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

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Texas Education Board Backs Down

The Texas State Board of Education backed off from eliminating Cesar Chavez from their history books.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Texas to Tom Sawyer: Have We Got A Fence for You!

Cesar Chavez, 1927-1993

In John Sayles’ 1996 film, Lone Star, set in Texas, there is a moment at a local school board meeting when an angry blonde woman turns to the teacher, played by Elizabeth Peña, and demands, “Who are you calling a bigot??”

I was thinking about Lone Star today. It deals with the difficult relationships among and between Latinos and non-Latinos in south Texas. It came to mind because I received a note from the United Farm Workers Union reading, “Stop Texas from erasing Cesar Chavez and Hispanics from school books.” It goes on to explain that the Texas State Board of Education is planning to erase Cesar Chavez and all Hispanic historical figures from public school textbooks.

Don’t they ever give up? Lest anyone relax because we have a black president and discussions about race are supposed to be a thing of the past, now comes the Texas School Board of Education to demonstrate, once again, that complacency is a luxury we cannot afford especially because Texas is such a big purchaser of text books; what happens there could affect the entire country.

The problem, claim those who are pushing this change, is that figures like Cesar Chavez, founder of the Farm Workers Union and among the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century, “lacks the stature…and contributions” and should not be “held up to our children as worthy of emulation.” They complain of “over representation of minorities” in the current social studies textbooks. But the attack on Hispanics in history does not stop with Mr. Chavez. They intend to remove all Hispanics in Texas history since the 16th century. Their objection, no doubt, is that they cannot put Mr. Chavez on a horse with a rifle in his hands.

Tom Sawyer, there is a very big fence in need of your services!

Building the Wall Between the United States and Mexico

Texas is about to cross the line to having Latinos comprise the largest number of school children in the state. Texas is home to 8.9 million Hispanics, or 37% of the total population. Today, even without counting the 4 million Latinos in Puerto Rico, Latinos make up 15% of the population of our country—the largest minority group in the U.S. By 2050, Hispanics will be the 30% of the population of the United States.

Starr County, Texas, leads the nation with a population that was 97% Hispanic as of 2008. All of the top 10 counties in this category are in Texas. Already, almost a third of all Texans speak Spanish at home. In places like Texas where Latinos are already a large percentage part of the population, 2050 may be the tipping point, when Latinos will outnumber the non-Latino population.

Judith Baca - Wall of Resistance

Where you stand depends on where you sit. To a non-Latino Texan who is not enamored of these changes or of their Latino neighbors, these developments must be terrifying; evidence of their fear can be seen in the wall that they have been building along the Rio Grande on the borders of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas: in their vigilante border patrols, and in their rabid anti-immigration activities. The fear-monger-in-chief himself, George W. Bush, hails from Midland, Texas. There are Mexican-Texans whose families were artificially divided by the political boundary between Texas and the United States. To Latino Texans who are recent arrivals as well as those who have lived there from time immemorial, the waves of fear and prejudice pose a daily danger. Then are the thousands of Latino migrants from south of the border and south of Mexico; the ones that many Texans are trying to block from coming in. Intolerance is the breeding-ground of violence.

I believe the fear and hatred of Latinos is so deep that they may actually carry out their plans to white-wash Texas history but the clock cannot be turned back.The efforts to keep the waves of migrants from coming in illegally ultimately cannot succeed. Texas will never be lily-white. They can delete General Santa Anna from the chronicles of the Mexican victory at the Alamo; they can try to erase Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and all the greatest Latinos from their history but the tides of change are coming. Even if not one more Latino was to migrate to the United States, there can be no turning back. Texas cannot stop the changes taking place in our country.

In the words of the UFW memo,

This Wednesday, Jan. 13, the [Texas] state board [of Education] will take a preliminary vote to adopt new standards for social studies texts. Please take a few moments right now to send board Chair Lowe an e-mail. Tell the TX State Board of Education not to allow a handful of ideological extremists to revise history by eliminating people of color. Please act now.

Go to:

Please help us stop the color-blinding of Texas history. Honor the memory of those Latinos who made this country a more equitable place.