1/20/09

Praise Song for the Day/Oda para este Día (Spanish Translation)

Durante la toma de posesión (inauguration) hoy por la mañana, el presidente Obama invitó a su amiga Elizabeth Alexander a que hiciera y declamara un poema para el día. La última vez que recuerdo a un poeta en una toma de posesión fue en enero de 1993, con William J. Clinton (tal vez aquí estoy mal, pero no recuerdo a Bush invitando a nadie a recitar poesía en sus dos tomas de protesta). En esa ocasión fue Maya Angelou (poetisa afroamericana) quien leyó el poema inaugural para Clinton quien fue conocido como "el primer presidente negro."

Hoy, presenciando la toma de posesión del (ahora sí) primer presidente negro, mientras Alexander leía su poema bajo los despiadados 30 grados F. de Washington, D.C., (algo así como -2 centígrados), no pude evitar pensar en Withman con su "canto a mí mismo" o en el tal Borges con ese poema de concisión brutal "Los Justos." Mucha emoción en el Mall Washingtoniano.

Así es que se me ocurrió cómo sonaría el magnífico poema-prosa, de Alexander en español. Imagino que surgirán mucho mejores traducciones, por el momento, va la mía. Abajo, la versión en inglés.

(English)

During the inauguration this morning, President Barack Obama invited his friend, Elizabeth Alexander to write and recite a poem for the day. Last time I remember a poem was invited to an inauguration, was on 1993 President William J. Clinton swear-in ceremony. At that time, Maya Angelou was the poet who wrote and read during the Clinton´s Inauguration. Clinton was popularly known as "the first black president in the U.S."

Today, witnessing the inauguration of the real first African American president, while Alexander read her poem under the unmerciful 30 degrees in Washington D.C., I could not help to think on Walt Withman "Praise for Myself" poem, or that other poem of a brutal concision by J.L. Borges: "the righteous." Lots of emotions at the Washington Mall today.

Listening to Alexander, I thought on how her wonderful poem would sound in Spanish? I imagine that there will be lots of good translations of this poem, but this is what I did at this moment. The English version is below my translation.



Oda para este día (canción de alabanza)
Elizabeth Alexander
Traducción Antonieta Mercado

(Leído en la toma de posesión de Barack Hussein Obama, Presidente # 44 de Los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica, enero 20, 2009).

Cada día hacemos lo que tenemos que hacer,
caminamos y pasamos al que va junto a nosotros,
algunas veces miramos en los ojos de los demás,
y otras no, casi a punto de hablar o hablando.
Todo lo que tiene que ver con nosotros es ruido.
Todo lo que tiene que ver con nosotros es ruido y zarzal, espina y estruendo,
cada uno de nuestros ancestros reside en la lengua que hablamos.
Alguien está cosiendo un dobladillo, remendando un agujero de algún uniforme,
parchando una llanta, reparando las cosas que necesitan ser reparadas.

Alguien trata de hacer música en algún lugar
con un par de cucharas de madera en un bote de aceite que hace las veces de tambor,
con un cello, un tocadiscos, una armónica, una voz.

Una mujer y su hijo esperan el autobús.

Un agricultor considera el cambiante cielo;
un maestro dice, “saquen sus lápices y empiecen.”

Nos encontramos unos a otros en palabras,
palabras espinosas o lisas,
en susurro o en declamación;
palabras para considerar, y reconsiderar.

Cruzamos caminos de tierra
y avenidas que marcan la voluntad de alguno
y después otros que dicen: “Necesito ver qué hay del otro lado;
sé que hay algo major más adelante.”

Necesitamos encontrar un lugar en donde sentirnos seguros.
Caminamos hacia lo que todavía no podemos ver.
Puesto en palabras simples, muchos han muerto para que este día ocurriera.
Canto los nombres de los muertos que nos han traído aquí,
quienes alinearon las vías de los trenes, levantaron los puentes,
recogieron el algodón y las lechugas,
construyeron ladrillo a ladrillo los flamantes edificios
que luego mantendrán limpios cuando trabajen dentro de ellos.

Esta es una canción de alabanza por la lucha;
una canción de alabanza por el día.
Una canción de alabanza por cada señal manuscrita;
por el trabajo que hay detrás de cada mesa puesta.

Algunos viven con el precepto: “Ama a tu vecino como a tí mismo”

Otros por el de no hacer daño, o no tomar más de lo que es necesario.

¿Qué pasaría si la palabra más poderosa fuese amor?
amor más allá del amor marital, filial o nacional.
Amor que proyecta una ensanchada aura de luz.
Amor que no tiene necesidad de defenderse anticipadamente ante la pérdida.

En la brillante chispa que relumbra, este aire de invierno,
todo puede ser creado, cada frase, puede comenzar.

En el borde, en el margen, en la cúspide ---esta canción de alabanza es para caminar directo hacia esa luz.

(Original English Version)

Praise song for the day.
Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."
We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."
Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

1/19/09

Barack Obama, and The Shattered Myth of White American Citizenship



Photo by Antonieta Mercado. Televised Debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, Summer 2008. Campus Café, UCSD.

Antonieta Mercado

As a newly minted U.S. citizen, I voted for the first time in a Presidential election this past November 4th. When I became a U.S. citizen, some friends from Mexico, my home country told me jokingly: “now you are güera [blond].” I could not help to think that the image of this country to the outside world, as well as the internal foundational myth is that of a white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant nation. Latinos (especially Mexicans), and other recent immigrants, have been subjected recently to several tests about our capacity to “integrate” into American society. For most part this integration means to adopt the set of values associated with whiteness, to cut links with your home country, and family or friends left there, as a proof of your loyalty to these American values.

The predominant notion that the United States is white, called for a dichotomized counterpart: the black person. Under this dichotomy, whites (especially males) had full privileges as citizens, and blacks had none, not even their freedom under slavery. Even after abolition, conceptions of citizenship, property and privilege had remained linked to being white. Here the horrid years of the “separated but equal” doctrine come to my mind. This constitutional “doctrine” was partially shattered by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and it did not officially ended until the civil rights movement took matters further than public education in the 1960´s. For newcomers, imitating whiteness became an implicit cultural model to aspire to, in order to feel part of this nation and achieve the American Dream of upward mobility.

For example, after the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848, many people with Mexican decent claimed their whiteness, because they remained in the territories that the U.S. annexed, and suddenly they faced the possibility of losing their property and rights as citizens because they were not considered white (a requirement for full citizenship under slavery). Some Mexicans with direct European blood could claim their whiteness, but mestizos and more indigenous-looking ones could not. German, Irish, Italian, Jews and other white European immigrants were classified as non-white too, and their process of incorporation has a lot to do with the broadening of the white category to include them, not with the changing of citizenship as a white institution.

Although there is no longer sanctioned lawful discrimination against non-whites as it existed under the “separated but equal” doctrine years, the cultural forces that equate full citizenship as whiteness are strong. The conception of the “melting pot” was implicitly to aspire to imitate the notion of white success and values, and become what this nation ought to be: a culturally homogeneous nation that embraces white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant values. Even recently, there is a wide discussion about Asian-Americans being the “model minority,” this meaning most of the time, that they are perceived to be closer to white than Blacks or Latinos. The extreme version of the white American myth is called “nativism,” and, instead of calling for broadening categories of whiteness, it refers to the willingness of some white citizens, that this country should restrict the incorporation of non-white people because of different notions of “contamination” that can cause whites to lose their purity. Some of this nativistic notions are not reserved to white extremists, but are embedded in popular culture as well.

During the past presidential campaign, Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin used the idea of this mythical white America, embodied in the pure, small town, homogeneous place where “Joe the Plumber” lives. However under contemporary demographical conditions, it is more likely that “Joe the Plumber” is an African American, or an immigrant from El Salvador—or even if he is white he may live in a small city or in a town that is not a hundred percent white. The mythical Joe is very likely to have friends and acquaintances that are not white, or not even American citizens. The racial composition of this country is also varied, having about 65 percent of whites, almost 15 percent Latinos, almost 14 percent African American.

Barack Obama’s victory, not only questions this myth of a dichotomized America, but he, the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white woman from the Midwest, embodies an arrangement of statuses that are difficult to dichotomize. Obama is not only an African American, but also a second-generation immigrant, and the son of a white family from the Midwest, were the prototypical “small town America” is supposed to exist. Obama is the child of a less affluent single woman who traveled the world and taught her son to be open to other cultures. Symbolically Obama is not a dichotomy between black and white, but a cosmopolitan being, a politician that has direct family connections across several continents.

As we swear-in Barack Obama this coming Tuesday, The United Sates is once more, thinking about itself as a pluralistic and culturally diverse nation, not a country divided both structurally, and symbolically in black and white where everybody competes to be considered culturally, economically, and socially white as a sign of upward mobility and normalcy. Obama certainly has opened the possibility to re-think the cultural foundations of this country, and more than two hundred years later, re-constitute the myth of this nation as a pluralistic, diverse and cosmopolitan place, the greatest democratic experiment on planet Earth, where inclusion is the rule, and not the exception. The Bush administration taught us however, that even the greatest democratic experiment, can go awry if citizens do not engage in daily practices of symbolic and institutional enactment in order to keep this democracy as inclusive as possible for its inhabitants, without having to anguish over how white one looks, acts, or has become.


Antonieta Mercado is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication, at the University of California in San Diego. She studies immigration and citizenship.

1/15/09

Romantic Love and Society Addiction to Triviality

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/science/13tier.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

We are starting the year with news about the terrible economic moment we are either living or about to live if we still have jobs to fear of losing. After my trip to Mexico I had not posted anything new into the blog, and when I was preparing an article on the wonderful new country that the United States has become after electing Obama, I found this article about love, among the new year resolutions, and the grim stock market reports. This news piece written by John Tierney, describes how romantic love acts on us as a drug, and how now neuroscientists in their search for making life happier or duller at best, are working on a "magic potion" to fall in our out of love, and recover from infatuation. In fact Tierney, celebrates the possibility of a drug that prevents you not to "make an infatuated ass of yourself." That is not necessarily bad if there is somewhere a willingness for an institutional grand design, that will reengineer that weak and terrible institution that is the family, and that supposedly is the basis of our social and political arrangements.


In the area of sex, doctors such Dr. Larry Young, the neuroscientist that has developed a grand unified theory of love out of his primary research on autism, has performed experiments placing oxytocin into people´s nostrils to develop trust and empathy. According to the findings, people under the effect of oxytocin do feel more attached. Apparently love hormones do improve our social skills!

The most hilarious comment on the article is Tierney´s question regarding a love potion involving neuropeptids shooted into your nostrils : Tienrey says: "Even if the effects could somehow be targeted to the right partner, would you want to start building a long-term relationship with a short-term drug? What happens when it wears off?"

Well, what happens is exactly what has historically happened with weak bonds based solely in romantic attachment: they wear off by themselves, and you do not need to worry about any artificial stimulants. To be truthful modern western marriage, and therefore modern western family are precisely based in this short-term drug or romantic love with no need of artificial potions. Fueled by society, and popular culture, current expectations for romantic love have grown out of proportion. Couples are expected to keep the supposedly base of society solely on the enchantment of hormones, while society and its institutions fall apart. Even if we develop the perfect drug for couple attachment, what about the mores of a most flawed institution such as the family? what about uneven distribution of labor inside the household, the roles for males, females, and children in both public and private spheres? what about respect and equality among the romantic partners? does a permanent romantic attachment prevent violence, and disfunction? Given our social conceptions of romantic love, would it be possible to develop friendship and solidarity among permanently infatuated couples? Is there a material arrangement for this to happen, or are we going to economize on human relations expecting to obtain everything from a romantic partner and a nuclear family? What about friendship and social bonds?

I am not trying to say that discoveries made by scientists are to be disdained upon, but there is much more to society than romantic love, and its neurotransmitters. The current distribution of labor, the fact that there is less and less time to socialize for married partners, and in general for everybody due to jobs that demand long working hours, the frightening economic crisis that threatens even more the fair distribution of work in the domestic sphere. The incredible high expectations to obtain every social need from the partnership of marriage, along all the other factors are loosening crucial social bonds enacted to solidarity and social and political action. Perpetual romantic love will most likely not solve the uneven arrangement of the family structure. What about working on genetic design, and also working on social design to come up with better institutions for human life and happiness?
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