Drawing a Line in the Heartland

The wan Arctic sun slipped into vernal equinox on the evening I touched down in the not so frozen north. Islets of crusty, discolored snow were still cemented to the sidewalks of Minneapolis-St. Paul but they were diminishing day by day. Global warming equals global karma. In my jaundiced vision, the shrinking snowcakes were symbolic of the crumbling fortunes of Bush and his on-going criminal conspiracy.

The Twin Cities are immigrant cities. 50,000 Somalis have landed here on the run from the increasingly volatile Horn of Africa. Although they wear the hijah, the women are uncommonly outspoken. One waits at a bus stop gabbing with a shawled woman in an ornately embroidered robe and learns about how the U.S. fuels the on-going carnage back home. Bumper stickers here read “Ethiopia Out of Somali.” Three Somali woman came to my talk at La Raza on the University of Minnesota campus and asked sharp questions. The Somali community helped elect Keith Ellison, the first fruit of Islam to serve in the U.S. Congress.

The Mall of the Americas, the largest consumer reservation in the known solar system, attracts droves of undocumented immigrants. Most work bottom-rung, low-paying jobs and ICE has been raiding. The shopping overload drives borderline psychotics and bi-polar gunfreaks over the edge. Is anybody keeping the bodycount on mass mall murders? It’s comforting to know that the IWW is organizing in the belly of this beast – although I am not at liberty to discuss in which bowel. Perhaps the first act of class revenge should be to alter the signage so that “America” is spelled with the obligatory three k’s.

The Somalis, Eritreans, Hmung, Squareheads and other exotic refugees are joined by Mexicans and Guatemalans who have become fixtures here in El Norte Congelado down the decades. Last May 1st, the “immigrant” community (I prefer to think of then not as “immigrants” but as travelers) took to the streets in heroic numbers to protest the Sensenbrenner Exclusion Act but a year of daily raids by the cynically initialed Immigration Customs Enforcement that have ripped families apart and closed down meatpacking assembly lines all across Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska has the people who are the color of the earth laying low and leery of putting themselves on parade for the bodysnatchers to gobble whole and so its obvious that this year’s demonstrations will draw far fewer souls than the historic outburst a year ago.

Some argue that lower numbers will diminish clout in congress and reduce chances for passage of a reform bill with a real legalization process. But there are no good options on the floor of congress, least of all the Luis Gonzalez-Jeff Flake proposal that would trigger the largest forced repatriation (purportedly only temporary) in the history of migration in the Americas, and so what does the Movement have to lose?

Around the circle at MIRAC (Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition), the young men and women who have been the motivators of indocumentado fightback, form outreach commissions, committees to write the leaflets, and prepare the press releases. May 1st is, of course, a homegrown American holiday first celebrated 121 years ago this spring when 80,000 immigrant workers marched up Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to the lake in pursuit of the eight hour day. May 1st is the day of the immigrant worker when we are all invited to hit the streets.

I stood with Romeo from the Immokalee workers who, fresh from wresting a penny a pound more from Taco Bell for their stoop-labor tomatoes, are now mixing it up with tbe Big Mac and we sang “Old McDonald had some slaves.” Romeo who hails from Huehuetenango laughed solemnly: “John, I was in Chiapas on the day the Zapatistas rose up against the mal gobierno. We were in the sierra near Motozintla picking coffee on a finca when they came for us. They were saying Marcos was a Guatemalan and so the army ran the “chapinos” back across the border.” Now Romeo is being a Zapatista where he lives from day to day, organizing the slaves for a living wage.

The lake ice was breaking up fast over in Madison, the ragged slabs slamming into the shoreline and splintering into shards of debris, an on-going metaphor for the self-destruct of the Bush braintrust as the rats scurry for the lifeboats and desert the sinking ship of state. Whether it was natural phenomena or the shape of the future, the spectacle excited art historian Melanie Herzog who along with her partner Norm Stockwell, the local alternative radio maven, had invited me into their home to flop. I am on a low-rent book tour.

Mel has just written an energetic text to 97 year-old social documentarian Milton Rogovin’s portraiture of the working class and below (miners in a dozen different nations) but mostly of the lower west side in Milton’s lifelong stomping grounds of Buffalo. “I take pictures of the poor” Milton snaps, “the rich have their own photographers.” This class war veteran’s eye to eye contact (he was an optometrist in real life) with glistening steel shovelers, hollow-eyed Appalachia kids, and women foundry workers dressed up in their Saturday night best, form a tapestry of the faces of a forgotten class (“los olvidados”) that Rogovin’s shutter never forgets.

Melanie notes that the poetry of the eternal Turkish political prisoner Nazim Hikmet informs Rogovin’s work. One in particular, the imprisoned communist’s last letter to his son, touched bone with me:

“Don’t live in the world as if you were renting
Or here only for the summer,
But act as if it were your father’s house.
Believe in seeds, earth, the sea
But people above all.
Grieve for the withering branch,
The dying star,
And the hurt animal.
But feel for people above all.
Rejoice in all the earth’s blessings –
Darkness and light,
The four seasons,
But people above all.”

Everywhere I roam on this purposeful trek, talking up being Zapatistas where we live, I’ve been riffing about water and corn, the devastated forests, what happens when a language dies and what that means to people above all. How we serve our communities and the spaces where we live now. Above all.

The defense of corn was a frequent theme in the Midwest where they grow a lot of transgenic maize. “No hay pais sin maiz” (“there is no country without corn”) is how we say Mexico back home. How what they are doing to Mexican corn, altering its germ plasma and making it something else, commodifying it in metric tons sold by the Cargill Corporation is not just ecocide. We charge genocide.

Norm and I drove out of Madison and a few miles down the pike, swerved under an underpass and slid onto a country road running parallel to a traffic-clogged expressway. Back up in there was Drumlin Farms. A few dilapidated structures and lots of dead cars bordered the winter stubble. The farmers have taken a tract wedged between three freeways over which 160,000 gasoline-powered vehicles pass each day. The farm itself is threatened with eviction by a bigtime car dealer. The campesinos of Drumlin take inspiration from the Southcentral farmers who last summer seized 14 acres in downtown Los Angeles to grow food for hundreds of immigrant families. These spaces, squeezed between interstates or under siege from Wal-Mart distribution centers, are as autonomous as any Zapatista cornfield and need to be defended as such.

I am convinced that their plan is to move us all to the Airport, an enclave over which they exercise absolute control, where maximum suspicious and invasive vigilance permeates the environment. Large dogs energetically patrol the aisles and you are always fixed in Homeland Security’s sights. One avoids incriminating babble like “I really got bombed last night” in casual conversation and no one looks anyone in the eye. The upholstered lounge in which I was trapped at O’Hare for half a day reminded me of the dayroom at a newfangled modular jail.

Even the newspapers are neutral in this limbo between hopelessly delayed flights. The Chicago Tribune had a story from the Kansas City Star about how the Bushites have successfully compartmentalized their war so that only a handful of citizens even notice its impacts. 112 million cell phones have been sold since the war began and the chatter has made us oblivious to the homicidal outrages being commited in our names. But the upbeat puff piece contained a caveat: John and Jane Q. Public have no patriotic investment anymore as Iraq crumples into cataclysm. Americans are used to being Number One and when they are losing, they just punch up the remote and watch something more cheerful like “American Idol” or Global Warming. The war and Bush are over for a lot of folks out there in the heartland and this has put the decimation of Iran on hold until a proper paranoiac fantasy can be constructed to bamboozle the disinterested sheep into supporting it.

Cincinnati is the northernmost outcropping of the global south. Kentucky just across the Ohio River is on the flyway to New Orleans and Tierra del Fuego. Lately, the city, home office of Chiquita and her bananas, has been enmeshed in a deeply Latin scandal after the banana boys were caught red-handed making payouts to right-wing death squads and the Revolutionary Armed Forces 0f Colombia (FARC) which is starred on Bush’s terror list. The cesspool of corruption was unstopped some years ago by a then-Cincinnati Inquirer reporter but the paper chose to kill the story and off the messenger in classic Gary Webb mode.

Sheriff Richard “Rick” Jones of neighboring Butler County where the Klan has vivid roots, sees the threat as coming in from the south too but a little closer to the border: Mexico. Sheriff Jones posts big billboards of himself on the county jail urging the locals to turn ’em in. He bills alleged Mexican president Felipe Calderon for drug busts in his bailiwick and the top three Most Wanted on the County list are ferocious looking Latinos. Sheriff Jones will have a tough time deciding whom to sell his endorsement to when the Republican primaries roll around – Colorado’s Tom Tancredo and San Diego’s Duncan Hunter, both of whom have tossed their hoods into the ring and are each pledged to send the Mexicans back to where they came from, are vying for the nativist vote.


The Heartland Café out in Rogers Park in remote north Chicago is right at the heart of the progressive Democrat machine. Mike James’s perambulation from Uptown and Rising Up Angry, the SDS hillbilly organizing project back in the ’60s, to keeping the Democratic Party honest in a city where one family has ruled for a half century (discounting the Harold Washington interregnum) and honesty is a scarce commodity, mirrors the career track for community organizers in this Alinsky-sotted city. Sooner or later, even the wildest Weatherpersons are absorbed into the Democratic Party apparatus – Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, once America’s Most Wanted, are reportedly big fans of Barack Obama and Obama himself put in a recent appearance at the Heartland.

This is a city with the most unselfconscious apartheid in the New World. Neighborhoods, once severely demarcated ethnic ghettoes, are now blighted by gentrification that is driving people of a darker hue into burbs like Cicero. There is much resentment and some resistance. For Mike James, Rogers Park is a pocket of resistance.

Jesse Jackson Jr. turned up at the Heartland for a Saturday morning rally to boost the campaign of embattled alderman Joe Moore who Wal-Mart wants to whack for demanding a living wage for big box workers. JJ Junior is said to be in the mix for mayor and he orated with all the flamboyance of his pop, his sermon studded with “we the peoples” and “we are somebodys”, a style that seems so antique I had all but disremembered it. Chicago, with Big Boss Dailey at the wheel and its prehistoric police (videos of cops savaging a barmaid and a gaggle of inebriated businessmen were wall to wall on the TV during my stay) is indeed the Democratic Party’s dinosaur pit.

I went to the Baths with Mike, Rus Bradburd, a disillusioned big-time college b-ball coach, and a sensational fiddler from County Kerry, Paddy Jones. Paddy and I huddled in the sauna and I told him the story of Che Guevara until we were roasted. As a fiddle teacher, Paddy tells his young students that they must walk in the bogs up to their necks in mud if they really want to hear the music. Paddy Jones is being a Zapatista where he fiddles.

The Baths are an institution in this hog butcher of a city. The really big deals are cooked up at the steam rooms even while the politicos are scouring off the Daily grease.

But even while playing politics here continues to raise a stench, there are still bonafide Chicago heroes. Studs Terkel neared a century this past March and Lucy Parsons sleeps deep under her granulated pillow of a grave marker down in Forest Home at the end of the Blue line.

The lake front was all granite and light the night I caught the Lakeshore Limited back east. Architecturally, the city is a rock-solid monument to old-fashioned Industrial Capitalism that makes Wall Street with its slender, spiring towers look like a sissy. But outside the city limits, the infrastructure is ragged and rusting. As we skirted Lake Erie, the train rumbled over rough tracks under busted drawbridges and jagged girders that disappeared into the kind of weed-strewn fields in which serial murderers distribute their victims.

The steel mills dried up a decade ago and not a lot of industrial workers are working here anymore. Milton Rogovin’s photos may be all that is left of the American working class, its sweat and blood and heroic battles to organize industry against capitalist exploitation. It is part of the history they have untaught us but still a part of this country’s DNA and DNA does not go away.

JOHN ROSS is on the last leg of his tour for “ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006,” an odyssey across the land where his father croaked. He will soon return to Mexico to rest his weary bones and consider new options. Write him at johnross@igc.org All offers will be cheerfully entertained.


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org