George Floyd, Pelosi, and the Objectification Inherent in Martyrdom

Lush with references to God, dignity, and justice, Nancy Pelosi’s post-verdict statement was carried by inspired gratitude. After almost a year of unrest, petitioning, confrontation and trial, Derek Chauvin had been declared guilty on three separate charges for the murder of George Floyd. With the United States’ weak track record of guilty convictions of cops, the decision represented not just accountability in Floyd’s case, but also a symbolic revitalization of the justice system as a whole; to this Pelosi spoke. As her statement came to a close, the most notable expression of gratitude was most misplaced: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.”

A triumphant and sure satisfaction rang from her voice, followed by nods of agreement.

Although surely intended to mean that Floyd’s life wasn’t lost in vain, there is nothing to thank– George Floyd didn’t want to die. Can sacrifice be unwilling? Can it be born posthumously? In saying it was such, it implies intention, as if he woke up that day knowing he would be killed, and a sort of revered responsibility to a cause. Seeing how his victorious case is now being discussed, that cause could be anything from police reform to the justice system just working like it’s supposed to. George Floyd laid powerless during the last minutes of his life, so must we continue to take advantage of the fact that he no longer has the power to speak for himself? It’s an abuse.

Countless Black men are harassed, abused and killed by police every year, so are we to understand that they’re all martyrs to a collective sacrifice? Or does that title only belong to Black men killed on camera? They certainly don’t all get the same outrage and media attention as Floyd did, so it raises the question of what they are to us, if not martyrs as well. Martyrs die so that no one else has to, so that no other like them is persecuted. As soon as the benchmark verdict was read, however, celebrations were interrupted with reports of Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing by Columbus police. Silence overcame all. The problems in our institutions didn’t end with this conviction, they’re merely being tended– you don’t get rid of weeds by clipping them, but rather uprooting them.

What Pelosi and many others fail to see is the objectification that lies in this unintentional ‘sacrifice’: by thanking and lauding him as a renewal of faith in justice, he becomes a tool for a reform that shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. The responsibility to create a safe and fair society doesn’t fall on the shoulders of citizens, and especially not its marginalized ones. So much of U.S. legislation is carried on benchmark verdicts and historical cases (such as the newly proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act), but why do so many have to suffer in order for good to prevail?

Our language constructs our narratives, and so much of the conversation around the protection of Black people only serves to dehumanize: first “Black bodies”, and now gratitude of sacrifice. This cannot become expected. This cannot become normal. This is not the position we want to designate for Black US-Americans. As we approach sentencing in seven weeks, may we as citizens and those in power keep this in mind.

Matriarca Cubana: Una Exploración de los Instrumentos Femeninos de Sobrevivencia

Este trabajo fue presentado en el Rollins Latin American and Latinx Studies Symposium ’21.

Todo aspecto de la sociedad moderna es resultado de conocimientos heredados, si sea de los padres de uno, de figuras antiguas de la historia, o de cuentos prehistóricos de nuestros ancestros. Una fuente que ha demostrado mucha valía en este ámbito de la sociedad es la mujer, sobre todo en relación con otras mujeres y su comunidad como un todo. Y de acuerdo con esta tendencia surge, en ciertos momentos, la figura de la matriarca. El presente trabajo consiste en analizar el aspecto matriarcal y transgeneracional en los sucesos del libro ​Reyita, sencillamente: Testimonio de una negra cubana nonagenaria​, una novela testimonial sobre Reyita, una mujer afrocubana que experimenta la pobreza constante de su país durante la revolución del siglo XX. En la obra se notan mucho tres temas integrales al ser de Reyita: la espiritualidad, remedios caseros, y la tradición oral. Cada uno de estos temas es imbuido con una fuerza innegablemente y abundantemente femenina, y esta investigación inspeccionará las intricacidades de cómo esta fuerza se manifiesta en Reyita, especialmente con relación a los otros personajes del libro. Su rol como matriarca es su instrumento de resistencia bajo el sistema hegemónico de su sociedad, y la atemporalidad de sus ramas es una prueba de los valores que deseaba pasar a la próxima generación cubana.

Es conocimiento común que el mundo latinoamericano es en gran parte muy religioso, pero lo que hace único al Caribe y a Cuba en particular es la riqueza y mezcla de creencias africanas y católicas. Lo más interesante es que hasta hoy, las tradiciones y ritos yorubas han sobrevivido y siguen como un recuerdo asombroso de la sobrevivencia de lo afro-femenino en una sociedad tan drásticamente patriarcal como la cubana. En su vida, Reyita era practicante ferviente de la santería aunque ella evitaba la etiqueta, y su dedicación era en mayor parte a dos santos en particular: La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, y San Lázaro. Antes de analizar su dedicación a estas dos figuras, hace falta primero explicar el origen del panteón afrocubano y cómo se relaciona con sus raíces yorubas. En su artículo Identidades raciales y de género en la santería afrocubana, Gabriela Castellanos Llanos nos dice que cada oricha yoruba tiene un santo correspondiente en el mundo occidental, «de modo que a su nombre yoruba se añade un nombre tomado del santoral católico» (Llanos 169). Dicho esto, los equivalentes de los santos ya mencionados son Ochún y Babalú-Ayé, respectivamente. Se pueden conectar cada uno de los santos más importantes para Reyita a su feminidad y su rol como matriarca. 

Según Llanos, Ochún es una diosa «sandunguera» y por pura casualidad, una de las únicas orichas más celebradas que sea femenina. No es por dirigir la atención a algún tipo de sexismo en el sistema religioso yoruba, porque existen también orichas y dioses andróginos, pero es innegablemente significativo que Reyita sienta una conexión muy fuerte con la diosa más asociada con conceptos tradicionalmente considerados tiernos y femeninos como el goce, el amor, y la sexualidad. Sus tendencias maternales se manifiestan en Reyita y se combinan con sus creencias en la sección «¡Abajo la dictadura!» cuando describe la partida de sus hijos Monín y Nené. Se habían inscrito en el Movimiento 26 de Julio, una operación guerrillera contra la dictadura de Batista, y cuando salían para ir a reuniones secretas o a luchar, ella dice que le tenía fe a ninguna otra que su diosa favorita sandunguera: «Pero siempre con la seguridad de que la virgencita de la Caridad del Cobre no me los abandonaría, me los protegería; y todo aquello matizado con la esperanza tan grande de que al triunfar la Revolución tendríamos una mejor vida» (Rubiera 108). Ella se encomienda a Ochún la protección de sus hijos, y con razón: según Llanos, la diosa es «gran amante de la paz, y usa su miel para seducir a los guerreros y hacerles abandonar la guerra» (Llanos 169). Aunque la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre les acompañó a los chicos a la guerra en vez de quitarlos, Reyita cuenta con el hecho de que con ella sus hijos estarán en paz y que estarán a salvo. Ella sabe que el destino de sus bebés ya está fuera de sus manos, así que como madre y matriarca anteriormente encargada de su protección y crianza, debe transferir esta responsabilidad a otra figura femenina y poderosa.

Aparte de la guerra, una amenaza muy común para los pobres en la época de la Revolución era la enfermedad. Aunque Reyita dependía mucho de la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, no era el único santo al que encomendaba el bienestar de su familia. Por asuntos de salud, recurría a San Lázaro, el homólogo occidental de Babalú-Ayé, “el dueño de las enfermedades”, quien se le representa como un “viejo cojo que anda con dos muletas”, cubierto de llagas (Llanos 169). De las menciones menos frecuentes de este oricha en la obra surgen ejemplos no sólo de lo importante que le era la familia a Reyita, sino también de sus nociones de cómo y de dónde uno debe construir su entendimiento de la religión en general. Cuando su marido Rubiera se enferma del duodeno, Reyita reza a San Lázaro por su curación. Como era de esperar, Rubiera se salvó muy rápido; para honrar a San Lázaro, Reyita coloca un altar, pero reconoce cómo incomodó incluso a sus propios hijos: «A ustedes no les gustaba– no se habían criado en esas creencias, sino con el santo temor a Dios, practicaban el catolicismo, fueron bautizados, y comulgados y casados por la iglesia–, pero respetaban mi decisión» (Rubiera 91). Este es un ejemplar de dónde Reyita se fija que las dos religiones tradicionalmente no iban mezcladas en una casa, pero que en un país tan diverso como Cuba no había que caber en un campo solamente. La santería era ajena a sus hijos pero no a ella, y este pasar de cultura es importante por dos razones: porque está luchando contra el ahogamiento de lo africano, y porque como mujer de la casa, Reyita ejerce su derecho de dirigir el concepto y entendimiento religiosos de sus hijos. Dado que la santería tenía y sigue teniendo una connotación negativa a causa de la rival católica, el mezclar de estas creencias demuestra una valentía por parte de ella en una sociedad que solía rechazar el sistema de creencias africano.

Sin embargo, no es completamente justo comparar y considerar el catolicismo y la santería como rivales, ya que hay una diferencia indispensable entre ellas: la santería se basa más en la acción y el rito que la fe. Se emplean las prácticas santeras por necesidad, y en la situación de Cuba en los años 60, la necesidad abundaba. La pobreza se había vuelto la normalidad para Reyita, así que podía lidiar con ella en todo momento, y como anteriormente mencionado, las dificultades médicas eran uno de los sellos característicos de la pobreza de la época. Con cada necesidad surge también una solución, y en Reyita surgió una extensión de su devoción mezclada: los remedios caseros. Lo que es más, es que aunque fueran hechos en casa, no se quedaban en casa, sino que Reyita los usaba para curar y sanar su comunidad como un todo. Cabe mencionar que había un elemento espiritual integrado en estos remedios caseros porque le llegaban en sueños y visiones, y aquello consolidó su reputación como curandera barrial. Ella veía un vínculo claro entre la condición económica y la devoción a medicina alternativa: «La pobreza que existía en Cuba (…) hacía que los pobres les tuvieran mucha fe a los remedios caseros; por eso abundaban tantos curanderos, o las personas que como yo, por fe, tratábamos de curar a nuestra familia con hierbas y raíces» (Rubiera 66). No obstante, Reyita hacía parte de algo mucho más grande que sólo la situación de Cuba en ese momento. En Diásporas del alma: Notas sobre representación y uso estratégico de prácticas espirituales afro-cubanas, Lidia Marte explica que los remedios caseros nunca faltaban entre comunidades marginalizadas y que siempre fueron instrumentos de resistencia: 

«Uso los términos “prácticas espirituales” en lugar de “religiones afrocaribeñas” para referirme a un enfoque en rituales cotidianos, a formas de conciencia y percepciones cosmológicas que se usan en el Caribe, especialmente entre grupos que enfrentan retos de pobreza y marginalización sistémica como estrategias para negociar algún grado de control que trascienda sus circunstancias, logrando algún grado de esperanza y resiliencia.»

Estas estrategias eran para Reyita parte de la cotidianidad, y en muy poco tiempo, se convirtió en la madre curandera de su comunidad. Por corrupción de la dictadura e inestabilidad económica, la población cubana se dio cuenta de que no había mucho que su gobierno les podía ofrecer con respecto a la medicina, y eso condujo a una dependencia de lo espiritual como último recurso: «La mayoría de las personas acuden a buscar los beneficios de los espíritus, de los muertos o de los santos, (…) por problemas de salud, de justicia, o para buscar solución a algún problema que consideran muy difícil o imposible de resolver por sí mismos» (Rubiera 96). Ella se percibe como una cuidadora y una influencia sustancial en la sobrevivencia de su clase social, y de ahí surge otra cualidad matriarcal suya. El gobierno, el cual era operado por hombres, habían fallado a la gente cubana, y por ende la responsabilidad aterrizó no sólo en los hombros de una mujer común afrocubana, sino también en los hombros colectivos de la historia afrocubana en sí.

Aún más importante que solamente el uso de remedios caseros es la intersección de la feminidad con estos mismos remedios. Cabe mencionar que el uso y la continuación de estos remedios ha sido realizado mayormente por las mujeres, así que lleva más importancia cuando las mujeres los utilizan para cuidar de su salud femenina. De acuerdo con lo que dice Marte, esta tradición no es novedad, sino un acto de sobrevivencia que se remonta a los tiempos de esclavitud. La historia nos dice que las mujeres esclavizadas fueron violadas por sus amos e incluso forzadas a parir el resultado de estas violaciones, y de esta manera la dinámica racial les quitaba la humanidad; se convirtieron en objetos. Ellas mantenían poco control de sus propios cuerpos, y es evidente que las creaciones etnobotánicas les permitía reclamar su agencia corporal:

«el conocimiento etnomedicinal de las esclavas les ayudó a cuidar la salud propia y la de otros (incluyendo a sus amos), y a descubrir formas de interrumpir la reproducción biológica de niños esclavos a través del aborto por ingestión de plantas con efectos abortofacientes (Weniger 1982). Por transmisión oral y práctica diaria se preservaron formas alternativas de espiritualidad, que ayudó a estas mujeres a desarrollar estrategias para bregar con la explotación laboral y violencia rampante del régimen esclavista.»

Este modo de empleo de los remedios caseros imbuye el proceso entero con nuevo significado; no es sólo una línea directa a sus ancestros, sino también un símbolo del control que tiene de su propio cuerpo. Asimismo, Reyita ejerció estos modos de control con sus propias hijas para enseñarles cómo podían influir en los procesos naturales de sus cuerpos– al darles depurativos de hojas de sen y azúcar parda, por ejemplo. Aparte de la menstruación, Reyita también ayudó en extender su propia línea familiar:

«He hecho parir a muchas mujeres que no podían tener hijos (…) con un remedio que los dos tienen que tomar. (…) Tú sabes que es bueno, porque después de luchar con tu hijo Viví, durante diez años, le dimos el remedio y ahí está Aníbal Antonio!, mi bisnieto, el miembro ciento dieciocho de esta familia.»

Al usar los remedios caseros de esta forma, refuerza de nuevo que fueron hechos por y para las mujeres. Ella se perpetúa como facilitadora de todo relacionado con el cuerpo de la mujer, y las niñas y las mujeres de su familia le guardan mucha confianza en este ámbito porque han visto su éxito en repetidas ocasiones. Su sabiduría le gana un puesto supremo dentro de su familia y la red de mujeres en su vida en general.

Ante todo, toda esta información y cultura fue transferida por medio de un vehículo inesperadamente sencillo: la tradición oral. Se nota una tendencia de esta tradición más en la cultura afrocaribeña que en otras, y cuando exploramos el origen de aquello, vemos que corresponde también con la represión de lo africano. En La introvertida transmisión oral en las raíces de la cultura afrocubana, Victor Betancourt Estrada afirma que la tradición oral nació en parte en el choque cultural entre los dos sistemas de creencias más grandes de Cuba: «Cuando nuestros ancestros llegaron al Nuevo Mundo sus conocimientos fueron desvalorizados. Ellos tuvieron cuidado en transmitir sus doctrinas y (…) la creencia popular las cubrieron con el velo del sincretismo impuesto para que así se mantuvieran ocultas» (Estrada 195). Las fuerzas más poderosas al nacer Cuba eran las occidentales, y lo deseado era que las personas esclavizadas se integraran a todo lo que contenían estas fuerzas con respecto al idioma, la etiqueta, y la fe, por ejemplo. Por no poder expresar libremente su espiritualidad original, la gente esclavizada adoptó la práctica de pasar sus conocimientos oralmente como un mecanismo de preservación bajo presión. En el contexto de Reyita, la cosa más preciosa que heredó de esta tradición oral era su propia historia. Al principio del testimonio, nos cuenta la historia de su abuela Tatica, una mujer nacida en África que fue secuestrada, llevada y vendida como esclava en Cuba. La información que heredó nos conmueva porque aporta la carga verdadera de su gente (especialmente las mujeres) en ese momento:

«Mi abuela nunca olvidaría los gritos de su madre, ni nunca pudo explicarse por qué no cargaron también con ella, pues no era tan vieja; tampoco supo si sobrevivió a todo aquello. Aquello solamente de oírlo daba deseos de llorar; y a uno todavía se le llenan los ojos de lágrimas y siente tremenda indignación…»

Por la forma en que se dio su narración de la vida de su abuela, se puede deducir que Tatica se lo contó personalmente y que Reyita lo absorbió con mucha atención. Su abuela le transmitió de una manera cronológica las experiencias que condujeron a su vida actual, y a su vez Reyita puede entenderse más en el contexto de su raza y en la sociedad cubana como un todo.

Sin embargo, tal vez la evidencia más clara de esta cultura oral radica en el formato de la historia: una novela testimonial. La que consigna esta historia no es Reyita, sino su hija Daisy, una historiadora. Toda su memoria se manifiesta a través de un vínculo femenino entre madre e hija, sentadas una frente a la otra, lo cual imbuye la historia con una intimidad irremplazable. Es evidente que Reyita se siente cómoda divulgando hasta los detalles más privados de su vida y de su ser, y eso sabemos por su estilo de relatar: «¡Ay, chica, ya estoy vieja! A veces quiero explicarte las cosas y se me hacen un barullo en la cabeza» (Rubiera 154). Daisy se dio cuenta de que su madre vivió una vida particular por haber representado una intersección de la vulnerabilidad: mujer, pobre y negra. Al discutir el significado de la tradición oral en Cuba, en Aproximaciones a la forma testimonial: La novelística de Miguel Barnet, Elzbieta Sklodowska nos ofrece el modelo ideal para el sujeto de cualquier obra testimonial: «Es importante subrayar que el protagonista-narrador de una novela testimonial es una persona de carne y hueso (…) esta persona tiene que ser representativa de un grupo, captar los procesos sociohistóricos globales» (Sklodowska 27-28). Como lo dice Reyita al principio, es una persona común y corriente, y es representativa de varios grupos oprimidos, y luchó por ellos. A ella le era crucial que el público incluyera a los grupos marginalizados en el registro de su propia historia: «Durante esa época a nadie le interesaba que se supiera la verdad. Pero lo que me llama la atención es que después del triunfo de la Revolución a nadie se le ocurrió entrevistar a las personas que vivieron aquellos momentos, a los que perdieron a sus familiares, a los que conocían de cerca los motivos que se tenían para hacer aquel Partido» (Rubiera 49). Reyita reconoce que esos eventos cruciales de la Revolución afectaron a la gente desproporcionadamente, y que hay que alzar las voces de los más vulnerables de la sociedad (un grupo del cual inexorablemente hacía parte ella). Dicho esto, se podría decir que su hija Daisy es un testamento de la tradición oral por haberse inspirado a hacerse historiadora y profundizar las narraciones alrededor no sólo de su país, sino también de género, raza y clase.

En suma, Reyita es una manifestación pura de un sinfín de temas femeninos; las cosas por las cuales demostraba interés acababan fortaleciendo no sólo las relaciones femeninas en su propia vida, sino su propio entendimiento de sí misma como mujer. Lo que distingue su combinación de prácticas y creencias es que refuerza el equilibrio entre su amor propio y el amor hacia los otros en su vida. Las tres prácticas exploradas en este trabajo le dieron las fuerzas para influir en su comunidad como matriarca porque son inseparables de su existencia como mujer y sobre todo una mujer negra. La profundidad e interdimensionalidad de su ser es lo que la hacía fuerte, y esa fortaleza era precisa para sobrevivir la difícil época que definió y sigue definiendo a Cuba.

OBRAS CITADAS

  1. Castillo, Daisy Rubiera. “Reyita, sencillamente: Testimonio de una negra cubana nonagenaria.” Instituto Cubano del Libro, PROLIBROS, 1997.
  2. Llanos, Gabriela Castellanos. “Identidades Raciales y De Género En La Santería Afrocubana.” Historia, Antropología y Fuentes Orales, no. 40, 2008, pp. 167–178. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27920004. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.
  3. Marte, Lidia. “DIÁSPORAS DEL ALMA: NOTAS SOBRE REPRESENTACIÓN Y USO ESTRATÉGICO DE PRÁCTICAS ESPIRITUALES AFRO-CARIBEÑAS.” Caribbean Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2018, pp. 55–75. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45038287. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.
  4. Estrada, Víctor Betancourt. “La Introvertida Transmisión Oral En Las Raíces De La Cultura Afrocubana.” Afro-Hispanic Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2007, pp. 195–201. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23055261. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.
  5. Sklodowska, Elzbieta. “Aproximaciones a La Forma Testimonial: La Novelística De Miguel Barnet.” Hispamérica, vol. 14, no. 40, 1985, pp. 23–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20542198. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

The Brazilian Love Affair with Whatsapp: a Case Study for U.S. Communication

An absurdly continual predicament: I unlock my phone to check a few messages from a close friend from Mexico or a business contact, both of whom I only communicate with through Whatsapp. My friends peer over my shoulder, and what awaits me is a discussion I’ve never been able to evade.

“What’s that app?” says one of them.

“Is that Whatsapp?” another followed. “Why are you using that?”

The curiosity around my messaging habits is nothing I haven’t heard before, so I ring off the usual spiel: you only need Wi-Fi, it has a great audio messaging feature, it has stickers. They tease that I just want to feel worldly, that all of those features are available on iMessage, and that I especially have no reason to be communicating with my partner, who is from Indiana, through a channel such as Whatsapp. I’m left dumbfounded, again, but my use continues.

In the United States, Whatsapp has always fallen short of sensation. Even as other communication apps such as Zoom and Google Meets skyrocketed in the past year, the curiosity never bled into Whatsapp. The app boasts approximately 1.5 billion users worldwide, but the U.S.’ contribution has been negligible: in 2018, only 12.1% of mobile users in the U.S. used the app.

Instead, countries like India and Brazil occupy the greatest share of usership. I was quickly made aware of the latter country’s attachment to the app following my decision to undertake the Portuguese language in 2018. All of my newfound internet penpals gave me their Whatsapp first instead of their Facebook account, so I followed suit. When you’re taking your first digital steps into another hemisphere, there’s no other option. Just as you can’t get by in Miami without speaking Spanish, you can’t get by in the Brazilian world without having a Whatsapp (Brazilianized as Zap-ee) account. 

Whatsapp in Brazil has brushed U.S. news multiple times: the three times Brazilian judges have ordered nationwide shutdowns to collect data for investigations, bringing Brazilian life to a halt, or the app’s ties to the divulgation of misinformation in Brazil’s 2018 election, adding confusion to an already charged political battle. Aside from these past events, we’ve never heard much about why Brazilians are so attached to the app, nor how day-to-day use builds its potential and influence in culture, politics and media. My last three years of Whatsapp use have facilitated my life in myriad ways, but the reasons I use it look meager next to Brazil’s enterprising ability to weave it into life at every level. It’s one the most bizarrely impressive technological phenomena I’ve ever seen.

The app’s unimpressive strides in Uncle Sam’s domain may seem like another case of US-American ‘just-because’ idiosyncrasy– the same idiosyncrasy found in the country’s use of yards, miles, and gallons, for example– but the reasons, both obvious and latent, nod to the cultural and economic disparities between the U.S. and the rest of the world, but especially so with Brazil.

Ironically, the app wasn’t founded with them in mind, but rather the United States: before 2016, the company charged users outside the U.S. an annual $0.99 subscription fee after their first year. After six years of overwhelming response from non-US Whatsappers, the company acknowledged in a blog post that the subscription model inconvenienced their most important markets, and shifted to a free model.

“From a new dad in Indonesia sharing photos with his family, to a student in Spain checking in with her friends back home, to a doctor in Brazil keeping in touch with her patients, people rely on WhatsApp to be fast, simple and reliable,” the post dictates. “As we’ve grown, we’ve found that [the subscription] approach hasn’t worked well. Many WhatsApp users don’t have a debit or credit card number and they worried they’d lose access to their friends and family after their first year.”

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. went unmentioned at the beginning (unlike Brazil), and the “many Whatsapp users” without debit cards are likely encompassed mostly by users outside the U.S. A subscription model makes sense in a nearly cashless society with high prioritization of financial independence, but such a model couldn’t have survived much longer elsewhere.

I took to Twitter to ask my friends and followers around the world about their countries’ use of the app. From Amanda Silva Simões, a 20-year-old undergraduate student from São Paulo, I learned more about Brazil’s socioeconomic gaps, and that Whatsapp primarily owes its success in Brazil (and shortcoming in the U.S.) to one simple thing, or its lack thereof: iPhones.

“I don’t have an iPhone, it’s not so widespread here. Only the middle and upper classes can have them, so iMessage is not so common here,” she told me. “Whatsapp makes messaging available to everyone.”

Approximately half of smartphone users in the United States opt for iPhones, leading users to primarily communicate through iMessage, the instant messaging application that comes pre-installed with the device. Its convenience and all-in-one feel play perfectly into the U.S.’ cultural obsession with flow, and this is how Apple, in the last decade, has eternalized its spot in the North American way of life. With regard to messaging, this convenience combined with the fact that the average US-American doesn’t have much contact with people outside of the country has discarded the need for an extraneous messaging app.

Meanwhile, Apple’s almost 47% market share in the U.S. drops to just 14% in Brazil. The principal cause is the fact that iPhones are foreign imports subject to taxation that often amounts to a higher cost than the good itself. Another factor is the ever-fluctuating Brazilian real: it’s had a terrible year because of COVID-19 tensions. When it dipped to a 4.75BRL-to-USD valuation last March, reports surged of Paraguayans crossing the Paraguayan-Brazilian border en masse to purchase shoes, appliances and, of course, electronics. If such goods in Brazil are generally more accessible to the rich and the occasional foreigner than the average citizen, there’s no wondering why Brazilians from north to south reach for Android (and by extension Whatsapp) instead.

Simões further recalled that in 2019, she interviewed with two companies for internships: Deutsche Welle, a German media company, and Bloomberg, the New York City-based financial L.P. While DW carried out all communication through Whatsapp per usual, Bloomberg reached out to her exclusively through email. Despite Germany and Brazil’s distance both cultural and geographical, Whatsapp has bridged them with similar communication protocols that the U.S. has barely thought to explore: messaging as part of the professional sector. We’ve circulated work meme after work meme about pointless email announcements and fatigue after a slew of emails written in formal cyber-prose, and on TikTok, countless women have gone viral with relatable stories about asserting themselves more in emails and adopting the same emailing style as male colleagues. Looking past the humorous delivery, it’s objectively sad seeing how draining communication can be when it should arguably be the easiest step. The earlier example between Germany and Brazil proves that it’s not just hemispheral, it’s not east versus west– it’s a global cyber-etiquette phenomenon, and the United States missed the memo long ago.

It needs mentioning that in Brazil, there’s a clear trickling-down of Whatsapp into almost every sphere of daily life. Aside from the aforementioned professional use, it’s common in academic life, with students regularly messaging professors for quick access; business life, where food can be ordered through a simple text; building group chats (Simões says), where tenants sell unwanted furniture and discuss maintenance. Personal use is a given, but Brazil’s integration of Whatsapp into so many societal levels is simply resourceful and ingenious.

Despite such practicality, the true measure of Whatsapp’s effectiveness in Brazil is its delivery on the most basic promise of any messaging app: making people feel close to one another. It might be a generalization, but the way I see Brazilians communicate with each other through the app is far more intimate than anything I’ve witnessed in the U.S. The app’s features, such as audio messages and stickers, give way to the constant micro-expressions of intimacy that Brazilians would otherwise display to each other in person. It’s important to emphasize that these features are completely available in U.S.-leading apps like Facebook Messenger and iMessage, but the cultural conduct to actually reach for them is almost nonexistent.

Instead of a series of paragraphs, which I would expect in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised to see 3-minute audio messages that emulate a true conversation. This in particular is something common to people all over Latin America– I’ve received audios ranging from 30 seconds to 15 minutes from friends and contacts from Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. As a writer and a YouTuber, less screen time is a heaven-sent gift, so closing my eyes and listening to whatever news or stories they have to tell me is a refuge. It’s de-pixelated and truer to the personal nature of human communication, and in a world where technology is constantly scrutinized as a threat to that humanity, it feels pretty good to indulge in something that simple– something that Silicon Valley could never get wrong.

Another friend of mine from São Gonçalo called Brazil “a terra da zoeira“, the land of jokes, and a Whatsapp feature that helps to perpetuate that title is its sticker feature. Conversations are packed with figurinhas, seemingly existing for every emotion and situation possible. 

“It’s impossible to have a conversation without stickers, they’re so expressive,” said Simões. “I think it’s a stereotype, but Brazilians are very expressive, and those stickers help to express what we’re feeling.”

Simões further cited stickers as the heroes of Brazilian meme culture. The subjects range from viral video legends such as this guy to reality TV personalities to even their own president, and the most widespread ones almost always point to something that wouldn’t be funny out of context, that is, a Brazilian context that a foreigner wouldn’t understand. An inside joke may seem small, but when over 200 million people are in on it, it serves as a reinforcement of brotherhood.

Four of my most Brazilian stickers (from left to right): Jair Bolsonaro dumbfounded while he eats, ‘tamu junto’, a short version of the Brazilian motto “estamos juntos” (“we are together”), Érick Jacquin, the French-Brazilian Masterchef Brasil star and source of countless memes, and Zé Pequeno from Cidade de Deus, an undeniably Brazilian cult film.

Even more impressive than the self-created culture surrounding the stickers is the way people distribute them: with a single click, a Whatsapp user can save a sticker sent from another person to their personal library. They’re passed from user to user in a chain fashion, allowing Brazilians to propagate what they most find funny. Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, provides users with default sticker packs and allows them to download more from the store. Although the options are plenty, the humor is prescribed, and as a result, the degree of individuality is far more restricted. In Whatsapp, I can react with a custom-cut imported sticker of my own face, but in Messenger, I’m limited to prancing lambs and Pusheen.

Now reflecting on how I explained my love for Whatsapp to my friends, I realize that whatever features it may offer are entirely peripheral to the feelings and relations created with them. Over the past three years of seeing Brazilians use the app to bob and weave effortlessly between work and play, I dread the black-and-white practicality of digital communication in my own country. We’ve under-nurtured our creativity, so maybe it’s time we look beyond borders for cultural successes such as these. There’s a lot to be said about Whatsapp in Brazil, but it’s more than anything a testament to tech existing for social ingenuity and experimentation rather than streamlining and technical benefits. Even as COVID-19 has made disconnecting more appetizing than ever, digital communication can be beautiful and unifying if we make it so.

Buena Onda Continues St. Augustine’s Vegan Legacy

A new wave has washed over St. Augustine, bringing a tide of Latin spice, healthy eating, and a bright, comfortable atmosphere.

Buena Onda, meaning “good vibes” or literally “good wave” in Spanish, opened its doors in early February. On their Facebook page, they describe themselves as a full-service café featuring espresso drinks, plant-powered lattes, vegetarian and vegan dishes with a Latin American twist, and a selection of grab-and-go baked goods and drinks.

The restaurant is the successor to the 224 King Street building, which previously housed the Present Moment Café, a raw and vegan restaurant sharing much of the same values. After two owners and 14 years of love from St. Augustine’s vegan community, it closed permanently on July 11 of last year. For Buena Onda, the streetside location in West King makes it anything but a secret, allowing for plenty of business in its first couple of weeks.

“[It’s been] amazing,” said Jaclyn Briand, Buena Onda’s manager. “The community has definitely picked us up into their arms, and we even have a lot of people coming in because they knew the Present Moment Café.”

As Present Moment passes the torch, co-owner Amy Tarmey says that Buena Onda has big shoes to fill, and that the challenge is even greater due to COVID-19.

“It’s crazy opening a restaurant in a pandemic, but we also believe in taking risks and following our dreams,” Tarmey said. “People loved what Present Moment was, and we’ve tried to achieve that same feel and energy. We really just want to promote plant-based eating in a way that isn’t intimidating to people who aren’t used to it, with great food, great service, and a great atmosphere to hang out in.”

Tarmey shares the business with her husband, Gaston Buschiazzo. The couple, who has two little girls, made it a point to keep business hours from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, so they wouldn’t miss out on family time.

Briand, who works to support her 6-year-old son, says that the current hours reflect the restaurant’s community values.

“It’s always difficult trying to find that balance between my husband’s full-time job, my full-time job, my son, school… it’s a lot of things to bounce around on. We definitely want to bring about a business where families can work and make a living, but still have that time for their family,” Briand said.

Although Buena Onda now takes part in West King’s bustling small business community, they are aiming for a gradual build-up as they find their footing and maintain that balance.

“In the food industry, everything changes when you have a family because most of the business is nights, weekends and holidays,” Tarmey said. “We’re hoping to hire some more staff soon to come in on Sundays– we realize it’s kind of a weird day for a café to be closed.”

As for its atmosphere, the restaurant features a wraparound bar and has kept all of the furniture from its previous owners. Behind the counter, the staff whip up beverages with ingredients ranging from wild mushrooms to roses. The venture’s buzz in its first month has broken barriers, attracting vegan, vegetarian, and meat-eaters alike.

Tarmey, Buena Onda’s co-founder, prepares a drink behind the counter. // Photo: Elysse DaVega

“You don’t have to be a vegetarian or a vegan to come eat in a place like this. That’s a misconception we want to change– the concept of bland, boring vegetarian and vegan food,” Tarmey said.

Among the most popular items on the menu are the breakfast tacos, which are available with egg or the vegan tofu scramble option, and the vegan empanadas full of sweet potato and Beyond Burger.


Two examples of Buena Onda’s grab-and-go specialties: cream cheese fig empanadas and a sweet Olipop orange tonic. / Photo: Elysse DaVega

With a fresh, modern take on healthy cuisine and a short walking distance from campus, Buena Onda has taken no time in making waves with Flagler students. Vaishnavi Gundakaram, a 2020 graduate, has earned a spot as one of its first super-fans.

The vegan Flagler graduate runs an Instagram page, @wholesomeplantlife, dedicated to plant-based tips; unsurprisingly, Buena Onda has made various appearances on both her personal and plant-based accounts.

“Buena Onda is so open and beautiful. It’s so nice to have a place that is healthy and has so many incredible, cultural vegan options. I have loved everything I’ve tried there, which is probably half of the menu,” Gundakaram said.

When asked about her favorite menu item, Tarmey cites the adaptogenic mocha latte, featuring a seven-mushroom blend, cinnamon, and raw cacao, as tasting like “the best chocolate milk you’ve ever had.”

Tarmey and Buschiazzo wish to invite the greater St. Augustine area to try not only a different palate, but a different way of thinking about food in general.

“We don’t want to get on a pedestal and tell someone how they should be eating, but we just think plant-based is great for you and it’s great for the environment. This is where both of our hearts lie.”

Buena Onda
Address: 224 King St., Saint Augustine
Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday
Contact: 904-827-4499
Online: http://www.buenaondastaug.com

This article originally appeared in the The Saint Augustine Record.

A Lesson Learned: Sephardim, Social Media, and Conversion during COVID-19

It sounded like muscle memory, if that’s possible. As the rabbi lit the final candle, the blessings he sang soared through my ears like birds in echelon, landing somewhere previously untouched. He had definitely sung them a thousand times before, and sang so nonchalantly that for a moment I felt like I knew them from memory too, but no— it was definitely my first time. My first Hanukkah, and it was all happening over Zoom.

In the wake of COVID, my choice to convert was terribly timed. My nearest synagogue was holding virtual services every week, and baruch ata adonaiii just did not hit the same through video call. After navigating weeks of what felt like a forced connection, I felt like I was failing as a Jew. The Shabbat candles on my desk stared at me longingly, as if begging me to blow them out and put this whole thing to rest. I shut my laptop, interrupting the rabbi mid-sentence, and crawled into bed with my phone instead.

Let me explain how I got here. Fifteen years before this moment, when I was a child, my Pentecostal mother would tell me stories of our Sephardic Jewish relatives that had emigrated from Gibraltar. Their arrival point of Charleston, South Carolina had a strong Sephardic community and even a Sephardic cemetery where the various Abrahams and Isaacs of our family had been buried. These people were all dead already, frozen in the past, and this combined with the fact that we were now a Christian family made me think Sephardim were extinct.

Sephardim everywhere are familiar with the continual urge to “prove” ourselves, having had our identities ripped from us and contorted over hundreds of years: immigration from our places of origin, last names lost or altered, or assimilation to more widely accepted religions and practices. My case was the third. When my mother told me that we were Jewish, I didn’t understand any of it. As a young girl growing up in the highly Ashkenazi-dominated United States, I didn’t check any of the boxes of what I thought a Jew was. With an impossible-to-ignore Spanish surname, any Jewish remnant inside of me seemed to be dissolving by the minute.

Interestingly enough, however, whenever the question of heritage would come up, I clung to my Sephardic roots with an iron grip. In the U.S., people hardly know about Gibraltar’s existence, let alone that there’s more than one kind of Jew, so I always found joy in telling my story. What eventually started to bug me, however, were the questions that followed me everywhere– “If you’re Jewish, why don’t you go to synagogue? Did you have a bat mitzvah? Why not?” After years of it, I finally figured that the only way I would ever feel fulfilled in my Jewish identity was by officially converting. Judaism is an ethno-religion, I thought, and I had only ever stepped up to plate for half of it.

So now returning to the vignette of a Shabbatically-defeated Jew scrolling through Twitter, it turns out that my Twitter algorithm had my back that night. What reeled me in first was a back-and-forth between two Jewish users arguing over the supremacy of Hebrew among Judaic languages (why can’t we all just get along, by the way?) It was my first exposure to what I would later discover to be #Jwitter (or #JTwitter; yes we argue about that, too), and it was marvelous.

Out of curiosity, I clicked one of their profiles and saw that she was Sephardic, too, but from Brazil– Maria. It was the first Sephardic person I had encountered outside of my family, so I followed her. To my surprise, she did the same, and within minutes we were chatting. The chance to practice my Portuguese was exciting enough, but I was shortly thereafter made privy to a sphere of Jewishness that I’d never encountered.

My new Twitter friend enlightened me on the large population of Sephardim in the city of Recife, where she lives, and the words she used to describe her journey were the same that I had used in my own relationship with Jewishness– a relationship more cultural than religious; the pressure she felt to convert to feel validated; all of it. I learned about Bnei Anussim and ba’al teshuva, and I felt more seen than I ever had. (It also helped that she was red-haired like me.)

The solution I had searched for my entire life turned out to be thousands of miles away, but it encouraged me to dive into the internet head-first to find my community, to unearth it with my own hands. Suddenly the very same technology that left me feeling deflated in my conversion process gifted me the opportunity to learn and connect.

I made many more Jewish mutuals through Twitter, but as I looked through other platforms, I didn’t feel the same pull. Aside from various short documentaries and songs in Ladino, there was a tremendous lack of Sephardic content on YouTube. Seeing as I have a decent following on the site, I decided to make my debut there and explain my Jewishness to my subscribers.

“I don’t know how to start this without it sounding like a coming-out video,” I joked. It was a short explanation of Sephardic history, my family’s history, and common misconceptions about Jews that I felt needed attention. The response was everything I had hoped for, but nothing I had expected: people recommending books to read, infatuation with the small excerpt of Ladino I spoke, and a ton of other Sephardim welcoming me with open arms. The reception of the video was so meaningful to me because I had never claimed my Jewishness in such a public arena before. I was apprehensive to do so, but the warm embrace of online Jewry offered itself with no hesitation.

Although the pandemic has made the beginning of my path to Judaism synonymous with solitude, this stint on the Jewish side of the net has taught me some valuable lessons that I’ll carry with me even with this is all over.

As Jews, we need each other. Community is an essential part of Jewishness, but my fears of rejection held me back from it in the time when I needed it most. There is always someone who has felt what you feel, or had the same doubts that you’ve had.

It was also crucial for me to “de-Americanize” my perception of the Jewish world to understand it to its core. We come from all walks of life, and in the Ashkenazi-dominated U.S., this was easy to forget. The chance to feel seen isn’t confined to the borders of my country, to the contrary– I might have more in common with someone halfway across the world.

Further, conversion isn’t everything. My rush to get involved religiously manifested not only as invalidation of millions of non-religious Jews, but also as internalized shame for circumstances that weren’t my fault as a Sephardic person in the first place.

Finally, culture is everything. At the end of the day, when I wipe the tears from my face because I didn’t understand the message at Shabbat, I still know how to make amazing shakshuka and the sweetest buñuelos. I still have Ladino, which I’m so eager to explore. I have so many more outlets that reassure me than ones that confuse me, and for now, I think I need to spend more time there.

Evolutions in my identity don’t have to be such a serious matter, and can instead manifest in wonderful, fun forms such as social media. Involving myself online reminded me of the sweet simplicity of connecting, which the pandemic had starved me for. It’s helped me to appreciate the beauty of my eagerness, but also to acknowledge that my relationship with Jewishness is one that will continue to change over the course of my entire life. Hundreds of other inner developments in my being happen everyday without me toiling over them, so why should this one be any different?

Deaf Chicago Artist Bridges Sign Language and Art Online

“It’s not very well-made,” said Quinn West, grinning down at their first photography book, displaying black-and-white photos desperately bound in a half-inch black binder. “For a lot of us in class, it was our first time making a book.” They leafed through pages textured with braille, which West learned in the process of creating the inaccessible book for abled people.

Visual communication can mean myriad things, but for West, it’s a manifestation of two of the most important corners of their identity: American Sign Language and art.

The 24-year-old Deaf visual artist is constantly finding ways to empower and express the intricacies of disability through their work. One of these ways happens to be social media, where West uses their platforms to promote their art and connect with their various communities.

Although Chicago has been home to them for over two decades, West’s roots extend across the Pacific. Originally from China, they were adopted as an infant and brought to Illinois, growing up as a transracial adoptee in a white family.

“It’s a really interesting situation because I experienced a lot of racism, but my parents didn’t know about it and didn’t know how to teach about it,” West said.

However, race didn’t serve to be the only disconnect in West’s early life. They were also mainstreamed, a Deaf community term to describe someone who attended majority hearing schools instead of Deaf schools, where the primary mode of instruction is sign– in the United States specifically, American Sign Language.

For many, mainstreaming goes hand in hand with language deprivation. Language deprivation occurs when Deaf and hard-of-hearing children don’t receive accessible language exposure during critical early development periods, but this circumstance also often extends into late childhood and adolescence. More than 90 percent of Deaf children are born into hearing families, making this phenomenon everything but a head-turner in the Deaf community. Hearing parents often cling to dreams of their baby’s first spoken words, wasting what could be fruitful exposure time to manual and visual communication, something much more attainable for Deaf infants.

With an absence of sign language in their everyday life, West didn’t establish a deeper connection with their deafness until they began attending Deaf camp. Across the U.S. alone exist hundreds of Deaf camps, immersing Deaf and hard-of-hearing children and young adults in their identity and providing the opportunity to discover what it means for them.

“[Deaf camp] is where I was really introduced to Deaf culture, and learned to sign. It’s the reason I got involved with Deaf culture to begin with,” West said.

Carrying this new connection through their adolescence, West’s Deaf identity eventually collided with their artistic self-discovery, leading them to pursue a Media Arts degree at Northern Illinois University. Very quickly, their undergraduate studies emerged as the arena where they would conceptualize themes of ableism through various media.

“I’ve always been an artist and a very creative person. I had some concepts in mind regarding ableism and that part of my life as a disabled person… it’s not something that you see a lot, generally. It’s a real injustice that I don’t think people talk about enough, so with my art I’m trying to provide some representation in that area.”

West recognizes a photographic series, “All Push, No Pull”, as their most personal piece to date. In one photo, a young Deaf girl in speech therapy– in the next photo, the same girl timidly looks away from the camera, revealing a cochlear implant resting on her right ear. West spent a semester mentoring and photographing Deaf children to show what language deprivation looks like in practice.

A young Deaf girl works with a speech therapist. / Photo: Quinn West

“Working with kids, I was really able to create those bonds that would allow them to trust me. I spent a lot of time that semester with them, just hanging out, talking, signing. I felt a real connection with that project because the concept was so close to me to begin with.”

Even as a mentor, their Deaf journey continued to evolve well into their adulthood: at the age of 20, they received bilateral cochlear implants. The procedure imbeds electronic devices that stimulate the auditory nerve, mainly serving individuals who no longer benefit from hearing aids or who wish to enhance any levels of hearing already present.

Upon getting the implants, however, West was made privy to the existing controversy and discourse around cochlear implants, which continue to cause doubt in many Deaf individuals’ self-image.

“It was tough because there were people that would say, ‘If you choose a cochlear implant, then you’re not Deaf,’ so there are issues there within the Deaf community,” West explained.

However, succumbing to negativity and external analyses of their identity was not an option– West found a way to use their art to embrace their CI not just for themselves, but for CI users everywhere. On January 25, they uploaded a video to TikTok, the popular short video app, explaining how they make their CI truly theirs.

“Growing up Deaf, I always wished hearing aid and cochlear implant companies didn’t focus on hiding your devices,” West said, pulling from an envelope a sheet of multi-patterned cochlear implant skins that they had designed, contrasting the plain CI device aside them. 

“I made my small business to combat feeding into the shame of hiding accessibility devices… I don’t think people should ever have to feel they need to hide who they are.”

West said that they initially intended to just create something for themselves, citing a “selfish” venture, but once they discovered that there were no skins widely available for their specific, relatively-new device, they felt a calling to amplify their artistic support on Deaf issues from conceptual to practical. They operate an Etsy shop under ‘DazzlingDeaf’, selling skins, stickers, and even downloadable SVG file templates so that other artists can customize skins with their own designs.

The TikTok promoting the small business has reached over 16,000 views, with almost 8,000 likes and hundreds of comments in support and inquiring where to buy the skins. It was especially unexpected for West because they had barely been posting on the app for a week.

West produces colorful designs to brighten up what would otherwise be an unadorned device. / Photo: DazzlingDeaf on Facebook

They then took to Twitter, showing their humorous side on the issue while directly addressing Cochlear Americas, a popular cochlear implant company in the U.S.

“@CochlearUS your devices work great but your color selection is shit. No thank you i do not want a piece of beige machinery on my head. Make me look cool like the old 90s clear phones or like not something that looks ugly. ok thanx,” West wrote.

For them, social media exists not solely as a business tool, but rather a community tool as well. Since they joined Twitter in 2018, they’ve grown an audience of over 2,400 followers by spreading and endorsing information from the Deaf community and the adoptee community, all the while doing so with a light-hearted sense of humor and pictures of their cats.

“Twitter is a little bit strange. I started it as just a personal account, and now it’s slowly becoming an activist account, so that’s interesting,” they laughed. “It really helps me not to feel alone. My roommate is hearing, my family is hearing… with social media, it’s kinda more accessible for Deaf people in general. I can communicate with hearing people who don’t sign.”

With COVID-19 following the world into the new year, it’s no surprise that social media use has continued to skyrocket for Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing people alike. There’s not much of a community in their immediate area, West said, so online connections have proved crucial to enduring times like these.

As West navigates the internet and the world as a young Deaf artist, the journey that brought them to present days foretells an adventure for what lies ahead. Opposite to the black-and-white pages of that same poorly bound photo book, they’ve demonstrated with the evolution of their Deaf identity that shades of gray are valid as ever.

Cover photo courtesy of Quinn West.