My talk from TEDGlobal’s TEDUniversity in Rio, 2014 was posted last week in the TED Archive!
I was watching the two women weaving in the courtyard from my perch on the 2nd story balcony of the Museo de Arte Precolombiano and thinking about my mother.
I find myself thinking about her often whenever I am traveling in South America — my parents collect textiles from all over the world, but especially Mexico and Peru. They celebrate the craftsmanship and want to preserve the tradition before it is lost forever to machines. The textiles they’ve collected are stored until the rare dinner party or celebration when one or two of them are brought out to bring color to the table. The colors from the natural dyes the women were using in their weaving remind me of Christmases and happy occasions at home.
I arrived at the museum very early that morning, so I had to return in the afternoon to see the textiles for sale in the museum store. The two weavers were sitting in the corner eating their lunches — corn soup with vegetables — when I arrived. I found a beautiful red and green runner for my table at home, with tiny stitches and beautiful embroidery. I will think of my mother and her pure joy when she sees beautiful artwork every time it visits my living room.
Every time I walk at my normal required-for-moving-around-new-york-city pace I find myself breathless and a little dizzy, dreading the next block I must go to reach my destination. But then, I make myself walk a little more slowly and in this slower state, I have to look more closely at my surroundings — the ancient Incan stone walls, the brightly clothed women walking their llamas and alpacas, the “gypsy jewelers” with their macramé and stone jewelry that I’ve now encountered in public parks across Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Brazil. It’s a welcome change in what normally occupies my thoughts while I’m walking. I cannot use my phone here and I’m physically prevented from power walking. It’s nice to be able to spend my days learning to walk again.
I went into another textile store this afternoon with my friend and fellow traveler because she decided she wanted to purchase something there for her apartment. We had been wandering through the busy market places while I love with my whole informal economist heart and she found very overwhelming. We came to this quieter space, closed off from the busy streets, and spent time admiring everything handing from the walls.
While she made her purchase, the vendor asked her, “Where did your bag come from?” I had given it to her on her birthday and brought it back from a trip to Mexico. She loved it so much she used it all the time — I had a similar one that I brought for this trip as well. I told him I was from Mexico and these were a design I really liked from San Miguel de Allende. He asked for permission to take a few photos of it, explaining that he would like to make something similar but with wool instead of cotton and embroidered like the other work in his store, rather than with the woven stripes on our bags.
He asked me where I was from in Mexico (translated from Spanish):
– Mexico city, I said
– Ah, Mexico City. Well, we are geniuses at creating beautiful things here. Geniuses at some things… terrible at others.
– This is true for us too… I live in the US now.
– Ah, your president…
– Yes, our president…
– Are you afraid? Living there now?
– Yes and no. It seems to get uglier all the time.
I turned back to the retablos, little boxes with scenes in them from flower markets, skeletons celebrating together in a bar, the birth of Christ, and sculptors creating terrifying masks for holidays.
– These are like the little altars we have in Mexico. I have several of them hanging on my walls at home.
– Yes. They might be from Mexico, the design, I mean. Hard to know after a while where something first came from.
I gestured towards the masks on the walls, like the ones people wear for the parades for day of the dead in Mexico.
– we also have a tradition with masks like these.
– Oh really! Where?
– Mexico City, Oaxaca… everywhere for day of the dead. But fewer monsters. More skeletons, people, the devil.
He laughed when I told him their monsters frightened me more than our devils.
Three years ago, I was introduced to Kyra Maya Phillips through a mutual friend, because we have a lot of similar interests. I had just finished a two year long research project on campaign investing in Colombia (by cartels, paramilitary groups, and the far left) and was trying to wind my way back into normal life in New York City. [how “normal” life is here is relative… but for me, this is much better than making sure I was inside and locked away by nightfall every night, staying up to write up my interviews and combing the universe for insight on organized crime… then having nightmares about said criminal groups haha]
She is a brave Venezuelan journalist who decided to start looking at black markets and the entrepreneurs that thrive in them. When we first spoke over the phone, she from London and me from New York City, we talked about cartels, and research methods and all the good stuff that comes from unusual research interests. Especially for young women.
Last night I attended her book party at the Impact Hub in Tribeca, just a block from the thriving counterfeit markets of Lower Manhattan. Perfect.
Their guests for the evening included Antonio Fernandez (from the NY State chapter of the Latin Kings), George Jung, and “Freeway” Rick Ross, all with their own stories to share about the power networks they connected to while in prison, their work in trafficking in the black market, and the power of organizing and collective action.
The event was powerful for a number of reasons.
The tug and intrigue of the topic was a major reason people were there. The black market and its rulebreakers intrigue a lot of people. Organized crime is sexy.
When I tell people I compiled a lot of research on the history of organized crime in manhattan and made a tour for myself, they get really excited and ask me to take them to see it. It’s less epic than it sounds, unless you love history and stories about the past. The truth is, organized crime and black markets look like real businesses. The same urgency to meet the demands of customers and, honestly, cheat the government out of whatever they can is there is many many different kinds of businesses.
[If you don’t believe me, talk to anyone thinking through compliance measures inside a bank. There is a whole lot of where can I make as much money as possible and slip through the holes in this regulatory web going on. Also, the research I did a few years ago on remittance transfer markets for the World Bank Transparency tools shows another side of secret costs in business. I can offer many other examples from topics ranging from pharmaceuticals to construction etc.]
Once there, people got to see organized crime and the entrepreneurs who work “the streets” from a new perspective.
The panelists come at business from a different angle: consistently they brought up that they were locked out of the acceptable system. As “King Tone” put it, when we worked within the system, we were ignored and hungry. There weren’t any options for us. When we worked outside the system, we could eat. And then at least you weren’t bored.
Rick Ross added that he meets a lot of youth who are frustrated that school doesn’t teach them to make money and survive. The applications of school feel too distant to feel valuable. For him, he said, I asked a drug dealer how to make money, and he told me in the ways he knew how. So I followed that business model.
Antonio Fernandez spoke passionately about the power of organizing his community against police brutality, and what that meant for a city with an identity as confusing as New York City. He demonstrated the need for local organizations that spoke to the needs of the communities that they served. It was not about destroying a system, so much as creating a chapter for those trying to live in an ecosystem that blocked them out at every turn.
Kyra’s work (and my own) are about bringing these narratives into the conversation about economies. While I look at the layers that operate sometimes in harmony and sometimes in direct contrast with the regulated economy… Kyra is bringing an important narrative and perspective on some of the most misunderstood sections of the economy. The criminal base of “pirates,” “drug dealers,” and “gangsters” to some come from only movies and articles about neighborhoods they dare not explore further. For many others, these professions offer a better life or alternative to starvation.
The book just came out and I encourage you to read on. Keep exploring!