Sunday, February 15, 2009

Operations of Western Privilege in Latin America

The relationship between the west, and specifically the United States and Latin America is a particularly strange one. Starting very early on the American Government mandated that European entities were not allowed to touch Latin American meanwhile the US had the right to go into and interfere in all Latin American countries. Throughout the year CIA sponsored coups have removed countless democratically elected leaders from power, assisted in the assassinations of others, and essentially reeked havoc on the continent to the south of our artificially constructed borders.



On a micro scale US citizens seem to be miniatures of their parents (the government) and now head into Latin American countries in an effort to "save" the poor people of those countries. I myself am guilty of this, in 2006 I traveled to Nicaragua to build a school, and this summer I am heading back to create a documentary about the organization Build-On. I have mixed feelings about the ways that I am involved in community service projects abroad. On the one hand I believe it is a duty of my privilege to share what I can with others, especially with manual labor when I cannot contribute funds, nor do i believe throwing money at a problem makes it go away. On the flip side, as an outsider to a culture and an area I cannot possibly be equipped to asses theirproblems, and therefore I cannot possibly meet all of their needs, nor should i feel the right to 'save' a people who do not need to be, or wish to be 'saved'. I believe that buildOn does good work, and I fundamentally agree with the mission of the organization, which is why I wanted to make this documentary. However, I have been struggling internally with these issues for a good deal of time now and a friend brought them to the forefront when they asked me the following questions.

"I think many times well intentioned westerners go into developing nations. They get to do volunteer work for a month or a year and then feel good about themselves. Have you thought about what it means to go someplace else to help "those poor people"? How can westerners help people in developing countries without the underlying prsumption that they know what the other people need? How do you make sure that people maintain contorl over how thier homelands are developed? How do white people remain respectful of the fact that this is not your home?"

I intend to go into the research segment of my documentary with these questions in mind. I have started to work out answers, and started to compile reading lists that may help me arrive at answers or may push me into further confusion. Either way as I work on this documentary I intend to bring to highlight the ways in which white people interact with Latin America (and other developing countries, but for my purposes and knowledge base, Latin America) and how or if they should interact in a way that would reap more benefits for all involved.

more entries to come as I continue to parse out that block of questions/begin work on the documentary. I am looking for feed back and insights into these questions as well, does anyone have an answer? does anyone know of good resources?

I chose to include these pictures because I feel they show two distinct ways that Americans interact with latin America in a direct basis, the first is one of my trek-mates taking a picture of one of the little boys in our villages. Not that taking pictures of the people you just spent two weeks with is bad, but often times these photos (not from my trip specifically but western photography in general) end up being exploitative and used to evoke emotions of 'o, that poor brown baby'...



The second picture is of me, my morning ritual in the village was to launch into my latest book, which at that time was "Lullaby" by Chuck Palahniuk. While this only lasted about 30 minutes in the morning it was my way of de-stressing and coping with the language immersion. However, looking in this picture I also see an American (and by American i mean US citizen because Latin America is in fact part of the American continents) oblivious to the world around them. Absorbed in a book...

4 comments:

genderkid said...

I'm a Latin American, but I haven't had much contact with foreign aid because I live in a big city. Maybe if "first-world" people want to help, they should work on projects developed locally: local people know their needs best.

I agree that pictures can be used negatively, but they can be eye-opening, too: instead of saying "look at these poor kids playing only with rocks," you can say "look, this is how kids in this culture play; maybe having fun doesn't depend on owning expensive toys".

Helyx Horwitz said...

i especially like what you say about the pictures. I am not invalidating the ways that pictures can be used positively, because I think they can also have a lot of power to rethink american culture.
I am also coming off of recently seeing a speech in which a self empowered white man was using pictures in the negative sense I am speaking about and I found it quite frustrating.

Helyx Horwitz said...

I also think it is interesting that you say you have not had much contact with foreign aid because you live in a big city...
thats just something I have not really thought about or investigated

genderkid said...

Well, I live in Buenos Aires, which is one of Latin America's most important cities (so actually I've had NO contact with foreign aid). And Argentina isn't that poor: more second world than third world. There's a huge variety among Latin American countries, and also within each country, because of the unfair wealth distribution.

I think your documentary is important -- regardless of whether Build-On is doing good or not (I hadn't ever heard of it). It seems like you're taking the chance to ask some tough questions, rather than shoot a film to prove your opinion. I'm looking forward to reading about your progress!