does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Hero's Journey - Mercedes Sosa

In February 1982, Argentine folksinger Mercedes Sosa returned from exile and appeared on a Buenos Aires concert stage for the first time in three years. Simply appearing on stage took considerable courage since at her last concert in Argentina, Mercedes Sosa had been arrested, along with her audience. After that, bowing to international pressure, the military junta allowed her to go into exile, where she first lived in Paris and then in Spain.

Given that background, the atmosphere in the theater was understandably electric on that February summer night twenty-eight years ago. In an auditorium filled to capacity, fans lined the walls and stood in the back, waiting anxiously. As it turned out, no one needed to know Mercedes Sosa’s already stirring history to be captivated. When La Negra's voice, banned by the junta for years, rang out with its first pure chords, all knew they were in the presence of musical genius. As the evening wore on, Mercedes Sosa sang their hopes of liberation and expressed their sorrow about a grief still otherwise unspoken. Whether young or old, all faces shone with tears and joy. It was as if a nation, so long immersed in terror and persecution, found its voice again.

As for Argentina, within two months of this concert, the junta, perhaps sensing their waning support, launched the disastrous Falkland Islands/Las Malvinas war. That ultimately so discredited them in the eyes of the world and their own countrymen that, by the end of the year, the military was out of power and Argentina held its first democratic election in ten years.

Mercedes Sosa died at 74 in October 2009, having lived a remarkable life that took her from a provincial Argentine town to performing in front of sold-out crowds all over the world. In honor of her courage, indeed heroism, in February 1982 and throughout her life, I post these videos of some of my favorite Mercedes Sosa songs.

"La Cigarra" [The Cicada] The song talks of repeatedly being killed and then resurrecting after being given up for dead. The chorus: "I kept singing like the cicada which, after a year underground, sings to the sun; like the survivor, who returns from war."

"Gracias a la Vida " [Thank you, Life] with Joan Baez

"Canción con Todos" [Song with Everyone] This is frequently referred to as the Latin American anthem. One of its lines says: "I feel as I walk all the skin of America in my skin and in my blood runs a river that liberates its flow in my voice."

Other posts in the A Hero's Journey series:

Nelson Mandela

William Joseph Seymour - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Revival

The Original Literary Hero - Gilgamesh

Saturday, February 20, 2010

*Peace Is Every Step* by Thich Nhat Hanh

During a recent challenge, as I confronted real fear, I happened to remember the above 134-page book. Someone recommended it to me a while back, but I had fairly quickly set it aside without reading it completely. Now, I found myself drawn to the words of its author, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, about whom the Dalai Lama has said, “He shows us the connection between personal, inner peace and peace on Earth.” By the time I finished reading the book, I found I could breathe again, even though the challenge was still not fully resolved. As I am grateful for the transformation this book facilitated in me, I thought I would share it with you.

Born in 1926, the author Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master, poet, and peace activist whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Finding it necessary to seek asylum outside his native land, he has lived in France in his later years. In addition to promoting mindfulness practice through various means, he has published more than 100 books.

Peace Is Every Step was assembled by friends who used the author's lectures, published and unpublished writings, and informal conversations. The collection is arranged in three parts: 1. “Breathe! You Are Alive;” 2. “Transformation and Healing;” and 3. “Peace Is Every Step.” I suspect some will find the book’s lean style, maybe even its content, disappointing. I know I had to be ready before I could embrace the complexity behind its deceptive simplicity. When I did, the words became pellucid insights into existential truths. At the risk of stripping the book of its elegant intricacy, I share with you some favorite quotes:

  • The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.

  • Most of us are victims of a kind of living that is not mindful ….

  • When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.

  • Understanding … intense suffering and realizing compassion in the midst of it, you become a joyful person, even if your life is very hard.

  • Peace is available in every moment, in every breath, in every step.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Puerto Rican Culture - Pasteles

pasteles [pahs tehl' ehs]

An eight-year-old girl squeezes in between her aunts' ample hips and peeks at the mounds of grated tropical vegetables—plantain, guineo verde, and yautía—crowding her mother’s kitchen table. An aroma of garlic and onions wafts in from the huge bowl holding chopped pork, already browned in achiote oil. Near the meat are cilantro, garbanzos, and sweet peppers. And olives! The girl loves, just loves olives, and it takes every bit of self control not to extend her arm through the narrow space between her aunts’ hips to grab an olive and drop it in her mouth. Indeed, she is about to do that when her tía Rosa reaches across the table to pick up a banana leaf to wrap a pastel before it’s dropped in the caldero’s boiling water. The girl tries to back out, but her aunts’ hips now lock her in a soft grip. If she moves, one of the ladies on the pasteles assembly line might notice that the little girl is not doing what a Puerto Rican niña has to learn as a rite of passage—how to make the pasteles she will be preparing for the rest of her life.

Why are pasteles such a big deal in the Puerto Rican firmament? I could say it’s because pasteles are delicious—they are!—but I’ve discovered from some of my nonPR friends that they might be an acquired taste. I wouldn’t know anything about that. In my childhood, this quintessential Puerto Rican dish was always present. It was served on holidays, sold for fundraisers or was available whenever a relative or neighbor took on—thank you!—the arduous task of producing these meat-filled cakes made from soft tropical vegetable dough.

But it’s not just the taste that makes pasteles wonderful. It's the social aspect of the preparation. Making pasteles is so complex and time consuming that it requires a horde of perspiring women chattering on in Spanish, resolving all the ills befalling the extended family. So it’s not just a food event. It's a family one and, ultimately, a cultural one interspersed with a lot of love, sometimes stern, but mostly kind. If it takes a village to raise a child elsewhere, it takes a committee of madrinas to raise an eight-year-old girl (who by now you've guessed was once me) so she understands what it means to be a Puerto Rican woman.

If you really and truly want to see a recipe, click on this picture. The recipe is too long to include in this post.

I’ll end with a memory of my younger brother who used to walk into the kitchen and, noticing the mounds of vegetables waiting to be peeled and grated, would vanish before anyone could say, “Help!” He was of course the first one to turn up hours later when the steaming pasteles were lifted from the big caldero, the first one to smack his lips after eating, even though he’d been repeatedly warned about such uncouthness. Never mind. He was always forgiven. He was, after all, a member of that cadre of foreigners—males—who lavishly praised the skill of the cooks, but who somehow never managed to arrive while any of us were grating vegetables or spooning meat into one interminable pocket of soft dough after another.

Originally, I had another clip, a humorous one which has since been withdrawn by the author. It talked about a more current version of the female comité. It turns out that little boys and men are now included in the ritual.

If you ever get around to tasting or preparing this food, ¡buen provecho!

Other Puerto Rican culture and identity posts:

Who Is Puerto Rican?
Cultural Identity - Part 2
My Puerto Rican Lament - Part 1
My Puerto Rican Lament - Part 2
The Cry of Lares - A Short Story
A Spanglish Christmas Eve
El Cuatro

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Hero's Journey - A Son of Slaves Sparks an International Religious Movement

In 1906, William Joseph Seymour, a pockmarked, half-blind son of former slaves, began a religious revival in a former stable in working class Los Angeles. Within two-and-a-half years, members of his multiracial Asuza Street mission had fanned out across the U.S. and 50 countries. By the end of the 20th century, this spiritual gold rush had converted Pentecostalism into a mainstream, even dominant, form of Christianity in many areas of the world. Today, with half a billion followers on all continents, Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest growing religion. Some scholars describe Pentecostalism as "the most important event in religious history since the Reformation."

Before I proceed, I want to disclose that, in speaking of Pentecostalism’s vertiginous rise, it is not as adherent. Though I am the daughter of Pentecostal ministers, I left the religion in my teens. If I sometimes sound admiring of what has happened globally to Pentecostalism, it is because I appreciate a fascinating story about how an ordinary black man changed the religious landscape and, by extension, the world. In so doing, he met one of the Encarta definitions of a hero: "somebody who is admired for outstanding qualities or achievements."

On Azusa Street, William Joseph Seymour inspired viable multiracial and socioeconomic fraternizing at a time when such a thing was unprecedented; indeed, criminalized. Though the revival began with poor blacks, it soon spanned the color, gender, and socioeconomic spectrum. Seekers from around the globe—European; Asian; American Hispanic, white and black; et al.—quickly converged on Asuza Street, lured by the riveting stories heard about Holy Spirit baptism, prophesying, and physical healing. Charwoman, business owner, and university president worshipped side by side, drawn to Asuza Street’s fiery revival, which many believed hearkened back to the earliest days of Christianity. And all this was led by an impoverished black man with limited educational and social resources, a man whose dying words would be “a plea for love among the brethren everywhere.”

Unfortunately, Asuza’s early bridging of racial divisions soon ran into rough weather. Its racially diverse worship devolved in less than five years into numerous Pentecostal sects, largely organized along racially segregated lines. It would take until the latter part of the 20th century for these divisions to start healing, and today Pentecostalism is one of the least segregated forms of Christianity. What seems undeniable is that, despite the racial and theological conflicts that emerged later, what many recognize today as Pentecostalism unleashed its global spiritual storm at Los Angeles' Asuza Street under the direction of William Joseph Seymour.

The remainder of this post can be read at my other blog, where I also discuss what Pentecostalism is, more about William Joseph Seymour and the Asuza Street mission, and my family’s involvement in the rise of Pentecostalism in the U.S. Scroll down to the fifth paragraph if you do not wish to reread the above.

Related Post: Music in Pentecostalism


The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour and a History of the Azusa Street Revival by Larry E. Martin, a Pentecostal minister.

Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Harvey Cox, a Harvard University professor. One of the most interesting chapters in this book is the comparison of jazz and Pentecostalism. Professor Cox, a jazz musician but not a Pentecostal, found parallels in the birth, development, and style of both movements.

Another post in the A Hero's Journey series:

Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Music in Pentecostalism

Recently, I have surprised myself by segueing from writing about Puerto Rican cuatro music to reviewing a book about music and neurology and, next Saturday, to talking about the origins of the Pentecostal religion. In the end, I concluded that these posts share in common the unique role music plays in piercing cognitive barriers.

In my February 6 post, I will be disussing the special role that William Joseph Seymour, a son of slaves, played in sparking the international religious revival which led to Pentecostalism, which has become the world's fastest growing religion. As a preamble to that discussion, I provide the following two videos featuring the music of two Pentecostal churches. This music is important to hear in order to understand a religion which can never be completely understood in a cognitive sense. It is a religion which must be experienced, and there is no better way to experience it than through its music, always an integral part of its worship tradition. And if these videos sometimes seem like rock concerts, be aware that this style of worship preceded the earliest rock musicians.

Before I end, I want to clarify that, although I am the daughter of Pentecostal ministers, I left the religion in my teens. Despite that, when I hear this rousing Pentecostal music, I am stirred to my deepest core. In the process, I sometimes feel like the perpetual exile, destined to continue hearing the evocative music of her homeland, while knowing at the same time that she can never return. For now, listening to this music will have to satisfy my nostalgia for the environment of my childhood.

The Spanish-speaking Tabernáculo Cristiano. Trust me when I say that you do not have to understand a word of Spanish to appreciate this.

The English-speaking Atlanta West Pentecostal Church. You will notice that about five minutes into the video, there is "speaking in tongues," a distinctive feature of Pentecostal worship.