Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

Noelle Swan
Science Editor

In the United States, we’ve grown accustomed to debating how much parents should help their children succeed in school. But in much of the world, just getting kids to class demands incredible feats of perseverance.

Recent stories of children traversing treacherous routes to school have inspired those of us in the Western world who may take for granted that an education is just a bus ride or a short stroll away.

The feats are staggering: Chinese kids scaling 2,500-foot cliffs, Indian students crossing monsoon-swollen rivers, and Afghan schoolgirls navigating hostile territory where militants have splashed acid in children’s faces.

In India, one father has literally moved a mountain to ease his sons’ path to school. Jalandhar Nayak, a vegetable seller from the remote village of Gumsahi, has spent two years chipping away at a mountain with a chisel, a pickax, and a garden hoe to create safe passage for his children.

Working eight hours a day, he has cut through nearly five miles of rock.

His perseverance and dedication caught the attention of local administrators. This week, the government announced that it would compensate Mr. Nayak and complete the road – saving him three more years of digging, and putting his kids on the road to opportunity.


Now, here are our five stories highlighting compromise, accountability, and compassion.

1. Why earmarks have a presidential fan

The 2011 ban on congressional earmarks was intended to reduce pork spending and restore government integrity, not stymie bipartisan compromise. Is there a way to bring back earmarks, as the president suggested, without the accompanying abuse that made them synonymous with corruption?


The 30 Sec. ReadPresident Trump suggested this week that it's time to take another look at earmarks, pending deals inserted into legislation for individual lawmakers. Banned by Congress in 2011 for abuse and waste, earmarks could, with better controls, serve as a tool to promote bipartisanship and help get things done on the Hill. Mr. Trump’s idea drew immediate fire from many members of his own base. The president of the conservative Club for Growth said an earmark comeback “virtually guarantees” Republicans will lose the House. But some Republicans – and Democrats – back the president on this one. “It worked,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois. Indeed, the House Rules Committee next week will hold two hearings on the subject. “There’s actually a pretty strong case to be made for earmarks,” says political scientist John Pitney. First, he says, is the constitutional argument: Congress has the power of the purse. By stripping away the ability of individual lawmakers to direct spending, power is ceded to the executive branch. On a more practical level, earmarks get members to work together. “Arguably, the absence of earmarks makes it much harder for Congress to do its work,” says Professor Pitney.

SOURCE: Citizens Against Government Waste
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

1. Why earmarks have a presidential fan

It was an unusual aside in an already unusual meeting.

At one point during Tuesday’s remarkable 55-minute televised negotiation with members of Congress over immigration reform, President Trump suddenly switched gears and came out in favor of … earmarks, those spending deals inserted into legislation for individual lawmakers.

Banned by Congress in 2011 for abuse and waste, earmarks could actually bring back bipartisanship and help get things done on the Hill, said the president, who famously prides himself on his dealmaking prowess.

“[Earmarks] did have some problems,” Mr. Trump admitted, saying there would need to be better controls. “But I think you should look at a form of earmarks,” he urged. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina piped up: “Starting with the Port of Charleston. Absolutely.”

Around the table came laughter (some of it nervous?). But it must have been an uncomfortable moment for a Republican such as House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of California – sitting just two seats to the president’s left, and a well-known crusader against the practice that in some cases has sent lawmakers and lobbyists to jail.

Congressman McCarthy’s 2010 book, “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders,” opens with a broadside against earmarks. In it, he and his co-authors, rising Reps. Paul Ryan, now the speaker of the House, and Eric Cantor, who lost to a tea-party candidate in 2014, are depicted huddling over Diet Cokes and bottled water just hours after House Republicans agreed to a one-year moratorium on earmarks in March 2010.

Ryan said they’d been working against earmarks like Sisyphus for five years, but the rock kept rolling back on them because of the lure of sweetheart deals.

Republicans had just endured a wave of scandals surrounding the practice, most notably involving Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R) of California, who was jailed in 2006 for seven years after he admitted taking bribes in exchange for doling out government contracts.

And Republican voters were enraged over deficits and debt piling up, voicing their anger at town halls. 

"If you've been out there lately, you know that the public is screaming for this," said McCarthy, speaking of the earmark moratorium that eventually became a ban in both chambers. He asserted that the new Republican recruits – the so-called tea-party wave that would flip the House to the GOP in elections that fall – would take the party back to its roots.

The about-face this week by the party's standard-bearer didn't escape Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia. 

“I can’t help but note the delicious irony of a man who talked about draining the swamp who now wants to fill up the swamp with one of the original swamp creatures – the earmark,” says Congressman Connolly, speaking of Trump.

But some Republicans – and Democrats – back the president on this one. “It worked,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois.

Indeed, the House Rules Committee next week will hold two hearings on the subject. Members should have “conversations” about earmarks, Ryan said on Tuesday, while Rules chairman Pete Sessions (R) of Texas, told reporters that he would favor moving to a process that is “transparent and meritorious” and does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

“There’s actually a pretty strong case to be made for earmarks,” says John Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

First, he says, is the constitutional argument: It’s Congress that has the power of the purse. By stripping away the ability of individual lawmakers to direct spending, power is ceded to the executive branch, and not always efficiently.

Some members of Congress are frustrated with projects stalling at the local level, particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers, which Ryan told reporters “has not been up to snuff about getting its job done.”

On a more practical level, earmarks enable leaders to make deals, to get members to work together and compromise. “Arguably, the absence of earmarks makes it much harder for Congress to do its work,” says Professor Pitney.

Doing it transparently, rather than allowing members to “airdrop” earmarks under cover, would go a long way toward curbing abuses, says Pitney. In the vast majority of cases, members love to take credit for their earmarks, he says. “If something’s secret, something’s wrong.”

Presumably, the president brought this subject up because most of the work ahead in Congress will require bipartisan support – and difficult choices.

This differs from last year, when the Republican-controlled Congress used a narrow budget tool and new rule to approve a Supreme Court justice and pass a massive tax cut on party-line, simple-majority votes.

But Trump’s big idea drew immediate fire from many members of his own base. The president of the conservative Club for Growth said an earmark comeback “virtually guarantees” that Republicans will lose the House.

“Earmarks for teapot museums, indoor rainforests, and bridges to nowhere should not be restored; they should be permanently banned,” said Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste watchdog group in a statement. He called earmarks “corrupt, inequitable and wasteful,” and said they are the “antithesis” of the drain-the-swamp election that sent Trump to the White House.

Key conservatives on the Hill agree. Rep.  Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, who heads the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told reporters that earmarks have generally been used to “spend more and dole out political favors.” He said he couldn’t imagine that earmarks would be supported by voters back home “in this environment.”

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2. Prosecutorial misconduct and the Cliven Bundy case

As a society, we depend on prosecutors to represent our collective interests and hold wrongdoers to account. But whose responsibility is it to step in when prosecutors themselves cross ethical lines?

Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks with supporter Annette Walker-Goggins after addressing supporters and journalists at Metropolitan Police Department headquarters two days after federal charges were dismissed against him in Las Vegas on Jan. 10.
Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP

The 30 Sec. ReadAfter learning prosecutors had withheld at least 1,000 pages of evidence from defendants, US District Judge Gloria Navarro had already declared a mistrial in the Cliven Bundy case, which involved an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada to protest federal land policies. This week, she dismissed the case “with prejudice” – meaning prosecutors cannot retry the case on the same charges. “The court has found a universal sense of justice has been violated,” she said. The case is the latest example of prosecutorial misconduct, which has been described as an “epidemic” by one high-ranking federal judge. Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system, in part because they are largely responsible for policing their own conduct. “It’s like making your own calls in a basketball game, ‘That wasn’t a foul on me,’ ” says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. As technological advances continue to expand the government’s investigative resources, some experts fear prosecutorial misconduct could become more prevalent and harder to catch.


2. Prosecutorial misconduct and the Cliven Bundy case

Cliven Bundy wanted to walk out of the courtroom in his jail jumpsuit and ankle shackles. Deputy marshals blocked him from doing that. But if it hadn’t been for “flagrant misconduct” committed by federal prosecutors and investigators in the case, the Nevada cattleman may not have been walking out at all.

US District Judge Gloria Navarro dismissed the case, which related to an April 2014 standoff with federal officers seeking to impound Mr. Bundy’s cattle, “with prejudice” this week – meaning prosecutors cannot retry the case on the same charges. “The court has found that a universal sense of justice has been violated” by prosecutors who withheld and misrepresented vast quantities of evidence, she told the courtroom

The case is a dramatic example of prosecutorial misconduct, which some legal experts see as a cultural flaw in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors are arguably the most powerful actors in the system, in part because they are the gatekeepers for most evidence in a case. Having to provide evidence to a defendant while also seeking to beat them in court understandably can lead to temptation, legal experts say.

“It’s like making your own calls in a basketball game: ‘That wasn’t a foul on me,’ ” says John Raphling, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who spent more than two decades as a criminal defense lawyer in California.

“I don’t want to say it’s human nature, but it’s a natural tendency to see things your own way,” he adds, “especially when you’re wrapped up in the competitive world of trying cases.”

Prosecutors are also rarely formally punished for misconduct. As technological advances continue to expand the government’s investigative resources, some experts fear prosecutorial misconduct could become more prevalent and harder to catch. But the question of how often it occurs now is open to debate – with a former US attorney calling incidences like the Bundy mistrial a “rare event” and a former federal judge calling it an “epidemic.”

Flawed prosecutions

There are the high-profile examples, such as Bundy and the flawed prosecutions of former US Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska and members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Beyond that, 42 percent of the 166 exonerations in 2016 were a result of official misconduct, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Since the United States Supreme Court decided Brady v. Maryland in 1963, prosecutors have been required to turn over any evidence that points in the direction of innocence to the defendant. Evidence gathered in an unconstitutional fashion, such as an illegal search or self-incriminating statements elicited prior to Miranda rights being read, are also not permissible in court. Prosecutors can also commit misconduct during a trial by making misrepresentations to the jury or referring to evidence that has been ruled out-of-bounds.

In a 2013 dissent, former US 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, who retired last month amid sexual harassment allegations, declared “an epidemic of Brady violations.” But others say it is difficult to know how often prosecutorial misconduct occurs.

If a prosecutor is unsure whether a piece of evidence is permissible or important to the defense, they can give it to a judge to make a ruling. Through their close work with law enforcement, they often hold most of the evidence in a case. Whether they choose to disclose it – either straight to the defendant, or to a judge – is entirely up to them.

Reconciling their position as both the opponent of the defense and perhaps their most important source of information can be difficult, particularly over the course of a long case, says Paul Charlton, who spent 10 years as a US attorney in Arizona.

“You become familiar with the facts and embrace a certain narrative,” he adds. When “you are weighing whether you should turn over that evidence, the risk is you’re making that decision in some way to protect the case as opposed to providing the defendant with the opportunity to put on the best defense.”

Defense attorneys can appeal to the judge for the prosecutor to release certain information, and the longer a case goes on the more evidence they are likely to gain access to. With more than 90 percent of court cases in the US settling before trial, however, cases tainted by misconduct could be settled before misconduct is unearthed.

'Parallel construction'

Contributing to concerns is the increasing sophistication of investigative techniques and technologies, experts say. This allows law enforcement and prosecutors to gather more evidence – but also obscure how that evidence was collected.

One practice is for investigators to conceal their methods for identifying a suspect or finding evidence, then going through the motions of discovering it in a different way.

Reuters first reported the practice, which some call “parallel construction,” in detail in a 2013 investigation into a secretive US Drug Enforcement Administration unit that funneled information from its own surveillance activities to law enforcement agencies around the country. Those agencies then concealed how they came by the information.

Similar to prosecutorial misconduct generally, it is difficult to know exactly how often parallel construction occurs – although a new Human Rights Watch report says that needs to be investigated further. The most concrete examples in the report come from the Reuters report and from instances where law enforcement agents admitted to using a pretextual traffic stop to uncover information that had been passed to them from another source. The Supreme Court has declared pretextual traffic stops to be legal.

“We don’t have proof besides the pretextual traffic stops, but I think there is enough to ask questions,” says Sarah St. Vincent, the report’s author. She suggests that defense attorneys be more aggressive in asking for information and evidence from investigations to be disclosed, and that judges be more skeptical of claims of where information and evidence came from.

The report suggests that parallel construction may be being employed to conceal information gathered through legally questionable methods. Whether it is obtained unlawfully or not is beside the point, according to Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School lecturer who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011, since the practice transfers the decision of what information gets disclosed to defendants from judges to law enforcement and prosecutors.

“You can envision a situation where they think they’re doing something legal but they’re not sure, so they use parallel construction,” she adds. “The problem is we don’t have a system that should rest on the judgment of the police officer.”

“Before the internet, before digital information and GPS devices, I could tell when someone broke into my house. Now it’s more difficult,” she adds. “Parallel construction then makes it even more difficult to determine how evidence was obtained, and therefore if it was legally obtained.”

'An aberrant event' or a hidden problem?

Mr. Charlton says he’d never heard the term “parallel construction” before reading the Human Rights Watch report. “I’m not convinced,” he adds, “that the issue they’ve identified is as significant as the [report] will have led you to believe.” 

If law enforcement and prosecutors do use parallel construction to conceal unlawfully obtained information “it’s an aberrant event,” he continues, “and if it’s an aberrant event I would say it’s a solution looking for a problem.”

Critics say prosecutors should be more rigorous in vetting what evidence is available and where it came from.

“We find overwhelmingly it’s the cops not the prosecutors [committing misconduct], but the culture is the prosecution is not probing either,” says Ron Kaye, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, who specializes in wrongful imprisonment cases.

A key reason for that may be that prosecutors rarely receive severe formal discipline for misconduct. Courts punished prosecutorial misconduct in less than 2 percent of cases where it occurred over a 50-year period, according to a 2013 report from the Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

“It’s important that we have protections for prosecutors [from spurious misconduct claims] to be able to do their jobs effectively, without fear of a chilling effect on their performance,” says Kami Chavis, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a former US attorney.

“But at the same time,” she adds, “that does create again this issue of how do we then even uncover prosecutorial misconduct, and what do we do to deter it?”

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3. Abortion and an apartheid-era legacy

Namibia's strict limits on abortion date back to apartheid rule. Like many African nations, the country must grapple with the dilemma of laws that have support today but are rooted in a repressive and racist history.


The 30 Sec. ReadIn 1990, Namibia was at a monumental turning point. The Texas-sized slab of desert had finally won independence from apartheid South Africa. But it faced a dilemma shared by many African countries: what to do with the former government’s laws. In Namibia, that included an almost total prohibition on abortion. In the eyes of many women’s advocates, the ban was one more inheritance from a racist government, passed amid rising anxiety that the minority white population wasn’t growing fast enough. It contributed to high maternal death rates, too, they argued. Yet the prohibition also mirrored the view of many Namibians that abortion was a sin. And Namibia's first president had told the small country that having children was a patriotic duty. Today, the law is still on the books. With so many women seeking abortions illegally and often dangerously, some advocates argue reform is needed. “Our way of thinking about this is outdated," says a former nurse. "But we haven’t yet found a way to take it on and change it.”


3. Abortion and an apartheid-era legacy

The president’s voice came booming in through the open window of Rosa Namises’ house, crackling over the speakers from the soccer stadium next door.

It was the early 1990s, just years after Namibia’s independence from South Africa, a time when nearly every speech a politician here gave seemed full of outsized meaning – like a series of patriotic “how to” guides on building a new country. 

That day in her kitchen, Ms. Namises heard President Sam Nujoma explain that Namibia was a small nation. Too small, in fact. It simply didn’t have enough people.

“And so he said to the men – it’s your patriotic duty to have children,” she remembers. For Namises, an activist who hoped independence would mean the chance to reform Namibia’s strict abortion law, it was confirmation of something she’d long feared.

Now, if she advocated for abortion rights, it wouldn’t just be an affront to social norms. “It would be seen as unpatriotic,” she says.

A quarter-century ago, Namibia– a Texas-sized slab of desert on the southwest coast of Africa – was at a monumental turning point. It had finally shaken off white rule and found itself, for the first time in its history, free to choose what kind of country it wanted to be.

But it did so in the shadow of a dark history. For the better part of the century, Namibia had been a colony of white-ruled South Africa. And when it became independent, it still had on the books many of the old apartheid government’s laws. Among them was an almost total prohibition on abortion – passed in the mid-1970s amid rising anxiety that the minority white population wasn’t having children fast enough to stop itself from being vastly outnumbered by its black underclass.

Like many African countries, Namibia faced a difficult dilemma when it came to colonial legislation, like its abortion law. For many women’s health advocates, it was simply one more inheritance from a racist government, contributing to high maternal death rates and unwanted births. But whatever its history, the prohibition also mirrored the views of many Namibians – abortion was a sin. It shouldn’t be allowed.

Old laws, new societies

Around the continent, many colonial laws remain in force, and how to deal with them has become a kind of societal reckoning. In some countries, laws’ origins have inspired contemporary pushes for their removal. Nineteen African countries, for instance, no longer have the death penalty. Many who pushed for it to be overturned argued that it was a colonial tool of intimidation and suppression that had no place in their free society.

But in other cases, these laws – and the colonial governments who passed them – helped set social norms that persist to the present day. Old British penal codes criminalizing homosexuality, for instance, have been used to suppress LGBT activism in several former African colonies – notably Uganda.

When apartheid crumbled in the early 1990s, South African feminists successfully pushed to have the abortion law changed, arguing that it was part of a history of oppression.

But in neighboring Namibia, where conservative Christian social norms dominated the new government, the old law remained intact, as many similar ones do across the continent. Of the 54 countries in Africa today, only South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Tunisia allow abortion in a broad range of circumstances, and the region has the highest number of abortion-related deaths in the world. Namibia allows abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when a pregnancy endangers the life of mother or child.

In both Namibia and South Africa, the limits were part of a broader web of restrictions on black women. Apartheid laws rigidly patrolled where black South Africans and Namibians could live and work. When African communities’ neighborhoods became desirable to the white population, they were often forcibly relocated – usually to desolate, segregated areas far from jobs and amenities.

In the process, families were often separated, meaning many young women missed the lessons about traditional birth control they’d heard from mothers and grandmothers, says Susanne Klausen, a professor at Carleton University in Canada and the author of “Abortion Under Apartheid.” (Today, only half of Namibian women use modern contraceptives.) Beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, she points out, the number of unwanted and out-of-wedlock pregnancies rose rapidly.

Those women, meanwhile, were often desperate to end those pregnancies. So as apartheid tightened, the number of illegal abortions ticked upward. In the 1960s, activists estimated about 100,000 South African women – most of them black – were illicitly ending a pregnancy each year. By the 1970s, when the South African government passed the current abortion law, that figure had jumped to a quarter million, according to Klausen’s research.

At the time, Namises worked as a nurse in the obstetrics and gynecology ward of a large public hospital in Windhoek, the Namibian capital. Every week, she says, she saw women arrive in the hospital near death after attempting to perform their own abortions – or after paying an “herbalist” to do it for them. The women always told her the same story – that they’d had a miscarriage – and she never asked for more details.

But the more she saw, the angrier she grew.

“This law was never based at all on our culture or experiences,” says Namises. “It was always something imposed on us.”

Current statistics on abortion in Namibia are difficult to come by. However, data from the Namibian Ministry of Health, though based on a sample size of only 60 women, suggests that up to 16 percent of maternal deaths are caused by abortions, and thousands of women check themselves into hospitals each year for “spontaneous abortions” – a term that includes both accidental and purposeful miscarriages. Continent-wide, about 9 percent of maternal deaths each year are attributable to unsafe abortion, and some 1.6 million women are treated annually for complications from the procedure.

Charged debate

Loosening abortion restrictions, however, remains highly controversial. In an overwhelmingly Christian country, many Namibians – black and white – consider abortion a sin.

“Namibia is at its core a very religious nation, and I think for government there was and is quite a lot of weight attached to the church’s views” on social issues like abortion, says Clem Marais, the general secretary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Namibia.

But the abortion law, established under the 1970s-era apartheid government, was also meant to serve a very different purpose: white rule.

“The government saw a moral crisis if white women kept aborting the next generation of the white race,” Ms. Klausen says. “There was a real panic there.”

Since the late 1950s, indeed, South African legislators had been treating the white birth rate as a matter of survival, arguing that white control depended upon “their numbers,” as one MP quoted in “Abortion Under Apartheid” put it. “We shall as a first priority seek to increase our white population.” Having children was framed as the patriotic duty of white families – just as it was for black families in Namibia, three decades later.  

Whether or not black women were having abortions was seen as far less consequential to the apartheid government, except in public health costs, Klausen says. When apartheid fell apart, many feminists saw an opening – considering its origins, they reasoned, so who would want to keep it around? 

But many post-colonial governments, including Namibia’s, haven’t seen it that way. Instead, taking a firmly conservative stance on social issues like abortion, homosexuality, and the death penalty has become a way to assert independence from a “permissive” West.

“Namibians don’t want abortion,” then-Health Minister Libertina Amathila said amid a debate about the procedure in 1999. "Once we have consulted we are supposed to follow the feeling of the people.”

But for many women’s health advocates, that explanation leaves a tragic problem unaddressed. Namibian newspapers regularly carry stories of “baby dumping,” or mothers throwing away newborns. And the fact that so many Namibians are seeking abortions illegally shows how necessary reform has become, Namises argues.

“At the moment we are frozen,” she says. “Our way of thinking about this is outdated, but we haven’t yet found a way to take it on and change it.” 

This reporting was supported by a Taco Kuiper grant for South African investigative journalism.

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Speaking of America

Fourth of five parts

4. 'Here, you have the freedom'

This Vietnamese immigrant to America fled war on a fishing boat, and then the sea helped him build a new life for himself and his family in Louisiana. There, he found that answering hostility with compassion paved a bridge for acceptance.


The 30 Sec. ReadPhong Robert Nguyen moved to the steamy Mississippi Delta in 1984 and found himself part owner of a steel 68-foot fishing trawler. He had been a municipal worker in Vietnam; now he had to learn how to fish. The existing shrimp fleet of American captains was unhappy at the Vietnamese competitors. The two groups did not speak the same language. The Vietnamese did not understand the customary courtesies on the water. The Americans were hostile; shots were fired. A change began in 1986, when Mr. Nguyen came across a white fisherman stuck, with his engine disabled, as bad weather rolled in. The man was waving a white T-shirt for help. His crew “told me not to go close, we would get shot,” Nguyen recalls. But “fishermen should look like brothers.” He raised his nets, gave up his income for the day, towed the man back to port, refused the man's offer of cash, and hustled back on the water the next day. He took two bags of apples as payment. The rescued fisherman spread the word of the good deed, and Nguyen coached his fellow Vietnamese fishermen on the rules of the water. Gradually, the two groups began working side by side.

Karen Norris/Staff

4. 'Here, you have the freedom'

When the communists came to his Vietnam town, Phong Robert Nguyen fled to a fishing boat, jammed already with 50 of his wife’s family.  As they cast off, they saw a barge filled with refugees sink, “and I saw a couple hundred people die in the water. We pulled about 50 aboard our boat, but we were about to sink then.”

That started Nguyen’s odyssey in 1975 from a country riven by war to a summer-sultry fishing village in the country that lost. Forty-two years later, he is a man content to see his sons and daughters make their own way as citizens here, even if they do not follow their father back to the sea.

He made it here, he says, through exhausting days and nights, pulling shrimp aboard his trawler at sea for a week until the hold was full, and returning to port only long enough to unload and set out again.

He made it here, he says, because “here, you have the freedom.”

He made it here, his son says, because “he had the drive.”

Nguyen’s story is the well-worn template of newcomers in this country, washed ashore by choice or circumstance, who toil relentlessly to succeed, and now watch their sons and daughters seize that freedom in their own way. That template is being questioned by opponents of immigration, but not by those who lived it.

“When I was younger, I really did not know their story, or their struggles,” says Bobby Nguyen, one of three sons and three daughters. “I was resentful. But then I opened my eyes and I said, ‘Wow, my daddy did all of that with nothing.’ That gave me a drive: Well, if he could do that, why can’t I do that – I mean, I was born here.”

Nguyen’s story is also the reflection of the often-uneasy American accommodation of the next wave of newcomers. Nguyen landed in Guam, was taken to a refugee camp in Arkansas, and sponsored by a Catholic priest in Rochester, N.Y. He was offered a training program at American Can Company there, and worked in Rochester for nine years until his wife, Lien, learned her family had also survived and had resettled in Louisiana.

Many Vietnamese, accustomed to the Mekong River and their own long seacoast, found the steamy Mississippi Delta familiar. At Lien’s insistence, Nguyen moved there in 1984, found himself a part-owner of a steel 68-foot fishing trawler with double 48-foot booms and nets, and then abruptly owned it all. He had been a municipal worker in Vietnam; now he had to learn how to fish.

“The first year, I didn’t make any money. By the third year, I had paid off the bank,” he recalls.  

But the existing shrimp fleet of American captains was unhappy at the Vietnamese competitors. The two groups could not speak the same language. The Vietnamese did not understand the customary courtesies on the water. The Americans were hostile; shots were fired.

“We were working harder to make a living. They thought we were stealing,” Nguyen says.

“There was fault on both sides,” says Bobby Nguyen, who now works as a translator and liaison for federal fishing agencies with the fishermen.

A change began in 1986, when Nguyen came across a white fisherman stuck, with his engine disabled, as bad weather rolled in. The man was waving a white T-shirt for help. His crew “told me not to go close, we would get shot,” Nguyen recalls.

But “fishermen should look like brothers. I figured I could work for my whole life, but this was only one day.” He raised his nets, gave up his income for the day, towed the man back to port, refused his offer of cash, and hustled back on the water the next day. He took two bags of apples as payment.

But the reward was more: The rescued fisherman spread the word of the good deed among Anglos, and Nguyen coached his fellow Vietnamese fishermen on the rules of the road for the water. Gradually, the two groups began working side by side.

Nguyen eventually sold his big boat and became a middleman for the shrimp trade. He still trains fishermen at Coast Guard safety courses in a large shed he built beside his double-wide trailer in this lowland town 60 miles south of New Orleans. He constructed a 48-foot fiberglass boat that he and his wife use to work together to shrimp in shallower coastal waters.

He works because “I want to have something for my grandkids when I retire.”

None of Nguyen’s children is a fisherman. Bobby Nguyen is the closest, working on training and conservation policy with the Vietnamese fleet. “Shrimping is very, very hard work,” says Bobby Nguyen. “By the time I was 14, I could handle the boat. I am glad I know how to do it. I know it’s there if I need to fall back on it. But it’s not my favorite job.”

Nguyen says that is OK. “There is too much danger on a boat,” he says. Besides, the younger generations “don’t have the spirit for catching shrimp. They are not thinking about the wind and tide.”

He is pleased his children have found other occupations: physician’s assistant, Air Force serviceman, audio technician, dental hygienist, Bobby, and one still in college. And they have provided five grandchildren, including Bobby’s 4-year-old boy.

With their lives shaped by political forces, the Nguyens keep an eye on the politics of their new country. “All the political stuff worried me at first,” Bobby Nguyen says of the current climate, “but now I think it’s almost funny.”

His father is focused on the bigger picture:  “In Vietnam, you had no choices. But in the US, there is so much freedom. You can choose where you live and what you do. Right now, I am very, very happy we came to the United States.”

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5. The rabbi, the rapper, and the 15th-century repertoire

Modern music often serves to differentiate generations. But the genre-melding Los Seranos are using their music to make the poetry and plight of a long-lost generation of Spanish Jews relevant to generations today.

Rabbi Simon Benzaquen (l.), who grew up in a rabbinical family in Spanish Morocco, and Alex Hernandez, a Mexican-born rapper and convert to Judaism, in Jerusalem. Together they are the musical duo Los Seranos, and they sing and rap in an old Spanish dialect, Ladino.
Dina Kraft

The 30 Sec. ReadSilly love songs, they weren’t. Not, at least, according to Rabbi Simon Benzaquen and rapper Alex Hernandez, the musical duo Los Serenos Sefarad, who sing the centuries-old romansas and think they’ve divined the secret of the songs’ origins. As their name suggests, romansas traditionally were regarded mostly as songs of love. They’ve been kept alive through the ages – as lullabies, at weddings – by the descendants of the Jews who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. The language of the romansas is Ladino, a Spanish dialect of that era that is enjoying a revival of sorts in areas where Sephardic – or Spanish – Jews have settled, and Los Serenos perform in Ladino today. But the duo’s interpretation of the poignant songs, and the reason they see rap as appropriate, is that the songs were not really about romantic love, but were written to express coded longings for Spain and anger at their expulsion. “A whole people who suffered so much after an expulsion, and you are telling me they don’t want to vent a little bit?” says Rabbi Benzaquen. “Where did they do that? They put it in the songs.” 


5. The rabbi, the rapper, and the 15th-century repertoire

The Orthodox rabbi from Seattle and the rapper from Mexico believe they have stumbled upon a secret.

Romansas, songs of love and other subjects the Jews from Spain and Portugal carried with them and continued to sing for five centuries after their expulsion from Iberia, are not stories of human romance, but are metaphors for the tragedy of forced exile.

“A whole people who suffered so much after an expulsion, and you are telling me they don’t want to vent a little bit?” fumes Rabbi Simon Benzaquen. “Where did they do that? They put it in the songs.”

“If you read these romansas, they read like a fight between man and woman who fight like cat and dog, ‘Why did you trick me and make me suffer so much?’

“This is not romance between a man and a woman,” says the rabbi, a man of music and a lover of its messages and history. “This is a struggle between the Jews of Spain and Spain – that is what is expressed in those romansas, written in code.”

There’s no historical evidence to back up this theory, and academics previously have not heard of it, but say it’s one possible way to interpret the repertoire of songs that traditionally were sung by women in Ladino, an old Spanish dialect, including as lullabies to their children, at weddings, and at family gatherings.

Rabbi Benzaquen, older and loquacious (he won’t reveal his age) grew up in a storied rabbinical family in Spanish Morocco and presents as a study in silver: silver beard, silver tie, silver framed glasses. Alex Hernandez, in his 40s, is a towering 6-foot-2 convert to Judaism with a gentle presence.

The two make an unlikely pair of historical sleuths, let alone musical partners. But together they are “Los Serenos Sefarad,” The Sefarad Watchmen, and sing traditional and popular songs in Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish. The dialect was spoken at the time of the 1492 Expulsion and passed down through the generations of Jews who resettled in North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and parts of Europe.

But they add a twist: Mr. Hernandez raps in Ladino as accompaniment to Benzaquen’s singing of traditional melodies.

“It’s been an adventure rapping in Ladino, pure Ladino,” says Hernandez, who grew up Catholic in northern Mexico and has been rapping since he was 12. “Rappers are very proud of what they do, so no rapper will rap someone else’s lyrics, but this is different. We are saving a language, trying to preserve it.”

Hernandez had made rapping his career before immigrating to the United States to carry out his Orthodox conversion with his wife, who like him also grew up Catholic. Now the couple have moved to Jerusalem.

“I wanted to be a priest, she wanted to be a nun,” says Hernandez. “I went to seminary at 15, but was not accepted.”

Baruch Ha’Shem” (“Praised be God”), says his wife, Netzah Hernandez, who is a co-producer of the two albums the pair have made.

A painful history

“We have to sing so people understand the beautiful music,” Benzaquen says in an interview in Jerusalem, where they performed before a clapping and cheering audience, many of whom came up to them after the show to hear more about their work. “We want to explain and disseminate what we are finding out.”

They believe the romansas excoriate Spain for the forced conversions of Spanish Jews who did not heed the expulsion order, and for the subsequent torture and Inquisition of those who converted to Catholicism but continued to secretly practice their religion. Once the expulsion order was decreed, the Jews, most of whom were deeply rooted in society and were among the country’s most noted doctors, poets, and merchants, were given a mere six months to leave.

Benzaquen, who fears the dramatic story of the expulsion has been somewhat lost through the centuries, decided rap was the ideal medium to get that story across in the 21st century: “Young people understand rap music.”

Ladino music itself has become increasingly popular in recent years with festivals, choirs that sing in Ladino, and a fan base that stretches from Spain to Japan. And Ladino music’s Ashkenazic cousin, known as “Klezmer,” is no stranger to fusion. There’s Cuban-Klezmer and Gypsy Jazz-Klezmer. But Benzaquen may be the first to introduce Ladino to rap.

He confesses he used to think rap, specifically its lyrics, were “filthy.” But then he got to know Nissim Baruch Black, an African-American rapper who he converted to Orthodox Judaism in Seattle. Mr. Black, who used to perform under the name D. Black, taught him about rap, its history, and its reach.

“And when African-Americans disseminated their story, it went like a fire,” he says, opening his arms wide. “It can sound pleasant, but also melancholy, and gets at the idea: how do you express what you went through.”

Ladino’s roots

Ladino is thought to be a form of medieval Castilian. Around the Diaspora, Jews called it Judezmo, which means “Jewish.” (Similarly, Yiddish, the very different language of Central and Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews, also means “Jewish.”) According to Ladino music expert Edwin Seroussi, a professor of musicology and director of the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, some communities practically forgot it was a form of Spanish until the 1900s, when their communities were “discovered” by Spanish researchers.

He is intrigued by both the innovation and Ladino rap and by Benzaquen and Hernandez’s theory of what the romansas might hold.

Professor Seroussi says there is a parallel to their interpretation in the view of the Song of Songs in the Bible as everything from “erotic love poems of antiquity to the most spiritual and metaphorical love between God and the People of Israel.”

Their theory also resonates with the Muslim Sufi tradition, he says.

There are examples of both Sufi and Hebrew poetry, he says, “some mystical, some allegorical, also written in this vein, that are about intense religious relationships and not human relations.”

Seroussi, who has written about North African and Eastern Mediterranean Jewish music, says that some of the Ladino songs that have been passed down do indeed come from the Middle Ages, but notes that many of the melodies are Turkish, Greek, and Moroccan, which suggest that they were picked up in more recent times.

Sephardic Jews, as Jews of Spanish descent are known, went on in more recent times to other locations, mostly to Israel, France, Canada (Montreal), and Argentina. It is from these places that research has mostly been conducted on the music.

Benzaquen is busy writing more lyrics for the rap portions of the songs and often writes late into the night, he says, inspired by breathing new life into the past with the songs he and Hernandez produce. He hopes the rap lyrics will help transmit the feeling of exile and displacement felt by his ancestors.

“I wanted to create something that would tell the story of what I felt was missing,” he muses.

( 1103 words )

The Monitor's View

A pang of conscience in Myanmar


The 30 Sec. ReadIf coming clean is a step toward remorse, Myanmar’s military deserves praise for a rare moment of honesty. On Jan. 10, it admitted its forces murdered 10 Rohingya Muslims last September and buried them in a mass grave. This bit of truth could be aimed at containing international concerns over the ethnic cleansing campaign. Yet it might serve as an opening to uncover and end one of the world’s worst rights-abuse cases. The military has driven more than 650,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, and is accused of killing more than 6,000.  US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has warned “The world can’t just stand idly by.” Rights groups want to involve the International Criminal Court. Myanmar’s military has had to relinquish dictatorial powers, but grants little authority over the Rohingya issue to Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. But diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions are pinching. Easing generals from power must be done skillfully. One tactic is to encourage admission of wrongs, which could lead to a path of ending civil violence.


A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Fear of public speaking overcome


On the day she was to introduce a speaker in front of an audience, contributor Gay Bryant Flatt suddenly felt nervous and uncomfortable. What helped her was the idea that God, infinite Love, is everywhere. She writes: “I had come to see that infinite Love is God, and since infinite Love is everywhere, loving everyone as His spiritual offspring, then I could not be afraid.... I felt an overwhelming spiritual love for everyone and everything. I was able to do the introduction without nervousness. And this sense of God’s all-permeating love lasted long after the talk ended.” In situations large and small, we can call on God and feel the presence and care of the divine Love that frees us from fear.


Fear of public speaking overcome

One time I was unexpectedly asked to introduce a lecturer at a public meeting. It was rather short notice, but I felt prepared and looked forward to it.

However, on the day of the meeting, I felt terribly nervous. This was not something I was used to experiencing, and I felt extremely uncomfortable. The speaker noticed this and kindly assured me that it wouldn’t matter if I read from notes. I said I would be fine. But I really wasn’t fine at all.

With about 20 minutes to spare before going onto the podium, I realized that it was time for me to do something I’d found helpful many times before – turn to God for an answer. My prayer was quite simply, “God, what do I need to know?”

The answer came back straightaway, as clear as a bell. This is the thought that came to me: “Since infinite Love fills all space, then love awaits you out there.” In my study of Christian Science, I had come to see that infinite Love is God, and since infinite Love is everywhere, loving everyone as His spiritual offspring, then I could not be afraid.

I peeked out at the people already assembled and those still coming in, knowing that divine Love dissolves fear. In that moment I felt an overwhelming spiritual love for everyone and everything. I was able to do the introduction without nervousness. And this sense of God’s all-permeating love lasted long after the talk ended.

The fear I had seems minor in comparison with many things people face in their lives. But the tangible feeling of God’s love I felt then has given me assurance that we can all call on God in any situation. A verse in Psalms sums it up exactly. It says, “I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me” (Psalms 57:2).

And that’s exactly what happened. I did cry to God that day for help, and He answered me in an awesome way. Divine inspiration brought a clearer sense of the spiritual reality, which took away my fear. It was such a wonderful lesson – and one that I will never forget.

A version of this article aired on the Dec. 8, 2017, Christian Science Daily Lift podcast.

( 375 words )


Submerged sanctuary

An 11th-century church and the remains of a village, which are usually covered by water, are visible inside the reservoir of Sau in Vilanova de Sau, Catalonia, Spain, on Jan 11. The reservoir, which was built in the early 1960s, is so low on water that the ruins have reemerged.
Emilio Morenatti/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

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( January 12th, 2018 )

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