Charivari Harvardiana

Prepare for a springtime of campus protest

History concentrators of a certain generation—we who took the former version of History 97—are intimately familiar with Parisian cat massacres, baby-eating dingoes, and the charivari. Charivari, which has sojourned from Greek to Latin and then to French, and loosely translates as “rough music,” began its life as a folk custom during the Middle Ages. A ritualized community event involving loud and discordant music, revelry, and role reversal between feudal classes, the charivari was the ancestor of protest.

Though it started as part of traditional wedding celebrations, the practice evolved into a tactic of censure, a mechanism to express communal disapproval toward violators of social norms, correcting behavior through public humiliation and shunning. Attempts by the Church to discourage charivari failed; the custom endured, crossed the sea, and became American.


Protest is not much different today than then: crowds gather, raise their voices, make noise, march with a sense of pageantry, and expose wrongdoing in the hopes that shame or boycotts (a type of shunning) might convince the powerful to change their ways. This method of seeking redress of grievances is deeply ingrained in American culture. And this spring charivari comes to our campus; there’s much to protest.

The association between charivari and protest registered with me this week when I saw a flyer taped to my door in Mather Tower—a notice of an upcoming demonstration this Friday, a notice posted by Responsible Investment at Harvard, a notice about SHAME (Stop Harvard’s Argentine Mismanagement and Exploitation). I normally don’t pay attention to such things, but this caught my eye, in part because of a recent column in the Crimson by Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14.

The story of the University’s investment in Argentina, specifically investments in forestry that threaten the wetlands of Iberá, broke last year. I was heartbroken to hear of it because, as a student in Harvard’s summer 2010 study abroad program in Argentina, I had the great privilege to travel to Iberá and see first-hand the world’s second largest wetlands. It’s a bitter pill to swallow: the same institution that funded my summer program—that let me experience Iberá—also allegedly profits in small part by degrading the same place.

The wetlands are a site of great beauty and of rich, but perilous biodiversity. The plants and trees that naturally grow in Iberá are home to many birds, as well as deer, capybaras and a variety of small caiman known as Yacarés; silt collects around the trees, forming delicate land masses in the marshes. The name “Iberá” comes from the Guaraní term for “bright water,” which is exactly what you see on a boat tour—an endless, eye-filling, panorama of water glittering with sunlight, a world of islands floating on a second sky.

Exploring Iberá was one of the most memorable times from my Argentine studies. Corrientes Province, in which Iberá is located, is as different from the melancholic, nostalgic city of Buenos Aires as can be imagined. Tropical, poor, with pockets of indigenous peoples, Corrientes is a place in need of investment. But not of the kind Harvard’s brought. Restoration of the wetlands has led to increased eco-tourism, an income source that won’t drain the land of its water.


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