Sunday, August 24, 2008

E Pluribus, Unum: A Dictum for Change in Your Change

Take a penny (or nickel, dime, quarter); pick it up. Read the back. Old or new, you’ll find in tiny etching, E Pluribus, Unum. A Latin term that translates to “From Many, One.”

I never noticed it myself until I started college. My late journalism professor told us to get a quarter and flip it to the back. He asked us if we knew what it meant and went on this lecture about our founding fathers and how they choose this as the de facto motto to represent the power of our unified states to make one country.

He added that in modern times this phrase had more relevance than ever. He asked us to write a piece explaining what it meant to us. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m sure it wasn’t worth remembering. At 19 I was already jaded about all the patriotic rah-rah we were fed since elementary school. I knew all about the liberty and justice for all, the purple mountains majesty and that one of the first truths to be self-evident was that all men are created equal. I just never saw any of that in my South Bronx neighborhood.

But my professor had at one time an illustrious journalism career covering, among many world and political issues, the civil rights movement. He really believed that this motto had a new significance, but I still wasn’t seeing it. Born to Puerto Rican parents I was taught that we were American citizens and had been for hundreds of years since the Spanish American war. Yet almost every other interaction I had with a white person went like this:

WP: So where are you from?

Me: New York.

WP: No, where are you FROM?

Me: Uh, the South Bronx?

WP: (frustrated sigh): Where are your parents FROM?

Me: They’re from Puerto Rico.

WP: So you’re Puerto Rican.

Me: But I’ve never been to the Island….

And no matter how I explained we were Americans, it was always interrupted with “You’re Puerto Rican.” So there it was. I was raised to believe I’m American, but constantly reminded that I couldn’t really be. I was other. And so I turned more toward the culture of an island I’ve never been to. And I’ve been richer for it since.

Which brings me back to this motto, E Pluribus Unum. The one that should’ve always been our nation’s motto, but was replaced in the 1950’s by “In God We Trust.”

Admit it or not, our country’s wealth has always been and always will be our diversity. From that diversity comes our ingenuity, diplomacy and cultural richness. And now that we stand in the crux of a rapidly emerging world economy, it’s that diversity that will prove to be the most valuable asset of this nation of many races, backgrounds and beliefs.

As we enter the start of an historic election season, we discovered that people were a lot more comfortable with the prospect of a biracial, bicultural president. So much so that after a long tug of war with our first female frontrunner, it is Barack Obama who emerged as our Democratic candidate.

Still, there are some self-professed liberals who are nervous that someone of color couldn’t possibly represent the self-interests of all Americans. It reminds me of the Spanish saying: Ladron juzga por su condicion. (The thief assumes all think like a thief).

To those people I say it’s your time to put your money where your mouth is. If we Americans of color can vote time and time again for a white guy and hope he’ll remember us when he’s in the Oval Office, then you can surely muster up some trust too.

At a time of tattered diplomatic relations and a domestic landscape torpedoed by elite special interests, I can’t think of a better time to turn to each other, see the power of our diversity and finally put that motto to action. Our businesses and education will be better for it, and so will our country.

Paul, it took me a while but I think I finally get it. Thanks for everything and rest in peace.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Lou Dobbs Crusade: Fear and Loathing of the Lettuce Picker

Dear Mr. Dobbs;

For years I’ve watched the Broken Borders segment of your show and waited to hear something about ALL illegal immigration in the U.S. But no, it’s all Mexico, all the time.

Like the more primitive of your ilk (the Limbaughs, the Drudges, 99 percent of Fox), your whole thesis of immigration-fueled problems in the U.S. boils down to two words: Blame Mexico.

Mr. Dobbs, do you really believe that EVERY serious immigration issue can be solved by closing the U.S.-Mexican border? Seriously?

No one denies the level of illegal immigration from coming from an impoverished country that once owned the territories they sneak into now can bring daunting problems, but to pretend that 1.) The U.S. doesn’t benefit as much or more than the immigrants themselves and that 2.) Some of our ugliest immigration issues have nothing to do with Latin America is rather na├»ve.

In the interest of understanding your thesis, I’ve got questions about some of your favorite Broken Border subjects:

Which ones? The kitchen and dishwashing gigs at your favorite restaurants? The crop picking stints or the domestic labor jobs for chump change they steal as the gather like hyenas in front of Home Depots?

I’ve lived in immigrant-heavy New York, Florida and Los Angeles and never seen one Latino laborer kick the door of a restaurant, hold a farmer or a homeowner hostage and demand to be underpaid to do heavy labor for them. Nope, it’s the bargain-hungry American that comes after them. Perhaps if we learned to love doing our own dishes or housework there will be less opportunities for these parasites to take advantage of the bounty they get from us. But I understand; it’s hard out there for a pimp, right?

To be fair, I remember you mentioned a couple of times how our white-collar jobs were being shipped to India and China. Wish you would’ve stayed on that story, but then you got distracted with lettuce pickers again while the middle class learned to compete with Third World rates in order to keep their jobs.

And in L.A. there are foreigners who sneak into our country for a shot at stardom in Hollywood. Many succeed to become directors, producers and actors. We don’t call them illegal aliens though. We call them Canadian.

Only Mexico’s border? The full picture is that some Al Qaeda terrorists did cross Mexico’s border to carry out the attacks in 9/11. But several also used Canada’s border and ALL secured legal visas into the U.S.

Yes, gangs and smugglers have come from South of the Border. Many other criminals from Latin America take advantage of the porous Mexican border to bring in drugs. But where are the stories about the mobs that run roughshod through the U.S.; the ones that deal in the most heinous of commodities; drugs, guns, and human trafficking? Modern day slavery is thriving around the world, including in the United States. Children and women from Eastern Europe, Asia and West Africa are brought to this country under false pretenses and exploited as forced servants and sex slaves. Every decade a new mob takes over inner cities like the one I grew up in and feast off the steady stream of undereducated young men to serve as minions to their drug cartels, only to die young or waste their lives in prison. What borders are they crossing?

You cannot be called a crusader when you’re only telling the smallest part of the illegal immigration story. Every day a young American falls prey to drugs brought in by mobsters, not Mexicans. So when will you talk about the illegal immigrant criminals from Italian or Albanian mafias that bring in those drugs? When will you talk about the innocent women from Albania or East Asia brought into this country against their will to live in subhuman conditions to serve as prostitutes?

Organized crime is the bloodiest and most destructive enterprise to thrive in American soil, run by illegal immigrants and supported by many Americans in power who seem to look the other way. They cost us billions of dollars and countless lives but no one talks about them. Instead we make movies and hit TV shows about them, give reality shows to anyone with Gotti’s last name and make chart-topping hip hop anthems about their lifestyle.

So Mr. Dobbs, next time you want to talk about the damage illegal immigration does to our pristine way of life, don’t half-ass it. Every time you complain about the Mexican laborer but ignore the dangers from other illegal immigrants, it demeans your cause. Like many talking heads in our media, there’s a nasty habit of getting self-righteous over the easier of our country’s challenges.

Admit it; it’s easier to bitch about the poor brown people coming in to take menial jobs that even our kids find beneath them. It feels like you’re doing something big without really tackling anything at all. Or maybe you’re right; maybe Latin American immigrants deserve your ire. If only they thought more like the mafia; bribed some government officials, rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, hire themselves out to kill people of power. Maybe then they wouldn’t be such a threat.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Broken Hero

He looked like a muscular version of skinny guy from Nacho Libre; long shaggy hair, lanky limbs and spandex everything. A small American flag served as a cape against his shirtless back. His crutches rested to the side as he labored over stretching exercises between countless mini rounds of push-ups. Packets of powdered energy drinks decorated one leg while the other was wrapped in an elastic ankle brace.

Huffing and puffing, stretching then strange gestures with his hands, fixing something only he and a mime would know. People pass by and give that sideways stare, the one reserved for strange people or things you want to know more about but you’re too weirded out to get involved. So instead, they pretend he doesn’t exist.

But he didn’t mind. To him the people didn’t exist either. Besides he was getting ready for a mission. Like Don Quixote, this hero had a windmill to fight. He braced himself and pushed forward with all his might. The concrete behemoth barely shifted as every muscle in his body tensed to make it move.

A kind young man offers help but he politely declines, saying he needed to tackle this one alone. No room for a sidekick on this job. The young man looks down at the concrete trash cube then moves on.

The mission continues. He makes a private joke to no one in particular and laughs out loud. Another shove manages to move the cube only slightly. The bolt that holds it down firmly into the sidewalk proves to be a formidable opponent. But that doesn’t stop him. He pushes on.

I wondered why he was doing this. Don Quixote was fighting for Dulcinea’s love. Was it the stars and stripes? I hoped not. Because I’d seen guys like him before, only it was the seventies and their windmill was called Vietnam. They were all like the Man of la Mancha; brave and determined but wasted and ignored. They had fought for the impossible dream only to be exiled when they returned broken. In our kingdom, there is no mercy for reminders of our follies.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

On Being Here and There

The act of being is complex enough as it is, but not as difficult as the act of being here. By “here” I mean wherever your “here” is; your job, your relationship, your life.

I look around and see examples of that zombie-like stupor, the one where people are physically there, but mentally and emotionally—Poof! Gone.

And it affects “being there” for others. Parents should “be there” for their children. Colleagues and bosses should be there for their departments. Friends and lovers should be there for each other.

How can you “be there” for anyone when you can’t even “be here?” Perhaps the issue is neither here nor there, but back at the point of being.

It seems these days something or someone is always clamoring for a piece of you. That hasn’t changed much, but the access to you has. Cellphones, emails, Instant and text messaging, the ubiquitous Blackberry demanding that you be here right now—All at the same time.

What exactly are we connected to now that we’re plugged in? When do we get to look around, take a breath and take in that moment to just be?

Earlier this year my friend and I decided to unplug from our office’s IM service, returning only after we configured the program’s filter to allow access to colleagues directly related to our responsibilities. Our productivity shot up, making it easier to go home at a decent hour to enjoy our families and reconnect with our neglected pursuits.

Next time you’re out with a friend or family member, try letting your voicemail answer some of your calls and let a couple of texts go straight to your inbox. Have a complete conversation with the person who thought enough of you to be THERE with you. I promise you’ll remember being there a lot more than any of those messages.

Try unplugging from time to time and give yourself some quality time. Who knows, you might even figure out that being there isn’t as great as being here.