Friday, July 11, 2014

Maya'n Pride

Competition is a powerful motivation for the bettering of ones self, physically mentally and even socially. Soccer has helped athletes escape favelas, Baseball has helped facilitate the escape of communist regimes, and Basketball has allowed children to escape ghettos and slums around the world. Even within the realm of videogames, competition can drive people in difficult situations to better themselves. This manifests itself in the Fighting Game Community (FGC) in both negative and positive ways.

Werá Jeguaka Mirim: "Demarcation NOW!"
While the world is captivated by the World Cup, my own position has been one of ambivalence slipping at times into anger. At every turn the media has attempted to black out the suffering of the people. While Werá Jeguaka Mirim made a statement for the rights of Indigenous peoples of Brazil, Coca-Cola, a sponsor of the World Cup, was harvesting sugarcane grown on land stolen from those very same people to be sold thorough the world. Indigenous people all over the Americas (and the outlying islands like Hawaii and the Antilles) have found themselves damned to reservations, or worse, shanty towns like favelas and barrios. In places like these the suicide and sexual assault rates are some of the highest in the world. Is this the "Pride" that the players of the Brazilian national team are playing for? For those who had escaped the favelas, which are ruled by drug lords, and reservations that barely have basic necessities like medical care and clean water, are they choosing to turn their backs on the people who are unable to escape these conditions?

Chief Roberto Mucaro Borrero wearing a Taino headdress
In the past, I traveled to various parts of the Caribbean and South America to meet with other tribes. Our cultures like Maya, Mexica, Guarani, and Lokono, are related and share many similarities. The plan was to foster a better understanding of tribes outside of my own island, and strengthen the kinship that all of our nations have. Some of the most painful memories I have were during my time in Brazil. Knowing exactly what happens to Guarani people, the only emotion the new coca-cola cans conjure is disgust. This all baffles me, as I wonder if proving to the world that you are the best, is worth destroying the lives of the people who depend on you. At what point does competition simply become abuse. What are they willing to do? Since the start of the world I've sat on these feelings, taking them out in rounds of Street Fighter by using T.Hawk.

It might sound silly, but it works as an outlet. Since my early 20s I've had flashbacks to violent events in my childhood. As a teenager I tried my hardest to forget things like being sexually assaulted by someone older then me. Other things, like my own violent behavior towards attackers, was mostly locked away or misremembered. For example, I remembered hitting someone with the handle of a knife, but in reality I was repressing the memory of hitting them with the blade. Pulling myself together and making sense of these events has been difficult. Many of my loved ones have no idea of my past, and even the ones who do, couldn't possible understand the feelings that come with those events as even I have trouble putting them into context. I appear aggressive, belligerent, and paranoid. The easiest way to keep these feelings in check is by focusing my aggression, either on my work or into my hobbies which include sports and especially competitive videogames like fighting games. I will always gravitate towards the "Native American" characters in fighting games like Wolf Hawkfield, T.Hawk, Chief Thunder, Julia Chang and NightWolf. Playing fighting games, and empowering myself through "Native American" avatars is a healthy outlet.

Raul Candy Shop NYC
Not everyone sees this quite like that. The FGC has some real creeps, but the concept of empowerment through hard work is something that can appeal to many people in circumstances much like (or even worse then) my own. It is the reason Raul's in the Lower East Side of Manhattan had a World Heroes machine, or why you can walk into a barrio and still see a new King of Fighters machine.Even now, as the eyes of the FGC turn to EVO, one of the biggest tournaments of the year. Cis, Trans, Gay, Straight, Black, White, Male and Female there are people watching from all walks of life which is not something that can be said of every gaming event. There are plenty of people who use abusive language and try to shut others out from within the FGC, but they can't change the fact that its a diverse crowd which tries to represent as many people as possible. A Killer Instinct reveal from a panel at EVO has made this even more apparent to me.

This ain't Custard's Revenge
Maya, a dark skinned Amazon warrior from a South American jungle will be joining the cast of Killer Instinct in it's second season. I was at first hesitant knowing that her original design was a light skinned, tribal woman with large breasts barely covered by leaves. She looked like something out of a video marked "Brazilian Porn". Iron Galaxy have done a great job in giving her a natural looking bust, dark skin, and quite a bit of armour. I immediately heard some cries of "bad design" from people within the community. There were people claiming her design is too far off from the original, while other claim that this is "pussified" to appeal to political correctness. Along with TJ Combo (who many immediately slammed as looking like a "generic Black man"), Maya represents a numbers of players within the community. Brazil, the Guarani, and indigenous people in general are ignored but here we have a character that represents those groups in an indirect way. Maybe just seeing this character helps someone in the way characters like Wolf Hawkfield helped me.

Maya is a character even closer to my own heritage then Chief Thunder. I'm dedicated to learning her playstyle and using her online. I'm even more motivated to get an Xbox One to play as her. In the coming months, a trip to visit friends and family in South America and the Caribbean will help me figure out what is necessary in leading my own tribe, and will allow me to help other tribes. Playing as an implicitly Guarani character in a fighting game won't undo the things being done to our people, but is one step forward in allowing some of the stories of those people to be told, even if it is simply bringing the tribal links to the attention of the FGC and gaming as a whole. People need to know, to understand why things need to change and the inclusion of "someone like us" makes speaking about why things need to change easier.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Once Upon a Time, When I was Puerto Rican

My name, legally, is Manuel Antony Marcano. I'm the 3rd in my family to have the name after my father, and his father. My true name however, the name I have been called by those I love since birth, is Maneco Manaque'to, or just Nico for short. Even now, few people outside of my family call me Nico. I was always trained to tell people to call me "Manny" and to stress my Italian and Spanish background. I was given the name so that I could blend, so that people would never know my tribe, so that people would never know what language I originally spoke. "Manny" was a crafted persona, along with my "American" accent and mannerism. The name Manuel Antony Marcano exists to hide the fact that I am a Taino.

Being a Taino (or "Skin" of any kind) is difficult anywhere in America but perhaps more so in the Caribbean because of the number of dissenters to your basic identity. Whether or not Tainos exist is actually debated. The language has been declared dead, the bloodline is considered erased and the culture is rarely spoken of beyond a footnote that says Taino history is mostly unrecorded. If you're able to get past that (if like me you can speak the language, know customs, and have a majority of Arawak genes even though they're really looking for Lokono ones) then you now become shunned by Puerto Ricans for being uppity. Being a Taino will see you scrutinized, brutalized and shamed.

It always made sense to me, why we adopted European names and mannerisms. I tried, with almost no success to fit in as a Puerto Rican and tried to accept it as part of my identity. Often I would speak broken or reversed Spanish to my peers, force-feed myself Arroz con Pollo, and try to identify with celebrities like Marc Anthony. As an adult I can admit I never fooled anyone. My accent was incredibly clear until I was 8 because Taino was my first language, Arroz con Pollo still makes me gag, and I walked out of "El Cantante" after the first few minutes. I tried to be Manuel Marcano, but Maneco was always there, always the real me.

As you can likely guess, this ended up being problematic. I was shunned by the other Puerto Ricans because they perceived me as different for reasons beyond being Taino. There is a long standing bias against people born on the mainland, and especially people born in New York. Language is often held over "Newyoricans". The Newyorican dialect of Spanish is considered crude and improper (an irony considering Puerto Rican Spanish differs greatly from Castillian Spanish and is littered with half formed Taino words) and any New York born Puerto Rican is guaranteed to confronted about how they speak the language for their entire stay on the island. The diet of a Newyorican is also called into question. Vegetarianism is generally frowned upon, and trying to explain the concept of Vegans is nearly impossible. The idea that you might not like the same food as someone on the island seems to drive a number of Puerto Ricans to the edge of sanity. The final and perhaps biggest reason Newyoricans are seen as inferior is how closely Puerto Ricans subscribe to Spanish behavior, most notably "Machismo". There is a great deal about Puerto Rican society that is inherently chauvinist and homophobic.

As a Manhattan born, bi-sexual, who spoke Taino, had feminist views, hated most Spanish food, and embraced features seen as feminine (like long hair and nails) I was pretty much public enemy number one outside of Quebrada Cruz, Toa Alta. To make matters worse, I would often lash out. I would use Taino words specifically when talking about places, such as calling the island Borinquen. I'd often belittle Puerto Rican dialect by calling it a slave language. Perhaps I was just an angry kid, but being a Newyorican was actually the least of my troubles.

Tainos have a number of issues associated with them. First anyone "claiming" to be a Taino isn't trustworthy, how could they be, they're from an extinct race of people. We're seen as traitors, as many Tainos joined organizations like the FALN and were the biggest terrorist threat to The United States of America until Muslims took the dubious honor. We're also seen as criminals, as outlaws many Taino or other indigenous people joined cartels like the Ñetas (a term which originated in Taino customs).  

This is where my story becomes far more violent. Members of my tribe have joined law enforcement, gangs, the US military and rebel organizations. I lived in a world where seeing a dead body was normal, where defending yourself didn't mean a schoolyard scrap, but rather a few slashes and killing a person was a valid possibility. I have watched people overdose, I've seen just about every type of drug there is be taken, and I've been attacked by junkies more times then I care to remember, some were even related to me. I watched terrorists have gunfights, gangs rape and deal drugs, and police brutalize based on race. 

In that, I'm not unlike many "Native Americans" who lived on reservations. Crime, especially acts of sexual violence are extremely high. As a kid, I always assumed Reservations would be a safe haven. I thought a place for people like us sounded like a great place to be. Due to this fascination with the concept and our dwindling numbers as a tribe, I would travel with my grandfather to other tribes.  As I traveled with my grandfather the realization became clearer and clearer with each one we visited. A "Reservation" was a nice way of saying "Ghetto".

This all came to mind because I was trying to answer two questions my father asked me yesterday.

"Why are you so invested in IGDA Puerto Rico when you hate Puerto Rican society" and "Why did you decide making games is important as the leader of our tribe?"

I couldn't readily provide an answer to either question. I can't even figure out why they asked me to lead the tribe when I was drunk and homeless. It took hours of thinking and writing things down and I think I only have part of it. 

I decided that making games was making art, and by creating art I could offer a piece of the culture I was born into. In order to adapt many of my people have left behind the ways of the tribe and become Puerto Rican in that they no longer practice our customs, speak our language or even stand by beliefs like gender equality. If I should die, and my culture with me, then I hope I can leave behind something in my games. I hope that through the interactive medium people can in some way understand my people. 

This leads me to the next part of my answer. I support IGDA Puerto Rico because I don't hate Puerto Rican culture even though I make it seem like I do. Not all Puerto Ricans are the ones I've interacted with. There are plenty of people who are empowered and empower others within that society even if the old fashioned ones soured my palette. At the end of the day I still believe in the people of the island and I recognize a group of people trying to extend their culture to the rest of the world. Many of the people involved are fighting against issues and stereotypes within the community in the same way I fought and they are people from my homeland. There is a kinship and they're making games for some of the reasons I'm making games so its important to help them along with their goals.

There is still a lot I'm not sure of, I'm not even sure if anything I've thought of today will actually be useful or if my games will actually reach people in a way where culture is even a factor but I need to try. In the end, I've found a way of expressing myself without having to hide.

My name is Maneco Manaque'to and I'm a Taino game designer.