Graduation Day

I have a wonderful job.

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Every year I get reminded of that fact on graduation day. It’s not that I don’t feel it at other times; I do, of course, even in the midst of all the less-than-fulfilling elements of my job. But on graduation day, no matter where I am emotionally and intellectually, I can’t ever forget what a lucky person I am to be doing the work I get to do as a college professor.

One of the most beautiful things about my job is the cycle of things. There is a pace to the work year, and a process that is part of that pace playing out. Classes begin and end. Students come and go. They begin as first years and leave after (we hope) four years. Our year has a beginning, and an end.

Today is that end. Graduation day brings an end to the year and to the process. It’s also about the next phase, the new beginning. It’s about the cycle.

On this day I am reminded about the power of education. I don’t mean this in the simplistic, neoliberal hope that the “individual” can improve their economic lot in life with a college degree. On days like this, I am reminded of the power of education despite this individualistic, market-driven ethos. I am reminded of what it can mean for a society like ours, for young people–people that are parts of communities whose worth and humanity has been measured by our distance from an education–to receive their degrees.

It’s an achievement for many of us to earn our degrees. But it’s also bigger than us. It’s an achievement that makes an impact on our families, our friends, and other loved ones. Watching the faces today, seeing the young adults I get to work with celebrate with their families, I can’t help but be grateful.

I am also amazed.

There are so many students for whom this is not a challenge. For many (perhaps especially at my college) this is just another step in a life of unfolding opportunity. It’s a rite of passage for them, and for their families.

For a precious few (perhaps especially at my college) this is a big deal. I am constantly amazed at the students who beat the odds; at the ones who did it all while bringing their families and their hearts along; at the ones who did it alone, but by carrying the spirits of those who loved them; at the ones who came, who showed us how amazing they are, and who leave more educated and still whole.

Academia in the 21st century United States produces a diverse set of workplaces. In lots of ways, the business model of higher education is undergoing a transformation. That produces changes in the work we do, the ways we do it, and the ways we feel about it.

I’d like to think that this is the part of the job that remains real, that remains sustaining in the face of all the rest.

I feel lucky to be a part of this process in the lives of others.  I feel lucky to get to learn with them. And I feel lucky to create spaces where they can discover, be challenged, and learn with each other and for themselves.

It’s been a great year because of these people. 

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Chicanos and Vietnam

My current research relates to the history of Chicano/Latino military participation in the Vietnam War. It’s primarily based on oral histories with Chicano veterans, interviews that (with the help of my students) I’ve been recording for about four years.

A big part of that research is also analyzing large data sets (like the census and other federal surveys) to help tell the story of veterans and their families in the four decades since the end of the war.

Broadly speaking, then, I’m hoping to shed light on some of the ways the war impacted Latino communities. As the son of a Vietnam veteran, and the nephew of another vet, this is a very personal project for me.

It was a real honor to be able to talk a little bit about my research with a local reporter, as part of Time Warner Cable’s “Local Edition.” The segment will begin airing this Sunday throughout the LA region. But it’s also available online:

This will be my first time on TV. More importantly, I’m glad the project is already gaining some attention in the local media. It’s a reflection (I think) of the gaps in our collective understanding of the war in US society, gaps these stories help to fill.

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Friday Five: 1981

Music is magic. I think of all those times, especially in my youth, when I could put on a record and a pair of headphones, close my eyes, and go somewhere, somewhere that was different that where I was, somewhere where I was different.

Before music can do that, you have to establish a relationship with it. It has to become so much a part of you that it feels like its there for you and you alone. That relationship takes time. The first phase of it, for me, was discovery. I wasn’t ready to go where music could take me. Maybe I didn’t need it yet to take me anywhere. But I started to discover the existence of other places in the music I heard. Far away places. Sometimes even scary places.

I remember learning about the existence of new places, through music, in 1981. It wasn’t all at once; it was a process that lasted for years. As a memory, it fits nicely into the ways I think of those early years of the decade, that is, as years of transition. Part of that is hindsight but some of that was in my 9-year-old mind, too.

We were not a Reagan household. The start of the Reagan presidency felt like an end to how I understood the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate 70s. We saw Raiders of Lost Ark at the Cinerama Dome for me and my sister’s birthday. It felt like a grown-up movie in the visual violence, but one that was made just for me in every other way. At the end of the year, Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, after losing to Trevor Berbick.

The feeling of transition is in the music, too. All times are eclectic, musically, but the early 80s were richly so. Disco flavors from the Village People; Earth, Wind, & Fire; and the Commodores were still around. The Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and John Lennon continued to make the charts. So did Phil Collins, Rick Springfield, and Juice Newton. And heavy metal continued to grow and grow…

5. “Bette Davis Eyes” (Kim Carnes)
Some songs become hits and then never really go away. This isn’t one of those songs. Kim Carnes reached the top of the charts with this distinctive pop tune in 1981. It finished the year as the most successful single of the year, in addition to the biggest hit of her career. The synthesizer sounds and her raspy voice are what made it a hit, and continue to make it an interesting song now. That it’s largely faded from mainstream radio makes it feel less played out that most hits of the decade. At the time, I remember thinking of it as grown-up, maybe because of the title.

4. “Watching the Wheels” (John Lennon)
This posthumous hit from the legendary musician is really good song. There’s a beauty to it that rests in his middle-aged maturity, a period that really never lasted all that long. It is a bittersweet song, too, released as it was after his December 1980 assassination. The sound of it carries that loss for me, even now. Even though his death wasn’t a profoundly tragic thing for me personally, I knew it was a big deal for everyone else. That realization, and the messiness and confusion of a world where he could be shot dead, are all in this song when I hear it.

3. “Super Freak” (Rick James)
“Super Freak” is soooo 80s. It’s so sexy, crazy, indulgent, offensive, stupid, excessive, funky, and tasty. It’s so, so much of so, so much. How odd that a song could be played at the skating rink, inspiring a bunch of kids to skate in circles, and simultaneously be about a whole bunch of non-kid things. I knew that it was about “adult matters” as a kid, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what those could be at the time. It deserves to be considered as more than sexy trash. Rick James had been hard at work in the world of R&B, soul, and funk for a long time. The song was more than a hit, it was influential. The bass line alone paved the way for a line of copycats. But the hubris of the post-disco, pre-AIDS 80s is also there, all over the place.

2. “Tom Sawyer” (Rush)
Rush is mighty, mighty business. I’ve seen them in concert and they’re as impressive live as they are on record. Three people making all this rich, thick, rock sound. Their complex virtuosity and their lyrical fantasy vibe made them one of “those bands” for a lot of youth older than me. Albums like 1981’s Moving Pictures had a greater mainstream appeal than their earlier work, resulting in a 9-year-old, barrio kid like me learning who they were. There were some skater teenagers around town–hair over the eyes, Vans, and cigarettes–who loved them. They would play them out front of the community center near my grade school. They sounded interesting, magical, and scary to me all at the same time. The drums are a big part of that. Neil Peart is kind of untouchable as a drummer. Alex Lifeson’s licks, and Geddy Lee’s bass, vocals, and keyboards, all round it out.

1. “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne)
There’s this time before the mid-80s when heavy metal seems more bottom-up than top-down, at least from a corporate angle. That’s probably not true, but there clearly was something lost when big-hair glam rock went Top 40 with bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. Because of Black Sabbath and the persona that he cultivated over more than a decade in rock, Ozzy seemed like something more pure than what came after. Truth be told, he probably paved the way for that mainstream metal thing to happen. After all, he was as much image as rock. He played the market like no other. Hell, Blizzard of Oz was probably the biggest metal album in history, for its time.

“Crazy Train” is known today as the song of (and now for) metal guitarist Randy Rhoades. Rhoades was a great guitar player, and every little bit of his talent is here for eternity. When Rhoades died in a plane crash in 1982, he became a legend, the kind of guy that became greater in death and inspired countless more to become heavy metal guitarists. It’s not an underserved status. The song is one of the best metal songs in history, and Rhoades is the reason. The fact that it stands the test of time is proof of its greatness. Even now it sounds like it’s from a different, more current time than 1981. It’s a standout song on the album, too. Almost so good it makes the rest seem like something less.

For me in 1981, Ozzy was scary. That seems silly to me now, especially knowing that groups like Slayer were emerging at the same time. But then, in my mind, Ozzy was something that teenagers who were up to no good listened to. He was something related to the devil. But I listened to him, too. Saturday nights, on my Toshiba radio that I bought with the money we made from recycling newspapers, there was a station that played LA metal bands in addition to the bigger hits. This was pre-KNAC, the LA/Long Beach metal station of the late 80s. Whatever the station was, I felt like it was some sort of sneak peak into a world that I found interesting and kind of repulsive at the same time.

Here’s a live performance, with Randy Rhoades in all his glory:

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Friday Five: 1980

We give a lot of attention to the “decade” when it comes to our popular culture. Decades are defining, encompassing, even self-containing. We use them as markers of our times, of our influences, even of our loves. We use them as substitutes for expressing the things we share with others. “I’m a child of the 60s.” “I’m a child of the 80s.”

There’s no inherent reason why one ten-year period should be any more singular than another sequential ten years. Just like there’s no reason why the change from one year to another should be any more significant that another year change. The transition from 1979 to 1980 didn’t end one era abruptly and begin another that was all that different. Like most things cultural, if you know where and how to look, you can see the evolution of things over time. Some things evolve more quickly than others, some take a less straight line, but the process is always there.

But there is something about 1980.

A lot of what makes this year so special and so unique is the nostalgic hindsight of knowing the other nine years that followed it. When nostalgia and identity mix with that cultural tendency we have to build decades into something bigger, 1980 suddenly becomes some big turning point.

A bunch of groups who would be huge for the decade had albums released that year. Rush, The Police, Journey, Scorpions, Air Supply, John Cougar, Whitesnake, and even the Human League released albums. Most of the groups had previous releases in the 70s, but most also had bigger albums to come in the 80s.

Disco was in serious decline, but it was also in transformation in the music of people like Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Rock was transitioning, finding the middle ground between metal and glam, all wrapped in excess. And people like Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Olivia Newton-John had pop hits, too.

These 5 songs are all special to me in some way, but they’re emblematic of the things to come in the decade. (One special mention goes out to Prince and his album Dirty Mind. It’s my second favorite Prince album of all-time, and it contains what just might be my favorite Prince song of all-time, “When You Were Mine.” But Prince doesn’t let his stuff stay up for very long on YouTube so all he gets is a shout-out.)

5. “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)
Queen is talent. Queen is skill. Queen is glorious. Queen is a band that made a career out of producing songs that drew from everywhere and often sounded like no one else ever could. This single–one of their most enduring and biggest-selling–is another example of their ability to do something unique. The bass-driven song is accompanied by a host of sounds that almost seem misplaced. The song was also my introduction to backmasking. Sometime in ’81 or ’82, one of my next door neighbors played a cassette tape of the song for me but it was playing backwards. It sounded like Freddy Mercury was singing “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” This must have been controversial, whether or not it was true. I remember thinking at the time how that was a stupid thing to be singing. Ah, Catholic school…

4. “You Make My Dreams Come True” (Hall and Oates)
I am a defender of Hall and Oates. They’re amazingly talented, and they’re better than their reputation. A lot of the negative vibe that goes their way is due to the fact that they were so influential in creating the 80’s sound. This song, from their 1980 album Visions, is a perfect example of their pop skills and the tendencies that would define so much of the decade. The guitar, the background vocals, the quick stops, it’s all there. (The song is also the king of movie montages.)

3. “Boys Don’t Cry” (The Cure)
Talk about influential. I wasn’t a big fan of the Cure in my youth. They’re one of the big bands for my wife, though, and that’s nurtured a real appreciation for them on my part, but one that came much later. That said, it’s amazing to me that this song is from this early. It’s actually a 1979 song from their debut album Three Imaginary Boys that was re-packaged and re-released again in 1980 in the US as part of the album Boys Don’t Cry. The amazing thing to me is that it sounds so much like the music of mid-decade. It’s a great song, definitely one of those that stands the test of time.

2. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
This song is the first 45 I ever bought. We went to our local record store–a chain called Licorice Pizza–and my folks let me and my sister buy our own record. She chose “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. I chose this. Songs like this make the switch from the 70s to the 80s seem more severe than it was. The saxophone, the weird backtrack, the production quality–even the clothes he wears in the video–all of it make it seem like Billy Joel knew what he was doing.

1. “Off the Wall” (Michael Jackson)
This is a little bit of a cheat. Michael Jackson’s fifth solo album Off the Wall was released in 1979. The single, however, was released in 1980. If it is a cheat, it’s an appropriate one, though. The song, much like the album, is the epitome of the transition between the 70s and the 80s. Michael’s version of late-disco R&B contains all the brilliance he and producer Quincy Jones can muster. The grooves are so tight they still get people moving on the dance floor today. The melodies are rich, after all, the man is singing with himself as backup. Michael’s next outing would be the biggest-selling album in history. Even if that one never happened, we’d still be talking about him because of songs like this. (Hell, we’d be talking about him still even is he’d never made another record after the Jackson 5!)

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Friday Five: 1979

The last year of the decade of the seventies has a lot of warm memories for me. I ended first grade and started second grade. We saw “Rocky II” in the drive-in and “The Muppet Movie” as a field trip during YWCA camp. The “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Fact of Life” both premiered. Both were favorites of mind for a long, long time.

I have a kid’s memory of lots of grown-up stuff, too. The so-called “Iran hostage crisis” began in November of that year. Aside from the images of blind-folded people on the news, the beginning of yellow ribbons on trees also stands out in my mind. I can remember thinking Tony Orlando wrote his song for this event, but also thinking how weird it was to write such a happy sounding song for something so sad. I also remember the release of “Apocalypse Now.” Growing up in a family and community that had a close connection to the Vietnam War, whenever the topic came up in film it was a thing.

Here are 5 songs from that year that are stuck in my memory and, I think, worth your time:

5. “Crusin'” (Smokey Robinson)
Motown legend Smokey Robinson is responsible for so much of the music that I love. As a performer, writer, and producer, he’s one of the forces behind what we call the “Motown sound.” I can’t say how musical culture viewed him by the late 70s. He was probably not quite yet solidified as a legend (I think that distinction, for music, sort of relied on baby boomers being a bit older) but he might have also seemed a bit like a “has been” to some. This song, released in summer of 1979, is really just about as fine as it gets. It’s his last masterpiece and makes a challenging cover song for lots of folks today, testament to what he did so well.

4. “We Are Family” (Sister Sledge)
Sister Sledge–a group of four sisters from Philadelphia who turned into a trio by the late 70s (there actual last name was Sledge)–might seem like a “one-hit wonder” for this 1979 hit. But the group has pretty much made a living from music for the better part of four decades, so that’s probably not a fair shake. This story of this song, however, is bigger than them. It’s really the product of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers, the masterminds behind Chic. It’s a classic sound of that era and one of those songs that has a staying power than not many can claim. I remember it kind of being everywhere, just one of those songs that yu link with a time and place. At some point I also remember the tune serving as the theme song for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

3. “Chuck E.’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones)
Here’s what I knew about this song when I was a kid–I kept hearing it again and again, and I liked it a lot. I can remember being in the car and hearing the intro. The play between the drum beat and the bass is really distinctive, almost like their playing with and against each other at the same time. I remember watching Rickie Lee Jones on TV, too, wearing the same beret she wore in this video. Later in life I would discover Tom Waits and learn that the two were an item at the time of this song. The song is such a collection of late 70s/early 80s sounds.

2. “Rock Lobster” (The B-52’s)
I wasn’t old enough in 1979 to know where to put this song. In my young adulthood, I learned that the song was first released in 1978 and became an underground hit before being re-recorded for the band’s 1979 album. I have a very specific memory of the song but don’t really know which version it relates to. As a six-year-old in 1978, though, I figure there’s no conceivable way to think it would have been the version described as “an underground hit.” I lived a very “above the ground” cultural existence. And so here it is, one of my 1979 musical keepsakes.

My memory of the song is of a summer day at a local water park when this song started playing over the loud speaker. I went to the bathroom and had to walk through an army of teenagers surrounding the space right in front of the facilities. They were dancing and smoking. There was something scary about the song to me, accentuated by the fact that they seemed to be in a trance. In my mind, the images of the memory of that moment are so 70s. I can still see their movements, their haircuts, the swimsuits. I can still feel a little bit of the fear when I hear this song, too.

1. “Bad Girls” (Donna Summer)
We had this album in 1979. I know it well, mostly in order and nearly in its entirety. Of course, if you own a vinyl record of Donna Summer’s chances are it’s this double album, her biggest seller. My sister was a bigger fan of this than me, but that was enough to make me a pretty big fan of it. This song remains one of my favorites of all of Summer’s work, probably second only to her hit from later this year, “On the Radio.” But I ave memories of being forced to dance with my sister to “Bad Girls.” Actually, more often than not, she would just do her own dance routines and need me as her audience. I was happy to oblige. The sound and theme are pure 70s disco, but it’s not as relentless as most disco of this year. Part of Summer’s musical appeal, really, is the way R&B standard sounds, rhythms, and vocals really serve as the foundation. That comes through here.

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Friday Five: 1978

I remember a few things really vividly from 1978. I remember going to the movies in East L.A. to see Grease for the second time. I remember going to what was then called Mann’s Chinese Theater to see Superman for the first time. I remember watching “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Incredible Hulk” on TV. I remember first grade, and I remember playing at the house of the family who took care of us after school.

There’s a lot of good music that came out in 1978 that I would grow to appreciate much later. I don’t have any memories of Elvis Costello and the Attractions album This Year’s Model, for example, but I’ve really grown to love it in my adulthood. The same is true for The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and Who Are You by The Who. Steve Miller’s second greatest hits album–an album that would be a big part of my college years–came out that year, too.

And then there’s all the music that came out in 1978 that I do remember from that time. “Macho Man” from the Village People, “Le Freak” by Chic, and nearly every song on the soundtrack to Grease are songs that can take me back to those times, or the fragmentary memories of those times that I’ve recycled in my minds millions of times since then.

Here’s 5 songs from 1978 that respect both my nostalgic tendencies while also being worthy of a listen.

5. “Summer Nights” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Grease was the big hit of 1978, so big that me and my sister saw it more than once. I remember buying the video in the early 90s and watching it for the first time as an adult. I was shocked at how much of the plot revolved around sex. Mostly, I was shocked that I had been allowed to see it when I was so young. I know most of the plot went right over my the head but I totally understood that Rizzo thought she was pregnant. This song–a favorite sing-a-long for me and my sister–is a great example of the innuendo as well as the quality of the songs that help make John Travolta into an even bigger star just one year after Saturday Night Fever.

4. “Copacabana” (Barry Manilow)
Barry Manilow was big stuff in 1978, too. His album–Even Now–was a small hit factory for him, going triple platinum and spawning four radio hits. I’m not going to make the argument that it’s a great album but I can say the album was one of the favorites of my sister and me. I have flashes of memories of some kind of dance routine she would make us do in dress up to this song. Hey, even small kids weren’t immune from the disco era. The song’s main appeal for me, I think, was the story that Manilow tells through it. I’m not sure it has survived the ages like other disco hits but the kitsch of it alone makes it worth a listen.

3. “September” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Earth, Wind & Fire are one of the pillars of the disco era, an embodiment of the parts of the genre that were more than commercial pop. Maurice White was the real deal in his day, and the music he and his brother and the whole army of band members made survives the decades on its artistry, skill, and groove. The group was also one of the favorites of my parents. I have so many memories of listening to their albums during my youth. This song is without a doubt my favorite of theirs. It’s also one the best disco songs ever recorded. It’s such a remarkably simple song, but it sounds like happiness to me. There are only a few songs of this genre that I can listen to forever, without ever getting tired of them. This is at the top of that list.

2. “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner)
I find this song–the first single from Foreigner’s Double Vision–to be one of the funniest songs in rock history. It’s crass. It’s simple-minded and blunt. It’s also surprising how sexually problematic the song is. If you just read the lyrics you’d probably be offended, if not in 1978 then certainly now. I mean, it’s kind of aggressive in an almost borderline illegal, all the way inappropriate way. All that said, it’s not on this week’s list to highlight either of those qualities. No, I can honestly say that “Hot Blooded” is one of my favorite rock songs–ever. The driving guitar and Lou Gramm’s vocals are a mighty combo. His range is on display in full force here. Try singing this one during your next karaoke night and you’ll feel the skill involved in making this overly-produced piece of lyrical stupidity. Despite itself, the song rocks.

1. “Beast of Burden” (The Rolling Stones)
I don’t remember “Beast of Burden” as a late 70s song. I can’t remember when I first heard it at all. I think it says something about the quality of the song that it feels like it’s an earlier Stones song to me. In general, I find it difficult to make a top 5 list of my favorite Rolling Stones’ songs. It’s a rotating list of about a dozen songs because I like so much of their music and because they are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. This song makes it in there more often than not. Knowing what I know now about when it came out, I can also say its my favorite post-Sticky Fingers song.

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Chicano Vietnam Veterans

My work on Chicano/Latino communities and the Vietnam War was featured in a front page story in last Sunday’s Inland Valley Bulletin. The story also ran in other small papers throughout the LA area, since the IVB paper is part of a group of local papers covering most of the Southland. You can read the full story here.

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There are a few errors and inaccuracies in it. For example, I never refer to the process of oral histories as “giving a voice” to anybody. In most situations, we are all people who have a voice and who have the ability to “speak it” in a literal and symbolic way. The work of the oral historian is to seek it out, to record it, and to preserve it in an intentional act that is done in relationship to the narrator. But when we see ourselves as “giving voice” to subjects who didn’t have one to begin with, we start to recreate a lot of the problematic power imbalances that created that misperception in the first place.

In any case, these are small discrepancies for me considering the context. I mean, it’s a newspaper, not an academic journal article. I will say that going from a seemingly casual conversation about my work with a reporter to a feature story on it is a good lesson in how to be better prepared to speak to reporters in the future.

Overall, I was honored that my work gave the newspaper an reason to highlight the experiences of tens of thousands of veterans and their families. I’m also glad that more people who are the subject of my work now know about it.

One of the nice results was that the various papers also spotlighted some of the veterans I’ve interviewed. In some, the stories of my dad and uncle were spotlighted. You can read that article here. And in other papers the story of Louis Ramirez was featured in a thoughtful write-up. You can read that one here.

This history means a lot to me. A big part of that is the fact that it means a lot to thousands more.

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