Cyntoia Brown in the Independent Lens documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico.(Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)
I’ve always been fascinated by storms, particularly Puerto Rico’s own history of them. I think it’s because I was born in September 1960 during Hurricane Donna. In its wake, that storm left more than 100 dead in Humacao, the city where I am now a special collections librarian at the University of Puerto Rico.
In 1990, Israel Matos, the National Weather Service Forecast Officer in San Juan, told me that, “The tropics are unpredictable.” That comment only increased my interest in storms. Now, with the people of Puerto Rico still reeling from Hurricane Maria more than a month after it hit the island, his words seem prescient.
Today I have – if not the honor, then the duty – to describe, firsthand, what it is to live through the aftermath of the worst storm of this brutal hurricane season.
Since the storm I haven’t been able to go to work at the library on the Humacao campus. At 88,000 square feet and three stories, the biblioteca is the biggest building on campus, and it’s among the worst damaged by Maria.
It’s mold-infested and the roof is leaking, so there’s a lot of work to be done in both repairs and cleaning before students can use it. The mold has gotten into our collection – from books and papers to magazines – and most of the furniture and computers will have to be replaced.
According to the general damage report for the University of Puerto Rico, the infrastructure in all 11 campuses of the university system suffered severe losses.
The Humacao campus, located on the island’s eastern side, was the hardest hit, with damages calculated at more than US$35 million. Classes will start again on Oct. 31.
Five weeks after Hurricane Maria, all the campuses have now reissued their academic calendars and classes are resuming, though in some places the first semester will run through January to make up for lost time.
A culture of catastrophe
Starting on Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria swamped Puerto Rico with 20 inches of rain and battered it with 150 mph winds for over 30 hours.
The resulting humanitarian crisis has been widely reported worldwide: 80 percent of the island is still without electricity and there is not enough drinking water.
Communications – radio, television, telephones and internet – are now recovering slowly, after weeks of near nonexistence. Having said that, it took me more than two weeks just to write this article, between finding somewhere to charge my laptop and locating an internet connection strong enough to research the data and send a file by email. Eventually I discovered a Starbucks near my house with both electricity and Wi-Fi. Nothing is easy.
What outsiders are unable to see, perhaps, is that an entire culture has arisen around the catastrophe caused by Hurricane Maria – one with typically catastrophic traits: material scarcity, emotional trauma, economic catastrophe, environmental devastation.
Puerto Ricans are now facing a dramatically different way of life, which means our relatives and friends in the diaspora are, too.
Nothing about life resembles anything close to normal. An estimated 100,000 homes and buildings were demolished in the storm, and 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. Not only are there shortages of water and electricity but also of food, highways, bridges, security forces and medical facilities.
It’s dangerous to venture outside at night. An island-wide curfew was lifted last week, but without streetlights, stoplights or police, driving and walking are dangerous after dark.
The official tally of missing people varies, with police tallies ranging from 60 to 80 right now. Considering Puerto Rico’s hazardous conditions and limited health care services, that number is sure to rise. We are well aware that epidemic diseases, including leptospirosis and cholera, could come next. Health concerns are further stoked by the delays and disarray of the various federal agencies tasked with handling this emergency.
A deep uncertainty looms over our futures. There is post-traumatic stress involved in surviving in an overwhelming situation like this, so as a people we’re now waking up to that psychological pain, too.
The outlook from here
In short, Hurricane Maria has changed the modern history of Puerto Rico. For those who, like me, are curious about such things, the last storm of this caliber was San Felipe II, in 1928.
Known in the U.S. as the Great Okeechobee Hurricane, that massive storm was so destructive that it basically plunged Puerto Rico and Florida into the Great Depression a year before the rest of the country.
In some ways, though, Puerto Ricans are well prepared for these challenges, for the history of the island is one of uncertainty and trouble.
Puerto Rico has never had a sovereign government. Instead, it has always been bound to some other larger and more powerful state. First it was Spain, which colonized our territory in 1508.
Then, since the 1898 invasion, it’s been the United States, a country with which Puerto Rico enjoys a tricky political relationship. That’s very clear right now, as the Trump administration wavers in coming to our aid.
Mired in uncertainty
Even before the hurricane arrived, Puerto Rico was facing uncertainty around another major challenge: bankruptcy. Considering lost pensions, jobs and savings, the real financial costs surely exceed by billions the official sum of $123 billion in unpaid government debt.
Hurricane Maria has deepened this economic crisis, creating a ripple effect that touches everyone across all levels of society.
Everyone is mired in uncertainty. What is the solution to this cascading set of problems? How long will recovery take? What could actually make life better for us? What will we miss? Will anything ever be the same?
The sky is more visible now. Houses once hidden are exposed, and we discern entire communities that that we rarely saw before.
There’s graffiti popping up across the island, written by someone identified as “JC,” who reminds Puerto Ricans, as a kind of consolation, that “Behind the trees live a lot of people.”
Just as new environments are created in areas opened up by the hurricane, with trees and plants sprouting afresh, over time we’ll find that our current uncertainties also fade and transform. A brand new way of life is emerging among all Puerto Ricans – those who stayed, those who left, their relatives and their friends.
Leer en español.
It’s one day after the horrifying terror attack that took place at Pulse, an Orlando LGBT nightclub. Now that there’s more information, let’s take a look at what we know and how we can offer help to those in need (as well as how to stick it to those who have allowed certain loopholes to persist).
“What You Need to Know About Gun Control in America” | The New York Times: If you are muddled on the issues surrounding gun control, the ways guns can get into the wrong hands legally and illegally, and what is being done to close the legal loopholes, read this comprehensive coverage by the New York Times, comprised of several articles giving fuller detail on the issues.
“How They Got Their Guns” | The New York Times: The Times also has an article, an article that was written last year but has since been updated to reflect the Orlando shooting, that details how mass murderers get their weapons. This article also includes profiles on how the shooters of San Bernadino, the shooter at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College and others got their guns as well.
“Victim vignettes” | Associated Press: Some people might find reading about the victims as a way to cope with what happened. If that happens to be the case for you, the AP has compiled small bios of those lost.
“Florida Man Feels ‘Helpless’ After Failed Blood Donation Attempt” | NBC OUT: One of the stories coming out of this tragedy is that, despite the attack being leveled against LGBT men and women (specifically Latino LGBT men and women), some in the LGBT community can’t give blood to help their own. NBC OUT posted a story about a young man who felt “helpless” after being unable to give blood to help victims.
Calling out insincere congresspeople
Igor Volsky, the deputy director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has used his Twitter feed to expose congressmen and women who gave “condolences” and offers for “prayers” on social media, but have been funded by the NRA, the main organization keeping certain congresspeople from acting on common sense gun reform.
— Twitter Moments (@TwitterMoments) June 12, 2016
“These GOP Lawmakers Sent “Prayers” After Pulse Shooting–But Took Money From NRA” | Mic: Mic also has an article on Volsky’s Twitter feed, showing just a small sampling of how many elected officials have been funded by the NRA.
GetEQUAL, a grassroots social justice network for LGBT equality, also tweeted out to several congressmen who offered condolences despite having the ability to save lives with legislation:
— GetEQUAL (@GetEQUAL) June 12, 2016
This is just some of the amount of tweets GetEQUAL sent to members of Congress.
How to Help:
There are many blood donation centers that need help. As of June 12, News Talk Florida tweeted out blood donation centers who were asking for donations.
— News Talk Florida (@newstalkflorida) June 12, 2016
“How To Help Orlando” | MTV: MTV has compiled a list of how people can help as well, which includes many of the blood donation centers on this list, as well as where people can donate to victims’ families and who people can call for counseling.
People can also contact their elected officials to urge them to close legal loopholes and, frankly, do their jobs to protect their constituents.
If you have any link, petition, or service you’d like to add to this list, let me know either via Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a story that’s been a big dread of mine to write. Not because the issues are hard for me to understand; far from the contrary. I just didn’t want to watch the trailer for this movie. What movie am I talking about? Nina, the beleaguered movie about Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo.
Nina made tons of folks mad a few years ago, when it was in production, and now it’s making folks mad again now that the film is coming to Digital HD and VOD April 22. First, let’s take a look at the poster and the trailer, and see if you can figure out what might be at fault here.
Let’s also take a look at the storyline, which takes a story that has been refuted by Nina Simone’s estate and her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly:
The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson. (IMDB)
And for a fair comparison, let’s look at the real Nina Simone, both talking and singing:
And here are some actresses discussing their feelings about the film. If you’ll notice, every one of the actresses gives a huge sigh before answering the question, showing how difficult a position it is to take on a film like this that intersects the issues of diversity in film as well as colorism in Hollywood.
Okay, so why are people upset? We can boil it down to three reasons:
1. Hollywood’s colorism
We hear a lot about diversity as a whole, but one of the most open secrets in Hollywood along with a lack of diversity is a focus on colorism. What’s colorism? Let’s use the Racebending. com definition, since it’s the most succinct one I’ve found in a while.
“Colorism is a form of discrimination in which people are accorded differing social and economic treatment based on skin color. Colorism occurs occurs across the world and can occur within an ethnic group or between different ethnic groups. In most entertainment industries—including Hollywood—lighter skin tone is given preferential treatment and [a] darker skin tone is considered less desirable. Oftentimes, heroes are cast with lighter skin and villains are cast with darker skin.”
As the definition states, Hollywood is rife with colorism, particularly when it comes to African American and Latina roles. Colorism affects not only limits the types of roles certain women are given, but it also makes young women who watch film and television feel like their skin tone makes them ugly and a pariah of society.
It’s not lost on quite a few that Saldana, through no fault of her own, fits neatly into Hollywood’s Eurocentric-laden idea of “black beauty.”
Evidence of this can be seen in Saldana’s acting career itself; more often than not, Saldana has played exoticized love interests, whether she’s in her own skin or not (such as her roles in Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy). Even in a film role like the title role of Columbiana, her character is sexualized to an unnecessary degree.
Damon Young from The Root examines Hollywood’s usage of Saldana’s beauty in his article, “Why People Are Upset That Zoe Saldana Is Playing Nina Simone, Explained”:
“…Saldana has had a very successful run as the primary love interest in blockbuster movies. Much of this success is undoubtedly due to her acting chops, professionalism and versatility. But also, it can’t be denied that Saldana possesses certain physical features that allow her to exist within Hollywood’s general standard of beauty. In fact, she doesn’t just exist within the standard. She might be the standard. And she’s such an attractive choice for these types of roles because she fills two boxes: the diversity box and an unrealistically attractive woman….Nina Simone, however, did not exist within this standard. She possessed features more commonly associated with black women. In fact, much of her work was centered on this. It’s a vital part of her story.”
Of course, Saldana isn’t the one to blame for Hollywood using her beauty as a way to keep colorism in check. Hollywood has to gather itself to deal with the fact that it does discriminate against darker-hued women, and that its practices affect people’s self-esteem. Some examples of colorism’s negative effects:
• “…When you do see a woman of color onscreen, the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking. That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire. And in the history of television and even film, I’ve never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me.” —Viola Davis with The Wrap
• “To be very honest, I had to leave Hollywood because as a young child, it didn’t seem to flourish [in] my mind very well. Coming here from the islands, I didn’t even know that I was dark skinned there wasn’t a color issue in my head. I always thought I was beautiful. It wasn’t until I got in Hollywood that I started understanding there were dark-skinned blacks and light-skinned blacks and there were roles for this character and roles for that character based on a color. I left Hollywood, and in the process of leaving it, it helped me develop myself into a woman.” –The Color Purple‘s Desreta Jackson with The Grio
• “When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty ‘to be dark skinned.’ It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful.” -Keke Palmer at the Hollywood Confidential Panel
• The original casting call for Straight Outta Compton was laced with colorism, calling for “fine girls” who are “light-skinned”, while darker-skinned girls were “poor, not in good shape.” The “hottest of the hottest” girls had to have their real hair (the other girls could wear weave; the hair discrimination is yet another level that needs to be discussed at a later time), and could be “black, white, asian, hispanic, mid eastern, or mixed race too.” The unspoken thought was that only truly beautiful girls have their own hair and can be of any race, but, even with the mention of black women in the “hottest of the hottest” section, it’s still implied that to be especially beautiful as a black person, you have to be light-skinned.
So what does this have to do with Saldana playing Nina Simone? Primarily because Saldana had to be darkened up to play Simone while there were many other actresses, actresses with darker skin tones and a more Afrocentric beauty, to play Simone. In short, the film’s cast didn’t need to put Saldana in horrible prosthetics and makeup to get her to that point of mimicking Saldana’s Afrocentric beauty; they could have simply cast someone who actually looked closer to Simone from the beginning. Since we don’t have the clear reasoning as to why Saldana was cast, most have assumed that Hollywood’s preference for casting lighter skin tones had something to do with it. Having Saldana play a woman who was all about promoting the beauty of darker skin and wider features runs counter to Simone’s work. To sum it up, here’s what Simone Kelly said in 2012 to the New York Times about Saldana getting cast as Simone:
“My mother was raised at a time when she was told her nose was too wide, her skin was too dark. Appearance-wise this is not the best choice.”
2. Fear that Saldana and the Nina crew didn’t understand Nina Simone’s basis for her art
As stated above, Simone’s work was all about blackness, in particular exalting dark-skinned, Afrocentric beauty. None of this means that Saldana is somehow not “black enough”. But, what people are saying is that Saldana’s casting blocks other women of color who are better suited to the role, and the colorism at the root of that blockage is what Simone was fighting against with her art.
What has made people even more on edge about Saldana playing Simone is that some feel Saldana doesn’t understand (or want to understand) the issues of race in America. Saldana has been taken to task for her comments about how “there is no such thing as people of color.” Technically, what Saldana was attempting to say is that people should be judged on their own merits, not by the racial constructs set up by society, but her point came across to some as her wanting to be “colorblind.” Saldana’s comments are referenced in this Essence article, “Why Zoe Saldana As Nina Simone Doesn’t Work,” by Josie Pickens:
“My argument against Whites making a film about badass, radical black omen like Nina Simone–and an actress who sometimes identifies as Afro-Latina (but most times claims not to see or understand color) portraying her–is that quite frankly, we cannot afford the luxury of letting another one of our heroes be recast as some gentler, more digestible version of themselves. …The casting of Nina was intentional, as the casting was intentional in the film Gods of Egypt and countless other films attempting to tell Black stories through anti-Black lenses.”
The “Whites” Pickens could have been referring to are the team behind Nina, which is predominately white. Jezebel posted pictures of the crew, and while they didn’t put commentary with the photos, its implied that the crew didn’t know what pitfalls they were falling into because of a probable lack of awareness of black issues, or even the many different types of black beauty.
Singer India Arie said it best in her interview with Business Insider when addressing how Simone looks in the film:
“It made me sad. The way she looked in the movie was ugly. Whether or not Nina Simone was beautiful in your eyes, I thought she was beautiful. But in this movie, she just looked weird. Her skin looked weird, and her nose looked weird. It made me wonder, was that how the filmmakers see how her? Did they not think she was beautiful? Were they like, ‘Yeah, we got it! That’s how she looked.'”
(However, it’s worth noting that the director of the film, Cynthia Mort, has sued the film’s production company, saying that she doesn’t like the film that was ultimately created—a film that was going to focus on Simone’s artistry and activism. Her suit claims, according to The Hollywood Reporter, that the production company acted to “frustrate Mort’s involvement in the film, thereby breaching the Director Agreement.” Such frustrations include edits to the film and a lack of communication of those edits to Mort.)
3. It just looks bad
I don’t think I need to explain this one with a long paragraph. The makeup, the accent, the story, and everything else about it just looks off, to say the absolute least about it. Just take a look at the poster and trailer again and compare it to actual video of Simone to see what I’m writing about.
Okay, the film’s bad. But how much flack does Zoe Saldana deserve?
There’s been some issue as to how much of the blame is on Saldana and how much of it is on the Hollywood filmmaking process itself. There’s two schools of thought; that the actress should know when and when not to take a role and that Hollywood has to remove itself from its Eurocentric way of thinking about race, color, and racial/ethnic representation as a whole. The debate is compounded with the fact that Saldana is Afro-Latina, and as a member of the African diaspora, many feel like she should be given the chance to play a black legend.
As the actresses in the video stated above, Saldana is a fine actress. The critiques about the film aren’t directly about her as her own person, but how Hollywood has kept its colorism ceiling in check when it comes to which black actresses can play which character. But it’s hard to critique the film without some believing that Saldana’s blackness, and the blackness of all light-skinned black people, are in question.
Blackness should never be in question. What is in question is the lack of responsibility involved when it came to making a film that properly represented Simone, her art, and her message, which revolved primarily around colorism and racism. Seeing Saldana in what is effectively blackface (or as Arie called it, “black(er) face”), goes slap in the face of Simone’s message. Even without the colorism angle, there should have been a responsibility to not make a film that would dull down Simone’s legacy to just a story based on the rumor of a romance between her and her manager, a rumor that’s been repeatedly refuted by Simone’s own people.
Again, it can all be boiled down to two points. First, Simone Kelly’s assessment to Time of Saldana and her part in the film:
“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so ficiously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture. It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”
And second, Arie’s comments to Business Insider:
Zoe has said that playing Nina Simone is her truth. Does she deserve any of this blame?
I don’t know her and I don’t think she did anything wrong. If I were in her shoes and I admired Nina Simone the way that I hear she does, I would have said yes, too, and I don’t even think I can act. If they asked me to sing Nina Simone, I got that. But I never pursued it because I felt it was not my place. And I don’t know if it was her place to do that.
I think they cast Zoe Saldana because they wanted a big name, but that makes me ask, ‘Is the name Nina Simone not big enough to get people to come to the movie?'”
What do you think of the Saldana-Simone movie controversy? Give your opinions in the comments section!
Yesterday, tons of people gave their two cents on Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue. The monologue itself has been met with a range of emotions, from delight to disgust (you can read my opinion here). But it’s the jokes outside of the monologue that made people justifiably upset, especially since the jokes were a part of a night dedicated towards ending the diversity glass ceiling in Hollywood. Towards the end of the night, two tasteless jokes reared their ugly heads, and both made fun of Asians.
First, Sacha Baron Cohen, as his poser character Ali G., crudely compared the Minions to Asian men by using the phrase “little yellow people” and invoking sexual stereotyping.
Apparently, Baron Cohen was supposed to do his bit with Olivia Wilde straight, but he had his wife, actress Isla Fisher, sneak in his Ali G. costume. “The Oscars sat me down beforehand and said they didn’t want me to do anything out of order, they wanted me to actually just present it as myself,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain (as reported by the Guardian). “But luckily my wife put on the Ali G beard in the disabled toilets and I managed to get away with it.” In order to put the whole costume on while in the bathroom, they pretended Baron Cohen had food poisoning. According to what Baron Cohen said, Rock gave him “the thumbs up” to go ahead with the stunt after meeting with Rock to quickly pitch him his idea.
Second, when Rock opened the part of the show usually dedicated to introducing the accountants from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, he introduced three Asian kids. While the kids were cute, the joke wasn’t.
“As they clutched briefcases, they visually illustrated the stereotype that Asians are diligent workers who excel at math,” wrote the New York Times‘ Melena Ryzik. “‘If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,’ Mr. Rock added, a punch line interpreted as a reference to child labor in Asia.”
These jokes were tone-deaf, seeing how the entire tone of the night was one berating Hollywood for its tone-deafness when it comes to black actors and actresses. At worst, the jokes showed how there are implicit biases even in intra-racial and intra-ethnic relations that need to be deleted. As pointed out in yesterday’s “5 of the Top Moments from the Oscars” post, it would have been great if Rock had discussed how all minorities are marginalized in Hollywood, since that is actually what #OscarsSoWhite is about. To quote #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign from her exclusive interview with JUST ADD COLOR:
I think it’s unnecessarily limiting and I think it’s unfortunate that they can’t get out of that box for themselves because I’m not in that box…It’s not clear to me why people think that is. I don’t know if it’s because I’m black and they can’t see past who I am and understand that I’m multifaceted, or if it’s just easier for them to think in binary terms. But that’s not what #OscarsSoWhite is about at all. Race is just one portion of it; it’s all marginalized communities, and within race, it’s not just black people; it’s definitely about Asian people. It ‘s definitely about Latinos and Latinas and Hispanics. It’s about everyone who should be represented on the screen.
As Rebecca Sun for The Hollywood Reporter points out, the Oscars welcomed Asian stars Byung-hun Lee, Priyanka Chopra, Dev Patel and other POC stars as presenters for many reasons (which can make up its own post), one of them being that they are also a part of the large demographic the Academy (and by extension, Hollywood itself) should represent more, a demo that obviously isn’t limited only to black people. While black actors and actresses don’t get cast as much as they should, Asian, Latino and Native actors and actresses get cast at an even smaller rate:
— The Asian Activists (@Asian_Activist) February 29, 2016
What’s equally as sad is that Rock had proven himself to be the right guy to take on Hollywood for its transgressions, both in his career and, by several accounts, earlier that night in his monologue.
“For most of the Oscars, Chris Rock proved himself once again to be a dynamic truth-teller abut systemic racism, managing not only to make pointed comedy out of #OscarsSoWhite but to keep it front and center long after his biting opening monologue. Then, about two-thirds through, he took a break to make an Asian joke,” wrote Lowen Liu for Slate. Jeff Yang wrote for Quartz about how he flipped in between the #JusticeforFlint event and coverage of the Oscars, ready to be entertained by Rock’s wit. “[W]hile I had decided to refrain from watching, the prospect of bringing the pain to a theater full of Hollywood’s most cream-colored creme de la creme was awfully tempting. And so, I cheated: I kept a tab open during his monologue and monitored the reactions of my friends to his blistering assault on the Academy Awards’ embarrassing whiteness,” he wrote. “…But my amusement was shortlived.”
Many actors, actresses, and even NBA star Jeremy Lin tweeted their disapproval and disappointment in the jokes.
— Jeremy Lin (@JLin7) February 29, 2016
— Jeffrey Wright (@jfreewright) February 29, 2016
— Harry Shum Jr (@HarryShumJr) February 29, 2016
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) February 29, 2016
So far, there’s been no word from Rock or his camp re: his Asian jokes.
This controversy has ignited conversation about the role minority activists should play. As Al Jazeera asks, “Should minorities advocate for one another?”
— AJ+ (@ajplus) March 1, 2016
As stated in the Oscars article Monday, if I was tasked with hosting the Oscars, I would have made sure to advocate for all minorities and oppressed people, because we’re all in this fight together. I wouldn’t have specifically only discussed the black acting pool, because the #OscarsSoWhite issue affects more than just the black acting pool. However, that’s how I’d do it. The question of if minorities should advocate for one another should be a resounding yes. The unspoken question, though, seems to be if Chris Rock should have been (at least on Oscar night) that particular minority activist who does advocate for others. As to what Rock feels about his own performance and how he should proceed in the future can be answered by Rock himself, but the disappointment the jabs at Asian stereotypes caused is something that will linger for a while and, hopefully (like all disappointment should) lead to increased action to make sure all people properly represented by the media (including jokes).
What did you think about the off-putting jokes? Give your opinions in the comments section!