Friday Five: Uncle Danny

The Sandoval family said goodbye to one of our own today.

Danny Sandoval was an amazing man. He was a loving father and grandfather, and a loyal brother and son.  He was a beloved cousin and nephew.  To me and my siblings and cousins, he was an uncle.  He was my Uncle Danny. And he was one of the most influential people in my life.

Uncle Danny was a caring and accepting man.  Honestly, he was one the most non-judgmental people I ever known.  He took people as they were and saw in them the good that they carried.  In that alone he made a profound impact on me.

The most enduring memories I will carry about my Uncle Danny are his sense of humor and his love of music.  Like all the Sandoval brothers, Danny was quick-witted and had impeccable timing.  Not only could he make you laugh, but he loved to laugh himself.  Watching my dad and his brothers crack each other up was one of my favorite things as a kid.  To join in as an adult was even better.

Danny was also a gifted musician and a lover of music.  It’s the first thing anybody thinks about when they think of Danny.  He had an amazing voice, one of the best I’ve ever heard.  And he could do amazing things on a guitar.  He was in bands all throughout his life.  Though he was never famous, or never made a living at it, it was his passion.  And he was good at it.  Mostly self-taught, my Uncle could play the boleros he learned from my grandpa as well as the rock and rhythm & blues he loved from his upbringing.

Our love of music and, in particular, the guitar, was part of the bond we shared.  Simply put, he was my guitar idol.  He was also my teacher.  My Uncle Danny gave me my first real pick.  When I was a kid and showed him how I could switch between the G, D, and C chords, he showed me how to play an A chord and then how to make the switch easier to other chords.  When I was a teenager and I had inherited one of my grandpa’s guitars, he taught me how to do an A-minor and an A-7. When I started really working at learning songs in my 20s, he opened a new world for me when he showed me how to play ninths.

I loved to watch my Uncle play and sing, but I also loved to talk about music with my him.  He was a walking encyclopedia of 20th century popular music, especially 60s and 70s rock.  While he had his favorites, he was also non-judgmental when it came to music.  For me, that was always a lesson because it seemed incompatible with being a diehard fan.  But my Uncle had respect for music, musicians, and for the love people had for both.  He didn’t judge what you liked if you liked it because he knew what a powerful thing that was.

When I started to get into heavy metal, we could talk about AC/DC or Black Sabbath or Metallica, even though those weren’t big for him.  He knew them as a musician, but he also appreciated that they meant something to me.  He could show me what they did or why they sounded how they sounded, to give me something more to appreciate about them.  I always admired that about him.

Mostly, I remember him talking about the guitarists and the music he loved, because that’s what I loved to hear.  And, if my Uncle loved it, I made a point to like it too, because it had to be good.  I remember back in the 80s, when I was in high school, he was talking about Bob Seger to me and one of my aunts.  I knew who Bob Seger was but didn’t think that much of him.  I remember I asked him, “Why doesn’t he make music anymore.”  My Uncle answered, “Because he’s Bob Seger. He doesn’t have to.”  That was it! Even to this day I will defend the music of Bob Seger to anyone.

A lot of this blog is about music.  That’s because a lot of my life has been about loving music.  I work it into my classes and into my family as a result of that love.  That love comes from a lot of places.  It comes from my dad and my mom, from my grandpa, from my childhood.  And a big part of it has always come from my Uncle Danny.

Until the day I die, I will always think of Danny Sandoval when I play the guitar or listen to the music that we loved.  He’s always been a part of my passion for both.  I miss him dearly already, but I am glad that I can feel him in so many songs.

Here are some songs, a little more than five, that I will always associate with his talent and his love.  Rest in peace Uncle Danny…

“Pride and Joy” (Stevie Ray Vaughn)

“Spinning Wheel” (Blood, Sweat, and Tears)

“Whipping Post” (The Allman Brothers)

“Got to Get You into My Life” (The Beatles)

“You’re Still a Young Man” (Tower of Power)

“Vehicle” (Ideas of March)

“Funny (How Times Slips Away)” (Joe Hinton)

“Sleepwalk” (Santo & Johnny)

“Colour My World” (Chicago)

“Take the Money and Run” (Steve Miller Band)

“All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix)

“Long Train Running” (The Doobie Brothers)

“Machine Gun” (Jimi Hendrix)

“The Letter” (Joe Cocker)

“Does Anybody Really Know What Times It Is?” (Chicago)

“Big Love” (Lindsey Buckingham)

“Oh! Darling” (The Beatles)

“Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” (The Beatles)

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Fighting Racism in Higher Education

Throughout the last academic year, incited by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and guided by the energy and example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students in colleges and universities across the country have increasingly turned to protest. Over the last few weeks alone, student protests at some campuses have reached important junctures, making headlines and creating a powerful moment of possibility.

The New York Times recently provided a cursory overview of some of the more high profile protests and their inciting events. I’m certain this is only scratching the surface when it comes to chronicling racist incidents at colleges and universities as well as student efforts for change.  Sadly, students and faculty at the community of liberal arts colleges where I work (and, specifically, the campus where I was a student) are facing a very similar example of our own this week.

These student protests have mostly been in response to racist incidents at the local level, but they’re not about those incidents, not really.  They’re about a larger and widely shared problem: 21st century racism in the university.

Each has its own shape and mood, it’s own set of assets and liabilities.  But these varied protests each voice part of a unified chorus of what it is like to be nonwhite in the university.  They’re about the lived realities that exist underneath the word “underrepresented.”  They’re about the feelings of inferiority, anger, and frustration incited by life in an institution devoted to whiteness.  They’re about that whiteness, an ideology our institutions do not see and, yet, can not see beyond.  They’re about the expectation for something better from institutions that sell themselves as places that are welcoming and “inclusive.”

Though these student movements are not formally connected, and while each campus has its own particular context to address, it’s hard not to view them as part of a critical moment in higher education, one forcing a reckoning with how our institutions act on issues of race, racism, and “diversity.”  One of the lessons that’s easy to take away from these (not yet concluded) struggles is that most of those in charge of our institutions of higher education are not adequately prepared to effectively hear (let alone address) students’ concerns.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.


Fundamental to this is the way these institutions view “us”–the underrepresented, the minorities, the people of color.  They languish in the conceit that they are “moving forward” and actualizing “progress” simply by opening their doors to us.  Despite the rhetoric, what is painfully obvious is that they do not understand the most fundamental truth related to their “commitment to diversity.”  That truth is this: we do not need them as much as they need us.

“Diversity” was always made to benefit them, of course.  The university who can paint its portrait with the faces of nonwhite students and faculty wears the hue of modernity and progress.  Through our presence we allow them to embody “the future” by helping them distance themselves from their white supremacist pasts.  What’s worse, we legitimate their most addictive myth–that the ivory tower is home to only the best and the brightest our society has to offer.  Our presence is proof of their contention that entrance is now guided by merit and merit alone.  We alleviate their mid-20th century inferiority complex, incited by the Black Freedom Struggle, that forced those who studied in these hallowed halls to come to terms with the fact that they were the beneficiaries of a racist system.

Our most palpable gift to these institutions is the way we animate their moral purpose.  As they admit and enroll us they are emboldened by what they see as their commitment to the “greater good.”  We’re lucky to be here, they tell us.  And how good are they to let us in!  It’s a paternalism the student of the past will be most familiar with, one that makes “diversity” evidence of their “commitments” and inherent goodness.

Of course, our presence in the university is good and it is meaningful.  We know this.  It is one small step toward something better.  It is this knowledge, in part, that fuels the current protests.  Our real and powerful value is also indicative of the extent to which they need us.  They need us to be their mirror, to show them to themselves as they are.  Only then can they move forward as institutions–as communities–and become more like the places they believe themselves to be.

We are here to give them a chance to understand how their ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of dreaming are not the only ways.

Our colleges and universities are vessels of whiteness, proponents of an unacknowledged project of conversion.  This is the hangover of a history of formal white supremacy in the US, a system where racial prejudice became the rationale of deciding who could have power.  Even when you alter the system, if you do not actively dismantle the ideology, you risk doing little more than cosmetic change.

The palpable remnants of this ideology course through this conversion project to which most colleges and universities are committed.  They see our value only in so far as we are willing to surrender ourselves to that project and become like them.  It’s a tired notion, laughable if not for its resilience.  It deserves to be laid to rest.  If they can learn to listen to us, to see as as truly equal, they stand to be liberated from it too, from the cage it represents.  To be truly free, of course, they also have to learn to be more like us.  That’s its own struggle, to be sure, one that has few success stories.  (At least not yet.)

The student protests now taking place, and taking shape, are about this kind of liberation. But they can not make it come to fruition.  When it comes down to it, you see, that’s not our job to do.  There is no saving to be done here.  They’ve got to save themselves!  We can speak our truth and let it enable a culture of learning, even a culture of crisis.  But we can not make them learn from it.  That is a choice they have to make.  Let our voices be an alarm bell that the time for that saving is now.

What we can do is frustrate complacency and nurture empathic understanding.  That’s much easier said than it is done, not for the processes it represents but for the context in which we now struggling.  I was a “student of color” once, too.  I remember the epiphanies, the anxieties, the disappointment, and the anger.  I remember the frustration, and the exhaustion.  As a “professor of color” in the same institutions you’re in now, I remember these because they are a part of my present.  Daily I come to terms with the fact that they are also part of my future.

It’s from that place, a place of love and caring and respect, respect for what you feel and for what you know, that I offer these reminders:

Take care of yourself and each other.  Protest can be exhilarating and affirming when we experience it as a real community.  It is also tiring and diminishing.  Respect those costs and seek to care for each other through it.  Listen to each other.  Hug one another.  Make space to learn with one another.

Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease.  We engage oppressive institutions through episodes that wound the soul, instances when the realities it produces are unavoidably clear.  Each is easily removed or reprimanded without altering the system itself.  Do not let them think this is about Halloween costumes.  If we do, we lose. In fact…

The system of higher education is nimble.  It is self-critical, liberal, and able to agree with you as it defends the fundamental core of its problems.  Its reflex will be to co-opt your energy and welcome your protest because it is designed to do so by bending to give the illusion of substantive change.  Only vigilance, and an understanding of its inherent flexibility, can provide a check against this survival mechanism.

Remember that they, like us all, are learners.  Ignorance is our start in life.  Ignorance of these matters, at this point in time…that ignorance is made.  It must be unmade.  Do not let this stifle your need to speak your truth.  Do let it guide the work of finding solutions, real and meaningful solutions.

If I did not believe in the inherent value of education, as well as the ability of institutions of higher education to be better than they are, I would not be in the line of work I am in.  Change is possible.  These places can be the places they think they are, the places they need to be.  That takes work.  Real work.

As students, you have done–and are doing–more than your share, even as you know there is much more still to be done.  Let us hope the others come to realize that most of the work rests on their shoulders.  Let us hope they learn to hear and accept their part.

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Friday Five: 1991

The early 1990s were an eclectic period in popular music and my tastes were no different. Combined with my (st)age––that powerful period in life when you’re actively discovering who you are and deciding who you want to be––my wide interests make me a fan of so many songs from those years.

Some of that is about the memories songs incite. When I hear “3 Strange Days” by School of Fish, for example, I am instantly transported to the job I worked each break from school, processing checks at two in the morning. Some of it is the ironic fanaticism of my generation, a way of seeing and judging that could make things as stupid as this both enjoyable and, somehow, meaningful.

There are a lot of songs from 1991 that I want to people to know about, songs I wish they played more often on the radio, songs that deserve to be played more often. But there’s no way I could get that list down to only five.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard at all to come up with the five songs that meant the most to me that year, songs that I obsessively played on repeat, again and again.

5. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (Boyz II Men)
A song of change and of transitions, a song of memories and love. I never stood a chance.

4. “Why Should I Cry for You” (Sting)
Sting made his 1991 album Soul Cages to process his father’s death. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I used to put on my head phones and push play, then just sail away…

3. “Lithium” (Nirvana)
It was an album that made me feel alive, confused, angry, powerful, and peaceful, all at the same time. This was the one I played the most, the one that made me feel his genius.

2. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica)
I bought Metallica’s “Black Album” the day of its release. I remember being surprised by the melodies. I thought it was the end of Metallica, and one of the best albums I had ever heard. This was my Gen X anthem.

1. “Black” (Pearl Jam)
I loved Pearl Jam’s Ten for the way it made me feel. It was like these guys were playing the soundtrack of my guts, in sound and words.

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I’m at CSU San Bernardino today

I’m happy to be visiting the students at California State University San Bernardino on Tuesday, November 3, to talk about history and movements.


If you’re a part of that community I hope to see you later today!

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On the radio

I recently did a radio interview with KPFA, the Berkeley-based flagship station of the Pacifica Radio Network. We talked about my book, Latinos at the Golden Gate.


My interview will be edited and aired at an upcoming date on the morning show UpFront. I’m not sure I’ll know in advance of it actual airing, so I’ll be sure and post a link when the segment is posted on their site.

The timing is fortuitous since Latinos at the Golden Gate is scheduled to be released in paperback in early 2016.

More on that when I know more…

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Friday Five: 1990

It was a good year for me, a big year.

In 1990 I graduated high school and started college. For a young Chicano, who came from a family who didn’t have a lot but always had enough, that was probably one of the more important transitions in my life. College changed my world.

My world had already been one that contained transition, hybridity, and knowledge of the multiple. We were a family of both immigrants and US-born. We were spread throughout East LA, in Chicano suburban barrios in the San Gabriel Valley, and Mexico. Like the movements my grandparents made, my dad and mom and two sisters also made movements. We went from working class to middle class in my youth. We went from a family of 5 with no college graduates to one with one, and then another…until we were 5 bachelor’s degrees, 4 MA degrees, and 2 PhDs.

My world was dominated “minority” people, communities, and cultures. It was centered on the late-20th century US popular culture, but also on African American culture (especially West Coast black culture), on Chicano-LA culture, on Filipino second-generation culture. We gravitated to and drew identity from the strands of popular culture that were often not the mainstream, dance club music, funk and soul, hip-hop. As I participated in other cultural strands–notably hard rock and some heavy metal–I never stepped out of the shared culture I knew, I never ceased to be conversant in it or to draw identity from it.

This is the thing about not being part of the mainstream in the United States, when that mainstream negates your existence culturally, socially, and politically. You still are rooted to communities that operate in all those realms, you developed your own sense of “peopleness” as you do, but you also become expert at the culture that is simultaneously “yours” and “theirs.”

And then came college. In college I entered a space that was dominated by a specific kind of late-20th century cultural whiteness, a place that was brutally unaware that their way (of thinking, dressing, having fun, dancing, of hoping) was not the only way. It was an introduction to a new world for me, including new music, but also a long process of coming to terms with who I was/am. My main advantage was that I knew them and the content of their world when they did not know mine.

Part of my growth was a greater awareness and appreciation for the culture I came from. Songs I never liked all that much, styles of music that I knew but did not necessarily love, became more meaningful to me then. They were markers of my community, the one I had left to come to college. They were ways of embracing my difference, my special knowledge, a process that helped protect me from what could sometimes be a difficult adjustment. They were also declarations of my knowledge, my rootedness to a world that “they” never knew existed.

That happened at the same time parts of that people-of-color culture (we didn’t call it than then, not yet) were becoming fully intrenched in the mainstream, too.

Here are five songs from 1990 that represent that for me.* They are not songs unknown to anyone, certainly not to others of my generation. But what they meant for us was, I think, distinct than what they meant for the upper class white kids at my college.

5. “Mama Said Knock You Out” (LL Cool J)
“Don’t call it a comeback!” With that line LL Cool J begins a powerful and aggressive track that would become his biggest hit of all time. He was a very well-known person in my world well before 1990. He had been up and down already just in the period of my high school years. Songs like “I Need Love,” “Going Back to Cali,” and “I Need a Beat” were classics to my young mind. The punch of this chart-topper made it a favorite to dance to in those years at college. It was like a musical declaration of your oppositional strength.

4. “Poison” (Bel Biv Devoe)
You can’t get more mainstream than Bel Biv Devoe, the trio that spun off from 80s boy group New Edition. It was that history, though, that made them mean something more. We had grown up with them, they were “our” boy band. And when they became kinda crude (and sexist) and obvious with their breakout song “Poison”––reminding us “Never trust a big butt and smile”–it somehow seemed right, it seemed authentic. Their success made you, well, proud.

3. “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
This might be the biggest song of the year, a commercial hit that made Oaktown rapper MC Hammer a household name, and his baggy pants a cultural phenomenon. But he wasn’t new to us. Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” was played at every house party I ever went to, a track (like Rob Bases and DJ Eazy Rock’s “Joy and Pain”) that never failed to fill the dance floor. When “U Can’t Touch This” played at my senior prom, there was a humor and celebratory feel to it. It was both stupid and, strangely, ours.

2. “Humpty Dance” (Digital Underground)
“Alright, stop what ‘cha doin’, ’cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to.” I want you to know that I typed those words without listening to the song or checking them online. I can go all the way to the end of the song that way, too. Digital Underground was a funny, creative, eclectic grouping. Known for being the starting point for the career of Tupac Shakur, their 1990 album Sex Packets spawned two hits, “Doowatchyalike” and this classic. Digital Underground’s album was pretty dirty, something that wasn’t in-line with the success of this single, but something that somehow made it more authentic. There’s no assimilative politeness or decorum here.

1. “Groove Is In the Heart” (Deee-Lite)
I remember being at a freshman orientation dance in college, an event that took place the week before classes started, a social held outside in the middle of a closed-off street. I was feeling it already, the feeling of being one of so very few of who you were, the feeling that was a stark contrast to the world I had know, to the world that made me. It comes with bursts of confidence, of fear, of self-doubt and, later, anger. When this song came on it seemed like, for a precious moment, there were only people of color dancing in the streets. I don’t have words to explain what that meant. Deee-Lite, the multiracial dance/funk/club group, who were clear precursors to acts like Black-Eyed Peas a generation later, never hit it bigger than with this song from their debut album. It featured funk legend Bootsy Collins, a man I thought was in the group until about a decade later. The song is a classic, both now and then.

*The word “classic” is going to be used a lot here.

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The Function of Racism

On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies.  Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”

After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:

Racism was never, ever the issue.  Profit and money always was.

And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money.  And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.

Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.

Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way.  They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one!  They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.

And they never, ever thought we were inhuman.  You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.

Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

You can listen to the full audio of her remarks at Portland State University or directly from their Soundcloud.

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