It's About Being Human

“This year we’re going to march together into the Promised Land,” Dallas anti-violence activist Blanca Martinez told a group of young, mostly Latino pilgrims recently at a peace summit in Washington, D.C. Her statement may be prophetic indeed, for after years of wandering in the American political wilderness, Latinos are poised to ford the mainstream and make a stronger political impact than ever before.

For some time now the political juice of the Latino community has been boiling around issues such as April’s video-taped beating of undocumented immigrants by Riverside County police, California’s Proposition 187, affirmative action rollbacks, and sharp new punitive measures that are applied disproportionately to people of color. Left with few alternatives, the diverse—and, at times, antagonistic—political, racial, and cultural factions of the U.S. Latino community are taking advantage of this election year to defend their rights—and perhaps some of America’s most preciously held values as well.

Adding fuel to the fire is PBS’s four-part series Chicano!, which, since its original airing last spring, continues to be shown by Latino community groups and students. Chicano! reminds us of the important contribution that Latinos made to America’s civil rights movement in the era before the movement splintered into camps competing with each other on the basis of ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation.

“Latinos of that period thought of it as one movement for the civil rights of all Americans,” said Raul Yzaguirre of the National Council of La Raza. “An assault on any people is an assault on all people.”

Indeed, for many “Latinos,” “Hispanics,” “Boricuas,” “Chicanos,” “Central Americans,”—whatever you call us—America’s modern conception of race has been somewhat dysfunctional. Of course racial categories and racism exist south of the border as well; but because many Latino families are multiracial, it has always been difficult to fit into a system that is so fixated on the racial poles of black and white. The mix that Latinos bring to America’s so-called melting pot may just help to blow the lid off America’s limited understanding of race that has historically attempted to put individuals into a color slot and then award or punish them accordingly.

ADDING TO THE complexity is the current round of rhetorical and literal immigrant bashing. For many Chicanos and other Latinos, the saying “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” has become more than a slogan. It is a statement that their forebears were here long before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildago, which turned the northern half of Mexico into what is now the Southwest United States—overnight changing their ancestors from mexicanos to “Mexican Americans.”

The failure to recognize this has resulted in policies that treat Latinos as if they are in some way “alien” to the United States. Yet the presence of Latinos, and the movement of others northward, has been as central to the settlement of the United States as the 19th century westward migration of Anglos.

The Latino vote has the potential to have an increasingly powerful impact in American political life. Partly because “Hispanics can be of any race,” it matters less what ethnicity candidates belong to—or even what party—but whether or not they are truly responsive to the barrios that the mainstream wrote off long ago. This also goes for the first- and second-wave Latino organizations such as LULAC, MALDEF, and National Council of La Raza; they have done great work in the past, but because of their professional focus and corporate ties, they now risk alienation from a new generation of activists.

The political acumen of this new generation was on display in April when Barrios Unidos, an anti-violence group involved with Latino youth around the country, brought more than 500 young people to Washington, D.C., for the National Peace Summit. There they invited members of Congress and the administration to join them in working with communities to find lasting solutions to the most critical issues faced by urban America.

These young people were very clear: What is needed in the barrios isn’t the politics of Left and Right, but a new approach toward urban America that extends from spiritual unity rather than from a reaction to ideological challenges. “It’s not about colors or race,” explained Luis Angel Viniega, a spiritual adviser for Barrios Unidos. “It’s about being human.”

It seems ironic that this new vision for the nation is coming from the same young brown and black people that many see as the problem with urban America. It’s not often that you hear teen-agers—most of whom are too young to vote—talking about building multiracial coalitions of people to create change through the ballot box. But the time has come for these young people who have already seen too many friends and relatives die violently on the streets of their communities. They understand the urgency that is needed for the healing of their communities, and they aren’t waiting around for the government to take the lead.

As Blanca Martinez challenged, “We’re giving Washington a chance to put money toward something positive on a domestic level. But if they don’t help us, we’re going to work in the barrio anyway—they can choose if they are with us as friends or not.”

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