The Limits of Numbers

It’s official now: Latinos outnumber whites in the state of California, making us the largest ethnic group in the Golden State.

The switch happebed sometime last year but the numbers only became official last week. With 14.99 million Latinos in California, there are more of us than there are so-called “non-Hispanic whites,” who number about 14.92 million.

It’s a gradual change but one that will continue throughout the foreseeable future. Aside from immigration, whites in California are old and dying and not reproducing much while Latinos are younger and reproducing at higher rates. We are the future source of the natural birth rate, too. There are twice as many Latinos under 18 (4.8 million) than whites (2.4 million) ensuring that we will make up the majority of the next generation of native-born Californians.

More than 80% of the Latino population in the state is ethnically Mexican, meaning our collective story is rooted to this just one country, whether we are a US-born “Mexican American” or a foreign-born mexicano. That means that sometime in the next few decades it is likely that the ethnic Mexican population alone will outnumber whites in California.

Our youth–coupled with a long legacy of segregation and political disenfranchisement–means that our demographic ascendency doesn’t necessarily translate into political power. That, too, will likely come, but it will take more time, political organizing, and, perhaps, a willingness for the emerging “white minority” to relinquish some of its hold over the reigns of power. If not, every year that passes will make the Californian political system look more and more like some kind of 21st century apartheid state, albeit one that projects a kind of benevolence.

All these changes are important and, in my eyes, good. But there are limits to our demographic ascendancy.

How many Californians will go through their day never once speaking to a Latino? How many live in communities where Latinos are nearly invisible? How many work in places that make this demographic reality look false? How many are educated in classrooms that do not reflect this emerging majority? How many will be surrounded by Latinos–will have their lawns cut, food cooked, and houses cleaned by Latinos–but never have a conversation with even one?

I am Chicano (Mexican American). I live in a Mexican-majority city, in a Mexican-majority neighborhood, next to my Mexican American neighbors. My kids attend a Mexican-majority school. When we go to any store, we see and engage with other Mexicans/Chicanos.

When I go to work, I am one of two US-born, Mexican Americans on the faculty of my college.  The Latino share of our student population is a national-leader for liberal arts colleges but is still only about 1 in 6. Unless they speak with the gardening or housekeeping staff, most of my colleagues can go their entire day on campus never speaking to a member of the emerging majority of this state.

What’s worse, this is hardly a unique condition.

We are the the largest ethnic group in California but we remain segregated, marginalized, and disproportionately confined to the invisible corners of mainstream society. The reality of the demographics should be–it must be–a wake up call for us all that the meaningful reality of a multiethnic, multiracial society is still before us.

And there is work to be done.

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Latinos in San Francisco

My book—Latinos at the Golden Gate—should be ready to ship out in a matter of days. If you’re interested in buying a copy, you can get a 20% discount off the cover price by ordering directly from UNC Press.

Just click on the book’s order page and enter the code 0120DIS at checkout.

cover

A New School Year

Today I begin my 30th semester as a teacher in higher education.  With any luck, it will also be my last as an untenured, assistant professor.

A new school year always brings with it a mix of emotions and stresses.  One consistent for me for the better part of the last decade is the very specific excitement that comes with the fall semester’s beginning and the fresh crop of students enrolled in my intro-level Chicano/Latino history course.

As a class, it is the very reason I chose my vocation.  The power and meaning that comes with being able to create an academic space that is collaborative, critical, and focused on narrating the diverse experiences of people of Latin American descent in the US is an overtly political act, and a very necessary one.  So much so is this the case in our present moment that it is a point I need only casually make for my students this morning.  As Chicanas/os and Latinas/os living in the US at this time, they are brutally aware of the consequences of “not knowing” and the stark lack of human compassion that is nurtured by this.

When we put it in those terms, however, that politics is inherently about people.  And that is perhaps what sustains me most throughout the year.  What we are going to do today and throughout the semester is not just learn, but build the greater likelihood of a more just, more humane, and more decent future for us all…

one mind at a time.

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.

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.

21st CENTURY U.S. RACISM

The fundamental assumption of our criminal justice system is that (at least most of) the people who find themselves in it are criminals deserving of their punishment. Relying on our notions of free will (they chose to commit a crime) and egoism (I haven’t struggled to NOT commit a crime so they shouldn’t have had a hard time either), we have faith that the broad contours of the system work, at least at the task of apprehending and incarcerating criminals.

What we often don’t consider is how our “individual decisions” are framed by a context–one that shapes not only motivation and possibility, but literally what our individual decisions mean.

Drug and alcohol addiction do not present themselves in higher rates in poor communities of color. Rich whites and poor Blacks and Latinos are as likely to be addicted as are poor whites and Asians, and rich Blacks and Latinos, and so on. A near avalanche of studies shows this. Addiction presents itself in society the way you would expect when you consider it a disease.

So, Americans tend to misuse illegal drugs at a rate equivalent to their share of the overall population. Yet African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses than whites. In the case of African Americans, they are 13 times as likely.

A complex convergence of policies and societal forces work together to constitute this disparity. Penalties for more expensive drugs (like cocaine) are less severe than penalties for cheaper drugs (like crack); whites are more likely than others to be offered mandated treatment as their sentence rather than prison time; studies show charges for the same drug offenses are brought more frequently and with harsher consequences for men of color; and so on.

But I’m not just trying to get you to think about racial inequality in the charging and sentencing of drug offenders.

The recent NAACP report “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate” presents the scope of the problem. There are currently 2.3 million people in the US who are incarcerated. Most of them (6 out of 10) are people of color.

The total imprisoned population in the US is 25% of the world total population of prisoners. Though the US represents only 5% of the world’s population we house 25% of its prisoners.

As the report suggests, we have created a prison system that is essentially “warehousing” addicts and people with mental health issues.  We are spending a disproportionate amount of money to imprison a small percentage of our overall population that comes from a small handful of communities as well.  As the report shows, prison rates are highest in a small handful of communities where populations of color predominate and education resources atrophy.  We are seemingly comfortable with the fact that it is more likely for a young black or Latino male living today to end up in prison than in a 4-year college.

If you believe that everyone who is in prison is there as a result of an equitable system that is controlled only by their free choice, then you have to account for your fundamental assumption that men of color are more dangerous than white men.  (and, in case you’re not feeling racist yet, there is not substantiated research to show that they are.)

The NACCP report can be accessed by CLICKING HERE.

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.