Highlights of 2020

We asked our members to list five of the most interesting, inspiring, or simply heart-warming cultural artifacts that made their year. We did not restrict ourselves to things published in 2020, and we encouraged our members to include a variety of media. Here's what they had to say:

Marcus Avelar

1. Book: Babylon: Mesopotamia and the birth of civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek (2012)

A great storyteller writes about the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. The book spans some 5,500 years and discusses the Mesopotamian institutions/inventions that are alive and kicking until today.

2. Band: Francisco el hombre

These folks know no borders between genres and languages. Fun!

3. Play: Helena Blavatsky: A Voz do Silêncio

A play based on the life and work of one of the most controversial thinkers of the 19th century. The play is set at Blavatsky’s residence on the day of her death. Here is a conversation between the actress who plays Blavatsky, the play director, and the playwright. Click here.

4. Film: Bacurau, by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho (2019)

A bunch of foreigners decides to go to a small rural town in the Brazilian backlands to murder the locals for fun. This is a fun film on what can be accomplished through community organization.

5. YouTube channel: Glória Arieira's retelling of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the greatest - or at least the longest! - ancient epic ever written.

Tiffany Alvarez

1. Song: Antiguo Dueño de las Flechas, by Mercedes Sosa (1980)

Mercedes Sosa performs live in front of a predominantly Swiss audience as “the representative voice of Latin America”. In doing so, she covers many Latin American quintessential classics and, among them, throws in this song as an homage to her native Argentina’s Indigenous people - the Toba/Qom, traditionally semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who resisted Spanish colonization and Argentinian expansion policies until the late 1800s. The song is sung in joyous, beautiful, almost bird-like, sounds that seamlessly blend Spanish with vowels and consonants born from the Mataco-Guaicuru language family and which, truth be told, feel incredibly satisfying to sing along to - for the body and the heart.

For those of us who have lost a loved one this year, I also recommend listening to Mercedes Sosa’s Todo Cambia, it’s soulful, soothing, and yes sad.

2. Book: Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, by Noe Alvarez (2020)

OR Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1994)!

3. Podcast: Poetry Unbound.

A podcast series featuring a completely digestible, often 15-minute, yet all together time-stopping, deep-dive into one poem. After a poem is read in full, host Padraig O Tuama offers his analysis and then a re-read. My favorite episode was the first I listened to--“Phase I”. It is a mantra on self-forgiveness that encourages us to forgive ourselves early and often so that we can be present to our lives without holding the counterfactual of the life we never had, in such a way, that we might never live the life and love we’ve got.

4. YouTube Channel: Liziqi

5. Easy Chocolate Cake Recipe:

Javier Muñoz-Díaz

1. Book: Volverse Palestina/Volvernos otros, by Lina Meruane (2014)

The first part of this book (a play with the words "to return to Palestine/to become a Palestinian") is a brilliant travelogue/essay about Lina Meruane's journey to her Chilean-Palestinian family roots. She travels to the West Bank and witnesses the colonization and police repression from the State of Israel. The second part of this book ("to become others") is a powerful defense of Palestinians' right to radically oppose the current state of affairs in their land. After reading Meruane's work, there’s little doubt about the illegitimacy of the State of Israel. Although she is mostly known as a novelist ("Fruta podrida" and "Sangre en el Ojo," among others), I think Meruano thoroughly shines as an essayist—another eye-opener title being "Contra los hijos," about the overwhelming constraints of parenting nowadays.

2. Film: Yawar Mallku, by Jorge Sanjinés (1969)

Thanks to an invitation from the Andean-Amazonian Reading Group (led by Mercedes Mayna and Juan Pablo Cárdenas), I was finally able to see this groundbreaking film by Bolivian filmmaker and activist Jorge Sanjinés. The plot follows two brothers of Indigenous origin, one still living with their Indigenous community and the other trying to make a living as a laborer in the city of La Paz. Their fate is tragically intertwined by the economic and bio-political oppression of neo-imperialist forces. As part of the artistic renovation of the "Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano" of the 1960s, the film is full of dynamic montage and imagery, including both the rural Andean landscape and the "modern" urban infrastructure. But what could be more surprising is the relevance of some topics (such as the forced sterilization of Indigenous peoples) more than 50 years after this film's original release.

3. Music: Fetch the Bolt Cutters, by Fiona Apple (2020) I haven't listened to a lot of new music this year (besides the songs used for lip sync battles in drag-related series). However, one album that happened to be in a constant replay in my workstation is the US songwriter Fiona Apple’s last release, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. I especially enjoy the music's raw quality and lyrics' boldness (including, of course, that dog's barking).

4. Art: Mi lengua es el viento, by Javier Vargas Sotomayor (2014)

I've already followed the Peruvian Javier Vargas Sotomayor in social media due to their LGBTQ+ activism before realizing that they is also an outstanding visual artist with a career that spans 20 years. Following the steps of Giuseppe Campuzano's Museo Travesti del Perú, Vargas Sotomayor (also known as Javi Nefando) reconstructed historical figures and episodes with a queer (or marica) perspective, undermining traditional gender roles and highlighting the potential subversiveness of Peruvian popular culture. One of Vargas Sotomayor's works that I especially appreciate is the drag-in version of Indigenista writer José María Arguedas, who becomes the Andean Serpent-God (Amaru) that accompanies rural-urban migration of Indigenous peoples. The digital collage (whose English title is "my tongue is the wind") smartly combines Catholic saint imagery and show-girl aesthetics:

To check more pieces and performances, click here.

5. TV Show: "Madonna: The Unauthorized Musical," RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1, 2020).

Despite the Covid-pandemic, 2020 is when RuPaul's Drag Race entirely became a corporation and a brand, with an overwhelming offer of drag-related products and sprawling international versions of the US original series (based on Thailand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands so far). Besides the unavoidable exhaustion of the successful recipe, this year also offered one of my most beloved episodes in herstory. "Madonna: The Unauthorized Musical" showcases the cast recording a song and performing a dancing number in homage to pop-star Madonna. Full of silly lyrics, quirky moves, and hot back-up dancers, this musical number does a great job in compressing the long career of such an influential artist who—I must admit—is my ultimate gay icon. (Bonus points for hosting Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez as a guest judge.)

María José Maddox

1. Film:Ema, Pablo Larraín (2019)

Was it perfect? No. But it provided a sexy reprieve from Covid-induced feelings of stagnation. Set in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, the movie fixates on Ema – played by Mariana Di Girolamo -, a dancer who exudes freedom, and punk-ish excess. Owen Gleiberman (Variety) states that Di Girolamo has a “rapt millennial-void presence, like Garbo on mood stabilizers,” while Jessica Klang depicts her face as ‘the pin through the heart of a burning butterfly.’

2. Novel: The Book of X, by Sara Rose Etter (2019)

I heard Sara Rose Etter read an excerpt from The Book of X at a Zoom reading, and I was immediately hooked. It is easily one of the most beautiful and imaginative books I’ve read in recent years. I was happy to find out that it won this year’s Shirley Jackson award for Best Novel. Another reason to support the immensely talented Etter: 25% of the author's proceeds benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.)

3. Art: Haitian visual artist Tessa Mars.

Horns, fantasy-colored flesh, and high-contrasting tropical leaves are part of her stunning vocabulary. Check out her "Praying for the Visa" (2019) series by clicking here.

A vision of Peace, Harmony and Good intelligence II, 2020

4. Comedy: Joke Show, by Michelle Wolf's (Netflix, 2019)

Outrage culture and virtue signaling, feminism, periods, and modern dating are among the topics covered by Wolf.

5. TV Series: The Leftovers, by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (HBO, 2014)

Set in the aftermath of a world-shattering event known as ‘The Sudden Departure,’ the show tackles issues of loss, grief, and faith - as well as governmental policies and 'crackpot' theories- in ways that felt eerily prescient. And even though you might be scarred by this bleak, bleak world,- I also dare you not to fall in love with Kevin Gavey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon).

Fernando Varela

1. TV Series: I May Destroy You, by Michaela Coel (HBO, 2020)

Synopsis by HBO: A fearless, frank, and provocative half-hour series exploring the question of sexual consent and where, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, the distinction between liberation and exploitation lies. Set in London, where gratification is only an app away, the story centers on Arabella (Coel), a carefree, self-assured Londoner with a group of great friends, a boyfriend in Italy, and a burgeoning writing career. But when her drink is spiked with a date-rape drug, she must question and rebuild every element of her life.

2. Film: Creature from the Black Lagoon, by Jack Arnold (1954).

Synopsis by Movie Clips: The story involves the members of a fossil-hunting expedition down a dark tributary of the mist-shrouded Amazon, where they enter the domain of a prehistoric, amphibious "Gill Man" -- possibly the last of a species of fanged, clawed humanoids who may have evolved entirely underwater.

3. TV Series: The Mandalorian, by Jon Favreu (Disney+, 2019)

Synopsis by Disney: “The Mandalorian” is set after the fall of the Empire and before the emergence of the First Order. We follow the travails of a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy far from the authority of the New Republic.

4. Novel: Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (1990)

Synopsis by Wikipedia: Jurassic Park is a 1990 science fiction novel written by Michael Crichton. A cautionary tale about genetic engineering, it presents the collapse of an amusement park showcasing genetically recreated dinosaurs to illustrate the mathematical concept of chaos theory and its real-world implications.

5. Novel: Dawn. Book one of the Xenogenesis Series, by Octavia E. Butler (1987)

Synopsis by Black Girl Nerds: "The protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, is a fully realized heroine with a hard set of circumstances to contend with. The story starts after a nuclear war has burned Earth and much of humanity to cinders. An alien race called the Oankali is drawn to our dead world with a biological imperative to heal the planet and merge their genetics with ours. We have no say in the matter. Therein lies the conflict."

Juan García Oyervides

1. YouTube Channel: Yalitza Aparicio

After finding fame in her protagonist role in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Yalitza Aparicio has continued to work on important issues regarding indigenous discrimination in Mexico and the Americas. She also participated recently in an interview with Juan Daniel García Treviño, the protagonist of the film Ya no estoy aquí. Like Aparicio, García Treviño is not a professional actor who was catapulted to fame through a film currently distributed by Netflix.

2. Book: Bring me the head of Quentin Tarantino, by Julian Herbert (2017) ​Review by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center: In between, notable narratives are many: a “gonzo-porn-AIDS movies”-creator lauded as a significant conceptual performance artist examines his career while waiting for his HIV-positive co-star to give birth in “NEETS”; fellow Mexican literati Valeria Luiselli gets a dedication plus a nod to her dental-collecting The Story of My Teeth in “Caries,” about a toothless-to-be artist. Luiselli, by the way, is not the only notable shadow: Shakespeare, Eliot, and Joyce are just a few who appear on the page, along with film legends Pedro Almodóvar, Akira Kurosawa, and Roland Emmerich. Beyond the death and destruction, Herbert certainly knows how to cultivate erudite narrative company.