Monthly Archives: February 2017

Rain in the land of fair weather

It’s raining in California. A lot.  I’ve lived in the midwest, the mountains, the desert, and the northeast, but California weather is weird. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here) details how California’s precipitation comes in 30 year cycles. Since we only have 150 years of modern weather records, that’s 5 cycles of rain. That’s not much data. So it causes havok. In 1916, San Diego hired a guy named Hatfield to literally make it rain. Just as he started work, it rained torrentially, and Hatfield had to flee a lynch mob. (Below is the Backstory Podcast segment on this story.)

I visited beautiful Balboa Park (home of the San Diego Zoo) in endless rain. I braved bus stops without awnings and big puddles. Because San Diegans live outdoors so much, only one restaurant had indoor seating, and was full of dripping puddle people like me. It was a harrowing adventure for one from the desert. I took a few rain-speckled pictures and fled back to the museums. I was lucky they weren’t outdoors too!

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Book Review: Santa Anna of Mexico (Will Fowler 2007)

Rating: 4/5

Will Fowler’s Santa Anna of Mexico is about Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the six-time president of Mexico. Santa Anna partook in most major events in the first 40 years of Mexican independence. Americans might know his as the cruel Mexican general of The Battle of the Alamo in Texas. He was a charismatic and wily man, entwined with and representative of the problems of early Mexico. He is hated today in Mexico, with no roads or statues to his honor; Fowler presents a complex man living through complex times.

WHY THIS BOOK?

  1. Santa Anna pops up in southwestern history. He was the general at the Alamo. He lost a leg in the Pastry War. He conned James Polk during the Mexican-American War. Eventually, I had to read his biography.
  2. Although the United States has only two neighbor countries, I know almost nothing about the history of either.

THE GOOD

Go look at the heads of state of Mexico on Wikipedia. For the first 30 years, only one lasted his whole term. 19th century United States sometimes seems dysfunctional; we’ve got nothing on Mexico. How did Mexico turn out so differently? This book helped me understand that a little.

Santa Anna’s biography is a great way to learn the (ridiculously complex and confusing) early history of Mexico. Santa Anna’s personal history parallels his country’s history. Fowler splits Santa Anna’s career into four stages: Hope (1821-28), Disenchantment (1828-35), Disillusion (1835-47), and Despair (1847-53).

Fowler portrays a complex Santa Anna. Santa Anna is blamed as the man who lost Texas, the man who lost the Mexican-American War (ceding half the country to the US), and the man who signed the humiliating Gadsden Purchase (ceding some more land to the US). He was also the Hero of Tampico, fending off a Spanish invasion, and the hero of the Pastry War, in which he lost a leg. In the Mexican-American War, he returned from exile in Cuba and valiantly fought when all others seemed paralyzed by infighting. The man had more lives than a cat. He was incredibly opportunistic, but he was also brave and believed in Mexico.

Fowler also describes Santa Anna as a caudillo. The caudillo, or strongman, is a political tradition in Latin America tracing to Spain’s colonial policies. The caudillo amassed money, land, and influence regionally; if his region was nationally influential enough, he would be nationally influential. Santa Anna became the caudillo of Veracruz, the large and crucial port of Mexico.

Donald Trump has been called the “Yankee Caudillo” in Latin American press. There are parallels. Santa Anna attacked the political parties as corrupt; he claimed to stand apart from the evils of partisanship and to fight for the people. Santa Anna stayed relevant with his wealth in Veracruz; likewise Trump stayed relevance with his global brand. Both men were constantly near power, but able to claim a mantle of purity. Like Trump, Santa Anna preferred to campaign (this time in the military sense). Santa Anna rarely held power for more than six months because he didn’t care to govern. (This is in contrast to other caudillos who held power for extended periods of time.) My understanding is admittedly superficial, but learning about Mexico’s politics gave me another perspective on American politics.

THE BAD

I struggled with the first few chapters. I was constantly consulting Wikipedia or a map. If you know little Mexican history, this book is absolutely readable, but it’s challenging.

OVERALL

Santa Anna is absurd, but Fowler explains him well. Santa Anna’s antics are so intimately a part of Mexico’s early struggles for democracy.

Santa Anna, like Mexico’s early failure, is so tragic. What could Mexico have accomplished if only they had achieved the stability of the early United States? Were the United States lucky to have achieved stability from the very beginning?

Finally, the caudillo concept provides insights into much of Latin America, and perhaps into the United States.

Black History Month Reading List

One of the joys of science fiction is imagining life through other lenses. Until recently, I had overlooked the richness of lenses present in contemporary society and history. In the spirit of that joy, I challenged myself to a reading list for February’s Black History Month.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (nonfiction)

The Warmth of Other Suns details the Great Migration, when over 6 million African Americans migrated from the American South to the north, looking for opportunity and fleeing oppression. From 1915 to 1970, this quiet movement reshaped our country; before the migration, 10% of American blacks lived in the north, after, 50%.

This 530 page book (over 600 with the post matter) sat on my shelf for months, looking intimidating. Finally I picked it up for Black History Month. In 4 days, I’m already over 400 pages in. It’s so well written and relatable.

Binti by Nnedi Orakafor (science fiction)

Science fiction has long been a bastion of white dudes, as demonstrated by the Sad Puppies tantrums of 2015. In addition to being exclusionary, this is unfortunate because it goes against the calling of the genre to explore the human condition. The genre has shortchanged minority protagonists and it spends too little time in the vast non-white areas of the world.  A new generation of science fiction authors has brought great stories to these underserved settings and perspectives.

Nnedi Orakafor is part of the afrofuturism movement in science fiction. I read a short story by her several years ago, and it stuck with me. I’ve been meaning to read a longer work of hers, and now is the time.

American Uprising by Dan Rasmussen (nonfiction)

America’s largest slave uprising is largely forgotten today. Well-rated and about an unfamiliar topic—sounds perfect.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (folk tale)

Amos Tutuola is a famous Nigerian writer of folk tales. This book has been on my shelf for years. I started it once, but then got distracted and set it down. The style is a little challenging, as it’s unfamiliar, but it’s time to read Amos Tutuola.