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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

New! Improved! On Cesar Chavez, Mexican American Hero, and the Scarlet Letter

Portland, Oregon: This commentary has been a work in process over the past week or so. I think I finally have it right. YOU be the judge:

I want to offer some record-correcting commentary regarding what appears to be the most significant civil rights issue of our day in the City of Portland, the renaming of Interstate Boulevard.

The only fight that matters to some in the ongoing struggle for worker’s justice, fought at the expense of meaningful dialogue and freedom of expression, is ultimately over labels, and little more than that.

Disagreeing in any way from the pre-approved street-labeling determination will get you the scarlet letter “I” branded on your forehead (or pinned between your shoulder blades) and the sworn enmity of many.

The scarlet “I” label will trump any other, will be remembered to the end of time, so I’m frequently told.

It’s not what’s in your heart that matters, your record of service, your lifelong honoring of your Mexican American hero that is important in the City of Portland these days, but your position on an arbitrarily-selected labeling campaign.

The scarlet “I” is rather loosely intermingled with the scarlet “R”.

Earn one, you get the other for free.

But there are other labels involved in this fight, the labels that really matter in the real-life Mexican American world, the Chicano world in the United States.

Cesar Chavez and his people suffered discrimination and injustice because of their Mexican heritage, not because they were "Latino" or "Hispanic" or "American."

That is where the real civil rights struggle is, and it is not an abstraction, not a banner, not a photo op, not a label on a street corner.

The real issue is about Mexico and about people with Mexican blood in their veins.

All of you hangers-on ought to take a step back and look at the place you're glad you're not in--the Mexican place--for a minute, and pause before you start talking again.

Believe me, people are real specific about who and what they hate.

You don't hear "go back to Chile", or "go back to Guatemala", not even "go back to Cuba."

Those people have to worry about being mistaken for a Mexican.

Ask them if they are Mexican, they will quickly tell you no, not me, no way Jose.

Probe further, and you are not likely to hear “I’m Latino”, or “I’m Hispanic”, or “I’m American.”

Unless, of course, they are talking to the police, that’s when you’ll hear “Hey, I’m an American, a citizen, I can prove it. Here are my papers....”

Probe further and they will tell you specifically, “Cuba”, “El Salvador”, “Chile”, etc.

The labels tell the story.

People are very specific, and they make little distinction between Mexican American and Mexican, legal or sin papeles. They are happy to round them up by the boxcar-load and ship them south.

So when people here in Portland say they want to "honor" Cesar Chavez as a "Latino", or as a "Hispanic", or as an "American" hero, it rings false to me.

In California, in the Southwest, in other parts of the country, people aren't so confused about Cesar Chavez's ethnicity.

Cesar Chavez was and is a Mexican American hero, a Chicano hero, and he got there from birth, through blood and sacrifice, much of that all on his own.

Calling him an "American", as in a "real” American as opposed to the Mexican American he actually was is no way to pay him honor.

He was always an American, that pretty much goes without saying.

If you are born between the borderlines, you're an American. That's all there is to it. Equal for everybody.

Unless your blood is Mexican. Then, muchachos, you are going to have some trouble in your life.

Have you heard what racists call Mexican infants, Mexican children?

I know that you have, of course you have, you know what I'm talking about, but I'm not going to soil my blog with evil words like that, no need to write those words down at hear it too.

But I

Cesar Chavez was thrown out of the redneck movie theater because of his brown Mexican American skin, not because he was an American.

Being American had nothing to do with it. It was about Mexico!

He was put in jail because of his Mexican American voice, his singular Chicano voice, not because he was "Latino" or "Hispanic," most certainly not because he was seen as an American.

People didn't care at all about that part, the American part; they looked at Cesar and saw Mexico!

Cesar Chavez was as real as a Mexican American—a person whose parentage stems from Mexico—can be, and as honorable as any other American.

So, why not call him what he was, in all of this big talk of honor?

The strategy behind this approach must be that the medicine goes down easier if it’s slippery-coated “Latino” or “Hispanic” or “American.”

Vanilla-flavored street-sign lozenges, green, with multi-colored sprinkles.

The words “Mexican” or “Chicano” might bring a bitter taste to the salsawagon!

Some want to label him an “American,” as if this Chicano soul graduated to a higher level in the recent past.

Maybe he transcended his Mexican American heritage to become something greater, more worthy of fire hydrants, left-turn lanes, crosstown traffic....

Where does that leave other Mexican Americans, other Chicanos, those whose achievements do not reach the stratosphere like Cesar Chavez?

Are you saying we can be “real” Americans, too? Do we have to stop referring to ourselves as Mexican American to fit this label? Is that part necessary?

More importantly, if we drop the "Mexican" and just hang with the "American", would you stop treating the people whose blood flows in our veins, our familia, like third-class human beings?

Would that stop happening?

If you could do that, that would be worth fighting for....But we're not fighting right now, we're honoring....

Back to business, and the story line:

"Latino" and "Hispanic" are terms that the Census Bureau came up with, trying to capture a population that didn’t fit the other check boxes, failed, settled for two labels that may or may not overlap, hard to tell.

This is really important information, ought to be in "The Impassioned Portland Liberal's Guide to Brown People (Vol 2)," may be out of print up here in the I'm going to repeat what I just said:

"Latino" and "Hispanic" are terms that the United States Census Bureau came up with, trying to capture a population that didn’t fit the other check boxes, failed, settled for two labels that may or may not overlap, hard to tell.

Like Cesar Chavez, I've been Mexican American or Chicano my entire life.

I check off the "Hispanic or Latino" checkbox like everyone else, grateful that I don't have to choose one or the other, because that would really stump me.

Neither term feels comfortable, though, both like wearing someone else's coat and sombrero.

Sometimes I check "other", write in "Mexican American" or "Chicano", sometimes both.

In real life, real real life, "Mexican" spells danger, Pancho Villa, signals problemas....

"Hispanic" or "Latino" is more like a safe place to hide, smooth out the wrinkles a little, vanilla-like; less, well, Mexican, if you know what I mean...less ethnic….

These bland labels do not speak to the blood and sacrifice that Mexican Americans—and I mean specifically Mexican Americans--have given and continue to give to this nation.

So when someone wants to stand up and make a speech about Cesar Chavez, I say call him what he was, a full-blooded Chicano hero, a Mexican American hero, American enough to be honored with a US postage stamp.

As for Interstate Avenue, driving up from the south end, the first place you find that might suggest Mexican American heritage is the Taco Bell at Going, where you can make a run for the border....

I can smell the enchiladas from, that's my compost bucket!!

That appears to work for some, but to me it's more like an insult.

From the north end, there’s the giant Paul Bunyan, speaking of the past, rather than the future of the street. I don’t see the connection…oh, hey, there's Taco Time!

I also don't see how changing the name of Interstate Avenue is a benefit to the Portland community of Mexican Americans and their businesses.

Think about that. Are they saying that none of the Mexican American businesses in Portland wanted to honor Cesar Chavez in their neighborhood? None? No Mexican American-owned business was willing to take this opportunity to a neighborhood or business association meeting and pitch it themselves?

Why not? Because someone would surely speak against it?That's a reason not to try? Someone might argue?

Cesar Chavez must be spinning in his grave....

Speaking of businesses....

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has had nothing at all to say about this issue so far, one way or the other.

That's another part of the discussion I don't quite get, the missing part, but the Chamber had nothing to say regarding the immigration raids rounding up mostly Mexican workers, and nothing to contribute to the farm workers’ struggle for the rights to meal and rest breaks, either.

I may be taking a lot of hits from people over speaking my mind, but at least no one is accusing me of being timid….

People who looked like Cesar Chavez, abruptly “detained” by the score, families separated, children traumatized, the Hispanic Chamber silent, photo-op Avenistas elsewhere….

FYI, I'm not stuck on renaming Killingsworth, but I see the possibilities there.

As for the racist taunts and the plain ignorance that has tainted this issue: like I said earlier, the overtly racist remarks are like water rolling off a duck to me.

Some people are full of hate and prejudice on the molecular level. Try not to be surprised when you see it.

The ignorance is actually more troubling, the banality of it, how widespread, the fact that more people are caught up in their own ignorance than there are those that are overtly bigoted.

Many of the comments I have seen or heard are frankly ignorant, without crossing over into racism, and I am referring to comments from both sides of the wall.

One particularly self-righteous person took offense at my comment in an earlier post where I noted that Corona, a premier Mexican beer, was sold "openly" in several locations on Killingsworth, trying to inject a little humor into this appallingly closed-minded “discussion.”

I have no idea whose honor he thinks he’s defending, but I understand his passion.

Brick by brick, the Interstate wall gets taller, ignorance its mortar.

As a Mexican American, a Chicano, I would have liked to have the opportunity to welcome my Mexican American Chicano hero to my East Portland neighborhood (East of I-205).

Wow! I have learned the hard way that extending the welcome was VERBOTEN!!!

The Interstate Committee owns the Chavez-honoring franchise in this town, they'll tell you that straight up.

You wouldn’t have heard the words “Hispanic” or “Latino” coming out of my mouth. You wouldn’t have heard “friend of Latino” or “friend of Hispanic,” either.

You would have heard “Mexican American”, “Chicano”, even “Mexico.”

And I would have said those words with great pride, pride in my people, our shared history, our shared Mexican American history.

But there are a whole lot of people who want to stand in the way of that...and I have real work to do....

Some feel insulted by my comments, my reluctance to drink the Interstate Kool Ade.

Trumps the fact that Cesar Chavez has been my Mexican American hero since before many of the Interstate Avenistas were born….

I look at the letters of support, the demand letters posted on the website, and I see the names of people who couldn’t be found when Mexican workers--with papers or without, no difference--were being rounded up and put in buses, their children stranded in daycare.

They were silent then, even many of these currently-indignant Latino and Hispanic “leaders”, every church mouse one of them.

They were nowhere in sight in 2003, during the entire year that we worked on removing the injustice from Oregon statutes embodied in the lines that barred farm workers specifically from having the right to a meal and two rest breaks during an 8-hour shift.

Every one else takes these rights for granted, but Oregon law forbade farm workers these basic human rights.

Those were all public meetings, held in Portland in the Oregon State Office Building. I was there, at all of them.

Not one of the politicians who are insisting on renaming Interstate (and Interstate only!) today, showed up at those meetings. Not a single, solitary one.

Man, you can bet they don't like hearing about that now, not in their moment of indignant righteous glory and speechifying!

None of the Interstate Committee members or other photo-op participants were there either.

Of all the letter writers posted on the Interstate Committee’s website, only Steve Witte and Ramon Ramirez were at those meetings, working with Senator Gordly and Commissioner Dan Gardner.

No one from El Hispanic News was there, no one from Hacienda CDC, no one from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, no City official, none of the County Commissioners, during the entire year that we worked on achieving this human rights victory (granted in February 2004).

No letters were written, no petitions passed, no photos ops, no pandering for votes, just a small group of people working through a public process to achieve social justice, in the spirit of Cesar Chavez, for Oregon’s farm workers.

Now, the invisible ones, the silent ones have something to say about wanting to honor Cesar Chavez with a strip of asphalt and some sidewalks?

They have written letters, made speeches…stirred up a great big pot of beans, didn't have time to take all the rocks out....

Fine. Cool. Let’s honor him, then....

These people are still standing silent about the fact that for Mexicans in the United States, a traffic stop can get you both fined and deported.

Looking like a Mexican can get you a traffic stop.

Looking "Hispanic" or "Latino" improves your chances maybe to 50-50, like a Yo-Ho.

The actual racists that Avenistas ought to be thinking about are the ones who are working on making those traffic-stop deportations happening in Oregon by the hour!

But talking will get you a microphone and a camera easier than doing actual work.

While the squabble over a memorial that is only decreasing in value takes place, the Oregon Legislature is preparing to go into session in a couple of months, and in a period of just 30 days will make decisions that could cause actual harm to real people, mostly Mexican people, the people who provide us with our food, who wash our dishes, who care for our most fragile elders.

I can’t say it any plainer than this: traffic-stop deportations on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Mexican people, mostly. Children, families, lives ruined.You’ll have to wash your own dishes, grow your own food, bring Uncle Bob home from the care facility, take care of him yourself, dodge the unlicensed drivers….

Personally, I think that our public policy goal should be that every driver on Oregon roads has a driver license and the safety education that is its prerequisite. Insurance, I understand, is strongly encouraged.

Many people think differently, and they are working hard to cut access to drivers licenses to–face it—mostly Mexican people. Traffic-stop deportations. Straight to Mexico, no time for good byes, pick up the kids from school, no last ride on the Cesar E. Chavez Max line.

So, meanwhile, the public-argument-in-lieu-of-a-public-process over 50 or 60 blocks of prime real estate, mixed use, multimodal transportation system, good freeway access, connects to downtown, big lumberjack at one end, Taco Time and Taco Bell in the middle, pro basketball at the other end…isn’t going to come to a happy result.

I hear there are some condos in the street’s near future, up to four stories high with the rezoning process underway (an actual public process)…fantastico!

Maybe the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has a secret plan to relocate over there, maybe that’s why they are silent….

Next thing you know, Starbucks! On Cesar Chavez Boulevard! Ole!

Seriously, the coffee is great, people, music too, but this is about something else.

Good real estate investment opportunities are developing over there, no doubt about it.

I have a couple of questions:

What is the vision for the future of this particular 160’ wide slice of interstate transportation corridor, apart from changing the street signs?

How does time bring the street itself, the look and feel of the street, any closer to an expression of Cesar Chavez, beyond a couple of hundred vanilla-scented green street signs?

Does someone believe that it will become Olivera Street Norte?

I just wonder if anyone has thought of the answers, or asked the questions, just asking....

Here's what I know about a Portland public process that actually worked:

I served on the Alberta Streetscape Committee as a public member, lived in the building that houses Victory Outreach Church at NE 30th and Alberta, when it was lined with vacant lots, bare sidewalks, vacant buildings. The street itself was mostly vacant.

The Alberta Arts District looks the way it does today, has that organic feel, in large part due to the work this Committee did.

The City of Portland did a terrific job then of involving the neighborhood in its decision-making regarding the future of the street.

The City organized, engaged and empowered the community, recruited me somehow, held a series of public meetings that involved people from all up and down the street.

They gave everyone who showed up to the meetings opportunities to weigh in on every part of the development of the plan, the curb extensions, the public art, the street furniture, locations of the bus stops, choices of street lamp designs, the works….

The speech was free, and the City took pains to let the neighborhood know the parameters of what was possible, what was not, that nothing was predetermined for us, and disagreement would not bring ostracism.

The City made good on its promises.

At the time we developed the plan, there was only funding available for work from MLK east to 15th. The City explained this important fact from the beginning. We all understand that the build-out from 15th east to 33rd would be a plan slipped into a drawer somewhere in City Hall, and that someday, when funds were available, someone would reach into the drawer and pull out the plan.

No guarantee was made that funding would be available in our lifetimes, but we had reason to be optimistic.

Our optimism bore fruit. Birth of the Alberta Arts District takes place. Inspires and supports development on Mississippi, Williams, Vancouver, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, general N-NE renaissance.

Believe me, my part was small, focused mostly on reducing the number of vehicles blowing by my door, 50-60 miles an hour, day and night.

The number one concern of all the Alberta neighbors at that time was not crime, but vehicle speed on the street.

The City recommended the curb extensions to slow the traffic, held a series of public meetings, explained the concept, sold me. I’m happy with the result. I’m sure the whole neighborhood is good on that one.

Quite the contrast to the present discussion. Who knew back then that all we had to do to spur the Alberta Arts District into existence was to change the street signs, that everything else would follow!

A bushel basket of street signs, and then...what? What happens next? Anyone have a handle on that?

By the way, Cesar Chavez was a US Navy veteran. Served honorably. Even in uniform, people saw Mexico in his face, in the color of his skin, didn’t much care whether he was an American or not.

It was—and is—all about Mexico.

Nothing will get people in the United States upset quite like waving a Mexican flag at inappropriate moments, which appears to cover every circumstance of public display.

You’ll find that fact out at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

People are generally good with Canadian flags, however, no problema there, and the flags of other Central and South American nations don’t create much fuss…but Mexico is a whole ‘nother story....

Better bring out the Canadian flags for the ceremony, representing the fact that if you keep driving north from here, you'll end up in Canada.

That'll balance out the impact of all the Mexican flags that will be there, representing the fact that there are a whole lot of unwelcome Mexican people living in Portland.

None of the letter-writing, petition-passing, banner-waving, me-tooing, elbowing-themselves-into-photo-ops, attention-getting, vota-seeking, Kool-Ade-drinking, bent-on-Interstate-renaming, mariachi-dancing political figures were there with us when the tortilla chips were down on providing Cesar Chavez’ people the right to a meal break. Ausente todo!

Note that none of the Legislators whose districts actually include Interstate Avenue are among the supporters of the name change.

The only legislator among the letter writers represents a completely different part of town, doesn't offer a place for Cesar Chavez over there, is hard-charging down the campaign trail, scooping up those ethnic endorsements, rolling them up in a corn tortilla….

Brick by brick….

I personally have made no contact with the Mayor or any of the City Commissioners one way or another on the Interstate (can’t think of a word to put in here) situation, made no attempt to influence their votes, apart from exercising my right to free speech.

(I've already heard multiple complaints that I have gone beyond the limits of free speech with this commentary, that's how ridiculous this whole wrangle is)

I don’t envy the positions any of them are in amid this mess. I’m glad its not me.

I’m going to let them do their jobs, try their best to follow the law if they can, all tangled up in jalapenos.

Personally, I admire each of them, as challenging as that is these days.

I believe that altogether Portland has a very fine Mayor and City Council, that the City has been in good hands through the entire time that the County Commission has been in such utter total mindless disarray.

But, holy mole, hombres!!!

I see that even a couple of the Mean Hermanas are in there stirring the pot.

You have to admit, they have the gift! Didn’t lift a finger before now, nowhere to be found during the Mexican worker roundups, the fight for meal and rest breaks, or—for that matter—finding a way to honor Cesar Chavez when they had the opportunity, but bad to the bone on the here and now. Ay! Caramba!

I’m happy to see that Commissioner de Steffey remembers that Cesar Chavez was a Mexican American, provides the lone reference to his ethnicity that can be found on the entire Committee website.

Lastly, to those I may have offended or definitely offended in the fracas, I say in all humility, lo siento mucho, and no hard feelings on my part.

I’m looking forward to working with you to halt those traffic-stop deportations before they get started, see you there on the front line of the debate; it’ll be where I’m standing.

What this means in practical terms is that you are going have to get out of your routines, maybe skip the monthly luncheon, travel to the Capitol, and get to work, and I mean real work, the sort of work that leads to real achievement.

Organizing, planning, support, day care….

Legislative interim committees have already begun meeting, discussing the legislative concepts that will be worked on in February, deciding what will and what will not be taken up.

Are you paying any attention to this? Do you understand what it means?

Access to health care will be on the February agenda. There will be battles fought over hungry schoolchildren, driver’s licenses, traffic-stop deportations, and the traumatic separation of families— again, mostly Mexican families—the stigmatism, the whole package of uncertainty in primarily Mexican lives….

Will you be there, working in some coordinated fashion to have a voice in shaping policies, in the building every day, paying close attention to committee discussions, keeping yourself informed, fighting the good fight?

I’m just saying this because it is the kind of effort that will be needed, the kind of work that really matters, and you already have some catching up to do.

It will take much more than letters and petitions, it will require your physical presence in the building, day after day.

In the building, where the work is, not outside on the steps, waving banners and making the big talk!

Please try not to burn all of the bridges down for us.

Ever seen those signs down where you get your car fixed?

"Repairs $ 25.00 an hour; $50 an hour if you watch; $100 an hour if you help."

Ever seen those? Never mind....

How many families do you think there are in the United States that include citizens of two nations? Does this describe your family?

If one of those nations is Mexico, then you have families that may have a member who is deportable by a factor of birth.

If that deportable person was your brother, your sister, your familia, a person you love with all of your heart, would you provide shelter, employment, health care, education, reason to hope for a better life?

Conversely, would you give Patricia or Martin a ride to the border, or ask ICE to do their job?

These questions are not entirely rhetorical.

I am talking about real, serious work. Leave the label gun at home.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s entire agricultural industry continues to face a shortage of workers and much uncertainty. They need to know they will have enough workers, and that the workers will be there when they need them. They want workers, not prisoners.

The workers themselves need certainty, above all. Imagine living with this level of stress!

Those workers—mostly Mexican—have families living on both sides of the border.

This is the priority for me. See you in Salem. Don't forget about the bridges, please.

Vaya con Dios a Interstate! Felicidades! Bright shiny train, convenient shopping, mouth-watering Taco Bell burritos beckoning, property values rising, andale!

One last word on the wall-building exercise, public policy fiasco, frijole fest:

Even if I stood alone on the invitation, welcoming Cesar Chavez to my neighborhood, I would have appreciated the opportunity to have the discussion, not have to suffer retribution for speaking out.

As an American citizen, that is my right, my civil right.

Cesar Chavez would have understood that.

--Sean Cruz
Mexican American, Chicano Sean Cruz

1 comment:

MICHAEL said...






Transcribed on 11-20-07
by Elijah Taylor.