Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has become a de-facto US holiday, more so than in many parts of Mexico. Except, of course, Puebla. It was May 5, 1862 when the defenders of Puebla, led by a young Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragoza, including with Native peasants armed with machetes and bows & arrows, defeated a larger and better-equipped French army. At the time, the French had the world’s mightiest military force. They came across the vast Atlantic Ocean with England and Spain to recuperate millions of dollars in loans owed by a Mexican government that had fought in the US invasion of 1946-48 and a bloody civil war between Conservative and Liberal forces (the Conservatives, in fact, obtained most of these loans to fight the Liberals, although they eventually lost). President Benito Juarez negotiated terms with England and Spain, which left Mexico and returned back to Europe. But Napoleon III, Emperor of France, had other plans. He refused the negotiated agreements and began the invasion of Mexico. The French had not lost a battle in fifty years until the Battle of Puebla. The invasion continued, however, with the French sending battleships and tens of thousands of more soldiers. They eventually captured Mexico City and in 1864 installed an Austrian Duke as Mexico’s first Emperor, Maximilian, beholden to Napoleon III. But Mexican forces united and battled the French, lead by Zapotec native—and Mexican President—Benito Juarez. Along with US pressure after its Civil War, the French finally left Mexico by 1867. One significant outcome was the removal of French aid to the Confederate Army due to the Mexicans keeping the French under fire during their short regime. Napolean III had imperial plans tied to his Mexican invasion. Thwarted, the US was able to continue its war to preserve the union, remove slavery from its shores, and eventually defeat the rebel nation. So, in my view, it’s good that the US celebrates Cinco de Mayo. It’s a shame though that we still face anti-Mexican (which is really anti-Native) sentiment in places like Arizona with its just signed SB 1070. This bill obligates local police to act as federal agents in stopping Mexican-looking people to see if they are authorized to be in this country. Those under scrutiny include Central Americans and other Native-looking Latinos, since most racists don’t know the difference. Believe me, this is not meant for Europeans, Canadians, and non-Native looking peoples. This profiling has already been going on for a long time, particularly in Maricopa County where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has targeted thousands of people he deems as “illegal.” All statements to the contrary are hollow with the long history of profiling Mexicans and Central Americans for stops, arrests, and deportations. Am I wrong? Just look at the counter-protests last week, far fewer in number than the protestors against SB 1070. The counter protestors were mostly white. Some had signs that read: “Boycott Mexico,” “Remember the Alamo,” and more. The governor says racial profiling will not be tolerated—then why hasn’t she spoken out against Sheriff Arpaio and those counter protestors? We are not fooled. We must overturn this law. We must bring dignity to the debate. We must not let this become a racially divisive issue. I must also write about a wonderful visit I had last week in Kansas City. In the 1990s when I lived in Chicago, I often flew or drove into Kansas City to speak, read poetry, conduct workshops. I took part in annual “Culture Under Fire” weeks. I worked among the homeless, restless youth, Native American communities, and, of course, the barrio. I visited schools, colleges, universities, bars, cafes, libraries, and more. I once read at the world famous Grand Emporium, where the best bands in the US and other parts of the world once played. Unfortunately, it’s now closed. This time the Latino Writers Collective invited me. The Collective is housed at the famous Writers Place. Linda Rodriguez, a founder (and I’m proud to say, a Tia Chucha Press author), arranged for my visit, which included a community gathering at the Guadalupe Cultural Center and a reading/talk at the main Plaza Library. The first night I took part in a dinner on my behalf and witnessed a spontaneous poetry/fiction reading at the Writers Place. I also managed a couple of media interviews, including with Angela Elam of New Letters on the Air and “Hispanic News.” A few of my old friends from my previous visits came around, although it’s been ten years since I last came to Kansa City. I also met many new friends and supporters. Most interesting was meeting students from the Alta Vista Academy, a barrio charter school that has a 90 percent graduation rate in an area with longstanding drop out rates of around 70 percent. It turns out this school was created after I met with community leaders and teachers to address the drop out issue. This was twenty years ago. Apparently I had a hand in the founding of this amazing school. I was so proud to meet students, teachers, and administration from Alta Vista. I’ve spoken in so many places, hundreds of communities, addressing similar issues, and it’s hard for me to remember all my talks—or what may be the end results. The development of Alta Vista Academy is one example of how seeds get planted, and one may not know the full outcome of throwing such seeds out into the world. Of course, the real founders/heroes are the ones who created the school, kept it going, and the students who have chosen to succeed against great odds. One of the young people at that meeting twenty years ago was an 18-year-old troubled youth named Chato Villalobos. Mentors and teachers helped save Chato from a life of gangs and drugs. After he heard me speak, he became active in forming Alta Vista. Moreover, he joined the police force, one of the few of Mexican descent. Over the years Mr. Villalobos has helped transform the police department to be more open and respectful in the Mexican community. And he has helped many young people turn their lives around by his own interventions and mentoring. He’s a true model of what a community-based police officer should be like—his family still lives in the barrio and he’s vested in ensuring the safety and betterment of his community. It was great to return to Kansas City, to interact with poets and storytellers in the Latino Writers Collective, but also to meet active leaders in the libraries, schools, police department, and community. My talk with the students was most valuable to me. Given the resources, with people like Chato and the Latino Writer Collective, these youth can tap into their great capacities to make wonderful, important, and healthy choices. c/s


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