The Future of Chicano/Latino Studies

We’ve reached the end of Latino Heritage Month 2009.  Hope you had a good one.  I live every month like its Latino Heritage Month, so for me it’s been as good as life…

I thought I’d leave you with an excerpt of a historical primary source that helps us connect the past and the present in a meaningful way.  I work in the fields of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies.  Founded some four decades ago, as a direct result of student and community efforts to remake the university and create an institution which could better serve the poor communities from which they came, these academic fields began with a political charge in mind.  As the years progressed, that charge often confronted an opposition.  Today, from efforts in Arizona to make Chicano Studies classes illegal to efforts in the Cal State system to begin eliminating the programs for financial reasons, the existence of Chicano/Latino Studies is anything but certain.

Our source comes from Ernesto Galarza, one of the first ethnic Mexicans to receive a PhD in History in the U.S.  Dr. Galarza was the Mexican and Mexican American specialist in the U.S. for much of his professional career, one that spanned academia and work in community service organizations.  He lived what he preached and, near the end of his life, as he spoke to Chicano students at UC Berkeley, preach he did…

______________________

SOURCE: Ernesto Galarza, “Student’s Responsibilities to the Chicano Community,” address delivered at the University of California, April 20, 1977, Berkeley, California.

You Chicano scholars who are here now today must recognize this drastic change on the American campus, and begin to ask yourselves, must we abandon what’s here for us?  This campus contains immeasurable treasures for all of us.  Here is an accumulation of experience that should be open to us for each one of us to analyze and evaluate and put to our own uses.

And you can’t get it off campus—these magnificent libraries and research facilities.  These are public facilities. This is public wealth organized and set up here for your use. Please think very carefully before you abandon this place because of certain difficulties that you’re having.  The thing to remember is that the training, the capability in the law, in sociology, in whatever these disciplines may be called, is available only here. Unfortunately, it is under the control, under the vigilance of people who don’t share your motivation. But that is no reason why you should abandon your claim to these resources.

You do have a claim to them. The point of view that I’m asking you to consider, of course, is not an easy one to carry out.  One of the difficulties that we as Chicanos and Mexicans have always faced is that our universe in the university is so unfamiliar and so distant from the community from which we come.  It’s awfully hard to explain to your families and to your neighbors—neighborhoods that are constantly in turmoil and in the process of change—what it is you’re up to, what you’re doing, what your difficulties are. There’s a gradual alienation between us on campuses and those in the community.

I contend that the solution or the effort to overcome that alienation is ours and not the community’s.  We understand what causes it.  We know why we are victimized by it.  We know why the community itself is victimized.  But you cannot ask a person who has not had your opportunities to become mentally critical and professionally competent to dig at, to go at the fact that you need to establish a thesis.

See ‘ya Captain Lou!

Captain Lou Albano has died.  He was 76.

LOU

The brazen, rubber-band-wearing figure of professional wrestling achieved “crossover fame” in the 1980s when professional wrestling did the same.  Many who would never have seen him in the ring knew him instead from Cyndi Lauper videos and periodic antics on MTV.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the man.  I can remember the very morning I started watching professional wrestling addictively.  Capt. Lou was on the screen.  He screamed at the screen with his Popeye-esque forearms and mouth frothing with spit, with kinetic hair and rubber bands fastened to his cheek.  It was the most fascinating thing I had seen on Saturday morning TV.

My fascination with pro-wrestling lasted from about 1984 to 1988, not long, but oddly long considering I was in high school by 1986.  I subscribed to the WWF magazine, I watched the stupid Saturday morning cartoon, and I bought the action figures.  I own it all still, in a box in a closet at my folks house.  I also went to two wrestling events.  Big Lou was in the corner for one of them.

You can read more about his life here, here, and here.

But here’s all you really need to know: “Albano’s 75th birthday party last year at a Yonkers restaurant turned into a drunken battle royal, with the arrest of one wrestler.”

And this is as good a thing as any to remember:

BTW, click at your own peril.  This is the entire 12 minute version of the video.

Columbus sucked.

Today is October 12th, which is many things in different parts of the world (Día de la Raza in Mexico) but in the U.S. is officially “Columbus Day.”

I wasn’t going to write anything about the holiday since, I figured, at this point in our collective consciousness we don’t need another person explaining why it is offensive and problematic.  Then I went to Twitter, where the phrase “Happy Columbus Day” was trending.  When I read the related feed of these tweets, very few seemed to have any conception of the “other side” to this day.

So here it goes…

Columbus sucked.

Columbus Day is nothing–let me repeat, NOTHING–other than the commemoration of European imperialism in the Americas.  Nothing.  You can’t put a good spin on what came after.  Disneyland doesn’t absolve a series of deliberate and knowing attempts to commit massive genocide.

Since most of the tens upon tens of millions of indigenous Americans who died in the centuries after this Italian accidentally landed in the Caribbean died due to disease–most probably never even saw a European before they perished of smallpox and other ailments–you might think this is an overblown reaction on my part.  It’s not.  Disease was often used as a conscious weapon in the war to destroy native America, both by the Spanish, French, Portuguese, and later, the British.  Even in those many instances when it was not so, the imperialists are not absolved.  They shouldn’t have been here in the first place.

And that’s what it comes down to.  The global forces which propelled this Italian to sail under the Spanish flag an unleash waves of death are forces with which we still struggle today.  They are suggested by words like racism, cultural superiority, religious intolerance, and war.  They are contained within the results of over 100 million people being dead in less than a century.

Today is the day all these things tragedies and more were unfurled on the Americas.  Human history has never been the same.  And I’m not saying that in a good way.

Liz Cheney is, sadly, no “farce”

Liz Cheney–spawn of Dick–shared her views on Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize on, of course, FOX News.

She labeled Obama’s award as a “farce,” not because he is a wartime president but because the Nobel Committee wants us all “to live in the world where the US is not dominant.” She said Obama should refuse to attend the award ceremony and instead send the mother of a soldier who died in combat, to stress the importance of war.

After all, each member of the Nobel Committee “sleeps soundly at night because the U.S. military is the greatest peacekeeping force in the world today.”

You can read and watch more of her rantings and warmonggering spew here.

It would be easy for me to dismiss Cheney as “evil” since, well, I’m pretty sure she is. But she is nothing magical, nothing all that unique. She is morally bankrupt, serious and dedicated to fomenting a form of political fascism steeped in nationalistic fervor. She advocates for a world of desperation, of the starvation of rights and humanity, all in the name of pride and profit and a narrow vision of who is deserving.

She is a visceral reminder of the national and global context in which Obama won this distinction.

Obama’s Nobel Win is not Global Affirmative Action

When I first heard Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize I reacted with a fair amount of surprise. And then terror.

While I have only been a lukewarm supporter of the President’s initial period in office–less than impressed with his commitment to corporate welfare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoidance of issues confronting immigrant and LGBT equality–I am an avid ally of him as a fellow person of color.

I can appreciate the difficulty of a fairly progressive-minded, person of color has when they occupy the most powerful political seat in this nation.  We are a nation that has refused in bold and multiple ways to confront its white supremacist past, and the powerfully lingering ways that past structures our present.  The social and cultural baggage of more than two centuries of this great failure is lifted and carried by all those who choose to bear its load, and all people of color whether or not they so choose.  Barack Obama, in many ways, carries a share beyond measure.

So when I heard he had won, the second thing that came to my mind was that this would be used by his opponents.  When I opened up my news app to read about the award, one of the first voices I read was Republican chairman Michael Steele’s who asked “What has President Obama actually accomplished?” Most early coverage grappled with this question, baffled by the President’s distinction coming at a time when he officiates over two wars and struggles on the domestic front to secure his and his party’s agenda.  What I knew would be coming were even more racially-infused analyses, ones putting his award into question as they imply he was nothing more than a recipient of global affirmative action.

While I, too, was surprised that Obama won the award, it is not an unjustified recognition.

The U.S. has a difficult time thinking beyond its borders, and making sense of this award is nearly all about that.  The Nobel Committee bestowed this distinction not for his domestic struggles but for his leadership on the global stage.  While we are stuck in the health care and immigration debates–both of which DO relate to hemispheric peace–our President has also been acting for peace in the global arena.  Whether in his support of a nuclear free world, or for meaningful efforts to check global warming, Obama has been active in progressive ways beyond our borders.

Of course, he has already begun accumulating a list of omissions on that same stage, issues and conflicts to which he and his administration have been all too silent, or vocal in less than productive ways.  But the award is not a litmus test of issues as much as it is a process of possibility.

And here is where race may be involved.  There is a powerful element to his international distinction that comes with his race.  It is not just because he is black, but this distinction does come from the ways he is connected to his blackness.  That might seem confusing, but it’s really not.  Barack Obama has made himself a national and international voice for those who do not have one.  In his consistent rhetoric (and in measured ways beyond) he has shown that the issues confronting the poor and the marginalized are significant and worthy of deliberation at the highest of political levels.  Perhaps more important is the sense of moral imperative he gives to these issues.  This is, I think, a significant component to the way he is regarded on the world stage.  As a black man who advocates for the issues confronting the “global South”–the masses of poor and hungry being victimized by war and other government machinations–who are both nonwhite and the majority of this globe, Obama has become a force of good and, potentially, much more good for the world.

Obama is, in global terms, an authentic voice for the world’s oppressed.  Some of this comes from nothing other than being who he is.  But all of it comes from his unwillingness to forget and depart from who he is.

The most significant thing he has done this year that has received less than the attention it deserved was his trip to the African continent.  That this was under the radar on the US domestic scene has probably as much to do with the Obama White House than anything else.  Timed to be part of a weekend, when press coverage is low, his administration might have feared the radical white backlash that would rather predictably come with a the nation’s first black President traveling to Africa.  The escalation of the “birthers” and the mainstreaming of their message didn’t help.

But it was a powerful weekend.  I still don’t think we, as a nation, have a firm grasp of the awesomely tragic ways European imperialism and slavery transformed the world.  I am quite certain we don’t appreciate the ways most of the global South continues to feel their affects.  While we think of these as things that have passed, they have no such luxury.  For those reasons, I am also quite certain few of us could appreciate the significance of a nonwhite person, in his capacity as the de facto head of the First World, symbolically “returning” to the Third World.  I don’t think we can fully appreciate the inherent possibility for change that brings with it.

Today, I think the Nobel selection committee did.

Australian blackface and Harry Connick Jr.

Are Australians racist?

If you haven’t heard about the blackface controversy Harry Connick Jr. found himself in last night, then start by seeing this.  It is a performance on an Australian show on which Connick served as one of three judges.  The show, Hey, Hey It’s Saturday was a staple of Australian TV for 27 tears, running from 1972 to 1999.  Last night’s episode was a reunion/anniversary kind of thing, when these men performed:

First off, I think Harry Connick Jr. deserves props for his stance. He found himself in an awkward position–both for the fact of being a foreigner on a beloved Australian show as well as being on a comedy/variety show to begin with. That he spoke out immediately, and managed to get the show to allow him the space to further voice his objections, is admirable. I want to be clear here: he did what was right. When it comes to his own personal context–being from New Orleans; as the son of an attorney who worked in a racially-tense city; as a musician who works with African Americans playing African American and Southern styles of music–to do anything but, would have been wrong. While I don’t believe in rewards for people doing what they should do, when the context of doing different is so powerfully before them, to resist it is admirable, indeed.

The Australian press has been having a field day with this news, mostly revolving around the above question. This article sums up a lot of it. If you read this blog often, you know my stance on this kind of stuff. The “Are we racist?” line is a useless one since, inherently, the answer for everybody living in the modern world is “Yes.” It’s much more useful to think about how ideas about race continue to shape our relations and beliefs, and how they often do so to our collective detriment.

An “Are we racist?” line almost precludes us from doing the kinds of individual and collective reflections necessary to make sense of the insidious nature of racialized beliefs.  We think about “intent” more than we should instead of focusing on “context” and “result.”

For example, Australian “Snap polls on the internet” seem to suggest most folks think the skit “wasn’t racist, but a harmless, indeed funny, tribute to the Jackson Five.” Leaving aside the unscientific nature of the polls, other news stories seem to be portraying the same belief as being held by mainstream Australia. There problem is, to think of it as a “tribute” means you have to negate the very deliberate and focused way they are fulfilling the “script” of “blackface” to the most specific kinds of detail: non-blacks painting their faces oil black; speaking in racialized patois (while even using distinct, US-based African American expressions); performing in an extreme, Sambo-esque way, and so on. Their older performance from 1989 was even worse! This time around, the include the “Michael” figure as a “white face,” thereby making it a racial critique rather than tribute.

One of the performers had this to say after:

“I’m Sri Lankan-Australian, there’s an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, an Irish-Italian-Australian and a Lebanese-Australian. We’re all Australian.

“I think the fact that all six of us have gone on to very successful careers as doctors demonstrates the fact that Australians care more about ability than race.”

A perfect example of the “intent” argument that falls from this line of reasoning. What it ignores, however, is the broader context of ignorance and uncritical sympathy that lies at a lot of actions like this.

Harry Connick Jr. faced some fire for doing what he did, an even more dynamic demonstration that something wrong is at work here. He issued the following statement on his blog:

I have watched the media storm that has erupted over my reaction to the Hey Hey blackface skit. Where I come from, blackface is a very specific and very derogatory thing.  Perhaps this is different in other parts of the world, but in the American culture, the blackface image is steeped in a negative history and considered offensive.  I urge everyone in the media to take a look at the history of blackface to fully understand why it is considered offensive.  I also urge you to review the Hey Hey tape and you will see that I did not ascribe any motives to anyone, nor did I call anyone a racist.  The blackface skit was a surprise to me and I was simply shocked to see this on TV.  I do not believe that the performers intended any harm.

At first, it kind of felt to me like he was backing away. But then, it seems appropriate. He really helped refocus the argument again away from “intent” and more toward the broader context of seeing this as not problematic. More props to him.

“Food Politics” Has Lost an Advocate

News came today that Condé Nast–publisher of The New Yorker, Vogue, and Wired among other notable magazine titles–is closing Gourmet magazine.  The powerhouse title has been published since 1940 and is a veritable icon in food magazine publishing.

The loss will affect more than just the legions of foodies who won’t be able to read about the latest in cuisine and cocktail.  Over the years, Gourmet had also established itself as a regular and oftentimes leading voice in the realm of food politics.  Take a look at just some of the stories they have run in the recent past.   From the failures of federal regulations, to outright labor abuses and the rise of de facto slavery, Gourmet’s “Politics of the Plate” section has given dynamic and in-depth coverage of issues rarely covered at all in the so-called “mainstream” media.  To these important issues of human rights, global environmental sustainability,  and health, they have lent their journalistic integrity and commitment to social justice, creating something that was consistently readable, important, and ethical in its role as advocate for something better.

I, for one, will miss it.