Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sujatha Fernandes' "Who Can Stop the Drums?"

Sujatha Fernandes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, and reported the following:
When you turn to page 99 of my book, Who Can Stop the Drums?, you will find yourself in the middle of the life history of Yajaira Hernandez, a middle aged black woman from the shantytowns of Caracas. The first line on that page quotes Yajaira, as she talks about her work with street children and those with mental disabilities in the barrios:
I generally think that the most beautiful thing that one can have as a human being is to enjoy life with those around you, with the people, to do things that are insignificant to you but valuable to others. I won’t become a millionaire with this, although many times I need money, but these are the things that fulfill you as a human being and person and they make you live with happiness.
This is one of my favorite lines in the book. Although it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole book, during that interview with Yajaira I realized something important. The kind of service to others that Yajaira talks about was a strong part of the ethos of urban movements. While the last few decades of Venezuelan history were dedicated to entrenching a model of neoliberal economic reform that prioritized the individual and the profit motive above all else, there was still a strong sense of humanity and collective solidarity among ordinary people that ran counter to this.

It is this spirit of urban social movements that emerges over and over throughout the book – in the barrio assembly high in a hillside shanty, in the handmade broadsheet, on the airwaves of a small low power radio, or in the drums of the festival of San Juan. The radical leftist leader Hugo Chávez who came to power in 1998 promising to reverse neoliberal policies drew on this spirit, but at times his institutions also reinforced neoliberal rationalities.

People always say that your field work changes you, and I personally felt uplifted by Yajaira’s narrative. We live in a society that is very dominated by consumption and money and worrying about how to pay bills. Whenever I find myself getting too stressed out by all this, I just turn to page 99 of my book and Yajaira reminds me again about the things that are really important in life.
Learn more about Who Can Stop the Drums? at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue