Booze Collectors, Part I

As a historian, I want to pause for a moment and thank the collectors. While I enjoy a jaunt through an antique, rare books, or vintage store, I have not developed the eye or the love of the search and acquisition of some desired object, document, book, or even clothing item. As a historian, I also readily admit that I do not have the financial resources of some of the great collectors of Americana. Richard Gilder, Lewis Lehrman, Samuel Tilden, John Jacob Astor, or James Lenox  have been instrumental in building historical collections in New York City such as Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History at the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library-Steve Schwartzman building. Their love of history and their ability to collect it have given many historians the evidence needed to demonstrate the complexity of the past. These important collections grew due, in part, to the focused work of collectors.

These stewards of American history have played an important role in my research and teaching. For the past couple of years, I have worked closely with librarians and archivists in New York City to teach my students to use the great collections resources for their own projects. That ongoing collaboration with historical practitioners has greatly enhanced my knowledge about drug and alcohol collections. As I discussed in a previous blog, “Doing Drugs in the Archive,”  there are many unique collections on drugs and alcohol that are worth a trip to New York. Returning to this theme, I plan to highlight a couple of collections this year, and I want to start by introducing a smaller collection:the Liebmann collection of American historical documents relating to spirituous liquors. It is part of the Manuscripts and Archives Division,  The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox, and nypldoorTilden Foundations in the Schwartzman Building.  Continue reading

Days of the Dead

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, renowned Mexican writer and cultural critic Octavio Paz observed: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris, and London because it burns the lips.  The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death jokes about it, caresses it,

Mixquic, Mexico

sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves” (Paz, 57).  On the eve of All Saints and All Souls days, the Mexican drug war has spawned a new genre of death imagery that now threatens Paz’s cultural perceptions.

Lenin Márquez Salazar’s paintings document the impact of narco violence.  In one painting of Aparecidos, a young boy wearing a cap with Sylvester chasing Tweety Bird smiles to the viewer before a bound body murdered execution style.  The child’s innocence is blighted by the images of death that surround him in a dreamlike state.  At first glance, he appears unaware, but on closer inspection he appears years older, as he holds the viewers gaze with an uneasy smirk.  Is he the assassin or unwitting victim of a narco drama?  In his landscape series Paisajes,the beauty of the countryside is tarnished by the bound and murdered bodies that mar it,  but the dead are just as essential as the trees, mountains, and sky.

Paisaje I by Lenin Márquez Salazar

For years, drugs have—borrowing from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters–haunted Mexico, Continue reading

A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012.  Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination.  Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.

Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence.  She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients.  Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention.  Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents. Continue reading

Mexico’s Election: Drug Continuities or Contingencies? By Javier Alvarez-Isasi and Elaine Carey

As historians, we know that there are historical continuities and contingencies.  We study these, debate these, and occasionally we attempt to make a few insights into the present day.  This post attempts to perform the latter. So, here we go again with another Mexican presidential election that is rife with continuities and contingencies.

Voting in Atlacomulco, July 2012

In 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) lost seventy continued years of presidential power. That year, we observed the elections and the massive eruption of street celebrations when it was announced that Vicente Fox had won the election.  Twelve years later, 2012 was the PRI’s come back year, and it ran as a deep-pocketed opposition party with a telegenic candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.  Of course, the PRI had less support from the middle and educated classes, groups that the party had  courted since the 1940s. With the murder of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the Zapatista uprising that same year, and the Aguas Blanca massacre of a group of campesinos (Mexican peasants) in 1996, the PRI lost credibility in all levels of the public sphere.  The PRI political machine had long created an illusion of respectability and control through sheer force and media manipulation.  However, massacres, social upheavals, bank collapses, power politics resembling organized crime syndicates, hyper inflation, and devaluations became more and more difficult for Mexicans to stomach and ignore. Continue reading

Doing Drugs in the Archives

The summer brings scholars from all across the United States and the world to New York City’s libraries and archives.   For the past three years, I have been introducing my undergraduate students to “doing history” with my former student Raymond Pun who is a librarian at the New York Public Library.  In some ways, teaching undergrads to use archives is my day job.  My other gig is that I have spent the last seven years doing drugs. . . . that is doing them in the archives and libraries in  the city. My collaboration with Pun, as well as other librarians and archivists, has given me an opportunity to mine historical and contemporary sources that I never would have found without their knowledge and assistance.  This list is not exhaustive, but rather it highlights a few public and private libraries and archives.

The New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building (SASB), the main research library, is the forth-largest library in the world and the second largest research library in the United States.  The stacks stretch under Bryant Park as well as onto offsite locations in New Jersey.  This lion guarded edifice is also full of drug paraphernalia in the form of novels, books, documents, images, maps, realia, and ephemera. The periodicals division where Pun is the librarian holds newspapers from around the world, but also Traffic in Opium and other Dangerous Drugs. It was in the pages of that publication that I found the some early photos of seizures including heroin-infused fibers, a skill that continues into the present. Continue reading

A Perfect Partnership: Gun Smugglers and Drug Traffickers:

The fallout from Operation Fast and Furious has demonstrated the desperation of the U.S. government to deal with the flows of drugs and drug violence from Mexico.   At the heart of Operation Fast and Furious are guns: AK-47s, AR-15s, FN Five-sevens, and AK variants that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) permitted to pass into the hands of gun smugglers so the arms could be traced to the upper echelons of Mexican drug cartels.  These traceable firearms have been used in an estimated 150 murders of Mexicans as well as the shooting death of a U.S. border patrol agent.  That murder triggered an investigation of the controversial operation  now ensnares the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Justice Department in hearings. Continue reading

The Mule

In 2004, the role of women as mules entered the popular imagination with the release of the film Maria Full of Grace that depicts the life of a young Colombian woman who swallows cocaine and smuggles it into the United States  She passes through the port of entry at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport, the present day Ellis Island.  In the film,  Maria works in one of Colombia’s other leading industries, flower export.   She resorts to working as a cocaine mule due to her precarious economic situation when she loses her job.  Young, unemployed, and pregnant,  she enters into the trade seeking to improve her life. Instead she encounters difficulties.

Directed by Joshua Marston, 2004.

The case of “Maria” is not unusual in considering the work of contemporary anthropologists and criminologists who study drug trafficking.  Maria Full of Grace gained recognition because it placed women into an alleged masculine world.  Maria is instrumental to transnational flows of products whether of legal carnations or illegal cocaine.  The protagonist Maria was not the stereotypical feminine image of films in the drug genre. Women of this melodramatic imagination play sultry sirens to drug lords, junkies in search of  fixes, or whores who turn tricks in the freak houses. Continue reading

The Women of Narco B-Movies

Roosevelt Avenue in Corona, Queens is known for its money-sending “chops,” gold and silver vendors, ethnic markets, and great Argentine, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Peruvian restaurants, all conveniently tucked under the 7 trains.  The doorway I sought led up a stairwell that advertised the store’s music offerings: cumbia, bachata, grupera, salsa, and the standards of rock and pop. Among the music CDs, one can find hip-hop clothing and narco B movies. The bleary-eyed attendant grew suspicious when I asked for all his narco films with female protagonists.  I bought my first narco-chick action flick, Rosario Tijeras, a couple of days after its Latin American release from a street vendor two blocks from this store.  I felt sure that the number of female protagonist B-films had grown with the release of La colombiana and Miss Bala.  These films are for the foreign and elite movie going public; the B-movies are for everyone else.

Gerardo Naranjo, 2011

Long before more accomplished filmmakers entered the narco market, narco B-movies documented Mexico’s role in the drug trade since the 1970s.   These low-budget action films have fairly simple story lines,  and often the same actors appear regardless of production company.  The narratives depict the realities of the drug trade in Northern Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Many of the screenwriters base the films on narco-corridos, ballads about the drug trade, while others create stories from the news headlines.  In the narco Bs, drug traffickers are social bandits who struggle against each other, corrupt police officers, and government officials.  Until recently, women have played marginal roles as lovers, mothers, or daughters. Continue reading