Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall

It was the first day of classes at the University of Rhode Island, where I teach.  One young man, his eyes rather rheumy, approaches me to sign a form acknowledging that he will be away for two classes due to soccer team away-games. I keep myself from exclaiming, “My God, you stink of alcohol!” As he walks out of the classroom, I feel like fanning the fumes away.  The first day of classes!  A Wednesday!

I am not much of a drinker; most people think I am a teetotaler. I’m not, but a beer or a single glass of wine can hold me for a whole evening. I don’t mind the taste of alcohol, I just cannot stand the side effects of getting drunk. I have seen too many people embarrass themselves by getting sloppy-drunk; or hitting on somebody  because their inhibitions are down; or getting sick on somebody’s lawn. I have taken car keys away from friends, and have driven more people than I care to remember home after a party. I detest all of that and would never allow myself to behave in that fashion, and I stay away from people who do.

The idea of showing up for class (or work) plastered simply disgusts me. I immediately wrote him an e-mail:  “I don't know if you were aware of how strongly your breath reeked of alcohol, but it did. Before I became an academic, I worked on the street with homeless people, many of whom were alcoholics; thus, it is a familiar smell to me. It is inappropriate to come to class drunk or nursing a hangover. This is a serious class. If you cannot BE serious, please drop it.”

I mentioned it to my colleagues. “Boy, you’re hard,” said one.  Maybe I am, but I find such behavior completely unacceptable.

Then I mentioned it to my daughter, who is now 30 years old. She said, “I’d bet most of your students were drinking heavily over Labor Day weekend.” But why? “First time away from home; first weekend away from being home with parents all summer; time to party.”

Oh my God. It suddenly occurs to me that some of the confrontations I’ve had with unruly students could have been alcohol-fueled. I never realized it. Last fall, I had one student who missed every single Friday class of a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class; he had a string of excuses and learned the hard way that I may believe the first few but after a while, I catch on. Then I start getting mad.

Why would anyone spend $13,000 for tuition and fees per year, plus housing and living expenses, to flush it all down the toilet with the dregs of last night’s wine?  Then again, why would anyone blow thousands of dollars up their noses with cocaine? I don’t understand. I suppose that in some cases, parents are paying the bills, but everyone in this economy is staggering under the weight of tuition, the high prices of books, and other expenses associated with going to college. I read about students graduating with unbearable burdens of debt.  They know how much it is costing their parents or will ultimately cost them—how can they treat their education so carelessly?

When I was a college student, I worked 30 hours a week, juggling three jobs to make ends meet. I lived at home but my family did not have the money for my college education; I either paid for it myself or I would have had to give it up. My education was too precious to throw away.

The first week of classes, Rock, the frat boy who had led my orientation group, saw me in the library studying. He came over to tease me. "Everybody’s like this the first couple of weeks; you’ll get over it.” I remember having that prickly reaction I get when I want to fight with someone and I hold my tongue. “You’ll see,” I said to myself.

Rock was a junior and very active in campus organizations. It was a small school and his reputation got around: Mr. Party-time. I’ve often wondered what happened to him. It’s been many years since I was an undergraduate and I didn’t understand it then either, but at least drinking was confined to the weekend—Friday and Saturday. It didn’t begin on Thursday night, as it does now, apparently. My colleagues report that they have students who come to school on Monday hung over from having drunk away the entire weekend. This leaves me speechless.

Until last year, we had a dry campus. Our former president, Robert L. Carothers, had gone to great lengths to curb the students’ drinking. I didn’t agree with him about many things but in this regard we were in perfect accord.  When the new president took over, he immediately lifted the ban on alcohol on campus. I only wish he had to be in the classroom with the professors when they’re dealing with drunk or hung over students. One cannot force students to stop or to realize the great harm they are doing to their education, to themselves, and to their livers, but from now on, when one of these alcoholics-in-training complain about the price of their textbooks, I am going to ask them how much they spent on booze last weekend. I bet it was more than on my class textbooks.

This appeared on MyLatinoVoice the week of September 20, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Dangers of a Mosque Near Ground Zero


In our country, there is racial and ethnic prejudice that bubbles just beneath the surface, showing its ugly head on occasion. There is also real, palpable race hatred in this country, and we must face that reality. We cannot ignore the very real dangers to the Cordoba congregation and their building, of locating an Islamic center near Ground Zero.

It is such a complex situation! On one hand, I agree that our First Amendment freedom of religion is an inalienable right. On the other hand, I wonder why they would want to build a mosque in that particular place when it is so dangerous. Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, the head of the Cordoba House project, claims that the project will foster better relations between Islam and the West. Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement is more confrontational: "The time for a center like this has come because Islam is an American religion," she says.

Survivors and relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks regard it as an affront and a way for Islam to trumpet its victory over American culture. I even read a letter from an Iranian-American, herself a Muslim, who believes that it is wrong to build it the Cordoba Center in that location.
While the Muslims have the right under our Constitution to build there, I regard it as an instance of whacking a hornets’ nest with a stick. I have no doubt that the center will become a target for violent backlash. They will spend a good part of their budget painting over the racial slurs that will be graffittied on the building. Its members will be at risk going and coming.

Our country has a violent history: synagogues are regularly desecrated. When I lived in Sunland, a suburb of Los Angeles, the doors to our synagogue were firebombed. They had been spray-painted with racial slurs many times. After we moved to the East coast, the Northridge Valley Jewish Community Center where my daughter had been in an after-school program, was attacked by Buford O. Furrow Jr., a self-professed white supremacist, who sprayed the center with bullets injuring an elderly receptionist and several children, and killing a Filipino mail carrier.

For many years, African American churches were targeted for destruction, sometimes with people in them, and not just during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Even as late as the George W. Bush administration, the burning of black churches was a regular occurrence. As recently as November 2008, a church being built for a black congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, was destroyed by arson.
Considering that we are still at war in two Arab countries and that relations with Islam are very rocky, it seems to me that the wiser course would be to build someplace that would not draw the wrath of the bigots and race haters.

Sad to say, the publicity around the Cordoba Center will very likely draw hatred towards other Islamic institutions around the country. While I am glad that both New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor David Patterson have done the right thing by being supportive of the Cordoba Center and that the building commission has cleared the way for them to build, I fear for the congregation. The law is on the side of the Muslims; the government is making all the appropriate moves but if I were a Muslim, I would stay away from it because the haters are the wild cards.

Do not underestimate the haters. Sometimes they are organized, sometimes they are singular, but too many of them have guns and malevolent intent. Remember Timothy McVeigh: his fury was so deep, he bombed a government office and killed hundreds of people including babies in the child care center. He was a lone wolf—a very dangerous lone wolf.

So what is the answer? Should we live in fear? Should we curb our plans so as not to draw the haters? I know many will disagree with me, but I counsel waiting. Time heals all wounds. We must be realistic: the haters are out there and many of them have guns. I am sorry to say that I doubt that the building can be built without incident. And if they manage to raise the building, it will be a sitting duck. Listen to me: go build somewhere else.

Published by MyLatinoVoice, August 23, 2010.
This column drew a lot of disagreement. To read the comments,go to

Monday, August 23, 2010

Immigration: Waiting For Obama To Pull Rabbit Out Of Hat

In November 2008, we elected a young, visionary president who we believed was going to fix everything, but he encountered a few problems. His predecessor did not tell him how bad things really were. He did not know that the greed-mongers on Wall Street were running wild. He could not have known that the economy was almost in ruins and the actual costs of the war were higher than we had been told.

Barack Obama is eloquent and very, very smart, but guess what? He isn’t Superman. Heck, he’s not even Spiderman. Eighteen months into his administration, he has stacked up an impressive list of accomplishments, but we still have over 9% unemployment. The GOP does everything it can to block anything he does, then they cry foul when anyone points out THEIR guy was the one who made a mess of things. Immigration was one of Obama’s stated priorities but you would not know it if you looked at what he has been doing. Then again, keeping our economy from slipping into a greater depression, the long and difficult struggle to get universal health care passed, and trying to cope with the disaster in the Gulf were not on his original list of things to do.

It is seems cold to counsel patience to the unemployed, the people who are losing their houses and businesses, or to immigrants who live in fear of being discovered and deported, but he can’t do everything at once and in the case of immigration, part of the problem is that the Republicans are so divided. You may be surprised to learn that the GOP talks out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to immigration.

Have you ever thought about why George W. Bush was so keen to pass immigration reform, or why it went nowhere even though he was able to pass huge tax cuts for the rich and start two wars?

Without question, the GOP is the party of the rich and of the business interests. Proudly, it is the incarnation of capitalism. I know I will sound like a “commie-pinko” when I say this but capitalism depends on cheap labor and on the exploitation of the poor, and that is one of the main reasons we will never have immigration reform if we wait for the GOP to act.

Think about the clothes we wear. Look at the labels: where were they made? If they were made in China, Thailand, Mexico, or most any other country outside of ours, you can be sure that the workers who made them are barely making a living wage, and they are not getting paid what United States union workers would get.

Why have so many American businesses have gone off-shore? Because they can get cheap labor and pay few or no taxes. Then we go to Walmart or K-Mart or Target and pay a few dollars for a commodity that, if made in this country, would cost at least twice as much.

One of the main sanctions in any serious immigration bill would punish employers for hiring undocumented workers. In other words, passing such a sanction would poke a finger in the eyes of GOP contributors; businessmen who depend on cheap labor to produce what they sell to Americans. But that’s only half of the problem.

There is a faction of the GOP comprised, in part, of the Tea Party Patriots who follow the nativist traditions of the most conservative parts of the Party. Because of the negative connotations of the term “nativists,” they prefer to call themselves “patriots.” They place the interests of the established population over those who are new to country. Typically, they are bitterly opposed to immigrants, especially those who are here illegally. They are determined to block any immigration reform that would allow the undocumented workers to remain here. They would rather spend millions to round up and deport 12 million undocumented workers and their children than allow them to be normalized, even though this approach makes no sense and spends even more money than they lose in allowing them to stay. They claim that undocumented workers take jobs that otherwise would go to real Americans and use public services and medical resources while paying no taxes. Meanwhile, the defenders of undocumented workers point out that they are doing the jobs that Americans will not do. The arguments are familiar and irresolvable.

If you put the two parts of the GOP together the result is inertia and it explains why John McCain, former presidential candidate and a long-time Senator from Arizona, is straddling the fence. On one hand, he is the self-proclaimed maverick who has taken pride, in the past, on working with Democratic senators on legislation. On the other hand, he is a Republican with deep ties to business interests in his state. Still, on yet another hand, he represents Arizona, now ground zero for the anti-immigration ferment. Once, he worked for immigration reform, now he is not so sure because the Tea Party Patriots are on his right flank, dogging his steps. How will he satisfy the competing interests in his party? How will he hang on to his seat as he fails to satisfy anybody?

President Obama said last week that the only way that there can be immigration reform is with bipartisan cooperation. I hope somebody tells him that so long as the Republicans are bitterly divided, and funded by business interests, there will be no bipartisanship on this issue. The Democratic Party will have to go it alone.

*Photo courtesy of the Seattle Weekly
Published on MyLatinoVoice

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Is This the Way the World Ends?

As the Gulf oil catastrophe goes on and on, I wonder if we are approaching the end of time as we know it. Already, between 26 million and 42 million gallons of oil have surged into the Gulf of Mexico, destroying the coastal economies of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, threatening to round the Florida Keys and make their way up the eastern coast of the United States.

Television and the print media are filled with gut-wrenching pictures of gulls, pelicans and other cormorants soaked in oil, trapped in it as completely as the mastodons and saber tooth tigers of Oligocene (40 to 35 million years ago) until the close of the Pleistocene Epoch, about 11,000 years ago, were trapped in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. So far, over 900 animals—birds, turtles, dolphins—have been reported killed by the gusher. As biologists and volunteers race to cleanse them and spare their lives, the reddish goo continues to creep across the globe. 

Dead zones are appearing in the Gulf, starved of oxygen, where no fish can live.  The so-called “plumes” of oil are 3300 feet deep in some places.  78,264 square miles of the Gulf are closed to fishing.

Soon the hurricane season will start in earnest and where the goo will go is anyone's guess. How long will it be before the Gulf Stream current carries the oil and 1,143,000 gallons of poisonous chemical dispersibles across the Atlantic to despoil the beaches of Portugal and Spain?  Before Ireland’s lovely west coast of Connemara with its moody gray skies, finds the awful grease destroying its gray-green beauty?  And what about Morocco and the western coast of Africa; the Canary Islands and Cape Verde Islands?

I have a frightening thought—what if the hurricanes can suck up the oil?  Will it then rain down hundreds of miles away, poisoning everything it touches like toxic rain does? Is that possible? Who can I ask?

I was thinking about the Gulf Stream, when I looked at a map and the obvious thing I had overlooked smacked me in the face. Omigod…what about Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic? What about Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Lesser Antilles? What if it takes until August before they can finally seal it off the gusher?  What will become of all the island peoples?  What power will they have to force the oil oligarchs to pay them for the damage to their lands? Will the Gulf of Mexico become an empty, tub of empty dirty water?  And what will become of them? What will become of us?

I find myself eating more fish and shrimp as the ban on fishing spreads while I wait with dread for the day when seafood from the Gulf can no longer be fished at all.  How soon will “Gulf Shrimp” become an extinct delicacy?  

BP’s executives have promised to pay “all legitimate claims,” even as they drag their feet to recompense the fishermen whose lives have already been destroyed forever. In the meantime, BP’s value has dropped by half. How long before they declare bankruptcy and slip out of the grasp of their creditors and the people whose lives they have ruined?

Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO, may want his life back, as he says, but I will be happy only if the life he gets back is not in his mansion in Britain but in a spare jail cell where he will be forced to contemplate his recklessness for the rest of his life. No death penalty for him; just solitary confinement with subscriptions to Audubon Magazine, Natural History, Sierra Club, and National Geographic. I’ll even donate one of them.  He is fifty-three now; several consecutive life sentences will suit me just fine. If a person can go to prison for life for destroying one human life, how many years is just punishment for destroying an entire eco-system?

Perhaps the Maya were right. Wouldn't it be ironic if 2012 did indeed mark the end of the world? Suicide by oil: Mother Earth finally drowning its destructive and self-destroying children in the black gold we craved. 

Or as T.S. Eliot wrote,

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Our Stars Shine on Commencement Day

Published as "A Professor's Reflections on the Last Day of School" in MyLatinoVoice.         

Today is the last day of the school year for me. While I still have a stack of exams and papers to grade, for the next few weeks I am freed from the performance, wrangling, cajoling and occasional haranguing that is teaching.

I love teaching but it is exhausting. If I was one of those professors who lectures then disappears into their own world, it would be less stressful, but real teaching requires engagement. It requires making sure that the students are following your lead; running to the back of the line to pull along the stragglers, without losing the ones who are soaring ahead of the pack.

This semester, I had my share of unique students. One young woman stopped coming to class about mid-semester because she suffers from migraines. I got a note from her doctor but I frankly doubted the consistency of the malady—half a semester? Yes, her written work was decent but I require students to attend class and am rankled by the seven week-long flat line.

A young man missed many classes in the first weeks of school because of depression and acute anxiety attacks. After I wrote him a long letter describing my own experience with depression and suggesting some of the techniques I have used to deal with it, he connected with me and didn’t miss another class for the rest of the semester. We were lucky; he made a real contribution to the class.

An older woman audited one class. The wife of a science professor, she took the class for half the semester in preparation for going with her husband on a research trip to Chile and Argentina. She asked if she could audit another of my classes when she returned. It would have been nice if she could have stayed for the whole semester.

One student handed every single assignment in late. He had a host of excuses: I wonder if he had any idea that after the second excuse, I watched him with a gimlet eye. Finally, I said to him, “Do you EVER hand anything in on time? I mean, not to me, obviously, but to anyone?” A torrent of excuses followed. I interrupted him: “If you handed your work in on time, you wouldn't have to spend all that energy concocting excuses, being embarrassed, and aggravating your professors.” The next time, late once more, he started to make an excuse saying that since the last time, I had been so upset—. I interrupted him: “I wasn't upset at all; it ISN'T MY problem. It's yours. I have a job. As you may have noticed, when the clock strikes the hour, I am standing at the podium, ready to do my work. But then, you were never on time so you wouldn't have noticed. You are the one who is going to have problems if you don't clean up your act.”

My best student this semester is a young Cambodian man who has taken several classes with me and now plans to become a Mayan archaeologist. On a day when some students were mumbling and shuffling because they'd missed a class and didn't know about the assignment (and hadn't tried to contact me), he handed me a report he'd done on the whole book because he'd missed that class so he went ahead and reviewed the entire book. His enthusiasm made up for all the dissembling mumblers surrounding him. If only they could hear themselves! How utterly lame they sound. I hope they grow up to be more responsible adults than they are students. 

My friend, also a history professor, says that they are trifling with us. I have to remind myself that the lazy ones, the time-wasters, the excuse-makers, the mumbling shufflers and triflers are but a small percentage of my students. Most of my students show up to class on time, turn off their cell phones, and do their work. It's too bad that they are overshadowed by the rest. 

In a couple of weeks, I will have a pleasure reserved to few: I will don my academic cap and gown to attend commencement and watch these young people, good students and not-so-good-but-good enough students, graduate. For some, I will shed a tear of joy, knowing that they will go out and make the world a better place. I will meet some parents, introduced as, “This is my favorite professor,” or “This is the professor I told you about!” The parents will shake my hand warmly and thank me for my efforts. If only they knew how those words sustain us as we deal with all the layabouts, loafers, and excuse makers. On commencement day, the triflers fade from memory: Only the stars shine.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Latinos in Higher Education: Too Few to Celebrate

Rosie with Bola Akanji, a visiting scholar from Nigeria,  & Jody Lisberger, chair of URI Women's Studies Program


In 1974, not long after I finished my bachelor's degree, I visited a friend who was in graduate school at Iowa State University in Des Moines, Iowa. It was the first time I had ever gone to the Midwest and I knew absolutely nothing about it. It never occurred to me that people would be any different from my hometown of San Francisco. Yes, I know; I was very naive.

My friend took me to a favorite restaurant; she wanted me to try the pork chops, cut thick like a steak, the likes of which I had never seen. The waitress came to our table, took one look at me and said, “You aren't from around here, are you?” I stuttered, “ Uh, no…” and I looked around the room. Every other person in the room was several shades whiter than I; it didn't help that it was midwinter when no one in the room would have seen the sun for a couple of months. My hair, coal black, long, thick and curly, really stood out in contrast to the blond and light brown hair of everyone else in the room. I felt vaguely embarrassed; I guess I don't belong here, I thought.

People are not usually as direct as that waitress but I have had many, many experiences like this; veiled, implied, hinted at, but clear, nevertheless. In fact, I still experience it even though my hair is going gray and worn short. The difference is that now I am acutely aware that this situation should have changed more than it has.

I was thinking about this when I went to the open house our new university president's residence. Looking around, I saw everyone there was white except for me. I still feel a brief pang of panic in that kind of situation, but I have been there a long time; I'm sure they have forgotten about my difference. But I can never forget; I was nearly overcome with the desire to go to the president, who was standing by the door amiably greeting all the visitors, to say, “Hi, I'm one of your 12 Latino faculty!” But it was not the time or the place to call attention to myself, although there is never a good time or place for this issue.

This is my seventeenth year at the University of Rhode Island. According to the university's own Fall 2008 statistics, there are five Latinos in the College of Arts and Sciences. Overall, URI has 699 faculty members: only twelve, or 2%, are Latinos or Hispanic; nineteen, or 3.2% are African or African Americans. Four hundred ninety-eight are white.

The Latino or Hispanic statistic has a kind of hidden trick to it: several are from Spain or the Latin American countries; perhaps half are United States-born and/or raised Latinos. What difference does that make? It means that the real numbers have not changed in a substantive way during my years here. The Latino population is increasing exponentially in the United States, even here in little Rhode Island, but Latino students are not getting into the higher education pipeline. Faculty members born in Latin America tend to be from privileged backgrounds because the majority of the people in the region are poor; if one has the money to go to college, there is money for other things as well.

It is only in the United States that Latinos have the upward mobility to go from working-class to university. At least, that’s the way it has been in the past; California’s economic collapse will have a great impact on the ambitions within the Latino community because California has been the state that has turned out the highest number of educated Latinos. California’s disaster is a disaster for all Latinos in the U.S.

The disaster ignited a few years ago with the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996. Proposition 209 ended affirmative action in admissions to the university system, including the University of California, the state’s flagship university and one of the most distinguished and important in the Wiith theworld. My doctorate is from UCLA.

The California university system had to come up with a different way to diversify its student body, and it did, but the long-term effects have included a dramatic drop in the number of Latino and black students. In 2006, marking the ten-year anniversary of the passage of Prop 209, The Nation magazine noted that the incoming class had only 100 African Americans out of 4,802 new students. Latinos are not mentioned.

Rosie with the chair of our History Department, Marie Schwartz

This year, here at the University of Rhode Island, our Talent Development Program, which runs a pre-matriculation session during the summer for disadvantaged students of all colors, is expecting a drop in its enrollment of about 50%. The TD program, like every other part of the university, is suffering from the severe cuts in funding. These developments mean that my classes will be whiter. The cuts in funding and the reduction in scholarships also mean that many young people will not even attempt to go to college.

One disturbing trend I've noticed is how much students are working at full-time jobs. I have run into students who work the night shift and come in barely able to stay awake in class. I made a comment to a student the other day noting the early hour of her e-mail to me, and she said that she read her e-mail just as she got off work at 5:30 in the morning.

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in a grocery store line, waiting impatiently as the clerks scrambled to find a price for yucca for the customer in front of me. Suddenly, a young man's voice called to me, “Dr. Pegueros—let me help you over here.” The clerk was a student I'd taught a couple of summers earlier, a Latino. I asked him how his studies were going. He'd had to quit, he told me. It just got too expensive, but he was planning to come back. I chatted with him for a bit, my heart squeezed in my chest. I hope that he will get back but I have my doubts. Latinos have the lowest rate of retention; if they actually drop out, as this young man did, the chances of their return drops dramatically.

This is a major problem for our community. We are running way behind the pack, and the less education our children get, the greater disadvantage they will be at as we become the largest minority in the country.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation."

The controversy over inviting evangelical theologian Greg Boyd to give the keynote address at the inauguration of URI President David Dooley.

The University of Rhode Island inaugurates a new president on April 8. David Dooley, a biologist by training, is described as the son and husband of Baptist ministers. I did not give this detail a second thought; after all, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a Baptist minister. Then he announced that evangelical theologian and pastor Gregory Boyd, known for his opinions on gays (“I have to regard homosexuality as “missing the mark” of God’s idea”) and divorced women (“adulteresses”) would be delivering the keynote address. 

What could President Dooley have been thinking to have invited him? New England is one of the bluest regions in the union; Rhode Island, the most Democratic state.

President Dooley invited Boyd who, he says, is a friend of the family. This worries me more than anything I’d heard about the new president thus far. On one hand, it feels rather like the Obama/Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy during the presidential election. Obama distanced himself from the pastor as the race progressed. At the time, I remember thinking that Obama must have learned Wright’s controversial opinions over the course of attending his church for twenty years, and seen from the perspective of the black community, his opinions were justified: He claimed that God should punish America for its racism. Could a black person, enduring what blacks have had to endure throughout our history, feel any differently? Slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching; school segregation; discrimination; general abuse—how could any reasonable person believe differently? Yet Obama must have realized that to white America, his association with him would cause a firestorm, and it did.

Nevertheless, Obama withdrew from the church and, in the opinion of many, threw the Rev. Wright under the bus. But then, he was running for president of the United States. Loyalty fell aside in favor of the pragmatism of winning an election.                                   

President Dooley stated that he chose Gregory Boyd because he had read a great deal by Boyd and felt that his writing had much to offer as a message of hope to the university community. Did it never cross his mind that he would be alienating and marginalizing whole segments of the university community? Or did he consciously choose to throw US under the bus in favor of a Wonder Bread message of hope?

We have major problems at URI. The diminishing financial contribution of the state has forced us to find more and more monies outside of the state budget, and to lean on students for greater and greater fees. Student retention is poor; minority student retention is worse. Programs are slashed; tenure lines are reduced, with department heads having to vie with each other for the lines that open when we lose a member of the faculty to retirement or death. But the new president choose Boyd's vision of hope. For me, his beliefs about women and gays invalidate anything he will say: I have no desire to contemplate the musings of a bigot.

In every organization I have ever worked for, “white, straight, and Christian” have been the default settings. Sometimes an administrator was acutely aware of this and acted to change it, but in most cases, they considered complying with the laws pertaining to discrimination and affirmative action as a nuisance, at best. Sometimes it came down to a discomfort around what to do about Christmas in a non-religious setting. At other times, there were greater stakes.

In the 1980s, I worked for a progressive organization that, in preparation for a major push across the United States, hired large numbers of organizers. Every week, they would take a new staff picture. There were two minorities on staff: A black woman and me. Every week, the two of us would look at the picture and wonder when they would do something about the unrelenting whiteness of the expanding staff. Finally, we posted a note under the picture (by this time there were over 100 staffers) that read, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Nobody figured it out. We watched as people stared at the picture, trying to divine the “trick” and finally, turned away. They never saw anything wrong with having only one brown and one black face in the sea of white faces.

If any institution is identified with equal opportunity for all, it is the state university. “All” includes a vast sea full of humanity: Jewish, Christians, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, gay, straight, and so on. Christianity should not be the default setting here.

Why shouldn’t an evangelical theologian be the keynote speaker at an inauguration? What about his right to free speech, you may ask. It's not about his rights. It's about setting the tone for the future of a pluralistic institution, a state university.

URI is a public institution; separation of church and state should be respected here more than in any other institution in our country. A theologian brought as a speaker in another situation would be fine; students, faculty and staff would be free to come to listen or to protest or to ignore the whole event. But the inauguration of a president is a unique occasion where the new president lays out his vision for the institution. It is disturbing that he would bring in a speaker who narrows rather than expands that vision.

Would the inauguration of the president of a Baptist college be strange if God were left out of it? I would think so because God is at the center of instruction; why else have a Baptist college? It is the adherence to religious principles that sets it aside from other institutions. But the heart of a state university is adherence to constitutional principles; constitutional government is what finally broke the monarchies of the old world. Our public persona should be blind justice; we should maintain an arena where everyone is free to practice their own religious beliefs, or have none at all, and not be compelled to listen to a religious message on an occasion of state .

To bring an evangelical theologian to give the keynote speech at the inauguration is a betrayal of the separation of church and state precisely because they espouse prejudice-ridden religious dogmas that discriminate that against many people. It declares that it is not enough to draw inspiration from the august body of laws and the secular culture that animates our republic. Religious leaders usually use their Gods to inspire and manipulate their followers. And when they are not followers? Then they are POTENTIAL followers; one must just play the right chord to drag them in.

Abraham Lincoln declared, "Let reverence for the laws become the political religion of the nation." If it was good enough for Lincoln, should be good enough for us.

I doubt that President Dooley intended to proselytize his religious beliefs at his inauguration but it is disturbing to see that he does not realize that that is what the proposed speaker's message is likely to be. A message of hope? In what? In whom? Why pick a speaker who, by his own admission, has never spoken at a secular event? How will a speaker whose life is constructed around the message of the Gospels give a message of hope that does not involve hoping and trusting in his God? Is he even capable of delivering his message without alluding to God?

In the wake of this controversy, President Dooley has issued a statement declaring his belief in diversity. Words. More words. We want deeds; so far, his choice of a keynote speaker indicates his real beliefs far more than his reassuring platitudes.

Periodically, articles and studies appear that claim that the faculty of universities tend to be liberal. I would say that this incident shows “liberalism” at its squishiest and most spineless in its inability to protect itself against those who threaten it. As for having “some speakers who make us uncomfortable,” how about this: Let us begin with one who says we should vote on YOUR marriage.

I feel betrayed. Whatever hope I had in the new president faded when I learned how his mind functioned as shown by this signature choice and his apparent inability to see the insult he has slapped us with. We may not have had a choice in the speaker but we can choose not to participate in a new era of self-deception.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Remembering the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

He began to see that silence in the face of repression was acquiescence.

Thirty years ago, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated as he celebrated Mass, by a member of Roberto D’Aubuisson’s death squads. The archbishop’s execution was only the most visible of a host of assassinations.

Archbishop Romero’s path was unique. He had started out as a quiet scholar who had little involvement with the world. His superiors picked him to be archbishop because they were sure they could count on him to obey their orders. Until that time, the Catholic Church in Central America had sided firmly with the elite landowners and upper classes. The priests and nuns who got involved with the “Liberation Theology” movement ran into opposition and were censured by Church leaders. Archbishop Romero was drawn into conflict with the government when his colleagues in the movement such as Fr. Rotelio Grande, were murdered by the death squads. He began to see that silence in the face of repression was acquiescence.

In 1980, the Civil War, which had been percolating since the mid-1970s, exploded into a conflict that would kill 75,000 Salvadorans. On December 2, 1980, four church women from the United States, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark; Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan, were kidnapped, raped and murdered in El Salvador. In El Mozote, in Morazán department, El Salvador, on December 11, 1981, almost 1000 innocent civilians were massacred, the buildings of their village set afire with the bodies of the dead inside. As Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican-American journalist who was one of the first to see the site of the massacre, wrote, “countless bits of bones — skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column — poked out of the rubble.” On November 18, 1989, in one of the most infamous instances, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, were slaughtered. The massacres, murders and assassinations continued unabated until a peace treaty was finally signed in 1992. Even then, the violence did not stop: the repatriation of Salvadorans and their children deported from the United States brought a new kind of bloodshed to El Salvador. Many of those children had grown up into criminal gang activity in Los Angeles, forming Mara Salvatrucha or M-13, and brought the violence back to their own country, making the streets almost as dangerous as they were during the civil war (officially, 1980-1992).

But El Salvador had never really been at peace since January 22, 1932, when the government engaged in the massacre known as La Matanza; approximately 30,000 indigenous people were murdered by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. It was more desirable to the government and the elites to kill the peasants than to feed them. El Salvador has such a gruesome history of state-sponsored terrorism, i.e., the government killing its own citizens, that one can only wonder what drives the violent inclination of the Salvadoran people.

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to travel but when I thought of going to Europe, I had a niggling fear. Most of those countries had killed or betrayed their Jews. As Rod Steiger’s character in The Pawnbroker said, “Europe is a graveyard.” Did I want to visit Paris with its splendid Eiffel Tower but whose Vichy government had collaborated with the Nazis? Or Germany, with its beautiful Bavarian castles and Nazi crematoria? Or Italy, one of the cradles of our civilization, but also the place where Mussolini gathered up the Jews and shipped them off to be killed in Germany?

The sad fact is that you can spin the globe and wherever your finger lands there has been some terrible war or massacre, often by one faction against another within the same country. Making my way east to China and India, or south to Africa, I can name murderous regimes in almost any place. In this hemisphere, the sad fact is that 90% of the indigenous people died at the hands the conquerors, either from combat or from the transmission of diseases that the inadvertently spread. If only the killing had stopped there!

 Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980) lying in state

Thirty years after his murder, Archbishop Romero’s words call out not just to the people of El Salvador, but to the governments and leaders of the world:

I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill." No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

20th Century Central America: A Personal History

On that morning in the summer of 1975, my friend, Juan, told me we had to leave El Salvador immediately. Juan is Guatemalan, and had driven me to El Salvador on the last leg of my visit to Central America. I was there to see my mother's family, and to see my beloved Guatemala and El Salvador, my ancestral homes, again. I cannot believe that no one—either in the United States or in Central America—warned me that there were civil wars going on in both countries. I read the daily paper; my mother was in close contact with her relatives there, but nobody told me, no doubt, because it was not on their radar.

That morning, Juan came in and said we had to leave immediately. He really could not explain why—he did not understand exactly what was going on, but his friends had told him that there was going to be trouble and we should leave immediately. The next day, back in Guatemala, we heard that the University of El Salvador had been taken over by the military. I still have the notebook I bought at the university before we left. I have never written in it but it bears the university's logo. Soon after I returned to San Francisco, my friend Osvaldo was murdered walking through a park near his home in El Salvador. Was it a simple crime, a mugging gone wrong? Or was Osvaldo involved in the underground resistance to the dictatorship? What were you going to do about it if you thought the government engaged in state-sponsored terrorism against you or someone you loved? What could anyone do against the power of the state, even a tiny state like El Salvador? The state is always more powerful than the individual.

It was four years before the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; he was then an auxiliary bishop and still bound to the more conservative, dominant arm of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. After his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, was murdered by death squads in 1977, Archbishop Romero evolved to become the man who risked, and lost, his life to protest the political repression in El Salvador. 

Guatemala was also in turmoil; the civil war had afflicted the country for sixteen years by that time but the bloodthirsty dictator, Rios Montt, had not yet come to power and residents of the cities were disengaged from the genocide in the countryside. Yet to an outsider, not much was going on in either country. Their newspapers reported little, and American newspapers said nothing at all. Your relatives insisted that if you just stayed away from politics, you would be all right. When something bad happened, there was great reluctance to read too much into it.

What could you do if your own country, the United States, was supporting the dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua? If it was providing the dictators' army’s arms and bullets? My country, the United States was doing just that. What could one person do?

We, whether raised in Central America or the children of immigrants in the United States, were brought up to eschew politics of any kind: ANY political involvement could get you killed. My mother harangued my father about his membership in the Teamsters for his entire working life, working herself up into a total fury when he became the shop steward (union representative) at the warehouse where he worked. When my mother found out that I was in the women’s movement, she went ballistic. Had she ever told us about the politics in her country, we might have been more responsive to her extreme reaction to what seemed to us to be commonplace activities.

To hear her tell it, life in El Salvador and Guatemala before she came to the United States had been a pastoral delight. Since I had visited Central America with her when I was a child, I had clear memories of their green hills, abundant flowers, and trees heavy with tropical fruits. What had been concealed from my child's eyes was the heavy hand of political repression. Later, as a graduate teaching assistant, I had students from upper-class Central American families who were dumbfounded to hear of the civil war going on in their countries, right under their noses. Of course, you are not going to see much of the world around you if you live in a gated community, surrounded by walls topped with broken glass to keep out intruders.

When, around 1979, I became involved in the women’s movement, I thought she would have a coronary. Nine years later, when I started a graduate program in Latin American history, I thought she took it as a declaration of war. I had thought she would be pleased; it would keep me linked to the culture of her ancestors, But her reaction was to demand, “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?” Well, no, I did not. I had no idea what she was afraid of; had she ever confided in me, I might have known. I might have understood that what I took as irrational secrecy was actually deadly and justified fear.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blowtorch Bob: The Duty to Remember Roberto D’Aubuisson

El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson (1944-1992) was uniquely malevolent. He would throw babies in the air and shoot them in midair, just for fun. The death squads of which he was the leader, hunted down and executed insurgents in the slowest, most exquisitely painful ways possible. The Spanish Inquisition could have learned a thing or two about torture from him: his favorite method involved a blow torch, earning him the nickname of “Blowtorch Bob.” I bet no one ever called him that to his face.

During the Salvadoran Civil War, 75,000 people were killed; 8000 were disappeared, and one million were left homeless, slaughtered by D’Aubuisson and his death squads. They killed a group of Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter; and a group of Catholic lay nuns who had just arrived in El Salvador. In El Mozote, they killed at least 794 townspeople: they separated the men from the women, locked them in a church, then took them out in small groups. After they raped the women, they murdered each one of them. Then they burned the bodies.

His crowning achievement was assassinating Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero: On March 24, 1980, one of his gunmen shot him in the heart as he was saying Mass. Romero’s offense? Demanding the end to the killing of innocent men, women, and children in El Salvador’s Civil War. What an odd demand from a Catholic priest: love thy neighbor.

When throat cancer killed D’Aubuisson on February 20, 1992 , sending him, one hopes, to join Satan’s own favorite sons, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Chauchesku in the first circle of hell, I vowed I would remember and celebrate his date of death every year. So today, I remember by telling my students, my friends, and you, my readers, about the fiend of El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson.

D’Aubuisson’s education at the School of the Americas is particularly galling. The SOA, chartered by the United States Congress, and sponsored by the United States Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, gained its fame by training Latin American military officers in methods of interrogation, torture, kidnapping and executions. These methods were described by former United States Representative Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) as “worthy of the Soviet gulag.” Our government allowed and encouraged this instructional program as part of a perverted foreign policy focused on maintaining stability in the region at any cost rather than in protecting the basic human rights of all of the citizens of the hemisphere.

Today, of course, the U.S. Army claims that it was mistaken when it published manuals on torture and related topics, but that admission has come only as a result of pressure from human rights groups to close the school. Despite years of civil disobedience, protests and intense lobbying, the SOA continues its nefarious work, nowadays touting a new name and a curriculum that includes a seminar on human rights: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The name may be new but we are not deceived: the leopard may have changed its spots but it is still as deadly as ever, turning out military officers who are the heirs to D’Aubuisson and his henchmen.

People never cease to amaze me. In an Alzheimer’s-like delusion of the past, the Salvadoran government dedicated a statue of D’Aubuisson and has a memorial Mass for him each year. One could argue that if anyone needs prayers for his eternal soul, he does but there is something ignominious about a tribute to a mass murderer who killed with such glee.

El Salvador also built a memorial to General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, its dictator from 1931 to 1944, who is best known for the massacre of 30,000 Salvadorans in 1932 in what is now called La Matanza, or massacre, which is the turning point of Salvadoran history. After that, the indigenous people of the country grew fearful of being seen as natives and their culture was virtually obliterated. Is it an indication of the continuing disenfranchisement of the peasants in El Salvador that these two monsters would be so honored?

A year after the memorial was dedicated, D’Aubuisson’s son and several other state officials were murdered in Guatemala on a diplomatic trip: the sins of the father visited once again on his son? A son who was carrying out the same regressive philosophies espoused by his father? Perhaps there is some justice after all.

Nunca más.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Superintendent Gallo Fires All Central Falls Teachers

Central Falls High School teacher  Deloris Grant - Providence Journal/Connie Grosch

The discussion about the firing of the teachers at Central Falls has been framed in terms of greedy teachers facing down School Superintendent Frances Gallo who is facing the demands of the new State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. The superintendent threatened; there were negotiations; then threats; the union conferred and rejected the superintendent's demands. The superintendent then fired all the teachers. 

Missing from the discussion is the effect of firing teachers who have been working under nearly combat conditions for a very long time. Essentially, these teachers have been overworked for a long, long time, and their mass firing is their reward for trying to do their best and for seeking the protection of collective bargaining.

You know, everybody has something critical to say about these poor teachers but my sympathies are with them.

People think that teaching high school kids is like selling flowers for eight hours a day. It isn't. It is difficult, exhausting, exasperating work, especially in schools that serve impoverished populations. People don't take into consideration that good teachers never get time off. They finish their teaching then face parent-teacher conferences, detention supervision, library supervision, club supervisions, choral practice; debate practice, tutoring: It's always something. Then they go home, have dinner with their own kids and start grading papers and preparing for classes for the next day; then they work their entire weekends as well.

Nobody expects a secretary to provide her own paper and printer toner but teachers end up purchasing a lot of their own materials out of their own pockets. That's why Office Max and Staples have discount programs for teachers.

In addition to teaching, they have to maintain discipline which is hard enough under the best circumstances; even I have to be on top of my game every day to maintain classroom discipline, and I teach college students. The teachers at Central Falls are dealing with students, over 90% of whom are living in poverty, who may receive their only substantial meals at school; who have parents who are working at jobs that don't pay enough to support their families--IF THEY'RE LUCKY and aren't unemployed or drug addicted or alcoholic or heaven knows what else. 90% of the kids at Central Falls High School fall under the poverty line. The majority of those parents are immigrants, with few English skills. Many of the kids are involved in gangs. It's not that the parents don't care but often they come from cultures where the teachers were the educated ones, and the parents didn't intervene unless the teachers called them in because the kids were discipline problems. In America, there is the middle-class culture of the PTA and parental involvement in everything. Not all cultures have middle-class with parents in the middle of everything; one cannot assume that their non-involvement reflects a lack of caring. 

CFHS Librarian Sandy Fisher - The Providence Journal/Steve Szydlowski

Central Falls High School's teachers have exhausted themselves teaching these youngsters but the testing results are not up to grade so administrators try to squeeze even more out of them. I think it's terribly unfair. They cite the teachers $78,000/yr. salaries as being too high. I think they should get that AND combat pay. They get better pay than most ordinary Rhode Islanders? Yes, and their jobs are harder most others are.

The letters to the editor paint the teachers as greedy and call them every manner of name. They should try teaching in an inner city school for a week and see if they come out with their sanity intact.

I taught middle school (6-7-8th grades) for one year, in a Catholic school back in 1974-75; I was twenty-three at the time. Because it was a Catholic school in a Latino neighborhood, I had virtually no discipline problems. Nevertheless, by the time my work day ended—teaching, supervising the lunch room; watching the play in the schoolyard after school—I used to drive home and fall into bed and sleep for three hours before I could make dinner and prepare for my next day's classes.

Years later when I considered going to graduate school, I did not entertain the idea of teaching high school for more than a minute. It is all I can do to keep myself from asking the students I teach who are preparing to be teachers, if they have any idea what they are getting into. Do they know that they will be blamed for poor test scores, disruptive students; students who do not do well because they are working nights or they are running with gangs? Or because they are hungry? Or because they have no place to study because they are sharing a room with several siblings and perhaps bear heavy child care responsibilities for their younger siblings?

I understand that superintendents have to do something; they have to find solutions or at least look like they are looking for solutions. I know that not all teachers are excellent; some are bad and others are downright cruel. I do not have any solutions but I do have a deep sense of the injustice being perpetrated on the teachers they are firing en masse in Central Falls.

Teachers are among the most maligned groups in our society. Because educating children costs so much, the public resents having to pay the bill, and teachers, particularly those who are unionized, are attacked because their collective bargaining agreements guarantee fair pay and benefits. 

It is a hard, hard job. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it, and most people could not do it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking Without a Net

Approaching sixty and what is officially considered old age (politely called, senior citizenship), I am amazed at how much the university has changed in my lifetime. I imagine that those who were alive at the time the printing press was invented might have felt the same way. 

When I was first hired in 1993, few students had computers.  Laptops were prohibitively expensive; cellular phones were not widely used; I had a very bulky and unreliable one I kept in the car in case I should break down as I drove through the woods on my daily commute. Palm Pilots and Blackberries were just beginning to gain popularity. My department chair-to-be made sure that I negotiated with the administration for a good computer and laser printer. It was a big deal. 

In the classroom, I had to persuade my students to get e-mail accounts. Since few students had their own computers, few had made use of the then still-clunky Internet. We had overhead projectors, as well as televisions and video cassette and DVD players. Digital projectors came along perhaps five years ago? They are still very expensive and few enough have become proficient in their use that those who wish to use them to teach can still do so. In my department, there are three; so far, we have not needed another one. A fourth one belongs to a professor who bought it with his own money.

Questions we could not have imagined a decade ago now demand our attention. The Internet has redefined plagiarism. Ever a classroom problem, plagiarism, is now high-tech.  The sellers of student papers are now on-line: Students can find a paper on almost anything you want on the web. The downside of this for them is that professors can also pursue the plagiarists; many plagiarists can be foiled by typing in a sample of the paper into a search engine. Sometimes we get lucky and we find a match. Then again, some give themselves away through sheer carelessness.  I once had a hockey player whose paper seemed suspiciously literate for him until I got to the last page, which had a copyright from the company he’d bought it from. Busted!

Teaching the students to be careful of what they find on-line is a new area of study. I once found a gorgeous site on the ancient Maya until I started to look at it carefully and saw that the site manager had conflated information about the Maya, Aztec and Inca. I wrote to him detailing his errors, and received the cheerful reply that he didn’t know anything about the pre-Colombian indigenous peoples but he had found lots of nice pictures to use, and he had taken advantage of a snowy holiday weekend to throw it together. When will there be a body of law for malpractice on the Internet?

The budget of the university has been skewed by the costs of the computers, not only computers for the faculty and administrators but also for computer banks for the students throughout the university. While these machines get a lot of punishment, there is far more insidious expense.  Developing computer technology renders them obsolete far too quickly.  Now there are clickers in classroom use which enable students to participate in large classes in which previously, they could not.

E-mail now consumes a fair amount of our interaction with our students. Not only do they send me notes when they are ill but they also ask questions and make comments that they might have been too shy to make in class.

One use of computers that makes me uneasy is the use of laptops in the classroom. How do I know they are taking notes instead of sending e-mail to their friends or preparing for another class?  I just have to ignore them. We make choices not to be police officers in the class all the time. This is one of my instances.  And then there are the students who are on their cell phones texting. When I see someone doing it during class, I ask them not to but on more than one occasion, I’ve had students walk out in a huff when I’ve asked them to stop texting.

It’s a curious thing about sitting in a classroom. Many students seem to think that their behavior is invisible to the professor, or that we can’t hear them whispering. I wish I couldn’t; it is distracting and I hate to stop class to ask them to stop. Invariably, I forget what I was lecturing about.

The nature of the university library is changing as well in response to the new technologies. Library renovations now include adding to the number of electrical outlets available for laptops, and a library commons which adds tables with electric outlets so that a group of students can meet and discuss with their laps plugged in. Furthermore, students can now Twitter reference librarians for help with reference questions.

Of course, we cannot ignore the tremendous difference that the Internet has made to the access to journals, newspapers, etc. Now, when I want to see something that appeared in the New York Times a hundred years ago, I can access it within minutes on the web. No longer do I have to scour the local libraries to see if someone has a complete set of microfilms of the New York Times, or make a trip to another city that might have one.

We have come a long way from the days when I started college with an electric typewriter and a $100 factory-reconditioned stereo system. I love much of the new technology even though it makes me feel that I am running in a weird steeple-chase trying to keep up and in some cases, drag my students along; in others, trying to keep up with them.

What I worry about is that the technology is overshadowing the substance of what we teach. Their handwriting is already almost completely unreadable because they are typing everything. Twitter and texting discourage correct spelling. Do u no what I meen? They rarely consult books, choosing to get all their information from the Internet and that is changing the nature of undergraduate research. More information is available at the same time that misinformation floods the Internet like a Red Tide contaminating the local shellfish after a hard rain. For serious researchers, it is an exhilarating trip even though it is harder to teach students how to discriminate. 

It is quite an adventure. I can’t wait to see what happens next.   

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Avatar Just Another Dances With Wolves in a Different Galaxy?

This article appeared on MyLatinoVoice the week of January 25, 2010.

Scratch the surface of James Cameron’s Avatar, and there are lots of overly-clever allusions and puns. The year is 2154, planet Earth is dying of environmental degradation, and the evil Americans are in pursuit of a rare mineral called “Unobtainium” (groan!) which is located on the planet Pandora (as in the Greek myth where Pandora opens a box and all hell breaks loose), under the Na'vi’s most sacred tree which they plan to use for fuel but which is astronomically expensive (no pun intended), so the Americans intended to force the Na’vi to relocate. Critics have compared Avatar to Kevin Costner’s celebrated 1990 Dances with Wolves, where Costner plays a Civil War-era Army lieutenant who goes on a mission to the Lakota people (in what today is South Dakota) and ends up going native. 

Avatar references not only Dances with Wolves, but the main streams of Hollywood science fiction (such as the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises) as well, and wryly makes use of superhero archetypes. Avatar’s Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, in his fury at the treason of the main character Jake, breaks a window and jumps out shooting with an assault rifle without the air mask he needs to breathe in Pandora’s atmosphere. A normal human would have died doing that, but not a United States Marine!

In Dances with Wolves, Costner used an accurate but simplified Lakota language and subtitles, erring only in confusing some of the genders of words, much to the amusement of native Lakota speakers. Avatar follows Star Trek’s invention of the Klingon language, and author J.R.R. Tolkien’s invention of Elvish for the Lord of the Rings series. The Na'vi’s world is a combination of science fiction and fantasy, and the Na’vi echo both genres.

We can make fun of Dances with Wolves, but Costner laughed all the way to bank. It won seven academy awards: Best Picture; Best Directing; Best Cinematography; Editing; Music; Sound and Writing. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, it made $184 million in U.S. box office sales, and $424 million in total box office sales, though the closing date on that figure is unclear. Heaven knows how much it has made altogether. This, however, is the most interesting fact in reference to our discussion: the Sioux nation made Kevin Costner an honorary member for his positive and compassionate portrayal of Native Americans.

Critics of Avatar who are irritated by the seemingly hackneyed nature of the story forget one thing: there are only a few archetypal storylines; most such stories are popular because they are familiar to the viewers, and movie-makers are eager to tap into that familiarity. Why else would there be so many sequels to popular movies?

Is there a more formulaic story in the universe than Star Wars? A young man is chosen to do something extraordinary; an evil power turns out to be his father; two main characters fall in love but their love is tested by superhuman trials; twins are separated at their births but find each other. I could name dozens of movies with those storylines. George Lucas’s genius was in combining a number of those stories and setting them in outer space, adding a dose of strange-looking space creatures, fabulous special effects, and incredible cinematography.

Latino and Black viewers often bristle when stories of our peoples have a white hero at the center of the story. Going back to Biko, for instance, the story of the murder of South African human rights activist Steven Biko, the film focused on the white journalist who told the story. The black community was angry about this because the real hero was Biko. Mississippi Burning, about the trial of the murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, focused on the white prosecutor who convicted him. Even the Matrix series has the archetypical “chosen one,” another white guy. Where have I heard that story before?

Even though there are many more blacks and a few more Latinos in show business today, Hollywood is still a very white industry. Oprah reigns supreme as the queen of daytime television but the movie studios and the television networks are owned by white men, with rare exceptions.

What if Jake the Marine, the hero of Avatar, had been played by Jamie Foxx? His avatar would still be blue, alien to the world that he is invading, and an agent of the invaders. What if no other element of the story had been changed? If the black Jake’s avatar had still fallen in love with the princess of the Na'vi and she with him, what spin would it have put on the story? Would we still be having this discussion?

Hollywood is white! White, white, white! And so is James Cameron, the director of Avatar. White people are going to make movies from their own perspectives. Part of the white experience is white liberal guilt and that is really okay, especially when you consider how much hatred and prejudice against non-whites is carried by many whites. It is the reaction of people of conscience to the hatred they see in their own people, and even in their own hearts. That raised consciousness makes them want to change things. I do not know if that was an element of James Cameron’s creation of this film but he does present a culture that honors its planet and lives in harmony with nature; the outsider comes to revere the natives' way of life. In a sense, his raised consciousness makes him an outsider in his own group. And being one of the invaders gives him inside knowledge that will help his new-found people defeat the invaders.

I like Avatar a lot. I think Cameron is a technological genius. I have no doubt that the technology Cameron pioneers in this film will change movie-making. The landscapes in the movie are amazing. He is a science fiction guy who has been imagining other cultures since he was a boy and who is white and comes from that perspective; the yearning for a more just society is a great part of the tradition of science fiction.

In short, people will not stop making films like this because there will always be members of the dominant culture who recoil from some of their culture’s treatment of minority cultures, and are trying to figure it out with the tools and the eyes they have.

Stepping Into the Maelstrom

Winter in Exeter, Rhode Island

Classes began two weeks ago and I suddenly realized I hadn’t written for the blog for the last three weeks as I prepared for and started the new semester. 

I am always excited at the beginning of the new semester. New classes, new students; I have spent a good deal of time updating things and tweaking others in my Introduction, as well as redesigning my upper division class, so starting the new term is like diving into a maelstrom. You have to swim and yet know that you will be carried along; there are lots of things over which you have no control. 

For the first few weeks, the student count is somewhat unstable.  Some students, particularly seniors, show off how cool they are by skipping the first week of school. Sorry, they say, they were on vacation in Aspen with their parents. You know they are lying but what can you do?  I will not trust anything they say from that moment on. Then you have the shoppers; they try out a class, don’t like it and then come asking for permission to enroll in my class. Even in the second week, I let them in.  It bothers me that they’ve missed the introduction and foundation to the course but they’ll just have to catch up.  Sometimes I get polite notes from students who were there for one or two classes and decide to move on to something else. I appreciate the notes and I don’t mind that they left; smaller classes are better. They are more manageable, cozier, and there is less grading to do.

Throughout my career, I have let in most students who wanted to take the class, though I do cut it off after the first two weeks because they will have missed too much material beyond that point. We have “caps,” maximum numbers allotted to the class. Most of our lower division classes, in my case, my “Introduction to Latin American Civilizations,” are capped at 35 students; I usually have about 38 students in the class by the end of the semester. I sign permissions for up to 45 students sometimes (this semester, 43) because with all the shopping, dropouts, and other attrition, it settles down to about 38.  I let so many students in because I remember, even forty years ago when I was an undergraduate, the frustration of many of my classmates at being unable to get the classes they needed for graduation inside of four years.

I never had that problem because I chose an obscure major, philosophy, and minored in classics, so I never had to beg a professor to let me into a class. All my classes had tiny enrollments except for general classes that fulfilled general education requirements, like “Physics for Non-Science majors.” I loved the professor, a slender, bearded young man, Clifton Albergotti, who made it all so interesting. We had a field trip to see the Stanford Linear Accelerator, now called the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and we read a very cool non-physics book whose title I no longer remember, but I remember loving the class. We remember only the names of the professors we loved.

That’s the thing about classes like my Introduction; while there might be a history major or two in the class, most students are using it to fulfill a requirement, and I have to engage them. I want to grab every one of them and get them to fall in love with history, and some of them will. I pick the books that are captivating and that they will want to keep when the semester ends, or that they will pass on to their parents or their siblings. As it happens, I often get the younger siblings of former students. 

This semester, my upper-division class (300-level) is called Latin American Women’s Lives Through Their Own Eyes.  Enrollments were very slow, so that for a long time, I thought it would barely get enough students to make the minimum required enrollment. When it passed 15, I started to breathe easier. Then it passed 20, much to my astonishment. The cap is 30, and we have 21 students; not bad.  There are eight men in the class. I am pleased about this; it used to be that a class focusing on women might get a man or two but that is changing slowly. I am glad I have lived long enough to see that change take place. 

For me, the challenge is to figure out how to make the class a joy. I want them to go on with their lives, understanding the importance of having an understanding of history, and how the shenanigans of politicians and scoundrels turn into history. And if my class results in a few enthusiastic watchers of history programs on TV, or readers of popular history books, I’m happy.

And if they grow up to read the newspapers enthusiastically, with some understanding of what is going on in Latin America, I’ve done my job.

Winter on India Point, Providence,  Rhode Island

Monday, January 18, 2010

Imagining Haiti

Woman making mud cookies

The scenes of horror coming in from Haiti beggar the imagination. Haiti, on an ordinary day, is so inconceivably poor that we hardly have the language to describe it. We hear now that 80% of Port-au-Prince lies in rubble; that thousands of bodies are being scooped up by bulldozers and dumped into mass graves; that the infrastructure has collapsed so completely that rescue organizations cannot safely distribute the water and food to keep the survivors alone; even the scenes of war we see coming from Afghanistan and Iraq hardly match Haiti.

Some time back, long before the earthquake, I read a story so horrifying from Haiti that I set about to make a slide show for my classes: In Haiti, people are so poor that women make mud cookies. They mix earth, water and salt; make them into cookies, and bake them in the sun. Then they sell them to others who have nothing else to eat. To one accustomed to hearing about the epidemic of obesity in this country, especially among the poor, eating mud cookies is beyond the realm of my imagination.  I keep looking at those pictures because my brain just can’t take them in. I have visited some very poor areas in Latin America but imagining human beings eating mud cookies is more than I can manage.

It is heartening to see Americans mobilize to respond to the disaster in Haiti. Television and radio programs, as well as Internet sites are being the drums for contributing whatever we can. As a colleague of mine said, “I just want to go to the bank and put it all in a pile and say, ‘Here; take it all.’”

One poll I saw said that 37 % of Americans had contributed to help the Haitians though it may be that the total amount of charity we give ordinarily is quite generous. In 2005, in the wake of the Asian tsunami, the U.S. government pledged $900 million tsunami relief. Individual Americans donated over $2 billion; more than twice what was provided by the government.

The following year, 2006, the total given by individual Americans to charity topped $295.3 billion; 38% of that went to religious organizations. About 65% of that came from households earning less than $100,000. Americans are so generous that we give 1.85% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to charity; Israel, the next country on the list, gives 1.34% , and Canada, 1.7% of its GDP to charity. Mega-givers, such as financier Warren Buffet promised $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to be distributed over a period of 20 years.  

None of this takes into account the number of Americans who give their time as well as their dollars to charity. Swedes outrank all others in volunteerism; Norway is second, and the United States is third.

But to return to the disaster in the Caribbean, Haiti will be in a state of emergency for so long as it takes for the worst to pass: for everyone to be fed and sheltered; for all of the bodies to be buried. Once the immediate emergency passes, we will have to find a way to rebuild Haiti and get it on its feet. I hope that we can think in terms of the post-World War II schema to rebuild Europe and Japan. Indeed, the pictures of the piles of rubble in Haiti bring to mind similar pictures from Germany and Britain after the war or Hiroshima after the bomb.

I wonder, though, if Haiti has the internal resources to become truly autonomous. Haiti has had a long, sad history of subsistence existence spawned by colonial abuse by the Spanish and French and political manipulations by the United States. There is no lack of willingness of the U.S. and other powerful countries in the world to help out in a crisis but what Haiti needs in the long run is a chance to stand on its own two feet. The old adage: ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,’ is one that should govern our efforts. More than that, the United States has to let go; get Haiti on its feet, and then let go. That may seem like a very far goal but one that we must keep. Let us work to make the earthquake a mixed blessing: So awful that the whole world joins to pick Haiti up and help make it truly independent.

Woman tasting mud cookie before buying

photos by Ariana Cubillos/ AP Photo