Category Archives: Nonfiction

Mexico’s Manufacturing Sector Will Survive With or Without America

In the late 1960s, Jaime Bermúdez Cuarón, an engineer from a wealthy family, decided to build factories on his cotton fields in northern Mexico. Over time, he, low wages and trade agreements helped turn Juárez into a city of 400 factories that employ 300,000 people, and gave rise to similar industrial areas along the border. People call Cuarón the godfather of Mexico’s manufacturing sector.

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter tells Cuarón’s story and the way American manufacturers came to rely so heavily on Mexico’s factories, called maquiladoras, to build everything from medical devices to car parts. Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever made,” but Juárez’s industries are starting to rely less on America as they used to, so Cuarón believes Mexico will fare well despite president Trump’s loco rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA.

Martinez says the city is undergoing perhaps one of the most uncertain periods in its history. And that largely has to do with a man to the north.

Maquiladoras haven’t been a direct topic of the recent Nafta negotiations, but the industry is in the crosshairs of the administration, whose trade delegation argues that Mexico’s low wages and poor working conditions create unfair competition for American business. Even the slightest upward adjustment to wages in the maquiladoras or tweak in labor laws could threaten the industry’s advantages. But Juárez has strengths it lacked even a few years ago. Companies around the world are constantly prowling for lower production costs, and it’s now cheaper to hire a worker in Mexico than in China. In 2000, Chinese workers earned half of what Mexican workers did, adjusted for productivity. By 2014, Mexico’s adjusted labor costs were 9 percent lower than China’s, according to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group.

For decades almost every maquiladora in Juárez was owned by a U.S. company. Today the figure is 63 percent. Japanese companies own 8 percent, German companies 7 percent. Other owners are from China, France, South Korea, Malaysia, Sweden, and Taiwan, according to María Teresa Delgado, president of Index Ciudad Juárez, a trade group that represents the maquiladora industry. “The Trump experience, it really opened our eyes,” she says. “At first we were all kind of nervous because we thought the world would come to an end. But there is a bright side to every dark side, and that’s what we found out. … We’re more global than we were a few years ago.”

 

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, David Zax, Christopher Glazek, Farah Stockman, and Alex Mar.

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Judging Books By Their Covers

Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)

I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.

When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.

I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.

Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

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On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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The Sacred Right of Universal Narcotic Entitlement

The Sackler family funds top-tier museums (the Met, the Tate, the Smithsonian), universities (Princeton, Cambridge), and scientific research institutes (the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Sciences). Where does their cash come from? Writing in Esquire, Christopher Glazek tells us: pharmaceuticals — these days, largely OxyContin, which generates over a billion dollars in sales each year on the back of a campaign built on misleading both doctors and the public about its addictive potential. Over 200,000 people have now died of OxyContin overdoses, and many more from heroin after first becoming addicted to opioids via Oxy.

The Sacklers have experience turning an addictive drug into a household name. In the 1960s, family patriarch Arthur Sackler did it with benzodiazepene:

In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.” According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.

Later, the company would do the something similar with OxyContin and pain, when it “rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.”

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Scientific Conferences Are Filled with Spies

Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.

Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.

“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”

The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.

With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”

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The Film Critic Turned Filmmaker

This week, T: The New York Times Style Magazine publishes “The Greats,” a package featuring masters in various artistic fields, profiled by great writers. There are seven profiles, and seven different covers to go with them.

Included is novelist Alexander Chee’s profile of Korean director Park Chan-wook, who has become the most celebrated filmmaker in Korea despite his informal training.

Park is an autodidact, a self-taught auteur. This wasn’t just by choice; the 1980s Korea in which he came of age had only a few film schools, and no serious cinematic culture for him to either engage with or ignore. He had only the American Forces Korea Network, a television channel famous for airing foreign movies, often without subtitles. (If there were subtitles, they were in English, not in Korean.) Park remembers watching these on his family’s black-and-white television. Later, he had his university’s cinema club, which showed bootleg VHS tapes of foreign films. “When you say you go to a film school in America or France, you would probably go to a lecture where they teach you about German Expressionism and show you what these German Expressionist films are,” he says. “But in Korea there was no systematic education I could be exposed to. It was sporadic, haphazard. And maybe that’s why my films have ended up in this strange form, where it feels like it’s a mishmash of everything.”

He recalls a James Bond film he saw in the theater as a boy — he doesn’t remember which one, but it excited him so much, he began imagining his own Bond films. But not just the stories: He saw them in his head, shot for shot, thinking of how lighting, angles and editing told stories, and he began formulating his own.

The six other profiles in The Greats series include: Roxane Gay on hip hop artist Nicki Minaj, Hanya Yanagihara on designer Dries Van Noten, Lin Manuel Miranda on lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Manohla Dargis on actor Amy Adams, Dave Eggers on writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Randy Kennedy on sculptor Claes Oldenburg.

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An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Jason De León

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 1,800 words (7 minutes)

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at Penn State, Jason De León spent a decade in Mexico studying debris left behind thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples crafting simple tools out of obsidian. The goal, he says, was to learn about ancient political economies, but he ultimately felt his future career path was too niche. “I looked at 40,000 little shiny pieces of rock and tried to say something meaningful,” he tells me. “I don’t know if I actually succeeded, but I definitely got to the point where I felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time.”

Last week, De León was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” grant, $625,000 doled out in installments over the next five years with no strings attached. I spoke with De León, now an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, about the origins of his Undocumented Migration Project, how border crossings have changed in the decade he’s been in the field, and how he’ll use the MacArthur funds.

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When you first founded the Undocumented Migration Project, what was your end goal as you were getting it up and running?

I had some pretty simple goals: How can we learn about what border crossing looks like without physically being with migrants crossing the desert? Are there other ways to study that behavior? Is archeology one of those ways?

People have some pretty strong opinions about border crossing. Based on accounts of journalists who have talked to migrants, you tend to get black or white kinds of discussions. So I thought, what would the archeology tell us? Is there a way to study this process? At that point, I was naively thinking, ‘Oh I’m gonna be a scientist and study this process and it’ll be this apolitical kind of endeavor.’ It turned out to be an incredibly political endeavor, but it’s definitely science.

Was that something you were fascinated with while you were doing your undergrad and getting your Ph.D. or did this evolve?

I’m a classically trained archeologist. I spent about ten years in Mexico before I began this project. The migration stuff came incredibly late, which is surprising given the fact that I grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border and I have many family members who were immigrants and have undocumented family members. It wasn’t until I started having really deep conversations with people who worked on archaeological projects in Mexico, and hired laborers who told me about their immigration experiences. That’s when I really started getting interested in this as a topic of study.

Archeology uses artifacts from the past to explain the present. But this is archeology as it happens. Has it been difficult to address what you’re finding in terms of how it forms your opinion of what migration means in this 21st century?

All archeology really means is we’re studying the past through material traces. We tend to think these must be ancient things. But what happens if you think about the archeology of the recent past, as recently as this morning in some cases? Is that still archeology, or is that something else?

I’ve had to be really defensive when people would say to me, “you’re not an archaeologist.” I’m now at the point where I use archeology to understand border crossings, but that’s not the end of it. I have to draw on other things.

One of the cautionary tales that I tell students is that people love to talk about these migrant objects: the backpacks, the water bottles. It’s very easy for them to empathize with shoes and baby bottles and to be emotionally impacted by a giant wall of backpacks. It becomes more difficult for them to take those feelings and put them in the context of a real individual. It’s okay to think these objects are powerful, but you have to remember they are only powerful because of their connection to these people.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

Items left behind by undocumented immigrants on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River, 2014. (John Moore/Getty Images)

It’s forming a connection, it’s forming a bond to something that you’re powerless over, or that you find hard to address.

Archeology that happens this morning, or yesterday, is a difficult and murky territory. Our interpretations of these materials become very complicated. If you find these things in the desert and you use archeology to try to understand it, you’ll have your own opinions about it. Then a migrant comes by and blows your opinions out of the water; it can become very troubling for some archeologists. If we can’t even figure out what this shit means yesterday, how are we going to understand what these things meant five thousand years ago?

It’s interesting too because history is subjective.

It’s okay to be uncomfortable with this stuff, and it’s okay to embrace ambiguity and subjectivity. I’d rather talk about the diversity of interpretations of the past, or multiple types of explanations for an observed behavior, than to just give you my one expert opinion.

I think that people want definitive answers because they erroneously think about archeology as a truth-finding mission where the artifacts don’t lie. Of course artifacts lie all the time. Think about the manipulation of the past through monuments., There are active, purposeful adjustments to material culture that will subsequently impact the way things are interpreted later.

We’ve been collecting this stuff in the desert for a long time, whereas other objects that were left have been taken away and thrown in the trash. But if someone cleaned up the desert, and then we went back in a hundred years or in five hundred years, you wouldn’t even know the border crossing ever happened. This active destruction of the archeological record that’s occurring in real time really hints at the fact that the archaeology is not always going be truth finding. We’re manipulating it as we go.

In the decades that you’ve been doing this, have the objects that people have brought with them changed over time? Soes that help you sketch out a narrative of how migration is changing?

The technology evolves. Water bottles and clothing come in and out of style. The preferred objects to get through the desert have evolved and adjusted. In the beginning of this project, we would find a lot of personal items, a lot of heirlooms, things that people thought they were going need that were not very useful, so they ended up losing or discarding them.

Over 25 years, people crossing the border have become well informed about the dangers of the journey. The material culture in the aarchaeologicalrecord has become much more focused and more strategic. It’s really about survival, physical survival, mental survival.

People will say ‘I didn’t bring anything with me because I know I’m gonna lose it.’ I’d rather leave it at home or leave it in my home country than risk taking stuff to the desert. And what we’re also seeing now, with this increase in Central American migrants, are people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border with nothing. They have to cross Mexico first before they can to the border, and they have been robbed so many times that they have literally no personal effects when they finally make it to the border.

Refuse Of A Journey: Immigrants' Items Left Behind After Crossing Into US Via Mexican Border

(John Moore/Getty Images)

Has your project changed to study the archaeological record of Central American migrants?

We’ve definitely been focusing much more attention on Central America since 2015.  We’ve done some archeology in Mexico, on the train tracks and other places where migrants are crossing and trying to look at that artifact assemblage as well. I have been working with smugglers as well.

I think the smugglers are an overlooked and misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Everybody, from migrants to law enforcement, loves to scapegoat the smuggler. So if a migrant dies in the desert, it’s because it’s the smuggler’s fault. Clearly, that’s not always the case. Smugglers don’t take migrants through the Arizona desert because they love nature. They’re taking people through the desert because of this border enforcement policy.

Looking at the smugglers, I’m trying to fill in some blanks and really humanize this group of people who obviously are doing some horrible things. At the end of the day, they are complex humans.

Are there are challenges to undertaking this project in the current political climate?

It’s not any more harder now in the Trump era than it was before. It has always been difficult dealing with the politics of the project, and people’s reactions to it. There are also the emotional difficulties of doing this type of research, working with people who are in the midst of so much trauma.

I just saw a report about a professor at UNLV getting called out by the Trump administration for bad-mouthing him in a classroom. We’re in this era where our civil liberties and free speech are being directly attacked by the people in charge. As someone who is committed to this issue, I’ve had to do some real soul searching about what my role would be. Am I gonna get quieter and try to protect myself? Or do I keep doing what I’m doing because I believe that it’s right?

I’ve got a lot of colleagues who didn’t think it was that important to be in the public or to engage with media. They are now trying to translate their work for a general audience. There are a lot of folks now who are so worried about what’s going on in this country that they are getting active and vocal.

What do you plan to use the MacArthur money for?

For many years I’ve wanted to have a research compound in southern Arizona, so we will buy some property in this little town called Arivaca, which is I think the greatest place on earth. I’ll probably start by putting a double wide on there so we have a permanent home base and then we’ll just start building facilities.

Part of this money will also go to buy a truck so I can stop renting vehicles all the time. We’re working on a new exhibition so some of these funds will be used to develop this multi-media traveling exhibition that we hope to launch next year.

The truck, the archeologist’s greatest tool.

You know, I’ve never owned a truck in my life. When I found out about the grant, I knew I could finally get my truck!

My Date with Hollywood

Monica Drake | Longreads | October 2017 | 14 minutes (3,538 words)

 

A hot Hollywood beauty optioned the film rights to my first novel, Clown Girl, then, months later, invited me out for dinner. Specifically, her people emailed my people — me.

Her agent asked if I’d be interested and available.

I was home alone when I got the message, and beyond interested. I was instantly dizzy, maybe sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated. I grabbed the back of a chair, knocking over a paper cup of cold coffee on our cluttered dining table. I teach English Composition at a small, private art school and I write. I’m a full-time mom with a full-time job and a full-time writing career on the side, wherever “the side” is. I live in a sea of student essays, department meetings, administrative work, my own pages of writing, submission, acceptance, rejection, my daughter’s projects and a lot of late nights at the computer. This Miss Hollywood, of course, is a movie star.

Now she’d reached out to me — she, this writer and actress, a woman said to have “single-handedly reinvented [the] romantic comedy formula,” hailed as a “comedic genius” by more than one publication.

Yowza!

I didn’t check my calendar. I’d make time. Morning, noon, night, I’d be in town. When opportunity knocks, right? “Yes,” I emailed back, tapping the single word into my phone. Coffee dripped to our worn floorboards.

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The Prophet Will See You Now

For BuzzFeedMolly Hensley-Clancy spends time in Redding, California, home to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where you might end up with a crowd of faith healers rather than an ambulance after your car accident. Town-gown relations there are tense — the school donated half a million to save the jobs of four police officers, but students have also been banned from prophesying around one of the town’s largest tourist attractions. Hensley-Clancy’s piece is fascinating and well-balanced, and includes her personal foray into faith healing for her torn knee ligaments.

I can tell I’m a tough case, because a third healer comes over to us, and then a fourth. Soon I’m surrounded by people praying for me, one woman’s hand on my shoulder, another on her knees in front of me, and the force of their expectation — desperation, almost — is palpable. Unrelentingly, every few minutes, they ask me how I’m feeling, whether I’m better.

I try to deflect some of their questions, but it never works. When one healer asks me what I feel, I tell her I feel “your energy and prayers.” She jumps back, “But what about your knee?”

“Well, it’s a really serious injury,” I try. “So I think it might take some time.”

The woman seems almost offended. “Time?” she says. “Jesus doesn’t need time! Jesus can heal you right away.”

We start praying again, and I start feeling a little desperate, like I’ll never get out of here. The next time they ask me how my knee feels, almost automatically, without thinking, I lie.

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