2019
April
11
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

This weekend, millions of Americans will likely be scrambling to meet one of the most universal civic obligations: filing taxes.

Despite grumbles over complex tax codes, more than 90% of Americans see the tax bill as their duty as citizens. That’s no surprise in a country that waged its independence, in part, in defiance of taxation without representation.

But what if the nation used tax season as an occasion to facilitate participation in another civic duty – voting? Call it “taxation with representation.”

In 2018, more than 250 million Americans submitted a tax return. That’s more than double the number of people who voted in the 2018 election.

Coupling voter registration with tax preparation could not only increase the size of the voter pool, but also make it more representative of the actual population, argues Vanessa Williamson, a governance studies fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

An experimental study conducted in Dallas and Cleveland found that offering voter registration as a part of tax filing “more than doubled the likelihood of an unregistered person registering to vote,” reports Ms. Williamson.

Two-thirds of Americans agree that voter participation is a fundamental problem in the United States. Getting two-thirds of eligible voters to the polls would be a good start.

Today, we’re watching Sudan, where the military has arrested the longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir and taken control of the country. 

Now to our five stories for today, exploring Mexico’s shifting tolerance of migrants, perceptions of wealth and greed in the United States, and an alternative way for low-income residents in Spain to earn their keep.

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Breakthroughs

Ideas that drive change

1. How a new human species challenges textbook histories

Science is often viewed as a body of facts. But in practice it is a constant process of discovery. One new discovery suggests that humanity’s evolutionary history may not have been as neat and as linear as we were taught.

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There’s a new human on the archaic block. Researchers announced Wednesday the discovery of hominin fossils on the Philippine island of Luzon that don’t look like any human species known to science. After careful analysis, they dubbed this a new species named Homo luzonensis.

This revelation reverberates well beyond the Philippines. It underscores a growing sense among human origins researchers that human evolution may not be as neat and linear as the story we often tell.

How, though, did an early human come to be in such a remote location? And who were its ancestors? The obvious answer is Homo erectus, as that is the only human species known to have been in the region early enough. But the H. luzonensis fossils bear some features similar to earlier hominins that are not known to have left Africa.

“Obviously our idea of what was going on is much less nuanced than what was really going on,” says Susan Antón, a paleoanthropologist at New York University, who was not part of the study. “[This discovery] gives us a different perspective about our place in the world.”

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How a new human species challenges textbook histories

Armand Mijares didn’t initially realize the significance of what he had found, but it would turn out to change the paleoanthropologist’s life – and rewrite human history.

At an archaeological site on the Philippine island of Luzon in 2007, his team unearthed a wide array of ancient animal bones, dated to be about 67,000 years old. The researchers couldn’t identify the fossils out in the field, so Dr. Mijares sent them to a zoologist colleague.

“He called me on my cellphone” one evening, recalls Dr. Mijares, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines. “He called me, ‘Hey, hi mate, you have human remains!’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘You have one human remain.’”

Among the ancient bones was a single human toe bone. But which human species did it belong to?

Now, after studying more hominin bones discovered at the site in 2011 and 2015, the researchers have come to a history-shaking conclusion: A human species previously unknown to science once lived on Luzon. The researchers introduced the new species, dubbed Homo luzonensis, in a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

This finding reverberates beyond the Philippines. It underscores a growing sense among human origins researchers that human evolution may not be as neat and linear as the story we often tell. H. luzonensis adds even more complexity to that picture.

“Obviously our idea of what was going on is much less nuanced than what was really going on,” says Susan Antón, a paleoanthropologist at New York University, who was not part of the study. “[This discovery] gives us a different perspective about our place in the world.”

Despite giving H. luzonensis a name, the hominin remains mysterious in many ways – and sorting out its story could illuminate the nuances of the whole genus Homo.

Currently, only a handful of bones represent the new species: some hand and foot bones, part of a thigh bone, and seven teeth. All the bones are particularly tiny, which suggests that this ancient human likely stood under 4 feet tall. But without the long bones, it’s difficult to be sure, says Dr. Mijares, co-lead author on the new paper.

That would make H. luzonensis the second known dwarf species in the genus Homo. The other short human, nicknamed “hobbit” for its stature, was discovered in 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores. Both Homo floresiensis (the hobbit’s scientific name) and its newfound counterpart are thought to have lived up until around 50,000 years ago.

Both hominins likely underwent a process known as island dwarfism, when a species shrinks over generations via evolutionary selection due to limited resources. But how they got to the islands in the first place and who they were when they arrived remain open questions.

At the time, Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans were the only other human species known to be outside Africa. But becoming such distinct hominins as the two island dwellers takes generations of evolution, so they probably came from an earlier Homo lineage.

Researchers have previously found Homo erectus fossils, dated to show the species was in the region by 1 million years ago. So that species is an obvious contender. It’s also the only member of the genus Homo known to be in the region before H. sapiens arrived some 50,000 years ago, other than the Flores and Luzon dwarf humans.

The story told of H. erectus’ migration from Africa to Asia goes something like this: As the earliest hominin to have long legs conducive to long-distance walking, H. erectus was the first to stride out of Africa to conquer the world. A population in Southeast Asia somehow made it across wide, deep waters to these islands. Some scientists have suggested that the hominins might have been swept out to sea on a vegetation mat or some other accidental event. Once there, they established a population and, over generations, their features changed to make them better suited to the island environments.

“Remember Occam’s razor?” says Russell Ciochon, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Iowa, who was not part of the study. “What’s the most parsimonious hypothesis? We know that Homo erectus got there with time enough to disperse and evolve into these different species.”

But others aren’t so sure.

The Luzon fossils bear a strange mixture of features (that’s what convinced the research team this was an entirely new species). The tiny teeth look like both modern and archaic hominins in different ways. And the toe bone is curved, much more like the genus Australopithecus than any Homo.

“We could also explain it perhaps as something like early Homo leaving Africa either at or around the same time as early Homo erectus,” suggests Matt Tocheri, Canada research chair in human origins at Lakehead University and a Homo floresiensis researcher. H. erectus was the first member of the genus to have humanlike features on its whole body. Earlier members of the genus looked very human in the face and head, but from the neck down, they looked a lot more like Australopithecus.

Furthermore, Dr. Tocheri says, stone tools have been found in China dated to be about 2.1 million years old – a few hundreds of thousands of years before the oldest H. erectus fossil found outside Africa.

Such a scenario would be a major rewrite to conventional stories of early human dispersal, particularly as Australopithecus legs and feet were more suited toward a dual life as tree-climbers and local walkers than long-distance treks. And it still might be possible that H. erectus left Africa earlier than previously thought, and that the Luzon hominin evolved from H. erectus and that those seemingly archaic features were simply better adaptations for the island environment.

“It’s an interesting idea, but I think it would be foolish to make a commitment to one or the other in light of the fact that the data are simply not there to judge,” says William Kimbel, director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, who was not part of the study. More data is needed, he says.

Ancient DNA samples would also help, but tropical islands are not environments conducive to preservation. Dr. Mijares and his colleagues attempted to extract some from the Luzon fossils, but couldn’t find any that had preserved.

Some paleoanthropologists are hesitant to call the Luzon hominin a new species just yet. “Because Homo is so much defined on cranial remains,” says Dr. Antón, “I would’ve wanted some heads.”

That doesn’t mean the team is wrong, she adds, but the significance of their find does not rest on whether you can call this hominin a distinct species. Instead, she says, the fact that a hominin evolved such wildly different features in the island context highlights just how flexible and variable humans can be.

This also shows that the human evolutionary story may not be as unique as we like to think, says Dr. Tocheri. “It’s really looking a lot more like it does for the evolutionary record of other mammals. At the end of the day, hominins are just another mammal.”

Dr. Kimbel agrees, “We are exceptional in many ways, but let’s not be fooled into thinking that our explanations [of how we came to be] have to be exceptional as well.”

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2. Mexico to US: You think you’re tired of caravans?

In the White House’s vision, Mexico itself should be a “wall,” blocking migrants from reaching the U.S. border in the first place. The country may be growing more willing to do that – but for its own reasons.

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Jose Torres/Reuters
A woman gets a picture taken by an official of the National Migration Institute in Acacoyagua, Mexico, on March 27. She and other migrants are registering for humanitarian visas to cross the country on their way to the United States.

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When it comes to reducing immigration, the White House has a favorite theme: Mexico needs to step up. The United States’ southern neighbor should play a larger role slowing the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers toward the U.S. border, President Donald Trump has insisted, even tweeting threats to close down the border.

But the uptick in “caravans” has overwhelmed Mexico, too, and observers say the country appears poised to crack down – despite the new Mexican administration’s initial promises of a warmer welcome for migrants. Mexican towns have struggled to accommodate thousands of people in one swoop, and the government has cut budgets for its asylum program and federal migration institute.

Caravans “have had a terrible effect on Mexican public opinion,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, who studies Mexican media coverage of migration. That’s “creating fertile ground for Trump’s pressure on Mexico,” he adds.

The conversation on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years has focused on Mr. Trump’s desire to build a wall. But moving forward, Professor Bravo predicts, Mexicans “will be the ones that stop Central American migrants – not a wall.”

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Mexico to US: You think you’re tired of caravans?

Central American migrants and asylum-seekers traveling in large groups across Mexico and arriving at the United States border have drawn ire from U.S. officials and inundated Customs and Border Protection and immigration courts. 

But the uptick in “caravans” has overwhelmed Mexicans, too.

Migrant caravans have long been regular fixtures on the northward path, typically annual events. Since last October's 6,000-person-strong caravan, a handful of others have followed, drawing attention to a human flow through the region that's been growing for years, albeit more quietly. More than 2,000 people walked together in January, and several groups followed in March, including one that numbered roughly 2,500.

People joining caravans say they offer greater safety than traveling alone. And activists see caravans as a form of protest, not only against home governments failing to provide security or support human rights, but also against Mexican officials making it possible for widespread abuses to occur along the migratory path for decades.

But over the past six months, media attention around caravans has created shifts in public opinions of migrants here. The caravans present logistical challenges for local governments and communities, forced to accommodate an influx of thousands of people in one swoop. They’ve raised concerns, founded or not, about criminal infiltration and human trafficking. 

A central message from President Donald Trump and his administration – including former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, one of multiple top officials at the Department of Homeland Security who resigned this week – has been the need for Mexico to play a larger role in stopping the flow of refugees and migrants before they can reach the U.S. Earlier this spring, Mr. Trump tweeted, then walked back, threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border. 

But observers say Mexico appears poised to crack down on the mostly Central American migrants and families arriving at its own doorstep, anyway, despite new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s initial stance as pro-migrant rights.

“I understand the strategy behind caravans, but Mexicans aren’t used to this,” says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), who is working on an analysis of how Mexican media covered Central American migration between 2008 and 2018.

Caravans “have had a terrible effect on Mexican public opinion, which is creating fertile ground for Trump’s pressure on Mexico” to clamp down harder on migration here, he says. “Public opinion is moving toward supporting the very same measures that Americans are pressuring us for.”

Mixed messages

President López Obrador came into office promising work opportunities for Central American migrants in Mexico and expedited visas – moves that incentivized migration, according to Irineo Mujica, a migrant-rights activist who works with the organization Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which accompanied the October 2018 caravan as it moved through Mexico.

Yet in recent weeks, Mexico has announced seemingly contradictory initiatives, such as sending forces to “contain” the Tehuantepec isthmus in southern Mexico – essentially shutting off the flow of migrants from moving north. The government has also cut the budgets for Mexico’s asylum program and its federal migration institute, despite recent upticks in migration.

“The caravans have been used as a political tool in the U.S. and in Mexico,” says Mr. Mujica. “This administration is criminalizing migration in a really subtle way.” 

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Mexico. President Donald Trump is cutting nearly $500 million in aid to Central America to reduce immigration, but many observers say the cuts will prompt more immigration, not less.

Rhetoric used by government officials has – intentionally or not – demonized caravans or made locals less sympathetic to migrants, observers say. There have been warnings to residents about the potential for criminals to infiltrate caravans (echoing statements from the U.S. administration) and suggestions that there are kidnappers and organ traffickers in the mix. Some leaders have outright said they won’t allow future caravans to pass through their communities.

But it’s not just the government influencing public opinion.

Mr. Bravo, who teaches in the journalism department at CIDE, says media attention toward migration in 2018 was “off the charts,” compared with previous inflection points, like 2010 and 2014. And compared with previous peaks, public opinion of the caravans has been much more negative.

He says his team is still analyzing data for their forthcoming report, but that it suggests Mexicans sympathize when migrants are portrayed as victims of organized crime (as was the case in 2010), or when child migrants are unaccompanied (as in 2014), but not when migrants are depicted as “caravans breaking into the country.”

According to a poll published this month in the Mexican daily El Universal, headlined “Mexicans don’t want more migrants,” 62.5% of Mexicans don’t agree with the government allowing caravans of Central Americans to enter the country and give them refuge. That’s up from 37.8% back in October 2018.

Turning point ahead? 

From rural communities in southern Chiapas state scraping together resources to provide weary Central Americans food and water, to a border city revamping a former factory to accommodate thousands of people, many Mexicans initially gave caravans a warm welcome. Today, a lot of their support is waning – or at least strained.

The border city of Piedras Negras, across from Texas, found itself scrambling in February to accommodate roughly 2,000 migrants in a former government storage space – equipping it with an industrial kitchen, setting up running water and electricity, and implementing safety protocols – in 48 hours.

“This was an unprecedented event” for the city, says José Andrés Sumano, a researcher in the cultural studies department at the College of the Northern Border’s Matamoros campus, who contributed to a case study on the situation in Piedras Negras.

He believes that even if Mexico’s federal government wasn’t under U.S. pressure to crack down on migration, local politicians and Mexican citizens would be making the demand themselves. 

“To support a caravan, you need resources. And the federal government isn’t in a position to put money toward this,” Mr. Sumano says.

Mr. Bravo agrees. The conversation on the U.S.-Mexico border over the past two years may have focused on U.S. desire to build a wall. But moving forward, he predicts Mexicans “will be the ones that stop Central American migrants – not a wall.”

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Q&A

3. Sociologist takes on myths about wealth and morality

We asked readers to share what concerned them the most about the recent college admissions scandal. Sociologist Rachel Sherman responds to questions about the advantages and moral dilemmas of the wealthy.  

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The college admissions scandal is raising concerns about whether society gives elites a pass when they behave poorly – and whether the United States really does have a meritocracy.

Rachel Sherman, a sociologist at the New School in New York, is helping to sort myth from reality. The author of the 2017 book “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence” spoke with the Monitor recently when we brought her questions from our readers. 

Among the topics she addresses: stereotypes about the affluent. “The admissions scandal highlights [how] we imagine that rich people are morally compromised: They just don’t think the rules apply to them; they’re sort of greedy,” she says. “The people who I interviewed don’t want to be seen as wealthy. Some of them are very invested in other people not knowing how wealthy they are.” 

Dive even deeper into the idea of “meritocracy” in this article’s companion audio story. You can find it at the end of the deep-read version.

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Sociologist takes on myths about wealth and morality

As the wealth gap in the United States has grown, so has the outrage. But at a time when much attention is focused on the privileges and excesses of wealthy elites, what can we learn from delving beneath the stereotypes? 

The Monitor gathered readers’ responses to the question “What concerns you the most about the college admissions scandal?” and asked Rachel Sherman to weigh in. A sociology professor at the New School in New York, she conducted in-depth interviews with 50 affluent New Yorkers for her book, “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” published in 2017 by Princeton University Press. 

Professor Sherman spoke with the Monitor by phone earlier this month. Below are excerpts from that conversation, including a companion audio piece, edited for clarity and brevity.

Many reactions to the college bribery scandal boil down to the idea that money has a bad influence on people. One reader wrote, “Our society tends to tolerate rule bending from the elite.” Were the people you studied concerned about the influence of money? 

Mostly what they worry about is that their kids will become the negative stereotypes that we often hold of wealthy people: entitled, materialistic, [or thinking] that they’re better than others. They are really trying to produce children who aren’t like that. Nobody wants their kids to be spoiled.

But the thing with wealthy parents is that their kids actually do have all these material advantages. They are getting fantastic private education and all kinds of enrichment experiences like travel and internships. It’s a really difficult path to walk to try to produce kids who have “normal” kinds of values while still enjoying all of these opportunities.

One reader was disturbed by harsh judgments in reaction to this scandal, especially those that went after the kids. What do you see at play when our society loves to watch the rich and famous on reality shows but people are also quick to condemn?

We have this really strong ambivalence about the moral status specifically of wealthy people. We see a kind of public acclamation for people like Bill Gates or other really major philanthropists. But we also see a lot of critiques of entitled wealthy people.

The admissions scandal highlights [how] we imagine that rich people are morally compromised: They just don’t think the rules apply to them; they’re sort of greedy. The people who I interviewed don’t want to be seen as wealthy. Some of them are very invested in other people not knowing how wealthy they are.

Courtesy of Princeton University Press
Rachel Sherman, a sociology professor at the New School in New York, conducted in-depth interviews with 50 affluent New Yorkers for her 2017 book, ‘Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence.’

Is there a productive way to critique wealth inequality and behaviors that people see as wrong but at the same time not stereotype rich people?

All of this [focus on individuals] is sort of a distraction from the bigger problem of wealth inequality. In the U.S. we map very closely people’s position in the social distribution onto their moral status as individuals. So the people in the middle class and working families, they’re the ones who are seen as morally good, like the moral backbone of America. And then both at the top and the bottom you see these really strong moral critiques of people for not working enough and for consuming too much.

We should be talking about why distributions are like this, which has to do with policy, with the way that wages are paid and the way that taxes are levied, primarily. It doesn’t matter how nice of a person you are if you have as much money yourself individually as 10% of the population. Maybe you shouldn’t have that much money.

Many readers commented on elite admissions really favoring people with advantages such as legacy connections or the ability to hire private advisers. How reflective were the people you interviewed about their advantage when it comes to opportunities such as education?

Most of them did not have college-age children or even high-school-age [children]. Those who had more progressive politics were really aware of the educational advantage that they could give their kids by putting them into private school. And those parents tended to have a strong commitment to public school both as a social good and as something that would be good individually for their own kids. They care about their kids being “exposed,” a word they often used, to different types of people from different racial and class backgrounds. But in the end, they mostly take their kids out of those schools and put them into private schools, because they don’t want their kids to be, in the words of one father I interviewed, a “guinea pig.” In New York City, until [they think] the public schools can match the private schools, they’re going to put their kid in private school.

The people who are less progressive politically just take for granted that their kids are going to go to private school. But they do care about which kinds of private schools the kids go to. They are trying to produce these unentitled kids, so they want to make sure that they’re in schools that are grounded or that have good values or a lot of diversity.

People often talk about our society as operating based on merit, but one reader voiced a common critique, calling the college bribery scandal “one more rip in the myth of the supposed American meritocracy.” How do you see the debate about meritocracy influencing the wider dialogue about inequality? 

The idea of the American dream obviously is really fundamental. And then that’s combined with this moral notion of meritocracy, which really is a moral claim about deservingness – the idea that you deserve what you can get through your own hard work and intelligence. [But] you can look around you and see lots of people who are working hard who are not wealthy. 

Dive Deeper: Why does the meritocracy myth persist?

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That notion of meritocracy legitimates the structures that we have and places the moral burden on the individual – that if you haven’t made it, it must be your fault. That’s a very convenient narrative.

[But we need to look at] the problems more specifically that are associated with these inequalities. At the bottom: poverty and lack of access to various kinds of resources. At the top: disproportionate influence.

Now we’re seeing a lot of very prominent critiques of philanthropy from liberal elites. The fact that a single person without any background in the field can influence a whole city’s educational system [for instance], seems to me and many other people deeply problematic.

It’s really important to be talking about the systemic or structural conditions and laws that are producing inequality, and how is it possible to counteract those.

Thanks to Esteban Rodas, Mary Hughes, and Gerry Zyfers for comments that helped shape some of the questions for this interview. You can see full comments by them and several others who shared ideas on this theme by scrolling through the list below.

This article is part of our “Your Monitor” initiative.

To do our work well, we need to hear from you. Share your questions and stories here. 

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4. It’s a deal: Spanish fixer-uppers for tenants willing to work

Why would a landlord take less money in rent? A nonprofit in Spain is matching owners who want to help with tenants who need a break but are willing to fix up a place.

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Juan Carlos Toro/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
When Mireya Rodríguez’s daughter realized their new apartment had a bathtub, ‘she almost lost it with happiness,’ Ms. Rodríguez says. The nonprofit Todos con Casa helped the family find an apartment below market rate in exchange for some repairs.

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When Victoria Sánchez lost her job and couldn’t afford the apartment she shared with her little girl, she knocked on doors and left notes in mailboxes, promising to fix up a place that needed some work – if only the rent was an affordable sum. One day, her persistence paid off, and Ms. Sánchez was on her way to helping other eager tenants and landlords find each other.

In Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, Todos con Casa, or “A Home for All,” contracts landlords to accept rent that is lower than market rate while tenants and volunteers handle some maintenance and repairs. “I tell the homeowners this is first and foremost a solidarity network,” says Ms. Sánchez. “It’s extremely important that the two parties meet and hear each other’s story.”

A decade after the global financial crisis, Spain is still reckoning with millions of unoccupied and unfinished homes, relics of the pre-crisis housing boom. Yet more renters are facing the affordability crunch. Todos con Casa wants to help solve that with dignity instead of charity, Ms. Sánchez says. And “it’s also about generosity – we receive a lot and give a lot in return.”

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It’s a deal: Spanish fixer-uppers for tenants willing to work

Lots of children dream of their own bedroom. Ten-year-old Judith Rodríguez’s dreams centered on a different room of the house.

“When my daughter first visited the apartment and realized she was finally going to have a bathtub, she almost lost it with happiness,” says her mom, Mireya Rodríguez. “A bathtub had always been her dream.”

It’s the first time this single mother has been able to afford her own place. On a Tuesday morning, Ms. Rodríguez is cleaning and arranging her spacious two-bedroom, which needs a coat of paint and some minor repairs. The upkeep is part of the deal with the landlord, who is accepting rent below market value, $136 per month, in exchange for fixing up the unit. Ms. Rodríguez and volunteers from the nonprofit Todos con Casa, which brokered the deal, are ready to get down to work.

Todos con Casa, or “A Home for All,” links landlords with people in need of affordable housing. To Todos con Casa, there’s a solidarity in the relationships they’re creating – among landlords, their tenants, and the nonprofit which binds them – and a model that could help other communities.  

According to a Eurostat report, 43% of Spaniards spent more than 40 percent of their earnings on rent in 2016, compared with an average of 28% in the European Union. In July, the government announced a plan to build 20,000 homes for social housing in four to six years. A decade after the global financial crisis, tourism-led gentrification, persistent high unemployment rates, and stagnant wages are accompanying a boom in rental prices. This is forcing tenants out of homes or making it difficult for some to afford an apartment. Nationally, millions of homes stand unoccupied and developments uncompleted, a vestige of the pre-crisis housing construction boom – even as the need for affordable housing grows.

Juan Carlos Toro/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Mireya Rodríguez and her daughter rent for a below-market $136 per month. Volunteers from Todos con Casa have helped the family do repairs on their apartment.

When Spain’s housing bubble burst 10 years ago, Victoria Sánchez lost her job at a real estate agency in Valencia and could no longer afford the apartment in which she and her 8-year-old daughter lived. Ms. Sánchez knocked on doors and left notes in mailboxes, promising to fix up someone’s house if she could affordably rent it. One day, one note was answered.

Ms. Sánchez got back on her feet and found a new job as a real estate agent in Jerez de la Frontera, her hometown. It looked as if she was picking up where she left off. Until she was forced to turn down a single mother as a client because she didn’t have a job contract.

“When I met that woman with a 3-year-old-baby, I saw myself in her. That moment changed my life,” Ms. Sánchez says.

Small group, making a big difference

Todos con Casa soon followed. When an acquaintance told her about an empty apartment, Ms. Sánchez and some friends fixed it up and rented it to someone in need. Since 2015, Todos con Casa has renovated 16 apartments, helping single women, families with children, elderly people, and teenage Moroccan immigrants who had to leave shelters for unaccompanied minors when they turned 18. This month, the association will start working on three more empty houses. In Jerez de la Frontera, a city with the fifth highest unemployment rate in Spain, Todos con Casa tenants pay between $57 and $226, significantly below the average rental here, around $452.

“Some tenants tell me they hadn’t slept in years,” Ms. Sánchez says. “Being able to pay for their own place allows them to feel independent. They become more relaxed, they start looking for jobs with a newfound determination, their children look happy.”

While Todos con Casa’s volunteers clean windows, examine electrical wiring, and measure the rooms of Ms. Rodríguez’s house, she meets her landlord for the first time, thanking him for the opportunity. The apartment belongs to Juan Antonio Palacios, a 42-year-old who moved back in with his parents after he became unemployed. Mr. Palacios reached out to Todos con Casa when his previous tenant didn’t take proper care of the home.

“Todos con Casa is helping me and I’m helping someone,” Mr. Palacios says.

Juan Carlos Toro/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A decade ago, Victoria Sánchez was jobless with a young child. She traded work on her own new apartment for a lower rent, and was inspired to found the nonprofit Todos con Casa so that other tenants could find similar affordable housing arrangements.

He signed a three-year transfer agreement. “From the start, I tell the homeowners this is first and foremost a solidarity network,” says Ms. Sánchez. “Then it becomes clear it’s extremely important that the two parties meet and hear each other’s story.”

A few landlords have benefited from a unique loophole: In Spain, homeowners on the verge of foreclosure may still rent their property to someone else while the bank has yet to assume ownership, a process that can take two or three years.

Less than a year ago, Todos con Casa received a grant from Cádiz provincial authorities, which allowed Ms. Sánchez to get paid and to hire an assistant. The rest of the team is made of volunteers, all current or prospective tenants of Todos con Casa.

“I believe the biggest strength of Todos con Casa lies in the fact that tenants are also volunteers, fixing the houses where they’re going to live or helping to fix the houses of other tenants. That brings a sense of dignity, instead of a feeling you owe people because of their charity. It’s also about generosity – we receive a lot and give a lot in return,” says Ms. Sánchez, who herself is a Todos con Casa tenant.

Occasionally, the landlords become volunteers as well, like Mr. Palacios. His father has also contacted the association to ask how he could help. And sometimes, homeowners will help tenants find jobs.

Avoiding evictions

Todos con Casa acts as an intermediary between tenant and homeowner, making sure the rent gets paid. That isn’t always easy, Ms. Sánchez explains, adding that the nonprofit does not evict tenants.

“I believe opportunities shouldn’t have a limit. When something goes wrong, I sit with tenants and discuss what needs to change. Sometimes, the association pays the landlord in advance. I will never say to a tenant he needs to leave. It will be up to him to figure out he has exhausted all possibilities and can no longer keep the commitment,” Ms. Sánchez says.

In the last few months, Ms. Sánchez has been contacting other housing organizations across Spain in the hope that similar initiatives can foster a national movement demanding change in the real estate and rental markets.

“First, homeowners lost their houses; now tenants can’t find apartments. This needs to stop. I don’t agree with squatters, but if it wasn’t for that movement [of protests after the 2008 crisis], Spain would be facing a civil war over housing right now. The government needs to protect the people the way associations like Todos con Casa is doing,” Ms. Sánchez says.

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5. In Atlanta, a Civil War painting stops stretching the truth

The rescue of Atlanta’s Cyclorama has shown a desire to not only save history, but to examine how some of its themes – nationalism, valor, and equality – resonate today.

Noelle
Atlanta Historical Center
After relocation, the Atlanta History Center began a two-year restoration of the cyclorama painting 'The Battle of Atlanta.' This included restoring seven feet of sky and accurately repainting defeated soldiers’ uniforms gray. Some 128 plaster figures that are the focal point of the diorama also were restored.

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The “Battle of Atlanta” was the Imax of its time: 10,000 pounds of Belgian linen and paint, 371 feet long and 49 feet tall. Created in 1886 by German artists using lantern projectors, it is only one of three remaining cycloramas in North America.

The giant canvas hangs on a circular wall, 360-degrees in the round, and is familiar to generations of schoolchildren in Atlanta. It shows soldiers clashing in July 1864 in Atlanta, a defeat for the Confederacy that would set the stage for Gen. William Sherman’s march to the sea.

Opened in February after a two-year hiatus, the Cyclorama is now less penny theater than an artifact of a city’s search for grace and the many self-told myths of a nation.

Today a new restoration of the Cyclorama has afforded curators at the Atlanta History Center, its new home, an opportunity to tell the story again, this time with original imagery and historical context. “This painting has meant so many things to so many different people throughout the course of its history,” says historian Tim Crimmins. 

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In Atlanta, a Civil War painting stops stretching the truth

When Tim Crimmins, way back in 1973, first saw “The Battle of Atlanta,” a towering wraparound picture of 60,000 soldiers in gray and blue clashing over the fate of a nation, he elbowed a friend.

“There’s no enemy on the battlefield,” he told him, chuckling. “There are only good guys fighting good guys.”

Created in 1886 by German artists using lantern projectors, the giant panoramic painting shows a broken and bloody battlefield, the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. It became a familiar school trip for generations of Georgians, one that was tinged with the mythmaking of the defeated Confederacy and the idea of a “Lost Cause.”

“This painting has meant so many things to so many different people throughout the course of its history,” says Mr. Crimmins. Still a fan, Mr. Crimmins is now a history professor at Georgia State University focused on the role of history on Atlanta’s development.

With its motto “resurgens,” Atlanta is a city where preservation has at times been a lost cause. Today, the battlefield depicted in the painting is buried under backyards. But the rescue of the Cyclorama has shown a desire to not only save history, but to examine how some of its themes – nationalism, valor, and equality – resonate today.

Its restoration, even its survival, wasn’t a given. By 2011, the Cyclorama, as it’s known, was moth-eaten and water damaged, drawing a scant 50,000 visitors a year. That presented an opportunity for a rethink. In short order, Atlantans raised $35 million in donations for a face-lift and a new home.

Opened in February after a two-year hiatus, the Cyclorama is now less penny theater than an artifact of a city’s search for grace and the many self-told myths of a nation.

“We’re in this modern landscape, but we can go back 150 years to where the fate of the country was decided, when the fate of slavery was decided, and it was right here under our feet,” says military historian Gordon Jones, who curated the “Battle of Atlanta” exhibit. “The Cyclorama is important only if you are honest with what you are telling about it, and not using it as a political propaganda tool.”

That has long been its fate, perhaps an inevitability given the stakes of the conflict it portrayed and the poisonous politics left in its wake.

The Imax of the Gilded Age

Constructed by the American Panorama Company of Milwaukee to tickle nationalistic fervor in Northern audiences, the “Battle of Atlanta” was the Imax of its time: 10,000 pounds of Belgian linen and paint, 371 feet long and 49 feet tall. It is only one of three remaining in North America. (A smattering of cycloramas are displayed in other countries.)

The painting’s vantage point is Atlanta’s Inman Park neighborhood. Kennesaw Mountain is to the north, Stone Mountain to the east. Downtown is to the west.

In July 1864 the war was going badly for the Union. Led by John “Black Jack” Logan – the largest figure, charging across the canvas on horseback – the “Yanks” hold back several desperate Confederate lunges, winning the battle, if not yet the campaign.

The dramatic tension of that battle day, July 22, is what gives the painting its visual punch, and would allow partisans on both sides to draw glory from it.

Atlanta Historical Center
Before the relocation of 'The Battle of Atlanta,' the Atlanta History Center teams began strength-testing the canvas, documenting the condition of the paint layers and fiberglass backing, and conducting stabilization conservation efforts.

For Atlanta it was a defeat that would set up Gen. William Sherman’s ruinous march to the sea and final victory for the Union.

After touring the North, the Cyclorama came to Atlanta in 1892, with retired generals from both sides of the war present for its unveiling. To goose attendance, a local promoter claimed it was “the only painting of a Confederate victory!” To support his spin, the promoter repainted a gaggle of dejected Confederate prisoners in blue, the color of the Union Army, and added a Union flag laying in the dirt.

Atlanta acquired the painting ahead of a convention of Confederate veterans and later installed it in a permanent building in 1921. The site, Grant Park, was segregated, so African Americans never got to see it.

There is only one black figure in the painting: a red-shirted rider, without a rifle.

“Here in Atlanta, the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative is adopted as a means of advertising the city,” explains Mr. Jones. That advertisement was Atlanta as “the only city of the New South living in the grace of the Old South.”

At the same time, the military painting came to embody Reconstruction, a period in which Southern mythmaking about the war intensified.

Forget me not

That impulse to hold onto history flared in the 1970s, when Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, raised money for a major restoration of the painting, arguing that the Battle of Atlanta had meaning for black Americans, too. ”It was a battle that helped free my ancestors,” Mr. Jackson said at the time, “and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

For its latest restoration, the painting had to be extracted from the building by cutting holes in the roof. Sections were rolled up “like giant Tootsie Rolls,” says Howard Pousner, a spokesman for the Atlanta History Center, its new home, which has a separate exhibit on turning points in the Civil War, along with a celebration of barbecue.

Given its relevance as an artifact, “I was never worried about it being deep-sixed,” says Jackson McQuigg, who oversaw the excavation.

For the most part, the restoration by 200 subcontractors, from crane operators to yet another team of German painters, shines like new.

Gone is a moving clockwork dais and flash-bang lighting of the 1983 restoration. There is a new behind-the-scenes view of the canvas which is hung at a convex curve to give depth of field. A movie projected onto the canvas addresses stark questions of valor and values, including whether, in losing the war, the South won the peace via Jim Crow laws that rolled back black emancipation.

A golden eagle maneuvering across the battle field has been restored. A proper sky blue was laid down with oil paints, pulling the viewer deeper into the action. A retouched flag laying in the mud now bears its original Confederate insignia. And the Confederate prisoners once again wear gray.

Some revisions remain: A debonair Southerner Rhett Butler and his pencil moustache is depicted as a slain Yank – a detail added in 1939 after actor Clark Gable promoted “Gone with the Wind” in Atlanta.

“A lot of people come here by way of the Margaret Mitchell House to see the South romanticized,” says guide Wendy Corbett. “And not everybody is happy. Some people wish the focus was more on the military history. But every day I stand here and watch people’s faces – and you can see it starting conversations.”

Mr. McQuigg, vice president of properties at the history center, first saw the painting as a schoolchild in 1983. “There are a lot of places in America where there is not a willingness to talk about the tough subjects that we tackle with this painting,” he says. “But in Atlanta, we acknowledge slavery and its role in the war; we talk about the struggle for civil rights and human rights.”

“Some people get their feelings hurt. That’s OK [because nobody] who walks through the doors is expecting for history to be cleaned up and presented in a Chamber of Commerce way.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the university where Tim Crimmins teaches. He is a professor of history and director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

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The Monitor's View

A light of understanding into black holes

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For the first time, humans have finally seen what was once merely predicted: a black hole. A picture of one – or, more accurately, the bright swirling glow surrounding the phenomenon, which itself absorbs light near it – was revealed this week.

The success in capturing this illusive image represents a tremendous accomplishment for scientific curiosity, insight, and cooperation.

As is often the case in science, the image will lead to more questions. How were black holes formed? What is it like inside one? What happens to light and matter sucked into these collapsed remnants of former stars?

The next impossible task will be to peek inside these vast objects to reveal more answers – and ask the difficult questions about the nature of matter, time, and space. Never before has the finite hinted so strongly at the infinite.

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A light of understanding into black holes

It may look like only a fiery doughnut. Or perhaps the Great Eye of Sauron, the foreboding nucleus of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic “Lord of the Rings.” But for the first time, humans have finally seen what was once merely predicted: a black hole.

A picture of one – or, more accurately, the bright swirling glow surrounding the phenomenon, which itself absorbs light near it – was revealed this week. It was taken in 2017 using eight telescopes sited around the world that together acted as one giant telescope peering into the center of a distant galaxy.

Scientists and other thinkers have long speculated that black holes are real and observable. More recently indirect evidence showed the existence of these impossibly large and mysterious aspects of the known universe. Until now, no way had been discovered to take a look: Scientists compared the task to looking up from Earth and trying to spot an orange on the moon.

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” says Shep Doeleman, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who headed the project. The image will now join that of “Earthrise,” taken in 1968 from the moon, as an iconic image that marks a new chapter in the understanding of space.

The success in capturing this illusive image represents a tremendous accomplishment for scientific curiosity, insight, and cooperation. Many people contributed but among the noteworthy was a young woman, Katie Bouman, who was a graduate student in computer science and led the creation of an algorithm that helped capture the image. 

The announcement came almost exactly a century after Sir Arthur Eddington used observations of a solar eclipse to show that light bends around dense objects, just as Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted. The image of the edges of a black hole, known as the event horizon, also seems to confirm Einstein’s calculations.

As is often the case in science, the image will lead to more questions. Bigger mysteries remain: How were black holes formed? What is it like inside one? What happens to light and matter sucked into these collapsed remnants of former stars? Black holes also distort time in ways that people not named Stephen Hawking find hard to comprehend. Ancient assumptions that the universe operates in a linear or clockwork way are bent out of shape.

Black holes “raise some of the most complex questions about the nature of space and time, and ultimately of our existence,” says Ziri Younsi of University College London, who worked on the project.

And that’s why they are worth studying. The next impossible task will be to peek inside these vast objects to reveal more answers – and ask the difficult questions about the nature of matter, time, and space. Never before has the finite hinted so strongly at the infinite.

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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.

What does it mean to be spiritual?

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Today’s contributor explores how knowing our true identity as fundamentally spiritual helps us see beyond limitations, rise above fears, and experience our relation to God in a very real way.

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What does it mean to be spiritual?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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There are a lot of ways we might describe ourselves – having eyes of a certain color, descending from particular ancestors, working at a specific job. But to me, the most important description is this one: “I’m spiritual.”

I don’t just mean that I have an interest in spirituality. What I’ve learned in Christian Science is that being spiritual refers to everyone’s real identity. It’s not something we choose to be; it’s what we are. There isn’t one single individual you’ll ever meet who isn’t actually spiritual, because whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, we are each the expression of God, who is Spirit. And Spirit’s expression must be like Spirit – spiritual.

That concept might not feel as concrete as, say, having brown hair or being a certain height. But here’s something to think about. There are plenty of “intangible” qualities that each of us does easily identify with. For example, maybe you’re someone who’s always full of joy. You might identify as brave, kind, or strong. The qualities that make each of us what we are – qualities that express God, who is good – these are our very real, very tangible spiritual identity, which is sourced in God.

Knowing that this spiritual identity is actually what’s real, powerful, and significant about us is like armor. It helps us identify and reject what isn’t true about us. For example, if you know you can carry your 50-pound dog, then if someone called you wimpy, you’d dismiss the suggestion of wimpiness with total authority, based on what you know to be true.

Similarly – but in a much more profound, yet humble, way – knowing that we’re spiritual gives us a sense of authority. Being spiritual means we’re immune from the limitations of mortality – such as the overarching belief that our lives must be full of ups and downs, good and bad, health and illness, order and chaos.

That matters in a huge way. Greater freedom, health, and happiness are increasingly ours as we recognize that our identity really is spiritual. In my own life, the realization that I am not a sick, helpless mortal, but instead am the spiritual expression of God’s limitless love, has brought comfort and healing countless times. We are whole and safe because that’s the way God created us – and that can’t change.

In fact, being spiritual relates to anything we face. It’s our defense against feelings of inadequacy, purposelessness, anxiety, or hopelessness. It comes to our rescue even in the small moments. Like a time when someone made a thoughtless, insulting comment in an email to me. Right in the moment when I could feel an angry reaction welling up in me, the most simple thought stopped me: Since I’m spiritual, anger isn’t part of what I am.

It was like extinguishing a candle. As I accepted that one basic but powerful spiritual fact, the flame of angry reaction went out, and my thought about the person who had sent the email changed. It even occurred to me that he is spiritual, too. And as a result, I was able to respond in a way that was genuinely kind and constructive.

And here’s the best part about knowing that we’re spiritual. Far from just being a “quick fix” when we’re faced with a problem, it actually opens up a whole new world. It helps us see beyond limitations and rise above fears, and makes our relation to God feel so much more real. For me, understanding my spiritual identity has been one of the greatest adventures of my life. If you care to embrace it, it can be in yours, too.

Adapted from an article published in the Christian Science Sentinel’s online TeenConnect section, Jan. 25, 2018.

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Viewfinder

Good news – your flight is late

Feline Lim/Reuters
The 130-foot-high Rain Vortex, which is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, is seen from inside Jewel Changi Airport in Singapore April 11. The terraced garden, with 1,400 trees, and the waterfall are at the heart of the new 10-story Jewel. The top floor, called Canopy Park, features bouncing and walking nets, a 165-foot sky bridge, two mazes, and a giant slide. It opens officially next week.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( April 12th, 2019 )

Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when Laurent Belsie takes readers back to Nebraska, where a network of strangers came together to rescue animals stranded by floodwaters.

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 11, 2019
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