Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Argentine identity crisis

In my interview with David Rotemberg an Argentine comedian, he was explaining to me why Argentinians believe that Argentina is the Europe of Latin America. According to him, Argentinians have an internal conflict because Argentina is a wanna be or fake first world country. The following is a discussion between two Argentines as to how Argentina can stop being third world and finally get into the first world club:

Argentine 1: Como podemos ingresar al primer mundo? How can we get into the first world

Argentine 2: Alemania les hizo una guerra a los EEUU y perdió ahora son una potencia. Japón les hizo una guerra a los EEUU y perdió son una potencia, hagamos una guerra a los EEUU.
Germany went to war with the USA and lost and now they are a world power. Japan went to war with the USA and lost and now they are a world power. Lets go to war with the USA!

- Dale... Che..y si ganamos? Sure dude...ahh and if we win?

Favourite Quotes from my mother's visit to Argentina

So we all know that Jamaicans in general have a way of saying things but no one can describe things quite the way my mother does. I don't know, my mother just has a way with words. Here are examples of what I mean:
1. My mother on Florencia's incapacity to work a full time job and be a full time university student at the same time:
"Wappen, Florencia caant waalk and chew gum same time?"
Explanation: Its kind of self-explanatory, Florencia can't walk and chew a bubble gum at the same time.

2. My mother describing the obstacles a Spanish corporation is facing in its attempt to establish a hotel chain in Jamaica:
"Danielle, yuh know like when Hawk siddung inna pitcheery chest?"
Explanation: This is in reference to a visual image of when an eagle or a hawk is about to capture a pigeon and it uses its claw to grab the bird by its chest.

3. My mother telling one of my siblings that he has absolutely lost his mind:
Explanation: Based on the notion in rural Jamaica that when a feline is crazy if you ingest its urine, you too will become crazy.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Argentina: Los Desparecidos, Popular Theatre and National Identity

The enforced disappearances of up to 30 thousand Argentinians during the Videla dictatorship from 1975 to 1983 is a horrific moment that continues to plague the country's citizens even today. The story of the disappearance is both personal and public and this post seeks to trace the stories of some of the victims and the role that popular theatre can play in the search for justice.

Every Thursday afternoon the Abuelas de La Plaza de Mayo march in front of congress in memory of their children and relatives who disappeared under the reign of the military junta in the 1970s. Time has revealed that the capture and torture of their relatives was also accompanied by the kidnapping of the victims’ children, some of whom continue to live with the torturers themselves or with friends and families of members of the armed forces. The march is therefore referred to as the march of the grandmothers who have been forced to accept the disappearance of their children but who seek justice through the search for their grandchildren. Let me share with you the story of one such case:
In 1978, Paula Eva Logares disappeared with her parents Claudio Logares and Monica Grispon on the 18th of May in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her maternal grandmother Elsa Pavón de Aguilar, did not know what the word ‘desaparecido’ meant until that moment but knew that her daugher and son-in-law were activists who moved from Argentina to Uruguay because their lives were in danger under military rule. When they disappeared in 1978, Elsa continued to tidy her daughter’s room for one whole year both in denial of their disappearance and also with the belief that her daughter and her granddaughter would eventually return home. Paula Eva Logares was 23 months old when her parents were kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was not until Elsa joined the Abuelas (grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo that she discovered that while Monica was probably dead, her granddaughter, Paula was still alive, living with one of the torturers Lavallén and his wife in La Plata, Argentina. Lavallén, like many other members of the military, took Paula as a ‘war button’ and testimony of his ‘conquest’ of her activist parents. He renamed her Paula Eva Lavallén and officially re-registered her as his own daughter born 2 years after her real date of birth. He ensured that Paula had no knowledge of her real parents, teaching her that he and his wife were her parents and officially erasing any evidence of her previous life with her biological parents. It was not until Paula turned four that one of her next door neighbors identified her in a photograph that Elsa had published in their neighborhood and reported her to the Abuelas that the truth of Paula’s past was revealed.

Paula’s next door neighbor agreed to secretly meet Elsa and the Abuelas and told them that Paula’s relationship with Lavallén was frightening because he told Paula that men were disgusting and that he was the only man she ought to trust. He also told her that she would marry him when she grew up; at that time Paula was seven years old and Lavallén was forty-six. Elsa found this to be alarming and vowed to do everything in her power to rescue her granddaughter immediately. Little by little Elsa secretly began gathering information and enough evidence to take Lavallén to court but she had to wait until the ending of the dictatorship to officially press charges. When Elsa and the lawyers of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo officially pressed charges and had Paula removed, their first obstacle was to prove her official date of birth as Lavallén had gotten Paula legally renamed and re-registered. With the help of scientists, photographs and radiographic tests, they were able to prove Paula’s real identity. The court ruled that Paula was to be returned to her biological grandmother and charged Lavallén and his wife for falsifying information on legal documents as well as the kidnapping of the child. However, the sentence is a suspended sentence and Lavallén and his wife continue to live in freedom even today and have continuously attempted to contact Paula over the last 20 years. Lavallén and other members of the military are yet to be charged for the murder of Paula’s real parents because the system behind the disappearances has never completely been dismantled.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle that Elsa faced was to prove to Paula herself that she was indeed her granddaughter. The day the court ruled that Paula was to be sent to live with Elsa, her grandfather and her uncles and aunts, the child threw a tantrum and cried uncontrollably. Psychologists accompanied Elsa when she first spoke to Paula who although was (biologically) 7 years old at the time, was two years behind in her mental development. Elsa said that it was as if Paula were a big baby and although she was tall for her legal age, she was still physically underdeveloped for her biological age. Psychologists explained that this was a result of her traumatic separation from her parents. When Elsa showed Paula pictures of her real parents and told her that Lavallén had lied to her, Paula screamed at her and called her a liar. Elsa then showed her a picture of herself with her mother that she had taken 2 weeks before she was kidnapped and Paula stopped crying as if she had recognized her. Elsa then said to her “Do you know what you used to call her father? Instead of saying Claudio, you would say ‘Calio.’” Paula repeated it and burst into tears. She remembered. Psychologists say that Paula remembered because she actually knew her parents at the time of the kidnapping and that the moment of re-remembering them was a terribly painful one for her. She moved in with her grandparents and psychologists stayed in the house with her for an extended period of time to ease the emotional and psychological difficulties of reintegration. Paula’s story is not the only story that I read and heard about when I was living in Buenos Aires, nor is it the only country where disappearances occurred. The military junta in Argentina collaborated with the military dictatorships in Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay to enforce disappearances of thousands of citizens including activists, homeless people, homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes. Cases are still being fought today.

When I had arrived in Argentina, the story of the 30,000 ‘desparecidos’ was just a story that I thought had already been resolved. To my absolute shock and horror, this was not the case. When my friend Erick came to visit me in Buenos Aires, we went to a gay pride rally and saw several signs saying “¿Dónde está Jorge Julio Lopéz?” At the time I didn’t take notice of it and it was only when I started interviewing popular theatre groups that I begun to ask questions. I asked the people I lived with who he was and they told me that he was one of the ‘desparecidos’ who had survived and was currently testifying against Etchecolatz, a former police chief convicted of crimes against humanity and after he testified, he disappeared. So I asked Martín and Irma (the people I lived with) in what year did this happen and Martín looked at me incredulously and said “Danielle, vos no sabes, se lo llevaron hace 3 meses.” Danielle, you don’t know? They kidnapped him three months ago!” It is only now, under Kirchners government that Argentina has really begun to prosecute members of the military and to officially search for the grandchildren of those who disappeared.

The relevance of the mass disappearance of thousands of people hit home for me when Martín and Irma told me that their brother is also one of the ‘desparecidos’ and that they too continue to search for at the very least, his body. It made sense to me because I had been renting a room in their house for two months and had met all the members of their family except him and his picture was still up in the living room. Irma explained that she was the last to see him. Her daughter Florencia was just born and she had met her brother in a park the same day. He had told Irma he needed to run an errand before going over to meet his niece for the first time. He was also an activist. She said that he asked her to accompany him but she was tired and told him that she needed to take care of Florencia. He left and took a taxi but didn’t show up at Irma’s house that afternoon. Irma found it strange until her father informed her that he had called saying not to worry and that he was okay. Irma’s father said, “Estas seguro hijo, es que te escucho la voz rara…”Are you sure son? Your voice sounds strange.” And he said he was fine and would meet Florencia the next day. Irma said that her brother was one of many victims that the military got to call home so that the family would not look for him. Martin told me that they had spoken to everyone and gone to every authority in the city to find him until the bishop from their local church told them to stop looking because the military had threatened to kill anyone who searched for their brother. For Irma, the alliance of the church with the military during the dictatorship was the most frustrating part and explains why so many people, including many of the Abuelas who used to be practicing Catholics, left the church when their children and grandchildren disappeared. The same night that Irma and Martín told me about their brother, we saw a breaking news report that another activist and peronista Luis Gerez, a key witness against another police chief Patti ‘reappeared’ after president Kirchner announced a national search for those who had kidnapped him.

My conversation with Martin and Irma and the breaking news report inspired me to interview the theatre group ‘Teatro Por [X] La Identidad,’ which is a popular theatre group that works with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo to use theatre to create awareness and also to find grandchildren now aged 25-30 that may be children of ‘desparecidos.’ They use their plays to provide information so that those in doubt can learn the truth of their own identity and several people have come forward after seeing their work and been reunited with their family. Patricia Ianigro, director of "Teatro X La Identidad" told me that she started working with Las Abuelas when her twin brother disappeared. She launched "Teatro X La Identidad" to participate in the search because she said that “[El teatro] es el espacio de militancia para mí…es poder desarrollarme en aquello que en algún momento fue privado…para mí era el grito que a muchos lo quedó ahogados y que el grito también fue torturado y matado" [Theatre] is a space of militancy for me, it is to be able to develop that which was private at one point…for me it was a shout/scream that was silenced/suppressed for many of us…that shout/scream was also tortured and murdered. She explained the role of popular theatre in the search for the ‘desaparecidos’ as “históricamente fue la manifestación más clara de lo que se vivía en ese momento SI...a través del teatro independiente estaba la independencia y la libertad de decir lo que se querría decir sin pocos recursos." “Historically, it was the clearest manifestation of what was lived in that moment, it was through popular theatre that there was independence and freedom to say what you wanted to say [and] with very few resources.”

To understand the function of popular theatre in this instance, we also need to understand the purpose of the disappearance itself. Why would you kill, torture, murder so many people and keep their children? The armed forces in Argentina, used enforced disappearances as a weapon of generalized terror. A former police chief and another torturer, Silvio explained that he took the child of his victims to re-train her and to instill patriotic values in citizens when they are very young. But the impact of the disappearance is even more important because when someone disappears, that entire family and those close to the individual live in total fear because they never know what actually happened to that person. Without the body of the person itself, there is no evidence of the crime committed and simultaneously there is no perpetrator. When no wrong is done, there can be no accused, no one to be held accountable and no grounds to demand justice. Also, the disappearance embodies the silence of the wrong and of the person’s life so finding a grandchild represents an acknowledgement of the parent’s life, their death and the rewriting of a personal story.

Therefore, Ianigro has explicated two things about popular theatre in Argentina as it relates both to the personal and the public impact of the disappearance of so many citizens. It is first personal for her because it allows for her to express her personal grief and loss and it is secondly public because it breaks the silence surrounding the history of the nation itself. A nation is imagined as an entity with a specific history and what is included or excluded from that history is what determines the nation’s identity. One cannot imagine Latin America as a region today without thinking about its history of colonization, dictatorships and revolution because history is the foundation upon which a nation’s identity is constructed. So when a popular theatre group like ‘Teatro x La Identidad’ decides to break a silence with its work, what is at stake, is not only the personal grief being expressed by those who participate; It is the rewriting of Argentina’s history and the creation of a space to re-imagine the nation’s identity.
©Danielle Roper

For more information:
Anything published by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo is useful.
Information on Paula Logares's story taken from the book Identidad: despojo y restitucion" by Matilde Herrera and Ernesto Tenembaum
Photos of Teatro X La Identidad and Patricia Ianigro

Photographer: Danielle Roper

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Political Humor definition

El Humor es esa canción que tienes que cantar cuando te toca cruzar un cementerio a la noche
Humor is that song you have to sing when it is your turn to cross a cemetery at night...
-David Rotemberg, Argentine Comedian

Friday, January 05, 2007

Salchicha Gigante

So when I was in Northern argentina I was walking along the main road and you know how they have those mascots like ronald mcdonald and that stuff stand outside of restaurants or cafeterias? Well here in Argentina they have those kinda mascots. So I was standing outside of a restaurant in Salta that sold hot dogs and there was this mascot and since it was a hot dog place the mascot was a giant sausage.
He gave me a flier and then said "You're a really pretty woman...are you from Brazil?" So I look at the giant sausage and think...I am not really being hit on by a giant sausage then I go, thanks.. no Im from Jamaica.
And then he said "!" and I started walking away before he could say anymore but he kept following me and hitting on me. So I started walking faster and faster and by now I had drawn a lot of attention to myself because people were looking at the only black girl in town running from a giant sausage. But he just wouldn't stop...he kept following me and hitting on me no matter how fast I walked.
So it got to the point where I couldnt ignore his tauntings..and it was so annoying because I can't actually see his face. I don't know if its an old man, a young man or what because its literally a giant sausage wearing white stockings on his hands and feet saying: You dont want to go out with me..have a drink or eat with me?
He goes: but Why not?
Me: PORQUE ERES UNA SALCHICHA GIGANTE! y No...No me das hambre, me das MIEDO! Because you're a giant sausage!!! And no...You're not making me hungry, you are making me afraid!
And then yes, he went away.

A Reflection on Nicaraguan Humor

What are you laughing at and with whom are you laughing?
A Reflection on Nicaraguan Humor
As I conduct a study of political humor and social transformation in Latin America, I come to various conclusions about the kind of humor that each country produces, the way it is used and the social norms that Latin American humorists embrace or uphold in order to make you laugh. Nicaragua was my base for three months but I ventured over to other countries to interview cartoonists and comedians to compare and contrast different types of political humor in Central America. My study is not as simple as what is ‘funny’ or not because often times that is dependent on personal taste as well as social locations; rather my study is to find out to what extent can humor be an instrument of social change and a means of giving voice to the voiceless.
During my three months in Nicaragua I volunteered with a feminist NGO Puntos De Encuentro which produces a television and radio show entitled Sexto Sentido while I conducted interviews with comedians, cartoonists and popular theatre groups. Nicaragua has a long history of using humor as a tool of resistance starting with the dance/play “El Güegüence.” This play confronts colonization through humor with the main character as a dishonest man who deceives those in power. El Güegüence is celebrated and admired in Nicaragua and started a tradition of using humor as a form of protest against institutions of power that continues to appear in the humor produced today.
Daniel Paz, an Argentine cartoonist told me that humor is always a result of a historical, social and political context as well as the ideological norms of any given society. So in other words, Nicaraguan humor, like humor in any country is a product of the economic, political and social conditions of the society. Nicaragua has seen many conflicts of all sorts: from natural disasters (hurricanes, volcano eruptions, earthquakes etc) to dictatorships, to bloody revolutions, poverty (one of the poorest countries in Latin America) and corruption. All these difficult periods did not only make laughter necessary but has also caused Nicaraguan humor to become a kind of dark humor. I found that Nicaraguans are capable of laughing at almost anything and finding humor in the most difficult period. So for instance, while human rights activists around the world threw a fit when a dog fatally attacked a Nicaraguan immigrant in Costa Rica, the average Nicaraguan had several jokes about the fact that the victim’s name was Natividad. When I read the jokes about his name, I thought if this had been an American citizen, the U.S government probably would’ve been preparing an invasion of Costa Rica. But Nicaraguans laugh at the things or people they laugh at because laughter is a means of emotional ‘alivio.’
When I first moved t o Nicaragua, I found that undertaking my study would require me to divide my project into two parts: El Humor Político partidario and El Humor Político Social.
El Humor Político Partidario is humor directed against the ruling class and which typically makes fun of politicians or public figures themselves. I found that this kind of humor is probably the most dominant type of humor to be found in Nicaragua. It exists in what we can understand as mainstream political humor: cartoons in newspapers such as La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, comedy shows on television such as Los Hulosos, radio shows such as El Tren de los Volteados by Valentín Castillo and the work of stand-up comedian Luis Enrique Calderón. I refer to this as mainstream humor because it is political humor sponsored by the press: newspapers, television and radio and is the most public, most visible type of humor. Stand-up comedian Luis Enrique Calderón is the only exception to this as he goes on tour and works with his own agents and managers but I have included him in this category because of the fact that his routines are imitations of politicians and people in the ruling class.
El Humor Político Partidario as it exists in the public space is usually against or for a certain political party. The vast majority of shows whether it be Los Hulosos- produced by cartoonist Manuel Guillén which predominantly makes fun of the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega or the work of stand-up comedian Luis Enrique Calderón who imitates former and present political figures in his routines- the vast majority of the time, the humor is about ridiculing the politicians and not about generating strategies to change the system. For instance, I am yet to see an episode of Los Hulosos where there is no reference to ‘El Bachi Ortega’ Sandinista leader and his wife Chamuca Murillo portrayed as a witch. In one episode ‘El Bachi’ is represented singing with his wife “Jodida Nicaragua, Yo triunfo” or arguing with the late Herty former leader of MRS referred to as ‘Zorrillo Judillo’ in a fake television program hosted by Nano Banano. In another episode, ‘Zorrillo Judillo’ who refers to himself as the ‘former Zorro del Bachi’ comes back from the dead to argue with ‘El Bachi’ about the election and continuously uses profanity as reference to his “controversial” use of the word ‘mierda’ in his campaign. These episodes basically portray the leaders in a humorous way and doing humorous things but provide no real criticism of their proposed policies, campaigns or even their role in the famous pact.
Luis Enrique Calderón also makes fun of politicians by perfectly imitating their voices and their speeches and replacing campaign slogans with humorous things like “Soy la Bestia…vota por la Bestia” or ending each imitation with “En el nombre del pacto…y el espíritu santo.” He also typically ends his routines with the song ‘Nicaragua, Nicaragüita’ after having a question and answer session with the audience as part of the routine. What was useful about the question and answer session was that not only did the audience participate in producing humor but he also gave them the opportunity to question policies implemented by certain politicians always with humorous responses. In this way, he as a comedian becomes both creator and mediator of a space between the people and institutions of power where people can actually have a voice. However the downside to it is that Calderón can only imitate certain politicians or journalists, some of whom are no longer in public life. Also, in my interview with him he revealed that he supported a certain political party and does little to allow for criticism of that party in his routine. Personal persuasion towards a particular political party is an issue that appeared in my interviews with almost every cartoonist/comedian in Managua. It is natural for a humorist as an individual to support a certain party but it meant that their humor presented criticisms of some parties and not others.
I was able to find some exceptions to shows like Los Hulosos and the work of Calderón. There is an early morning radio show on Radio Tigre entitled El Tren de Los Volteados produced by Valentín Castillo who told me that at that moment, his show was directed towards getting people to go out and vote in the then upcoming presidential elections. He believed that getting people to vote is the only way to bring about change in Nicaragua. He also told me that he refuses to make fun of women in his radio show because of the oppression that they experience in Nicaragua. However, in conversations with some Nicaraguans about the show and my interview, they debunked what Castillo had to say and provided examples of sexism and homophobia they had listened to on the radio program in the past. I didn’t get that impression listening to the show and some of its early recordings but given the fact that I was in the country for a relatively short period, their criticism of the show may have been valid.
Several people recommended cartoonist Pedro Molina as an objective voice who openly criticizes institutions such as the church and the ways in which they oppress ordinary people. But given that I went to Nicaragua right before their presidential election, I found that his humor was also directed toward the political class and fell into similar traps like other cartoonists and comedians of poking fun at politicians and little else. What I saw of political humor in Nicaragua was essentially a reflection of the historical moment in which it was operating. So, we can explain the focus of the comedians and cartoonists on the politicians and members of the ruling class as part of the fact that I went two/three months before the elections. During a political campaign where every vote counts, humorists pick a party and take sides. The goal of political humor in that moment is not about opening the hearts and minds of people nor speaking for the voiceless. It is about getting people to vote for whomever you as a comedian believe they should vote for with little or no discussion about a politician’s positions on social issues.
My interviews and conversations with cartoonists and comedians themselves demonstrated that the vast majority of Nicaraguan humor as it exists in the public space has little to do with issues of social equality such as sexism, domestic abuse, HIV aids, gay rights etc—and when it does, it is often used to reinforce societal norms. The most common themes that do appear are poverty, unemployment and corruption. Frankly, I find these to be relatively easier to talk about than a controversial issue, say like abortion or even gay rights. When Nicaraguan leaders repealed the Penal Code allowing “el aborto terapeútico’ overnight in order to gain the support of religious citizens it brought about little or no visible outrage in the work of humorists in Nicaragua. It is not a coincidence that humorists choose to speak about some issues and not others. The themes that appear and that do not appear in political humor are impacted, but not always determined, by the humorist’s social location. It is important to bear in mind that humorists are not immune to the internalization of racist, sexist or homophobic views and this can also be reflected in their work. So here are some of the issues that do NOT get talked about among humorists in Nicaragua.

The absence of female humorists in the mainstream political humor industry in Nicaragua is a reflection of the sexism of the society itself. There are no female cartoonists in Nicaragua and the only stand-up comedian in Managua is a guy. This was the case in most of Central America as throughout my time in Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama, I had never met nor heard of a single female cartoonist. This was somewhat puzzling to me when I considered other parts of Latin America especially South America, in countries such as Argentina with huge female cartoonists like Maitena and stand-up comedians such as Natalia Carulias and Dalia Gutmann. However, in Argentina, women still occupy a relatively small space in the political humor industry. But at least, there is a female presence doing humor about women’s issues. The absence of women in Central America does not mean that ‘women are not that funny’ as one cartoonist told me, it means that women do not have access to political humor in the public space, the way that men do.
Also, I noticed that in comedy shows on television, men are more likely to dress up and act as women rather than have women in the casts playing their own role; this is also linked to notions of gender and sexuality as a man dressed as a woman can garner a laugh since it insinuates homosexuality. Also, when there are female characters such as the Sandinista leaders wife in the show Los Hulosos, they are portrayed as a witch or a ‘weirdo’ as reference to what has been described as her ‘strange’ religious practices. In my conversation with a writer German Pomares Herrera, producer of the new comedy show NNN (Nicaragua News Network) he said that absence of women comedians is partially due to the envy of male coworkers that she will ‘steal their limelight’. He explained that in his own experience, many male actors do not want a woman on the show because they are afraid she will get more attention and become more famous than they will become. Rene Blanco, writer for the show Sexto Sentido in Puntos de Encuentro, explained that this is mainly because of ‘machismo’ in the society where women do not have equal access to the working world including jobs in the media. When I interviewed Honduras’ most famous cartoonist Miguel Angel Montoya, his explanation for the absence of female cartoonists and comedians in Central America was simple: “Porque somos unos machistas!”(Because we’re sexist!) All these explanations are true and undoubtedly, the person who has access to the media is the person who determines what you laugh at. Now I am not making an essentialist argument about women and men, nor am I suggesting that women do not internalize notions about race, gender etc the way that men do. What I am suggesting is that the lack of female representation demonstrates how the political humor industry perpetuates systemic exclusion of women by way of being a masculinist space. What you laugh at is never separate from the person who is making you laugh.

The lack of discussion about race and racism in Nicaraguan political humor is all part of the general invisibility of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast whose citizens are people of African, Miskito and Indigenous descent. Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast continues to be the poorest region in the country even though up to 60% of the country’s export are produced in that region. Also, several different languages are spoken on the Atlantic coast, apart from Spanish even though very rarely do you hear people speak about Nicaragua as a multi-lingual country. Unemployment and drug abuse are rampant on the Atlantic coast and it is the least developed part of Nicaragua. In my discussions with people from the Atlantic Coast-mainly Bluefields, they believe that the government’s neglect of the region is all part of the conflict that existed during Colonization between the Spanish and the British. The separation that the colonizers implanted continues to foment the division between the two sides of the country. In response to my question as to why their was no discussion about the Atlantic Coast in their work, cartoonist and comedians told me that people from the Pacific side could not really relate to the life of people on the Atlantic side or that the coast is so detached from the rest of the country that there is no real ‘demand’ for humor about them and their experiences. The centralization of power on the Pacific coast and the history of conflict between the two sides of the country make the invisibility of race and racism in political humor part of a discourse that defines the Nicaraguan identity as Pacific, Spanish-speaking and Mestizo. Also, if humorists are really to fight against poverty, to ignore the poorest part of the country is to have no real discussion about poverty itself. This was a problem I found in most of Central America which has several indigenous people and people of African descent living on the margins of society. The only country in Central America to have a comedy show directed towards experiences of people of indigenous and African descent was Panama and the show itself (entitled Chombo Visión) outlined the racism that people in the country consistently experienced in a comical way. If the Atlantic coast is constructed as separate or ‘too far away’ or different in political humor then the underdevelopment and neglect of the region will continue to be invisible.

The underlying representation of sexuality in political humor is riddled with hetero-normativity and when it isn’t, it is typically the hypersexual, effeminate gay male character-almost never a lesbian- acting in the show simply for comical relief. There are some cartoonists who absolutely refuse to touch on the topic like Guillén who told me that while “God has taught him to hate the sin but love the sinner” he does not make fun of them because it is “too complicated an issue” to talk about with children. Whatever the representation of sexuality in political humor, unless it is about a love affair among politicians as seen in the work of Honduran cartoonist Napoleon Ham, any non-heterosexual representation is personified by a generally non-threatening, silly, gay man.

The invisibility of these issues has to do with the lack of representation of women, openly queer and non-pacific humorists based in Managua. I do not suggest that voting and seeking for a change in government is not a means of securing some form of social change. However, when humorists maintain silences about the experiences of the most marginalized, oppressed people in society, they participate in the very injustice that they claim to fight against.

El Humor Político Social
Unlike some other Latin American countries where comedians or cartoonists suffered severe persecution when working under authoritarian regimes, the experiences of comedians, actors, playwrights and cartoonists were somewhat different given the fact that the Sandinistas supported Nicaraguan culture. El Humor Político Social is humor that seeks to address some of the social issues mentioned above and often exists through popular theatre movements in Nicaragua. Unlike other countries, Nicaraguan theatre exists on the streets and not necessarily in a traditional “salon” because it is the most accessible to poor people.
In my interview with Els Van Poppel, director of a theatre group MOVITEP-sin fronteras, she told me that during the late 80s, early 90s under Sandinista rule, there were up to 200 theatre groups in Nicaragua and that even the police force had there own popular theatre group. This is because it is under the most difficult circumstances that collective creativity is born. Although there are no longer as many theatre groups, Nicaragua has a very strong tradition of popular theatre. Humor has always been a central part of theatre productions because it would sustain the attention and presence of your audience on the street. Van Poppel described popular theatre as “el teatro que presenta los temas sociales, se trata de lo que vive la gente…con lo que se puede identificar, se hace reflexionar…” (Is theatre that deals with social issues that people live, that people can identify with and that calls for reflection…). Some of the themes that appear are: AIDS/HIV, gender equality, human rights, domestic violence and the sexual exploitation of children. It is within this space that taboo topics get talked about and silences about painful experiences can be broken and shared.
While popular theatre does not have the reach the political humor in the mass media can have, it is an alternative use of political humor that Nicaraguans continue to consume. In previous years, actors had to contend with censorship by the government during the Sandinista revolution as well as opposition from the church when dealing with HIV/AIDS and sex education. Nowadays, the major challenges for popular theatre groups are that they often do not know the impact their work has on the audience. Also, given that they are not doing commercial theatre work, popular theatre groups face economic challenges such as the cost of production and find themselves dependent on donations to fund their shows. This limits their creativity because donators often stipulate the theme of their productions as part of the conditions of funding. Also, while there is some female presence among theatre groups, female members often leave the group once they get married and become housewives. However, for the most part, the popular theatre movement breaks the silences that exist in the mainstream political humor industry and with a little more access and investment could have an even larger impact in the struggle for equality and social change in Nicaragua.

Political Humor and Sexto Sentido
I begun this reflection essay talking about volunteering with a feminist NGO Puntos de Encuentro and in their television program Sexto Sentido they deal with youth issues and talk about sexuality, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, gender and much more. I believe that Sexto Sentido could utilize humor to educate and reach people because it has the access to the media (television and radio) that popular theatre groups do not have.
Some of the strategies I propose to incorporating humor in the show are the following.
1. Understand humor as a project.
This means having specific goals as to why you are using humor in the show. Is it being used as a breather after dealing with a very intense or difficult issue or is it being used as a means of communicating a message? Are you using it just to make people laugh? You can decide as to whether or not you want a certain person to be funny, or if a scenario in and of itself is funny. Also, it is important to be clear as to whether or not a joke is about making an issue visible that is difficult for people to talk about or if it is about changing the audiences mind about an issue.

2. Humor as a form of ‘teatro del choque’
There is always the challenge as to how not to use humor to invert power dynamics and to exclude the ‘oppressor’ by making him the object of ridicule. One of the strategies to avoid this is to take stereotypes and throw it back in the face of the oppressor. Sometimes exaggerating a stereotype and acting it out can break the stereotype itself. Remember that stereotypes are based on some truth taken outside of a context. Try using the stereotype itself outside of context and see what happens.

3. Taboo topics
Sexto Sentido addresses a number of issues that people do not like to talk about and portraying the difficulty about talking about issues especially when it comes on to sex-ed can also be very humorous. Acting out or portraying the lack of vocabulary or discomfort a character may experience around a certain issue can be humorous if done the right way.

Tips as to how to be funny
Before you use humor you always want to be clear about your audience: especially age groups before using it. Once you figure your audience out, here are a couple tips as to how to use some humor in your show:
1. Humor is almost always based on an inherent contradiction. So if you look at a comedy duo, there is always a strange combination of two very different kinds of people that makes them funny. Contradictions in characters or scenarios are simple ways of being funny because contradictions are part of being human. Humor often operates with either a chaotic person living in a ‘normal’ world or a ‘normal’ person living in a chaotic world.
2. If you want to make a dialogue funny, use of language is crucial. Try using one line and repeat it adding something every time you repeat it or taking a word/phrase out of context when you would least expect it. Playing with double meanings on words are clever and subtle ways of being funny, especially when two people misunderstand each other because of the different meanings of a single word or phrase.
3. Going back to an earlier joke after a long period of time.

Remember that a joke works like a small play with a beginning, climax and end and given that you’re doing a television show you have enough time and space to work with a joke. Use that to your advantage.
Using humor in a show like Sexto Sentido means taking risks but it also means making issues of social change more visible and easier for people to talk about. Sexto Sentido bridges a gap between El Humor Político Partidario and El Humor Político Social because it has the access to the public that marginalized people don’t have and has a vision truly dedicated towards speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Let Humor be a part of that.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Breaking News from BBC

Here's whats going on in the world today:

Article number 1:

Condoms 'too big' for Indian men
By Damian Grammaticus
BBC News, Delhi

Condom factory
There is a "lack of awareness" over condom sizes
A survey of more than 1,000 men in India has concluded that condoms made according to international sizes are too large for a majority of Indian men.

The study found that more than half of the men measured had penises that were shorter than international standards for condoms.

It has led to a call for condoms of mixed sizes to be made more widely available in India.

Article number 2:

Large condoms for S African men
Condom factory
South African men might enjoy buying extra large condoms

A range of extra-large condoms has been launched in South Africa, to cater for "well-endowed" men.

"A large number of South African men are bigger and complain about condoms being uncomfortable and too small," said Durex manager Stuart Roberts.

Yes, thank you BBC for that global perspective.

for entire articles see: