28 November 2008

Pre-Trip: Brasilian Modernism

Brasil is complex. Of course this is true for most every country in the world, but it's the conclusion I have reached as a result of reading an article entitled "Brazilian Modernism: An Idea Out of Place?" by Randal Johnson. The article is actually a chapter from the book Modernism and Its Margins: Reinscribing Cultural Modernity from Spain and Latin America, edited by Anthony L Geist and Jose B. Monleon.

Brasil's complexity comes as a result of its indigenous and European pasts, and its identity-seeking present. In broad terms, the history of Brasil can be separated into three important segments: the pre-Cabralian indigenous past, which represents the time before 1500 C.E.; the age of European colonization from 1500 - 1889 C.E.; and the rocky era of modernization since 1889 C.E.

Each of these are rich in cultural contributions about the story of Brasil. However it is also important to recognize that the last chapter of the story -- the modernization of Brasil -- is still being written. What am I saying?: Brasil is even now in the act of writing itself. From its rich and vital roots, along with the graftings it has received from African and European branches, Brasil is a work is progress. In the words of Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, Brasil is "neither Europeans nor North Americans. Lacking an original culture, nothing is foreign . . . because everything is. The painful construction of ourselves develops within the rarefied dialectic of not being and being someone else." Brasil and Brasilians have been for the past 80 years -- and are even now --inventing themselves.

Johnson's article speaks to that invention. It may focus on a short moment in time (1922- 1930), but it reflects a momentous movement in history: Brasilian Modernism. For context, the country was undergoing tremendous changes. The nation had only recently abolished slavery (in 1888) and it had been the last country on earth to do so. A year later, the Portuguese monarchy was deposed and Brasil was enjoying its First Republic (1889-1930). Immigrants, mostly white working class Europeans, were arriving in large numbers (1.5 million between 1905-1923), bringing with them the class consciousness and political militancy of the European proletariat. During this time the radio was introduced to the airwaves of South America, and the country received its first loan from the United States. The latter represented an "eventual rearrangement in the country's relations of dependency with industrialized nations" (Johnson 190), an economic re-positioning that continues to have importance in the 21st century. In short, Brasil was a nation on the fast track to industrialization and modernization.

Along with changes in the economic and social structures in society, Brasil was also experiencing something of an identity crisis. Having recently rejected European monarchy, Brasil was beginning to question how much of Europe it should continue to draw from in the creation of a uniquely Brasilian society. It was starting to evaluate the "contradiction between . . . world and national relations of power, [as] the key to drawing a more precise figure of Brazil in the modern world" (Johnson 193). The political openness of the First Republic allowed for Brasilian citizens to conceive of a Brasil which could step away from the political, economic, religious and artistic influences of Europe that had dominated the country for the past 400 years.

Enter antropofagia. The term refers to cannibalism, but in relation to Brasilian Modernism it carries more than one meaning. The first interpretation associates with the pre-Cabralian past when the Tupinambá -- an indigenous group from the northeast -- practiced ritualistic cannibalism as part of their totemic system. Johnson treats the subject handily, as does Theodore Robert Young in his lecture entitled "Anthropophagy, Tropicalismo, and Como era gustoso meu Francês." Translated into English that last part means "How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman" which is, among other things, a reference to who was dining on whom in the 16th century and the title of a popular film in the 1970s.

The second meaning to the term antropofagia explains the ways in which Brasilian Modernists were employing the concept. Stay tuned for "Eating the Europeans" and an explanation of the image at the top of this entry next time!

15 November 2008

Pre-Trip: Murder, Mayhem and Mapmaking

. . . and that's only partially the story in Robert Whitaker's historical biography entitled The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon. Whitaker was selected by the American Library Association for writing one of the best biographies of 2004. Having read the book, I can certainly see why.

The story begins in 1735 when a party of ten French Enlightenment scientists journey from Europe to the Viceroyalty of Peru, a Spanish colonial territory of modern-day Equador. Their task: to measure the circumference of the earth. The team of men included Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Louis Godin and Pierre Bouguer, all important members of the French Academy of Sciences.

Whitaker's descriptions of the men, their personal rivalries and public foibles are compelling, but the story really gets good when their research reaches its conclusion in 1743 and the expedition makes plans to head back to France. Prior to their departure, one of the team members - Jean Godin, the cousin of Louis Godin - met and married a local woman. Actually, it would be a misnomer to call Isabel Grameson a woman on her wedding day; she was a month short of 14 years when she married Jean Godin in an elaborate ceremony on 29 December 1741. But child brides were common in colonial South America and Isabel's father approved of the match.

What follows their wedding is the stuff of legend. When the expedition pulls out of the region in 1743, Godin is "barred from departing because of his debts . . . and take[s] a position as professor of mathematics at the University of San Marcos in Lima" (Whitaker 198). But the political climate for colonial elites in the Viceroyalty of Peru is changing and so by 1749, Godin sets out toward the Amazon basin without his four month pregnant wife Isabel. Godin's goal is to reach the Portuguese city of Para where it meets the Atlantic ocean -- a journey of 3,000 miles -- and obtain the necessary paperwork for their passage to France, then turn around and go back up the Amazon to retrieve Isabel -- another 3,000 mile trip--, take her (and their newborn child) through the Amazon to Para in Portuguese territory (yet another 3,000 mile excursion) before catching a ship back to Europe. Perhaps by now the reader can see how this is turning out: Not well. For starters, only about five Europeans have ever made this trek down the Amazon even once and Godin wants to do it three times. Add to that the complicated world of diplomacy between colonial Spain, France and Portugal and one can clearly see how unlikely Godin's plan might be.

Needless to say, Jean Godin gets stuck in Para and its environs for the next 20 years. That's not a typo from a thick fingered blogger. Isabel, however, never stops waiting to be reunited with her husband, and in 1769 she takes it upon herself to leave her hometown of Riobamba in search of her long lost husband. Without hyperbole, a colonial elite woman traveling down the Amazon searching for a husband she had not seen in 20 years is about as inconcievable as her husband's plans had been in 1749.
Isabel is accompanied by 40 other people, including two of her brothers and a nephew, along with several servants. The latter are justified because a woman of status and culture surely can not trek the Amazon without others to do her hair in the morning.

Along the way, Whitaker exposes the reader to the dangers of the Amazon. From vipers to leeches, from head-shrinking indigenous tribes to vampire bats, Isabel braves it all as she traverses 3,000 miles of Amazon jungle in search of her beloved. Early in the journey, as the reader might imagine, the updo loses its import. Many of her companions, however, lose their lives. In short, Isabel is the sole survivor when the expedition goes awry. Everyone else dies or disappears. Isabel alone crawls out of jungle near-death and, finally, in 1770, reunites with Jean Godin.

There is more to the story, including how the couple finally arrive in France in 1773 but I will leave that for the reader to uncover. In short: Jean had been away from France for 38 years and Isabel never saw South America again.

For more information, maps and links go to http://www.themapmakerswife.com/Mapmaker%27s%20Wife/Home.html. Be sure to click on the link entitled "Following Isabel" for a slide show of photographs by Robert Whitaker. These were obtained by the author during the course of his research of the territory and the route Isabel took. Enjoy!

07 November 2008

Pre-Trip: Vaccinations

In the midst of election fever, David, Hope and I went to Kaiser Hospital in South Sacramento for vaccinations. Because of David's employment, he did not need Hepatitis A & B, tetanus or the typhus vaccination. Hope, too, is current on her vaccinations, so she and David only had to have a yellow fever inoculation. I, on the other hand, earned the great honor of receiving four shots, two in each arm to grace my shoulders with a lovely spotted orange and purple pattern that made me look like a hairless pale leopard.

Imagery aside, the vaccination we each received on Tuesday was for yellow fever. Yellow fever is a virus which is transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitos in South America and sub-Saharan Africa. This map shows the region in South America for yellow fever transmission. Because we will be spending about 6 weeks in the "zone" and because there is no cure for yellow fever once it is acquired, we each received the vaccination.

Yellow fever is not common in the United States today. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that "Between 1996 and 2002, five people from the United States and Europe who traveled to South America or Africa contracted yellow fever and died. They were all unvaccinated." Although it is now rare in the U.S., recent history offers several famous yellow fever outbreaks in the Americas, including Philadelphia in 1793, New Orleans in 1852 and 1905, Havana, Cuba in 1898, and Peru in 1995. A recent PBS program entitled The Great Fever features these historic events and can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fever/.

Globalization has also raised the ante for governments seeking to limit the transmission of yellow fever. The World Health Organization concludes in a 1998 report that "yellow fever is an important public health threat, which needs more attention" (WHO 15). The report presents the unique challenges of urbanization in the Amazon basin, and can be found at http://www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/surveillance/Yellow_fever.pdf.

Despite advances in understanding the origins of the disease, a yellow fever alert has been issued by the Brasilian Ministry of Health (MOH). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention "As of June 11, 2008, 45 confirmed cases of yellow fever have been reported [in Brasil], including 25 deaths. Among the most recent cases, two human yellow fever cases have been reported in the State of São Paulo ..." http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/contentYellowFeverBrazil.aspx. With a 2008 estimated population lurking at 190 million people, this handful of yellow fever cases in Brasil represents only a fraction of the number of people who live there. However, while I want this to be a trip of a lifetime, I am not interested in seeing it be the trip that ends my life. Therefore, although the MOH does not require yellow fever vaccinations, it does recommend them in light of these recent developments. Hence, the shots.

Science aside, the side effects I experienced from the vaccinations were interesting, if not annoying. Chiefly, I ached. In addition to general achiness and dizziness, I could not raise my arms above my shoulders. This posed some challenges to writing on the board while lecturing, which reduced me to explaining my condition to my classes. Being the great people that they are, the students were receptive and empathetic to my temporary disability. Between four shots and the emotions brought on by an historic presidential election, I was pretty much a wreck on Wednesday, November 5.

Another, more compelling, side effect has been the loss of control of my arms. They seem to have developed minds of their own and have taken to flailing, jiggering and generally being independent from my will at the most inopportune moments, such as when serving food, drinking tea or shaving the back of David's head. Yes, he really was putting his life in my stuttering hands this evening. It must be love. Sigh.

Muscle aches, known as myalgia, are an early symptom of yellow fever, and because the vaccination consists of injecting live antibodies of the disease into one's system, I suppose this is just a small taste of the real thing. In this case, I prefer the sample rather than the whole meal!