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You're Dead, Live With It?

My Journey Through Nirvana

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

 I am constantly asked the question as to why I write with so much emotion. As a historian I should be more restrained, objective and search for the truth.  When the first edition of Occupied America was published in 1972, I tried to attend academic conferences in hope of generating a discussion on the facts and to force a reinterpretation of U.S. history that was controlled by historians such as the late Walter Prescott Webb who wrote:

Without disparagement, it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood …. The Mexican warrior … was, on the, whole, inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan. The whine of the leaden slugs stirred in him an irresistible impulse to travel with rather than against the music. He won more victories over the Texans by parley than by force of arms. For making promises-and for breaking them-he had no peer.

Webb’s books were widely read and believed; he was assumed to be objective. Webb was a professor of history at the University of Texas Austin and a president of the American Historical Association.

Admittedly, I had a chip on my shoulder, having just gone through the ordeal of having to appear before numerous academic committees to defend the courses of a newly created Chicano Studies department.

I had at first patiently answered the questions of pompous white scholars, there weren’t many professors with tans in those days.  But I finally had it with the question, “Why do you write with so much emotion?”

After cooling down, I diplomatically replied, “Because I am not a whore and I don’t f…. without emotion!” That marked my last appearance for some time at a scholarly conference.

I began to examine myself and realized that I was taking, in the words of Luis Valdez’s Pachuco in Zoot Suit, “the pinche play too seriously.” This is what happens to you after being socialized through PhD programs and putting that pinche Dr. before your name.

I always watch the reactions of my former students when they finally transcend into to the state of nirvana and receive their terminal degrees. The first thing that they do is sign their names with PhD and create a template for their emails.

Professionalism does something to their psyche and they become more obtuse in their language. The simplicity of passion abandons them and their narratives are no longer to the point but purposely involved.

That is why I am such an admirer of George Carlin whose routine on how we avoid using the word dead is one of the best tools of analysis that I know. Carlin says when you are dead, you did not pass away, you’re dead.  He also has gems like:

Once you leave the womb, conservatives don’t care about you until you reach military age. Then you’re just what they’re looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.

My own journey to nirvana was laced with the necessity of an early marriage and having to work sixty hours a week and carry a full academic load — but it was also shaped through other life experiences. I remember listening to Edward R. Murrow take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and call him what he was – a liar, a bully and a despot.

Carlin and Murrow shared a bluntness, a clarity of thought. You don’t pass away – you are dead. You are not misinformed, you are a despot. Carlin and Murrow cared and were not afraid to deal with reality.

I feel that the historian should share these qualities and should care about lynching, political chicanery and other injustices.  They should feel the pain of those who they write about.

Instead, they are caught up in the cult of objectivity, fairness and tolerance which are paralyzing to a free society.

I feel like “Big Daddy” Pollitt in “Cat on a Hot Tim Roof” when they wanted to shoot him up to kill the pain. He responded “It’ll kill the senses too! You… you got pain – at least you know you’re alive.” When you care about injustice at least you know you are human.

Tolerance is sometimes seen as a virtue, everyone is entitled to his/ her opinion – no matter how unfair and wrongheaded. This often leads us to defend people who we know are wrong.

There is a controversy currently brewing in Tucson about a Latina board member taking exception to the tactics of the Freedom Sumer activists in picketing the homes of Board Members Mark Stegeman and Miguel Cuevas. I personally did not find the actions offensive especially since it is a tactic that is commonly used in Los Angeles. Activists are already picketing in Escondido with the prospect of Joe Arpaio moving there. You can bet that these pickets will intensify if and when he carries out his threat.

The Tucson board member may have been moved by compassion for Stegeman and Cuevas’ families. However, a lot of people have suffered the consequences of their collusion and mendacity. I am sure the families of war criminals have been hurt by similar pickets. Free speech is free speech and we cannot limit it because someone’s relatives are put off.

At the same time, our criticism has to be true and it cannot be whimsical and arbitrary. The question is whether se vale to picket the homes of elected officials?  An unintended consequence of those intervening in the discussion is that it takes attention away from the question at hand. The issue becomes the poor abuelita instead of why people are so angry?

Are these two individuals in collusion with the power elite of Tucson? Do they abet the malfeasances of Tom Horne, Russell, Pearce, Joe Arpaio, Jan Brewer in the discrimination against Mexican American students? Have they purposefully eliminated a highly successful teaching program knowing that Arizona’s public education system discriminates against Mexican Americans and the poor? Have their actions led to the firing of good teachers intentionally hurting their families and them? Finally, the school dropout problem?

As elected officials Stegeman and Cuevas are public figures.

Again, during my suit against the University of California System, they ordered me to take a psychiatric examination administered by one of their highly paid quacks. The questions were invasive. My wife was put off with many of the questions probing my home and sex life. The UC moved four large duplicating machines into my driveway as the neighbors looked on. My 7 year old daughter sobbed and my wife recovering from cancer was visibly upset.

There always appears to be a double standard. There is one standard for Mexicans, the poor and plaintiffs with shallow pockets and the wealthy and their surrogates.

I cannot wait to picket Arpaio when he moves to Escondido. Likewise I would have picketed Stegmen and Cuevas’ homes, they are elected officials and their decisions intentionally hurt people.

In conclusion, you don’t pass away – you are either dead or you are not. You are not misinformed, you are a despot or you are not. Your actions hurt people.  Like Big Daddy said to his son: “I’ve got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live.” Politicos make their decisions, so live with them.

In the interim, we must remember we are part of a community and that “palo dado ni dios lo quita.” Trivialities such as whether Stegeman is being embarrassed do not answer the questions of discrimination and disparate treatment.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution. 

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