L.A. City Officials Learning Spanish

Today’s LA Times featured a story titled “Hablan español at City Hall.” In it, the reporter discusses the rise in Spanish language usage among City Hall officials. Not only is Spanish part of the regular public relations business of the city, but many city leaders are doing what they can to learn the language themselves.

This trend in Los Angeles politics is, first and foremost, democratic. As the article notes, “Nearly 40% of Los Angeles County residents older than age 5 speak Spanish at home.” Such figures suggest that there is a sizable population of residents for whom proper municipal representation and service entails communication in Spanish. No matter what you think of the political/cultural side of this issue, at heart, it is the right thing to do.

There are those who lament changes like these as examples of the cultural schism marking life in the 21st century U.S. For example, “English Only” advocates insist such trends are a threat to the nation and its cultural traditions. One of them, a man named K.C. McAlpin of ProEnglish, is quoted in the article. “What has worked for this country, and what has made it the most successful multi-ethnic country in the world, has been the melting-pot idea: That you can be a full participant in American citizenship by learning our national language and assimilating.”

Such viewpoints are often dismissed as “racist.” To be sure, they do have a racial component to them, but I wouldn’t be so quick as to suggest they are based on nothing other than hatred and fear. Such viewpoints emerge from a very particular (and largely unsupportable) analysis of the past. This perspective–which views the U.S. has having a mono-lingual past, framing a unified culture, and incorporating difference via an assimilationist model characterized by a “melting pot”–is as much based on a selective imagining of the present as anything else.

Early “Americans” did not see themselves as racially/culturally homogeneous. Many of the “Founding Fathers” believed one of the challenges of the early Republic lie in the lack of a homogeneous population. While you might see whites from England and whites from Scotland and whites from Germany as the same, they did not.

Over the first century of its history, the U.S. would become a nation with a growing number of immigrants who did not speak English. These immigrants would often find themselves discriminated against because of the language, and many in mainstream society portrayed them as clanish and unassimilable. Germans, for example, found themselves so widely persecuted in parts of the Midwest, that they up and moved (to places as diverse as Sinaloa, Mexico and the Oregon Territory).

Placed along side what we think and know of the present, what these examples of the past show is not the power of the melting pot, but rather the power of the “idea” of whiteness. Toni Morrison, in her 1993 article “On the Backs of Blacks,” reminds us of the myriad ways “Racist strategies unify.” The early to mid-twentieth century has been the story of how “white” grew to include some and not others. How some were allowed to “melt,” while others were seen as unable to do so.

Latinos are an in-between people. History will show that many of us are assimilating, effectively turning “us” into “them” in the span of a few generations. Many, also, are not. In both instances, I believe, it has little to do with conscious decision. Just as the segregated spaces in which people find themselves today are the hangover of centuries of formal and informal policies of exclusion and separation, so, too, the cultural fluidity we encounter is structured by the past.

Finally, if none of this moves you, you can keep your fears of a Spanish takeover in check by recognizing there is no takeover. The rise in Spanish language usage among L.A.’s city government is a reflection of the increase in the Spanish-language immigrant population of the county in the last 20 years. Those numbers have begun to decline already. Someday, they will rise again (sadly, as a result of economic changes more than anything else). In the meantime, the children of these immigrants will learn English, as many of these immigrants will themselves. Statistically, by the time many of the grandchildren come around, they won’t even be able to speak Spanish beyond the casual pleasantries.

The real issue is why.

To What End to We Honor?

I have been thinking a lot about the ways we as a society choose to honor historic figures. Earlier this month marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Next week will mark the 15th anniversary of the death of Cesar Chavez. Both men lived and died for movements framed around a vision of justice. Now, in death, we commemorate the days of their birth as a way of saying something, but what?

And then I came across this simply fantastic story from last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. The story recounts last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson’s “integration” of (all-white) professional baseball. More accurately, the story is about Torii Hunter, currently a player for the Los Angeles Angels and formerly of the Minnesota Twins. In 2007, during the Robinson celebration, some baseball players wore Jackie Robinson’s jersey number (42). Back then, USA Today quoted Hunter as saying:

“This is supposed to be an honor, and just a handful of guys wearing the number. Now you’ve got entire teams doing it. I think we’re killing the meaning. . . It should be special wearing Jackie’s number, not just because it looks cool.”

The Times article reports that Hunter experienced some backlash for his comments last year. Accordingly, they gave him a chance to clarify what he said. Now, Hunter expressed particular concern with the 2007 Houston Astros, an entire team of white players who sported Robinson’s number for the celebration. Hunter told the Times:

“When you have a team that doesn’t have any African American players on the team, and then everybody on the team wears it, yes, it’s watered down, because they don’t have blacks to represent Jackie Robinson over there. . .”

Let me say first, at the risk of sounding like an elitist, I do not turn to baseball players for a critical analysis of race issues. It is not that there aren’t people who play baseball who are capable of such. There are. It is simply that this is not what they are paid to do. [By the same token, don’t expect a professor to hit a home run for you. S/he might be able to, but. . . you get my point.]

That said, Hunter’s comments bring the issue I have been struggling with to the forefront of today’s sports-related blogosphere. Commemoration means little if we do not also honor the work of these historic figures. At its worse, commemoration often excuses the inaction of the present by suggesting that the struggles of the past are just that, relegated to the past.

For men like King and Chavez, commemoration does little to advance the struggles of their lives. Instead, it waters down what they stood for, seizing the safe and palatable and ignoring the challenging, the radical, and, often, the most meaningful. Tribute to Dr. King would be better served by ending the war in Iraq (and if you don’t see the connection, you have proven my point!), just like a real tribute to Chavez would entail securing federal bargaining rights for agricultural workers.

Hunter’s comments force a recognition of the ways we continue to live in a society where opportunity is framed by the powerful intersections of race and class. This does not have to mean that there is conscious and deliberate discrimination against players (it doesn’t mean there isn’t either), but it does mean having to abandon our unquestioned adherence to the belief that sports is a purely merit-based occupation. While there are numerous and regular examples of players from humble beginnings finding the eye of a scout and making it to the big show, and while much of a player’s career is determined by his ability to perform, that doesn’t mean we live in a world (or even a nation) where each person with talent has the same chance to realize and apply that talent.

In effect, an empty celebration of Robinson celebrates baseball for its progress from the past while avoiding any meaningful assessment of where it is today.

Most of us in this society have a hard time grappling with this. Here’s just a small sample of some of the comments posted on Yahoo Sports related to this story:

“This is a very old, tired arguement. No-one ever asks why there are not more white players in the NBA or why there are not any white Cornerbacks and running backs in the NFL.”

“Someone who enjoys and understands the GAME should be able to get his head around the idea that maybe a team drafted the best guys it could find (and afford) for the positions it needed to fill, not that a team purposely chose only one skin color. I’m pretty sure the Astros have been wanting to win the last couple of seasons, so I doubt they would have avoided any great player who was available to them just because of race.”

“So what I am reading here is that according to Mr Hunter, no white players are allowed to honor Jackie Robinson by wearing his number. Seems that by white players wearing his number they are making progress. Am I wrong??”

None of the above is wrong. They are just unable to shift their perspective and look at this issue from a different angle. As part of a society that nurtures easy answers to complex problems, and seeks the quick and dirty sound bite over the prolonged analysis, this should come as no mystery. At the same time, that just makes the challenge of Robinson (of King and of Chavez) all the more significant.

In the end, whether we are talking about Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, or Cesar Chavez, we should be careful about tribute, especially those that do little to continue the struggle for a more racially just world.

AFTERWORD: Hunter made headlines in the past for other seemingly “radical” comments relating to race and baseball. Last year, he said of the numbers of Latin American players in the league: “You can go to Latin America and get that same talent as a black player in Compton and if he’s in Compton he gets drafted in the first round he’s going to get two million dollars. If he doesn’t pan out, you’re out two million dollars but if you go to the Domincan, Cuba, or whatever and you can get a guy for two thousand dollars and he doesn’t pan out you’re only down two thousand dollars. I do agree that, you know 10 years from now you’ll see no blacks, at all.” [See the ESPN report of these comments.] I defer to my comments above; I know I can’t hit an 80 mile and hour fastball to save my life.

Bill Clinton Goes to Puerto Rico

In 1963, in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and as part of an initiative to stem the tide of communism in Latin American, President John F. Kennedy visited the island of Puerto Rico. A U.S. colony since the 1898 Spanish American War, the status of the island had been converted to that of a “commonwealth” in the early 1950s, a change orchestrated by the U.S. to avoid the continuing public hypocrisy of being simultaneously the “leader of the free world” and the colonial oppressor of millions of Puerto Ricans. Through his visit, the President sought to garner support for his hemispheric, anti-communist project Alianza para Progreso (the Alliance for Progress). The initiative sought, in Kennedy’s own words, “to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work and land, health and schools – techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuela.”

Not since 1963 has a United States President stepped foot on the island.

Yesterday, former President Bill Clinton arrived in Puerto Rico to campaign for his wife. Holding what some have called “the first U.S. presidential campaign rally in Puerto Rican history,” Clinton did what he never did as a sitting U.S. President. A Washington Post story reported the former president “looked distracted” as he sat through speeches in a language he doesn’t understand. When it was his turn to speak, he addressed the Spanish-speaking audience in English, encouraging them to vote for his wife in the colony’s upcoming primary on June 1.

For one of the few times in its history, the island of Puerto Rico is figuring into the politics of the United States. For a nation like the U.S–which has perfected a longstanding vision of itself so as to largely ignore the challenges posed by its relationship with this “commonwealth”–this position is unique. Most days, most people in the United States, don’t even think of Puerto Rico. Now presidential campaigns will be making stops on the island to assure its residents that the U.S. does, in fact, care about them and the issues they face.

Of course, these visits and speeches should do nothing other than remind Puerto Ricans and all Latinos that there is a tragic pattern to the history of the U.S. focusing its attention on Latin America. Like Kennedy’s visit 45 years ago, and Clinton’s visit this week, the U.S. is most concerned about Latin American when it can do something or be something for them. For most of this past century–a period in which the U.S. has exerted an imperial influence over the island–only rarely have U.S. citizens and politicians confronted the primary issue of their relationship with Puerto Rico, namely, that they felt it was their right to deprive the island of any possibility of self-determination and sovereignty.

Keep your eyes open Boricua! And don’t forget to duck.

Absolut Vodka Ad Episode Reflects Ignorance, Fear

The recent Absolut Vodka ad created for the Mexican market has been pulled by the Swedish spirit distiller after a flurry of complaints by U.S.-based bloggers and conservative pundits. See the L.A. Times story here.

Absolut Vodka Ad (Mexico, 2008)

The ad is a map of Mexico before the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ratified by both nations in 1848, Mexico ceded more than 40% of its land to the United States. That land is now the present-day U.S. Southwest, home of at least part of ten different states.

The ad suggests that in a perfect or ideal world, the Mexican nation would still include the ceded territory. It doesn’t overtly speak to or about the U.S., the so-called “immigration debate” being waged within our borders, or the “rightness” of the war in the first place.

Of course, the rabid anti-Absolut responses fueled by conservative media outlets did make such connections. That these groups and individuals “read” the ad as something more controversial or even adversarial is not surprising, given their political outlook. But it is that outlook that is most illuminating.

At the very least, their outrage reflects as much ignorance of the history behind the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico as it reflects a particular myopic interpretation of the same. They don’t understand that past, as much as they don’t understand the present-day connections between the two nations as anything more than one nation (the U.S.) “defending itself” against another (Mexico) who is strategically trying to reconquer the Southwest.

These fears also confront the rising visibility of Latinos and other “brown” faces/bodies within the borders of the United States. This transformation–like the rabid fears which meet it–are not without precedent in the U.S. past. In the early part of the 20th century, as the chaos and poverty of the Mexican Revolution displaced more than 1 million Mexicans; and as Southwestern U.S. business interests saw in this condition the opportunity to recruit plentiful, cheap, and disposable labor; the U.S. population of Spanish-speaking migrants grew to visible proportions. At the time, newspapers in California and Texas drew attention to this flow with stories describing the “invading hordes.”

Today, panic is cultivated by an assortment of right-wing commentators and academics alike, all fearful of the “attack” on “America” and its culture. Political commentators like Pat Buchanan (see his The Death of the West) warn against the impending “reconquista” of the Southwest, while scholars like Samuel Huntington (see his simplistic and selective Who Are We) analyze the “threat” Mexicans pose to “the American way of life.”

Such demographic transformations do not have to be viewed through such fearful, culturally-biased, and, yes, racist lenses. (After all, they are a consistent feature of all history.) They can be opportunities of convergence and recreation, of what legendary Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa, in her 1987 classic Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, frames as a process of “healing” the wounds of our interconnected pasts.

Ultimately, these transformations are part of the dynamism of history and of our present. They are a product of the institutionalization of capitalism as the world’s standard; they are linked to centuries of European and U.S. involvement in foreign countries (whether it was done in the name of imperialism, democracy, or free trade); and they are the product of more than a century of using Mexican bodies for work.

Anzaldúa writes:

This land was Mexican once, / was Indian always / and is. / And will be again

Hillary Clinton and the Latino Vote

In 1960, recognizing that a majority of the Latino population in the United States was born in the U.S. and, hence, citizens, Mexican American activists built on their previous decades of local political activism and sought to represent a shared voice in presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.


Toward that end, Mexican Americans created Viva Kennedy clubs to mobilize the Latino vote for the Democratic nominee. When he won the election by less than 113,000 votes–less than the number of registered Mexican American voters–activists expected to be rewarded with a smal share of political clout for the issues facing their communities. They were not. It would be after mid-decade when Lyndon B. Johnson became the first president to even use the word “Mexican American” in a presidential speech.

The campaign of Hillary Clinton may be walking down the same road. I fear that their dwindling concern for Latino voters–now that they have faced all the primaries in “Latino states”–is an indicator of how they will consider Latinos once in office. We are useful for getting elected, but not part of their overall vision of who is America.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. offered some thoughts on these issues in a wonderful opinion piece this week. You can read the article here.

American Radical: Martin Luther King Jr.

As I am sure anyone who would accidentally stumble upon this bog knows, today is the 40th anniversary of the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr.  A somber time when people remember the tragedy of an untimely death is also an opportunity to remember the beauty of a life and a movement which animates that tragedy.


As a historian, I am often concerned at the ways the past is used and framed for understanding in the present.  In the case of King, his legacy is often co-opted by those on both sides of the political spectrum.  In either case, what we often hear are references to the mainstream messages of King–values of nonviolence, love they enemy, and peace.  What we often overlook, are the radical messages undergirding even these “acceptable” values.

One year before his death, King delivered a speech at Riverside Church.  It stands as a reminder of the political evolution of the man as well as the truly radical proposition serving as the foundation of all his struggles.

Here, you can access the full audio of this speech, delivered April 4, 1967.  It has come to be known as “Beyond Vietnam.”

How Immigrants Saved Social Security

This editorial from today’s New York Times is a succinct and pointed exploration of just one facet of the complexity beneath the so-called “immigration debate.” Highlighting the extent to which illegal immigration helps to buttress the funding shortfalls in the Social Security system, in addition to the ways current immigration flows help frame a context of projected relief, is a reminder that the economics of this issue are always far more complicated than we like to think.

I was further reminded of this just last night as I re-read some parts of the Chicana feminist classic, Massacre of the Dreamers. Ana Castillo’s discussion of the Watsonville strike of 1985-87, led almost entirely of Mexican-descent women, speaks volumes about the ways we analyze changes in the job market. In that instance, much like the situation today, the predominance of Mexican workers in a given industry is hardly the result of them “taking” jobs once held by whites or African Americans. It is the result of an industrial decision to recast those jobs, eliminating the pay and benefit structures that once existed in favor of ones:

  • that the “old” worker will not accept;
  • but workers with diminished rights and mobility (immigrants) will;
  • while requiring the maintenance of conditions which allow employers to further manipulate that labor pool (no unions, an open flow of undocumented labor, etc.).

The abuse of these kinds of workers in, for example, food industries, also represents an economic savings for the average American, as goods which should cost more are subsidized through the sweat, blood, and pain drawn from and inflicted on others.

But whether we are talking about the Social Security system, or the price of lettuce, when is the economic benefit the result of too high a cost?