Thursday, 26 May 2016

Crazy Copa América

It's fair enough to assume that most of us like at least a little stability in our lives. The comfort of knowing, barring absolute disasters, that you can rely on certain things.

The stars expected to light up Copa América Centenario USA 2016 ...
Copa América: Embracing its unpredictability. (Image from Facebook.)
Even in the world of sport where stability, nay predictability, might not be what we always want, we do have certain bankers. You know, like in rugby where the All Blacks always win and in football where you can never write off the Germans. Sticking with the round-ball game — but something that is pretty much true of most sport — you also have the regularity of its main tournaments. The World Cup comes every four years, the same with the European Championships, on the even-numbered years between the global contest, as in this year.

Yet, as tends to be the wont in South America for many things, the Copa América arrives at any old time. It doesn't appear, or at least hasn't heretofore, to follow any plan. Well, if it does, it's not a straightforward one. (Maybe they're right on this one?)

Fair enough, this year's renewal, hot on the heels of Chile 2015, is marking the competition's centenary. Yet, it's not even being played on South American soil. No, it's taking place in the grand old US of A. At least it means that none of the Conmebol teams will have home advantage; but the USA will. It wouldn't exactly be the best of etiquette to throw a party in somebody else's gaff without inviting them, now would it?

Indeed, the venue choice has raised eyebrows among some of the participants, with Uruguay manager Óscar Washington Tabárez questioning the United States' suitability on this occasion, especially as games are going to be played all over the vast nation. His side, for example, will be travelling from west (Glendale) to east (Philadelphia) and back west (Santa Clara) again for their three group matches.

Whatever about the merits of this edition — the inclusion of six invitees, namely Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and hosts US, could be seen as weakening its credibility further — there is still a 'copa' to be won.

Looking at it from adopted-Colombian eyes, the competition gives José Pékerman's selection the opportunity to continue their unbeaten ways in competitive matches, having won two on the bounce in the World Cup qualifiers. It also represents a chance to erase the memories of a rather mediocre showing 12 months ago.

La Selección Colombia: How far can they go at Copa América Centenario USA 2016?
How far can Colombia go in the Copa this year? (Picture from Facebook.)
Their game with the United States on June 3rd gets the tournament under way. Home advantage is usually a big help in the Copa América, but considering it is not the States' 'baby' so to speak, Colombia might be just that little more up for it (although the bookmakers, perhaps tellingly, see it differently).

A result in that one could set them up for a bit of a run, as Paraguay should be dispatched and Costa Rica, as one of the invited nations, mightn't be overly pushed. Yet making positive predictions about Colombia, as last year showed, is risky business.

That aside, it's likely the winner will come from one of South America's heavyweights. Take your pick from Argentina, Brazil, Chile or Uruguay (yep, we're going all out there). We'll be, um, 'patriotic' and include Colombia as well, but with a semi-final against Argentina, Chile or Uruguay on the cards should they get that far, making the decider might be just beyond them.

But hey, whatever the outcome, at least the Colombian team will have a few weeks in what is a second home for most of their fellow countrymen. Plus, there's always another Copa not too far away.
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Thursday, 19 May 2016

Building an English 'Latin' America

Taking into account the grand history of our planet, it doesn't take long at all for us humans, judging by behaviour anyway, to feel that certain things are indisputably part of where we are from. 'It is what it is, and that's just that.'

From nature's point of view, where we haven't seriously altered the landscape, change, for the most part, does indeed take time. Nonetheless, it happens, whether we witness it in our lifetime or not.

US President Barack Obama meets his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro ...
The English, nay Yanks, are coming ...
As a species, we also go through constant changes, be they cultural, genetic, geographical or linguistic. On that last one, that a certain region speaks a certain language today does not mean, as history has shown us, it will always speak in that tongue.

Now it could be argued that the days of regions witnessing great language changes, as happened to the native populations of the Americas, are over. One reason for this is the very fact that there is more homogeneity in this regard than, let's say, 500 years ago. You have a few main languages that the majority of people speak with many minor ones just barely being kept alive.

Alongside this, we have one language that dominates internationally, especially in terms of business and tourism, that being English; or its Globish version in any case. Where French was the globe's lingua franca in the 18th and 19th centuries for diplomacy, international relations and other areas, English has taken that position; minus, though, much of the former's prestige.

This being so, English gaining close to parity with both Portuguese and Spanish amongst the masses here in South America is a future possibility.

It is by quirk of fate, and bad luck according to some, that Portuguese and Spanish are the common languages in these parts. For sure, over the centuries they have become culturally as much a part of the lands they cover as the Andes Mountains are physically. Yet, with the continued influence of its powerful neighbour to the north coupled with a belief that an ability to speak English well leads to better prospects and/or an improved quality of life (however true in reality that may be), South America's nascent anglicization may gather momentum in the coming decades.

As is, most of the region's more well-to-do, along with some not-so-well-off types who have seen it to be advantageous, already have a decent level of English. Here in Colombia, successive governments have made no secret of the fact that they would like to see the country bilingual — they just haven't come up with a winning formula yet, despite a few attempts launched with great fanfare. (There's also that love affair the country seems to have with the Union Jack.)

Another factor to consider is that the origin countries of the dominant languages here, Portugal and Spain, aren't exactly, to put it mildly, the global powers they once were. Thus, while internal, regional trade doesn't require English, international business with the world's biggest players is most likely to be conducted via the lingua franca. It may not be that much of a stretch to see Latinos drift more towards English in the decades to come; a slide away from one imposed language that has lost a certain usefulness and a drift towards another that has more clout.

You will also find those, Latinos and non-Latinos alike, who believe that Latin America would be in a better position financially, even culturally (if not aesthetically), if it had actually been 'Anglo-Saxon America' instead, pointing to the US and Canada as 'proof'. Whatever about a language benefit, to say this is to assume a lot and ignore a host of differences between North and South America when Europeans first came calling, such as the lack of any powerful pre-existing civilization in much of the former and, perhaps more significantly, no immediate, obvious riches to loot for the motherland, to name but two. (Guyana, as the only mainland South American state to have English as its official language, doesn't exactly have us looking on with envy.)

Of course, in all this we can be accused of taking for granted the continuance of English-language dominance. Frenchmen in the 18th century probably thought the same about their language's position. However, at this remove, in a far more globalised world than when French was king, English's fall from ahigh any time soon seems hard to contemplate.

Those variable winds of change from the East surely can't blow in a new top language?
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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Bogotá up in Smoak

Big city life, somewhat paradoxically, can be quite solitary. There are people all around us, yet as we go about our business they may as well not exist — indeed at times we might wish that to be the case.

In this regard, Bogotá is no different to any other metropolis (a few barrios excepted). Anonymous, insignificant faces abound.
Jonathan Smoak, creator of Personajes de Bogotá ...
This Smoak is on fire ...
However, one man is attempting to change this. Going by the belief that everybody has a story to tell — and in Colombia those stories can be quite something — coupled with his skills for photographing people, Jonathan Smoak has set about giving us a greater perspective to the faces we see in Bogotá on a daily basis.

Via his Facebook page Personajes de Bogotá (literally 'Characters of Bogotá'), he has been introducing us to the everyday characters around the city. The format is quite simple: a photo or two of the people in focus followed by a brief background blurb of their life story, in both English and Spanish.With more than 7,000 likes on his page so far, Smoak's virtual photo biography certainly seems to have found a niche.

The idea to create it partly came from the hugely popular Humans of New York, a Facebook page that has almost 18 million likes.

Another spark came from Smoak — whose previous humanitarian work has taken him to a host of developing countries — just being here in Bogotá itself. "I walk everywhere in the city. There are millions of people and I get a sense there's not much camaraderie, especially between classes and neighbourhoods", he explains. "I thought this (personajes) is a good way to humanise and connect races, classes, jobs, artistic communities, businesses — anything — and to say we all have a story."

While he tries to accommodate all sections of society on his page, he does reveal that some Bogotanos are more difficult to feature than others. "The higher up the socio-economic ladder I get, the more people say no." He acknowledges that security concerns in a city obsessed with such things, in many instances for sound reasons, probably play a factor in that. The fact that he’s a well-built man with a foreign face might also mitigate against him. Yet a few seconds in his company for anyone who might initially be intimidated and you'll find he's very much of the gentle variety.

Smoak's own life story has been quite the adventure. At three months of age his parents left their Virginia home to come to Colombia to work with a charity organisation that helped indigenous communities (it wasn't from nowhere he gained his charitable qualities). The country's secluded plains, in the department of Meta, were to be the family home for the next 17 years.

So while he isn't 'officially' Colombian, the country is another home to him in many ways. Yet, as he puts it, with such a background, one almost falls between two stools as to where home is: "Here, when I was growing up I was the 'gringo' and then when I went to the United States I was the strange kid from Colombia. In some sense when you're multicultural you don't have a true home; or they're both home."

Until this latest return to Colombia three years ago, the majority of his adult life was spent in the US, where he married and fathered four children. Images of a 'settled' life that might portray, but it was far from that. As a university student in Chicago he took a group of his peers to Honduras to install a potable water system in an isolated mountain village. "I did that because I was frustrated returning to the United States with so many people who were not socially and culturally aware of the world."

Out of that frustration emerged a future career where he continued to take university students to help out less well-off communities all over the globe. Countries that have benefitted from his humanitarian work include China, Honduras, India, Pakistan, the Philippines as well as the aforementioned Honduras.

Coming back to Colombia hadn't really been on the cards but a job offer that he just couldn't refuse saw him return. Unfortunately, that employment fell through. Not only that, but after setting up a photo studio he had the misfortune of having his top-of-the-range camera stolen last year. Despite these blows, he has set about making the country home again, be that temporary or otherwise. In fact, he has tinkered with the idea of doing here in Colombia the same non-profit, humanitarian work that he did elsewhere.

As for Personajes de Bogotá, the future goal is to publish a book with a collection of the best characters and their stories he has featured on the Facebook page. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the affable Smoak traversing Bogotá's streets, camera in hand. Don't be shy guys, he's just trying to make the world a friendlier, more inclusive place.
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