When you voted for Obama your work had only begun

One year ago today, on November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.

At the time, and like many others, I celebrated this milestone in US history:

Today I think of all the millions of lives who fought for a fraction of what has just occurred. Today I think of all the lives that were lost in the name of racial hatred and in the struggle for racial justice. Today I think of all their deferred hopes and dreams, the progress they knew could happen but they could not live to enjoy. Today I am amazed at the victory of their words, of their ideas, of their blood.

One year later, the blissful exuberance of the election has begun to temper. Many “progressives” see this as a partial failure of the Obama administration, if not the man himself. I couldn’t disagree more. If the “Obama era” has not measured up to your visions of a healthier government, a more humane nation, and a more just world, put the blame squarely where it belongs: on you, on me, on us.

A day before Obama was elected, I wrote the following:

In the upcoming months, progressive people of conscience (“non-white” and “white” alike) will have to begin the difficult work of checking their own assumptions. Many have this belief that because a black man will be in the White House that everything will magically become better. Many expect Barack Obama to take a leadership role in transforming the political system in meaningful ways. But why? Why should this special burden be placed on Barack Obama when it has not been evenly placed upon all politicians? Of course, he does have a special obligation regarding race, but that is the same responsibility we all share–white, black, or otherwise.

One year ago today was an important day. It was historically significant. It was also emotionally uplifting. But it wasn’t the end of something. It was just the beginning. The act of voting for “change” doesn’t bring it; if it is successful, it merely presents us with yet another opportunity to do what is right, what is best, what is just.

So today is the one year anniversary of a new opportunity. Whether that opportunity will translate into a new reality isn’t up to President Barack Obama. It is up to us. As James Baldwin said “No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

Now, back to work.



The Struggle We Share: A Love Letter

I delivered this address in 2007, to celebrate the impending senior year of a very special high school student, as well as the college graduation of students I had known since their first year.   I offer it now in honor of that same student–who is about to finish his first year of college–as well as the thousands of other Chicanas and Chicanos celebrating educational achievements in the upcoming months. To you all, ¡Felicitaciones!

The Struggle We Share:
A Love Letter to Chicana and Chicano Students

An address by Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr.
Delivered at the First Annual Raza Day
California State University, Monterey Bay
Seaside, California

May 6, 2007

We are now living in a time of profound crisis. The more I study the past the more I think that is all there ever is but, clearly, at this moment in the history of the United States, even in the history of our world, we—you and I and all of them—we are all trapped in a crisis. This is a crisis that affects you and I very personally, but you and I can also affect it.

This crisis has many faces. Right now, people of all colors and faiths, some who call themselves “American” and many more who do not, are dying in war. This is war being fought in our name, even though you and I don’t agree with it and don’t support it. However gross and incomprehensible it may seem, this is also war being fought in the name of “freedom.” Despite what politicians will tell you, wars do not make people free; they make them afraid, they make them hurt. Wars make people dead. Freedom is what comes when there is no war, the precious moments in the human past when there is peace and the possibility of more peace. Only then are people free.

Right now, much closer to the place we call home, other people, brown people, are also dying in another kind of war. People whose lives began in Mexico, just like yours, people whose lives have been filled with struggle—the struggle to eat, to love, to live—right now some of these people are dying. They die in a war many people over here don’t even recognize is being fought, but what else can we call something that takes peoples lives or fills them with violence? This war, too, is being waged in our name. This war is taking place in the desert that spills over both sides of an imaginary line called “the border.” A long time ago, men drew this line as a result of war. This line they created in a treaty of peace has, ironically, become an “open wound,”1 a home of pain, of war, and of death. Their efforts to define it, to maintain it, to turn the imaginary into a reality people can see and feel, these efforts have produced and reproduced the violence taking peoples’ lives right now. This is war. This isn’t war fought only with guns, but guns are a part. It is war waged through laws, through ideas. It is war felt in the lives of these people who struggle to live, everyday.

This crisis I need to tell you about today has another face. Like these other examples, this face is marked by violence, too. But this is a violence of silence. This violence also hurts, and even kills, as all violence does. Through it, lives are indirectly taken, slowly, for it is a silence that never lets them speak who they are or who they can be. This violence silences our humanity.

You see, silence is sometimes devastating. When it is something that denies who we are, what we have survived, what we have struggled to achieve, then silence is erasure, it is forgetting. The Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga writes: “Silence is like starvation.”2 The tragedy of this starvation, of this crisis of silence, is that there are thousands upon thousands of young people, just like you, who are struggling in it right now. The outrage of this crisis is that little is being done to stop it.

• • • •

I often try to remind myself that I am where I am in my life as a result of struggle. By this I don’t mean just the struggle it took for me to get my degree, to get a job, and to have and maintain a family. I mean, more, the struggles that have made those a possibility for me. In part, this includes my family and the other people who cared for and about me, but it is bigger than them, too.

I am also who I am because of the struggles carried by people whose names I don’t know and whose faces I have never seen. I am the recipient of other peoples’ fights for a more just world. I benefit from the efforts of people who tried to destroy a society based on fear, and on hate, one that limited who we could be. Their struggles to change a system that said Mexicans “are lower than animals,”3 that Mexicans are good for nothing but labor in the fields, were struggles waged for me, and for you. My life is the result of other people’s struggles for equality and equity, even their imperfect struggles for social justice.

In the 1940s, just after the end of World War Two, a Mexican family who lived in Southern California thought that it was wrong for their daughter to have to go all the way across town to what was called the “Mexican school” when a brand new (but all “white”) school was right in their neighborhood. This family—the Mendez family—went to court and sued the school district to end the segregation of Mexican children. When they won their court case in 1946, it didn’t just change the lives of their children, but of all Mexican children who were then learning in segregated schools in California. Their struggle for equality also changed the lives of us, of those who were not yet even born, but who could now enter a world where this kind of exclusion would be illegal.

In 1968, more than 10,000 Chicana and Chicano high school students walked out of their classes in protest. These students, who attended school in East Los Angeles, protested what they said was a school system that didn’t care about their education. In East L.A. at the time, more than half of the students dropped out of high school. Few went on to college. Counselors treated them like criminals, and encouraged them to aspire to be manual laborers. Their protest drew attention to the ways the education system was failing them. Though they were not successful at changing much in the school system immediately, that generation of students would inspire change for years to come. Classes in Mexican American history, counselors who spoke Spanish and understood Latino cultures, bilingual education, and much more resulted from their struggles.

In the early 1970s, throughout the entire state, all students were regularly given an IQ test to determine their mental capacity. Based on their test scores, students were placed into what are called “educational tracks.” Back then, as a result of these tests, most students were placed in regular classes, some were placed in gifted programs, and others—those who scored below a certain level—were placed in classes for the so-called “mentally retarded.” Thirty years ago over 55,000 students in the state were in these special education classes.

But in Soledad, California, not far from here, a group of Mexican parents, whose children were classified as “retarded,” complained. They said even though their school district gave their children the same test given to all the other students, treating them equally, they still weren’t being treated fairly. You see, these children were not fully fluent in English. Some were immigrants, others the children of immigrants, but few of them were competent enough in English to take an IQ test in it. These parents knew that their children were as smart as any, but the school district said they were “retarded.”

These parents also went to court, arguing the schools did not treat their children equitably, that is, each according to their needs. When the court ordered all children in the state to be tested in a language in which they were fluent, some 20,000 students found themselves no longer classified into “mentally retarded” classes.4

We are both products of these struggles and many, many more. Every person who suffered deportation, segregation in the workplace, or the humility and poverty of being imported as a worker into this country, we are even the products of their struggles. You and I live in a time when we can see the results of the years of toil, of effort, of struggle for change, of the fight for a decent life.

• • • •

“But what does this have to do with a crisis,” you might ask. “How is this silence?”

We live in a time of crisis, in part, because we have been robbed of our opportunity to know what equality, equity, and social justice mean, how they have changed over time, and how people have struggled to make them real. Our struggles of the past have been silenced. They have been silenced for a reason.

In the United States, people think of all rights as being based on equality. But equality—treating people the same—is only one part, an important part, of a healthy, human life or society. It must exist, but its existence does not assure us of justice. If we are all equally starving, then none of us is truly happy or free. Equity—treating people fairly and in recognition of their rights—this joined with equality is something much more powerful. But even that does not assure us of true justice. The struggles of the past often created some kinds of equality and equity for us in the present to enjoy, but they did not wipe out inequality and inequity.

This brings us to another kind of silence, the silence of our present struggle. To explain this, I have to explain how I understand “social justice.” However odd it might sound, social justice is, to me, about love. The writer M. Scott Peck defined love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Social justice can only exist with this kind of love, with this kind of nurturing. Social justice is a society where each of us can be as fully human as we can be, where our human spirit can thrive. It is one where our needs are met, not only equally, but equitably, fully, and completely.

At a basic level, education is one of those needs. Though people have struggled to provide us with what we have, what we have is not enough. Based on the figures from the last census, only 46 out of every 100 Mexican American high school students will graduate high school. That means most—54% who start in elementary school—will never finish high school. Of the 46 who do graduate, only 26 will attend some kind of college. Of those, only 8 will earn a baccalaureate degree—the college degree granted by a four-year college or university. Of those 8, only 2 will go on to earn an advanced degree.5 Eight out of every 100. That means out of every 100 Mexican American voices, 92 voices, 92 sets of hope for a better life, 92 opportunities to make this a more just world, are silenced.

In comparison, for every 100 “white” elementary school students in California, 84 will go on to graduate high school, 26 will graduate college with a baccalaureate degree, and 10 will earn an advanced degree.

This is not justice. Why this happens is for many reasons, but each of them are a reflection of how we continue to live in a society that is characterized by much inequality and inequity. What is worse, is the silence. We live in a society largely silent about this tragedy. We are in a crisis of education because we silence the needs of Latino students, because we are silent about our anger, and because too many of us are silent about our need for change. For every student who is pushed out of the system, that silence is compounded. That is a voice we will never hear speak for change, for hope, for justice.

• • • •

I worry now that I may be sounding dramatic, but issues that so meaningfully affect people’s lives are dramatic. I must not, however, sound pessimistic. Even in the midst of this crisis, of this violence, I am hopeful. Though I do not want you to think that the burden of change and progress is on your shoulders (that is too heavy a weight to bear and, anyways, there are others who must lift the lion’s share before you), you are the hope of a better future. I want you—I need you—to know this: I know the future before you is scary, but you will be alright.

All these crises, all of them, flow from a society and a world that has made a commitment to the opposite of love. We are not nurturing each others’ humanity. The violence of an unequal and inequitable education system is the way it destroys the spirit and the potential of a human spirit. The society that does this so easily, so seemingly unconsciously, does not have the right to claim innocence because they did not know. When silencing voices is the crime, not hearing is no kind of defense. But you must also know that even these tragic goals are imperfect. In you, right now, is the living, breathing symbol of their failure. When someday you graduate college, your very existence will help shatter this crisis. You are an explosion of success that can fight back against this violence as you do nothing else other than just get your education. Our struggle, now, is to make sure we are not the only ones.

• • • •

Let me close with a few parting words for you to take to heart. We must know that the 92% of Chicana and Chicano young lives who do not go to and finish college are not failures. The vast majority of them want to. They have been failed by a system that does not care whether they succeed or not. They have not been given the tools, or the valuable information, on how to move forward and achieve. Just like them, your own progress will be based on more than just the desire to succeed (but that is so important).

So, first, you must know that you are beautiful. Beauty marked your birth into this world. The fires and possibilities of a new life are powerful matters. They are mysteries to our present ways of knowing, mysteries growing evermore elusive. But somewhere deep in the recesses of our memories we know that one’s entry into the community of the living is beauty itself. When you entered this world, a force of endless potential was born. Yes, beauty marked your birth; of this be sure.

(I pray this is not a revelation to you. I hope that everyday of your life there is at least a moment when you realize that you are beautiful and good. Even if this is only a fleeting moment, one that passes as quickly as it seemed to have arrived. At the same time, you deserve so much more.) You deserve a life where at every turn and with every breath all of creation reminds you of the beautiful creature you are. But I know this is not the case. I know that for many of your days, here in this life, your beauty has been hidden from you. So I tell you—you are beautiful! If I can leave you with only one thing, this is it.

If you do not see your endless beauty, it is not your fault. We all have our moments and our phases of life where this is our struggle. To be a young person can be hard, I know. To become aware of the world around you as confusing, unknown, as limitless, and at the same time to actively forge your own sense of your individuality—to define who you are and who you will be—yes, these are frightening matters. . .

Second, I also know the fear of going to college, of succeeding in education when many of those around us continue to struggle in their own ways. College will change you, and it must. That change doesn’t have to mean losing the language—the tongue or the heart—to relate to where you came from, or to speak to the people you love. Even if they do not come with you, they do not have to become foreigners. Your sacrifice in choosing and attending a college will not have to include giving up who you are or want to be. But it will change you. What that means (for both you and them) will be for you to decide.

Finally, do not give up. Life will be filled with difficulty, and you know this already far too well. But you must also know life is filled with joy, with happiness, with love, and with community. Whenever times get difficult, whenever your struggle seems like too much to bear, remember that you are not alone. You never will be and, if you remember those who came before us, you never were.

The original was edited for factual information, as reflected below in note 4.

1. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 3.
2. Cherríe Moraga, “La Güera,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981, 1983), 29.
3. Gerald Chargin, Superior Court Judge, from transcript of 1969 trial. As quoted in Ian F. Haney-López, Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (Belknap Press, 2003), 85.
4. This figure includes those formally decertified due to testing and those otherwise not classified into EMR classes due to fears of litigation.  See Richard R. Valencia, The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality (New York University Press, 135-36.
5. Tara J. Yasso and Daniel G. Solórzano, “Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline,” Latino Policy & Issues Brief, no. 13 (March 2006).

The Legacy of Harvey Milk


November 27th is the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk, San Francisco politician and activist. The first openly gay man to be elected to office, he analyzed the significance of his election as follows:

Somewhere in Des Moines or San Antonio there is a young gay person who all of sudden realizes that she or he is gay; knows that if the parents find out they will be tossed out of the house, the classmates will taunt the child, and the Anita Bryant’s and John Briggs’ are doing their bit on TV. And that child has several options: staying in the closet, suicide. And then one day that child might open the paper that says “Homosexual elected in San Francisco” and there are two new options: the option is to go to California, or stay in San Antonio and fight.

Two days after I was elected I got a phone call and the voice was quite young. It was from Altoona, Pennsylvania. And the person said “Thanks.” And you’ve got to elect gay people, so that that young child and the thousand upon thousands like that child know that there is hope for a better world; there is hope for a better tomorrow. Without hope, not only gays, but those blacks, the Asians, the disabled, the seniors, the us’s: without hope the us’s give up. I know that you can’t live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living. And you, and you, and you, you got to give them hope.

In many ways elaborating on the above point, Milk recorded some thoughts on his career, in the event of his untimely death. They were featured in the 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk”:

While this time will mean many things to many people, I hope it can also be a time to savor the victory that can come with people united in movement. At their most meaningful, these victories are not about representation or simplistic political gain: they are about life and hope.