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When I write about the Chicana/o community, it is more in the spirit of an examination of conscience than an indictment. Although I do not pretend to be member of any religious sect or group, it is a habit that I picked up after over twelve years of parochial schools. We were taught to examine our consciences daily and later to use a scholastic method of inquiry to test our assumptions.
Although the method had its flaws, it was good because it forced us to think. My criticism was that there was an over reliance on theology and when the thinking stopped that one fell back on faith, which is where I stepped off. However, to be fair it was used primarily as a method to interpret scripture.
Religion is part of culture but it often becomes so overwhelming that it neutralizes thinking. My feeling is that we have to use methods to go beyond these cultural biases, and this can be difficult.
I was listening to public radio last Sunday, to a discussion of the Italian economic crisis and how the rise of Silvio Berlusconi was possible. The gist was that it was rooted in Italian culture primarily the family which made the Italians insular and promoted distrust of anyone outside the unit. This made change difficult and one of the reasons for the rise of the mafia. The conclusion was that this insularity would hamper the reforms needed to get Italy out of its economic doldrums. While I have questions about this analysis, I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand.
It is a cultural trait that many including Mexican Americans and Latinos share. We tend to be clannish, romanticize our families, and this carries over to our organizational work where many of us take on the identity of the organizations that we belong to. It becomes our family. For example, I am over protective of Chicana/o Studies.
Recently I wrote an article on the failure of Mexican American and Latino organizations to stop the carnage in Arizona. The suppression of free speech in Tucson has gone unrestrained despite the hype that we are a national minority. How is it that we can get the President of the United States to address our conventions, but not get him to enforce the Constitution in Arizona? There is nothing more fundamental than education and free speech which is being flagrantly denied.
Perhaps I could have been more diplomatic, used less offensive words. Some interpreted the word failure as harsh which in my method of criticism is not. I consider myself a failure for some of the failures of Chicana/o Studies. Few would argue with the proposition that the disparate Latino scholars have contributed to what I termed the Arizona failure.
For a lack of space I zeroed in on two organizations, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza. Both of these organizations have assumed the mantle of national leaders and should be evaluated with this in mind.
I did not mean to say that the organizations are failures. I was being very specific about their failure to stem the racist hysteria in Arizona. I thought I differentiated between MALDEF and NCLR. I do not really consider the latter to be a Mexican American organization – distance and time have changed its priorities.
MALDEF is another story. It is a national organization and it has done outstanding work in the field of litigation. It has, however, failed to stem the present racist hysteria within Arizona. As I pointed out, this is probably due to its organization structure. MALDEF is not the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It is more like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund which does not assume the mantle of a community organization. I reiterate my criticism is of organizational structure and question its ability to cope with the growing xenophobia in the United States. I do not question its value to the community.
Back in the late 1970s I had one of many conversations with the late Willie Velasquez whose friendship I valued. I suggested to Willie that the effectiveness of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project could be greatly enhanced by merging with MALDEF.
MALDEF did not have an on the ground operation whereas SVREP was developing one. Very few people know how to organize, Willie did. He came out of Texas where he along with a core of organizational geniuses founded the Mexican American Youth Organization. The history of the movement might have been very different if the League of United Latin America Citizens and the American GI Forum had incorporated these leaders instead of trying to destroy them.
Willie explained that this would be difficult: personalities, turfs all played a part. No doubt that these groups had formed their own families.
Meanwhile, MALDEF was consumed by its litigation agenda. Its success and focus on immigrant rights is a tribute to its general counsel Antonia Hernandez (1985-2003), a tradition that has been carried on by Tom Saenz. Her vision was not shared by all MALDEF functionaries.
With this said, MALDEF is not a national organization in the traditional sense, although many assume that it is and it acts like it is. So while it is highly successful as a litigator, MALDEF has very like fight back capacity – to assume that it does would be unfair.
This brings us to another set of actors – the politicos.
There is no denying that the network of elected Latinos is a plus. Most adhere to common principles such as the protection of the foreign born and services to working class Latinos. The election of these officeholders was the result of a convergence of community and organizations such as SVREP and MALDEF. This was the goal and I don’t quarrel with it because it is the factor that separates California and Texas from Arizona. Elected officials in California and Texas form a firewall – in Arizona they do not.
At the same time, the outcome is not uniform. I asked Willie about this and he told me that he could only be concerned with electing Mexican Americans to office and the setting of standards would have to come in the future. In retrospect this has been the problem, we rely that family members will do the right thing. But it has not always worked that way.
Do we have less police brutality today? Have we stemmed the privatization of our cities and schools? In places like Los Angeles and Tucson white elites have made fortunes from cooperating with the elected officials, i.e., Richard Riordan in LA and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council in Tucson. Latino politicos are complicit, turning the other way in return for a pittance in campaign contributions.
In other words there is no quality control. There are no checks on them politically or as role models. You cannot criticize the family. But, why not?
The outcome is mediocrity and this mediocrity is a national disease. We are becoming like the mainstream that considers it heresy to criticize “America.”
Getting back to my central theme, in Italy this led to the rise of Berlusconi and a culture that tolerates or ignores flagrant abuses. As long as the family is left alone, Italians turn the other way.
States have become like those families. What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. What happens in Arizona stays in Arizona. We care but it is not our family.
The most difficult thing for me in my support of Tucson has been to witness the suffering that it has caused a few individuals. My involvement allows me to witness the casualties first hand.
Having gone through a similar experience from 1991-1995, I can appreciate the toll it takes on a family especially the wives and children. In Tucson some are without jobs. They will lose their homes and some due to the stress will get divorced.
We don’t see this from afar. We don’t ever critique the tactics of mega-institutions.
During my case against the University of California, I entered with a love for academe. After a year, I realized who and what the administrators and the lawyers were. I gave a controversial speech in which I said that I would rather my sons grow up to be Mafia hit men than UC administrators or one of their lawyers. The hit man was more honest, at least he did his own hit.
Soon afterwards, I received a call from the husband of a plaintiff suing the UC San Diego. He wanted to commit suicide. UC attorneys had spread the rumor that he was molesting his daughter. After over three hours on the phone, I simply told him that this is what they wanted. They had broken him financially and now they wanted to kill him.
I believe that it is time to evaluate how well we as a community, organizationally and politically, have performed in the defense of our rights in Tucson. What is our grade, A, B, C, D, or Fail? What happens in Tucson does not stay in Tucson.
There is a murder in progress, how well are we responding?
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.