Chicano History Month #2

The below slice of a longer historical primary source is offered to you for your learning pleasure as part of this year’s “Latino Heritage Month.”

Today, we have a brief excerpt from a letter written from the Secretary of Labor to an influential Representative in the Congress, in 1924. In that year, the Congress passed the most sweeping reform to immigration law in US history. The Johnson-Reed Act (Immigration Act of 1924) tightened up the immigration quota system first reflected in legislation in 1921. As a result, the US set quotas for the allowable number of immigrants from a given nation. The numbers were set based on their share of the US population in the 1890 Census. This meant that immigrants from England and Germany would be ore numerous than those from Italy and Greece. Other legislation of the time also forbade outright immigrants from Asia. Interestingly, Mexicans and other Latin Americans were exempt. The following letter expresses some concern about the movement of Mexican nationals into the US while also reflecting the reason for the exemption.


SOURCE: From a letter from Hon. James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, to Hon. Cyrenus Cole, House of Representatives, United States Congress, April 15, 1924.

“On May 22, 1917, the United States Secretary of Labor issued an order instructing immigration officials on the Mexican border to disregard the literacy test, the contract-labor section, and the head-tax provision of the immigration law with reference to the coming of Mexican people who were to engage as workmen in agricultural pursuits. This order remained in force until March 2, 1921, or until within two days of the passing out of the Wilson administration. I have never been able to find out how many people came in under that provision.”

What I read

A little blog love from time to time is part of the virtual world of which I and Latino Like Me are a part; and in this case it is long overdue.  Here are some of the places I regularly visit online–and by “regularly” I mean I read EVERYTHING they publish, however often that might be.

Harvesting Justice
This is the official blog of an organizing called Farmworker Justice.  Based out of Washington D.C., Farmworker Justice is a 28 year-old organization working for all that is suggested by their name.  They are a great organization, very often the only online source for some of the latest news related to the politics of labor in the US.

Steven Rubio’s Online Life
I knew Steven briefly in graduate school at Cal Berkeley, where he was in the English Department while I was in History.  In our few sustained encounters he always struck me as a kindred spirit.  While he is an avid SF Giants fan (nobody’s perfect) he is also a rabid Elvis fan.  He is also smart and funny, and angry and analytical, and sweet and endearing.  His blog is true to the classic form–it is a journal about everything that interests him.  In this variety one will find a lot of writing about music, movies, sports, and culture, all of it from his unique perspective of being a baby boomer with genX sensibilities.  I have never read anything here I didn’t feel better for reading.  He’s one of my daily stops on the web–one of the things I look forward to visiting when I get online.

Immigration Prof Blog
What do you get when you create a blog where the editors are a bunch of progressive lawyer-professor-types with a deep interest in all issues immigration?  You get this, the online home of noted Chicano legal scholar Kevin R. Johnson and his team.

WWdN: In Exile
Wil Wheaton was the main protagonist in the movie Stand By Me. Today he is more often a writer than an actor, although he does his fair share of the latter , too.  As a writer (and a speaker, and a Twitter-uberstar) he is, quite simply, the King of all Geeks.  I must admit, that while I am a loyal subject of his kingdom, I am a fringe resident, toiling away in the hinterlands.  Wheaton is speaking to his more loyal subjects when he writes about RPG and more technologically-related matters.  I am only geek enough to know to use the acronym “RPG” for “Role-Playing Game.”  But in all other ways he is a stellar representative of my own loves in my (our) generation.  His more nostalgic writing is wonderful, and he speaks about all the interests of his daily life with a sense of humility, critical sensibility, and love.  I’m sure his blog gets somewhere in the vicinity of 1 million hits a month or so, so the last thing he needs is blog love from me, but this is one of my favorite things online.

The Hispanic Fanatic
This is the alias-blog of writer Daniel Cubias, whose work is often featured on the Huffington Post.  Here he writes about his life and issues relating to Latinos, all from a witty and truly critical perspective.  As a college professor in my line of work, one of the dangers can be a kind of intellectual elitism where you can listen to what people are saying because they aren’t saying it with the same rigorous analysis embedded in your discipline.  One of the things I love most about the HF is his accessible and straight-forward way of discussing topics which are often complex and serpentine.  This is a thoughtful blog for the masses, on topics the masses need to better understand.

Frank Lloyd Wrong
If I were to try and sum this blog content up, I would say it’s part “Cathy” (the comic strip), part Lewis Black, and part heroin.  Maybe it’s what’s left over after Lewis Black beats Cathy with a stick after snorting heroin.  I dunno.  This is a blog that is seemingly always personal and often angrily or depressingly or humorously so.  Some of the funniest things I have ever read online have been on “Frank’s” blog.  These little gems have been funny because they have such a core element of truth.  I read this whenever he posts, and each time I find little pieces of my generation surviving in the chaos of right now.

There are also a bunch of news sources I read every morning, but most of those are about me picking and choosing what I read.  I check out Racewire, the blog for the magazine Colorlines; I subscribe to the feed of NPR stories on race; Racialicious often has things worth reading; and, of course, I try and check out the LA Times and NY Times websites.  Most of the rest come to me as a set of Google news feeds: I have one set-up for all stories using the words “latino OR latina OR hispanic AND immigration” and a bunch others like that.  It’s a cool way to get the stories that mostly interest you.

Oh, and I also subscribe to the feed of the LA Times Obituary listings.  My fascination with death–in particular of the famous–knows no bounds.


Obama’s denial of racism

Last week, former President Jimmy Carter asserted that at least some of the opposition to Obama is motivated by racism, saying of the disrespect shown to the President: “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care. It’s deeper than that.” The Obama White House made a special effort to disagree. “The president does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin,” Press Secretary Gibbs said.

Columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s LA Times rationalizing how and why the Obama camp seems unwilling to share Carter’s opinion (when Rodriguez and others do). “Obama’s shunning response to the racism debate” provides a provocative, if not personal, analysis.

Let me offer two ways of thinking that help to make sense of both the primary issues at hand: whether or not “racism” is at play in the swell of criticism of Obama; and why the Obama camp doesn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) talk about it.

Part of the difficulty with the first point lies in our collective misunderstanding of race and racism in U.S. history.  If you read this blog regularly, you know this is one of my scholarly crusades.  Since I usually spend a semester engaging students’ preconceived notions of race and racism with the growing body of scholarship that helps us think differently about these topics, I won’t try to explain it all here.  But I will summarize some results: formally, the U.S. has been a “white supremacist” nation for most of its two centuries; and “racism” is most commonly understood as a personal, individual defect–a pathology.

“White supremacy”–the version of racism with which we grapple in this country–was not about the ways people thought as much as it was about the ways ideas structured society.  If white people hated black people and that was it, we wouldn’t have had the problems we had and have.  The problems came when the ideas of difference–ideas of superiority and inferiority–became the rationales of systems which allocate power.

Before you think this is “academic talk,” just think of things like slavery; the theft of Indian land with their accompanying forced removal; Native American genocide in California; educational segregation; policies forbidding Federal Home loans to nonwhite; policies banning Japanese from owning land; and so on.  “Racism” in these cases–the ones most fundamental to our understanding of the past of inequality and inequity–isn’t about some people hating others.  It’s about practices, SANCTIONED BY LAW, which created a class of people with more power, wealth, and privilege because of how ideas defined their “race.”

That isn’t to say “personal racism” isn’t important.  The classic case of a person not hiring another because of their race shows that these things suck even when there aren’t laws commanding the deleterious actions.  In a racist society, however, the laws also work to protect these acts. Ultimately, the ideas we have about each others’ fitness and inherent possibilities shape how we support (or don’t) the laws which constitute a racist society.

So…when we say is racism the cause of the anti-Obama groundswell, we’re asking the wrong question.  We’re debating whether or not the people who oppose him hold beliefs of racial superiority and inferiority.  But who cares?  What we need to ask is HOW race is involved.  In a system where race has figured into our allocation of wealth, power, and privilege, it also shapes our understandings of what is right and wrong, good and bad.  This in unavoidable.  We need to better understand how race shapes the collective debate, from what is said to what is heard, by moving our understanding of its presence as something that is due to individual deficiency.  It isn’t about individual’s beliefs as much as it is about what shapes our shared understanding.

A “nonbeliever” might dismiss what I have said by accusing me of being “convenient,” creating argumentative structures which are hard to prove and make it hard to disagree with me.  Let me assure you, though, the proof is there.  That you don’t know it is part of the problem.  I’d also say that the accusation you;d be making is the same I am making of you.  Who benefits most when we think of racism as just a thing some people “believe” instead of as a formal system that shapes who we are?

On the second count, if race is involved in a negative way in this debate, Obama CAN’T speak out against it.  The fundamental structure of racism will discount what he has to say on it since it would only support what a white person says.  I don’t know if Carter knows this.  But he is the right kind of person to do what he did.  US racism is “white supremacy.”  If it is going to end–I mean really die–then “white people” are the ones who are going to have to make that decision.  People of color can demand change, and even work for change, but until the system is no longer in tact, we can’t make it happen directly.

It’s like being in a room with no door and no windows while me and everybody else is outside.  Inside of this room you have a wrecking ball.  Outside of it we have nothing.  We can demand to get in, and you can even hear us, but, ultimately, you inside are the only ones who have that power.  Our access is predicated on your active decision to make it so.  That isn’t right; it is the nature of the structural reality in question.

There are places in our larger social and political system where racism has died.  Those are places of possible change, often ones that have been seized.  But the final death knell has not been sounded for our racist past. Obama’s silence–to me–is a reflection of this.  As is the current debate against him.

2009 Emmys are White

Television is the most prominent cultural vestige of white supremacy in the US.  Take a look:

This is a picture of Shohreh Aghdashloo. She won an Emmy Award tonight for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie” for her work in House of Saddam.  Besides being a talented actress, she’ll go down in the history books as one of only three people of color to win a 2009 Emmy Award.

Actually, people of color are so poorly regarded in the television industry it’ll probably be sometime before she’s even in their proverbial “history books.” I mean, the other nonwhite winners included writer/producer Matthew Hubbard, one of the 12 winners for 30 Rock (“Outstanding Comedy Series”); and an African American male who was part of the team of 14 who won for The Amazing Race (“Outstanding Reality-Competition Program”)—whose name I don’t even know!

Not counting dancers, members of the band, and the stage crew, there were only even three other people of color on stage tonight: Tracy Morgan, Chandra Wilson, and LL Cool J!

There was an assortment of nonwhite actors who were nominated for awards tonight and didn’t win (Morgan and Wilson among them).  But this doesn’t mitigate the problem, just like a few more folks of color winning awards would not have.  The more fundamental problem is the way the experiences of communities of color aren’t a priority on or in television, whether its network or cable.  There aren’t a lot of roles, because there aren’t a lot of writers, because there aren’t a lot of producers and executives, and so on.

Throughout television’s history, the “white American” experience has been normalized as “our” collective experience. The single great exception to this has been the integration of Jewish voices and experiences, rooted to their presence in the pre-television-entertainment industry.  Even that is minor compared to the vast majority of television programming.

The situation on TV isn’t likely to change very soon, and TV will remain the worse for it.  As their ratings decline, putting into question whether the medium is even going to exist in the same form a decade from now, one way they might improve is by trying to represent a fuller slice of what life is like for people in this country.

At least they can put up some more nonwhite faces.  It would be a start!

Chicano History Month #1

It’s that time of year again, “Hispanic (Latino) Heritage Month.”  What better way to celebrate than to learn a little something?

So here it goes: for the next month, I’ll be going out of my way to post some historical primary sources relating to the Chicano experience in the United States.

Of course, it deserves mentioning that the historical experience of Chicanos (Mexican Americans) and “ethnic Mexicans” (which includes both immigrants and US-born people of Mexican descent) should not be seen as the exact equivalent of the historical experience of all “Hispanics” or all “Latinos.”  They represent about 70% of the Latin American-descent population of the United States, one that also includes a large number of people with ties to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, increasingly, Central American nations like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  Each “group” not only has a unique historical experience in the US, but they also have a diverse past internal to their own ethnicity.

But there are commonalities, too.  And maybe this can be a way for us to explore some of those.  So here we go…

Source 1: New York Daily News, October 13, 1845.

This excerpt from an editorial printed in the New York Daily News opines on the recent annexation of Texas by the US, an act agreed to by the “citizens” of the “Republic of Texas” just that month.  Texas, which had been part of the Mexican Republic, was seized by a group of US Americans and, in 1836 controlled by them after they defeated the Mexican army.   For the better part of the next decade, most of them sought annexation by the US, with the full support of expansionist allies in the Congress and White House.  With the election of the expansionist Polk in 1844, their efforts finally came to fruition.  Outgoing President Tyler helped assure the passage of a resolution annexing Texas in the spring of 1845.

The author’s perspective here is reflective of the kinds of interpretations common among elites of his day, in particular those who were in favor of expansion.  Notice how the “acquisition” of Texas is contrasted with European imperialism.  Also notice how the writer views the land into which the US is moving, and by his mind, to which it intends to move.  The idea that their spread was destined to be is a powerful feature of expansionist thought, as is the contention that it is conquest for the betterment of mankind.

It is looked upon as aggression, and all the bad and odious features which the habits of thought of Europeans associate with aggressive deeds, are attributed to it. . . But what has Belgium, Silesia, Poland or Bengal in common with Texas? It is surely not necessary to insist that acquisitions of territory in America, even if accomplished by force of arms, are not to be viewed in the same light as the invasions and conquests of the States of the old world. . . our way lies, not over trampled nations, but through desert wastes, to be brought by our industry and energy within the domain of art and civilization. We are contiguous to a vast portion of the globe, untrodden save by the savage and the beast, and we are conscious of our power to render it tributary to man. This is a position which must give existence to a public law, the axioms of which a Pufendorf [Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694), German political philosopher] or Vattel [Emer de Vattel (1714-1767, Swiss political philosopher and diplomat] had no occasion to discuss. . .

It has been laid down and acted upon, that the solitudes of America are the property of the immigrant children of Europe and their offspring. Not only has this been said and reiterated, but it is actually, although perhaps, not heretofore dwelt upon with sufficient distinctness, the basis of public law in America. Public sentiment with us repudiates possession without use, and this sentiment is gradually acquiring the force of established public law. It has sent our adventurous pioneers to the plains of Texas, will carry them to the Rio del Norte, and even that boundary, purely nominal and conventional as it is, will not stay them on their march to the Pacific, the limit which nature has provided. In like manner it will come to pass that the confederate democracies of the Anglo American race will give this great continent as an inheritance to man. . . We take from no man; the reverse rather—we give to man.

Henry Gibson has died

Actor Henry Gibson has passed away at the age of 73.

Depending on your age, Gibson was one of those actors whose face you knew well, though you couldn’t remember his name.  For my generation and older, you could probably remember a few of the reasons you knew his face.  If you’re younger, maybe not.  But you would still know his face.

I have all the respect in the world for actors who can make a full-time career of their art, in particular those like Gibson who never become household names but manage to be as successful as anyone.  If you have a moment, check out his credits at IMDB.  I guarantee you’ll be impressed.

If I were a little bit older, he would probably be best known to me as part of the motley bunch of comics on “Laugh In.”  The three roles I most associate with Gibson, however, are a creepy guy he played on an old episode of “Wonder Woman,” the Nazi guy from “Blues Brothers,” and the voice of Wilbur the pig in “Charlotte’s Web.”  He was great in everything he did.

Thanks for all the wonderful memories Mr. Gibson.


Miami Vice (25 years ago today)

Miami Vice premiered on NBC 25 years ago today, on September 16, 1984.  The show that became synonymous with the decade of the 80s both reflected the visual and emotional aesthetic of its times as it simultaneously shaped them.

It was a seemingly superficial concept, encapsulated by Brandon Tartikoff’s two-word vision of “MTV cops.” But the end result was much more than that.  While music and stylized cinematography provided high-profile features of the show, its stories helped reshaped what adult TV looked and felt like.  Michael Mann, executive producer of the series, chose to set the show in Miami, giving it ample opportunity to showcase women in bikinis, neon lights, and nightclubs.  It also provided a dark, gritty, urban backdrop and the specter of drugs.

And Latinos.  Latinos (as actors or characters or both) figured prominently in the show from day one.  Lead actor Philip Michael Thomas was not Latino, but he played “Ricardo Tubbs,” a former NYC cop who has Latin roots of some kind.  In the first four episodes, Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez was played by Gregory Sierra.  He was replaced with Edward James Olmos in the role of Lieutenant Martin Castillo.  Saundra Santiago played Detective Gina Calabrese; while bit player Martin Ferrero appeared frequently as Izzy Moreno.  Taking place in Miami, and frequently revolving around the business of drug smuggling, Latinos appeared in most episodes as shady, dark figures and other kinds of criminal-looking types.

Surprisingly, the show never finished a season higher than the ninth spot in the overall ratings, achieving that feat in its 2nd season.  It tapered off big time in the ratings after that, finishing 23rd, 36th, and 53rd in the final three seasons, respectively.  But the ratings don’t reflect the show’s impact on the culture.  Don Johnson became a household name after 1984.  The theme song by Jan Hammer went to number 1 on the charts.  The show spawned original hit singles from Glen Frey, and made bigger hits out of songs by Phil Collins and Dire Straits.

And the stories!  My favorite episode just might be “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” the third episode of the second season.  From beginning to end it suggests what made the show great–the style, the music, the actors.  And the plot is just about as dark a story as I had ever seen on TV.  The complexity it represented stuck with me, but not half as much as the final scene.  I can still remember watching it.

If you want to spend the time, the entire 48 minute episode can be viewed below from Hulu.
Vodpod videos no longer available.


The águila has landed… and he’s got something to say

José Hernández–who is my most favorite astronaut of all time–has returned to Earth after his journey into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Hernández and his fellow crew mates had to make their landing in California, at Edwards Air Force Base, rather than in Florida, due to bad weather. They touched down on September 11, 2009.

As you may or may not know, Hernández was one of two Latino astronauts aboard Discovery during the 14-day journey.  More significantly, he is the first ever former migrant laborer to go to space, growing up as he did between California and Mexico with his Mexican-born parents as they followed “the circuit” of seasonal agricultural work.  Hernández, who was born in California, even worked in the fields himself as a child.  Now, he is one of only a handful of humanity who has left the planet and returned.

Both before he left and since his return, Hernández has been something of a celebrity in Mexico.  He Tweeted his entire trip, in both English and Spanish (which is his first language), and has been a regular guest on a major Spanish-language, Mexican news show–even giving them an interview from zero gravity.

In a telephone interview yesterday, he spoke out on the “immigration problem” in the US.  Simply put, he said the US should find a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented residents within its borders.  “I believe it’s only fair to find a way to legalize them and give them an opportunity to work openly, so they can also retire in a traditional U.S. system.”  Hernández also shared some of what he learned from his journey, restating what he had said in his earlier interview from the International Space Station on September 3: “What surprised me is when I saw the world as one. There were no borders. You couldn’t distinguish between the United States and Mexico.”

NASA sort of flew off the handle when Hernández’ remarks started making the news.  They made a special effort to distinguish them for being representative of Hernández only, and not the official line of the agency.

You can read about the whole story here.

Amidst the flurry of attention, Hernández offered more interviews this morning with a few Spanish-language media outlets, including yet another appearance on Televisa.  He reiterated his perspective on immigration indirectly, this time saying:

“When I speak, I speak for myself, my personal thoughts, or my personal opinions.  And though I work for the American government, as an individual have the right to express my opinions… Obviously, having 12 million undocumented people, the system is not working here in the United States, and it needs to be fixed.”

Earlier in the interview, when Hernández was asked how he, a former migrant worker, could become an astronaut.  He replied by thanking his parents’ dedication to his education.  He said as Latinos “we shouldn’t spend so much time going out with friends drinking beer and watching telenovelas, and should spend more time with our families and kids.”

You can read about the latest interview here.

I think Hernández is a spectacular example of so many complex and powerful forces shaping the lives of millions of Latinos in this hemisphere.  His success is simultaneously a testament to the possibility of individual progress in the United States, as it also undoubtedly speaks to the multiple good fortunes, decisions, and support networks he and his family had from each other and others to make their lives what they are.  His parents are retired in Stockton, where they live next to many of their children and grandchildren.  None of them have to labor in the fields.  I assure you, their story of breaking out of “the circuit” is as triumphant as their space-traveling son’s.

Hernández also articulates the strong refrain of familial dedication so important to the collective identity of being both mexicano and Mexican American.  He uses his own sense of himself and his collective “people” to stand as a role model for children and as a voice for human compassion, articulating both his stance for the legalization of immigrant workers and against “drinking beer and watching telenovelas.”

Some of us lefties might be a bit offended by his remarks suggesting that alcohol and indifference are what keep Mexicans in the US as poor as they are.  The reality is far more complicated than that.  His reality sees that this is a problem somewhere, in a place where people live who he cares about, and so he says what he says.

What is most interesting and endearing to me is that he seems to exhibit the familiar–the familial–to me. He’s one of those successful ones in the working-class, immigrant family, with multiple generations here and in Mexico.  He is the one who uses his life in proactive ways to be a bridge from there to here, and then back again.  He is us.

Here are the tapes of his interview this morning.  In the first, he introduces his parents and makes the comments I provided above.  In the second, he speaks to his family in Mexico, via satellite, and then introduces his other job, as “el jefe de lava platos.”


MTV Honors MJ at the 2009 VMA

This year’s VMA show featured a tribute to Michael Jackson. Before I say anything, you should watch it below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The tribute MTV offered us seemed to impress the crowd, as I’m sure it did to people at home. The dancing was well-choreographed and they picked great songs to highlight. But, to be honest, I was kind of disappointed by the whole thing.

The entire thing worked off of the brilliance of Jackson’s career: his abilities to dance, to make memorable music, and to perform. The dancers–each arrayed in one of his iconic outfits–performed impeccably, living reminders (in their own anonymity) of the irreplacable talent of Jackson.

But Michael Jackson had a lot of sad in him, too, the most notable being the way he really never became a grown up and, instead, just an over-commodified vessel of a person. Oh yeah…that.

The “tribute” was really a reminder of the spectacle that Jackson created in his career. It was the spectacle that made us notice him, love him, and remember him. It was the spectacle that drew MTV to him, that helped create the medium of music videos, and that sold out concerts around the world. The spectacle was also with him for the last thirty years of his life. He couldn’t shake it; he probably didn’t want to. Spectacle followed him in death. It didn’t die with him; it literally followed him and kept doing what it did even after he died.

All MTV understands is spectacle. They can’t make sense of the place of this man and his music because they can’t think beyond it. They can’t think about music and culture because they are too entwined in pretending they are the stage where it plays out, instead of a narrow corporate entity that manufactures the news it pretends to be the exclusive source for.

For gooodness sakes! The whole damn VMA thing was a joke at first! They’re fake awards, made up by MTV and given out by MTV. There’s no third party here. No transparency. Early winners knew this and made light of the whole thing. Now they cry and thank god (or interrupt some teenager because they think it–any of it–matters).

MTV had been running promos for the tribute in the weeks leading up to the show. You can see the commercial here. It says a lot about how they operate, but also about how they create spectacle for their own purposes.

Look, I’m not trying to be profound here or anything. It’s just…couldn’t somebody have said something nice about the man? Would it have killed somebody at MTV to think about what he meant to them as a corporate entity?

Actually, it might have. But Madonna did okay.