Cesar Chavez Celebrations
Yesterday our school took part in a many-school ceremony honoring Chavez. We started by gathering in a chalk outlined circle in the quad, a way we have begun many similar events: harvest festival, Tet festival, Cinco de Mayo, POY's Principal of the Year Award. The circle is divided in two, the word "rights," chalked into one half, "responsibilities" into the other. POY talks a little about Chavez, highlighting the cross-cultural nature of his work, the emphasis the man put on the power of education, his call for unity. Then he calls up a few students who walked out of school on Monday as part of the protests against pending immigration legislation. He uses their story to illustrate the importance of both parts of the circle around which we all stand, drawing a contrast to some of the high school students who draped themselves in the Mexican flag and went out posing in traffic. Paraphrasing, "Here are students who walked out for something they believed in, who went to protest for the rights of immigrants, but here also are two students who are back in school, working hard, fulfilling their responsibilities. They understand that you cannot fight for your rights without also living up to your responsibilities."
We then line up in endless rows of five, a rejection of Sal Si Puedes, shouting "We Will Make It Better!" We spread out across the street, monochromatic in the black and white, and to the accompaniment of a less than confidently beating drum, we march down to the elementary school and line the route five other schools will take, marching past us with their UFW and Si Se Puede signs. It was one of those times as a teacher when you sort of stand and look around and wonder, how did I get myself involved in something like this? I used to throw rocks at my 8th grade science teacher, how am I standing here with all these kids, shouting "We Will Make It Better!"
That was the highlight, and it really should have ended there. It didn't of course, and the following many hours of standing while various people our kids did not know and could not hear spoke about issues that probably did not matter. The program was well-intentioned, and many parts of it were excellent, but the whole thing was too long and too slowly moving. It also started late, and we were less than halfway through the scheduled program 2.5 hours after originally leaving our classrooms. The kids were getting restless and it was literally exhausting running crowd control on them.
Here's the thing. This community, the one I teach in, it's not Sal Si Puede anymore. Yes, there are families who move north and south-east, looking for something better, and there are those that stay because they can't, but the depth of despair and awfulness in that name does not reflect the reality of low-income home ownership and the economic revival (and gentrification) that is occurring. At the same time, the community is not Si Se Puede either. It's not. This is not a criticism of the myriad of community activists and empowerment organizations, but rather a commentary on how revolutions and social movements wind down after the highly visible victories have been won. Honoring Cesar Chavez is worthy and noble, but in this community, a place that could be ground zero for reform, it ought to be more than a history lesson. What's next? Define la causa for me. What are we fighting for? Health care? Living wage? Resistance to the gentrification (housing, commercial) that has exploded in the last 15 months?
There is passion here, and some measure of social awareness, and it seems like we should be able to harness that in service of a goal more vibrant than the pursuit of middle-class admittance.