Not a Way of Life

“But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reaching against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. Bt it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)

Meaning and Movement in the 4th of July

Three years ago on this holiday I posted Fredrick Douglass’ famous address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This year, as a flurry of progressive sites in my feed do the same, it’s given me the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

Delivered in 1852 in the midst of an escalating effort to free more than 3 million people from bondage, and rid the United States of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Douglass’ words illuminated a critical moment. The revolution which had founded this nation, as well as the people who had fought and died in it, were fresh memories for many in the audience. Coming only 76 years after the Declaration of Independence, most in the crowd likely had one or more relatives whose sacrifice made them directly part of this past. Their patriotic exceptionalism, growing ever more palpable with each succeeding generation, further made the occasion of this nation’s birth a personal affair.

Douglass walked the fine line between celebrating the heroism and exceptional character of the Founding Fathers, and with them the fundamental premise of the nation, while chastising the crowd for their own hypocrisy, assuming a man who spoke for slaves could celebrate such an occasion.

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

It is that tension that frames Douglass’ address that I think is lost on some of us today. He can simultaneously use his admiration for the founding principles of this nation (and even their inciting events) to celebrate the occasion in one manner while also framing a critique of present-day inequalities.

I’m not as generous or high-minded as Douglass. I balk at patriotism, often unable to view it for any positive attributes it may possess beyond the horrific acts against humanity it serves to excuse and obfuscate. But I think Douglass is all the more significant for me for this reason.

Douglass is a reminder to us all to seize as our own the aspirational principles embodied in this imperfect nation. He shows us how preserving that optimism is at the heart of meaningful critique. He also provides perspective.

It strikes me as hyperbolic to compare our present with his past while ignoring the differences. He spoke at a time when more than 3 million African-descent people lived in chattel slavery. Draw all the similes you like, our present inequality is but a whiff of this past, even on it’s worst days. It also seems to me careless to take away from his speech only the polemical tone without also confronting his humanistic love for freedom and democracy.

This isn’t a call to celebrate today as all others do; but neither is this a charge to dissent. It is a recognition of our responsibility to continue the work Douglass and others performed in their time–the work of building justice. It is also a bold reminder that our most powerful weapon is the humanism of the principles many uncritically celebrate today.


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.

DREAM Act: the silver lining

David Hidalgo (1954- ), Louie Pérez (1953- ), Cesar Rosas (1954- ), Conrad Lozano (1951- ), and Steve Berlin (1955- ), collectively known as Los Lobos (East Los Angeles, CA); and Taj Mahal (Massachusetts, 1942-) performing “Highway 51” (c. 1988).

Latino History Month #1

They say those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. I say, those who do not know their past have no future. For what are we if not the bearers of the collective memories and struggles of our ancestors?

In service of “Hispanic Heritage Month” (which I fear means little more than a few PBS specials and an enchildada dinner at the White House) I offer you a free Chicano/Latino history lesson every Wednesday for the next month.

This week, we go into the past to explore a moment in our collective history when youth radicalism seemed to be sweeping barrios from East LA to East Harlem.

Known as a Chicano nationalist organization with a militant leaning, the Brown Berets began in 1966 as a Church-fostered youth group called Young Chicanos for Community Action (YCCA). Sustained police harassment and an emerging exchange of “radical” ideologies and organizational examples reshaped them by the late 60s into the Brown Berets.

Their ten-point platform might be both easy to celebrate or deride, depending on your political sensibilities. As historians of our collective past, however, it is a significant statement of self-determination and youth idealism, shaped by a particular moment and place. We might wonder what experiences framed this utopian vision as “truth” for the young men and women involved?

Brown Berets, “Ten Point Program,” 1968. Reprinted in “Brown Berets: Serve, Observe, and Protect,” La Raza (newspaper), June 7, 1968, 13.

  1. Unity of all of our people, regardless of age, income, or political philosophy.
  2. The right to bilingual education as guaranteed under the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
  3. We demand a Civilian Police Review Board, made up of people who live in our community, to screen all police officers, before they are assigned to our communities.
  4. We demand that the true history of the Mexican American be taught in all schools in the five Southwestern States.
  5. We demand that all officers in Mexican-American communities must live in the community and speak Spanish.
  6. We want an end to “Urban Renewal Programs” that replace our barrios with high rent homes for middle-class people.
  7. We demand a guaranteed annual income of $8,000 for all Mexican-American families.
  8. We demand that the right to vote be extended to all of our people regardless of the ability to speak the English language.
  9. We demand that all Mexican Americans be tried by juries consisting of only Mexican Americans.
  10. We demand the right to keep and bear arms to defend our communities against racist police, as guaranteed under the Second Amendments of the United States Constitution.

Like many other nationalist organizations, the Brown Berets’ history was marked by deep conflicts over sexism, as well as debates over the meaning of being “Chicano.” This is the story that flows from the above document, one best encompassed by questions like: How did this platform reflect the needs and interests of their membership and the larger community of which they were a part? How did it not? How did they go about trying to implement their vision?

If you are interested in pursuing just some of the above questions, feel free to do some further reading. A nice overview of the rise of the Berets can be found in Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, by Ian F. Haney-López. A superb collection of feminist writings from this era, ones that often express the tension between nationalism and feminism, is Alma Garcia’s Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings.

You are reading LATINO LIKE ME.

The Prop. 8 Case: Findings of Fact

Check out the findings of fact related to today’s decision, especially from page 60 onward.

And this is what it comes down to: all the arguments same-sex marriage opponents use are not provable in a court of law. In fact, in many cases, the opposite of their arguments is provable.

The next time you hear somebody calling this proof of an “activist court” take issue with them. What they are saying is that a court should only base its decision on feeling and opinion, not on legal (provable) fact.

The next time you hear somebody say this was an “anti-democratic” decision because it overturned the voters’ will, remind them that democracy has its limits, too. That line is always reached when it abridges the legal right of another person.

Support Overtime for CA Farmworkers

This is a picture of Arturo Rodriguez (UFW President); Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter, CA); Msgr. James Murphy (Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament); and scores of farmworkers. They are kneeling in California’s State Capitol building and praying that Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar will sign SB 1121 into law.

The bill–which is now on the Governor’s desk–would give farmworkers the same right you and I already have: overtime pay for overtime work.  Schwarzeneggar only has a limited amount of time to sign it.

Authored by Florenz, the bill “would lift a 1941 exemption in state labor code that excludes farmworkers from getting overtime pay after an eight-hour day or a 40-hour week. California farmworkers now get overtime pay only after a 10-hour day or a 60-hour week.”

You can read more about it here and here.

The 450,000 farmworkers in California deserve more than time and a half.  They perform the life-giving work that you and I depend on to do, well, everything we do.  Right now, you owe them your support.

Call or email Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar’s office NOW and tell him to sign the farmworker overtime bill into law.  Dial 916-445-2841 or send and email via the official correspondence link.

Oscar Grant: Never Forget

I don’t want to summarize the news or to engage in a debate about what the jury did or didn’t do.  Ultimately, it is all irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Oscar Grant–like scores of others before him–quickly became a symbol of a larger problem in U.S. society.  He became a symbol of the kinds of historic violence which exist far too often between “law enforcement” and communities of color.  He stood as the embodiment of the untold number of times others have faced this violence, also falling victim to the unequal distribution of power which marks those interactions.

Oscar Grant also became a symbol of those rarest of times when we all can bear witness to this violence.  More often than not, this is a history that is hidden from us.  Indeed, part of the problem is the way “the system” can recognize or ignore evidence.  It can even destroy it.  It has had capricious and sometimes unethical human power to frame these interactions of violence in ways that negate their very existence.

Oscar Grant’s death became a moment of libratory possibility.  While it never fully transpired, neither did it fail to free.

Oscar Grant was a real person.  His death his real.  The pain his family feels is real.  His human failings and strengths are, also, real.  But so are the pains and sufferings his death symbolized.  The anger people feel, the fear people feel, are all intertwined with this more than anything.  When the jury reached its decision yesterday, almost anything they did would not have wiped away the fear and pain.  It would not have stopped the prospect of more violence in the daily interactions of the “law” and the people.

A jury could have done more; a jury could have done less.  Either way, there is always more to be done still.  Much of this–the most important parts of it, really–are things a jury could never do.  They rely on you and me, all of us.

The lesson to take away from Oscar Grant is that his case–while extreme–is not unusual or uncommon.  The ability his death has had to remind us of that is powerful and, I hope, lasting.  If we fail to let him remain a symbol, then we have ignored the very power of what has occurred.  We won’t understand what Oakland is experiencing right now.  We won’t be able to comprehend the rage and sadness felt by people who never met the young man.  We will, in effect, all fall victim to the inertia of the past.

Never forget.  The struggle for peace is dependent on it.

Pomona College 2010 Graduation

On Sunday, May 16, 2010, Pomona College will celebrate the One Hundred and Seventeenth Commencement ceremony in the College’s history as we graduate the Class of 2010. This year’s commencement speaker will be Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, the primary federal official responsible for the US immigration system.

As members of the faculty of the College, and as members of the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies, my colleagues and I are honored to participate in a ceremony that celebrates the achievements of the graduating seniors. But we would not be doing our job as members of an institution of higher education–or as people of conscience who have dedicated their lives to advancing understanding for the betterment of our society and world–if we let this moment pass without recognizing the opportunity for learning it provides.

That is why we composed the following, which is being distributed as I write these words:


“They only are loyal to this college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”
James A. Blaisdell, President of Pomona College (1910-1927)

As we celebrate the Pomona College class of 2010, we wear white stoles as a symbolic statement in support of immigrants’ fundamental human rights. As people of conscience, we call for 1) an immediate end to the current practice of raids, detentions, and deportations that divide families and violate rights, 2) meaningful legislation which enables real immigration reform, and 3) a fair path to citizenship.


Before 1965, immigration to the US was regulated solely on the basis of “racial fitness.” Northern European migration was easy while migration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America was limited or banned. Still, workers were “imported” from the Third World to do a host of undesirable jobs.

Approximately 14% of the current US population is foreign-born. (US Census Bureau) “Unauthorized” migrants are individuals who either reside or work in the US without authorization. They comprise less than 4% of the US population, but more than 5.4% of the US workforce. (US Dept. of Labor)

17% of US construction workers are unauthorized migrants. 25% of the people who pick your food are unauthorized migrants. (Passel 2009)


According to the Government Accounting Office, on average, ONE person dies everyday while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.

The US does NOT imprison most unauthorized immigrants for criminal violations, because being an unauthorized immigrant is not a criminal offense but a civil violation.

More than 350,000 immigrants are detained by the US each year, including asylum seekers, survivors of torture and human trafficking, lawful permanent residents and the parents of U.S. citizen children. (US Dept. of Homeland Security)

Immigrants can be detained for months (even years) without any form of judicial review of their status. More than 80% percent can not obtain legal representation. (Human Rights Watch)

Detainees often do not get timely treatment for their medical needs. 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years. Detention facilities standards are not legally binding. With little oversight for abuse or neglect, many US practices violate international standards. (Amnesty International)


The average cost of detaining an immigrant is $95 per person/per day, but alternatives cost as little as $12. Despite the proven effectiveness of these less restrictive alternatives, the US chooses imprisonment. (Amnesty International)

Congress should pass legislation ensuring detention be used as a measure of last resort. When it is used, all detained persons should have access to individualized hearings on their detention.

Reporting requirements should be fair, non-invasive, and not difficult to comply with, especially for families with children and those of limited financial means.

The US government should ensure the adoption of enforceable human rights detention standards in all detention facilities. There should be effective independent oversight to ensure compliance with detention standards and accountability for any violations.

Compiled by the Intercollegiate Department of Chicano~Latino Studies at the Claremont Colleges.