In the Sierra Madre...

A close friend of mine, Jeff Biggers, has written a fascinating book, "In the Sierra Madre," published this fall by the University of Illinois Press. The Sierra Madre in Mexico is one of the world's best known mountain ranges; books and movies have been written about it, most famously by B. Traven ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre").

Jeff spent a year on the western side of the Mother Range (the Sierra Madre Occidental) where some 80,000 Raramuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people live in the stark, craggy, and pine-infested canyons known as La Barranca de Cobre (The Copper Canyon). He was there with Carla Paciotto, his long-time girlfriend, and now wife, who was studying bilingual processes with the Mexican educational system and the Raramuri.

This book is a well-written, engaging, and respectful account of that year in Jeff's life. Many explorers, mostly from Europe and the US, including luminaries like Carl Lumholz, Antonin Artaud, and others, have written extensively about their time here for more than 100 years. Jeff's contribution to this literature should stand as a compelling modern-time update.

I first met Jeff through my friend Priscilla Aydelott when he directed the Flagstaff Literary Festival. Priscilla first brought me into the Navajo rez to talk to students, activists, teachers, and spiritual guides in 1996. At first, I spent most of my time in the Monument Valley area and surrounding communities. I've been coming to the rez every year since, including now with my teacher/elder Anthony Lee and his family in Lukachukai.

Then in 1999, after Jeff and Carla had already spent a good period of time among the Raramuri, I went down there to find my indigenous roots. My mother's family is from Chihuahua. Her mother and grandmother were Raramuri women who left the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican revolution and ended up in Chihuahua City. I still have a photo of my great-grandmother in a Raramuri-style long print dress, taken in the 1920s.

I wanted to see if I could find out more or less where my grandmother and great-grandmother had come from. I felt compelled to connect to this part of my history and ancestral waters.

Jeff and Carla were the perfect hosts for my ten days in the Sierra Tarahumara; Erik Bitsui, a Navajo friend of both Jeff and I, also went along. They introduced us to some important Raramuri teachers, musicians, poets, and friends. We walked for hours in the 7,000 to 9,000 foot canyons. I received a hand-made chapareke, an ancient Raramuri stringed instrument, by one of the few masters still playing it. We even slept in one of the caves. Some of these encounters appear in Jeff's book.

The Raramuri, who are normally reticient to strangers (whom they call chabochis) began to embraced me when I told them I was looking for my roots. One woman said, rather sadly, "that's good -- for those Raramuri who have left, hardly anyone ever comes back."

I visited the cave dwellings of many of these people, as well as their log and stone huts near the isolated and sparse corn fields that most live by (without government support, in many cases they are literally starving).

I hope to write about this experience in the future. But for now, you'll get wonderful background material, a kind of cultural travelogue, and literary/historical lessons about the region in Jeff's book.

The most moving story of my trip involved an old couple, hidden far into the canyons. One man began to see a resemblance in my face (darkened by hours in the sun) to a family he thought might be related to my grandmother and great-grandmother.

We drove a long time, in a four-wheel drive vehicle Jeff owned, to this wood-log house. The old man and woman who lived there greeted us in Raramuri. Inside their home, they offered us seats. Through an interpreter (the couple did not speak Spanish), they heard my story about looking for "family." They might have thought I was homeless. Just the same, the old woman looked at me, with a sweet smile, and said, "we'll be his family." Those words brought me to tears.

I recommend anyone in the LA area to visit with Jeff Biggers this Thursday, October 26 at 6:30 PM at Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, the bookstore/cafe/cultural center I helped created in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. For more info go to our website at or call 818-362-7060.

You will be in for a great story of witness and change among the Raramuris.
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The Indigenous is Strong in Mexico

Despite years of genocide (in some cases, 95 percent of indigenous people perished within 50 years of the Spanish conquest), the indigenous values, traditions, tongues, and people are strong and growing stronger in Mexico.

Mexico has more traditional, full-blooded indigenous people than any other country in the Americas. While there are more indigenous people percentage wise in countries like Guatemala and Bolivia, the sheer numbers of reportedly traditional indigenous people in Mexico outnumber the numbers of natives in those countries. In Mexico, it's between 10 to 20 million people. This is about 10 to 20 percent of the 100 million people who populate the country. Yet, I contend that most Mexicans are still indigenous.

While it's true that mestizaje occurred in the more then 500 years since Cortez first entered Mexico, this has largely occurred in the major cities. Most Mexicans still have the brown faces, eyes, and hair of their indigenous ancestors.

Here's an interesting statistic -- reportedly there were 60 percent full-blooded indigenous people at the start of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain (1810-1821). Many Spanish stopped coming in large numbers after that. But by the 1910 Mexican Revolution, there were 40 percent indigenous people -- even with no more major Spanish populations to draw from. Today it's estimated to be 10 percent indigenous people.

The fact of the matter is, most mestizaje happened between native peoples from various tribes. It was more about the process of becoming Mexicanos, not so much mestizos.

Yes, it's true that there are many people of all races in Mexico -- whites not only from Spain but from Ireland, Germany, France, and the US. There were also Arabs, particularly after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, as well as Filipinos and Malaysians who came in the tens of thousands (especially when Spain controlled those areas). Japanese and Chinese also emigrated here. And there were apparently more African slaves brought into Mexico than there were Spanish settlers (around 300,000 to 150,000 at the height of their numbers).

I understand there has been a long history of mixing of races and cultures.

But none of this obliterated or even involved the majority of indigenous people. The de-Indianization of Mexico is mostly due to the removal of people from their lands, their traditions, and languages (which can be called mexicanization). Still, today there are some 240 languages and their variants spoken in Mexico.

The indigenous is still strong -- and deep -- whether one claims to be native or not.

When I was in Mexico from October 7 to 12 for Mexico City's Sixth Book Fair (Feria del Libro) this was most evident in the people in the main plaza or zocalo. Native people shared their wares on most corners, some in native dress. Many Mexicans have been learning the Mexika (Aztec) dances, held every day and evening in the zocalo since 1978.

I was also there when 10,000 mostly indigenous people from Oaxaca (Mixtecos, Zapotecas, and other tribes) marched into the capital in protest of voter fraud and extreme repression from the PAN-PRI united government in this southern state -- one of the most indigenous in all of Mexico.

I was also able to visit the Templo Mayor, discovered in 1978 during the burrowing for the Metro subway system. This and other ruins have been found beneath parts of the central city. The Spanish conquerors had destroyed almost all remnants of the Mexika/Aztec culture, even using stone bricks from their temples to build the Cathedral and other buildings. Many colonial homes and structures were built on top of the old Mexika temples and other structures.

Now many of these ruins are being excavated.

Just a week or two before I arrived, Mexican archaelogists discovered one of the largest Mexika monoliths ever, next to the Templo Mayor. Found on October 2, the rectagular monolith measures 13 feet on its largest side (the renowned circular Mexika Calendar monolith, found in 1790, has a diameter of 12 feet).

The Secretary of Culture of the Federal District of Mexico City, Raquel Sosa, invited me and other Feria del Libro participants, to a special tour of the Templo Mayor, with talks from the main Templo engineer and the director of the Templo Mayor museum. We were able to actually stand on the temple floor, something tourists and other guest don't get to do (there is a catwalk that goes around the temple floor where they can view the remaining walls and artifacts).

They also took us to the excavation area of the most recently discovered monolith, although we couldn't see it since it was covered as protection from the humidity, rain, and debris as they continued to carefully remove it from its resting place.

It was an extreme honor for me to witness this.

The indigenous is important for me because of my own indigenous roots from Mexico.

I also have strong ties to Mexika/Mayan and other indigenous groups in the US, as well, of course, with Native Americans. Every year for around ten years, my wife Trini and I (often with my two youngest boys, my daughter, granddaughter, and members of our sweat lodge circle in the San Fernando Valley ) go to the Navajo Reservation near the Chuskas mountains in a small rez town called Lukachukai. Our family was adopted by Medicine man and elder Anthony Lee and his family. We go for ceremonies and to visit our adopted brothers and sisters as well as Anthony and his wife, Delores. We made this visit again this past September.

This has become a renewing source for me, there with the Navajos, who call themselves the Dine. But, as Anthony has always told us, this was not meant to make "Navajos" out of us. It has, however, helped us get closer to our own indigenous roots and traditions from Mexico. We are all related, as the Lakota say. Especially since migrations between North American natives, Mexican natives, and South American natives had been going on for tens of thousands of years.

Borders came along (most through conquests) and have divided us. We go into Navajoland as people without borders, who recognize our ancestral roots and ties, and still find a spiritual connection to these ancient people and ancient lands.

So for me, Mexico is going back to the motherland. Being born in the US and having US citizenship doesn't change that. It doesn't mean divided allegences -- that's the fears of the narrow minded and unimaginative. I have ties to these lands, both in the US and Mexico, as long as anyone's. That doesn't make me better than anyone else. Nor does this give me any special privileges. It does mean that I belong here. I'm no stranger. No "foreigner." No "illegal." I'm home.
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Death of an Indigenous Elder

Don Luis Martinez was a local mechanic in the Chicago barrio of Pilsen for many years. A hard-working man with long ties in the community and in Mexico, he was also more than that -- he was en elder in the Mexikayotl native traditions of Mexico. Around ten years ago, he gave me my Mexika/Nahuatl name, Xikome Tochtli, in a beautiful ceremony in my back yard -- with my family and the Blazquez family (all four of whom also received their names that day) and a few friends.

Today, after a painful bout with cancer, Don Luis Martinez (also known as Macuilxochitl) passed on to the ancestors. I received the email with this news from Frank Blazquez (Tekpaltzin) about an hour ago.

I will also cherish his work, his teachings, and the gift he bestowed on me. Xikome Tochtli means Seven Rabbit (Siete Conejo). It comes from a reading of the Mexika Sun Stone Calendario (the so-called Aztec Sun Stone), which is very accurate and still used today in parts of the US and Mexico.

This year also happens to be the year of Xikome Tochtli (also spelled as Chicome Tochtli) in the Mexika calendar.

I'm honored to have integrated myself to my ancestral roots -- I'm Mexika/Raramuri -- and to have had such teachers and fellow sojourners on my own spiritual path.

This has helped me stay sober, continue to be a decent father and husband, and to give back to my community with Tia Chucha's Bookstore, Cafe & Cultural Center, which has workshops in all the arts, including Aztec Dance, a bookstore, cafe, cyber cafe, and performance space. My wife Trini and I also belong to a Sweat Lodge circle in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, and we go to ceremonies every year on the Navajo Rez. And these ways have helped me with my talks, readings, and workshops around the US, Latin America, Europe (and, in November, Asia) that I've done for around 25 years.

Thank you, Don Luis -- may your spirit find its eternal peace and resting place. My prayers go with you on your journey.

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Response to my blog post

I received this email as a response to my blog post "Chicano to Chilango." I will post some of these responses from time to time so people can see the level and extent of dialogue we're having -- most of it is good. But dialogue is dialogue, good or bad. I'm glad there are responses.

Dear Luis,

just read your blog, and I find it surprising that you still rather live here where you are so, oh, oppressed. Maybe you should move to the mexico you love so much. As you know, they love pochos over there.

I guarantee you one day English will be the official language here, just as Spanish is in Mexico--not nahuatl, otomi or any other indian shit. Spanish.

My friend,

I'm sorry you feel that way. I actually live here for many good reasons, but also because it's best to fight oppression where it stems from -- still I don't let it stop me from achieving any of my goals (I'm a renowned writer, a home owner, a business owner -- things I achieved through my own efforts).

As for Mexico, they don't treat me as a pocho. I still speak good Spanish and I know the people and the land. I also have family ties there. No borders, remember?

And I speak a few words in indigenous tongues.

You apparently are limited to English, with no knowledge of Spanish or native idioms. Being that I'm Mexika/Raramuri, being that I'm native, I wouldn't dare call these beautiful languages anything bad. Why close off to the richness of this world?

You apparently love the European tongues more. Hey I can speak English and Spanish, both languages of conquerors and colonialists. So what. I can do that and more.

If the US makes English the official language, fine. It's a wrong decision (this country has done many wrong things). I will continue to stand for what's right (it's also done many right things -- I can tell the difference).

And I don't have to forget what I really am. I can traverse many worlds. You apparently are stuck in one.

Too bad.

You also don't give your name. What are you afraid of? My given name is Luis Rodriguez. My indigenous name is Xikome Tochtli.

I will stand by my words.

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Chicano to Chilango

For a few days last week, I was a Chilango. This is the term used to designate residents of Mexico City. As a Chicano (a Mexican in the United States), I've been removed from my real and mythical root/source of Mexico most of my life (hampered by imposed/supposed borders). However, when I return to Mexico City, the layers of Mexicanness I've had all these years -- including speaking Spanish and even Nahuatl at times -- surfaces again, and I'm home.

I realize that Chicanos continue to embody these layers -- we start with our indigenous roots, with Aztlan and Anahuac, drawing on the genetic memory in our bones. We also take in the long struggle of Mexicans to create a nation, a people, a country, constantly throwing off conquerors, oppressors, thieves, and exploiters (a struggle that continues til this day).

Even though I lived in the US since the age of two, I'm very close and knowledgeable of all these struggles. As a child, my parents inculcated me with Mexican Spanish and stories of our Raramuri (Tarahumara) indigenous roots -- even as the US schools tried to beat the Spanish out of me (they never did) and tried to obliterate our history and our heritage.

I visited Mexico at age 11 as a "pocho" (a bleached out Mexican), a term used to denigrate those Mexicans who ended up in the United States (regardless of the reason). But I struggled to hang on to my Mexicanismo despite the repression and other pressures to turn away from this in the United States.

As an adult, starting in my late 20s, I revisited Mexico to take part in indigenous uprisings in Oaxaca and campesino takeover of lands and Mixteco native struggles against slavery in Baja California. In the late 1990s, I also made it back to my Raramuri roots in Southern Chihuahua, in the Sierra Tarahumara, even sleeping in caves, along with the more than 80,000 traditional Raramuri natives that my mother's family is descended from.

I also carry the layers of living the highly oppressive environment in the United States -- of being in the "belly of the beast," as the saying goes, in dealing with a material-based, immediate-gratification, consumer-oriented, capitalist economic and social realities we have to endure in the most powerful, richest country in the world.

Even now as the US moves toward Empire (the beginning of the end for the "America" as we know it, as has happened to all empires), I continue to draw from the intense struggles for freedom, equality, cooperation that working class people, African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans (and other people) have tirelessly waged in this country.

I carry it all. And I feel connected to both Mexico and the United States in those aspirations, dreams, and battles of los de abajo -- the people at "the bottom."
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Mexico City -- A City of Layers, Meanings, Struggles

I landed in Mexico City from Chicago on Saturday, October 7, only the third time I had ever done so in my much-traveled life, even with family members residing here, including a half-brother I only got to know about ten years ago (he was one of the children my father left behind when he came to the United States in 1956 to stay).

I came as an invited participant to the Sixth Annual Mexico City Book Fair (Feria del Libro), held in the central Zocalo of the city, a contested space with Aztec dancers, tourists, indigenous vendors, Lopez-Orador supporters, Zapatista activists, and striking teachers from Oaxaca (not to mention the break-dancers and other street "shows").

From October 6 until October 15, several tents housing books, music, chairs, and speaker systems will have filled up the Zocalo (the main plaza of this massive city). This is apparently the only public book fair in all of Mexico.

Organized by the city's Secretary of Culture, the book fair is also paying homage to two key cities: Los Angeles and Havana. In the Los Angeles pavilion, Tia Chucha's Bookstore & Cafe has been recreated (after we shipped tons of books). Silverio Pelayo, one of our fantastic hired help, will be here until the end of the book fair to hold down the display and sale of books.

I have been on several panels and readings so far (with a couple more today, October 10). The first one was on Saturday to honor an amazing poetry collection by Natalio Hernandez (published by Conaculta), entitled "Hummingbird of Harmony" (its title, like the rest of the book, is translated into English, Spanish, and Nahuatl, the principal language of indigenous people in the country).

I talked about the importance of taking in all our roots, in particular the fundamental one that unites all Mexicans: the indigenous. And that in LA, many Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Central Americans are reclaiming their traditions, their tongues, and stories. I also got to read a poem in all three tongues. Here's a short sample of the work:

In Tonati

In tonati:
xochitl tlen moyolitia
cueponi queman tlanesi;
cochi ipan toyolo


El Sol

El Sol:
flor que nace
dentro de nosotros
abre sus petalos
al amanecer;
duerme en nuestro corazon
al anochecher


The Sun

The Sun:
A flower that is born
within us,
it opens its petals
at sunrise;
it sleeps in our heart
at nightfall

Also present were the indigenous writer Mardonio Carballo and Mexican theater actor Luisa Huertas, who read many of the poems in all three languages.

I'm staying at the historical Magestic Hotel bordering the Zocalo (I stayed here during one of my earlier visits). It's a colonial structure with amazing tile work. Now owned by Best Western, it has not lost any Mexicanness. On the 7th floor is a terrace (where the restaurant is located) that overlooks the whole plaza.

Many of the invited participants include some of Cuba's most well known writers, important for opening up a dialogue that is blocked at various levels by the United States government.

From Los Angeles, a "motley" crew of artists, writers, and photographers have arrived, including my good friend, Tom Hayden, and a number of well-known Chicanos (some of whom are not from LA), including Harry Gamboa, Lucha Corpi, Ruben Martinez, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and Luis Valdez.

A wonderful intra-lingual and multi-voiced performance by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Ruben Martinez ended the evening for me, held at the historical Museum of Mexico City. I'll comment more on the Feria del Libro and other things "Chilango" in future blog posts.
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Never Giving Up -- the James Lilly Story

James Lilly is a world-class wheelchair racer. He has participated in marathons and other races all over the country. He once won the grueling 245-miles or so wheel-chair race in Alaska (the world's most difficult).

Now around 35 years old, James has been in a wheelchair for some 20 years. As a Mexican youth in the streets of the Little Village barrio in Chicago, he gravitated towards gangs and drugs. Kicked out of his home and homeless, he eventually found himself in the middle of a gang-related shoot out. One of his best friends was killed that day; James became paralyzed from the waist down.

I met James through the Japanese American film maker, Izumi Tanaka. More than a year ago, Izumi came to Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural to talk to me about James and the film she was doing on his life. I was very interested. Soon I met James after he came to a talk I did on gang peace at Northwestern University's Law School in Chicago last year.

His spirit was strong, and his presence compelling. Today, he has a family with two young boys. He speaks at schools, conferences, and juvenile facilities.

Earlier this year, Izumi and James came to speak and show a short version of Izumi's film (still in production as I write this) at Tia Chucha's. I also gave them the Luis Rodriguez special tour of South Central and East LA (tours I've done for friends from Italy, Brazil, England, and other places). I showed James and Izumi some of my old stomping grounds in Watts, in Boyle Heights, South San Gabriel, and the City Terrace hills (and to a spot where you can see most of East LA and the downtown skyline).

Last week, James returned the favor. After a wonderful dinner with his wife and boys, James gave me a tour of the Little Village neighborhoods where he lived, participated in gang life, and in Pilsen (another Chicago barrio) where he was shot.

I also visited the outdoors memorial at St. Agnes Church on 27th Street and Central Park where some 90 names have been emblazoned -- names of young people under 25 years who have been killed in these streets since the year 2000.

James survived, but he did more than that. He never gave up on life, on having a wonderful family, and on impacting his community with his talks and with his amazing performances in world-class wheelchair races.

I'm honored to count James as one of my close friends.
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Chicago -- A City I'll Always Love

I come to Chicago frequently -- using my visits to my old hometown to see my son Ramiro in an Illinois prison facility, two of my grandchildren when I can, and many friends, comrades, and fellow poets and activists.

I lived in Chicago for 15 years, in Humboldt Park, Wicker Park, and Logan Square. Chicago was the birtplace of Tia Chucha Press, which has grown into a bookstore, cafe, performance space, art gallery, and workshop center in LA. It's also where I helped found the Guild Complex, one of the Midwest's leading literary and art institutions, and Youth Struggling for Survival, a youth-adult mentoring/community building organization that is still very active (as a result I have ties and years of work in Pilsen, Little Village, Uptown, Rogers Park, Aurora, and other communities in and around the city). In this capacity, I also helped create the Humboldt Park Teen Reach program in collaboration with BUILD and other youth intervention and prevention organizations.

From October 1-7, I did talks at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, Chicago State University (including to students from Hubbard High School), and an all day training at the Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove (that involved many youth workers, teachers, counselors, probation officers, and police).

I also had a wonderful visit with Ramiro, who's now at one of the Pontiac prison facilities (an hour and a half outside of Chicago). He's seems healthy, strong, and determined to do well after finishing ten years of his 28 year prison sentence (he can get out in half the time, 14 years, which is his goal).

One important visit was with YSS members and leaders, including Frank Blazquez, his wife Lou, and their children Tanee and Frankie. I was also glad to see YSS members Chris Dino, Chek-it, Mathilda, Alma, and others. Alma is now running the Urban Roots program for the Social Justice School of the new Little Village High School on 31st and Kostner in the Little Village barrio of Chicago (the largest Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, a thriving, active, and vibrant place despite its relative poverty and long-standing gang culture).

The Little Village High School was created two years ago at a cost of $68 million, apparently the costliest school in Chicago history. It resulted from a 19-day hunger strike that Alma and many parents, youth, and leaders carried out in demand of a new school, a new educational process, and real social change.

The school is a marvel to witness. Most of the students are Mexican, although a significant number are African American (about 20 percent). It is divided into four distinct schools. Each school area is divided by a park-like area with small earthen pyramids as homage to the Mexican Aztec and Mayan structures. They have two gyms, a swimming pool (I understand this is the only one in the Chicago school system), dance studios, a full theater, art & technological centers, a growing library, and more. Alma, who has been doing Aztec dance for years, is also conducting the danza classes at the school. There is also an amazing structure in the middle of the school that is built like an old indigenous sun dial, with 19 seconds of every day held in silence in commemoration of the 19 day hunger strike.

I was honored to be given a tour of the school and to know that YSS and some of the leaders I helped mentor were at the heart of the struggle to build the school, and to help sustain its innovative and visionary structure and educational process. It's an example of self-determination, self-realization, and true community responsibility to better the environment -- as unjust and inadequate as it can be -- for everyone in that community. We can all learn from this vital struggle, particularly as a concrete correction to the current sterile school environments that are choking the spirit and educational capacity of teachers and students in many of our schools today.
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My Response to Emails Against my Opinion Piece on "English Only"

The following includes email responses to an opinion piece I wrote this month on English Only and the movement to declare English as the National language. It was sent out to various newspapers around the country by the Progressive Media Project (a version of it appeared in the September issue of The Progressive magazine). Newspapers that published the piece include the Dayton Daily News (Ohio), the Monterey Herald (California), the Providence Journal (Rhode Island), the Winona Daily News (Minnesota), among others. My previous blog post featured one of the articles. Following each email, I give my own response.

May I ask you what nationality you are and have you always lived in the United States? I read your article in today's Winona Daily News and I find it very objectionable. I am a citizen, 75 years old, born and raised in America. Now am I to learn 329 languages as you state in your article that are spoken in the United States so I can communicate with them? I read an article by an immigrant (and I don't recall her name, but it was in the Parade magazine that comes in the Sunday papers) that people coming to the US should learn English because if you are in trouble, whether it be medical, law or whatever, if you cannot speak the language how can we help you? Now does not that make sense? I am not against immigration only illegal immigration. My church has sponsored immigrants and the last ones from Bosnia I saw to it that they got to English classes every day so that they could communicate with people, get a job, etc. School districts have to hire extra teachers to teach English because parents refuse to speak English in their homes. This has put a strain on hundreds if not thousands of school districts to tackle this problem. What about health facilities, hospitals? Are they to hire people to speak every language so they can help people? You have to get real and use some common sense which it seems many people do not have any more. There is nothing wrong with speaking your native tongue but English should be also used in the home, etc. I am of Norwegian descent but they learned and had their children learn and use English as the common language. They had the right attitude.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. You wanted to know my nationality. I was born and raised in the United States. I speak perfect English and Spanish (I also know a little bit of Nahuatl, Raramuri, and Navajo). However, it appears you read the wrong article. For example, I did not say that everyone should learn 329 languages. I said that everyone should learn English. It is our common language. It links us. It has much merit even on its own terms. Most immigrants I know, regardless of the country they came from, agree with that. I even cited a survey of Latinos that showed the majority also believe they should learn English. As far as I know, there is no organized movement to change English as our common, unifying language. My problem is with the real, large and growing movement to make English a “national” language, which is linked to having English Only legislation in more than a dozen states. Having English as a common language and having English Only are two different things.

You said there is nothing wrong with “speaking your native tongue, but English should also be used in the home.” Fine. But English Only is the opposite of this – it implies there IS something wrong with speaking another tongue. My point is that we should all speak English (I’ve spent my life learning and writing English as a poet, journalist, fiction writer, and speaker). But, if anyone wants to speak his or her native tongue why not? People all over the world do this. This is not an attitude problem – people are quite adaptable, be they Norwegian or Guatemalan. Most people are willing to learn English. But we should not impose by law, by practice or prejudice any suppression of other languages or cultures. That’s my point. It’s what this country is supposed to be about – not English Only. I have seen how English Only laws actually suppress other languages. These are facts, and I can cite tons of stories of how this works. That’s what I’m against. And that’s common sense.

You couldn't be more wrong in your assertion that the US shouldn't be concerned about the infiltration of the Spanish language into our culture. You make the case for English only in your own article. You state "Some say the United States is the third-largest Spanish speaking country in the world" This is precisely the point. We are NOT a Spanish language country, we are English speaking. Our country was founded by people who spoke English and were of English descent. Our Constitution doesn't come in two languages, it's ENGLISH only! Anyone who comes here legally is welcome. However once here, you must assimilate into the English-speaking culture of the United States. We are a country of immigrants, LEGAL ones that once here might speak their native tongue at home but outside the home learned English and adapted to the U.S. culture. It doesn't work the other way around. I also don't recall Italian, German and other immigrants demanding their language be used in our schools, their language be used on commercial packaging etc. Illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico have invaded our country and now demand we adapt to them. This is wrong and if it continues it will eventually cause the complete destruction of the greatest country in the world. I personally will continue to support and work for English only legislation.

Luis J, Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my opinion piece that appeared in your local newspaper. However, I never said people should not use English (please re-read my article). I said English is our common, unifying language. Everyone should learn it. And while this is true, we are also the third largest Spanish-speaking country and have 329 languages, including 150 native languages, in our midst. Why can’t these two realities live side-by-side? It’s not either/or. I value English (I was born and raised in this country). But I also value Spanish (which my parents used as I grew up). I even know a few Native words. This is all good.

For your information, the first bilingual education schools were for German immigrants – they also suffered, as did other non-English speaking people, from attacks by those who wanted to impose English on them. This is wrong. We who are in this country are more than willing to adapt. But don’t devalue or suppress our other tongues and cultures. We are all “America.” Much of what is “American” culture comes from Natives, Africans, Germans, Irish, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Mexicans. We are adapting to a culture that has adapted from other peoples. That’s fine. I’m against laws that want to impose English and a mono-culture.

I also have to say, we are not all a nation of immigrants. I have Raramuri native blood (from my mother’s side), and Nahua, Spanish, and African blood on my father’s side. Native people’s were already here for tens of thousand of years; Africans were brought here as slaves. In fact, what the Mexican “invasion” is about is mostly native peoples on migrant treks they’ve been on for centuries upon centuries. Even Spanish is a foreign tongue to us (although I speak it well). There are 240 natives languages and their variants in Mexico. Many Mexicans coming across are indigenous people like Mixtecos, Yaquis, Huicholes, and Mayans (there are an estimated 2 million Mayans from Mexico and Central America in the US, almost as much as Native Americans). So the word “immigrant” doesn’t quite convey the reality of this situation.

Still, we are free to be united and to be together in this country, and to have a common language, interests, and aims. We don’t need laws to do that. Let’s keep it that way.

I just read your article "’English Only’ Campaigns Aren't Aimed at Bringing Unity, but Imposing Supremacy." As you say "HOGWASH". Who are you trying to kid? If immigrants want to come to the U.S. so bad, they should be willing to read and write our language, not the other way around. Why should OUR teachers have to learn their language since that would never happen if we immigrated to their country. Americans are paying out BILLIONS for their health care, etc, while our American poor are left behind. I also noticed your name was Rodriguez, so naturally, you obviously feel it is ok if they do not learn our language. It should become a necessity if they plan to stay here. If they do not want to learn our language to be able to speak or write, let them go back to the Country that they came from and then they can speak any language they want. Thank you for letting me vent my feelings and I am sure the feeling of MANY, MANY Americans.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for responding to my article in your local newspaper. However, you must have read the wrong article. I stated that everyone should learn to read and write English. I have spent my life making English my practice as a writer of ten books, including poetry, children’s literature, novels, short stories, nonfiction, and more. What I did say, however, is that we should also speak Spanish, Lakota, Filipino, Chinese, or whatever... if that’s one's interest. These other languages should not be suppressed. “English Only” means just that – that only English should be used.

I think everyone is already using English to speak to each other, and are more than willing to learn English if they don’t. We don’t need Congress to make laws for this – or any states to impose “English Only.” I have seen how this tends to devalue and suppress other languages and cultures (I cited one example in my article; I can give you hundreds more). When I first went to school, speaking only Spanish, I was swatted and otherwise punished. While this may no longer be the case in most schools, English Only schools today force people to speak English, or else (instead of helping them learn and accept English as part of their new life, without having to give up any other language to obtain it).

And if you have issues with billions of dollars for health care for the undocumented, maybe you can focus on the insurance companies, the health industry, and their cronies in the government who have made health care so costly for most people. Immigrants aren’t responsible for that. Health care for people without documents makes sense since any unwanted illnesses and diseases they get hurts all of us. If you’re concerned about the poor, fight for all the poor – with or without papers. The reason most people migrate to this country is that they are poor people to begin with. Taking up the interests of the poor, across borders, regardless of nationality, would help ALL the poor.

I read an article by Luis J. Rodriguez in the 1 Sep edition of the Dayton Daily News. Mr. Rodriquez states that what unites us as a country is not the language that we speak but the ideals we hold dear and that ‘English Only’ campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages. Later, he clearly contradicts himself by saying that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today’s America and that we all might as well face up to it. If having a single common language is not necessary to unite us as a country, then why is it a necessity for me to speak Spanish as well as English? In fact, this statement by Mr. Rodriquez is precisely the reason for ‘English Only’ campaigns. He does not make a similar statement about Japanese, Chinese, German and all the other languages that are quite commonly spoken in many areas throughout the United States. In fact, Mr. Rodriquez’s position is the one that would appear to suppress all other languages, except Spanish, elevating it to the same level of usage as English. Could he envision this as merely an interim goal? I agree that people should be allowed to learn and speak socially in whatever language they prefer and the more languages a person is able to learn and speak, the better off they will be. However, for a society to administratively function in a reasonable manner, as a minimum the United States clearly needs a single common language for conducting its essential business activities, including all aspects of our Federal, State and Local governments, our court systems, our insurance and health care systems, our financial institutions, licensing bureaus, contracting, energy, utilities, etc. That language has always been English. If the use of Spanish is allowed to achieve a legally preferable or acceptable status (equal right) in conducting these activities, they will become confusing, overlapping, more time consuming, perhaps dangerous and in some cases inoperable. This is in addition to the added expense of developing documents and performing tasks in duplication. This would certainly suppress rather than elevate all the other languages. Even without such legal status, it appears the current ability of many people to speak only Spanish when conducting or involved in such activities is already having this undesirable and expensive impact. Surely, this creates wedges of misunderstanding between us rather than uniting us. Perhaps the time to revisit the choice of English as the single common uniting language of the United States is when the majority of United States citizens speak Spanish socially as their first language and it makes sense to change the official language from English to Spanish, and the way things are heading, that may not be too far off. Still, the Chinese segment of our population is also growing rapidly, so who knows who may be in the majority in the future.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate your effort to convey your thoughts. However, I have to clarify a few points. English IS our unifying language. It’s the common language we all must know and share. However, this is not what this country is about – it’s peripheral to the real value of being here. What unites us, all of us, people of all races, colors, religions, and creeds, is the promise that everyone will be taken into account, that people can express themselves freely (with all the responsibilities this entails), and that access to whatever is needed to live full and complete lives will be available (and not subject to poverty, race, or immigrant status). It’s that promise that brings so many to these shores. We should celebrate this. This is not something we should horde, or only allow for a select few. However, for many places in this country, this promise is being betrayed. English Only is one of those detrimental things that we should move away from – in the more than two dozen states that have English Only laws, languages, cultures, and “otherness” tend to be suppressed. That’s wrong. English Only means just that – only English.

We should have a common language – English is it. But we should also be able to speak any other language if we so choose. I’m not saying that anyone should learn any other language—I did not say that Spanish at this time should be given equal status to English. Yet it would be helpful and quite smart (many Americans are already doing this) to learn Spanish, but it should not be made law or mandatory. In fact some Americans are learning Mandarin as well. There’s even a charter school in a predominantly Mexican LA community that teaches English, Spanish, Nahuatl (linked to the Aztecs), and Mandarin. Nothing wrong with that. That’s my point. Everyone should learn English. And if you want, pick up a Chinese dialect. Why not? But that’s a choice. English is fine, but why do we need laws to suppress other tongues?

First of all, your article refers to "the hysteria over Spanish-speaking people in the U.S." This is a ridiculous way to start the article. Due to the nature of my profession I encounter many people from all over the country on a daily basis and have not met a single person has a problem with anyone speaking their native language. That is not the reason for the idea of designating English as our country's official language. It is a problem when English-speaking children are falling behind in their education because schools must cater to demands that everything be presented in many native languages as well as English. Why should a non-English speaking citizen be permitted to take to take a written driving test in a language other English? Aren't most street and traffic signs using English? If I immigrated to France I would expect to learn French and learn it fast. The same goes for any country I visit. If there is a language barrier I know it is due to the fact that I did not properly prepare for my trip. No one I have come across seems to object to native languages being spoken, but a working knowledge of English should be a requirement for citizenship to this country. Therefore you comment the "English Only" campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages..." is inaccurate. And your view that "if we end up with an official language, we may have to reconsider names like Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota..." is inane and has nothing to do with the issue. You state that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today's America. Well, that precisely the reason we need an official language (and that does not mean that additional languages cannot be used in the private sector as I see that as a business decision). Will your opinion change years down the road when we have welcomed more Indian immigrants to this country? Or how would you feel if you lived in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood and your grandchildren had to kill time while public grade school teachers provided much needed language to non-English-speaking students? Finally, your mention of the incident at the airport book stand was ridiculous. A population should not be judged on this observation. This to me was just another example of inflammatory and inaccurate statements in your piece.'s funny to imagine if my great grandparents and the surrounding community of other German immigrants decided they needn't learn English. What an interesting part of Ohio it would be. But you know what? They and their children did learn English. And spoke their dialect of German at social occasions. And the community to this day still has a unique German-American atmosphere is intensely proud of their Germanic heritage.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. First, I have to point out that the hysteria is real; it’s not just my opinion. There are people punishing other people for speaking Spanish, yelling at them, and even passing laws that outlaw this (that’s what English Only laws do). There are now cities forcing landlords to get rid of long-time residents (mostly hard-working and law-abiding) to leave if they don’t have proper immigration documents, and where English is imposed in all public offices. There are people protesting schools with signs saying “Learn English or get the hell out!” (By the way, many of those signs were misspelled, like the one that called non-English people “morans” instead of morons.)

For years before bilingual education and civil rights laws that allowed for an acceptance of other languages, people were swatted or otherwise punished for not speaking English, including many native languages that came from this land. I know – when I first went to school in LA speaking only Spanish that’s what happened to me. Non-English speaking kids fell behind in their education because of this – in fact, bilingual education (and dual-language classes) have proven to help non-English speaking students with English and all other subjects. I can cite facts to prove this (it’s not true that having schools present things in other languages hurts their education).

I also said that English is our common language and everyone should learn it. I even cited a recent survey of Latino immigrants that showed the majority were more than willing to learn English. There is no organized or active movement against English in this country. What I’m against is the movement for English Only that suppresses other languages. And if you immigrated to France, you’d have to learn French, of course, but also English (and maybe another language or two). Most people in Europe speak more than one language, in particular English (I go to Europe and other countries on a regular basis, and this is generally the case). We happen to be one country, supposedly highly developed, where speaking more than one language is a growing problem. People in Mexico, Japan, and other countries have English courses as part of any major educational program.

And to address another of your points: I’ve lived in predominantly Chinese language schools in the East San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles (with the largest number of Asian people in the United States) and it never was a problem being among them. They were learning English and speaking Chinese. I knew English and also spoke Spanish. It seemed to work fine. Once the imposition of one language over others happens, however, that’s when the problems arise.

As for the anecdote at the airport, I didn’t make this up. It’s not a judgment against anyone but narrow-minded bigots. This should be brought out and seen for what it is. It’s not against “white” people or others who are not bigots (most “whites” I know aren’t). That statement is not ridiculous or inaccurate – that incident actually happened and it’s indicative of what we have to struggle against.

Finally, what you said about the German population in your part of Ohio is fine. I’m fighting for the same thing for Mexicans, Natives, and other peoples. Yes, learn English (it’s already happening – I’ve lived in immigrant communities for 52 years, believe me). But we should also maintain aspects of our cultures, languages, expressions, and aspirations if we want to. In time, these aspects have shaped and re-shaped what this country is about – which is not a monolith, nor should it be. We can have the common things, particularly our ideals and interests, and still have our differences. We can unite on the essential things, and be free to do what we want around the non-essential things. That’s my point (by the way, if English Only means what it says, Minnesota, Chicago, and other place names like Los Angeles would have to change—English Only laws only allow English in publicly- funded institutions. Again, that’s my point: Keep English as our common and mutually shared language AND stop any efforts to make English the only allowable language in our schools, courts, and government bodies).
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Opinion piece on English Only

The following opinion piece appeared in various publications around the country through the Progressive Media Project, including the Providence Journal, Monterey Herald, Dayton Daily News, the Winona Daily News,among others. I've included the one that was posted by the Providence Journal. My next post will include some of the emails I received, and my responses to these.

Luis J. Rodriguez: Celebrate U.S. Spanish-speaking
Friday, September 1, 2006

THE HYSTERIA over Spanish-speaking people in the United States must stop. Already more than two dozen states have variants of "English-Only" laws. In one such state, North Carolina, I visited a classroom where a teacher had to sneak Spanish words onto a chalkboard so that her mostly Spanish-speaking students could learn. A student served as lookout to make sure no administrator happened by.

What's going on here?

Okay, I'll try to be generous. Some fear that today's immigrants don't want to learn English, or that American culture will be watered down and eventually destroyed, or that other tongues and cultures will break up what unites us as a nation.

Hogwash. (Not the Queen's English, I'm afraid.)

First of all, where are the hordes opposing English to warrant any of this?

From living in predominantly Spanish-speaking communities all my life, I can testify that most immigrants want to learn English.

My own family arrived from Mexico in the mid-1950s. In a generation, English became the dominant idiom, which is generally true for most Mexicans and other non-English-speaking people in this country. Latino immigrants are more likely to insist on English than native-born Latinos, according to surveys by the Pew Hispanic Center. And close to 60 percent of Latinos questioned say immigrants should learn English to stay in this country. Learning English is apparently not the problem.

Nor is diluting the culture -- unless, by culture, people exclude all the contributions made by people who didn't learn English as their first language. America is made up of many tongues, many heritages, many voices. The organic coming together of cultures and languages is what America is all about, and we don't need laws to do this, thank you very much.

We enjoy rock 'n' roll, martial arts, cowboys and chewing gum, all with roots outside Anglo culture (e.g., African, Asian, Spanish and American Indian, respectively). Hey, if we end up with an official language, we may have to reconsider place names like Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, California, Florida or San Diego. All of these have Indian or Spanish-language origins.

And if unity is the issue, well, what unites us as a country is not the language that we speak but the ideals that we hold dear: democracy, civil liberties, separation of powers, the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

The "English-Only" campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages -- particularly Spanish -- and impose the supremacy of English on our tongues.

I, for one, love the English language. I've spent years trying to master it. But I'm also for having Spanish, Japanese, Hmong, Navajo and Nahuatl (still spoken by millions of people in Mexico and Central America) wherever these may apply. The U.S. Census estimates there are 329 languages spoken here, 154 of which are indigenous. Other reports claim the United States is currently the third-largest Spanish-speaking country.

That is not something to be ashamed of or worried about. It's something to celebrate. The ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today's America. We all might as well face up to that.

Plus, isn't it better to know more than one language? Many other countries put us to shame in this regard.

"English-Only" laws hark back to a time when Spanish-speaking or Indian-speaking children in the Southwest were forbidden to use words other than English (even if they knew no other words). As a result, they were forbidden to speak in this country that reveres free speech.

A friend of mine once told me how she was looking at one of my books while standing near an airport bookstand. Two American males nearby perused the name on the book, whereupon one of them remarked, "That's the problem with bilingual education. They learn a little English and now they want to write books."

Yes, and you know what? I didn't have to lose my Spanish to do so.

Luis J. Rodriguez has written 10 books of poetry, children's literature, fiction, nonfiction and memoir. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project.
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