Política Pop

The pentatonic scale is a political weapon.

Drinking with Huerequeque

by José Simián



It was January of 2004, and my high-school friend José Manuel Simián and I were traveling through Perú. The trip had been organized just a few days before our departure, as a transient solution for the petit-turmoils that ruled our respective lives: escape from emotional commitments, trying to figure out our careers, turning 30.

Besides seeing the Amazon, one of the reasons that had taken us to Iquitos was our love for the movie Fitzcarraldo (1982), by Werner Herzog. On our last day, we asked our friendly moto-driver (and de facto guide to the secret corners of the city) if it was true that the rusting cask of the ship that stars in the film was still around to be seen. “Of course!” he said, stepping on the start pedal of his motorcycle. A few minutes later, glancing over his shoulder, he asked us if we would be interested in meeting Huerequeque, the actor that had played the loyal cook in the movie. Bumping along in the back seat, we hastily said yes, incredulous that we might have the chance to meet a character from one of the most legendary events in moviemaking. (See Herzog’s notebook, and the documentaries My Best Fiend and Burden of Dreams.)

“We just need to buy a few bottles of beer to knock on his door,” our driver said as he drove us towards the Port of Iquitos. “He is my friend.”

Huerequeque opened the door, greeting us like old friends. Inside, he led us to the living room, which resembled the salesroom of a flea market. Among other absurd treasures, Huerequeque had a gigantic cement fish tank, built out of a car windshield. Inside, different types of Amazonic fish buzzed around.

The motor driver promised to pick us later, leaving the three of us sitting around large bottles of beer.

Huerequeque never bothered to ask us how we had arrived at his house, what we were looking for, or even if we liked Fitzcarraldo. It seemed evident that there were plenty of reasons for us to be there, sit at his table, and get drunk in front of the silent eyes of his fish.

José Manuel and I toasted for being there, and let Huerequeque speak at ease.

He seemed to be resuming a conversation interrupted long ago.

To clear the way, he first addressed some of the legends built around Fitzcarraldo: no, no natives had died during the shooting; yes, the natives had offered to shoot the unbearable Klaus Kinski for Herzog; yes, Mick Jagger had participated in the beginning of the shooting, “f—ing anything with two legs, until his girlfriend came and took him out of here.”

He had never acted before. His involvement in Fitzcarraldo happened by chance: the stage actor hired to play the cook had quit after realizing he would need to spend months in the jungle. Huerequeque had a bar where they were shooting. They auditioned him for the part in a scene with Kinski.

“They wanted someone who could pass as a cook and a drunk,” Huerequeque said. “I am no cook and didn’t look drunk. I was a drunk!”

The first scene, with Huerequeque sober, didn’t go well. A few drinks later, Kinski approved of his acting.

Following the movies’ success at Cannes, where it won the award for best director, Huerequeque traveled all over Europe in a promotion tour. Wherever he went, he learned one word: the equivalent of “Cheers!”

Turned into a cult actor after Fitzcarraldo, Huerequeque was still being called for indie films that morning we met him. But now he focused most of his energies on writing stories and poems, based on adventures from his youth: he had been in the Army and then lived in absolute isolation in the jungle.

A few hours went by under the spell of his narrations, which blended fiction and truth in equal parts. The happiest had him interrupting his jog to accept a glass of beer, only to have his jogging shoes stolen by his “friends;” the saddest one, in verse, involved and Indian princess being killed by a lover in a boat on the Amazon river.

“There are only four important things in life,” he said right before we had to leave.

“Friendship, sports, sex, and beer. If one of them is lacking, you will rot inside.”

We returned to the city in silence —the humid Amazonian wind hitting our faces on the moto-taxi—, perhaps trying to memorize Huerequeque’s four pillars of wisdom.

I thought then, and I think again now: I need to work out more.

*     *     *

José Andrés Murillo is a Chilean philosopher. He is currently studying for his PhD in Paris.

This text has been translated and adapted from a version in Portuguese, available at Futepoca.com.br


Depressed by the Prensa

by José Simián



Oh, what a week last one was for the Hispanic press of New York City. NY al Día, a new daily, appeared on the streets, and fellow blogger Juan Manuel Benítez put out the best (and only?) series analyzing Spanish newspapers I have seen on New York television.

That last praise comes from a friend, which may raise doubts among some of you. (Faithful readers of this blog, though, know that we aren’t afraid to fight.) But it’s not like anybody else will praise or say anything about those stories: we don’t exactly have an overflow of commentators on Latino media, not even on blogs (correct me if I’m wrong); not even after the Mayor decided it was essential to use his Spanish almost every time he has a presser. So here goes nothing, some reflections on the events of last week for those few freaks like me that actually care about (and/or make a living out of) Spanish media.

Of course, the existence of NY al Día is a positive development, as is its desire to create a healthy competition with El Diario. The problems arise from the General Manager, Juan Carlos Sánchez’s recent interviews with Benítez.  And taking into account the statements of his former boss, the ex Editor of the disappeared Hoy, Javier Castaño, the chances of having modern and promising newspapermen in Spanish-speaking New York seem terribly slim. (Most of NY al Día‘s team comes from Hoy.)

For starters, appearing in a recap of Benitez’s series, at NY1 Noticias’ Pura Política, Sánchez didn’t seem to have a clear business model. And, yes, I am aware that the newspaper crisis shutting down newsrooms accross the country is precisely about the death of the old business model. Yet, it was stunning that Sánchez’s best answer for the reasoning behind charging $0.40 for his product instead of giving it away for free was “because quality needs to have a price.” (Consumers would disagree: “Show me the quality and I’ll show you the money,” they’d probably say.)

Sánchez went even further with this price-as-value theory, claiming that the dissapearance of Hoy was caused in part because of it becoming a freebie, not because of the scandal of its inflated circulation numbers. Which takes us to the next worrisome issue: Sánchez could not account for 6,000 newspapers that seemed to be missing from the “official” 14,000 copies on the streets. Could history repeat itself so quickly?

But enough with worrying about paper and ink. After all, some of those problems will correct themselves soon (saving some trees along the way) thanks to the Internet. The most vexing problem: Sánchez and his former boss seem to be completely unaware of the current state of affairs between the newspaper industry and that online thing. I would even take things a step further and infer that they are convinced Latino newspapers share none of the concerns of, say, The New York Times.

A week after its release, NY al Día‘s only presence online is a banner announcing its imminent launch. “We don’t believe that the Internet is the first priority of the Hispanic community,” said Sánchez.

Here is the apparent strategy, then: to put this $0.40 piece of paper in the hands of Latinos so they can read, for instance, the results of yesterday’s sports games!

I understand that it’s easy to assume Latinos to which these publications aim at may be old school. They may prefer to buy the newspaper to read it on the bus on their way to work; maybe not all of them are crazy about reading news online as of now. But do they seriously believe that those “old school” Latinos are the only market out there? Do they really see NY al Día as a media outlet free from the 24-hour news cycle? Are these people thinking that in a few years, when Blackberries, iPhones or other devices become cheaper, relevant readers will not want to read their news digitally?

Statements made by Castaño in his appearance on the reporting series and Pura Política were clear in this Internet-denial direction. According to him, “the Internet is not the solution to the problems of the Hispanic press in this country.”

This phobia —or lack of understanding— of the online world seems to run even deeper than love for the printed page. In other statements, Castaño suggested that publishing news online somehow goes against the “old school” style of journalism he claims to be a part of. Furthermore, this high-quality journalism would return “soon,” when “people realize they have to pay for the [news on the] Internet…. [Then] they will go back to paying $0.50 for their [printed] newspaper.”

This confusion between the medium and the content is troublesome, akin to Sánchez’s suggestion that charging for a print copy amounts to quality in its pages.

I don’t expect every Hispanic journalist to follow and try to decipher Jay Rosen’s feed on the future of the media via Twitter. (It’s free, anyway, folks…) What I do expect of serious journalists is an impartial and objective look at the world changing around them. But something in Sánchez and Castaño’s statements makes me think of the movie Sixth Sense when, at the end of the film, the main character suddenly realizes he has been dead all along.

Pushing It

by juanmanuelbenitez


The election is seven months away, but Michael Bloomberg is already showing off his Spanish skills in his first television commercial of the 2009 campaign. It’s a very similar spot to the one he opened his campaign with in 2005. He has already spent more than three million dollars of his own pocket this year in his effort to stay four more years in office. He is ready to spend 80.

Why can he run for a third time? At his request, the New York City Council changed the term limits law last year to allow public elected officials to serve for a third term. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent said that would give New Yorkers more choice, but so far, only two Democrats seem to dare challenge him.

One of them is not Congressman Anthony Weiner. He decided to take a step back last month and wait until the summer to make a final decision. That hasn’t stopped the Bloomberg campaign from calling people to test which attacks would work better against him. “Nasty politics,” says Weiner about this type of survey that people from his camp described to The New York Times as push-polling, a technique used to disseminate negative information about an opponent. The Times reports that people were asked whether their “views of Mr. Weiner would be altered if he or she knew of certain problems involving Mr. Weiner, from missing votes in Congress to having difficulty keeping staff to accepting campaign donations from foreign fashion models.”

One thing is clear: no matter how high his approval ratings are or the fact that most New Yorkers I’ve spoken to (many of them African American) think the job will still be his after November, Bloomberg is determined to take nothing for granted. Last week he got endorsements from labor groups and Black religious leaders, stepping into another candidate’s turf, New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson.

We don’t know if the Bloomberg campaign is testing attacks on Thompson. There might be no need. Few people know who he is anyway.

Thrown out of the Garden

by José Simián


Although, upon hearing the title, some quickly speculated that “Feel A Change Comin’ On,” one of the tracks on the forthcoming Bob Dylan album (“Together Through Life“, out April 28),  would have something to do with the Age of Obama, nothing has ever been that literal in Planet Zimmerman. Now that the soul-inflected song has been released through news websites (change we can really believe in), that theory has been dispelled by Dylan’s grainy voice: “Well life is for love / And they say that love is blind / If you want to live easy / Baby, pack your clothes with mine.”

Things being circular, nonetheless,  in the last installmentdylan-together-through-life of Dylan’s long interview with Bill Flanagan, the usually evasive songwriter speaks at length about the President:

BILL FLANAGAN: What struck you about him?

Well, a number of things. He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage – cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

In what way?

First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise – so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.

And he was thrown out of the garden.

Not exactly. […]

[Complete interview at bobdylan.com, including Dylan’s explanation of why the political world came to Barack Obama, and his theory about good and bad presidents.]

Caught Between Two Worlds

by juanmanuelbenitez


Reluctantly. That’s how I start this new English-language version (could we please make it at least bilingual?) of Política Pop. Simián says that by writing in English the gringos will read us. Really?

I wonder if I can be witty, smart and funny in a language I’ll always consider my second (and yes, after ten years in New York, I still dream in Spanish.) Besides, do I want to become the Latino voice in the US, deciphering the Hispanic world to the mainstream (inglés, poh favoh) reader? That’s boring.

To tell you the truth, I’m a little tired of being the one reporter asking the immigration question at a debate, devoting a whole interview to the issue, or the one some politicians watch to hone their Spanish-language skills. (It’s funny how they always come ready with their cue cards, like first-grade students eager to show off their basic homework.) All that was kind of fun for a while, but quickly turned tedious.

This ethnic reporter thing doesn’t really appeal to me anymore. Because let me tell you something: that guy at my Dominican laundromat says I’m not one of them (“usted es blanco, europeo”.) And I’ll spare you my livery cab (“you look blanquito, you are blanquito”) eternal conversation driving down the West Side Highway. In fact, my Latino persona is full of tricks: I cut my hair short, something like a caesar (my friend Dennis says I look more ethnic), and my accent when speaking Spanish on television is elaborately fake, so viewers won’t start laughing and running away from the “lispy” Spaniard.

Funny, because most of them seem to think they are white anyway, like I proved in this television series my dear professor June Cross would like to see in English (“do it for us stupidos who can’t understand Spanish, pls?”) I guess Simián might be right after all: in this country, if it’s not done in English, it doesn’t exist.

But in a blogosphere full of native US writers (and out-of-the-job reporters), would anybody in this country care about what a Chilean, an Argentine and a Spaniard have to say about pop culture and politics? Would English-language readers/viewers treat me as an equal if they hear my thick accent? Or would I have to find some new tricks to fool them too?

Let me call Arianna.

Ethnic Newspapers Struggle, Stay Alive

by José Simián


From today’s NPR Weekend Edition: Linda Werthheimer interviews Juana Ponce de León, executive director of the New York Community Media Alliance, an organization for New York’s ethnic media outlets.  Ponce de León explains how ethnic newspapers “manage to pull the rabbit out of the hat” — doing much with scarce resources— and have kept their readership in these hard times by focusing on the specific interests of their communities.

Listen to the clip here.

Brave New Blog

by José Simián


A few things have happened since this blog was interrupted last September:

Yes, of course, Barack Obama was elected president, and the Age of Hope started in the middle of an economic landscape so bleak that the days when we cared about things such as the geographical lacunae of Sarah Palin or McCain’s computer illiteracy seem like a frivolous joke — a thing of the Bush years.

And, yes, as you know the press has entered a downward spiral, out of which it will emerge as something that no one —not even those who are thinking hard about it— can figure out. A death blow was given to two newspapers that were dear to this blog: The New York Sun and Hoy. The former, because it always gave us an excuse to start a fight; the latter, in part because it was one of two newspapers published in Spanish in New York City, but mostly because, as time went by, it became a study in the disintegration of a daily. (In yet another sign of the times, the non-existent outlet still claims to live online, under the shadow of the lazy monopoly of El Diario.)

Only two really positive things have happened for the Spanish press in the past six months. Surprisingly, Hispanic media seems to have grown in stature despite dramatic shrinking in actual output.  This phenomena might have been propelled by the economic crisis, the political savviness of Barack Obama (who is still in campaign mode when speaking to Latino outlets), or even Mayor Bloomberg’s insistence on interrupting his pressers to practice his fumbling Spanish.   (The notion of “Ethnic press” seems to have been more present in the first few months of 2009 than ever before.) Second, El Diario scored big by leading the outrage of minorities against the policies of appointed State Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand. When the legislator finally hinted at changing her position on immigration (among other things), the Spanish press suddenly seemed to regain muscle lost long ago to show business and easy pandering.

So here we are, in the middle of the most unpredictable time our generation has ever experienced; still in New York, still trying to explain the world from the perspective of Latino immigrants. Call this a Latino blog, Ethnic Press, or whatever you come up with, but we feel that the message and the need to get it across are more urgent than ever. Our Spanish is alive and well, but in order to reach the real America —multicultural, multilingual— from now on we will be writing in English.

The game certainly has changed.

Cierre patronal

by José Simián

Por José Manuel Simián    

A casi un año de emprender este proyecto, hemos debido suspenderlo por razones a las que el nombre de fuerza mayor pocas veces cayó más ajustadamente.

Seguiremos escribiendo en otras superficies, claro está.

En el intertanto, la apasionante ola de este año electoral, que envolvió y arrastró a esta página más de lo que la idea de pop quiso concentrar en un principio, parece estarse escribiendo sola.

Salud y buena suerte.

Silencio, por favor

by juanmanuelbenitez


Por Juan Manuel Benítez

Yo sabía que tarde o temprano me iban a mandar callar; pero el espíritu gamberro de Simián me tentó para emprender esta original aventura de Política Pop. Con estos posts sólo pretendía contar lo que se me quedaba fuera de mis reportajes y programas. Y aunque internet ha roto más de una regla en esta profesión del periodismo, hay alguna de tipo laboral que convendría dejar intacta. Por el momento.

Me tomo un descanso antes de comenzar otro blog bajo la tutela de NY1 Noticias.

Gracias, y hasta pronto.

La experiencia es una cosa relativa V

by José Simián

Por José Manuel Simián

Los lectores atentos de esta página recordarán que hace pocos días sugerimos que la elección de Sarah Palin como compañera de fórmula de John McCain —a todas luces apresurada e ineficaz a la hora de reforzar las debilidades del senador por Arizona (v.gr.: su manejo de la economía, su falta de conexión con los jóvenes)— parecía no servir otro propósito que confundir a la opinión pública.

A medida que pasan los días, esa sospecha comienza a adquirir color de certeza. A pesar de que muchos consideraron el discurso de Palin el tiro de gol de la Convención Republicana, lo cierto es que esta recién llegada al baile presidencial sigue siendo peón —con suerte alfil— de esta partida de ajedrez. Y su rol es el de permanecer en su mitad del tablero: de los cuatro políticos por los que podremos votar en noviembre, Palin es la única que no aparecerá mañana en los tradicionales programas políticos del domingo, escenario clave para demostrar sus cualidades. Que nunca lo haya hecho anteriormente, se da por descontado.

¿Cuál es su aporte, entonces, amén de ser una cara bonita, de agitar la mar con su energía inesperada, y de alinear las tropas de feministas despistadas y conservadores anti-aborto?

Dice Frank Rich en el New York Times:

“Esta elección no se trata tanto de los asuntos políticos" sino más bien de las imágenes de los candidatos, dijo el gerente de la campaña de McCain, Rick Davis, en una de las declaraciones más notables de la temporada. Cuando estaba por comenzar la convención republicana, creíamos que sabíamos a qué se refería: la estrategia de McCain se trata de destrozar a Obama. Pero la semana pasada dejó en claro que la campaña de McCain será igualmente despiadada cuando se trate de desviar la atención del deterioramiento de su propio candidato.

Lo más impresionante del discurso de aceptación de McCain fue que no tenía casi nada en común con la convención que lo precedió, inequívocamente de derechas. Sin dudas, lo que recibimos fue una repetición del McCain modelo 2000, hecho a partir de retazos del viejo repertorio [del político anti-élites que fue por entonces]. El tedio provocado fue casi seguramente intencional. El que asumamos que McCain es el mismo en 2008 juega en el mejor interés de su campaña.

Ése es el motivo por el cual la elección de Palin fue brillante en términos políticos, no porque ordenara las filas de la menguante base política religiosa de los republicanos. No hay nada que los estadounidenses amen más que el rostro de alguien famoso, y los comentaristas televisivos marcharon gustosos la semana pasada a proclamarla como  la nueva estrella. Palin es una distracción muy atractiva de lo que sucede con el candidato principal, aún cuando su estrellato emane de la causa misma que hace que ese candidato principal sea razón para que sintamos temor.