Rebecca Ruiz

Obrador Supporters Continue Long Protest

MEXICO CITY -- Standing among 150,000 people shouting ¡Viva Mexico! Geronimo Rodriguez Hernández, a 50-year-old brick maker, waved a large flag emblazoned with Mexico's national colors and the phrase Convención Nacional Democrática, or the National Democratic Convention. Even afternoon thunderstorms didn't deter Hernández from attending the Sept. 16 rally organized by the former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Gathered in the Zócalo, Mexico City's historic town square, the crowd cheered and chanted for the city's former mayor who was defeated in the July 2 election by 234,000 votes. While many said they felt emboldened by the nearly two-month-long protest, which halted traffic in the surrounding blocks, others blamed the encampment for driving away business and tourism, resulting in lost wages, particularly for waiters, taxi drivers and hotel staff. Until early September, when Obrador lost a battle with the nation's highest electoral court over the results, his supporters had been camping out in the square for seven weeks.

Obrador insists that the election was rife with fraud. Some have accused him of failing to challenge election regularities that benefited candidates from his party, the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Despite criticism of Obrador's unwillingness to cede the election and his declining popularity in some polls, the rally was billed as an opportunity to join him in civil resistance for a chance to carve out an alternative political agenda to that of his opponent, Felipe Calderón.

In 2000, Hernández cast his vote for the current president, Vicente Fox, believing that the moment was ripe with the promise of change. For the first time in 71 years, the government would be led by a different party, the National Action Party, or PAN, instead of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, a party whose rule had frequently been characterized by electoral fraud and corruption.

As Hernández remembers it, there were pledges to alleviate poverty that were abandoned as Fox's once liberal campaign turned into a conservative force that sought to privatize industry and cut social programs. "I voted for him," Hernández said, referring to Fox, "with the hope that Mexico was going to improve, but now they say there is no poverty."

According to the World Bank, 50 percent of Mexico's 107 million residents live in poverty. Though the country experienced a notable upturn in its economic growth rate, the official rate of unemployment also doubled in recent years.

In May, Hernández, who makes 600 pesos per week, or roughly 55 U.S. dollars, voted for Obrador because of his platform to eradicate poverty through government assistance. He refuses to recognize Felipe Calderón as president. "We have to change the politics in Mexico," he said.

Dressed in a business suit, Ricardo Colomer Aguilar walked through the crowd holding a small portrait of Obrador against his chest. The 45-year-old restaurant manager also said that he would not support Calderon as the new president, citing his belief that three million votes had been mysteriously lost. "They are imposing Calderón on us," he said.

Aguilar, a father of three, hoped that Obrador would help create new jobs so that his children would not have to move to the United States for employment. Still, he was unsure of how the movement would proceed. "They never allowed the people to express themselves in this manner," Aguilar said.

Nearby, Candi Basilio, 17, and Mariel Muñoz, 20, purchased hot pink T-shirts for about three U.S. dollars featuring a large Mexican flag and a headshot of Obrador. Below the photo was the word "Presidente."

"We're fanatics of Obrador," Basilio said. "He's going to help the students."

María Luisa Piña, 57, who attended the rally with her 78-year-old mother, María Dolores Orozco, was waiting to hear the proposals. Neither of them had ever been politically active until Obrador began protesting the election results. They waited to hear the proposals. "In some manner, they have to help us," Piña said, hoping the platform would include aid for the elderly.

Eventually a sea of raised hands voted to form a parallel government by swearing in Obrador as president on Nov. 20. He plans to rewrite the Constitution in order to guarantee the people health care, food and work. The crowd also renounced Calderón and his cabinet's authority and condoned future acts of civil resistance.

Hernández, the brick maker, said it was too early to tell if the continued protest and refusal to recognize Calderón might result in military or political upheaval. He planned to stay involved regardless of calls to end the conflict. "We believe in Obrador and in the new system of government that he wants to create," he said. "That is our dream."

The Curious Case of the Hispanic Republican

There are few participants in American politics taken less seriously than the Hispanic Republican. He or she, skeptics insist, is either a dimwitted traitor to the cause, or a figment of the imagination produced by Republican operative Houdinis. Plenty of people have taken the mention of a Hispanic Republican as the perfect cue to crack a joke. "Latins for Republicans -- it's like roaches for Raid," quipped comedian John Leguizamo at 2004 Democratic Party fundraiser.

Despite the snickering, Karl Rove and company have been serious the past few years about netting more votes from the community that once adopted the slogan "Viva Kennedy." Four months after Leguizamo's controversial comment, their efforts yielded a surprising six-point increase in Hispanic votes for President Bush.

Prior to this spring's nasty battle over immigration reform, the Republican Party had directed more funding into Spanish-language advertising, struck a conciliatory tone on creating a guest worker program, and put Hispanics in visible local and national positions of power. Their inclusive approach seemed to be slowly chipping away at a base Democrats assumed was safe.

Now here's the shocker: If you thought the recent extremist rhetoric coming from some Republicans on immigration would finally prove the party to be a haven for racists and Hispano-phobes, a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates otherwise. It found that Republicans hadn't suffered a "significant slippage" in affiliation with Hispanics and no discernable increase in the number of newly registered Hispanic Democrats. Other surveys have shown a slightly more negative response to the GOP. While this polling offers a surface-level perspective of the changing relationship between Hispanics and both major political parties, a new book by Bill Minutaglio is somewhat of a case study.

"The President's Counselor" is a careful biography of Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general and a confidante of George W. Bush. Minutaglio has the challenging task of charting the life of a man who is not only tight-lipped with the press, but also with his closest friends. As a result, the author pieces together a life story based on speeches and memos, interviews with ancillary characters and articles penned by other journalists. Though it sometimes borders on repetitive and two-dimensional, "The President's Counselor" is important at this crossroads in American culture because in its analysis of Gonzales, it pins down and tries to understand the supposedly fictional creature that is the Hispanic Republican.

Son of migrant workers

The son of migrant workers and a brother to seven other siblings, three of whom never finished high school, Gonzales went on to attend Rice University and Harvard Law School, eventually joining a prestigious law firm in Houston and handling cases for Enron. In every immigrant -- or son-of-immigrant -- Horatio Alger story there are details that become shorthand for the person's improbable success. When political parties use them in tear-jerking convention speeches, they often give way to codified Hallmark sentiments that lose all sense of texture and nuance. In Gonzales' case, Minutaglio lists the following buzzphrases: worked in the fields with parents, sold cokes at Rice football games, and grew up "impoverished" in a two-bedroom house (remember the seven brothers and sisters) without hot water and a telephone line.

With knowledge of these telling details, to which close friends of Gonzales aren't privy until President Bush begins mentioning them publicly, Gonzales' gravitation to the Republican Party begins to make sense. It's too easy to argue that Gonzales betrays a legacy begat by union organizer and farmworker César Chávez when the promise of money and prestige are dangled before him, though Minutaglio suggests the incentives may have been a factor considering Gonzales' desire to "maximize earning potential."

Rather, Gonzales' resistance to embracing the disadvantages of his former life is in line with the Republican credo that focuses less on one's hardships and more on successes. "It's clear," Minutaglio writes of Gonzales, "... that he had come to view his life as often being almost entirely self-directed -- that he had put himself in the right place at the right time to break free of his miserably impoverished upbringing."

Democrats, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the adversity narrative, seeing it as an impetus to effect social change and awareness. But some Hispanic Republicans view the Democratic approach to racial politics as insulting. Jim Lopez, chair of the California Republican National Hispanic Assembly and a former Democrat, once said, "When [Hispanics] tell me, El partido Demócrata es el partido de los pobres," -- a popular refrain from the labor organizing days that means the Democratic Party is the party of the poor -- "Yo les respondo, 'Sí y así nos quieren mantener, pobres y confundidos.'" (I respond to them, 'Yes, and this is the way they want to keep you, poor and confused.'")

It is a shame for minorities of all stripes that Gonzales has yet to candidly discuss his political leanings in the context of his ethnic identity, and also that Minutaglio stops short of giving a concise answer. The author does, however, hint at how assimilation -- a process ethnic minorities can't avoid no matter their political affiliation -- may have made Gonzales feel more at home in the Republican Party. He shaves his mustache to appear less Hispanic, trades Catholic mass for an evangelical service, and ceases to speak Spanish. There are even rumors that he hired his brother to mow his lawn.

While these changes may entrench him deeper in GOP culture, it is his alliance and friendship with Bush that solidifies his loyalty to the party. In a 2004 commencement speech at Rice University, Gonzales asked, "How would you live your life differently, starting today, this very moment, if you knew that one day you would befriend a president?"

This is a heady question for anyone, much less a second generation Mexican-American.

Wholehearted footsoldier

In 1990, Minutaglio writes, the formerly discreet Gonzales was a "wholehearted GOP footsoldier" handing out campaign literature. The following year, his professionalism caught the attention of Ken Lay, who handpicked Gonzales to serve on the legal team for the Republican National Convention that Houston hosted in 1992. It wasn't long before both Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. recognized Gonzales' potential to be a faithful servant and a visible poster boy for Hispanic Republicans.

In 1995, he agreed to join then Gov. Bush in Austin as his general counsel. After that, Gonzales' career moves forward at a dizzying pace. In a span of five years, Gonzales goes from general counsel to secretary of state to Texas Supreme Court justice. When Bush moves to the White House, Gonzales follows as his general counsel, amidst talk that he might become the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice. Eventually, of course, he becomes attorney general.

This son of migrant workers has no delusions about the fact that his ethnicity and background catapulted him to the front of the line, though Bush and fellow like-minded Republicans who see the value of having a Hispanic in power, never treat him as an affirmative action candidate.

"Like most ethnic minorities, I probably have been hurt and helped by my ethnicity," Gonzales once said in an interview. "And the way I look at it, hopefully those things even out in the end. Whatever the reasons I have been given an opportunity, what is more important is what I do with it."

What is most disheartening about Gonzales' tale is that he uses his unthinkable opportunities to expedite executions and justify torture. Watching him in action, working "slavishly" for Bush, as Minutaglio puts it, really dispels the notion held by most liberals that ethnic minorities cannot have conservative beliefs because of their presumed life experiences.

It's also troubling when this line of thinking leads to stripping someone like Gonzales of his ethnic identity -- calling him a "coconut" (brown on the outside, white on the inside) because he defies liberal conceptions of how a Hispanic should behave and vote. The point of courting Hispanic voters, which both parties seem to be missing at the moment, is to understand and address their complex needs instead of just trying to rack up and hoard their votes. As for Alberto Gonzales' story, only time will tell if it is a harbinger of things to come.

The Music and the Message

On a chilly fall evening, Tori Amos walks confidently onstage, her trademark red hair flowing as she greets screaming fans at the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, California. In the final stretch of a nationwide tour to support her recent album The Beekeeper, she remarks how it's nice to be in a state where she can play what she pleases without being thrown out.

It's unclear whether Amos has ever been so blatantly censored, but the 42-year-old singer-songwriter has a history of raising controversial issues. This evening, which happens to be the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, she delivers a moving cover of John Lennon's Imagine. Amos mentions that the audience should be worried when people propose banning the song from radio, which Clear Channel did after 9-11. She played it back then, too.

Tori Amos has spent the last 15 years of her career trying to sell music without selling out. The classically trained pianist turned pop confessionalist prefers to think of herself as in the business of ideas instead of in the business of making a lot of money.

"The music and the message is foremost for me," said Amos, who has sold 12 million records. "I want you to take away ideas. That is my mission, my life. Yes I'm in the music business also, and I have to play a serious game of chess."

That delicate balance has required Amos to fuse the roles of musician and businesswoman, a difficult feat in an industry where labels wield most of the power and women are often relegated to supporting acts. Still, Amos has created a career on her own terms and developed a strategy that could serve as a blueprint for singer songwriters who crave longevity and independence over flash-in-the-pan popularity.

"It's emotional blackmail to say if you're a good businesswoman and a musician, you're betraying your music," Amos said, defending singer-songwriters who are criticized for being perceived as too business savvy. A difficult lesson at the start of her career taught Amos that controlling the business aspect of her music was essential.

Y Kant Tori Read, Amos' first album, which debuted in 1988, was a disaster. Under pressure from Atlantic to become the trend du jour, Amos donned a leather bustier and a frightening glam rock hairstyle on the cover. The album bombed, selling only 7,000 copies. Amos viewed the out-of-body experience as a watershed moment.

During the recording of her second album, Little Earthquakes, Amos was a daily fixture at the label. "I was making sure that every decision fit with who I was and what the music was and I took responsibility, whereas I think I pulled the blinds over my eyes years before," Amos said. The album, a raw take on sex and religion, received critical acclaim and sold 2 million copies.

Nearing the age when the industry often tries to quietly escort its female artists to the stage door, Amos has already survived threats from Atlantic, her former label, to shelve her work until she was too old to play.

The dispute arose in 1998 when Amos confronted the label about the limited support of her work. She later discovered that her promotional concert tickets, normally used as an incentive to give an artist's songs more airtime, were used in exchange for promoting other label acts. The bitter altercation was another turning point for Amos.

"I had to look at the truth. If they're going to see you as a commodity, then you better look after the commodity. I had to understand how the game was working," said Amos. After fulfilling her contract she left Atlantic for Epic in 2001 and wrote A Sorta Fairytale, her most successful Billboard Adult Top 40 song to date.

Despite this success, and the recent unexpected resurgence of Carly Simon and Carole King, two founders of the female singer-songwriter genre, the holy grail of radio play for artists like Amos is more elusive now that the days of the Lilith Fair are over. With certain notable exceptions, artists of that era like Paula Cole, Natalie Merchant and Shawn Colvin have largely disappeared from mainstream music.

This summer two of the genre's stalwarts, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow, signed deals with major companies offering high levels of visibility. Morissette agreed to star in television and print ads for Gap while also pre-releasing an album through Starbucks. Similarly, Sheryl Crow gave Dell permission to use her upcoming single in an ad campaign.

"Sheryl is no different than Tori," said John Witherspoon, Amos' manager. "If you're trying to sell records and you're not Mariah Carey or an American Idol, you're struggling. They get played, but not as much." Witherspoon admits they've turned down cross-marketing deals in the past to focus instead on projects that highlight the music.

This approach -- trying to sell records without selling out -- has meant keeping Amos visible in different ways. They've created other cross-marketing and branding opportunities such as Piece by Piece, an autobiographical book co-authored with rock journalist Ann Powers that charts Amos' creative process. The book, released within weeks of the debut of her latest album,The Beekeeper, peaked at number two on The New York Times bestseller list. Amos also recently launched a self-owned merchandising line, which allows her to be in direct control of the products bearing her name and face.

Additionally, Amos has worked on several soundtrack projects including Mona Lisa Smile, for which she also made a brief appearance as a big-band singer. Witherspoon declined to elaborate on future plans because of current negotiations but said to expect potential film and TV projects, as well as a Rhino box set.

Amos, who stays involved in every move regarding her business plan, sees a distinct difference between self-promotion and letting desperation guide the decision-making process. "Cross-marketing and understanding who you are is one thing," she said, "but it's another thing to start betraying your art because you think that what you are isn't going to get played anymore."

To ensure that her music is indeed paid for and played in a digital world, Amos has stayed abreast of online sales. This has been particularly important in recent years as album sales steadily declined. In 1999, she pioneered digital sales by releasing an Internet single for 99 cents. For the past few years, Amos' albums have come with exclusive bonuses like charms and mini-DVDs to discourage burning, and her releases continue to perform strongly online. (The Beekeeper debuted at number one on iTunes.)

A loyal fan base often known to convert non-believers has been equally as crucial for Amos. Armed with 140,000 email addresses of hardcore fans, Amos and Witherspoon put a premium on word-of-mouth marketing, and reward productive fans with front row tickets and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

Fifteen years ago, Amos was just trying to convince label execs that "a girl at the piano" was profitable despite the decline of female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. Lacking a discernible career path, Amos managed to develop a business strategy that allowed her the independence she needed to evolve gracefully while presenting challenging ideas to her listeners.

"These ideas need to be put out there and discussed," said Amos, referring specifically to a song on her new album entitled "Mother Revolution" about mothers of wartime soldiers who don't agree with the current agenda. "I'm not asking you to follow these ideas that I put out, but I think it's essential that people come out of a daze and become their own independent thinkers, and that is what I do."

Tight Shorts

brandi chastain
Brandi Chastain celebrates victory.

At the 1999 Women's World Cup, before a sold-out crowd of 90,185 fans and an estimated 40 million television viewers, American soccer defender Brandi Chastain celebrated victory by throwing off her jersey and running excitedly around the field in a black sports bra. This moment is arguably one of the greatest moments in women's sports, not only because it provided the country with a ready-made debate about women's sports and sexuality, but also because the tournament garnered unprecedented support from well-versed fans and relative newcomers.

The dramatic conclusion -- after 90 minutes of regulation play, 30 minutes of overtime, and a series of penalty kicks, Chastain scored the winning goal -- was the perfect way to pique the general public's interest in women's sports, showing that female athletes were made of the same grit and determination as their male counterparts.

Women continue to blaze trails in sports, particularly in sports that historically have been dominated by men. In May 2003, golf star Annika Sorenstam was the first woman to play alongside men at the Bank of America Colonial in 54 years. The New York Times recently reported that women's college basketball is gaining more attention and growing attendance levels, while the men's game is suffering from a statistical drop in performance and only slight increases in attendance numbers. Nearly eight years after it was founded as the first women's professional athletic league in the U.S., the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) still thrives, and enjoyed a global television audience of over 60 million in 2001.

The success of women in sports is no doubt the result of a combination of factors, including a 1972 law (Title IX) that mandates equity in federally funded sports programs, the popularity and star power of accomplished female athletes like Billie Jean King, Mary Lou Rhetton, and Serena and Venus Williams, and the growing marketability of women's sports. Despite the advances of the past three decades, however, female athletes still struggle with how to present their sexuality on and off the field.

serena williams
Serena Williams

Though it spurred an international dialogue, Chastain's victory dance -- not unlike those in the men's league -- seems like ancient history now, especially at a time when female athletes actively capitalize on their good looks to carve out careers as actresses or models. In addition to the obvious example of tennis star Anna Kournikova, Serena Williams, with six major tennis titles under her belt, has not played in eight months due to an injury, but has been spotted in a Nike commercial as a volleyball player (a deal that netted her $40 million), modeled a bathing suit in Sports Illustrated, and appeared in an episode of "Street Time." While many female athletes struggle to prove their legitimacy by not flaunting their sexuality, others embrace it for personal, professional and financial reasons.

Recently Sepp Blatter, head of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) which puts on the World Cup, opened this Pandora's box when he remarked that American professional female soccer players should start wearing "tighter shorts" in order to revive their indebted league. Players from the American women's league sounded a loud refusal in response to Blatter, and critics briefly meditated on his observation while passing it off as old-fashioned rhetoric.

sepp blatter
Sepp Blatter

Blatter's blabbering may have come as somewhat of a surprise since in October of 2003, he expressed candid support for a serious women's professional league and even attributed difficulties of achieving this in Europe to an "overloaded men's calendar." Blatter tried to explain his logic: if women appealed to audiences on a sexual, or perhaps more "womanly" level, major sponsors would line up with the advertising dollars necessary to keep the league afloat.

Clean & Clear, Coca Cola, McDonald's and Dasani, among others, already sponsor the league, so it's hard to imagine just what kind of high powered companies Blatter wants to attract for women's soccer. Perhaps in Blatter's eyes women have a great advantage: they have the ability to uniquely sell sex -- and sex does sell very, very well. For the female athletes who see an opportunity in putting sexuality before their sport, this formula is effective.

Yet, for the athletes who enjoy the relief a sport offers from the constant pressure to be sexy and attractive, the expectation to intertwine sex and sports can be maddening. To tell dedicated female athletes that they have to actively market themselves as sex objects in exchange for better business or higher ticket sales is not the way to go about raising money or encouraging sincere interest in women's sports.

Instead, the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) came up with a far better plan. Though the American soccer league folded in September of 2003, even after investors sunk $100 million into the enterprise, WUSA launched a new sales plan in February to gauge and build interest in reviving the league for a full season in 2005. The "Keep the WUSA Dream Alive" multi-year ticket campaign aims to encourage its grassroots supporters -- including soccer clubs -- to commit to buying a minimum of $1,000 worth of tickets per year for three consecutive years. WUSA also encourages individuals to pledge money, and representatives say they have already received an outpouring of support from across the globe.

Blatter's remarks, while they sound simply foolish, are indicative of a larger issue: business people, female athletes, fans, and the general public continue to wrestle with how to handle sexuality in women's sports. For some, it is a tool that may be empowering, and almost always is profitable. For others, it detracts from the sport and the legitimacy of the players.

In this society, where crossover ventures and multi-talented entrepreneurs are the keys to profit, there will always be athletes who want to be more than just sports stars (think of Michael Jordan's foray into movies). Hopefully, this trend will belong to the individual, and not be forced upon a team or franchise. It is heartening to see that WUSA had no interest in actualizing Blatter's vision of professional athletes running around in tight shorts to make a quick buck. The true visionaries in this case, are those who honored the sport and its players by not making it a spectacle.

Rebecca Ruiz is a freelance writer and executive assistant at a non-profit research and advocacy think tank in New York. She's played soccer, competitively and recreationally, for 16 years.

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