What is a Visionist?

"A visionist is an artist, a creator or an individual that sees beyond what is visible to the eyes and brains of human beings. Visionists are thinkers, they are the recognisable brains in soociety, but most times they are seen as absurd, "nerds" and misfits – they just don't fit into the societies. They are people with great dreams and minds."

The English Wikipedia

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Visionist as Latin Americanist: Part II

Why I am a Latin Americanist: From Pacoima to the Prado

Although my current work focuses more on areas of conflict, such as the Middle East and Africa, I am by profession a Latin Americanist--more specifically a Brazilianist--and continue to maintain my interest in and knowledge of the countries in our own hemisphere that are important for us, but often are forgotten in the media and even by our own government. My expertise here goes beyond the fact that I have a Masters Degree in Latin American Studies from Stanford and spent most of my Foreign Service career in Latin America.

My connection with Latin America started early. Born in New York, I grew up in a Mexican-American area of the San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles, called Pacoima. Most people have not heard of Pacoima. It has something of a bad reputation, typified by one of the bikers in a Cheech and Chong movie whose tee shirt read "Don't Mess with Me, I am from Pacoima. “Hey, Esse!” was what you heard every day. Some people who lived there insisted on saying they lived in Arleta, just because there was a post office in the non-Chicano section by that name. But one of its claims to fame is that it was the home of Ritchie Valens of "La Bamba" fame. I went to Pacoima Junior High School, the same school as Ritchie, who was there when my brother attended it, and I even met him once when he came back to the school for a welcome home visit and sang "Sumertime Blues." The movie La Bamba actually begins with a small plane crash at Pacoima Junior High, a real occurrence that traumatized the local community and haunted Ritchie's nightmares until his own death in a similar crash along with the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in 1959. Not to get too diverted, however, most important in this story is that the study of Spanish began at the 7th grade at Pacoima, so that by the time I finished high school I had six years of Spanish and actually graduated as a Spanish major. I was on my way to being a Latin Americanist.

At UCLA, I studied International Relations, with a specialization in Latin America, and added Portuguese to my languages (due to an infatuation with the bossa nova and the Portuguese language’s sweet, sonorous and soft sound). While at UCLA, my brother Averill, my high school friend and college roomate Jeff Bekowitz and I made an incredible 2,000 mile train trip (second class tickets that cost $14) from Mexicali to Mexico City during Christmas vacation. The next summer I went back to Mexico City for a freind's wedding and spent the rest of the summer there. I spent a junior year abroad at the University of Madrid (where I made weekly trips to the Prado and purchased an oleograph copy of Bosch's "Garden of the Earthly Delights," above, which now hangs in the entrance hall of our home; this painting recently made its way onto the cover of Tom Freidmans's latest book on globalization). I also did a regional focus on Latin America during two years of graduate studies at the School of International Affairs at Columbia University, taking the classic Latin American seminar given by Frank Tannenbaum, a Latin Americanist whose work went back to the Mexican Revolution.

Diplomatic assignments included the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and three tours in Brazil and responsibility for Latin America at the US Mission to the United Nations, at the State Department's International Narcotics Bureau and while on detail to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

My work at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York, dealt mostly with the Roosevelt legacy, human rights, racial and gender equality, youth development and the role of the United Nations. However, I maintained my involvement with Latin America by including some key figures from the region, including the late First Lady of Brazil, Dr. Ruth Cardoso (pictured at right in the photo, alongside Richard Gere, Jessye Norman and Rob and Emile Dyson), and the current President of Costa Rica, Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, in our work.

I also served as President of the local chapter of Partners of the Americas, that unites Dutchess County, NY, with the island nation of Dominica in the Caribbean. In addition, I taught a one year course in Latin American History at nearby Marist College in Poughkeepsie, remained a member of the Latin American Studies Association and was an active participant in the activities of the Latin American Program at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. During this time, I also participated in a campaign along with others (including former Ambassadors to Bolivia Ed Corr and Bob Gelbard) to free from unjust imprisonment a Bolivian friend, brilliant writer and journalist, NGO and political leader and former Mayor of La Paz, Lupe Andrade, who I am happy to say was released from her torment. Her emails from prison were an inspiration to me.

Relating interesting experiences from my diplomatic assignments in Latin America would take a lot more space, and I will leave a recounting of these to an opportune time and to make specific points or to explain my point of view. There is too much to tell in one dose.

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