Hot Pot

For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to include a staff-wide Hot Seat in this issue. To do so, we sequestered ourselves in Sacred Grounds one evening and recorded an erratic hour of conversation, taking turns berating a single person with (varyingly unintelligent) questions. In the following pages we’ve included our debatably comical dialogue.

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Kat: Would you rather have no eyes or be covered in functional eyes?

Callie: I don't want either of those things! ... I'd rather have no eyes because I already feel like I see too much, and I get really stressed out about it, so I feel like if I had eyes all over my body it would hurt me.

Megan:  On a scale of one to 10 how excited are you about life right now?

Callie: Ha. I'm at like a constant below 5.5 at all times. I'm at like 5.5.

Sara: So right now is a good time for you?

Callie: It's ... a 5.5

Sara: What's your ideal sandwich?

Callie: On sourdough, on like sprouted sourdough bread. That's pretty much all I know about it at this point. I just want toast. No, I just want peanut butter toast with hemp seeds on it.

Jenny: What's something that most people enjoy to do that you don't like to do?

Callie: Uh, talking to people sober. Like at parties. Like talking to people. At parties. It came out wrong.

Yumiko: What is the most absurd thing that's ever happened to you?

Callie: Being born. No, I don't know. A lot of absurd things have happened to me, but a lot of them are mostly just sad when I think about them. Like I thought I told a really funny story about how one time a cat caller spat on me from above and I was laughing and the person I was with was like, that's really awful.

Kat: What do you feel most guilty about?

Callie: I don't think I'm a very good friend or family member or person

Kat: [quietly] Don't we all.

Megan: You're making dinner for three people, any three people, who are they?

Callie: Uhh, fuck. I don't know. Babe Ruth? He'd be like, good conversation. Cameron Diaz and Michel Foucault. I think they'd make a good group. They're offering really different things to the table.

Jenny: What is something that you've been rejected for that you're still bitter about?

Callie: Oh, like a lot. Friend groups in middle school. There was one mean group of friends and I sat down for lunch and they all stood up and walked away and sat somewhere else. I could see the comedy even then.

Maddie: How did they organize that?

Callie: With clearly a lot of discussion.

Caroline

Megan: In 40 years, what will you feel nostalgic about?

Caroline: I mean, probably this. Cipher being an all girls staff. We just get to fuck around and do whatever we want.

Megan: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in someone’s house?

Caroline: At Sara’s house, they have a whole pot of dead flies.

Callie: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Caroline: When I was younger, I used to suck my thumb a lot and then I would eat dandelions and then my thumb would taste like dandelions and it would be really bad but I still did it.

Megan: What’s the trashiest thing someone could do on a date?

Caroline: You have to be a pretty shitty person to scare me away, because people are very awkward and I’m very awkward and I like that.

Caroline: When I was in ninth grade it was my first time going out to a club with my friends and I was dressed as Pikachu, but like … Sexy Pikachu. And then I went home and slept by the elevator because my parents thought I was at a sleepover but I wasn’t.

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Sara: Would you rather be hairy or bald?

Jenny: Hairy.

Sara: Why?

Jenny: I already am hairy.

Callie: If a person is bald, do they have no forehead, or never-ending forehead?

Jenny: I think they’re the same as the rest of us. They have a scalp and a forehead.

Everyone: Aww.

Callie: What is your most irrational fear?

Jenny: I don’t have any irrational fears.

Callie: What is your most rational fear?

Jenny: Breast cancer.

Callie: What is a food you didn’t like when you were younger, but you really like now?

Jenny: Um, alcohol.

Sara: What’s been your favorite age to be so far in your life?

Jenny: Probably 17.

Sara: Why? Because you were smokin’ hot?

Jenny: Because I was smokin’ hot. There were no rules. I had a car, I was in high school.

Callie: Wow, you are so fucking cool. I can’t believe I’m friends with you.

Megan: What is the most imaginative insult you can come up with?

Jenny: The other night I had a dream that I was insulting a Zionist in Hebrew with real-life Hebrew vocabulary, and I just called him an ugly big-head. Well, how I said it was “not-pretty big-head.”

Sara: Can you pronounce that in Hebrew?

Jenny: Yeah, uh, um, לא די גדול הראש.

Callie: Worst job?

Callie: This one.

[Sara, the boss, looks internally wounded.]

Jenny: I’ve loved all of my jobs.

Callie: Whatever.

Sara: Do you think falling in love is a choice or an accident?

Kat: I think … that you can choose to continue to associate with someone. [laughter] Yeah … I’ll end it there.

Jenny: What’s your dream block break?

Kat: I’ve always dreamed of having a block break where I just drink and sleep for five days.

Callie: So like a big bender?

Kat: Yeah, but it’s just me.

Callie: Do you think it’s cruel to have children?

Kat: Yes, I actually very much think it’s cruel, but I’ll still do it because I don’t care … I want to replicate my relationship with my mother.

Megan: You’re 16 years old, you’re a virgin, you get pregnant: who do you tell?

[After some discussion everyone understands that Megan is referring to a Virgin-Mary-carrying-the-Messiah situation]

Kat: Planned Parenthood.

Megan: You would kill the Messiah!

Callie: Worst color of light?

Kat: You know when it’s cool light and it’s blue, not warm light, that never fails to make me anxious.

Yumiko: If you could feel one emotion for the rest of your life what would it be?

Kat: I guess … slightly better than average?

Megan: What’s a book that everyone should read?

Kat: Tao of Pooh.

Callie: What’s a book no one should read?

Kat: Te of Piglet?

Jenny: When was the last time you tripped?

Kat: [Does not realize that Jenny is referring to physically tripping and falling, tells story that won’t be included in this issue.]

Kat: What’s the last question you would want to be asked? Like the worst question we could ask.

Megan: What was the worst thing you did in middle school?

Kat: What was the worst thing you did in middle school?

Megan: Y’all, I am really not going to answer this question.

Callie: What’s one of your interests that’s sort niche or weird that you know a lot about?

Megan: Oil. Production. In Siberia.

Lo: We have to put periods after all those words … Oil! Production! In! Siberia!

Jenny: What’s your favorite spot in your hometown?

Megan: Ohmigod, anywhere along the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain.

Callie: What’s your favorite spot in Colorado Springs?

Megan: The first pull off by the parking lot at Garden of the Gods. Sometimes my friends and I go there at night and look at the stars or [whispered] smoke.

Sara: What was your favorite age to be?

Megan: Oh … I’m pretty happy at 20. 19 was pretty good.

Sara: Nice!

Everyone: That’s positive

Sara: I always answer I’d go back to 10. [Everyone looks sad.]

Megan: What’s something everybody looks stupid doing?

Maddie: Like if you’re not a good dancer, you can’t dance. But everyone dances, so is dancing really all that good?

Callie: If you had to give an organ to somebody right now? Which organ would you choose (and you can’t say blood)?

Maddie: I would give a kidney. Because I only need one.

Callie: What if it was someone you hated?

Maddie: If I could be a hero, if I was the last person available, and everyone would be like, “That was a really nice thing you did,” I would absolutely do it.

Yumiko: What is something you always lie about?

Maddie: When I notice a change in someone’s appearance, I always compliment it, even if I think it’s bad.

Sara: That’s good to know.

Maddie: But sometimes I actually like it.

Sara: Where do you hope to be in your life when you are 57 years old?

Maddie: I don’t know. Like alive. And maybe not really poor.

Megan: What is something you really liked in your adolescence that is something you are now really embarrassed about?

Maddie: I had a Green Day phase, and my mom got me Green Day Rock Band, and we had the whole set, but my sister was like five and I was 15, and that wasn’t something my friends and I would do together, so I would play the drums, and then I tied the microphone to my face so I could do both things at once.

Sara

Megan: What kind of cult do you want to start?

Sara: One where we follow the philosophical teachings of one philosopher a year. So every year we switch.

Callie: What kind of dad would you be?

Sara: I would be … I am a dad. I would just be like … God, I would be the kind of dad my dad is: very compassionate and guiding and supportive. My dad is great!

Megan: Do you miss Wi of the Tiger?

Sara: Yes, because it was called Wi of the Tiger.

Caroline: Favorite kind of wine?

Sara: Uh … white?

Callie: What was the first thing you got too drunk on?

Sara: Whiskey.

Kat: Most embarrassing really drunk story?

Sara: In Cuba, I passed out in a bar and had to be driven home by the cousin of the owner of the bar—I don’t remember this, because I was passed out, but the person I was with told me that like six guys picked me up and carried me to his car.

Lo: What’s the trashiest sex you’ve ever had?

Sara: [tells story of trashiest sex] But we’re not going to put that in the issue.

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Yumiko

Callie: Since your body is more bacteria than it is you, what do you name all of the collected bacteria in your body?

Yumiko: Germie!!

Kat: Do you think that they are you? Or are they someone else?

Yumiko: I don’t know who I am.

Callie: Could they be you?

Yumiko: They could be! They could be more me than even me.

Callie: What do you think God looks like?

Yumiko: I think he could look like a little guppy.

Callie: If you had to kill somebody right now, who would it be? And alive right now.

Yumiko: I …

Callie: … but that you’ve met.

Yumiko: Yikes.

Kat: It’s good that Yumiko’s having trouble with this.

Yumiko: I think this lady who yelled at me … No, just kidding.

[uncomfortable laughter]

Megan: Can we extend this killing to anyone, because I feel like this is a very hard question to answer.

Callie: Anyone in the world.

Maddie: And you wouldn’t be held responsible for it.

Megan: Also, no guilt.

Callie: Well, maybe some guilt?

Sara: Yumiko can’t answer this question.

Yumiko: I just have a deep … love? for humanity? I just don’t …

Jenny: Do you like sea lions or seals?

Yumiko: I’m … kind of stupid. I have no idea what those are.

Callie: What’s your weirdest late-night purchase?

Yumiko: This wasn’t really a purchase, but late at night, I get into these strange internet rabbit holes. Hence, the clinical trial I’m in with the mysterious prebiotics, and hence, my sugar daddies.

Sara: What is the most corrupt thing you’ve ever done? Or against the rules?

Yumiko: Against the rules … I mean, I do a lot of weird things … (accidentally overshares and launches into an embarrassingly strange story)

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Megan: Stairs or elevator?

Lo: Oh man … you know, when my legs aren’t broken, I really like the stairs.

Sara: [incredulously] When your legs aren’t broken?

Callie: [also incredulously] So like most of the time?

Callie: Most irrational fear.

Lo: That I won’t live in Chicago.

Kat: What would you do if society collapsed due to like, environmental decline and it’s just anarchy, like where would you go?

Lo: Chicago.

Sara: Chicago’s gonna be underwater! Actually, that’s not a sea. It’s a lake.

Callie: If you could turn into an animal what would you turn into?

Lo: I would turn into a bunny.

Everyone: Aww.

Callie: I see that.

Megan: What’s a smell that you have a specific memory of?

Lo: Uh … Casinos. Like nothing says home like getting off the airplane and smelling the smoke and hearing slot machines.

Jenny: Wait, there’s a casino in the airport?

Callie: [urgently, for some reason] What was the first thing you ever smoked?

Lo: So it was 3 a.m., and I was in my pajamas on the Las Vegas strip and this 21-year-old bought me a cigar and, I was just smokin’ it.

Jenny: How old were you?

Lo: I was 15. And I had cut open my arm earlier, and we couldn’t find a bandage, so I had a sanitary pad wrapped around my arm to stop the bleeding, and I was smokin’ this cigar in these pajamas.

Sara: What would’ve been your middle school clique’s lunch table label?

Lo: Y’know, I kind of floated around a lot.

Sara: [wisely] You were a floater.

Megan: Song that you can listen to on repeat.

Lo: Oh, I’ve been listening to “Primadonna Girl” by Marina and the Diamonds nonstop recently.

Jenny: That’s my dad’s favorite song.

Yumiko: Do you have a secret talent?

Lo: You know, I can make a really good dying swine sound.

Callie: Go!

Lo: HUEHUEHUEHHUEHUEH

Everyone: Oh my god!

Lo: HUEHUEHEHUEHEUEH

Everyone: Wow.

Lo: So, anyways.

Maddie: How are we gonna transcribe that?

Callie: Asterisk, dying swine noise. And then HUEHUEH.

Sara: Everyone else, Wow.

Kat: What food would you be?

Lo: You know… I wouldn’t be yeast, that’s for sure.

Sara: That’s an ingredient!

Kat: [with stereotypical Italian accent] That’s an ingredient!

Callie: [mocking Kat’s stereotypical Italian accent] That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

Lo: I feel like you can’t go wrong with a bowl of rice.

Megan: White rice, brown rice, what kind of rice are we talking? Fried rice?

Callie: Forbidden rice? Jasmine rice?

Lo: You know I think I would be wild rice ‘cause I’m kind of like … edgy.

Sara: You’re rice, but you’re wild rice.

Callie: She’s wild.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018

Letter to the Editor

Dear Reader,

I am from a place where heat is aggressive. I would say it enters with vengeance but honestly, it never really leaves. It makes home on the Mississippi River and may fall dormant for Mardi Gras week in February, a foggy morning in October, or even a night in December, but it is never gone.

When my family and I evacuated for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, a mere three years after Katrina made landfall on our homeland, the air conditioner in our car was broken. We sat on the I-55 swampland between Lake Maurepas and Lake Ponchartrain dripping in sweat, the heat in the car more potent than the encroaching hurricane. The heat was aggressive and unbearable against the leather seats. My youngest brother said enduring the hurricane at home would have been better.

On our second day in Ponchatoula, the electricity went out, and we slept on the wooden floor while cicadas screeched and frogs entered through the open front door. My father kept taking the frogs outside, but they entered the house in droves, looking for the same thing we were—relief from the debilitating, wet air outside. At night, my brothers and I were eaten alive by mosquitos. We lay in pools of our own sweat, bodies swollen from all the bites. Our skin burned red even after we returned to New Orleans days later.

I tell this story because heat always wins. My brothers and I would climb a gate and break into a hotel pool for temporary relief, but our bare feet would blister on the concrete as we walk back home. My friends and I would suck on ice when we walked to school, but even that would melt into warm water before we arrived. The breeze I would feel biking home from work brought not relief, but heat.

This kind of omnipresent heat manifests itself in all of our pieces. In some, it’s the heat of political tension: Sara Fleming discusses the heat of leftist revolution and the delusion of leftist sympathizers; David Eik shares a narrative of immigrant detention haunted by the heat of San Diego and Guatemala; Emma Gorsuch interrogates the heat of the polarizing political climate of the United States.

Editing this issue has affected each of us personally; for me, however, it has affected my understanding of heat and thus my understanding of my own identity. I carry Louisiana heat inside me; it wakes with me and it sleeps with me no matter the Colorado weather. This issue taught me that all of us carry some manifestation of our own heat. Callie Zucker’s piece on meat and masculinity is a reflection of the knack she has for making connections between gender, food, and society. Sophia Skelly’s narrative about living with a woman named Debbie reveals a deeper desire to reflect on human connection and relations. Becca Stine’s interview with Cecelia Gonzales shows how the groundskeeper and chef connects the heat in her chili to her family, homeland, and identity. All of us are just trying to understand our own heat.

Heat hangs heavy on the skin. It cannot be dealt with in the same way that cold can. You can apply layers and layers of clothes in anticipation of cold—but heat? Heat gets inside of the body with no release. Peeling away layers of clothes provides no relief when the heat gets trapped beneath your skin, in your lungs, inside of you. The dance with heat never ends, but this issue helps me realize that’s okay—because heat will keep changing you and me and the world around us for a long time.

Warmly,

Megan (and the Cipher Staff)  

Heat Issue | November 2018

Santiago

As Santiago pulled his car into the lot, he was almost blinded by the low sun. He parked next to a few other cars and rolled down the windows, allowing the salty air to enter. He tuned the radio to his favorite classic rock station, cracking a grin as Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental solo began to build up to the climactic percussive beats, colorful riffs, and vocal melodies he loved. He watched the gentle waves crashing back and forth on the shoreline in front of him as two people tossed a frisbee that cut through the soft breeze. This was exactly what Santiago needed at the end of a tough week of work and school. He felt a sense of relief watching the sunset over the expansive Pacific waters in San Diego. To him, this was home. He took a deep breath and let his shoulders sink into the back of his seat.

But Santiago’s moment of peace was quickly interrupted by an authoritative knock on his window. He looked out and his chest tightened with a deep anxiety—standing outside of his car was a police officer motioning for him to get out. Santiago held his breath as he reached for the handle and cracked open the door. The hinges on the side of the door creaked as he stepped out of the car. The officer looked Santiago up and down before informing him in a stern voice that he was parked on private property; he then demanded identification. Santiago felt a lump form in his throat as he reached into his pocket for the small, flimsy card that he had received a week earlier. He pulled out his new driver’s license, provided under a new California law (AB60, Chapter 524) that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license without proving status as a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The officer glanced down at the license and then back at Santiago several times. He held the card to his face, examining it so closely that it seemed he could have memorized every word. When he finally looked up from the card, he told Santiago that he was going to check his record. As the officer walked back to his patrol car, Santiago’s mind raced—What was going to happen? Could this go on his record? Why didn’t the cop call out any of the other cars in the area for being on private property? Where was the sign that said it was private property?

Before Santiago could answer any of the questions racing through his mind, three more government cars pulled up to the lot at the beach, one of which flaunted three letters that no one in Santiago’s position would ever wish to see:

I C E

As the immigration officials stepped out of the car, a deep fear swelled in Santiago’s heart—what would come of his future in the United States, his home for the past five years? Law AB60, which permits the distribution of licenses like Santiago’s, explicitly prohibits officers from reporting permit or license recipients to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—but Santiago didn’t know that at the time. His eyes widened and his body froze as two men in blue jackets approached him. They asked him for formal immigration documentation, like a visa or a green card. Santiago told them that he didn’t have any identification with him aside from his license. He tried to plead with the officers, saying that he was still studying and working and needed to stay in San Diego. His entire family was there—but nothing he said seemed to matter. He was arrested on the spot.

Before Santiago knew it, he found himself caught in a twisted game of hopscotch, shipped around an intricate network of immigrant detention centers spread across the country. But this game of hopscotch lacked direction. Santiago wasn’t moving toward something; he was free-falling in a state of limbo with no hope of grounding himself. He was one of thousands of bodies lost in a complex and arbitrary sea of centers, cells, officers, and inmates stuck in the same contorted madness. Santiago spent his first two days at a detention facility in Arizona, and was then moved to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia for 20 days before being transferred to Folkston Processing Center in southern Georgia for five and a half months. After that, he landed at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. At the center, he wore an orange jumpsuit, appeared at immigration court hearings, and had extremely restricted contact with his loved ones. In a single moment, everything Santiago had—his classes, his job, and, most importantly his family—was stripped away from him as he entered a system designed to oppress and dehumanize.

 ———

Santiago left his home in Guatemala in 2013, a decision he wishes he hadn’t had to make. A 15-year-old at the time, he was in high school when gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha (more commonly known as MS-13) arrived at his school to recruit him. His job would be to help them kidnap, steal from, and kill community members—Santiago’s neighbors, friends, and family. The men in the gang told Santiago that if he chose not to join, he would have to pay $700. If he didn’t pay, they would take his life.

Threats like these are not uncommon in many urban regions of Guatemala. A report from 2013 indicates that close to 40 percent of Guatemalans express fear that they will be victims of crime in their own neighborhood and nearly a third of Guatemalans indicate that their neighborhoods are impacted by gang activity.

When Santiago began to receive threats from the MS-13 members, he knew he had to make a decision. He wanted to continue his studies but quickly realized he didn’t have the money to pay the gang and ensure his safety. With the threat of violence so close, Santiago decided to escape to the only other place he had family—San Diego. He embarked alone on the long, arduous journey through Mexico, staying in locals’ homes and shelters along the way. Although the travel was tough, Santiago fondly remembers the support he received from people throughout Mexico. The people in the towns he passed through were warm to him, helping him and other migrants by providing floors to sleep on and meals to eat.

When Santiago finally arrived in the U.S., he united with his aunt, uncle, and cousins in California. Connecting with his loved ones after the long trek through Mexico filled Santiago with hope for his uncertain future. Despite the language and cultural barriers he faced as an immigrant, he felt unconditionally supported by his family, who helped him find a job and integrate into American culture. Despite the forced circumstances of his migration, Santiago decided to move forward and make a future for himself in the United States. He enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the local community college and began working at his family friend’s contracting company. He found comfort in his network of coworkers and ESL classmates, who were largely Central Americans like Santiago. Santiago’s brothers and father joined him in San Diego soon after he arrived, since they had begun receiving similar threats from MS-13. Now, Santiago’s whole family is in the U.S.

 ———    

Sitting in his cell in the Irwin County Detention Center, Santiago felt stagnated and isolated from his normal way of life. He struggled to maintain the usual positivity so central to his identity. Here, he had no family, no emotional support, and no outlet for physical activity. He simply lived day-to-day in a body he felt unattached to, wandering through the cold halls of the facility without purpose. He wasn’t allowed to spend much time outside and hadn’t seen a sunset in months. He often wondered how he could be detained for so long when he had never been charged with a crime. Over the course of his seven-month stay, he saw countless other people with extensive criminal histories come and go, while he remained locked up. It seemed his existence was his crime.  

All Santiago wanted was to go home, so he could continue his studies and be with his family. In this time of confusion, frustration, and emptiness, Santiago found one form of support amid the isolating environment of his imprisonment: the legal help of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). SIFI, a pro bono initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center that represents immigrants in detention centers across the Deep South, was the only place he could turn to for support during those dark months. The group applies for bond motions which, if granted, conditionally release the detainee if they agree to pay a certain amount of money, attend all their court hearings, and comply with deportation orders. Not only did SIFI’s attorneys and volunteers help him with his legal immigration application, but they also gave him valuable moments of genuine human connection that he rarely found with others in the centers.

Working as a volunteer legal assistant with SIFI this past summer, I connected with Santiago on both a professional and emotional level. As I sat in the attorney visitation room with Santiago, I saw my reflection in the thick glass pane that separated me from Santiago. Santiago’s positivity radiated through the cold glass and contradicted the bleak situation he found himself in. His smile was powerful in the stagnant air that filled the visitation room, and his laugh challenged the narrow white walls that confined us. He filled the space with an intense human energy that contradicted the very design of the room.

In between our logistical conversations about his legal case, we shared our ambitions, favorite activities, and stories from our lives. We were the same age and from the same state. We were both enrolled in higher education programs and were ambitious about the future that lay ahead. We both had families that we deeply cared about, families that would sacrifice everything to protect us. And despite the frustrations we’d encountered in society, we were both optimists. I saw so much of myself in Santiago, and that was the most painful part. What did he do wrong that I didn’t? Why does he deserve to be on that side of the glass as I leave the facility to return home at the end of the day? As I searched for answers to these questions, my mind went numb.

Since November, several private prison corporations have profited from detaining Santiago and those like him, including LaSalle Corrections, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and GEO Group. Today, companies like these operate 62 percent of all immigrant detention centers and run nine out of the 10 largest centers, all to maintain a profit. Daily quotas that require 34,000 beds to be filled in these centers have caused both immigrant detention and corporate profit to skyrocket over the last decade. In the past seven years, CCA’s profits have increased from $133,373,000 to $195,022,000, while GEO’s profits increased 224 percent. These companies use Santiago’s detainment as a tactic to ensure their own continued economic gain.

 ———

Santiago dreams of becoming an architect. Before his arrest, he was five classes away from receiving his ESL diploma. He was excited to start taking art and architecture classes the following year. Now, he’s behind on his program and doesn’t know if he’ll even get the chance to pursue his career goals if he doesn’t gain legal status.

 ———

My meetings with Santiago were a small part of the larger effort of the SIFI team to fight for the release of detained immigrants from the Irwin County Detention Center. During my time in Ocilla, the small team of lawyers I worked with filed a bond motion for Santiago, hoping to release him from detention within the month so that he could continue fighting his immigration case outside of the detention facility. This bond motion succeeded, and Santiago has since been released from detention. His family worked together to pay the steep bond price, a price eerily similar to the monetary ultimatum he received from MS-13 almost six years ago. He is now fighting his immigration case back home in San Diego, where he can once again enjoy the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.

Many others like Santiago who haven’t been lucky enough to be released on bond from these facilities. As I write this sentence, thousands of people are losing themselves in the directionless hopscotch game that profits from forcefully removing them from their lives, aspirations, and families.  

When I asked what message he wants the world to know, Santiago replied, “They aren’t holding up justice as they should be.” Immigrant detention outlasts the fleeting bursts of national media attention that the issue gets. It has been stripping people of their dignity, their rights, and their lives for years, and will continue to do so until it is stopped. Santiago may be safe now, but if the justice that he so desperately wants to see will come to fruition here in the United States, then we need to recognize that our freedoms are bound together. We will not know justice until the thousands of wrongfully detained immigrants turning profit for large corporations are liberated.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018 

Arms Outstretched

Debbie’s hair is long and white, with curls that double in size on humid Vermont days. When it’s wet, it snakes down her back in matted waves, and she wrings it out like a towel.

I watched her do this one night as we came giggling into the house. Our noses dripped with water, and we stripped in silent unison, faced in opposite directions. It was the first big rain in months, and we had both just skipped through dark puddles and wriggled our toes against the still-hot asphalt outside. I thought of the berry farmers south of Burlington and of all the parched soil in the Champlain Valley. I thought of the foil boats my brothers and I used to race in the street gutters during Houston floods. As I watched Debbie stare up at the sky, arms outstretched, I didn’t think once that it might be odd that I was rain-dancing with a 60-year-old librarian I met on the internet.

Debbie and I met in May when I moved into her house for the summer. After posting on a handful of public forums and chatting with Debbie on the phone, we agreed on an arrangement: I was to pay $150 per month, cook two meals a week for her, and clean the house.

During the 30-hour drive to Vermont, I didn’t think much about Debbie. From my phone calls with her, she seemed like the archetypical librarian: lives alone, has two cats, loves audiobooks and long walks. I imagined her as the perfect housemate and quasi-employer. I boasted to my friends about what an amazing deal I had found. It wasn’t until I was on her doorstep that I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.

When I arrived, she was gone for the weekend. I groped around in the dark garage and found the spare keys hidden inside a pair of gardening gloves. I realized for a moment how bizarre it was that this woman was willing to let me into her house before even meeting me. I swung the door open and two cats peered up at me. I took a tentative step into the house and they scattered, disappearing up the stairs.

The living room smelled like patchouli, and there were plants and books on every shelf. I remember squatting next to the bookshelf, fumbling around for some sense of who this woman was. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to look at what makes up a life: her kitchen magnets, her calendar notes, the vegan butter and fresh produce in the fridge.

As I fell asleep thinking of Debbie, my mind leapt to anxious extremes the way that it does when I’m slipping into unconsciousness. I had an intense fear that I might annoy her, that she didn’t know what she was getting into, and that she would perhaps hate the whole deal and ask me to leave after a couple of days.

I woke up to her footsteps the next morning and had a disoriented moment where I had no idea where I was or how I got there. I looked across the room at the armoire of homemade remedies and tinctures, realizing that Debbie must be home. I got dressed and wandered up the stairs from my basement room. Debbie was in the kitchen, putting groceries away. Her hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and she wore a loose cotton dress. Her cheeks were round and her whole face seemed joyous. I was immediately at ease and offered my hand in introduction. Instead of shaking it, she spread her arms out and hugged me.

I learned that Debbie was more than just a librarian. Debbie and her ex-husband were once true Vermont homesteaders. They pickled all of their produce, made their own cheese, and even constructed a dehydrator out of Christmas lights, a fan, and chicken wire. Debbie had owned a garlic farm and home-schooled her two sons. She was also a trained herbalist who mapped invasive species in the area on the weekends. She also exercised diligently, recording the time and type of workout in a little notebook in the kitchen. She was kind and thoughtful. I made a passing comment that I couldn’t get into any of my heavy nonfiction books that I had brought for the summer. The next day, Debbie came home with a stack of novels and a sticky note description on each of them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Debbie and I slipped into a pattern. In the mornings, we would skirt around each other, grabbing bread from the toaster and snapping the stove off when the kettle whistled. On Mondays, I got home and vacuumed the house from top to bottom. On others, I cooked her dinner and wiped the mirrors and windows. While I was at work, she would text me different ideas for dinner and I would spend my day thinking of what to cook for her.

Our relationship teetered between business-like and friendly. In the beginning, I would dart up the stairs to the shower, giving her a closed mouth smile, and tightening the towel around my chest. I carved out a space for myself in the house and tried not to get in her way. I felt that I was there to cook and clean for her and was hesitant to make it anything more. But then, slowly, she started to offer up little morsels of her life to me.

One time, Debbie called me over as I was making tea. “Skelly, would you like to see pictures of my sons?” she asked, her voice faltering as if she regretted offering in the first place.

I walked into the living room and she scooted over on the couch, drawing a leather photo album from below the coffee table. I folded into the crook of the cushions and took the album into my lap. She watched me eagerly as I flipped through photos of her as a young mom with her two boys. There were ones of them rosy cheeked and bundled on gray winter days. In others, the boys peeked from behind curtains of drying garlic, the purple bulbs resting against their shoulders.

“I used to be a garlic farmer,” Debbie said. “Have you ever tasted fresh garlic? Oh, gosh it’s the best! I’ll have to make you dilly beans before you go.” I felt flattered by her shy glee.

Another day, I asked her how she slept and she sighed loudly. “Oh, really horribly actually. I dreamt about my dad and it made me miss him. He died 12 years ago and I don’t miss him that often, but I woke up thinking about his voice and …” She trailed off. Her eyes were shiny, and I wondered if I was allowed to hug her, or if that would be weird. It was in these moments that I wondered if Debbie thought of me as a friend. I scrubbed her toilet and baked her sourdough, but she was also my buddy. It was the first time in my life that my days were structured around serving somebody else. Although it was technically for monetary reasons, it rarely felt that way.

Actively thinking about someone else’s happiness felt like an antidote to the toxic mindset often developed at Colorado College. Here, my days are dictated by stress and the weeks that lead up to fourth-week’s sleepless crescendo. I, as many people do, handle the Block Plan by thinking about myself constantly. We go into survival mode during tough blocks and become meticulous about stress management. The structure essentially demands self-absorption; it forces us to lean into the stress with our whole selves, and so much of the richness in life is lost in these tornadoes. With Debbie, each day passed like the one before; living with her brought a measured cadence into my life. By reversing the feeling of self-absorption, my sense of urgency deflated too. The dissolution of manic CC energy felt like a huge exhale, something I haven’t felt in a long time.

Towards the end of the summer, Debbie was offered a new job at a library in Waterbury, 20 minutes east of Burlington. For months, I had watched as she flung herself into the application process. I looked over her resumes and helped her prepare for interviews. When she got the job, we went for a celebratory sail with Mary and Joanna, Debbie’s friends from her full moon women’s circle.

It was a Friday night and the sky was cereal-milk blue. I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car with Japanese takeout; the Styrofoam boxes squeaked in unison as Debbie turned onto Pine Street. We were driving to the marina to meet up with Mary and Joanna. Joanna is in her 70s but womans the ship with ease and humor. She eats a sundae and orders me around—which I love—unclipping the sail cover and fetching the wench from below the seats. Once we’re on the open water of Lake Champlain, Debbie reveals a bottle of prosecco from her Jansport backpack. The three women exchange devilish grins and Mary says, “Everyone should go around and say the last time they drank champagne.”

Mary recounts a beautiful Indian wedding that she just attended in Boston: the detail on the saris and the crispness of the wine, the joy on the groom’s face. The three of them turn to me and I describe the morning of Llamapalooza, hungover and drinking warm champagne from a mug at 10 a.m. They nodded politely at this image.

It was moments like this that I reveled in the differences between Debbie and me. Who I am at CC felt infinitely far from myself in that moment. I was grateful to be with people who didn’t know or care about my accomplishments or relationships or anxieties. I could think of nothing better than to float in metallic water with three older women who were wiser, kinder, and more patient than I ever am. Wasabi tingled on my tongue and the champagne felt warm in my stomach. As I looked around the small sailboat, I felt intensely connected to these women, despite having met only weeks before. My unlikely friendship with Debbie was more fulfilling than anything else I had done that summer. As Joanna yelled, “Coming about!” in her raspy voice, Debbie and I exchanged a warm-eyed smile and clinked our plastic cups of prosecco.

 

 Heat Issue | November 2018

Another World Is Possible

I. The Road to Oventic

The drive to Oventic is nauseating for the same reason it’s beautiful. The road winds through the dramatic green hills of Los Altos de Chiapas, a region of Mexico’s southernmost state known for extreme poverty and a revolutionary history. Rocky bluffs rise above farms scattered on impossibly steep hillsides, as the road occasionally passes small villages populated by Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous communities. At almost every turn, inconveniently placed speed bumps cause the taxi driver to slam on the brakes.

Oventic is one of five caracoles: political centers of the Zapatista movement, one of the most successful and notorious anti-capitalist movements in the world. In 1994, the Zapatistas, then an unknown bunch of indigenous campesinos (rural farmers), staged an armed uprising against the Mexican state. They didn’t topple the Mexican government, clearly, but they did gain effective autonomy from it. Since then, they have been living in communities in the remote hills and jungles of Chiapas under a radically egalitarian political system.

The Zapatistas are shrouded in mystery and known to be suspicious of outsiders. But with a little bit of googling in Spanish, you can figure out how to get to Oventic by taxi from San Cristóbal de las Casas, the nearest city. That’s what my friend Ethan Cutler and I did one sweltering afternoon in late May. As we climbed out of the taxi to get our first glance of Oventic, we suffered a strange vertigo, a combination of leftover nausea from the drive and shock from arriving at the place we’d been wondering about for months. Mostly, we felt profoundly uncomfortable. Here we were, two white kids from the United States, left on the side of the road to figure out the world of the compas (comrades) and the juntas de buen gobierno (councils of good government). “What are we doing here?” I wondered.

From the road, Oventic appeared quiet and empty—almost suspiciously so. Other than the colorful murals, it didn’t look any different from the other villages we’d passed. But a sign on the side of the road proclaimed, “Está usted en territorio zapatista. Aquí, manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece.” (“You are in Zapatista territory. Here, the people command and the government obeys.”)

II. Is There No Alternative?

Ethan and I are both philosophy majors who loosely, somewhat hesitantly, and often self-consciously call ourselves anti-capitalists. We’ve spent the past few years in classrooms learning about the innumerable injustices that plague the world. Like many college students who’ve read a few pages of Foucault or Marx, we’ve come to realize that cases of injustice are not isolated incidents. Rather, their immediate cause is the structure of political and economic policies that proliferate across the globe—policies that privilege private property as the inalienable foundation of everything in our social world.

 The basic anti-capitalist critiques are not all that complicated to understand: capitalism rests upon the exploitation of a lower class, and it’s inextricably tied to racism and colonialism. It also alienates us from ourselves, our communities, and our relationships with the natural world. Ethan and I were swayed, at least intellectually, by the revolutionary lingo that promised a way out of all that. But, like many other young idealists eager to take action against the system, we were dismayed by how distant any alternative to capitalism seemed. Theorists critique capitalism ruthlessly and convincingly, but rarely offer viable solutions.

For all our gusto, Ethan and I still hadn’t figured out a way to dismiss the most basic pro-capitalist argument: all attempts in history to topple capitalism have either failed embarrassingly, been stopped almost immediately, or devolved into totalitarianism and oppression. The argument, as neoliberal icon Margaret Thatcher put it, is that “there is no alternative.” That prospect had left Ethan and I in an intellectual and practical bind. If nothing else is feasible, what’s the point of even trying to work towards overthrowing the system?

The Zapatista movement seemed to counter that pessimism. As if in direct response to Thatcher, one of their rallying cries is, “Another world is possible.” We read dispatches that the Zapatistas issued from the jungles of Chiapas, in which they outline their fight for basic demands. They write that they “do not seek the victory of one party or another.” Rather, they seek “justice, freedom, and democracy,” and “to fight along with everyone who [is] humble and simple.” To the ears of a political realist, these words seem far too simple to be honest. But from everything we read, it seemed they really did fight for those ideals. And they won.

 Leftist intellectuals around the world extol the Zapatistas’ political system as the best living example of “anarcho-communism” or “libertarian Marxism” or “collectivist democracy,” or whatever that particular commentator’s favorite ideology happens to be. Leftists closer to the movement tend to avoid categorizing it with an ideological label, but they still portray it as a shining beacon of revolutionary light in a world of neoliberal darkness. Tom Hayden, a longtime Zapatista scholar, writes that, “In their actions and writings, the Zapatistas are inspiring a new generation to join the struggle for a better world.” Hayden adds, “It’s our world too!” Commentators like Hayden appeal to the supposedly universal character of the movement’s ideals, sometimes suggesting that anyone can be a part of the Zapatista movement, other times suggesting that it could be replicated elsewhere.

We had come to Chiapas thinking that if we could better understand the Zapatistas’ ideology, we could return with a real-world example to wave in the Thatcherites’ faces and somehow apply to our own political situation. If the Zapatistas had done it—stood up to capitalism and found something else that works—then there had to be hope for us, too. Maybe, we thought, there’s some key to successful anti-capitalism that we just aren’t seeing. Maybe another world is possible.

III. The Revolution Begins

In December 1993, just before their initial uprising, the Zapatistas issued their “First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” also called the “Zapatista Manifesto.” The first line is, “We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” referring to the start of colonialism in the sixteenth century. Spanish colonizers nearly wiped out the indigenous population of Chiapas with diseases, wars, and the systematic expulsion of the native people from their homelands. They conscripted surviving indigenous people to serfdom and slavery. The ensuing centuries were a constant struggle between indigenous people fighting for their land and dignity, and rich landowners backed by the state.

As Mexico’s economy grew in the twentieth century, the north radically urbanized, elites prospered, and campesinos in Chiapas continued to lose hold on what had once been their land. The population of Chiapas became the least educated and the poorest in Mexico. Indigenous people either remained conscripted to labor on ranches or were forced to migrate to the cities to find work in spite of a fierce racism that limited their opportunities.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) staged their initial uprising on January 1, 1994—the same date that the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) went into effect. NAFTA symbolized the worst of neoliberalism: it called for privatization of state-owned enterprises, and abolished legal protections for land-holdings called ejidos. The ejidos had allowed poor farmers to collectively own land that could not be bought or sold. The Zapatistas believed NAFTA would exacerbate inequality and open the gates for multinational corporations to buy off what little land indigenous people had left.

So, with an army of 3,000 indigenous campesinos-turned-combatants, they marched in from the hills and took control of several towns throughout Chiapas. The Zapatistas freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristóbal and set fire to police and military buildings in other small cities. In the campo (countryside), they destroyed ranch-houses and reclaimed large expanses of land. They took land from the rich and gave to the poor.

The Zapatistas were certainly an unconventional guerilla army—some didn’t even carry real guns, but instead, fake rifles carved out of wood. Up to one third of the fighters were women. They had no formal leader, just a mestizo spokesperson known only by his nom de guerre Subcomandante Marcos. He spoke in riddles and was never seen without a balaclava over his face and a pipe in his mouth.

The media characterized them as ominous, dangerous, clandestine guerillas ready to attack and destroy. The Mexican government treated them as a violent enemy of the state, sending military forces that attacked without restraint, killing 145 indigenous compas. The initial fighting lasted only 12 days—the Zapatistas were fighting a losing battle. But they were not to be filed away on the dusty shelves of the world’s many forgotten leftist movements.

In 1996, the government and the EZLN reached an agreement called the San Andrés Accords, which stipulated that the government would recognize a bill of indigenous rights. The Zapatistas would be allowed to retain most of the territory they had gained in the uprising and would be granted the ability to govern it according to their own rules and customs. But when the time came to push the new accords through Congress, the ruling party failed to pass them. Since then, the Zapatistas have maintained de facto autonomy, despite years of violent threats from government-backed paramilitary groups.

Despite the continued onslaughts, the Zapatistas have retained their land. And today, 24 years after the uprising, they govern that expanse of territory with a political system based on a radically horizontal power structure. The territory is divided into five zones called caracoles, each of which is led by a body of rotating elected representatives called a junta de buen gobierno (council of good government). Though this intensely communicative form of democracy often moves at a snail's pace (it involves representatives travelling back and forth to multiple communities on a regular basis to talk with individual families before decisions are made), it has allowed the Zapatistas to constructed their own unique systems of education, health, and justice.

They have also devised a system of trade based on agricultural cooperatives, which grant their farmers relative independence from the demands of the global market. All of this depends on the people holding their representatives accountable—they can vote people out at any time—a concept the Zapatistas call mandar obedeciendo (govern by obeying). After a century of suffering the damages of broken political promises under a system that claimed to be a democracy, the Zapatistas are wary of the corruption of modern politics. They believe that it takes more than votes to make democracy—it takes community.

IV. A Glimpse into Another World

Ethan and I stood at the gates of Oventic, nauseous and self-conscious, hoping to get a glimpse into this leftist dream. Two unarmed guards in black balaclavas sat behind a tiny wooden booth to the left of a metal gate. One of them was wearing a New York Yankees hat, which struck us as somewhat ironic considering that the Zapatista movement opposes American imperialism.

The guards at the gate spoke sparingly. They eyed us up and down for a few moments, then one disappeared and brought back two women, also clad in balaclavas. After explaining that we were students who wanted to learn about the movement, we filled out some paperwork on a clipboard. They went back into the village, deliberated, and apparently decided we were acceptable.

A Zapatista named Compañero Antonio opened the gate. He showed us the buildings and briefly explained their functions—the clinic that served everyone in the Oventic region, the primary schools, the buildings where committees from various villages gathered to meet, the church where families prayed together on the pew-less, pine-needle-covered floor. When we tried to ask more about how the junta functioned, about who the people in the village were, and how they related to the outside world, Compañero Antonio said that we’d have to ask the junta. We tried some less sensitive questions, but he answered us with silence. Unsure of what else to do, we left Oventic after a half hour or so.

Although our visit was even more brief than we had imagined it would be, we weren’t exactly surprised—we had already learned that the movement and the people surrounding it were highly suspicious of outsiders, especially those from the United States (and for good reason). From what we’d read online and heard in town, we knew the visit to Oventic would probably be a brief, guided tour. We were grateful to have the chance to see it, but we still didn’t have any answers to our questions about how the Zapatistas’ daily lives actually worked. Nor could we draw any conclusions about how we were supposed to respond to calls to join the struggle. The Zapatistas did seem to exist in another world, but it was a world so different and closed-off that we weren’t sure how it could possibly relate to the one we knew.

V. The Sympathizer’s Dilemma

It was this confusion that brought us to the living room table of a nondescript building in San Cristóbal, drinking tea with a middle-aged French woman named Marina Pagés. Marina works as the coordinator for SíPaz, an NGO that has done “solidarity work” with the Zapatistas since the uprising. By that time, we had been in Mexico for about a week, and we’d been scrolling through the SíPaz website pages for months. However, we still hadn’t quite figured out what “solidarity work” meant beyond, as Naomi Klein put it, “guilty lefties with a Latin American fetish” caravaning down to Chiapas to try to see the movement for themselves.

We asked Marina one question: what, exactly, did organizations like SíPaz do? Like a typical French Marxist, she answered that question with an hour-long history of how international political economy influenced the Zapatistas and the leftists they’ve interacted with.

By the mid-’90s, leftists around the world had watched the Berlin Wall fall, symbolizing the end of Soviet-style communism and its totalitarian horrors. “The international world was disenchanted with the left,” Marina explained. “Supposedly, we were at the end of history, and capitalism had won.” Only a resolute few remained committed to anti-capitalism. They saw that neoliberal ideology was taking hold of nearly every world power, and they were yearning for some other model of how to oppose it. Historical happenstance and good strategy came together to ensure that the Zapatista movement would resonate with lost leftists around the world, and even recruit some new ones.

Marina painted Subcomandante Marcos as a brilliant politician, a leader who used his rhetorical gifts to market himself and his movement to the global left, in order to appeal to egalitarian sympathies and thereby protect his cause. It paid off, considering that it was the pressure from international sympathizers and humanitarian groups that kept the Mexican government from trampling the movement in the first place. In framing it this way, Marina wasn’t implying that the Zapatistas were disingenuous in their support for other struggles. Marina was merely pointing out the naivety of treating the phrase “We are all Zapatistas” literally, rather than a rhetorical device they use to recruit sympathizers and make them feel part of the movement. While dialogue with the outside world remains important to them, the Zapatistas are rarely willing to let the outside in.

The NGOs most involved with Zapatistas today recognize the continued importance of international awareness, and employ it to the benefit of the Zapatistas and other indigenous communities. A handful of dedicated researchers working for SíPaz document events in Chiapas which threaten the autonomy and safety of indigenous people living in the region—paramilitary violence, threats to their land, and violations of their rights. They publish information on those events, and sympathizers use that information to help make the public case for ensuring the continued autonomy of Zapatistas.

Another NGO we spoke with, FrayBa, organizes brigados civiles de observación (civil observation bricades) composed of international sympathizers live in indigenous communities for a few weeks or months at a time and to document violent action against the communities. Because the people who do that work are usually white or white-passing, their presence often effectively deters military and paramilitary violence in the first place—groups who would otherwise threaten the safety of communities refrain, because they know that the media will go nuts if a foreigner is harmed. In FrayBa’s view, the best way for people like us to support the movement was to leverage our privilege—an admirable, although perhaps less exhilarating, goal. Marina from SíPaz was also sober about that: she knew that her role was to provide what the Zapatistas said they needed, not to tell them what to do.

Some of the leftist sympathizers we met hanging out in San Cristóbal—mostly Europeans and South Americans —were like us: initially naive about how close to the movement they could get, but willing to listen and sober up to reality. But others were apt to say things like “I am a Zapatista,” and to carry themselves with an air that they were close to the inner workings of the movement. These leftists seemed to believe that by declaring support for the Zapatistas, they were freeing themselves from the worries of privilege once and for all, even if they weren’t actually doing anything besides stewing in their revolutionary dreams.

VI. A Crack in the System

We found such leftists at a place called CIDECI, an education center on the outskirts of San Cristóbal. CIDECI stands for Indigenous Center for Integrative Training. The locals also call it La Universidad de la Tierra, or “University of the Earth.”

The center is the brainchild of a man known as Dr. Raymundo. He started the center in 1989 in order to educate indigenous youth, many of whom never had the chance to go to school. He believed that the subjects taught in traditional Mexican schools don’t serve indigenous students unless they plan to leave their communities and begin a long climb up the social ladder of the neoliberal economy. Dr. Raymundo, a close supporter of the Zapatista movement, wanted to give them another option. So CIDECI teaches crafts that young people can use to serve their communities, like carpentry, painting, auto repair, cooking, and farming.

CIDECI serves indigenous students between the ages of 12 and 24 (sometimes even younger, if they come with an older sibling) from around San Cristóbal and smaller communities throughout Mexico and Central America. The only admission requirement is a letter of recommendation from the student’s community. Students can choose what they want to learn, stay at the campus for however long they like, and receive room and board, completely free. In exchange, the furniture they build, the murals they paint, the livestock they raise, and the bread they bake in their classes goes back to CIDECI.

Dr. Raymundo conceives of CIDECI as more than a trade school. He told us that he believes CIDECI is a “crack” in the capitalist system, a place where alternative ways of communal living can flourish, and, little by little, work to split the system open. To this end, CIDECI holds an open seminar every Thursday, where indigenous students, community members, and a gaggle of unaffiliated sympathizers gather to discuss oppression and resistance around the world.

         The seminars we went to usually attracted at least 30 to 40 participants who would filter in and out over the course of three hours or more. The seminars always started with a summary of the week’s readings in Tzotzil, then Spanish. It takes almost an hour to recite the readings, which are essentially a list of recent atrocities in Chiapas and around the world: a news article about a group that was trying to take Zapatista territory, a message from “water defenders” in the neighboring state of Oaxaca, news about the latest genocides around the world.

         After the summary, participants are invited to join in a discussion of the readings. Ethan and I quickly learned, however, that “discussion” mostly meant long, impassioned speeches affirming one’s commitment to the fight against capitalism. Dramatic indictments like, “Genocide hides amidst the many heads of the capitalist hydra,” were not uncommon.

Originally, Ethan and I thought the seminars would help us understand the movement theoretically. We expected that they might help us think about how Zapatista ideology could apply to our political situation. But although the seminars were extremely powerful, they weren’t really about theory. They were about recognizing the continued prevalence of injustice. Around those hand-carved wooden tables and chairs, emotions ran deep.

There was one indigenous woman who went to every seminar we attended. She had the kind of quiet, elderly frailty that made me worry she might topple over at any moment. But it was this same quality that gave her an air of wisdom, like she knew the path to hell and back. During the discussion portion of one seminar, she stood up and introduced herself as Compañera Maria. The room fell completely silent. She recounted growing up before the Zapatistas had risen, and how she had felt there was no hope for her community’s future. She had since committed her whole life to the movement and her people. She spoke about how she felt her ancestors behind her. She talked about how she felt the lucha, the fight against the oppressors, in her heart. The fight itself gave her people dignity, she said.

Compañera Maria’s speech brought to me the verge of tears. She was describing the empowering force of the struggle itself. She, like all Zapatistas, had not only recognized her right to a dignified life, but had taken it by force and defended it with her whole being.

At the same time, I realized I would never feel the lucha in my heart in the same way she had. The raw power of Compañera Maria’s words made sympathetic leftists’ attempts to replicate the spirit of her speech seem disingenuous. Marina, of SíPaz, had identified this phenomenon for us. “So many different people feel that they can just insert themselves into the movement,” she explained. German anarchists, or French Marxists, or, say, American college students look at the movement and see themselves in it. They romanticize the way that people who have been truly oppressed feel the struggle.

But the fact that we were all together at the same table, calling each other compa, obscured the enormous cultural and economic divide that we would never bridge. Seated on one side were indigenous people from rural Chiapas, fighting to put food on the table and to keep their culture alive. We could get a glimpse into this struggle, but it would never be our own. After the seminar, we would pile into a car with a bunch of French Marxists and drive back to the center of San Cristóbal, a tourist hub where we could buy organic vegetables and fresh-made pasta at bourgeois restaurants. Compañera Maria, needless to say, would not.

Most Zapatistas have only seen the world of constant commodification and consumerism from afar. Prior to the uprising, they were the ones breaking their backs in factories or farms in order to provide for the consumer class. They weren’t getting any of the benefits of capitalism. So it wasn’t all that hard for the EZLN to convince poor indigenous campesinos that capitalism—the system under which their land and life had been torn from them—was unjust. But for we who reap the comforts of the capitalist system, the injustice is hard to feel on a personal level, and even when we know it exists, it’s easy to brush aside.

While the Zapatista movement has inspired other disenfranchised groups to take back their land and defend their dignity themselves, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they don’t have some theoretical brilliance to offer Americans like me and Ethan. While we can certainly support the Zapatistas, we have no pre-existing anti-capitalist framework to work off of, no villages in the mountains where we can find a communal spirit that runs deep in a centuries-old tradition. The Zapatistas, rightly, fight back against systems of oppression in part by retreating from them. But we have no such option: we have to confront the mess of the modern world.

That mess hit us immediately after the French Marxists dropped us off in San Cristóbal, where an indigenous boy, probably eight or nine years old, walked up to us on the street with his hands outstretched, silently. It was a scene we had been accustomed to by that point—over 3,500 indigenous villagers have been displaced to the city, where many live in poverty, selling souvenirs to tourists or begging on the street to survive. The best response I could come up with was to smile and give the boy some of my spare change. Maybe he ate that day. But he would spend the next day, and the day after that, wandering around the streets, getting shoved off by locals and ignored by tourists. That boy did not get the chance to reclaim his right to a dignified life, and the balaclava-clad revolutionaries up in the hills weren’t going to bring it to him.

VII. The Corn Guy

The story of my attempt to reconcile the contradictions of this ill-fated journey begins on another sweltering day in the remote foothills of Chiapas. I was nauseous once again (street food, weak American stomach, etc.). But, embarrassed of my typical tourists’ condition, I didn’t want to show any weakness. Even though I was on the verge of passing out, I continued to hike through the thorny bush, alongside Ethan and a small, weathered man named Martín López López.

When Ethan and I first told our professor Alberto Hernández-Lemus that we were interested in researching the Zapatista movement, he rattled off a list of people he knew in Chiapas, none of whom, to our confusion, seemed to have anything to do with the Zapatistas. “And oh! You have to talk to Martín,” Alberto said. “He used to work with the Bishop Samuel Ruíz, and now he grows corn.” Ethan wrote down in his notes: “Martín: corn guy.”

We knew almost nothing else about Martín when we called him one day from San Cristóbal and told him we were friends of Alberto. Immediately, Martín invited us to his house for breakfast and said we were welcome to spend the day following him around. He ended up giving us a tour of his small farm, formerly part of a communally-owned ejido. He showed us around his land, pointing out each crop with a sense of wonder and pride.

“Y aquí, el maíz,” Martín said. “And here’s the corn.”

Ethan and I exchanged a glance that said, Ohhh. The corn guy.

Martín is not a Zapatista. He’s actually not indigenous, and he’s not even from Chiapas—he’s a transplant from a central Mexican province who came to San Cristóbal because he could see that here, political struggle was alive. We quickly discovered that Martín was much more than “the corn guy.” Calling Martin “the corn guy” is kind of like calling Karl Marx “the beard guy.” It’s a side project he’s proud of, but it’s definitely not his main gig.

Martín has been a community activist and educator for most of his life, albeit through different forms. He grew up a devout Catholic and believed in God fiercely. He renounced marriage, promising himself to God. In his twenties, he joined the church as a missionary and was sent to the campo of Chiapas to Catholicize indigenous communities. It was there that, one day, he woke up and realized that God did not exist.

Martín’s revelation was a crisis that he faced completely alone. After spending years telling people that God would save them, he knew he couldn’t tell them that God didn’t exist. It wasn’t his job, he explained to me later. So instead of resolving himself to nihilism, he stayed in his position as a missionary and taught himself to read the entire Bible from a humanist perspective. Sure, the story of Jesus walking on water is likely a myth, but the stories of Jesus talking to people and giving bread to the poor could be entirely real. He was surprised to find that the Biblical verses he had grown up thinking were divine didn’t cease to amaze him once he realized that they were only the work of human beings. In fact, the stories began to strike him even more. If humans could create an entire theology that pointed toward a message of love and forgiveness, maybe someday they might be able to follow it.

In that way, Martín is not unlike Subcomandante Marcos. As the story goes, Marcos was once a philosophy professor in Mexico City. When he arrived in the jungles of Chiapas in the ‘80s, he was a hardline communist who intended to organize the indigenous poor into a Leninist “vanguard party” that could overthrow the state. But when he got there, he found a fledgling army composed of campesinos teaching themselves survival tactics, community organizing, and Mexican history. Marcos realized that the indigenous people might have more to teach them than vice versa. Marcos and his mestizo friends set out to help the campesinos do what they were already doing. They organized a recruitment campaign, convincing villagers who were already engaged in civil resistance to join their clandestine camps in the jungle.

Their parallel stories took place at the same time, too. In fact, Martín told us that before the Zapatista movement went public, he did missionary work with some of the communities in what would soon become rebel territory. He talked with them about organizing and defending their dignity, inadvertently telling them they should rise up. Moreover, Catholic liberation theology was a key factor in helping indigenous people recognize their rights, paving the way for them to organize. Bishop Samuel Ruíz, under whom Martín worked, was a fierce defender of indigenous autonomy, and the principal mediator of the peace talks between the EZLN and the government.

Martín eventually left his position as a missionary, but he didn’t stop working for the good of others. He left Chiapas to study education. In one of his classes, he met a woman named Silvia, whom he would later marry. Silvia and Martín agreed that the way they’d been taught to teach didn’t allow students to raise real, radical questions or think critically about the world. They had been told that their job as teachers was essentially to deposit important information in the empty vaults of students’ minds. But Martín was skeptical. He had learned more about life from illiterate campesinos than his professors at university. He didn’t feel that his formal education qualified him to be an authoritative source of knowledge in the first place, so when he and Silvia moved back to Chiapas and began teaching, they did it their own way.

Influenced by Paulo Freire’s landmark book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” they wanted to teach in a way that acknowledged that truth was not dispensed by an authority, but rather something students and teachers alike had to reason out, even create, for themselves. On a basic level, this meant that instead of telling elementary school students that Coca Cola is bad for them and pozol, the traditional drink of the region, is healthy, Martín would ask them to make a list of the differences between Coca Cola and pozol and decide for themselves. On a more serious level, this meant that instead of yelling at religious conservatives about tolerance, he would ask them what Jesus wanted: love or hatred?

 Now, Silvia and Martín have retired from their classrooms and run an NGO called Educreando, in which they teach this pedagogy to other educators from all backgrounds—priests, public school teachers, private tutors, and politicians from any side of the spectrum. Martín is willing to work with anyone.

To show us how it worked, Martín took Ethan and me to an elementary school classroom in a small city outside of San Cristóbal called Teopisca, where he had been working with a dedicated teacher named Hugo. The public school system in these majority-indigenous areas is extremely underfunded. But Hugo, with Martín’s help, was going beyond the resources of the classroom to give his students the education he felt they deserved. He had helped the students build an oven in the courtyard, taught them indigenous languages, and organized musical performances that reflected their cultural roots. It was easy see that Hugo was changing these students’ lives.

VIII. Mandar obedeciendo

Ethan and I had thought our day with Martín would be a distraction from the main task—we were, after all, supposedly conducting a historical and philosophical investigation into the Zapatista movement. It was difficult to see how an ex-Catholic missionary who runs a nonprofit would fit into all of this. But Martín gave us a sense of hope, a possible antidote to our previous confusion about how the Zapatista movement was supposed to inspire anything for our political system. It wasn’t that Martin was doing something better than what the Zapatistas had accomplished. But he was doing something more effective than the French Marxist at the CIDECI seminar stewing in resentment at the bourgeoisie and returning to town to chow down organic pasta. In a weird way, Martín action aligned more with the ideals of the Zapatista movement than many of those leftists did. Rather than searching in vain for a way out of the world we inhabit, Martín was working within his own community to transform it.

While Mexican politics has been plagued by corruption for most of this century, local politics in Chiapas are increasingly active. Martín has helped his neighborhood organize, recruit participants for the neighborhood council, and lead efforts to clean up the river that runs through San Cristóbal. I went with Martín to a community meeting that he organized. He knew everybody—the politicians, the abuela concerned about her grandchildren playing in the river, the businessman who remembered days when you could drink straight from the source. And they all deeply respected Martín. He had somehow brought this group of people together, not to plead with the city government to clean up the river, but to figure out how to do it themselves.

Martín explained that in the U.S., and even in most of Mexico, we tend to believe that the government’s job is to grant us what we think we deserve: build us roads, give us social programs, care for the sick and the poor. But Martín and his compañeros see this as essentially contrary to the idea of autonomy. Both Martín and the Zapatistas believe the people should be empowered to do things for their own communities, and that the government’s job is to respect and enable that. At one point, Martín even invoked the principle of mandar obedeciendo (govern by obeying), the Zapatista aphorism that we had encountered outside of Oventic’s gates.

It’s not that Martín is free from apparent contradiction. He too, enjoys organic pasta in the touristy center of San Cristóbal. He and Silvia live a modest life, but they own plenty of comforts that depend on capitalism. And for all his talk about avoiding dogma, Martín has strong opinions. I think Martín is aware of these contradictions, but he seems to have reconciled with them. Perhaps that’s because his life’s work isn’t to realize the creation of the perfect society, or to ensure his own moral purity, but to walk with and learn from others.

He explained this perspective to us on the day we met him: “With our pedagogy, I help you look, help you see. But it's not about what I see; it’s about what you see. And in what you see, you confront the other,” Martín explained to me. “This, for me, is the most interesting thing: to create a dialogue between what you know and what others know, and afterwards you decide [what to believe]. And it could be that you decide something different than me. That's OK. The important thing is that you’ve thought about it.”

I tried to imagine Martín asking some ultra-conservative party politician whether Jesus wanted love or hatred. I was skeptical that his method would actually work. “When you’ve done this dialogue with really religious people, maybe with really conservative people, how does it go?” I asked him.

Martín replied quickly and calmly. “They change a little bit,” he said.

In the heat of the day, I felt chills down my spine. There was a powerful optimism in Martin’s words. Martín’s radical politics didn’t consist of blindly idealizing the Zapatista movement and fuming about the capitalist system we may never be able to change. Instead, Martín showed us a path to another world: working to change people’s perspectives, a little bit at a time, knowing that we could never have all the answers. Martín knew from his own experience that people could change. That was enough to fuel his work, and that was his way of making another world possible.

 Smiling, he repeated, “They change a little bit. That’s why we keep doing the work.”



Heat Issue | November 2018

Images courtesy of Dane Strom at https://danestrom.com/

Will This Madness Ever End?

The heat was bad, sure, but there was something thicker in the air this time. A haze was everywhere; it consumed everything. The windows of the Hansen and Third corner store fogged up so much you could only see the silhouettes of the men behind the counter—every window in the adjacent building was either open or housing an AC unit. Sounds of all kinds cut through the stranglehold of the heat and poured out into the street: the occasional shout, the clang of a dish, the voice of a DJ coming and going from a passing car radio. “This next one’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ but this Ju-ly—goddamn!”

——— 

1.     The Balcony

Todd Greenbaum, premature balder, had decided to brave the haze. Todd owned no AC or fan for fear of a follicle-tugging breeze, so his apartment felt more like a sauna than a studio. He sprawled across the balcony wearing nothing but a white tank top and tattered boxers, not even his toupee—an act of sheer desperation. Todd had been sensitive about his hair condition since the seventh grade, when he slow-danced with the already-five-foot-eight Suzy Henderson at the Spring Fling. A full head taller than Todd, Suzy had a direct view of his scalp, where the signs of hair loss were already showing. She made this known to the whole seventh grade class. After this, he wore a baseball cap every day until he graduated, then purchased an expensive, jet-black hairpiece to start college as a new man. In 14 years, he hadn’t so much as looked out a window without it.

The toupee’s absence was noticed. Mrs. Kazan, the tiny 81-year-old widow who lived across the hall, wearily lumbered across Third Avenue with a small bag of groceries tucked into the wire basket of her walker. Condensation from a carton of milk threatened the durability of the brown paper bag.

As she got closer, Mrs. Kazan grew more and more suspicious of the strange man on the balcony. Her eyes were going, but she had memorized a blurry approximation of every single person who came and went from her building, and this guy wasn’t in her mental registry.

“HEY!” she shouted up at the figure while swatting away a swarm of gnats. “What’s the big idea, hot shot? Who the hell are you?” She steadied herself—shouting in the dizzying heat had thrown her already precarious stance off balance.

Todd, ever conscious of his head’s appearance, knowingly replied, “Mrs. Kazan, I know I look different, but it’s me, Todd. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Squinting with her whole body, Mrs. Kazan grumbled, “Todd? Todd, what happened to you? I can’t keep anything straight anymore. I tell you, I’ve never seen a summer like this. Something has to be done about this, this godforsaken place…” She trailed off as she sluggishly entered the building. A gnat whizzed its way through the door just as it swung shut. Todd sighed, wiping sweat off his waxy scalp.

 ———

2.     The Hall

Mrs. Kazan paused in the entrance to catch her breath. The confines of the building were hardly a respite from the suffocating air—inside it was hot and stale, like no one had opened a window in weeks. Every crease in her face held a layer of sweat; walking any distance in the heat was no easy task, and it had taken all her energy to yell at Todd. Unfortunately, Leslie Dratch, her overly-attentive neighbor, waltzed into the hall to check his mailbox at that exact moment.

“Not this loon,” Mrs. Kazan mumbled under her breath. Leslie didn’t miss a beat.

“Mrs. Kazan, you poor thing!” he exclaimed, rushing over, scanning his beloved neighbor’s body for mysterious bruises or swollen joints.

Forcing a smile, she replied, “Really nothing to worry about. It’s a disaster out there, but I’m fine.” Mrs. Kazan summoned her remaining strength and tried to forge onward through the hot vacuum of a hallway, keeping her head down and avoiding eye contact. Leslie was not dissuaded in the slightest—Mrs. Kazan’s limp attempted escape only made him want to help her even more. He stood up straight, pulled his damp button-down taught, and pushed his sweat-drenched bangs to either side of his forehead. With the determination of a superhero, he said, “Let’s get those groceries into your apartment.”

Mrs. Kazan had had it. She edged her walker around to stare up at Leslie. “You know how they say the murder rate is at a record high?” she asked flatly. “No problem making it go higher. None. Catch my drift?”

They stared at each other until Leslie laughed uneasily. “You’re something else, Mrs. Kazan, you know that? You go ahead on your own this time, but don’t hesitate to ask me for help later! You know where I live!” Mrs. Kazan tried to block out his grating voice as she hobbled over to the elevator.

“Uh huh,” she said, “I sure do.” She did not bother to turn herself around—the elevator doors shut with her back to them.   

It was unlike Leslie to accept that someone could do something on their own, but the haze had gotten to even the most abrasively neighborly of neighbors. Sweating from every pore, Leslie reluctantly accepted defeat—surely there would be a better time to flaunt his helpfulness, when he could operate at 100 percent. Leslie smiled to himself as he sauntered back over to the mailboxes. His was empty.

——— 

3.     The Dratch Home

“Nothing today, honey,” Leslie cooed. He swung the door shut behind him, infusing the first-floor apartment with the hot muck of the unventilated hallway. He wiped sweat from his forehead, smearing his sopping wet bangs across his brow.

“Thanks for checking, sweets,” his wife, Lesley, said without looking up from the TV. Even with their AC blasting, the room was stuffy. Lesley had covered herself with as many frozen things as she could find: an ice pack was nestled in each armpit, a bag of frozen green beans was tucked under her tank top, and a frozen ribeye laid across her bare thighs. A fan was trained directly on her, no oscillation.

Leslie grabbed a canned lemonade out of their fridge before walking over to join Lesley on the couch. Lesley gingerly placed the ribeye on her husband’s legs, gazing up at him dotingly. They each puckered their lips and kissed the air between them before turning back to the TV. “That’s right, Elaine, we’re talking 45 percent of these United States dry as a bone,” said a crisp-suited news anchor. “Both the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are dried up completely—we’re coming to the point where we’re gonna have to just sit back and watch the fish die. Now let’s go to Scott with this week’s forecast.”

“Oh no, those poor fish,” garbled Leslie while taking a gulp from the lemonade can. Lesley silently patted his thigh. “I like fish, you know? All kinds. Cod, bass, trout, salmon, tuna, yellowfin tuna,” after a gasp of air Leslie continued, “tilapia, catfish, swordfish—”

“I know honey, I know,” Lesley delicately interrupted him. On a regular day she would’ve had the patience, and even some enthusiasm, to absorb Leslie’s every thought, but the heat had reduced her to a mere regular level of courtesy. “You always order fish when we go out. I’ve never once seen you order a pasta or a chicken breast.”

“Exactly,” Leslie said. “These poor guys are probably just flopping around in the dirt. They don’t stand a chance.” He pouted, crossing his arms over his chest. Lesley tried to comfort him. “Don’t get so broken up about this, honey bunch. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

Lesley smiled timidly, suppressing a chuckle at her own joke. She reached under her shirt, grabbed the bag of green beans, and playfully whacked Leslie with it. He smiled.

“Okay, okay,” Leslie said. “But I’m serious! An entire river drying up, fish dying by the thousands? Doesn’t that sound bad to you? Like ‘end of days’-type bad? Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” Leslie visualized himself single-handedly replenishing the river, pouring in thousands of gallons of water by hand. The couple’s smoke alarm cut the fantasy short.  “Oh!” exclaimed Lesley, “That damned thing is going off again. Would you shut that off, honey?” Just as Leslie rose from the couch, the building’s fire alarm started blaring.

“... record-breaking temperatures. 1988 is just inches away from clinching the title of the hottest year in history. Stay cool, folks,” the weatherman signed off, drowned out in the cacophony of beeps and bells.

——— 

4.     Leslie’s Rescue

Leslie and Lesley shared a brief look of panic until Leslie sprung into action. “Mrs. Kazan,” he whispered to himself, before leaping over the couch and running across the apartment. “Go outside!” he yelled to Lesley over his shoulder. Lesley’s “Where are you going?!” didn’t register.

As soon as Leslie opened the door, he was overcome with a smothering wave of smoke and heat that nearly knocked him over. He staggered backwards, reaching out to the wall for support, then using it for leverage, pushing off the wall and propelling himself towards the stairs. He clumsily lurched and stumbled to the stairwell, feeling like he had been shot out of a cannon. The superhero resolve returned to his face.

Leslie ran up to the third floor as fast as his legs could carry him. He arrived at Mrs. Kazan’s apartment, panting and coughing, just as she was shutting her door. “Mrs. Kazan,” he said hoarsely, his hands on his knees, “I’m here to help!” He fell into a violent coughing fit.

“Oh Christ,” Mrs. Kazan rolled her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” With a huff, she let go of her walker and held out her arms, knowing that allowing Leslie to help her was her only choice. Her feeble body trembled as sweat rolled down the bridge of her nose. The fire alarm persisted. The smoke from the first floor started to creep up the stairs.

Leslie hadn’t thought this far into his rescue operation—he had envisioned a heroic entrance and nothing else. There was no way he would be able to carry Mrs. Kazan on his own. She was small, but he had expended all his energy getting to this point and his lungs were filled with smoke. His mind was racing trying to think of a solution when a man with hair slightly askew hastily exited his apartment.

“Todd!” Leslie wheezed. Todd jumped, startled, jostling his toupee so much it slid to the back of his head. His hands shot up to protect the hairpiece—one holding it in place, the other covering his exposed scalp. “Please, we need to get Mrs. Kazan down those stairs.” Leslie, nearly keeled over, gestured towards the barely-visible exit route. Todd nodded, wide-eyed, and took in the fear on his neighbors’ faces. He allowed the toupee to fall to the floor.

“Let’s go already!” Mrs. Kazan barked, choking down a cough. The two men hurried over, both dripping in sweat and coughing. They shakily lifted her, each supporting an arm and a leg, but looked at each other doubtfully as they gingerly walked toward the staircase. Just as they began their descent, they heard something in the distance, slowly getting louder and louder, cutting through the continuous ringing. Suddenly, Lesley appeared through the haze, fighting her way up the stairs like a football player emerging through a fog-machined tunnel.

 ———

5.     Lesley’s Rescue

Nobody had time to think. Lesley, running on pure adrenaline, swept Mrs. Kazan up in her arms and immediately pivoted with ballerina-like precision to turn and run back down the stairs. Eyes bloodshot, vision blurred, and arms quaking with the weight of old woman, Lesley held her breath as she battled her way to the building’s exit. After a moment of brief, stunned silence the two men snapped back to reality and followed suit. Down the stairs, through the hall, and out the front door, they burst out onto the street and were met with chaos. The residents swarmed the sidewalk. Red-faced and completely beside themselves, they cried and yelled as fear and complete shock collided under a canopy of sweat.

“I know it’s that bitch in 4C! She’s always forgetting her oven is on! Always!”

“I got takeout from Sakura tonight, asshole!”

“I bet the landlord did it for the insurance money—that shifty motherfucker!”

“Whiskers?! Where are you kitty, where are you?”

“Will this madness ever end?!”

“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” mumbled Mrs. Kazan. She stood off to the side, surveying the commotion, leaning on Lesley for support. Todd and Leslie jogged over to where the women were standing. Leslie wrapped himself around his wife, nearly breathless; Mrs. Kazan shifted her weight to Todd. Lesley stood tall; Leslie looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Todd held his bald head high as Mrs. Kazan’s rigid body clung to his. Though the heat was still unbearable, the mayhem before them was a temporary distraction. They all turned to look up at their building churning out black smoke, engulfed in flames. Sirens clamored through alleys and around corners until the fire trucks finally pulled up to Hansen and Third.

 ———

6.     The Aftermath

The next day was filled with seemingly endless news coverage.

“The first calls came in at 8:37 p.m., and within a minute, several units were rolling. The first units arrived on the scene in six minutes to enter a battle that would last three hours and 42 minutes from start to finish. The fight and the fire escalated quickly. There was no underestimating the size and potential of this fire,” the news anchor said with fervor from behind a slick, glass-topped desk. “There were 40 people inside of the building when the fire broke out. Some got out on their own, after frightening experiences.”

Helicopter footage of the building ablaze cut to an on-site interview. Leslie, Lesley, Todd, and Mrs. Kazan stood in front of the camera. Leslie spoke with pride, his bangs pushed up off his forehead at a 90-degree angle. “I could barely see the stairs, or the exit, because of the smoke. I feared for my life, but I always put the needs of others before my own. Luckily we were able to work as a team to save our beloved neighbor Mrs. Kazan and carry her to safety.” Todd and Mrs. Kazan looked at him incredulously. Lesley’s face was blank.

The anchor appeared on screen again. “The fire's origin has been attributed to an overload of the building's electrical system, but the precise source of ignition was not determined—the fire department can only conclude that its cause was spontaneous combustion. Almost too hard to believe, but there it is. Back to you, Elaine.”

 ———

After a few days, the news coverage stopped. The heat persisted a while longer, but it eventually broke. The wiring in the building was repaired, a sprinkler system was installed. Furniture that had been destroyed was replaced. Todd bought a new, even more expensive toupee. Mrs. Kazan started to pretend to be deaf so she could ignore people more easily. Leslie formed the Anti-Hazard Coalition of Hansen and Third and appointed himself president. Lesley stayed home. Everyone forgot what it was like beneath the haze, and couldn’t bear trying to remember.

Heat Issue | November 2018

On the Other End of the Line

I sat back in my chair, silently listening to a man yelling on the other end of the line. At this point, I had stopped taking notes. The notepad in front of me already contained 20 minutes of notes from the ongoing rant, all centered on one topic: Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I instantly regretted telling the caller my first name, which he felt the need to utilize as frequently as possible.

He addressed all of his concerns to a girl he had never met: “Emma, if this Dr. Ford is really telling the truth, why didn’t she come out earlier?” He told me that I sounded “young” before launching into personal questions. Was I a coward? Would I report a case of sexual assault if it happened to me? He left no space for me to answer, just reasserted that only a coward would wait to come forward about their sexual assault. If he realized how inappropriate his questions were, he didn’t seem to care. With little regard for my emotions, experience, or history, the caller continued his rant.

Kavanaugh supporters and protesters alike phoned their senators’ offices en masse during the hearings this September. As an intern for Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, I answered aggressive calls from both sides of the aisle.

The partisanship I experienced as an intern was not new to me. When my father, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year, I learned how quickly emotionally-charged politics can undermine basic human decency. Many people were supportive, but there were a handful of individuals who prioritized politics over long-standing friendships. My background has made me both more sensitive and outraged by the negative effects of polarized protests. However, that year took an emotional toll on my family, and I am not comfortable making that part of my life public. Instead, I want to describe my experience as an intern during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to bring to light the risks of poorly executed protest.

Martin Luther King Jr. outlined how to effectively protest in his speech “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” He explained, “Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.” King didn’t believe in taking the teeth out of protest, but he urged people to be aware of the consequences of their actions. There is a place for emotion—maybe even a place for violence and hatred—when protesting grave injustices, but it ought to be accompanied by reason, sanity, and understanding to be an effective, or ethical, protest.

Ethical protest does not mean eliminating outrage or accepting the government’s actions in blind faith. Ethical protest simply means being thoughtful. It means being aware of all the effects, intentional and otherwise, of your behavior. Ethical protest is a careful response to a situation, not a reaction or an indiscriminate form of lashing out. Ethical protest shapes history. Unethical protest merely heightens partisanship and increases conflict. It gives each side an excuse to isolate themselves from the other party, avoid discussion and shut down disagreements. Unethical protest rarely incites positive change.

 ———

Kavanaugh’s confirmation provides ample examples of unethical protest. Even before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault charges were made public, people were upset because they feared Kavanaugh would overturn Roe v. Wade if confirmed. Under that fear, a constituent threatened a young woman on Senator Susan Collins’ staff. He said he wanted to rape her so that she could get pregnant and see what it is like not to have access to an abortion.

Take that in for a minute. A man advocating for women’s rights did so by threatening to violate a woman’s physical safety. This man’s violent language was not a tool he used to advocate for his cause. He did not further women’s rights through protest. Instead, he undermined the values he advocated for by creating an unsafe environment for Republican women. There was no utilitarian outcome either. The news story was well-publicized on the Hill, and, if it had any effect, appeared to push Republican senators into a more partisan stance. No senator wants to feel strong-armed into a vote because someone threatened to “track down” their staffers.

Less extreme examples were prominent throughout the Senate. A week before the vote, a man stormed behind my desk and leaned over my face. I was physically blocked from standing up as he yelled at me to “tell Senator Corker not to put that bastard on the Court.” I nodded and took notes until he walked away. Even though I did not believe the situation would escalate to physical violence, I felt cornered. That man did not channel his anger to make his voice heard. He was simply looking for an outlet to vent his frustration, and I was an easy target.

At various times I’ve been told that I should “Be scared … Get up and run … Be very careful … ” or threatened that “everyone working with a Republican will be tracked down … Shame, shame, shame … ” Other times, callers have made moral judgments about my own life: “You will never achieve your potential if you work for Republicans … You deserve to have that happen to you … If you ever have a daughter, you are responsible for when this happens to her.” Most of these callers have some goal: to prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation, change the culture around sexual assault, or punish people they believe to be responsible for Kavanaugh’s success. However, yelling at an intern achieves none of their goals. It becomes hostility simply for the sake of hostility.

A demonized view of the other party has led a few callers to absurd conclusions. One woman began by telling me I didn’t deserve access to birth control because I work for a Republican senator. Throughout the call, she continued to suggest my right to birth control was tied to my political party. She told me I would be stuck in an abusive relationship and only have myself to blame. Her assertion was that any relationship with a Republican would be abusive, and since I work for a Republican, I was bound to marry one.

Her assumption that all Republican men are abusive is objectively false. I was concerned by how quickly she caricatured men from my party. I was equally concerned that her negative view of Republicans extended far enough for her to preclude me from basic rights. Most of our callers would never say a woman was “asking for” poor treatment because of how she was dressed or where she spent her time, but this woman told me I was “asking for” abuse because of who I was working for.  

Sitting in an office for hours, listening to people attack my character and interrogate me about graphic hypotheticals, was emotionally draining. I was lumped into the generalized class of “evil Republicans” by callers who knew nothing about me. This problem reflects more the widespread polarization in our country.

Having spent time with both Republicans and Democrats, I genuinely believe neither party is trying to destroy our country. There are very few people in the world who aim to create discrimination, pollution, authoritarianism, or poverty. Often the parties’ aims are similar—creating a free, just, and safe society. People simply have different beliefs about how to achieve these goals. Polarization occurs when protesters conflate disagreement into an existential battle between good and evil. Once that happens, the other side becomes “the enemy,” and “the enemy” is not treated as human.

——— 

Demonization often stems from poor communication. Hate evolves from fear, and fear, in turn, evolves from ignorance. To stop the kind of unproductive aggression directed at our Senate office, the public needs a better understanding of what a senator’s office does.

To start, a call to a senator is almost always answered by interns or low-level staff. Given the nature of an internship position, it should be clear that anger or ad hominem attacks are not appropriate. These young adults in their late teens and early 20s have moved away from family and friends to learn about their government. They record information and answer questions. They do not make decisions, and no amount of shouting or cursing will change that.

Interns are not accountable for the position of their senator, nor do they even necessarily share their senator’s ideology. The internship position helps young people learn how the government functions and how a senator’s office works. Some people put aside party preferences for the learning opportunities involved in an internship.

Even interns who align with their office’s political party still don’t agree with their senator on every issue. Everything in D.C. is in motion—when I applied to my job, Justice Kennedy hadn’t even announced his retirement. There is no way to know in advance of your boss will decide and quitting over a vote is not always the right option.

Protesters are often frustrated when they don’t understand the limitations of our government. Uninformed callers with an opinion on Kavanaugh frequently ask our office to do things which are beyond the scope of Congress or our office. Many people don’t know who is on the Judiciary Committee, how FBI requests work, or which senators are up for re-election. When we cannot help someone due to the nature of their request, they frequently escalate to anger.

The most effective advocates don’t just stay up to date with current events, but are also aware of the Congressional procedures and make demands that are realistic for a senator. Not everyone has the time to delve deeper in their civic education, but as Colorado College students, we certainly have the resources to better understand our government and share that information with others.

A common cause of frustration is non-constituent callers. Passionate Texans and Californians often called Corker’s office in an attempt to swing the vote of a Tennessee senator. The truth is, Corker does not represent them, and their voice is not as powerful to us as it could be to their home-state representatives. Out-of-state messages are rarely passed along, or recorded at all.

Senators are aware of the broad impact of legislation and nominations, but they also have a duty to their constituents. Phone calls are how senators get a read on the unique issues his or her state faces. When out of state residents call, constituents are the ones who suffer. Constituents end up on hold and don’t receive the time and attention they deserve. Every voice should be heard, but the only way that can happen, given our limited resources, is if people go through their respective representatives.

Though you’ve all probably heard that you should “call your senator” about hot-button issues, no one really explains what “calling your senator” entails. Often, callers don’t expect to hear an actual person on the other end of the line. Every letter, email, voicemail, and phone call (to your senator) is in some way seen or heard. It does make a difference.

It is also important to know the type of information that we pass along. Senator Corker’s office has three interns and staff answering calls and entering the overall position of the caller into a computer system (the same kind used by all the other Senate offices). At the end of the day, an email is sent to the senator and the entire office with call statistics.

The computer system records general sentiment en masse, which means the woman who spends 20 minutes on the phone insulting me and my life decisions will be recorded in the same way as the caller who makes a two-line statement that ends with a “Thank you, have a nice day.” Both are put down as “Delay vote on Supreme Court nominee until after midterm elections—Pro.” Phone calls are valuable as a general read on public opinion, but a phone call is not the most effective median for detailed narratives.

This is especially true regarding sensitive topics. Dr. Ford’s allegations prompted men and women across the country to come out and share their experiences of sexual assault. Coming forward takes courage, but there is an appropriate time and place to share these powerful stories; recounting trauma for the first time should take place in a secure setting with people who are trained to provide the best support. A senator’s front office is not that setting.

When constituents speak to an intern, they don’t know that person’s background, and they don’t know what might be triggering. There was one woman that stood out to me—she was hurt, angry, and frustrated. She gave me an in-depth account of the trauma that she experienced as a kid and the effect it had on her life. Her story was moving and ended with the usual request. In strongly worded language, she asked that I ensure Kavanaugh not be confirmed. I told her I would pass her message along, and I appreciated her courage.

At the end of the call, I said something insensitive. In a mindless slip of the tongue, I told her to “Have a nice day.” She was furious. She explained that what I had said was incredibly inappropriate. There was no way she could “have a nice day” after sharing something like that. And she was right. What I said was inappropriate. The truth is, I don’t know if there is an appropriate response to stories of sexual assault.

I wish I could have communicated that I saw her pain, that I recognized how much this impacted her life, that I knew how triggering Dr. Ford’s allegations were. I simply didn’t know how, and I was not prepared to emotionally help the survivors who called our office. I was shaken up after the call, and I ended up taking a break to sit and cry in the bathroom before returning to the phones.

Her call was incredibly emotional for me, but it was still ineffective in making the kind of change she wanted to see. There are so many narratives like hers. Eventually, everyone in the office hit a point where we simply could not process any more cases of sexual assault. There was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing I could do to alleviate her pain and trauma. Nothing I could do but pass her message along in a distilled Pro/Con computer system.

For people who want their full story to be heard, details included, I’d recommend a different avenue, such as a local newspaper, an interview, or even a blog. Senators are updated on stories mentioning their name and receive articles from their local newspapers, so there is a good chance those stories will get back to the senator. But nothing positive resulted from these emotionally tense calls. The survivors who shared their stories did not receive emotional support or feel heard. The intern who answered almost always ended the call in distress.

 ———

People have the right to reach out and criticize their representatives, but it is important to be conscious of how that message is delivered. It doesn’t take a great understanding of American politics to know that another divisive controversy will inevitably spill over into the headline, and the issues that have come up with the Kavanaugh protests will not go away with a Senate floor vote. There will be some injustice great enough to move you to action—as you should be. Protest, but as you defend a moral standpoint, be careful that you honor those morals in the way you behave.

Michelle Obama urged Democrats to respond to right-wing behavior with civility: “When they go low, we go high.” Following this motto goes beyond just modeling “the high road,” but extends to taking responsibility for those in the party who do not. There were several disgruntled Republicans whose support of Kavanaugh was harmful, and in many other areas, Republican protests undermine their own message. My party is flawed, but I have a responsibility to do my part in informing other Republicans how to be respectful in expressing their views.

Most of you, as CC students, fall on the other side of the aisle, but you face the same challenge. There are people in your party who undermine your message. Some people claim to care about women’s rights while verbally abusing a woman in the next sentence. These people talk about tolerance but refuse to treat the other party with any degree of tolerance. They fight under the same banner as you—protecting rights—but some quickly limit those rights to only the people who agree with them.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, as a Republican surrounded by Democrats. I chose to go to a left-leaning school because I value having people I respect challenge my beliefs. Although I rarely agree with the platform, I respect the Democratic Party. It is full of intelligent, good-hearted individuals who are passionate about improving the world around them, and CC is proof of that. I know Democrats can be so much more than the type of people who called our office with nothing but unproductive anger and insults.

Even if you are not personally responsible for these aggressive protests, it is up to you to protect the type of Democratic Party you want to be a part of. It is easy to criticize someone on the other side of the aisle. It is harder to look at the people around you and criticize individuals who are supporting your cause. However, the best way to practice your values is to make sure your own party doesn’t fall into hypocrisy. Model how to protest ethically and encourage others to follow suit. When you talk to someone who agrees with your political opinion but does so in a way that seems violent, hypocritical or inappropriate, don’t let the opportunity for conversation pass.

It is up to you to point out logical flaws out when you see them in the fringes of your party. It is the role of a good Democrat to inform others that a female Republican deserves access to her basic human rights as much as any other woman. A Republican survivor deserves to be respected just as much as any other survivor. A person of the other party is still a person. Each party needs to do their part to move past this wave of partisanship. That starts internally, by learning to express disagreement in a way that is respectful to the person on the other end of the line.


Heat Issue | November 2018

The Secret's in the Spice

Cecelia Gonzales, our local horticulturist, has worked in grounds at Colorado College since August 1995. From the plants decorating the sidewalks to the perennial gardens beautifully constructed around campus, Cecelia has brought artistry and vivacity to campus for the past 23 years. She is originally from Trinidad, which sits on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, “right on the southern tip.” I sat across from Cecelia in a booth in Wooglins on a snowy Thursday morning and asked her to share her story of chili. Not only did she inaugurate the annual chili cook-off at CC, but she also wins it every single year, with her green chili recipe. As Cecelia ate a big breakfast, she talked about the flavors she could taste: the egg, the sweetness of the syrup; flavors she had lost the ability to distinguish while she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. We spent the morning talking about Cecelia’s process of making green chili, and how spice was the flavor she never lost the taste of.

——— 

Becca Stine: So, tell me about the annual chili cook-off.

Cecelia Gonzales: It’s an annual Grounds chili cook-off. I believe we started in ’96 or ’97, and it’s been going ever since. We started having a chili cook-off right before Christmas break, and then it interfered with the president's party, and the facilities party, so we decided to move it up to the New Year, which would give us something to kind of look forward to. We’d have something to come back to in January.

We usually have a green chili, a red chili, and an “other.” The other could be a vegetarian, or a white chili, or what have you.

And everyone has to make one of each?

Whatever they want, they can make one or the other. I’m a green chili champion.

Are there separate awards for each kind of chili?

Yeah, what we normally do is get gift certificates to give out to the winners. It was more of a trying to get everybody together. We always had plenty of beer, and we always got fresh tortillas from La Casita to go with it.

Where did you learn how to make chili?

I learned from my mother when I was little, and over the years I just have kind of added my own twist to it. My green chili is more of a stew, it’s real meaty. So I put a lot of green peppers in it. I make it with pork. It has a lot of green chili. I get my chilis from Pueblo, but last year I bought my chilis from a little place, a little garden shop that had chilis from New Mexico, which I think are a little better chili, they’re a little fatter. The taste is so much better.

You mean spicier?

You’ve got different types of green you know, like Big Jim, Anaheim, and then you have hot. A lot of times I’ll take a mild green and mix it in with a hotter green. Last year mine came out pretty warm, but I won.

We usually try and get judges from outside, or we’ve had Chef Ed [from Bon Appetit]. I’ve had Stewy, the lacrosse coach, she’s judged a couple of times.

How many people usually take part?

It was a lot bigger in the past. We used to get easily 100 people that would come to it. Last year there was maybe 50 or 60 people that showed up. The most we’ve had is about 17 entries.

What are the main components of a good chili?

A good chili? Good green peppers, good pork, onions, garlic, a little bit of tomato, just a little bit, and bouillon, chicken bouillon, really makes a good green chili. I also make a roux for it. I make a roux out of butter and olive oil, and add it to the chili to thicken it up just a little bit.

Is that something your mother taught you?

No, it’s something I probably learned on the food channel or something [laughs]. I know growing up my mom didn’t make roux, but they used corn starch … I hate cornstarch, it’s awful. I don’t use cornstarch in anything. Who knows what’s in corn starch!

I know, my mom says the same thing.

Right!?

Growing up, I remember there were meals that my mom would make that were quintessentially her dishes.

It was chili. Back then too, when we’d make chili, they didn't have the big roasters that you see today … they have these big roasters made out of big drums and they use propane and they spin, so they cook the chili pretty quick. That's how it’s done today. Back in the day, we used to roast it in the oven. It would take you all day. You would roast it and then freeze it. I grew up with a New Mexico style chili.

Do you associate memories with chili?

I do with my grandmother. My grandmother made this awesome red chili that to this day I can’t duplicate. She used to make a chili paste. I still can’t find anything like it today. Whenever I was going to come over, she’d make a pot of red chili for me.

Was this your idea? Did you start the chili competition tradition at CC?

It was me and my old supervisor. We both liked green chili, we both loved it. So we thought “let’s do a chili cook-off!” So we started it, and it was a hit. The spoons that I have [the winning prize], the carpenters make every year. So you get a gift certificate if you win, plus a really cool spoon [laughs].

How does it work on the day?

We usually try and get the judging done by 2 or 3 o’clock so that people can start drinking beer and eating chili!

What is your favorite part of the whole competition? What makes it so special?

Being able to see other colleagues that you don’t really get to see throughout the year, you know. They’ll come down, and you’ll sit down and talk to them for a while. Just getting together with people.

Of all the flavors (spice, sweet, sour, etc) is spice the most compelling to you? And why?

Spice is the most compelling, especially after I went through chemo. I found that anything that was spicy, I could eat. It wouldn’t affect my taste buds. Even before that, I loved anything spicy. I like curry, you know, something that has a good bite to it. Savory and spice.

Even eggs, I’m eating eggs today, I couldn’t eat eggs for months. They were awful. I remember taking a bite of a boiled egg and I spit it out, it was so bad. I thought, “Oh no, I’m not going to be able to eat this, I love eggs!” So after I was done [with chemo] I went and I got eggs benedict, and it was so good [laughs].

Taste is something I feel like we take for granted, and it’s things like that hardship that remind you how important it is to taste your food.

Yeah it is. And you know, green chili is loaded with vitamin C. It has more vitamin C than an orange. There are so many types of peppers, it’s crazy.

What else is there to know about your chili making process?

When you’re working with green chili, especially if it’s hot, you don’t want to rub your eyes for a while, because that hurts. I’ve done it a couple of times. After two times, you remember.

I’ve had a couple vegetarian friends that will eat my chili with the pork in it. One time I made green chili for my vegetarian friends with tofu … it was awful!

I’ve tried to teach people how to make it, but it just doesn’t come out the same.

Have you ever read “Like Water For Chocolate?”

No, I’ve heard about it though.

You’re making me think about scenes in that book where, when one of the characters cooks a meal, her emotions go into the food as well. So when people eat what she makes, they feel the way she did when she made it.

You know, that makes a lot of sense. Because I do the same thing when I’m making my chili.

Really?

Yes, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’ve made it, it’s like uugh, but sometimes when I’m really, really into it, it comes out awesome.

When I cook my green chili, it usually takes about three to four hours, because I slow cook my pork in a dutch oven. When that’s cooking, I clean my chili and dice it up. I throw that in another pot, add some water to it, just a little small can of whole peeled tomatoes, and let that start cooking down. Even though the chilis are already cooked, I cook them down even more. Once the pork is done, then I add onions and garlic. Then, I add everything into the green chili, with the bouillon and let that cook a little longer.

Oh, you’re sharing your secrets?

Ah, that’s okay. I don’t think anybody could make it as good as me. I challenge them to make it.

You should teach a class!

Yes! Give me some good wine, and we’ll start cooking!

 

 Heat Issue | November 2018

Receding Floodwaters

August heat in New Orleans is a heat felt inside the body. It is the heat of a city 12 feet below sea level, where feet drag on blistering concrete and the breeze carries nothing but the smell of the lake and river. New Orleans always moves slowly, but in August it comes to a halt. The summer is marked by wet air, sticky skin, and an insatiable lethargy. At night, screeching cicadas are the only way to tell that time moves at all.

But water is quiet, and even the cicadas fell silent for the weeks that brackish waves lapped at shotgun house porches in the aftermath of Katrina. Spray-painted X-codes identified which rescue squad had come to survey the house, the time and date that the team arrived, the hazards within the house, and the number of people (or bodies) found. In one house, a gaping hole in a roof cast shadows of a family using an axe to escape.        

As floodwaters finally receded back into Bayou Sauvage and Lake Borgne in late August of 2005, they left only a shell of New Orleans in the crescent of the Mississippi River. This new, post-Katrina New Orleans was bleak. New Orleanian refugees marooned throughout the United States wondered what awaited them in southeast Louisiana. Images of corpses swollen with water and the Superdome crowded with people dominated the news cycle.

But in the Village de l’Est community of New Orleans East, something different was happening. In mid-October of 2005, only a little more than a month after Katrina made landfall and days after the floodwaters receded, a group of Vietnamese-Americans arrived en masse to the East. By early November, the community had even successfully pressured the city to turn on the utilities for home use. While the majority of New Orleanians were still stranded across the country, the residents of Village de l’Est were planning church services, discussing reconstruction plans, and opening their homes to the refugees who had been trapped during the storm.    

The story of Vietnamese resilience post-Katrina was quickly hijacked by anti-black media outlets that transformed the incredible endurance of Village de l’Est to fit their racist narrative which pit southeast Louisiana’s poor black communities against their Vietnamese neighbors. The speedy organization and activism of the Vietnamese community was juxtaposed with the lack of activity in the Lower Ninth Ward in order to exacerbate the pre-existing racial tensions between the two communities, both of whom were disproportionately affected by the storm. The government and media outlets alike underscored Vietnamese self-reliance by framing them against the “government-dependent” black communities of their neighborhoods.

This narrative failed to address the complex history of the Vietnamese in New Orleans, which played a vital role in forging their identity borne out of communal and intergenerational trauma. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Louisiana in the wake of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. had finally renounced support for the Vietnam War, and North Vietnamese troops had invaded South Vietnam as a result of the withdrawal of American combat troops from the area. Around 2,100 of the estimated 130,000 Vietnamese people that fled that spring settled in New Orleans. By 1985, an estimated 12,000 Vietnamese residents were living in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, with almost 6,000 concentrated in the Versailles neighborhood alone.

The Vietnamese resettlement process was spearheaded by the Associated Catholic Charities, an organization that the New Orleans Archdiocese worked through in order to sponsor the first resettlement of 1,000 Vietnamese families in New Orleans East. Catholicism, which plays an important role in the cultural identity of New Orleanians, worked as the foundation upon which the New Orleanian Vietnamese society was built. In August of 1978, a mere three years after the Vietnamese began immigrating from South Vietnam to New Orleans, a Vietnamese Catholic chapel was opened to fully service the neighborhood. This chapel would expand in the early ‘80s to become Mary Queen of Vietnam Church (MQVC), which was instrumental in the organization of the community after Katrina and today serves as the center of Vietnamese culture in New Orleans East.  

As the only former French colony in the United States, New Orleans was a popular destination for Vietnamese refugees who hoped for an easy transition and re-creation of the lifestyles and culture from their old towns. French cultural influence, as well as the city’s proximity to the coast, also attracted immigrants who did not speak English or wanted to continue their lives as fishermen. Dzuyet Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled Saigon in 1975, reflected on his resettlement process with the Times-Picayune reporter Gayle Ashton in 1985. He explained, “They ask us where we want to settle … maybe in Washington, what do you want? They say New Orleans is a city on the coast, the climate is warm and have many seafood. And we say, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah.’ And we choose New Orleans. Because of the warm weather, the seafood available, the people who speak French sometimes. But we choose it.”

Despite various cultural and environmental similarities, however, the Vietnamese transition into the city was anything but smooth. The majority of the Vietnamese refugees settled in the Versailles community of the Village de l’Est neighborhood, an area that was approximately 90 percent black at the time. Race relations intensified as the marginalized black communities began to feel as though the Vietnamese presence was negatively impacting the city and the neighborhood. Various black community leaders expressed concerns that the resettlement program worsened the city’s already depressed economy by increasing both taxes and competition among the poor for limited housing and jobs.

Cheryl Wilson Cramer, head of a city task force that studied the effect of the Southeast Asian refugee population on New Orleans, explained in 1985 that resentment towards the Vietnamese spread throughout portions of the black communities as a result of the special programs that assisted in helping the Vietnamese of New Orleans East prosper. The $800,000 spent by the Associated Catholic Charities, in partnership with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to buy housing for 1,000 Vietnamese families in a low-income black neighborhood was seen as an investment into foreigners instead of the community. Other programs that were exclusive to Vietnamese immigrants were various tax breaks, welfare (even though only 20.4 percent of Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans collected welfare in the 1980s, as compared to the 54 percent nationwide as reported by Gayle Ashton in The Times-Picayune), and even small plots of lands to grow crops to sell at the markets.

The conflicts between New Orleans residents and the Vietnamese immigrant communities, however, were not purely economic. New Orleans, though popular among various immigrant groups, had never before had a substantial Asian population. The appearance of these newcomers shocked white and black locals alike and the cultural differences intensified the strain surrounding the resettlement process. “The Vietnamese would dry fish or shrimp in 90-degree heat on their balcony and their American neighbors would come home and get a whiff,” recounted the Versailles Arms apartment manager Melanie Ottaway in 1985. Farther south, in coastal towns throughout Plaquemines Parish, fishing communities also felt the impacts of resettlement as Louisiana fisherman began to compete with the Vietnamese in overcrowded waters throughout the Louisiana coast. Louisiana shrimpers oftentimes felt that the Vietnamese were not respecting Southern shrimping and fishing customs, which caused strife between the two communities.

Despite the intense racial divide, heightened economic hardships, and their limited ability to speak English and thus communicate with the majority of their neighbors, the Vietnamese refugee communities were painted by the public as communities with a “bootstrap ethic” in the face of their many grievances. The Vietnamese quickly found employment and often began paying their own rent after the first month of resettlement. Michael Haddad, who was head of the Associated Catholic Charities at the time of the resettlement and thus in charge of the $800,000 housing expenses, explained that “I was scared … [but] they took a lot of jobs nobody else wanted, menial low-wage jobs. The advantage they had was a tight family unit. And when all of them were working at minimum-wage jobs, they were basically able to swing the rent.” The “bootstrap” narrative imposed onto the Vietnamese was only strengthened by the fact that the refugees were fleeing a communist country. Rather than attributing the dedication of the Vietnamese to the survival tactics imposed on them as refugees and necessary for survival, Americans instead created the narrative that capitalism empowered the Vietnamese to make a new homeland for themselves.

In 1985, The Times-Picayune even published an article titled “Refugees Showed They Are Survivors” with an entire section titled “A bootstrap ethic.” In this section, the journalist Gayle Ashton reports, “Although some refugees may have escaped Vietnam with jewelry or gold, many—especially those who were attacked by pirates as they escaped by boat—arrived with nothing. What may amaze or confound native-born Americans is a difference in Vietnamese values and lifestyle that is reflected in their quick economic process.” Later in the article, Ashton further supports her claim of Vietnamese “bootstrap ethic” by quoting a personnel director for a major New Orleans hotel. The director explains, “I find they tend to be industrious entrepreneurs. I wish more people had the same work ethic.” The hotel director and Ashton both clearly value the work ethic of the Vietnamese refugees, but hidden in their words is an understanding that the Vietnamese are prosperous in capitalist United States in a way that they would not be in newly communist Vietnam. Though this article, published as part of a four-day series celebrating a decade of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, was written in 1985, it exhibits how the early perceptions of the Vietnamese would manifest into the later characterization of Vietnamese resiliency and how this understanding glorifies capitalism as the economic system which empowered these refugees to flourish.

However, Vietnamese New Orleanians themselves also identify in part with this “bootstrap” narrative, especially in how it relates to anti-communism. Cyndi Nguyen, current city councilwoman for District E (the district where Village de l’Est is located and which took the brunt of the Katrina damage), writes in her campaign biography that she was five years old when she and her family left Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen’s website explains that “they escaped from the Communists because her parents wanted their children to have access to opportunities and most importantly to have freedom.” Later, Nguyen cites her immigration to New Orleans as the key motivating factor that fuels her “work ethic, her integrity, and her audacity of hope.” Nguyen believes that capitalism and the United States afforded her the opportunities to be where she is today and to empower her district, comprised of both Vietnamese and black communities. She does not criticize capitalism even though capitalism plays a huge role in the poverty, violence, and destruction in her own district. However, she also governs on a promise of unity: unlike the post-Katrina media focus that sought to polarize the Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans, Nguyen promised to utilize the strengths of each community so that together post-Katrina New Orleans East could prosper.   

This “bootstrap ethic” narrative played an integral role in the outside perception of post-Katrina Vietnamese organization in New Orleans. Nguyen’s City Council District E was the area most heavily impacted by the storm; when over 50 levees failed on August 29, 2005, Village de l’Est and the Lower Ninth Ward took on over 20 feet of water. This area flooded along with 80 percent of the city as thousands of homes were destroyed and the Vietnamese community was once again displaced.

However, this destruction did not delay the return of the Vietnamese to Village de l’Est. The Vietnamese, emboldened once again by the MQVC and the head priest Father Vien Nguyen, returned to New Orleans East in droves, ready to reclaim and rebuild their new homeland. In mid-October of 2005, less than two weeks after Mayor C. Ray Nagin had declared the city safe for return, the Vietnamese took the first steps towards the re-creation of normal life by creating a petition that successfully persuaded the utility companies to restore power in New Orleans East, which became the first neighborhood to receive power in the city after the storm. By early December of 2005, an estimated 600 Vietnamese individuals had returned and begun cleaning and repairing Vietnamese American homes and businesses in the area. Over 90 percent of the Vietnamese community was once again living in New Orleans East by the spring of 2007, compared to the less than 50 percent of black residents that once resided in the neighborhood.

During the immediate post-Katrina rebuilding effort, the Vietnamese were lauded as the first community to return to the city and begin the restoration process without significant government assistance. Instead of celebrating this astounding example of exemplary community organization and impressive resiliency, the city and state political climate quickly shifted towards anti-black rhetoric. The Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans East both endured the brunt of the Katrina damage, but the quick Vietnamese return laid the groundwork for victim-blaming against the black communities that was perpetuated both politically and in general by white elites.

This victim-blaming is preserved in a news segment by Al Jazeera English, an English-language news and current affairs TV station headquartered in Doha, Qatar. In the segment, Rob Reynolds follows Father Luke Nguyen through New Orleans East as Nguyen regales the tale of the last year. However, much of Nguyen’s speech is voiced over as Reynolds uses the resiliency of Vietnamese New Orleanians to shame the black communities (though they remain unmentioned). He explains, “After Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community decided not to wait for the government or insurance companies to help. They returned to their neighborhood immediately and started rebuilding.” This kind of reporting dismisses the violence and fear that the black communities experienced at the hands of the police during and immediately after Katrina, stereotypes the black communities as lazy, and dismisses the actual voices of the Vietnamese communities. Reynolds spends a large part of the segment talking over Father Nguyen’s speech, erasing the voice of the community in favor of the voice of white elites.

Shockingly, however, for the first time in city history, the Vietnamese and the black communities forged a united front. In solidarity, they organized to hold government officials accountable and prevent the continued marginalization of their communities. The strongest display of unity was presented in the form of a coalition between the black and Vietnamese communities when, in February of 2006, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that a toxic waste landfill would be opened less than two miles from the Versailles Arms Apartments in Village de l’Est. MQVC once again stepped in by developing the MQVC Community Development Corporation, whose mission is “to preserve and promote our unique diversity and improving the quality of life of residents in the Greater New Orleans area, beginning in New Orleans East.” The MQVC Community Development Corporation united the two communities under the same goal: to prevent the opening of the Katrina landfill, which would in essence serve as a dumping ground for all of the toxic waste that was left in the city by the receded floodwaters and result in the further marginalization of the communities in the area.

On the anniversary of Katrina, Vietnamese and black citizens alike from all over the Greater New Orleans Area stood at the gates of the proposed landfill as they awaited the arrival of dump trucks. With the eyes of the nation watching, the two united communities understood that the landfill was bigger than themselves. They were fighting for all of New Orleans and for everyone that would come after them. The demonstration was successful, for the dump trucks never arrived and the proposed landfill was never opened. The Vietnamese and black communities, who had been so segregated and divided for the past three decades, had come together to rise up against the powers that had oppressed them.

“We are a suffering people,” Father Luke Nguyen remarked to Reynolds in the 2007 interview. “We endure a lot of pains in the history of our development as a culture. And the war—the war in our land—kills a lot of people. And so Katrina here … is only a twist to us. It’s only a twist.” Father Nguyen’s words, which came less than two years after the storm, epitomize the Vietnamese outlook on disaster and destruction. He considers his people to be a people born of pain; people who must endure deep anguish in order to persevere. South Vietnam and the capitalist haven that it could have been must live on within Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. His words resonate with those of Jane Foley, who was the resettlement director for the Associated Catholic Charities. “Survivors, that’s what they are. They don’t give up. They do what they have to do.” The Vietnamese response to Katrina and their rebuilding of a post-Katrina society is contingent on their identities as war refugees. The suffering and trauma that they endured in their home country at the hands of their own government gave them the strength to endure anything.

“The war changed the face of the Earth,” Trancong, former magazine director and Vietnamese immigrant to New Orleans, remarked to Ashton in 1985. “The war changed the values of Americans. The war changed a lot of things.” Trancong’s words here haunt the post-Katrina Vietnamese population of New Orleans, a population that has already once been traumatized by the loss of a homeland. Determined not to lose their “second homeland,” the Vietnamese returned, rebuilt, and made sure to lift up their neighbors to do the same. There was no more racial divide or jealousy or pain between the two groups because the Vietnamese saw in the black communities where they themselves had been 30 years prior. Even store owner Mike Tran, who returned to his looted grocery store in Mid-City New Orleans a mere six weeks after Katrina, showed no animosity towards those who robbed him. Proudly, he explained that his store, which was built on an elevated slab, must have served as a safe haven for those who had stayed behind to weather Katrina. He pointed out the large pieces of cardboard that were scattered throughout his store and remarked that they probably served as temporary sleeping mats for those stranded there. “Cash, liquor, and cigarettes—yeah, they stole everything. But, you know, not everyone was there to steal. Some people were just finding a way to survive.”

November is a time of of celebration. The sweltering August heat is a hazy memory as the sun starts to dip below the Mississippi River and ushers in a cool breeze. We remember that we have survived another hurricane season. We remember that, somehow, we always survive—though not all of us. But the Natchez in the port will play her dirge, and the people in the streets will sing of the cypress trees, and we will remember that our communities—born of floodwaters, of X-codes, and of war—will fight for one another. People fall in love with New Orleans not for the oppressive heat, but for the people that come out of it. And my people will always, always come out of it.

Heat Issue | November 2018

Of Meat and Men

If you’re wondering if we gender food, google “man eating.” Cool, dudes shoving burgers down their throats. Now google “woman eating.” Salads abound. From these stock images, one would think that women pretty much eat only cubes of fruit and iceberg lettuce while laughing into their forks.

On one level, these search results might seem more indicative of female diet culture than of men’s diets; we’re more likely to view a diet of solely salad as a trendy fad than we would a diet that largely consists of meat (looking at you, keto fiends). That’s because we already assume that eating massive quantities of meat is the norm—the average American ate 198 pounds of meat in the year 2014 compared to the world average of about 91 pounds. We are a meat-centric society and, despite the growing number of very vocal plant-based folk, meat consumption is soaring (annual meat consumption per person in the U.S. was predicted to be to 222 pounds for the year of 2018). America is increasingly meat-obsessed, and when you take a closer look at our country (the “steak of the union,” if I may) it’s hardly surprising. Whether it’s Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners TV commercials or the not so wholesome not so family farm Perdue chickens, America loves meat. So why aren’t both women and men on Google Images chowing down steaks? Why is meat so connected to masculinity?

We could, of course, approach it from a naïve “first humans” perspective: men are hunters, women are gatherers. But even if that perspective is anthropologically accurate, it’s strange that the association has lived on considering the only spears most men wield now are the sticks inside their corn dogs. According to a study done by the Vegan Society, 63 percent of vegans identify as female, while 37 percent identify as male. This divide is slightly more even but still apparent in vegetarians, with 41 percent of vegetarians in the U.S. identifying as male. Men aren’t hunting animals as a means to survive anymore, but there still seems to be an inextricable link between meat consumption and manhood.

We seem to think that meat reinforces this idealized conception of manhood, that we are the number one predator. But ironically, in today's corporate capitalist world, this sentiment has only allowed men to be targeted by meat corporations. Take Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial from 2007: a man leaves his date at a restaurant because he doesn’t want to “settle for chick food.” The commercial ends with the statement “Eat like a man, man.” Basically, the message is that maleness is predicated on consuming a meat manufactured by a corporation (Burger King). In the same way that beauty narratives tell women they need x product to be truly beautiful, our society has posed meat consumption as something integral to manhood. It also sets up yet another way to pit women against one another, as some women use misogynist food narratives to their favor by asserting they’re not like “typical women.” The girl who gets a burger on the first date is a cool, one-of-the-guys kind of girl, while the girl who eats a salad is overly concerned with her figure or too girly. If there’s anything more American than meat, it’s misogyny!

Thinking of meat as synonymous with strength isn’t solely capitalism’s fault, but colonialism as well (although those are both just dressed-up words for the exploitation of poor people. You say tomato, I say subjugation of millions). In postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi’s book Affective Communities, she highlights how the meat-eating English used meat as a colonialist means of control over India; meat was seen as food of the strong and “intelligent” colonizer, the diet of “civilized” English society. She argues that the English used meat consumption as an “ideological tactic” against the more plant-based Indians: if meat meant strength and superiority, a vegetarian diet meant inferiority, illness, and weakness.

I wanted to see what masculine people had to say about meat. Did they notice the emphasis on meat eating in America or was I driving myself crazy over nothing? To George, who I knew in high school and struggle to call a man rather than a boy, “meat means protein and gains that’s about all that comes to mind.” From what I gathered during our brief conversation, George seems to work out a lot now, which was why he described himself as “particularly masculine.” He and his frat brothers apparently all eat a lot of meat and work out together; to them, the protein they get from meat translates directly into masculine “gains” and enormous pulsing man muscles. Meat means gains, gains mean masculinity, so by transitive property of frattiness, meat means ... masculinity, I guess.

Although George’s brief, no-nonsense answers were helpful, I was able to pull a lot more out of Joe, a fellow CC student. He pointed out that “when male-identifying people grow up, we learn that eating meat makes you strong and tough, and we’re eating all these mostly female animals.” This was another aspect of gendering meat I hadn’t even considered... There isn’t exactly a huge number of bulls or roosters on farms, and they don’t produce milk or eggs. Why? (Upon further investigation, I learned that bull meat apparently grows tougher than cow meat, hence the popularity of veal, which is made from infant bulls.) Joe also noticed a lot of coded meat messages growing up, like the “associations you see on TV and commercials with meat and ‘manliness’ and being a ‘big tough man’” or how “eating my first Big Mac definitely felt like a weird male rite of passage.”

Joe and another former high school classmate of mine, Patrick*, noticed the ways in which meat-related slang is tied to masculinity. There are a lot of typically masculine meat-related idioms: two people in a fight have “beef;” if you “beat your meat” you’re masturbating a penis; if you get wild you’re “going ham;” the list goes on and on. Joe and Patrick recalled a few more good ones, like “sausage fest” and “beef up.” Joe got on a roll once he started, sending me multiple messages:

1:39 PM: "choke the chicken" as a euphemism for masturbation
3:22 PM: I've also heard a woman’s butt referred to as "booty meat"
9:35 PM: I just remembered the term "meathead," I hear that a lot to refer to a muscular male who is unintelligent.

So yeah, there’s a lot of slang, although Patrick told me, “I've always thought that meat as a euphemism for dick was kind of unsettling, because meat is something that gets bitten off, chewed, and digested, and I want exactly none of that associated with my dick.” I thought that was pretty fair.

But I was unsettled by something else: when we associate meat with the penis and muscle, where does that leave vegetarian and vegan men? Are they stripped of “manhood” because of their dietary choices? Can you be manly without meat?

There’s increasing evidence that you can. Notable manly vegans include famed quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, “Jackass” stuntman Steve-O, and NFL star Tony Gonzalez. If male athletes are beefing up sans beef, then how are they asserting their masculinity outside of our consumer emphasis that meat is male? I asked professional vegan bodybuilder, health coach, and master fitness trainer Korin Sutton. Korin isn’t just fit; he’s built. A recent photo he posted on Instagram claims he has five percent body fat, and that’s not hard to believe at all. He’s a typical Adonis, the last person you’d want to start a fight with in a bar. An ex-military man, he turned vegan when he realized “that all the medals that I earned in the military didn’t serve any justice in what my heart was desiring.” That desire, in Korin’s eyes, was saving animal lives through a vegan diet. He believes that men eat more meat than women only because they’re raised to believe that men eat more meat, thus creating a cycle in which men eat meat to uphold a norm. Since going vegan, Sutton says he’s “glad that my mindset has changed and realized that food has no gender roles.”

Sutton is stereotypically masculine, but, overall, the men I talked to fell in varying places along the scale of masculinity. There’s George with his gains and frat brothers, Joe with his boyish ebullience and love of music, and Patrick, whose most memorable attribute during high school was the trench coat and fez he wore every day, and his assertion that he was building an authentic World War II enigma machine. You don’t have to be a typical “man” to fall prey to our society’s fixation on meat. Whether you’re a little masculine or a lot masculine, you’re still subject to masculinity standards.

But where does this association become fuel for toxic masculinity and male aggression? Considering that very few people kill the food they eat, men are more likely hunting for Tyson coupons than hunting for wooly mammoths. But all it takes is a glance at the evening news to confirm that male aggression is alive and well. To be clear, I’m not blaming meat for this; male violence has been excused and upheld by our society for hundreds of years, and it’s not as if plant-based men are removed from that structure. Male aggression isn’t based on meat but dominance. Meat consumption is also based on that same notion of dominance. That they sometimes intersect is hardly surprising; after all, society has long been obsessed with both the superiority of men over women and humans over other animals.

How do we begin to break down this view? Is it, as some vegetarians might suggest, by not eating meat at all? Is the problem meat itself, or how we eat it? I promised myself to steer clear of vegan moralizing in this article, so I’m not going to yell about switching to a plant-based diet. But I also wonder if we changed the way we consume meat, then some of those man/beast dichotomies would start to fall apart. If we don’t think about the way food informs our decisions and attitudes, then we fail to notice how we perpetuate toxic ideals in our culture.

Can we even really separate our food from the society that produces it? For a country so obsessed with eating food, we don’t seem to actually think about food that much. We’re constantly inundated with food advertisements and Tasty videos and pictures on Instagram, but we fail to seriously acknowledge issues like the obesity epidemic or cardiac arrest-related deaths or eating disorders. We cling to labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” without learning what they really mean, or fixate on “clean” or “cruelty-free” eating.

The ethical food movement may urge us to stop eating so much meat, but it is still wrapped up in the stereotypes that characterize the way we masculinize meat. Labelling some foods as “clean” implies others are “dirty,” which is not only classist and shamey, but dangerous. Once we use our food as a way to inform and fill out our identities, it becomes a fixed element in our lifestyle. Treating foods as central to our identity is fine and healthy when it comes to cultural foods and ethnic culinary traditions, but using meat-eating to boost our identity in terms of fitness, gender, or sexuality by over-emphasizing it as a necessary staple is the antithesis of sustainability. Not only have we made it normal to eat way too much meat, and emasculated men who refuse to do so, but we’ve also tossed out the human habit of an incredibly varied and ever-changing diet that our bodies need to thrive.

We’ve twisted one of the most basic parts of humanity into a way we abuse ourselves and others. If we can’t examine what sustains us physically, how the hell are we supposed to examine what sustains us mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? Taking a closer look at not just what we eat, but how we eat and why we eat what we do is crucial to living that Socratic examined life. So how do we convince people to pay attention to what they eat without conflating certain foods with certain characteristics in a way that upholds the same toxic standards that pit people against each other and the planet?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly something to chew on.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018

Letter to the Editor: A Response to "Ute Prayer Trees"

by Tim J. Myers '75

As a CC grad, a working writer, and an academic, I have to applaud Nathan Goodman for the great energy, good will, and cultural respect he put into "Ute Prayer Trees," which I read on Cipher's website. But there's a lot of one-sidedness in his piece, a great deal of declaration without sufficient evidence, and some assumptions that manifest themselves in simplistic self-righteousness. 

Goodman's piece is basically an attack on John Anderson, former El Paso County sheriff, for Anderson's historical work on Ute "culturally modified trees" of the Pikes Peak Region and beyond. I contacted Anderson some time ago for a book I was working on, and am grateful to him for his generous support, as well as for connecting me with Ute elder Dr. Jefferson. I recently met Anderson face-to-face for the first time, and over the course of our intense five-hour discussion at Fox Run Park, I saw that many of Goodman's arguments are quite weak, or worse. Some are even mean-spirited.

"Anderson is essentially marketing the cultural knowledge of an oppressed group to a mainstream audience," Goodman writes. But the same could be said for any historian who works outside his or her own culture. Historians often write books, create videos, etc., which are then for sale; would Goodman object to, say, an Australian writing about East Indian history? (India, of course, was long subject to brutal imperialism.) Goodman goes on to say that Anderson's work is "problematic in and of itself because the sale of traditional practices to non-members has the potential to reveal 'taboo' knowledge and cheapen ancestral teachings by presenting over-simplified histories. Plus, it puts this knowledge in the hands of people who are unaware of its larger cultural context, and are therefore more liable to manipulate and distort what they learn." 

Whoa—isn't that potentially the case for any history? Human beings stereotype each other all the time, and misuse culture—but that's no reason to stop writing history. To improve relations between white and Native Americans, we should stop trying to understand Native Americans? What does the average American understand about the classical Greeks, for example? Is that reason enough to stop all non-Greeks from exploring that culture? And of course Anderson isn't "selling" Ute traditional practices.

Goodman also states flat out that scientific evidence doesn't back up Anderson's claims. During the five hours I spent with John, I heard a great deal of evidence—none of which made it into Goodman's article, despite the fact that John laid it out for him during the interview. If anyone wants to see the evidence, I suggest they contact John—he's more than willing to share, and he's got plenty. It's one thing to question someone's evidence; a big claim requires lots of it. It's another to suggest, as Goodman does, that Anderson has played fast and loose with evidence. That's a deeply damning charge—and simply not true.

Equally troubling is Goodman's assertion that Anderson misused FEMA funds for his work on the trees. I know for a fact that when Anderson and Goodman met, Anderson gave Goodman contact information for the El Paso County Parks official who could easily discount this charge. Goodman never made the call, since if he had, he wouldn't have printed this falsehood.

Another strange argument from Goodman concerns disagreements among the Utes about the prayer trees. Goodman says Anderson "and his ilk" are challenging "Indigenous political and cultural sovereignty." That's a very big claim.  He goes on to declare that it's "not our [white people's] place to decide 'which Indian knows more about their culture.'" And yet the whole point of his piece is to side with Utes who disagree with Anderson and Dr. Jefferson! This is an utter contradiction. Goodman wisely decries the terrible, centuries-old pattern of white people telling Native people what's what. But then he wades in too and opines on a Ute vs. Ute disagreement—even after he himself has said "it can be difficult to decide which Indigenous voice to listen to. The fear that Indigenous government officials do not accurately represent their people’s cultural history is entirely valid." He can't have it both ways.

And consider how odd this further contradiction is: "Taking the word of official tribal representatives is essential. They have been placed in those positions because they know their tribe’s history and traditions." The over-romanticizing of Native peoples is often part of racism against them—but Goodman somehow believes that politics in the Ute world are perfect? Would he apply the same standard to our national politics? We should follow everything Trump says, since he was "placed in that position" because he's so knowledgeable about our history and traditions? There's a sickening irony for you. I don't think Goodman thought this through. The essence of anti-racism is to recognize that the Other is just as human as you are, for good and ill.

Goodman even says, "The problem is that Jefferson is in no way an official representative of any Ute tribe." This plays directly into the old Euro-American error of treatying only with "chiefs" as sole representatives of tribes, when political decision-making in most Native groups was far more complicated than that. And here's a white guy telling a Ute elder he doesn't represent his own people. That's not interfering with Indigenous culture? Let's not forget either that Dr. Jefferson is also a linguistics Ph.D. who spent four years at the Smithsonian helping them catalogue their Native American collection. That detail didn't make the article either.

Consider too that Goodman asked Anderson to ask Dr. Jefferson for an interview, which Anderson procured—but when Goodman actually visited the reservation, he never contacted him.

Goodman's armchair-psychologist words about Anderson may apply more accurately to Goodman himself: "Underneath this general feeling … is a sense of pride—of feeling 'cultured' or living on the 'right side of history' … It provokes a feeling of exceptionalism, a feeling that can become addictive."  There's an air of self-congratulation here, and it may have caused Goodman to reach deeply negative conclusions about Anderson without due diligence.

Here's another surprising contradiction. Near the end of the piece we get the seeming humility of "Ultimately, I am no expert on Indigenous culture, nor am I a professional ethnographer. I researched this topic intensively over the summer, but I have no right to say whether anything is or is not culturally significant to a particular group." And yet the subtitle of the piece is "The revival of an Indigenous tradition that never existed." That's a pretty clear judgment. A sentence later he contradicts himself once more: "But the point at which those trees are forcibly inserted into another people’s culture and pasted into their history is when things have to stop." So he does believe in opining on what's culturally significant to the Utes. 

And the way Goodman tells it, Dr. Jefferson is utterly alone in asserting the historical importance of the trees. Somebody better tell the Native staff of the The Southern Ute Drum, a tribal community newspaper; they wrote positively about "spirit trees" in this issue.

Don't get me wrong. I share Goodman's horror at the long history of oppression and degradation of Indigenous peoples in what's now the US, not to mention around the world. And I think Goodman is highly commendable in his desire to be part of the solution—in his questioning of his own and others' privilege—in his keen sense of how power differentials have played such a destructive role in this history. As a white American, I'm ashamed of so much of what we've done, and I too want to be part of the solution. So does John Anderson, by the way, whose genuine commitment to Ute culture runs deep, as does his unbending habit of looking to the Utes themselves as the final arbiters and interpreters of their own traditions. 

I also understand that there's been a tremendous colonialist tendency to violate Native culture through misrepresentation. There absolutely is widespread cheapening of Indigenous culture, racist reduction of Indigenous religion, hucksterism when it comes to artifacts and cultural practices. At the same time, "cultural appropriation" is a very vague and loaded phrase to bring to bear. Do we really want a world in which cultures can't freely borrow from each other? Does Goodman believe that no cultural sharing whatsoever between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is ever legitimate?

He even brings up "intellectual property." Think of where that would take us, applied in this way. If you sell boomerangs, do you need to pay a license fee to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? But there's a hitch: the oldest boomerang known was discovered in what's now Poland. So do Indigenous Australians have to pay the Poles? Intellectual property is, after all, a legal and commercial category; think of the endless court cases this would create! And although I'm the first to insist on respect for and knowledge of Native traditions, absolute condemnation of "cultural appropriation" is neither realistic nor fair. Would Goodman condemn, say, younger Utes for making original hip-hop recordings, since they're not African American? Of course he wouldn't. Cultural borrowing is usually a good thing, and it's also natural and inevitable.

I'm not a historian or archaeologist or forester or dendrochronologist. I'm a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, and a widely published writer, with a deep interest in history, including that of the Utes, a great people who are far less-known than their many accomplishments warrant. I can't claim, on the basis of any scientific expertise, that John Anderson and Dr. Jefferson are right about the trees. However, I've been through a lot of their evidence, and I've heard John speak at length, and his historian bona fides impressed me as much as his openness to Ute culture did.  At this point, I think he's right about the trees. If I saw evidence to the contrary, I'd change my mind in a heartbeat.

I'm also a proud CC alum. And in my writing courses my professors insisted on backing claims with effective evidence, whether factual, analytical, or a combination of the two. I don't see that kind of evidence in Goodman's piece.

The writer is a lecturer at Santa Clara University and a 1975 Colorado College alumnus.

Cipher welcomes letters to the editor. Letters may be edited for length and adherence to our style guidelines. Submit to s_fleming@coloradocollege.edu.

Vinegar and Ash

Natasha and I share a history marked by white knuckles gripping wooden pews and dusty sunlight sliding through antiquated church windows and transubstantiated wine tasting of vinegar. For me, growing up in a Pentecostal church run by ex-Southern Baptists meant that my fight was “not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Twice weekly I confronted this evil by confessing lust for other women to a Cajun ex-convict pastor who ran a drug, alcohol, and sexuality rehabilitation facility out of a converted shack behind my church. She forbade me from receiving the body of Christ until I rebuked my wickedness and cast out the demons from my heart—but still, every week, I found myself tasting salty tears while solemn believers standing around me received Christ’s forgiveness in the sapidity of grape juice.

On the other side of the world, Russian Orthodoxy also asserted that the body and blood were for those with penitent spirits. Every Sunday, Natasha opened her mouth wide and Father Sergei placed the sacramental bread upon her tongue, but she tasted only ash. Each week she held this cinder under her tongue as her mamuchka crossed herself and bowed to the crucifix. Prepubescent Natasha sat in the shadow of her mother, a single woman raising a child in a society newly eclipsed by the fall of the Soviet Union. Picking at her skin, Natasha waited for the divine liturgy to come to an end. Bloody fingernails and patches of missing hair on her arms betrayed her anxiety. Have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind. She crossed herself and bowed to the icon. 

***

I am 13 and my own outstretched palms are bathed in sunlight streaming through opaque stained glass windows. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord while knowing in your heart that He died for your sins, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray the sinner’s prayer, begging Christ to remember me in His kingdom. I am 13 and, like the thief on the cross, I am being justly crucified for my sins. I wonder if I, too, can be with the Lord in Paradise even though my heart is contaminated with feelings for other women. At school, a student spreads a rumor about my homosexuality and people throw things at me and stop talking to me. At home, my father tells me that gays are unnatural and my brothers call homosexuality disgusting. Still, my thoughts are focused solely on Christ and His sacrifice. I ask myself if living an open life of sin is worth it. For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

Natasha is 14 and clothed in a white dress and white shoes. She stands at the font with her godmother. Do you renounce the Devil? She tilts her face up to the cross as the priest gathers water and begins to pour it over Natasha’s hands and head. The water reminds Natasha of her patron saint, Veronika, the woman who wiped the face of Christ as He carried the cross to Golgotha. As the service ends, Natasha thinks of the cross that she bears. A boy in her classroom calls her a faggot offhandedly and a gay man is murdered just outside Moscow and still Natasha wrestles with Christ’s redemption.   

Natasha and I are in our 20s when we first meet in April, when snow is no longer falling but sidewalks are coated in black ice and skies are still heavy with gray. The Moscow sun is falling just behind my friend Gosha’s apartment complex as I climb the stairs with my bookbag. Inside is a bottle of vodka and stray beers. When I enter the living room, I see Natasha and Gosha spreading kartoshki, pelmeni, and solyanka on a table while listening to Soviet-era music from the rebellious progressive rock band Akvarium. Natasha eats a pelmeni and tells Gosha that Pasha is coming with his grandmother’s pickled tomatoes, which the Amerikanka must try with the vodka. I laugh and take off my shoes as Natasha shows me a photo on her phone from the night she met Pasha. The phone’s brightness is dim but I see Pasha, eyes closed, with his foot on a stool and a guitar on his knee. Gosha is shirtless, sitting on the ground with his head next to Pasha’s foot on the chair. It isn’t until Natasha turns up the brightness that I see her in the background, face turned away from the camera and spine bent over babushka’s jar of pickled tomatoes.

I do not tell her I am gay. Instead, I let her teach me about ecology in the Kola Peninsula, transportation engineering in St. Petersburg, and Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet society—but it isn’t until a friend’s wedding that Natasha tells me about Christ and queerness. Cheeks flushed warm and red, she takes a shot and tells me that she is afraid of God. I watch as she follows with a large bite of pickled red tomato, hands nimble around the skin and juice dribbling down her chin. I am reminded of original sin, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and I wonder if God damned woman because of the pain He first felt when His own new creation ate of the forbidden fruit.

Later, Natasha pours herself another shot and I reflect on Christ’s cry in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus, knowing that He is to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of man, asks if God’s will can allow Him to escape the cross—but no. The disciples fall asleep in the garden and Natasha takes off her shoes and I confess barefoot before my pastor in Louisiana as I too ask if this cup can pass from me. I am 16 and going to prom with a boy who will bring me to the lake after the dance. We are sitting on the pier together and he puts his hands around my waist. I spend the next two years closing my eyes and gritting my teeth as his hands travel over my skin. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Natasha hides her shoes under the table and takes a seat next to me. We have eaten all the pickled tomatoes and the jar casts a small shadow over an empty plate. She turns and tells me that, years ago, she prayed for this cup to pass from her. She explains that, if God wills it, then temptation will pass and she can take communion, face the crucifix in peace. But the cup did not pass from Christ, and Judas kissed him and the soldiers came to Gethsemane and still Natasha works to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.

Natasha stopped taking communion at 17, when she told herself that walking in sin and continuing to take communion would lead only to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sitting against the wall behind the bridal table, Natasha talks about those missed communions as if her voice is echoing in the empty chalice, trapped in the darkness created by the pre-communion pall. She pretends to have found peace with her decision, but her hands reveal her unrest. She first tugs at the bottom of her green dress but then begins picking at her skin and roving as though searching for a wooden church pew to hold. I look down at my own knuckles and remember white Sundays clutching at the wood, wondering if God saw my sins through the hymnal prayers. 

Natasha has no doubt that Christ sees her sins, which is why she abstains from communion, choosing to hide near choir stalls rather than brace the credence table. She spends her whole life navigating this balance between obscurity and light—navigation I’m learning, too. Russia is no different from Louisiana when all roads lead to Calvary. And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. Natasha—at Gosha’s apartment, and at the wedding, and each time I see her—mirrors Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Later, she approached Jesus at the home of Simon, anointed His head with expensive perfume, and washed His feet with her hair. I imagine Natasha in that room, breaking the sealed jar of perfume on Christ’s head and watching the fragrance run down His body. Like Mary, she is desperate to empty herself and forfeit all in hopes of attaining Christ’s love.

I am back in Louisiana. It is March, almost a year since the wedding in Moscow, and I am sitting at the coffee shop where, two years ago, I ended my forced straight relationship. The boy was kind and I was restless and broken and felt as though I had failed Christ. I sat down and reflected on my pain, on two years of emotion and experience and body given to someone whom I knew I didn’t love. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

I order a coffee and ask myself why peace is so evasive, why I continue to struggle with peace and God as I live openly. I think of Natasha and fear that the peace of God, which should be righteous, will always evade us both. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I take a sip of coffee and taste the chicory, smiling as I remember to celebrate all the milestones. After all, even through all the trauma in our adult lives, Natasha and I no longer taste ash and vinegar when we take the bread and wine from the father. θ

 

Lost Sheep

"Christian Evangelical people, ya know, never really interested me,” said a voice on the phone. “But,” said the voice, the Twelve Tribes members “weren’t like them. They lived together and loved God and loved one another with all their heart.”

The Twelve Tribes is an international confederation of 12 alternative Christian communities. One of their outposts is the Maté Factor Café in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a cafe with a dark wood interior and murals of pastoral scenes on the walls. It’s open 24 hours every day except on the Sabbath, and nobody who works there receives a paycheck. Instead, their wages go to a collective fund supporting the entirety of the Twelve Tribes. They live and worship together in two big communal houses in Manitou Springs and love hosting visitors. I’ve heard them called many things: a cult, evangelical Dead Heads, and even “super-racist pagan witches.” Rumors abound, but it turns out they’re more than willing to tell you about their lifestyle if you just call them up and ask. 

One Sunday evening, I did just that. On the back of their pamphlet adorned with a picture of the Milky Way and the intriguing question “Do you wonder why you were created?” was the number 1-800-TWELVET. 

 

“Hello?” 

Andrew, the man on the other end of the line, was in upstate New York. He seemed quite surprised at my call—the 1-800 number was his cellphone—but he was happy to talk.

About 20 years ago, when he was a college student in Oneonta, New York, he went downtown to see a few Twelve Tribes members play folk music. When the performance ended, he went up to them and started a conversation. He was intrigued and, on a whim, asked if he could check out their home.

“So that was sorta crazy, and I was just like, ‘Alright!’ and just hopped in the car with them that night and took off to … I didn’t even know where I was going. It was about two hours away,” he said. “So I ended up getting there, and waking up in the morning on this beautiful farm with all these amazing people that were pretty humble, pretty down to earth—not weird and religious.”

This upstate New York settlement was (and still is) one of about 70 locations where members of the Twelve Tribes have taken root over the last half-century and run various businesses to support themselves. Founded in 1972 by a man named Elbert Eugene “Gene” Spriggs Jr. in Chattanooga, TN, the group picked up their fair share of disciples back in the day by following the Grateful Dead in what they still call a “peacemaker bus.”

“We were like paramedics and first-aid, and we just took glass out of people and made sure people didn’t kill themselves when they had too much acid,” recalls Ha Qinai, a Twelve Tribes resident in Manitou Springs. His Hebrew name, adopted when he joined the group, means “the zealot.” Wearing perfectly round wireframe glasses, he smiles and takes a sip of mate through a metal straw. “Made sure they got some mate and some good loving,” he says. He tells me that they take this approach often—following band tours, sending out pairs of missionaries, and chatting up the folks that come into the Maté Factor at 1 a.m. 

“We really believe that we want to reach people. We call them lost sheep,” says Kol Levah, a single mother who joined the Manitou Twelve Tribes just under a year ago. Her name means “whole-hearted friend.” She told me that living without a partner was very unfulfilling. Late at night, after working and putting her daughter to bed, she would come into the Maté Factor Café just to talk to someone who cared. 

And they would listen. After a while, they won her over. She now lives just up the road from the cafe in a communal home with her 4-year-old child. “You don’t realize how much you need people until you have them,” she explains.

So is it a cult? Unsurprisingly, Twelve Tribes members don’t use that term. Nobody decides to join a “cult”; they decide to join a “community.” And in the case of the Twelve Tribes, it’s a community that offers, as Andrew says, “a real hope for the restoration of humanity” through literal interpretations of scripture. The group attempts to recreate the first-century church from the Book of Acts, complete with preparing an army of 144,000 male virgins for the Second Coming of Christ (which, yes, really is in the Bible).

Plenty of outsiders express their dissatisfaction with the Twelve Tribes on the internet. A quick browse turns up posters of Gene Spriggs, who is “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” A host of alarming stories from former members and critics can be found on anti-Twelve Tribes blogs and forums. There are allegations of brainwashing, racism, child abuse, and corruption. Support organizations have been created for ex-members who have nowhere else to turn.

But members dismiss these criticisms as nonsense. “I was used to all kinds of negative things being said about every church that I went to,” says Ha Qinai. He had already embarked on his walk with Jesus (that is, a life of Christian faith) by the time he stumbled upon the Twelve Tribes. He says all the churches, gurus, and communities that he tried ended up the same: some charismatic leader who was “totally crazy, taking advantage of these people … making a lot of money.” But that didn’t happen in the Twelve Tribes. “We’re an open book,” he says. 

Ha Qinai’s account of his previous experiences is what experts on radical religious groups often see—all-powerful leaders tricking the suffering masses into drinking the Kool-Aid of their beliefs while actually funding their extravagant lifestyles. The flow of money within the group is obscured, and the leaders use isolation and absolute authority to effectively brainwash members. “Cults are usually started by very narcissistic leaders,” explains Dr. Daniel Trathen, a psychologist in Denver, Colorado who has studied cults extensively as an advisor for the New England Institute of Religious Research. “It starts out looking like it’s very orthodox, and shifts and changes with power, when the person gets power.” 

Gene Spriggs certainly is often accused of leading a cult, including rumors that he appropriates Twelve Tribes funds to live in a castle in Ireland. Kol Levah, however, tells me this isn’t true. According to her, he lives just as simply as other members and busses tables in newly established Twelve Tribes businesses. But, the group still considers Spriggs a prophet, and his teachings are a large part of daily worship.

“Lack of transparency is a real problem with money, especially with a group that takes in the levels of money that they do,” says David Clark, a cult expert who counsels those recovering from cults and contributed to the book “Recovery from Cults,” published by W.W. Norton. His stance is that once members buy into the ultimate authority of a leader such as Spriggs, outside institutions have no credibility at all in their minds, making cults a form of mind control. “It’s a human tragedy,” he says. 

Ha Qinai, on the other hand, tells me the Twelve Tribes members are constantly checking themselves and one another to make sure they practice what they preach. “We do not want,” Ha Qinai says, banging his fist on the table, “to become that which we hate—a bunch of religious people who are hypocrites. We want to be free from that kinda stuff, you know?” 

When I asked Dr. Trathen whether or not he thinks the Twelve Tribes is a cult, his answer was unequivocal—“no doubt about it.” No malicious intentions are required, just a self-isolating group that believes they possess absolute truth. They have what Clark calls a “no one else is the true church except us” mindset. Even if they are “an open book,” they are a cult by nature of their leadership and absolutist faith-based values.

“I think the biggest thing,” says Kol Levah, “is that [critics] are taking an outside perspective, and if they were able to come into our home, have conversation with us, and just see our hearts—then they would be able to dissipate that.”

She’s the only native Coloradan in the Manitou branch, and her four-year-old daughter is now homeschooled by Twelve Tribes members using their own curriculum (called “training”).

Kids growing up in the community do chores, attend community worships twice a day, and play like any other kid. They’re also, however, disciplined physically—a serious point of contention that has brought Child Protective Services to various Twelve Tribes communities throughout the years. Clark says that, from what he’s seen, the Twelve Tribes really do cross the line when it comes to the treatment of youth. “These children acted like little adults,” says Clark. “Why? Because they went through behavior modification training.” 

Clark’s view is that they homeschool children to avoid contamination by outside ideas. He explains that “critical thinking is a threat” to the Twelve Tribes. And on the subject of discipline—“they’re going to get a compliant child, and they have to use whatever physical means it takes to get to that goal.”

Ha Qinai explains their child-rearing methods with a metaphor. He tells me how everyone says their children are different, better behaved, more polite and attentive. “For us, we know—it produces good fruit. The way that our Father intended spanking was a whole package, and you gotta have all the right ingredients,” he says. “You’d never spank out of frustration, you’d never spank out of anger. You’d never spank without forgiveness and love and restoration.”

If you’re an adult, you’re free to leave the community as you please, though you’ll be completely broke upon entering the outside world. “When you lay [your personal possessions] at the apostle’s feet, they get control,” says Clark. People leave all the time, though Clark mentions how emotionally challenging this can be, especially for those who have grown up on the inside. According to a study done by Michael D. Langone, counseling psychologist and editor of “Recovery From Cults,” there is evidence that ex-cult members experience heightened anxiety, depression, confusion, and difficulty thinking critically—not to mention unfamiliarity with basic tasks like filing taxes or applying to schools and jobs. “There are a million people who go into cults every year and a million people who come out—and not the same million.”

To combat this, nations have put up legal barriers to living the way the Twelve Tribes members do. Ha Qinai tells me that they abide by the law until it contradicts the word of God, at which point they choose civil disobedience over damnation.

Law enforcement has come after Twelve Tribes communities more than a few times. But many members understand that a brief stint in jail or a midnight raid is nothing compared to what Jesus and his disciples went through, so they take this opposition in stride. “We’re not surprised by these things, because Yahshua was the example; he warned us,” says Ha Qinai. But in Manitou Springs, the surrounding community largely seems to welcome the presence of the Twelve Tribes. Though the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs are seriously at odds with those of a modern liberal audience, they’re skilled at public relations. When they ask “How are you?” they really want to know. That must be part of why so many people are on board. The community offers friendly faces and respite from the “void or emptiness inside your soul,” as Adam said on the phone. I found myself comfortable and at ease chatting with Ha Qinai and Kol Levah in the cafe, both of whom smoothly fielded any contentious questions I asked. After spending only an hour with Twelve Tribes members, I was far more sympathetic toward them than when I had entered, though I still don’t consider myself persuaded to join. 

According to Clark, certain circumstances cause individuals to be more receptive to groups like this. “In transitions,” says Clark, “You’re moving from one place to another, you’re emotionally needy.” People in need will latch on to the Twelve Tribes’ simple kindness, hippie aesthetic, and willingness to engage and forgive. “The indebtedness that comes from them helping you out of a crisis is a powerful tool in the hands of a cult,” says Clark. 

Not everything about cults is bad, according to Clark. But there’s a tradeoff: “What is the price you’re going to pay for the benefits you perceive are there?” He clearly doesn’t think it’s worth it. Since they take scripture literally,  the Twelve Tribes believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are sins. They also believe that women should be “homemakers.”

A life of modesty and worship as a barista, and working towards the goal of producing 144,000 male virgins to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. But, taking your drink with a grain of salt, the Maté Factor Café is certainly worth a visit for the tea and the conversation—they have no problem engaging with even the most godless of college students.

 “You should go over for Friday night celebration, for the Sabbath,” said Andrew. “You—and your whole class if you want—are invited.” So if you’re trying to have a dialogue with someone whose perspective is unorthodox, you’ll find that folks at the Maté Factor Café are far more willing to talk amiably than many far-right groups in El Paso County. It may only be Grateful Dead nostalgia, but you might be shocked to find you have something in common. θ

Fighting Words

These days, it seems acceptable to call anyone a fascist. Recently, for example, feminist scholars Mary Beard and Christina Hoff Sommers have both been labelled fascists by a number of American student groups, as reported in The New York Times. Both of them have no affiliation to fascism, yet the label seems to be sticking.

One would imagine that the legacy of fascism would have do with the millions of individuals whom it has persecuted, maimed, and killed. After all, that kind of knowledge is available in most textbooks on 20th century history—textbooks in which students learn about the atrocities committed by the Italians and the Germans and, ideally, form their own judgements as to how it happened and what must be done to prevent it from happening in the future. For many, facing the history of fascism forces us to confront the unsettling fact that the ability to do evil seems to exist in most, if not all, humans.

For the most part, students learn in these textbooks that fascism is now a thing of the past. They’re taught that this specific political philosophy must include the following elements: a totalitarian form of government, a glorification of the “citizen soldier,” an othering of a targeted group, a paramilitary and expansionist component, and a strong father-like leader in charge. (This definition of fascism comes in part from Alfred Stepan’s book, “The State and Society.” Stepan’s definition, unlike the short blurbs in dictionaries, begins to express the complexity of fascism.) But we don’t usually use the word “fascism” to refer to what I’ve just described. Instead, we often use it as an insult directed at American conservatives or leftists curtailing hate speech. The word is powerfully charged, so problems arise when we use it as a vague insult.

Based on the requirements I’ve just provided, one would have to look long and hard to find living individuals who directly supported a fascist government. They would have to be at least 80, if not 90, years old. Still, given the above definition, calling neo-Nazis fascists wouldn’t be so inaccurate as to raise a serious problem (though if we were splitting hairs, we would also differentiate between them and historical fascists).

While contemporary “pseudo-fascists” believe in many of the racist, homophobic, and sexist ideas that historical fascists held, most of them cannot truly be called fascists, since they believe in a limited, certainly not totalitarian form of government. An authoritarian form of government tends to be content as long as its citizens refrain from particular actions (like having a satellite dish), while a totalitarian state is hell-bent on impacting every aspect of their citizens lives. Take, for example, 20th-century China under Chairman Mao versus contemporary China under Xi Jinping. Though this is reductive, it’s fair to say that whereas Mao’s government was involved in every aspect of every citizen’s life (and killed tens of millions of people), Xi’s government wants to keep people in line and control their use of the internet.

But our use of the word “fascist” has spread far beyond applying it to neo-Nazis and illiberal nations. Our biggest problem is not that we use “fascist” to describe people who share a similarly oppressive but less radical ideology, but that we call people fascists simply because we disagree with them on political issues. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, espouses views that are certainly conservative and debatably offensive. Perhaps for this reason, he is routinely characterized as a fascist. But Peterson’s political philosophy is a version of classical British liberalism, not fascism. Peterson has spent several decades studying the effects of totalitarianism, and has been trying to help people (though his audience is predominantly young men) transition away from such extremist views.George Orwell remarked in his essay “Politics and the English Language”  that “the word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Orwell wrote this in 1946.

It is intellectually lazy to use the term “fascist” to characterize an individual that one disagrees with. Recall the last election cycle, when some were quite quick to characterize Trump as a fascist. While he did hold views reminiscent of the historical fascists, his thoughts were (and are) not organized into any sort of meaningful ideology or worldview. By calling Trump a fascist, people are writing him off, such that they don’t have to further engage with his ideas. And this attitude extends beyond Trump: since any so-called fascist is obviously a terrible person incapable of meaningful dialogue, calling someone a fascist seems to imply that one need not take the alleged fascist’s ideas seriously. Given the murderous history of real fascism, this must not be our attitude.

Ironically, our tendency to use the term “fascist” as a broad, pejorative term is exactly the kind of thing that historical fascists did. They used simple, evocative words to construct stereotypes and incite violence. The tendency to use a provocative insult to avoid substantive debate becomes especially pernicious when it’s used to justify actual violence. Neo-fascists often use provocative language to incite violence, but this is exactly what we’d expect from them. What’s less expected (and more ironic) is that members of Antifa, a group that brands itself as “anti-fascist,” often use the slogan “Punch a Nazi.” Exhorting people to “punch a Nazi” is, regardless of how evil a Nazi might be, the same kind of violence-based rhetoric that the historical fascists used. In trying to fight the contemporary bastardizations of fascism, advocates of violence against the “alt-right” only resuscitate its corpse.

This is not simply a matter of semantics, as Orwell reminds us in the aforementioned essay: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Using the word “fascist” to characterize individuals with whom one disagrees is an impulsive action. What Orwell reminds us is that our usage of the word “fascist” creates a vicious cycle: our lazy use of language leads to laziness in thought, which then leads to greater laziness in language, and so on. Simply slapping the label “fascist” on a person will not solve unclear or shallow thinking; it will only disguise it, like a Band-Aid covering a festering wound. 

Even at Colorado College, we overuse the word “fascist” by applying it too broadly to any sort of bigot. This is not to say that we should pat racists, sexists, or homophobes on the back for exercising their free speech. We should, however, engage those people and try to understand their viewpoints. It might seem like too much of a burden to engage with people whose views are clearly outlandish and even hurtful, but on a college campus, we (or others for us) are paying to participate in an intellectually engaged community.

No one benefits from a culture of hushed whispers or brooding silence concerning an ever-increasing list of taboo topics. And if it seems like there aren’t any taboos, consider a question widely considered inappropriate like, “Why is CC committed to having international students on campus?” Is it just because we need more statistics and languages that President Tiefenthaler can mention when talking to donors? The person asking these questions might be dismissed because they don’t know the supposedly obvious reasons for including international students at CC. 

But rather than dismissing that person as ignorant, or as a fascist, we need to respond directly and substantively to this sort of question. Once we stop questioning what we take to be a basic truth, we grow complacent about it, and then we stop understanding how to defend it. And it is precisely when we cannot defend our beliefs that they are most vulnerable. When we reflexively dismiss people who question values like international diversity, we merely brush away the bigotry we perceive to be on the surface, while these beliefs remain unchanged. If we want to have any chance of affecting real change, we need to engage with all the ideas present in our community.

When I came to CC, I found an environment of engaged, motivated, and intelligent students. But even these intelligent students are too often wary to discuss uncomfortable questions. And, unfortunately, the uncomfortable issues seem to be the most important ones. Still, that shouldn’t be a reason to give up. It should make us more determined to try to change what we can.

Changing the way we engage in dialogue with each other on our campus—both in and outside of the classrooms—works to restore the primary purpose of a liberal arts education: learning how to navigate a complex and erratic world. Silence in the face of discomfort will get us nowhere, and will lead to greater resentment and hatred in our own community. 

I know that an essay like this one might anger students. But if that anger does not make us rethink our ideas, I hope it will at least push individuals to engage with an unusual opinion. Here on campus, we are so isolated from disagreement that we will have made progress even if we only interact with the other side of a debate in order to reaffirm our own beliefs. Exposing ourselves to others’ viewpoints and learning from that experience is a core part of a liberal arts education. We cannot embody CC’s “Mission and Vision,” “to develop those habits of intellect and imagination” if we are unwilling to interact with peers with whom we disagree. θ

It Cut Both Ways

Hey Callie, I’m here to talk to you about my penis.”

Out of context, this message sounds like the usual dick-centric message a woman might receive—it’s like a sales pitch, a virtual version of a solicitor at my door. Or maybe it’s a cringingly straightforward version of the classic “what r u doing 2nite” text. But thankfully, this time, no one was trying to sell me on their penis.

This message actually originated from a conversation with a female friend of mine. We’d been discussing penis appearance and circumcision when we realized that we knew very, very little about it. How common was it? Were there any proven benefits? Where does all the foreskin go? What even is a penis? In search of answers, I reached out to the Facebook community to ask for penis anecdotes and opinions surrounding circumcision. The post was basically an inverted version of that Jonah Hill scene in “Accepted” where he’s yelling “Ask me about my weiner!” I was yelling into the cybervoid for people to let me ask them about their weiners. As it turns out, people really want to talk about dicks because, believe it or not, no one ever actually asks.

 

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that penises should be talked about more. We do seem to talk about them all the time, whether it’s a joke, a comment about the size of the president’s peen or some other masculinity-threatening insult. But the truth is, the United States has a penis problem—or rather, a penis discourse problem.

Most of us think about the penis a whole lot, whether it’s because we want dick or because we have a dick. But we don’t really think about the foreskin. That is, until we we have children ourselves. “Congratulations on your new baby! Now do you want to cut off its dick skin or not?”

There is a war being waged over the foreskin—the war on circumcision, as some see it. Circumcision has been an unquestioned norm in the United States for a long time. Only in the past couple decades have people started resisting the practice. Anti-circ and pro-circ folks are, shall we say, going head-to-head over circumcision: its benefits, frequency, ethicality and so on. People have a lot of cock-eyed opinions, and the debate is surprisingly complex. Thinking about circumcision as a decision of whether to snip is just the tip ... of the iceberg.

***

Whose opposed to circumcision deem it an act of violence. Circumcision of infants, they argue, is nonconsensual and cruel, as many infants are not given an anaesthetic for the operation. The leading group against circumcision, Intact America, considers circumcision akin to female genital mutilation. Groups like Intact America, which describe themselves in their mission statement as “passionate, professional, principled, and uncompromising,” hold the opinion that circumcision is an unnecessary and invasive surgery. They go as far as to support an all-out ban on circumcision. 

Reading Intact America’s website, I realized I didn’t actually know exactly what happens during a circumcision. In order to fully understand, I spent an hour watching different instructional videos on how to circumcise both adult and infantile penises. My personal favorite circumcision video was the one featuring “Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss. (Every good circumcision is accompanied by a full orchestra.) 

Now that I’m basically an expert, I can clear up some medical and anatomical confusion. A circumcision happens like this: first, you cut open the foreskin on the upper side of the penis with scissors, then slit the underside, peel it like a banana, and cut it off. Often, metal instruments are used to hold the foreskin open in order to ease the cutting process. The procedure sounds incredibly painful, though I can’t imagine a surgery that would sound pleasant when described in graphic detail. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of the world’s penis-owning population is circumcised. Most of this population is comprised of Muslim penis owners living in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—circumcision, or khitan in Arabic, is mentioned in the hadith and the sunnah. Circumcision is also mandated by most Jewish communities, a tradition which stems from a passage in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” God then goes on to explain that if Abraham doesn’t keep his people circumcised, their souls will be compromised and cut off from God. From what I gathered, this is where religiously-motivated circumcision began. But, in the New Testament, Paul basically argues that because Jesus was circumcised, no one else has to be. Jesus’ foreskin died for our sins, so circumcision fell out of Christian tradition.

In other predominately Christian countries, like France and England, non-religious circumcision will soon have disappeared. But circumcision rates in the United States are still high (around 80 percent of men aged 14 to 59 are circumcised) despite the fact that the majority of the United States is Christian. So how did we come to live in a foreskin-less nation?

There’s no one clear answer. It seems, however, that if God wasn’t the one telling you to circumcise your child, it was your box of cornflakes. Cereal namesake John Harvey Kellogg popularized the belief that circumcision was an effective method of stopping masturbation and keeping a person clean and chaste. That anti-masturbation, pro-hygiene argument became especially popular after the First World War, when the military was forced to discharge more than ten thousand men due to STDs. The proposed solution? Circumcision. 

Starting in the Second World War, soldiers were required to be circumcised before being deployed (this is all, of course, based on very little scientific evidence suggesting it would help prevent STDs). This meant a lot of grown-ass men were circumcised (without anesthetic) and were told that it was for their health. So later on, when given the decision to circumcise their own children, many couples decided it was better to do it early, when the memory wouldn’t be so painful (medical opinion at the time held that babies didn’t feel pain). During the postwar baby boom when hospital-births were the new standard, circumcision became the doctor-recommended option for parents. A slew of medical reports by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book “Baby and Child Care” remains one of the best-selling books of all time, claimed that circumcision was cleaner and safer for the child. (Spock, as it happens, rescinded these statements near the end of his life.) By the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of babies were circumcised. Couples in the 1960s saw their friends throwing their children off the proverbial dick-snipping bridge, and they decided to follow suit.

By the ‘60s, the argument for circumcision seemed to be that circumcision was cleaner, safer, and prettier than the alternative. The hygiene argument for circumcision has never really made sense to me. I understand it’s another part of your body you have to clean, but to recommend cutting it off so you don’t have to clean it? That’s kind of like saying you should cut off your hands since, if you don’t have hands, you don’t need to wash them after you go to the bathroom. 

The arguments of safety and STD transmission are contentious ones; look it up and you’ll find a hundred studies that say circumcision prevents STDs and another hundred that say it doesn’t. Neither argument has been proven. And the argument that circumcision makes penises more attractive is just a positive feedback loop of negative thought to justify a popular practice against its challengers. Apparently, if all scientific justification for something fails, the public resorts to “it just looks better that way.”

 

The online discussion about circumcision makes the isssue seem very black and white, so I wanted to know if people actually think about their penises the way the internet makes it seem they do. It was awesome to see the number of people willing to talk to me openly about their penises. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out—from old camp counselors to boys from my middle school. My friends from Colorado College messaged me; even my uncle sent me his opinions. I actually got catfished by a pretend med school student using a picture of Chelsea soccer player Eden Hazard to slide me fake medical advice about circumcision, which was cool in an inconvenient way. 

Most of the responses came from circumcised people, which is unsurprising given the high rate of circumcision in the United States. All of the responses I got were from penis-owning people who identified as men. In general, most were pretty nonchalant about circumcision—definitely not as heated as those vocal on the internet.

 Some of them hadn’t thought about it at all before, while others had several paragraphs of thoughts on the matter. Their opinions on the debate ended up boiling down to a few main contentions also made by circumcision scholars: religion, consent, cleanliness, pleasure, and appearance. (I granted all interviewees anonymity in the interest of getting frank, honest answers. Completely randomly generated names are used in lieu of given names.)

The question of consent and circumcision is at the heart of the debate. A lot of the responses I received were from Jewish men who had no issue with their parents making the decision to circumcise them. On the other hand, non-Jewish Richard (uncircumcised), found it an “imposition of religion.” He said it was a “consent violation if the person is too young to make an informed decision for themselves … and frankly abusive.” One of the few women who reached out for an interview said it was “pretty barbaric … it should be a choice that a penis owner makes when they’re old enough to do so, rather than a choice that’s made for them when they’re babies.” 

But others argued that as kids we had to do a whole bunch of shit we didn’t want to anyway. One guy called the consent argument “complete bullshit. I didn’t consent to if I could or could not go to preschool, eat veggies, grow up in USA, etc. The list is endless.” He reasoned that “it’s not like children can consent to orthodontic surgery (which is often cosmetic).” Those making the violation-of-consent argument were typically uncircumcised people, while circumcised folk tended to have a more relaxed attitude about it. Both sides make good points: I didn’t consent to my parents giving me horrible haircuts as a child, true, but my hair grew out, whereas growing foreskin back is much harder. But also, if a parent is following what their religion has dictated for years, what’s common with other new parents, or what they’re told is best for their child, then I’m not quite sure it’s abusive, either. Additionally, banning circumcision (like Intact America suggests) means preventing Jewish and Muslim practices and could lead to amateur circumcisions performed out of adherence to religion, which carry serious medical risks.

Pleasure is the one thing I found circumcised guys get bummed out about, as there are a good deal of rumors that having that ultrasensitive foreskin makes for better sex. The public seems to have  accepted this as fact, although there isn’t much actual scientific evidence because sexual pleasure is hard to quantify. As circumcised Paul put it, “I want a penis that is as sensitive as can be, because … sex is nice.” A lot of guys I talked to who had been circumcised for non-religious reasons found it pretty illogical—they said they definitely wouldn’t have been circumcised if they had been given the choice.

On the other hand, there’s the cleanliness argument. One girl I interviewed felt better knowing that guys she was hooking up with were circumcised because she found it cleaner. Several fraternity brothers made it clear to me that they thought uncircumcised penises were gross, but quickly backtracked to make it clear that they had never thought about any penises, ever. The cleanliness argument has spurred some pretty demoralizing conceptions of uncircumcised penises as “gross” or “dirty.” A friend of mine told me she had considered uncircumcised penises ugly and dirty before she saw one and realized they were just regular old penises with more skin. That experience wasn’t unique to her, either. Colorado College junior Richard II told me a story about his friend whose girlfriend wouldn’t go down on him specifically because he was uncircumcised, and several guys I attempted to interview for this article actually told me they thought uncircumcised penises were “disgusting.” It turns out that a lot of people get squeamish about the uncircumcised penis. 

There’s a lot of danger in the “ew” argument. Penises have become a sort of bodily indicator of power in addition to sexuality. Maybe the rhetoric surrounding penises is negative because they’re sometimes associated with male domination and toxic masculinity. With the recent increase in body positivity surrounding vaginas and their beauty, I’ve found that no one really ever calls penises beautiful or strong or anything like that. And I’m not hopping on some men’s rights bullshit train, but I do wonder how penis owners feel about having the general narrative remain, “All penises are gross, and some are even grosser, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

 I tried asking people I interviewed about penile body positivity. Some, like John and Peter, felt that this lack of conversation about the penis and the body was detrimental. According to uncircumcised John, the inclusion of penises in discussions of body positivity could “delegitimize the stigma and shame of differently shaped and sized penises” and “get men talking about their feelings around their bodies in general.” This body talk is important, too, because almost every guy I interviewed pointed out how they almost never see other people’s dicks. Most guys noted that they only see other penises in porn, and that, as a result, porn is what shaped their idea of how the “correct” penis looks and acts. On the other hand, Richard II pointed out that because of the penis’ association with sexuality and male power, any body positivity movement around the penis would end up feeling like a movement for male power.

 

We see how body shaming and lack of representation of bodies affects people all the time, but we seem to ignore the penis in a very counterintuitive way. We don’t talk about penis appearance because we don’t think that cisgender men belong to a faction of people that needs more attention or support. But this leads to internalized insecurities that can very quickly turn into aggression. If someone is ashamed of their penis, they might associate sex with embarrassment, and a supposed indicator of “power” might come to indicate their inadequacy. It’s easy to see, then, how guys can end up combating feelings of powerlessness with violence. The circumcision debate thus only exacerbates this issue—an incredibly vulnerable part of someone’s body is considered unattractive because of circumstances (and circumcisions) completely outside of their control.

Aggressively masculinizing the penis through our rhetoric has implications other than cis male shame, though. It further ostracizes trans women and perpetuates the dangerous idea that trans women are still male. We paint the penis as this solely sexual, male body part and it seems as if the only place we’re talking about the penis outside of sexuality is in the circumcision of infants, where it suddenly seems like the penis belongs to the argument and not the owner. The only arena where the penis is desexualized is one where it’s denigrated. To me, we seem to be focusing on the penis in all the wrong ways, and our rhetoric is creating a culture that kills people. Toxic masculinity thrives in a phallocentric society. Insulting the penis in any way (even by proxy, as in rejection of sexual advancement) becomes a dangerous action for all women but especially for trans women, whose penises are used as proof of their “fake” womanhood. This myth of the penis as inherently and aggressively male contributes to the transphobia of men who have killed at least six trans women in 2018 as of February 23, 2018 in the United States alone. 

So where do we go from here? One possible solution would be to start viewing and thinking of penises in a non-sexual way. Our country is weird as hell about nudity no matter how you cut it, but penises are often shut out of the whole “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” narrative. Of course, there are reasons for this—say, indecent exposure, which is something that crosses the line over body positivity into harassment. Though we maybe shouldn’t advocate for a universal “free the penis” movement, we should definitely rethink the strange place we’ve put the penis in our thoughts about the body.

 

In terms of being pro- or anti-circumcision, I am very much on the dick fence, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that when we take as rigid a stance on the circumcision debate as people tend to, we shame one kind of penis or another. Calling uncircumcised penises dirty and unsafe isn’t exactly uplifting, and calling circumcised penises mutilated (as groups like Intact America do) doesn’t do wonders for self-esteem either. Surely, there’s a way to have this discussion that doesn’t denigrate all penises and perpetuate a culture of body shame around a vulnerable body part. 

Peter seemed to nail this topic on the head (the metaphorical one, not the penis one, because ouch): “Masculinity standards are not talked about enough. Penises are a large part of being masculine and being comfortable in your own skin. Guys grow up watching porn and there are discrepancies of expectation and reality. I think that being able to love what you have, and understanding that what you see in the fiction world of porn can create a feeling of inadequacy. I think that this feeling leads to anger that targets women and other guys. So creating a culture of penis positivity is important.” 

We are so obsessed with the penis as an emblem of male sexuality that we don’t even know where would we be if we could break down these notions about the penis. The entire conversation just clearly indicates how strangely our culture thinks about bodies and sex and how they relate. It’s completely nonsensical to think the uncircumcised penis looks weird. If we think that, it’s because we were taught to. 

So, America, I think it’s time to quit dicking around about the dick. 

Open Source Sovereignty

Do you know why this is called La Casa Azul?” My classmate Nate and I shared a hesitant look.  “Well, aren’t all the walls blue?” I asked in reply.

Oliver Fröhling laughed. He knew that we were used to overanalyzing questions that professors asked, so he always had fun messing around with us. 

“Yeah!” he responded, grinning and moving right on to another joke. “We Germans have a special sense of humor. You do know how many Germans it takes to change a light bulb, right?” Nate and I looked at each other again, perplexed. “One!” he said, “we’re all really efficient and have no sense of humor!”

 We worked with Oliver over the next two weeks, and the jokes never stopped. Nate and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico for the field component of a class called “Development and Grassroots Resistance in Latin America.” Oliver looked like a hipster Indiana Jones in his weathered leather jacket, T-shirt with the logo of his organization, and felt fedora. After spending just a couple hours with Oliver, we realized that behind his lighthearted charm was an acute understanding of modern Mexican politics. He walked us through the crowded streets of Oaxaca, past markets selling huitlacoches, tortillas moradas, sopes, chapulines, and Oaxacan moles, and into the office of Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimiento en Oaxaca (roughly translated as University Student Services and Meeting Networks in Oaxaca), also known as SURCO. 

SURCO is Oliver’s brainchild. He founded the organization after writing his PhD on indigenous political movements in southern Mexico. The small organization, which he runs with just a few other people, serves to educate and facilitate communication between different social movements in Mexico. SURCO provides information to both nongovernmental organizations and to municipios, local administrative entities in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the vast majority of municipios are run by indigenous people with their own governmental structures. SURCO’s research has created significant awareness around social issues and helped numerous up-and-coming movements overcome barriers to education, information, and infrastructure.

 

After the debt crisis in Mexico in the ‘80s, new neoliberal policies resulted in the removal of social services formerly provided by the state. Organizations like SURCO stepped in to provide assistance (and even education) in the state’s absence. While some organizations see the end goal as the filling the need created by the lack of a Mexican social safety net, Oliver says that the real goal is to topple capitalism, which, he thinks, is the power structure that created the lack of services in the first place.

One of SURCO’s ongoing projects works to preserve the indigenous Zapotec language. To encourage Zapotec speakers to engage with the language in a modern way, SURCO is developing open-source software in Zapotec. This would enable indigenous communities to use Geographical Information System (GIS) software, allowing them to impose demographic, resource, and cultural information onto maps. GIS can be used to prevent and monitor the spread of diseases, analyze the risk of an oncoming natural disaster, and help address the endless list of other problems. SURCO wants to use the software to aid indigenous groups in maintaining sovereignty over their lands.

Mapping software in Latin America has historically been used in ways that curtail political liberty and reinforce existing power structures. The first significant use of GIS mapping in Latin America was during the drug war in Colombia. According to Geoffrey Demorest, the U.S. military researcher in charge of this project, GIS was used “in both counter-narcotic [efforts] as well as the suppression of lawlessness.” He called the tool “an indispensible starting point” for the state as a tool of power, and this pattern of GIS usage has continued ever since. 

In 2006, geographers from the University of Kansas went to Oaxaca and completed a mapping project financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). This was part of a larger effort to predict areas of potential unrest and perceived drug flow in southern Mexico. The mapped areas were home to social movements that the state saw as hostile. Oliver pointed out that the FMSO-funded expeditions were met with immense criticism from indigenous communities. These communities argued that the expeditions were potential threats to their liberty and sovereignty, due to the involvement of the U.S. military and the historically antagonistic relationship between the Zapotec people and the Mexican state. “Mapping has always been very close to [the] state and military, and basically just reflects state and power relations,” Oliver told me.

Military involvement was bad enough, but the issue has gotten more muddled as the private use of GIS has increased. (Think of Google Earth, for instance.) The private sector places yet another variable into the equation, one which makes the cultivation of data even more potentially detrimental to liberty. Mining companies, for example, will often use different geographical information systems in order locate the resources found within land granted to them by the federal government. Because around 80 percent of land in Oaxaca is held communally, government land grants tend to foment unrest. SURCO has been using another form of open-source GIS called Quantum GIS (QGIS) to inform communities how much of their communal land will be surveyed or potentially taken from them and offered to private companies. These are mostly Canadian-based mining companies that practice open-pit mining, a particularly destructive form of mineral extraction.

Aside from the outright infringement of destructive mining on indigenous lands, the use of GIS by private companies also creates what Oliver calls an “increased surveillance mechanism.” He explained, “If you’re growing organic coffee or you’re part of these kind of environmental carbon trading programs, then your land will be placed in these GIS programs in order to surveil or estimate the amount of carbon that is captured.” It is this combination of government surveillance and private investment that raises problems within communities. Open-source software allows SURCO and those who use it to analyze and manage their own resources, thus subverting the existing power structures—which, after all, was Oliver’s original goal. 

If the main point is basically “who gets to do the analysis and who gets to generate the data,” as Oliver put it, then QGIS is important because it allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to democratize and improve data. “The reason why we use open-source is because it is free,” Oliver said. “But we also very much support [a] philosophy of [the] open-source movement because knowledge is not something that should be proprietary. It should be something that is created collectively; it should [be] out there in order to be improved.” Democratized data has given these marginalized communities a way to fight back.

 

mpowered by SURCO’s assistance, various Oaxacan communities are now using geographical mapping systems for resource management. In Capulalpam de Méndez, a forest community, people have warmly embraced QGIS and open-source technology, and other Oaxacan communities are now following suit. In fact, Oliver said that “forestry communities are using it [not only] for resource management [but also] to create community-protected areas.” QGIS has even been used to map out the effects of a hydroelectric dam and see what areas are now susceptible to flooding. These projects are what Oliver calls “capacity building,” meaning that they help develop a community’s capacity to resist exploitation, by giving them technologies that they need to generate and analyze their own data.

Here, Oliver claims that one way in which modern government exercises power is through big data and “dataism,” which is the idea that data is supremely valuable. Oliver takes his concept of big data from the prominent Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, one of the first to express concerns about the rise of dataism. Han writes, “Every click we make is registered, each word we introduce into search engines … Our digital footprint reveals an incredibly exact representation of our self, of our soul, perhaps even more precise or complete than the image we make of ourselves.” The internet has allowed for a complete registration of life into data. This becomes a huge problem when you factor in microtargeting, or the strategic use of data in order to manipulate potential clients (and in the case of the U.S. election, voters). Because our digital footprints are such complete and precise representations of our selves, companies are now capable of reaching, influencing, and predicting our psychological processes.

This field of study, called digital psychopolitics, poses a significant question to human liberty because it supplies governing bodies with more direct access to our “selves” than was ever previously possible. Han warns us that digital psychopolitics will usher in “the end of liberty.” 

Big data in Oaxaca, when viewed from Han’s perspective, is an attack on community liberty, privacy, and democratic procedures—and that’s before considering the potential for exploitation at the hands of private interests. “The big issue is security,” Oliver said, “but that’s not all of it. Oaxaca is … part of this extractive economy, so there are mining interests, energy interest[s], and then the whole flip side of the green economy [the forced expropriation of land so that companies can install windmills or solar panels].” Big data provides access to information that incentivizes private investment.

 Nonetheless, Oliver made it clear that “technology is certainly not always bad,” and that technology and mapping are only tools. “I like my cell phone,” he said, “but [I am] also not on the other side—that technology will free us all. It can only free us if our social and political structures are set up for technology to make us more free.” Oliver reiterates that “technologies are never neutral”—they are created for certain purposes. He also thinks they can “be appropriated by people for certain new and maybe positive ventures.”

 He added that there “are all kinds of barriers, the first one being language … you are talking about indigenous communities that might not even be that proficient in Spanish, and most of these software programs tend to work in English.” Additionally, access to decent computers and high speed internet can be quite costly. Data is not transparent—certain groups are barred from accessing and understanding it. SURCO’s aim is to provide and translate that data so that people can create a collective consciousness about projects that may be detrimental to communities. Open-source software is key to social movements because it democratizes data. Because, as Oliver notes, the questions that surround the use and cultivation of data are fundamentally questions of power.

Despite their promise to support community movements, QGIS and other forms of open-source software are only a means—a crutch for democracy—in what Oliver calls “the war.”  It’s the war against private and state use of GIS for exploitation, but it’s also a broader war against inequality. “Wealth is distributed in an uneven way so that, a lot of the time, communities have to accept projects that they don’t really want just because they don’t see any other option to survive.” He paused, gave a wry smile, and said, “So, I’m getting at this thing called capitalism.” 

Away

It has been eight months since Laura and Tim have had sex, and both of their children hate them, but no one is very surprised by either of these facts. Both Laura and Tim are not supposed to be on this earth. They are not the fittest, and therefore they should not have survived. Societies have rules, rules to which this couple fails to oblige. Laura drinks her milk with ice and Tim eats his Kit Kats whole; Laura pours the milk before the cereal and Tim lets his soak for too long. She dips her Oreos in water and he drinks orange juice after brushing his teeth. Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand; Laura is an interior designer who leaves her Christmas decorations hanging year-round. Laura and Tim kiss their family on the mouth—that is gross. Laura wears blue eyeshadow. Tim wears white after Labor Day. Tim never removes his sunglasses, a $5 pair of black aviators with a purple trim. Laura has the same glasses. She only wears hers on Thursdays.

They lead a life of blasphemy and it has put their children to shame. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are sent to school with wet cereal and watery milk and for this they are shunned. The children at school do not come close, for their parents have warned them that Little Tim and Tiny Laura come from a home that one cannot trust. Little Tim and Tiny Laura have explained to their parents that they must cease their sacrilegious behaviour, that the way they act is cruel. Little Tim and Tiny Laura want to live mundane lives. Days spent at the park and on the swing. They want slushies and ice cream on sticks. They want ham sandwiches and PB&Js; they want crayons and finger paints. They want to be invited to play. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are upset, so they send their progenitors to Away. Laura and Tim are now at Away, and in this place called Away, they are climbing on rocks.

“Reach!” Tim yells, plunging his pudgy finger into the sky.

“I’m trying, you stupid turd!” Laura yells down, fire raging in her eyes behind the tint of her shades—it was a Thursday.

 Laura likes calling Tim a stupid turd; she thinks it is an astonishingly accurate description. Tim does not like it when Laura calls him a stupid turd because he agrees that this is an astonishingly accurate description, and Tim does not like to think about his stupidity or his turd-like qualities.

 Laura’s body quivers as she clings to the crumbly rocks. Hot from the sun, her hands are clammy and wet. She struggles to find a grip. When she looks up, she sees a cockatoo fly across the sky. She drops her head and whispers to herself, “Bird.” Laura brings a hand to her face and feels a cloth on her eyes. Where did this blindfold come from, she thinks. I swear it was not there before, she thinks. She whispers to herself again, “Laura is confused.”

Tim, who is also confused, looks to his left and to his right and he sees that there are other couples around him. They are confused. Everyone is confused. A squat woman belays a lanky man. This man’s name is Steve: Tim knows this because the woman is screaming on repeat, “S-s-s-steve! D-d-d-don’t f-f-f-all!” When Tim looks at Steve he notices his arms. Tim thinks they look like wet noodles and soon he is sure: this man, his arms are not arms at all but noodles, moist noodles. Then there is Savanna, whose name Tim simply knows. Tim is creepy like this. Savanna is on the ground. The soil beneath her has turned to soap. How odd. Then there is Sasha, who is with Savanna. Sasha yells, “Anything but soap!” 

A voice booms from behind the group, its depth echoing off the cliffs around them.

“Couples! Please. Be calm. Please. Communication is key. As you guide your loved one across the rocky territory, use motivational speech. We are trying to work together.”

 Focus Tim, focus. He tears his eyes from the soapy earth and looks back at the wall of rock, then up at his wife. “Climb!” Tim yells with such force that his face turns red. Tim is unattractive when he does this—he is always unattractive, even when he does not do this.

 “I’m trying!” Laura replies. Saliva launches from her mouth as she spits the words toward the ground. Laura looks like a duck, but when she spits like this, she looks more like a cow. Laura is more attractive than Tim, but Tim is very ugly. Laura can sometimes be pretty. Today she is not pretty.

 The instructor, a tall man with large muscles, approaches Tim. Tim is a small man with small muscles covered in layers of fat. Tim is fat not because he eats Kit Kats but because he eats them whole—he deserves this misfortune. The instructor turns to Tim and begins to speak, but then decides otherwise. Shivers run down his spine and he steps back from Tim. Tim is not safe to be around, he thinks. He has an inkling, an inkling that tells him that Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand. That is wrong, he thinks. This is a dangerous man, he thinks. He shudders and retreats.

Laura is frozen on the rocks, her body tense. She screams. Tim remains unphased.

Tim looks down at his shoes. His childhood flashes before his eyes—he watches himself eating soggy cereal, buying his first pair of glasses, kissing his mother and father on the lips. He returns his attention to Laura on the rocks.

 “Laura!” he yells.

 “Tim!” she yells.

 They are good at names.

 “Move your body up!” he yells.

 “Up, where?” she yells.

 They are good at yelling.

 Tim looks at his hands and sees that they are empty. But he was belaying Laura, he thinks to himself. Laura’s rope dangles down the rock’s face. It goes nowhere, and is held by no one. It is a magic rope. Laura does not know about her rope. Laura is instead thinking about her feet. Laura’s feet are bare and the rock’s surface gouges her skin, cutting deep into her flesh. This hurts Laura. Tim knows this hurts Laura.

 Tim is still confused. He does not know what to do or what to say or how to say it. “Just up!” he squawks, a twitch in his voice. Tim yodels insecurely. Tim does this when he feels insecure. Tim is a stupid turd.

 “Why, why do I have to go up?” Laura’s question is caught in the wind and Tim does not hear her.

 Tim is not paying attention. Tim is trying to remember how he got to where he is. How did I get here, he thinks. Where is here, he thinks. “Tim is confused,” he whispers as his eyes dart across the landscape.

 Laura tears the blindfold from her face and in rage, she throws it into the air. The cloth erupts in flames. It evaporates, leaving smoke in its wake.

 Laura broke the rules of the game. She cannot take the blindfold off once it is put on. Laura does not know this. This is not good news. This is in fact bad news. Tim and Laura do not know that they are in a game. But it is true that their life is just a game. And you see, when you break the rules of the game, you lose the game, and when you lose the game, you die.

 You do not want to be sent to Away.

 The rock Laura was holding onto turns into a snake, and she briefly reflects on the cliche qualities of the moment before letting go of the surface. She tumbles in the air and begins to fall. When she hits the ground, she plunges into the earth and disappears. Tim is standing next to the wall of rock until Tim, too, is sucked into the ground below his feet. He disappears.

Tim and Laura descend into a darkness. They hurtle through the air for eternity, a limbo they must endure. 

***

It is a sunny day, and Little Tim and Tiny Laura are at the park. Their legs dangle above the ground as they sit on the swings, holding ice cream on a stick and PB&J. They look at the playground—the seesaws and the slide. Across the field there is a game of soccer, and by the hopscotch, other kindergarten kids are waving at them to come play. Tiny Laura and Little Tim take a bite of their PB&Js. They turn to each other, feeling the the weight of their sandwiches in their right hands and their ice creams in their left. They look at each other and slowly smile. 

Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. The progenitors deserve this misfortune. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. These people are a disease in our communities. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They will suffer for their social violations. They will pay for their offenses in this world. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They have died. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They are dead. 

 

The Blinds Pulled Down

When Noah Green was three years old, a neighbor caught a whiff of rotting food coming from the apartment he shared with his mother, Eleanor. A couple of hours later, concerned policemen were knocking on their door. Eleanor refused to let them in at first. When she finally relented, the police entered to find the home in a horrific state of disorder. Cookware, moldy food, and knives littered the plastic rags that coated the floor. The police found Noah amidst the disarray. A few hours later, Noah was sitting in a police station, crying in his overalls. He spent a couple of weeks with his grandparents afterwards, occasionally visiting his mother in the hospital, but he never really understood what was going on. Years later, Noah shrugs it off with a laugh. He now knows that his mother is what most people would call a “hoarder,” though he doesn’t think the term fits. 

The label “hoarder” presents a strange incongruity. On the one hand, people use it so loosely that nearly anyone could be called a hoarder: those who have “too many” books, “too much” clothing, or “too much” of anything. On the other hand, our culture often sensationalizes and ostracizes those who hoard as if they’re rare outcasts with a strange illness. 

I’ve witnessed both of these extremes firsthand. I first heard the word “hoarder” sensationalized when I was in elementary school, watching TV. During a commercial break, dramatic opera music played as a hand slowly turned a door knob. The words “unbelievable,” “dramatic,” “unimaginable,” and “unnerving” flashed across the screen one by one. Then, the music intensified and the door opened on a shot of a child navigating through ten-foot-high piles of stuff. The screen went black momentarily before “HOARDERS” appeared. Years later, I experienced the other extreme when my disappointed mother walked past the empty “trash” and “donate” boxes outside of my room and called out, “Hoaaar-der!” 

A few weeks ago, confused about these two extremes (and subconsciously suspecting that I had hoarding tendencies of my own), I reached out to Jennifer Hanzlick, the founder of “Clutter Trucker,” a company that helps those with hoarding disorder remove the excess stuff from their homes.  

After helping her grandparents, who experience hoarding tendencies, clear out the clutter in their home, Jennifer realized how physically and emotionally taxing the process was for people with hoarding disorder. She was both surprised and troubled by the dearth of hoarding cleanup services. “Many people are overwhelmed with the amount of things in their homes,” Jennifer said. “They want to get rid of it, but don’t know where to start and need extra help. I started to do a little bit of research, because they always say, ‘If you want to start a business, solve a problem.’ I knew this was a problem, and I felt a strong pull to help out.” 

Jennifer began by explaining that hoarding goes beyond an unwillingness to let go of material possessions. “When I mention this word ‘hoarding,’ people begin to wonder if they have a problem, because, come to think of it, they can’t park their car in the garage because of the things piling up that haven’t been used for years. They might use it someday, so they don’t throw it out.” But Jennifer makes it clear that “hoarding disorder is a serious, complicated mental illness.” According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are four parts of the disorder, which Jennifer described for me: “an excessive accumulation of stuff; extreme difficulty in discarding your possessions and sometimes trash; living spaces cannot be used for their intended purpose; and lastly, it causes distress and impairment.” Plenty of people exhibit one of these tendencies, but, as Jennifer said, “unless you meet all four criteria, you’re not one of the fifteen million people in the United States who struggle with hoarding disorder.”

Since fifteen million people amounts to five percent of the population, hoarding can hardly be considered an obscure phenomenon. Still, its prevalence often goes unnoticed because many of those who struggle with it feel ashamed. “There are more people with hoarding disorder than with Alzheimer’s disease,” Jennifer said. “But you wouldn’t know it. They’re hiding, silently, behind closed doors. With the blinds pulled down, they’re afraid to come out, and they’re afraid to let you in.” 

As Jennifer went on, I only vaguely registered that, statistically speaking, I couldn’t have been very far removed from hoarding disorder. A few hours later, by some wild coincidence, I ran into Noah, a fellow Colorado College student. Still dazed by Jennifer’s story, I couldn’t help but share a bit of it with him. Noah told me that throughout his upbringing he had, at different times, tolerated, embraced, and resisted the hoarding tendencies of his mother.

Jennifer explained that hoarding behavior is often a symptom of trauma or other mental illness. One of Jennifer’s clients did not struggle with hoarding until the year after her husband’s death. Another client exclusively hoarded baby powder, which covered the floor of his apartment in a layer at least a foot high. Jennifer later found out that his last memory of his mother, who died when he was a baby, was of the baby powder she used when changing his diapers.

In the case of Noah’s mother, the hoarding manifested as a result of her history with OCD and anxiety. Before Noah was born, his mother, Eleanor, had lived alone in an apartment for 20 years. No one had ever come in, so it became a world of her own. She was a single mother and Noah was her first and only child, so he was the first person to see her world. During her pregnancy with Noah, the anxiety and OCD that she had struggled with since adolescence worsened and eventually became what Noah called a “horrible fear of the world.” And it didn’t get better once Noah was born. “The excess of things in our home,” he said, “became a kind of protective layer from the outside world, which was scary, uncertain, and out of control—a place where people were trying to get us.” 

Contrary to our culture’s stereotype of “hoarders,” not all individuals who struggle with hoarding disorder are deeply attached to their possessions. “The things around me and on the floor were not even very dear to my mother,” Noah said. “There was a mingled fear of throwing things away and a sense of empowerment or safety that came with my mother’s feeling of control over the seeming lack of control.” By letting everything land wherever it would and deliberately not dealing with it, Noah’s mother had been able to gain a sense of agency in her home environment.

Noah remembered not being allowed to clean any part of the house, or even to throw anything away, which would have meant taking away precious control from his mother. He chuckled, remembering how he used to try to sneak out of his room when he couldn’t sleep, but inevitably his feet would make a loud crunching noise as he tiptoed across the plastic on the floor. Only when his mother was asleep could he throw things away. “I remember this broken jar of mayonnaise on the floor of the dining area. It had been there for weeks, and it was growing mold. I remember that I could neither touch nor pick it up until she went to bed.” As for larger-scale clean-ups, like Noah’s room, for instance, there were points when Noah couldn’t really help himself. But cleaning his room would make his mother very upset. She would say things like: “Noah, now I’m going to have to look through all of the trash.”

Eleanor’s OCD extended to an extreme fear of heavy metals and chemicals, which meant that Noah was neither allowed to brush his teeth nor bathe on his own until he was 13 years old. Every morning and night was like a trip to the dentist. Noah’s mother would carefully brush his teeth before giving him a sponge bath. “Since my mother refused to use actual towels, after giving me a sponge bath, she just wrapped me up like a mummy, using paper towels,” Noah told me with a smile. He was also spoon-fed until he was 11. 

It was very important that the fate of the trash and everything in the home was in Eleanor’s hands. Even if she didn’t catch him throwing things away, she would still hold onto trash bags, hoping to comb through each and every article before deciding what to throw out. She often kept the trash bags for a very long time, saying that she was going to throw them away but that she needed to look through them “just one more time.” It was only when the layer of things strewn on the floor got too thick to wade through that she would throw things away. Noah emphasized that this would only happen once it reached a “critical mass.” Very quickly, though, things just went back to how they had been.

Concerned for Noah’s well-being, his extended family called the Department of Children and Family Services a number of times over the years. For a while, all he knew was that every now and then at school, kind yet serious adults in formal attire took Noah aside to talk to him. As a kid who wholeheartedly loved his mother and felt fiercely loyal to her, when Noah realized that those adults were being alerted by his family, he couldn’t help but think, Wow, my family is really just trying to get in the way of what we’re doing. When the phone rang and Caller ID revealed that extended family was calling, like a synchronized duet, Noah and his mother would pick up the phone at the same time. Eleanor would listen attentively and quietly scribble a script for Noah to cheerfully speak into the receiver. 

For a long time, Noah never told anyone what was going on inside of his home. After all, his family had attempted to change their way of life in such corrosive ways that anyone or anything that tried to intervene was seen as a threat. It wasn’t that Noah’s family was being malicious. But instead of trying to understand Eleanor and Noah, they saw an intractable problem and they ended up trying to separate a mother from her child.

“We put red big tags on [hoarders’] doors and we threaten them,” Jennifer said, exasperated. “We make fun of them and say they’re weird, lazy, dirty, and sad … This only perpetuates the issue and plunges them into an even deeper state of fear and shame—so much so that many of the few who do see therapists for other reasons are too afraid to even tell them about the hoarding.”

Therapy for hoarding disorder is a complicated resource, because while it’s often sorely needed, it’s inaccessible and rarely sought out. People with hoarding disorder often only feel comfortable reaching out for help once they are in a “better place.” It’s only then that they can reach out because, as Jennifer noted, “they aren’t comfortable with accepting help until they feel safe and not threatened.” In a vicious cycle, people often need the confidence that therapy provides in order to get better. But they often don’t even have the confidence to start therapy, much less sustain it. So they end up trapped, lacking not only the confidence they need to get better, but also the confidence they need to start trying.

Jennifer has seen this sort of trapped feeling more than a few times. “When I met Jim,” she told me, “he immediately began to tell me, ‘I don’t know how I let it get this bad … I’ve tried so many times to clean it up, but I can’t make any progress … I was going to see a therapist, but I stopped going … And I could never even tell her about the inside of my house.” At this point in their interaction, Jennifer was still standing outside of his porch. Jim was kind and apologetic, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want Jennifer to go beyond the door, which displayed a sign that read, “Danger: It is a crime to occupy this building or remove this sign.”

Finally, Jennifer gently told Jim that she had to go inside. “I go in, and it’s everything that you and I have, just a lot more of it.” But when she entered the bathroom, she saw several Ocean Spray cranberry juice bottles filled with yellow liquid and buckets filled with bulging, tied-up bags. The plumbing was broken. “Some people see this, and they think it’s dirty and disgusting, but it’s resourceful,” Jennifer told me. She went back out on the porch and sat with Jim as he cried. She told him, “It’s okay, we can clean this up. I do this every day. You’re not alone, and don’t feel bad.”

“The way that I see it,” Jennifer said, “we can either choose to judge Jim or we can choose compassion.” She emphasized that although hoarding disorder is a complicated mental illness, being a Clutter Trucker employee requires neither a psychology degree nor impressive cleaning skills. “There is no specific training. You just have to have compassion, and I really do believe that most people are compassionate by nature. I think that it’s just about allowing that to shine through. That’s really all it is. It’s about being human and allowing yourself to care for someone without judging them. It really shouldn’t be hard.”

When Noah was about 13, he became aware of the world outside of his home and realized how different those two worlds were. The world beyond the safe bubble of their home was, to Noah and his mother, an unfamiliar place teeming with unknown variables. Even when Noah went to school, he followed strict guidelines set by his mother. He carried a baggie with wet wipes, using each one in a very specific order. At lunch, he had to be careful not to touch anything besides his food. “People noticed, and they remarked,” Noah said. “But it’s not like I remained oblivious to how everyone else acted. I saw what other people were doing, and I knew that my mother and I strayed from much of what they did, but the idea was, ‘We’re different and it’s us against them.’” He paused for a second and tried to find the words to describe their relationship. “We were so intertwined and had become so profoundly enmeshed that, for a long time, it was really hard for me to tell the difference between us … There was no real divide between our personal or emotional space.” 

Noah had been his mother’s emotional rock from a very young age. She would tell him everything. Unlike most six-year-olds, Noah had to stay strong for and support his mother, not the other way around. In a reversal to the airline refrain, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs,” Noah had grown accustomed to taking care of his mother, in order for her to take care of him.

Things began to change as Noah approached his teenage years, and began to want more independence. “I was trying to see the world through my own eyes,” Noah said. “But my mother had created this very rigid, domineering, protective bubble around herself and had extended it to me.” As conflict emerged between him and his mother, so did a sense of intense internal conflict. Noah began to feel that he was betraying his mother and developed a deep self-hatred for failing to be there for her fully.

When tension between what Noah wanted for himself and what he had to do for his mother escalated, he began to push back on her attempts to keep them together all the time. Sometimes the guilt of that small defiance would force him to recite a kind of mantra. In his head and aloud, he would compulsively repeat, I am nothing; my mother is everything. I have failed you.

As Noah tried to juggle being a teenager and his mother’s mental health, he was also dealing with his own set of mental health issues. Noah’s anxiety and panic disorder heightened towards the end of sixth grade, leaving him unable to finish the school year. The next fall, Noah found that he could usually only manage to go to school for three days each week. Later on, there was a 10-month period during which Noah couldn’t bring himself to leave his house. It was only out of desperation that he finally asked his extended family for help and left home to enter a residential treatment program for eight months.

After leaving treatment, Noah went to boarding school. “I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to separate myself completely from my past persona. I’m going to be this new person that I know I can be, that I like—none of the mental health issues and none of the baggage from home,” Noah said. “And you see, when someone asks a question, like, ‘Where are you from? What’s your family like? What’s your history?’ You can only answer so much. So when you’re talking to someone, you create a history for yourself.” Noah created histories for himself that were very much distanced from what he grew up with. “But there were points when there was just so much cognitive dissonance that it would come firing back, and suddenly, I felt very much in this old reality.” 

As Noah has grown, he has learned to embrace a fuller and more honest sense of his experiences and history. For the last couple of years, Noah has been doing a thought experiment: “I go back and revisit all past iterations of self—my child, adolescent, and teenage selves—and I embrace all of those people because they are ultimately just one person,” he said with a smile. “These are all continuous parts of who I am. It took me a long time to realize that I can be who I am now with all the things that have come before.”

Noah’s mother is also doing much better now. Noah speculates that his presence catalyzed her recovery. “I demanded a certain way of life and started to clean more, which became a sort of exposure therapy … It’s painful, especially at first, but over an extended period of time, it’s possible… to become somewhat desensitized. It was a compromise that grew over several years, where she gradually let some of the hoarding behaviors go.”

Regardless of her mental health condition, Noah’s mother is always frank and apologetic about everything that has happened. “She’s fundamentally a very good and lovely person,” Noah said. “My mother knows the ways in which it hurt me and feels badly in almost every respect.”

“I think that just doing away completely with the label ‘hoarder’ would be a good direction to head in,” Noah said. It’s true that the label clumps dissimilar people under an overarching umbrella term in spite of the fact that different hoarding tendencies stem from different origins. “For my mother, instead of describing her as a ‘hoarder’ or ‘someone who suffers from hoarding disorder,’ I would prefer to say that she had a terror of the world and people around her. This fear presented itself in severely obsessive, compulsive thinking which manifested itself in how she built and managed her home environment … It’s a little longer, but it’s more holistic.”

Clearly, Noah has been able to do exactly what Jennifer exhorts us all to do: “Look beyond the clutter,” she told me. “They are people … I can’t stress this enough.” Whenever she first meets up with clients in their home, she focuses on the person, “on who they are, what they’ve done, what their passions are, what they want to accomplish … Are they grandparents? Do they have kids? Do they like to go out? What do they like to do?” Jennifer glowed as she told me, “I can’t tell you how creative, intelligent, resourceful, funny, successful, and kind my clients are.” She paused for a second, frowning slightly. “But nobody will tell you that. They’ll say, ‘My neighbor is so crazy; they have a yard full of stuff.’ And it’s frustrating because if they would just take the time to get to know them and understand the illness, then they could begin to see them as whole people.”

Noah, too, acknowledges that it’s much easier to say, “Oh, they’re just a hoarder,” rather than going through their whole life story. “But I think there’s an expectation incumbent on everyone, that they should recognize that there are many parts of the story. Many times, they really shouldn’t try to form any immediate conclusions, even if that means leaving a person unlabeled and uncategorized.” 

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

The back wall of Donna Shugrue’s office features a poster of Rose and Jack from “Titanic,” along with massive portraits of her two daughters with their husbands. A large board full of pictures of smiling couples hangs behind her desk, reminiscent of the thank-you letters and holiday cards that doctors sometimes show off in their offices. Only, instead of healthy patients, Donna has happily married clients.

Before I saw Donna’s ad hanging on the wall of the bathroom at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs, I didn’t know matchmaking existed outside of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a tumultuous two-week experiment with Tinder over winter break, I was skeptical of the idea of finding love through any kind of formal dating program. But when I read that Donna had married over 700 clients in her 27 years of matchmaking, my curiosity was piqued. 

I went home and filled out a “dating profile test” on perfectlymatched-dating.com. I answered each of the 46 statements with a number from 1, “Clearly Agree,” to 5, “Clearly Disagree.” The statements varied from “My feelings are easily hurt” to out of left field statements like “Wearing designer clothes is worth the extra money,” “The nicest people attend religious services regularly,” “I rarely have headaches,” “I believe in the theory of evolution,” and “People who get sexually transmitted diseases deserve it.” Many of them didn’t seem to have anything to do with romantic compatibility. They challenged the belief that most people hold about love: that it happens as a result of some kind of inexplicable chemistry or spark. We romanticize love even more when it “doesn’t make sense”—think Romeo and Juliet. Love, in my mind, had nothing to do with religion, headaches, or designer clothes.

Donna called me with my results a few days later. Before I could tell her that I was seeking an interview and not just her service, Donna went straight to her explanation. She gave me a score from one to 10 in categories of temperament, sociability, conformity, affection, religion, and finance. 

A week later, I am sitting across from Donna at her office in downtown Colorado Springs as she explains the way her matchmaking process works. Within minutes she is rattling off client stories, peppering the memories with love advice. Her stories varied from sad to sweet to hilarious.

“Leroy,” she says, showing me his picture on the wall, “had the corniest sense of humor I’d ever experienced … after the interview I thought, God, I know I’m going to hear about this in feedback from his matches.” The first woman she set him up with told Donna he was nice and good-looking, but “cracked one corny joke after another.” The second and third matches went the same way. “But the fourth match was her,” Donna says, pointing at the woman smiling next to Leroy in his picture. “And when she called me with feedback the first thing she said was, ‘He’s so funny!’ I was like, ‘Yes! He is! If you think he is!’ And guess what? They’ve been married for years now.”

Donna’s service uses similarity to predict compatibility. Over and over, she tells me that the key to a successful and lasting relationship is to find someone who thinks the same way that you do. According to Donna, the saying “opposites attract” might be true in the short term, but usually fails to create a relationship that lasts. She says temperament is an exception, “because if you have the same temperament you’ll either butt heads and fight or avoid confrontation to the point of avoiding communication. Opposites in temperament can balance each other out.” 

Donna explains all this to me with so much confidence that I find myself immediately believing her, questioning my conviction that love stems from “chemistry.” I am surprised by how quickly Donna and I hit it off—our conversation lasts almost two hours longer than we’d intended. At the same time, I’m not surprised at all: Donna and I are similarly fascinated by personality and compatibility. We are both able to talk for hours about the way people relate to each other. But, unlike those of us who prefer to think of love as requiring nothing other than some mysterious ingredient, Donna takes a pragmatic approach to romance, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle factors, religion, social habits, and finance—all of which I’ve always considered of secondary importance. Donna looks at compatibility with one end goal in mind: stable, lasting romance. 

Personally, I am wary of approaching love with an “end goal” in mind. This is, at least partially, the source of my skepticism regarding dating services in general. There’s a danger in searching for love instead of just falling into it. With apps like Tinder, for example, you’re frantically looking for someone to fill some sort of role in your life, whether it be a hookup or a serious relationship. It’s almost as though the person is secondary to the role, and when you try to fit a person you meet into that role, you run the risk of not actually seeing them for who they are. Or worse, you end up marketing yourself for the kind of role you want to play for another person. 

In Donna’s service, all clients have the same general goal: they want a long-term partner. Donna makes it clear that her matchmaking services do not cater to people interested in hookups or casual dating. In her words, the people who come to her are “serious” about meeting someone. And Donn makes any variation of that goal (some clients want kids, some clients don’t want to get married, etc.) clear to each party from the beginning. 

The first thing Donna does for a client is identify potential matches with scores that are close to their own. “All my matches start with these scores. That’s how strongly I believe in them,” she says. She points again to the photos on the board behind her. “These are couples I’ve matched who are married or in relationships. If you look at where the scores are compared to each other, you’ll see that they’re pretty close.” 

After Donna finds matches with similar scores, she shares information from the “interview sheet” with each party. “Before you meet someone, you know where they were born, how many brothers and sisters they have, whether or not they own their homes, whether or not they have pets, what religion they are, if they go to church, what church they go to…” the list goes on. Donna does not share each party’s income with the other, though she does keep it in mind herself. “I definitely pay attention to it when I make a match,” she says, “because to some extent, income is a matter of lifestyle choices, and you want someone who can make similar lifestyle choices.” The question on her test about buying designer clothing makes more sense now.

After filling out an interest and activity sheet, Donna has her clients do a special exercise: they write down what their ideal relationship would be. “You sit down and you think, What would the right person for me be like? What kind of qualities would I want him or her to have? The best way to draw that out of yourself is to think about past relationships or marriages that you’ve had and what you’ve really liked about that person. And then think about what you didn’t like, and turn the negatives into positives and write it down.” She leans in. “And I’ll tell you a little secret that I don’t tell anyone until after they’ve written it: what they ultimately describe is themselves.”

Although Donna does screen for physical preferences, she encourages her clients to move beyond their assumptions about what physical characteristics they’re attracted to, unless those boundaries are “written in stone.” According to Donna, women tend to limit themselves according to height preference, while men limit themselves according to weight preference. “I’ll have a five-foot tall woman and I’ll say, ‘What’s the shortest you’ll go?’ And with no hesitation she’ll say, ‘Six feet.’ I’ll say, ‘Eliminate everybody below six feet, why would you do that?’ She’ll say, ‘Because I like tall men, they make me feel protected.’ Well, the reality is that you can feel safe and protected by somebody who is your own height or even shorter than you are.”

In fact, a picture is the only significant thing, apart from income, that Donna does not share with her newly-matched clients. She tells each party the eye color, hair color, height, and weight of their match, but does not provide photos. All first dates are literally “blind” dates. Her service stands in stark contrast to dating apps, where photos are the first (and sometimes only) thing you see. Online dating feels like an emotionally risky guessing game: participants try to gauge from photos how attractive, normal, nice, or interesting other participants are (often unsuccessfully, since it’s easy to lie, or at least skew the truth of who you are, through carefully selected photos). 

Unlike Tinder, Donna makes a match according to the scores first, and then hopes the two clients will be attracted to each other. For Donna, compatibility precedes attraction. Her pragmatism is surprising for someone whose entire career is based on helping people find love. But maybe Donna’s success rate just speaks to how easy it is to fall in love with someone once the practical factors are in place. “I can’t tell you how often someone will call me with feedback and say, ‘That’s somebody that I probably wouldn’t have picked for myself,’” she says, “but in a one-hour meeting they’re already feeling some kind of spark.” 

Even when Donna occasionally pairs people up who have a difference in one or two scores, she makes sure they both go into it knowing about that difference. She points to one of the photos. “Marsha was an eight in sociability and Jay was a five. He was a three in finance and she was a six. She was more outgoing than him, he was more budget-minded than her. And boy, was that reflected in their relationship from the beginning.” Donna tells me about a couple of money-related squabbles, and about how Marsha wanted everyone in her family to meet him on the second date. “I said, ‘No! He’s much more shy than you are. That will take him out of his comfort zone, and it’s too soon to bring your family into the picture anyway. You just met him!’”

Marsha and Jay, Donna tells me, married after only three months, contrary to one of the rules she prescribes to her clients to ensure that their relationships last. “I tell people, don’t even have sex for the first three months!” She explains that it takes most people that long to get relaxed enough to be themselves, which is when you can start to identify whether things are or aren’t working. “But once you’re physically involved you’re emotionally involved. It takes the focus off the friendship and puts it on the intimacy, and that’s not what you want to do when you don’t even know someone.” She tells me that the couples who wait for three months are the ones who are most likely to end up on her wall of success (Marsha and Jay are an exception). “I’ve seen relationships that I thought had potential end because they were intimate too quickly, and they didn’t know how to deal with it, because they didn’t know each other.”

The no-sex rule is one of Donna’s three big rules. Rule number two is “Don’t ask yourself where it’s going or how this person could fit into your life long-term for six months” because “you don’t have enough information to answer that question yet.” Rule three is “Don’t do anything as serious as getting engaged, married, or moving in until you’ve gone a full year” because “people can change with the seasons.” “And anyway,” Donna adds, “one year is not a long time to wait if you think that this is someone you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.” I ask Donna if she follows the relationship rules she gives to her clients. She bursts out laughing. “Hell no! Don’t ask me if I’ve not had sex in the first three months!” 

All of these rules are measures of precaution to ensure that the relationship progresses slowly, carefully, and based on mutual understanding between the two people. Donna goes to great lengths to avoid the problem articulated in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”: people rarely delve into their complexities before committing to a long-term relationship, leading to some unpleasant surprises later on. A similar sentiment is articulated by this meme:

Donna blames internet dating services for exacerbating the problem of not knowing your partner, and the resulting high divorce rate. According to her, these websites are “time consuming, ineffective, and people aren’t honest. They lie about everything.” Donna considers her service a much-needed alternative to online dating; instead of advertising yourself to lure other people to you, you present your most honest self to Donna and she picks someone out for you based on that knowledge. Donna takes pride in her old-fashioned attitude towards her business; she never uses a computer, except for printing out the profile test. She calculates her scores manually, and keeps all her records from the past 27 years on paper. She even keeps her phone and answering machine in the other room of her office, separate from where she works and meets clients, so that she can answer and return calls at her leisure.

Her goal is to make her clients as prepared and informed as possible before they agree to meet with each other. Her position as middleman makes for honest, clear communication. “What they’re trying to do is help me help them,” she explains, “so they know that the more they share with me and the more honest they are with me, the better I can match them.” 

This three-way communication continues after the match, when Donna’s job becomes more about counseling and coaching. Donna prescribes a strict procedure for the newly matched pair: she exchanges names and phone numbers, and the man calls the woman—a rule made to ensure that there’s no misunderstanding about who calls first. The only purpose of the phone conversation is to set up the in-person meeting, which also should not be long. (“No lunch or dinner, just a cup of coffee, one hour.”)

The feedback continues after each date. “It takes all the pressure off the situation, doesn’t put anyone on the spot, and it allows the process to become more focused and fine-tuned.” She facilitates feedback after each of the next few dates, and, depending on the client, after a relationship is established. Until a pair of clients become intimate, they are encouraged to meet other matches. 

Unlike most matchmaking services, Donna charges based on matches rather than time. Her clients typically purchase 10 matches—although they sometimes find success before they end up meeting the other matches—for $1,800. When Donna can’t make 10 matches, she charges less. The unlimited relationship counseling is free of charge. She even provides coaching for people who have met significant others outside of her service.

I ask Donna what she does for queer clients. She says that, occasionally but increasingly frequently, she’ll get a call from someone asking to be matched with someone of the same gender. She tells whoever is calling that she doesn’t have matches for them in the system yet, but that they can be the first if they’d like. Since it’s obviously discouraging to have no potential matches, no one has been willing. So far, she’s been unsuccessful at starting a client base for queer matchmaking, though she hopes that this will change in the future. 

 

Donna became a matchmaker, ironically, after going through a divorce. She met her ex-husband just after she graduated from high school. Her father, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, got her a job as a secretary in Scotland, where he was stationed. There she started going out with Herb, a boy in the Air Force. She moved back to the U.S., and they dated long-distance for a few months while she was in school at Memphis State University. Herb went home to Connecticut for a short period before he was to be relocated to Pakistan for 15 months. Donna decided to take a break from her studies and spend time with him and his family. 

Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. “Back when I got pregnant there was no [access to] birth control, no abortion. You had a baby,” she says. So they decided they would get married just 10 days before Herb left for Pakistan. By the time he came home, their first daughter was seven months old. 

Donna describes the beginning of marriage and motherhood as a challenging time. Suddenly she was a 19-year-old mother living away from her family, on the third floor of a house where she didn’t know the people downstairs. And the marriage was not a match Donna herself would have set up. “My ex-husband’s a great guy,” she assures me. “He was always good to me, he was always good to the girls. I just knew that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in that marriage.” She stuck with it for 20 years until finally, at 40 years old and after two years of marriage counseling, she decided to go through with a divorce. 

During her marriage, Donna had held mostly part-time jobs. After the divorce she found herself newly single and in need of a career. “And never in a million years did I think it would be matchmaking,” she says, despite the fact that at her 25th high school reunion, after she had been a matchmaker for a few years, she got a reward for “most obvious career path.” She was known in high school and throughout her marriage for bringing couples together. “I probably had half a dozen weddings under my belt before I even thought about being a matchmaker,” she laughs. “It’s something that I feel like I have the talent for.”

Before Donna became her own boss, she worked for two dating services in Denver: Successful Singles International and Matchmaker International. The first service went out of business, and the second one put pressure on her to match clients quickly. Discouraged by the hard sell technique, she decided she wanted to start her own company. She opened “Perfectly Matched” on October 6, 1991. It was the first dating service with an office in Colorado Springs. 

Skeptical that an emerging dating service would have easy, immediate success, I ask Donna whether it was hard to build a client base at first. In response, she pulls out a large yellow pad. “This is my computer,” she says proudly. “I don’t share this with a lot of people: this is every sale from every client every day for 27 years.” The prices she started with were as low as $100-250, compared to the approximately $1,800 that she charges today. “And I was honest,” she adds. “I couldn’t come in and say I’d been doing this forever when nobody knew what a dating service was back then. So I told [my first clients], ‘You’re number one in the system, you’re number two.’”

It strikes me as funny that Donna considers matchmaking an up-and-coming service, when, to me, it feels like an antiquated alternative to apps like Tinder. It’s nearly impossible to calculate the success rate of any dating service, because of the difficulty of defining what a successful match is. Do you include casual relationships? Relationships that have broken up? Divorces?). But Donna’s thorough screening process and careful facilitation strikes me as more likely to be “successful” than Tinder’s mindless swiping. The other key difference between Tinder and Donna is that Donna is as much of a relationship “coach and counselor” as she is a matchmaker. “My job really starts when somebody gets into a relationship,” she says. “I do more counseling and coaching than I do matchmaking.”

This aspect of her work requires strong therapeutic skills and the ability to be a friend as well as a service. I ask Donna if she has to deal with a lot of heartbreak during her coaching sessions. She points to the corner of the desk. “Why do you think those Kleenex are sitting right there?”

Because of her role as a relationship counselor, Donna’s own involvement in her clients’ lives often extends into friendship. One couple she matched even came by her office on the way home from the hospital the day after their son was born. Donna is often invited her clients’ weddings. She always makes sure to ask if the other attendees know the couple met through her after an embarrassing wedding incident in which the groom told everyone that they’d met through Donna but the bride said they’d met through a friend. “I’m standing there at the wedding and one of [the groom’s] friends is saying, ‘He told me how they met through your service, that’s so great!’ And the bride’s sister looks at [the groom] and says, ‘You met her through a dating service? She told me you met her on the ski slope!’”

Donna’s approach to love is hard for me to relate to as a young person who isn’t looking for long-lasting romance. In a phone conversation after the interview, Donna and I speculate briefly about how her test and matching system might work for “millennials.” Regardless of the aspects of her process that aren’t relevant to my age group, the strategy of mediating a relationship so that each party is honest and knows about each other’s lifestyle and goals from the beginning seems to be universally valuable. “What I do is the opposite from what people do on their own,” Donna tells me. “I start with the things that matter.” Donna and I still have somewhat different ideas about what “matters” in a relationship. I still can’t imagine judging a potential significant other by their thoughts on designer clothing or the theory of evolution. But, thinking back to my Tinder experience, maybe I’ll have a bit more success if I make my goals and opinions clear from the beginning—and, of course, guess at my date’s temperament and affection scores (which I’ve already started doing).  

 

Letter From the Editor: Silent

Dear Reader,

Over Colorado College’s spring break, a lengthy white supremacist diatribe, which specifically targeted Deans Mike Edmonds and Rochelle Mason, was sent through an encrypted email service to a large portion of the CC community. In the weeks since, many have remarked that events like this are not isolated incidents, but are disturbingly common manifestations of the white privilege that underlies our country and our school. But what exactly is this privilege? Both the author of that email and many in our community have either misinterpreted or distorted the idea of white privilege as some sort of anti-white battlecry. I’d like to use this space to try to describe how exactly our community fits into the system of racism and privilege.

The sociologist Allan G. Johnson gave a lecture on privilege at the University of Wisconsin in which talked at length about Monopoly. Monopoly, he says, basically requires that you temporarily become a monster. The game only ends when one person has slowly sucked every ounce of money and property from every other player. The game encourages you to be greedy, such that if you’re not greedily snatching up properties and forcing other players into unfair trades, then, as Johnson puts it, “you’re not playing the game correctly.”

It’s an innocuous example, but even a board game can change our behavior. When I seize a friend’s property, I might say sorry, but I’m also silently thinking, hell yes, you’ll be broke in five turns. It would be a downright evil thought if it weren’t within a game. But of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m inherently a greedy human being. Because when I’m not playing Monopoly, I’m not like this. The game brings out particular qualities in me; the rules of the game establish what Johnson calls a “path of least resistance.” And the path of least resistance in Monopoly is unadulterated greed, which you’ve got to stick to even as the teary-eyed ten-year-olds you’re playing against are handing you stacks of cash. If you don’t, you won’t survive the game. 

Johnson has us consider white privilege as a sort of game—a game which, like Monopoly, presents us with a path of least resistance. What Johnson shows us is that, in our world, the path of least resistance is to accept and perpetuate white privilege.

The first aspect of white privilege that Johnson points to is that it is “white-dominated.” This means simply that as you look at the top tiers of any hierarchy in a society marked by white privilege, you’ll tend to see white people. And as you look at the lower tiers of the hierarchy, you’ll tend to see people of color. If you see someone of color in a position of control, you’ll notice it as an exception to the rule.

This is certainly true of CC. High-level administrative positions tend to be held by white people, and Deans Edmonds and Mason are exceptions to the rule. The author of the email targeted them precisely because their success threatens the continuance of white supremacy. That they have succeeded despite white privilege means we can be sure Edmonds and Mason had to be especially talented to get where they are—not the opposite, as the author claims. To recognize this, and to dismantle the racial patterns of power we’ve inherited, is to step off the path of least resistance.

Johnson says that a society in which white privilege operates will also be “white-identified.” This is to say that “white people are taken as the standard for human beings in general.” At CC, the white experience is taken to be the standard experience both numerically and culturally. The student body is nearly two thirds white, but the way we often portray CC makes it sound like the school is entirely white. Many of the school-advertised hallmarks of CC, like expensive ski trips, a rock climbing gym, our own music festivals, et cetera are historically white spaces.

We can see this white-identification clearly by looking at whose stories we choose to tell. The path of least resistance is, of course, to tell white people’s stories. And the vast majority of Cipher’s stories are, even in this issue, about white people. The system of white privilege has made white students feel entitled to tell their stories, so those are the stories we end up with. The path of least resistance here is to simply accept this fact, and keep telling the same stories.

How we choose to tell these stories is also important: stories by and about white people almost never refer to subjects’ or authors’ race. We don’t even think of them as stories about white people; we just think of them as stories. When there is an occasional story about someone of color, on the other hand, that fact is always mentioned, and almost always made integral to the story. This disparity doesn’t exist because white people’s race is irrelevant to their lives. The disparity exists because, as James Baldwin put it, “Being white means not having to think about it.” We can take a resistant path in this regard by thinking about it—by making explicit the ways race is a factor in stories about and/or by white people.

This system is a game we have all inherited, regardless of race, without anyone asking us for our permission. It’s a system in which we have to live, at least until we change it. So although to some degree it is inevitable that white people participate in the problem of white privilege, white people can also be part of the solution. For instance, the typical result of white privilege is that white people feel entitled to the power and attention that they’ve inherited, and threatened when that power and attention is challenged. But this doesn’t have to be the case: we can celebrate the fact that people of color are gaining power, and aid in shifting attention away from solely white stories.

Progress has already been made at CC. Seven years ago, 18% of CC students were people of color; this year, it’s almost 25 percent. The more students of color who are present, the more CC can resist white-domination. And, in part because of these changing numbers, white students’ experience at CC is becoming less central by the year. Some Cipher writers, for instance, have recently made a concerted effort to tell the kinds of stories that are usually silenced. (You can find a compilation of recent Cipher stories that address race and racism at ciphermagazine.com.) 

This school and this magazine can and must do better. I’m confident that Cipher’s staff, and especially our newest editors, will.

    Sincerely,

    Ethan Cutler, Editor-in-Chief