Conference Lends ‘Parrot’s-Eye View’ into Latin America and Caribbean

Three Eastern students present “Media Narratives and their Impact on the Immigrant Rights Movement.”

Written by Michael Rouleau

On the 526-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World, on Oct. 12, Eastern Connecticut State University hosted its third Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) Conference. The symposium featured research presentations and panel discussions by Eastern faculty and students, as well as a keynote presentation by visiting professor Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert of Vassar College.

“The date of this conference is significant,” said Anthropology Professor Ricardo Pérez, conference co-organizer. “It’s on this day in 1492 that Columbus spotted an island in the Caribbean and ‘discovered the New World,’ an event that resulted in a number of circumstances still felt today.”

The LACS Conference explored some of those circumstances, from the maroon communities of descendants of African slaves in Brazil, to the media portrayals of undocumented youth in the U.S., to the perils of Puerto Rican parrots after Hurricane Maria – and colonialism.

Anthropology Professor Mary Kenny opened the first panel with a discussion of her new book, “Deeply Rooted in the Present: Heritage, Memory, and Identity of Brazilian Quilombos.” Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country, and was the last to abolish slavery (1888). Presently there are more than 4,000 estimated maroon communities (known as Quilombos) in Brazil, many of which are in remote locations disconnected from mainstream society.

English Professor Miriam Chirico presents “John Leguizamo’s Comic Frame and Search for Identity.”

Among the problems facing the Quilombos is their status. Without federal recognition – or land acquisition rights – they are seen as squatters and sometimes forcibly moved to make way for development. According to Kenny, less than 10 percent of the Quilombos have federal status, yet some have existed for hundreds of years.

The third panel opened with English Professor Miriam Chirico’s research “John Leguizamo’s Comic Frame and Search for Identity.” Her research explores the tendency for Latino men to be typecast as gangsters and drug dealers in movies and television, which only reinforces negative stereotypes. “It’s hard to underestimate the effect this has on the public mind,” said Chirico.

A longtime actor-activist from Colombia, Leguizamo has made a career in white-dominated Hollywood by playing to the stereotypes of Latin American men, while also attempting to retain his ethnic identity.

Social Work Professor Isabelle Logan closed panel three with her presentation “Microaggressions and Bilingual Latino Professionals in the Court System.” Prior to coming to Eastern, Logan worked in the court system for 20 years. “When I started I was the only bilingual social worker in the public defender’s office,” she said. “I soon realized I was being asked to fulfill certain tasks that my colleagues were not.”

Social Work Professor Isabelle Logan presented “Microaggressions and Bilingual Latino Professionals in the Court System.”

Many of these tasks included serving as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking clients, however this added workload resulted in her being unable to complete her other work. When she asked for support, her plight was dismissed with statements such as, “Isn’t this the reason you were hired?”

Microagressions are subtle forms of discrimination. Logan’s research shows that they affect bilingual professionals in the hiring process and work environment, as well as their work performance and professional development.

Panel four consisted of students Vania Galicia (English), Monica Torrijos Ronquillo (psychology and criminology) and Juan Matiz (computer science) who spoke on the experience of undocumented students in a presentation titled “Media Narratives and their Impact on the Immigrant Rights Movement.”

Though it has never been passed, the DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 as a way to grant legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. In an effort to protect these youth from deportation, the Obama Administration passed DACA in 2012 — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“Growing up, we began to realize the effects of our undocumented status, particularly the lack of economic mobility and access to higher education,” said Matiz. Galicia agreed: “When I was a kid, I wondered if I’d ever be able to go to college, or if I could even get a job.”

The students’ presentation focused on the media’s role in crafting the DREAMer narrative – “DREAMer” is a term used to describe undocumented youth with high hopes in America. The students explained that this narrative is an example of “American exceptionalism,” as DREAMers are often depicted as highly educated young people with impressive career trajectories – an idealized notion of the “right immigrant.”

Student Monica Torrijos Ronquillo discusses the media’s portrayal of the immigrant-rights movement.

“If you’re undocumented, you’re either perfect (a DREAMer) or a criminal,” said Torrijos Ronquillo. “You can’t be anywhere in the middle. You can’t just be normal.” The students indicated that this societal pressure, coupled with their uncertain futures, breeds anxiety and depression.

The conference closed with visiting professor Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert of Vassar College, who presented “The Great Silence: A Parrot’s Eye View of the Forests of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.”

“Imagine a Caribbean region with thousands of parrots flying overhead. Columbus described such a flock darkening the sky. This display is unimaginable today,” said Paravisini-Gebert, explaining that there has been a steady decline in parrot populations due to human and environmental events.

Visiting professor Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert of Vassar College presents her research about the perils of Puerto Rican parrots after Hurricane Maria.

Many endemic species of parrot and macaw have gone extinct throughout the Caribbean due to habitat destruction/deforestation and hunting.

“If you’ve been around a long time, you become picky,” said Paravisini-Gebert. “This is true of the parrots, who commanded the forest a long time. They need certain habitats to be just so.”

Parrots have been slow to adapt to the changes brought after colonization. With diminished habitats from human development, parrot populations have declined to the point where, now, a direct hit on their range – such as by a hurricane – could bring a localized population to extinction.

To boost populations, some parrots in Puerto Rico are bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in the island’s more remote regions. The problem with this has to do with loss of language. Parrots have complex vocalizations that differ among species and regions.

“Those from captivity don’t speak Puerto Rican parrot,” joked Paravisini-Gebert, “like their wild counterparts in other parts of the island.”

The Latin American and Caribbean Studies Conference also featured presentations by Sociology Professor Dennis Canterburgy, who recently authored “Neoextractivism and Capitalist Development”; Geography Professor Patrick Vitale’s presentation “From McKeesport to Mexico City: How American Suburbs Fought the Cold War”; and History Professor Joan Meznar’s presentation “Saving Brazil from Communism: Our Lady Aparecida and the Military Regime, 1964-85.”