Ecuador, The Brain Food Series

The Brain Food Series: Amor & Exile

True Stories of love across America’s Borders. Its a book that I found tucked away in the bookshelves of the Manna Project volunteer house, and I just finished reading it for the third time. Before moving to Ecuador I had never really thought about U.S. Immigration policy that much, even though I was living in New York City surrounded by new immigrants and had friends whose parents and other relatives were undocumented. I was studying Spanish and Latin American Studies in college, and for me that meant just Latin America– I wasn’t as interested in Latino populations in the United States. It wasn’t until I moved to Ecuador that I began to learn that such a simple distinction between Latin American issues and Latino issues isn’t so easy any more… they’re becoming more intertwined by the day.

Amor & Exile starts out slowly, with the authors setting a background of the history of Latin American immigration to the United States, moving through WWII and the Bracero program to NAFTA and the mass exodus from rural northern Mexico to the U.S. border states. The chapters then begin to alternate between the book’s two authors, an immigration law expert and a woman whose life has been impacted in every way by the immigration laws of our nation. They weave together their knowledge and experiences to show multiple perspectives of the issue: the big picture, and the individual, human side, which proves to be the most intriguing aspect of the book. Nicole Salgado’s heart-warming story of falling in love with her husband Marguerito turns heart-wrenching as she pulls back the complex layers of his story to reveal the impact that his undocumented crossing into America would later have on their marriage. Faced with a mandatory ten-year ban that would force them to self-exile from the US in hopes that a decade later he could finally get a visa to live legally in his wife’s nation, they moved to his hometown in Mexico, becoming victims of deeply flawed and unjust immigration system in the process.

Nicole was forced to choose between her marraige and her country, a decision that millions of spouses of undocumented immigrants in the United States are often forced to make, to heart-wrentching, life-changing consequences.

I’ve never felt personally closer to this issue of immigration in the United States, even though I’m living my life thousands of miles away in Ecuador. Its not uncommon to meet Ecuadorians that have connections to the United States through family and friends that have immigrated to California, Chicago, or New York. A lot of them express their desires to visit their families in the States, but the prohibitive U.S. visa process only lets the richest Ecuadorians do so. Many  are trapped in limbo, as they can’t visit their relatives, and their undocumented relatives can’t visit them. It breaks my heart that due to the flaws in our immigration system, turned every election cycle into an unfulfilled promise, a bargaining chip to try to win the Latino vote, families are ripped apart, many in ways that will never have remedy.

In the age of Donald Trump and senseless, fear-motivated reactions to immigrants from a certain region, with a certain skin color, what we need are more stories like Nicole’s, more stories that I hear from Ecuadorians all the time. We need to see the human side of this issue. Our country has always believed in the sacred institution of the family, but when it comes down to living out this value, we seem to have a problem when that family speaks a different language than us, or was born in a different place. Instead of building walls we need to build bridges, we need to build understanding and compassion.

By 2050, 1 in every 3 Americans will be Latino. Did you know that? The United States is entering its greatest demographic shift ever… EVER. Its so common in the face of what we don’t know, or don’t understand, to respond with fear. But it is much more worthwhile to respond with compassion and empathy and love.

Choose love.

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Cuba, The Brain Food Series

The Brain Food Series: Havana Real

Relationships are all about communicating, my mother has always said. They’re about understanding where the other person is coming from, even if it’s difficult. She’s been married for more than 25 years, so I think her advice is definitely worth taking… it’s just a little bit more difficult when your loved one doesn’t speak your native language, and when he’s from Cuba [you know, that island only 90 miles from Florida thats so close yet somehow so shrouded in mystery].

I’m really trying, but it’s hard, so I’m starting to get creative…and like a good recent college grad I have turned to reading everything that I can about Cuba.

You can take the girl out of Latin America, but you can’t take Latin America out of the girl, so I began winter break with a stop at the Strand in New York City, where I spent far too long digging through the Latin America section. When I emerged from the shelves of my personal heaven, I purchased a solid collection of books on Latin American history and politics–including Havana Real by Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most reknowned and controversial blogger. The book includes a selection of her blog posts from 2007-2010, and provides a fascinating account of the daily life of a Cuban, a story that demands to be told and has been far too long coming. She explains in detail everything from the ways to navigate the black market to buy heavily rationed meat and seafood, to the crackdown on home appliances that makes everyday life more challenging, and the dreams of many Cubans to leave the island.

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Its not the prettiest picture of Cuba today by any means, but Yoani’s first-hand accounts of daily life pull back the nation’s shiny veneer of tropical paradise and idealistic socialism and show how Cubans experience Cuba. She even tells of her illegal arrest and imprisonment for simply writing her blog, and how being followed, harassed, and other forms of state intimidation have become a regular part of her daily life. It’s a different picture of Cuba than I’d ever seen before, and one that I didn’t necessarily want to see. My 2012 trip there was filtered just enough for me to see the positive impacts of Cuba’s free healthcare, education, and social safety nets without seeing any of the shortages or political repression…reading this book and talking to José has shown me something entirely different.

As a Latin American Studies major in college I have been exposed to plenty of Latin America history, politics, sociology, and more, even taking an entire class on Cuba that allowed me to travel to Havana in 2012. But it’s one thing to study something, even first hand by being there for a short period of time, and its another thing entirely to live it. There are many things that I will never fully understand because I have never lived them, although the pride inside of me tries to convince me otherwise. Its right to try to understand, and its deeply deeply needed. But it’s also important to remember that academic studies shouldn’t override lived experiences, and political philosophy can’t trump how citizens interact with their nation.

I’m going to keep reading books about Cuba, and keep asking José to share stories about his life, because I want to understand. I want to understand Cuba because I’ve always had a passion for Latin America and find Cuba so interesting, and I want to understand José better via the culture that shaped him. But first its going to take a stripping down of what I think I already know; I’m not interested in having an idea of what Cuba is, I’m aiming for knowing what it means to those that live it.

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street art & politics

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Havana friends

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old town Havana

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Development, The Brain Food Series

The Brain Food Series: The Americas

My time in Ecuador so far has been one of adapting to a new lifestyle, which can be hard at times but also so rewarding. Now that all my daily habits have been shaken up I feel free to break stubborn old habits and form healthy new ones. I’ve been unplugging from my computer and iPhone more than ever and getting back to reading for pleasure. Throughout the next year I plan to  share with you a bit about how I’m thinking about development, Latin America, justice, and faith, particularly in light of what I’m reading. Here’s the first installment of what I’ll call The Brain Food Series. Enjoy!

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When many people think of the term “America” they often think of just the United States, but in his book The Americas, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reminds readers that this term applies to the entire Western Hemisphere, north and south. For the majority of history the Americas have actually been perceived as one continuous region, strongly united in their many similarities rather than divided by their differences. So how did we get to this place of such a marked difference between the more developed and politically stable divide of the United States (plus Canada) and everything south of the Rio Grande?

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Fernández-Armesto flies through hundreds of years of the history of the Western Hemisphere, but extracts some important truths about the patterns of development that hold true for Ecuador and most of Latin America even today. He shows that the inequality of wealth and drastic difference in development between the United States / Canada and the rest of the Americas has roots stretching back as far as colonization, instead of in personal moral failures, hot climate, or the prevalence Catholicism, as some absurdly propose. For example, longer wars of independence in Latin American nations led to power vacuums that only the military could fill, which in turn led to the patterns of populism and caudillismo that prevail today. The roots of division and difference burrow deeper than most politicians and historians of today take the time to recognize.

Beyond just tracing the historical roots for the differences between north and south that we see today, I found his analysis to have even more deeply-reaching implications for development challenges we face today. While the Americas may be more divided than ever before, Fernández-Armesto reminds readers that this doesn’t prevent many Latin Americas from a game of self-comparison to the United States that can lead to disastrous results. Throughout my travels in Latin America I have witnessed a startling tendency towards shame in one’s own nation in comparison to the United States, and even idolization that glosses over many of the United States’ own problems. The United States may be more developed than Latin America in certain regards, but transplanting the development models and processes that brought prosperity to the United States would almost certainly end with different results in a region with such a different set of needs and circumstances.

The posture of my heart has always been to build bridges between the United States and Latin America, celebrating that we are different, and that this can make us both better off. Fernández-Armesto takes on a fundamental misconception about the character of the United States to make a final case for the need for international cooperation in our hemisphere. When we tend to think of he United States we think of rampant individualism, of everyone having the freedom and the motivation to make the best lives for themselves that they can;  but Fernández-Armesto argues that it is truly connectivity that has made the United States great. Americans pride themselves on their ability to come together to overcome challenges, on our fierce protection of the inalienable right we all have to contribute to the decision-making of our nation, of our collective institution-building. He states “People in the United States are cloyingly gregarious, profoundly communitarian, boringly conformist. They get glutinously embedded in any community they can: the workplace, high school and college alumni associations, the neighborhood…Civic-mindedness, not individualism, is what makes ‘America’ great (196). The state of our Congress at the moment may not inspire much confidence for consensus-building across differences of perspective, but perhaps our collective outrage at the lack of bipartisan cooperation points to our spirit of togetherness more than anything else.

This is where I see hope for building bridges of love and compassion– on this spirit of solidarity and unity that I know makes The Americas great. Fernández-Armesto demonstrates that the idea of our division is a relatively new one– we have a greater history of being The Americas than of being sliced up and divided not just as nations but as north and south, highly-developed and less-developed, influential and inconsequential. My hope is that we can get back to this place of unity of spirit; I know that we would all be better because of it.

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