Sustenance on Cinco de Mayo: Starving for Justice or Just for Tequila Shots?
Sustenance on Cinco de Mayo:
Starving for Justice or Just for Tequila Shots?
On May 5th 1862, the Mexican army defeated French soldiers at the Battle of Puebla. The battle was significant because the long undefeated French battalion had twice as many men as the Mexican army. The link between this historical event and the excessive taco eating and tequila drinking that occur annually on cinco de mayo remains unclear to me. What’s more, the holiday is more popular in the United States than it is in Mexico. The Mexicans defeated the French in a small battle 147 years ago, and Americans are (still) celebrating it?
We will gladly indulge our appetites in celebration of past and remote events that have little to no impact on our lives.
But will we unflinchingly deny our appetites in support of current, even if foreign, events that infringe upon the human rights of others, if not our own?
As it turns out, May 5th is also the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army who exercised passive resistance in an attempt to have his then criminal status modified to that of political prisoner during his last stay at Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. Sands began refusing food on March 1, 1981 and continued to do so for 66 days in total, until his death, at age 27; nine other hunger strikers died in the days and weeks following. The strike officially ended on October 3, 1981. Just last fall British filmmaker Steve McQueen released Hunger, which examines the lives of Sands and his fellow protesters; critics on the whole have praised the film. I am not sure if the film demystifies what is at stake when individuals elect to forgo food or if it simply inflates the act and the martyrdom it bestows to even loftier and mythic heights.
People are unwittingly malnourished and starved all over the world every day. Likewise, there are women and men starving themselves everyday because they do not feel they measure up to the digitally and surgically manipulated images of beauty they find on magazine covers, in films, and on television. What is an appropriate form of activism and justice for them? Certainly not a hunger strike for the former, and certainly not a force feeding for the latter.
Hunger striking has garnered attention for the causes of Bobby Sands, even women suffragettes, and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi, but will it prove effective for Roxana Saberi and Mia Farrow?
Saberi, a 31-year old Iranian-American journalist, was arrested in January allegedly for purchasing a bottle of wine. Following a single day trial on April 18th, the Iranian government found her guilty of espionage and sentenced her to an 8-year prison sentence. She declared on Tuesday, April 21st that she was beginning a hunger strike in protest of this undeserved sentencing and that she would uphold the strike until she was released. As a supportive gesture, members of the Northwestern University community, Saberi’s alma mater, established Free Roxana, a campaign designed to encourage others to fast in 24-hour shifts in place of Saberi and ultimately intended to prompt her release.
Last Monday, April 27th, actress turned humanitarian Mia Farrow began what she claims will be a 21-day hunger strike (though she will drink water) as a sign of support for the atrocities still occurring in Darfur. Farrow says the final impetus for her fast was the Sudanese government’s recent removal of numerous foreign aid organizations. Farrow consulted her doctor before commencing her fast, and she purposely gained almost ten pounds in preparation for it.
Farrow’s gesture is not really that different from what Saberi’s supporters are doing. Yet Farrow has been harshly judged by some, accused of pulling a Gloria Swanson and starving for attention under the guise of empathy and altruism. Celebrities are damned if they do act and damned if they don’t act, no matter their age, their talent, or apparently, their the type of acting–hunger striking, though passive, is still performative. Would Farrow’s critics judge any less harshly if Jessica Simpson or Queen Latifah joined her in this political fast? I suspect not.
I don’t mean to undermine the plight of those, such as Sands, who chose starvation as a dire and last resort political tactic, nor do I necessarily mean to defend someone, such as Farrow, who has chosen starvation as what she, no doubt, perceives as an honorable and supportive political gesture. I, actually, am deeply disturbed by them both and by all the types of hunger that plague our world. Perhaps, for some, starving the body nourishes the mind and soul, serving as a final flourish of self-governance; this was, in part, the case for Clarissa Harlowe, the title heroine of Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel, who refuses food up to her death and leaves behind a letter, proclaiming, “I am nobody’s.”
When hunger has so ravished both the mind and body that death ensues, what has actually been accomplished? Does the death of an activist give birth to the oppressor’s enlightenment and repentance and effect social change or does it merely give birth to another cultural icon or religious idol?