Is There Hope for Change?
By Carol Amoruso, Hispanic American Village Editor
August 26, 2005 – Smoldering issues of African American-Latino relations (or black-brown, as has been PC-sanctioned) have become inflamed in Los Angeles of late. In April and May, already frayed tethers snapped as Jefferson High School erupted in a series of bloody brawls, causing the school’s principal to resign, and assigning racial harmony as newly-elected L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s term project. These and other incidents brought relations between the two groups in the city of dreams front and center nation-wide and put other municipalities on alert.
Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, did much to fan the fire, calling down the wrath of African American leaders, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton most notably, by choosing to air some ill-conceived and antagonistic remarks about blacks and snub the yearly convention of the NAACP.
With the shifting demographics of Latinos in ascendance in L.A. and African Americans on the decline, the mainstream media, county officials and community groups have been echoing off each other cries that it’s all about economics and the scramble to gain, or hold on to, power. Cash is at a premium, services are deplorable, and whatever resources do exist currently, historically it’s been African Americans who’ve fought to get them. But, as the black population dwindles (the 2000 California census shows a decrease, statewise, of 12%), Latinos are becoming more and more numerous and vocalized.
The most immediate view of paucity and division holds that you can dribble money onto the problem of drugs in one community and not the other, that you can create jobs for one group and not the other, or that you can completely marginalize one group–the undocumented, in the old divide and conquer game–and there just might be enough go around.
It’s a set-up for a lose-lose scramble, like at the dinner table of a poor family with a brood of kids, all jumping on each other’s bones for the scraps. An apt example is Martin Luther King Hospital, in Compton, once the signature of black LA, founded by African Americans as the first public hospital in South Central after the racial disturbances that tore the city apart, in 1965. Now, with Compton’s black population down to 40% and Latino numbers soaring beyond 57%, Latinos are struggling against the resistant black administration in order to put Hispanic-referenced and Spanish-speaking personnel on staff and better serve, the growing Latino needy. Currently, the divisions are polar and MLK is fighting to survive, while the patients go un- or poorly served. (For a report on the current state of the crisis, see the L.A. Times coverage: la-me-kingdrew19aug19,1,4697995.story and la-me-kdday1dec05,0,5281026.story?page=1 )
Without discounting the role politics and the ever-shrinking pie play in ethnic or racial discord, surely there are other dynamics involved that beg more intense investigation. And, more surely, is our need to dignify the Latino community not as a monolith of uniformity, but as a loosely-defined construct with, yes, ties that bind, but with separate interests, histories and cultural and racial references as well.
The great majority of Latinos in Los Angeles’ troubled areas are Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, with Central Americans from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala represented in less significant numbers. It’s thus a misunderstanding to think the problem is a Latino-black thing, when over 20 Hispanic countries and countless cultures have sent their populations here. Moreover, when we look back East at the predominantly Caribbean Latino community, we’ll not find the open hostilities and mistrust spotlighted in L.A.
It is essential to keep in mind that the Latino-black experience back East, though not always issue-less, has been shaped by notable affinities: jazz and Latin-Caribbean music fuse with ease as have done their players; Caribbean Latinos, whether through blood (85% of all Dominicans, for example, have African blood), or nurture, come from Africanized cultures where customs, religion, language, cuisine, are all influenced by Africa; and, since the 50’s, when Puerto Ricans—our second-largest Latino group—began to settle in great numbers in the cities of the East, blacks have shared their turf with the “Ricans” with a minimum of strife. Coming into industrialized urban centers, Latinos fought side-by-side with African Americans against racism, for empowerment and entitlements, and to unionize in the construction, textile, hospital, and other industries.
As the demographics of the country change, and Latinos establish themselves as a political and economic force nationwide, they’ve become the new darlings of the media, always on the ready to tokenize a handful of standouts: there’s Ricky Martin, General Ricardo Sanchez, Alberto Gonzalez, J Lo. (See Time magazine, 22 Aug. 2005 for a line-up of media picks for influential Hispanics.) Some African Americans voice resentment at the media’s capriciousness and feel that Latinos are stealing their thunder, and their opportunities as well. But, the grandstanders of Latino success belie much of life on the ground. According to a recent Time magazine poll, for example (same issue), “the median net worth of Hispanic households is $7,932, less than one-tenth the figure for non-Hispanic whites…” and only 62% of all Hispanic adults have completed high school. These figures are representative of the Mexican-American population, which numbers 56% of all Hispanics, and hold for brown L.A. where poverty figures and drop-out rates are high.
Fox, in what seemed a casual remark, “…Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States,” along with his defense of the recently-issued stamp bearing the Sambo-like effigy of a popular Mexican cartoon character, Memìn Pinguìn, may have betrayed institutionalized racist attitudes towards blacks, an extension of the color discrimination that threads through Mexico so deeply that most people are unaware of it. Earl Ofari Hutchinson writes affectingly in his column, The Hutchinson Report, about his experiences as a black American living in Mexico under a color bias which presents glamorous and desirable blondes on the TV and in advertising, while relegating “indios” to the milpas, markets and factories and Afro-Mexicans to a mythic and degrading postage stamp.
Being in the port city of Vera Cruz, where the first African slaves were cast onto New World soil, recalls Bahia, Brazil, yet most Mexicans are unaware of why the guy sitting next to him on the bus has kinky hair and a broad nose. (The first slave, a manservant of Cortès, touched land with him, in 1519; by the year 1570, the black slave population may have reached 20,000, all concentrated along the coast of the states of what are now Vera Cruz, Oaxaca, and Guerrero.)
Most immigrants come here to improve their lives and try desperately to leave what kept them down back home back home. Race will always be a key coordinate of oppression and poverty and something to try to sweep under the rug while an immigrant is sweeping, or picking, or pickling or selling. Mexicans’ increasing proximity to blacks, in Watts and Compton and East Los Angeles, as well as in the inner cities of St. Louis and Newark and a host of others, may rankle as a too-familiar reminder that, where they’ve come from, turn on the TV, catch the billboard and magazine ads, look at who’s running the country and the corporations, and it’s only the whites who succeed. They “assimilate” by hurtling the same stereotypes at blacks here that (pseudo-)white Europeans in Mexico level at them.
In New World History 101, we learn that Fra Bartolomeo de las Casas entreated his boss, Cortès, not to enslave the Indians, so obvious to him was it that they were creatures of God. But, even if the indigenous populations were subjugated, forced to convert to the Spaniard’s god, and to this day are marginalized, they were never chattel. Thus, when a Mexican immigrant judges an African American as lazy, seeing him lolling on a street corner while he/she is on the opposite corner waiting to get picked up to do day work, what can that immigrant know—or feel—of why the black man is not beside him? How can he/she understand that when an African-American would rather have no job at all than work scrubbing floors, or pots, or take orders barked out at him by some racist boss, that, maybe he’s brought back to the 250 years of slavery when all of his people had no life but to sweat, scrub, and take it. Working for “slave wages” resonates more deeply in a black man’s ears than in a brown one’s.
In fact, the competition for these jobs is not as great as one would think, giving, actually some credence to Fox’s remark, as refusenik blacks, many of them, have found betterment entering the underground economy as peddlers and petty merchants, while others, formerly unorganized textile workers, farm hands, etc. (working in those spheres now dominated by Latinos), after much struggle, have swelled the trade union ranks.
Most immigrants, Mexicans salient among them, intend to return home. They’re able to put up with abuse because their sense of sacrifice to family is so great. Many work here to build houses home, or to support wives and children, aging parents or grandparents. And, they take it because they believe, “This soon will be over. I’m going home.” For most African Americans, Africa is too long ago and far away.
The buzz word in L.A. seems to be “coalition”. “We need to understand that we cannot really achieve liberation and freedom for our respective communities unless we are indeed going to find the common ground that goes beyond race,” says Carlos Munoz, Jr., professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley in an article that appeared in the NAACP publication, Crisis (Strength in Numbers by Lori Robinson Jan./Feb. 2004).
Hutchinson, and his community forum, the Urban Policy Roundtable, have increasingly been pushing for coalition between the two groups in the face of the most immediately visible common oppressor, the LAPD, and to jointly address the most prickly points of departure, with immigration topping the list. The Urban Policy Roundtable did the righteous thing in early August by booting anti-immigrant howler, Joseph Turner (“California is becoming a Third World cesspool”—check out the web site: www.saveourstate.org) off its list of invited speakers to their community forum on immigration when they looked more closely at Turner’s record and rhetoric. Still, Hutchinson says he has a hard time de-demonizing the undocumented. He told Los Angeles Times Reporter, Lisa Richardson, “There is such a deep hostility, antipathy and antagonism in the black community about this issue of illegal immigration.” (Anti-Illegal Immigration Group’s Forum Plan Foiled; 12 Aug. 2005)
In another recent overture at bridge-building, the ubiquitous Reverend Al (Sharpton) has put his weight behind a new coalition, the Latino and African-American Leadership Alliance, jointly chaired by L.A. activist preacher, Najee Ali and Christine Chavez, granddaughter of Mexican-American icon, Cesar Chavez. Coalitions whose agenda isn’t obscured behind press mics and rhetoric may help prove that black-brown leadership united for change is a weighty voice. But coalitions must also serve as a unifying ground force; the impetus for real change arises from the ground; thereon lies the seat of disaffection, distrust, disharmony, as witnessed at Jefferson High, in slurs slung on the streets, and isolated heated incidents.
Coalition leaders need to go beyond making mutual black-brown nice-nice to prove how well they relate to each other; more importantly, they have to roll up their sleeves and relate to their constituents as well.
Thinking about black-Mexican(-American) relations brought me back to Ruben Martinez’ book, Crossing Over. His theme, at what price immigration?, brings him to poignantly tell the story of young Mexican immigrants looking for a culture. Many have come into African-American neighborhoods and are trying to feel their way around them, exploring similarities, finding differences, while wading through the assimilation morass. Nearly all the youth have adopted the African-Americans’ dress code of the “American urban warrior,” they’ve got the intoned speech and the lingo, and they’ve embraced hip hop. They’ve learned quickly that if you want both to assimilate and be down, that’s the culture to emulate. Martinez’ descriptions and the young, searching voices lead one to believe that common ground will be traced out by the youth.
At Columbia University recently, Richard Rodriguez spoke about his own assimilation as a youth: “The people who taught me most about what it means to be American are African Americans.”
Leadership, while having little success in penetrating age-old attitudes, can offer the more open-hearted young a rationale, motivation, and environment for uniting black and brown communities. We need our coalition builders to come into the community centers, sports clubhouses, maybe an ecumenical church or two, storefront activist organizations, where they can create a culture of affinity, and ultimately activism, around music—reggaeton, hip hop, reggae, maybe–dances, movies. (The schools won’t do it, no. For the most part, they create an atmosphere of tension, hostility, and ignorance.) They need to be in-touch, unopportunistic adults who can proffer their own wisdom and experience as well as role models like Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Che Guevara, Cesar Chavez, Fidel in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, Sandra Cisneros. Because the same wolves are at the puerta as at the door: rage and alienation, drugs, unemployment, the cops, military recruiters, poor services, gangs, pregnancy.
Rodriguez wound down his talk with words that aptly end our discussion:
“I do not tolerate it when I see young Latinos working on Martin Luther King Day, and I ask them why, and they say well, he was for them, dos [sic] otros. And I say, you are wrong, he was one of us.”
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