Costa Rican-born David Smith-Soto has more than 30 years of experience in bilingual print journalism, newspaper management and international public relations. He recently retired as a senior lecturer in the journalism program at UTEP, where he taught digital photography and bilingual writing. A bilingual writer, editor, journalist and photographer, Smith-Soto has served as Managing Editor of The Winchester Evening Star, Editor of El Nuevo Dia of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Latin America Staff Writer at The Miami Herald and Managing Editor of El Miami Herald. He joined the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. in 1985, serving as Chief of Publications and Associate Deputy for Public Relations, retiring in 2000. Smith-Soto earned a BA in English from the University of Maryland and an MFA in bilingual creative writing at UTEP.
HAVANA – Applause rings out as my Southwest Airlines jet lands at José Martí airport the day after Trump told Cuban exiles in Miami that he was shutting the door Obama opened to normalize relations with Cuba. They always applaud. It’s my second trip to the Communist island in six months and the third in ten years to do street photography for an exhibit in Taos this fall and as I walk the cobblestoned alleys of the historic city it becomes obvious that folks here are taking in stride what Trump said. Trump lied to the old men of Brigada 2506, the veterans of the disastrous Bay of Pigs landing in 1961. He blustered that he was rolling back the rapprochement, which was a lie.
HAVANA – I met an orchid clutching a tree in Viñales, and to me that flower said, “I am Cuba.” Deeply rooted into the trunk, the flower trembled but stayed erect as a brisk breeze swept through the tobacco plantation. A week earlier, applause erupted as the Southwest Airlines 737 landed at José Martí Airport in Havana. “Hallelujah,” someone said. Getting to this closed island had always been a kind of religious pilgrimage. This time it was easy.
The recent shooting murder of a professor and the shooter’s suicide in the engineering building on the UCLA campus is a tragic reminder that on August 1 Texas public universities open their classrooms to guns. I recognized the office where the murder took place. The cramped associate professor’s office where quiet meetings with students take place is like the ones I used at the University of Texas at El Paso for a dozen years before my retirement in January. These small cubbyhole offices are the classic workspaces for associate professors outside of the lecture hall. In the bustling academic crystal palace they are small sanctuaries where students seek guidance as they wind their way through the labyrinth of higher education.
EL PASO — Radical Islam inspired the slaughter of innocent Americans in San Bernardino and America’s crazy gun laws put the assault rifles in the terrorists’ hands. For the nation of 300-million guns, of daily mass shootings, the killings last week in California are just another ritual sacrifice to the pitiless gun god. Authorities now label the massacre in California as terrorism, but so what? The dead don’t care. The vast and complex machinery of U.S. law enforcement running in neutral, unable to stop daily mass killings in America, now searches for some link to those evil jihadists in Syria.
EL PASO –The latest notable gun killings (as opposed to the daily carnage now routine in our cities) struck close to home. The gunshots last week echoed in the halls of a university campus, spreading terror throughout Delta State University in Mississippi. This time one professor shot another educator. It was not a case of an alien killer dropping in from hell to cause havoc. It was simply an angry man shooting another, which can happen anywhere a gun is present.
This week the mass gun shooting — two dead, one wounded — was in Roanoke, Virginia — another gun killer, again shooting with a legal gun. Another hater who bought a gun legally and killed two unsuspecting young journalists in the street. Another legally owned gun carried by its purchaser to a public place and used to shoot to death reporter Alison Parker,24, and photographer Adam Ward, 27, on a pretty morning as people just like us went about their business. That is why I don’t want any guns, legal or not, in my classroom. Anybody in America can get a gun and we are all targets. That’s why the “campus carry” gun law passed by the Texas State Legislature this year, which allows guns to be carried on public university campuses is a travesty and a violation of our civil rights, a danger to my students as they attend class and to me as I lecture.
Yuan and Renminbi kicked me in the 401Ks and took a cleaver to my IRA. Not acquainted with them you say, well you better pull on your chaps. They’re really one and the same Chinese currency in black Ninja robes, designed to keep you off balance as they feint like tigers and fly like dragons around us unsuspecting victims.
The Chinese dictators recently deflated them in a spate of panic when they saw their hybrid commie/capitalist economy slowing down for the first time in some 20 years. They freaked when their ridiculous stock market plunged dragging down millions of hapless mom and pop investors who had been spurred to gleefully rake in profits on margin deals – borrowing Yuans to buy stocks. So the incandescent bulb switched on above their noggins and they thought, well America boosted its economy out of the Great Recession by pumping Fed dollars into the U.S. economy so let’s pump up the market.
Julian Bond answered my question and then with a smile bestowed the supreme compliment on a rookie reporter — “You did your research,” he said. That was 44 years ago and I was in my first year as a cub reporter at the Winchester Evening Star, a small afternoon newspaper that is still in business today in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Bond, an African American leader going back to the early days of the civil rights movement who died Saturday at 75, had stopped on a lecture tour in this conservative bastion of Old Virginia where the ghost of Jim Crow was still flapping. I was surprised to hear he would speak at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. I had arrived in this southern town just a few months before and felt I had dropped into a 1950’s time warp.
Fox News threw a beanball right at Donald Trump’s weird hairline with the opening question of last week’s Republican debate, and he took it like a man, falling right into their trap. Only his hand went up to affirm that he would not rule out an independent run for the White House if he failed to win the Republican nomination. The question was framed to show that a positive response would lead to a sure defeat for the Republicans in the national election. There was no escape. The question was designed to single him out at the very start since he had already said as much in the past. Then, realizing that the game was rigged, he determined to get in some licks too.
Crow-caw 1—come the deluge – Two weeks in Saint Petersburg Beach, Florida, have been marked by near constant rain, not the sin-ganas rain of the Southwest, but the turbulent cascades of tumbling airborne rain sheets I remember from my childhood in Costa Rica. My daughter claims global warming is to blame for the downpours. But I love the rain. Crow-caw 2 — I’m calling these musings crow-caws because I find that Twitter Tweets are just too fine and tweety a vehicle to express how I felt after watching the Republican clown car belch out its payasos the other night , so I’m using this new medium, crass and raw, not subject to fine little tones and yet not too wordy. Crow-caw 3 – The so-called debate that brought all the Republican presidential candidates to the Fox lair Thursday was terrifying but totally predictable.
There have been three mass murders in the U. S. using legally obtained guns, virtually one massacre per week since I first protested the new Texas ‘campus carry’ gun law by declaring in June that I don’t want guns in my classroom. The unraveling TV coverage following each tragic event becomes horribly commonplace as if demanding a certain formula that at first builds a virtual three-dimensional sculpture of the killer, unwittingly glorifying him and his motive, followed by necessarily sketchy details about the victims, unwittingly relegating them to the grave, and then followed by an oddly similar string of police officials, politicians, and bureaucrats congratulating each other on the containment of the event and usually the death of the perpetrator. After all that, their statements of condolence for the victims and their loved ones ring strangely hollow. It always seems that no amount of subsequent grieving can ever be enough to make up for the injustice and pain caused b the murders, especially as the mass gun shootings blend into each other as naturally as one week following another. Related Columns: No Guns in My Classroom
No guns in my classroom — part II Gov. Abbott celebrates ‘campus carry’ with target shooting in Pflugerville
In the midst of the tragedies, there is always a parenthetical discussion in the media deploring the prevalence of guns in our society — 300 million more or less in the hands of individuals — and the usual red herring morphed into a red whale that the prevalence of mental defectives in the nation and the lack of mental health care is to blame for the violence because guns are only inanimate objects subject to the will of the individual.
LAS CRUCES, NM — On an early summer morning in the Rio Grande valley of New Mexico I sit in my sunroom watching the hummingbirds flutter on the grapevines fruit-swollen by the monsoon rains wondering why God summoned Franz Kafka and Kurt Vonnegut to rule the world. Not that I mind. It makes for interesting reading. Let’s start with El Chapo Guzman. Now there is one classy Mexican drug lord.
EL PASO — A few hours after James Lance Boulware, 35, riddled Dallas police headquarters with gunfire on June 13, Texas governor Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that allows individuals to legally carry concealed firearms on university campuses. There was plenty of shooting that day in the streets of Dallas where Boulware was shot dead by a police sniper and also later at Red’s Indoor Range in Pflugerville, Texas, where Abbott, relishing the added liberty he said he was bestowing upon the citizens of Texas, did some target shooting of his own after signing the bills. Boulware had legal ownership of the firearms he used to attack the police station. In fact, authorities had once confiscated the very same weapons after Boulware was jailed briefly two years ago for threatening his family, schools and churches. According to news reports, the arms included a hunting rifle fitted with a telescopic sight, a 12-gauge shotgun and two handguns, a .45-caliber revolver, and a 9-millimeter, semi-automatic pistol as well as hundreds of bullets. A few months after his release from jail, assault charges against Boulware were dropped and a judge ordered authorities to return the guns to their legal owner — Boulware.
EL PASO –I don’t want guns in my classroom. Before Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs into law legislation passed Sunday by the state legislature, which allows individuals to carry concealed handguns into public university campuses, he should take a moment to actually think. I am saddened by the endless arguments from gun rights advocates and the counter-arguments from their opponents, insistent arguments that imply that logic can prevail in absurdity. The logic is always twisted. Some say more guns on the street will stop the killing.
LAS CRUCES, NM — My dad used to say that if Hitler hadn’t started World War II I wouldn’t have been born anywhere, but especially not in Costa Rica. My dad, Leon Smith, was 19, a gangly six-foot tall Jewish kid from Washington, D.C., when the war broke out and he enlisted in the Army to fight Nazis. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, sent him to Costa Rica. Not speaking a word of Spanish was not a handicap for a handsome guy in a U.S. Army uniform and soon enough he met a beautiful señorita, married her and I was born in San Jose a week before Hitler killed himself. Leon became a lawyer working for an international organization in Costa Rica, but he was an avid amateur photographer.
MADRID, Spain — Fifty years ago I walked into the Palace Hotel here looking for a cup of coffee and was promptly escorted out by two burly guards. It was Spain at the height of the fascist Franco dictatorship and, at 19, my buddy Mike and I probably looked like communists or worse, like the hippie kids we were, backpacking through Europe, sleeping in youth hostels for 30-cents a night and bathing once every couple of weeks. I carried two Leica cameras with me, my only possessions other than the shirt on my back, and I documented every step of our wanderings from Luxembourg where Icelandic Airlines dropped us off, across the Mediterranean to North Africa where penniless in Tangier we had to scrounge to get back to Madrid. In Madrid, we avoided the museums and any semblance of establishment culture, after all we were following in Hemingway’s footsteps and we spent our time guzzling raspy red wine at the bullfights, scouring for señoritas and scratching poetry on napkins in the cafes. After shooting the bird at the Palace hotel, we walked back to the center of town to our usual haunts near the Plaza Mayor.
LAS CRUCES, NM — After three weeks in Europe I returned to my patch of high desert and basked in the hundred-degree afternoon knowing there is no place like home and with some new perspectives on the tragic human strife we see in the world. Nothing like visiting Europe to see the tracks of senseless violence in human history glorified in art, and architecture. From the gleaming marble statuary in Florence to the dark halls of old palaces built on blood in Spain, history demonstrates that military might and time eventually conquer just about everything. In Florence’s Medici palace, one football field full of statues and paintings after another speak of immense wealth, war, religion, politics. In Spain’s Prado museum, one painting in particular attracted my attention.
EL PASO — I wanted to cry after hearing Obama’s speech the other night. Two persons symbolized the state of the union for me — Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg and his commander in chief Barack Obama. A massive road bomb in Afghanistan blasted shrapnel into Remsburg’s brain leaving him partly blind and paralyzed and in a coma for months. He struggled to stand and salute his commander at the joint session of Congress as Obama praised his courage and endurance. “Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said.
LAS CRUCES, NM – The current political extremism in Washington, D.C., reminded me of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, especially the lines “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”
Our founders could not have foreseen a time when a small group of right-wing diehards in the U.S. House of Representatives could shut down the government and threaten to damage the American economy because they lost the fight to wreck the hard-fought Affordable Care Act. They started this skirmish under the Capitol dome to kill the health-care law after more that 40 previous failed attempts to damage the law, which was enacted by Congress, signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court. They even ran against it in the last presidential election and lost. An eleventh hour vote accepting a short-term agreement ending the government shutdown and raising the debt ceiling finally passed both houses of Congress after a 16-day impasse, but the measure is only temporary. You might as well get used to this political trench warfare, because like zombies, the extremists never stay underground for long. They will continue lunging at Obamacare forever in the same way the right wing has never stopped attacking Social Security.
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes politicians call that compromise, something we have not seen much of late in Washington, but I can only imagine true-blue Beto O’Rourke’s face when he woke up this morning next to right-winger U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Their procrustean bed had sliced off O’Rourke’s left side leaving Cruz with all the covers and most of the mattress. The ties that bind them are doubts about supporting President Obama’s decision to strike at Syria’s caches of chemical weapons. Obama has made the case that the U.S. empowered by the world’s fear of and revulsion for chemical weapons should hit Syria hard.
EL PASO – I was there 50 years ago on the Washington, D.C., Mall when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Monument challenged the conscience of America with four words, “I have a dream.”
That was also the beginning of my understanding of the black experience in America. A child of the capital’s white Maryland suburbs, I had just graduated from high school. There were only two African American students in my class. I had a summer job at the famous Discount Records and Books store near Dupont Circle owned by Bob Bialek, busting boxes in the basement for 30 cents an hour. Bialek was my dad’s childhood friend.
LAS CRUCES, NM – As an immigrant, the grandson of immigrants, covered by a quilt sewn of Spanish, Jewish, European and Central American patches, each stitched in firmly with ethnicity, I often wondered how it all fits into the American Dream, how to define that quilt, measure it. Now, after my father-in-law, Cuban born Armando Arocha, died last month, I think the best way to understand it is to place it gently over and around the life of a single person like piping on a quilt.
Arocha was 88. He came to Tampa before the Castro revolution looking for a better life for his family. He was the man Fidel said he was fighting for – a peasant guajiro with no formal education who cut sugar cane and drove a truck for a dollar a day. But Arocha had no use for Fidel and made his way in his own way in Tampa.
EL PASO – The Republican cries for repeal of Obamacare that followed the affirmation by the Supreme Court of the law’s constitutionality reminded me of my days as a young journalist at The Miami Herald in 1977 when U.S. Representative Claude Pepper (D., Florida) then chairman of the House Committee on Aging, spoke of nothing else but defending Social Security and Medicare. Pepper, then 76 and known as “Mr. Social Security,” seemed unimaginably ancient to me and the thought of defending a law that had gone into effect in 1935, 42 years earlier, seemed to be the ridiculous ravings of a nearly senile old man. Since then I have come to understand why the old congressman kept on fighting. The Republicans never gave up. Remember when President George W. Bush stumped to privatize Social Security after his win in 2004?
MESILLA, NM – Mesilla Plaza near Las Cruces, New Mexico, observed Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Sunday, October 30, with some 50 altars, each one lovingly assembled with mementos by relatives of the dead to honor and remember their loved ones.
EL PASO — Nacido en las clases de periodismo universitario, un nuevo medio de comunicación ha ganado fuerza en la cobertura de noticias locales con respecto a los tradicionales y debilitados paquetes de noticias de periódicos y estaciones de televisión, casi barridos ahora por Internet y la Gran Recesión. Publicada por la Universidad de Texas en El Paso (UTEP) como la piedra angular de su plan de estudios de periodismo, Borderzine.com, nuestra revista en Internet, es un buen ejemplo de este nuevo concepto mediático, que entrelaza la formación de periodistas, la cobertura local y el financiamiento gracias a organizaciones sin fines de lucro. La tranferencia de algunas fuentes tradicionales de ingresos hacia Internet ha forzado a los ‘viejos’ medios de prensa a reducir su personal y su cobertura de noticias. Incluso hubo algunos que no pudieron evitar la bancarrota. Aunque mi alma mater, el Miami Herald, todavía continúa en el negocio, su editor ha anunciado que el majestuoso edificio del Herald en la Bahía de Biscayne ya fue vendido a una promotora turística malaya y, por lo tanto, el periódico deberá mudarse.
EL PASO – As the traditional delivery of news by newspapers and television stations weakened during the past decade, swept aside by the Internet and the Great Recession, a new medium driven by the college journalism classroom has gained strength in local news coverage. Our Internet magazine, Borderzine.com, published by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) as the keystone of its journalism curriculum is a good example of this new media concept that marries journalism training, local coverage, and funding from nonprofit organizations. The transfer of some traditional revenue sources to Internet media has forced some “old” media to cut staffs and curtail coverage. Some were forced into bankruptcy. While my alma mater, The Miami Herald is still in business, its publisher has announced that the majestic Herald building on Biscayne Bay was sold to a Malaysian resort developer and the newspaper will have to move out.
EL PASO – The Texas Blind Salamander, an endangered species getting closer to oblivion because of the drought that descended on our state, appears to be alive, well and indeed thriving in the swamp-cooled hollows and dark passageways of El Paso’s City Hall. The wily diehards have mutated to achieve some degree of communication skills despite their small size and terrible handicap. Although they remain sightless, they have been given public relations assignments by the city manager. Their first major assignment hit the top spot on the front page of the printed edition El Paso Times Wednesday under the headline. “Survey asks if El Paso should drop ‘sister city’ relationship with Juárez.”
Way to go salamanders! With 15 years of international public experience under my belt, I can tell you that rookie flacks don’t usually make the front page in 72-point type!
(Another in a series of dearstudents columns by Borderzine executive editor David Smith-Soto)
Granted, the grocery store where I buy my nonfat Bulgarian yogurt is not your neighborhood Albertson’s, but I was surprised when I found my access to the two-ounce jar of sliced pimentos blocked by a little old lady who had cornered the store manager with her concerns over the downgrading of the credit rating of the United States of America. The diced pimentos were reachable, but I was ordered to buy sliced pimentos and my own rating would be severely downgraded if I came home with those tantalizingly reachable diced ones. “It’s those Tea Party people,” she informed the manager, “They’re responsible for the divided government that landed us in this mess.” Well, she could have been quoting Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating agency that had just kicked Uncle Sam down one notch from AAA to AA+, for the first time in recorded history. “Our nest egg…”
When the hammer went down, Mike Mitchell’s backlit group photo of the Beatles at their first U.S. concert sold for $68,500. All 46 of the images he shot in 1964 when he was 18 years old sold at Christie’s New York City auction-house for $362,000 last week. It was an emotional moment for my family and me. Mike has been my close friend since I arrived in the U.S. in 1958 and photography in a way has been at the heart of our friendship for more than 50 years. I was largely ignored when I arrived at John Hansen Junior High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Oxon Hill, Maryland, from tropical Costa Rica in midwinter, but snickered at when I wore my J.C. Penney’s car-coat in class. When Mrs. Phillips said that a sock-hop was scheduled for a Friday the class broke up in a laughter uproar after I asked in my perfect schoolbook English, “What is a sock-hop?” No wonder Mike didn’t speak to me until the last day of school when some of us brought cameras to class.