Andrew Lam, Birds of Paradise Lost:

*Finalist for the California Book Award*

The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America’s newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past—memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity—is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories. It plays itself out in surprising ways in the lives of people who thought they had moved beyond the nightmares of war and exodus. It comes back on TV in the form of a confession from a cannibal; it enters the Vietnamese restaurant as a Vietnam Vet with a shameful secret; it articulates itself in the peculiar tics of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who struggles to deal with a profound tragedy. Birds of Paradise Lost is an emotional tour de force, intricately rendering the false starts and revelations in the struggle for integration, and in so doing, the human heart.


Didier Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present

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From the Publisher:

In the face of the world’s disorders, moral concerns have provided a powerful ground for developing international as well as local policies. Didier Fassin draws on case materials from France, South Africa, Venezuela, and Palestine to explore the meaning of humanitarianism in the contexts of immigration and asylum, disease and poverty, disaster and war. He traces and analyzes recent shifts in moral and political discourse and practices — what he terms “humanitarian reason”— and shows in vivid examples how humanitarianism is confronted by inequality and violence. Deftly illuminating the tensions and contradictions in humanitarian government, he reveals the ambiguities confronting states and organizations as they struggle to deal with the intolerable. His critique of humanitarian reason, respectful of the participants involved but lucid about the stakes they disregard, offers theoretical and empirical foundations for a political and moral anthropology.

Keith David Watnenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism; University of California Press, 2015.

From the publisher:

Bread from Stones, a highly anticipated book from historian Keith David Watenpaugh, breaks new ground in analyzing the theory and practice of modern humanitarianism. Genocide and mass violence, human trafficking, and the forced displacement of millions in the early twentieth century Eastern Mediterranean form the background for this exploration of humanitarianism’s role in the history of human rights.

Watenpaugh’s unique and provocative examination of humanitarian thought and action from a non-Western perspective goes beyond canonical descriptions of relief work and development projects. Employing a wide range of source materials—literary and artistic responses to violence, memoirs, and first-person accounts from victims, perpetrators, relief workers, and diplomats—Watenpaugh argues that the international answer to the inhumanity of World War I in the Middle East laid the foundation for modern humanitarianism and the specific ways humanitarian groups and international organizations help victims of war, care for trafficked children, and aid refugees.

Bread from Stones is required reading for those interested in humanitarianism and its ideological, institutional, and legal origins, as well as the evolution of the movement following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of late colonialism in the Middle East.

At the Crossroads of Love, Ritual, and Archaeology: The Exhumation of Mass Graves in Contemporary Spain

Rachel Carmen Ceasar
University of California, San Francisco

corporeality of the absent body.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and subsequent Francisco Franco dictatorship
(1939-1975), the institutions of Church and regime went hand and hand. For this reason,
most of my time in Spain was spent in graves, cemeteries, and churches: since the
Francoist regime had been legitimized by the Catholic Church (Beevor 2006; Casanova
2002), mass graves of the Francoist repression were often located in or around church
cemeteries. “Religion and the army,” explains Luisa, “were the two pillars of Francoism.”
That night, in her patio, Luisa tells me that her father is located in an unmarked
mass grave in the San Pedro cemetery. Now in her 70s, Luisa grew up knowing that her
father was killed “for his ideas,” as those having leftist leanings are politely referred to in
Spain. Luisa knew why, but she did not know how or where her father Martín was killed.
To exhume his remains would be testament to his death and evidence of the violence
committed against civilians like Martín during the Spanish Civil War.

Figure 1: Anita, another family member of the killed, visits the San Pedro exhumation (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy by Rui Gomes Coelho). 

Figure 1: Anita, another family member of the killed, visits the San Pedro exhumation (August 23, 2012, photo courtesy by Rui Gomes Coelho).

“If we ourselves don’t know where he is—there’s nothing to justify [his death], just bones. Just to think this…” She gasps and lets her voice drift into the muggy summer night. “It’s what we have,” Luisa says to me, referring to the possibility of exhuming her father’s bones. “For all that they excavate, I can’t say that this is mine.”

“The only thing we have that makes him distinct [from other bodies in the grave] is that in the pueblo, there were few people who wore boots. It’s what we have.” She shows me a photo of her father. “It’s the only one we have, and that’s because I stole it!”

Equipped with his photo and the memory of his boots, Luisa, like many daughters of the Civil War period, awaits the body of her father. “Yo tenía mucha falta de mi padre, I missed my dad a lot—I don’t know if that happens to all girls.” For many children born during the war, the single, spectral photo of their relative is a provisional placeholder for the body they cannot find and the person they now only knew (Crossland 2009).

The body, Luisa notes—it’s what we don’t have: we have the memory of boots but no feet, we have a photograph but no person. In the absence of the dead’s body, the living fear that the presence of violence can become absent, unhinged from the bones and persons it has affected.

Yet unlike the bodies of asylum-seekers in France whose word is authorized by medical expertise (Fassin with d’Halluin 2005), the exhumation of the lost in Spain is a collaborative process driven by local and descendant communities together with archaeologists and local historical memory associations.

In the case of Martín, Luisa devotes her evidence and truth into a body—a body that they may never find, and a corporeality that she must actively maintain into existence. In this manner, the corporeality of Martín’s absent body is paid homage by his family and community because to not do so would be to refute the killings and violence of the war.

“All this began because of a genealogical error, because I didn’t know how many brothers my grandfather had or what their names were,” explains Ana, Luisa’s daughter, of a common black hole in Spanish family timelines from either side of the war. “What we would like, I suppose as families of the disappeared, is to find his remains.”

Ana, like many Spaniards who grew up at the end of the dictatorship, uses the human rights term “desaparecido” or “disappeared” to refer to her grandfather and other victims killed by the Nationalist army during the Civil War and subsequent Francoist dictatorship (Ferrándiz 2010:163; Ferrándiz 2011). This much we knew: Martín was killed and left in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of San Pedro, an earth so cracked and dry that bones exhumed here pulverized at your touch.

Figure 2: The author exhumes inside an unmarked Civil War grave while a family behind her cleans off their tombstone in the nichos, or nests (September 2012, photo courtesy Xurxo Ayán Vila and

Figure 2: The author exhumes inside an unmarked Civil War grave while a family behind her cleans off their tombstone in the nichos, or nests (September 2012, photo courtesy Xurxo Ayán Vila and

My exchanges with Luisa and Ana inside and outside the grave reveal feelings and interests that may seem irrational to the pursuits of exhuming in Spain. Yet if we are to approach the exhumations in San Pedro as a ritual process reflective of such interests, then what Luisa, Ana, and other descendants of the dead contribute to this process plays an important role in how exhumation is performed.

The context of when a grave is opened is contingent on the political climate surrounding the exhumations, as well as the sentiments circulating in Luisa’s home. Following the end of the war and dictatorship, Martin’s exhumation had not been possible because of the national and familial silence of his existence. The desire to produce knowledge and a body of Martín’s existence points to the varied practical and symbolic interests involved in exhuming today, over 70 years after the war. These everyday actions, enacted in the spirit of Ana’s genealogical work and Luisa’s photos, also form part of exhumation ethos.

“There were two classes of citizens: those that had won the war, and those who had lost. It was like in India—do you know of the caste system? It was the same here,” Ana tells me.

“Because of your religion!” emphasizes Luisa, recalling the memory of her family being forced to go to church as was expected in those days in San Pedro and throughout Spain during the dictatorship.

“The losers were segregated [from the war victors]—they didn’t even go to the same dances together,” adds Ana.

“It was a Nationalist-Catholic regime this Catholicism, so everyone went to mass.” Catholicism in Spain, explain the women, was not just a religion or regime, but part of everyday life. During the war, this habitual part of Spanish society determined who was killed and who wasn’t.

Figure 3: Examples of Nationalist tombstones in the Castuera cemetery. (August 2012, photo by author).

Figure 3: Examples of Nationalist tombstones in the Castuera cemetery. (August 2012, photo by author).

Pic 4

In the case of Martín, his brothers Juan and Jose, and their father Francisco, they were killed not at battle as soldiers, but at home as civilians. They were killed because they were Republican partisans and politicians and did not support Franco’s regime: Martín was killed at the end of the Civil War in 1939, Juan and Jose in a “convent-prison” in 1942, and their father, Francisco, in 1941.

The desire to know Martín by obtaining his body is also reflective of a Catholic sensibility. Luisa and Ana’s desire for his physical remains takes on a kind of sacramental symbolism, or what Basque anthropologist Joseba Zulaika describes as a “concern with certain limiting concepts having to do with life as a whole, the notion of death included” (2000[1988]: xxv).

In Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament, Zulaika examines sacramental symbolism as an analytic to understand the subjective expression of Basque political violence and terrorism in his hometown of Itziar. Apart from religion, he observes the everyday tension between metaphor and sacrament in Basque metaphors and myths as constituted in nationalist violence and narrated in cultural, psychological expressions of that ritual violence.

In the same manner, Luisa and Ana’s desire for the body of Martín is reflective of their desire to take back his body from a regime and religious ideology that contributed to his death. To do so, Luisa and Ana “resacramentalize” (2000[1988]:48) that same body and person according their own values and practices: the exhumation.

In August 2012, together with a local historical memory association, an archaeological team, and other families of the killed, we would spend one month searching for Martín and the other 200 persons killed in the San Pedro cemetery. Could one of these bodies be Martín?

Figure 4: Ana takes a photo of six exhumed bodies, tied together at the wrists with electric wire, in the Castuera cemetery (September 1, 2012, photo by author). 

Figure 4: Ana takes a photo of six exhumed bodies, tied together at the wrists with electric wire, in the Castuera cemetery (September 1, 2012, photo by author).

Ana visits the exhumation site where we are working in a section of the cemetery that, during the war, was considered separate from the sacred Catholic grounds; it was here that Republicans were killed and left in mass graves.

Speaking from inside the grave with a cigarette cast to her side, Ana glances down at six exhumed bodies tied together at the wrists with electric cable. “For me, this is the homage,” she says without looking up, referring to the ritual devotion of the exhumation process itself, and not necessarily the identification of individual bones to body. I follow Ana’s gaze at the exposed bones before me and cannot begin to understand what bones and the exhumation process must mean to her and her family.

Luisa and Ana knew that they might never be able to locate Martín’s bones. At most, they could only hope that the exhumation process itself—and not the actual exhumation of his individual bones but of someone’s bones—might purge Martín from his current place of violent death and obscurity.

By virtue of the exhumation process that begins with their desire to know who he is and have his remains, Luisa and Ana hope to recover some aspect of Martín, for, as Luisa explains, “Creo que todavia no me ha salido del cuerpo, I believe it still has not left my body.”

The desire to know and feel within her own body as to who her father is via the exhumation is a sentiment embodied by Luisa that in turn animates the exhumation process. The ethos motivating Spanish practices and rituals embodies what it means to be Spanish—and to have lost family during the war and dictatorship.

Although the war and dictatorship were over and the Catholic Church no longer possessed the political power it had before, Luisa was doubtful of any formal form of reconciliation to take place in Spain in the near future. “No se cae ni la puerta de la iglesia, not even the door of the church falls,” she advises me, meaning that the institution of the church does not fall so quickly, the vestiges of its foundation lingering in the Spanish present.

With her words in mind, the larger goal of my research has been to understand how such everyday personal and social interests, particularly those relating to a Spanish Catholic ethos, actively animate the exhumation process.

Interdependence as a Lifeway: Decolonization and Resistance in Transnational Native American and Tibetan Communities

Natalie Avalos (UC Santa Barbara)

Struggles for decolonization are increasingly global and transnational. Colonization fosters massive diaspora migrations, either forced or out of necessity. These peoples, although residing outside of their home nations, continue to fight for the liberation of their peoples. While decolonization projects are diverse, they generally call for both the undoing of colonization as a structure and the removal of colonization’s effects. A core focus of many decolonization movements is resisting culture erasure through religious revitalization—the logic being religion constitutes the core values and traditions of a given community. When cultural identity is strengthened these communities are better able to resist colonial advances as well as practices of extermination. My research explores how the religious worldviews of transnational Native Americans and Tibetan communities living in the U.S. inform their respective movements for decolonization and resistance. Both of their religious traditions, though distinct, recognize a world in which all phenomena are interrelated. I ask, how does interdependence as a ‘lived’ tradition inform decolonization? In addition, what do Tibetan Buddhism and Native American religious traditions have to offer global movements for decolonization?

Native American religious traditions are rooted in a sacred relationship to the land, one’s community and the spirit world. The spirit world consists of the dynamic ‘life force’ immanent in all natural phenomena. Native American peoples cite an interdependent relationship to all natural phenomena as the fundamental logic driving the protection of sacred sites, sustainable ways of living and nationhood. Tibetan Buddhism combines land-based conceptualizations of interdependence to Buddhist philosophical concepts of ‘dependent origination’ –meaning that all phenomena are inextricably ‘dependent’ on one another—to theorize a unique form of interdependence. Buddhist ethics rooted in interdependence encourage empathy and compassion for all others, since they are ultimately an extension of one’s self. Living in diaspora contributes to myriad losses. However, ethnographic research among transnational Tibetan and Native American communities living in Santa Fe and Albuquerque illustrates that their religious traditions remain. The distance of diaspora has not tempered the desire to work for the betterment and liberation of their respective peoples—if anything it’s bolstered it. Due to a shared logic of ‘interdependence,’ working for the benefit of others is not framed as special or extraordinary but instead as a rational response to connectedness.

For Tibetans in Santa Fe, religious practice has taken on a new political dimension. Religion has historically played an integral role in Tibetan governance, what Tibetans referred to as chos srid gnyis ldan or “religion and politics combined.” The Dalai Lama served as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans, overseeing their spiritual and material welfare. Tibet never existed as a united polity as we understand nation-states today. The unifying thread among regional and sectarian differences was Buddhism. To be Tibetan was to be Buddhist. It was only after the Chinese invasion that a new ‘national’ in-group identity emerged, one united by Dharma but also in defense of the land against the ‘invading other.’ In exile, Tibetans make strategic use of this new pan-Tibetan identity, rallying non-Tibetans to join their cause. Thus, religious practice in diaspora has become infused with politics. Consultants state that they must preserve Tibetan culture for those in Tibet who are experiencing cultural genocide. One man says, “I feel even stronger, that I am Tibetan when I know that my countrymen are suffering.” They regularly gather at one another’s homes to pray and make offerings on behalf of those suffering in Tibet. Religious practice helps them assuage the pain and frustration they feel over Tibetan oppression. It is also intended to create merit. In essence, practice creates positive karma that will procure the causes and conditions for Tibet’s liberation. Because all phenomena are related, one’s words thoughts and actions are thought to have material and immaterial effects. Thus, prayers, the recitation of mantras and other Buddhist practices are done with the express intent to change the social conditions of Tibetan peoples. Even the activism on behalf of Tibet’s liberation, such as marches, rallies and petitions, are often pursued with the intention to help others, transforming these mundane events into ‘Dharmic activity.’

Native American peoples living in Albuquerque and Santa Fe live out a diverse set of religious practices. Like Tibetans, Native peoples were not a united polity before colonization. They are distinct tribes, with distinct languages and separate nation-to-nation treaties with the settler state. However, tools of assimilation, like the boarding school system that began in the late 19th century, and a federal relocation program in the middle 20th century, which transferred large numbers of Native peoples from reservations to urban centers for ‘employment opportunities,’ contributed to a pan-Indian identity that thrives today. The exchange of religion, belief and practice characterizes this pan-Indian identity. Historically, these exchanges have informed movements of resistance. For instance, religious revitalization catalyzed the Red Power Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. While most Native American religious traditions had to go ‘underground’ during the initial decades after the reservation system began in the latter 19th century, due to federal bans on ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, many survived into the present. Some of most basic features of Native American religious traditions do not require elaborate ceremonies, but only prayer and contemplation. Many of my consultants emphasized that they could maintain a relationship to the spirit world, wherever they were, even if they were far away from their home tribes or had been living in diaspora for generations. I was told by one consultant, “the land is all around you. If you have water, earth, air and fire, you can pray. You can connect with Spirit.” For many, this religious practice was not only a testament to survival but also an active tool of resistance. Due to the interrelatedness of all phenomena, several of my consultants explained that prayer, ceremony and even speaking kind words ripple out into incalculable results—“like a pebble in a stream” one consultant said. Another consultant explained that the prayers of elders in the nearby pueblos shaped everything that happened in Albuquerque and even New Mexico, meaning these prayers had the power to contribute to structural and social change. Decolonization was described as maintaining healthy relationships to the spirit world, the land and one’s relations. An Apache man in his 60’s said “I don’t need a federal recognition card or to live on a reservation. This whole area is where Apaches lived. It’s my home. It’ll always be a part of me.” In this way, he recognizes these places as ‘Native land.’ He and the land are sovereign.

Although these communities are unrelated, they contend with parallel struggles for decolonization. They both hold provocative religious conceptualizations of interdependence that transform their religious practice into resistance and liberation. These religious traditions provide a new perspective on humanitarianism—one that differs from the liberal discourse from which it is currently situated. One need not be a ‘rational’ agent in the world in order to be worthy of humane treatment. These religious logics illustrate that the just and humane treatment of others is necessitated in world in with other’s are an extension of one’s self. The transnational spaces where these religious logics are actualized provide a unique platform for their proliferation. In fact, consultants in both the Tibetan and Native communities explained that these practices are sometimes for oneself, often for their own people but many times intended to end the suffering or oppression of all peoples. As one consultant says, “when you are oppressed, we are all oppressed.” In this way, we can understand the respective expressions of interdependence as a lifeway to translate to a form of anti-oppression politics facilitated through the spirit world. They also de-center materialist interpretations of social justice and resistance by positioning religious practice as an efficacious tool of resistance. In these transnational communities religious continuity is framed as a means of resistance that not only humanizes and empowers but is also contributes to global projects of decolonization by seeking the cessation of suffering and the continued vitality of all peoples.