Feb 14

Día de los Muertos


Halloween, the last night of October, has become a popular holiday for costumes, tricks, and treats.  The origins of this tradition, however, are more complex than it would appear.  It has evolved from numerous practices around the world, and although it is now largely a festive event, many of the customs that contributed to Halloween have more serious meanings.  Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for instance, recognizes the religious holiday All Hallows’ Eve, from which Halloween took its name.  This custom, practiced throughout much of Mexico, is dedicated to the souls of the deceased.

The present version of Día de los Muertos descended from native practices, particularly those of the Aztec.  Its most similar ancestor was a festival dedicated to a female goddess of the dead, during which the Aztec remembered and honored the deaths of their ancestors.  In ancient times, skulls were often kept as trophies or memorials, and they were prominently displayed as the natives payed tribute to the deceased.  The skull remains a popular symbol and is one of the most visible signs of the connection between Día de los Muertos and its predecessors.  Although bones are no longer kept for display during the holiday, skulls are found in images, figurines, and other displays related to el Día.  Small, decorated skulls formed from sugar or clay are commonly found during the holiday as well.


These decorative skulls are among many offerings made to the deceased during the holiday.  As families gather for Día de los Muertos, it is customary to visit ancestors’ graves and leave small gifts.  In addition to those associated with the holiday (such as skulls), many visitors also leave items of personal value or meaning.  The deceased’s favorite food or drink (tequila and mezcal are particularly popular) as well as their belongings are often placed by graves.  The Mexican marigold, often planted by graves in observance of the holiday, has become so strongly affiliated with el Día that it is now referred to as the Flower of the Dead (el Flor de Muerto) in most parts of Mexico.


Many families also erect small altars or memorials in their homes in the days approaching el Día, adorning the structures with photos and mementos of lost relatives.  Such practices, usually highly religious in nature, are meant to honor the dead while preserving fond memories and encouraging reflection on their lives.  The community also undertakes joint projects; schools and other organizations often build larger memorials to commemorate the holiday.


The Day of the Dead is observed not only across the majority of Mexico, but in many other nations (particularly those of Latin America) as well.  Although the holiday and its purpose are shared across borders, celebrations are far from uniform.  A wide variety of practices have evolved in different regions, ranging from traditional and religious to festive and celebratory.  But regardless of the manner in which it is celebrated, el Día promotes solidarity by presenting families with an opportunity to mourn the loss of loved ones and celebrate their lives with other members of their communities who have experienced the same sorrow.

Feb 14

Venezuela: Responding to Expulsion

The past several years have seen numerous movements for independence across the globe.  A single act of defiance gave birth to the often violent uprisings of the Arab Spring; a surprisingly peaceful referendum brought about the new nation of South Sudan; and more recently, protesters in the Ukraine have begun fighting for the right to determine their country’s future.  Venezuela has become the latest to join the ranks of nations experiencing unrest as a growing number of demonstrators take to its streets.

Nicolás Maduro, the current president of Venezuela, has faced a broad spectrum of problems since his disputed election to office.  Rising inflation, lack of access to basic necessities, and soaring crime rates have finally caused the public to speak out.  What began as peaceful demonstrations, unfortunately, quickly escalated.  In the first day of protests, three Venezuelans were killed by riot police.  This has fueled broader action and brought larger numbers, particularly students, to the streets.

Although some of the protesters’ complaints have been longstanding, demonstrations of this type were rare under Hugo Chávez (Maduro’s predecessor).  Furthermore, potential allies of the Venezuelan government are largely distracted by a mountain of other problems facing the region, and have been reluctant to commit themselves to offering assistance.  Maduro, perhaps worried by the unfamiliar instability and political uncertainties, has been taking gradually stronger measures against protesters.  He has cracked down harder on the ongoing demonstrations and called for the arrest of Leopoldo Lopez, an activist and leader of the opposition.

Maduro has also lashed out at the United States.  Claiming that several American diplomats were using a Visa program to help incite and organize protests, he has expelled them from the country.  It is no secret, of course, that the United States supports democracy and independence.  However, American officials have made it clear that they have no intention of interfering with Venezuelan affairs; they maintain that the future of the South American nation is to be determined by its people, without interference.

Nevertheless, Maduro remains adamant that the Americans have been working against him.  With no official international support and protests gaining momentum, it is not surprising that Maduro would not want to take the risk of allowing his opponents to gain support from the U.S.  However, his far from diplomatic approach in resolving the matter (combined with the fact that he has already expelled American diplomats twice this year) raise questions about the future of relations with Venezuela and Maduro’s government.

Naturally, it would be tempting for the U.S. to withdraw from Venezuela and its affairs, avoiding further accusations from Maduro.  This, however, would ultimately hurt both nations.  The latest expulsion of U.S. diplomats is part of what many recognize as a pattern in Maduro’s behavior: creating political conflict (especially with the U.S.) to distract public and media attention from other issues.  Therefore, while it may be best to temporarily avoid giving the Venezuelan government any reason to suspect American interference in the ongoing protests, the U.S. should remain poised to deal with the country in the long run, whatever the outcome of the current unrest.

Because many have recognized the political motives behind Maduro’s claims about the U.S., as well as the exaggeration and manipulation of evidence he has cited to support them, his move may have served as more of a blow to his own interests than to those of the United States.  As the protests continue, Maduro has only further hurt his credibility, which was already in question after he accused Lopez, who has only called for peaceful demonstrations, of inciting violence.  This may weaken the Venezuelan leader’s position as he attempts to garner support from neighboring governments or appease his own citizens.

With the truth behind Maduro’s claims well known, the U.S. has no need to assert its innocence.  On the contrary, it can allow the accusations to further discredit Maduro and thereby help the cause of the Venezuelan people.  Furthermore, with Lopez willingly turning himself in and the majority of protesters remaining nonviolent, the demonstrations are gaining considerable momentum even without American support.


Neuman, William, and Andrew W. Lehren. “Venezuela Orders 3 U.S. Embassy Officials to      Leave.” The New York Times 18 Feb. 2014: A3. Print.
Shoichet, Catherine E. “Venezuela: Expelled U.S. Diplomats Have 48 Hours to
     Leave.” CNN. Cable News Network, 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Feb 14

Inti Raymi

Sacsayhuamán, Peru

Christopher Columbus’ landing in the so-called New World during October of 1492 would irreversibly change the course of history.  Unfortunately, for many of the indigenous populations of the Americas, the future was bleak.  Once thriving empires would be crippled by foreign diseases and conquerors, and the native way of life was greatly altered by missionaries whose good intentions often led them to condemn preexisting traditions.

One of the most notable victims of the influx of European influence throughout Central and South America was the Inca.  A wealthy and powerful civilization, the Inca Empire quickly became the target of conquistadors seeking New-World riches.  As the Inca eventually fell under foreign rule, they were forced to abandon much of their traditional culture.  This was especially true of those practices related to their polytheistic religion, which worshiped the sun as a supreme power.  The practice of some of the most important Inca festivals in honor of the sun god (who was referred to as Inti) were entirely stopped by the middle of the sixteenth century.

One such festival, however, has undergone a relatively recent revival.  Beginning in 1944, Peruvians began elaborate reenactments of Inti Raymi (the Festival of the Sun).  Performers in traditional Inca clothing carry out the historic festival for growing numbers of tourists, exhibiting the most important aspects of what was originally a nine day celebration over a much shorter period of time.  Held annually on the winter solstice, the recreation of Inti Raymi brings historical accounts of the most important Inca festival to life, offering a window into the distant past.



Inti Raymi served a variety of purposes for the Inca.  It was a time of relaxation and jubilation for an industrious people, allowing them to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  The festival was also an important religious time, when animals were sacrificed to gain the favor of the sun god and ensure a successful harvest.  Perhaps most important for modern performers, however, is the symbolic nature of many of the festival’s elements.  Dances and other public displays conveyed the story of the Inca’s rise to power and a variety of other native legends.  Early records have preserved these tales, allowing re-enactors to accurately convey Inca history and culture.


The site of these reenactments also offers an important look at the Inca.  Sacsayhuamán, an imposing fortress built from massive stones, is a testament to the resources and capabilities of the once powerful empire.  Boulders were cut to size and then hauled (by hundreds of men with lengths of rope) to the hilltop where the fortress was to be constructed.  Workers then precisely carved the stones to fit into place.  The structure provides an appropriate backdrop to modern renditions of Inti Raymi, juxtaposing the cultural and physical remnants of the Inca Empire.


The annual performance of Inti Raymi has become popular for its historical accuracy.  However, lesser-known versions of the festival may be more closely linked to the original.  In difficult-to-reach areas of the Andes mountains, Inca traditions were often preserved.  Even when missionaries reached the most remote communities and converted them, many held to their roots.  Inti Raymi and other native celebrations were often tied to religious holidays, but the customs were largely unaltered and remain so today.

Feb 14

Food Fights

Binissalem, Spain

In many parts of the world, crops can become a dominant part of a people’s culture.  For those areas economically dependent on agriculture, the labors of planting, cultivating, and harvesting are an integral component of daily life.  Therefore, when months of work finally result in a successful crop, it is often met with a period of relaxation and celebration.  Ironically, however, the celebration of a harvest in Binissalem, Spain often leads to the destruction of a considerable portion of the fruit that it yields.

Binissalem, located on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, is home to a large number of vineyards and wineries.  Each year, the September grape harvest brings a week of traditional festivities in which residents and visitors throw the (literal) fruits of Binissalem’s labor at one another.  While the daily grape fights may sound like madness for a town of winemakers, harvesters are careful to only offer up what is not suitable for production.  Furthermore, removing unhealthy fruit from the vineyards prevents it from jeopardizing the rest of the crop.  The least-desirable grapes from each vineyard are brought to fields beyond city limits, where crowds can gather and fight with the fruit until it is reduced to juice and skins.


La Festa des Vermar, commonly known as the Grape Throwing Festival, also includes grape stomping demonstrations and competitions in honor of traditional manufacturing methods.  This lively time of year is also, of course, celebrated with large amounts of local wine yielded from the more favorable grapes of previous years’ crops.

Ivrea, Italy

Fruit is also the highlight of an annual festival in Ivrea, Italy, where townspeople are divided into nine teams to fight one another with oranges.  Because of Italy’s Catholic heritage, The Battle of the Oranges coincides with the beginning of the Lenten season.  Ending just before Lent begins (on what is traditionally known as Fat Tuesday), Carnevale di Ivrea contributes to the excess that typically precedes this austere period of the Church calendar.  Its origins, however, are far from religious in nature.

The Battle is a unique commemoration of a revolt said to have taken place in the 1200s.  When a young bride, the miller’s daughter (la mugnaia), was forced to spend a night with the Duke (according to ancient traditions), she refused to comply and instead decapitated the Duke.  Inspired by la mugnaia, the townspeople rose up against the palace guards and liberated themselves.

During the Battle of the Oranges, fruit is thrown between armored participants in carts, meant to represent the Duke’s guards in his palace, and a larger mass of townspeople playing the role of revolutionaries.  The festival can become considerably violent, but is nevertheless a cherished tradition throughout all of Ivrea.


Buñol, Spain

Perhaps the most famous of large-scale food fights is La Tomatina, celebrated in Buñol, Spain.  Legend holds that, while watching a parade, spectators tried to disperse a group of nearby animals by throwing tomatoes at them.  When a stray shot hit one of the attendees, a tomato fight spontaneously erupted and a tradition was born.  As in Mallorca, only the least valuable fruit is used for fighting.  Buñol differs from Ivrea, however, as it now requires that all projectiles be crushed before throwing (an effort to prevent serious injury in a more lighthearted event).

Prior to the fight, a ham is placed atop a grease-covered pole.  The signal to begin is not given until someone can climb the pole (palo jabón) and remove the ham.  Trucks then bring roughly 150,000 tomatoes to the town square, where participants eagerly throw them at one another for an hour.  Around midday, the fighting is finally stopped and gives way to other festivities while firetrucks are used to clean the town square.  The popularity of La Tomatina has led to its imitation in other countries, including the United States.


Feb 14

The Shape of Higher Education: Personal Stake

The future of higher education is a constantly debated issue, with widely varying opinions on how it should be shaped and structured.  As a student, my views regarding this matter are naturally focused largely on my own experience.  I came to college because I recognized it as an opportunity to better myself and allow me to work in a field that I would not otherwise be able to enter.  To me, a college education is invaluable, and I have come to believe that such an opportunity should be available to anyone who wants it.  Nevertheless, I also realize that it is not the best path for everyone, nor is everyone going to college the best path for society.  The technical skill gap remains a large problem for American employers, and trades offer a secure living.  I cannot presume to dictate the best choice for anyone, but I generally believe that higher education does not only involve universities.  It is important to continually try to learn and improve oneself, but this can be through a large number of pursuits; therefore, I hold that our society should adopt a broader view of higher education as we move forward.

Feb 14

Unit Five: This I Believe

Below is the final script of my This I Believe Podcast, followed by the recorded version:

We have a tendency, almost a compulsion, to fill a void.  Human beings are uncomfortable with the undefined.  As children, this manifests itself as a fear of the dark, a fear of what might be waiting just beyond the limits of our vision.  We feel a need to fill the darkness with light.  And although we grow out of this fear of the dark, we remain uneasy with emptiness.

As a result, our generation is constantly occupied.  At first only a side-effect, it has grown into a crippling condition.  Technology made us faster, more productive versions of ourselves, but we took advantage of it to escape confronting the void.  Now, even when we have accomplished all that we must, we feel the need to be engaged by some other task.  We find any possible means to fill what little downtime we have, drowning out the silence with speakers and earbuds.  We have become so unaccustomed to quiet and calm that we now fear it as we once did the dark; we fear what might await us in the emptiness.

But I believe that quiet is a necessity, one that should be cherished rather than endured.  Just as the dark lends itself to rest and recovery after the long light of day, quiet is what allows us to process, analyze, and ultimately understand all of the noise.  Each day, we are bombarded by an exorbitant number of stimuli, all screaming for our attention.  If we never allow ourselves a moment without having to take in new information, it becomes impossible to reflect on anything that we have taken in.  Without quiet, a wealth of knowledge simply remains an incomprehensible mess, and is ultimately forgotten.

This notion may seem abstract, it may even seem to defy convention, but it is supported by the law of diminishing returns.  It has been proven that for each additional unit of time spent studying a given topic, successful learning begins to decrease.  At a certain point, new information is no longer the answer to understanding something.  Only contemplating what has already been learned can lead to pronounced increases in comprehension; for this, quiet is paramount.

And just as quiet nurtures new understanding, it also brings forth new ideas.  Consider Sir Isaac Newton, the infamous Englishman who first developed the concept of gravity.  He worked tirelessly on numerous experiments to support his hypothesis.  Nevertheless, Newton became aware of gravitation as he was simply strolling through an orchard, his mind unoccupied and undisturbed.

We often have similar, albeit less profound, experiences.  Most of what I’m including in this podcast was thought of in the shower, or while walking between classes.  Obviously sitting in silence is not the solution to every problem, and it would be far from productive, but we could all benefit from making the effort to free ourselves from distractions, whether it be by setting time aside to clear our minds or simply leaving our headphones at home once in a while.  It may seem inconvenient, but quiet can be unexpectedly powerful, and should not be underestimated.

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