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.

“Somos Más Americanos”

Here’s the best and most famous Norteño/conjunto band in the world–Los Tigres del Norte. They are performing their song “Somos Más Americanos” (We are More American), from their upcoming MTV unplugged special. They are joined by Zack de la Rocha.

As the lyrics go: Aunque le duela al vecino (Though it hurts our neighbor) / Somos más americanos (We are more American) / Que todititos los gringos (Than absolutely all the gringos).

I don’t know how long the video will be up since the others have been pulled down. So get it while it’s hot!

Latinifornia

The US Census released the California population data from the 2010 Census today. Here are some of the more interesting figures:

  • California’s total population is 37,253,957
  • About 37.6% of those people are Latino (14,013,719)
  • Some 4.8 million Californians (13%) are Asian

Non-Hispanic whites have dropped to about 40% of the total state population. This means that within the next decade, with natural reproduction and death rates what they are, California will become a Latino majority state.

JFK’s Last Night Alive

JFK spent his last night alive with a room full of Mexican Americans!

The above photo was taken at the Rice Hotel, in Houston, on the evening of November 21, 1963.  JFK and LBJ and their wives were the guests of honor at an event sponsored by LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.  Both the President and Vice President addressed the gathering of Mexican American activists.  The First Lady even offered some brief remarks in Spanish.

Considering I am a historian of the 20th century US, with a specialty in the history of Latinos, and with a fixation on the Kennedy assassination that stretches back to my childhood, I am unbelievably surprised that I didn’t know this before!

The story came to my attention because of a man named Roy Botello.  The 88-year-old, Mexican American from Texas was in the crowd that night and took some 8mm home movies of the evenings festivities.  The film was “sitting in a chest of drawers” in his living room for all these years.  Botello recently decided to donate the film to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, the museum dedicated to the assassination.

You can read more about the story here.

What is a movement?

On September 16, 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) voted to join a strike of grape pickers begun by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC and the NFWA were distinct organizations–the constituency of the first were primarily Filipinos and the latter, Mexican. AWOC also had legal status and the support of the AFL-CIO, of which they were a part.

The NFWA saw itself as more than a labor movement. Its founded and leader–César Estrada Chávez–envisioned his efforts as a poor people movement, something that could fundamentally attack the inequitable power system which determined the poor quality of famrworkers’ lives. Though they didn’t plan on a strike in 1965, their larger project was threatened by being placed in the position of strike breakers. Their primary goal–recognition–would ultimately be served by the dynamic leadership role they played in the ensuing 5-year struggle.

In the same month they voted to join the strike, their English/Spanish newspaper–El Malcriado–began publishing pieces to help educate the Mexican famrworkers about the moment in which they found themselves. One piece asked “What is a movement?” It answered:

It is when there are enough people with one idea so that their actions are together like the huge wave of water, which nothing can stop.

The NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

“Minorities” are the Future Majority

I found this little article about non-white and immigrant voters in Virginia interesting. It doesn’t say much in its content–other than provide a sounding off board for a bunch of trite and recycled political “knowledge” about Latinos, et. al.–but its very publication says an awful lot.

When it comes down to it, Latino and Asian immigrants and their offspring are an unavoidable contingent of the electorate in a growing number of states. Both traditional Democrat and Republican structures are geared toward reaching out to white voters and one of the struggles both parties are grappling with is how to reorganize themselves in small and creative ways to reach the non-white voter. The first step is in taking as fact certain ubiquitous assumptions about these voters and then build from there. In this piece, the oldest assumptions about the Latino electorate are provided as the established contours of the battle ground: Latinos (and others) are socially conservative with liberal tendencies around immigration and race. They can go Dem but they can also go Republican.

In places like California and Texas, where the presence of these “minorities” is as old as the presence of the “majority”–and where demographic change has put us on a course to meaningfully flip those labels in a generation’s time–such infant “debates” as the one from Virginia seem almost silly. With more than 80 years of political activity and growth, Latino voters have acted in ways that would seem to confirm the above generalizations. That is, until the last decade.

We are in a critical moment of political realignment when it comes to the Latino electorate. Two things are emerging: 1) Latino voters are increasingly acting as a unified voting bloc; and 2) they are moving solidly Democratic. One thing drives this trend: xenophobia and racial violence all couched as part of the “immigration debate.”

The national Democratic Party and the national Republican Party are tied for doing nothing much when it comes to federal reforms related to immigration. But one party is clearing making at least failed overtures to the Latino electorate on this count. At the same time the other party is actively courting the contingent within its electorate that represents the equivalent of the White Citizens Council to Latinos today.

The article from Virginia is interesting for the unspoken tension it possesses. Local and regional party organizations are not always in step with their national party when it comes to these stances or their unwillingness to reach out to Latinos. But intentions in this environment get you very little.

In the 1990s, when California Republicans launched into their massive crusade against “illegal immigrants” the Latino population naturalized in huge numbers, registered to vote, and turned our sometimes red and sometimes blue state into a solidly blue chunk of political change. The same is happening in Texas, though to a more measured result. Within 10 years the same will happen to Arizona.

They key here is that Latino voters are not all that up for grabs. The Republicans are losing the contest for their hearts and loyalties because they aren’t even really playing. The Democrats, who struggle to be successful on this front, look like golden gods by comparison.

We are not just “minority” voters. We are increasingly a significant part of a plurality, even in time the majority. The more political “experts” get their heads around that, the more likely they will have a job in 20 years.

Demand your freedom

MLK Day is always a difficult “holiday” for me.  As a historian of the 20th century U.S., and as a person who is deeply committed in both my work and personal life to meaningful progress in eradicating racism, I recognize there is a danger in celebrating King as a “paper tiger,” as Michale Eric Dyson once wrote.  When we remember him as nothing but a bearer of love and integration we negate the sheer radicalism of his life–not only “back then” but now.

I recommend you spend some time today reading “The Last Steep Ascent,” an essay King wrote for The Nation.  Beginning in 1961, King wrote a piece for the magazine every spring, assessing the status of civil rights in the nation.  This one, published on March 14, 1966, was his sixth.

For those who might think the removal of legal protections for segregation was “the end” of the movement, King wrote:

The quality and quantity of discrimination and deprivation in our nation are so pervasive that all the changes of a decade have merely initiated preliminary alterations in an edifice of injustice and misery. But the evils in our society oppressing the Negro are not now so heavy a social and moral burden that white America cannot still live with them. That is the dilemma of 1966, for which the white leadership has no clear and effective policy. The logic of growth means that the civil rights odyssey must move to new levels in which the content of freedom is security, opportunity, culture and equal participation in the political process. Negro goals are clearly defined, their tactics are tested, suitable and viable. The lag is appearing in the white community which now inclines toward a détente, hoping to rest upon past laurels. The changes it must accept in the new circumstances, however logical, have not been faced nor accepted as compelling.

To those who might think that progress for some can be ahcieved without sacrifice, he reminds us:

It is easy to conceive of a plan to raise the minimum wage and thus in a single stroke extract millions of people from poverty. But between the conception and the realization there lies a formidable wall. Someone has been profiting from the low wages of Negroes. Depressed living standards for Negroes are a structural part of the economy. Certain industries are based upon the supply of low-wage, underskilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agriculture operations using itinerant labor, would all suffer shock, if not disaster, if the minimum wage were significantly raised. A hardening of opposition to the satisfaction of Negro needs must be anticipated as the movement presses against financial privilege.

Indeed, his words are as meaningful then as they are now. As an advocate for humane work and living conditions for the 2 million farmworkers in this country, I can find purpose and courage in his concluding remarks:

Negroes expect their freedom, not as subjects of benevolence but as Americans who were at Bunker Hill, who toiled to clear the forests, drain the swamps, build the roads—who fought the wars and dreamed the dreams the founders of the nation considered to be an American birthright.

You can–and should–read the piece in its entirety by visiting the following link.

DREAM Act: the silver lining

UPDATE: The DREAM Act did fail cloiture, 55 votes for and 41 against.

The DREAM Act goes up for a cloture vote in about an hour from now. It will not meet the 60 vote threshold to move to the Senate floor for consideration.

So, the DREAM is dead again. I’m sure it will be back but don’t hold your breathe for that resurrection to come before 2012.

Here are my thoughts on all of that.

A lot of you might be wondering why Harry Reid would schedule a vote on the DREAM Act he knew would fail. The answer to that question is the silver lining to this whole mess.

First, Reid kept it in play as leverage. I expect DADT to get its 60 votes today, clearing the way for it’s passage. We might not ever know, but the two together might have created a context where the one could pass.

Second, there was always a possibility something would get worked out to get 60 votes. It was slim, but “possible” in the textbook sense of politics.

Third–and this is the most important–even in a failed vote the DREAM Act won. To understand that, you have to understand this.

One of the historic problems it has faced is never having forced people to go on the record. Politicians could support it and then do nothing, or support it and then back away, and never have to firm up their stance.

But now a gaggle of Republicans are on record against a measure that has wide support among Latinos. Harry Reid and the Democrats get the benefit of their vote and the GOP gets the negative consequence of theirs.

Forcing the Republican anti-Latino and anti-immigrant hand–especially when it makes them contradict their traditional legal values (criminalizing children “for the actions of their parents”)–is a win in the longterm.

Now we just need to remember in 2012.

Latinos Are Human Beings

“And I thought he was foolish, this man in his seventies, who had no idea what you must do. But the fanaticism of my twenties shocks me now. As I feared it would.”

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Let me say first that I am a supporter of “The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act”–better known as the “DREAM Act”–as I have been since I first heard about it in 2001, in its first incarnation.

That said, barring any unforeseen development in the Senate, the DREAM Act is currently dead. If it is not saved by an 11th hour miracle, it will remain so until at least after the 2012 election.

For me, my support of the DREAM Act has always been a rather complicated thing. It is not a support without qualification. It does not come from a belief that this law (should it become law) is in itself a form of justice. In fact, I willingly admit to the possibility that it may be a step backward in the cause for migrants’ rights in this nation.

My support comes from my belief that is it good policy, for that is what it is. It is policy. It is fair policy, though it could be more fair. It is productive policy, though it could do more to alleviate the inequitable distinction between the “legal” and the so-called “illegal.”

But it is just policy. It is not perfect, but policy never is. It is a creature of an imperfect realm–government–and is thus never going to surmount the shortcomings of the world of its creation.

I don’t expect the political process to produce true, equitable, humane justice. I am not so naive nor am I that optimistic in my view of power. I do expect it to not to stand in the way of what is just. I do expect it to move in the direction of what is just.

But I don’t believe it can be more than a tool in this movement–it is not the movement itself. As I do not expect the running shoe to run marathon for me, I do not ask policy to do the work only you and I can do.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ right would entail far more than the DREAM Act endeavors to do and far less of what it promises. Humane immigration reform entails governments recognizing and protecting peoples’ innate human right to secure a livelihood, even when that entails movement across borders. It means respecting and rewarding work, especially when that work is life-reproducing. It is about not militarizing the border, not criminalizing that which you promote, and not nurturing systems that provide for the abuse of migrants.

True and meaningful justice in the realm of migrants’ rights would mean expanding, not contracting, our sense of who “counts” as a citizen. The notion that the undocumented have to prove their worthiness by being a student or in the military is offensive to me. They are here because we feast off their marginal status in our economy. Most have “proved” their worthiness long ago.

One of the causes of the DREAM Act’s imperfections in terms of migrants’ rights is its chief attribute in the realm of policy. It was and has been intentionally bi-partisan. It was designed to have as wide a reach as is possible while still securing as wide a base of political support. It is a compromise, bought by being explicitly limited, conservative in its scope, and uncontroversial in those it seeks to serve.

While I continue to do my part to advocate for what is truly and meaningfully just and right, I am not so inflexible as to ignore compromise when it can make real people’s lives better.

Now, with its death knell once again ringing, I find my support wavering. I am tired of compromising, of preparing for the imperfect, when this sacrifice produces nothing more than a recurring need for us to do so again, only to a larger extent. What is the value of compromise when it gets you nothing?

The students with whom I have worked with over the better part of the past decade make this measure a very personal one for me. Some of them have been “Dreamers”; some have been undocumented and, yet, due to one or more factors would not fall under the proposed legislation; and most have been neither, just dedicated students–in the prime of their socially conscious young lives–who have been moved to join the cause. I worry for what this kind of politics will mean for the youth working so hard to secure the measure’s passage.

I recently began thinking about what kinds of support I could offer them from my perspective as a middle-aged academic with his own history of political involvement. And then I realized, I have never been a part of a successful political cause.

My first real and sustained involvement in the political process came in 1994, when Californians passed what was called Proposition 187. Then the fight was about affirmative action, first at my university system and then statewide with Prop 209. Then it was bilingual ed with Prop 227. I have been hoping and working for immigration reform since the late 1990s.

Each time “we” lost. The issue sometimes moved toward our favor by the courts but more often this was not case. What’s worse, the terms of the battle have been entirely set by the Right.

Even at the time, the struggle to protect affirmative action seemed ironic. It was a compromise to begin with, a way for the system of power to assure a wider public that something different was being done without substantively altering the dynamics of power in our society. Thirty years later, the Left found themselves struggling (unsuccessfully) to protect this compromise as if it were progress to do so. The lessons are powerful for me.

The present moment in the history of the DREAM Act makes me want to tell young people to abandon ship. It is time we stop advocating for the middle when the other side is pulling that middle farther and farther to the right. The “center” has become a moving target in the world of immigration politics. In the time we’ve been working for our compromise, the Right has mobilized to such an extent that the bill’s original author isn’t even a supporter anymore.

This moment is a time to leave the political maneuvering to the policy people and the politicians. Those of us who stand for what is fundamentally right and moral must refocus our energies and foster movement toward our goals.

That can not happen in the current environment on a piecemeal basis. Compromise has failed. It’s time may return but the present moment is no longer it.

Now we need to set the stage for change by more actively confronting the debate at its core. Too many Americans do not recognize the basic humanity of Latinos. While we have been phone banking for compromise they have been converting more to their side–nurturing their army of hate, of fear, and of ignorance.

The targets have changed. We must recognize this and strategize with it in mind.

As a source of encouragement I offer two points. First, the unsuccessful fight on principled grounds is far more satisfying than the unsuccessful compromise. Even when we lose there are amazingly important things that are won, not the least of which is ground in the battlefield of people’s ways of knowing.

Second, almost anything is possible when we work together. History teaches us that real change only comes when people unite in mass movement. Even the great compromises of our past century were won in a context where people of conscience were actively demanding and mobilizing to secure even more.

Our day is before us if we so choose to pursue it.

History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

From Maya Angelou, “On the
Pulse of Morning,” (1993)

In CA, the Latino Future is Now

There’s a great piece in today’s LA Times spotlighting the rift in the CA GOP over a proposed ballot initiative which would do for California what SB 1070 did for Arizona.  You can read it here.

The Republicans who favor the initiative, like others across the nation, are addicted to their game of (white) race politics and immigrant scapegoating. Those who oppose it (or at least oppose supporting it) are worried about the long-term damage to their party’s political influence.

As the piece notes, in the last election in CA:

…one in five voters was Latino; 80% of them cast ballots for Democratic Gov.-elect Jerry Brown, while 15% voted for Whitman despite her multimillion-dollar effort to woo them. Their participation, driven by labor unions who used the Arizona immigration law to pull Latinos to the polls, was nearly double what it was in the last gubernatorial contest. And those numbers are expected to grow.

Indeed, with a clear majority of the under 18-year-old population in the State of “Hispanic” origin, we are no longer a sleeping giant but a yawning and stretching one. Political power will increasingly depend upon your ability to garner Latino voters.

But far too many Republicans in this State are so myopic (and just plain hateful) to see what is staring them plainly in the face. As current Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (a Republican) laments:

“You can pull the life-support machine off the party, just pull the plug,” he said. “Because there’s no secret, if you look at obituaries and you look at the birth notices in any newspaper, I can tell you what California is going to look like in the next 10, 15, 20 years. If you continue to alienate the fastest-growing population, then you can continue to be a party that is successful in certain areas, but you won’t be able to run the state.”

The debate and political contest over immigration in California is vitally important for the rest of the nation. Unlike what you might guess, this importance is not based on premonition. While many of the Southwestern states, and a few others, will continue to trend toward the Latino plurality California now enjoys, most will not. If Latinos and other pro-immigrant constituencies (especially Asians) choose their representative wisely, CA will set the example for the rest of the nation on how a State can build strength from immigration.

Our unique and historic context is an opportunity to create a society that can withstand the loss of a white majority while continuing to hold to more basic elements of the US political system, nothing short of a fulfillment of a political vision set in motion more than two centuries ago yet, still, only imperfectly realized.