26 March 2020

The moving nature of Nature

Save for most of the very abundant Homo sapiens individuals, who are now confined to their dwellings, living beings keep doing their thing, as they did back in older times, as it was five weeks, five months, five centuries ago. It's March,  the beginning of the boreal spring and the austral autumn. This March of the year of somebody's lord of two thousand and twenty, animals and plants are adjusting to the change of the seasons. In only a few weeks of limited movement by  humans, the planet feels lighter and cleaner, the fields more open and available for many animals.

Human migration has now been suspended for a few weeks. But not the annual migration of birds, mammals, insects, fish and other animals.

An example: a few hundred American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) stopped at the human-created Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area (March 6th, 2020). These are among the three largest birds in North America. They keep doing their thing, migrating north to their breeding areas in the Northern plains.

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Missouri
Some white birds in central Missouri (click for larger image)

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Missouri
Pelicans in central Missouri (click for larger image)

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Missouri

Closer look: Pelicans in central Missouri (click for larger image)

Domingo Martínez-Castilla

Photos: Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, Boone County, Missouri; March 6, 2020

19 May 2019

The blonde angel of Farsala and the butterfly effect

1538: In The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, produced in England, there is a couple of entries in the “Z ante I” section:
  • Zigari, people, whyche we doo calle Egyptians, that wander about in euery royalme and be horrible theues.
  • Zigarum, the contray from whens the said people doo come.

Act I (andante ovvio, allegro doloroso)

A contemporary modest house in Farsala, in Central Greece

In October, 2013, the Greek police entered a neighborhood in the city of Farsala.

More than five years ago, already? Yes, the precise day to remember is Wednesday, October 16th, 2013. Many police agents are combing a Roma neighborhood (a.k.a. a Gypsy camp) in Farsala, in central Greece, purportedly looking for drugs and guns. A group of them enters the home of Elephteria and Hristos; they look all over the place, finding no drugs or guns. In a bed, a police officer lifts a blanket, where a small child is hiding from the commotion and the fear that police causes among the Roma. The girl is very blond, with an extremely clear skin, almost white. She squints at the scene, as the light bothers her. Elephteria and Hristos are dark-skinned and dark-haired. We do not know what went through the mind of the state prosecutor overseeing the raid, but we do know that she decided to take the girl away as she could not possibly be the biological daughter of the people of the home. Elephteria tells her that she is not the biological mother, and that, as a very young baby, the girl was given to her by the child's birth mother, a poor migrant woman from Bulgaria. The prosecutor does not believe her, and decides to take the girl away. It is not known if anybody was crying, screaming, pushing, pulling. What is known is that, in the next few days, many other people in the world were also negatively affected by that prosecutor's decision.

We don’t know where is today little Maria. Is she still called Maria? But the intention of this article is not to examine the lives of Maria, Hristos, Eleptheria or that Roma neighborhood of the town of Farsala where this family lives. It is about how the Western world carried out, saw and interpreted this relatively minuscule and painful event.

Language usage was clear. The fact: a girl is snatched by the police from a Roma household in a neighborhood of Farsala, in the ancient region of Thessaly. The reports: the Greek police rescues a beautiful, blonde, four-year old girl found hiding in a Gypsy camp in Farsala.

The initial reports are informed by what everybody knows about those bad Gypsies. The authorities order a genetic test, and it corroborates what Elephteria said: the child is not her biological daughter. The girl is promptly labeled as a “mystery girl” and starts being referred to as “the blonde angel of Farsala.” Maria is a treasure: she was found, discovered, rescued… Gypsies kidnapping an angel, those devils!

Item – Opera Il Trovatore (1853) based on El trovador (1836), a play by Antonio García Gutiérrez

In this very well-known, beautiful and often performed opera by Verdi, the plot has its origin in the bad deed of a Gypsy woman who had been accused of a terrible crime: casting a curse on a child of a noble man. The woman is described by other characters as the most horrible of people (Abbietta zingara, fosca vegliarda! / Abject and dark old Gypsy woman). She had been burned at the stake, but not before asking her daughter Azucena for revenge. Azucena exacted the vendetta by kidnapping (there we go!) the son of the noble man… Set in Northern Spain, the opera's depiction of the Gypsies includes a number of prejudices and stereotypes: baby snatching, Gypsy camps, sorcery, dancing, singing… Abject Gypsies.

Act II (andante allarmante)

Ρομά αρπάζουν μωράκια! [Romá arpázoun morákia!] (Espresso, Saturday October 19th, 1 PM)

ROMA snatch babies! That was the headline that covered with large black letters most of the front page of the Greek tabloid Espresso. No quantifiers or qualifiers needed: some Roma people, two people that are Roma..., no, nothing like that is needed in Greece or in most of Europe and possibly the whole Western world. Everybody knows that all, most, many, whatever, Gypsies, that now they call Roma, are bad people that do terrible things, like witchcraft, singing in the streets, picking pockets in plazas, reading your fortune, not ever working, living off welfare, selling drugs and just being disgustingly there, those vagrant, dirty Gypsies.

And they are so passionate! Great musicians, amazing dancers, and the freedom they have, you know, going from one place to the next, the true freedom of the road, damn social conventions! Oh, who could be a free Gypsy!

Notwithstanding nevertheless and however, they are no good: thieves, ignorant, lazy, welfare addicts, drug addicts, drug traffickers, child traffickers, and baby snatchers, of course; everybody knows that.
Item – Operetta Zigeunerliebe (Gypsy Love), 1910, by Franz Lehár
The story is about the romantic love dream of Zorika, the freedom-loving daughter of Dragotin, a rich Romanian boyar, and Józsi, a Gypsy musician. In one scene, Dragotin threatens to hit a Gypsy woman, and Zorika intervenes telling him not to hit them, but Dragotin replies: “Hitting them, that’s what you do with Gypsies.” Later in the operetta, he repeats those words, possibly coming from the times when Gypsies were slaves in that part of Europe.

Athens. Press conference setting.
Enter Mr. Kostas Giannopoulos, director of the institution that received Maria 

The well-known and recognized director of the award-winner private child protection institution Χαμόγελο του παιδιού (Chamógelo tou paidioú, Smile of the Child), Mr. Giannopoulos told The Guardian that “This case has reinforced our suspicions of Roma involvement in child trafficking. We have discovered how easy it is for anyone to register children as their own.” Those sentences were quoted verbatim, unquestioned, in media all over the globe. The Guardian is a reliable source, of course.

Mr. Giannopoulos was talking about or, rather, judging Gypsies, from the mindset of many, possibly most, non-Gypsy Europeans; not as the well-meaning charitable man he is known to be. Without recurring to chiromancy, cartomancy, or necromancy, he also advanced to the BBC, matter-of-factly, what would happen to little Maria had not she been taken away from the house where she lived: “They will use this little girl in the streets to beg because she was blonde and cute.” No mention if Elephteria, Hristos or their other children had ever been begging in the streets. But everybody knows, of course. The good Mr. Giannopoulos could not stop the common European in him to come forward.

Centuries of mutual distrust and tension, including slavery of Roma people until the mid 1800s in the Balkans, have built an almost organic prejudice barrier between most non-Gypsy Europeans and the comparatively quite small but widely distributed Rom, Gypsy, Calé, Tsigan, Ashkali, Zigeuner, Sinti, Manouche, Gitano, Cigano, Romani people, most of them with their own language or dialect among many, followers of Christian or Muslim European religions, traders, crafters, musicians, dancers and, quite often, almost always, the poorest among the poor of Europe, most of them. They are, mainly and foremost, them. Always were. All 2 million, or perhaps 14 million, who knows, living among the other 700 million Europeans.

The stake is always at the ready, the wood in the pyre is always dry; it’s easy to start the fire. The conditions are perfect for the butterfly to flap its wings and begin the proverbial hurricane.

Act III (allegro alla marcia, in crescendo)

All over the place

October 19, 2013.
Reuters distributes the news about what happened in Farsala. New York’s Daily News titles it “Roma gypsy couple accused of kidnapping blond-haired, blue-eyed girl.” “Roma” is politically correct; “gypsy” is there so people will understand they are writing about those other people. Several photographs of the 4, 5, or 6 year-old are included, along with images showing the “Gypsy camp” with the brick house where Maria was “found,” and another captioned “Roma people stand in a Roma settlement in Farsala.” The latter shows a woman carrying a clearly happy toddler, and some playful kids hanging around a very nice, possibly public building. That’s the camp.

The whole Western world and its satellites get really excited about the plea of the obviously kidnapped beautiful girl. A widely quoted Greek police officer said that the girl was possibly Scandinavian or Bulgarian.

It becomes imperative to find the real parents of Maria. The picture of the squinting blonde angel of Farsala is distributed urbi et orbi by Interpol.

October 20, 2013.
In the United States, a news anchor of NBC’s morning show Today speaks “about this girl. She was found neglected, living in terrible conditions.” For more details, she connects with Duncan Golestani, a correspondent from London, who starts persuasively, in a sad, almost dramatic, tone of voice: “When you look at that girl, you understand why the police were suspicious of her living with a Roma Gypsy family in Greece.” Yep, he said just that: looking at the girl is enough to be suspicious of her being where she was. “It was María’s blond hair and pale skin that led to her rescue.” Golestani, who we assume is a journalist, said that. One could be incensed about the reference to hair and skin tone as enough “evidence.” But, for this writer, the word “rescue” resonates as an ugly justification for doing anything to those Gypsy people. After all, Golestani is not even blond or light skinned.

In the afternoon, the widely viewed Nightly News of NBC also includes a segment about Maria. Brian Williams, the newscast anchor, reads: “Now to the mystery of Maria, a little girl with blond hair who was found by Greek police last week." Reporter Michelle Kosinski, in Greece, adds: "Police raiding this Roma or Gypsy camp […] found her” [a street is shown with kids playing, and other people: not a single tent or trailer]. “She was living in bad conditions, but there was no sign of abuse. […] [The Roma people said that the girl] was given to the couple by her Bulgarian mother in 2009.” Maria, of course, was living in the same conditions of most other residents in that relatively poor neighborhood.

(Cambio di tempo: andante alla farfalle, piuttosto triste)

October 20, 2013
Dublin, Ireland
After learning in the news of the blonde angel of Greece, an immigrant from Eastern Europe—where there is a large population of Roma people—sends a message to the Facebook account of the TV program “Paul Connolly investigates,” stating (with a written accent, like yours truly): “Hi Paul. Today was on the news that blond child found in Roma camp in Greece. There is also little girl living in Roma house in Tallaght and she is blond and blue eyes. Her name…”

October 21
1:10 AM Paul Connolly passes the information to The Guard of the Peace (An Garda Síochána, the poetically and Gaelically named Irish national police). The Roma family was known to a case worker, to the school, and they all vouched for the family. Nonetheless, the Garda went into action or, more precisely, into the house of the Roma family, saw the blonde 7-year old girl, asked the parents for certificates and such , not finding the produced documents convincing. At 5 PM, they decided to take the girl with them to be put under the care of the Health Services.

October 21, 2013
In Kansas City, Missouri, Channel 5 (KCTV, a CBS affiliate) reports:
“Authorities in Europe and across the world are working to determine the identity of an abducted girl found in Greece. […] The FBI and Greek authorities will work to determine that the child isn't that (sic) of missing Kansas City toddler Lisa Irwin as well as other missing children. Known as Baby Lisa, the infant was almost a year old when she went missing in early October 2011.”

October 22, 2013
In Athlone, a city in the center of Ireland, pop. 21K, the Gardaí strike again. This time, a two-year old blond boy is removed from a Gypsy household. The press reports that “[c]oncerns had been raised over the toddler’s identity, as he has fair hair and features, in contrast with the rest of the family.” It seems that it’s unfair for non-fair people to have fair children.

Coda of the first week: A nuanced article in The Daily Beast asks “Why was the world so captivated by the picture of blond Maria with the dark-skinned Roma?” The author, Tunku Varadarajan, focuses on the blondness of Maria as the prime reason for her to be singled out. With flair, he writes: “As Greek police searched the family’s squalid home in pursuit of an unrelated criminal matter, they found Maria, flaxen-haired as the refulgent sun, underweight, unwashed, and so unconvincing as a gypsy child …” Squalid house, refulgent hair, underweight, unwashed: Besides the refulgent hair, the other adjectives seem to be there to build towards the last paragraphs. To show the implicit racism of the whole affair, he asks rhetorically about the other children of the family, and then reaches the conclusion: “Maria, for her part, is blessed. She was rescued by racism. But at least she was rescued.” Rescued by racism.

Item: c. 1608. In the pamphlet Lanthorne and candle-light. Or, The bell-mans second nights-walke In which he brings to light, a brood of more strange villanies than ener [sic] were till this yeare discouered, the Londoner Thomas Dekker describes some detestable beings.
Moone men.
A discouery of a strange wild people, very dangerous to townes and country villages.
They are a people more scattred then Iewes, and more hated: beggerly in apparell, barbarous in condition, beastly in behauior: and bloudy if they meete aduātage. A man that sees them would sweare they had all the yellow Iawndis, or that they were Tawny Moores bastardes, for no Red-oaker man caries a face of a more filthy complexion, yet are they not borne so, neither has the Sunne burnt them so, but they are painted so, yet they are not good painters neither: for they do not make faces, but marre faces. By a by name they are called Gipsies, they call themselues Egiptians, others in mockery call them Moone-men.
More than five centuries, already? Yes, many more. There is not a precise century to mark the arrival of Romani people in Europe. Many centuries, indeed, perhaps as many as a millennium, have passed since Romani people spread into nearly every corner of Europe. As Dekker noted in 1608, they are more scattered than Jews, and more hated.


A recap of some of the October, 2013 week-long events here described:
  • Wednesday October 16th: Greek police raid a neighborhood of the town of Farsala, looking for drugs and guns. In a house, they see a small girl—pale skin, blond hair, blue or green eyes—who looks very different from the rest of the family living there. When asked about the girl, the purported mother says that she is not the biological mother, and that a very poor Bulgarian woman gave the child to her in an informal adoption. For some reason, the prosecutor overseeing the raid decides to take the girl away from the only family she has known.
  • Thursday 17th, and Friday 18th: In contacts with the press, police spokespeople and leaders of the private child protection agency that was entrusted with Maria’s care, clearly imply that Maria is the victim of child trafficking. Meanwhile, the couple that took care of Maria are sent to jail under suspicions of child trafficking.
  • Saturday 19th: A blonde girl’s image is now haunting Europe and the rest of the Western world. Clearly assuming that the girl had been kidnapped, her photo is shown in most of the Western media of every persuasion, purportedly to see if she could be recognized by her true parents. Interpol gets involved and sends the picture to police stations everywhere. The Blonde Angel of Greece. Who are her parents?
  • Sunday 20th: In Dublin, an Eastern European immigrant sends a message to a journalist about a blonde girl living with a non-blond Roma family. On Monday, the police takes the girl away from the family, not convinced by the documents the purported parents produce.
  • Tuesday 22nd: In Athlone, also in Ireland, a two-year old blond boy is removed from a non-blond Roma family’s house.
From Wednesday to Tuesday, judgments were thrown all over the place. Very explicit biases against Gypsies were now, again, openly justified.

Act IV (allegro dubbioso)

Shifting European locations

Second week (it will be short, and possibly endless).
Wednesday October 23rd: Day of the abducted Roma children

Athlone, Ireland. After consulting with social services, members of the community, nurses and others, it is clearly determined that the blonde toddler is really the child of the Roma couple, even before obtaining the results of the DNA tests. After having spent the night with foster parents, the child is returned at 11:30 AM to his distressed parents. (Case closed? Well, not quite: that afternoon, the reunited family went to a town nearby, where somebody saw them and called the Garda, again, to report “a young boy with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair in the company of members of the Roma community.” The Garda this time did not act.)

In Dublin, at 6 PM, the DNA results arrived, showing that the blonde Roma girl was actually the daughter of the Roma parents. After having spent two days with foster parents, she is immediately returned to her family.

In Nikolaevo, Bulgaria, a man called Atanas and/or a woman called Sasha see in a television newscast a photo of Maria, the blonde angel “discovered” in Greece. They believe her to be the daughter they left in Farsala. She’s blonde like several of their other nine children, because Atanas carries an albino gene. Atanas and Sasha are Roma, very poor. They live in a very poor area outside of Nikolaevo, a city in a poor region of Bulgaria, the poorest country of the European Union.

October 24th: After the apparently required DNA tests, the world learns that Maria the blonde angel is a Roma child born in Greece to Bulgarian parents Sasha and Atanas, who had decided to leave her with a Greek Roma family who could better take care of her.

October 25th. Just a week after advancing his judgement on Maria’s situation, The Guardian quotes again Mr. Kostas Giannopoulos, the director of The Smile of the Child NGO, who implicitly recognizes that what happened to Maria was not in her best interest: "What this case has taught us is that we shouldn't assume anything. […] From the beginning it was wrong to assume she was kidnapped or illegally adopted, even if an illegal act took place that was against the dignity of the child." An implicit apology of sorts.

October 30: Bulgarian authorities announce they will take seven of the other nine minor children of Sasha and Atanas, and put four of them under foster care, two at a state institution, and one with relatives. Sasha says that she will hang herself if they take her children.

Coda (andante sostenuto con crudeltá)

Maria? She’s never again referred to as an angel. She was never returned to any of her Roma families. She had been born, after all, in January of 2009, so she was not yet five years old when taken away, confirming the information Elephteria gave initially to the police. She was not especially small for her age nor malnourished.

The Greek former adoptive parents of Maria were then accused of improperly registering several children to gather state benefits. They may still be in jail

The Bulgarian family is as poor as ever. Apparently, the Bulgarian government did not act on their threat to take the children of Sasha and Atanas.

Finale (a piacere)

Now what? I hope the reader was not expecting a magic solution.

So, I will instead submit some “Frequently Proposed Answers” that many a European person would suggest to address the “Gypsy problem.”

  • Gypsies are in a situation of their own making
  • Gypsies should assimilate and stop being robbers and traffickers and what not
  • Gypsies should go back to India
  • Gypsies this and Gypsies that…

The astute reader may have noticed that most of the proposed “solutions” are for Gypsies to act upon themselves. It is their problem, not “ours.” Very convenient, but none of those “solutions” would have addressed the abduction of the one, two, three blonde angels by the police. That is our problem.

* * *


  1. A confession from this writer. Ever since Maria was taken away from her adoptive family in October 16th, 2013, I thought I would/ I should write about this. I read and collected all the news I could get; I even got in touch with one of the lawyers of Hristos and Elephteria. In these years, I changed many times the outline of what I would write. It would have been relatively easy and possibly poignant to focus on how all this has hurt so many people across the world… But I really do not know and have not talked or communicated with any of the Romani people involved, so that taking that avenue would have meant one more gadjo (i.e. non Romani, or non Gypsy) trying to speak for people that I know only through literature, the news and very few e-mails. The obvious route then came to put order in the original idea: the Roma people in Greece, Ireland, Bulgaria and all of Europe did nothing to start this butterfly effect: it was all in the European culture and “tradition” of treating Gypsies, which is the term embedded in European culture: the term used to discriminate, marginalize, and romanticize the people of Romani cultures and languages. If the reader still thinks that this article is about Roma people, please read again and hopefully you will understand that this is about common European perceptions and treatment of what they usually call Gypsies.
  2. The names used in the article are all real. The surnames of private people are not necessary.
  3. The quotations are all from the press, some (badly) translated.
  4. The press, especially at the beginning, showed almost no respect for the privacy of the Roma people, or for the presumption of their innocence.
  5. The references to opera are not meant to chastise one of the most complex and beautiful artistic forms of European culture. It simply happens that opera is a living art form, in many cases based on old European stories that very frequently show stereotypes and prejudices that are less tolerated today, albeit very much alive, as this article has tried to make manifest.
Domingo Martínez Castilla

26 June 2018

Immigrant forever?

We are almost all immigrants, and we are almost all settlers

The word “immigrant,” applies to someone performing the action of immigrating: coming to a country to establish residence. Many English words ending in the suffixes -ant or -ent derive from the way present participles are built in Latin or French. Imported from those languages into English, they became nouns or adjectives. “President” is the one that presides; “dependent” is a noun or adjective equivalent to “depending”  (-ing being the native English suffix for the present participle), and so on.

The point I want to stress is that many words ending in -ent and -ant, do not denote a permanent condition, but rather a circumstance.  One is a “president” while she presides (save the courtesy title used in the United States towards former presidents); one is an assistant while he assists.  Other similar words are contestant, applicant, incumbent: they all refer to a subject in the particular circumstance denoted by the corresponding word that begot them.

(No, this note is not about linguistics…  Or perhaps it is, as much as language is a social construct.)

What about “immigrant”?  Is one an immigrant forever? Personally, I immigrated to the United States a few decades ago, and stayed put in the same city ever since. In other words, I stopped migrating, emigrating, and immigrating.

In these decades, on the other side, I have seen many friends and acquaintances—most of them U.S. citizens—emigrating from and immigrating to different places in the United States.  This is very common in this country, of course, especially among professionals, who tend to move all across the land following jobs and developing careers. But we don't say that they are migrant people: they are moving, a lot.

Why is it that I and many very settled people continue being an “immigrant” and not something else?  It may be because language in this country (not only in this country, mind you) is very partial to converting circumstantial adjectives into permanent individual nouns, usually to underline some level of otherness: the African-Americans, the Native-Americans, a Hispanic... In becoming nouns, the adjectives morph from mere qualifiers into alternative definitions that transform these woman and men into something else.

(Sidetracking a bit: In some extreme cases, nouns that became adjectives to qualify people, have morphed into new nouns to underline the otherness.  The one that I found most striking, and one of common use especially among law-enforcement practitioners, is “minority.” The term, in the United States, has landed in different word classes and acquired several meanings. From being a member of a minority (a group), people have become “minority individuals” and then simply “minorities,” as in “we want to hire a minority,” usually referred to a one person of African descent. See below for Webster's entries for this word.)

Whose heritage, anyway?

The month of June has been selected as Immigrant Heritage Month, which is not only fine but a necessary reminder of the role that foreign-born folk have always had in these parts. The annual celebration was started four years ago, possibly as a response to the overall anti-immigrant sentiment that has been developing in the country, especially during this millennium. Basically, immigrants of yesteryear (who want to believe they came to America legally, when there were almost no regulations or vetting) feel that “their” America is being threatened by current immigrants, who face a system that makes nearly impossible to migrate to the U.S.A. through legal means.

If we talk about Immigrant Heritage, this should include most of the people of the United States, with the exception of the descendants of those who were living here before the creation of the nation in 1776, namely: all members of the first nations (a.k.a. Native Americans), the very few Europeans—mostly French and Spanish—who had settled in the Louisiana territory before the 1804  purchase of that land;  the inhabitants of Mexican North America that were incorporated into the nation after the Mexican-American War in 1848; and the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, who of course were not legal immigrants and had come originally from Africa or from Europe.

What I do like of the month's moniker is that it is Immigrant Heritage Month, and not Immigrant Heritages Month. The United States, all of it, for mostly  good or for occasionally  bad, is of immigrant heritage. Let us celebrate, almost all of us, always mindful of the people we killed or pushed away: this land was their land, from California to the New York Island.

So there, from this Missouri settler.

Domingo Martínez Castilla

Webster shows the evolution of the word minority in the proper order:
2 b) the smaller in number of two groups constituting a larger entity
3 b) group differing from the predominant section of a larger group in one or more characteristics (as ethnic background, language, culture, or religion) and as a result often subjected to differential treatment and especially discrimination
Of, relating to, or being a minority
Finally, another noun:
A member of a minority group

17 September 2017

Injured Sparrow, in the Last Days of Summer 2017

Columbia, September 2017. (Click for larger image)
She did not say anything. She would not move a feather. Then, she flew away to the next bush.


Photo: Backyard patio, Columbia, Missouri, September 16, 2017

14 September 2017

Opera for Inclement Times: La clemenza di Tito

Mozart's last opera, reassembled for today's world

Opera is—it has to be!—an acquired taste: once you start acquiring it, you'll notice that the thing will find a way of manifesting itself using any means to grab your attention and distract you away from your regular time-wasting activities.

Case in point: a month ago, when I was busy feeling flattened by the despair fed by news of the Charlottesville's tragedy and the subsequent offensive remarks of the president, I came upon a Los Angeles Times opera article that started mentioning Charlottesville in a review of a show taking place in Salzburg, Mozart's birthplace (“Peter Sellars turns Mozart's last opera into a modern message of humanity in the face of terror” by Mark Swed). What did Mozart's lesser known opera have to do with that weekend's violent rally of hate?  According to the L.A. Times critic, it “had ostensibly nothing — but in fact had everything — to do with Charlottesville.”

I got curious and became curiouser... I found the opera is available to watch for free (alas, sans subtitles), and was rapidly captured by the creativity of the producer/director Peter Sellars, and the conductor, the increasingly and (now I know) deservingly famous Teodor Currentzis. The contemporary, simple and disturbing imagery and the 2.25-centuries old musical score looked all very right and beautiful, extremely dramatic and impossibly relevant.  It helped that I didn't know about the existence of that opera, Mozart's last. All was new!

Imagery was new. The overture's music serves as the background for a movement of people in the curtainless stage: they are refugees running away from unsaid dangers, clearly crossing into a forbidden land, their faces showing fear and hope.  They are promptly stopped by heavily armed soldiers and herded at gunpoint behind a fence.  The refugees are a diverse group of people, but many are dressed as today's Levantine migrants.

Emperor Tito was new: morphed from the original Roman emperor into a sort of benevolent strong man, inspired by Nelson Mandela, he personally welcomes the refugees, and selects two siblings, Sesto and Servilia, to be under the personal protection of Vitellia and Nannio, respectively: the two refugees become part of Tito's inner circle.

Jump to Act I of the opera: Sesto and Vitellia are now in love with each other, but they are both very tortured characters.  Vitellia is full of rancor against Tito, because he took the political power from her father, and now Tito doesn't even want to marry her, because he is in love with Berenice, a Palestinian queen.  Vitellia encourages Sesto to organize a terrorist attack against the Capitolium and Tito. Sesto is a bitter and confused man who will do anything for un dolce sguardo almeno (at least one sweet glance) from Vitellia, but at the same time he admires Tito and respects the love that the people have for him.

In operatic dramas, it's common to mix love stories with difficult social conventions or political power struggles. Tragedy usually strikes and people die or get killed in situations that could have been avoided. Misunderstandings, stubbornness, bad timing are the factors in play in this opera. Tito is not allowed to marry the foreigner Berenice, and sends her back to Palestine, so he can select a Roman wife as politics requires. Hoping to be the lucky one, Vitellia requests Sesto to stop the planned attack, just in case. But Tito announces that Servilia (Sesto's sister) will be his wife, which again infuriates Vitellia, who asks Sesto to go ahead with the terrorist plan.

There are many beautiful and dramatic scenes in this opera. The rendition of the No. 9 Aria (Parto, ma tu ben mio—I leave, my beloved, often known as “Parto, parto”), sang by Sesto when leaving to consummate the attack, is truly remarkable and unforgettable. More than an aria, it is a duo of Sesto's voice and the basset horn (a large clarinet), with the orchestra providing only the slightest accompaniment; it's also a carefully choreographed soft dance between Sesto and the clarinetist, who is playing in the stage, a sort of full-sized faun that gets closer and closer, in space and timing, to the tortured Sesto, always looking at him and moving along, standing, lying down, bending, sharing his every pain. The aria lasts almost twelve minutes that completely capture the attention of the viewer. Beauty at all levels. Strong, dramatic beauty that hurts and lifts the soul.

The reader will now allow this writer to turn his accented attention to the medium: opera in film (i.e. the electronic filmless recording of motion pictures: not sure what it is called now). Watching a live opera is beautiful, but many of us small-town folk rarely have the opportunity, not to mention the money, to have that experience for more than a few occasions in a lifetime. The development of electronics and communication—high definition video, multichannel audio, worldwide audiences, readily available librettos and reviews—has made opera and almost everything else available to many people.  Mix that powerful and ever improving infrastructure with century-old cinematic language and techniques, stir sensibly into the two-centuries old music, the voices, the acting, and you have a different kind of beauty, a new way of enjoying and spreading the hard work of famous composers and quite (unfairly) lesser known librettists that created opera, genre that many consider the pinnacle of beauty and complexity in the performing arts. Besides the technical rendition which depends on the viewer's equipment (computer, phone, large screen, audio system and what not), what does opera-in-film bring that is different? Let's call it proximity.  Like in cinema, close-ups show the acting dimension of the opera artists in a new light, in many new lights. Multiple cameras also allow multiple views, and possibly multiple feelings in the viewer. Even the choir members are put to task, acting all the time, with no room for side glances or distractions that high definition does not forgive.  The stage and live performances are still there, as it is the orchestra and the audience, who will enjoy the live unobstructed music, an irreplaceable experience reserved for the people at the theater. But they will not see every expression, every detail, every drop of sweat (there is a lot of that), that us video watchers have the luck (or not!) of seeing. The aria “Parto, parto” is an outstanding example of what film can add to the operatic experience. Does this new ecology of performance and delivery effect changes to the genre? Of course it does and will keep doing it. That, however, is another discussion that very learned writers are tackling.  (I just like opera and the fact that I can enjoy it whenever I want.)

Back to the drama. Do we still remember that Tito asked Servilia to be his wife, and how that filled Vitellia, again, with vengeful rage? Well, Servilia nicely declines the offer, and dares to tell Tito that she's in love with Annio.  Tito, compassionate and understanding, accepts that he cannot stand between so much love. Tito does care about every one of these people and is grateful that delicate and brave Servilia tell him the truth.

At this moment, and for the second time in the opera, director Peter Sellars and conductor Teodor Currentzis change gears or, most accurately, change the rules and sneak in, seamlessly, the Laudamus of Mozart's Great Mass. Sang as an aria by Servilia, the song (“We praise, we bless, we adore, we glorify you”) is addressed to Tito, for granting Servilia and Annio the right to pursue their love.  This, of course, is not commonly done: one just does not insert parts of one musical opus in the middle of another. Except when you are Sellars working with Currentzis working with Sellars and so on.  In this Clemenza, they have done that six times, including the closing scene, using three different Mozart compositions: the never finished Great Mass, the Adagio and Fugue, and the Masonic Funeral Music, all three written in C-minor, which I presume prevents the rejection of this daring musical transplant.

Tito still needs a wife, though, and opts, at last, for Vitellia, who is surprised and elated by the news… but immediately enters in panic because Sesto and the terrorist attack cannot be stopped any longer. She exits the stage howling in pain.

The orchestra then starts playing the Adagio.  On the stage, a group of five quiet and focused people work around a table preparing plastic-based bombs: packs of explosives, cell phones, wires, backpacks are being readied to attack Tito and his centers of power. An explosive suicidal vest is carefully outfitted to Sesto, along with a handgun: he will have the task of killing his friend Tito. With the ominous sounding adagio transitioning into the more decisive fugue, the five terrorists walk around the nearly empty stage, watching and being watched by Tito's guards.  Back and forth they go as the fugue progresses, increasing the tension: they look at their watches, they try to look normal. The fugue ends with all but Sesto having exited the stage, and the score and the plot get back to the Clemenza.

No need to keep describing the storyline. As the whole opera production is full of surprises, I will spare the reader from additional spoiling details. Suffice to say that the attack happens. In Act II, Tito's clemency and everyone else's demons will take center stage.

The intermezzo has not been wasted. After the terrorist attack, the refugees (members of the excellent musicAeterna Choir that Currentzis developed in Perm, Russia: they sure are good actors too!) are laying flowers, silently and slowly, at a makeshift street memorial, where candles and pictures of the fallen are disturbingly contemporary (cf. Charlottesville, Barcelona, Paris…).  The multiple cameras visit the faces of the refugees, full of pain and tears. The intermission softly transitions into the choir singing the Kyrie (“Lord, have mercy!”) from Mozart's mass. The solo part is sung by Annio. Choir and soprano are clearly heartbroken.

Sellars and Currentzis finish the production with all the actors extremely sad and all but Tito singing the Masonic Funeral Music, with these two verses of Jeremiah's Afflictions from the book of Lamentations, loosely translated as:
He filled me with bitterness and made me drunk with absinthe. (3:15)
A flash flood covered my head, and I thought: “I’m dead” (3:53-54)

The video of the opera ends with a close-up of the crying eyes of Sesto.

Domingo Martínez Castilla
* * *

Suggested search keywords: Mozart, La clemenza di Tito, Salzburg Festival, Peter Sellars, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, Opera in film

The performers

  • The orchestra is the MusicAeterna ensemble that Currentzis created in 2004, and is now part of the Perm Opera. It adds period instruments that may or may not be in the original scores.
  • The reknown MusicAeterna Choir is also part of the Perm Opera.
  • The cast is quite diverse, including the six principals, who are, alphabetically: Jeanine de Bique (soprano, Trinidad and Tobago), Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano, France), Christina Gansch (soprano, Austria), Golda Schultz (soprano, South Africa), Russell Thomas (tenor, U.S.A.), and Sir Willard Wentworth White (bass, Jamaica and the U.K.).  Yes, I am teasing the reader to discover who plays which part.

Main sources

Programme Detail. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. La clemenza di Tito (Information page at the Salzburger Festspiele website) 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito. Salzburger Festspiele 2017. (Opera program, 164 pp.) [Danke, Hanna!]
Yes, that is correct: 164 pages, containing all the usual stuff of an in-theatre opera program, and then quite some! Bilingual (German and English) versions. The program includes the full libretto, and the following three very good articles/essays:
  • Hans-Joachim Fritz: “Exhortation and Utopia.” This is a discussion of how La clemenza di Tito was conceived by Mozart and librettist Caterino Tomasso Mazzolà as a work of the enlightenment, and not just a paean to a magnanimous emperor, as it was originally written by poet Pietro Metastasio.
  • Simon P. Keefe: “Mozart and La clemenza di Tito in 1791.” The story of how this opera came to be, putting it in the context of Mozart's last year of life and work.  The opera was commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II in Prague.  Interestingly, the Prague people wanted Antonio Salieri to write the opera, but they were turned down by the busy Italian.
  • Peter Sellars: “Mozart & Mandela.” Let’s hope that this piece be made available along the opera itself, when it comes in video. It contains the producer's view of Mozart, of this opera, the historical Titus and our current world.  The final lines of the article read: “As we know from our own friends and families, people who can neither be fully seen nor be truly heard have no recourse other than violence to challenge an unequal and unjust status quo. / Nelson Mandela understood that truth and reconciliation each demand a public process, attention, and deep listening. Mozart shared that understanding.”

References and links

(Active as of September 14, 2017)



31 May 2017

Old Bull 1 - Elephant

Copyright Domingo Martínez 2017
Amboseli, September 2014 (click for larger image)

The standing subject is possibly as old as the photographer. The subject has surely fought many more battles than the photographer. The marks and deep notches in his tusks tell the story of a fighting life. The jagged long ears have missed their smooth borders long ago, after losing bits and pieces to spiky plants and optimistic predators. The trunk is flaccid. This bull brings to memory Hokusai's metaphorical elephant being examined, guessed by blind men, minus said blind men. Bull elephants are lonely, except when fighting other bulls to allow for the second exception: mating. They live to try to mate, they trumpet, they show rage, they charge, they build the savanna. They bring photographers and poachers.

Domingo Martínez-Castilla

Photo: Amboseli National Park, Kenya; September 30, 2014

26 May 2017

Genetic Admixture and Gender Asymmetry

(I couldn't help myself and did let some friends know that I was starting a blog, or two actually. Younger, former colleagues immediately asked "What is it about?" What a notion, I thought, a topical blog! I just answered, evasively, "About nothing in general, and everything in particular." My newer, but older weekly friends, didn't ask. They know me: topicality is not my thing.)

Now that genomic studies are affordable, people are learning about their genetic ancestry, which by itself is quite fascinating and may even be useful, as they awaken the curiosity for the past from a personal perspective ("I didn't know that I was..."), and they also help to pinpoint genetic traits and related health issues. (They also raise very valid privacy concerns, but that's a different discussion.)

The past, of course, is disentangled with the help of Clio, if that's the name of the muse of history. If John Doe is 28 percent Celtic Scottish and 40 percent Scandinavian and so and so, including 2.8 percent Neanderthal, something happened in the past to explain the makeup of John's DNA. It's near impossible to know if centuries-old admixtures happened because of love, war, casual encounters, rape, seduction...

Notwithstanding, it's possible to submit common scenarios that may explain many older processes of genetic admixture. War and conquest, especially before the late 19th century, resulted very often in admixture by force, with the expected gender asymmetry: the defeated soldiers, male with rare exceptions, were killed, enslaved or pushed away, with the winners having children with the women of the losing side.  If they belonged to different genotypic groups ("races"—whatever the meaning of the term—being only one of the difference markers), admixture results. The process of admixture usually continues for many generations, as societies tend to ascribe more prestige and desirability to belonging in the winners group.  Phenotype, language, customs, occupation, and so on, become a mark of prestige or contempt. Upward social mobility is helped when some of the desired traits are acquired or learned.

The reader, at this moment, may be thinking about admixture of "black" with "white," or European with Native Americans; that’s understandable, given the fact that those are still historically fresh phenomena. Also, the reader may be thinking of the word "miscegenation," which was part of my accented English until very recently, when I learned that its connotations had been and could still be viciously negative among many people in the United States (said word apparently coined in a pro-admixture New York pamphlet around the early 1860s—Civil War's time). But genetic admixture is of course quite older than that recent word and the 5-plus centuries-old America-Europe exchange.

Examples abound in every period of history and in every continent. In most of Europe, starting with the very arrival of Homo sapiens sapiens, there was displacement with genetic admixture (hence the Neanderthal traces in many people with European ancestry today); the Celts displaced and mixed with the Iberians; the Romans conquered and left their Y-chromosomes all over Europe and beyond; the Germanic Goths did the same (turning the pejorative "Gothic" into a prestigious qualifier), only to be displaced by the Normans, initially thought of as fierce and brute conquerors, later becoming a desirable and superior "race" (in the words of the nobility from them descended, of course).

Gender asymmetry in places like Europe did clearly exist, but it may be difficult to read its history in the current genomes of Europeans, given the back and forth conquests that happened there in the six millennia of recorded history.  The vanquished (providing female mitochondrial DNA in the resulting admixture) of one time may later become the victors (imposing their Y-chromosome).  That may also be the case in many other Eurasian populations, given the many displacements of people from East to West and vice versa. Notwithstanding, there are some notorious genetic markers that have persisted until now.  One (in)famous case is that of a man that lived around 750 years ago, whose Y-chromosome is still present in 16 million men across Asia, from sea (the Pacific) to shining (Caspian) sea. The originator of that feat was probably Genghis Khan himself, who usually slaughtered much of the male population of the places he conquered.

It's not necessary for war to continue for the gender asymmetry to persist and further develop.  In many cases, prestige based on wealth or power may reinforce this type of bias. In some of West Africa's mixed populations, for instance, a 2013 study shows a clear prevalence of Y-chromosome from farmers over hunter-gatherers, compared with the mtDNA proportions of both groups.

That gender asymmetry is quite more evident in the most recent cases of genetic admixture, as is the case in the Americas.  Due to multiple factors, particularly during the first two or three centuries after contact, including openly promoted genocide, war, rape and sexual slavery, forced labor, and prestige ("improving the Indian race"), the natives of the Western hemisphere had a very biased reproductive success: the closer the native males were to the centers of colonial domination, the fewer opportunities they had to procreate and thus pass their Y-chromosomes to their children, while the females usually bore children with the male occupiers, especially early in the process when European women were almost totally absent in the colonial settlements.

Genetic studies have provided very telling results that have surprised Tyrians and Trojans alike.  A case in point is the island of Cuba: most Cubans see themselves as descended from Europeans and Africans, and a few Asians (Chinese, especially). I have not seen a single reference of Cubans identifying themselves as indigenous American in any proportion. Genes, of course, do not care much about their owners' personal opinions, and they show the real deal: a sample of over 1,000 Cubans showed that 39 percent had African mtDNA, 26 percent Eurasian (mostly European, for sure) mtDNA, and a very unexpected 35 percent carried indigenous mtDNA!  On the male side, the same study’s sample of nearly 400 males with genotyped Y-chromosomes presented a very different proportion: nearly 82 percent had male European ancestors, 18 percent had African male ancestors, and only two individuals (0.5 percent) had direct American indigenous paternal ancestry (Marcheco-Teruel et al., 2014).  Putting it in simpler terms, 74 percent of Cubans in that sample have direct maternal ancestry from African or Native American women, and at the same time 82 percent of them have direct paternal ancestry from Eurasia.  It's very difficult to find that level of gender asymmetry anywhere else.

In general, Latin American genetic studies show that the proportion of indigenous mtDNA is quite more prevalent of what could be expected.  A couple of examples: A study in Puerto Rico, also considered a population of mostly European and African descent, shows that over 60 percent of a sample had indigenous (Taíno) mtDNA (Martínez Cruzado et al., 2005). In Argentina, considered by many a mostly European country, over 50 percent of people in a study had indigenous mtDNA (Bobillo et al., 2009).

But what about the countries where the population is very visibly indigenous or mestizo (as some of us call ourselves)? Mexico, most of Central America and the Andean region, dominated by large and powerful polities before the European invasion, suffered heavy demographic losses due mostly to disease.  But indigenous and mestizo people rebounded and constitute now the majority in most of those countries, even though they have been and still tend to be governed my a minority of mostly European descent, which still commands power, wealth and prestige, even though not at the same level of, say, a century ago. That domination imprinted in many Latin Americans the desire to "improve the race," usually marrying daughters with "whiter" men.  Thus, it is to be expected that a strong asymmetry will be present, favoring indigenous mtDNA and Eurasian Y-chromosomes, with the actual phenotypical features not necessarily reflecting the maternal and paternal lineages.

As somebody born and raised in a country where admixture has been the norm for 500 years, my expectation was that I would conform to the asymmetrical lineages, even though my mother's family was apparently more European, and my father's more indigenous. That was confirmed by the results of my DNA analysis: I carry American indigenous mitochondrial DNA and European Y-chromosome. The rest of my genome, after centuries of admixtures in both sides of the family, happens to be 50 percent indigenous American and 50 percent European: a perfect mestizo, by pure chance.