Popular Culture=Mass Culture

So we've finally reached that point in the semester when we are given concrete examples of this elusive popular culture that we've all been searching for.  Futebol and telenovelas are certainly (in my humble opinion) excellent examples of contemporary popular culture in Latin America, and I feel that these two articles do an excellent job of defining the aspects of these pasttimes which make them so accessible and important to the general public.  National identity and national unity seem to be the common themes expressed in both articles.  Futebol and telenovelas serve the purpose of unifying a nation's people under a common identity (in the case of futebol) and in common experiences and moral values (telenovelas) such that  both give a public form to conceptions of what it means to be Brazilian or Venezuelan.  In the case of both activities, the common citizen is merely a spectator to the action, yet they feel as though they are a part of a larger whole which is represented in the drama played out--within the telenovela or on the futebol field. 
While initially Brazilians' obsession with their 1950 World Cup defeat baffled my sport-resistant sensibilities, as I read further, I began to understand the role that futebol plays in the lives of many and the stakes each individual has in the national game.  The game and its players represent much more than a simple game, but rather the opportunity to create and maintain an international image of prestige and power; something which is often achieved only in such practical interactions such as as international warfare or economic trade. 
Telenovelas too, have the ability to define and create national identity and unity in their portrayal of a 'heightened reality" of the average citizen's everyday reality.  As Venezuela's example demonstrates, a forum such as the telenovela provides the opportunity for group unity in suffering and strife--in this case exemplified by economic and political turmoil--and for the experience of catharsis in being able to identify with so many others in a communal struggle. 
Ultimately this week's readings led me to ask myself what aspects of American popular culture have led me to feel a part of a unified national group; a question I could not honestly answer.  The telenovela has no true equivalent in (for me) in American culture, while my absolute aversion to sport isolates me from the feeling of group unity found in cheering for a sports team.  Both futebol and telenovelas, while seemingly simple examples of popular pasttimes in Latin America, provide us with examples of the exceptionally important role popular culture plays in forming our everyday realities and group identities. 

Folk Culture and Modernity

To begin, I feel I should say what a few other people have said in regards to the quantity of reading for this week; this was ENTIRELY too much reading for one week.  While I found both pieces extremely interesting and valuable, it was a struggle to complete both in the space of a week without really compromising the time I allot to read for other courses.  That said...

While I really enjoyed both readings, I found the Taussig piece to be particularly insightful and relevant to the course.  I feel that both articles heavily emphasized our previously stated course-themes of power struggle and the dynamics of power in shaping popular culture--these dynamics are most obvious in the Mexican murals discussed by Campbell which traditionally were meant to incorporate aspects of high and low culture and present them in a forum accessible to the general public (I found the mention of our good friend Vasconcelos' role in mural painting to be very interesting...).  As Campbell explains, muralism has gradually become more of a medium of "the people" or the lower classes utilized as a form of expression to articulate power relations between themselves and the state.  This article immediately brought to mind the murals of the Zapatistas of Chiapas--a very popular form of public artistic expression which I was surprised he did not mention.  These murals are utilized not only to publicly define and portray the EZLN's struggle against the Mexican state, but also to portray community values and the group's history.  It is for this reason that many of these murals are painted on the walls of EZLN schools with the intent of inculcating students with a common history and set of values.  I'm glad that we covered Mexican muralism (despite the author's omission of the Chiapan/Oaxacan murals) because it may be the most concrete example of contemporary Latin American "popular culture" we've covered in the course so far. 

In regards to Taussig's article, I found it extremely challenging initally, but some background reading about the author gave a little insight into what I feel may be his intent with the Spirit Queen.  According to a few blurbs I managed to come across, Taussig's academic project is aimed to utilize Anthropology's constant study of the fictionalized "other" to reflect upon Western culture and critique it.  It seems that Taussig regards ethnographic/anthropological study as a way of comparing Western culture to its alternatives and using this comparative study as a self-reflexive process for anthropologists (and perhaps all academics).  We can perhaps see traces of this in his piece "The Spirit Queen" in the constant refrain "Oil out, cars, ammo and videotapes in."  This refrain reminds us of our own preconceptions about areas like Colombia as a location of the "Other"--a place distinctly separate and different from "North American" culture and a place with which we engage in political and cultural power struggles through trade, the media, etc.  So while this piece is full of a million diverse examples of power struggles within Colombia as well as many artefacts of "popular culture," it also reminds us of our place within that cultural power struggle and how we contribute to the shaping of foreign cultures as well as our own. 


Over the past weeks we've spent discussing Latin America in this course, several prevalent themes have arisen in my mind.  Most important of these is the concept of synthesis and its role in the many different ways "culture" is created.  Latin America, in my mind, is predominantly an area of cultural synthesis--a meeting of many different people, classes, practices, traditions, beliefs etc.  Each Latin American country has its own specific history of cultural generation and the interactions of these many different factors, which is why these "Latin American nations" resist such easy categorization; something which seems to have proved very frustrating for many of us taking the course.  However in an attempt to unify all of these enormously different regions, I would suggest the idea of cultural synthesis as a most prominent characteristic--yet this too is a very slippery idea. 
As many students have pointed out in class discussion, we should not submit to the common (mis)construction of this cultural synthesis as an equal, mutually beneficial, two-way exchange elicited by both sides in the pursuit of the common interest of sharing culture...Rather, we should remember that the synthesis of many different peoples ways of life was brought about through conquest, coercion,  and very often the subversion of  ideas, practices and beliefs.  A prime example of this was that which was debated in class--the costumbrista or folk-catholicism practiced by communities of Maya (and non-indigenous) people in Central America. 
So perhaps another important aspect of "Latin America" that characterizes so many diverse regions is the constant struggle for power and the social conflict brought about primarily through conquest and colonialism and perpetuated today by issues of race, class and nationality.

Mestizaje: theories of racial difference

After this week's readings, I find myself asking, "what is our definition of race, anyway?"  I'm well aware that as conscientious university students we are not supposed to make judgments about people based on racial difference, but no one can tell me that assumptions about race don't exist on UBC campus...not when I hear people raving about the success of Obama's election or joking about having to compete with all the "Asian intellectuals."  So what is our definition of race? According to many academics, race is a social construct, not a biological truth--so why do we cling to it so fervently?  

The first article, "The Cosmic Race" by Jose Vasconcelos was surely shocking for many people.  I personally had a difficult time choking that article down, yet I think that it says a lot of important things about the way that we view race in contemporary times--after all, it was only written roughly 60 years ago.  Throughout Vasconcelo's many disturbing generalizations about racial identity and biological difference I caught glimpses of underlying trends that I believe permeate our thoughts and  speech today.  One of the initial items that piqued my interest was the author's assertions that the "red race" or the indigenous people of the Americas have degenerated from the "extraordinary flourishment" of "Atlantean" (whatever that is...) culture to the Aztec, Inca, Maya and, later, contemporary people today and are "totally unworthy of the ancient and superior culture" (9).  Wow, what a comment...But really, this concept of indigenous people persists in the minds of many scholars and laypeople today.  How many times have we heard of the "Maya decline" from the Classic period--deemed so based on the prevalence of writing, painting and other cultural symbols so valued by the West?  Or what about Vasconcelo's assumptions about the inherent industriousness and "clarity of mind that resembles his skin and his dreams"(22).  Can we not see later vestiges of this in mid-twentieth century development theory which assumes that the economic domination of Europe and the U.S. over states in the Global South is due to a more "developed" or advanced (white) civilization?  While I found Vasconcelos' article incredibly strange and a little difficult to stomach, I can't say that his opinions reflect those of a fanatic, nor that they have left no legacy for future generations.

Which brings me to the second article we read by Peter Wade. I found Wade's analysis of mestizaje very interesting, especially his arguments regarding the difference between academic/ideological mestizaje and the "lived experience" of mestizaje.  While I'm not sure if I totally agree that the discourse of mestizaje has so much potential for social inclusion, I do feel that this is an aspect that has generally been ignored.  And while I appreciate Wade's use of the "mosaic" metaphor to describe national identities, I feel that this is too often the ideal and not the reality: again I refer back to my own experiences of racial discourses on UBC campus.  I've heard the "ethnic mosaic" line used to distinguish Canada's approach to immigrant assimilation (in contrast to the "melting pot" of the U.S.) and I'm not really sure I buy it.  Anyway, I feel that there's a lot more to say on this subject that could be included here, but I have a feeling that class discussion on the topic will open up all kinds of different perspectives, so I'll leave it at that.  

The Faces of Popular Culture

After three weeks of class discussions and many pages of readings, I’m sure many people will be glad to finally get directly to the question, “What is popular culture in Latin America?”  In terms of beginning to answer this extremely complex question, I felt that Rowe and Schelling’s article, “The Faces of Popular Culture” brought up several excellent points that I hope we explore further in class. 

The first of these is the concept of dual meanings and subversion in popular culture.  As a region of conquest and colonialism, Latin America is a region of extreme cultural interaction.  In the present day, several hundred years after the conquest, we can see a subversion or sublimation of many indigenous cultural concepts and ideologies into the predominating Western culture that was imposed upon them.  I felt that Schelling and Rowe did a wonderful job of highlighting the process of this sublimation and the dual meanings or hybridized culture that results without removing agency from indigenous people.  Too often, the results of the conquest are viewed in terms of victimizer and victimized—an idea that suggests a uni-directional transmission of culture from Europe to the Americas.  This article emphasizes the “exchange” part of the so-called “Columbian exchange” and demonstrates that important pieces of “traditional” indigenous culture have survived.  In addition, I appreciate that the article’s authors do not try to gloss over the negative aspects of conquest and colonization as well; they do well to point out the negative implications of European conquest while describing the resilience of popular indigenous culture. 

Secondly, I found the authors’ description of national “folk-culture” particularly interesting with regards to the way national identity is created.  Using the example of Mexico or Guatemala, I feel that when studying Latin America it is extremely important to recognize the national/political dialogue that appropriates indigenous culture and heritage and uses it to create an international image of the country as a whole.  Rowe and Schelling discuss the Mexican government’s efforts to represent the nation in terms of its “Aztec” heritage—a concept which seems at odds with the large percentage of the population which is descended from European heritage.  Another example of this can be seen in Guatemala’s use of indigenous Mayan identity to represent the nation, while simultaneously persecuting Mayan individuals during the 1980’s civil war. 

Although this article was extremely long, I found it extremely helpful in defining (what I hope to be) our course of study for much of the term. 

Who are "the people"?

This week’s readings for the subject “the People” left me with a lot to consider.  Peronism as a political ideology has always been a little problematic for me in that (at least in my perception) its underlying philosophy, while supporting “the people” or the working-class, it does so at the expense of alienating a large portion of the privileged population.  It has always seemed to me that the political ideology of Peronism appears much better in theory than in execution.  The two pieces that we read this week only further contribute to this perception of Peronism for me. 

Eva Perón’s work, “My Message” also contributed to my own conflicted feelings regarding this particular controversial political figure.  Throughout the piece, her description of “the people” and the so-called “descamisados”  leads me to question her motivations for writing such a piece.  Who exactly are “the people” she writes so passionately for?  Obviously she is referring to the “race” of the lower/working-class (as opposed to the elite “race” of politicians, oligarchs, privileged clergy, etc.), yet beyond this huge generalization we get no more information about the identity of these “people” from whence she came.  These generalizations are problematic for me, not only in her use of the word “race” (a social construction in itself) to characterize groups divided by economic opportunity but in her attempt to polarize a broad spectrum of culture, backgrounded, belief, and political alignment.  I find Eva’s message to the people a bit contrived and theatricized; an attempt to unite people for a common goal which  ultimately divides a nation’s population and encourages passion without rationality, political extremists and fanaticism.  While I’m aware that Eva Perón represents a powerful political figure who attempted to represent the under-represented, this “Message” only confirms my previous assessment of her as a calculating, fervent demagogue with quite an agenda.  I’m aware that this is a controversial statement about such a famous figure, but I invite further discussion!  While I have my own impressions, she remains a mystery to me. 

In regards to the Borges piece, I have to admit that it left me a little confused.  Perhaps this is because I’m not totally used to reading Borges in English, or to reading his more political, non-fiction work.  I could probably do with a better understanding of the historical/political perspective for this piece, however I did find some parts very interesting.  I feel that in comparison to Eva’s “Message,” “In Celebration of the Monster” provides a significantly more colourful, complete image of “the people.”  The story creates an almost impressionistic image of (what I believe is) a descamisado, in a violent interaction with non-Peronists.  While the images in this piece are violent and slightly disturbing, they provide much deeper representation of human characteristics and emotion than Eva Perón’s stylized, stereotyped descamisado. 

I feel that both readings for this week, while portraying an extremely specific facet of the Latin American pueblo, give us some interesting material to think about.  These readings show how contentious terms like “the people” are and invite us to think a little more critically about our expectations for the course.  They demonstrate that in studying a topic so broad as Latin American popular culture, we cannot be satisfied with stereotypes and generalizations. 

What is culture?

Out of the two articles assigned for this week, I found Keesing's assessment of the term "culture" much more compelling than Williams' article.  However, I think this is largely a result of the historical context of each article.  I'm a little confused about the date of publication of the first article, but I think it was written in the late 1950's to early 1960's.  This would explain the author's fixation with Marxism and his constant juxtaposition of working-class culture with elite culture in England.  When this article is viewed in a historical context, I find Williams' criticism of "culture" fairly compelling, yet there seem to be some elements of hypocrisy.  Primarily in the author's initial description of the "teashop" and its association with an elevated "cultivated people."  Here, Williams is describing a frustration with the use of the term "culture" in parallel to the term "cultivated" and therefore "educated" (translation: elite).   After explaining his rejection of the term "culture" in this context, he goes on to describe a vision of English culture to which everyone contributes and where cultural meanings are negotiated.  However, the author also refers to a new and "cheapened" version of culture which he links to advertising in mass media.  This type of culture the author proposes to replace with a better, more developed culture of  the future.  I find that Williams' allegations that popular culture as represented by the mass media is a low and cheapened culture to be akin to the elitism of the teashop use of "culture."  It seems to me that the author holds some nostalgia for his former days as a boy in rural England and the type of "culture" he saw in this setting and this is (in some fashion) is what he would like to impose upon the "new" developing culture of the time.  

In reference to Keesing's article, I agree for the most part that anthropology has been centered around a quest for the "Other" and an emphasis on difference.  Honestly, I don't have much to say other than that!  I've read a lot of similiar articles in Latin American Studies concerning anthropology and the exoticizing of non-western cultures so I suppose that this article doesn't propose much that is new information for me. 
Sorry I don't have more to contribute!


Hey guys, my name is Tory  and I'm a third-year Latin American Studies major.  I'm from Kansas City which is a pretty  homogeneous place, so I have found Vancouver and especially UBC really refreshing.  It seems like we have a pretty diverse class, so I look forward to getting to know everyone and learning from all the different points of view this class has to offer!