SANER show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in NYC

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
Among the many subjects I cover in my work, one of my favorites is street art, and that’s because it explores and embodies so many of my other interests–politics, social justice, en fin, la gente y el pueblo, how life is lived and seen at street level–in a single, colorful, impactful form.

Saner and two of the works in "Primitivo," on view at NYC's Jonathan LeVine Gallery until February 7, 2015.
Saner and two of the works in “Primitivo,” on view at NYC’s Jonathan LeVine Gallery until February 7, 2015.

I’m starting my work week filing an article for the art website Hyperallergic about “Primitivo,” the just-opened show at Jonathan LeVine Gallery by Mexican artist, SANER, who started as a street artist and who has, over the years, moved into other genres, including drawing and painting. I’ll link back to that article when it’s published. In the meantime, you can take a virtual tour of the show through Francisco’s photos, which he shot on Friday before the show opened to the public.

Chin-chin! A cocktail for the new year

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
I thought I didn’t like bourbon.

Wedded to tequila and mezcal and charmed by their seemingly infinite possibilities, I didn’t give this most American of spirits much of a chance. The memory of the burn from sips of Wild Turkey nipped while making bourbon balls with my mom during childhood holidays didn’t exactly entice.

So when Francisco handed me a drink he’d ordered from the bar at San Juan, Puerto Rico’s recently renovated and reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, and said, “Bourbon, honey, and lemon–try it; it’s delicious,” I almost said, “No, thanks.”

But something about the smell was so seductive, I couldn’t decline. One sip and I was reminded that one of life’s great lessons is try and try again.

Condado Vanderbilt makes its “Gold Rush” cocktail with Woodford Reserve (though the menu says Knob Creek). When we returned home to New York, Francisco decided to make his own version of the drink. This is what we’ll be drinking tonight to say farewell to 2014 and to ring in 2015:

Francisco's version of the Condado Vanderbilt's Gold Rush. (Photo: @collazoprojects)
Francisco’s version of the Condado Vanderbilt’s Gold Rush. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

[Makes two cocktails]
-2 shots of Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey
-3 ounces of fresh squeezed Meyer lemon juice (The Condado Vanderbilt does not use Meyer lemons, but the distinctive aroma and taste of the Meyer lemon elevates the drink considerably)
-a dash of St. Germain liqueur
-1 teaspoon of mountain forest amber honey

Mix well in a shaker with plenty of ice. Serve over more ice in an old-fashioned glass that has been rimmed with a light coating of honey and spritzed with Meyer lemon.

Chin-chin and salud! Here’s to a wonderful new year full of health, happiness, and wholeness!

The Disappearance of Mexico’s Students & How You Can Help

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
I’ve been covering the disappearance of the 43 students from the state of Guerrero, Mexico since early November, nearly five weeks after the students were taken by authorities on September 26.

Since most of my reporting has been from my home base in New York (with the exception of a couple pieces that were reported from Mexico City on November 20), I’ve focused on US responses to the disappearance and to artistic and cultural reactions, both online and off.

I’ve been gratified and moved by the responses to my articles, not because they were about me or my work, but because they confirmed that people do actually give a damn. And, a lot of them (you!) told me that they care so much, in fact, that they want to be able to do something–anything–meaningful to make a difference and to let Mexicans know that they stand in solidarity with them.

A sign carried by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City. It reads "In solidarity with the disappeared." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A sign carried by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City. It reads “In solidarity with the disappeared.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

This happens a lot with the news, I think. We hear about the terrible things that are happening in the world and we want to take action. But more often than not, the news we’re presented is totally decontextualized and it lacks any call to specific action. The effect, then, is that we’re left feeling helpless. Knowledge, it seems, isn’t always power.

In the weeks that I’ve been covering the Ayotzinapa story, I’ve given a lot of thought to what readers can do to take meaningful action and to feel that they’re not just passive consumers of the news. I’ve come up with the list below based on several inputs: (1) my own experience as a former social worker and what it means to help; (2) my experiences of listening to Mexicans as they confront the horror of Ayotzinapa and related atrocities; (3) my interview with John M. Ackerman, a law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and a journalist in his own right.

Here are some actions that you can take:

1. Continue to commit yourself to staying informed.
With all of the abuses and horrors committed in the world, it is incredibly difficult to continue paying attention to one single episode of violence. And yet, doing so is crucial if governments are to feel that international attention and pressure are upon them to take action. Staying informed is the single most important thing you can do to show your support, even if it feels like the most passive action. With respect to Ayotzinapa, the website Mexico Voices provides English-language translations of articles that were written by Mexicans and published in Mexican media. The coverage is far more comprehensive than any currently available in the mainstream media in the United States.

2. Share information with others.
You don’t have to become a left-wing activist crusader to help spread the word about what’s happening, and you don’t have to flood your Facebook status updates with impassioned pleas for followers and friends to pay attention to what’s happening in Mexico or elsewhere. Share articles and information that seem of greatest value among your social networks. Put these into as much context as you can. Avoid sharing information that’s sensationalist or that comes from a source that you can’t verify or that seems suspect. Spreading consciousness about what’s happening is key, but it’s only useful if the information you’re sharing is accurate.

3. Commit yourself to your own community.
Though there is a desire–and an understandable one–to help the families affected directly by the disappearance of their children, it’s not entirely clear (at least from my position) what kind of tangible help would be (a) most useful and (b) most sustainable. When confronted with the world’s horrors, I’m reminded that one of the best and most sensible actions I can take is to recommit myself to acting honorably within my own microcosm.

One of the reasons I left the social work profession was because I realized that while it was founded on pragmatic ideals that involved tangible changes in individuals’ and communities’ well-being, so many of its actual practices were rooted not in actionable activities. Instead, actions were often based on hand-out principles that made the giver feel good, but either had little positive long-term effect or actually had a detrimental impact. Rather than obsess over what you can do for someone else, take the time to consider how you can make the greatest impact for peace in your own community and in your own family.

God knows every community could use more of that.

4. Take a stand or contribute your skills when obvious opportunities arise for you to do so.
Whether it’s signing a petition in support of Adán Cortés, who interrupted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last week, creating a piece of artwork for Tribute to the Disappeared or #IlustradoresconAyotzinapa, or offering to host the Clothesline project in your community, there are opportunities to take a more direct action that will make you feel like you’re doing something important. I know for sure–because I’ve been told as much–that the participation of a larger community means a great deal to the people who are organizing these displays of support and solidarity.

[Update: I just learned of this photography initiative supported by Social Documentary Network, which is a worthy cause for both pro and amateur photographers.]

5. Pick up a pen.
Send a letter to Mexican officials to let them know you’re watching and that you condemn the disappearance of the students and the way the case has been handled. Let them know you are a witness and that you stand in solidarity with ordinary Mexicans, whose lives have been impacted negatively by narcoviolence and the collusion of the government in profiteering from drug cartel activity.

Tweet President Enrique Peña Nieto: @EPN
Write him a letter: President Enrique Peña Nieto
Residencia Los Pinos
Distrito Federal, MÉXICO

6. Don’t boycott Mexico.
Deciding to boycott Mexico by canceling a vacation there or choosing not to buy Mexican products is unlikely to hurt the people who are causing and contributing the problems that gave rise to the disappearance of the students. Instead, it hurts ordinary Mexicans who are, in many cases, already struggling.

7. Learn more.
Take the opportunity to learn more not only about the current situation, but to fill in the blanks of history that the US media fail to contextualize. One excellent beginning resource is The Mexico Reader, an anthology published by Duke University Press.

Do you have other ideas about how people can help? Please share them below.

What Obama’s Cuba Announcement Means

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Earlier today, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held press conferences announcing that they have been involved in secret negotiations for over a year with the end goal of beginning to normalize relations between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a Cold War-like diplomatic deadlock since Fidel Castro took power more than half a century ago.

The changes President Obama outlined (see the full video here) are sweeping, and they are historic. But as the initial euphoria wears off, people are starting to ask what, exactly, the changes mean.

A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Here’s a quick summary:

1. The embargo is still in effect.
President Obama cannot unilaterally strike down the embargo. Though aspects of the embargo are being described as being “eased,” the embargo remains in effect for the foreseeable future. If you don’t know what the embargo entails, it’s worth reading the highlights here.

2. That means that you can’t just book a trip to Cuba tomorrow.
Unless you fall into one of the 12 categories of US travelers who are authorized to visit Cuba, you still can’t travel unimpeded to Cuba– at least not legally.

3. But if you DO fall in that category, it seems like travel IN Cuba is about to become much easier.
For those of us who can travel to Cuba, spending money to get to Cuba and spending money IN Cuba sounds like it’s going to become much easier, thanks to a bilateral agreement that will permit Americans to use debit cards in Cuba. Can I tell you how thrilled I am about this? I hated dealing with cash only.

4. And we’ll be legally permitted to spend money in Cuba.
One of the trickier restrictions imposed on Americans traveling to Cuba is that we technically weren’t permitted to spend money there. I was on a White House conference call about Cuba this afternoon, in which we were informed that Americans will be allowed to return to the States with up to $400 worth of goods. $100 of that $400 can be alcohol (Havana Club!) and cigars (Cohiba! Romeo y Julieta!).

5. I predict that the restricted access to US travelers (imposed by the US government, not the Cuban government) will be the next domino to fall.
And believe me when I tell you that there are dedicated staff members at all the major air carriers, hoteliers, etc. who will be ready, willing, and able to get you to Cuba as soon as they’re legally permitted to do so. Any major player in the market has a Cuba Plan just waiting in the wings. In the meantime, if you’re American and you want to travel to Cuba, you can read my SATW-award-winning article about how to do so here.

6. Cuban Americans can now send more money–a lot more money–to family members in Cuba.
This is one of the most interesting changes and one that’s likely to have a considerable impact.

7. President Obama has charged Secretary of State Kerry with reviewing Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Also a big deal.

8. The US will establish an embassy in Havana.
This has been touted as really big news, but I’m not sure it is. There’s already a “Special Interests Section” in Havana that is staffed by Americans and does embassy-like functions. What I’m still wondering is whether we’ll get a functioning Cuban Embassy in the States. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is a largely ineffective quagmire where no one ever answers the phone and US policy has made it extremely difficult for Cuban Americans with Cuban passports to complete basic transactions. I speak from firsthand experience.

9. The US will support major telecoms expansion.
What this means exactly isn’t totally clear yet, but given all the recent exposes about USAID (see: Zuzuneo and attempt to manipulate thought via Cuban hip hop), I’m going to withhold speculations and judgments por ahora.

10. Cuba will release 53 political prisoners indicated as such by the US.
Big deal? Yes. But questions remain about Americans who exiled themselves to Cuba and whether/how they will be affected by the diplomatic thaw. Among them are Black Panther members, such as Assata Shakur.

11. The US will expand commercial trade with Cuba.
Many Americans aren’t aware of this, but the US has had trade with Cuba for years. Still, there are some significant changes under the new policy, including the removal of restrictions that affect third countries engaging in trade with Cuba. Previously, for example, cargo ships that made ports of call in Cuba were not allowed to come to the US within six months of docking in Cuba. It was a lame but effective attempt to compel other countries to go along with the US embargo of Cuba.

A complete list of the changes as issued by the White House can be found here.

Cooper Hewitt Design Museum reopens this weekend after 3-year renovation

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

A few shots from my visit to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt. (Photos: @collazoprojects)
A few shots from my visit to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt. (Photos: @collazoprojects)

Let’s just cut right to the chase: I don’t adore the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which seems like an absolutely terrible and unkind thing to say since the museum has been closed for three years, undergoing a meticulous $91 million once-over.

As I walked away from Tuesday morning’s media preview of the museum, which will reopen to the public this Friday, December 12, I searched for the right word to describe why such an ambitious project left me feeling so dissatisfied. The word is: incohesive. Among the 726 objects on display, there are some compelling ones, including Abraham Lincoln’s funeral pall and pocket watch, a pair of Toscanini’s pants, and–coming up to the present century–Damian Ortega’s most impressive installation of tools, “Controller of the Universe.” There’s also the Hansen Writing Ball and a Comstock Knitter, both of which are glorious representations of 19th-century industrial design.

But for every “Ooh” “Aah,” “Weren’t those the glory days of design?” object, there’s one that feels a little out of place, either “Too soon, too soon” (ie: the iPhone and MacBook Air) or boring because of its predictability and ubiquity in other museums (I’m looking at you, Zig-Zag and Vermelha chairs). Mostly, though, the collection as it is presented feels incredibly disjointed, the attempt to be representative yet selective not even cohering well within discrete exhibits, and far less across and among them.

That’s not to say I’m unswayed by the Cooper Hewitt’s new charms, however. I’m impressed by the effort and (most of) the execution of the museum’s new hands-on interactive elements, as well as the places in the museum where exhibits try to explain how design is relevant to daily life. The Cooper Hewitt has always excelled in this regard; its 2007 exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%,” was exceptional. When Cooper Hewitt’s good, it’s good. But that’s precisely what makes the “Meh” parts so disappointing.