Friday Five: 1990

It was a good year for me, a big year.

In 1990 I graduated high school and started college. For a young Chicano, who came from a family who didn’t have a lot but always had enough, that was probably one of the more important transitions in my life. College changed my world.

My world had already been one that contained transition, hybridity, and knowledge of the multiple. We were a family of both immigrants and US-born. We were spread throughout East LA, in Chicano suburban barrios in the San Gabriel Valley, and Mexico. Like the movements my grandparents made, my dad and mom and two sisters also made movements. We went from working class to middle class in my youth. We went from a family of 5 with no college graduates to one with one, and then another…until we were 5 bachelor’s degrees, 4 MA degrees, and 2 PhDs.

My world was dominated “minority” people, communities, and cultures. It was centered on the late-20th century US popular culture, but also on African American culture (especially West Coast black culture), on Chicano-LA culture, on Filipino second-generation culture. We gravitated to and drew identity from the strands of popular culture that were often not the mainstream, dance club music, funk and soul, hip-hop. As I participated in other cultural strands–notably hard rock and some heavy metal–I never stepped out of the shared culture I knew, I never ceased to be conversant in it or to draw identity from it.

This is the thing about not being part of the mainstream in the United States, when that mainstream negates your existence culturally, socially, and politically. You still are rooted to communities that operate in all those realms, you developed your own sense of “peopleness” as you do, but you also become expert at the culture that is simultaneously “yours” and “theirs.”

And then came college. In college I entered a space that was dominated by a specific kind of late-20th century cultural whiteness, a place that was brutally unaware that their way (of thinking, dressing, having fun, dancing, of hoping) was not the only way. It was an introduction to a new world for me, including new music, but also a long process of coming to terms with who I was/am. My main advantage was that I knew them and the content of their world when they did not know mine.

Part of my growth was a greater awareness and appreciation for the culture I came from. Songs I never liked all that much, styles of music that I knew but did not necessarily love, became more meaningful to me then. They were markers of my community, the one I had left to come to college. They were ways of embracing my difference, my special knowledge, a process that helped protect me from what could sometimes be a difficult adjustment. They were also declarations of my knowledge, my rootedness to a world that “they” never knew existed.

That happened at the same time parts of that people-of-color culture (we didn’t call it than then, not yet) were becoming fully intrenched in the mainstream, too.

Here are five songs from 1990 that represent that for me.* They are not songs unknown to anyone, certainly not to others of my generation. But what they meant for us was, I think, distinct than what they meant for the upper class white kids at my college.

5. “Mama Said Knock You Out” (LL Cool J)
“Don’t call it a comeback!” With that line LL Cool J begins a powerful and aggressive track that would become his biggest hit of all time. He was a very well-known person in my world well before 1990. He had been up and down already just in the period of my high school years. Songs like “I Need Love,” “Going Back to Cali,” and “I Need a Beat” were classics to my young mind. The punch of this chart-topper made it a favorite to dance to in those years at college. It was like a musical declaration of your oppositional strength.

4. “Poison” (Bel Biv Devoe)
You can’t get more mainstream than Bel Biv Devoe, the trio that spun off from 80s boy group New Edition. It was that history, though, that made them mean something more. We had grown up with them, they were “our” boy band. And when they became kinda crude (and sexist) and obvious with their breakout song “Poison”––reminding us “Never trust a big butt and smile”–it somehow seemed right, it seemed authentic. Their success made you, well, proud.

3. “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
This might be the biggest song of the year, a commercial hit that made Oaktown rapper MC Hammer a household name, and his baggy pants a cultural phenomenon. But he wasn’t new to us. Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” was played at every house party I ever went to, a track (like Rob Bases and DJ Eazy Rock’s “Joy and Pain”) that never failed to fill the dance floor. When “U Can’t Touch This” played at my senior prom, there was a humor and celebratory feel to it. It was both stupid and, strangely, ours.

2. “Humpty Dance” (Digital Underground)
“Alright, stop what ‘cha doin’, ’cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to.” I want you to know that I typed those words without listening to the song or checking them online. I can go all the way to the end of the song that way, too. Digital Underground was a funny, creative, eclectic grouping. Known for being the starting point for the career of Tupac Shakur, their 1990 album Sex Packets spawned two hits, “Doowatchyalike” and this classic. Digital Underground’s album was pretty dirty, something that wasn’t in-line with the success of this single, but something that somehow made it more authentic. There’s no assimilative politeness or decorum here.

1. “Groove Is In the Heart” (Deee-Lite)
I remember being at a freshman orientation dance in college, an event that took place the week before classes started, a social held outside in the middle of a closed-off street. I was feeling it already, the feeling of being one of so very few of who you were, the feeling that was a stark contrast to the world I had know, to the world that made me. It comes with bursts of confidence, of fear, of self-doubt and, later, anger. When this song came on it seemed like, for a precious moment, there were only people of color dancing in the streets. I don’t have words to explain what that meant. Deee-Lite, the multiracial dance/funk/club group, who were clear precursors to acts like Black-Eyed Peas a generation later, never hit it bigger than with this song from their debut album. It featured funk legend Bootsy Collins, a man I thought was in the group until about a decade later. The song is a classic, both now and then.

*The word “classic” is going to be used a lot here.

The Function of Racism

On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies.  Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”

After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:

Racism was never, ever the issue.  Profit and money always was.

And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money.  And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.

Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.

Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way.  They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one!  They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.

And they never, ever thought we were inhuman.  You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.

Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

You can listen to the full audio of her remarks at Portland State University or directly from their Soundcloud.

Friday Five: 1989

The end of the 1980s was the high point of the reign of hard rock.  After Motley Crue and (especially) Guns N’ Roses, if you had long hair and you were in a guitar band that played L.A. clubs, you just might become a rock star.

The formula was simple: you had to have at least one guitar-driven rock video and one ballad, usually a love song.  Oh, people loved them some big-hair, 80s rock ballads!

So here are five of my favorite rock ballads from 1989…

5. “When I See You Smile” (Bad English)
When Journey broke up, guitarist Neal Schon (who started Journey before Steve Perry and later reformed the band without him) reunited with former Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and joined forces with vocalist John Waite and bassist Ricky Phillips, two of Cain’s former bandmates from The Babys, one of Cain’s pre-Journey projects. Billed as something of a US-British “super group,” the band had only minimal success, largely due to this hit ballad.

4. “Heaven” (Warrant)
Probably one of the most successful of the second-tier 80s rock bands, Warrant hit it big with their debut album Dirty Filthy Sticking Rich, an endeavor that spawned three MTV hits that crossed over to the radio charts. This ballad was the engine to their album sales. They’d repeat their success with their follow-up album Cherry Pie a year later, and another ballad (“I Saw Red”) before disappearing under the wave that was grunge.

3. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses)
Guns N’ Roses might have been the most respected of the 80s rock bands.  They were seen as more talented, artistic, and authentic than the MTV manufactured kind. G N’ R Lies––the follow-up to their monumentally successful album Appetite for Destruction––was an acoustic EP (“extended play,” or not quite a full “long play” album) release from the band, a reflection of the way they honed that reputation.  “Patience” was the only release from the album, and so its only hit.  It’s a masterful example of the genre, in some ways because it is so simple.  (It wasn’t the only song to be widely known, however. Among the unreleased tracks was “One In A Million,” a song that featured lead-singer Axl Rose spouting off in a racist and homophobic mini-tirade.)

2. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith)
Aerosmith were kind of the granddads of the 80s rock movement, a 70s rock band that experienced a “second career” starting with the release of their 1986, best-selling album Permanent Vacation. The follow-up, 1988’s Pump, was an even bigger commercial success. “What It Takes” was the album’s final single to be release, barely scrubbing the charts in 1990. As an owner of the album, however, it was on frequent play for me throughout 1989 and 1990. This quickly became my favorite Aerosmith song, mostly for its bluesy rock style, but also for the feeling of playing my cassette and driving with the windows down as I went to meet friends for a night out.  It still sounds like youthful grown-up-ness to me.

1. “Love Song” (Tesla)
Sacramento-based rockers Tesla straddled stardom until their 1989 album The Great Radio Controversy made them into the proverbial “overnight success.” In truth, their love of the blues and Northern California 70s rock really gave them a distinct sound, and secured a reputation of more legitimacy in the hard rock world than if they were “only” a ballad-playing MTV band. That said, they remain forever known by one song––one ballad––one ballad that just might be the king of 80s rock ballads.

For a bonus treat…the song played a memorable role in the band’s acoustic album, Five Man Acoustical Jam. Recorded live in Philadelphia, the song acted as a transition to a short “electric” set. The crowd’s sing-a-long speaks volumes about the song’s popularity.

Immigrants are #MoreThanALabel

About a week ago, I was asked to participate in the #MoreThanALabel campaign, an effort by the MSW Program at Simmons College to promote positive immigrant-related discourse in the United States.

It’s not mystery that this is something dear to my heart, both intellectually and personally. It’s what I care about as a professor, through work that focuses on the history of Latin American-descent migrants and their descendants. It’s what I care about as a Chicano, as the member of a family and larger community that is both immigrant and native-born. And it’s what I care about as a person, as a human being who sees the unnecessary suffering of people as they make terribly difficult decisions to migrate and, ultimately, take up the struggle of creating lives in new often hostile places.

For those in the United States who care about immigrants––especially those who are part of the majority (white, native-born) society––there is work to be done.  If we really care about doing something to combat the labels and stigmas that affect the lives of immigrants in our country, we have to start by looking in the mirror.

We need to check our fears and assumptions. We need to open ourselves to learning about the diversity of immigrant experiences.  We need to promote the creation of new immigration systems that are designed to meet 21st century challenges.  And we need to forcefully and affirmatively commit ourselves to the social value of humanism.

Being a humanist in the 21st century means learning about the world. It means grappling with the complexity of things like capitalism and neoliberalism, systems that link much of us together in ways that are powerful and, often, invisible to our understanding. It means being empathic, extending ourselves to understand the lives, the desires, the struggles of others, even when those are nearly impossible to fully understand.

It also means changing how we think about the nation that is the United States.

There is no a person in the United States today who is not benefiting from the work of immigrants.  Not one of us will go the day without eating something that is planted, picked, packed, or processed by a Spanish-speaking migrant.  And that’s just one, life-giving form of work.  The work immigrants is so diverse that it relates to each of our lives in countless different ways, each day.  The common link of all this labor is simple: The United States does not survive without immigrant labor.

That is a good starting point, but its not a very humanistic one.  We’re not going to combat the racism and xenophobia making immigrant lives so difficult by shouting “We need them for cheap labor so we can benefit from them!”

What we need to do is to learn about these relationships between our own lives and the lives of immigrants.  We need to think about the ethics and morality that come with them. Is it right to benefit from the suffering of others?  Is it right to support a system that labels some “acceptable” and others “illegal”?  And finally we need to find a way to humanistically “flip” the power imbalance that makes migration such an oppressive system in our present.

We do that by accepting that global migrants deserve the same inalienable rights as do all other human beings in the world.  We do that by making sure our political systems nurture and protect those rights.

And we do it by living our own, individual and personal lives in ways that show it.

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Friday Five: 1988

This weekend is my 25th high school reunion!!  25 years!!

I can’t be there because I’m in Tampa at a conference, a commitment I made before the date was set.  So what better way to celebrate than a selection of tunes from 1988.

5. “Hands to Heaven” (Breathe)
There were a lot of ballads that topped the charts in 1988. This song, by the British group Breathe, was one of them. My sister once walked in on me singing along to it at the top of my lungs. I was not embarrassed.

4. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince)
We first met Will Smith back in 1988, but we didn’t know it yet.

3. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (Tracy Chapman)
Maybe the best thing musically about 1988 was the self-titled, debut album of Tracy Chapman. It included her hit single “Fast Car“––which remains a favorite song of mine to this day––and this song, the lead-off track on the album. In this video Chapman performs the song at Wembley Stadium as part of the festival concert in June 1988 to commemorate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Younger audiences should note, Mandela was still imprisoned in 1988, with the support of much of the West.

2. “A Little Respect” (Erasure)
I love this song so much. I have sung along with it, laughed with friends while it played, and gotten as sweaty as a person can get while dancing to it. It is one of my top 20 sons of all-time, solely for the the memories and many meanings it has had for me. A classic. Here’s the original video, along with a 2014 live performance that shows it means a lot to others, too.

1. “Push-It” (Salt-N-Pepa)
It’s more than a catchy tune that can be used for commercials in 2015, and make my kids laugh. Put it in context: In 1988, the idea of women rappers was revolutionary. They were trailblazers. And they did it well.

Cocina! Cocina!

IT IS DONE!! It is FINALLY done!!

After 29 days––29 long, eating too many sandwiches, washing dishes in the bathroom sink, not being able to cook more than a salad days––the Summers Sandoval family has a kitchen again!

And it’s better than ever before…

cocina1

We have new, custom cabinets on both sides and a beautiful tile counter. We live in a historical district so we tried to keep a lot of the charm and style of the old kitchen.  The molding and built-in shelves aren’t technically historic for the period of our house but they sure look like it to our 21st century eyes.

cocina2

We had wall and door taken out, seen here in the far end of the kitchen. It really opened up the space and made it feel like we added on.

cocina4 cocina3

I’m just happy that we can go back to cooking and eating our typical food. It’s amazing how difficult that dietary shift has been for us as a family, adding to the mood swings and short tempers with all the chaos in the house.  The kids have been great about it, though, but not as great as my wife, who had a lot more inconveniences to deal with than any of us.

Here’s to new beginnings! And to Dodgers taking care of business tonight in game 4!

“The People and the Police: Oakland” (1974)

This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.