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Nation Topics - Racism and Discrimination | The Nation

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Nation Topics - Racism and Discrimination

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Admiral James Loy, the nation's top aviation security official, confirmed at an August 22 press conference what thousands of immigrant airport screeners have dreaded for nearly a year. Loy promised that the Transportation Security Administration would without question meet the Congressionally mandated deadline to replace America's 30,000-member screener force with government-trained federal employees.

For Loy to accomplish this task, the TSA must remove an estimated 8,000 immigrant screeners from security checkpoints by November 19 because they fail to meet the new citizenship requirement. "The law of the land is the law of the land," Loy replied, when asked how the TSA justifies the impending shakeout at a time when the agency is scrambling to train and place an additional 16,000 employees at airports nationwide over the next eleven weeks.

Indeed, Loy is merely obeying the demands of Congress. Signed into law following a post-September 11 flurry, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act created the TSA and charged the agency with placing airport security under federal jurisdiction. Section 111 of the ATSA requires US citizenship for all screeners, which sets the absurd precedent that immigrants can join the military (no citizenship required) but not scan sneakers at airline security posts.

Both the TSA and members of Congress offer careful replies when it comes to explaining the reasons for the citizenship requirement. An aide for Senator John McCain, one of the ATSA's main proponents, did not want to comment on the provision's rationale. The Justice Department, however, came close to touching on the truth in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of nine screeners trying to keep their jobs. "It bears repeating that the ATSA was passed in the aftermath of an attack on the US by non-citizens, who penetrated the US aviation system," the motion stated.

The case, Gebin v. Mineta, names Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his former No. 2, John Magaw (who was replaced by Loy), as the defendants. Federal Judge Robert Takasugi promised a decision on the case in early June but still has not issued a ruling.

All nine plaintiffs are noncitizens, lawfully living in the country as permanent residents. The lead plaintiff, Jeimy Gebin, believes that her three years in the US Army should be enough to allow her to stay employed at Los Angeles International Airport. Erlinda Valencia, a leader of the San Francisco airport's screening force, is another plaintiff. Two years ago Valencia's security firm honored her when she detected a toy hand grenade and two weeks later, a loaded handgun. But federal attorneys argue that the government can do as it pleases with its "alien guests," and that Congress acted rationally when, in the interest of airport security, it required screeners to formalize
their "loyalty" and "commitment" through citizenship.

The situation between the government and immigrant screeners begs the comparison of Japanese-Americans who were fired from their jobs after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and were then herded into internment camps. Ironically, Secretary Mineta and Judge Takasugi were among those interned.

In addition to being unfair to immigrants, dismantling experienced screening units at the nation's 429 commercial airports could itself be a major security risk. By the November deadline, 80 percent of San Francisco International Airport's 915 screeners will be forced out of their jobs because they are not citizens. Washington-Dulles will also lose 80 percent of its existing force;
Los Angeles International Airport will lose 40 percent; and Miami
International Airport will lose 70 percent. Even worse, their replacements
are being whisked through the training process: one new screener working at the Norfolk, Virginia, International Airport told Alan Gathright of the San Francisco Chronicle that he received only fifteen minutes of explosive detection training. There is also the matter of how the remaining 40,500 screeners waiting to be hired will complete the federally mandated 100 hours of classroom and onsite instruction before they begin work in late November.

While it is true that most federal employees and civil servants must be US citizens, screeners arrived on the job without this requirement; and the ATSA does not "grandfather" exemplary workers into the applicant pool for a federal screening position. "I am a legal immigrant. Now they are trying to make me a second-grade citizen," said Ashok Malakar, a San Francisco screener who is only a year from naturalization. "That is discrimination."

An antigay ballot initiative spurs some surprising political
coalitions.

Historians have made much of the ways that the social protest movements of the 1960s unsettled the morals of the dominant culture, but it is often forgotten that activists themselves were sometimes jarred by the new sensibilities as well.

Nixon thought so; Otis Chandler doesn't. Maybe it depends on where you
stand.

Affirmative action, while generally a good and necessary thing, has
always been more complicated than its supporters admit. It inspires a
backlash; it often promotes people who are underprepared for their
assigned tasks; and it attaches a stigma to those who do succeed on
their own, often with a crushing psychological burden. Yet another
problem is how easily it can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.

Women and minorities have been agitating for greater representation in a
largely white, male media structure for decades, making their case by
the numbers. According to a recent study published by Fairness &
Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), women made up just 15 percent of sources
appearing on the three major network news programs in 2001, while 92
percent of all US sources for whom race was determinable were white.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have also made a case for greater media
representation. They've done so by redefining the terms of debate. While
most pundits and nearly half the "experts" employed by the media are
quite conservative by any reasonable or historical measure of the term,
that's not good enough. They are demanding more. Bernard Goldberg, Nat
Hentoff and Reed Irvine are hardly the only conservatives who say they
deserve greater representation. Many news producers and editorial page
editors apparently concur.

The media's response to the traditional affirmative-action
constituencies and the well-funded propaganda offensive by the
conservatives has been to capitulate to both sides at once. Hence the
rise of the female and/or minority conservative pundit, often
unqualified by any traditional standard and frequently close to the line
in terms of sanity but with job security the rest of us can only
imagine.

When MSNBC began operations in the summer of 1996 and hired eighteen
regular pundits--of whom I was one--the most recognizable type among the
mostly unknown cast were the blonde and black fire-breathing
right-wingers. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Jennifer Grossman, Niger
Innes, Deroy Murdoch, Brian Jones, Joseph Perkins, Betsy Hart (a
brunette, but still...); the list goes on and on. At the time, I used to
joke that the producers might wish to inquire about the politics of the
black/blonde daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. If she liked Star Wars
and tax cuts for the rich, they should offer her a lifetime contract.

It didn't matter to the network executives at the time that women and
minorities in real life were far more liberal than most television
people, and their gimmick was, in that regard, deceptive. These pundits
gave the new network some "pop" in the larger media--or so it was
believed. In fact, most of those named above have faded back into the
proverbial woodwork. But not all. Laura Ingraham now wears her leopard
miniskirts on radio and is apparently a political fashion consultant to
CNN's Reliable Sources. (On Al Gore's Florida speech: "His
perspiration was, I mean...it was quite unpleasant." On the state of the
nightly news: "I think one of the worst things that's happened to news
is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the
jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television...")

Coulter, meanwhile, well... it's complicated. On the one hand, she is
the television babe to end all television babes--bright blonde locks,
legs that never end and skirts so short as to make Sharon Stone distrust
her Basic Instincts. On the other hand, she is clearly the victim of an
undiagnosed case of political Tourette's syndrome. How else to explain
incidents like the time she attacked a disabled Vietnam vet on the air
by screaming, "People like you caused us to lose that war"? Or when she
termed Bill Clinton a "pervert, liar and a felon" and a "criminal"? Or
Hillary Clinton "pond scum" and "white trash"? Or the late Pamela
Harriman a "whore"? Coulter also wrote a book during the impeachment
crisis that appeared to suggest the assassination of Bill Clinton. She
was, also, as the Boston Globe reported, credibly accused of
plagiarizing from a colleague at Human Events for her book.

By the time she finally got herself fired from MSNBC, Coulter was a
star. (No man, or ugly woman for that matter, would have lasted remotely
as long.) She found herself celebrated by the likes of John Kennedy Jr.,
who gave her a column in George, as well as bookers for talk
shows with hosts like Wolf Blitzer, Larry King, Geraldo and Bill Maher,
and quoted by ABC's George Will with the same deference usually reserved
for Edmund Burke or James Madison.

Lately Coulter has gotten herself in the news again by calling for the
wholesale slaughter of Arabs, the murder of Norm Mineta and the use of
mob violence against liberals and Muslims. Perhaps she's kidding, but
it's hard to know. We have, too, another book-length screed,
Slander, this one bearing the imprimatur of Crown Publishers. As
with her entire career in the punditocracy, it is a black mark on the
soul of everyone associated with it. Here is Coulter's characterization
of a New York Times editorial criticizing John Ashcroft: "Ew
yuck, he's icky." She worries about "liberals rounding up right-wingers
and putting them on trial." One could go on, and on, and on.

What's scary is that Coulter is hardly alone. Look at the
free-associating reveries Peggy Noonan manages to publish every week in
the Wall Street Journal, or the lunacies that right-wing lesbian
Norah Vincent pours forth on the LA Times Op-Ed page--as if
self-consciously seeking to fill the space mercifully vacated by that
nutty nineties icon Camille Paglia. Check out Alan Keyes on MSNBC and
tell me, seriously, that the man has ever made what Bobbie Gentry called
"a lick of sense" in his life. I'm not saying that women and minorities
don't have the right to be as idiotic as white men. But be careful what
you wish for and smart about how you pursue it. Liberals and
conservatives both got their affirmative action. Guess who won?

A specter is haunting the Jews of Europe: the specter of anti-Semitism.
A synagogue is firebombed in Belgium; three more are burned in France,
where Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front attracts millions of votes. In
the town of l'Union, near Toulouse, a man opens fire at a kosher butcher
shop, and in Berlin the police advise Jews not to dress in a conspicuous
manner. Here in Britain two Orthodox Jews were attacked outside Harrods
in broad daylight, and a synagogue in North London was desecrated only a
few weeks ago. Britain's broadsheet newspapers agonized over whether the
French ambassador's reference to Israel as a "shitty little country" was
anti-Semitic or just anti-Israel, and Rupert Murdoch's Sun, a
tabloid more famed for its topless page 3 "stunners" than for its high
moral tone, ran a full-page editorial assuring readers, "The Jewish
faith is not an evil religion." In Europe, argues Washington Post
columnist Charles Krauthammer, "it is not safe to be a Jew."

Something is happening. I've had more conversations about anti-Semitism
here in the past six months than in the previous six years. Last autumn,
after listening patiently while a friend wondered whether American
support for Israel wasn't in some sense to blame for September 11, and
seeing a writer who'd never expressed an opinion on the Middle East
denounced as a "Zionist," I organized a panel on anti-Semitism and the
press at London's Jewish Book Week. So if I say that Americans
who argue it is time for Europe's Jews to pack their bags are either
fools or rogues, it isn't because I'm looking at the situation with my
head in the sand. When I went to synagogue in Florence with my older son
on the last day of Passover this year, I was glad to see the Italian
soldier standing guard at the door.

But the big danger in Florence that week was to Americans, who were
warned by the State Department to stay away from public places. More
Jews died in the World Trade Center than in all of Europe's anti-Semitic
outrages of the past two decades put together. What's missing from the
current furor over European anti-Semitism is any recognition that the
whole world is now a dangerous place--and not just for Jews.

Some historical perspective might also be nice. It was widely reported
here that Asher Cohn, rabbi of the vandalized synagogue, is himself the
son of a rabbi who fled Germany after his synagogue was torched on
Kristallnacht--the kind of coincidence journalists find
irresistible. But the damage to Cohn's synagogue was repaired within
days--by volunteers who included a Labour Cabinet minister and a member
of the Conservative shadow Cabinet. The rise of Austria's Jörg
Haider and the murdered Dutch maverick Pim Fortuyn are often depicted as
heralds of a fascist revival. Haider is an anti-Semite, whose talent for
racist double-entendre prompted Austrian journalist Eva Menasse to
wonder why the foot in Haider's mouth always seems to be wearing a
jackboot. Yet overt anti-Semitism has no place in either Freedom Party
propaganda or in the program of the Austrian government. Hitler had a
militarized state, a genocidal ideology and open contempt for democratic
norms--a combination not found anywhere in the current European
political landscape.

What Europe has instead is xenophobia. Since September 11 a wave of
hostility to foreigners has swept over the Continent. Some of this has
come out as anti-Semitism, particularly on the neanderthal right in
Germany and among the marginal but mediagenic British National Party.
Knee-jerk anti-Americanism has also seen a revival: in Greece, where
left- and right-wing nationalists momentarily united in stressing US
culpability after the World Trade Center bombings, and on the wilder
shores of British and French Trotskyism. But the primary target of
xenophobic rhetoric and xenophobic violence has been Europe's Arab and
Muslim inhabitants. Fortuyn labeled Islam a "backward" religion and
campaigned on a platform opposing Muslim immigration. (Fortuyn also came
up with a new variation on the "some of my best friends" defense,
assuring a Dutch television interviewer he had "nothing against
Moroccans; after all, I've been to bed with so many of them!") The
British government has resisted calls to broaden laws against incitement
to racial hatred, which currently protect Jews (as an ethnic group) but
exclude Muslims. Yet Richard Stone, who serves both as chair of
Britain's Jewish Council on Racial Equality and chair of the Commission
on British Muslims and Islamophobia, is in no doubt: "There is much more
anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish prejudice in this country." When Italian
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proclaimed the superiority of "our
civilization," he didn't mean superior to Jews. From isolated incidents
in Denmark and Ireland to Holland, where a mosque has been burned, to
Germany and France, where a steady stream of anti-Islamic violence has
swelled to a flood, Europe has become a great deal less safe for
Muslims.

The fact that conditions are worse for Europe's Muslims--particularly in
those countries where they have not been allowed to become
citizens--does not, of course, mean that Jews should remain silent when
we are attacked or even offended, just that we should retain a sense of
proportion. The British Crime Survey, for instance, counts well over
100,000 racist incidents in each of the past three years. The number of
racial incidents actually reported to the police, a much lower figure,
has risen from 23,049 in 1999 to 53,842 in 2001. During this same period
the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported--a category that includes
anti-Semitic leafleting and verbal harassment as well as violence
against persons or property--went from 270 in 1999 to 405 in 2000 to 310
in 2001. As of May 22 the total for this year was only 126--hardly
indicative of Cossacks riding through Hampstead.

Yet one of the most striking things about the panic supposedly stalking
Europe's Jews is how much that panic seems to be centered in Britain--a
country where Jews are a very small (about 250,000 out of a population
of 59 million) and very well-established minority. "What has been
challenged is our comfort of having a foot in both worlds," Jo Wagerman,
president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Israeli
paper Ha'aretz. The 240-year-old board is probably the oldest
Jewish lobby in the world; Wagerman, whose own family came to Britain
under Oliver Cromwell, is the group's first woman president. In the
years after World War II, she said, British Jews enjoyed "a kind of
golden age...[but] recently, Britain isn't the same." Melanie Phillips,
a columnist for the right-wing Daily Mail, who was heckled by a
BBC studio audience for claiming that Israel was a democracy, wrote that
"the visceral hostility toward Israel and Jews displayed...by the
audience is representative now of much mainstream British opinion."

The connections between events in the Middle East and in Europe are
complex, fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and
manipulation. Only the statistics are straightforward. In London, says
Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Miriam Rich, anti-Semitic incidents went
"up in April because of what happened in Jenin, and are down again in
May. Each month is a direct reflection of what is happening in the
Middle East." If you plot the national figures on a graph, says Michael
Whine of the Community Security Trust, "and superimpose them with
another of incidents in the Middle East, you see one following the
other." The same correlation can be seen in France, where, unlike
Britain, a growing proportion of the attackers come from that country's
disaffected and marginalized Arab minority.

To Jews, such incidents may feed a sense that the whole world is against
us. The tendency--understandable if not justifiable--to let any act of
violence against Jews on European soil conjure up images of the
Holocaust also inhibits clear thinking. Anthony Julius, the lawyer who
acted for Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, and a scholar of
British and European anti-Semitism, ridicules the "diaspora narcissism"
that leads British Jews to exaggerate their difficulties. And while
Julius is careful to distinguish between anti-Semitism and criticism of
Israel, not all of Israel's friends are so scrupulous.

Indeed, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that many of those shouting
loudest about the danger in Europe care more about retaining occupied
Palestinian land than about the welfare of diaspora Jews. The BBC, the
Guardian and the Independent--all news organizations with
a clear editorial commitment to Israel's right to exist--are continually
fending off accusations of anti-Semitism for simply reporting the
day-to-day dehumanization inflicted on Palestinians. Whether the French
ambassador's remark was a crime or a blunder, by making it at the home
of Barbara Amiel, wife of Daily Telegraph (and Jerusalem
Post
) owner Conrad Black, and herself a staunch defender of Ariel
Sharon, he put a weapon in the hands of those who argue, with Amiel,
that "super-liberalism led to suicide bombers and intifadas in Israel."

Sometimes anti-Zionism really is a cover for anti-Semitism, and we on
the left need to be clearer about that. Jews who view Israel's existence
as the necessary fulfillment of their national (as opposed to civil)
rights have grounds to be suspicious of those who grant Palestinian
national aspirations a legitimacy they withhold from Jews. Most of the
time, though, the line is pretty clear, and Jews of all people should be
wary of using a double standard as a bludgeon. Or conjuring up specters
in the cause of ethnic unity. If it is racist to suggest, as the New
Statesman
did recently, that "a Kosher conspiracy" inhibits
criticism of Israel, then what are we to make of former Israeli Prime
Minister Ehud Barak's claim (in the New York Review of Books,
reprinted here in the Guardian) that Palestinians "are products
of a culture in which...truth is seen as an irrelevant category"? The
non-Zionist world has every reason to resent it when the moral odium of
anti-Semitism is used to discredit those who object to the brutality of
Israeli occupation, or when the tattered mantle of Jewish victimization
is draped over policies of collective punishment and murderous reprisal
that, as the Israeli press was quick to point out, are modeled on the
tactics used to crush Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. If more
Jews expressed outrage at these policies, and at the way our tragic
history is demeaned by being used as a gag, we would be in a stronger
position to demand not sympathy but solidarity.

In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory
, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America.
This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
and morality.

Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.

The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.

Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.

Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
îles flottantes."

The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
spirits?

Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.

But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.

Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad
in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.

Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria
in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude
, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
his opinions.

All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.

These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:

A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.

This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Latino.

Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.

There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:

race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.

So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory
the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times
, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
intervening years.

At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"

Ward Connerly, figurehead for California's anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, is up to more mischief. This time
it's a push to prevent California's public agencies from classifying
"any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the
operation of public education, public contracting or public employment."
Classification is defined as any "act of separating, sorting or
organizing by race, ethnicity, color or national origin including, but
not limited to, inquiring, profiling, or collecting such data on
government forms."

Shrewdly titled the Racial Privacy Initiative, it sounds like a plan to
protect us from the manipulative purview of Big Brother, or perhaps an
act to prohibit police profiling or to protect medical records from
being misused or to prevent consumer credit and employment histories
from being revealed in ways that discriminate against minorities.
"Racial privacy" beguiles with the promise of removing race and all its
contentiousness from public view, keeping its secrets in a vault for
only the rightful owner to know. A kind of "don't ask, don't tell"
stance of racial revelation.

In fact, the proposed enactment contains a series of crucial exceptions
that quickly turn such rosily "color-blind" expectations completely
upside down. First, in a blatant concession to Big Brother writ large,
there is an exemption for police. Sociologists Troy Duster and Andy
Barlow have worried that this exemption will allow police alone to
collect racial data: "What about the concern of many citizens that
police practices need to be monitored for racial profiling? The racial
privacy initiative would not allow such data to be kept."

Similarly, while permitting racial and ethnic classification of "medical
research subjects and patients," the initiative bars the collection of
data for population-based surveys that are the cornerstone of public
health administration. And while there is a superficially charitable
exemption for the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, that much
of a given is rather severely constrained in that the department "shall
not impute a race, color, ethnicity or national origin to any
individual." In any event, this particular exemption "shall expire ten
years after the effective date of this measure."

In fact, the Racial Privacy Initiative is not about protecting data from
being misused; instead it effectively eliminates data collection at all.
If enacted, it would continue a trend begun by Ronald Reagan and pursued
by every Republican administration since: limiting the accountability of
public institutions by making vital public information unavailable. In
such a world, there can be no easy way to know whether Native American
women are being sterilized at higher rates in public hospitals than
other groups. One would not be able to determine whether public schools
were tracking black students into remedial classes and white students
into advanced placement. Documentation of ghettoization and other
patterns of residential segregation would be magically wiped from census
data.

With no impartial public archive of such data, the burden of compiling
such statistics would fall either upon independent academics who would
have to find funding for their studies on a project-by-project basis; or
upon a cacophony of competing interest groups--a competition that no
doubt will be more than skewed by better-funded conservative think tanks
like the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Indeed, this initiative is not about "privacy" as most laypeople think
of it. It is actually about privatizing racially based behavior. And
privatized racism has been a dream of the far right since the first
whites-only private schools sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board
of Education
. Segregation is "private choice," a "social" problem,
not a legal one, according to this logic. You can't force people to love
you. Suing over discrimination is victimology. As long as the government
doesn't force you to drink out of a separate water fountain or go to a
separate school, then that is the limit of equal opportunity.

Eliminating official knowledge of race and ethnicity in the public
sphere at first sounds like part of the same enterprise as eliminating
Jim Crow laws. (Indeed, many California voters seem as confused about
the meaning of the initiative as they were about Prop 209, which sounded
to many as though it would lead to more inclusion rather than less.) In
fact, however, "racial privacy" accomplishes little more than
institutionalizing an official stance of denial and, in the process,
eviscerates essential civil rights enforcement mechanisms. Californians
may as well put those three little moral idiots, Hear-no-evil,
See-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, in charge of remediation for
discrimination.

In what has been one of the most effective manuevers of the right in
recent years, defenders of the initiative have co-opted a good deal of
the vocabulary of the civil rights community in a blizzard of
definitional inversions. Ward Connerly insists that this measure will
keep the state from "profiling" its citizens. If one accepts that to
most Americans "profiling" connotes the unethical use of data to
discriminate (as in Driving While Black), this conflation with the
neutral act of data collection itself is tremendously misleading. By the
same token, the name of Connerly's group, the American Civil Rights
Coalition, would seem to imply a greater measure of protection for civil
rights rather than lesser. I do worry that such studied reversals of
terms will come to overtake the discourse as much as the term "quota"
has displaced any public understanding of the actual meaning of
affirmative action.

The publicly collected statistics we take for granted today show
undisputed racial and ethnic disparities in every realm of American
life. Any proposition that this gap is either not worth documenting--or,
even more insidiously, is aggravated by the gathering of such
knowledge--consigns us to a world in which "intelligence" is the
exclusive preserve of unrestrained police surveillance. The collective
ignorance with which we will be left will quite literally keep us from
ever speaking truth to power.

Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez's theme since all but the
earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded
in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important
to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino
playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had
come to be California Chicanos.

So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family's history and its
secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory
stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of
the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some
ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a
decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San
Juan Bautista). It's a play that uses the mythic, presentational
elements we've come to associate with Valdez's work, here present in a
Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines
identity for the play.

Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm
of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where
he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in
actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at
work sites and in union halls.

But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made
Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early '70s,
that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching
all the way back to La Raza's Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual
and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.

Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater's
materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the
1980s--when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential
of the Hispanic market--for his unabashed attempt to move into
commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez's
response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the
mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that
prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it
was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that
aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part
of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and
self-destructive.

Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed--certainly
to Latino actors who protested--in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast
Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also
an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make
about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get
Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the
movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or
drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.

Maybe it's just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making
headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it's difficult seeing
Valdez as lost leader, as someone who's abandoned his roots, in San Juan
Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing
in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as
far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet
escaped city life in the 1970s, it's still a small rural town a long way
from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.

The style of Valdez's new play also points to continuity. And for the
most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters
excelled in--in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed
that's transformed into a train laden with Mexican
revolutionaries--still work their magic in Valdez's hands. The sudden
release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don't
work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and
expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his
writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn't
jettisoned the past.

In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily
cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be
petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an
ice cave--poor theater after all these years!--Mama Chu, a fierce,
84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from
abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as
cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for
sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at
Berkeley who's in search of the truth about her mother's life, begins to
pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu's story
and the family's history.

Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and
migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn't,
however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and
inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui
genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped
four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European
colonization.

In the end, it turns out that none of Chu's children as they're
presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away
and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida's mother, aunt and
uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass
slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the
mainstream.)

Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn't always treat it
reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a
kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when
Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, "Can't you just yank that little
sucka [the dead fetus] out?" or Uncle Profe explains the incest by
saying simply, "We were always very close."

To his credit, Valdez doesn't treat the Chicano family reverentially,
either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though
they've been victims (or because they've been victims). He satirizes
them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures
of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that
works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past,
but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the
weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot
mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.

It's not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way
from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to
Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It's
also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters
played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very
high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously
change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the
flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it
vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful
woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that
sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida's
mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).

Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated,
there's too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly
the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified
fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take
in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his
continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually
evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu's finally
confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and
keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is
dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that--bypassing the acquiescent
and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle--Chu passes on to her
granddaughter, Armida.

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