In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
My family moved from Mexico to a very poor, predominantly Black and Mexican neighborhood in South Central LA, and the first time my siblings and I walked up the street, we got beaten up. Then there were railroad tracks we had to be sure not to cross, because whites lived on the other side, and if you crossed the tracks, they would beat you up. No matter where you went, someone was waiting to hurt you, to make sure you understood your place and how the world worked. In such an environment, you learned quickly that the world was full of limitations. You didn’t cross the tracks. You didn’t cross certain streets. You didn’t take certain classes. Teachers constantly told you to shut up, told you you’d never amount to anything. They told you not to speak Spanish. . . .
My family was always dislocated, never fit in. No matter how many barriers we crossed, there were always more in front of us. Even when we later moved to the San Gabriel Valley, the schools there had a tracking system. (It’s illegal, but it still exists.) If you were Mexican and from my barrio, the Lomas, you were put in what they called the “dumb classes.” If you tried to break out of that track, they found ways to keep you in your place. I tried to take classes in art, photography, and literature, but the counselor told me those classes were all full. It was always the same: “I think you’ll find our industrial-arts classes more suited to your needs.” We were to work with our hands. They were preparing us to be factory workers.
“Urban Renewal,” Luis Rodríguez, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, April 2000
When we were kids in the late 1950s, my brother and I used to ask our mother, “What are we?”
She would always answer with schoolteacher-like certainty, “You’re half Black and half Puerto Rican.”
Our father was Jamaican. Our neighbors were mostly African Americans who had recently migrated to New York City from the South. We were bused to a school where most of the students were Jewish. So I can see why we wanted to know where we fit in.
In the sixties I aligned myself with the Black-power movement, and I announced to my mother that Puerto Rico was a country and Black was a race, so she was mixing apples and oranges. Also my mother’s family was from the sugar plantations in Puerto Rico and obviously of African descent — not “Spanish,” as my mother called herself. My definitions were part of a new sensibility that she didn’t completely understand or even care about.
As I grew older, I earned degrees, traveled to many countries, and married three times. My third husband was white and a Southerner. Today I teach in a university graduate program. In this modern world we’re constantly asked to identify ourselves — on census reports, job and mortgage applications, car-loan forms. I ask my students to do something that I’m still learning to do myself: not to be in such a hurry to check a particular box.
“Boxes” (Readers Write), Terry Jenoure, January 2012
In organizing the pro-immigration marches in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Latino immigrants asked the city’s Polish and German communities, whose ancestors had been new immigrants a hundred years ago, to look back on their own history and question just how and when they’d become “Americans.” They, too, had once been persecuted and discriminated against and given only low-paying jobs. I think it’s important for people to reflect on how they happened to come to this country. We don’t all just end up here and automatically get granted rights and privileges. Where do those privileges come from? The idea of legal status is deceptive, because what’s legal has always been shaped by politics. The Constitution originally counted Blacks as three-fifths of a person. What kind of legal status was that?
“Land of the Free?” Tram Nguyen, interviewed by Diane Lefer, July 2007
Both sides of my family can be maddeningly offhand about genealogical detail. My mother’s maiden name is Guerra, which means “war” in Spanish, and it’s received wisdom on her side of the family that a little Spanish blood mingles in our veins with the African. But when I would ask if “Spanish” meant from Spain, or Venezuela . . . or Cuba, or the Dominican Republic, or any of a half dozen other Spanish-speaking countries in the region, I would get a shrug, a patient look (as though I were dim but trying hard), and a “You know, Spanish.”
“Archipelagoes,” Rochelle Smith, July 2009
The United States was fueling the civil war [in Nicaragua] by arming the Contra rebels against the left-wing Sandinista government. I wasn’t sure how I felt about what was going on. President Reagan was calling the Contras “freedom fighters” and the Sandinistas “communists.” I was very anticommunist. I come from a small-town Republican family and grew up thinking that we are the good guys and the communists are the bad guys. The Vietnam War had caused me to question that, but I had faith that Vietnam was just an aberration.
When I went down to Nicaragua with a group of my customers and saw what the Contras were up to, I was heartbroken. I met a woman whose nine-year-old son had been killed when his school had been hit with a U.S.-made rocket, and another whose daughter had been kidnapped by the Contras to work as a slave. On the way home, I was switching planes in Miami, Florida, and I saw headlines about people wanting Ollie North to run for president. This was during the Iran-Contra scandal, and North, a marine lieutenant colonel and Reagan-administration official, was accused of selling arms illegally to Iranians and using the proceeds to help fund the Contras. I just couldn’t believe it. I sat down and started crying. I wasn’t crying for the Nicaraguans. I was crying for the United States. I was crying for the loss of the country I’d loved. I realized then that the U.S. government was in Central America for the same reason we’d been in Southeast Asia: to protect corporate access to cheap labor and natural resources. We say we’re spreading democracy and freedom, but it’s just the opposite.
“Table for Six Billion, Please,” Judy Wicks, interviewed by David Kupfer, August 2008
I ’m constantly depressed by the Mexican gang members I meet in East LA who essentially live their lives inside five or six blocks. They are caught in some tiny little ghetto of the mind that limits them to these five blocks, because, they say, “I’m Mexican. I live here.” And I say, “What do you mean you live here — five blocks? Your granny, your abuelita, walked two thousand miles to get here. She violated borders, moved from one language to another, moved from a sixteenth-century village to a twenty-first-century city, and you live within five blocks? You don’t know Mexico, man. You have trivialized Mexico. You are a fool about Mexico if you think that Mexico is five blocks. That is not Mexico; that is some crude Americanism you have absorbed.”
“Crossing Borders,” Richard Rodriguez, interviewed by Scott London, August 1997
In 1940, I was born in a hut in the Puerto Rican countryside. . . .
My destiny in life was decided for me: I would be a sugarcane cutter like my father and grandfather. But I refused to spend the rest of my life under the grueling tropical sun cutting sugarcane for two dollars a day. Education was the only way out, I knew, but the local school taught only a scant hundred words of English — a language I knew I’d need.
My father’s sister lived in New York City, and, at age twelve, I convinced my parents to let me go live with her and continue my education. “You can’t survive in the white man’s world,” I was told, but I went anyway.
My aunt’s world was limited to work and church; it was not the New York I had imagined. So, when I was fifteen, I got a part-time job and rented a furnished room. I was free but soon fell into gang life. The Red Dragons became my family, and they were openly scornful of education.
To escape the gang, I moved to Pennsylvania, where I got a job ironing women’s stockings at a West Reading sweatshop: no union; eat lunch while you work. I worked there three years, until I joined the Navy. In 1964 I got my high-school diploma, and Sara, my wife, gave birth to our son, Ronnell. Two years later, I was sent to Vietnam. In 1967, my tour of duty completed, I returned to work at the sweatshop.
Then minorities began demanding equal opportunities in the workplace. Though I had nothing to do with the protests, I became the first Hispanic at Bell Laboratories in Reading. My salary, however, was only half of what I made at the sweatshop, so I kept that job, too.
“If you want to go any higher,” my lab supervisor said, “I suggest you go to college at night.”
How? There are only twenty-four hours in a day. That made eight at the lab, four at the sweatshop, four at school, four for family, and four for sleep.
It took me six years to get an associate’s degree, but I got my promotion.
“The Impossible” (Readers Write), Radames Morales, February 1996
The American Dream belongs to the people who are crossing the border as we speak. I don’t see a lot of people who were born here who still honor the dream. There’s so much unhappiness along with all the comforts. The inner wilderness, where we live in anguish because our connections are broken, comes in many forms. For many Americans, maybe it’s the isolation chamber of privilege, the emptiness we try to fill by buying things. . . .
For years I hated being in the U.S. This was the wolf’s mouth, the country I had fought against for my entire youth. Yet I’ve ended up falling in love with an American woman, having American children, becoming an American.
It would be easy for me to hate this place, but also very useless. Who cares? The entire world hates this place. I’m tired of hating [George W.] Bush. I have realized there’s no point in simply acting in opposition to others. I have to live my own desires instead of just opposing theirs. This is what we all have to do: find our own style of living and working and making love, and do it, I hope, with some beauty and grace.
“The Blessing Is Next to the Wound,” Hector Aristizábal, interviewed by Diane Lefer, October 2005