Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review of Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives

by Paloma Martinez-Cruz

Verónica Reyes. Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives. Pasadena, CA: Arktoi Books, 2013. 111 pages. ISBN 978-0-9890361-0-8. $18.95

chopperchopper coverI left my hometown of Los Angeles to attend college in the Bay Area, and then I left California altogether to attend graduate school in New York City. Many denizens of the San Francisco Bay and the five boroughs of New York City have no love for my birth town, so when people asked me where I was from, I felt shy about admitting I was from the place known as “72 suburbs in search of a city.”  One day a fellow student shared with me what he loved about it: “You can feel how it’s red and brown.” After he said this, I realized that he was right, and that so many of the quips about L.A. being anti-intellectual and superficial were, in truth, about the other L.A., the tinsel L.A. that eclipses our red and brown realities, until violence erupts in the streets, or Chicana feminist jota poets like Verónica Reyes sound the thunder of our lives in verse.

The poems in Chopper! Chopper!, Reyes’ first published collection, envision East L.A. as the continuity of Mexican experience, participating fully in an Americas-based spirituality that venerates the natural world.  As with physical sacred gatherings, the volume begins with a blessing.  The poem “Desert Rain: blessing the land” [sic] surveys the desert cityscape with devotion.

The agua took her back to her childhood in México

rain that blessed her alma como copal shrouding her skin

She inhaled the desert aroma over concrete, nopales,

and limones beneath splintered street telephone wires

Socorro breathed in once and inhaled México in East L.A.

While I am exhilarated by the red and brown affirmation of Mesoamerica in Los Angeles, some of the portraits of Chicana ethnicity in this volume echo others. From my perspective as a Latin American/Latina Studies scholar, I question what seems like a nostalgia that conflates spirit, nature, and nation. Although some of the poetic turns tended toward predictability, there is also much to recommend in this volume.  Reyes is at her best when she navigates the difficulty of voicing bicultural, transnational experience by moving in for the hyper close-up, telling us what she alone is capable of observing.  In “Theoretical Discourse over ‘Sopa’ (what does it really mean?),” she playfully employs academic jargon to try to make sense of a word that has multiple meanings.

All our lives we called it “sopa”

Differentiated “sopa” from fideo

            to estrellas or melones

labels for different pastas

titles to establish subjectivity

within the hegemonic world of pasta.

The poem concludes with the narrator and her sister agreeing to use the word sopa the same way that their mother had used it – to refer to Mexican rice – thereby legitimizing local, intimate knowledge over official language usage.

As in the postmodern approach to “sopa,” Reyes’ poetry consistently repositions authority so that cholos, jotas and bus patrons are key culture makers.  In “Super Queer,” the queer Chicana becomes a supernatural champion, managing to survive homophobia, bashing and “what you thought no human being can withstand.”  Where others are tempted to perceive marginalization or victimization, Reyes tells of pride and strength, urging the listener to “take off those silly straight lenses that skew your vision.”  In “El Bus,” the narrator is proud to announce, “I speak in bus routes,” which, as Angelenos and visitors to the city are aware, is a dialect spoken almost exclusively by the poorest of the poor.  In Reyes’ poem, the speaker claims “You got it, esa or ese, I know the system/It’s in my blood to travel the calles via el bus” as if to boast of royal lineage.  Reyes’ poems invert the parameters of social inclusion, so that queer and street folk decide who belongs, and misguided wearers of “silly straight lenses” and novice bus riders become the outlanders in need of charitable assistance.

Vehicles of surveillance and pesticide application populate Reyes’ poetic universe, producing a bellicose environment in which East L.A. residents are surrounded by drone-like aerial hostility.  “Green Helicopters” describes the apple-orchard helicopter that sprays toxins on the migrant workers, and “Chopper! Chopper!” depicts the play of young neighborhood children who turn the menacing sounds and lights of police helicopters into fantastic games.

The cops announced to the convict, “We know where you are.  We know…”

And Xochitl ran out of breath chasing the big white light piercing the darkness

She stopped and stared up at the helicopter slicing the chapopote sky for a moment

It was almost as if it were stuck like the mammoths, the saber-toothed tiger, the Chumash

woman whose bones remained deep underground until the archaeologist came

The people screamed and wailed to be set free from the tar that pulled them down

that swallowed them little by little as they struggled to get out from the bottom

Still the thick goo engulfed them hole suffocating their skin, filling their mouths

Xochitl’s brown eyes stared at the chopper swirling in East L.A.’s summer sky

But the helicopter broke free, pulled back its white light and flew away to the hill

Here, the child Xochitl plays under a tar firmament where the craft hovers like a relic from California’s Pleistocene epoch, witnessing centuries of ancestors struggle against asphyxiation across the sky: just another summer night in East L.A.

While most of Chopper! Chopper! must remain unexamined here, there can be no doubt that Reyes achieves what she sets out to do. In her poem “A Xicana Theorist,” her queer protagonist moves through a lesbian, Latina social space, and yet she poses the question, “Are we really safe?” The final verse reveals the highest potential that theoretical work can aspire to achieve.

She dances with the woman from the bar

She holds her gently around the waist

She leans her body closely into hers

She wants to cry and tell her she is hurt

…tell her she is tired of fighting

…tell her she feels alone and scared

She wants to heal her wounds

These last lines of “A Xicana Theorist” leave room for interpreting whether the wounds she wishes to heal belong to her or to her dance partner, and this blurring of bodily boundaries and subjects allows the reader to interpret a more expansive notion of selfhood that includes all the Latinas who are wearied by building their lives in spaces that are racially negative and sexually oppressive. The desire that is repeated in these last lines does not hone in on sexual appetite, which would make sense given the erotically charged environment of the bar, but rather emphasizes the act of telling. The telling is the medicine the poetic voice craves in order to heal wounds.

In the tar and asphalt prism of East L.A., Reyes’ poems unearth and celebrate centuries of red and brown truths. While some of the writing resorts to idealizing Mexico as a font of political and spiritual alignment, the collection convinces readers to rethink urban spaces and witness the cunning and courage that develop under a dome of both hyper vigilance and civil neglect.  In the midst of roaring engines, slicing blades and hostile surveillance lights, her courageous act of telling manages to cultivate a space of safety and healing: a place for pride to grow.

Paloma Martinez-Cruz, PhD, works in the areas of contemporary hemispheric cultural production, women of color feminism, performance and alternative epistemologies. She is the author of Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica: From East L.A. to Anahuac (University of Arizona Press, 2011) and the translator of Ponciá Vicencio, the debut novel by Afro-Brazilian author Conceição Evaristo, about a young Afro-Brazilian woman’s journey from the land of her enslaved ancestors to the multiple dislocations produced by urban life. Martinez-Cruz is also the editor of Rebeldes: A Proyecto Latina Anthology, a collection of stories and art from 26 Latina women from the Midwest and beyond. Currently Martinez-Cruz is at work on a book publication examining the resistance fronts found in Chicano/a popular culture. [5/1/14 post updated to correct an editorial error]

In Honor of Earth Day: Composting at a Workplace

compost photoby Erika Gisela Abad

On one of those rare sunny mornings in Portland, my roommate and I take advantage of the sun, sitting out on the deck and talking about the food we can grow. Growing locally requires a lot of work, preparing the soil, finding the seeds, gauging what seeds and what resources to use because of what it means for our food and the insects that help produce it. The food she and I eat varies and as we replant vegetables and cuttings that can regrow we review where our scraps go and what we can do. At my local food pantry, we have a similar conversation, but we focus on the foods they, Latina immigrant women, bring from their homes, the ways they try to grow it and how to feed the poor. We’re all making ends meet, but making ends meet is also about eating and breathing better. Where we get our seeds and where we get the nutrients we need to grow them is critical in that conversation. At both the Hispanic community’s fundraisers and at home, we’ve established compost systems to improve how we feed our food and how we express gratitude for what the earth provides. It’s about reflecting on what we do with excess, whether that be the plant stuff that can be replanted to produce more food, or the food scraps that we allow to decompose in our yards to revive the soil. I learned about these issues in my grandmother’s kitchen, in the kitchen of many working class women and women of color who had to answer this question: how do we feed ourselves with minimal resources and who can/will share their abundance so that we could make our own?

Living and working in a city like Portland, that collects compost more frequently than trash, I thought composting would open up the conversation about how we each gardened or could begin to garden at home. I began composting at work, initially because I wanted a guaranteed source of used coffee grounds. Coffee grounds are useful for a number of reasons, but I wanted to see what it would take to compost in a work place not otherwise expected to compost. Below, I explain the steps I took and what I used to establish a relatively effective compost system at work.

Materials Needed

  • At least 2 Containers with lids (I started with old coffee canisters but growing practice required five-gallon buckets)
  • Grocery cart
  • List of compostable materials
  • Reminder signs

First, I started by asking the manager if I could set up a small compost station in our break room. On getting permission, I reviewed the places in the break room I could place the canister. While I place my compost bin in the garage which lies off the kitchen, there was minimal room under the sink in the office’s break room.  Given where the coffee was located and what minimal shelf space there was, I placed the canister in the corner behind the coffee pot as that corner was also next to the recycling area.  Putting the canister near the recycling kept all ‘green’ trash in the same place; placing it near the coffee pot would assure minimal mess in transferring used coffee grounds from the pot to the canister.

Once I had a system, I sent a mass email to coworkers. In the email, I explained that the office allowed me to start composting to minimize trash and I answered the following questions: what was the philosophy behind composting? why was it beneficial for our office community? The exercise, for me, was not just about getting free materials for my garden’s compost; it was also about learning how to talk about socially relevant issues in a way that was accessible. In the email, I also explained I would take full responsibility for it. I chose to take full responsibility because I was controlling where the compost was going and, in the first year, I privileged just being able to collect whatever food scraps, used coffee grounds and used napkins I could. Politically, I knew I was asking a lot from my coworkers given each individual’s personal boundaries with ‘dirt,’ mess, and the possibilities of a lingering smell. In asking them to consider adding another practice to their disposal of waste, I wanted to minimize their role in an effort to focus on beginning a cultural shift around what needed disposal and what could be recycled.

The shift required more than an email. A supervisor suggested I post a sign above the trash can as well as next to the compost container/recycling station so to encourage as well as remind other coworkers that we had a compost station. Within a few months, the old coffee canisters I used to collect materials were getting filled every other day. Signage and conversations with coworkers improved and increased participation. Even though we had multiple canisters filling up, it was difficult to navigate given the increased participation. With growing participation, there grew a need to invest in or find larger containers.

As composting was becoming commonplace at work, I had to ask myself what culture of composting I wanted to promote. I was reluctant to buy anything because, from what I had learned, central to the composting philosophy was making trash into treasure. In other words, redefining the possibilities of what could be re-used. While I was still perusing Craigslist and Freecycle for a container a coworker volunteered to buy me one. I appreciated the gesture, as it indirectly distributed the responsibility of composting but, funny enough, as I was walking to the bus the following day with the new one in my hand, I found a three-foot stack of empty five-gallon buckets down the street. I took three buckets and three lids. More buckets lent themselves to easier transport and transfer. Since then, I switch the buckets every few weeks. As we collected more compost, I made a point to integrate used paper towels and brown paper bags to absorb whatever smell would have been produced. The carbon contribution paper provided also contributed to balancing the carbon-nitrogen ratio. While the buckets secured shut, I was wary of what opening them would inspire in well-intended volunteer composters.

Respecting Your Office Mates

Remember, composting is a volunteer effort. We each have our learning curves as well as diverse understandings of what can decompose at the rate we want, based on how we intend to use the compost. If you notice more meat and cheese and oil than your home system can tolerate, send coworkers a reminder email of what the compost’s boundaries are. Be considerate of workplace boundaries and maintain a break room’s culture as a space of comfort/leisure. As can be expected, compost can be messy. We all expect clean break spaces in our office and it was important that I respect that considering I was asking a lot of people by introducing a new practice. The transition to greater support required I pay closer attention to the mess created. I wiped down the bin as well as the surrounding area whenever I saw it getting messy. I equally had to address the initial use of old coffee ground containers so as to minimize the clutter the collection was producing. In other words, as much as the environmental ethos that drove composting was about improving the quality of life, it was important that I equally support a clean and tidy break room. I did my best to keep the station clean, recognizing that the transition could be difficult to accept if the change did not accommodate the initial norm of a compost free workspace. The daily attention cleaning requires is well worth it not only because of what the scraps will contribute to a garden over time.

Gratitude and Sharing

Food scraps take months to a year to decompose; growing food with minimal additives in an environment full of birds, slugs and insects does not guarantee a strong yield. For that reason, as much as I would have liked to, I did not commit to bartering for coworkers’  contributions with food. In an effort to continue building community and finding ways to share what I was growing, I found other ways of saying thank you. I would set out extra greens like kale, mustard, arugula for others to take. I also shared tomato surpluses as they come into my possession. At other times, I would make salsa with the ingredients I grew, buy a bag of chips and leave it in the break room for others to enjoy. Coworker smoothies benefited from the additional greens.

The culture of sharing wasn’t new to the office. Given our economic position, we made the most of what we had and shared when we could. Being able to share good food that was good for us, complemented the community empowerment I had born witness to in the networks of urban gardening in which I had learned so much. In the three years I have been growing food with friends in their yards, with organizations converting lawns and unused lots into food gardens, I learned how accessible each step of the growing food process could be. I did read a little, but friends and co-volunteers were my best teachers, closely followed by what I learned by practice and imitation. As much as composting at work is about decreasing waste, contributing to food’s food, for me, it continues to be about finding a more intimate relationship with understanding what we eat and sharing the fruits of that close relationship with others. While expanding the possibilities of surplus food requires changing a lot of habits, the community built and sustained through the process has been well worth it.

Works Cited

“Portland Composts!” Planning and Sustainability. The City of Portland, Oregon. n.d. Web. 4 April 2014.

“Coffee Grounds Perk up Compost Pile with Nitrogen.” Oregon State University Extension Service. 9 July 2008. Web. 4 April 2014

“Compost Needs.” Compost Fundamentals. Whatcomm County Extension. Washington State University. n.d Web. 4 April 2014

The Freecycle Network.

“Materials for Composting: What to Compost.” Composting for the Home Owner. University of Illinois Extension. n.d. Web. 4 April 2014

“What to Compost.”  Composting in the Home Garden. University of Illinois Extension. n.d. Web. 4 April  2014

Urban Farm Collective.

Erika Gisela Abad, PhD, is grateful for the coworkers who compost at work with her and who helped her review this essay. Her essays and poetry have been published in Diálogo, Mujeres de Maiz, and The Feminist Wire. She learned to garden with the Urban Farm Collective as well as with friends she made while living in North Portland. Since finishing graduate school, she has been supporting the Latino community of her North Portland open and affirming Catholic parish, running between the kitchen and the food pantry, going to where she is needed. She can be found on twitter @lionwanderer531. 

Mexican Panda: My Short Life in Film School

by Linda Garcia Merchant

TITLE: Mexican Panda SCENE 1: EXTERIOR, SAN JUAN TEOTIHAUCÁN, MEXICO, PYRAMID OF THE SUN, POST NUCLEAR SPRING 2450AD, EARLY MORNING As the sun rises on a Post Nuclear Spring in 2450AD we see a wide tracking shot across the horizon of San Juan Teotihuacán Mexico with the Pyramid of the Sun in shadow. As the camera moves in on the dimly lit and foreboding pyramid we see the slight movement of Mexican grizzly bears at play. As the camera moves in we see they are not bears but Pandas. Three black and white Pandas chasing and catching a fourth black and tan Mexican Panda, beating it to death, then throwing the Panda off the Pyramid. The dead Panda lands on the ground at the feet of another black and tan Mexican Panda who has witnessed the murder. His eyes meet those of the three murdering Pandas now wiping the blood from their paws onto their fur. The three Pandas being to climb down the Pyramid towards Mexican Panda. He turns to run away from the Pyramid and into the forest.

Instructor: You said this is a fantasy? Me: Well yes and no. It’s an experimental fantasy with a moral lesson. The Pandas are a metaphor, you know symbolic of resistance to difference in the simple purity of their new world. Instructor: You should make them elephants. The Pandas. Make them elephants and it will work. Me: I can’t see elephants being able to climb or chase anything on a pyramid. Instructor: You did say it was experimental? You want us to suspend belief for your argument? Make them elephants. Me: I don’t understand why I need to do that. The Mexican Panda could exist if the post nuclear climate changed enough to create and support vegetation and atmosphere necessary for their survival. It is a hybridized creature born of the combination of Coati and grizzly bear, both existing in Mexico prior to the nuclear holocaust. It is probable even if it is experimental. Instructor: You have to consider your audience. I don’t understand Pandas with moral arguments. I understand Elephants.

While this conversation never actually happened during my time spent as a first year MFA in Film and Video at Columbia College in Chicago, many variations of it did. It was always the same, defending a script, a character, my choice of language, a setting, or even my moral arguments. I often felt like the fictional Mexican Panda character I’ve created above, similar to but definitely not the same as the other film school Pandas. I certainly experienced the same symbolic outcome as that of my Mexican Panda. The opportunity to get a teaching degree has been crushed and I have been hurled from the academic pyramid.

I remember getting the call about being accepted into the program; it came three days after my interview. It was 2008. I was in Austin, at Martha Cotera’s office/shrine to Chicana Feminism, scanning photographs for Sylvia Morales’ new film. The tone in my voice made Martha turn away from her desk to face me and, with a serious look on her face ask, “Is everything okay?” I told her the news: I had been accepted as a first year film student with a Follett Fellowship, the top prize for first year students which was full tuition for a year. That night we celebrated. When I called my momma in El Paso, she began to cry.

Two years earlier I had created Voces Primeras, a documentary film production company to capture the history of pioneering Latinas. I had made my first film about women I knew who had worked with mom in the movements, Mujeres de la Caucus Chicana (2007). I had spoken to everyone my mother knew about what I was doing. They all introduced me to other people from community organizations and universities. I learned about MALCS, NACCS and NWSA. It was at NWSA where I was introduced to the idea of going back to school and getting a terminal degree to be able to teach. It would be a way to engage and encourage other young people to want to do this work as I could not do it alone. I applied to Columbia College in Chicago because I liked the idea that I could bring my stories to a place that could teach me how to tell those stories on film. I wanted to be a great filmmaker and I was beginning to think that was possible.

Becoming a filmmaker is like learning another language. You master a language as you begin to think in that language. As a filmmaker, you learn to react to events and circumstances by assessing the scale of drama or how the dialogue or storyline will play out. Good filmmakers are always thinking about their stories. Great filmmakers live them. I had ideas about films I wanted to do and voiced these throughout my year in film school. I knew my skills in marketing and promotion would make distributing those films possible, but I also knew I needed to learn the language and processes of production. I defended my right to make the films I wanted, challenging every suggested change to my characters and their storylines. I do not recall hearing in any of the of the introductory sessions in graduate film school that defending my art was not allowed.

I lived for the conversations with my classmates, learning so much about the structure of writing scripts and creating shot lists. Teaching them about self promotion, helping them find locations in and around the city. We encouraged each other about character development and emotional arcs.  I can remember so many conversations from that year since first walking into the film school’s doors at 11th and Wabash. The conversation changed completely at the end of that first year, after my Focus Film review, a requirement to continue in the program that was critical of my independence and that ended with a recommendation that I leave the program.

It has been five years since I was dismissed. My classmates have produced their thesis films and I have gone to their screenings. I frequently walk past the building that marked my period of brief promise within the academy. I do not often enter and when I do I am always expecting someone to jump out at me and yell “GET OUT. That building continues to be a reminder of my failure to connect to a community and process required for teaching. It is a scar that sometimes opens, sometimes bleeds and never quite heals.

So in February of 2014, when I went to the first screening of The Black Sheep Roundtable, the Black Film Society’s (BFS) film about their Columbia College experience. I went to support their work. I thought, how brave to break the code of silence and speak to the challenging nature of film school. I was still afraid of that code. For five years I had not spoken publicly about that year. I was frightened, embarrassed, self conscious, self doubting, and thinking that these things had only happened to me.

As I watched these students sharing their pain, frustrations, and rejections I knew that if I would not reveal my own tragic journey, I would at least stand up and say how proud I was of their bravery. I shared enough to prompt the students to ask to hear my story and to include that interview in the final film. I said yes, praying on the train ride home that this was the right thing to do.

I went home and to the basement to open the plastic boxes marked “Columbia: Do Not Touch.”  At the very top of the neatly packed materials was my dismissal letter. I sat on the floor reading the letter, class notes, and then my final paper on the Virgen de Guadalupe as Oppressor in the film Maria Candelaria (Xochimilco) (1944).

I went to the interview with BFS student filmmakers a few days later with my letter and final paper, along with newspaper articles about my work, posters from festivals and screenings, some awards and a journal article I had written. All the things I had done while in school. The interview went quickly. I got more emotional and personal than I thought I would.
It would be a few weeks before the next screening of the newly edited film that would include my interview. During that time I thought about how completely that short year of school changed my life. A month after I was dismissed, I began working with Maria Cotera on Chicana Por Mi Raza. It would take another two years before I felt confident enough to take on making a narrative short and even then, the validation didn’t happen until in a critical scene I knew we had the money shot. I was sure then that one day I would be a great director.

I went to the screening of the final cut alone. My stomach in knots and my heart leaping from my chest, I walked into the packed theater and saw a number of faculty, the president of the college and the chairman of the department. I sat in the very last row, three seats from the exit. I was sitting next to one of the professors from the application interview. I heard nothing and felt even less. When the lights went down and the film began, my mouth began to water and I felt nauseous, but I stayed in that seat and willed myself to watch.

It got easier, each time I came on the screen, what I said was appropriate to the points being made. By the end of the film, all I could think was, what really smart choices the director made about all the contributions.

The lights came up, the students read a statement of suggestions for improvement, thanked everyone for coming and then had a Q&A. There were two screenings that night and people for the second screening were milling around the back doors waiting for the Q&A to end. The president spoke about diversity and that the bigger systemic issues needed to be addressed. The chairman said nothing. A few of the faculty offered solutions that included courses already being taught and a willingness to work with the students to make changes. I said nothing.

The faculty left, a few more came in, the professor sitting next to me said I had done a good job articulating my pain. I told him that it was hard and it still is. He patted my arm and smiled and said it was good to see me.

The second screening, also packed, included a lot more community members and students, and colleagues I had invited. During the Q&A one of those colleagues asked the BFS students how they knew of my story. Reina, the president of the BFS student group, pointed to me and asked if I would like to share. I said that an understanding about diversity did exist at the school and it came in the face of a black man, a white man and a white woman. I said that I learned how to write scripts and direct films from these three people, who were willing to have the hard conversations about process with me. I said what I’ve learned is still gospel and is what has enabled me to make at least one award winning narrative short.

Lots of friends and family and colleagues that have seen the film online have said how proud they are of me for finally speaking up about this. I have also learned that the embarrassment, failure and self doubt I felt were wasted emotions, as I did nothing wrong. I was vocal about defending my stories and art to a world that insisted I make films that only spoke to a broader, mainstream audience.

I really want to believe that Columbia College will listen to the voices of its black film students. I hope the lesson learned is that all art has equal value. I hope that the stories of film students of color and the body of work produced by filmmakers of color, is given the importance and attention that other filmmakers receive. The students of color pay no less tuition to attend these schools. Based on this fact alone their demands for equal resources has merit.

In a fair and level world the academic pyramid would see the tremendous potential of every filmmaker walking though those doors. Students, eager to learn about technique and craft to then apply that foundation to their stories. Stories cultivated from history and imagination and manner just waiting for a space to become real. Even if the world is not fair and level, the administration could create a space within the college that supports the talents of all of its students. How many truly great films and performances could come from a space where we are all equal, have value and can learn from each other?

Ultimately the academic pyramid can and will have to accommodate both this Mexican and the non-Mexican Panda. We can’t all be killed off or made in to elephants.

Mexican Panda, running and hiding for three days through the wilderness, comes upon a small break in the jungle, that ends by a small pool. He sees other black and white Pandas with cubs, some of which are black and tan like him. He watches for a very long time before coming closer to the small but happy group, some swimming in the pool, others cleaning fruit. A girl Panda sees him watching from a distance and motions him to come closer. She is smiling.

Linda Garcia Merchant is an independent filmmaker and digital media producer. She has created several short independent films both individually and in collaboration with others. A native of Chicago and life-long Midwestern Chicana, she  is a 2014 Contributing Blogger on Mujeres Talk.


Bang Bang

by Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo

[O]ne can never assume that anything one does, and especially the moral and political position one takes, is innocent and does not need to be interrogated for complicity.   —Barbara Applebaum

          I think love is an imperative. It obligates you. —Marisa de los Santos

Once, confessing to a colleague that I was going to attend a J.Lo. concert, she looked at me and without missing a beat simply said: “We all have our weaknesses. And that’s fine.” I can’t even begin to explain how grateful to her I was for saying that. Although I understand that it is practically impossible to lead a purely and unadulterated politically-sound existence, sometimes I struggle with the simple things. Like popular culture. I wish I were that person who could never be enticed by cool performers with a connection to Puerto Rico, or by overly processed and packaged images of gorgeous Latinas in the media, or by the incessant spectacle of reality television. Or scripted TV. Or B movies. Definitely B movies. I also wish I were too together to be seduced by songs with problematic lyrics and weird videos. But alas, those are only wishes, and I am not that person. The truth is that more frequently than I would care to admit, I find myself immersed in all of it, even as I dutifully try to resist its lure. I have had certain levels of success in my attempts at resistance, but at the end of the day, and to reiterate, I am not the person that I wish I were. I tend to get enthralled by all sorts of images, lyrics, and performers that taunt my politics and academic training, which is to say, I become enthralled by all sorts of things that shouldn’t appeal to me. And as a professor of ethnic studies and gender, this can lead to a distressing struggle, because I do know better. Of course, given what I do for a living, I have been able to work through some of my “weaknesses” by studying and analyzing them and by writing academic pieces about them: the ultimate means of intellectual penance we academics have at our disposal. But the fact remains, I still fall for problematic performers, shows, marketing campaigns, and songs.

Case in Point:

In 2005, Mexican American actor Michael Peña formed a rock band that he named Nico Vega (after his mom, Nicolasa). Last year, the band did a cover of the song “Bang Bang,” originally sung by Nancy Sinatra. The song should trouble anyone with a basic understanding of gender relations and violence against women. It should also alarm anyone with a pulse, as its literal meaning walks a very fine line between being politically objectionable and being downright wrong. Just to give you an idea, here are the first 8 lines of the song: “I was five and he was six/We rode on horses made of sticks/He wore black and I wore white/He would always win the fight/ Bang bang, he shot me down/Bang bang, I hit the ground/Bang bang, that awful sound/Bang bang, my baby shot me down.” The last four lines, the ones with the bangs become the chorus for the song, so before you begin to wonder whether the song gets any better after those lines, I will earnestly and promptly answer, no it does not. Not only that, but here I am about to tell you why I find the song metaphorically compelling. See, weakness through and through.

First Bang:

I have been haunted by this song since I first heard Nico Vega’s lead singer Aja Volkman sing it a few months back. It was as if I could actually hear the sound of each bang as she sang it.  Almost as if I could feel each bang against my skin and my heart even though I have never been shot in my life. The song affected me, there is no other way to explain it. So in trying to answer Applebaum’s call to interrogate complicity, I asked myself why. After pondering that for a while, this is my answer.

I am a Latina lesbian. Hardly much of an answer, right?  But as I thought about it, being shot down (metaphorically, of course) by men who should have loved me and had my back is a fairly familiar feeling. Friends and family members alike. Of course, women have done their part too, especially women protecting those men, and I suppose I will eventually find a song for them as well. But for now, there is this: each bang in the song feels real because it symbolizes rejection, abandonment, and contempt. That is to say, each bang represents the violence of neglect (bang bang, he shot me down), of the spoken word (bang bang, I hit the ground), and of silence (bang bang, that awful sound). Each bang is a reminder of a person who has chosen not to acknowledge me and my life, leaving me on the ground to pick up the pieces (bang bang, my baby shot me down).

Final Bang:

I am not trying to justify being affected by the song. I am, however, trying to exact my penance and work through why I am affected by it. I know I am taking a risk by writing this piece, for I may be seen as romanticizing a decidedly violent narrative. But I am only trying to explain (perhaps to myself) why I have developed a soft spot for a song so distastefully against my politics. I am writing this because as Isabel Allende tells us, writing is a “journey into memory and the soul.” And also, because as Audre Lorde warned, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth, and that is not speaking.”  I am writing this because I loved those men, friends and family, who have, for all intents and purposes, disowned me. I still love them, and to paraphrase Marisa de los Santos, as an imperative, love obligates me. It obligates me to think and to write. But it also obligates me to maintain my integrity and remain true to my compass, even if as Applebaum suggests, my compass may be complicit in my weakness for popular culture. I will finish this short writing by sharing the song’s last two verses, the least violent ones, yet, the ones that hurt the most: “He didn’t even say goodbye. He didn’t take the time to lie.” And suddenly, my weakness for popular culture doesn’t seem so daunting, because as problematic as it may be, it can also help me articulate my pain.

Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University. She engages in research involving Latinos in the US, “the War on Terror,” US/Puerto Rico relations, and popular culture. She is a co-editor of A New Kind of Containment: “The War on Terror,” Race, and Sexuality, and a co-author of Containing (Un)American Bodies: Race, Sexuality and Post 9/11 Constructions of Citizenship, both published by Rodopi Press in 2009 and 2010 respectively. With C. Richard King and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo, she  is co-author of Animating Difference: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Films for Children, published in 2010 by Rowman and Littlefield.

Enriching our Educational Advocacy for Latino Students and the Community

Public Meeting in Texas on HB5.

Public Meeting in Texas on HB5.

by Maricela Oliva

Those of us involved in education have for years focused on school achievement or college success, foci that are conceptualized in terms of lower (K-12) or higher (post-secondary) education. I propose that we need to evolve and enrich our educational advocacy from a school or college issue to one that re-imagines educational success as a P-16 endeavor. This seems easy enough to do, but I argue that it is actually more difficult because it requires our involvement in efforts to impact educational achievement with cross-level and systemic rather than level-focused interventions. These broader interventions require collaboration and interdisciplinary boundary-spanning work. Furthermore, necessary and cross-level systemic change is best achieved with the participation not only of individuals and groups working on issues from the inside of key educational organizations but also of allies working from outside them, in the broader community.

An illustrative example for those of us in Texas is the HB 5 statute that passed the Texas Legislature in Spring 2013. This bill packaged two large objectives in one instrument: a reduction of testing at the school level (as advocated by school level educators and scholars) and a change in the high school preparation curriculum. Changes to the curriculum eliminated the common high school preparation curriculum while putting in place a foundational curriculum for all with additional voluntary endorsements that schools could also offer their students (multidisciplinary, arts, STEM, other). The statute had multiple stakeholders of support: teachers, school-level scholars, technical-vocational educators, corporations, employers, and a Republican governor. Higher education was not among those supporting changes in the curriculum. Focusing on college readiness, the Commissioner of Higher Education actually argued against changes in the high school preparation curriculum because of the negative impact on the college readiness of all, especially Latino students.

Paradoxically, educators at both lower and higher education argued that their opposite views reflected concern for the well-being of students. How can this be so? Advocates and detractors of the bill were looking at it from their unique perspective and often failed to see the issue or concern from the level different from their own. In other words, school advocates did not understand or think the higher education critiques important enough to hold back their support of the bill. From the higher education side, Higher Education Commissioner Paredes was not able to convince supporters that they might be helping themselves in terms of testing reduction but hurting themselves by eroding college readiness and access for students.

Bill sponsors were smart, in my view, to package the two issues (testing reduction and curricular change) in the same bill. They anticipated that supporters of the testing issue would overwhelm critics of the curricular change issue; indeed, this is what happened. School-level educators were so keen on getting the school testing reduced that they did not listen to or hear concerns from higher education about the new high school graduation requirements. For example, they did not hear that 8th graders from low-income and first generation families might not select the high school curriculum that would be in their long-term best interest and that would promote their readiness for college. They did not pay attention to concerns that high achieving graduates in the foundational curriculum would no longer be eligible for Texas’s automatic college admissions program for students in the top ten percent of their graduating class, undermining a program that has enabled access to elite state universities for new students, including Latina/o students. They did not pay attention to the fact that colleges and universities would still look most favorably on students who demonstrate traditional college-readiness, nor to others’ equity concerns given that not all schools would be able to offer all of the voluntary endorsements. In the end, bill sponsors with sleight of hand, managed to create a scenario that almost guarantees that in the future, fewer Latino students will be college ready and college admitted to an institution of choice when they graduate high school. If young people and their families are allowed to pick their high school curriculum in 8th grade, quite a few may not understand the consequence of choosing a curriculum that makes room for employment in high school rather than college ready courses, one that allows them to avoid Algebra II rather than challenge themselves with rigorous coursework to make themselves an attractive applicant when they apply to college, etc. Since the various curricula are often incommensurate, young people will find it difficult to recover from the wrong choice once they later better understand its impact on their college access and readiness.

I recently sat in on a conference session in which school counselors and other school level educational personnel learned about and asked how to implement HB 5. School curriculum directors and higher education admissions officers made up a panel that presented their view of how HB 5 would impact their work. My understanding of what I saw and heard in that session is that implementation will be very complicated at the school level. Furthermore, those districts and schools in which personnel already have a handle on facilitating college readiness (i.e., those with a college-going culture) will do their best to implement the unfunded mandate in ways that anticipate students’ mistakes and that leave their college readiness options open until students fully understand the impact of their decisions. They plan to do this with face to face meetings with each individual child and their parents to explain the curricula and what they mean. However, at schools with overwhelming counselor-to-student ratios, such as at schools that are majority minority or that do not have a college-going culture, it was not clear that they could be so effective. Students there, the ones that we already have the biggest challenge getting to college, probably will not get this high level interaction as they choose their high school curriculum. For us in Texas, the largest and fastest-growing group in the school pipeline is Latino students, who are now the most at risk from these curricular changes.

How could this happen in Texas, a relatively policy savvy environment in which we already recognize the importance of promoting college-going among Latinos and where we have long acknowledged the importance of Latino youth to the future well-being of the state (see Closing the Gaps). This happened because first, analysts focused on issues at K-12 or post-secondary levels of education and did not have a sufficiently developed P-16 view of the issues that impact our community. Second, conservative policy-makers packaged the two issues in the same bill so that concerns about proposed changes to the high school preparation curriculum would be overwhelmed by support for testing reduction. And it worked.  So now, is it possible to “make a silk purse out of [the] pig’s ear” that is, potentially, the curricular part of HB 5?

Those of us in education and community advocacy have learned to be vigilant about what happens with schools and to better understand the need to talk to young people in concrete ways about the school to college pathway. In San Antonio, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) had already created OurSchool Portal ( as a program that allows parents and families to understand educational impacts and outcomes at area high schools. The intent was to help parents and families advocate for changes that would improve children’s educational success and college readiness. At the state level, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board created Compare College Texas ( so that families and prospective college students can look for institutions that are a good fit for their needs and interests. Nationally, The College Board has created a comprehensive online program for exploring colleges and college choice throughout the US. BigFuture ( encourages children and parents to explore their options early and together. In this way, parents can be part of the college readiness and choice process, even if they did not themselves go to college. A few weeks ago in March, the College Board also announced that they are giving four test report waivers to low-income high achieving students to encourage them to apply to four colleges, which is likely to improve college fit and student success. The College Board has made other changes recently to encourage more low-income and minority students to prepare for college and apply to institutions that meet their needs. Research has shown that highly prepared young women, Latina/o and other minority students sometimes do not apply to selective colleges even when they are well prepared to succeed there. This can limit not only their college options but prospects for future professional success.

So what is my take-away from this discussion and the HB 5 illustration? To better serve Latina/o and other community youth, we need to develop our understanding of how school issues impact college readiness and success. As a post-secondary educator, I am making time to study how local schools provide adult guidance for college to their students. In this way, I walk my talk by learning how I can be an effective partner to schools in my area, in order to promote college-going for Latino and other youth.

Can you take on an initiative in your area to promote student success along the school to college/university pathway?  Whether we are school or college educators, doing so will require that we study and learn more about the educational level that is different from the one in which we now work or in which we were trained. If we do, we can be better advocates for the educational success of our youth. Only our future depends on it.

References: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (2000). Closing the Gaps: The Texas Higher Education Plan. Austin: THECB.

A native of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Maricela Oliva is Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her scholarly work focuses on issues impacting college access for students; namely, policy, race, class, first generation status, and school-university linkages. She is a member of the Association for the Study of Higher Education and the American Educational Research Association. With AERA she has served on national conference planning committees for Divisions J (Higher Education) and L (Policy) and was elected Council Member At Large for the 1800-member Division J (Postsecondary). Dr. Oliva serves or has served on four journal Editorial Boards, including The Review of Higher Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, and the Journal of Research on Leadership Education. She has published articles and chapters as well as a book, Leadership for Social Justice: Making Revolutions in Education, now in its second edition. She currently serves as an elected member of the Academic Assembly Council of The College Board.