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The Championship for the Reelection of the General (The Atavist Magazine)

In 1937, some of the most famous baseball players who ever lived–all black and relegated to the then-segregated Negro Leagues–got fed up with American racism and took advantage of one of the strangest offers they’d ever know. The dictator of the Dominican Republic, easily one of the most dangerous (and racist) men of the era, was sponsoring a baseball tournament in his own honor. And he wanted the best players money could buy. This is the story of what happened when 17 stars flew down to the DR to play for a man named Rafael Trujillo. In the process, they caused a major diplomatic scandal; almost drove black baseball out of business; and cemented some of the legends we all grew up with.

Read my story in Issue 57 of The Atavist Magazine

A special thanks to some sources who were indispensable to the research of this story. Orlando Inoa, the Dominican historian and publisher of Letra Gráfica, is quite simply one of the most knowledgeable historians and documentarians around; without him, the story would have been impossible to tell. Salvador Alfau, at the National Archives in Santo Domingo, was extremely generous. Rob Ruck, of the University of Pittsburgh, has written brilliantly about baseball in the DR, and it was an honor to confer with him along the way. I can’t do justice here to Cuqui Córdova, and he makes a cameo in the story itself. Thank you: José A. Vega Imbert, Layton Revel, Luis Muñoz, Freddy Gómez, Frank Moya Pons, Robin Derby,  Roberto Echevarría, Larry Lester, Larry Tye, and Neil Lanctot. The list goes on.

The Cuban Migrant Crisis (The New Yorker.com)

Early Tuesday morning, the first of forty-five flights left Costa Rica, carrying a hundred and eighty Cuban migrants to El Salvador, where they boarded buses that travelled north through Guatemala to Mexico. In Mexico, the government granted them temporary visas, which give them twenty days to travel north on their own and cross the U.S. border. Their chances of making it are uncertain, but if they reach the border, they will be granted entry and allowed to apply for green cards within one year of their arrival, as long as they pass standard background checks. In the next three weeks, eight thousand Cubans are scheduled to make the trip, which costs five hundred and fifty-five dollars per person; a travel agency made the plane, food, and bus arrangements, at the behest of the governments of the countries along the route. If the process goes smoothly, the plan could be replicated in Panama, where three thousand Cubans are currently waiting to travel to the U.S.

For several years now, there has been grimly regular news of waves of Latin Americans seeking refuge in the U.S., mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where gang and drug violence have surged. At the same time, a stream of Cuban migrants has not commanded the same attention, but has revealed some of the vagaries and inconsistencies of American immigration law. Last year, forty-four thousand Cubans sought asylum in the U.S., an eighty-three-per-cent increase on the previous year. Most left out of concern that the new relations between the two countries could put an end to Cubans’ privileged immigration status, which, since 1966, has allowed them to easily obtain green cards. (The Cuban government has always objected to the American policy.)

Rather than boarding boats to cross the ninety-mile Florida Straits, many of the Cuban migrants have flown south to Ecuador, drawn by the country’s lax visa requirements, and from there travelled overland to the U.S., through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. The reason for their elliptical route is simple: in the mid-nineties, the U.S. created a policy, intended to tamp down Cuban immigration, called “wet foot, dry foot.” If Cubans are caught on the water, the U.S. Coast Guard will send them back to Cuba, but if they show up on land—at the Texas border, for instance—they are granted entry and allowed to apply for a green card.

These migrants have had to navigate different visa requirements along the way, some of which are tougher (and costlier) than others. Still, the trip, in spite of its inevitable dangers, was a straight shot north. Then, two months ago, Nicaragua, which has a close relationship with the Cuban government, and is embroiled in a long-standing border dispute with Costa Rica, started denying Cubans visas. As a result, a growing number of Cubans are stranded south of the Nicaraguan border, in Costa Rica. Even before Nicaragua started denying visas, Costa Rica was struggling to handle the influx of Cuban migrants. This past September, Costa Rican authorities reported that they had stopped twelve thousand undocumented Cubans over the previous year alone. (By comparison, they had stopped fifty in 2011.) And in November, around the time the Nicaraguan government started denying visas, the Costa Rican government dislodged an enormous smuggling operation along its northern border.

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-cuban-migrant-crisis?intcid=mod-latest

The End of the Kirchner Era in Argentina (The New Yorker.com)

Even before the returns were in on Sunday night, the three candidates in Argentina’s national elections were already making their speeches, and each one, in his way, claimed victory. It wasn’t that the results were ever in dispute, though it did take a curiously long time for them to materialize; rather, the takeaway was, like so many things in Argentina throughout the past eight years, a question of how one chose to read the controversial incumbent President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, into the results.

The candidate Kirchner endorsed, Daniel Scioli, the governor of the province of Buenos Aires, was the front-runner, with the most to lose. “The governors are with me, the Presidents of the regions are with me, the mayors are with me, and the legislators are with me,” he told the press beforehand. He entered Sunday with an air of inevitability surrounding his candidacy, but if he failed to gain forty-five per cent of the vote, or if his opponents drew within ten per cent of his total, he would have to face a runoff on November 22nd. Almost no one predicted it, but that is exactly what happened. Scioli won Sunday’s election by a very narrow margin—taking slightly more than thirty-six per cent of the vote—and, as a result, he limps into the second round of voting looking jilted and precarious.

Scioli didn’t do himself any favors on election night. When, about two hours before the results were announced, he began attacking his principal rival, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, he seemed to be giving a premature concession speech. Without using the word balotaje, or runoff, he began his campaign for it by rattling off Kirchner’s signal accomplishments (welfare expansion, the nationalization of an oil company) and saying that none of that would have been possible under Macri. “Argentines don’t want to go back to the economic adjustments, devaluations, and indebtedness,” he said, dredging up the catchwords of past conservative administrations. A vote for Macri, he claimed, would return the country to the nineteen-nineties, when corruption and misguided economics led to one of the largest sovereign defaults in history.

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/argentinas-kirchner-era-ends

Big Shaq (The New Yorker)

There are fifty-two million items in the New York Public Library, if you count the artifacts, like pieces of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull and the walking stick that Virginia Woolf carried to the river’s edge. The other day, Thomas Lannon, a curator, was riffling through the collection, trying to find some objects that might interest Shaquille O’Neal, who was coming to the library that night as part of the N.Y.P.L.’s conversation series to talk about his new children’s book, “Little Shaq.”

Lannon was stumped. He’d considered original Superman comics, but they’re stored off-site. “Shaquille O’Neal isn’t really a scholar,” Lannon said, as he wheeled two boxes into a makeshift greenroom. “But he does have a doctorate”—in education, and also a master’s in business. One of his many nicknames is the Big Aristotle.

When Paul Holdengräber, the library’s resident interviewer, started the series, the staff created a tradition: before each event, the curators pull objects geared to the speaker’s interests. George Clinton was shown correspondence between Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg about psychedelics and jazz. Werner Herzog looked at a register of executions at San Quentin, and Patti Smith got to hold the Woolf walking stick.

Lannon placed felt pads on three tables. On one of them he set down two file cards covered in scribbles. “Doodles by Herbert Hoover,” he said. “Shaq has a sense of humor.” Lannon also had a note from George Washington to a field general during the Revolutionary War. “It shows the military Washington,” Lannon said. “And Shaq is a lawman.” (O’Neal is a reserve police officer in Florida.) There were two six-inch cones, called clay nails, from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Lagash. “I really just picked these for their artifactuality,” Lannon said. Then came a letter to King Ferdinand of Spain from Christopher Columbus’s son Diego, who wanted money to circumnavigate the globe. (“Diego operated on a Shaquille O’Neal scale, a world scale.”) Lannon opened a book of hymns by Isaac Watts and read, “ ‘How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour, and gather honey . . . from every opening flower.’ This is a bit like the message of ‘Little Shaq.’ ” Alongside the hymns was a red dictionary the size of a bottle cap, with a picture of Samuel Johnson on its inside cover.

Keep reading: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/big-shaq 

The Woman Behind Latin America’s Literary Boom (The New Yorker.com)

There was a rumor that the Spanish literary agent Carmen Balcells, who died a week ago, in Barcelona, at eighty-five, used to keep a pistol in the top drawer of her office desk. It was a gift from Mario Vargas Llosa, from his days as a young cadet at the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, in Peru. One Spanish publisher called her “a literary superagent with a license to kill, like James Bond.” Balcells, who was dogged and discerning in her work but no stranger to good P.R., might have forgiven the cliché. She was one of the few remaining legends of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when a new crop of writers from Latin America announced themselves to the world, with her help, and changed Spanish-language publishing forever. Now many of them are considered household names, even mandarins of a sort—Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, Julio Cortázar—but first they were gritty arrivistes, young and unknown. Their writing was brash and daring, a kind of taunt to the staid literary mores that then reigned. Largely thanks to Balcells, they wound up selling a lot of books in a lot of languages. It helped that they were dashing and cosmopolitan, trailed by salacious gossip and provocative political associations. In the U.S., some of them had F.B.I. files. The moment, which lasted more than a decade, was outsized and immodest in every respect; it has been known ever since as the “Latin American Literary Boom,” and one of its progenitors was a portly Catalan woman who went by the nickname of “Big Mama.”

Balcells wasn’t just behind the books being written, she was actually in them—sometimes romanticized, sometimes villainized, but often present, one way or another. “She took care of us, she spoiled us, she quarrelled with us, she yanked our ears,” Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a recent homage. He sounds almost boyish in his admiration, perhaps because, when they first met, he took his cues from her. One day, when he was teaching in London on a salary of five hundred dollars a year, Balcells showed up at his doorstep. “Drop your classes immediately,” she told him. “You have to dedicate yourself exclusively to writing.” Vargas Llosa mentioned his wife and kids, but Balcells told him to forget about the money, that she would pay out his meagre teaching salary herself. “Get out of London and move to Barcelona,” she said. Her protectiveness was maternal, but the goading was something different, the hawkish certitude of a visionary businesswoman.

The appellation “Big Mama” came from a short story that García Márquez wrote, in 1962, about the death of a larger-than-life cacique who was “the absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo, who lived for ninety-two years … and whose funeral was attended by the pope.” It was more the phrase than the character that stuck to Balcells; none of her writers saw her as a tyrant. But business was still business. Here’s how the Chilean José Donoso described her in his “Personal History,” from 1972: “Reclining against the well-stuffed cushions of a divan, she would lick her lips repeatedly as she stirred the ingredients of this tasty literary stew … perhaps out of admiration, perhaps out of hunger, perhaps out of a mixture of both.”

Drive-By (The New Yorker)

History was in open rebellion in Dumbo the other day. Cars had fins, and men wore boxy suits. Pacing up and down the block was a tall septuagenarian named Lenny Shiller, from Midwood, Brooklyn. He was on the set of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Bridge of Spies”—about a U.S.-Soviet prisoner swap at the height of the Cold War. “There’s a lot of waiting around on movies,” he said. “It causes agita.” Shiller held a flip phone to his ear and wore grease-stained bluejeans and a tattered hat. “You see this jacket and cap?” he said. “All authentic stuff. I even have a period hearing aid!”

A few weeks earlier, Shiller had received a call: Spielberg needed “period cars,” and one vehicle in particular—a six-ton evergreen-colored 1947 International KB-6 soda truck. Shiller, who is an antique-car collector, had it. Stencilled on its front and flanks, in dark green letters, is the name of its original owner, Scholz Bros., a defunct beverage company from College Point, Queens. “They call me the Jay Leno of Brooklyn,” Shiller said. (He has sixty-four cars stashed in two garages, one in Gowanus and the other in Park Slope.) He bought the soda truck in 1989, for six hundred and fifty dollars, after hearing that the director Paul Mazursky had requested an old truck for “Enemies: A Love Story.” Lining the truck’s bed were battered wooden crates and engraved-glass seltzer bottles (mostly empties, but some with period swill). The truck appeared in the Mazursky film, and then in “Malcolm X” and “Pollock.” At almost every turn, Shiller was behind the wheel, playing the soda man.

For the past three decades, Shiller has supplied and driven cars for the movies. He worked with Spike Lee (“People always bad-mouth him, but he’s a real pro”), Robert Redford (“A gentleman, loves cars”), and Woody Allen (“We went to the same public school. He kept asking me about an old principal of ours named Eudora Fletcher”). In “Bullets Over Broadway,” he drove a 1928 Packard—a “drive-by,” in Shiller parlance. While filming “Quiz Show” (’49 woody wagon), he had a run-in with some union guys. “On set, a teamster stole my shoes,” he said. He taught Chris Penn how to drive stick in “The Funeral” (’37 LaSalle), and he drove Chloë Sevigny around in “The Last Days of Disco” (’75 Checker cab).

To the other drivers on the set, Shiller was the godfather, a legend who’d given up on the movies and returned to tinkering in his garage. “I thought you pretty much retired from this,” a driver named Victor Coiro said.

He handed Shiller a wad of cash. “My dues,” he said.

Keep Reading: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/28/drive-by

The Front Line Against Birthright Citizens (The New Yorker.com)

Last month, Maria Isabel Perales Serna, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who’s lived in Texas for the past fourteen years, risked deportation to give a signed and sworn statement as part of a lawsuit against the state. Perales’s daughter was born last year in McAllen, Texas, but when Perales went to the Department of State Health Services to obtain a birth certificate she was turned away. (In Texas, hospitals issue a provisional document, and Health Services provides the birth certificate.) No one disputed her daughter’s legal status. The problem was that Perales herself did not have proof of identity the state would accept. Now her child is an American citizen without the papers to prove it. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of other parents across Texas are in the same bind. “I worry that, one of these days, they might think my daughter isn’t mine, and that they could separate me from my baby,” Perales said. “If someone kidnaps my daughter, what am I going to do without papers to prove that I am her mother?”

The denial of a birth certificate can have serious consequences. One mother involved in the lawsuit testified that, without her child’s birth certificate, her family no longer qualified for public housing. “The rent is now almost triple what it was before,” she said. The same was true for Medicaid. “How will I take care of the baby then, if he gets sick?” she asked. Another mother had to fight to get her son enrolled in the public school system. “They said that if we did not present his birth certificate within thirty days they would expel him,” she reported. One American child is stuck in Reynosa, a violent Mexican border town. Without a birth certificate (and, in turn, a passport), he is unable to return.

Birthright citizenship has come under fire this year from Republican Presidential candidates, egged on by Donald Trump. (Amy Davidson wrote about the issue this week.) Texas hasn’t denied the citizenship of these children, but it has effectively stripped away the rights that would go along with it. “Because of Trump, this is turning into a birthright-citizenship case, but that’s not what it is or ever was; not even the state can question whether or not these children are American citizens,” Efrén Olivares, a lawyer representing the mothers, told me. Joaquín Castro, a Democrat who represents San Antonio in congress, and who spent a decade in the Texas Legislature, said that the denial of birth certificates reminded him of the voter-I.D. laws that have passed in Texas and other states in recent years. “It’s mostly about putting up obstacles and creating impediments,” he told me. According to the lawsuit, which was filed by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and the South Texas Civil Rights Project, the state has “acted with the intent to discriminate against the Texas-born children on the basis of their parent’s immigration status, depriving the children of the rights, benefits, and privileges granted to all other citizen children.”

Keep Reading: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-rule-of-law-in-texas