Last week I watched the documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" and it was beautiful to see their power and vision and to hear the stories told by elders, once young leaders in the Black Panther Party. One charismatic and eloquent young leader who wasn't present, however, was Fred Hampton. Killed by Chicago police at age 21 in 1969, his message was too dangerous for the government, the FBI, their COINTELPRO, the local police and the State Attorney to bear. It was and is a message of solidarity among oppressed people.
In a speech at Olivet Church in 1969, Hampton laid out his vision of solidarity, telling the people,
"We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism."
As part of his vision, he helped draw together a coalition of Black, Brown, and White people represented by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. Antonio R. Lopez wrote about Hampton in his 2012 dissertation, "In the spirit of liberation: Race, governmentality, and the decolonial politics of the Original Rainbow Coalition of Chicago." I remember reading his description of Hampton speaking before crowds and thinking that Hampton was a brilliant orator and analyst. When I read Antonio's description of his murder by the FBI, I cried. It was the first time I cried reading a dissertation that I was directing. If you want to know more about this incredible act of solidarity among poor Black, Brown, and White communities, I encourage you to read this dissertation.
Photo of poster by Jacob Anikulapo
Photo of poster by Jacob Anikulapo
Fred Hampton's cold-blooded murder before dawn as he slept next to his wife, Deborah Johnson, was the result of a collaboration between the FBI's COINTELPRO and the Chicago police. Police shot over 99 shots while the Black Panthers shot one bullet, accidentally discharged as they killed the young man who answered the door. J. Edgar Hoover gave a $300 reward to the COINTELPRO informant who had provided the information and may have drugged Hampton so that he couldn't defend himself.
The media portrayed it as a "shoot out" between the Black Panthers and the police. The bloody incident was anything but a shoot out. The FBI provided local police a map of the apartment where a number of Black Panthers lived, even identifying the bed where Fred Hampton would be sleeping. Using machine guns they shot a barrage of bullets into the bedroom. Somehow, Deborah who was 8 1/2 months pregnant was not shot. She was treated abusively by the police and witnessed their satisfaction at having killed her husband.
In the week and a half that followed the assassination, the Black Panthers gave tours of the apartment in an effort to counter the police claims that it was a shootout. The Associated Press reported on the day of the murder, that Hampton was "killed today in a gun fight between police and members of the militant black group... It was the second shootout within three weeks between police and the Panthers." The murder was "nothing but a Northern lynching," as one of the many people who saw the crime scene said, as quoted in "‘Nothing but a Northern Lynching’: The Assassination of Fred Hampton" by G. Flint Taylor, then a law student working with the People's Law Office. Eventually, after 13 years of litigation, the families of Fred Hampton and the other slain Black Panther, Mark Clark, received an award of $1.8 million from the City, State, and federal governments.
COINTELPRO, the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, which was created in 1956 to undermine the Communist Party USA ended officially in 1971 when its presence was made public. Every President from Roosevelt to Nixon authorized it to neutralize and destroy political targets in the Civil Rights Movement and a variety of other groups.
Why was Fred Hampton a target? What made him such a threat? He not only energized African Americans to organize their communities and take their power back, but he invited others to join. Solidarity among marginalized groups is what the powerful could not allow to grow.
The lesson for today is that fire doesn't fight fire. Water does. We can't fight racism with racism. We destroy it with solidarity.
Confederate monument, Mt. Olivet and bust of Cabeza de Vaca courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
History is powerful or rather historical memory is powerful. It is divisive; it is healing. It separates and unites. We re-create it in every generation. It moves from the top down and the bottom up. Often, it is so invisible, so "natural," that we don't even see its influence on our worldview.
Recently, emotions have flared throughout the South and across the nation over the removal of monuments commemorating the Confederacy and Confederate political and military leaders. There are an estimated 750 Confederate memorials in the United States. Beginning last month, the New Orleans city government removed four monuments to the Confederacy: statues of Jefferson Davis, General PGT Beauregard and Robert E. Lee, as well as an 1891 obelisk. Workers wore bulletproof vests and hid their identities.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This week Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke about his decision to remove them and the speech has gone viral. In his eloquent speech on the meaning and commemoration of history, Mayor Landrieu said,
A piece of stone - one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored. As clear as it is for me today... for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans' most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family's long proud history of fighting for civil rights... I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race…
To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.
And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans - or anyone else - to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person's humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.
I encourage you to read the speech in its entirety. It is a powerful statement on the meaning of historical representation. You can read it here:
The Equestrian, El Paso. Photos by the author.
Over the years, I've given a lot of thought to historical memory and the ways in which we remember, re-create, and commemorate histories that are difficult and complex. What does it mean when we spend public money on monuments that celebrate oppression or when we place one side of history “on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor” resulting in “an inaccurate recitation of our full past?” As Landrieu says, only one story is told and the other perhaps purposely ignored.
In 2006-2007, I had the honor of organizing with the people of Acoma Pueblo and Mexican American and other Indigenous folks from the border to protest the placement of a statue originally named in honor of Juan de Oñate statue; later, the City Council renamed it the Equestrian in an effort to distance it from the history of the man Oñate and to placate its opponents.
As I've written in a previously published article, the love affair of Mexican Americans with conquistadores is complicated and rooted in our own experience of exclusion and discrimination. Identifying as Spanish rather than Mexican has given us a source of “whiteness” that we have used to try to gain equality, unsuccessfully. ("Monuments of Conformity: Commemorating and Protesting Oñate on the Border," New Mexico Historical Review, Volume 82, Number 3, Summer 2007),
On the day the statue was dedicated at the El Paso International Airport in early 2007, Indigenous people from Acoma and other Pueblos joined local Mexican Indigenous people to protest the unveiling. It was a loud and contentious event. We prayed, burned copal, drummed, danced, and chanted. One Mexicana elder told me to stop yelling “Shame on you” because being so rude was against our culture. One group screamed, “Go back where you came from!” My heart was racing and I yelled back, “I am from here and my people have been here thousands of years before yours!” The irony of me, a Mexican woman descended from Raramuri and other Northern Mexican Indigenous people, yelling that to other Mexicans who were, no doubt, also descended from Indigenous people, was not lost on me even in the heat of the moment.
El Paso City Council meeting, 2006. From left to right: Xoxi Nayapiltzin, abuela Bea Villegas, Yolanda Leyva, and Nicol Partida.
As a historian who looks at identity and historical representation, I tried to make my point to supporters of the statue in the months before and the weeks following the dedication. We should not celebrate a man whose left a history of atrocities everywhere he went, from ordering that the foot of each man at Acoma be cut off in retaliation for their resistance to his unreasonable demands for food to the destruction of pueblos. I told people that we should not honor him with a statue that was costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Why were we honoring a murderer and exploiter of Native peoples?
My relating the history of his actions, considered unusually cruel even for the time, didn’t change their opinions. It was frustrating to me since I have dedicated my life to the idea that education can change the world.
Their point to me, which I could understand in the context of two hundred years of exclusion and discrimination, was that he was one of us. We were still trying to identify with the conqueror in an effort to be included in the imaginary of this nation, this state, and this city. El Paso’s City Council gives out an award to honor individuals. It’s called The Conquistador Award.
But was he one of us?
Oñate was born in Zacatecas to a father who made a fortune in the silver mines using enslaved Africans and Indigenous people. People argued with me, “See, he is a Mexican like us! Finally, El Paso is honoring our history.”
“He was married to an Indian woman. He wasn’t so bad!” Oñate was married to Dona Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, a wealthy woman who descended from both Moctezuma and Cortes. Her father was Basque, born in Spain, and her mother was the daughter of Cortes and the daughter of Moctezuma. Her father, like Onate’s was a wealthy mine owner and marrying her gave Oñate status.
“We can’t deny history. It happened,” they told me. It’s true, of course, that he existed and that history happened. What history do we choose to honor, however? There is a difference in learning the history of Onate and in erecting an almost-four-story statue to him.
Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been taught that we are half-Spanish and half-Indian—the essence of mestizaje. It is what makes us us. People have told me, “We carry the blood of the conquistadores and the conquered in our veins.” While we certainly are a mixture of peoples (as almost everyone in the United States is), I think it is dangerous to say we are descendants of the conquerors. Some of us may be, but the vast majority of us are not.
We are, however, descendants of people who lived within a colonial/ colonizing system of racial hierarchies and oppression, whether we have more European or more Native “blood.” With few exceptions our ancestors did not benefit from this system. This is the history that has in so many ways made us us.
Three hundred years of colonization meant that we speak Spanish, that most of us are Roman Catholic, that in the Mexican north we eat flour tortillas, and that when a baby is born we still say she is beautiful if she is white-skinned. The telenovelas that we watch (or our mothers watch or our abuelas watch) are filled with blonde, European-looking actors whose characters have money and education and mansions while the occasional dark-skinned person is usually the servant or the criminal in the story. While this love of whiteness and European-ness has a basis in later histories (the Porfiriato, for example), the deepest taproot of this is in the colonial period.
Few of us, whether we migrated here over the past century and a half or whether we were here when the new border was drawn in 1848, come from conquistadores or rich Spaniards. We come from the small villages where, as the late anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla wrote, Mexico profundo still lives. We come from the working classes of urban areas. In the early twentieth century, Mexico created Mexicanization schools to de-Indianize students. During the Bracero Program, some agricultural workers coming from Mexico learned to speak Spanish in the United States, having come here speaking an Indigenous language.
In his speech, Mayor Landrieu says, “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed.” This applies to Mexican and Mexican American history as well. To put a conquistador (even if he did introduce horses and chile to the Southwest as scholars have argued with me) on a pedestal ignores the other part of history: enslavement, the cruelty towards workers in mines and on haciendas, the rape of women that is part of conquest, the destruction of peoples and cultures. It makes invisible three hundred years of colonialism that is still deeply embedded in us and from which we must heal.
To continue our love affair with conquistadores is indeed a “bad prescription for our future.” History is as much about the future as it is about the past. It gives us an understanding of how to move forward, how to shape our options and dreams. It is about our children and their children and how they think about themselves.
History and the ways in which we create and re-create the memory of history are part of what has damaged us and can be part of what heals us.
This week, Google released a new Doodle commemorating what would have been the 75th birthday of Richard Oakes, Indigenous activist most well known as a leader in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1970. The Doodle unexpectedly coincided with conversations that my partner Diana and I had been having of her memories of working alongside Oakes during their days as students at San Francisco State.
I grew up loving the sixties. It seemed a time of such potential, such energy and hope. I grew up only a decade later but that decade made a profound difference in my experiences. Diana tells me it was a time of innocence. Over the years, Diana has shared the stories of being chased by police on horseback swinging billy clubs, of being surrounded by tanks, and of students running into classrooms at San Francisco State thinking they were going to be killed. Her stories have helped me to understand the trauma and deep wounds that activists still experience fifty years later and, as I thought about Richard Oakes, it helped contextualize the time and place in which Oakes and other Native students organized to create American Indian Studies and to demand inclusion and equity.
Oakes was born in 1942 on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation on the New York-Canadian border. After working as a steelworker, he moved west to San Francisco, divorcing his wife and leaving his son. He enrolled in SFSU and along with Dr. Bea Medicine, an influential Lakota anthropologist, began one of the earliest American Indian Studies programs in the nation.
Diana calls Oakes, her friend of so many years ago, a motivator and an inspiration to others. He was eloquent and charismatic. Oakes and others had a broad vision for the future of Indigenous people that included education and spirituality and a renewed connection to the land, especially for people who had been dispossed of their ancestral lands or had been moved to urban areas like San Francisco under the federal policy of temination.
Oakes was a leader in an event that represented the pride and resistance of Native peoples. In November 1969, Indigenous people took over Alcatraz, which had served as a federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963, when it was closed. Under the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty, the government had promised to return all retired land to the tribe(s) from which they acquired it. Indians of All Nations took possession of Alcatraz under this treaty and an original contingent of 14 occupiers was later followed by 89 women, men, and children. According to an informational pamphlet put out by Indians of All Tribes, the regular population grew to 150 and over 12,000 tribal people visited during the occupation. There were plans to build a Native American Studies center, an environmental center, a spiritual center, a training school, and a museum.
In the video below, Richard Oakes delivers the Alcatraz Proclamation. It is also shown in print below on a screen print from the National Park Service website for Alcatraz Island, "the Rock."
Oakes and Indians of All Nations acknowledged the support and solidarity shown by other groups. "Other minority groups have offered support and encouragement. The Casa Hispana of San Francisco is planning a food march to obtain supplies for the island on Thanksgiving Day. The local Nicaraguan and Spanish-American communities have expressed support," reads the November 26, 1969 press release. It is these examples of cross-racial/ethnic unity that can inform us in our contemporary work. It is also these examples of solidarity that are often made invisible in the way history is told.
As I read the Google Doodle information about Richard Oakes, I thought they did a fair job at describing his accomplishments and life in 260 words. But, they left out an equally important part of his story: his death at age 30 in 1972.
If you do a Google search for the murder of Richard Oakes, you find a variety of scenarios: Sources say he was killed by 34-year-old Michael Morgan, who worked at a YMCA, in a dispute over hunting rights; others say Oakes was defending Native children and their mistreatment by Morgan; others say that he was going to pick someone up when the confrontation occurred. Morgan claimed that he killed Oakes in self-defense and that he had jumped out from behind a tree, threatening Morgan. Some say they had an encounter a week earlier where Oakes pulled a knife. Morgan was charged with manslaughter and six months later, an all-white jury found him not guilty. One witness testified that after the killing Morgan bragged, “It’s open season on coons and Indians.” Protests followed the jury decision.
At the time of his murder, Oakes was assisting the Pit River tribe with reclaiming tribal land. Activists at the time connected his murder to these activities. In 1972, his second wife Anne Marufo Oakes filed a claim for land taken from the Pomo tribe on the Sonoma County coast.
After Oakes’ death, Governor Ronald Reagan vetoed a grant to the Bay Area Native American Council, purporting that they had spent government funds on unauthorized expenditures, including $2,000 to transport Oakes’ body back to New York. He was buried in San Francisco. Even in death, the government villainized him.
I applaud Google for remembering Richard Oakes; it is important to remember the lessons he taught up in life and in death. In life, he taught peaceful protest to gain justice for Indigenous people. He taught devotion to ideals and showed how a sincere form of leadership can bring people together.
In death, he taught us that the power structure will do anything possible to silence those who motivate and organize others to create change in marginalized communities. It is a lesson that we must take seriously.
Lyndon B. Johnson as a young teacher in one of the "Mexican schools" in S. Texas, 1928, Wikimedia Common (left)
City Council Member Kay McAnally who introduced the motion to create Minerva Delgado Park, 2017, Austin American Stateman (right)
This week, the media reported that the City of Bastrop will soon place a historical marker commemorating the city's "Mexican School," now reduced to a concrete slab. In addition, the City Council approved purchasing a piece of land near the site of the former school in order to create a park named after Minerva Delgado. The motion was introduced by City Council member Kay [Garcia] McAnnaly who was born the year that Delgado's grandpaprents filed a lawsuit again the school district. In 1947, Delgado's grandparents filed a law suit, Minerva Delgado v Bastrop ISD, after she was denied entry into the white school. Twenty additional children joined the class action lawsuit, which was also supported by LULAC. The Degaldo v Bastrop ISD ruling was historic; the judge ruled that segregation of Mexican American children was unconstitutional. It was part of a struggle for educational equality for Mexican American children that spanned the twentieth century.
As a scholar of Mexican American education and a public historian, this news made me ecstatic. Many people don't know about the existence of the "Mexican schools" nor the on-going legacy of these segregated schools and the inequitable education they provided generations of Mexican American children.
The "Mexican schools" emerged in the 1880s all across the Southwest as Mexican-origin parents began to demand education for their children. Their demands were often met with the creation of schools that were less-funded and less-resourced than what were called the "American schools" meant for white children. When Paul Horn, an expert in education, visited El Paso in the 1920s, he was disturbed to see that there seemed to be two cities: one north of the tracks where Anglos lived and one south of the tracks where Mexican Americans lived. The schools and the education that they provided were profoundly unequal.
In the early twentieth century, as the Mexican origin population of the Southwest grew, both from those fleeing the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath and those recruited or enticed by the growing demand for cheap labor, school districts established what were referred to as "the Mexican schools." In their early history, these schools focused on Spanish-speaking children, yet as more generations of children were born in the United States and spoke English, the schools continued to justify segregation on the basis of language. Since Mexican Americans were considered nominally "white," they could not be racially segregated so their segregation was based on language and culture.
Texas Historical Commission markers tell the story. In 1903, the town of Edna incorporated and established schools. As Historical Marker 55007017609 states, "The Mexican school was offered six months of the year for grades one through four. If a child wanted to continue their education, they would be transferred to the Anglo school. However, many did not advance due to their need to help support their families. Located in the northwest part of the city, the Edna Mexican School was a wood-frame building containing several rows of desks and meager educational supplies." The story was the same in town after town across the Southwest. Children of Mexican origin received not only inferior resources and in many cases, unqualified teachers, but they received even fewer months of schooling than white children.
In 1923, the Goose Creek Independent School District established Baytown Mexican School. It did not build a school, however, nor did it hire teachers. Instead, the school was held in Humble Oil and Refining Company's Mexican community recreation hall. The children were taught by high school girls from Robert E. Lee High School. (Historical Marker 5507018144)
As an Abileen historical marker states, "From its earliest days, education for Mexican Americans in Texas has varied from none at all to apparent equality. The Republic of Texas in 1839 and 1840 established laws governing a system of schools. As these institutions took shape, Mexican American students often were segregated, encountering racial, social and economic discrimination, ideological differences and political tensions." (Historical Marker 5441012221)
The actions of the Bastrop City Council are significant not only because they make visible the history of unequal educational opportunities for Mexican origin children but because they make visible the work of Mexican American families and communities to fight that inequity.
Delgado v Bastrop was an important court case against the segregation of Mexican American children. In 1946, fathers of students attending segregated schools in Westminster and other nearby town challenged the segregation of their children. The judge ruled against the segregation of Mexican American children in Mendez v Westminster. See the screenshot below from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History website.
In the 1970s, David Alvarado filed suit against the El Paso Independent School District. The Plaintiffs, who were represented by Albert Armendariz and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) argued that the school district had maintained a dual school system by implementing the three actions: 1. Racially-inspired selection of school construction sites; 2. Discriminatory zoning lines; and 3. Discriminatory feeder patterns.The federal judge ruled in 1976 that the district had intentionally segregated students through school zoning and that prior to 1961, "the El Paso School System intentionally maintained inferior facilities for Mexican-American students."
These discriminatory practices, including the physical punishment of children for speaking Spanish, as well as the struggle to end discrimination have profound meaning and consequences for Mexican American communities today. Yet, much of this history is invisible. Bastrop City Council has taken a step to recall this history. Felicidades to City Council member McAnnaly who told reporters that through this, she had done something to make her grandparents proud.
Poster by Ernesto Yerena
When I saw this striking poster by Ernesto Yerena a couple of weeks ago, it immediately resonated with me. "Respeta nuestra humanidad," it says. Respect our humanity. Why in 2017 do we still have to demand this? Why is it still acceptable to label some people less than human?
It was reported in the news media last weekend that State Representative Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, Missouri said on the House Floor, "When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Qur’an, of other religions, there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.” Brattin has received some negative responses from the Missouri media who have told him to apologize, but nothing else had happened. He can call us not human beings and not face any consequences.
(By the way, Brattin is the Missouri Rep who has introduced legislation to end tenure at Missouri Universities; prohibit food stamp recipients from buying cookies, steak, or seafood; deny women abortions without the permission of the baby's father. Clearly, he's a conservative, but that doesn't explain it.)
Brattin's attempt to make queer people less than human is part of a long history of colonization based on de-humanization that began with the coming of Europeans to the Americas. This process of dehumanizing people shows its face throughout our history and the experiences of marginalized communities.
Rick Brattin from www.RickBrattin.org
When Europeans first arrived in the Americas with the arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean in 1492 and later in North America and South America, the Spanish encountered millions of Indigenous people. Immediately, the Spanish began enslaving them. (There is an exhaustive and brilliant study of Indigenous enslavement by Professor Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, if you want to learn more.) The question arose, often at the insistance of the Catholic Church and its representatives in the Americas: Was it moral and legal to enslave the people that the Spanish encountered as they began the colonization of the Americas? Were Indigenous people human? The answer came in 1537, forty five years after Columbus' arrival.
In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal encyclical, Sublimus Deus, that blamed Satan for deceiving people into believing that Indians were not human. The encyclical says, "We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it." Indians "are truly men."
It was annulled the following year, possibly due to conflict with the Spanish monarch, Charles V. But, now Indigenous people had been declared human.
Pope Paul III, oil painting by Titian 1543 Carib family by John John Gabriel Stedman 1818
In the 1660s, the Virginia House of Burgesses made a similar argument. Enslaved people were indeed human and slave masters were encouraged to convert them to Christianity, although conversion would not mean freedom. Historians argue that this law acknowledges the humanity of enslaved people. A 1705 law, however, explicitly declared enslaved people "real estate."
Humanity was made equivalent to being a man. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, commissioned artists to create a pro-abolitionist image and it became an important image well into the 19th century. The image asked, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"
The concept of "Am I not a man" became important for two reasons: one to assert humanity and secondly, to assert independence and intellect as an adult. African American men were denigrated as "boy" as a way to instill feelings of inequality. The label "boy" was applied to Mexican Americans as well. Both groups were infantilized.
The most iconic image featuring the powerful statement "I Am A Man" comes from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, which began in February of that year when two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a truck. The City didn't respond and after years of poor wages and bad working conditions, hundreds of men voted unanimously to strike. The City refused to move and in February, the police used mace and teargas against the peaceful strikers who were marching to City Hall. The strike was supported by Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP, AFSCME, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By March, the governor called the National Guard and in the face of 4,000 of them, 200 sanitation workers marched with the "I am a Man" signs.
The sanitation workers strike continued. Four days after the assassination of MLK, his widow Coretta Scott King led 42,000 people through the streets of Memphis in a silent march honoring her husband and demanding the City meet the strike demands.
Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers, National Civil Rights Museum courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Women also claimed humanity as women. In the 1830s, abolitionists created the "Am I not a woman and a sister" image shown below. Sojourner Truth, an eloquent abolitionist born into slavery in New York, is credited with the "Ain't I a Woman" speech. She gave the speech in Akron at the Women's Convention on May 29, 1851. While later versions of the speech had her speaking with a Southern accent, hence the use of the word "ain't," she didn't speak that way. Her question was "Aren't I a woman?" The question brought together gender and race.
"Am I not a woman" image from 1830s and Sojourner Truth ca. 1864
The history of the powerful and their allies working to keep the power structure in place and keep people of color, women, poor people, and queer people subjugated has deep roots. The demand "Respect our humanity" is one rooted in centuries of oppression and centuries of resistance.
We are human. Respect our humanity.
All photos are courtesy of Dr. Oralia Loza
On May 12, 2017, my 61st birthday, I had the honor of addressing students who would graduate the next day. The occasion was the 9th annual Rainbow Graduation Reception initiated by Dr. Brenda Risch. I share my reflections with you today with gratitude to the queer activists that came before me and to those who will follow, leading with love and honor and fierceness.
It is an honor to be with you tonight as you celebrate your graduation from UTEP with your families and friends. It is also a time of reflection or me. Today I turn 61 years old and this is a time of year I usually reflect on my life. This invitation to speak with you tonight, for which I am so grateful, has given me a chance to look back over 43 years of being out as a Chicana lesbian.
In the mid-1970s as I prepared to leave high school and enter college, I began to wonder “Am I a lesbian? Am I bisexual?” I knew gay men in high school and I knew of lesbians but I wasn’t sure how to figure it out. It was thrilling and scary to consider.
It was an exciting time of political organizing and people demanding recognition and rights. Coming on the heels of the 1960 and exhilaration and passionate politics of the Chicano Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, and the Black Power Movement, the early to mid-1970s seemed to hold so much potential. I began to educate myself about these movements, which raised my conciencia about power and gender and sexuality. I was starting to think about my place in the world, but often I was alone with books and underground newspapers.
And then I found my place. For decades, the only places that queer people could gather, to be in community, to celebrate, to fall in love were the gay bars. I’ve seen the devastation that this dependence on bars has created: the alcoholism, the drug use, and the isolation amid crowds. But I’ve also seen the celebration of coming together and being ourselves when we had no other place. My first gay bar was the Pet Shop on San Antonio. I went with my high school friends. I will never forget the nervousness and excitement of opening the heavy metal door and starting down the dark steps to the Pet Shop. The first thing I saw was the dance floor with the multi-colored lights that flashed as people danced. Then I saw two men dancing together and then two women dancing together. It was almost shocking. I had never seen that before. I quickly eased into the bar life, heading to the Pet Shop every Friday and Saturday night. There was nothing better than dancing slow to Earth, Wind, and Wire or doing the Hustle. When the Pet Shop moved east, still on San Antonio, to where the Mining Company eventually opened, I followed.
I remember the many bars. The Diamond Lil. The Pet Shop. The Whatever. Later, the OP. Others whose names are too deep in my memory to retrieve. Sometimes the police would come in and all the lights would be turned on. They would have everyone go outside and we had to show our ID in order to re-enter. It was a way to harass us. But others had it worse. In the 1950s across the United States, police would raid gay bars and arrest men and women for dancing with same sex partners or wearing too many pieces of clothing of the other gender.
When I finally realized that I was lesbian, I was scared to tell my parents. I look back and I wonder what they thought. On Fridays and Saturdays I would dress up in what became my standard outfit of jeans, a polyester shirt, and a leather jacket. At the beginning I wasn’t sure what to wear and sometimes women would come up to me and ask, “Are you butch or femme?” I wasn’t sure and I remember wearing my father’s suit a few times. My mother told me once, “Oh, you look so handsome. The women will fall in love with you.” Over the years, though they disapproved and told people I had a husband in the military (especially after the birth of my son); they always told me that they loved me no matter what.
In 1975, I went to UT Austin and entered another time. Austin was still relatively small, a college town that drew people from everywhere. I entered a politicized, mostly white lesbian community there. Only four months earlier, 100 lesbians had gathered to form the Austin Lesbian Organization. I quickly became involved, writing for the newsletters, attending meetings, and enjoying the social activities we organized. At the same time, I became involved in Chicano organizing. At 19 I was working in lesbians organizations where I was usually the only person of color and in Chicano organizations where I was the only out gay person. I marched in farmworkers marches and gay pride marches. I edited lesbian articles and walked the streets of East Austin demanding respect for the Mexican American neighborhood. In 1977, I was part of a group of three who drafted a resolution to be presented at the first National Chicano/Latino Conference on Immigration in San Antonio demanding that gay men and lesbians be allowed to immigrate to the United States. I will never forget that when the resolution to the participants (and we had difficulty finding someone to read it), when the person translated it instead of saying homosexual said joto and everyone laughed.
It was a schizophrenic feeling, never truly feeling like I could be a full person or fully understood but it was what I had and I loved it and threw myself into the work.
In 1981, I had a son. It was a time when lesbians didn’t have children unless they had been married before coming out. I had always wanted to be a mother. It was a scary time. Those of us who had children knew that the State of Texas was taking children away from their mothers because to be lesbian was inherently considered to be an “unfit” mother. I knew mothers who changed their names and went underground to remain with their children. Mothers who moved from place to place to stay with their children. When I announced that I was pregnant, the politicized lesbian community around me was stunned. While some were mildly supportive, others were cruelly opposed. I remember one woman telling me, “I hope you have a miscarriage.” It was a difficult time.
Something else changed in 1981—I was one of the founding members of CHISPA, the first Chicana/o lesbian and gay organization in Austin. My son, just a few months old, became our mascot- Baby Chispa we called him. He grew in Chicanx and queer organizing. CHISPA was inspired when a group of people from Austin attended the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. The march drew perhaps 100,000 people was held on the 10 year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Even though the welcoming message stated, “Today in the capital of America, we are all here, the almost liberated and the slightly repressed; the butch, the femme and everything in-between; the androgynous; the monogamous and the … Yellow, Black, Brown, White, and Red... Yes, we are all here! We are everywhere! Welcome to the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights!" What those who attended from Austin noted was the lack of Brown people. CHISPA emerged. Again, I had found a home, this time with queer brown people who spoke of changing the world to a more just one. Over the decades, I had the opportunity of helping to found other queer Brown organizations: ALLGO (the Austin Latina/o Lesbian and Gay Organization), Latinas Lesbianas de Tucson, and Lesbianas Sin Fronteras here in El Paso.
Across the US Latina lesbians were organizing in those years: Lesbianas Latinoamericanas in LA in 1974, Las Buenas Amigas in NYC, Amigas Latinas in Chicago, ELLAS in Austin, Tongues in LA, LLEGO in 1987 (the first national Latina/o gay and lesbian organization). Those were times of energy and movement, of hope and hard work.
Looking back, my heart is broken by the hermanos we lost to the AIDS epidemic: Ramon whose passion for justice led him to visit Cuba through the Jose Marti Brigade; Fernando who was part of the team who wrote the immigration resolution in 1977; Juan, a loving Georgia boy born the same year I was who died at age 36. The first official report of the AIDS epidemic, describing the unusual lung infections of five young gay men was released the day before my son was born. On the day he was born, June 6, 1981, reports were pouring in, especially from New York and California of gay men suffering from an unusually aggressive cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Life expectancy in those years was measured not in years, but in months: the average life expectancy was 18 months after the diagnosis of AIDS, known then as Gay Related Immune Deficiency. When I moved back to El Paso in 1987, the epidemic was just hitting the population of straight people who were IV drug users. In the first decade, tens of thousands were infected and tens of thousands died.
It was lesbians who took care of our brothers. Things were not always so easy between lesbians and gay men. In the 1970s lesbian separatists separated from men as a way to create their own woman-centered space. Gay men could be misogynist. I remember one dear gay man friend telling him that being gay was natural; being lesbian was sick. The AIDS epidemic brought us together. It happened in queer communities across the United States and Europe. Devastated and dying, gay men turned to lesbians for help. Lesbians started clinics, AIDS services programs, took care of their male friends as they died. And it was a terrible thing to witness someone you love die of AIDS. Lesbians took leadership positions in the queer community and comforted grieving men who lost partners and friends. In the first decade of the AIDS epidemic in the United States we lost a generation of men whose talents and passion for life could have changed the world.
Safe sex education helped reduce HIV transmission among gay men. Bowls of condoms became a standby in gay bars. The Center for Disease Control created posters and pamphlets to teach people how to have safe sex and avoid infection of either sexually transmitted diseases or HIV. It worked: the diagnosis of HIV went done; deaths decreased. Many of today’s college students were born as the epidemic began to decline and I know that safe sex is not the imperative it was once among youth. Today, the incidence of HIV is on the rise.
My parents were born during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and when I think about the changes they witnessed, I wonder how it felt. From Model-T cards to jets. From iceboxes to refrigerators. From an El Paso made up of adobe buildings and dirt streets to the El Paso of the late 20th century. Now, I look at the last forty years and have a similar feeling. In 1975-ish, my high school friend Irma was married to her girlfriend in a gay bar. Of course it had no legal standing and I doubt their families attended. I’m sure their friends did. Last week I read a book that described a wedding between two women in the 1930s and a student told me about a wedding between two men in Waco in the 1950s that was attended by men from across the U.S. Now marriage between same sex people is recognized. Women call each other wife. Men call each other husband. Queer people have children. I am at a Rainbow Graduation Reception where you are celebrating your graduation with your family and friends. So much has changed.
It might be different for your generation—you tell me, but in my generation you didn’t just come out once. The decision whether to talk openly about being queer was a decision we only made daily. I was a freshman here at UTEP in 1974 and there are places I see on campus still that elicit memories of telling this friend or another that I was a lesbian. It was scary and it was hard. To be here tonight, with you and your loved ones, celebrating the totality of who you are is a great gift to me.
What I want to leave you with is this: Every generation thinks they are different. And in so many ways, you are. You are more open than we were, more fluid, more accepting. We were sometimes inflexible, focused on protecting the little spaces that we had created where we could be ourselves. We worked so hard, organized so much, so that generations after us would have more rights and more freedom. Now things are better for so many of us. That doesn’t mean it’s over or that there’s nothing to do, however. Last year was the most dangerous year for transgendered people in our country with the most murders since these numbers began to be tracked. This week the Virginia Supreme Court excluded LGBT from hate crimes. In countries across the world, increasing anti-LGBT laws and violence is creating unspeakable suffering.
What can you do? Tonight we are here to celebrate your achievements, your graduation, and the completion of years of work. You deserve our admiration and our support. With your education comes a responsibility, however. Our rights and freedoms as queer people came at a price and we have to protect them. What can you do to build our community and to protect it? You certainly don’t have to be marching in the streets like I’ve chosen but you can be part of this work. I am proud of all you have accomplished and as I look out at you, I am filled with pride. Leave the world a better place for people that come after you.
Tonight queer students at my university will celebrate their graduation with family and friends at the Rainbow Graduation Reception. Dr. Brenda Risch initiated the event years ago and it has grown steadily. I will have the privilege of speaking to the attendees tonight and have been thinking about what it means to have been out for over four decades. Today, I share an interview from a few months ago.
Last fall, I had the great honor of being named to the 2016 "41 List." Honor 41 is "a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community." Its founder and the project's visionary, Alberto B. Mendoza, was inspired to create Honor 41 because of the bullying that he received as a young gay man.
You may not have heard about "los 41," a gay history that has long been hidden but has lived on through the derogatory term "41" to denote maricon or joto, in the negative sense. To learn more about this history, see the information below from the Honor 41 website and please watch this clip from my interview last fall.
"In 1901, Mexico City police raided a clandestine party and arrested 41 men, half of whom were dressed as women. To humiliate the 41, the police paraded the prisoners in public. Many of those arrested were sent away and subjected to slave labor. During the same period, Mexican culture was developing an atmosphere of sexual curiosity, and the media coverage of the arrests resulted in a movement that some believe led to the birth of the concept of homosexuality in Mexico." (See www.Honor41.org for more information on this wonderful organization.)
Queer Latinx people have a history of creativity, survival, resilience, and organizing. It's important for us to recover it, remember it, and share it.