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Progressives need to break the silence that follows the hype


It’s an irritating media ritual that happens like clockwork: the breathless announcement that Latinos soon will be the nation’s largest minority.

This season Newsweek magazine took the lead with a July 12 cover story that names 2005 as the year of our ascendency. “Hispanics are hip, hot and about to make history,” reads the inside teaser.

A splashy news report consummates the ritual. Letters to the editor comprise the closing prayers. And then -- silence. Everything reverts to business as usual, that is, a refusal to cover Latinos in any consistent and meaningful way. Latino activists, artists and opinion-makers of every stripe vanish into thin air in mainstream and progressive media outlets alike.

Or course such skewed coverage is symptomatic of a tendency on the part of many Americans to view race as primarily a black and white issue. Incredibly, President Clinton’s first “dialogues on race” in 1997 excluded Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

Why the persistence of such tunnel vision? And what are the consequences, particularly for those concerned with building a more just society?

These are some of the questions taken up in a new book of essays by Elizabeth Martinez, (no relation) one of this country’s leading Chicana intellectuals, activists and journalists.

The book is called De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (South End Press).

Martinez is a veteran of the Chicana and women’s movements. During the black civil rights movement, she was a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee -- SNCC -- in Mississippi.

Her straight talk, sharp humor and formidable historical sensibilities shine in these essays, which open with a foreword by Angela Davis.

De Colores has created a stir among young Latino activists who missed out on the movements of the 1960s and ’70s. And the book is reaching another audience is well: non-Latino progressives who are less than fluent in the history of Latino resistance.

These are folks who want a feel for the issues and not merely an analysis. They won’t be disappointed. De Colores is like a conversation with the author that you want never to end. Readers come away asking what their place might be in movements for justice that today are being revitalized by Latinos and other young people of color.

And not a moment too soon.

A 1996 census report indicates that in 50 years, more than a third of U.S. residents will be neither black nor white. We will fall into categories including Asian/Pacific Island American, Latino, Native American and Arab American.

The task for activists is clear, especially for those in the church. The times call for “fresh and fearless thinking about racism,” Martinez writes in the essay, “Seeing More Than Black and White.”

The essay examines reasons for our current perceptions of race: Historically, whites have depended upon blackness to define their superiority; blacks posed the greatest threat to Anglo desire for “racial purity”; other “races,” perceived as less threatening, often were viewed as white, writes Martinez.

Add to this black/white dichotomy a woeful ignorance about American history in general.

“People who learn at least a little about black slavery remain totally ignorant of how the United States seized half of Mexico or how it has colonized Puerto Rico,” writes Martinez. Mass lynchings of Chicanos and Mexicans in the Southwest rarely appear in our telling of history.

Popular interpretation of the 1960s does nothing to fill out the record: Many white progressives continue to place themselves at the center of the action.

In “That Old White (Male) Magic” Martinez scrutinizes two dozen books purporting to deal with that era, including Todd Gitlin’s classic account The Sixties and James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets.

Martinez cites one example after another of mass organizing by Latinos and other non-white groups that the twodozen chroniclers managed to overlook in their fixation on white, male-led activism.

“Three books devote from one paragraph to a page to the Chicano/a movement,” Martinez writes. “The rest are totally silent.”

Only one book mentions the deaths of three Chicanos at the hands of police during the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. The Aug. 29, 1970, demonstration in Los Angeles drew 20,000 people and ended in a cloud of tear gas.

Martinez also takes the authors to task for their analysis of black resistance, which she says gets short shrift, even as the books acknowledge the massiveness and exceptional leadership of black protest. “You will look long and hard, however, for the concept of that movement as central or seminal, as a catalyst of the 1960s in general,” she writes.

“It is seen as germane only to the problems facing African-Americans -- a ‘special interest’ group ... and not as a challenge to the totality of U.S. society.”

“Progressives have no business falling prey to the dominant society’s common view that the problem of racism is minorities feeling dissatisfied, rather than a lethal poison in the spirit and the body of our entire culture,” Martinez writes. “The cure is a whole new world that only a sense of our global linkage, of interdependence, can breathe into life.”

Whether writing about art, or Latina liberation or about xenophobia in “For Whom the Taco Bell Tolls,” Martinez makes it clear that the future for progressives lies in forging coalitions across colors and causes; and that feminism and gay rights must be central to all racial justice movements.

Martinez’s wisdom and wit is a must for anyone committed to real change. You, too, can be “hip, hot and about to make history”!

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999