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Santiago Sueiro

Santiago Sueiro

Website URL: http://santiagosueiro.com/

"Facebook is a Hell for Happy People" Gala's Latest Offering

La Foto: A Selfie Affair is a humorous and entertaining play that touches upon modern themes of technology, privacy, and internet relationships. The selfie, that ubiquitous and vain yet satisfying picture, is the catalyst for a series of events that ends a marriage, drives a daughter to leave her school in shame, and ruins a friendship.

            Laura, performed by the ever fabulous Luz Nicolas, copes with her age and solitude by reconnecting with an old boyfriend. A 48-year-old single mother, Laura courts Denis, played by Carlos Castillo, via Facebook where they reminisce about nostalgic memories before exchanging romantic overtures. A confused or perhaps reckless Denis dithers between his desire to leave his wife Thais, played by Maria Peyramaure, to pursue an exciting relationship with Laura or maintain his devotion to his family.

            The play centers its focus on Laura and Denis, and the fallout from a risqué selfie meant to coax Denis into a decision. As the picture of Laura goes viral and their families react, the play explores the psychological undertones manifested through the use of technology. Laura is driven by a sudden sensitivity about her appearance and her loneliness; she looks for romance online, she changes her wardrobe to look younger and she carefully photo shops her selfies before sending them to interested suitors.

            Denis entertains Laura’s proposition not simply out of romantic idealism but to soothe his insecurities. After Thais asks Denis for a divorce, Denis attempts to explain himself to his son Frank, interpreted by Jose Gonzalez. Denis recounts his efforts to also enhance his physical appearance through weight lifting. He invested enormous time and effort to shape his body and appear powerful and masculine but in the end, succeeds only in growing 'man boobs'.

            Director Abel Lopez employs a dark and nervous humor throughout the play. Mr. Lopez creates tense moments that switch between comedy, drama, and absurdity. During a dramatic argument between Denis and Thais, the 'machista' Denis finally comes clean about his interactions with Laura and her selfies. In an attempt to explain himself, Denis declares that “Facebook es el infierno de los felices.” (Facebook is a hell of happy people) The line garnered nervous laughter from the audience. It was the most poignant moment in the play and one whose spirit was at the core of its message.

            Facebook is indeed a hell for happy people. Denis’ obvious irrationality and denial of any wrongdoing is the uneasy facade through which his profound insight is delivered. The characters in the play embody the psychological affects that are born out of today’s uses of technology. We don’t like how we look so we place filters on our pictures, we’re unhappy with our marriage so we flirt with an old flame on Facebook, we see only the happy, positive, and “good” captured on social media and we compare these experiences to our own, we suppress the yin and obsess over the yang. As a result, we create a distorted reality, one where everyone appears happy but no one feels whole: a hell for happy people.

            Choppy at times, the flow of the play mirrored a typical online experience with short, uneasy, and visually sleek scenes. The set, aligned by tall canvas like panels, reminded me more of a minimalist themed website powered by WordPress than a home, a high-school or a grocery store. Through this lens, the play felt like a series of Instagram videos sliced together into one long “Instastory.” It served as a subtle reminder of the detachment with which we navigate the world. With smartphones a reach away, a serene and melancholic moment is interrupted by an impulse to “snap” a video and share it with the world. We no longer own unique moments but are instead nudged through push notifications to share our experience with the world.

            While the play focused more on the fallout from the selfie, it was these themes of insecurity, mortality, and family, and how these are affected by technology that gave the play meaning. As technology becomes more available and more powerful, we’re reminded of the human sensibilities that give depth to our experiences. Passion, melancholy, and reflection are more important now than ever and yet fall by the wayside as capitalist coders and website designers compete for our attention.

You can find more information or reserve your seats for the show at www.galatheatre.org or by phone at 202-234-7174. Performing now thru February 25th

Getting Down In The Heights Latin Style

In The Heights En Español, directed by Luis Salgado, is a bilingual adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mid-2000’s original musical. Colorful, humorous, and at times somber, the play centers around the struggles and romances of a primarily Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Usnavi (played by Juan Luis Espinal) shoulders the legacy of his parents: a convenience store in “the barrio,” while looking after his younger cousin and his dear “abuela.” Meanwhile Nina (played by Laura Lebron) returns from Stanford to tell her parents that she lost her university scholarship. Once considered a star student, Nina deals with the guilt of having disappointed her parents and her community. Nina and Usnavi grapple with these issues while simultaneously pursuing their respective romantic passions. Usnavi musters up the courage to talk to “popular girl” Vanessa (played by Veronica Alvarez) who works at a beauty salon. Nina develops affection for Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder), an African-American employee at Nina’s father’s Taxi/Limousine service.

quoteThe play incorporates many of the traditional Latino character types: Nina’s mother Camila (played by Shadia Fairuz) is the wise and strong Latina mother, Abuela Claudia (played by Michelle Rios) plays the spiritual, affable, and loving elder who provides guidance to Usnavi and Nina, and Nina’s father Kevin (played by Jose F. Capellan), is the proud machista father. These character types are positive depictions of Latinos which serves to break the common and unflattering depictions portrayed in mainstream media. At times, it’s positive intent felt more like a Disney production, clichéd and oversimplified, than nuanced social commentary. It does however touch upon anxieties that are very real to the Latino community today.

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the play came when Nina’s father, after hearing the news that Nina lost her scholarship in part because of how much she had to work to pay her tuition, expresses his disappointment… in himself. Kevin chides Nina with his disappointment before turning on himself. “Soy inutil, useless” Kevin says. He questions his ability to take care of his family, to be the best father he can be, and to honor what it means to be a man. These few minutes where Kevin explains his frustration, with himself, with no one, with everyone, nearly brought me to tears.

Kevin’s insecurity is not unique. Throughout the play, the collective feeling of insecurity is seldom explicitly articulated, but is present throughout just beneath the surface. Poor Latino families, Latino immigrants and the subsequent generations, face difficult questions about assimilation into American society. How do we make a living without knowing the language or culture of this country? How do we navigate a system that wasn’t designed by or for Latinos? What kind of life must we lead in order to preserve our heritage yet integrate into an alien society?

The depth of Kevin’s failure is not produced by his inability to help Nina, it is formed in the subtle feelings of inferiority to the “gringo” American and the challenges inherent in obtaining the “American dream.” We see what is desired for that lifestyle; the suburban home, the family values, kids who go to college, and we face a reality in which obtaining that life is not as easy for the Dominican business owner in Washington Heights as it is for the fourth-generation American professional living in suburban Washington DC. The insecurity felt by the Latino collective stems from a false equivalence in which the Latino wants to be like the gringo American but is living an entirely different experience than the gringo ever lived. Kevin’s feeling of uselessness is shared by the undocumented immigrant who works 60 hour weeks at $8 an hour but struggles to make ends meet, it’s shared by young Latinos who watch as their gringo classmates are showered with gifts and support from their parents while they save up money for a textbook by working at the grocery store after school, it’s felt by the Latina tamale vendor who sells her food to the newly arrived young professional couple who moved into the luxury apartment down the street, and it’s felt by the neighborhood drunk, who long ago lost faith and succumbed to despair.

“It’s about humanity,” Mr. Salgado explained in a Q&A after the play ended. At its core, In The Heights and Mr. Salgado are seeking to answer the questions of what it means to be Latino in the United States. But whereas in the mid-2000’s we could see this play as a celebration of our cultural roots and the innate “humanness” embedded within our core American principles, today we look at Mr. Miranda’s creation a bit differently; as a reminder of our fear of never truly becoming part of this country and the uselessness of our efforts to do so.

Helping Microfinance Clients to Save: Are Incentives a Solution?

Authored by Jeff Paddock and Santiago Sueiro.

This post originally appeared on NextBillion‘s Financial Innovation blog on January 26th, 2017. It formed part of NextBillion’s January focus on microfinance.

At La Ceiba, we believe microfinance can be about more than loans. We work in a rural community 30 minutes outside of the city of El Progreso in northern Honduras. El Progreso has a small urban center where many Honduran banks established their branches. Our clients are just close enough to the city to open and access accounts but far enough away where they don’t visit the city or their bank on a regular basis. Additionally, clients cannot afford the ancillary fees that are associated with savings accounts. Our client population has low literacy levels, which make it difficult for them to understand financial vocabulary and concepts. The combination of distance, cost and knowledge gaps discourages clients from opening and maintaining a savings account. We decided we needed to offer a financial service focused on those three challenges.

Microfinance can be a tool for developing meaningful and intimate connections with low-income families. Know your clients, and let them know you. This concept, and the conditions that clients face, was the basis for our incentivized savings program.

Over the years, our staff developed intimate relationships with clients and their families through frequent interactions. We encourage this type of interaction through our relationship collateral philosophy. Recently, we heard a growing number of clients express interest in financial products beyond the loans that we already provide. Clients told us that they want to save but they are finding it difficult to do so.

There is a growing amount of research and work done to increase savings for low-income clients. A 2014 publication by Dean Karlan, Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan and Jonathan Zinman lays out the constraints to savings observed across several regions in the world and highlights field experiments and nascent savings models that seek to address those constraints. But while this research was useful, it didn’t serve as the impetus for our program. At this point in the process, clients expressed that a small match from our organization would incentivize them to make frequent deposits. Their feedback inspired us to adopt an incentivized saving concept.

One of the largest incentivized savings programs in the world is the Assets for Independence (AFI) program in the U.S. AFI uses Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) to encourage individuals to save. The model allows for individuals to save significant sums of money and facilitates asset accumulation. AFI makes it easy for organizations to operate IDA accounts by providing federal grants to fund the individual’s matched deposit. AFI allows organizations to match a deposit 1:1 and up to an 8:1 ratio for a maximum of $2,000.

Incentivized savings is extremely resource intensive, which is why AFI provides grants to make it easier for organizations to adopt the model. However, we are a small NGO with limited resources and an equivalent to the AFI program does not exist in Honduras. We had to build something that would require a small financial commitment but preserve the motivating effect of a matched deposit.

Our first step was to partner with formal banks. Banco Ficensa, Banco Azteca, BanRural and Banco de Occidente already have the infrastructure and products that clients want and need. Second, we identified the entry costs we could afford to cover. Third, we used conversations with clients and relied on the knowledge of our Honduran staff to establish a match amount that was small enough for us to afford but large enough to still encourage clients to make a deposit. Finally, we knew that we had to provide classes that would allow clients to understand the technical aspects of savings and their account. We settled upon these four inputs:

    We provide $5 for the minimum balance required to open bank accounts.
    For every deposit the client makes, we deposit $1.05 into their account.
    We provide monthly classes to train participants on how to use deposit booklets and plan for the future.
    We provide a small stipend to address the opportunity cost of being away from home and work while attending classes.

These small incentives and supports motivated clients to make deposits on a regular basis. Fifteen clients made 51 deposits over three months. Of these, eight opened a savings account for the first time. Accounts spanned four different banks and clients deposited a total of $408 with a median deposit of $4.25. We matched this with $112. As a result, clients held a total of $520 toward their future; that’s $3.71 saved per $1 of subsidy money. Every $1 we contributed carried almost four times its weight in financial security.

This project is minuscule, but it’s a first step toward something larger. We are planning a second round of accounts for 15 new clients. But what we are really excited about is the clients’ commitment to the program. Clients express high satisfaction with the program and they continue to make deposits despite such a small incentive. We believe that this is due not just to the financial incentive offered, but from their role in designing the program. The idea for this program was born from the clients, and while we incorporated empirical evidence and studied existing models, we developed the program in conjunction with clients. As the program grows and we continue to foster meaningful relationships with clients, we will continue to explore this central question: What role can and should microfinance play in empowering the poor?

Jeff Paddock is the program director of La Ceiba and Santiago Sueiro is on the Board of Advisors.

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A Sense of Community... in Honduras

Domingo was always on that corner. He would greet me from his stool while chewing tobacco and with a toothless smile, “como estamos Santiago?” Every day I would sit on the stool next to him and he'd tell me his life’s story. Domingo told me everything, from his proudest moments to his lowest. He's an alcoholic and goes to AA meetings every week. He was an engineer in Puerto Cortez where he worked alongside several American engineers who were veterans of World War II. It wasn’t long before I exchanged some of my own stories, even if they didn’t compare in meaning. I could only talk to him for a few minutes at a time, and before long I had to interrupt him and ask him to tell me the rest the next day.

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