Sunday, December 4, 2011

Susana Donoso, who participated in an educational exchange in 1947, reflects on her experiences

A search that took me over 30 years has finally come to a close. Back in 1978, I was rummaging around in the basement at home when I came across a high school Spanish textbook, "El Camino Real," that my brother had received from a neighbor. I turned to a chapter called "Una Aventura en la Buena Vecindad," which roughly translated means "An adventure in good neighborliness." It told the story of 33 Latin American high school students who were selected to travel to the United States, live with American families and attend American schools. It didn't give a date, but it said that it happened "not too long ago." The program was called the New York Herald Tribune Forum for High School Students (later known as the World Youth Forum).

There were several factors that made this exchange unique. First, this event received widespread media coverage in its day, as the program was sponsored by one of New York's leading newspapers. Second, Pan American Airlines brought the students to the United States. Third, the students had the opportunity to meet well-known personalities such as Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am; First Lady Bess Truman; Peruvian political figure Victor  Raul Haya de la Torre; and actress Ingrid Bergman. Fourth, the students had the opportunity to participate in a panel at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to express their opinions about the United States, both positive and negative. Among the positives were the directness and friendliness of their hosts, but the students did not hesitate to mention that some of the Americans they met did not know much about Latin America. I was familiar with educational exchanges, as I was about to participate in one to Mexico in 1979, but it was evident that the Forum was something truly special. One of the students whose picture appeared in the textbook, and who participated actively in the panel discussion, was "Ecuador's friendly Susana Donoso."

In 1981, after returning from graduate studies in Bogota, Colombia, I decided to see if I could locate some of the students that participated in the program to interview them. This was a challenge in those pre-Internet days when I had to rely on libraries and microfilm collections, especially as the book did not provide a year for this particular program, and the New York Herald Tribune had closed its doors in the 1960s. I exhausted my local resources in Philadelphia and in 1984 went to the New York Public Library to do my research. After searching through the Herald Tribune archives, I did not come up with the particular Forum that I was looking for, though I found articles about other students who participated in the Forum in later years. A friend of mine, Mireya Cebamanos, did me the great favor of looking for one of the students on one of her trips to her native Panama, but was unsuccessful. In 1997, I stopped at Swarthmore College and decided to search in the New York Times archives, and finally found the year that the Forum took place. It turned out to be 1947. Internet searches at that time for some of the students proved to be unsuccessful. I would occasionally do a Google search as the years went on to see if I could find anything, but didn't come up with anything. On one of my trips to Bogota, Colombia, I searched the phone directory to find the name of the Colombian student who participated in the Forum, Rafael Moreno Castro, but it was far too common a name to stand out in the directory.

Finally, in 2010 I decided to do one more search on some of the students' names, knowing full well that those who were still alive would be about 80 years old. This time, searching for Susana Donoso, I found a genealogy that mentioned her name and some of her descendants. I was able to email her granddaughter's husband, whose name is Sebastian Donoso Bustamante and who works for a law firm in Quito, Ecuador. After several months of email exchange, we were able to nail down a date for the interview, which turned out to be Mother's Day, May 8, 2011. Shortly before the date, I learned that there was an alumni association for students who participated in the World Youth Forum during its history from 1947 to 1972. I was able to make contact with Dorothy Chen-Courtin, one of its past presidents, to inform her about the interview. Dorothy was eager to learn what the interview would bring, because 1947 was the first year that the Forum invited students from other countries. (There was a Forum in 1946 that featured students from the New York metropolitan area, so 1947 is counted as the first year of the World Youth Forum.)

Susana Donoso was celebrating Mother's Day at her daughter's house in Quito and her relatives set her up on the computer so that we could conduct the interview via Skype. I didn't have a webcam set up on my computer, but she had one on hers, so I could see how she looked today as an 81-year-old woman. She definitely retained the appearance she had in the picture taken of her in 1947, but with the added wisdom of a person who has learned a lot of valuable lessons in life. I found her to be optimistic, enthusiastic and candid, just as she was in 1947.

One of the questions I had for her, as one can imagine, was what her life has been like since participating in the Forum. The main event, from a career perspective, was that she landed a job as a secretary at the US Embassy in Quito in 1956, thanks in part to her participation in the Forum, and worked there until retiring in 1988. Nonetheless, she has kept up with world events since retiring from the Embassy and credits the Forum for fostering in her an interest in international relations, which in her opinion made a huge difference in her life, both personally and professionally. Out of all the major events that have taken place over the 64 years since her participation in the Forum, which include the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the voyages to the moon, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 9-11 attacks, the one event that has made the strongest impact on her was the election of Barack Obama as President. One reason for that impact may be that when she arrived in Miami in 1947 en route to New York and the Forum, she and the other students saw the "Whites only" and "Colored" signs that were a part of segregation in the South. She stressed that the election of an African American president was an event that likewise made an impression on many people in Latin America because for many years it seemed highly unlikely that it would happen.

I wanted to ask Susana if she felt that Americans were just as ignorant of Latin America now as they were in 1947, and she assured me that it was not the case. She recalled speaking before a Rotary club while participating in the forum, and the audience wanted to know if Ecuadoreans dressed in feathers and had clocks. She made an effort to be polite and still answer the question candidly, because she felt that it was precisely the goal of the Forum to do so. She also felt that her own country has progressed significantly, particularly in the increased roles of women and indigenous peoples in her society. Her family and I laughed good-naturedly as she tried to remember the name of the sneakers the natives wear - was it Reebok? The educational system in her country likewise has improved, with more opportunities for university studies for the population, and for women to get college degrees and embark on successful careers.

Susana remains, in her words, a friend of the United States, but she feels that in some cases the United States could do a better job in maintaining friendly relations with Latin America. One example is that oftentimes Latin American products encounter taxes and legal hurdles when there is an effort to export them to the United States, some of which she feels put an unnecessary burden on poor farmers and fishermen in her country. She also mentioned that the United States has political and economic competition in Ecuador that did not exist in 1947, particularly among European states, Arab states, and followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and stressed the importance of working hard to maintain good relations.

Regarding the Forum, Susana told me that aside from the other student from Ecuador who accompanied her, she had not been able to stay in touch with the other students who traveled with her to participate in the Forum. She remains interested in learning about their whereabouts, and which ones are still alive and of sound mind. She hopes that the Forum's Alumni Association will provide her with that opportunity.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Exploring Latin Roots in Colorado and New Mexico

Old-fashioned drug store in Las Vegas, New Mexico
In the spring, I had a few days to cram in a visit to the areas of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico where the Latin presence is significant. I was delighted to find all manner of cultural sights and curiosities, including this drug store in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which is a few miles from one of the exits of I-25, which connects Albuquerque and Denver. The drug store boasted an old-fashioned soda fountain with all manner of memorabilia, but it also had an updated menu with the now-popular cold coffee drinks. Las Vegas also had a music store frequented by many locals, where it was possible to learn about the New Mexican musicians that keep Spanish-speaking traditions alive in the area.

Other places I visited in the area had similar surprises: San Luis, Colorado, with its Way of the Cross on a hill overlooking the town; Taos, New Mexico, located near several ski resorts and Native American pueblos; La Veta, Colorado, the northern entrance to the Highway of Legends that passes through the area of the Spanish Peaks; Trinidad, Colorado, on the opposite end of the Highway of Legends, featuring many restored buildings and the town's name prominently displayed on a sign on the top of one of its overlooking mountains; and Chimayó, New Mexico, called the Lourdes of America because of its fame as a site for healings, not to mention Albuquerque and its museums dedicated to Latin American and Native American cultures.

Chiles drying outside a store in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Two weeks' time would not have been enough to sample all that the region has to offer, let alone the few days that I spent there. Nonetheless, I left very satisfied with what I was able to visit, and met friendly people wherever I went.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Travel Nomad Lifestyle (and why I don't live that lifestyle myself)

I published an article about the travel nomad lifestyle at . In it I mention that today's technology makes it easier for people to pull up roots and set themselves in other parts of the world with their laptop and Wi-fi connection. I also mention the many benefits of this lifestyle, among them being the ability to sightsee much more than on a standard vacation as well as really connect with other cultures. It's also great to be able to provide a favorable impression of one's country just by being present in another and acting courteously toward one's hosts.

I personally don't live the nomadic lifestyle myself, but my particular reason is because I like to come back to a home base or place to process all my experiences and share them once I'm on familiar ground. I still feel, though, that I have a lot in common with travel nomads and like sharing information with them. In my case, I may have done at least some of what they have done, but stretched it out in little bits over a long period of time. One such experience was seeing a mime on the streets of Bogot√°, Colombia during a trip to a food festival there.

Here are links to more sites that discuss or refer to the travel nomad lifestyle:

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss is one book that discusses in detail the freedom to work from anywhere in the world and choose one's own schedule. Tim's blog on this subject is called The 4-Hour Workweek Blog.

Move Builder, a company that specializes in relocation, also has a webpage listing travel blogs that describe the lives of several travel nomads.

Jasmine Wanders was created by Jasmine Stephenson (also highlighted on the Move Builder website) to chronicle her travels to several countries. She also has created two additional sites, one for St. Maarten and another for South America.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reflections on traditional music versus modern music

Learning about traditional music goes a long way in helping me understand a place that I have visited, as well as have a greater appreciation for the cultural diversity that exists in the world. For the most part, what seems to identify a region and separate it from its neighbors is a particular style of music. Usually, the older the style is, the more it represents its region because the earlier difficulties of transportation from one place to another tended to foster the development of a particular style of traditional music distinct from the surrounding regions. Styles that have come into vogue later on tend to be more pan-regional and often don't provide this sort of insight, with a few notable exceptions, such as the brand of salsa that has developed in Cali, Colombia.

When I began to listen to traditional music, there were a lot of styles that I didn't enjoy listening to because they were made by societies that didn't have the benefit of technology to make refined instruments, plus the melodies were often repetitious and sounded strange to my Western ears. Over time, however, I began to appreciate the context in which these styles were created and didn't allow my earlier prejudices to prevent me from embracing those styles as the authentic expression of the people.

As these traditional styles have evolved, there have been tendencies for the people to make certain adjustments based on the possibilities that technology offers. Dancers often like recorded music because the beats are more predictable and easier to dance to than a live group that may not play to a rhythm conducive to dancing. I had a direct experience with this situation as an organizer of a cultural event in Philadelphia in which a group of tango dancers struggled to adjust to the shifting rhythms of the local Argentinian music group and found a recording much easier to follow. The compromise was using the musicians for some songs and the recordings for others. Also, modern musicians often prefer electronic instruments to acoustic instruments because they are sometimes easier to transport, plug into sound systems directly instead of having to be amplified by a microphone, and appeal more to contemporary audiences. For example, musicians may add the electric bass in situations where the tradition didn't have a bass or had a rudimentary bass, as is the case with many Colombian "vallenato" groups (a type of music from the Caribbean coast) like the one shown above. At least one writer has decried this modification as only serving to drown out the percussion, but the more traditional vallenato groups with only three instruments - the accordion, scraper and drum - still exist alongside their larger, electrified counterparts. The venue dictates which type of group will take precedence.

Despite this evolution, pop music is seen as a competitor to traditional and regional music, and with the huge marketing resources that pop music has at its disposal, the playing field is very uneven. There are differences of opinion among those promoters of regional music as to how to deal with this situation. The late folklorist Alan Lomax gave this assessment: "We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency." I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lomax that the incredible variety of human expression that is represented in folklore should not be extinguished by a  money machine. Where I see divergence is how those representatives of their local cultures choose to deal with the situation.

I have heard some local musicians complain about how they are passed over in representing their region in festivals in favor of singers who represent a style foreign to their particular area. While I certainly sympathize with them and realize that they often need an advocate to increase their influence, the end result often is the fading of the traditional style as their most storied proponents pass away. Another approach is similar to the saying "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" but is more like "If you can't beat 'em, meet 'em halfway." Realizing the enormous reach and influence of popular music, some promoters of the traditional style try to incorporate certain elements of pop music into their repertoire, or perform in both traditional groups and fusion groups, so that they do not sell out to pop. For example, in a conversation with a traditional Colombian Pacific Coast music group at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2009, one of the musicians mentioned that he was looking for a fusion of his local music with popular music that could serve as a "hook" to get their young people more interested in the local traditions. I couldn't answer his question at that time, but a few weeks later I traveled to Bogota, Colombia and found the answer: a group that developed a fusion of that same style with rap. It sounded great and represented the best that both the Pacific Coast music and rap had to offer. I personally prefer the acoustic sound of the traditional music, but felt that the fusion group had done a very good job of respecting the roots music and may have provided a bridge so that people could appreciate the tradition better. The debate is not likely to go away, but I am hesitant to disagree with anyone who has faced a decline in popularity of their regional style and would like a wider audience to appreciate it so that the style does not disappear completely. Ultimately, the standard bearers of the tradition should be the ones to decide.

Check out the article on Latin music on my website for more information.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Finding culture in the "tourist trap": an example in the Bahamas

Over time I've read a number of articles and some books regarding the impact of tourism on local communities. Opinions vary from those officials who would open up the floodgates for real estate development regardless of the consequences, to opponents who believe, in one person's words, that "tourism is whorism." I believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. If tourism is not seen as the only path to economic growth, and care is taken to maintain the culture and the environment even in the midst of the development, tourism can have a mainly beneficial effect on the economy of the area in question.

I was confronted by the paradox while on vacation in the Bahamas, specifically Paradise Island, a prime example of a tourist enclave. After eating dinner, we were walking along the "Harbourside Village" which is an extension of the nearby Atlantis resort, when we came across this traditional Bahamian "rake n' scrape" band, complete with harmonica, tub drum and musical saw, ironically after we left the Johnny Rockets in the background. (For those of you who may question our food choice, I should mention that our family also managed to eat locally caught fish at a more traditional setting on another occasion.) Evidently the opportunity to earn some money was one motivator for the group to perform at this location, and the resort provided that venue, which in turn motivates the musicians to continue playing their traditional music. (Music researchers have found examples of musicians who haven't played the traditional music in years, which is the first indication of the tradition's potential disappearance.) As long as there isn't pressure to make changes to the music to please the tourists, both the resort and the musicians benefit.

There is much more that can be said about this debate, and I confess not being completely sure how to maintain the happy medium in all the possible scenarios. What I can say in summary is that people need income, but not at the cost of their souls, so to speak. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

View from the top of Cayo Cangrejo (Crab Cay), Providencia, Colombia

On the first day of my three-day trip to the Colombian island of Providencia in June 2010, I took a boat ride that circled the island. We started on the west side of Providencia in the town of Aguadulce (Fresh Water), made our way to the narrow channel that separates Providencia from the smaller sister island Santa Catalina, then proceeded east toward Cayo Cangrejo or Crab Cay. There are two main activities on this small island: climb to the top to get the panoramic views, and snorkel around the island. I was fortunate to have picked the climb first, because shortly after doing so it started to rain and the view became more obscure. Snorkeling while the rain was coming down was not an issue at all.

When I sat on the top of the cay, I turned myself around 360 degrees to get all the possible views. I felt like the old man on the mountain contemplating the meaning of life. The picture shows one of the views featuring the plentiful coral reefs that extend from here 500 more miles to the north - one of the longest reefs in the Caribbean. As one of our fellow passengers said, "It's not particularly easy to get to the top [it requires some crawling up on the rock], but once you get up there you'll never want to come down." My thoughts exactly!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I learned the real meaning of "breathtaking" in Seville, Spain

I can't count how many times I've heard the expressions "breathtaking views" and "it will take your breath away." However, I didn't really understand its meaning until I traveled to Seville, Spain in 2006 to attend the April Fair (Feria de Abril). Because the principal Feria activities take place in the afternoon, evening, and late into the night, I did my sightseeing in Seville in the morning. On one of these trips, I walked into the patio pictured at the right, and at that point it literally took my breath away. At that moment I finally understood the meaning of "breathtaking" because I don't remember this ever happening to me before, and it hasn't happened since then.

This patio is called "El Patio de las Doncellas" (The Patio of the Maidens) in the Reales Alcazares in Seville, and I think that it was the elaborate stucco work that had that breathtaking effect on me because it caught me by surprise. What surprised me is this breathtaking feeling didn't happen when I visited the Alhambra in Granada two days earlier, beautiful as that was, and I saw a lot of elaborate stucco work there as well.

The Reales Alcazares (loosely translated "royal gardens") has been the residence of the rulers of this region since the Middle Ages, and its various parts, built at different times throughout history, likewise represent different architectural styles starting at about the 13th century. When you first walk into the courtyard, you can see the Giralda tower of Seville's cathedral in the background over the wall. The residence, with its elaborate gardens, still serves as the residence of the king of Spain when he travels to Seville on official business, and the second floor, where he resides, can be toured when he is not there, though the security is tighter on that floor than on the first floor and the garden area.

Something else remarkable happened while I was there. Before traveling to Seville, I had heard the saying "When you're in Seville, you can kick a stone and witness history." Something like that actually happened to me in the Reales Alcazares; while walking in one of its rooms, I accidentally kicked a piece of loose tile that had come up from the floor!

I would highly recommend visiting the Reales Alcazares if you are going to Seville, because a "breathtaking" experience just might overtake you!