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The Seeing Eye is the Organ of Tradition

By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, daily life, Globalization, greater Cuba, Miami, urban life, youth cultures No Comments »

Since the 1990s, U.S. flag-themed hats, shirts, pants, and especially bodysuits have seemingly been popular fashion among ordinary Cubans. More precisely, given that the Cuban flag has a white star on a red background, with blue stripes, it is at minimum clear that this fashion does not signify Cubans’ own national banner, and while conceivably referencing Puerto Rico’s bandera, it is fair to say that both foreign visitors and Cuban residents interpretNYT-image-12-14 CROPPED the symbolic referent to be Old Glory. And this, I think, is where things get interesting, since images of U.S. flag-wearing Cubans are a recurrent feature of stories of post-Soviet Cuba in the U.S. media and press, as if to visually confirm pro-U.S. popular sentiments among the population, Q.E.D., obviously political, no further exegesis necessary. One can find this pattern from the cover of Christopher Hunt’s superficial travelogue Waiting For Fidel in 1997, right to the present day. Consider, for instance, the framing of “If Not David to the U.S. Goliath, Cuba Asks What Its Role Is Now,” by Damien Cave and Victoria Burnett, published in the New York Times on December 20, 2014 as part of the barrage of that month’s NYT-led diplomacy. As seen here in cropped form, the lede image of the accompanying slide show, “Cuba Braces for the Winds of Change,” I submit, was carefully chosen to evoke exactly this sort of reading in the U.S.-based readership of the Times.

A century ago, the founder of American anthropology, Franz Boas, taught his students that we see what we are prepared to see: the seeing eye is the organ of tradition. When I first encountered U.S. flag-themed sartorial choices throughout Cuba as a novice ethnographer living in Havana in the mid-1990s, I also initially read them this way, as startlingly clear and overt statements of personal political preference.  What else could they possibly mean, in a context in which images of both Cuban and U.S. flags had for decades saturated state media in clearly politicized ways? And yet… and yet, the more I learned about the people and contexts in which these styles appeared, the more inadequate that initially obvious reading seemed. Not necessarily (or always) wrong, but certainly partial, superficial, and misleading. Many pro-revolutionary grandparents, Party members, and apolitical youth were equally crazy for this stuff!  Over time, I became both more interested in and puzzled by the possible meanings of this style, until one day in 2002 in a small town in central Cuba, I ran into two eight or nine year old girls, holding hands; one was wearing a new-to-me variant of the U.S. flag-themed shirt (see Ryer 2006). I stopped them to ask where the shirt was from, and the girl wearing it beamed and said: “Oh, I am from here, and this is my cousin visiting from Florida, and she brought it for me as a gift, isn’t it great?” (my translation). This simple exchange highlighted an overlooked if obvious point: all of this U.S. themed clothing is imported not in official state-controlled shops, of course, but is hand-delivered by close family or friends abroad. In other words, wearing it also marks one as having familia en exterior, family abroad. As I have argued elsewhere, beyond symbolizing the United States, since the 1990s wearing Stars and Stripes apparel in Cuba is a marker par excellence of one’s privileged access to increasingly important transnational remittance circuits.

Even long before the work of Victor Turner, anthropologists have understood that there are multiple meanings to any symbol, and that is certainly true in the case of enduringly popular U.S. flag-themed apparel in post-Soviet Cuba. But to only see the political, pro-American image as intended by the U.S. popular press, generates, I believe, a dangerously simplistic and even misdirected reading of the sort which once led American planners to anticipate massive Cuban popular support for their epically misjudged Bay of Pigs invasion. Even in 2014, not all meanings are global, nor are they necessarily obvious to the casual observer or photographer.

 

UPDATE:

The re-opening of the embassies and ongoing limited rapprochement between the two governments has kept up the drumbeat of these sorts of images, including more from the New York Times, but also from the international press.  Consider, for instance, this story & images from the Guardian, and this recent cover from the Mexican edition of Revista Letras Liportadamexico_1000_1bres.

Cuba: The Struggle for Consumption by Anna Cristina Pertierra

Consumption & material culture, daily life, new book No Comments »

Within the nexus of recent work on Cuban consumption (for more, see the “consumption & material culture” drop down menu in the sidebar), it is a great pleasure to add this new volume by Anna Cristina Pertierra.  Cuba : The Struggle for Consumption is now available from Caribbean Studies Press (2011).  From the publisher’s description:

For the past 20 years in Cuba, urban life has been characterized by a shortage of material resources, a decline in living standards, and an unpredictable and changing economy. By researching everyday activities in the island’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, this book presents a dynamic portrait of contemporary domestic life and consumer culture in Santiago de Cuba, which Cubans experience as “a struggle.”

This accessible and engaging account, grounded in anthropological analysis, examines the interconnections of consumption, economy, socialism, and gender relations through the stories and experiences of a range of individuals.

 

Valentine’s Day in Havana. Dinner: 25 CUCs

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Consumption & material culture 1 Comment »

(Thank you to Glexis Novoa for sending it)

Condones por la Libreta

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Consumption & material culture, Gender & sexuality 4 Comments »

© Gisela Roeder

This picture of a store advertising poster for (Cuban-made?) condoms is Gisela Roeder’s first contribution to EthnoCuba, and hopefully not the last. It was taken at a peso pharmacy in Caimito, a municipality in Havana Province (soon to be a municipality in the new Artemisa province), this past July, 2010.

Slogan translation: DESEA (presumably the brand name: Desire). “A Job Well Done. You Have the Instruments.”

Productos Controlados are those sold by the libreta. I wonder how many condoms per person could one buy (how many times the government considers the normal rate of sex intercourse per week). I suppose those who do not use them can still collect them and trade them for cigarettes or yogourt.

Recently, the international press carried an article about Cubans’ creative condom usage: Condoms are used for everything except for sex. Here’s a link to a Global Post article which includes interesting images.

Commercial advertisements of this sort in peso stores are extremely unusual, particularly because rather than just inform on the quality of the promoted product, it seeks to lure consumers to use it through innuendo and evocative images- a “no-no” in socialist advertising (See article in Harvard’s Revista on the topic). Although in this case the choice of imagery is strange, what’s up with those outfits??

In the the mid-1990s, the famous timba band La Charanga Habanera, also tried to promote this not-very-popular product, upon government request. The song  “Mi Amor, Usa Condon” (which they mocked in their album cover by appearing themselves with condoms over their heads) was part of their “suspension concert” of 1997, in Havana’s Malecon. After this, they were banned from the media for half a year due to their allegedly lewd movements and disrespectful words.


Ultimate Chivichana – Cuba on Red Bull wheels!

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, News and Views, Sport, traditions and folklore, youth cultures 2 Comments »

Since 2004, Red Bull has been sponsoring in Cuba ultimate sports on wheels. They first built a skating park in the Parque Almendares, with ramps for skate boarding, and this year they have taken to convert a quintessential guajiro activity into an ultimate sport, what we might call “Ultimate Chivichana”!  A Chivichana competition just took place the day before yesterday in Playas del Este, and some pics were sent via cable to various papers [thanks AA].

Red Bull, as you know, is an Austrian maker of power drinks, whose marketing strategy revolves around the sponsorship of ultimate sports. Here’s their Cuba promo:

And here is a video of a June 2010 Chivichana competition that took place in Paseo de Cojímar, in Havana. Watch the home-made board devices because you will soon see them in museums. The chivichanas are going to go the way of the surf boards, new materials, new designs… can’t wait!

For comparison purposes, you might want to watch Cuban filmmaker Waldo Ramírez‘s documentary La Chivichana on the use of this “thing” as a mode of transportation in Oriente. The video won a Coral award in 2000.

Bakery Ethnography in Santiago de Cuba

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, Consumption & material culture, daily life No Comments »

Taped from the Noticiero de Television in Santiago de Cuba. last January 2010. It shows the surprise visit of Santiago’s Communist Party top secretary to a baker shop and to a cookie factory among other establishments. What he finds there is… well… watch! (sorry no subtitles)

(Taken from the blog of Emilio Ichikawa)

Anna Pertierra, an anthropologist that warms your heart

bibliography, By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, daily life, new article No Comments »

Impressive as the varied, proliferating scholarship on contemporary Cuba is, it is rare that I’ve found a piece as much of a page-turner, as provocative, personally risky, and so true to the experience of doing ethnography as this article, “Anthropology that warms your heart: on being a bride in the field,” by Anna Cristina Pertierra.  (Anthropology Matters Journal 2007, vol. 9 (1)).  As well as getting us thinking and talking about local (Cuban) entanglements, it could make an interesting starting point for a class on methods and ethics.  Thanks to Anna Cristina for writing and sharing this piece, which I find hard to classify; in some ways, in the mode of Behar’s Vulnerable Observer, but in other ways, not at all… The article is to be reprinted in a forthcoming Caribbean Studies Press volume (with other Cuba-related pieces as well), Field Identities in the Caribbean, ed. by Erin Taylor.

Other writings by Anna Pertierra include: “Creating order through struggle  in revolutionary Cuba.”In Anthropology and the Individual: A Material Culture Perspective, (Daniel Miller, ed) Macmillan 2010. “Private pleasures: Watching videos in post-Soviet Cuba,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 12, no. 2, pp. 113-130. This article traces circuits of distribution and consumption of videocassette recorders (VCRs) and videocassettes in Cuba, which until April 2008 were not available for retail sale, and were usually sourced through black market or informal means. Inventar: Recent Struggles and Inventions in Housing in Two Cuban Cities,” by Patricio del Real and Anna Cristina Pertierra, in Buildings & Landscapes, vol. 15 (Fall, 2008).  And “En Casa: Women and Households in Post-Soviet Cuba,” in the Journal of Latin American Studies (2008), 40:743-767. This paper argues that the household has become a renewed space of significance for Cuban women in the post-Soviet period. It draws from existing scholarship and ethnographic fieldwork conducted with women in the city of Santiago de Cuba to discuss the effect of post-Soviet crisis and reform upon women’s domestic practices, the management of domestic economies, and longstanding gender ideals that link women to the domestic sphere.

“Three Bags Full” by Hermer & May, 1941

By Paul Ryer, Consumption & material culture, History, Syllabi & pedagogy, Tourism No Comments »

Given that many of us earn our keep, at least in part, by teaching Anglophone undergraduate students about Cuba, I thought it would be of interest to share teaching successes.  So, please, if you have a good pedagogical strategy or reading you’re willing to share, post or send it to me to post.

Personally, I have had great luck with this short reading: “Three Bags Full,” by Consuelo Hermer & Marjorie May, Random House, NY, 1941, ch. 2.  (Unfortunately, had to lower the scan quality a bit to fit into ethnocuba’s media library; it is also available under the title “What to Wear” in the out of print book Havana: Tales of the City, ed. by Miller & Clark, 1996).

Taken from a 1941 travel guide for North American tourists, I’ve found that students–aside from the occasional one who takes the reading as a literal prescription of current Cuban fashion–not only are relieved to read something on the lighter side, but that ultimately the piece leads them to raise their own questions about the nature of US influence on pre-revolutionary Cuban culture.  For many undergraduates, then, this article moves indigestible concepts like “hegemony,” “colonialism” and “imperialism” into realms of couture, daily life, tourism, etc, in a way that follows the old dictum: “show, don’t tell.”   If you do try it, let me know how it works with your own students.

Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, 2007

Consumption & material culture, new book No Comments »

116_tnAlthough more in the genre of applied anthropology than ethnography, Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, ed. by Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny, utilizes contemporary Cuba as a primary research site for studying consumption.

50 years of Revolution. Special Issues and Recent Ethnographies

Consumption & material culture, Cultural production, daily life, Gender & sexuality, Globalization, greater Cuba, Health, History, media, Miami, music, new article, new chapter/edited volume, Race, Religion, Sport, Tourism No Comments »

Journal of Latin American Studies

Latin American Perspectives

In addition you might want to check out the following recent publications:

* By Ruth Behar and Lucia Suárez, an edited volume: THE PORTABLE ISLAND: Cubans at Home in the World.  Palgrave 2008.

* By Ivor Miller, a book: Voice of the Leopard: African Secret Societies and Cuba, University Press of Mississippi.

* By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant:

Special guest edited issue of the Journal of Latin American Anthropology, including introduction (“Alternative Geographies”), and articles by Laurie Frederik Meer, P. Sean Brotherton, Kenneth Routon, and Helen Safa.

“Radio Taino and the Cuban Quest for Identi…que?“, in Doris Sommer’s Cultural Agency in the Americas, Duke University Press, 2006.

“Havana’s Timba. A Macho Sound for Black Sex.” In Deborah Thomas and Kamari Clarke. Globalization and Race. Duke University Press, 2006.

* By Kenneth Routon. “Conjuring the past: Slavery and the historical imagination in Cuba.”  American Ethnologist (p 632-649), Volume 35 Issue 4

* By Laurie Frederik MeerPlayback Theatre in Cuba: the Politics of Improvisation and Free Expression,” in The Drama Review, Winter 2007, Vol. 51, No. 4, Pages 106-120

* By P. Sean Brotherton.  “We have to think like capitalists but continue being socialists”: Medicalized subjectivities, emergent capital, and socialist entrepreneurs in post-Soviet Cuba.  American Ethnologist, Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp. 259-274.  June 2008.

* By Mette Berg:

Between Cosmopolitanism and the National Slot: Cuba’s Diasporic Children of the Revolution, Identities (vol. 16, issue 2), Pages 129 – 156.

“Homeland and belonging among Cubans in Spain.”  Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Vol. 14 no. 2, (pp. 265-290)

* By Katrin Hansing, (2009). “South-South Migration and Transnational Ties between Cuba and Mozambique,” in Transnational Ties: Cities, Migrations, and Identities. M. P. Smith and J. Eade. New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers: 77-90.

* Even if you are already familiar with Todd Ramón Ochoa‘s article, “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga in Cuban Kongo Materiality,” in Cultural Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 4, November 2007, you should check out this link from C.A., which includes study questions and an embedded video clip.

*By Kristina Wirtz:

Her book is entitled Ritual, Discourse, and Community in Cuban Santería: Speaking a Sacred World University Press of Florida, 2007.  (only on hard cover).

See reviews: McIntosh, Janet. “(Book Review) Ritual, Discourse, and Community in Cuban Santería: Speaking a Sacred World. University of Florida Press, 2007.” by Kristina Wirtz. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology vol. 18(1) 2009: 163-4. And a review byElina Hartikainen (citation only, full-text not available), in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Volume 13, Number 2, November 2008 , pp. 461-462(2). Also, here is another link to a review (again, citation only) by Paul Christopher Johnson in the Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 64, no. 4.  If you know of other reviews, or have your own comments, please take a moment to leave an update or comment!

Kristina Wirtz, “Hazardous waste: the semiotics of ritual hygiene in Cuban popular religion,” in JRAI vol. 15, pp. 476-501, 2009.

Kristina Wirtz:  “Divining The Past: The linguistic reconstruction of “African” roots in diasporic ritual registers and songs,” in Journal of Religion in Africa Special Issue: “African diasporic religions.”  27(2): 240-272, 2007.  Introduced by Stephan Palmié.

Wirtz, K. (2007) Deep language and diasporic culture: Learning to speak the ‘tongue of the orichas’ in Cuban Santería. American Ethnologist 34(1): 108-126.  Her abstract:

“Enregistered memory and Afro-Cuban historicity in Santería’s ritual speech,” in Language & Communication special issue: “Temporalities of Text.” 27(3), 2007.

Finally, check out two related pieces by Wirtz, “Introduction: Ritual Unintelligibility” (pp. 401-407. Read introduction) and “Making sense of unintelligible messages: Co-construction of meaning in Santería rituals,” (435-462. Abstract) in a special issue of the journal Text & Talk on “Ritual Unintelligibility,” 27(4), 2007.

* By Tom Carter

(1)  “New Rules to the Old Game: Cuban Sport and State Legitimacy in the Post-Soviet Era,” in Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. 15 (2): 194-215, 2008.

(2)“Pitén en la Plaza: Some preliminary considerations on spatializing culture in Cuba” in Image, Power and Space: Studies in Consumption and Identity. Alan Tomlinson and Jonathan M. Woodham (eds). Aachen: Meyer & Meyer. Pp. 97-112.

(3)  “Of Spectacular Phantasmal Desires: Tourism and the Cuban State’s Complicity in its Commodification of its Citizens,” in Leisure Studies. 27 (3): 241-257, 2008.

(4) “Family Networks, State Interventions and the Experiences of Cuban Transnational Sport Migration,” in International Review of the Sociology of Sport. 42 (4): 371-389, (2007).

(5) “A Relaxed State of Affairs?: On Leisure, Tourism, and Cuban Identity” in The Discipline of Leisure: Embodying Cultures of “Recreation”. Simon Coleman and Tamara Kohn (eds). Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 127-145 (2007).

* By Martin Holbraad:

Definitive evidence, from Cuban gods,” in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, special issue The Objects of Evidence,vol. 14, issue s1, April 2008. Based on evidence collected during fieldwork among practitioners of Afro-Cuban religion in Havana, this paper seeks ‘recursively’ to redefine the notion of anthropological evidence itself. It does so by examining ethnographically practitioners’ concern with the ‘evidence’ deities give (e.g. successful divinations, divine cures, etc.), by virtue of which people’s relationships with deities are cemented. To the extent that this indigenous concept of evidence is different from notions of evidence anthropologists take for granted in their own work, it occasions the opportunity to transform those very assumptions. But such a procedure is itself evidential – pertaining to the relationship between ethnography and theory. The paper sets out the virtues, both ethnographic and theoretical, of this circularity.

Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, ed. by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  Routledge 2007.  The volume, as well as this exchange about the book between Martin Holbraad and Daniel Miller, is surely of general interest to those of us with an interest in consumption, goods, and so-called material culture.  Additionally, Holbraad’s chapter, “The Power of Powder: Multiplicity and Motion in the Divinatory Cosmology of Cuban Ifá (or mana, again)” also ought to be of interest for many ethnocuba readers. The book is also reviewed at Savage Minds, here.

Roulette anthropology: the whole beyond holism,” in Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 32 (2). pp. 29-47 (2007). The paper builds an argument about holism in anthropological theory by drawing an ethnographic contrast between divination and gambling in Cuba.  Outlining the contrasting modes of prediction in each case, it is shown that while diviners’ predictions draw on cosmological models of the world, gamblers’ seek to source the cosmos itself.  Their concern with going beyond cosmology is bound up with their orientation (obsessive sometimes) towards what they call ‘cábalas’ – attention-grabbing coincidences of everyday life.  A similar contrast can be drawn with regard to anthropological notions of ‘holism’.  Available versions of holism are ‘cosmological’ inasmuch as they pertain to the role of models in anthropology.  Nevertheless, anthropologists too are as concerned with accessing the cosmos, allowing ‘the field’ to speak for itself in ethnography.  Like the gamblers (and unlike colleagues in more disciplined disciplines), anthropologists find that it is only when they stop reasoning in terms of pre-conceived cosmologies that worlds begin to reveal themselves as such.  So anthropology goes beyond holism by becoming more holistic than it already thinks it is: from cosmology to the cosmos.  It is oriented towards the underbelly of reason par excellence, ventriloquising itself into the cosmos at ‘ethnographic moments’ – coincidences – that can only register as ‘alterity’.  So a defence of radical ‘holism’, it is argued, is also a defence of a radical ‘exoticism’.

Expending Multiplicity: Money in Cuban Ifá Cults,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 11 (2), pp. 231-254.  2005.

* By Maria Gropas

“Landscape, Revolution and Property Regimes in Rural Havana,” 2006. Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 33 issue 2, pp. 248-277

The Repatriotization of Revolutionary Ideology and Mnemonic Landscape in Present-Day Havana,”  in Current Anthropology 48 (4), 2007. Includes commentaries by Virginia R. Domíguez, Nadine Fernandez, Martin Hall, Martin Holbraad, and Mona Rosendahl, as well as a reply by the author.  The conversation has an amplified on-line version, with additional color images, here.
*By Matthew Hill, “Re-Imagining Old Havana: World Heritage and the Production of Scale in Late Socialist Cuba” in Deciphering The Global: Its Scales, Spaces and Subjects, ed. by Saskia Sassen (2007).
* By Miguel de la Torre. 2003. La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami, University of California Press, by Miguel A. De La Torre. Reviewed Here by Laurie Frederik Meer’s in e-misférica.
* By Amalia Cabezas.  “The Eroticization of Labor in Cuba’s All-Inclusive Resorts: Performing Race, Class and Gender in the New Tourist Economy,” in Social Identities, Volume 12, Issue 5 September 2006 , pages 507 – 521.

* By Amy L. Porter, “Fleeting Dreams and Flowing Goods: Citizenship and Consumption in Havana Cuba” in PoLAR vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 134-149.  May 2008.
* By Noelle Stout.Feminists, Queers and Critics: Debating the Cuban Sex Trade,” in the Journal of Latin American Studies, vol 40, pp. 721-742 (2008).
* By Rogelio Martínez Furé. 2007. Eshu (oriki a mi mismo)  y otras descargas.
* By Valerio Simoni, “‘Riding’ Diversity: Cubans’/Jineteros‘ Uses of ‘Nationality-talks’ in the Realm of their Informal Encounters with Tourists” in Tourism Development: Growth, Myths and Inequalities, ed. by Peter M. Burns & Marina Novelli, CAB International, 2008, pp. 68-84.
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