23 September, 2007

The Paintings of David Martinez

by Jorge Reyes

David Martinez (b. 1980- ), a Cuban-born artist, paints the urban landscapes of his native land, Cuba, with its magnificent architectural ruins, symbols of both metaphor and protest, death and regeneration. From an early age, David's inclination for the arts was obvious. At the age six, his first gallery show was presented at the Biblioteca Nacional, Cuba, as part of a collective gallery exhibition of elementary-age children.

A graduate of the prestigious Academy of San Alejandro, citadel to some of the most respected Cuban artists (both past and present) like masters Wilfredo Lam and Amelia Pelaez, and the exiled Gustavo Acosta, among many others. Like them, his paintings reflect a certain essential striving to understand the rich cultural history emblematic in his paintings, while at the same time the images of destruction, rotted wood, and cross-shaped cities erected against the backdrop of the sky incorporates the paradox of religious hope, and desperation.

David Martinez aesthetics is not, ironically, overtly political though his iconography is highly circumspect by the politics from whence it emanates. This is not surprising. In a country that regulates freedom of expresion, often expression is known for its lack of overt political criticism as for its subtle covert symbols, hence the bandages that seem to hold together the buildings Martinez recreates.

Martinez's pieces, especially his earlier works, are a cornucopia of life as is. It is a portrait of a society haunted by its timeless disharmoney from the rest of the world and a portray of a dynamic, personal, and often quiet inner vista into a constantly reinterpreted, often kaleidoscopic, grim realism that upholds as much as it uplifts the surreal, the grotesque, and the marginal. It is not, surprisingly, a portrait of nostalgia though.

Martinez's overall theme seem to mediate between the basic human striving to understand the almost perennial existential despair of being uprooted, exiled, and the subtle ways we express that same sense of displacement. Perhaps political statements, though not necessarily since the mediation between the political and the symbolic merge into a paradigm that, yes, embraces particular forms of repression, political or otherwise) while at the same time it liberates the ego from the context of history beyond the quotidian.

Surprisingly, the artist says very little about himself, who he is, or what he truly believes. He steps back, contemplates, allowing us to observe the eeriness of an empty sea enclosed by bandaged-like crumbling buildings, androgynous-like females in a quiet, meditative moment of masturbation, like in El Tiempo de los Amantes.

In this particular painting, unusual in Martinez's oeuvre by both subject matter and symbolism, the fine line between the enclosing of self-space is pointedly underscored by our own complicity watching two females lying at different ends of a sofa, (close enough to each other though not too close to fully enjoy themselves), and by the guilt that it causes by both voyeur and performers.

No less eerie and is another unusual painting which somehow falls outside the context of his other paintings, El gallo y yo, an unsettling painting. Again, the painting depicts another androgynous-looking, middle-aged woman with dark unkempt hair dressed no less than in what looks like military garb from another century. She holds in her hand like a priced collection the neck of dead rooster.

Her outfit, the symbolism of the dead rooster, and the entire belle epoque surreal setting gives this painting an enigmatic, almost awkward discomfort. After all, what is the significance of the rooster? why is she dressed in something which seems, at best, out of place? could the rooster be nothing more than a statement of economic problems of present-day Cuba? the struggle, almost pedestrian subsistence of Castro's Cuba? I doubt it. Who is she, after all? Bored as she may seem, she's out of place and she doesn't care. The habitual has overtaken the identity of the individual to the culture to the extent that she could very well be naked and still be holding the rooster, and still have the same look of resignation and boredom as she expressed in this painting.

Artists from any generation have sought to understand their times in similar fashion as David Martinez has tried to do in such short and prolific artistic career.

The problem is that the past is, at best, illusory and often deceptive, particularly to the young; and the present of course does not lend itself to answers, especially under a dictatorship. Hence, the very reason that the paintings often produced under these circumstances become a reverberation of a-temporality, enigmatic self-expression of an overarching horizon laden with ambiguity, anger, or subtleties. How this is expressed in art often varies, though not radically different. After all, the enigma becomes manifested thematically by the repetition of seemingly dissimilar symbols, like spiraling multi-dimensional buildings aesthetically being held together by an almost easily pliable string, easily breakable, or reflections of light that seem to swirl in dream-like sequence like a kaleidoscope, like Luces (above), what I consider to be his masterpiece thus far.

In the end, what is being translated into the language of art are variants of the same enigmathe problem of the Idea as one and otherness, individual and collective, or whats more important, the self and the political. Interestingly enough, in what seems the representational understanding of artists trying to understand the present, Martinez seems to have done exactly like most painters in Cuba's past have done: forge an artistic category based exclusively to a continuing evolution of what it means to have Cuban identity. But to name two, Lam and Pelaez. There are others for sure, and there will continue to be many more.

No doubt, David Martinez has already recreated in his canvases a nuanced understanding and sensibility of an emerging and evolving art-form, the result of artists influencing each other both from inside Cuba and those in exile or living abroad.

This is not so different from a rich history of art in Cuba, especially one that began around the 1930's and culminated in the late 1950's. These were a group of painters known as la vanguardia, and their European influence of surrealism had an overt application to Cuba's. To these, it was the poor rural that created that intrinsically affinity to the Cuban identity. And what a wonderfully diverse collection they left us!

Perhaps in the future, David Martinez's paintings may shift to other areas of interest, though the parameters of his own personal style has already been defined.

"When the groves begin to bear..." George Merrick and the founding of Coral Gables

by Jorge Reyes

Hard to think that up until the late 1920's, the City of Coral Gables was a just a frontier outpost village. The world that George Merrick, founding father of Coral Gables, came to live with his father in the 1890's was a place ravaged by yellow fever; place of a jungle-like setting for wild panthers that roamed freely in the wide open homesteads.

Born June 3, 1886, in Springsdale, Pennsylvania, George Merrick came to what is now Miami-Dade County with his father in 1898, Solomon Greasley Merrick, only after a friend told them to visit a town of "perpetual sunshine called Miami." After numerous inquiries about the possibility of buying available land in South Florida, the elder Merrick was told of a settlement with a small homestead in a place called Coconut Grove, now part of what later became Coral Gables. Sales price: $1100.

Upon arriving to South Florida, the settings were less than ideal: the homestead promised was nothing but a simple cabin surrounded by a patch of rocky land and guava trees.

Life was, needless to say, not easy for the Merrick family. They had to work hard, and hard they worked. Land and coral rock had to be cleared in order to plant grapefruit trees. So, in the meantime, they planted okra, beans and eggplants which George, with typical boyish enthusiasm and ambition, loaded up onto carts and sold to the Royal Palm Hotel.

In less than assuring times, George's father gave courage and fortitude to the young boy in what has become an oft repeated phrase to describe this time in the Merrick's life: "Yes, we will-- when the groves begin to bear."

Years later, recollecting on his childhood days, George Merrick would write about Miami's early beginnings as follows: "The road was all rocks and stumps, and wound in and out like the Indian trail that it was, among the virgin trees... there I was, a timid kid, along in the pitch-black woods, people to my excited min with panthers, wild cats and all kinds of ferocious animals thirsting for my blood."

It was during this time, as quoted in a 1925 Sunday Times-Union newspaper based in Jacksonville, Florida, that "driving along the old mule, particularly on the way to town in the darkness, that the Coral Gables you see today first began to appear to to me-- purely imaginary then, with faint hope of ever seeing it in actuality."

In 1907. George enrolled in Rollins College and a year later entered law school. Never one to underestimate his poetic side, during this time George had several of his short stories published. Among them, "The Sponger's Delilah" which won a contest and was published by the New York Evening Telegram, February 24, 1910. When his father became seriously ill, George cut short his education and returned to Miami to take over what then had become a family plantation.

After his father's passing in 1911, George bought his mother's share of the partnership and began to build what later became known as the most prosperous plantation of South Florida, which had grown to 1,600 acres.

In 1916, George Merrick married Eunice Peacock, daughter of one of Coconut Grove's family founders who'd settle in South Florida in 1878, much earlier than the Merrick family.

Thus far, George's life was a continuance of hard work, education and what can be called a social life by early South Florida standards. It was, though, a life that could be called a success up to a point.

But George wanted more, and his ambitions increased.

By 1910, Miami-Dade County was a fast growing but still a primitive outpost. Regardless, George became an influential business and civic leader and along with others, Miami-Dade County grew into various subdivisions: "North Miami", "South Bay", "North Coconut Grove" and "Goulds".

But, yet, there was something missing from George's vision; a vision that was as much fueled by financial dreams as by his own romantic, poetic desire to make his most outlandish dream come true: to create a "pretty city", a place that could enhance South Florida's quality of life and rival the majestic beauty of the old world. And why not make the "old Merrick homestead" the nucleus of this suburb?

And so it began, the creation and building of what has become to be known as the City of Coral Gables, Merrick's dream of a pretty city, "the City Beautiful."

Part of the designing of Coral Gables went to Denram Fink, an uncle of his, to enhance the aesthetics of avenues, promenades, streets and parks, as George envisioned; a place laden with Poinciana trees of "scarlet bloom or deepest dye."

As Fink went wrote during this time: "We have taken for our motif such grand old Spanish cities as Cordona, Salamanca, Toledo, and lovely old Seville."

In 1921, George Merrick himself penned a few articles in the Miami Herald advertising his grand vision: "On all the principal boulevards at Coral Gables have been laid out delightful parks, plazas and the rest posts, one-half to five acres in area, taht break the vistas of the avenues and provide the most charming possibilities for landscape work of the most effective kind."

It was a vision he never wavered from because, as he wrote, in geographic location and climate, South Florida is very similar to the showers of the Mediterranean, Spain, North Africa and everything to the South Sea.

Along with Fink and Frank M. Button, another architect, and after an extensive study of the building design of the Mediterranean, Merrick and his team began to build homes. "I (have) become more than ever convinced now that the dream of Americans for a 'castle in Spain' would become an actuality."

Between 1921-1927, 2000 residences were built designed by a cousin of his, George Fink (it seems that the building of Coral Gables was a family affair.) Also, between 1920-23, over fifty-million dollars were expended for the construction of new roads and other commercial buildings.

George Merrick, as expected, paid very close attention to every detail of these early, now historic architectural landmarks. Each home was photographed from as many angles as possible to make sure that it was built with as much care and harmony as possible-- from the tiling color and dye to the number of planted trees in each home. Rumor has it that many of these early tiles had been manufactured in Cuba and often salvaged from derelict buildings in Cuba, from churches to prisons, and some homes in Havana dating back to as far as the late 1700's. The tile roofing was of particular concern to George because the tiles' century old exposure to the Caribbean elements had changed their hue into a particular blend of color he liked.

And little by little, the dream became a strange reality and right in a landscape known for its swamps and tigers and mosquitoes. And little by little, what was at first a dream based on the feverish romanticism of a boy, then actually inspired by his adult travels and wide reading in fiction and poetry, a world of beauty and romanticism, as much as skepticism and allusions to romance, became a city built of beauty.

Of the many poems that George Merrick wrote, and he was an accomplished writer in his time, one poem in particular, Song on the Wind on a Southern Shore, may provide us with insight into his inspiration:

"I dream of the home of the Fairies and Fays,
on the isles of the calm southern sky,
Of the fanciful turrets and towers ablaze
In the flood of the rays from on high..."

By 1925, Coral Gables boasted of having 150 miles of paved streets, boulevards and an average number of 1000 modestly-priced family residences, with families that had settled from over twenty-nine states. A group of architects instructed to build this beautiful city went to Greece in order to draw blueprints based on old architectural ruins from Pompeii's glory days and these renderings became the basis for about 200 residences that still are part of Coral Gables.

A full-scale campaign to "sell" the Gables throughout the states roared on and multiplied, galvanizing the interest of many well-known people, such as the writer Rex Beach and orator and one-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, also equally famous for his role in what's become known as the Scopes Trial.

But it wasn't all a dream. The next few years were a combination of personal upheavals and financial disasters.

The 1926 Miami hurricane fractured many of George's dreams. As he would go on to reflect in another of his poems: "Gray-purple dusk behind the wrath-swept hill." More than 114 people lost their lives in Coral Gables while others, shocked and bewildered, boarded up their homes and left.

In 1927, still recoiling from the devastating hurricane, George Merrick was honored in Spain by King Alphonso, giving him the honorary title of "Don of the Order of Isabella De Catolica," not bad in itself.

But back home, even this title did not give much comfort considering that the 1930's brought the great depression, consequences from which neither he or others would come out winning. Eventually, the economic depression wrecked George's finances, forcing him to give up his personal control of his pretty city and on to others.

George Merrick's influencing on the building of Coral Gables was never too far from the truth. He really never gave up on his dreams, even if not from a financial stand-up. Ironically, in 1934 he opened a real estate firm, George B. Merrick Incorporated. For most of the 1930's and well into the 1940's, he became active member of the Dade-County Planning Commission. In 1940, he was appointed Postmaster of Miami, and he also became director of the Fairchild Tropical Gardens.

On Thursday, March 26, 1942, George Merrick died at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His remains were quietly and without much fanfare laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, facing what's known in Miami as Eighth Street, or "Little Havana."

George Merrick's legacy is more than a dream to build something pretty. It has become a reality. His optimistic lifelong endurance cannot be underestimated and without it perhaps Coral Gables would not have become what it has become today-- a unique municipal enclave right for its beauty, design and quality of life. Merrick's philosophy was simple, but effective: out of chaos and unrest a sense of beauty, charm and decor can co-exist for us all, always, no matter what.

Back in 1925, the Miami Tribune paid homage to the man with a prescient conclusion: "...Coral Gables will grow ever in the lengthened shadow of its founder, whose wonderful dream has been matched by a like wonderful performance."

Yes, a wonderful performance it was and against so many odds; and it is still, today; and it will be for future generations. We, those know either live or know about the City Beautiful, are inheritors to a city built unlike many others-- built from dreams and poetry; a very special city.

Originally published in "Gablers Magazine," Aug/Sept 2000.

19 September, 2007

The Art of Neith Nevelson

by Jorge Reyes 

When I started writing the Reyes Report, I thought of writing mostly personal editorials about current events from my local I community, as well as write about other topics of interest, mainly in areas of literature and art. Or whatever I fancied, really. 

I've written before in other places about art, and more particularly about the art of a good friend, Neith Nevelson. I'm not much of an art connoisseur, but sufficiently savvy to know what good art ought to be, at least if it satisfies my own peculiar taste.  And isn't all art subjective and based on personal taste? 

Named after an Egyptian goddess, Neith Nevelson was born in New York City in 1946, to a family whose name will forever be associated with one of the most respected female sculptors of the twentieth century, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Neith’s grandmother.

Assuredly, simply by being related to such a well-known master of modern painting, Neith’s childhood was unique and it was a childhood that had repercussions for her as an adult, something often reflected in her art.

Of Louise Nevelson a lot has been written. Hers is a name that needs no introduction anywhere. Often, Neith Nevelson is mistaken for the elder Nevelson, an unfortunate thing. Aside from their uncanny physical appearance and DNA link, they couldn't be more different.

Louise Nevelson
As a child and even into her teenage years, Neith lived a sort of dual citizenship living between Florence, Italy and the United States with her mother, Susan Nevelson. Only after her late teenage years, did Neith settle in the states to live for the most part in her grandmother's studio in New York City.
Neith Nevelson, age 17

As I wrote, Neith's childhood was unique in many ways, for good and bad. It was a childhood that included: horse-back riding, home-taught schooling, and that overall and typical bohemian lifestyle for which many artists and painters are known for, mainly in the New York of the 1960's.

Suffice it to say that even recognizing the fact that by the time Neith was a teenager her grandmother had become an icon in the art-world, but it was a success that for the elder Nevelson had become mixed with bittersweet memories of years of struggle, discrimination and poverty. In fact, similar to Neith, her grandmother had worked so hard and for so long for some name-recognition that when it did happen, she would shun and often mock the world that had seen her rise from poverty and obscurity to the icon she is known to be today.

Neith Nevelson in 2004
Unfortunately, the immediate association to the Nevelson last name has worked against Neith’s development as an artist, something which is tragic in many ways, and unfair. It has not been the only stumbling block for Neith, but it has certainly a main one. After all, almost immediately, most people tend to associate the Nevelson last name with Louise discounting Neith’s own oeuvre as irrelevant.

In 1991, a critic for the Miami Herald went so far as to write that though well-intentioned and with “lots of heart,” Neith’s art proved, nonetheless, that “talent is not always passed down in the DNA.” What this critic failed to point out was that Louise Nevelson’s own defiance against the artistic convention of the times, would eventually become masterly achieved and uniquely priceless works of art achieved by after a long process of trying to find her own artistic vision and after being influenced by many artists of her times-- as it is obvious if one pays close attention to Louise's works pre-dating the 1960's. In fact, Louise and Neith do share something in common. They were never comfortable with the art world and they would always be outsiders.

The question, though, then becomes this: why has Neith’s merit as artist go unrecognized for so long, often being criticized in ways that are anything but professional when her art, is viewed in its entirety, its development and maturity, is impressive. The proclivity by many in the art world to shun Neith as an artist of merit is disturbing, and such discussion is timely.

NEITH’S ART: What is it?
I probably will repeat what has been written about Neith before. But so what? Neith’s art is complex, evoking sudden emotions and quick interpretations. Experimental combinations of colors, quick brush strokes, and an obsessive desire to fill every inch of the canvas, often makes her art difficult to understand. But this is hardly a problem, or a major one. Art should not be interpreted, as enjoyed in quiet contemplating. Art is a way to become an accomplice in an act of voyeurism. There is energy in Neith's paintings; landscapes filled with faces, horses and distorted female bodies. The energy is counterbalanced by a fine proportion between line and color, a proportion that makes the overall effect delicate, vulnerable almost. And the more we observe, analyze, scrutinize, the more it becomes obvious that what we are seeing is 1) a painting that may have begun as a dialogue between the artist and her inner world; 2) a dialogue that ended with the work of art itself, interpreted as good or bad based on own projections.

                                                            Courtesy of Dana Berman

Neith’s art is not art for art’s sake, and one thing is not is commercialized and therefore overpriced. Her art does represent something. It means something. What exactly these are is what’s so baffling about them. If you seek to interpret them, usually the lack of balance, solidity or proportion makes the attempt impossible. There are traces of cubism in her paintings, as has often been pointed out especially during a period of intense artistic maturity that lasted for most of the 1990s, especially 1996. But even though this period was also Neith’s most intense, she never seemed comfortable with the one-dimensionality of cubism, especially as they applied to faces which are laden with such overpowering human emotions.

At her most complex and overbearing, and at her most uncategorized, Neith takes over the canvas as if possessed by a force larger than herself; making large, monstrous creatures reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, a fact that has often been pointed out by art critics but which, again, fail to see the essential vision that makes her so different. Unlike Picasso’s large works which seem to be political critiques of his times, Neith’s larger pieces are as powerful, if not more, simply by the fact that she’s almost physically crippled as the result of a car accident which nearly killed her and that went on to aggravate an already physical deformity caused by sclirosis. Furthermore, none of these paintings seem to be about anything in particular to which a deeply dividing social issue can be compared to, again such as in Guernica, but to give the same example.

At her most minimal, smaller works done in pen-and-pencil, Neith captures a suffocating reality that disrupts our sense of limit and proportion. It is an art whose objectivity dissolves and whose ultimate effect on us remains unresolved and irreconcilable, like life itself.

Louise Nevelson’s legacy rests on monumental, solid structures made mostly from steel sheets, metal and dark wood. These sculptures seem to be representative of life as a process of transference, not opposition. Non-representational—with only colors adding to their distinctive strangeness-- these sculptures are unsettling, but more complete, compact. The elder Nevelson wants to remind us that life can be lived to its full potential. How can it not? How did we ever miss such ancient maxim? In many ways, this is art in the service of an ideal, a Platonic belief which gives life its conceptual and moral worth, not its rudimentary, divided, and raw primitiveness.

The question remains, though, what is it? What is Neith’s art all about? What are its basic principles, symbolisms, and philosophy? What is she trying to convey to us, the viewer? Why does it seem to attract every person who comes into contact with one of her pieces, even if we don't necessarily like it at first?

These are, unquestionably, difficult questions for which there aren't any simple answers. These are, I think, what makes anything worth talking about and what makes any artistic endeavor good, not simply average.

"Eternal Recurrence"

Neith's art is dark  and disruptive to our sense of propriety. It is Nietszchean in nature, and hence brutal, yet beautiful. Invariably, Neith seems to see life as harsh, a form of rape almost. 

The pained simulation of colors, becomes part of a physical and psychical dissociation between, say, the individual who suffers, who questions, who spends a lifetime trying to make sense of who he or she is, and a world bereft of meaning, at worse indifferent. While the conflict becomes enlarged such as in her larger paintings, so does the gap of any reconciliation between society as a medium of nurture and nature as a force of destruction; ironically, it is this same nature, this resplendent landscape she gives birth to with such colors, that seems to hold the key to our own salvation. Seek within and you shall find, perhaps. Seek without and become another mass produced clone of civilization. Surprisingly, the person herself says very little. She plays with your mind by staying silently in the background. What you see if your projection— if that means that what you will see is fear let it be; if you see joy, an exuberance of colors, then, why not? Either way the choice is yours.

"Sea Urchin"

Throughout a long and prolific career, Neith has narrowed her artistic interests to three main categories: naked women, faces and horses. In turn, each of these categories captures the essence of a common denominator: from chaos freedom, from freedom rebirth, from rebirth death.

Neith’s horses, which are also her most perfect renderings as far as forms and shapes, are often only swirls of lines over a large stretched canvas. With horses, there are no embellishments or experimentations with colors, just simplicity for simplicity’s sake. Again, though at times these horses are paired in groups, the effect is always one of serenity, union. Her naked females are almost all amorphous, with weird curvilinear shapes that seem to be refractions from under water, and their effect, nonetheless, is nothing less than astounding.

Her faces, like the naked women, have a rudimentary and unfinished lack of proportion, though unlike both the horses and the female, these faces seem trapped, disturbed (mentally, physically, or spiritually). The youthfulness of these male faces makes the overall effect striking, even odd, sad, and violent all at once. At first, they seem threatening, hostile and accusatory. On closer look, there’s an almost delicacy that further compounds our sense of imbalance. Neith has called these male faces her ‘nebulas’, perhaps referring to unresolved emotional problems, or perhaps emphasizing the sad legacy of slavery and its continued effect on the psyche of our society.

Neith Nevelson and Jorge Reyes
In a world where there are no perfect blueprints for living are given and where our future in itself is an undisclosed territory of surprises, the only mechanism for survival that a human being is given is the gift of the imagination, perhaps also the only assurance that divinity does exist somewhere. This gift, talent, or whatever  you call it, is of course no guarantee of greatness or even a guarantee of anything innately special unless it is harnessed and turned into something palpably beautiful, gratifying, often strange and surreal—art, like life, is always symbolic, archetypal; hence mysterious, and universal. Personally I believe that's the intriguing aspect of Neith's art, her endurance as a favorite underground artist in South Florida similar to that of Purvis Young.  And that is exactly what I venture to add will also be her legacy.

Most of Neith's paintings are untitled.  I have tried to title those that are known to me.

What is this? Castro's Cuba?

The more I see the unrestrained use of force by correctional officers and the further erosion of our constitutional right to speak, yes, speak, the more I think we don't know how much of our freedoms we are losing.

The worse part of it is that none of us realize the erosion of such freedoms.

Case in point: Andrew Meyer, a 21 year old student at the University of Florida recently tasered, removed and then arrested after being a bit too forceful asking questions of U.S senator John Kerry.

Of course, immediately the force-control went on to say that Mr. Meyer resisted the arrest, arguably justifying the use of force by the Gainesville police to remove him.

Pardon if I sound sarcastic, but who the hell does Mr. Kerry and even the Gainesville police department think they are?

Force? Anyone who saw the footage of the actual event, apparently being broadcast live in Mr. Meyer's own web-site without anyone's knowledge, can tell that Mr. Meyer was just forceful asking Mr. Kerry questions that, despite anyone's opinion of this matter, did not amount to anything that our constitutional guarantees to ask from our public officers hard, direct and, yes, obnoxious questions.

What type of society are we living in these days that doesn't even instill in the people who enforce the basic rules of law, such as not harassing or jump on a guy who was just being belligerent if anything, not a threat to Mr. Kerry or anyone in the audience, and who was practicing a legitimate form of protected speech? We are not even living in a society based on puritanical ethics, nor in a society that is splitting itself along ideological or religious lines on the basis of them against us, as it happened throughout much of the 1950's war on ideology against communism.

If anything, we are living in a society where diversity of opinions and respect for such should not be diluted by a politically correct speech, a mass-produced set of onerous ideas, or a set of preprinted templates for a bill of sale. Diversion from such is still justifiable, if not legitimate, guys. Agreeing to be obnoxious, especially as this involves the hard-edge questions that all public officers should be asked, is not illegal, is not immoral and it is, in many ways, everyone's rights.

So, what prompted the Gainesville police officers to arrest this 21-year kid? According to the live-feed of this broadcast, this is the actual interaction between him and Mr. Kerry including questions such as:

1) Why Mr. Kerry conceded in his 2004 presidential fiasco that Mr. Bush be impeach for lying to the American public about our role in Iraq's war;
2) Whether Mr. Kerry was a member of the Skull Bones, a secret society at Yale University

For asking two questions, someone reminded Mr. Meyer that he was only allowed to ask one question, not more than that. This prompted Mr. Meyer to ask, "He's (Mr. Kerry) talked for two hours. I think I can have two minutes."

Before he knew it, though, not only did he have four or five officers on top of him trying to pin him down to the floor, even as Mr. Meyer yelled and screamed to be left alone. For the record, Mr. Meyer seemed to be resisting an arrest, but who's to blame him? Regardless, before he knew it he was not only being tasered as the nightly news reports have played over and over again, but he was on his way to the jail-house.

All this time, Mr. Meyer kept yelling and asking: "what have I done?"

The question is this, none of this should have gotten so out of hand and not one of the officers, short of feeling there was a threat to anyone there, should have behaved the way they did. Lest anyone forget, there should be wide latitude (and I mean wide latitude), for tolerating speech-- including speech we don't like; speech we detest; speech that seems to malign us. This is truer at a place that harbors free-thought, such as an university.

An even more troubling issue is that none of this should have happened. Mr. Meyer didn't necessarily act nor react in an unexpected or unreasonable manner. He had a right to ask anything he felt like it. People do it all the time, even television moderators who go beyond the alloted number of questions given by people they interview.

Mr. Meyer, you have a right to ask whatever you feel like asking anyone, particularly a public official, and your right is as precious due to the meaning it has in our country's history. Period. Simple as that.

However, look what happened. What's going on?

Like Mr. Meyer's sample, we thrive in a society which seems to have shaped itself along the lines of expediency, not legitimacy or substance. Of course, anyone is under the impression that this is a free society, which it isn't. You are as free to ask and expect a response, if you know your limits and if you ask it correctly-- and I'm not referring to manners. Ask the stupid and insubstantial questions and you may get only a few dishonest answer from many of our politicians, if they feel like it, when they feel like it, if they feel like it all. Ask the real questions, the honest-to-goodness questions, and you might get arrested, made to feel ridicule, or pay the price as a social outcast.

Learn your lesson once, or else.

I've known a lot of rebels and social outcasts in my lifetime, mainly leaders in the social movements from the 1950's and 1960's. I am thinking of one of whom I've never written about though I knew her well, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who paid the price with her life.

Some of these people, unlike Ms. O'Hair, didn't end their lives as tragically as hers did, but most of their lives were made a living hell by our populist desire to make everyone an iron cast mold of One idea. But, these people are the people who made the fabric of our nation, shaped our identity, overruled noxious laws into laws most of us can abide by. Our country was not built on stupidity, it was the result of a hard-fought battle, an intellectual as much as a blood-soaked battle. However, unlike many other nation-states that began as a dream built on a hill and just ended up in a dystopia, ours still remain a beacon of freedom.

Let's keep it that way.

14 September, 2007

BABYLON CITY: On City of Coral Gables "City Hall Confidential"

by Jorge Reyes

At the base of our constitutional, civil and civic rights is the ability to ask from our public officers the right to speak, the right to ask for a redress of grievances, and the right to make sure, against any other excuse to the contrary, that public business be treated with as much openness, ethics, and transparency.

It seems that's correct in much of our public institutions, except in the municipality of Coral Gables in southern Florida.

Anyone who's been reading some of Miami-Dade County's news, has, I'm sure seen recent articles about Coral Gables, a city known for its unique architectural beauty as much as for its political scandals.

It all started in 2006, with the arrest of an administrative assistant in the city's top-money making department, the Building and Zoning Department.

The arrest itself fueled an untold number of further allegations against the Building and Zoning Department, mainly against its now-terminated Director, Margaret R. Pass.  The arrest also unleashed an equally embarrassing number of  allegations of corruption in other departments and public officers. All these juicy events led to the sponsorship of an online public discussion blog called "City Hall Confidential", hosted by the city's local newspaper the Coral Gables Gazette.   (As of 2010, the Gazette has become a sort of cyber newspaper and City Hall Confidential seems to have been terminated.)

Much has been written in this blog about just about anything and anyone you can think of: from accusations of further fraud, corruption and cover-ups.  In fact, the entries into this blog reads like a sort of cyber-reality soap-opera with lurid story-lines involving sex, lies and, yes, even video-tapes.

All along, not too long, this blog seems to have fueled such public interest that there's even a reported attempt to hack into the server by a yet to be discovered entity which, simultaneously, seems to have made many a people's computers unworkable after they attempted to log onto that web-site. Not without surprise, accusations immediately ran rampant that the perpetrators of this heinous crime was none other than the City's own IT Department in a desperate attempt to find out who was whom posting daily entries in a membership listing of over 200 names, with aliases as interesting as: "Deep Throat," "TheBeautifulCity," "City Hall Spy," "New_Pac," etc.

(Left to right: Mayor Donald D. Slesnick III and City Manager David Brown.)

Even the Mayor of Coral Gables, Donald D. Slesnick III, asked the city attorney, rather unsuccessfully, to draft a resolution preventing any employee from writing or divulging anything of an internal matter publicly. The gag-order didn't go very far, though the attorney dutifully drafted a possible resolution.

Many of the personalities created have taken on particular issues that have emanated as a result of the year-long criminal investigation from the State Attorney Office. Some discuss, at length, issues about the criminal investigation, others just discuss the latest sex escapades of the private lives of the employees.  The honest truth is that no one trusts even the nature of the investigation, which is why whistleblowers are also writing in the blog as a way to keep track of the record at hand. 

I'm not sure what you may think of this, but I've never seen any criminal investigation as wide-ranging and as potentially dangerous to the career of public officials that has also become so embarrassing and which has unleashed a public discussion of this type.

There are extremely funny postings as much as there are postings directed at another one of the many personalities. Sometimes this takes on a hilarious nature, often it raises the vitriol level a bit too high for anyone's comfort. Often, there is detailed information about a particular issue. And, there are even mini-editorials about particular topics unrelated to the criminal investigation.

What started as a simple arrest in 2006, has turned into a domino's theory that seems to be involving just about everyone in the city and accusing everyone as accomplices in some sort of mischief or two, no joking matter. It would behoove anyone reading these entries to at least give them reding because asides from their effect, they seem genuine, often with exact details into the nature of misdeeds. 

I don't know about you, but an issue that seems to have awakened the interest by the citizenry in the affairs of their local government is a good thing. Even when some of the entries are not written with fairness in mind, one can gloss over the insensitive nature of these and realize that all are directed at public officers, despite their rank and file, which, again, is a good thing.  Democracy was not made for political correctness.

Public officers, of all stripes, ought to know that they serve the taxpayers, not the other way around. The truth may hurt, may offend, can often seem to be prompted by disgruntled people and personal issues, but criticism against public officers over their actions remains a stronghold of our democratic principles.

The constitution and everything we stand for as a nation stands on a very simple pact we seem to have forgotten: we the people run the government. Like it or not, this populism is the way it was always meant to be and the way it should remaim.  Otherwise, the day will come when each of us will have to buy into that pre-packaged lie that in order to be one nation we have to share in just one party line, believe in just one God, or even accept the pundits of one administrative body.

Wake up, everyone: chances are that if any public officer (a president, a mayor, a chief of police) tries to silence your point of view either through fear or retaliation, then there's something radically wrong in that side of town. The entire place probably stinks from top to bottom and the smell will probably get worse not better. And, with a misnomer like "the City Beautiful," the ironies are striking.

In all fairness, all the postings in "City Hall Confidential" could be nothing less than just that-- unsubstantiated information created by disgruntled employees. Yet, I have a hard time believing that much of it, even just a little of it, can be just gossip.

Coral Gables City Manager David L. Brown

As of 2008 the City Manager David L. Brown was under criminal investigation after a local newspaper discovered that he had back-dated two receipts, two and one year aparts, in order to fraudently prove that they had been paid. Though he wasn't outright fired since the state attorney office considered this to be a civil matter (to the very public disagreement of the Miami-Dade County Public Corruption Unit), Brown was eventually let go after one of his mistresses, who was also the mayor's own secretary, threatened to go public with a sexual harassment lawsuit against Brown.  The city settled with the alledged mistress.  Brown is now living in North Carolina, rumors say he is getting a divorce, has problems with the IRS, among other things.  Sadly, Brown also took with him in his retirement package an extra $25,000 with him which the city, in all fairness, at first tried to recoup from him before it changed its mind.  The city attorney claimed, among other things, that it would cost more in litigation than in it was actually worth it.   Brown didn't even make a good faith effort the attempt to return the money.

No criminal charges have been filed against anyone else in Coral Gables.  Most of the people in question, though, have either been quietly let go from their positions, have resigned, or sued the city in order to get huge settlements.  Margaret R. Pass, the director who was put on suspension with pay for over a year in 2006, played a game of cat-and-mouse for over year until she cajoled three commissioners in 2010 to vote for a settlement worth $99,000.  The commissioners simply turned a blind eye to the fact that the results of the criminal investigation against Margaret Pass and her department was still ongoing. 

And so it goes...

08 September, 2007

Religious Freedom for All? Yes! just not in my backyard

It's not easy to defend an unpopular cause, much less one I disagree with passionately for many reasons. I refer to the religious ritual of animal sacrifice as practiced by the Afro-Cuban religion of santeria.

My disagreement over religion generally and any of its practices particularly, such as animal sacrifice, is not from an anti-clerical mind-set. My disagreement over religion is an intellectual posture, one that has resulted from many years of theological studies and personal introspection.

That doesn't mean, as I wrote, that I can't defend a position I disagree with, even though as I repeat that's never something easy to do.

Recently I read in a local newspaper that in a municipality rightfully known as “the City Beautiful”, Coral Gables, in Southern Florida, a religious meeting known as bembes from practitioners of the santeria religion was interrupted by the city's police department. A bembe is similar to a ritualized meeting for the faithful. Catholics, for example, meet often on sunday and partake of their symbolic myth with hymns, incense, chants and to end the ceremony the sharing of the Eucharist which is, literally, symbolic of the blood of Jesus Christ.

What makes the santeria bembe practice unique, and shocking for many, is that practitioners of santeria, or orichas as they are known, take the main Catholic symbol one step further: they actually offer their gods blood from slaughtered animals, something which many local zoning laws forbid and, as in the case of the exclusive, idyllic and ritzy neighborhood of Coral Gables, it is prohibited regardless of any constitutional issues that may result from silencing a genuine form of religious worship.

Distasteful? Yes, both as a religious practice and as a way to stifle religious freedom.

In order to navigate the choppy waters of the goddess Chango, according to a Miami Herald report the mild-seeming mayor of Coral Gables, Donald Slesnick,III, went on record saying: “I have requested that the city attorney (Elizabeth M. Hernandez, who is of Cuban-descent herself) do an exhaustive investigation of the current status of the law.”

The mayor, a seasoned attorney who knows the law well, doesn't need any thorough interpretation of current law, but a politician will always be a politician and even an attorney of Cuban descent can seem to be thoroughly unfamiliar with a religious practice which to most Cubans is as familiar as Fidel Castro's name. Not to take for granted, the ethnic composition of Coral Gables now has a large Cuban or Latino-descent population, which may explain why the City is playing the role of panderer.

But here's the problem: neither the actions of the police (which may have just been enforcing the law) nor the comments made by the Mayor (no matter how wishy-washy), go to the heart of the matter, which is this: regardless of one's personal distaste or prejudice over something we don't like our constitutional protections were created just in order to prevent one's personal issues from affecting principles which are not based on a dictatorship of ideas, practices or unpopular causes.

Can you imagine if the same police department, or any other law or code enforcement entity, were to break into the services of a Catholic mass or a midnight vigil simply due to an anonymous complaint alleging some form of esoteric lewd or lascivious practice, which includes the spilling of blood from a piece of round bread referred to as a wafer? How about storming into a synagogue during a Jewish meeting? What would happen if Ernesto Pichardo, the soft-spoken and well-read santeria priest of the subject group and whose house was stormed into, were to make a request to start one of the City's commission meeting with a prayer in honor of the santeria gods?

The possibilities are endless, but you get my point.

As a refresher, Mr. Pichardo, well-known for his 1993 U.S. Supreme Court victory protecting animal sacrifice, is also the man in question in this 2007 rerun. He is the head priest of the church in question, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, and, no, the mention of Babalu Aye is not a parody of Ricky Ricardo.

Religious hostility over a non-sanctioned practice is nothing new, never mind that on paper we live in one of the freest nations in the world, one known for its unique interpretation of splitting government from religion just in order to safeguard the belief systems of our diverse society. This is nothing new, unfortunately. Religious intolerance take on many hues, from well-intentioned religious libertarians as much as tolerant non-religious folks who grow sick and tired of, yet, another silver-plated Christian cross being erected in every street corner while the institutions it represents grow rich from tax-exemption laws.

It is well known that no religion that has a monopoly on people's hearts, or pocketbooks. It is also equally true that in the marketplace of a theistic indoctrination, no religion is more legitimate than the other. This is even more true if the legitimacy of the religion in question is as old as humanity itself; much older, in fact, than some of the major world religions.

Santeria has deep cultural, social and economic roots. It has been a religion of people of an ancient people as much as a religion of the poor, the wealthy and many of us-- the everyman. Never mind that just like other religions were used in order to combat social injustice, such as the Quakers during the Civil War in the United States, or the Protestants in the Middle Ages who shook the Catholic monopoly on faith to its foundations, santeria has been the social and cultural cohesion that helped a group of people remain true to themselves. Their genuine importance is as important as the Judeo-Christianity, as example, and it embodies the same source of importance to its adherents.

Judaism embodies the hopes and fears of the Jewish people. Christianity does the same to its believers and if there is a religion that has caused more harm in history to so many people, it is Christianity in any stage, under any interpretation, under any of its many splinter denominations, under any political system. You name it. But the ability to do harm as much as good is not something for which Christianity should solely be blamed. Any religion whose source is based on an act of rebellion and that, ultimately, gains political power becomes a source of trouble.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana, an atheist, once said that history is prone to be repeated if one were ignorant of it. How true is that! And that is true for all ages, all societies, and all other human interaction.

We like to blind ourselves to the past and, often, forcefully sanitize our memories with the blindfolds of time. Yet, no matter how enlightened we like to think of ourselves, there's always room for improvement and there's never a new topic to dislike and pretend that our seemingly correct attitude towards it-- banning it-- is not akin something for which any of us in the past may have been stigmatized with-- being black was once the same as being an object; having separate urinals was once a code to uphold morals; not being able to vote was the norm; etc. No, despite our prejudices not wanting to understand that all prejudices are alike, what it comes does to is this: discrimination and prejudice. That's it. Period.

Which is why I defend unpopular ideas, regardless. If there is something for which a religion should be strictly constructed to forbid-- say human sacrifice which is manslaughter or forbidding minors from having a lifesaving blood transfusion at the behest of their parents' prohibition as practiced by the Jehova's Witness-- murder is murder and no one should be exempt from contravening criminal laws. Again, that's where my tolerance ends and where the law is fully justifiable to prosecute. That's it. Period.

Unless you are directly affecting my right not to believe, say, by trying to drive out of the neighborhood, then we can live in peace. Whatever happens has nothing to do with your right to hate me, and then make it a point to harm my right to be.

To me, religion is not a transcendental dicta from heaven. I don't think there is a God and if there is none of us is cognitively acute enough to know. Of course, you can always talk to God if you so choose and I can always call you an idiot. But so what? That's the beauty of freedom.

Let God, whatever she is, take care of our souls after our death. As for us here in this great earth, we can take care of our own as we have done since time immemorial. But, religion is not something without some valuable that charters our course in this senseless world. It records our skepticism and our path with too keen of an insight into human nature, something as magnanimous as Shakespeare's plays.

Religion is akin to poetry hence its power over our imaginations; it is something passionate, beautiful, and terrifying. However, it is always human, all too human.

As for santeria and the City of Coral Gables, it would be nice for us to see how a drafted document became the constitutional aspiration of a people known to defend positions for which they themselves were guilty of. The constitution, as it has lasted for two centuries, was drafted in the spirit of our flaws and not our perfections. It was a document that has survived in spite of our tragic past and not because of it. Anything that alludes to the righteousness of our actions end up with the populism of lynching, or separate urinals.

Perhaps the City of Coral Gables can set an example for our diverse society by teaching us all how to live by principles of fairness, tolerance and peace. Don't we all preach those lofty ideals? It is a beautiful municipality, with quiet parks connected by a system of historically-designed fountains and Mediterranean-style residential mansions with large, carefully-manicured green lawns, inhabited with what we may hope are perfect-seeming families trying to set the example of their blessed opportunities with what we can achieve, not what we can exclude.

And now, if you excuse me, I have to go and practice some of my dancing steps to the tune of some conga beats.