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There, But for the Grace of God, Go I

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

One of the most frustrating aspects of writing is when people read your piece and then react to what they think you said—completely missing the point. In my last article I wrote that I hated gangs whether they were street gangs or college gangs. I also made it clear that although I hated gangs that I loved the kids. This was a lead into an essay that actually was critical of academics and activists who criticized but never do anything to correct the problem by changing institutional structures. Gangs or even alcohol abuse are constructed by society, and over time they become culturally accepted.

Anyway it is something to think about. In the sixties and seventies, I would have simply put a c/s after my work. C/s means con safos — meaning that whatever point you have is symbolically protected from backlashing and comebacks. It avoided a lot of back and forth chatter.

There was a Chicano magazine called Con Safos that was established circa 1967. It was the brainchild of Ralph “Rafas” López, a student at Cal State College LA. Rafas went to his brother’s Arturo “Turi” Flores’ house where they discussed the magazine.

It attracted talented people such as Frank Sifuentes, Ralph Lopes, and Rudy Salinas, and a host of gifted writers and artists. I got to know the group through Oscar Castillo, a photographer, and Sergio Hernandez, an artist and cartoonist, who were students at San Fernando Valley State College.

Con safos was not a Mexican expression but a Chicano creation. The c/s sign-off on was found on Chicano “placas” and graffiti throughout the Southwest, Midwest and Northwest, and even spread to Mexico. The origin is not known, it is speculated that like the Pachuco its genesis was in South El Paso’s Segundo Barrio.

Although the responses were not antagonistic, I must admit that I felt like protecting my meanings with a c/s. It feels good calling someone “safado” (that he has a screw loose in his head or more politely goofy).

But, the truth be told, just putting c/s after my pieces is not going to do much about furthering the conversation on how to transform society. It all begins with the changing of culture, which was invented by society but in so many ways controls us.

It is difficult to change culture, it embodies our belief system, and we resist changes. It took a lifetime before I did not believe in religion, and I still find myself making the sign of the cross when I pass a church. Many of the values that I learned from parochial school were good and others not so good.

A good one that I remember is “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It is a very basic value if you want to have a just community. This is difficult because poor communities are largely ignored by those with power, i.e., those with money.

Over the years I have substituted the words: my good fortune, my family, and circumstances for god. There has to be a reason why I finished college and earned a PhD while some of my cousins with the same DNA were not as fortunate.  It certainly wasn’t because of my looks, although the fact that I am light played a role.

So if you want to create a more just world, you have to know what injustice is and that if you do nothing about it, you are the problem. And, that is the point that I was making about street gangs, how do you increase their alternatives?

Culture change or the transformation of a community culture is more difficult. I am not one who ignores the warts in mine or other cultures. For example, I criticize the injustices that the Middle East has suffered and suffers at the hands of the West, but I deplore the racism toward them. I am also critical of their treatment of women, especially the excesses such marrying off 13-year old girls. I cannot condone the treatment of women in that patriarchal society. The injustices are one thing and the flaws in the culture of the region do not give the West license to invade or exploit them.

Most people of Mexican origin in this country crave Mexican food, but, let’s face it, like McDonalds, it is not always good for your health. My wife does not cook with the same ingredients that my grandmother did. My Nani used to have what seemed like a huge can of lard next to the stove. Today, we use olive or coconut oils – although I must admit my memories of my grandmother’s beans still make my mouth water.

Today, I do not eat pork chorizo, it is now is now soy chorizo. Gone are the days of Mexican chocolate. The diabetes took care of that.

The contradictions between my parents’ culture and the society made the process of change difficult. But education exposed me to a broader range of alternatives. Certainly it taught me to resolve the tensions and understand the deep historical roots of colonization.

This awareness is essential to changing a culture whether it is society or a group. There are many unscientific obstacles to our transformation. For example, private ownership of property and wealth is maintained by ridicule, suppression, and denigration. Where do you draw the line?

The U.S. is the antithesis of communitarianism. The notion of “There, but for the grace of God, Go I” as is portrayed as unrealistic, old fashioned or undemocratic.

Elites sustain themselves by co-opting our culture by making the proposition an either or question.  Some argued in response to my last essay that street gangs were progressive, and they should not be demonized. I partially agree. I admire their sense of loyalty to their neighborhood, but I also am not blind to the flaws. For one, I believe that the schools have let them down, using their bodies to collect money from the state. They are survivors.

Despite the system the Mexican communities’ culture has developed and changed historically. And, as we interact with society, the world will change even more. We are semi-successful because we have been more fortunate, and therefore must make sure that our communities are changed for good not the worse. Indeed, communitarianism bonds us, and instills in us the value of helping others.

The positive aspects of our culture are only sustainable to the extent that they broaden our alternatives. Tons of lard and sugar are not needed to satisfy our taste buds.

Many aspects of our culture are positive and we should defend them. But we have to put them into a contextual framework.

As a region the South is politically and socially regressive. According to a recent study quoted in Science Daily, “Southerners are generally not as trusting as people who live in other parts of the U.S., but trusting people are more likely to cooperate in recycling, buying green products and conserving water.”

It is not because the people there are white and/or less educated, but because they are kept purposely in line by their culture.

Most of us know how the Koch brothers used their money to transform Arizona into one of the most xenophobic states in the Union in just a couple years. The same thing has happened in North Carolina that until recently was trending blue.

Bill Maher last Friday exposed Art Pope, a Koch brothers wannabe, “who bought the government of North Carolina to reshape it into his personal right-wing wet dream.”

“What happened in North Carolina?  Well, his name is Art Pope.  That’s what happened.  And he’s kind of the Koch brother from another mother.  He’s super-rich, super-anti-union, anti-tax, anti-big government, thinks government should have absolutely no role in helping the less fortunate, who should earn their money the same way he did — by inheriting it from their dad.”

Listening to that maybe soy chorizo ain’t that bad, try it.

 

 

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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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