Monday, March 12, 2012

The Distance to Tucson

Distance—whether it be psychic, physical, linguistic, ethnic or cultural—allows us to easily stereotype individuals, groups, and even places. I wrote a novel, The Nature of Truth, in which I argued—yes, in my novels I argue, sometimes with myself—that the pursuit of truth through abstraction is often rooted in hate. Years later I read Anzaldua’s Borderlands in which she says, “In trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of violence.” I knew I had found a kindred spirit.

So it was upon my arrival in Tucson. What I expected after being outraged by the banning of books and the elimination of Mexican-American studies in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), and what I discovered after talking to people at the festival, were two different things. The all-too-neat abstraction in my mind was challenged by the complexity on the ground.

A Salvadoran taxi driver (a naturalized citizen) drove me to the hotel and said he feared Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County near Phoenix “porque son racistas,” that is, “because they are racists.” I could not disagree with him. But he also pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily like that in Tucson.

At my table at the Authors’ Dinner on Friday night, this point was repeated by the well-to-do crowd; some were Latino, but most were not. They argued that Phoenix was the more politically conservative city, and Maricopa County had the burgeoning population, many of them newcomers from California and the Midwest. It was this group, or a part of this group, that had voted in a radically conservative legislature and passed a state law to ban Mexican-American studies and installed the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the TUSD who implemented the misguided, punitive agenda. Some at the table whose families had lived in Arizona for three or four generations, who were blond and blue-eyed and spoke excellent Spanish, were as vehemently against Brewer and Arpaio and John Huppenthal (the Superintendent) as I could have ever been. So the first thing I learned is that Tucson is not Phoenix, and vice versa.

The gifted storyteller Luis Alberto Urrea delivered a rousing keynote speech at this dinner. He gleefully mentioned having the most books banned at the TUSD, and thanked the district (to great applause) for increasing his books sales and Twitter followers. Urrea was funny and irreverent. But at the end, he pointed to the 900-plus attendees at the dinner, all of them booklovers in one way or another. He reiterated an important point: they were really the heart of Tucson, and the tens of thousands who would attend the Tucson Book Festival would emphatically repeat that point. The retrograde media image of the city did not do justice to how people often came together for books and culture in Tucson. Urrea received a standing ovation. Again, I appreciated that Tucson is not Phoenix, and certainly not Maricopa County.

Throughout the Tucson Book Festival, as I attended my panel and signed books at the University of Arizona Press table, people could not have been friendlier. It was one of best-organized book festivals I have ever attended. I spoke to high school kids protesting the TUSD's book banning and elimination of Chicano studies. They had a table next to the Nuestras Raices big tent featuring Latino authors. At this table, the kids displayed all the banned books. I bought two of their t-shirts featuring a Mexicano with a sombrero seemingly asleep with his arms crossed in one picture, only to look up in the next picture as he reads a book. The title on the t-shirt: “Think Again!” I’m giving the t-shirts to my sons.

In fact, the only time I heard comments in support of Sheriff Arpaio’s camera-ready crackdown on undocumented workers in Maricopa County was Saturday afternoon from a California writer, a Latino no less. Go figure.

At the festival, what I often did witness was talk of recalling Governor Brewer, petitions for signatures to make that happen, and people organizing for the next election to counter the crazy conservative elements that have for the moment dominated this state. Yes, I also saw many hairdos from the 1950s and 1960s, and too many new-age books about aliens hiding in the desert or plotting the end of the world. Yet I also experienced the variety and plurality of books and people and discussions that could have easily taken place in Brooklyn.

I would argue that the conservative politicians in Arizona do not know Chicanos. I would argue that they also do not know what studying Chicano literature and culture does to a group of students who too often feel put down by those who don’t take the time to understand them. When I was a teenager in El Paso, I sometimes felt worthless because of the stereotypical images I would see in the media about Mexicanos being lazy, stupid, and even dangerous. When Latino administrators at my high school yelled at me and repeated, “They don’t take people like you at Harvard,” reading Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima gave me hope. I saw myself in literature for the first time.

I read Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Acuña’s Occupied America (banned books at the TUSD) at Harvard, but I didn’t become a bomb-thrower, nor did I grow to resent groups in power, even after I learned what they had once done to the downtrodden and the weak. I did vow never to forget where I was from. I vowed to understand more about my history and culture. And ironically, as I grew to believe in myself over the years, I was able to appreciate and seek out allies and even opponents from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and cultures.

This is what the hateful conservative politicians of Arizona are missing: the context. They assume that studying your race and ethnic history, for Chicano students, is exactly how they—the rich and powerful—would be if they studied their race and history. It’s racism by projection, in a way. For a downtrodden group, for a historically disparaged group, studying about who you are helps you to overcome and understand and eventually move beyond the hateful images you have to struggle against. Ethnic studies by and for a group in power, and ethnic studies by and for a relatively powerless group, are two different subjects with different motivations, for those with a reflective mind.

Radically conservative politicians in Arizona exploit the distance between the powerful and the powerless. Forget about getting them to acknowledge what it means. They simply don’t have the goodwill. But at the Tucson Book Festival, I also believed I shouldn’t act similarly with the city of Tucson: what it was in my mind before I arrived and the city I found on the streets were vastly different.

I remember at Harvard how I often saw undergraduates protesting South Africa, spending countless hours organizing protests against dictators in Central America, and so on. Yes, I agreed with them. But I also wondered why these same students didn’t focus on the racism in Cambridge, or why they too often mistreated their own friends in the dorm room next door. In a way, it was safe to focus on a faraway cause, to create the perfect and distant bogeyman, to abstract and so perfect an enemy in the mind, and to ‘act’ but not really to act, to improve this world.

I vowed to practice my politics locally, with my family and friends most of all. I vowed I would always check what I thought I knew in my mind with what I experienced. I wanted to seek out what Aristotle understood as knowledge: the practical work for the good that is grounded in what you see and hear and find out for yourself. Tucson is book country. That I know. At the Tucson Book Festival, we shared that common ground.