Oscar invites Latinos to join

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences—the group who selects nominees and winners of the Oscars—is about to grow by some 276 members, and some notable Latinas and Latinos are on the list!

The Academy has been under recent scrutiny for its lack of diversity. A 2012 article in the LA Times estimated that nearly 94% of the select and largely secretive group were white. A staggering 77% were male. African Americans comprised about 2% of the nearly 6000 member organization while Latinos were less than 2%.

Those numbers are about to change. In a year when the Academy lifted is usual quota for new invitees, 276 industry artists and professionals have been invited to become members of the Academy—100 more than last year. Among them are some notable people of color, including a fair share of Latinas and Latinos.

Rosario Dawson and Jennifer Lopez are part of the new class, as is character actor Michael Peña. Everybody’s favorite vato Danny Trejo is a much-deserved invitee. Working actors Miriam Colon, Geno Silva, and Alma Martinez were also recognized for their pathbreaking work. A number of Latinas and Latinos are also part of the non-acting categories of the invitee list.

You can read all the names of the new invitees here.

I am particularly happy to hear of the inclusion of Alma Martinez. I had the distinct pleasure of being her colleague for some years while she worked at Pomona College. The first Mexican American character to be featured in a storyline on a daytime soap, Martinez was a part of the original cast of the historic Chicano production “Zoot Suit.” When the play made its way to the silver screen, she reprised her role.


Alma Martinez has been working in the industry ever since. She’s not only a mountain of talent and an amazing actress she’s also a trailblazer in this very male and very white world of entertainment. As she has carved out her career she also earned a reputation as an open and caring mentor for others. This is a much-deserved recognition and an exciting event for all Latina and Latino actors.

Latinos are an important part of the movie world. Not only are we a large a ever-growing segment of the film viewing public, but we are also an important part of the community of artists who make the movies. In front of the camera and behind it, in ways recorded and gone unrecognized, Latinos have long contributed to the Hollywood. (For goodness sakes! The model for the Oscar statuette was mexicano screen legend Emilio Fernández!)

It’s only fitting that the Academy expand its ranks and diversify by including more Latinas and Latinos, as well as the many other people of color who will now join this fabled group.

¡Felicidades a todos los nuevos miembros de la Academia!

“Immigration Reform” Clears the Senate

“I mean this is not only sufficient, it is well over-sufficient. We’ll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” (John McCain)
“If you can’t be reasonably certain that the border is secure as a condition of legalization, there’s just no way to be sure that millions more won’t follow the illegal immigrants who are already here.” (Mitch McConnell)

The Gang of 8’s “immigration bill” passed the US Senate today by a vote of 68-32. To read the full text, click here.

This compromise attempt at “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR)–which began as something of a human rights movement to provide a reasonable pathway to citizenship for the 11-12 million unauthorized migrants in the US–has now become one of the largest “border security” bills in our nation’s history. It will fortify a 700-mile fence between the US and Mexico; double the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground (a group which has already doubled in size between 2002 and 2012); and arm that wall and those agents with some of the more advanced military technologies money can buy.

I am not against compromise. It is a necessary part of any democracy. But all issues have their limits. At some point the compromise process weakens, dilutes, or contradicts the original purpose of a bill that it alters it into something else. Sadly, I think the “border surge” amendment added this week to the bill has done just that.

The price to be paid for a pathway to citizenship and a fuller recognition of the basic human rights of immigrants is an even more militarized border that will negate those same rights for others. The price we are asked to pay is in blood–the blood of the thousands upon thousand of lives that will be lost as a result of our escalating war on the border.

The House is not even currently set to consider the Senate’s bill, waiting instead for its own members to author their own versions. For those of us who are advocates of justice, it is not expected to be an improvement on the Senate’s compromised legislation. And, so, the road ahead is a murky one and the lack of support for this current bill that I and others feel is, largely, insignificant.

The necessary pathway is one that we have to continue to carve out for ourselves and for future generations of immigrants. It is a pathway made clear through mass mobilization, mass action, and heightened political pressure on those we depend on to craft sound legislation.

In a democracy like ours, when the political system does not serve the cause of justice on its own, it is our responsibility to create a context where it has no choice but to bend.

That work is mine and yours.

My book arrived!

Look what I got in the mail today!


I’m not sure I have the words to describe how this feels. I’m also sure that those feelings will keep coming and changing with all that it to come in the months ahead.

The Cost of Immigration Reform

News is breaking today that the bipartisan grouping of US Senators known as the “Gang of 8” have negotiated a compromise that is, essentially, buying the needed Republican votes to pass the Senate. (You can read the story here.)


Photo by Paul Sanchez (source)

The crux of the compromise is what some Senators are referring to as a “border surge”–an intentionally militaristic reference to “the surge” of troops and military resources dedicated to the Iraq War in 2007. This surge is, similarly, a costly waste of human effort. It will reportedly entail the building of another 700 miles of border fence, it includes a relaxing of the e-verify requirements for businesses, and it will double the size of the border patrol.

The Republican Party has chosen to frame the entire debate about comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) around the issue of “border security.” While some continue to object to what they call a policy of “amnesty,” most are towing the party line and making it a debate about border security, from an immigration perspective.

This compromise is a fantastic development. While I object to it—almost to the point of opposing the proposed legislation, even though it provides for an entire list of things that I think are VERY important—I can’t help but appreciate what it makes plain and clear: the private entities who have turned US immigration policy into a profit making machine of billions of dollars have the Republicans in their pocket AND will not allow CIR to pass until they are assured profit from the new system.

In case you haven’t heard the news, net migration from Mexico is at 0% right now. On top of that, the budget of the Border patrol has nearly tripled in that last 10 years. That budgetary explosion has already meant the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground has more than doubled since 2002.

Creating a pathway to citizenship and ending the human rights crisis of the current policy of mass detentions and deportations threatens the industries who have been raking in more than $5 billion dollars from the so-called “immigration crisis.” Acknowledging the non-existence of the “crisis” and handling immigration like a nation concerned about sound, productive policy does the same.

The hundred of millions of dollars key corporations spend on lobbying has been stalling CIR because of this harsh reality. But, by linking CIR to tighter border security, these corporate interests have discovered a way to profit from the new system as well.

If this “compromise” helps CIR legislation pass the Senate and House then it is a sad day for all of us. While that legislation will do a lot of good, it will also be a lasting historical reminder about who truly has the power over this nation’s government.

For the millions of lives who will be adversely affected by this continuing and future war on the border, it will also be a lasting reminder of who bears the real cost when human rights become the eclipsed by the desires of the military industrial complex.

Historical Songbook: “Los Hijos de Hernández” (1986)

Los Tigres del Norte are the most famous and accomplished conjunto band in Mexican musical history.

Their own story spans the border between California and Mexico (the group came together in San Jose, CA), and does so while playing norteño music that has a lot of cultural significance for Mexico’s north and the US Southwest (especially Texas). In short, they are emblematic of so much of the transnational character of Mexican American history.

Los Tigres are famous for their style of corridos, a Mexican folk tradition that often communicates the particulars of everyday life of most mexicanos, including their social/political struggles. For Los Tigres, their narco-corridos—songs that detail aspect of the illegal drug industry—are some of their most famous. Hardly confined to the dramas of the drug wars, they are a politically and socially-conscious group for a host of other issues as well.

In 1986, they released a song that demonstrates their both their radical sensibilities and its artistic expression, “Los Hijos de Hernández.” The song tells the story of an encounter at the border between a man and a border agent. Here is a quick translation:

Returning from my land,
and crossing the border,
an officer asks me
to fulfill my duties.
That if I had papers
I have to show to them.

And while he was reviewing them
I heard him murmur
something that made me angry.
That with so many emigrants already
many North Americans
can not work.

I told him very angrily
that which you murmured
has a lot of truth.
Latin Americans,
in the view of many Americans,
have taken away their place.

If we work very hard
and are not “chicken” either,
if life must be risked
in the fields of combat,
they have advanced us
because we know how to fight.

My children were born here,
ignoring the prejudice
and the discrimination
their homeland claimed,
and on the battlefield
they showed heart.

There no one noticed
that the Hernández’s they signed up
were cannon fodder.
Maybe my sons took
the places not filled
by the sons of some Saxon.

If on the payroll
look you in disgust
at my name in Spanish,
you will see on another list,
that upon reviewing, are missing in action.

While this he shouted,
the migrant wept,
and he said with emotion:
you can cross the border
anytime you want.
You have more valor than me.

Though the song is from the 1980s, and about the 1980s, it is also all about the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. It testifies to the widely-held belief that Chicanos and mexicanos were disproportionately sacrificing their lives for a nation that denied them substantive equality in most other sectors. In this way it is a reflection of the ways the Vietnam War remained such an unsettled event, both for the wider US society as well marginalized communities within that larger whole (like that of Mexican immigrants).

Or maybe its a tale that reflects the hidden ways the US did grapple with the lessons of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the US armed forces were all-volunteer, with the hugely unpopular draft coming to a formal end just before the conclusion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Among the many strategies the military would come to employ to assure a ready supply of able-bodied, trained soliders, would be to create new targeting strategies to attract more young men of color.

“Los Hijos de Hernández” reflects the contradictions of this increasingly “brown” army. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike would often be coveted and welcome into the US military while still forbidden entry or effectively marginalized within the US.

“Los Hijos” is a fantastic song in so many ways. Among its more powerful qualities is its desire to voice an experience that is so true, often (and tragically) unifying within the ethnic Mexican community, and yet almost completely absent from the mainstream US imagination. As a snapshot of the mid/late 1980s, the song also unifies the narratives of (im)migration, labor, war, and memory in a very powerful way.

Historical Songbook: “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (1986)

The year 1986 holds a lot of special meaning for me. I turned 13 in May 1986. I got confirmed, I graduated 8th grade (finishing off my time at the school I had attended since first grade), and began high school. It was a time of big transitions in my life, a time I remember quite fondly.

I remember 1986 also being a strong year for pop music. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was an artistically great year. In many ways the most memorable songs that year were masters of genre and convention. There were a lot of catchy songs, though, a diverse set of “one hit wonders” and signature songs from performers who helped define the decade.

Jermaine Stewart falls into the former category. Born in 1957, Stewart and his family moved to Chicago when he was 15. There, he became friends with Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel while all three worked as dancers on the show “Soul Train.” When host Don Cornelius decided to create the group Shalamar in the mid-70s, Watley and her dance partner Daniel famously made the cut while Stewart did not. Instead, he ended up as a back up dancer for Shalamar but (apparently with the help of Culture Club’s Mikey Craig) his dreams of being a singer came to fruition when he signed with Arista records in the early 80s.

“We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” was the first single off Stewart’s second album, Frantic Romantic (1986).  It would also be the singer’s biggest hit, peaking at #5 in the US. The Wikipedia entry for the song says it was featured in an episode of Miami Vice, which was something of a hit maker in its early days. I don’t particularly remember that but I do remember hearing the song everywhere that year. Everywhere.

The song is almost artfully safe. It makes use of so many pop/dance conventions of the time, but does so in a very likable and almost “perfect” way. The “na-na-na’s” that accompany the lyrics, the synthetic/electric percussion, the obligatory horns, the catchy keyboard melody, and the rhythmic guitar riff—they’re like a laundry list of 80’s pop conventions. But Stewart and crew enlist those pieces well. I always thought the “climb” of the song (“So come on baby won’t you show some class/Why you wanna move so fast”) as one of the meatiest examples of the “classic” 80s sound you could find.

The song was also lyrically safe—literally! In the AIDS-era of safe sex and the Moral Majority-era of strict abstinence, the song was an R&B articulation of wider social fears, concerns, and conservativisms. (Perhaps even those within urban communities of color.)

Like much of the 80s, the song holds a particularly powerful alternate meaning as well, although not I’m not sure it was intentional at the time. Stewart was gay. I’m fairly certain it was not publicly “known” at the time but—with his soft-spoken demeanor and classically effeminate mannerisms—I also don’t think it would have been a surprise to anyone who saw Stewart in interviews.  In any case, he sadly died of AIDS-related causes in 1997, at the age of 39.

His queerness gives the song a sweet and, maybe, sad additional meaning, but not for the moralistic irony (a singer preaches sexual abstinence but dies of a sexually-transmitted disease). I think it can potentially transform his desire for a slow and intimate relationship, instead of a quickie, into a critique of a particular version of gay life in the 80s, one marked by profound homophobia and accompanying sexual secrecy. The song communicates the desire for a “traditional” relationship, which can be both conservative (since it reifies the standards of heteronormativity) and radical (since it longs for the stability and “natural” pace afforded by being socially accepted rather than relegated to the sexual margins and underground). The song can be a gay desire to experience love the same way as every heterosexual person can, something of a political “climb” to the present-day refrain of marriage equality.

Like I said, I don’t think this is intentional in the song, although I’m also sure that Stewart and others would have at least considered the possibile multiple meanings of a gay man singing a song like this. Sadly, that story may be forever lost.

Historical Songbook

I’ve taught a class for the last seven years that focuses on the racial justice movements of the late 50s to the early 70s. We learn a bit about the mainstream Civil Rights Movement but spend much more time on radical movements involving black, Chicano/Latino, Asian American, and Native American youth.

The very first mini-lecture for the class is something I devised about two years before I first taught the class. It’s a short historical exercise based on specific images and a song from the mid-60s. The main objective of the exercise is to frame what I like to call “historical empathy”–the critical practice of viewing the past through the eyes of those who lived it, with the critical understanding that you are destined to fail in that practice.

Music seemed to be a great way to help transport my students into another time and, perhaps at best, to keep them cognizant of the ways they might rush to judge the past by their own present subjectivity. As I tell them, how you think or feel about the political projections of the youth we study are secondary to first grasping how they envisioned and acted on their own “truth.”

And so, I began including a song into most classes, not only as a way to teach historical empathy but also to show them how radical, critical, and utopian understandings of racial justice found expression in the musical arts.

Well, I’ve found myself thinking lately about the kinds of classes I’ll develop and teach for the last 15-20 years of my professional career and, as I do, music seems to be one of the more powerful analytical organizing tools for me. Specifically, I am starting to conceptualize teaching a class based on the 80s and 90s. But there is very little historical scholarship on the recent past. In fact, in many ways, the mainstream narratives of this period remain unwritten. Accordingly, the question of what to teach is really open and filled with critically-creative possibility for me.

(Let me jump in here to say I know it might seem weird to non-academics for me to be thinking about the back end of my career when that “back” is about 25 years away. But in my world it’s not unusual for people to teach certain signature courses for decades. More importantly, historical work is slow and the expectation I have for myself is that I teach courses that align with the kind of historical research/writing I want to do. I have a current research project and another in development, and after that I might only have another two or so major projects left. I would hope to begin teaching courses relating to those other research topics within the next 5-7 years, in the hopes that doing so for some time will help me with those projects. And so, I’m starting to think now about the courses I might teach years from now to help me write about stuff I will write about even more years from now.)

As I start to think about what I would teach in this undeveloped class on a week-by-week basis, music seems to help me identify possibilities. At least maybe it helps provide me a way into those times as a professional historian, as well as a professional nostalgist.

And so I’m going to start something here that I am going to label “Historical Songbook.” These posts will usually involve me writing about one song from the 80s or 90s and using it to make sense of a particular moment, topic, theme.

These aren’t going to be long essays or anything (although, as you can tell from this brief introduction to the project, I can always be wordy). They will be spaces where I can explore some things and maybe even “think out loud.” While my big picture goals are pretty historical and analytical, I’m hoping to be more impressionistic than anything else.

My goal is to also begin to use my blog more regularly, as a space for me to write in non-scholarly and non-authoritative ways. Simply put, to write “me.” But that doesn’t mean non-historical. History is more than my job. It’s my hobby, my intellectual love, and my enjoyment. My thought is that I can share the way I might build a narrative for a time period by riffing off of music, another great love.

I don’t know how many regular readers I have out there these days (hi Steven!) but that doesn’t matter much. I’ve come to realize that what I write here is more for me than for anything else. If my blog is to be anything useful, it has to be a space for me first. Maybe then, in the end, it can at least interest my kids when they want to look back and rediscover their old man from a new angle.

So I hope you enjoy. I’ll try to be pretty regular with these posts and make it my Monday writing warm-up. Of course, the academic life holds few promises other than regular avalanches of “unexpected” work.