The Search for Reason
By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Preserving my memories. People have memories of special places—spaces that they periodically revisit. I often get off the freeways and drive through the streets of Los Angeles to savor my memories. Last week I revisited Tucson, where my mother was raised and where at the age of five, when arriving by Greyhound, we stayed in an adobe house in nearby downtown. The memories were such that as a five-year-old I walked through the streets guided by a feeling of dejá vu - memories of my ancestors who lived there since the 1770s. Last week I returned to Tucson, attempting to find answers to the irrationality as reported in the media. It was a calming and upsetting experience: the people were the same - it was like stepping back fifty years in time. The houses without lawns, the potted plants and various colonias with historic names like Barrio Hollywood, Menlo Park, Barrio Sin Nombre, to name a few. These remembered spaces contrast to what is happening in Arizona - events that are polluting the environment, and intruding on my memories.
I returned to Los Angeles with a feeling of anticipation that was heightened by an inability to communicate. A sense that things would get worse as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vies with Sarah Palin to give opportunism a bad name and as the media abandons its code of professional ethics. This opportunism has created an atmosphere where communication is impossible - not because of what used to be called a language barrier, but because the xenophobes in Arizona are redefining history and the meaning of words. It is as if Nicolaus Copernicus and René Descartes had never lived and irrationality had become the norm. For the xenophobes disruption is an end in itself. The purpose is not to learn the truth or find solutions. They intentionally distort any oppositional discourse to appear unreasonable. In their logic armed, Tea Baggers are reasonable as they scream and openly carry guns. They gorge their delusions by calling themselves patriots. In contrast, student protests against higher tuition fees are portrayed as terrorist; peaceful immigrants who only want what Euro-Americans have are called illegal. Plainly the xenophobes believe they have the right to define reason because they say so. During a conversation, a disgusted reporter told me that coverage of HB 1070, the legal justification to pick up and deport Mexicans and Latinos, and SB 2281, the bill outlawing the study of ethnic studies in the public schools and that builds the pretext for the censorship of books as well as the groundwork for the suppression of political literature, was initially fair but that a backlash had set in. He was disgusted since after 20 years on the beat he saw it as a deliberate breach of the journalistic ethic to "strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty." Two interviews with Tucson ABC's KGUN 9 confirmed these fears. The reporters were less than probative and defended Tom Horne, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and Joseph M. Arpaio. The failure to communicate began with the title of my book that xenophobes are seeking to ban, "Occupied America." They asked, wasn't this an example of anti-Americanism? I explained that the title applied to the occupation of the Americas by Europe in 1492. The word America applies to the entire western hemisphere; Chileans, Venezuelans, Central Americans and Mexicans are Americans. Completely dismissing what I had said, both reporters continued to distort the meaning of my words and asked me whether "occupied" did not in fact refer to the reconquista of Mexico's former territory. I explained that the word reconquista was historically used to refer to the Christian retaking of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moslems. Most Latinos do not relate to Spain - and that Horne and others were intentionally distorting the meaning of the title. It was clear that we were not speaking the same language. They were obsessed with the word "occupied" - they had called Horne who insisted that occupied meant la reconquista. They did not have the foggiest notion that in its broadest sense "occupied" is a metaphor for unequal access to education, housing and income in all of the Americas, an inequality that is measured by the hue of the person's skin. According to their logic, institutional racism does not exist. Exploring the topic in a dispassionate way is impossible. It was clear that Pearce, Horne, Arpaio and the reporters would not be satisfied until I said that Mexican Americans and Latinos wanted to overthrow the government. It would have been too much for them to pick up a dictionary or to listen to what I was saying. No matter if I had a PhD, I was still greasers to them. How is civil discourse possible with people who do not read? Who don't understand the meaning of words? Who have a seriously flawed epistemology? I do not want to imply that all Arizonians are bigots. After all, the Tucson and Flagstaff City Councils condemned the racist laws - as well as the legislators and the governor. Law enforcement officers in Pima County in no uncertain words damned 1070 and 2281. However, I want to underscore the xenophobes' lack of reason. An example is the media that uncritically reports that crime is rampant in south Arizona and on the border. The FBI reports contradict these assertions and state that the border is "relatively safe." The racist xenophobes accuse the FBI of being part of Obama's conspiracy. End of discussion. Naturally, I resent Horne's singling out "Occupied America" for banishment from Arizona. But I am more offended by their attacks on La Raza Studies in the Tucson Public Schools. Even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of which Horne was a member has criticized him. Bill Strauss, its regional director, concluded after investigating Horne's irresponsible charges: "Exploring one's culture and roots is important to the overall identity that we all carry. We found there were baseless charges made about the program [La Raza Studies] and that it's not anti-American ... We also found that it turned dropouts into students and then into high school graduates." It also found the Tucson ethnic studies program "promoted pride and a sense of belonging, impelling Latino youth and attracting them to the classroom." In a rational society, this would have been front page news. But, the truth be told, the xenophobes cannot handle the truth. Thus, they rewrite history and the media is in collusion. Part of this erasure of history is the argument of Arpaio and his clones that Mexico and the other Latin American states are ingrates - look at how much the United States has done for them. The argument goes that Latin Americans are poor because they are corrupt. As a consequence, they are swarming into the United States with drugs. Hence, the US has the right to defend itself and secure its borders. This argument underlies what I liken to the Catholic Church's response to Copernicus. For their argument to work, the sun had to revolve around the earth. In the same vein, the United States never invaded Mexico and narcotics are a Mexican problem. They also allege that Euro-American taxpayers have generously sent Mexico foreign aid. I engaged the inquisitors over the War on Drugs, and I pointed out that as good free marketers they should realize that the demand determines the market. Drugs are coming in from Latin American because of the US market. Hence, it can logically be argued that this country is corrupting Mexico. Their solution is to build a Berlin-type wall and crack down on so-called illegal immigrants. Fact: the so-called Mexican drug corridor was forged by US policy that cut sea lanes from South America and forced drugs to be transported through Middle America. US policy begot the cartels, violence and corruption. Contrary to popular myth, prior to the War on Drugs the United States gave little foreign aid to Mexico. Up until recently, Mexico, a country of 114 million people, received $15 million annually in non-military foreign aid. Now, Mexico receives just under a billion dollars in the form of military aid - arguably a subsidy to US arms dealers. The so-called War on Drugs costs over $8 billion annually. A rational discussion would consider the alternative of investing this wasted capital on building Middle America's infrastructure to create jobs. However, it is easier to make the undocumented immigrants scapegoats than to discuss solutions. As I mentioned, you cannot reason with people who argue that the sun revolves around the earth. They have the truth, so why listen? Why test their assumptions?
I believe that it is a mistake to act like Barack Obama, and to think it is possible to win the hearts and minds of racists. Their distortion of language has a purpose: it creates doubt and it confuses the response to injustice. It whittles away at our liberties. Remember, the Greeks knew since the 3rd century BC that the earth revolved around the sun, but the inquisitors were successful in saying no for over 1,700 years. Inevitably, the lesson is that if not challenged, the irrational becomes a doctrine. Words have meanings and should not be changed to distort reality. Political disruption has a social purpose, but the end should be to bring about justice and promote humanitarian ends - not to prove one's delusions.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia are wrong and their meaning cannot be compromised. Brewer, Pearce, Horne, Arpaio and the gaggle of reporters who uncritically report their anti-Mexican venom are racist. As a community we must pressure our institutions and educate the electorate. The Church should excommunicate the racists. Latino voters must act on their self-interests and vote - the laws are directed at them as a people. My sister tells me that I should stay away from Arizona - the people there are crazy. She say that I am too old to be saving the world! I respond that I have no choice but to fight. I want my memories. What good are the places without the people? I am proud of my parents who crossed la linea without papers, and to preserve their memory, we must fight.
Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña serves as Professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. He is a life long activist, scholar and community leader, and winner of many academic distinctions. Three of his books have won the Gustavus Myers Award for the Outstanding Book on Race Relations. Please see Dr. Acuña speak out against the auto da fe on his book Occupied America.
Tuscon postcard from ethertongallery.com . Tea Party sign from Arturo Aldama archives.