photo & text by nacrowe
i sought out and first read COMANDANTE: HUGO CHAVEZ'S VENEZUELA (PENGUIN, 2013) by GUARDIAN journalist RORY CARROLL shortly after learning i would be teaching in VENEZUELA while still a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in ALBANIA. it was an intriguing historical moment because by the time i arrived in august of 2013, former president HUGO CHAVEZ had only been dead for a least 6 months. over the next two years i bore witness to a country in sharp economic decline.
more like free fall.
i lived in MATURIN in the east where most of the oil fields are. as an oil brat that grew up in NIGERIA an KUWAIT, i have some familiarity with the sometimes complicated nature of AMERICAN industry in foreign countries. CHAVEZ of course famously nationalized their oil industry and largely banished most oil companies from their reserves. this was seen domestically as a powerful move but crippled their prospects longterm as outside advice regarding technical expertise was now abandoned. when the price of oil dipped during my tenure out there, the effects were quick and painful and VENEZUELA has yet to rebound. in fact they are still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is largely the result of such shortsighted policies.
but how did he come to rule? the book presents CHAVEZ as a figure whose power was seen in his braggadocious, confident demeanor, his military background and especially the fact that he was the very physical embodiment of the underclass of VENEZUELAN society, having originated in the rural LLANOS region. VENZUELA, much like the rest of SOUTH AMERICA, has a population that has its origins in EUROPEAN, NATIVE and AFRICAN bloodlines. this being the result of SPANISH conquest in the new world (PORTUGUESE with obvious respect to BRASIL). cultural, religious and linguistic traditions of the continent are profoundly influenced by centuries of EUROPEAN colonization, so unfortunately one carryover is preference for all things EUROPEAN. the experience of watching television in VENEZUELA is where you would be hard pressed to identify people of non-EUROPEAN descent shown in beauty pageants, soap operas, game shows or even news broadcasts. like many others in the region (COLOMBIA, BRASIL, etc.), the media is effectively white-washed. much like BARACK OBAMA (although diametrically dissimilar in terms of their politics), the power of CHAVEZ is in part inseparable from his being the physical embodiment of the unprivileged and underrepresented classes in society.
reading this book i became aware of the narrative of his rise to power, which includes his imprisonment, election, attempted coup and reinstatement. i also grew to be aware of how he structured his public persona and cult of personality that still survives today. in essence he hitched his own to that of a tailored fiction surrounding that of SIMON BOLIVAR, by promoting one he promoted the other. CHAVEZ also create a new layer of bureaucracy between himself and powerful regional governors, whom he could scold and fire at will on his own television show ALO PRESIDENTE ("HELLO, MR. PRESIDENT"). in many ways he was like TRUMP before TRUMP. in essence this added layer of bureaucracy (more democracy!) allowed him to secure a buffer from any and all political fallout that resulted from his disastrous policies.
luckily, i made friends that allowed me to stay in CARACAS and visit many of the landmarks mentioned in this book. in this sense it was infinitely helpful in giving me an understanding of the political climate and recent history i was now entering. where i thought it lacked was in how uncritical CARROLL presents the regime at times. maybe that is an unfair critique, but after living there and witnessing the toll bore on the people of VENEZUELA (whom i found generous, vivacious, energetic, resourceful, selfless and beautiful) in the wake of his death makes me most likely not the most objective observer in that respect.
listening to the greater discussion these days regarding ONLINE / REMOTE / HYBRID LEARNING is something i find interesting due to the fact that in a previous life i was an english teacher who worked abroad in international schools (specifically in VENEZUELA, JAPAN and MYANMAR) and utilized such. my experiences obviously were played out long before the current pandemic, which unfortunately shows no signs of abating and has made such a classroom a necessity.
what drew me to online learning was a sense of student accountability. when i was studying at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was this program run by a professor called the STUDENT PRESS INITIATIVE. the basic idea around such was to locate at-risk youth, usually students already incarcerated with the juvenile detention centers and have them write. volunteers would tutor them and eventually they would create a product that would be published yearly by the prestigious COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS. it was meant as a means of empowering students through writing. as published authors these kids would speak at forums and ultimately take pride in their work and those of others. the basic concept of leveraging the university to empower at-risk youth always stuck with me.
when i began teaching abroad i found myself in communities that were fiercely collectivistic. this meant my students were largely motivated by the opinions of their peers and family, unlike AMERICAN kids that are generally individualistic. my idea was to publish their written work, all of it. no tests or quizzes, but written papers and projects from class. the act of making it public for their classmates to see up the ante. usually i was attempting to reinforce basic literary, research and communication skills and by publishing such i leveraged the community against the individual. by and large it worked.
at TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY there was also much promotion of project-based learning as opposed to testing. learning comes from the adaptation, modification and implementation of concepts rather than rote memorization of such (this pragmatic approach goes back to JOHN DEWEY). unfortunately now everything is the later and not the former.
given that i was overseas, i'd often have students write articles about their community, especially those people would not think to interview. in MYANMAR my students interviewed and wrote articles about ORPHANAGES, FARMERS, TAILORS, TEA LEAVE MERCHANTS, JADE MERCHANTS, BOUTIQUE OWNERS and ARTISANS within the community. these articles were then sent to friends of mine that taught in other countries and had their students read and write follow-up questions. what was amazing was that my students and those that asked the questions both employed english as a second language. if you are interested in checking out all the different projects i did in MYANMAR, they can be found HERE.
its one thing to have kids use quotes in a project, its another to raise the stakes and let them know that if they misquote their subject than they are effectively denying them their own voice. my kids took it very seriously because of such.
id also have them take surveys of their classmates, utilizing data. this sometimes dovetailed with concepts in their math class and we'd do some cross-curricular activities for both classes. very cool stuff.
in VENEZUELA i had a newspaper elective where students did everything from MOVIE REVIEWS, NEWSPAPER STAFF INTERVIEWS, TRAVEL ARTICLES, EDITORIALS to ARTIST/ARCHITECT PROFILES for the school newspaper EL MOSQUITO. my biggest accomplishment was getting students to buy in to participating in surveys that were the basis for all EDITORIALS. the whole enterprise reinforced literacy, reading and even NUMERACY. im still very much proud of it.
VIRTUAL ORAL PRESENTATIONS
for many parents there was a big emphasis on students being able to speak english well. i addressed this by having students use their phones to record them explaining part of a project. i had parents come in for one-on-one meetings in MYANMAR and the voice of their son or daughter speaking english clearly from a recording brought them to tears. examples of this are HERE, HERE and HERE.
below are two examples of videos my students in MYANMAR made for two different projects.
the first had them write and sing new lyrics to a popular song about something they learned that year, in the case of "ADD IT ONLINE" they sang about the final step in the WRITING PROCESS, which is PUBLISHING. they also all turn into ZOMBIES in the video and eat me alive.
the other video finds some students doing a S.T.E.A.L. (SPEECH / THOUGHTS / EMOTIONS / ACTONS / LOOKS) character analysis on the DISNEY character WALL-E.
whats awesome about doing these videos is that i could use them in other classes in the future. i was essentially stockpiling material for future students to utilize and have fun with.
as you can imagine, i miss teaching in ways i cant even verbalize. i literally could go on about online learning but i think you get the idea. unfortunately the way the education field has been going in recent years (away from project-based learning towards rote memorization), i am similarly glad to be out of the profession.
if you are interested in browsing the two website from my teaching days in VENEZUELA and MYANMAR, EL MOSQUITO is linked HERE and my class page for MYANMAR is linked HERE. enjoy!
everything is so depressing at the moment. seems the complete balkanization of the AMERICAN body politic is in full free fall right now. you have a president with tyrannical ambitions kicking the tires on what he can get away with in terms of utilizing the military against his own people.
i've seen this movie before. i lived through it specifically in VENEZUELA, NIGERIA and MYANMAR. when i read about unmarked federal officials with a dubious chain of command carrying out protection details against protestors i have flashbacks to seeing colectivos in MATURIN who were off-duty cops that attacked and killed protestors against NICOLAS MADURO. when i see TRUMP using military helicopters and the might of his forces to clear away protestors for the sake of a lame bible photo op, i think back to living in LAGOS in the mid 1990s and watching the police burn markets with glee. the learned hatred by some of my students in MYANMAR against MUSLIMS as manifested in them dressing up as "terrorists" for HALLOWEEN is mirrored in TRUMP and the REPUBLICANS blanket animosity and racism towards the non-white population. to this day i still wear it as a badge of honor that i didn't stay on after my first contract in MYANMAR at a job where my employer didn't have the moral fortitude to challenge the students against racism. the ROHINGYA CRISIS was taboo and never spoken about. what a wasted opportunity.
i've seen personally how injustice erodes unity and corrodes the national psyche. there is a choice being made right now by our fellow AMERICANS that wear a badge and plead an oath of fidelity to the constitution. at some point they are going to have make a decision on who they serve: the people or this dictator. if they collectively choose poorly we are all fucked.
but that isn't why i'm writing this. i do have an example of an individual who during a time of civil unrest made a selfless, patriotic decision and great personal expense on behalf of his fellow compatriots. and ironically this example is set in the BALKANS, specifically ALBANIA.
i've made mention before about my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA and my nationwide literacy project that resulted in me presenting a paper i co-wrote at CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY. i have also mentioned before how during my initial stay at my original placement site in the border town of KUKES (10 miles from the KOSOVAN border) resulted in me getting assaulted and ultimately relocated to another city.
what i haven't spoken about before is my former landlord in KUKES, whom i wont identify by name out of respect. in 1997 the ALBANIAN economy, already the second-poorest in EUROPE, took a sharp nose dive after the government lost a reported $1.2 billion due to involvement in a pyramid scheme. the result was countrywide civil unrest. some have described it as a civil war.
in terms of the police, many abandoned their post. but not my former landlord. he went down to the station and personally defended their stockpile of weapons from would-be looters. his feeling was that the last thing that this powder-keg of a situation needed was more firearms and ammunition. the looters came and turned his own gun against him.
i've seen his through-and-through scars. he showed them to me the night of my assault, telling me that i was a PURO KUKESIAN. that i couldn't leave. my assumption is that everything worthwhile in his community comes at a price and my efforts to educate was worth that price. i still hold him in the highest esteem for his service to his community at their hour of need. a true hero and patriot.
when i think now of our current crisis where the police-citizen relationship is coming apart at the seams, my hope is that our compatriots on the other side of the blue line will display some solidarity and empathy with those who have suffered. they are there in their current position to serve and protect the citizens, not the state.
hopefully they realize such en masse before we find ourselves in a new TRUMPIAN hell-scape we can't return from.
photo by veronica serrano
its crazy seeing all the shortages of things like toilet paper and basic food stuffs happen stateside these days, basically because i've experienced it all before.
this is the kind of thing i saw happen in the mid 90s during the isolated military regime of SANI ABACHA in NIGERIA and in VENEZUELA shortly after the death of HUGO CHAVEZ when NICOLAS MADURO took over in 2013. in both cases once you saw a desired product on a shelf you knew it was only a matter of time (usually within hours) that such would be gone to return who knows when.
in NIGERIA the company my father worked for got around this with large annual shipments (one per family) that were sent via international container ships that would take months at a time. you'd fill these things up by weight stateside during the summer and then see them in AFRICA in late autumn. it was crazy because you'd purchase a year's worth of any particular item (candy, napkins, detergent, etc). but it worked and meant you weren't relying on the local market for basic necessities, which was a good thing given the corruption of the military dictatorship of the time.
recent photo by nacrowe somewhere in new jersey
VENEZUELA was a different experience altogether in that i entered the country during a time of immense upheaval and change. CHAVEZ during his reign had nationalized various industries and kicked out foreign investment in things like oil and manufacturing. the UNITED STATES in particular used to manufacture napkins, paper towels and toilet paper in the country and after CHAVEZ' decision they merely relocated the factories to COLOMBIA (which in turn assisted in stabilizing their economy). i taught for two years there and over that time their currency spiraled out of control. the inflation was the highest in the world. since 2016 their currency has inflated 53,798,500%.
so what does that mean in human terms? it means people don't save, they spend because every day you wait the money has less value. prices are always climbing and basic common necessities like bread, food stuffs and household paper products are out of range for most to buy. during the end of my time there i went to COLOMBIA for a job conference. during my time in BOGOTA i brought two bodybags with me and filled them with deodorant, toilet paper and HARINA PAN (a cornmeal used in arepas, empanadas, etc). when flying back in VENEZUELA the officials there asked me point blank if i had any of the items on a checklist in my possession (the first three items being DEODORANT, TOILET PAPER and HARINA PAN). they weren't looking for drugs or weapons. i told them i didn't have any of those and they didnt check.
i brought those back to the school i worked at and over a few days passed them all out equally to the workers at my school. these included the gardeners, custodians, clerks, guards, drivers, etc. essentially i was handing them commodities that would appreciate with time and be worth more than their paycheck.
think about that. toilet paper, deodorant and cornmeal. now i don't think that the UNITED STATES will ever get to this level, but what i did learn in these situations is the resilience and dignity of NIGERIANS and VENEZUELANS i met. they really saw their individual needs in the context of their families and greater networks of friends. these desperate situations showcased what a true community was all about. i did what i could in VENEZUELA to the people i was around, but things have gotten much much worse since then and the rise of TRUMP has only made things worse.
not a day goes by i don't think of VENEZUELA. my goal is to return one day. NIGERIA i hear from friends has gotten much better as the government has succeeded in changing over its power a few times in fair elections, bringing in foreign investment. im glad that is the case.
VENEZUELA is intense.
with the exception of NIGERIA, i have never lived in a more precarious situation in terms of personal security. i took a teaching job in the eastern oil city of MATURÍN not too long after HUGO CHAVEZ passed on from cancer and basically had a front row seat to the economic, political and physiological dismantling of a nation. just to give you some insight, my first month saw the exchange rate at 1USD for 6 bolivares and by the time i left 2 years later it had jumped to over 200. not only that, when i lived in MATURÍN it was not on any global list of most dangerous cities, but the following year after my departure it shot up to number 4.
number 4. damn.
where they are now is beyond sad and depressing and the subsequent takeover of the legislative and judicial branches by the inept, sadistic MADURO regime is an international travesty. i don't see that ending anytime soon as RUSSIA is now using them in the same geopolitical chess formation as they do with in other intractible situations (i.e. KOSOVO). the fact that people are starving over there and the situation isn't improving or even being reported on stateside makes me frustrated to the point of despondency. venezuelans, much like the MYANMAR people, will literally give bread to others even if they themselves are hungry. selfless and vivacious, thats how i remember the people i ran into everyday in VENEZUELA.
when i listen to the music of LA VIDA BOHÈME i am reminded of the spirit of the people, who were genuine, open and community-oriented. being taken in by family of friends to better see great cities like CARACAS, BARQUISIMETO and PUERTO LA CRUZ was a highlight of my life for sure and my hope is to visit there again one day. what a beautiful country with such energetic people and such a vivacious culture.
what a waste. listen to LA VIDA BOHÈME and especially their stellar album NUESTRA (NACIONAL, 2011). great band definitely worth checking out.
so i know everyone has their opinion on GAME OF THRONES (HBO, 2011-2019) and their last season and yadda yadda yadda. i'm not interested in that. i loved the series but it took some warming up to it initially.
this is that story.
i was teaching secondary ELA in VENEZUELA in what can best be described diplomatically as a "challenging" setting. the school culture was crumbling due to poor management, which seemed to mirror the wider national political/economic climate which was teetering from unstable to full-on death spiral. to date the only more unpredictable situation i've ever encountered was living in NIGERIA, which at the time was already in the throes of a corrupt military dictatorship that was met with violence and threats thereof as a mater of due daily course.
anyway back to GAME OF THRONES. it makes perfect sense to me now that my high school students were so intrigued by it. put aside the silliness surrounding dragons, dire wolves and elaborate sigils and you have the palace intrigue that defined VENEZUELAN politics.
my students were constantly trying to get me to watch it, to which i would dismissively retort with some conflation to the effect of "i'd love to but i'm really not that into Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings." which is true. my students would immediately respond by empathically stating that "nah Mr. Crowe, there's so much more to it. you gotta watch it." when i would ask them to explain they would talk about how crazy violent it was and how much sex there was in every episode. hmmmm, i told them i'd think about it. i borrowed the first season from a colleague and i was hooked. it's true that it was crazy violent and beyond sexual, but it all seemed a means of both securing and maintaining hegemonic power, just like in reality.
as an english teacher i appreciated the consistent structural implementation of red herrings, which are clues, situations and characters that lead the plot nowhere. heaving lots of dead ends is commonly used in suspense and mystery fiction, but GAME OF THRONES, famous for killing off beloved and hated characters without a second notice, turned this trope into an exhilarating experience.
in retrospect this connection i saw between VENEZUELA, GAME OF THRONES and the pugilistic nature of politics has expand to the modern american political climate, so obviously my appreciation of this series has shifted with it. if anything i think the series has informed the american public of the perils of being in a political system of never-ending infighting and gamesmanship. as long as our census is politicized and our voting districts gerrymandered, i think we are unfortunately in for a GAME OF THRONES reality far beyond the shelf-life of this 8 season TV series.
photo by karl burhop
ok i admit that its more than a little strange to write a profile on yourself. but here i go.
as creative director of DEER GOD i basically have a hand in everything we do that is non-audio. that basically boils down controlling/editing all things visual and written. of course we work as a team and frequently collaborate and take cues from one another, but i more or less take these efforts and produce the final product.
out of the whole team i am probably the last to the party in that i was not involved with audio or video production until a few years ago when i returned from overseas. for the better part of the last decade i was involved with education having taught secondary english abroad at international schools in MYANMAR, JAPAN, VENEZUELA as well as a stint as a peace corps volunteer in ALBANIA. my start as an educator was in NYC where i got my masters at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY and had brief stints teaching at both BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL (student teacher) and STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL (long-term substitute). my bad timing entering the field in the wake of the great recession meant that no new positions were available as older teachers delayed retirement and an effective freeze was put on new hires. thus i had an IVY LEAGUE degree and recommendations from two of the top public high schools in the nation, but no prospects.
so i went and taught overseas.
due to my parents work i spent time overseas growing up in NIGERIA (middle school) and KUWAIT (junior year of high school) and attended high school in both MASSACHUSETTS (NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON) and CALIFORNIA (ROCKLIN HIGH SCHOOL). oh yeah, and i was born in SPAIN.
my passion as long as i can remember photography as i would take photos of my travels (somehere around 60+ countries). i think my passion for other cultures and worldviews informed my (brief) teaching career and most definitely is a part of what i bring to my current visual work here at DEER GOD. if interested, check out my photos above.
the rest are linked HERE.