Our place in history ...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Democracy in Mexico: A View from the United States, Written Two Hundred and Thirty Six Years After the Declaration of Independence

Thus, the question of whether justice can be achieved in society may not depend on whether individuals can be forced to comply with civil authority but on whether individuals and civil authority can act in harmony with, and fulfill their moral obligations toward, each other. Moreover, there may be a moral obligation to comply with civil authority only if that authority is legitimate (i.e. if that authority is based on a fair and just agreement among the members of society).
- Jean Jacques Rousseau - The Social Contract (1762)

On October 2, 1968, approximately 10,000 students, including my parents, from Mexican high schools and universities gathered for a peaceful rally at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a public square in one of Mexico City’s boroughs. The Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, a.k.a., the PRI) ordered over 5,000 soldiers and 200 tanks to surround the square. Thousands of demonstrators never made it home. It is still not known how many died that night. The PRI hid what occurred after the first shot was fired in the plaza for decades.

On July 2, 2000, Vicente Fox Quesada won 43% of the vote in a three-way race against, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solorzano, thus ending 71 years of unbroken rule by the PRI. While members of the deposed party remained influential, it was widely believed that Fox’s victory marked a giant step for Mexico’s limited democracy. El Universal, one of Mexico’s most prestigious newspapers, proclaimed, “We will no longer be seen as a country with a one-party state, hegemonic and closed to the changes necessary in this era of profound transformation. We will show that we are capable of joining the community of nations that seek a democratic system open to essential change based on a collaborative effort, without sectarianism or messianism, as circumstances and society demand. We have opened the door to an irreversible transition.”

Yet Fox Quesada’s victory didn’t pave a clear path to democratic, egalitarian reform, and backlash followed.

In 2009, Mexico held midterm congressional, state and district elections. The PRI—the very same political party that used widespread patronage and corruption, as well as strategic repression and violence, to deny Mexicans true democracy for nearly three-quarters of a century—won big. Less than ten years after losing control of the executive branch, and by extension, the country, the PRI won effective control of the lower house of the legislature, a broad swath of the country’s largest cities and five out of six gubernatorial races. The PRI’s electoral success automatically converted their most elected official and party leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, a front-runner in the 2012 presidential campaign. Polls demonstrated voters believed the PRI had not changed. But they didn’t care. Millions of Mexicans felt nostalgia for the “functionality” of the old, antidemocratic regime, and still do.

As of last Sunday, May 20, a Mitofsky poll confirmed that Peña Nieto remains comfortably in the lead. And as such is predicted to win the presidential election, returning the PRI to Los Pinos (Mexico’s White House).

But Mexico’s young people are especially incensed that victory by Enrique Peña Nieto on July 1 is often portrayed as a fait accompli. Thousands of students have poured into the streets of Mexico City for the second time in a week to protest the way the nation’s upcoming presidential election is being run and, more specifically, covered in the Mexican media. The young people taking to the streets come from a wide range of schools—public, private, leftist, rightist, and Catholic. They are decidedly anti-Peña Nieto, an unmistakable, unifying sentiment expressed by the banners and signs they carry. Nevertheless, these manifestations, like the Occupy movement erupting from Zuccotti Park, go beyond partisan politics, and represent a broader questioning of the status quo.

Television channel and newspaper ownership is concentrated in a few hands in Mexico, and many of the demonstrators believe it is skewed in favor of the Peña Nieto campaign and the return to presidential power of the PRI. Televisa and other major news organizations have defended their coverage of the campaign. But it is a fact that the protests were galvanized by the media’s coverage of Peña Nieto’s recent visit to the presitigious Ibero-American University in Mexico City. Many students there heckled him vociferously—a highly unusual occurrence, since his campaign appearances are typically highly choreographed—yet the Mexican media gave the incident short shrift.

When Peña Nieto’s campaign dismissed it, claiming the protesters were political plants and not students at all, 131 Ibero students went on YouTube to prove that they were in fact students and had participated in efforts to shout down the candidate. As a result, a protest movement has emerged, one that demands media transparency and attention to those issues the Mexican people deem most important to the preservation of Mexico’s fragile democracy. Calling itself “Yo Soy 132,” (“I am 132”) movement organizers invite others to join the 131 student protestors who confronted Peña Nieto, not with a partisan, an anti-PRI message, but a populist one, reminiscent of the “We are the 99%” sentiment that swept the USA last year.

But Mexico’s youth, the leaders of the “Mexican Spring,” are not copycats, they are building on a foundation that activists laid over one year before the “Arab Spring.”

Eight political parties ran candidates in the July 5, 2009, election cycle, but the fifth most popular option selected by voters was not any party or candidate—it was the nullification of their ballots all together. Known as voto nulo, or voto en blanco, the campaign to convince disenchanted voters to show up at the polls, instead of abstaining from participation, and cast completely blank ballots or purposefully mark their ballots in such a way that no actual vote could be determined and counted, went from the margins of the internet to the center stage of print and broadcast media attention in a matter of weeks. Organizers argued that a significant tally of nullified votes would convey public disenchantment with self-interested politicians and frustration over the social ills they have failed to solve. Critics labeled the drive irresponsible, and for those interested in keeping the PRI from returning to power, voto nulo proved counterproductive insofar as it appealed to voters likely to cast viable ballots, not just voters likely to sit out the election all together, thus likely siphoning votes from candidates in close contests.

Yet voto nulo was in no way responsible for the failings in governance committed by the Party of National Action, (PAN) nor the infighting driving the near-collapse of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s economic policies have not been popular. Mexico’s economy has been buffeted especially hard by the global financial crisis and it is expected to contract by as much as eight percent this year. Those participating in the voto nulo movement agreed with the overwhelming majority of voters that something needed to be done to reverse the economic tailspin. However, unlike Mexicans actually supporting one of the eight parties, participants in voto nulo did not stand together in favor of a populist or free market approach to solving the nation’s woes. They did not support or decry any policy prescription. The only thing that voto nulo affirmed was that millions of Mexicans resented the people in charge of their government, as well as the perceived unjust aspects of “the system” itself.

The movement to nullify ballots in the 2009 midterm congressional, state and district elections, stood as the weathervane, the barometer, in the story of Mexico’s disenchanted, demoralized and disheartened democracy, not the villain, as some, misreading the narrative, made it out to be.

Democratization is not a linear process. Even a “first world” democracy like ours, can under-perform or lose its focus in instances when what is expected seems so basic, most take it for granted. One need only recall the voter roll purges conducted by Florida’s Katherine Harris before a single ballot was cast, the Election Day polling place irregularities that disenfranchised large swaths of the African American community, and the recount battle debacles of the 2000 US Presidential Election, or examine recent laws designed to institutionalize the suppression of the young, the poor, and citizens of color through voter identification card requirements, voter registration restrictions, and limitations placed upon early voting to understand how in the contact sport of democracy, dirty play and poor officiating do more than sully the game, and turn people away from participating: They decide winners—victors with the power to alter some, if not all of the rules, who must then be trusted not to change them for opportunistic, or arbitrary ends.

In order to proceed with purpose, all democracies must attend to the ongoing incorporation of disconnected voices, as well as the struggle to engage all people in the democratic process, and its outcomes. To change whom their leaders are, to hold them accountable, a majority must understand not only what it is against, but also define what it stands for. Thus far, 20 Mexican cities have joined the Yo Soy 132 movement. Whatever the result, the July 1 presidential election won’t be the end of Mexico’s great story of democratic, egalitarian reform. To paraphrase Nobel Award winning author, Octavio Paz, México merece lo que sueña (Mexico deserves its dreams).

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Right To Learn:

“Being oppressed means the absence of choices.”
—bell hooks—

Here’s a question for those of you who are fans of 1990s pop culture: Do you remember that episode of Beverly Hills 90210, in which authorities discover that Gabrielle Carteris’ character, Andrea Zuckerman, has been secretly living outside of the school district, so she gets kicked out of school and they lock-up her family for illegal enrollment, larceny, theft by deception, and records tampering?

Sorry. My mistake. Andrea goes on to receive an acceptance letter to Yale, and gives the commencement address as the valedictorian of her high school class.

I confused the fates of fictional, non-affluent characters on television, with the real-life nightmares, Americans who barely get by, have found when attempting to provide their children with the best educational opportunity available.

Kelley Williams-Bolar, 41-year-old, single mother from Akron, Ohio, she was charged last year, with both felony larceny and records tempering, for using her father’s address to enroll her two children in a neighboring school district. The Copley-Fairlawn School District hired a private investigator to shoot video of Ms. Williams-Bolar driving her children to school, and then ordered her to pay $30,000 in back tuition, under threat of felony charges. A felony conviction would have prevented Ms. Williams-Bolar, a teacher’s aide, and student pursuing a degree in family child development, from obtaining the very license to teach upon which her career aspirations relied. But she didn’t have $30,000. Ms. Williams-Bolar was sentenced to jail and probation, until public outrage led Governor John Kasich to intervene, and reduce her convictions to misdemeanors.

Marie Menard of Stratford, Connecticut, and Ana Wade of Milford, were arrested on October 20, 2010, and charged with first-degree larceny, and conspiracy, for allegedly enrolling Ms. Wade’s children in Stratford schools using Ms. Menard’s address.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

A 34-year-old, homeless woman named, Tonya McDowell, used a babysitter’s address so her son could attend kindergarten in Norwalk. According to existing law, Ms. McDowell’s son must attend school in Bridgeport, because that’s the last place she lived, before she became homeless. Police arrested her for stealing $15,686 worth of “free” educational services from Norwalk. Authorities charged her with felony larceny. Ms. McDowell entered a plea under the Alford Doctrine. Earlier this year, she was sentenced to 12 years in jail.

But wait, there’s more.

In Kentucky, Charles Lauron, a 51-year-old, single father from Louisville, was informed last year that he would be facing felony theft by deception for enrolling his son in Oldham County Schools while living in Lyndon. Mr. Lauron was confronted with a bill for $26,000, and the threat of a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. He wasn’t alone. Oldham County Schools went to court to seek legal action against Jim McGuire for using address for enrollment, when his child’s primary residence was in Jefferson County with his mother, Cheryl McGuire. OCS contracted the same investigators that spied on the McGuires, to muckrake enough dirt to bring charges against, Dawne Grigsby, for using her mother’s address to enroll her two children, whose home residence is in Henry County.

In Illinois, Annette Callahan, became worried when her honor-roll, fifth grade, fraternal twins scored below state averages on their annual standardized exams. One had been badly bullied, harmed both physically and verbally, as well. Ms. Callahan, and her ex-husband, Samuel Callahan, agreed that it would be best to take the kids out of Waukegan schools, and enroll them in the Beach Park school district. After all, the couple enjoys shared custody, and therefore their kids also call their father’s residence in Beach Park home. But the district accused the Callahans of “illegal enrollment,” and ordered their children removed. They appealed… three times. Beach Park responded by hiring a private investigator to seek enough evidence to more forward with legal action against the Callahans. Undaunted, they demanded the district make public the findings of its investigation. Beach Park backed down temporarily from its threats of legal action, yet continues to insist that the Callahans must demonstrate a “more concrete residency plan.”

The system is broken.

Transformative change is urgently needed.

As RiShawn Biddle writes in Dropout Nation, “No family should have to be shackled to dropout factories, failure mills, and warehouses of mediocrity. They should have the ability to escape those failure factories and attend any high quality school available to them… Meanwhile this unwillingness to overhaul school financing perpetuates one of the tenets of the Poverty Myth of Education held so deeply by so many education traditionalists: That poor and minorities don’t share the same interest in providing their children with a high quality education as they do, and won’t do whatever it takes to help their kids succeed… Some 420,000 children are waiting for seats in the nation’s charter schools, the nation’s most-prominent form of choice; minorities make up 30 percent of enrollment in the nation’s dwindling collection of Catholic diocesan schools… It is high time to end Zip Code Education that wrongly criminalizes the fight to provide every child what they deserve.”

Don’t get me wrong, turning school systems into competitive marketplaces, won’t automatically lead to the day all children are extended the opportunity to attain an excellent education. School choice voucher programs are no panacea. Their universal introduction without additional systemic reforms would merely make the PreK-12 landscape mirror the current state of higher education. The widespread availability of financial aid (grants, scholarships, student loans, and public/private funding sources) hasn’t improved outcomes for students of color. Only four out of every ten African Americans, and one out of every two Latinos, who enroll in college complete a bachelor’s degree in six years or less.

Nevertheless, it’s time to imagine a world without enrollment boundaries.

While highly in-demand schools would need to hold admission lotteries, and a number of neighborhood parents would get turned away (leading to lawsuits and political backlash). The stress level of school bus schedulers would rival that of air traffic controllers. And thousands of additional cars would crowd already congested roads, as those with the means to do so engaged in daily commutes to and from their chosen schools.

We might very well be forced to deal with educational inequity head on.

After all, we already live in the age of the Parent Trigger, Teachers for a New Unionism, Teaching 2030, Educators4Excellence, Promise Neighborhoods, KIPP, and other nationally ranked public charters, the Reed, et al. v. State of California settlement, as well as verdicts designed to protect the rights of English language learners, special education and undocumented students, and so on and so forth.

Isn’t the introduction of open enrollment in this setting more likely to successfully address inequity than it would be in a world without these players and circumstances?

To quote the L.A. Times, “If students had endless options for attending school, racial imbalances in enrollment would begin to even out… So would private donations; it’s unlikely that one school would be awash in parent-funded enrichment programs while another couldn’t afford a computer… Teachers who in the past might have fled inner-city schools for the suburbs would have less reason to transfer. Parents who wouldn’t dream of sending their children to a rundown school… might be forced to admit that it’s no more acceptable for other children to have to attend that school. The classic response to complaints about educational inequities has been that the district has to work harder on providing top-quality neighborhood schools for low-income students. That theory, nice as it sounds, has been as fraught with practical barriers.”

Nearly sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, black and brown students are more segregated than they’ve been in generations. Fewer than six out of ten of all African American and Latino high school students complete high school. Graduation rates for students that attend school in high poverty districts lag 15-to-18% behind their peers. The achievement gap aversely impacts not only poor children in failing schools, but most children, in most schools. According to McKinsey & Company this harms our economic wellbeing as a whole. Stated more bluntly, the achievement gap imposes the equivalent of a permanent national recession.

Everyone is frustrated: Parents. Teachers. Principals. Everyone.

91% of Latino parents, and 86% of African-American parents, say it is “quite” or “extremely” important for their children to attend and graduate from college. African American and Latino parents know public education is underfunded, and believe budget cuts will further diminish educational opportunity and quality. Yet parents of color feel removed from the debates politicians, philanthropists, pundits, and public figures, are engaged in over standardized testing, per-pupil funding, value-added educator evaluations, common core curriculums, and charter schools.

Students are suffering.

Students are not only being condemned to life sentences of educational inequity, their caregivers are being sentenced to jail and/or parole for trying to break them out of underperforming schools. Students face the disadvantage of not being prepared for college and career, and learn unequivocally that any attempt to challenge the status quo, and the power structure it represents, will result in police arrest and court action.

If, as President Obama has argued, the best possible education is not only the key to opportunity, but also the civil rights issue of our time.

Then, tomorrow is today, and with the fierce urgency of now, we must march ahead.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Latino Racism = US Racism + Latin American Racism

(Also published on May 4, 2012, as a Politic365 submission: http://politic365.com/2012/05/04/yes-latinos-can-be-racist-too/, as well as part of Leadership Educational Equity's "Teach for America Alumni of Los Angeles" blog: http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2012/5/5/3400/83255).

When the story broke that George Zimmerman used his 2005 MySpace page to spread derogatory stereotypes about Mexicans, the response from major newspapers and cable news was underwhelming.

After all, Zimmerman—the 28 year-old, half Peruvian, self-appointed captain of an unregistered Neighborhood Watch, awaiting trial for the second-degree murder of 17 year-old, African American youth, Trayvon Martin—looked upon a pedestrian returning home from a corner store, not as a fellow human being, or a fellow law-abiding citizen, but through a lens of American racism, that paints all people of color as worthy of suspicion.

Yet, when he posted disparaging generalizations about Mexicans on MySpace—despite the fact that his skin color and mestizo heritage, make his answers to Census questions about race, and ethnicity, identical to those provided by millions of Mexican Americans—Zimmerman, proved that he views the world through a lens of Latin American racism as well.

Many non-Latinos have a hard time wrapping their heads around the notion of a Latino being racist toward another person of color. Yet, it is precisely at the intersection of this nation’s tradition of the “one drop rule,” and the anomalic history of nationalist identity throughout Latin American and Caribbean that Latino notions of racial identity reside.

Latinos are a multiracial, multicultural populace, who share a long history of marginalization with communities of color impacted by school segregation, redlining policies, police profiling, denial of due process, and other forms of de jure and de facto discrimination. Yet, despite Mendez v. Westminster, Hernandez v. Texas, the history of Jim Crow laws targeting Latinos, including veterans, and the Civil Rights Era movements to deliver social, educational, economic, and political justice to urban and rural Latinos, Congress didn’t order the US Census to collect data on “Hispanics” until 1976. When it first asked all Americans to self-identify as an “ethnicity,” and a “race,” (in 1980) Latinos entered into the never-ending process of explaining why we’ll never be able to replace our many identities, with a homogenous racial one.

As Ilan Stavans writes in the Daily Beast, “People like purity. They also enjoy using easy identity categories, especially if they can be differentiated from each other… He is a sum of hodgepodge parts: Jewish, Catholic, white, and Peruvian… That accumulation of identities is already a sine qua non when speaking of Hispanics, like Zimmerman. Most Latinos are a mix. That’s why the term mestizaje is ubiquitous in Latin America: it not only denotes those who had Spanish as well as indigenous parents, but describes a complex process of racial commingling… We’re obsessed with genealogy precisely because our roots have tangled, and mingled. Zimmerman is a Latino precisely because his identity is mixed together, watered down.”

When I went to school in Mexico, federally established curriculum mandated that all children study two texts addressing the origins of our identity: La Raza Cósmica, (The Cosmic Race) an essay written by José Vasconcelos Calderón, and La Raza de Bronce, (The Bronze Race) a poem by Amado Nervo (a.k.a., Juan Crisóstomo Ruiz de Nervo). From Vasconcelos, we were to learn that we were a new “fifth race” of mestizos. One created not by explicitly blending together the indigenous people of the Americas, with the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but one that came into existence by concurrently not being these things, while extracting the essence of their greatness. From Nervo, we were to learn the story of Benito Juarez, the self-made man, born in a tiny adobe home in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, who became a successful lawyer, resisted the French occupation of Mexico, overthrew the Napoleonic Empire, and used liberal efforts to modernize the country, while serving five times as President of the Mexican Republic.

In Mexico City schools, I was taught there were no white Mexicans, black Mexicans, brown Mexicans, and so forth, only mestizos. Other countries, (like the United States) were racist because they lacked the mestizaje that gave us social cohesion. By deifying Benito Juarez, a dark skinned man with pronounced indigenous facial features, my teachers were attempting to inculcate me into the propagandist fiction that discrimination on the basis of racial appearance did not exist in Mexico. Yet racism was everywhere. Television and film screens, magazine covers, billboards, people walking down the street, sang the praises of the fair skin, light-eyes, and European features. The “güero” aesthetic was better than the “moreno” or “prieto” alternative. When people complained about how hard their bosses were working them, they’d call them “negreros.” I never once witnessed anyone with white skin being called a “naco.” And there could be no greater insult rendered than calling someone an “indio.”

Mexico is not alone in seeking a path forward from a troubled racial past through the creation of a nationalist propaganda that seeks to join its diverse people in one new harmonious race. Revisionist narratives of mestizaje (or mestiçagem) have influenced every Spanish-speaking Latin American country, and Portuguese-speaking Brazil as well. Yet, it is the very real and painful history of slavery and genocide throughout the Americas, followed by relentless efforts to do minimize the damage of these histories through a propagandist narrative of a “rainbow” past, magically molding into a common, cohesive, social present, that makes the real work of unpacking privilege and confronting racist power structures so amazingly difficult.

In September of 2009, CNN painted a picture of what it means to be Latino in America, by introducing us to Bill and Betty Garcia, as well as their two teenage sons, Andrew and Brian. Bill is Puerto Rican, and Betty is Dominican. They live in Charlotte, NC. Mr. and Mrs. Garcia tell Soledad O’Brien they fear their children have lost touch with their cultural identity. On camera, the teens are asked, “What do you say you are?” 17 year-old Brian responds, “I tell them I’m Hispanic. But I mean… Most of my friends are black… In the south it’s either you’re white, black, or you’re Mexican. I don’t like being called Mexican.”

Latinos are blessed with the richness and complexity of many cultures, but we are equally cursed with the racial baggage of two juxtaposed worlds: One in which one drop of non-European blood makes someone “the Other.” And another in which any sign of European heritage makes a person of color, white.

Given this context, although it pisses off conservative pundits to no end, the New York Times got it right when they called Zimmerman a “white Hispanic,” for that is what he likely sees when he looks in the mirror.