrolled growth ans savage recession.  It will be watchign a country evolve from a dusty political/economic joke to one that is robust and part of the world.") is perhaps simplified --- we expect to see a Mexico that will move forward, but sometimes in ways that are quite surprising.

(posted on 09/09/2001 by Roland Soong)

MUERTE!  DEATH IN MEXICAN POPULAR CULTURE (edited by Harvey Bennett Stafford.  Feral House.

If you are looking for color photos of corpses that have been shot, stabbed, massacred, gored, gouged, amputated, bludgeoned, strangled, ice-picked, macheted, decapitated, eaten by rats, hacked to various pieces, soaked in various amounts of blood and rotten in various degrees of decomposition, then we can assure that we have never seen any other book that has as many.   The majority of these photos were taken for Mexican tabloid newspapers.  As bonus, you will even get a couple of bikini calendar photos of infamous singer Gloria Trevi and a totally out-of-place article about the entertainer Michael Jackson.

In a society where the freedom of speech is a fundamental right, it is certainly permissible to publish such photos (although one would recommend that booksellers should wrap the book in plastic to protect the faint-of-heart).  Morally, that would be a poor excuse unless there are socially redeeming reasons.

The blurb at the book explained that the purpose of this book is to look at how Mexicans treat death differently from America: as a "synergy of ancient indian ritual, bloody Catholicism and sheer exploitation."  The editor Harvey Bennett Stafford explained that his interest in the Mexican tabloids was initiated by an epiphany during a trip: "While killing time in Mexico City's Zona Rosa, I couldn't help but notice a graphic picture --- an extremely red picture --- of a crime scene corpse plastered to the side of a small newsstand.  Stupefied, I stared, trying to make sense of the outrageous photograph advertising Alarma!  I had never seen anything like it in my life.  In one moment, Alarma! made me understand the true bottom line, as real as a beaten crack whore's blowjob.  I bought all issues the stand offered, and soon I discovered imitators of the Alarma! formula of bloody images, and tales of vice and its consequences."  Harvey Bennett Stafford went on to relate some of his encounters with the tabloid publishers and he followed a tabloid photographer on his rounds.  While the reality of the business is just as sordid, it is definitely less interesting.

According to an Amazon.com book review, the articles Tabloid Crime by Cuauhtémoc Medina and El Semanario de lo Insólito by Lorna Scott Fox originally appeared in the magazine Poliester and were appropriated, re-edited (sloppily) and illustrated by the publishers of this book without the authors' consent.  We do not know if Diego Rivera gave permission for the article (and we don't how he could have ...) on Mexican artist José Posada to be included here, but it looked distinctly out of place (read: not violent enough and too intelligent).  That sort of sleazy behavior would be perfectly in line with the contents of this book.

The book alleges that the tabloid Alarma! sells 15,000,000 copies a week.  We suspect that this figure is hyperbole because that would have given Alarma! the largest magazine circulation on the whole planet.  Nevertheless, Alarma! and its imitators probably enjoy some modicum of popularity.  This book does not really address why people read these tabloids.  Is it simply a case of "The world is a terrible place, and I am glad that it wasn't me"?  Or are there strange, perverse desires lurking out there?

(posted on 09/01/2001 by Roland Soong)

CITY OF WALLS:  CRIME, SEGREGATION, AND CITIZENSHIP IN SÃO PAULO.  By Teresa P.R. Caldeira.  University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2000.

This book is a detailed study of life in urban São Paulo.  Generally speaking, a book on such a subject would be either (1) a statistical analysis of spatio-temporal data such as crime statistics, socio-economic data, opinion polls, etc; (2) an ethnographic study based upon in-depth interviewing of people from selected areas; or (3) an account of personal experiences.  This book is all three wrapped into one, as the author declares: "This book is about São Paulo, the city where I grew up, spent most of my life, have done anthropological fieldwork since the late 1970s, and worked as a researcher and professor for fifteen years."  This book also provides the most detailed and interesting analysis of a Latin American city that we have ever come across.

To speak of crime, we have to distinguish among real crimes, crime statistics and subjective perceptions of crime, because they do not have to be the same thing.  On one hand, real crimes may not be included in crime statistics, due to deficiencies in the data collection or reporting systems or out of political expediency.  On the other hand, people may feel subjectively assaulted by crime waves when in fact crime rates are declining.

According to a victimization survey carried out by IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística), 62% of victims of robbery/larceny in São Paulo did not report to the police, with the reasons being broken down into: 34% did not believe in the police, 22% did not think it was important, 14% did not think that they had any proof and 9% did not want to involve the police.  It would be fair to say that official crime statistics may severely understate incidences of crime.  What do people feel so negatively about the police?  Corruption and brutality.  

Corruption is illustrated as follows:

... as soon as the civil police catch someone with a criminal record, they start a well-known, three-step game.  First, the suspect is tortured (most often using a technique known as pau-de-arara) so that he or she will confess to one or more crimes.  Second, the police call the suspect's lawyer.  This lawyer, who is known as the "jail door lawyer" (advogado de porta de cadeia), works only with certain police stations and is responsible for all the negotiations and payment of bribes there.  The lawyer and negotiates and arranges payment of an acertoAcerto translates as "settlement," but in police slang it means the payment agreed on between the police and the suspect, through the mediation of the lawyer, to be divided among all the officers involved. 

Police brutality takes many more forms, including torturing people to obtain confessions, as well as during the routine interaction with the citizenry (especially with the lower classes).  There are even some unwritten rules:

According to Mingardi, three main rules govern torture among São Paulo's civil policemen: (1) the right way of torturing is the pau-de-arara, because other forms may leave marks.  Mingardi declares that he learned this lesson in the Police Academy.  (2) People of the upper classes and those without criminal records should not be tortured.  (3) A person with a criminal record and money is not tortured if payment for release is offered at the outset.  People will money can always avoid legal charges.

While the treatment of crimes by the police has class biases, that does not explain why the entire populace is obsessed with the prevalence crime among them.  This fear cuts across class boundaries, based upon the interview data collected from three areas with different socio-economic characteristics: the poor working-class area of Jardim das Camélias in the eastern district of São Miguel Paulista, the lower-middle-class of Moóca close to downtown, and the upper-middle-class area in Morumbi and Alto de Pinheiros.  

That fear of crime is undoubtedly related to the rapid growth of the city of São Paulo over the past few decades, resulting in the rupture of the urban space and the traditional social fabric.  Here is what one interviewee has to say:

I think that in the last couple of years there has been the entrance of too many foreign people, in quotation marks, who are from other states.  So the neighborhood is different that Moóca of former times when all were traditional people, I mean descendants from Italians, Spaniards, mainly, and also Portuguese.  Today we have a lot of infiltration of Brazilians, our people, but who came from the northeast.  Thus, their level of capacity, of education, is much lower.  They are people who came, let's put it this way, from the countryside of the northeast, so in this sense Moóca changed a lot.  The Moóca that I remember from former times was made of people who knew each other for twenty, thirty, forty years.  And because of the advancement of progress, those avenues, the subway line, they also had their effects on Moóca.  So, many traditional families had to move out to a region far away ... the area where I live is a place where the infiltration of foreigners hasn't happened yet.  I say foreigners with real affection because they also deserve all respect.  I never want to suggest that because someone has come from the north, the northeast, he is specifically a criminal.  That is not it.  We know many of them and know that they are honest.  But the differentiation I want to make is the following: Moóca of twenty years ago was made of people whom we had known for twenty years, and now a person that we hardly know comes to live nearby, and until we can get to trust that person it makes time.  That is what I wanted to say.  I don't want to say that the person who came is a criminal.  That is not it.  But that it changed for the worse, it certainly did.

That text is quite familiarly sounding.  For example, one can transpose this text to the attitudes towards Latin American immigrants in the United States.  The responses to the perception of besiegement by crime can vary.  In the case of the upper class, it is possible to retreat into condominiums guarded by security patrols, guard dogs, tall walls, electrified fences and surveillance cameras.  For the less affluent, it may be just iron bars on the windows and multiple locks on the doors.  But for everyone, there is an overall withdrawal from the public space and events which are perceived to be dangerous and violent.  Apart from the segregation and isolation of the populace, the situation also affects civic behavior.  Here are some of the worst aspects:

There is no obvious way to arrest or reverse these developments.  This is not a situation that can be corrected by legislation or decree because "the walls fortifying São Paulo are walls generated both by the disregard of civil rights and by the absence of desire among wealthier people to respect the rights of those they see as inferior and will not admit as co-citizens in the same public space."

Giving birth to a book is a profoundly personal experience, especially when the book incorporates personal elements beyond dry theory.  In this instance, the author was a Paulista who is currently on the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine campus.  Here are her thoughts on this book:

I am a native speaker of Portuguese, the language in which I studied up to my master's degree, wrote my first book, and conducted the research for this one.  Yet I wrote this book in English.  In writing it I faced daily the realization that, more than my words, my thinking was shaped in a certain style and in a certain language.  When I write, I can hear the repetitive and eventually exasperated complaint of one of my copy editors: "What is the subject?  Do not write in the passive voice!  Can't you learn it?"  Useless to explain that a sophisticated academic style in Portuguese is frequently structured in the passive voice and often with an ambiguous subject; pointless to come up with an interpretation of the meaning of the different grammar choices in each academic style.  I was not longer writing in that most taken-for-granted language and was no longer allowed the freedom and the security of unconscious constructions.  But, obviously, the question was not of words and grammar alone: it was epistemological and methodological.  Anthropology and social theory have what one might call an "international style," that is, a corpus of theory, method, and literature shared by practitioners worldwide.  Although this corpus offered me a reference point as I went back and forth between Brazil and the United States, I became acutely aware that academic questions have strong local and national biases and that this discipline is, in fact, plural: there are anthropologies, not anthropology.  What American academic discussions emphasize as relevant and exciting is not often the central concerns of my Brazilian colleagues, and vice versa.  At a certain point, the perception of the local framing of questions was so acute that I considered writing two books, or at least two introductions, one for each audience, in Portuguese and in English, each addressing different questions.  I conclude, however, that this approach also was an impossibility, since my thinking and my perception had already been transformed and shaped by my simultaneous immersion in both contexts and could be squeezed into one or the other mold only artificially and with some loss.  My languages, my writing, my thinking, my critiques all had acquired a peculiar identity.  I came to realize that as my English has an accent, so does my anthropology; it persists not matter from perspective I look at it or in which language I write it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and everything good about that.  After all, what is needed is a social revolution in perceiving and thinking about other people in radically different ways.

(posted on 7/8/2001 by Roland Soong)

KILLING PABLO: THE HUNT FOR THE WORLD'S GREATEST OUTLAW.  By Mark Bowden.  Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2001.

This book is a great read (note: the book jacket uses the word 'unputdownable').  While you know the ending already --- yes, they killed Pablo Escobar --- it will take you 248 pages before you arrive at that particular moment.  In the meantime, you will find out all sorts of amazing factoids.  Here is an assorted collection of odd ones from the book:

In terms of the treatment, the author clearly had to depend on sources that were available to him.  Thus, the information about the involvement of the CIA/FBI/DEA/US Embassy, the surveillance technology and the US personalities seemed to be quite detailed.  From those sources also came the details of the monitored conversations between Pablo Escobar and his associates, as well as physical evidence collected from his various dens.  What is less known are the dispositions of the Colombian government players, who are likely to be less accessible to the author and less inclined to discuss this case.  What is even less clear is the inner workings of the Medellín cartel, as nothing much is said about the other operators (unless they were eliminated by Pablo Escobar).  

While we have said that this book was a good read in terms of the story development and unusual details, there are sections in which the prose style got carried away, so to speak.

As an example, here is the description of Bogotá in Chapter 1:

There was no more exciting place in South America to be in April 1948 than Bogotá, Colombia.  Change was in the air, a static charge awaiting direction.  No one knew exactly what would be, only it that it was at hand.  It was a moment in the life of a nation, perhaps even a continent, when all of history seemed a prelude.

Bogotá was then a city of more than a million that spilled down the side of green mountains into a wide savanna.  It was bordered by steep peaks to the north and east, and opened up flat and empty to the south and est.  Arriving by air, one would see nothing below for hours but mountains, row upon row of emerald peaks, the highest of them capped white.  Light hit the flanks of the undulating ranges at different angles, creating shifting shades of chartreuse, sage and ivy, all of them cut with red-brown tributaries that gradually merged and widened as they coursed downhill to river valleys so deep in shadow they were almost blue.  Then abruptly from those virgin ranges emerged a fully modern metropolis, a great blight of concrete covering most of a wide plain.  Most of Bogotá was just two or three stories high, with a preponderance of red brick.  From the center north, it had wide landscaped avenues, with museums, classic cathedrals, and graceful old mansions to rival the most elegant urban neighborhoods in the world, but to the south and west were the beginnings of shantytowns where refugees from the ongoing violence in the jungles and mountains sought refuge, employment, and hope and instead found only deadening poverty. 

This being the Internet age, we were not surprised that there is a Killing Pablo website in conjunction with the book.  The website present book excerpts, interviews videos as well as gory photos in full color.

(posted on 05/30/2001 by Roland Soong)

LOOKING FOR HISTORY:  DISPATCHES FROM LATIN AMERICA.  By Alma Guillermoprieto.  Pantheon, New York. 2001.

This is a collection of seventeen essays from Alma Guillermoprieto, the Latin American correspondent for The New Yorker and also a MacArthur Fellow.  Her previous collection of essays, The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now, has established her reputation for being able to write about Latin America to an English-reading audience from an Latin American perspective.  For this collection, the author explains:

They are not stories about that relationship [between Latin American countries and the United States], but about the countries themselves, written in the conviction that Latin America has its own independent life.  This may seem an obvious statement, but it has not been the view of policy-makers in the United States or of the political actors on the Latin American stage.  Latin American history in the latter half of the century took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, and it is the grotesque case that hardly any political decision was taken either in Latin America or toward it during that time in which the region's own needs or history were the primary consideration.  Instead, the decisions were informed by fantasies, which all too often appeared in the guise of ruthless pragmatism: communism must be stopped; world revolution must be achieved at any cost.

The seventeen essays can be classified as three essays about Colombia, three essays about Cuba and eight essays about Mexico, and one each about three individual personalities: Eva Perón, Che Guevara and Mario Vargas Llosa.  

These essays were written between 1994 and 2000.  But what was current affair at one time becomes outdated information now.  Take for example the essay on Mario Vargas Llosa, which was centered on his book A Fish Out of Water: A Memoir.  In turn, that book was about his failed bid to become president of Peru in 1990 and his earlier life.  Dated May 26, 1994, this article contains a quick summary of Peruvian president Alberto Fujimoro's first four years.  For a book published in 2001, this essay leaves the reader unsatisfied about the fact that the recent significant events have not been addressed.  As the book went into print, a postscript was added, "On May 28, 2000, Alberto Fujimori was elected to a third 5-year term in office.  As this book goes to press, barely four months after these elections, Fujimori is struggling to retain control of the country, even as his regime disintegrates under accusations of corruption, espionage and fraud."  The names of Vladimir Montesinos, Alan García and Alejandro Toledo and those videotapes have not yet emerged.

This is not to say that we do not like this book.  Quite the contrary.  These essays are well-crafted gems that obviously took a lot of effort and time.  Our regret is that they are not produced frequently enough. 

(posted on 05/20/2001 by Roland Soong)

MARKETING TO AMERICAN LATINOS: A GUIDE TO IN-CULTURE APPROACH.  By M. Isabel Valdés.  Paramount Market Publishing Inc., Ithaca, NY.  2000.

This book is written by a well-known researcher.  Since her specialty is Hispanic research, she has collected the most up-to-date set of demographic facts and other useful data.  This book is clearly the best in its class.  The writing style is also unusual in that it is very crisp and succinct, perhaps because a market researcher knows better to avoid dense and impenetratable academic jargon.

In reading this book, some readers may experience a little cognitive dissonance.  Here is what we mean:  On page 72, there is a nice discussion of stereotyping.  First, a definition is provided: "A stereotype is a set of generalizations about a group or category of people that is usually unfavorable, exaggerated, and oversimplified."  So far so good.  And stereotyping is a bad thing because "When a consumer perceives an unfavorable portrayal, the immediate response is that the message was not created or executed by someone like himself ... they will walk away from the product and the sponsor."  We couldn't agree more.  Some examples of stereotypes to avoid are offered:

  1. Stereotype 1: Hispanics are seen as farm workers with no money, no future and no ambition

  2. Stereotype 2: Hispanics do not wish to participate in American society

  3. Stereotype 3: Hispanics do not acculturate

So far so good, for how could anyone not agree?  In Chapter 10, we are then offered a compilation of attributes among the three major U.S. Hispanic groups.  Here are some selected instances:

Are these useful profiles?  positive images?  or malicious stereotypes? When does something becomes one or the other?  Are there objective standards as such?  Or does it depend solely on the subjects' reactions, which may vary from person to person as well as over time.  Of course, that was what the multicultural PC (politically correct) revolution and the backlash were all about, for which there is no easy answer.

This book is Part 1 of a two-part series.  Part 2 is due in 2001, and will cover issues related to media, Internet, business-to-business and Census 2000.  Given the recent spate of Latino websites going out of business, we are quite curious to see how timely this book might be on that score.  As it stands, Part 1 lists the following portals as good sources (to better understand Hispanic culture, as advertising vehicles or as portals to other sites): www.consejero.com, www.latinolink.com, www.starmedia.com, www.terra.com, www.elsitio.com, www.quepasa.com, www.espanol.com, www.asociados.com, www.zonalatina.com, and www.latinos.com .  Already, some of these have gone out.  How many will be left when Part 2 comes out?

(posted on 01/04/2001 by Roland Soong)

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