Tuesday, April 28, 2015

State Violence Begets Street violence Begets Pleas for Nonviolence Begets more State Violence

It is all over the news today. A call for calm, a reminder of "nonviolence", a caricature of the "thugs" who burned buildings and pelted police with rocks and bricks. Civil rights, and peaceful protests retreat, safely away so that politicians and law enforcement agencies do not have to talk about the history of violence that has been perpetrated on black people in their city for the last century. Today it is all about the burning buildings and the injured police and how the Rev. King, Jr. would have handled it, and black politicians and civil rights leaders will be cowed into "of course its wrong," "we condemn such lawlessness," "a few days ago we were peaceful" and this "is not in the spirit of our protest".
What began yesterday is not simply about one more black man (or woman, as Baltimore seems to be an equal opportunity brutalizer) being killed by police, but about how we treat black people in general, how we stand to see them live in such misery, and how little we care about their children. Now that state violence has begot street violence the state will follow it up with thousands of soldiers, more policemen, nightly curfews, "tougher" tactics and official condemnations. What will not follow is a real discussion of why the people in these Baltimore neighborhoods distrust the police so much; why a liberal state has such poverty and dysfunction; why the police force is so brutal (and so white); why instead of "partying" students let out early become aggressors; and why there is so much inner directed violence against the neighborhoods in which people live. We will chalk it up simply to "reaction" or maybe in Fox News to ghetto culture, and the President will say a few words in which he condemns the looters, reminds us of an unfair America and then shifts back to defending drone strikes and proclaiming his administration's efforts on behalf of "all Americans".
Those Baltimore neighborhoods will remain, as they did after the riots of 1968, abandoned and unreconstructed. Police will become even more abusive "because" they are now "being targeted" by gangs (black, of course).
It is the legacy of American society that state violence seems always to hide behind minority reaction; and that the life of one policeman is more significant than the lives of scores of people of color who receive no state-sponsored parade and whose deaths add up to simply a statistic.
What happened yesterday in Baltimore is a reaction to state violence in the form of police brutality, joblessness, poverty, bad schooling, neglect and social hostility. People don't riot simply because they want to loot, nor do they let their neighborhood burn just to have a camp fire. Their actions may not be rational but neither is the violence and neglect in which they live. No one needs to justify or apologize for yesterday because words do little to change the realities of inner city America. Years ago, we would say this is a wake-up call. But years of being stone deaf means the state will simply become more militarized, and people of color more alienated. But they will still have to clean up "their" mess.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Further Thoughts on my Detachment

Another benefit of this detachment that I have been on for a few month is that I see things in a broader context and have slowly begun to lose the panic that often drove me in the past. I can now not only count my blessings but also see that I have more things going for me, and have more allies than those who line up against me. This is important because we often fear, lose courage and melt away during times of conflict because we do not see what is arrayed on our side, and how much experience we have against the usual enemies and how often we've succeeded against comparable foes. Contemplation and detachment can make us more willing to accept that some things won't change the way we want them to, and the pain and struggle that we go through is a necessary partner in our journey through this life. It doesn't necessarily make it easier when we go through difficult times but it does provide us hope and the expectation that things will go better.
We can take those student evaluations, reviews of our work, professional gossip, readers' indifference, and ideological criticism for what they are: the package deal that comes with being alive and being engaged in things that we like.
While rarely overreacting I have always been sensitive to harsh criticism. My sensitivity does not drive me to lash back but often that hesitancy is more of fear of continuing the conversation than because I'm turning the other cheek. I don't think that I will ever completely lose that sensitivity but I think that more and more--and this time has helped tremendously--I am learning to shift my emotional, spiritual and mental weight in ways that I can better handle the blows that come with life. I am learning to "bob and weave" like a good boxer, but more importantly I'm relearning that humility is the best attitude.
When I was in the military and I was sick and barely able to keep up with the challenges of training, I opened my small scriptures and took time to read them every break I got and to pray and then to let things come. While a protective shield this approach to the training challenges was also an acceptance that "things happened" and I had to simply roll with the punches. I did the same thing at Valley Forge Army Hospital and in the Can Tho, Viet Nam dispensary's emergency room. But while that worked for me I did it more often as a defensive mechanism rather than  as a way of life and this has meant that I've had to "relearn", "repolish" and recycle strategies out of fear or necessity and not because they flow as smoothly from my core. I have always tried to be a good person and to prepare for the challenges of life and my current situation indicates that I've done pretty good, but as I reflect on this life I realize that my responses to life have not always flowed smoothly from me. That is to be expected, it is human, but it is also a burdensome process to polish off and get those strategies in place every time there is a need. The people I most admire, famous and unknown, powerful or meek, all seem to fight their battles from their core. They don't have to outwit, out work or overpower others. In fact, they don't even have to "win" to be satisfied with their response to the challenges they face. They act with all the power, brilliance and maturity of their core principles and that often leads them to succeed against the challenges they face. This doesn't mean that they don't prepare hard or outwork others but only that they are whom they seem to be in battle, because it is what they are when they are being peacemakers or when they deal with families and friends. What we see is what they are, and much more.
I've started to dig deeper within me, to discard some habits that have never served me well, and most of all I've called a truce with myself. This doesn't mean that there aren't things that I have to change or that I struggle with but only that I am not the enemy. I am my best ally and with myself the journey of self-discovery which I'm on provides me joy even in difficult times, when I sweat, hurt or find myself seemingly "running in place".
As a writer and scholar it has been good to look at things I've done from a distance. I see the whole in a better way and have found the crevices in my work and the road that is still possible to take as I enter my mature years. I also find that I don't have to be burdened, as I was in the past, over the things that need to be done but aren't likely to get done in the near future. Because I was committed to my scholarship, my field and the people who are my community, I use to fret over the incomplete picture, and make mental notes to undertake multiple "projects" so that Mexican American/Latino history not remain incomplete. I knew I could never fill all the holes but I remained burdened by them. Call it arrogance or naiveté but it was real and while it led to many great projects and some books, it remained a thorn on my side. I don't see things that way anymore. I see myself as only one of many--some so much better than I--and it provides me a perspective on time, meaning there is a time for many things and for everyone who really matters to me. I still worry that there are not enough of "me" doing what needs to be done, but it is not a reason to be lamentful all the time. The beauty of life and scholarship is that we can be part of something important. The beauty of perspective is that we don't have to do it all or spend too much time lamenting what is not done. In some ways, this detachment has taught me that if I really am worried about something then I should do something about it. If it is not feasible, then I need to move on. And that frees me to do more of the things I actually can do well.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Benefits Already of Detachment

It has been a while since I last wrote in this blog and it has been a rather productive time but mostly in terms of clearing my mind, finishing ups some unfinished business and doing some of the things that I set out to do. I have not written anything significant but have looked over material that is ready for publication--or was already in the publishing "cooker"--and will probably have to do that for three other items including my memoir that is likely to be out in June. Taking a step back has allowed me to see that the last two years were rather productive and while I have not written anything recently I will have publications coming out this year. It is an accumulation of work that is the result of a steady effort to keep busy. Detaching has allowed me to see the kind of work I have been doing, to appreciate the resources made available to me and the scholarly and friendship networks that have made me a productive scholar.
It is good to count your blessings and to appreciate all that has come your way through the bounty of life. We are surely not an island unto ourselves and are constantly blessed by the efforts of others, even those who came many years before. I've learned to be a better writer in just a couple of months--or at least I think I am but won't know until I start writing seriously again--by reading those who are, and I've made some course corrections in my thinking in just a short time; but though this in itself creates the temptation to jump back into serious writing, I am resisting the urge and continuing my journey to fully detach and renew myself.
I am taking time to read more carefully, to listen more intently--though not enough for my Alex--and to see things that are right in front of me. I've seen in the last few months houses, front yards, trees, gardens, sheds, corrals and spaces that I've missed on my way to work, the store or to a relative's house. And thus have discovered how much I've missed in being so focused on "my work" and on keeping ahead of the schedule I set for myself. That new scenery has already begun to change the way I think and the way I want to write. I've had more time to play with grandkids, to converse with my children and to upgrade my friendships, and all of this has happened even though most people who know me would "swear" that I did that already. What I found is that "substance" is much harder to achieve than appearances and you can't create substance in some things when you are too preoccupied with others.
But the beauty of it all is that I am just scratching the surface of what I need to do and I'm grudgingly  accepting that there is no substitute for "taking time". I have no doubt that soon enough I will be back to being a productive scholar but my hope is that when the time does come I will be a better person with a firmer idea of where I'm going and why. I have always been a late bloomer and an obsessive "preparer" who oftentimes takes too long to make progress even as I run at full speed. I'm happy with what I have done and taking time to watch and listen to myself and my past I recognized that I've done well for a kid that grew up poor in the barrio with seemingly little prospects of ever achieving any serious dreams. I've come to appreciate my scholarship and my writing and sometimes find myself thinking, "hey, this is not bad". This space and time has allowed me to unfold, unwrap and polish off much that has been waiting for a fresh new look, but also given me ideas on where to go from here.
Needless to say, I'm glad I'm doing what I'm doing even if at times there is an impulse to come back to the battlefront and shout out like a good Cuban Revolutionary "Presente"! But there will be time for that. But just now is not the time. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Manuscript Accepted: Now for a Period of Contemplation and Detachment

In about a week I will be submitting my latest accepted manuscript for production.This was a work long time in coming and probably exposes me more as a writer, scholar, person of faith, and individual than any other I've written in the past. It is a memoir though surely not a typical one and it seeks to combine two audiences that have never had much to do with each other. It is the kind of work that conjures up possibilities but which is often more difficult to write and find a publisher for than the usual products of that genre. But as all of those who have gone through this process know
all the work and pain involved is forgotten once the acceptance notice comes and even more so when the product is in hand.
Getting to this stage of my writing life has been a steep challenge but one that I planned, prepared and worked hard to make happen. As a young boy, after reading my first essays and having been exposed to Octavio Paz, the great Mexican essayist, reading El Siempre (Mexican political magazine) and knowing a little about Shakespeare, Tolstoy and just getting an inkling of C.S. Lewis, I began to conjure up images of the things I wanted to "create". I was too young and unsophisticated to think about a "writing life" but I knew that I wanted to communicate and to put ideas into the public square. But in the first few years of my youth my syntax, sentence structure and punctuation horrified many a teacher though a few were willing to admit that I had good ideas and told a good story. The journey is too long to retell here but needless to say I am here because of hard work and some friends who were good writers and "suffered me" as I sought to learn from them.
My story is not remarkable other than in the amount of time I invested and so I'm always encouraging others to work hard and set goals. In fact, there are people who probably make a quick exit when I appear because they don't want me asking about "their book".  In my mind, when someone says to me that they're writing a book I believe it is my obligation to be supportive and occasionally to painfully remind them that they could work a little harder and smarter.
Because this work had been in the "works" for a while I did not expect I would have another manuscript accepted after my last one was published. It really takes away pressure from having to contemplate a next one too soon. With this manuscript "not hanging around and staring" at me I feel like I have the luxury of some time to myself to contemplate and reflect. Oh, I do have a few items to take care of this academic year but nothing major except to promote my last book and to prepare for what might be the reaction to this one when it comes out. More importantly, this memoir said much of what I wanted to say and I need time to reflect and read some more before I start thinking of what else to say.
For that reason and others more personal I need this period of "silence". This silence does not mean I won't write in this blog--something I hadn't done in quite a while anyway--or make some small presentations but only that the highest priority will be a more profound contemplation of what comes next and about my "beloved community" which I feel I have ignored for a few years. I need to do things that have no professional "outcome", no bricks to build upon, and which are out of the public eye. Too much of our lives are taken by our "roles" and "obligations" that we forget that there are many things that don't have a timeline, a reward or a legacy beyond the immediate.
I truly need some of that downtime. It was that kind of time that kept me close to people and to the community that was so much a part of me before I became an endowed professor and saw my time consumed by the academy. The urgency in doing much came not from pure ambition but from the fact that I came to the academy much older than most.
The memoir--which takes me through my college years--will show who I was before I became what I am today. There will probably be a lot of silent time over the next season but it may also be a time of sharing, church plays, public service and lots of lunches with friends, both old and news. It will be a time to re-invest in things infinitely more important than another book.
Of course--if my department chair or dean are reading--the preliminary research on the next book began a while ago. But it can wait, for now.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Children of War

The ongoing story of Central American children at the border reminded me this morning of the time I spent in that area as a correspondent for the Gannett News Service in the early 1980s where I covered the civil war. Besides covering the fighting, military men and some politicians I also spent some time visiting the refugee camps. The stories of horror melted away any kind of journalistic distance that I sought to establish. While the military reign of terror was indiscriminate when it came to gender and age, the tales of children being killed was the worse. Mothers--the camps were filled with women as most men had been killed or recruited into the army or insurgent groups--talked about the feared "knock on the door" after dark. It meant the death squads had found another victim and those taken would not return.
I remember one case in particular. A young girl, possibly 15 or 16, who was part of a Catholic reading group was dragged out of her home in the middle of the night. The government considered these reading groups subversive because they were discussing human dignity and the need for societal change in their country. These groups were nonpolitical and in fact were not very well liked by the guerrilla groups in the country because they sought peaceful change. The young woman would be missing for days until they found a "part" of her body in a nearby community. Over several days they would find other parts of her body scattered about in the region. Once put together the autopsy revealed gang rape, mutilation of her organs, torture and eventual dismemberment. Hers was the most vivid of the crimes but there were many others. The people in these refugee camps were traumatized, some left with almost no emotion.
El Salvador's military government was similar to those that the U.S. supported in places like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile, Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Panama. These governments were ruthless in the oppression of their people, many of their military men having been trained in the School of the Americas in Panama. In fact, most of the military dictators and others accused of war crimes graduated from that school and one in Bennings, Georgia.
A few years before I went to Central America I visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where I saw similar trauma though there the defiance against Israel and its Lebanese allies was simmering just below the surface. I remember going to a PLO school where the children were being taught how to handle a rifle and to sing revolutionary songs. A committed PLO doctor, nonetheless, told us how worried he was about what war and anger would do to these children. Would they also engage in violence?
War is destructive, so is oppression and when you mingle it with poverty, social dysfunction and hopelessness you get either violence--radical Islamists or Mara Salvatrucha--or you get societies that move in massive numbers desperately seeking something better. Time will tell whether our leaders' hearts are large enough to embrace these children or whether we will succumb to the typical fears of "illegal immigrants". Eventually we will also have to find ways to help resolve the problem that sends them here.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Tragedy of Immigrant Children

I have to admit that I've been trying to avoid much of the news coverage on the immigrant children from Central America that seem to be pouring into this country without their parents and in fact often in search of them. It is a tragedy no matter which way one looks at it and given our political system one with little chance of resolution. We will not have immigration reform this year and next year starts the presidential campaign and so it will be another two years before we might get to the issue. And so the tragedy will continue, and it is a tragedy in more ways than just having young children crossing a very dangerous border which for Central Americans begins when they leave their homes. Each step is fraught with danger from unscrupulous policemen, cartel henchmen, coyotes, rapists, overloaded trains, hot deserts, etc.
The first tragedy is when the child is left behind by parents who want a better life. Too often, however, that better life becomes restricted to the person here and possibly their "new" families. One of the things that we don't talk about when we talk about immigrants is that they are often running away from more than just poverty. They are escaping everything associated with their former lives of poverty and sometimes that means spouse and children. They might not think it about consciously but once they are here their lives become consumed with being here, and that can often mean meeting other people here and creating a community that excludes those left behind.
In a study done years ago, a scholar found that women from the third world who are hired as nannies will often become more attached to the children they care for than to their children back home. These beautiful, usually white, blond, blue-eye children become their passion and the dark, black-eyed often malnourished children without future become less attractive as sons and daughters. To alleviate their guilt they send money home and on the occasional visits will take numerous gifts, but they always come back after telling their own children that "soon, mommy will come for you" until one day they stop coming and their children stop believing.
Living among undocumented immigrants I know of scores of men and women who now have families here and while they feel for those left behind they have chosen to make a new life for themselves because the old one is unbearable, thus, a child loses not only a father or mother physically but they also lose their "familial place" to other siblings that they will likely never know. Most are also left with families that cannot provide them much and where they are very low on the pecking order of love and comfort. They are rarely happy and so they leave, chasing a dream of reconnecting to parents that they don't know anymore and which they love only as an "ideal".  By the time they come searching, they do so not to find the parent but to try to find the "thing" that made their parents forget them. By then, it has become about working to have things because in their minds that is the reason their parents left. 
Like the child soldiers of Africa, some of these child immigrants are so disconnected from community and so alienated from love that though they yearn for it, rarely do they know how to receive it or express it. This, of course, is a situation with varying degrees--some will reunited with loved ones--but surely one that awaits a child immigrant if he/she does not quickly reunite with a parent and finds a loving home.
The tragedy for American society is that in the past children have been the ones that open our hearts to change, but it seems not to do so today. A colleague of mine writes that the civil rights movement found much success when its leaders turned the fight against segregation and violence into one about saving the children. They convinced the American public to see children instead of black skin. Of course in the process they missed teaching whites what it took to really educate black children, but that's for another post. 
The story of the child immigrant is one of much less empathy even among some of those black children now grown and heading major agencies, including the one that oversees the detention centers. The first action that the president is making is to send more ICE agents to the border while these children are "housed" in buildings without beds and where they are crowded too many to a room and have little time to see open space or even to play. Worse, they have aroused fierce anger by whites who are "tired" of immigrants coming over the border regardless of the reason. These child immigrants--in the minds of many Americans--are not really children they are simply "wetbacks" or "illegals" that will one day grow up to take jobs. It is shameful to say it but immigrant children today do not elicit the same concern that white or black children do. They are too foreign to the American heart.
They are an evolving tragedy because most of them will be deported only to have them try again and the next time they might not be lucky in the desert or in escaping those who would exploit them. Or they will give up emotionally, join gangs or drug cartels and cause havoc in their communities. What other options do impoverished and neglected children have in dysfunctional countries many of which have been victims of American military and economic intervention or foreign policy decisions. These children are just another part of the "chickens coming home to roost", or as journalist Juan Gonzalez likes to say, "they are the harvest of empire".
There are many people who do care but most of them are powerless to help in more than just the minimal way, hampered by a lack of political will among those sympathetic and blocked by the fierce opposition of those who see a coloring of America as a horrible thing. Thus, I try rather unsuccessfully to avoid getting emotionally involved. I've seen this too often in the past and it rarely gets better.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Viet Nam War Anniversary

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of American troops leaving Viet Nam thus ending more than a decade of military adventurism in Southeast Asia. I remember in 1975, already in college having come back a few years earlier, hearing and seeing the American military police pushing people off the gates of the American embassy as diplomats and military personnel boarded helicopters and cargo planes just hours before the North Vietnamese soldiers entered Saigon. I remember sitting on the wooden steps of our $50-a-month rental in Kingsville, Texas and just crying, suffering not closure but heartbreak. I knew too many Vietnamese who had worked for the base where I was stationed and knew they were going to get punished if only because they swept our huts and washed our clothing.
War is always more complicated than what our politicians say or even think, especially those who have never gone to war. I was torn at the fall of Saigon. I never believed we should have been there and yet I knew wonderful South Vietnamese people who had no blame in the geopolitics that consumed the world at that time. I also had friend who died there and others who came back but didn't, having left much of themselves in some rice paddy, airbase, jungle ambush or house of prostitution. All of us who went left something of ourselves there and many of us brought something from that place that remains a prized if complicated relic of a war nobody really wanted. Most raced to forget quite soon after our departure, except those whose relatives and friends left their last breath there.
My novel is about the war and my memoir (hopefully soon to be accepted for publication) is a big chunk about that place of war. There are not too many days that go by that I'm not reminded about something I left or found in that place. I know that I--along with millions of other Americans, veterans or not--will be flooded with memories of and pains from that "police action" which seems to have lasted far too long for some of us who came of age and then aged alot during that time.
I remember our family hosting a welcome back party for one of my father's friends who had been one of the early advisers in that Southeast Asian country. He came to our house with a number of drinks in him and after one discussion of what he had seen he barged out of our house to vomit on our front yard. My father, always the gentleman went out to be see if things were alright. I remember watching from my window as he grabbed my father by the shoulders and said to him with a painful voice, "be glad Garcia that your children are too young to go to this war." It would be about five years later that I arrived in Cam Ranh Bay for my own tour.
While I had begun writing before I got to Viet Nam it was there that I decided that whatever I did to earn a buck I would find a way to do it writing. More important than getting a glimpse of a career, however, was learning a bit about the world outside my immediate circles. I met great people there though it is likely that some would not get the seal of approval from many today, yet they taught me things because we were all trying to navigate a world foreign to us and doing it while trying to say alive and sane. Emotions in war create a hungering for connection that we often love, hate, desire, etc. in ways that we don't back home and so our emotions are exposed to all kinds of situations and they become raw and eventually formed callouses. Remembered correctly they can be a way to decipher life around us and mature us as nothing refines the character than the fire of adversity.
As we wind down another war remembering Viet Nam can provide perspective especially for a generation that is now graying and which saw its Age of Aquarius turn into one of hostility and divisions, some which remain even today. I think that it was David Broder, NY Times journalist who said that the lines that have come to demarcate American society were drawn during our debates about the war, American foreign policy and our Exceptional-ism. I don't know whether I would affirm such thought but I do know that since the Viet Nam era I have only seen conflicts and ideological splits.
I know that like many I will continue to be influenced by my time there and next year should be a rather sensitive time for me and many other Viet Nam vets.

For my fictionalized view of the war see my novel Can Tho.