John Mckiernan-González

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John Mckiernan-Gonzalez | #nofuepenal


Opening 1: Much of Mexico grieved with the referee’s decision to give Arjen Robbben’s dive a penalty in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. For many, #nofuepenal became a near global metaphor for the clear misapplication of commonly agreed standards. In particular, the hashtag should be applied to a call that hurts underdogs’ nearly successful attempts to play and succeed by the rules. #nofuepenal has been resounding in my ears for the last five days after hearing and then reading U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman’s decision not to grant the preliminary injunction against the rejection of Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan state identity documentation like the Matrícula Consular. His decision regarding the standard of proof required to grant this injunction made me want to scream (into the ​Twitterscape): “#nofuepenal.”

It is no accident that the soccer metaphor was at the tip of my tongue. I already had a spectator relationship to this case. In July, Melissa del Bosque, the parent of a kid in our son’s wonderful daycare, La Escuelita del Alma, wrote an article​ in The Texas Observerdetailing the hardships caused by South Texas county official’s refusal to provide birth certificates to children born in the United States.

​ The cases spoke directly to the inordinate force indifferent health bureaucracies can wield in the lives of working-class Latinos, a matter covered in depth in my historical work on the medical border in the Texas borderlands. The decision to step in the legal limelight by Maria Isabel Perales Serna resonated with the history of legal challenges to arbitrary federal authority.

The attorney representing these potentially stateless children was Jennifer Harbury, working as a staff lawyer for the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA). I knew her through news coverage of her struggle against the State Department and the government of Guatemala to find her husband Everardo Bámaca Velásquez. She was also the only American voice I heard on NPR recalling how impossibly handsome the Maya guerrilla soldiers were. Jim Harrington, the attorney representing the parents of these children, had a long history of winning constitutional cases on behalf of working families and migrant workers based in South Texas. They both spent time with TRLA, an organization that gave some of my college friends their first job after law school. Finally, my friend and colleague Virginia Raymond filed an amicus brief on behalf of Mexican consulates in the United States. I wanted to see people I deeply respect at work, on a case that most people find hard to believe. The state of Texas will not give birth certificates to people born in Texas. I can’t believe that. This may have deep consequences for American children linked to migrant communities across the United States. I went to the courtroom to support the plaintiffs and bear witness to the proceedings. In other words, a fan and a spectator.

And I treated the experience of going to court as a spectator experience. The pictures below outline my journey into the courtroom, meeting some of the players, and taking pictures of my seatmates in the stands. Initially, I thought I would be alone, but as time passed Martha Cotera, Cynthia Perez, Stephanie Thomas, and Bob Kafka joined the throngs of reporters and constitutional law students that took over the courtroom pews.


Advocates for the Plaintiffs​: ​Virginia Raymond, Jennifer Harbury, Marinda Vandalen, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, 9:00 am​.


Thomas A. Albright, Office of the Attorney General, State of Texas, 9:04 am.

Given that my experience with the law parallels my experience with professional sports, I am comfortably anxious using sports metaphors to describe the arguments aired in Judge Pitman’s courtroom. Harbury reminded me of Andrea Pirlo, with her command of the courtroom and the clearly delineated use of the affidavits to make her point: that the State of Texas is responsible for keeping avenues open to citizenship to everyone born in the United States and ​that the political situation in Texas has not changed enough in the last eight years to force officials to suddenly change their working use of consular documents and state-generated identification to provide birth certificates to children. Harrington had more of a Cristiano Ronaldo vibe: at times, the statement was impossibly graceful, quickly citing Obergefell to explain how this denial of citizenship, this demand for perfect papers, posed a direct challenge to basic common-law understandings of family life.​ At others, the movement between affidavit and precedent was a little difficult to follow for less seasoned spectators. Albright, the lawyer for the state, ​the defendant’s lawyer,​ struck me as more of a Marco Materazi, a provocateur and spoiler whose place and effectiveness in soccer history was guaranteed by Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 final.

Harbury laid out the case for the children. She illustrated the damage to children’s ability to gain WIC, to access health care services, and – in some cases – attend school. She foregrounded Medicaid’s inability to fund post-natal care for these families, leaving children at deep risk of death and injury due to commonly preventable illnesses and treatable injuries. She highlighted the precarious position of many of these families, sharing houses and trailers with other people, being young parents still living with their parents in their colonias, barely having enough funds to travel to services in rural Texas, let alone fund a round-trip to highlands Mexico, Guatemala, or El Salvador.

​Harbury discussed the impact of having a stateless child, a daughter rendered anonymous by Texan anxieties regarding the trustworthiness of other places and other languages. She responded to Attorney Albright’s claims that vital statistics officials “had mistakenly refused” to provide birth certificates with a discussion of the regular returns people like Perales Serna made to the county office to claim their birth certificates.

These claims for constitutional protection under the 14th Amendment were elegantly done, simply asking the judge to ask the state of Texas to “define at least two forms of identification [that are] reasonably and actually accessible to undocumented immigrant parents of Texas-born children,” or return to the sort of identification that the state of Texas used before 2013.

Harbury’s arguments had impact: Judge Pitman agreed that ‘it simply begs credulity for Defendants to argue a birth certificate is not a vitally important document. The rights and privileges of citizenship inure to those who are citizens. The lack of a birth certificate, or other documentation establishing citizenship, presents a clear bar to access to those rights.’ Her skillful deployment of the affidavits made it into the judge’s language, clear evidence of her poise and control.

Harrington laid out the issues facing the parents of now stateless children. The absence of birth certificates robbed them of their identity as parents, as almost no state institution in or outside the United States could recognize or validate the relationship between parent and child. The absence posed steep obstacles to the right to move, as the absence of birth certificates made it difficult to move to participate in family life, from funerals to births to family reunions.​ The stateless condition of the children rendered any attempt to cross a border or a checkpoint or even a public official a danger to the status of the children, and perhaps the family unit. Harrington laid out these burdens gracefully, articulating the right to belong in the face of people probably hostile to the presence of (Latin American) undocumented migrants. His discussion of family drew faint nods from the judge. However, the argument for the right to mobility did not find the same harbor at the judge’s bench. If this were a soccer game, Harrington would have scored at least twice, but a number of his points would have depended on the skills and labors of his teammates, Pirlo in particular.

The role of the stopper is to stop the flow of the game and to make it difficult for the other team to regain the flow. Sometimes this is enough. Materazzi and the Italian team were masters at breaking rhythm; Albright, the attorney defending the Office of Vital Statistics, also searched for ways to provoke or intimidate. He openly wondered about the extent of these denials of Medicaid, of WIC, of school. He used the testimony by a Cameron County clerk in the Office of Vital Statistics who claimed that the other county clerks were probably mistaken, and needed to familiarize themselves with Texas bylaws. That is, that the Hispanic South Texas clerks were responsible. He wondered about the real damages an absence of birth certificates caused people who were already undocumented.​ ​

He questioned whether the Office of Vital Statistics was legally responsible for the decisions to deny care made by Medicaid, local churches, local schools, or DHS. He made oblique references to difficulties and chaos in different parts of Mexico – not to support matriculas, but to imply that identification documents from particularly violent regions like Tamaulipas and Nuevo León might be tainted by coercion and violence. He claimed the Amicus Brief by Mexican consulates was unprecedented, as if Mexican representatives had no legal history of advocacy in Texas or the United States. He raised the indeterminacy of Latin American names in the United States, as a person could be González Martínez in one state and Martínez González on the other, sometimes depending on who they addressed. He dared the judge to establish protocol to deal with “Asian” nomenclature, “because we know how hard that is.” He claimed the plaintiffs were carrying the weight of a conspiracy to make Matrículas​ Consulares American identification. Whether calculated to offend or off-hand irritating, these barbs drew gasps from many of us in the peanut gallery.


Jennifer Harbury meets with the Associated Press.

There was also what could be termed “stereotype threat” for a recently appointed judge. Albright regularly asked, ​rhetorically​, ​if the judge wanted to write birth certificate policies for the State of Texas. He kept on asking the judge and the plaintiff attorneys to define acceptable identification for the State.​ Albright wondered if the judge wanted this hearing to provide the basis for federal pre-emption. He asked if the court was ready to write personnel policy for the office of vital statistics. He allowed that the plaintiffs may have been mistreated, but that perhaps this was because of county offices gone rogue. used the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) ​reluctance to use M​atrícula​s​ C​onsulares as travel documents to ask if the judge was willing to challenge the Department of Justice​ and DHS. He both diminished the extent of the damages and raised the stakes of getting the decision wrong for a recently appointed​ judge.​ It was clear that Judge Pitman had little patience for these ruses in the courtroom, and regularly asked Albright to return to the state-driven denial of citizenship to citizens of the United States.

Judge Pitman embodied what most players search for in a referee. He treated people fairly and seemed to have no favorites. He recognized skillful play, but focused on managing the field. As a historian, it seemed to me that Judge Pitman was deeply interested and intrigued by the issues raised by the case, and cared about the damages caused to the children and families by the higher level of scrutiny applied to children living in mixed-status families in precarious conditions in South Texas. He established a polite banter with all three attorneys, but did not seem to favor one over the others. In two or three instances, Judge Pitman asked questions about affidavits that demonstrated his familiarity with the testimony provided by plaintiffs and defendants.​ ​There were no indications about his leanings through the hearing.

Judge Pitman​'s​ leanings came out in the decision to deny the preliminary injunction. The case Perales Serna et al v. Texas Department of Health State Services raised deep questions about public security and the right to citizenship. However, the request to enjoin is to “preserve the status quo and thus prevent irreparable harm until the respective rights of the parties can be ascertained during a trial on the merits.” (Exhibitors Poster Exch., Inc. v. Nat'l Screen Serv. Corp., 441 F.2d 560,561 [5th Cir. 1971].) The various meetings and hearings completed by the Governor of Texas (2008, 2011), the Legislature (2011), and the Department of Justice (2008) on the question of acceptable identification for Texas-born citizens indicate a commitment to due diligence on the question of constitutional rights. Conversely, Judge Pitman wanted more evidence to support the claim that the Texas Vital Statistics Unit started rejecting more Matrículas and other documents after the “unaccompanied Central American minor​s​” crisis and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) hit Texas. Judge ​Pitman wanted more evidence to resolve the question whether the plaintiffs,​ Maria Perales Serna and their peers,​ had experiences representative of their class – undocumented parents and guardians of children born in Texas – when private and public officials denied their children the benefits of a legal identity and constitutionally guaranteed citizenship. As Judge Pitman​ wrote, the “birth certificate is a vital and important document. As such, Texas has a clear interest in protecting access to that document.” Rather than return to the previous avenues to citizenship to citizens born in Texas, this sentence inserted state-risk management into the exercise of citizenship.

The appearance of due diligence by the S​tate of Texas raised the burden of representation on the plaintiffs and their legal advocates. Judge ​Pitman leaned cautious, and decided not end the ongoing damage to the Perales Serna family, the Barragan Gutierrez family, the García Castro family, and the Teran Uriegas family.

Judge ​Pitman allowed county offices of vital statistics to continue to reject the most accessible and deeply rigorous documentation of identity available to the residents of colonias, sublessors of trailers, and non-mobile phone contract holders of Texas. These working-class citizens will have to continue in their precarious state until the matter is determined at the federal level, at the fifth district level, and perhaps even the Supreme Court. This is where the no fue penal call applies. Citizens should not be denied when their parents use nationally accepted identification documents or have to wait for the Supreme Court to weigh the relative risks of a Matrícula Consular to exercise their citizenship. #nofuepenal. It is a scandal.

John Mckiernan-González | book images

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Más Derechos, Menos Terrenos: Collaboration and Community in Colombian Grassroots Media

The Arrobo@ blog opens questions about the relationship Latinos shape between art and politics, between history and transformation, between terror and joy. This post takes up history and transformation.

Uprooted: Jhojan in Quibdo

Uprooted: Jhojan in Quibdo. Jhohan looks over the river in Villa Espana, a refugee encampment in Quibdo. A​ll photos credited to Juan Mejia.

After slavery, displacement is the biggest organized crime facing black communities in Colombia.
–– Juan Mejia, 2004[1]

For someone trained in history, I confess I aspire to providing back stories to current dramas, to bringing microhistories of color to bear on dimensions of the American modern. This desire illuminates my most consistent political involvement in immigrant rights organizations and movements: a note taker, a transcriber of other’s stories, researcher of news items for politically motivated public art, the scrivener in meetings, transferring politically dense as well as fairly mundane interactions to the printed page. My secret hope as a transcriber was that others who follow me into the archive can find enough drama and context in board memoranda to provide accurate and responsible accounts; my notes purposely included ripples from the currents running below the surface in these cross-class interactions that make up the immigrant rights movement. I wanted to provide an archive that historians attuned to microhistories can use in their analyses of post-IRCA Chicago, the federal constituencies for Folclorico in D.C., youth public histories in Greater Tampa, and immigrant labor organizing in Central Texas. [2]

There is a built-in frustration in this scrivener’s dream: why would anyone want to wait two decades for a collaboration to bear fruit? 


Northern New Mexico Soccer Fields. Field in action on private school campus.

This brings me to Juan Mejia, filmmaker, artist and documentarian. We met in the early 1990s on the soccer fields of a high school where our parents were staff members. The wall in our duplex connected two-thirds of the Colombian migrant community in Las Vegas, New Mexico.[1] Here, between cascaritas and uruguayitos, Juan introduced me to the collaborative dimension of ethnography and film: he discussed the work that emerges when people in communities on the margins use cameras to name and narrate themselves. This conversation inspired me to use cameras as a key tool in the Cuentos de mi Familia public history project in Tampa.


Uprooted: Reverse Camera.

Juan, however, committed to the act of handing off the camera, sharing the camera, and collectively deliberating with community members regarding the shape and purpose of narrative film. His career since the late 1990s has involved work, travel, and collaborative film. His first large project – Merging Voices – wove extensive interviews with a number of college-age Salvadorans across the class chasm wrestling with hope after the 1996 elections. The film is notweworthy not just for convincing Roberto D’Aubisson Jr., to include his story and image in a film about the struggle working-class FMLN participants and torture survivors had in becoming everyday university students, but for having “Ceci” highlight the costs of becoming part of everyday life in San Salvador.  Since 2000, he has been involved in community media projects with displaced Afro-descendand communities first in Bogota and more broadly, Colombia. The film Uprooted (2007) is one of the fruits of this collaboration, using one woman’s labors to provide an opportunity for her son to engage with the micropolitics of aspiration and discrimination for black internally displaced communities in Bogota.[4] Uprooted is among a variety of grassroots media projects adopted by AFRODES in which Juan has been involved, ranging from websites to newsreels.

Juan’s work builds on other collaborative cultural projects in Colombia. Enrique Buenaventura’s Teatro Experimental de Cali scriptwriters and residents of vecindarios populares improved, wrote, staged, critiqued, and re-wrote the scripts, the staging, and the sound until they resonated with the vast majority of audience members and collaborators.  A collection of these plays, Papeles del Infierno (Pages from Hell) achieved renown in North American circles with people familiar with Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Marta Rodriguez and Jorge Silva have been producing beautiful and evocative documentaries, since their first documentary Chircales [bricklayers] that foreground the experiences of work for men and women across Colombia. Their film, Love, Women, and Flowers, on the flower industry in Bogota, may be the most directly relevant to American consumers. His aunt, Sylvia Mejia, pushed this collaborative element and turned film into a key medium for community dialogue and consciousness raising, a workshop process she called Video Transformation.  These workshops have led to documentaries that directly with questions of sexuality, power, and popular culture.

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Uprooted: Noris and Juan in Canoe.

… to use film as a research methodology.

Juan agreed to answer questions regarding the collaborative and transnational trajectory of his work.

When did you decide to involve collaborative elements in your art?

For me the collaboration, the activism came first and the art came second. I became interested in film in response to frustrations I had with academia and particularly with the limited scope in the diffusion of formal academic papers and knowledge. I saw film as a more democratic medium that also lent itself to collaboration in very interesting ways. Collaborative video projects provided for me more clear ways in which to try to decolonize the research/fieldwork/production relationship between researcher/filmmaker and community. In this way, I guess, collaboration was at the root of everything from the very beginning. My love for film as an art form came with time.                                  

In what way did your training in anthropology in Swarthmore College shape your understanding of film?

I was working a lot with Prof. [Miguel] Diaz-Barriga doing labor organizing with mushroom workers in Kennett Square, PA.[5] The idea surfaced to do a short film about the 1993 strike by the workers against the Kaolin Mushroom Farm, as a way to cement this crucial event and as an organizing tool.[6] It was by any account a very poorly made film, edited in an analog station we learned to use as we went. It was made up of interviews, some TV stock footage and archival footage shot by the workers themselves during the strike.

But I remember clearly the reaction of the workers that saw the film; especially those that participated or where present during the time of the strike. They were genuinely moved, even inspired. It was a small, but sharp shot of electricity and definitely served to energize the movement, even if in the short term. This was a valuable and powerful lesson on the power of film as a whole, and how impactful it could be for a community to see itself represented on screen.

When did you decide to meld elements of anthropology in your film-making?  When did you decide to use film as a medium to do anthropology? 

Again, film came first as a device. Initially I guess as a research methodology; more along the veins of straight-up visual anthropology. My thesis for anthropology at Swarthmore included a documentary film on the youth of El Salvador and their reflections on the civil war, the peace accords and the future of the country.  I was fascinated by the modern history of El Salvador and especially by liberation theology. We (Roosbelinda Cárdenas and Juan C. Castañeda) made the film only after I had spent over 6 months studying in San Salvador and speaking to many folks about the current situation. This was part of the point we were trying to push for. To avoid this idea of just simply going out there and shooting a film. But to use film as a research methodology.

Thus, it was a matter of doing careful research and workshopping ideas with folks on the ground to come up come up with a concept. Then using film as a medium to get across the message. I wasn’t yet thinking of a specific collaborative approach other than trying to build important relationships with folks on the ground. But the fact that we were genuinely interested in what folks had to say and took the time to listen, as well as the fact that we were quite young and naive (read as not threatening) and were  forthcoming about our intentions, opened a lot of doors. Yeah, and I think luck also had to do with it. El Salvador was going through a transitional period where folks were looking for platforms to get their thoughts and idea across. Big changes were happening and people really wanted to talk about that. I think that is the only reason someone like D’aubuisson Jr. would speak to some hippie, raggedy kids with a camera.

Still, even today, when I see the film and laugh at some of our choices or the terrible graphics and effects, I can still find real value in it, and I think that’s because we were genuinely curious and willing to do the work… We asked good questions.

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Uprooted: Noris and Home. Photo taken outside encampment.

Which of these elements continue to play a part as you move toward more wide-spread feature documentary films for festivals and television?

My work with the Black social movement in Colombia taught me the tremendous value in of genuine commitment to a particular struggle and in using truly collaborative methodologies, both for me as a researcher and for the communities I worked with. However, I also came to understand the limits established by a degree of false modesty. After all you don’t want to come in and impose your own views, right? Yet, at a certain moment in the relationship, people were like: So you are a filmmaker, right? How about you make a film that we can use to publicize our situation and our struggle. It was a fair question. And so we did. I was starting an amazing MA program in Social Documentation at the University of California, Santa Cruz and it gave me the chance to embark on the next film: Uprooted, which was by all means a collaborative project, yet, it was a different type of collaboration.

Uprooted is a character driven film about the struggle of Noris, a displaced Black woman in Colombia, to get enough money to purchase her son a ticket so he can attend a soccer academy he has been recruited for in the capital city of Bogotá. I shot and edited the film and had my friend Ricardo Angulo operate sound. Yet, the Association of Displaced Afrocolombians, AFRODES, was key in helping me scout the story, introducing and vouching for me with the families at the refugee shelter and forging a relationship with Noris. Moreover, they were active consultants and critics throughout the process. We knew the goal of this project was different from previous ones was and that it it required a different type of collaboration. This seemed inevitable as we moved toward seeking more widespread distribution.

​I had spent a few months back home in Colombia and was affected by the influx of internally displaced people to the capital, Bogotá. It moved and angered me. A large number of them were Black Colombians, that on top of confronting violence and uprooting now faced discrimination and racism in a cold and hard city like Bogotá. I didn’t quite grasp the scope of the tragedy but it stayed with me and I decided to focus my MA work on trying to understand it further. And so, naturally I tried to fuse together participatory cinema, indigenous media, video transformation and now the theories of activist research all together into something I called critical grassroots media.

What other traditions did you draw from in developing your own kind of documentary?

After Swarthmore I travelled for a year with my former compañera doing community video workshops across South America.[8] We were implementing these projects with a beautiful methodology called Video Transformation—started by an aunt, Sylvia Mejia. Video Transformation departs from the realization that through the multiple dynamics involved with being behind and in front of the camera, the confrontation with one’s own image and the technical appropriation of the television myth, it is possible to elevate people’s self-esteem and liberate their potential for self-discovery and ensuing empowerment. [9]

This was a transition into a full collaborative approach that sought to transfer the means for knowledge production (video skills and equipment) to the hands of the communities; to collaborate with them in their own productions, while questioning how media operates and how they have been (or haven’t been) represented (or misrepresented) in mainstream media. We produced community video projects with Shipibo-Conibo peoples along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian amazon, youth activists in La Victoria, Santiago (Chile) street children in Salvador, Bahia (Brazil) and peasant cooperatives in Ayora, Cayambe (Ecuador). We were definitely moving beyond a participatory cinema approach and bringing in practices of indigenous media together with transformative video methodologies aligned more with art therapy … a bit of a crazy combination; but effective nonetheless.

Your third film dealt with comunidades afrodescendientes (afro-desplazadas?) in Bogota? 

Yes. I began the MA Latin American Studies program at the University of Texas Austin, which was a truly formative time for me as a filmmaker. I was introduced to activist-research methodologies from the likes of Charles Hale and also took my first actual film classes.[10] Activist research fit so well with what I wanted to do. I realized a lot of the work all the way back to Kennett Square shared a lot of the same characteristics, I just don’t think we even knew what to call it back then. Anyway, the idea that my deepest political commitments should be at the core of my research; that it should drive the research, really resonated with me.

Before going to UT [The University of Texas at Austin] I had spent a few months back home in Colombia and was affected by the influx of internally displaced people to the capital, Bogotá. It moved and angered me. A large number of them were Black Colombians, that on top of confronting violence and uprooting now faced discrimination and racism in a cold and hard city like Bogotá. [11] I didn’t quite grasp the scope of the tragedy but it stayed with me and I decided to focus my MA work on trying to understand it further. And so, naturally I tried to fuse together participatory cinema, indigenous media, video transformation and now the theories of activist research all together into something I called critical grassroots media.  So there it is.  An unnecessarily long explanation of the fusing on anthropology and video, one which went beyond simply pursuing visual anthropology.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Panoramic. ​Film crew at work in Haiti.

In your following project, you started using digital animation reminiscent of video games to add flesh to the testimonies of terror given by desplazados with whom you worked?  What were the rewards of this approach?  What were some of the risks?

Well, Uprooted did have successful distribution and audiences could really relate to the film. Uprooted brings you into the world of internal displacement in Colombia through one very personal story; its a very intimate approach. Now we wanted to do something that would provide a more general critique of the issue. Together with AFRODES and the PCN (Proceso de Comunideades Negras), we hoped to still use multiple personal stories to tell the complicated story of the displacement of Black communities from the Pacific of Colombia and point to direct causes for this displacement beyond generalized extreme violence by outlawed groups. We knew there were powerful economic interests as well. It was a very ambitious and complex project: The Battle for Land… So ambitious, we’re still finishing the edit.

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Battle for Land: Interviews​. Photo taken during filming of Battle for Land.

In The Battle for Land we therefore opted against the more conventional on-camera interviews where we see and hear the person remembering and recounting their memories. We felt it was important for the audience to relive the chaos and violence our characters lived through and we decided to do this by pushing stylistic boundaries. We used flash-based animation as a way to bring their memories to life.

You always run the risk of old school critics and viewers reacting negatively to animation; thinking it takes away from the seriousness and validity of the film. But I think we are at a point where documentary is really evolving and vastly expanding its boundaries. I think audiences are reacting very positively to the ways that documentary is diversifying and experimenting. When audiences stop relating documentaries only to the voice of god films in National Geographic and the History channel, it will be a good day.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Market Scene. In a market in San Pedro de Macoris.

You are now working in the broader world of the black diaspora in the Americas, like your documentary ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ working along the Dominican-Haitian border.  How has your work with comunidades afrodescendientes in Colombia shaped your work in the DR?  What have you changed in your daily practice in the DR to build toward this film?

Death by a Thousand Cuts explores the illegal charcoal trade (made from timber) along the Haitian-Dominican border. It deals with urgent environmental issues, but it is at its core a film about the competition for natural resources and the potentially devastating consequences it can lead to under the current political and economic climate. The film is part crime thriller, part environmental exposé, and part a character driven analysis of a particularly dangerous moment in time.

This film has been quite a different and fascinating process for me and a great learning experience. We are working in association with another production company and I’m actually co-directing with Jake Kheel who had the original idea for the film. It is a bigger production with multiple trips over the course of thee years, a bigger team, more resources, and a TV network… you know, a real movie ;) At the end of the day there are obvious advantages and the hope from all of us involved is to make a very urgent film that is also beautiful and thrilling and that will have widespread distribution.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Transport. Sailboat transferring shipment from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

Death by a Thousand Cuts is an extremely well researched and thought out film and we continue to foster honest and open relationships with folks on the ground. The communities we are working with are often the poorest of the poor both in the DR and in Haiti—communities often marginalized and neglected (the periphery within the periphery). In this regard the work is similar to what we have done in Colombia and I draw on lessons on how to best tell these stories—avoiding “misery-porn” and sensationalism and stressing dignity and resilience. However, it is also clear that with more players involved and network deadlines, it is a much more hectic process. Things seem to go faster and there is a need to constantly be moving, which translates into a different process than the one in my previous films.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Market Scene II. Market scene in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.

Where are you now? What trends do you see in your current and future projects?

After close to over 4 years in Colombia where I produced a number of films on issues of ethnic communities, autonomy and territory together with Enlalucha Films, I moved to New York City close to three years go. Since then, I work with Human Pictures, a production company born out of the dreams my friend Juan Carlos Castañeda and I had since we were teenagers in Bogotá. As far back as Merging Voices— the film on El Salvador from 1999— productions had the Human Pictures logo (regardless that the company didn’t formally exist). Since 2009 Human Pictures is a reality, founded by Juan Carlos and another dear friend, Juan Esteban Yepes and I’m very proud of the work we currently produce. We are dedicated to the creation of progressive media; films, documentaries and alternative advertising campaigns that promote transformation and justice. We are committed to joining the struggle of communities facing critical cultural and/or territorial uprooting and hence we have worked for years around struggles for territorial rights and autonomy of ethnic communities across Latin America and the Caribbean and today have joined the fight for Prison Reform and against the prison industrial complex in the United States. (Oddly enough these topics are actually quite related; all it takes its a quick look at the history of the “war on drugs”).

Keeping with the ‘Between James and Juanes’ theme: James or El Pibe? 

Pibe. James is incredible, he has such intuition and quickness and finesse. But today there are other players like James, that have similar styles and attributes. He stands out, for sure, but he isn’t unique. El Pibe… there was really no body doing what he did at the time. The control, the patience, the vision… he was ahead of his time, and I think players had to really learn how to play with him. I think that was a great part of the reason he wasn’t that successful in club teams outside of Colombia.

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Uprooted: Jhojan and Friends. Soccer academy aspirants in Bogota.


AFRODES Asociacion Nacional de Colombianos Desplazados
Enlalucha Films
Human Pictures
• Drugs, War and People | Vimeo
Human Pictures | Facebook


[1] This is what my mother concluded after her review of land reform efforts in Colombia in the 1960s. In the 1990s, the constitutional recognition of Afro-Colombian right to land accompanied the mass displacement of black communities on the Pacific Coast. More rights, less power. the quote comes from
Juan Mejia y Botero, Critical Grassroots Media: Towards a Visual Anthropology of Liberation, (Austin: University of Texas Thesis, 2004), 1.

[2] See the United Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights newsletters, 1991-1993. The Washington Post piece has a great intro: “What is it that draws three dozen people of all ages to Malcolm X Park every Saturday? The hearty rhythms and exuberant spirit of Mexican folk dance, a warming influence even as the weather turns cooler. The Mount Pleasant landmark is the unofficial rehearsal studio for the De Colores Mexican Folk Dance Company, formed three years ago by a rainbow coalition of dance enthusiasts.” Sarah Kauffman, “Taking Steps Toward Mexico,” Washington Post, 11/6/1998.  John Mckiernan-Gonzalez, “Going public?: Tampa Youth, Racial Schooling and Public History in the Cuentos de Mi Familia Project,” Beyond El Barrio: Everyday Life in Latina/o America, (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 189-210. See Rebecca Torres, Rich Heyman, Criztina Tzintzun, et al, “Building Austin, Building Justice: Immigrant Construction Workers, Precarious Labor Regimes, and Social Citizenship,” Geoforum, 10/23/2012.

[3] There were three Colombian families in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which added up to 7 Colombians in the census.  There were also 10,161 people (in a town of 20,000) who identified twice as Hispanic.  This would be “other Hispanic,” a label that includes Spaniard, Spanish and Hispanic, but not Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American, or South American. See U.S. Census, “87701,” Factfinder, 05/26/2015.

[4] Juan Mejia y Botero, Uprooted, 5/28/2015.

[5] The Chicano Connection.  For his work in visual anthropology, see Margaret Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barriga, “Beyond surveillance and moonscapes: an alternative imaginary for the U.S./Mexico border wall,” Visual Anthropology Review, (2010) 26:2, 128-135. He is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas – Pan American and visiting professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

[6] See Rick Kearns, “Latino Mushroom Workers Unionize,” Hispanic (May 1999): 12, 5.

[7] See The Watson Foundation, 5/26/2015.

[8] See “Sylvia Mejia,” Ashoka Foundation, 5/26/2015.

[9] Charles R. Hale, Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Charles R. Hale, Más Que un Indio: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 2006). Charles R. Hale, Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994)

[10] Probably best to start with the web presence itself: AFRODES: Asociacion Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados, 5/26/2015. See also Bettina N’Gweno, Turf Wars: Territory and Citizenship in the Contemporary State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007). For iconic North Atlantic looks at this classic question, see Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) and Encountering Development: the Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) as well as Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2010) and Peter Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1995). For translations of a canonical Afrocolombian writer, see Manuel Zapata Olivella, Chango: The Biggest Badass (Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 2010) and Chambacú: Black Slum (NY: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1989).

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My Mother is Selling Her House: A Diasporan Pastoral

La Casa en Cali

The process of family migration was often tortuous. It was likely to involve careful decision-making concerning which family members should be on which side of the border… Economic opportunities and emotional attachments had to be weighed.
–– George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American[1] 

On January 30, 2015, my mother let us know that she had to sell her house. La casa en Cali.

This is the house that my mom paid for with her earnings as an editor from 1964 to 1967 for Editorial  Norma Carvajal. Against viento y marea, my mother became a mortgage owner in 1965.

Twelve years earlier, her father was killed after spending two years hiding, expecting to be killed each night. When her family moved back to the finca in Trujillo, Abuela Celsa’s family chipped in for tuition for one year at the Colegio Maria Imaculada in Caicedonia. She had trouble her first semester, and Abuela Celsa brought her back to Trujillo to re-experience the discipline of farm life. She returned to the monastic discipline of the Colegio and, after April 9th, to a Caicedonia in armed revolt against presidential authority after the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. [2] She enrolled at Escuela Normal Superior in Manizales and became Aristoteles Tres Pelos, one of the best students at this rigorous school. She then attended La Universidad Pedagogica Nacional Femenina in Bogota. There, with many of her friends, she became part of the national student movement against General Rojas Pinilla, became a board member of Acción Catolica and leader in the Cursillo movement.[3] Upon graduation, she returned to Caicedonia, Valle de Cauca, to become teacher and principal in the Liceo Femenino, the girl’s school.[4] In 1960, she joined the Servicio Cooperativo Colombo-Americano where she helped train and supervise teachers.  In the summer of 1962, the Alliance for Progress through the United States State Department awarded her a scholarship to pursue graduate education in the United States. She earned a Master’s in Geography at the University of Florida. Upon her return in 1964, one of her friends in the program told Editorial Norma Carvajal y Cia about her expertise, and they offered her a job creating textbooks for Boom era Colombia. She moved to Cali, and turned every possible piece of income into her house in Prados del Norte. This is the diet of rice and water Juanes mentioned in Los Angeles. [5]

In 1966, she met and married my father, John Mckiernan. Like her, a teacher. Like her, a beneficiary of federal funds for working-class educations. They left Cali for New York. My sister and I were born within two years of their arrival. Somewhere in between, she became a substitute teacher in New York City’s public schools. Jose Vicente Romero rented her house.[6] In 1969 we moved to Ethiopia, where Larry was born. In 1972, Abuela Celsa asked my mother to return to help with the case against her brother’s murderer. We left Ethiopia, just before the Revolution. Just in time, perhaps.[7]

Waterfall in Pance 1976

John Mckiernan-Gonzalez shares family photos and history in the latest postings on Arrob@.  Photo credit: Patricia Mckiernan.

La Casa en Cali II

The Colegio Simón Bolivar, the local American overseas school, hired both of my parents. The commute, however, meant driving all the way across Cali to the recently created subdivision created by the Hacienda Pance.  After much discussion, my mom agreed to sell her Prados del Norte house and buy a lot in the adjoining and recently subdivided Hacienda La Maria, as my dad had little savings from his time in New York and Ethiopia. 

La Casa en Cali and some other parcelas in Pance reflected these heady Third World movement times.  Inspired by the vernacular architecture movement and E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, my parents decided on a style that reflected the long history of working-class rural settlement in the coffee highlands of the Valle de Cauca, what I might call campesino modern. Her friend and architect in the School of Architecture at the Universidad del Valle designed a small earthquake friendly three bedroom house that would evoke the fincas around Trujillo and Caicedonia. Rather than the bahareque construction of the fincas that required continuous maintenance, my mother bought bricks and clay tiles from demolished colonial houses in downtown Cali.[8] The only design items without a history were the chemically treated wood beams that held up the tile.  The house had an open floor plan with a hallway on the outside of the living and dining spaces. One of our friends and neighbors, Doctor (and poet) Laureano Alba, committed deeply to the Finca Aesthetic, building a tin roof gallinero [chicken coop] large enough to accommodate him, his office, his partner, and his paintings.[9] For ventilation, both houses relied on the late afternoon breeze that swept down the Cordillera from the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the Andes, but Dr. Alba’s home had his home lifted a full half-meter above ground and exposed to keep breezes going through the full day. Only three strands of barbed wire separated these houses from the surrounding cow pasture, marking an openness of the houses to their surroundings. 

Pance 2015

Pance 2015

Pance Corridor 2015

Pance 2015

This openness marked our relationship to the disappearing cow pasture.  One of my chores was to bring the freshly milked milk back to our house from the local hacienda, a task that made me deeply appreciate watered-down pasteurized American milk. We avoided bulls when visiting friends. After Eileen came down with a serious infection, my mother, building on her student movement connections, had a nearby nun give her the full series of injections. The openness was a touch suspect. As Larry recalls,

La Escopeta

Larry McKiernan González

                “Zzzzzzsh…” my brother and I slept soundly.  “Zzzzzzsh…  Zzzzzzzsh…”

                Moonshadows flash across the yard, dashing from tree to tree. 

                “Zzzzzzsh” sustained sonorous slumber.  “Zzzzzzz…  Zzzzzzzz…”

                Rattle.  Rattle.  Rattle! “Jálale más fuerte, imbécil!”

                I jolt from my slumber.  “¿Qué fue eso?”  I ask my brother.

                “Zzzzzz….”  his dreamy response.

                In Colombia, Joncito and I slept in the same bed so waking him was no problem: I nudged him, “¿escuchaste eso?”

                “Déjame en paz, Loro,” he demanded and turned himself over….
  ”¡Idiota! Jálale más fuerte, pero sin hacer tanto ruido. ¡Te van a escuchar!” outside our glassless windows, stifled threatening voices, worried their attempts to tear down our patio door may wake us.  Clearly, somebody was trying to break into our home.  With our dad and sister gone, my brother and I thought it our emerging masculine duty to defend the manor.  What should two brave young men, ages four and eight, do?  What was the master plan?

                “¡¡MAMÁ!! ¡¡NOS ESTÁN ROBANDO!!” we boldly cried out as we dashed under our covers. 

                No response.

                “Ya ves, imbécil. Te escucharon. ¡Apúrate!”  The thieves heard us and now the rattling at the door seemed to take a louder sense of urgency: RATTLE! RATTLE!

                “A ver que responde la mama.” The rattling stopped. 

We all waited for mom’s response, a brick wall dividing my brother and I from… two, maybe twenty, thieving, monstrous ogres trying to break into our house, listening for a sign from my mom. 

Nothing.  Was my mom okay?

The thieves continued their attempt to tear down the iron door, their whispers like daggers.  “¡Síguele, pero más fuerte!” How could my mom not hear these orders, the intensifying rattles?

We needed an alternative plan. We looked at each other. “Ya se, ve a su cuarto y despiértala,” my brother suggested. 

No way. I was not walking down the hall alone to wake her. “Estás loco! Pueden entrar y me matan!” I replied.  The rattling had subsided for a moment, so maybe they were already in our home. Besides, if he thought it was such a brilliant idea, why shouldn’t he, the author of the idea and older brother, make the valiant trek down to my mom’s room?

“¡No, ve tu!” I retorted. Our back-and-forth was going nowhere. I clutched my covers.  There was no way I was leaving my safe haven. Instead, I switched to tried and true tactics:  “¡MAMÁ! ¡NOS ESTÁN ROBANDO!”

Silence still? I now simply feared for my mom’s safety.

“¿Qué pasa, Lorito?” my mom yelled back.

                “¡MA’, NOS QUIEREN ROBAR!” my brother and I simultaneously warned.            

                I heard deliberate rummaging from my mom’s room as the rattling continued outside my window.

                “¿Qué haces, mamá?” 

                “Estoy sacando la escopeta,” she hollered loud enough for all to hear. My mom was taking out the rifle? What rifle? I had seen her refusing her uncle’s constant entreaties to take one of his weapons. She believed that guns had killed too many family members and refused to bring them into her home. What gun was she talking about?

                “¡Ladrones! ¡Lárguense mientras puedan!” my mother’s demand that the thieves run for their lives even scared me.  “De aquí salen corriendo o muertos.  Decidan.” 

The thieves needed to leave, running or dead?  Who was this woman? 

                The moonlight shone across the hall and I saw my mom’s shadow, carrying a long, horizontal object next to her cheek.

                “¡Vámonos! ¡Esta casa no vale mi vida!” The thieves ran off.  Our modest house, in the middle of nowhere, really was not that valuable, thankfully.

                My brother and I ran out to hug my mom. Where was she? We ran into the living room where she sat, holding a broom.

                A broom?

                That broom became my favorite toy, my “escopeta.”[10]

This suburban pastoral had a use-by date, for the moment for these neo-fincas passed quickly. The houses that followed the finquita and the gallinero had air-conditioning, concrete walls, glass windows, and brick walls, a style more befitting the American Overseas School three blocks to the west. With the advent of black Ford Explorers with drivers flush with cash, conditions in Cali became more precarious. As the conflicts heated up in rural Colombia, these troubles also engulfed Pance. At the church adjoining the convent where Eileen received her rabies shots, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional held 19 students of the Escuela Colombo-Britanica hostage. The architecture quickly moved from strands of barbed wire to trees and brick walls. Difficult times in downtown Cali and an increasingly assertive Ejercito de Liberación Nacional in the cordillera led to armed apartments, and in Pance, gated subdivisions, multiple security guards, and high-end duplexes.  My mother entrusted the house to her cousin, and she did her best to find people who valued the Finca Aesthetic, because these were the only people who would rent a finquita in what became a suburb rich enough to be known in Dallas.[11] Eventually, a contractor who had grown up in rural Antioquia but made his career in New Jersey ended up settling in la Casa en Cali. As the previous photos show, the house opened out to the yard, but the yard was fully cut off. 

Pance 2015

Pance 2015

Pance 2015

Both the Gallinero and la Casa en Cali were designed to fit Cali of the 1970s; the dangers of Cali suburbs transformed the environment around the house, but did not alter the tropical realities.  As gates and walled houses overpowered the landscape, wood-boring insects affected the chemically treated wood, the only new part of the original house. The possibility of a B&B over. The repairs became too much.  The decision to sell means confronting the permanence of settlement in the United States.  This is the difficulty. As the only surviving sibling in her immediate family, and the youngest of 7 in her step-family, giving up the return home after decades of work in Mexico and the United States is difficult. It means completing “a reorientation to living and working in the United States.”[12] Paralleling Los Tigres del Norte , she is part of a larger cohort of migrants who worked in the United States in the 70s and 80s and became residents after the amnistia that came with IRCA.[13]  La Casa en Cali always made the reality of return a possibility, invoked both during “times of family conflict,” and “during periods of crisis and abrupt change, such as the death of a parent or a new marriage.”[14] Like Los Tigres and more than a million others, it took Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America to encourage my mom to become a citizen, to defend her hard-gained social security dollars. That La Casa has failed to bear the burden of these wishes is tragic.

La casa en Cali bears witness to another dimension of Colombian life abroad: the transnational family economy.  Sarah Lynn Lopez’ recent work Remittance Landscapes and Walterio Iraheta’s photo series Faraway Brother Style present the houses as transnational incursions that separate private households from the village landscape and remind neighbors of the families’ relative success abroad.[15][16] 

Faraway Brother Style: Walterio Iraheta

The Remittance Landscape

The Espinosa family economy has done something else to Pance. La casa en Cali represented a material alternative to life in the United States for us. To the neighbors, the wooden shutters, the chicken-screen windows, and the absence of air-conditioning, were a reminder of a different way of being middle-class in Colombia. The commitment to keeping the house open to the joys of the Valle de Cauca cast back to a different time, when the city came together to celebrate ¡que viva la música! [17] The house is a material reminder of this different time. El exterior has kept this vision going. Que viva la casa en Cali.

Pance Gallinero 2011


[1] George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), 133.

[2] The historiography on La Violencia is far too extensive to list here. Three books stand out in North American accounts: Herbert Braun, The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); Mary Roldan, Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, 1946-1953 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); and one focused on the western Valle de Cauca region, Gonzalo Sánchez and Donny Meertens, Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of “La Violencia” (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). This last was first published as Bandoleros, Gamonales y Campesinos (Bogotá: El Ancora, 1983). Jose Alvarez Gardeazabal has published El Ultimo Gamonal, a deeply fictional account of rural politics reminiscent of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).

[3} The path to Vatican II went through Colombia and the Universidad Nacional. My mom remembers Camilo Torres, who was both a sociology professor and the priest who gave the noon mass. This mass was immensely popular among students. As she recalled, “todas atendian misa por que era muy inteligente, muy buen orador y guapo.” [Everyone attended because he was smart, a good speaker. And handsome.] Camilo Torres returned to The Universidad Nacional de Colombia after finishing his Ph.D. in seminary in Belgium. He later joined the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional and died in an assault on an armory outside Cali. See Germán Guzmán Campos, El Padre Camilo Torres, 1923-1968 (Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1968). This path translated into English as Camilo Torres, Revolutionary Priest: the Complete Writing and Messages of Camilo Torres (New York: Random House, 1971).

[4] Colombian historian and anthropologist Lucy M. Cohen’s dissertation focused on the first professional class of women in Colombia, the majority of whom came of age during La Violencia. See the update and translation of this work in Lucy M. Cohen, Colombianas en la Vanguardia (Medellin, Colombia: Editorial Universidad de Antioquia, 2001).

[5] See John Mckiernan-González's earlier Arrob@ blog entry, “Between James and Juanes,” Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South. 27 April 2015. 

[6] The reason the tenant has a name is that he had been mayor of Cali. The connection followed from the connections she made in Acción Catolica and the student movement. Ana Luisa Renjifo continued to work in Acción Comunal, where she became acquainted with JV Romero, who also forged close links with this urban movement. I heard tell of city-wide strikes by domestic workers organized in church after Sunday mass.

[7] Maaza Mengiste, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). Mengiste took inspiration from the novels written under dictatorships in Latin America to compose her version of the transition to the Ethiopian Revolution. My mom believes most of her artist friends who took her Spanish classes did not survive the revolution. For an account that seeks to connect upheaval, revolution, and terror, see Dondald Donhan, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

[8] Bahareque construction uses a bamboo frame – like steel in skyscrapers and interweaves the frame with mixture of leaves and clay. For the use of bahareque construction in the settlement of the coffee highlands south of Antioquia, see Jorge Enrique Robledo and Diego Samper, Un Siglo de Bahareque en el Antiguo Caldas (Bogotá: El Ancora, 1983). Most accounts trace bahareque to settlements before European arrival. The frames can move when under stress, giving these buildings flexibility during earthquakes. Bahareque appears to be having a ‘sustainability’ and earthquake resistance revival in countries along the Pacific Rim.  See Manuel Lopez, Julian Bommer, and Patricia Mendez, “the seismic performance of bahareque dwellings in El Salvador,” 13th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering, Earthquake Engineering, 14 May 2015.  See, as well, Jaime Mogollón Sebá, “Bahareque: Seismic Culture of the Colombian Coffee Region,” online at the BuildWell Library, 14 May 2015. Survival under extreme stress does mark the region. See Michael Evans, “Trujillo Declassified,” National Security Archive, 5 October 2008.

[9] See his PEN writers page,”Laureano Alba,” PEN Colombia.

[10] There was a family gun in the house, from my great grandfather in the Guerra de los Cien Dias.

[11] Scott Parks, “Forced to Play the Kidnap Game, Colombian Style,” Dallas Morning News, 8 May 2015.

[12] Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American, 133.

[13] Jacqueline Hagan, Deciding to Be Legal: A Maya Community in Houston (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994). For Tigres del Norte, José David Saldívar, Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997): 1-16; and Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005): 1-28.

[14] Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American, 131.

[15] See "The Remittance Landscape: Material Histories and Visual Representations of Transborder Migration."

[16] "The Remittance Landscape."

[17] Andres Caicedo, ¡Que Viva la Música! (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1977). For more on the labor and Afro-descendiente neighborhood dimensions of this moment, please read Alejandro Ulloa, La Salsa en Cal (Cali: La Universidad del Valle, 1992) and Lise Waxer, The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2010)

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Precarious Belonging: On the Education of Larry Mckiernan

In 1978, my parents left teaching in Mexico City to pursue graduate education at the University of Alabama. We arrived the year the United States Supreme Court mandated the integration of Tuscaloosa County’s public schools. We attended Verner Elementary, an integrated lab school associated with the University of Alabama.  I went to 6th grade, my sister attended 4th, and my brother 2nd grade. The district decided to place all 7th grade students in metro Tuscaloosa in Tuscaloosa middle school. I faintly recall that all my friends in the YMCA soccer league who were also in Verner Elementary went to Holy Spirit, the private catholic school. In 1980, we moved to Querétaro, Mexico.

In 1982, my father passed, drowning in Manzanillo. In 1986, my mother returned to Tuscaloosa to seek further higher education and escape a difficult professional work environment in Querétaro. She brought Larry, my younger brother with her. The schools in Tuscaloosa had been working under federal court order for six years now. My mother became a student yet again, working with faculty members in the Department of Education at the University of Alabama. She graduated with a Ph.D. in 1989. This is one of my brother’s reflections on a moment in those three years.


Larry Mckiernan. Photo credit: John Mckiernan-González.

CULLMAN, ALA. (1988)

­­­“Dr. Bishop and I will pick you up,” I listened to my mom from the other side of the phone. “We should be there between seven and eight in the evening. Ok?”

“Sure. I can’t wait!” I replied. I couldn’t wait to get out of my little Catholic boarding school in Cullman, Alabama, that controlled every minute of my day.

Dr. Harold Bishop was my mom’s favorite professor. Mine, too, even though he never taught me since I was in high school. I loved visiting his office when I came back from school to wait for my mom’s Tuesday class to finish. I always knew when to enter, when there was a rare lull in the laughter and a graduate student or fellow professor left his office. “What’s cooking, Larry? Any girlfriends, yet?” He knew the answer. “They don’t know what they’re missing, right?”

‘What have you learned about us today?’ He really wanted to know what I thought about Alabama, especially since I had just moved from Mexico. He was one of the few adults concerned about how I was adapting. Though he never said it, he knew I felt isolated. He tried to cheer me up, help me understand that I had something important to contribute. In fact, towards the end of the academic year, after many Tuesdays, he even invited me as a guest lecturer into one of his leadership classes. In a year where I often felt like a pebble, I left his office feeling like a mountain. He had a way of making those around feel like giants.

Five years before taking a university teaching position at the University of Alabama, Dr. Bishop had been the superintendent of Birmingham schools.  According to my mom, his leadership was legendary. Teachers and staff loved working with him. He was smart, caring, and maybe most importantly, a lot of fun. Although his impeccable dark suits with matching ties, handkerchiefs, and socks belied a man preoccupied with every minor detail, he was relaxed and carefree. I always believed his relaxed and carefree demeanor must have been hard to maintain: he was a Black man in Alabama.

In any case, I was excited that he and my mom were picking me up that Friday night, especially since I knew the drive from Cullman to Huntsville would be a lot of fun. That’s why I was shocked when I entered the car and it was silent.

“No digas nada, Larry,” my mom commanded. Silence in Dr. Bishops’ car?  What was going on?

Dr. Bishop simply put the car in drive and took off.  We were silent for a long time, no music on the radio, and Dr. Bishop’s usual fast driving this time at a steady cruise control of 55.

When we left Cullman County, Dr. Bishop turned around with a bright smile, “How’s my man, doing? Any girlfriends in the boarding school? Just like in Tuscaloosa, they don’t know what they’re missing, right?” This characteristic remark seemed almost uncharacteristic given the previous silence.

“You’re probably wondering why we were so quiet, Larry,” Dr. Bishop asked.


“What do you know about Cullman County?”

“That it’s boring and small,” I responded.

Did you know that up until 1982, just six years ago, there were signs posted all over the county that said, ‘Nigger, come sundown, Cullman ain’t your town?’


“The signs might not be up anymore, but we know better.”

In our hotel room that night, my mom told me that the drive had been typically fun up until Cullman County, with Dr. Bishop, Dr. Essex, and my Colombian mom singing and laughing together. However, as soon as the car had passed the Cullman county line, Dr. Bishop had turned the radio off, stopped talking, and had driven directly to my school to pick me up. He had no desire to linger. He had felt fortunate not to cross paths with any police cars along the drive.

He was hoping that on the drive back he could drop me off in the afternoon, not in the evening.

I wanted to say no. I wanted to spend more time with my mom. Unfortunately, I now knew better—if that’s knowing better.

In May 2014, the Atlantic Monthly used Tuscaloosa as a vivid example of school resegregation.[1] The story above bears witness to the volatile work of integration.[2]

Larry Mckiernan-González – aka Lawrence Mckiernan – teaches in the Suva Intermediate School in the Montebello Independent School district. He will be part of the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA in Fall 2015. He loves his job.

Larry Mckiernan

Larry Mckiernan. Photo credit: John Mckiernan-González.


[1] Nikole Hannah Jones, “Segregation Now,” Atlantic Monthly, May 2014, accessed April 27, 2015.

[2] There are three works that have explored the broader cultural history of integration and higher education through student experiences. Frank Guridy, in his magisterial Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 17-69, explores the larger social and political dimensions of learning race (racial schooling) in higher education in Alabama. Maylei Blackwell’s ¡Chicana Power!: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), a sharp and important account of Chicana students making their way in the movement cultures forged in California State University–Los Angeles, brings out the enhanced vulnerability her interviewees felt––and experienced––at this institution.Geraldo Cadava, in Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), makes it very clear that universities are key migration hubs. I am confident Dr. Bishop might be willing to discuss the risks he took for his students, given his graduation from the University of Alabama in 1972, his doctorate in 1976, and his career until his early passing at 63. See “Harold L. Bishop, Sr.,” Tuscaloosa News, accessed April 30, 2015. Also consult Evan Berlanger, “List: Who are the University of Alabama's most prominent black graduates,” AL.COM, accessed April 30, 2015.

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Between James and Juanes: Latino Studies, Colombians, and the Global South


James and the Selección demonstrating when differences are complementary.

In the world of the Colombian diaspora, I float somewhere far between James and Juanes, the two most popular Colombian men on the planet. They average between fifteen and seventeen million hits on Google, while Gabriel García Márquez merely rates 12 million hits.[1] Music and athletic labor have muscled out magical realism to become one of the ways the world consumes the contributions of Colombian men.

Like los tres grandes above, I have taken residence and labor in places far beyond the place I attended elementary school; unlike them, few people will consider my midfield skills or musical moves to be representative of lo colombiano. So, in the name of unexceptional Colombians living in el exterior, I would like to use James, Juanes and John to shake the heavy presence of the United States in Latino Studies.

Perhaps shake is too heavy a word. Maybe place the United States among other sojourns and settlements in el exterior, towns and cities where Colombianos have made their place among other migrants and residents, that migrant itineraries do not necessarily include the United States. With James, we have Cúcuta at the border with Venezuela; Envigado in Antioquia; Buenos Aires in Argentina; Porto in Lisbon, Monaco in Monaco, and Madrid in Spain. For Juanes, we have Carolina del Principe and then Medellin, in Antioquia; Pereira, Risaralda; Cali; (all Colombia) Los Angeles in California, and Miami in the United States. For John (me, third person singular), a more diasporan itinerary starts in Flushing Hospital and goes to Cali, Mexico City, Alabama, Queretaro in Mexico, Alabama, New Mexico, Chicago, Michigan, Tampa, and Austin. Beginning with my mother’s wedding in 1966 Cali, the Colombian family’s sojourns include beautiful and violent  Trujillo, Valle de Cauca; Tulua, Cali; Pereira, Risaralda; Medellin; Austin, Texas;  Lima, Peru; Leticia, Amazonas; Raleigh, North Carolina; Lima, Peru; Barranquilla; Dallas, Texas; Madrid, Spain; Houston, Texas; Berea, Kentucky; Albuquerque, New Mexico;  Bologna, Italy; Sarasota, Florida; Coleman, Florida; New York; and London, England. Many other Colombian families share in this family-based map of the world, and knowledge of these places in el exterior is unexceptional to many others. As a student of mine in Tampa told her father about me, “es Colombiano como yo. De muchos lados. Y de aquí."[2] These familial emplotments are almost a case study in "the power of kinship to subvert national border."[3] Colombian families bleed beyond national borders.

So, what place in the global firmament does the United States hold in the constellation of cities, siblings and stars that make Greater Colombia.  Perhaps a suburbia, where love and ambition can have a home.  When I moved to Tampa in 2002, my uncle told me Caleños called the (Tampa) Bay Area suburbia, thought, partly because of it being El Pibe Valderrama’s rumored residence. It is possible that the U.S. represents a vast working-class suburb, where class status, class aspiration, and the dual nationality option for Colombians has translated into the recently expanded movement of professionals into the United States.[4] These aspirants take their place alongside the longer movement of textile workers, teachers, digital marriages, students, diplomatic personnel, actresses, and musicians to various hubs in the United States.[5]

It may be – relative to Colombia – the United States has become a suburb for working professionals. Census data seems to bear out the professional dimensions of this regional labor hub. In the last census decade, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Colombians have nearly doubled in population since 2000, from 471,000 to 972,000.[6] Pew also indicates that Colombian households have come to match many of the basic demographics usually linked to Cuban American households in almost all measures except home-ownership. This means almost the highest average household income (for Latinos at 48,00.00), as well as the highest college graduation rates among Latinos (32%).[7] Sofia Vergara, of course, has skewed this number by being the top-grossing woman in Hollywood. Census numbers also indicate that college educated Hispanics will have relatively lower earnings over a lifetime (1.7 million compared to 2.2 million for non-Hispanic whites), an amount and a ratio remarkably similar to college-educated African-Americans in the United States.[8] In a real sense, exceptional Colombian college graduates have yet to match the general earnings of white college-educated American households. In another – "race-to-the-bottom, go back to where you came from" - sense, the average Colombian household income in the United States is maybe four times the average income in Colombia.[9] The United States may be quickly becoming a broad working-class suburb where people have moved on up from urban Colombia (again, among Latinos, the highest percentage of foreign-born residents [63%]), as well as high naturalization rates (64%).[10]  For those few people paying attention to Latino community dynamics and not just Sofia Vergara, Millennial Colombians may be becoming the next Cubans, resented for coming closer to the income and privileges most white Americans take for granted.[11]  I mean, move over, model minority. 

John Mckiernan-González

Portrait of the scholar being Colombian in the Mission, post mundial. Photo credit: Cary Cordova.

All this is to say that, except for relatively exceptional household income and home-ownership, Juanes and James (and Gabriel García Márquez) do not fit the general trend for Colombians in the American exterior. They are not college graduates, and they have not yet naturalized in their country of residence.  Los tres grandes have not shared in a commitment to a political community in their country of residence.  

Surveys also say that Colombian children identify with an alternative national political community: Latinos. In his not-so recent article “pigments of our imagination: on the racialization and racial identities of ‘Hispanics’ and ‘Latinos,’” scholar Ruben Rumbaut noted the way Latino children, when asked, rejected the American rule of hypodescent: race comes from your parents. And Colombian children seemed the least respectful of this natural law. To wit: nearly 58% of Latin American interviewees reported their race as white, while only 21.9 percent of children reported white as their category; moreover,  84.6% of Colombians reported white and 2.2% Latino, while 58% of Colombian teenagers reported Latino (up there with Salvadorans and Nicaraguans). This transformation can be linguistic, as my brother and I can remember going from "Ahi vienen los Mckiernan, con su cantadito Mexicano” to becoming los primos Americanos. The experience of being of Colombian parents in the United States seems to be quite latinizing.[12]

This latinizing may have to do with the precarious experience of being in one space from somewhere else. For Juanes, his sojourn in Los Angeles was not a steady climb. He recalled, “I spent my days downtown, or in Wilshire, Pasadena, Glendale, Griffith Park . . . wherever I could find a place to sleep or eat. I still didn’t have a record deal, but I was adamant: don’t go home without achieving your dream… there were times when all I had was rice to eat and tap water to drink. “[13] For 14 year old James, Buenos Aires defined precarious. Surrounded by First Division teammates at Atletico Banfield who mocked his stutter and withheld the ball, he learned to rely on spare change from stadium employees to pay for his ride home.[14] This sense of everything potentially going wrong can only be justified by subsequent success. Memories, however, of this precarious belonging do not go away. Diane Guerrero, of Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin fame, has publicly emphasized the potential American terror of being of Colombian parents. Retelling her parents’ disappearance by ICE agents in Boston, she recalled, “I came home from school to an empty house. Lights were on and dinner had been started, but my family wasn't there.” [15] Her neighbors let her know that immigration officers appeared at their door and left, without even giving notice. Sudden deprivation, disappearance, detention, death AND deportation make a presence for themselves across Colombian families in the United States. These rough edges of life, as well as a precarious dependence on friends and neighbors do not figure in most American forms of middle-class community formation. To paraphrase Mo Collier in The Simpsons, “modern life has a latinizing effect on kids today.”[16] Suburbia seems to be creating alternative forms of political community among its Colombian residents.

Memories and stories of violence also shape the transnational political community being generated around Colombians just outside national borders. I am confident that Juanes’ decision to hold a concert for peace in Havana placed him far outside the narrow political boundaries of his Hialeah neighbors. I am also assured that most other soccer superstars have not received petitions like this one from an association of displaced Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant collectives. 

We write to you from our twitter account that your goals in the game against Uruguay express the beauty that comes from a shared game, from an individual in harmony with others, of work, of discipline and of persistence…

You and the whole team are the expression of all we desire for our country, plurality in the national project, a country where differences are complimentary. It is the joy that follows from an inclusive democracy, a democracy that respects the sources of life, like water, trees, prairies and human beings; a democracy where no one is killed, is tortured, is disappeared, is displaced for imagining a new country, a democracy where we all count, including us, residents of rural areas, because, like on the soccer team, we all contribute…

We live in places of great biodiversity, in places like brazil, or in places where our lands have been taken, in regions where we have lived pain, destruction, places almost unimaginable, we have been there supporting you, supporting the team, and we know you will face millions of demands on your time, we want to ask you, cordially, to permit a face-to-face dialogue with many of our delegated men and women, to talk, only 30 minutes, we are not asking for money or anything else, we simply want your moral support for a proposal to Colombia, a proposal for hope. We await at o conpazcolombia@gmail.[17]

The shared experience and possibility of violence in Colombia and suburbia are part of the conditions that Colombians share with other migrants and diasporan subjects in the United States.[18]  I hope to use this blog series, Arrob@, to think broadly about the myriad eccentric connections between Colombia, Latino Studies, and American history, writ large. There will be humorously ephemeral moments, like when Juanes recalled listening to The Number of the Beast, “To be honest, I couldn’t understand a single word in the entire song, but I still felt completely drawn to it—it was a pure connection with the music and energy.”[19] I may touch on desire, like when Rob Hughes called James Rodriguez, “a perfect 10,” or Juan Forero considers Juanes “a shy, almost reluctant star – despite his smoldering good looks.”[20] Or, simply, the terror and joy that connects Colombians to the worlds across national borders.The Arrob@ will mark my first work for public consumption on being (not) Colombian in the United States.


Portrait of the Artist as a Mexican Artist. (Juanes and Los Tigres del Norte, MTV Unplugged). "Los Tigres del Norte con Juanes: La Jaula de Oro." 


[1] Sofia Vergara made 48 million, Shakira made 24 million, and I made 27 hundred on Google.

[2] John Mckiernan-González, “Going public?: Tampa Youth, Racial Schooling, and Public History in the Cuentos de mi familia project,” Beyond el Barrio: Everyday Life in Latino/a America. Edited by Frank Guridy, Gina Pérez, and Adrian Burgos, (New York: New York University Press, 2010): 189-91.

[3] Omar Valerio Jiménez, River of Hope: Forging Identity and Nation in the Rio Grande Borderlands (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

[4] For generic discussion of this movement, see “Frequently asked questions about dual nationality,” in The Embassy of Colombia.

[5] For love, see Felicity Shaffer Gabriel, Love and Empire: Cybermarriage and Citizenship across the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 2012). For work, see Aviva Chomsky, Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). For embassy personnel, see Alirio Díaz Guerra, Lucas Guevara (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2001). For musicians, see Maria Elena Cepeda, Musical ImagiNation: U.S. Colombian Identity and the Latin Music Boom (New York: New York University Press, 2010). For a survey-based portrait of the rest of us, see Luis Guarnizo, Arturo Sanchez, and Elizabeth M. Roach, “Mistrust, fragmented solidarity, and transnational migration: Colombians in New York and Los Angeles,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 22:2 (Summer 1999): 367-396.

[6] For 2000, see B. Guzman, “Colombian Population in the United States,”

[7] Seth Motel, Eileen Patten, “The Ten Largest Hispanic Groups: Characteristics, rankings, Top Ten Counties,” Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends, accessed April 27, 2015.

[8] Download the July 2002 U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Reports, written by Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newburger and titled "The Big Payoff: EducationalAttainment and SyntheticEstimates of Work-Life Earnings," by clicking here.

[9] See Toni Peters, "Colombia’s average wage less than half global average."

[10] Yes, if naturalization is evidence of love, my mom and her peers love the United States and – thanks to dual nationality – Colombia.

[11] U.S. Census Bureau, “Historical tables.”

[12] The verb, not the subject. Claudia Milian, Latining America: Black-Brown Passages and the Coloring of Latino/a Studies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

[13] Juanes, Chasing the Sun Deluxe (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2012), Kindle Locations 731-732.

[14] Elvis Martínez Bermúdez, “Biografía no-autorizada de James,” in El Tiempo.

[15] Diane Guerrero, “My parents were deported,”in Los Angeles Times, accessed April 25, 2015.

[16] “Homer’s Phobia,” The Simpsons (1997).

[17] See "Comunidades campesinas, indígenas y afrodescendientes envían una carta abierta a James Rodríguez," in Radio Macondo.

[18] I need to mention that my family above has shared in these experiences of death, murder, displacement and deportation, as well as success and migration.

[19] Juanes, Chasing the Sun Deluxe (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013), Kindle Locations 501-502.

[20] Rob Hughes, “James Rodriguez is a perfect 10,” New York Times, July 2, 2014. Juan Forero, “A singer confronts Colombia’s pain,” New York Times, November 23, 2004.

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John Mckiernan-Gonzalez Byline

John Mckiernan-González is a historian and author of Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848–1942 (Duke University Press, 2012). He is also co-editor of Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Race and Health in North America (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

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