THIS MARCH, I’ll be presenting at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s Transforming Race Conference. This article provides the backstory for why I began the Unapologetic Mexican blog as well as prefaces my talk at the conference.
[An Introduction to my Presentation at Kirwan Institute]
I am Joaquín. When I was eight years old, I changed my name to Jack. I didn’t intend it as a political statement, of course. I just wanted to fit in with everyone else.
With everyone else in the suburbs of Maryland, that is. That’s where my second family lived at the time the court proceedings were finalized for my legal adoption. My father, a politically-minded poet in his late 20s by then, was gone. Gone to the West Coast; gone to the South. Gone to the jungles of Chiapas, machete and pen in hand. He was meeting with ancestors and kin; photographing and writing about the Mayan Indians.
And gone from our lives. He and my mother (she’d say) had been Too Young to work things out. No doubt that was true. My mother was a Jewish girl from New York, and my father a Chicano vato from El Paso. They met on the campus of UCLA in the summer of 1968. I’d not begin to understand until much later the size of the cultural gulf that surely stood between them, as well.
At eight, I imagined I’d become anew. Cast away those things attached to my old life. It was a new time, a new life. I had a new name. And I could be a new self. I’d learn one day that changing who you are is not as simple as changing your name. But for the moment, I thought with these changes to birth certificate and social security card and school attendance sheet, I might finally fit in.
The feeling that I didn’t fit in had grown in me for a few reasons. One was my name. A name that on the East Coast in 1978, was an anomaly. A name that defies the rules of the English alphabet, and so, one that many people will mispronounce. My teachers were some of them. It was a name my peers would either fail to remember, or would in many cases ridicule. In class after class of Brians and Joshuas; of Lauras and Jennifers; of Matts and Tonyas, you learn something from being the one with the weird name. You begin to infer. You understand that you are apart from the others in more than just one way. With every souvenir license plate keychain in every gift shop that ignores your name; with every approach of roll call from a new teacher and every introduction to a new person bringing dread to your belly, you are reminded you are Other.
By itself, who knows how much it would matter to have a name rare among your peers. And if it were a difference not attached to the many others that would not vanish from my eyeline over time, I imagine not much. Were this the only example of how I tried to conform to the dominant culture’s desire to eradicate my culture and history—and self—it would hardly matter. Here, it serves well as a symbol. And isn’t that what a name is for?
A name can tell us who we are. It can tell us where we come from, who came before us, and our place in today’s society. It can even offer glimpses into the future. A name will not always contain so many secrets, but mine did. And it had been left for me to discover this. I didn’t know it then—when I rejected it in favor of the plainest, shortest, easiest-to-pronounce and least-Spanish name I could think of—but it was as if I had been left a pendant with a treasure map to my own history and legacy inscribed upon it. I would some day grow to be very grateful to reach into my dusty pocket and find that map.
My father chose the name Joaquín from a poem written shortly before my birth; a poem important to the Mexican American community. The dramatic narrative foretold a confusion I was already experiencing as a boy, and portended a strength I’d need later.
I look at myself
And see part of me
Who rejects my father and my mother
And dissolves into the melting pot
To disappear in shame.
The name my father gave me tied me to my culture in the strongest possible way—by both naming me after Corky Gonzales’ quintessential Chicano as well as describing a path I was already walking. Come the day I turned to re-read the book my father gave me as a teen, I’d find my own past; my own troubled reflection, there in its passages. And I’d understand a bit more of those things that hence had only flitted about on the periphery of my vision.
Maybe I tried to vanish into the American Dream. Repurpose my outline. Maybe I wanted to become just like you; just like him; just like the boy in the poster, the one on the screen, the hero. I wanted to be the Fair one, the Right one, the Good one…the white one. I did not want to be the Mexican one. The one whom the world around me insisted was, instead, the Dark one, the Little one, the Bad one. The Criminal. The Servant. The Thief.
Culture is powerful. Media is powerful. For much of my life, the relationship was one-way. The current of news, opinion, metaphor, imagery, and storytelling was aimed at me. There was simply no way to wield that mechanism. The thick tongue of the dominant culture sang its songs into my mind and I sang along.
I thought that without a Spanish accent, divested of a Spanish name, and with lighter skin than my father, I could walk away from both my blood and what the world seemed to think of my blood. I was wrong. This cannot be done. You are who you are. Your family is your family. Your blood remains your blood. And whether you call it corazón or something else, your heart remains your own heart.
But I was right to understand that there were and are strong currents in place. Undertow that buoys a few, drowns many, and directs the rest into a preferenced route. We call the flow of information, evaluation, entertainment, iconography, story, and slant that is our collective conversation and counsel “the mainstream.” And depending on your relationship to it, you may be able to swim to your desired destination without much struggle. Or you may find yourself grasping for purchase and gasping for air.
At 18, I took my name back, and perhaps that was the first concrete step toward making my own path; toward standing strong against the tide that batters us daily. I’ve not looked back since then.
Because as the hate crimes perpetrated against Latinos rose higher and higher; as the Right Wing created a culture of fear against the US’ Southern border and all below; as conservative pundits repeatedly reinforced revulsion of the Spanish language and those who speak it or are otherwise touched by it; as the mainstream culture’s historically derisive lens on Mexico and Mexicanos became more intense and hostile in many places, preaching hatred to a virulent degree, I knew I had to grab a hold of that firehose of energy, and help filter and redirect the flow of news, opinion, metaphor, imagery, and storytelling. The world was being made more dangerous for my people, and for me.
This is the terrain from which grows all the content and action launched from my blog The Unapologetic Mexican today. These are the issues that can be found informing the articles I write, the videos I make, the art I produce. The themes of values in culture, symbolism in media, messaging in news copy or slant; racism; human rights; identity; ethnicity; language, power; history; community; self. The day I began my blog was hardly a first step to empowerment and self-awareness. It was an important one, though, making possible many subsequent steps.
When I present at the Transforming Race Conference in March, I will speak about these themes and in what way I’ve been able to engage them, to make change; about the four years I have been keeping this blog, and all the ways in which it aided me in reclaiming a feeling of pride, and a greater understanding of how I can support and inform and empower the communities to which I belong.
New Media is nothing by itself; it is a hammer without the dream of the carpenter; a garden hose on a hot, arid, dusty day. All alone, New Media is but form awaiting function. But given you can access it to a reasonable degree, you can stop being a passive imbiber of the media and all its messaging. You don’t have to shout at the screen, you can speak your reply or alternate view from the screen, too. You need not rest at bemoaning the media’s slant because you have a greater ability to replace it. And you can add your strength to a purpose enjoined by many, and together, affect our common society.
This new format we call “blog” is not like a pad of paper; not like a radio station, not like a community bulletin board, not like a classroom, nor a movie theater, nor a newspaper, nor a meeting room. It is all these things and more.
My father said “in my day it was mimeographs and in yours it is la bloga.” He was speaking of the activism begun in El Chicano Movimiento, the era from which the poem Yo Soy Joaquín sprung forth. It is no longer 1967, it is now 2010. The shape of la lucha transforms, but the struggle remains at hand:
Like a sleeping giant it slowly
Rears its head
To the sound of
Fiery tequila explosions
The smell of chile verde and
Soft brown eyes of expectation for a
And in all the fertile farmlands,
the barren plains,
the mountain villages,
we start to MOVE.
Or whatever I call myself,
I look the same
I feel the same
Sing the same.
I am the masses of my people and
I refuse to be absorbed.
In the four years I’ve written my blog, I’ve educated myself and others. I’ve enjoined the national conversation, and been invited on panels of web influencers, and into progressive fellowships. I’ve found friends with the same interests, and together we’ve organized sites and groups to work together on issues that concern our communities. I’ve written and co-written pieces that have made it into print. I’ve had my blog used in college courses, and my videos in high school classes by teachers who found my writing online. I’ve had librarians request copies. I’ve launched a weekly web show that is sponsored and that exists to support and empower and inform the Latino/a community. I’ve been employed as a columnist on immigration, and flown to various states to speak on these issues, and to accept awards for groups I’ve helped found. And all this, in place of fuming in the living room, hiding behind a phony name, or otherwise letting the fickle currents of the day sweep you wherever they may.
We are the new media. We are the new voice resounding with the old truths. We are the culture changing. And throughout all these changes, we are still right here and moving forward.
Also posted at the Race Talk blog; written at the request of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s Media Relations Manager to help promote the Kirwan Institute’s Transforming Race Conference, at which I’ll be presenting in March.
Note: I wrote this as a prelude to the presentation. Not a mirror of it. This part of the story is very much about identity, about my personal journey…and that’s part of the story of this blog, and relevant to an Institute on the Study of Ethnicity. But I don’t want my presentation, itself, to be so much about the empowerment of one person. I don’t think that’s such an important or original story to tell. Or enough people are telling it already, we could say. Of course it’s an important story to me! We all want to thrive, we all want to better ourselves and our situations. But my presentation Unexpected Pathways to Empowerment will be focused more on how New Media can enable our community–any community–to become more empowered, and how many of us can tap into that and help it to happen. To me, today, that’s an important distinction to make. And connecting people to work for causes that aren’t part of the individualist recipe for success (and thus benefit a greater amount of people) is more important (especially these days) than any one person becoming well-read or well-known.
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