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.

Latino History Month #4

For the fourth and final installment of the “Latino Like Me Presents: Latino History Month 2010″™ series I wanted to go into the past to provide you a historical primary source that is both a window into our collective past as well as our collective present.

And so we turn to the legendary Bernardo Vega.

Born in Puerto Rico, in 1885, Vega worked as a tobaquero, a cigar maker. Tobaqueros were skilled workers on the islands of the Caribbean, as well as a highly politicized class. In each workshop a man called “El Lector” was paid to read newspapers and political treatises to the workers, providing them something of a sustained education as they rolled their hand-crafted cigars.

In the late 19th century, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were both Spanish colonies, tobaqueros were among the first migrants to the US from the Lain American Caribbean. They settled in parts of the US South and Northeast, and helped organize political groups to agitate for an end to Spanish colonialism. The groups they established became the roots of future Puerto Rican and Cuban communities for the next century.

In 1916, Vega became part of that community when he arrived in New York City.

What makes Vega an important figure is that he wrote about his life experiences. Published after his death, The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega is less a personal story of one man than a record of early 20th-century Puerto Rican life, in particular in the mainland US. Among the more exciting elements of his text are the detailed descriptions of this early community, both passionate about their island home as well as the political realities of daily life in the belly of the US empire.

Vega, like other politically-minded people, had ideas about the world he witnessed, many times identifying and analyzing important issues facing Latinos in the US. This passage, from that seminal text, is one example:

The constant growth of the Puerto Rican community gave rise to riots, controversy, hatred. But there is one fact that stands out: at a time when there were no more than half a million of us, our impact on cultural life in the United States was far stronger than that of the 4 million Mexican-Americans. And the reason is clear: though they shared with us the same cultural origins, people of Mexican extraction, involved as they were in agricultural labor, found themselves scattered throughout the American Southwest. The Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, settled in the large urban centers, especially in New York, where in spite of everything the circumstances were more conducive to cultural interaction and enrichment, whether we wanted or that way or not.

Vega’s analysis is perceptive and, on many levels, true.

In this time period, and for the next two generations, Puerto Ricans were concentrated largely in one urban center–New York. The “impact” they had on affairs in that city (and somewhat beyond) is partially a result of their concentration, but also a result of their political and cultural organization. Even when their numbers were few, Puerto Ricans came to the US and set out to do the work of community organizing, and they were successful.

The fact that much of this organization took root in New York city–the most important city in the US–provided other advantages. New York’s position within US economic, political, and cultural matters only increased throughout the 20th century, and by having a voice within the Big Apple, Puerto Ricans had a voice in the nation writ large.

Where Vega missed the mark is in his lack of acknowledgment of one key difference between the migration of Puerto Ricans and the millions of Mexicans in the Southwest. Puerto Ricans migrated to the US as citizens, vested with full political rights upon their arrival. This isn’t to say they did not face harsh racism and multiple forms of discrimination. But, as voters, they could garner the attention of politicians in ways that Mexican Americans could not.

Ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest were numerous and diffuse, but they were also clustered in key urban centers. By 1930, Los Angeles had become the second-largest Mexican city in the world, second only to Mexico City itself. But in the early 20th century, most in the ethnic Mexican community were first-generation, non-citizen immigrants.

As the number of US-born Mexican Americans came to represent half and, then, a majority of the population as a whole, they did so with the largest share of their population under the age of 21. For much of the century, then, ethnic Mexicans were primarily a non-eligible to vote majority population. Accordingly, as late as the mid-20th century, Mexican Americans struggled to exert any political force at all, living as they were in a political system that had little motivation to cater to them.

My analysis is not meant to disparage Vega as much as to point out the people we call “Latino” and “Latina” have much in common, as well as much that distinguishes their historical and present-day realities. Citizenship and regional migration patterns are but two. We could also have discussed gender, race, nationality, class and a host of other forces which have carved out divergent experiences.

The final lesson is not a pessimistic one. This “diversity within commonality” is at the heart of Latino America. It is the source of a tremendous opportunity for us all to learn about the contours of US imperialism in “on the ground”, concrete ways. It is also an opportunity for us, as Latinos, to better learn about ourselves and, in the process, create something new.

The US national project has been simultaneously tragic and hopeful. Far from a fulfillment of its most enduring ideals, the US–as experienced by indigenous Americans, African slaves, and waves of immigrants–has been as much a story of conquest and oppression as freedom and liberty. But the space between those two poles, the lived reality of millions of us now and then, continues to breed a hope that something better can be realized.

The hope of this something better requires a deliberate and purposeful re-imagining of ourselves in ways that incorporate difference, acknowledge past and current struggles, and embrace true equity.

This is the example we set as Latinos in the US. We forge a pathway to this new nation by our current struggles to do exactly the same within our own “community.” The mere fact that this word can be used to describe us–however conditional it might be–should be embraced as a sign of hope for everyone.

We have been so important to the past of this nation. We are vitally important to it if it is to have a future.

Chavez enrolls Obama in Latin America 101

The Presidents of Venezuela and the United States have “informally” crossed paths twice at this weekends’ Summit of the Americas. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama first exchanged words yesterday, and then, today, Chavez gave Obama a book as a gift.

CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

The book he gave him is Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, by legendary Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. (Here’s a recent article on Galeano where he discusses some of his ideas on Latin America and his new book, Espejos.)  The text is a familiar one to students of Latin American history, serving as it does as something of an introduction to European and U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.

That’s right; Chavez just suggested Obama “go to school” on the imperial history of his nation.

I suspect the big O already knows a bit about that past (and, regrettably, present), but I still hope he takes the time to read Galeano.  It’s one of those life changing books, challenging as it does many of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. involvement in the hemisphere.

But Chavez didn’t stop there.  In comments he delivered on Saturday, Chavez said the U.S. “must breakaway from the concept of viewing us as its backyard.”  (See the full story here.)  The notion of “proximity” has always been a prcursor to U.S. empire, as argued (with copious amounts of proof) by scholars like Lars Schoultz and Louis Pérez Jr. When he said that, Chavez wasn’t speaking to Latin America, the only part of the hemisphere that seems to be reporting on his remarks.  He was intentionally trying to “teach” the U.S. about the problems of its own “savior” tendencies.

Chavez is a well-read man, familiar with much of the recent work in Latin American history produced by English-language writers.  Some years ago, he made a public appearance holding Empire’s Workshop, by historian Greg Grandin (a stellar book, btw).  Our president has the chance to show Latin Americans he is more than a machine spouting off the rhetoric of neoliberalism, like our previous 43 guys in office.  A good start might be by showing them he understands what it is they know and why they know it.

But, then again, it’s politics.

Read more LATINO LIKE ME.