War stories told through social media documented in new book

November 25, 2014

Despite being raised on the war stories of his relatives, Manuel Avilés-Santiago never saw images of Puerto Rican soldiers telling the stories of World War II, Korea or Vietnam in movies or documentaries.

“I grew up looking for the faces or experiences in films or documentaries. There was nothing like that,” he said. “They’re basically invisible, or the films about war are created with stereotypical Latino soldiers.” Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship Download Full Image

Avilés-Santiago, assistant professor in the College of Letters and Sciences, has documented the stories, images and songs of Puerto Rican soldiers by following their narratives on social media.

His new book, “Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship,” comes out Nov. 26.

“I wanted to look for those alternative spaces where Puerto Rican soldiers were telling their stories and sharing experiences,” he said. “Given the absence of a traditional media narrative, I see a huge self-representation in social media.”

Stories they tell from the pages of social media sites include posted photos of themselves in uniform with the Puerto Rican flag, lessons in how to cook native dishes through YouTube videos, discussions of the power of Puerto Rican coffee on the battlefield or salsa dancing instructions for fellow soldiers.

These soldiers are in an intriguing position in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth where people are citizens of the United States and fight in wars, but don’t vote or have representation in Congress, he said.

“I realized after exploring this that social media is really powerful, especially for military subjects," says Avilés-Santiago. "It is a way to connect with their homeland and to demonstrate to their families that they’re alive and proudly serving. The connection to home was really important. It’s a way to promote culture and integrate other cultures into theirs.”

Starting his research on Myspace in 2005, Avilés-Santiago transitioned to Facebook as it became more dominant among social media venues. YouTube also was a powerful outlet for soldiers to upload videos.

“I looked at the spaces for six years," he said. "Many of the soldiers went on two or three tours to Iraq and Afghanistan."

One of the most interesting and sobering reminders of the reality of war was personified through social media when a soldier passed away in the line of duty and their pages would become living memorials to the person. Of the approximately 1,300 soldiers he followed, 65 of them died. Post-traumatic stress disorder issues were also dealt with through social media, sometimes with friends accessing services for soldiers who couldn’t do it themselves.

Avilés-Santiago discovered that the use of language was a prominent ethnic tool that allowed soldiers to enunciate their “Puerto Ricaness.” Stories told on social media often relayed heroic deeds, such as the story of a Puerto Rican soldier who brought Saddam Hussein out of his hiding place.

A trend that he discovered through his research was soldiers showcasing their bodies in posted photos as a way to demonstrate that they were still healthy and intact in a war where improvised-explosive devices often took limbs from soldiers. Female soldiers posted photos of themselves with their children to show their commitment to their families and to making the world a better place for them by serving in the military.

Among the thousands of soldiers he followed, a few of the stories resonated, such as Juan “Nuro” Cotto, a hip-hop artist who used his military experience to write and create numerous cultural productions.

“He said that was therapeutic for him. It helped him cope with the fear and anxiety of being in such an uncertain space while being able to make the connection to home,” Avilés-Santiago said.

Soldiers were enthusiastic about the project and willing to allow Avilés-Santiago to follow their stories and use their photos for the book. “Soldiers were really, really eager to let me look at their profiles and let me collect pictures,” he said.

Avilés-Santiago said his book demonstrates the power of digital storytelling through popular platforms in capturing oral histories. Although the research was fascinating, it was also heartbreaking when a soldier died in the line of duty.

“It was really sad, but the fact that they left a legacy that people can actually see I think is important,” he said.

Tech-minded women invited to panel, networking event

November 25, 2014

Women interested in computer science careers are invited to a networking event at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 10, in the University Club at Arizona State University in Tempe.

The event is an inaugural gathering for Women Who Code, which has just launched a chapter in Phoenix. Hosted by several ASU professors, it will feature a short panel discussion by women who use computers prominently in their research. Download Full Image

The event will include refreshments and a raffle for a Samsung tablet. RSVP by Dec. 1 to saadia.khan@asu.edu.

Women Who Code (WWC) is a global nonprofit dedicated to providing women an avenue into technology careers, empowering them with skills needed for professional advancement and providing environments for networking and mentoring.

"We hope to draw faculty members and graduate students who use technology deeply, and also those who want to be mentors," says Mina Johnson-Glenberg, director of the ASU Embodied Games for Learning Lab. "Participation in computer science by women has declined over the past two decades. Women have a different voice, a different way of looking at the world, and we need them to create a different kind of software product. Half of the consumer base is female."

Panelists will include Johnson-Glenberg, whose team creates embodied games to teach fourth- through 16th-grade students about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); Erin Walker, assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, who uses technology to develop intelligent tutoring systems for applications ranging from robotic learning environments to dual language learning iPad apps; Tahnja Wilson of ASU Online; and Danielle McNamara, senior research scientist in the Learning Sciences Institute, who is developing technologies for natural language processing and game-based intelligent tutoring systems for learning comprehension and writing strategies.

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library