MONDAY BLUES (05.23.11)

Big Bill Broonzy (Arkansas and Mississippi; 1898-1958) singing “Just a Dream” (from the 1939 recording, a bit more swing to it than the original).

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To the Class of 2011

I wish you a life filled with happiness and love and peace. I hope you can protect the youth and passion you nurtured so well while you were here.

You have worked hard to reach this milestone in your life but that effort coexisted in a reality framed by a series of almost invisible accidents. Whether you are lucky more than you are deserving, or vice versa, is a meaningless debate. You are privileged to have studied, to have experienced the rare joy of moments when your mind has been immersed in possibility and creativity. Never lose sight of this.

The most dangerous thing I have heard said to you these past days is “Welcome to the real world.” The person who says this assumes two things: 1) that your life in college has been absent any of the hardships and struggles of everyday life; and 2) that the assumed luxury provided to you in your years here is not, somehow, “real.” Let me assure you–both are wrong.

For those of you for whom college life has been marked by multiple jobs, battles against the insecurity of class and race, and a war against a larger system that sought to carve you into something you would not and could not be, then I need say no more. I’ve been there, too. I’m proud of you for surviving.

For the rest who have experienced a college career marked by more nurturing than opposition, even you have not been disconnected from something real. Life–real life–is struggle. It is work. It is stressful and it is disappointing. But it is also filled with excitement, love, blind joy. It is filled with moments of celebration and caring, of passion and humanism, of being you and being given the space and resources to be you. It might not be this for each and everyone of us on this globe, but it should be. Everything good you experienced in life while you were here is also part of life when you leave and needs to be more of life for more of us.

You enter the next phase of your adult career at a moment of great uncertainty and crisis. These are good times to finish college because they afford you the luxury of knowing what is important for us as a world. You have to remember the privilege you have had; you have to protect the advantages of mind, body, and spirit which have woven themselves into you. All these and more can frame for you the work that lies ahead. The benefits of your young life should not be rare.

Respect people. Be precious with their humanity. Perfect your ability to bring these tendencies out in others.

Finally, be nice to your families. As you return to the places you call home and to the people whose emotions and identities are so inextricably bound to you, remember that it is YOU who have changed more than them. If they seem to be different, act different, or not understand you, it is probably you and not them that is to blame. Just be grateful that they care, and that they will care tomorrow.

DWTD: Driving with Tortilla Dough

Or as I like to call it: “Masa-gate.”

From Asheville, North Carolina comes the story of a Latin American immigrant male who spent four days in jail because law enforcement officials mistook tortilla dough (known as “masa” in Spanish) for cocaine.

“The driver had to be forcefully removed from the vehicle and placed under arrest,” [Buncombe County Sheriff Van] Duncan said.

Hernandez said he was given no time to speak and had a knee put in his back and his arm pinned behind him. He was arrested for failing to heed blue lights and sirens and driving while intoxicated; he was jailed under a $1,500 bond.

Breathalyzer tests later showed Hernandez, who said he doesn’t drink, was not intoxicated.

His dog, traveling with him, was taken and his truck impounded.

A drug dog indicated the possible presence of narcotics in the truck, and deputies did field tests. Three tests made by three different companies conducted by different deputies all came back positive for cocaine, Duncan said.

Deputies in contact with Duncan reported, “‘This doesn’t look like drugs, but it is testing positive,’” the sheriff said.

Another thing that caught their attention was shrimp that they said was decaying, since drug smugglers sometimes use decaying food to throw off drug dogs.

Hernandez said he took care to keep the shrimp on ice and stopped occasionally to add more.

Drug trafficking charges might have been warranted, Duncan said, but officers were somewhat leery because the substances didn’t look like drugs. Still, they wanted charges that would carry a bond high enough to keep Hernandez from making bail or getting far, the sheriff said.

They rushed the food to state labs so they could get results quickly. When they got the negative results, they were flabbergasted, the sheriff said.

Duncan said he’s never seen field tests yield false positives in this way.

“I have no idea why they did,” he said.

Duncan is coming under fire from Latino officials and advocacy groups in the South for the conduct of his officers. “When you break down the steps the officers took,” he said, “everything they did was legal and reasonable.”

There’s a whole lot to say here–multiple ways for us to interpret what happened.  Most of them involve race.  There is the way racial and linguistic difference framed officer reactions and assumptions, closing off any possibility that what was unfolding could have been seen as the result of multiple other “reasonable” behaviors.  There is the cultural misunderstanding related to the food he carried and his transport of it to family in another state.  There is the inability of the various parties to communicate clearly in a common language and within a shared plane of equal and open discourse.

Most troubling, of course, is the clearly racialized manner in which officers encountered a tired, non-English dominant Latino.  They assumed he was hiding something, they later assumed he would flee, and–most clearly–they assumption he had drugs.

But there is also a bright side to this–multiple bright sides, actually.  First, there are Latino officials and advocates in the South who can speak out about this episode and help frame it as an opportunity for change.  This is already a sign of change and of the prospect of greater change.

Second, this is being seized as a learning experience by many.  The press is challenging the Sheriff’s Department in some ways and I am largely encouraged by the reader comments to the article. Many if not most of them seem to be empathetic with the falsely-arrested man and troubled by the unwillingness of local law enforcement to fully embrace this as an opportunity for reflection and change.

Finally, While Sheriff Duncan seems a bit hesitant to use this as a learning experience, he does embrace it in some ways. “The good thing is that it will probably re-energize our contact with the Latino advocacy groups,” he said.

I suspect it will.

MONDAY BLUES (05.09.11)

Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr. (New Orleans, 1928-) singing his classic tune “Blue Monday” on Austin City Limits (1986).

What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

A Closed-Casket Country in an Open-Casket World

As I write this, there is a growing discussion of whether or not the US will release images of Osama Bin Laden’s dead body. While I’m not a security expert by any means, once the news broke that US forces had killed Osama Bin Laden the first question to enter my head was: How are they going to release the photos of his dead body?

It never entered my thinking that the US wouldn’t. However, I couldn’t envision a politically and culturally “safe space” within which the US could.

The US has become a “closed-casket nation” in more ways than one. This cultural preference not only relates to how bodies are viewed/not viewed at funerals, it more broadly relates to how we as a nation view death. Despite its certainty and ubiquity, on a cultural level, we treat death as though it is unusual, rare, even shocking. We make it so by not openly dealing with and discussing it, by immunizing our visual culture from accurate depictions of it, and even by promoting a commercial perspective that we can defy it.

This national perspective has its limits, to be sure, but, for the most part, we as a nation do not deal with death in a real way. Presently, we even continue to minimize the images of death relating to our own soldiers in our various and current wars. Have you ever seen a photo of the body of a dead soldier from one of the current wars taken while he or she was already dead? When was the last time you saw a photo of a US soldier bleeding or severely wounded? When was the last time you even saw a picture of the casket bringing their body home?

And that’s one of the reasons why releasing photos immediately would have seemed shocking, almost inhumane. From both the image and sense the US has of itself, as well as the image the rest of the world has of us, an immediate release of these images would have seemed out of step and suggestive of gloating more than anything else. You might not have a problem with that as an individual (if so, I am sorry), but it does little in terms of serving the interests of so-called “national security” (which is all that really matters to those in charge).

At the same time, I fully recognize that we live in an open-casket world. No matter how people in the US view death, the rest of the world does not have the luxury of being so isolated from its presence. This isn’t necessarily a sign of wealth as much as it may be a sign of what academic’s might call the “culture of modernity.” It wasn’t too long ago that the US was an open-casket nation. Even in places that are considered the “first world,” visions of the deceased are not rare. They are integrated into the ways people collectively deal with death and heal from the sorrow of it.

In many places in the world–places where the death of Osama Bin Laden needs to be communicated (from a US diplomatic and military perspective)–death is a constant part of life. There are children who grow up seeing death and dismemberment from war and violence on a regular basis. There are places on this earth–far too many places–where you can not escape the capriciousness of human-instigated death.

The horrific and painful photo above is of three of the four children killed in a US airstrikea little more than two months ago in Afghanistan. In the two week period ending last February–when these children were killed–the Afghanistan government estimated 200 civilians had been killed as a result of the war.

In these cultures, death and the body of the deceased go hand in hand. That’s why I recognized right away that the US was going to have to release the photos, eventually.

What seems to be developing is a concerted effort by people in the Departments of Defense and State to “prime the pump” as it were and prepare for the release of the photos. If they were “leaked” then that would suggest some kind of problem within the US military or intelligence apparatus, or even the White House. But the current discussion from Washington is depicting the White House and others are “conflicted” but increasingly aware of the large “public outcry” for these images.

When they do release the images it will be seen as an acquiescence to these external pressures. The US will not come off as barbaric (quite the contrary, since they “withheld” the photos in the first place), and the military and diplomatic interests of showcasing the dead body of Osama Bin Laden to the world will be served.

At least that’s my guess.

Osama, Obama, y un poco más

I said most of what I wanted to say about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden on Twitter tonight. First, about some of the “analysis” of the talking heads:

“The innocence behind newscasters hypothesizing the end of the “war on terror” is shocking and sad.”

Simply put, from where I sit:

“When you create a war against a floating signifier it never ends.”

To his credit, Obama rarely invokes the rhetoric of “The War on Terror,” instead opting to portray the US in a war against Al Qaeda. But neither war will end any sooner after tonight. These are both just recent names to processes with much longer trajectories than a decade.

In my opinion, something was won tonight, however.

“Barack Obama just got re-elected.”

Finally, the most enduring analysis I take away from tonight is the same one I have carried since September 11, 2001. It is a strange and frightening thing to watch patriotism in action, taking hold of people’s emotions and intellects at the same time. The same cultural dynamic that buttressed the empathy of millions of people for the thousands of people who lost something close to them on that day is the same dynamic that propels some to hate, to fight, and to celebrate the death of another human being.

I don’t have a commentary on this, other than to say I think any phenomenon like this is dangerous when left uninterrogated. Tonight, I just watch it all as a historian and as a Chicano and as the son of a veteran, hoping for a future when it all becomes so less relevant to our collective existence.