Tuesday, July 05, 2011


The LacunaThe Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting read and set up. The power of the book is that it made me want to learn more about Trotsky, Rivera, and Kahlo. It didn't draw me in during the second part of the book where it engages the issue of the Red Scare and witch hunt. The ending was hokey and predictable.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 25, 2011


It's been a couple of busy days around me in the political field.

There is a stark contrast between the state I live in (NY) and the state I work in (NJ).

Getting screwed twice
As if not getting promoted weren't enough, the state of New Jersey has moved to stick it to me (and all state workers).  The legislature, both controlled by so-called-Democrats, voted to support a plan by Republican governor Christie, to cut state worker benefits, especially health and pension, and deny our right to collective bargaining.  Of course this comes at the very moment that many of the unions are in the process of negotiating their contract renewals.

I attended a rally two days ago in Trenton to protest these changes.  It was an interesting experience, although it was hot and extremely muggy.  It was my first collective action as a member of a union.  There was a lot of noise, a lot of rhetoric, and a lot of people.  I was sorely disappointed that only a couple of my colleagues from the college went.  A few I knew had legitimate reasons for not being there, but some just do not prioritize fighting for their rights.  It's easy to let others do the fighting for you.  I know because I have been guilty of that before.

Sara asked whether the rally made any difference.  The rally didn't change the outcome.  The bill passed and our future, both in terms of our well-being (income, benefits, etc.) and our rights, looks glum.  However, the rally might hold hope if it catalyzes action.  Will it motivate people to go vote?  Will those Democrats that sold the unions out be challenged in the next election?  Will the ones that voted against the bill be supported and given the resources to continue the fight?

In this sense, I feel somewhat impotent in the matter because I am not a resident of New Jersey and I cannot directly participate in the electoral system.  I am also happy that I do not live in a state where cronyism and corruptions are rampant and where the system allows politicians to hold to positions concurrently, such as mayor of city and a seat in the state legislature.

Those who claim that the bill is part of the "shared sacrifice" that the current economic conditions dictate must be had refuse to see the reality of the matter.  This is not shared sacrifice, it is targeting a group of people, demonizing them through demagoguery, and extolling resources from them.  Where is the "shared sacrifice" of those who are succeeding in, and probably because of, the economic conditions?  Why is the state decreasing the taxes of those whose incomes have actually gone up - both individuals and corporations?

The result of what just happened in NJ is predictable: public services will get worse as resources for them go down, fewer employees will provide them, and those who do will be disgruntled.  This will create animosity among the public who will blame the employees and think that they still get paid too much.  Meanwhile, the promise that this action will help keep taxes in check or even lower them will go unfulfilled.  The attack on public employees does not address the big issues of the state and hence the demand for revenue will continue to go up - meaning more taxes.

What, higher taxes for worse services?  And who will get the blame?  The pols?  Those who have benefited from the reallocation of resources?  No.  It will be the beleaguered state employees.  And the mantra that will follow is: privatize - which means those who will own the schools, the security forces, etc. will make more money.

Meanwhile those with the resources will not care that services are poor.  They send their children to private schools, they live in gated communities with their own security service, they can afford to pay for their own healthcare.

The system is broke, though, and this is the only solution, they claim.  Unions are only out for themselves and they never give up anything, they claim.  The state had no other choice.

Wrong.  Take a look just north to New York.

Civility, Compromise, and Making things Work
While the legislature and the governor in New Jersey were busy screwing state employees, events in New York illustrate that it need not be so.  Governor Cuomo and the state worker unions acted like adults, negotiated, and came up with a compromise.  The unions recognizes that there are financial constraints the state faces and was willing to give up raises, work days, and some benefits to help the state out while avoiding having any of their members lose their jobs.

There was no need for demagoguery and vilification.  Collective bargaining rights went kept and were even effective in coming up with a tenable solution.

At the very same time, a deal was reached that recognizes the importance of public higher education and the need to fund it.  There is a commitment to try to increase funding for it and at the very least a promise to not decrease the funding.  This will allow schools to hire new faculty and have some stability.  It is true that some of the burden is places on students by increasing tuition.  The increases are modest - $300/year for 5 years - but they are also planned.  This means students can plan for the increases they know are coming, rather than be hit by an increase that might have been bigger than they expected.

I know New York is not perfect and that there is enough corruption and cronyism to go around here too.  It is, however, an example how things can proceed in a cooperative way where there is a respect for workers and public institutions.  And when treated respectfully and their rights are not attacked, workers are willing to compromise for the benefit of all.

Oh, and yes, in the midst of all of this, New York was able to address a civil injustice that had gone on too long by allowing gays and lesbians to marry.  Rather than call it gay marriage, I like to think of it as marriage equality because rather than giving homosexuals the right to marry, it is the end of denying them the right they always have had.

As far as how it impacts my own heterosexual marriage, it makes it better and stronger.  Why?  Because now it is no longer a privileged union that is restricted, but a right/rite that is shared by all.

Civility and respect.  If only the politicians and some of the residents of state just south from here could learn that.  Either that or if Ramapo and Mahwah (the town the college is in) could secede and join NY - it's right on the border and I think the only thing people would notice would be that you would have to pump your own gas at higher prices.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Appeal Denied.

I received the letter today from the Provost.

No explanation.

I am considering my options.  To fight or not?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Professional Roadblock

My application for promotion was denied.

According to the letter from the president of the college, he could not nominate me to the board of trustees for promotion because of budgetary constraints.

This means that I am an assistant professor with tenure - if that make sense.

My response: sadness, anger, disappointment, disillusionment.

The process for promotion is that one puts together the application which is reviewed by the "unit personnel committee".  Our college is broken down into schools (a whole other complex explanation is needed for that into which I do not wish to engage in at the moment) that are referred to as units.  The committee makes a recommendation (strongly recommend, recommend, do not recommend) which is endorsed or not endorsed by all the faculty of the unit.  The dean of the school reviews the application, the recommendation, and the endorsement and forwards the application to an all-college personnel committee for review.  The all-college committee then makes its recommendation (with the three distinct levels as well).  The application then goes to the Provost and then to the President.  Ultimately, the President makes a decision whether to nominate the candidate to the board of trustees who usually vote to approve the President's nominations.

This long explanation is needed to try to understand where things went wrong.  My unit personnel committee strongly recommended me for promotion, which was endorsed by the unit.  The dean enthusiastically recommended me for promotion.  It was at the all-college level where my application took a nose dive.  That committee knew that there were five slots for promotion alloted by the administration.  They ranked the applications and the top five were strongly recommended, all the rest deemed qualified were just recommended.  They could also not recommend.  I was only recommended.

The President gets all the recommendations, but he is to review all the applications and make a decision taking the committee's recommendation into consideration.  He also has the ability to take other issues into consideration, such as seniority, programmatic need, and affirmative action, before making his nominations.  He can also increase (or decrease) the number of slots available.

Problems occurred in the process:

The rules state that if the all-college committee's recommendation differs from the unit level's, the chair of the unit level committee and the dean of the school are to be notified. 

Problem 1: They weren't.

Also the candidate has a right to appeal within 10 days of receiving the letter informing him/her of the committee's decision.  

Problem 2: My letter was sent to the wrong address.  The person who wrote the address on the envelope just put the wrong number on it.  Moreover, the letter did not state that I had a right to appeal.  In any case, I was not able to file an appeal.

It took some detective work to find out what my recourse was. I discovered that the President can consider appeals, so  I contacted head of the union at the college, explained the situation, and stated that I wanted to file an appeal.  She arranged for a meeting with the Provost (acting for the President who is away).  I put together my appeal and presented it to her, followed up with a written letter.

Now I wait.

How did it come to this?

In putting together my appeal, I realized how strong my application is and how strongly my unit and dean supported me.  In the three criteria under consideration, I did extremely well.

Teaching: If there is one thing I do well in this world, it is teaching.  I am one of the best and most innovative teachers on that campus.  My classes are always full, my reviews are outstanding, the anthropology minor more than doubled in size after I arrived.  I work individually with students.  I supervise internships.

Research: I have multiple research projects that are ongoing.  It is true that my publishing record is not as strong as it could be, but in the context of the college it is on par with everyone else.  I engage in innovative and applied research.

Service: I am extremely involved on campus.  I work with student clubs, I advise honor societies, I am on numerous committees.  I took a group of students to Guatemala during MY vacation.

Now, the process is completely transparent all the way up until the all-college committee.  You receive feedback and information about your application and even have a chance to make minor changes.  The all-college committee is a black box from which no information escapes.  The ranking votes are secret.  The criteria is supposed to be 40% teaching, 30% research, and 30% service to the college.

Something happened in that black box.

The message: they do not recognize my performance and efforts, they don't value what I do for the students and the college, and they don't understand what it is that I do.

What became even more irritating is that I heard that at least one person without tenure applied and was ranked above me.  Yet another messed up thing about the college is the ability to apply for promotion at any point - without any negative consequence.  I was strongly discouraged from doing so, but now I understand that I should have.  If the rumor I heard is correct, one of the people without tenure started THIS YEAR.  Given application were due in December, my question is how can the committee truly evaluate that candidate's teaching abilities and level of service after one semester?  How productive could he (I heard it was a he) have been in those four months?

In any case, I am irritated at the black box and the people who operated in it.  I am also irritated at the Provost and the President who just rubber stamped the recommendations from the committee.  I am more irritated that they held firmly to the five slots for promotion.  I have come to learn that 7 people were recommended in total: 5 strongly and 2 just recommended.  They could have just as easily added to more promotions.  What is the cost to the college relative to its overall expenses?  Is alienating faculty really worth that much?

I met with my dean yesterday.  I had been somewhat irritated with him for not being more assertive and pushing my case with the administration.  He told me he was shocked and was left feeling somewhat naive from this.  I came to see that he does recognize my efforts and my contributions.  In ending, he stated that he hoped that this situation has not soured me towards to college.

My response was that unfortunately it has.  I do feel a strong camaraderie towards the faculty in my unit and the colleagues in my department who have been extremely supportive.  However, the other faculty and the administration have led me to feel like there is a lack of recognition of what I do and who I am.  The college is moving away from the liberal arts and its stated mission of providing an international, intercultural, interdisciplinary, and experiential education.  The professional programs are being expanded: business, communications, nursing - at the expense of the humanities and interdisciplinary social sciences.

Moreover, I am left to feel that institutional racism is alive and well.  Who knows whether my last name, my research areas of migration and Latinos, my activism influenced the ranking?  It could have. It might have.  It still happens.  What is clearer, though, is that my role as a Mexican/Latino scholar and educator is not being recognized.  The fact that I mentor and advise Latino (and other students from under-represented groups), that I serve as a role model for them, and that I bring a different perspective to the classroom and to the college means nothing to them.  So while I am sure they are quick to espouse that they think affirmative action is probably a good thing, they do not understand what that means.  It is not promoting me because I am Mexican, but recognizing that as a Mexican I make unique contributions to the college that need to be recognized 

There is a lot that needs to be fixed at my institution.  Once this is over it will be on my agenda to at least try to address it - it may be beyond fixing.  I have no right to complain, though, if I do not try.

But for now, I wait - and hope that my appeal is heard and acted on.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Time to Start (again)

Life has been throwing all sorts of challenges my way.

Perhaps I need to come back to this venue as a place to vent.  Perhaps it can be cathartic or therapeutic.

There are also some experiences I want to reflect on.

Time to start...


Thursday, February 03, 2011


I don't know what it is about me and refrigerators, but they always seem to crap out on me.  Maybe it is because everywhere I have lived has had an old crappy one.

Our current fridge came with the house when we bought it and it seems pretty old.  I figured out what the problem is, but I think it is beyond my capabilities for repair (plus I don't have the equipment).

Getting a repair person would probably cost about $350, getting a cheap replacement would be about $600, getting a nicer one would be about $800, and getting a nice one would be about $1100.  Problem being, we don't have any of it on hand.  It doesn't seem worthwhile to get it repaired.  But if we replace it, should we just get something cheap or should we aim for something better.

Ah, dilemmas.

And the joy of home-ownership.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

In looking at pictures of the events in Egypt, I am struck by the absence of anti-Americanism. Maybe they are there, but just haven't been captured on film. However, I find this unlikely as the burning of American flags and effigies are usually what the media likes to seize on.

I find the absence of the anti-American rhetoric fascinating because:

- The US is a powerful symbol to rail against in any protest, but especially in the middle east
- The US provides copious amounts of assistance to the Egyptian government that the people are intent on bringing down

The only image I saw that had any reference to the US was some protesters pointing out that a tear gas canister had "made in the USA" written on it.

I guess sometimes it is not all about us.

It uneases me that the future of the country (and perhaps the region) hinges on the wisdom of a leader who has clearly lost touch with the world around him. Hopefully he will recognize that he must move on and that a peaceful transition of power can be achieved.

I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


We were hit by yet another snow storm last night.  According to news sources we are already at the 6th snowiest season since they began recording.  I don't mind the snow too much.  I much rather have snow than rain.  I love how the landscape looks after a snowstorm.  I like how the snow reflects light once the sun comes out, which compensates for the short winter days.  It is fun to see the tracks of the various animals have treked across our yard.  Not having to go to work is a mixed bag.  It is nice staying home, but it also means having to catch up with material when we do get back to campus.

Then there is shoveling and clearing the snow.  I also have mixed feelings about that.  I enjoy getting out of the house and doing something physical in the fresh air.  I like the peace in the area if I am out right after the snowfall: few cars, quietness, stillness.  The type of snow that has fallen does make a difference.  Light flaky snow is so easy to clear; I do not like if there is ice.  The one thing I hate - the giant hard levy of snow/ice piled up at the end of our driveway from the plows clearing the street.  It's such a chore to break through it.

As I was out shoveling the other day, the silence was broken by the roaring and grumbling of snow machines and riding mowers equipped with snow removal equipment.  Then a big front loader came along to clear our neighbor's driveway.  I stopped to take a break, which I need to do frequently given my pitiful level of fitness, and I looked around looking at the sources of the din.  I was the only one out with a shovel and hence the only one taking a breather.  If a neighbor threw a glance my way, I would offer them a wave to which they would wave back.  Occasionally a neighbor might drive by perhaps on their way to restock their kitchen.  Again waves might be exchanged.  But no conversation.

Perhaps if others would be shoveling, they would take a break like me and be willing to exchange a word or two.  If that were the case, maybe I would know my neighbors a little better.  Is this another example of technology (snow machines) or wealth (paying someone else to clear the snow) isolating us socially?

For now I will continue to shovel on my own amid the buzz of others technology.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sounds of Place

Following is a comment I left on Oso's blog following a fascinating post on Mexico City:

This post brought back a lot of memories.
I find flying into Mexico City more fascinating than any other city.  It is equally impressive during the day or night.  It's not just the sheer size of the city - Sao Paulo is pretty impressive too - but the flight plan that takes you over most of the city as you arrive.  Sometimes the descent into the thick layer of smog is both fascinating and revolting.  
As to the sounds of the city, I remember that we knew the coming and goings of the neighborhood based on what we could hear.  Because doorbells often didn't work, people would announce themselves based on a particular sound.  There was the man who drove up on his loud motorcycle and yelled "Las tortillas!!!"  You had only a few minutes to grab a few pesos and run outside to buy them before he zoomed off.  The milkman had his own particular whistle.  Then there were the camoteros, who would ride around on their hybrid bicycle/oven that would emit a particular whistle.  Another biker would be the guy who would sharpen knives by propping up his bicycle and pedaling to spin the sharpening stone.  He had a little bell he would ring on his handlebars to alert everyone that sharpening services were being offered.  The mailman would just tap on our gate.  Our neighbors' friends would have their specific whistles to announce that they were there for a visit.  A few would yell out the specific person they wanted to see.  Then there were car horns that differed in timbre and people had their unique rhythm of honking.  And I can't leave out the music - people sang without inhibition and car radios shared the music with the rest of the neighborhood.  However chaotic all this may seem, the cacophony was woven into a complex symphony of place.  All this may now just exist in my nostalgic thoughts, but I have no doubt that they have been replaced by a more contemporary version.
As to exploring neighborhoods.  I don't think you are alone in the city when it comes to finding your movements constrained to a few areas.  Involved I do think the difficulty of movement (traffic in particular) in the city is part of it.  But Mexico is also very segregated by class (and by fear).  Another issue is that a lot of the places you list, there isn't much that would draw an outsider.  For example, Naucalpan was right next to where I used to live, but there really isn't much there for you to really explore.  Unless you like small industrial parks and warehouses.  Obviously, if you know someone there, they can take you to that special taco stand or show you that small plaza where you can hang out.  But otherwise, you are the guero who got lost or came to gawk at how the "others" live.  
My suggestion, though, is to find specific places to visit in different parts of the city.  For example, go to the Sonora market and get a limpia or a sobada.  Go to la Villa and sit and watch the pilgrims.  If you want to go to Naucalpan, go visit the Basilica de los Remedios where people with illnesses go to pray for cures (there is also a cool statue of St. George slaying the dragon/devil - I could see that statue from my childhood window).  Or just ride the length of a metro line, getting off at every other station.  An interesting illustration of segregation is if you go to the south of the city, go from Jardines del Pedregal to Cuidad Universitaria to Colonia Santo Domingo.  Three completely different worlds within a few kilometers.
But the city extends way beyond the DF.  I couldn't tell you what to see in Cd. Neza or Ecatepec or Santa Fe, for that matter.  
In any case, have fun and thanks for the trip into my memories...
I spend enough time writing it, I thought I should post it here too.  Why not?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Absent-mindedness and Mishaps

We are back from our jungle and archaeological adventure in Mexico.  

We didn't get as much sun as we would have liked and there were the occasional mishaps, but we did have a good time.  We stayed at a interesting little eco-hotel (more like a b&b) in a little village tucked away in the jungle.  We visited the Maya sites of Coba and Ek Balam, but skipped Chichen Itza.  We also explored the small city of Valladolid, which is sleepy and a bit rough around the edges.  It does have a cenonte right in town, with a restaurant overlooking it.

Of the mishaps, I shall share the last one.  While in Valladolid, we bought two bottles of liquor: Xtabentun, the local drink made with anise and honey (this one had also been infused with coffee), and Kahlua.  On the day we were flying back, I mindlessly put them in my carry-on backpack and not in my suitcase.  I realized right after we checked our bags, that I couldn't get through security with them.  I ran back to see if they could retrieve the suitcase, but they said no.  The only option was to toss the bottles or check my backpack.  They gave me a little box to try to pad the bottles in the backpack and I checked it, hoping for the best.

Our trip connected through Atlanta and we had to get our bags to clear customs.  I thought if the bottles survived, I could repack them in the suitcase and take the backpack on the plane.  As I picked up the backpack, I felt some moisture.  The Kahlua bottle made it, but the Xtabentun bottle didn't.  There was a wet, sticky, and pungent puddle inside the bag.  I had to discard the broken bottle in the box - mind you this is just outside customs - and find a bathroom to dump the puddle from the backpack without looking too suspicious.  After all of this, I packed the Kahlua bottle back in the backpack, covered the backpack with some plastic bags, and packed the whole sticky odorous mess in my suitcase.  We cleared customs ok and rechecked the suitcase.  Only then did I realize that my house keys were in my backpack.  My worry was that if my bag got lost - not beyond the possibility given the way the days events had gone - we would be locked out when we got home.  I called the friend who was dog-sitting for us and asked her to leave a spare set of keys hidden somewhere outside.

In the end the suitcases made it.  I did get a note inside my suitcase from TSA that they had opened and inspected it.  They were probably wondering why it smelled like a wino.  And the Kahlua bottle did survive!

I think in the future, Sara will have to pack for me.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year, Same Sh...

Another year gone by, but not much has changed.  I wish I could be optimistic about the upcoming year, but things still look grim.

It's ironic that I received tenure this past year, meaning that my job is fairly stable from here on out (not a certainty, though, with that nutty governor in New Jersey), yet my life seems so very unstable and uncertain.  The stress of it all has been overwhelming and depressing.  I am not sure where I am going here because I just don't want to vent and spew all the details.

Despite the personal financial crisis that is looming, I am taking a short trip to Mexico next week.  Flying down on frequent flier miles and visiting on the cheap.  It will be good to have a change of scenery and more sun and warmth.  Is it the smartest thing to do?  Probably not.

I am not sure why peace of mind and stability in my life continues to elude me.  There have been poor choices and gambles that have not paid off along the way, but there has also been a lot of bad luck.  I am not sure why.

So here I go, trying to survive, trying to keep my head above water, struggling to overcome the stress and the worry.

Happy (?) New Year...