Faubourg Tremé: Cultural and Societal Progress in a Neighborhood Faced with Gentrification

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In New Orleans the word for neighborhood is Faubourg. This, like so many other things in New Orleans, speaks to one of the many inherent differences between this city and others. Faubourg Tremé was established in 1842 by free people of color. It is not only the oldest black neighborhood in the United States, but the birthplace of jazz, home to cultural museums, and to Louis Armstrong Park which houses Congo Square – a place where slaves used to meet on Sundays during their one day “off.” For the past two centuries, many of the residents of Tremé have made significant contributions to cultural, social, and political movements. For much of that time, it was a neighborhood where generations of families resided, and parents passed their houses on to their children and their children’s children, relatives lived side by side, down the street, or ‘round the corner from each other. Celebrations, births, and deaths were neighborhood gatherings because they were, after all, family.

Now, Tremé is one of the common destinations of horse and carriage, bicycle, walking, and Segway tours. There are not many days that go by in which I do not hear the methodical sound of a horse drawn buggy going by my house and the words “Tremé is the oldest black neighborhood in the US, founded by freed slaves…” It is a comforting sound tinged with sadness because so many of those families, families whose ancestors fought to buy their freedom and homes they could call their own, are gone. In the scant year I resided there, at least three of the families that welcomed me to the neighborhood have left and the historical interiors of their homes torn apart and discarded to make way for those with money. As a result of this shift, despite the tremendous contributions the neighborhood has made in terms of progress and rebounding from Hurricane Katrina, the residents of this community are now facing the impact of gentrification. In this essay, I intend to discuss the history of Tremé’s contributions to the community-at-large, political movements, and progress, as well as what the neighborhood is doing to meet the societal implications of gentrification in their outreach to new members of the neighborhood; utilizing community events, narrative, general conversation, and discussing how gentrification may impede or advance progress. As a result of my inquiries, I believe, with time, it is possible for many of these issues to be resolved if the community members of New Orleans come together with mutual respect, cultural understanding, and a willingness to listen without marginalization.

New Orleans has a great deal to offer. Almost everywhere you go you can find someone playing music somewhere; the food is said to be world renowned; people greeting you on the street is customary; and there are parades for just about everything. Yet, post-Katrina New Orleans, crime is on the rise, housing costs are up, lots of neighborhoods are food deserts, healthcare services (especially Planned Parenthood) are limited, education is steadily declining, the cost of utilities in the city is rising, and marginalization is increasing. As a result of many of these changes, most of the people who perform the service industry jobs in New Orleans are being forced to live outside of the city they work in. While these are developments common to many US American cities, one might question why any of this makes New Orleans and Tremé different from any other community facing gentrification? What was Tremé before gentrification and why are these changes worthy of discussion? When I originally began my research on Tremé I looked at the changes the neighborhood was facing and was disheartened by what I was seeing, but had yet to make the connection of the impact of Hurricane Katrina in relation to the gentrification of Tremé. It was upon discovering how much former members of the neighborhood had contributed to politics and social movements, such as, fighting the Separate Car Act and buying church pews for slaves, that I began to try and figure out what Tremé had truly been and what it was becoming. In the article “New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood turns 200” by Claude Johnson and Stacey Plainance, Toni Rice, spokeswoman for a neighborhood group, said “All things sacred to New Orleans bubbled up from that neighborhood, because Treme had such a mixture of people and cultures…It wasn’t just slaves. It wasn’t all white or all black. It was German, Spanish, Haitian, Italian” (1).


A History of Tremé and Contributions to Civil Rights

Claude Tremé was a model hat maker and real estate agent. He came from France and settled in New Orleans in 1783.  He married Julie Moreau and as laws of the time allowed when women married, he “inherited the land from his wife’s family, began to subdivide and sell off plots of land in the late 1700s. New Orleans, unlike other Southern cities at the time, was populated by free people of color, who quickly moved into the neighborhood…” (Jervis 1). The interesting thing about this is that while these freed slaves were buying property in Tremé, New Orleans was a port that slaves passed through on their way to being bought and sold. These freed slaves mingled with slaves on a daily basis. The freed slaves purchased their goods from the enslaved in Congo Square in Tremé on Sundays and worshipped with them as well, most likely strengthening the enslaved populations desire and resolve to free themselves:

Tremé soon became a bastion of French-speaking, mixed-race plasterers, bricklayers, cigar makers, sculptors, writers and intellectuals…Tremé residents in 1845 published Les Cenelles, widely considered the first anthology of black poetry in the USA and the Tribune, one of the first black daily newspapers in the country. (Jervis 1-2)

In the early years of Tremé, African-American residents worked together to form a community and build a solid foundation. They even purchased a church in the 1800s. Naming it St. Augustine Catholic Church, they established the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the United States.

Originally, the land and the building were purchased by Jeanine Marie Aliquot, a Frenchwoman, who turned it into a Catholic elementary school for free girls of color. Eventually, the school was sold to the Ursulines Sisters (nuns) who then sold it to the Carmelite Sisters in 1840 and it merged into a school for black and white girls. When they relocated, free people of color requested permission to build a church. The one condition attached to the $10,000 sale was that the church be named after St. Angela Merci. For some reason this did not occur and the church was named St. Augustine. One of the interesting stories attached to this bit of history is that, being a mixed neighborhood, black families began buying pews for their families, when this occurred:

white people in the area started a campaign to buy more pews than the colored folks. Thus, The War of the Pews began and was ultimately won by the free people of color who bought three pews to every one purchased by the whites. In an unprecedented social, political and religious move, the colored members also bought all the pews of both side aisles. They gave those pews to the slaves as their exclusive place of worship, a first in the history of slavery in the United States. (Staff 2)

It was another historical event in which blacks pushed forward to fight for rights. It is at this point that I, again, consider progress. Banneker wrote his letter to Jefferson in 1791. One of the things he wrote was:

Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same facilities; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him. Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the human rights of nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under… (1)

Yet, some fifty years later, some of the same battles and requests for equality were still being fought and the need to be understood and accepted still remained. So, in this instance, freed slaves in Tremé took the reins into their own hands and found the financial means to gain their own power. While I am still in awe at the success of their endeavor, I believe it was their collective effort that wrought a societal change allowing them to move forward in other endeavors of equality and progress (Staff).

Kant wrote, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority…This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another” (1). I do not believe that the people of Tremé lived in a “self-incurred minority,” but instead, an inflicted state of otherness. What I find so inspiring about what the people of Tremé accomplished during that time was their courage and fortitude. Perhaps because their history was so dark, their perception of their otherness, tinged with the fact that many of them may not have had our western mindset (based on where they came from), allowed them to have a requisite “resolution and courage” that comes from having been in such a place of oppression that you either fight or you die; emotionally or sometimes physically. My analysis may be somewhat dramatic, but I believe great adversity enables us to do things we might not normally do.

After the Civil War, Louisiana faced reconstruction. Having had a relatively liberal antebellum period the “Radical Reconstruction in Louisiana was an intense, occasionally violent, contest between those who favored Radical Reconstruction policies and those who fought for white supremacy as the philosophy that would guide public policy in Louisiana” (Museum). The inception of these new laws, instituted “to control the behavior and actions of former slaves in the ‘free’ postwar society, Louisiana and other southern states enacted Black Codes, modeled on restrictions in force under slavery” (Museum), increased the marginalization of African-Americans.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law which segregated public facilities (Gehman). This law included the Separate Car Act said to provide separate but equal seating on streetcars for whites and African-Americans. Homer Plessy, a resident of Tremé and shoemaker, was born “of mixed racial heritage. His family could pass for white and were considered ‘free people of color.’ Plessy thought of himself as 1/8 black since his great-grandmother was from Africa” (Britannica). In 1887, Plessy took up social activism and “served as vice president of the Justice, Protective, Educational and Social Club to reform New Orleans’ public education system” (Britannica). In 1892, Plessy, with the aid of the Comité des Citoyens or Citizen’s Committee, contested the law by purchasing a first-class ticket and sitting in the “whites only” section, stated his race, and refused to move. He was eventually removed from the train and arrested. “The Citizen’s Committee shunned violence, rather becoming active in the courts by initiating a series of legal cases to enforce civil rights guaranteed by Congress in the 1870s but often denied locally” (Gehman). The organization’s nonviolent mantra could be said to be the precursor for the nonviolent behavior deployed by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Working with Plessy, a black man who could pass for white, gave them just the platform they needed to take their case to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided against the case him 1896 ruling “that states had the right to maintain separate but equal public facilities for blacks and for whites [which]…ushered in a spate of Jim Crow laws throughout the South…” (Gehman 94). However, despite the loss, this case had far reaching implications for the Civil Rights Movement when the NAACP incorporated components from this case during “1954 in the historic and controversial Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka” (Spring 102), overturning the separate but equal ruling (Britannica).

Bellamy wrote, in his work of fiction, Looking Backward, “The other fact is yet more curious, consisting in a singular hallucination which those on the top of the coach generally shared, that they were not exactly like their brothers and sisters who pulled at the rope, but of finer clay, in some way belonging to a higher order of beings…” (6). One might infer that fiction has no place here. I believe, in this instance, it does. It is the context behind those words which should be considered. New Orleans was a melting pot with Tremé as an unusual community of people. “The ability to acquire, purchase and own real property during an era when America was still immersed in slavery was remarkable and only in New Orleans did this occur with any regularity or consistency” (New Orleans). But residents took it beyond owning a piece of land and fought to move beyond othering, upholding the principle of equality and taking, into their own hands, the course of their lives. Yet, in my opinion, history can be cyclical and in the years beyond slavery Tremé would face changes which would alter aspects of a once vibrant neighborhood and a group of people who fought for what they believed in.


Times Change

           In the 1960s, Interstate I-110 was constructed, running straight through the center of Tremé effectively cutting one half of the neighborhood from the other. I reside in Tremé and it was not until I had to locate a business in another section of the neighborhood that I realized there even was another part. It was during that walk that I began to understand why Tremé has the reputation for not being the best place to live. Crossing the interstate and walking into the other side of Tremé is, for me, like entering a different world. The side of Tremé that I live in is a diverse neighborhood a few short blocks away from the French Quarter surrounded by shops, parks, and museums. In thinking about this, I realized that the people I see on those neighborhood tours on a regular basis, will likely never see the other side of Tremé. To me, the other side of the neighborhood is not the safest place to wander. It, like so many other places here, still have not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Many of the houses in that part of the neighborhood are boarded up, have fallen into total ruin, or need a tremendous amount of repair. Here, I did not see the diversity I am so used to and the feeling of poverty is palpable. I left the area with a heavy heart and the realization that I have a privilege here I had yet to recognize before my exploration.

In conjunction with the separation that the interstate highway imposed, the people of Tremé also faced the impact of the drug and crime epidemics that occurred in the 1980s. This, I believe, is when the neighborhood lost the sense of community it once had. It became an unsafe place to be for those who resided there along with anyone else. I have been told that white people avoided the area because a visit was sure to result in robbery or worse. The many that resided there and did not partake in crime remained not only because they lived in homes that had been in their families for generations, but because many of them did not have the means to leave and/or were determined to hold on to the bit of community they might have once had. According to Jervis, it was not until Hurricane Katrina that many of the people who lived in the area left either of their own accord or were forced to leave because of the circumstances surrounding the storm. (Jervis)


Hurricane Katrina Brings Change

          In the early morning of August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The storm had a category three rating and the winds reached upwards of 140 miles per hour. As devastating as the hurricane was, it was not the storm that did the most damage in New Orleans, it was the levee breaches. New Orleans is below sea level, some areas more than others, but when those particular levees broke, the area sustained damage and destruction that still impacts the city almost 11 years later, and, I believe, will continue to do so.

Some people left before the storm. Those who remained either lost their lives, were stranded in the Superdome, trapped on rooftops, or wherever else they could find shelter until they were evacuated or died. The conditions were beyond deplorable. When the evacuations did begin, there were thousands of people who never returned because they either did not want to or, could not. Many of those who did come back in the weeks and months that followed returned to homes that were uninhabitable. Rebuilding was slow and, according to a local tour guide, the areas that seemed to receive the most funding were the French Quarter and surrounding areas that were frequented by tourists and which had sustained comparatively little damage. Other areas, such as the Lower 9th Ward, still have entire sections which have not been repaired (H. Staff).

People came from all over the world to assist in the rebuilding. They came with the best of intentions. Some, so moved by what they saw and experienced, remained. Yet, I have heard people who discuss seeing “bunches of white people” with New York, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, etc., license plates who were riding through some of the neighborhoods looking for abandoned property they could buy on the cheap. There is no way to know for sure if this was actually what people were doing, but the upsurge in the sale of houses would seem to indicate a modicum of legitimacy.

During all that transpired in the aftermath of Katrina as well as the number of people who had to leave the area and did not return, there are many who seem to have forgotten that the situation in which the people of New Orleans found themselves and the onslaught of gentrification is not just due to the hurricane itself. There is a portion of this turmoil that was man-made when the levees were breached. I believe that if Louisiana had only Hurricane Katrina to contend with, things would have progressed differently. New Orleans would have probably undergone a time-period of recovery and the damage from the storm would have been repaired. Many of those who left for the duration of the storm would have returned and the city would have gone back to being “A place like no other.”

Yet, that is not what transpired. Many transplants came and stayed, many came and conquered, but in the process those who had made New Orleans and Tremé what it once was were gone, along with their culture. In her article, “Gentrification’s Ground Zero”, Megan French-Marcelin wrote:

Long before the floodwaters had receded, any chance of progressive reconstruction—rebuilding as a restorative public works program aimed at meaningful redistribution—was stamped out by policy wonks and TV commentators, liberal city council members, feisty NGOs, speculative real-estate developers, and boutique hotel owners.” (2)

What was left, seems to have become a shell, changing with the influx of transplants and their money.


Gentrification and Tremé

          As mentioned earlier, the part of Tremé in which I reside is quite close to the French Quarter. It is a bustling area with plenty to do and see, even if you have been here for a while. It is a trendy little area with a coffee shop, a community center, and a jazz and cultural museum. My neighbors are friendly and chat with each other from time to time, but some of that “neighborhood feel,” generated by people sitting out on their stoops watching people come and go is waning. In the short seven months that I have been here the faces of my neighbors are beginning to change with some regularity, there is less diversity, and many more transplants (including myself). When a property goes on the market, it can sell in a matter of days and is immediately gutted so that any vestiges of its past are gone and bright cottage colors reminiscent of the gingerbread houses on Martha’s Vineyard adorn the outside, instead of some of the deep rich colors I generally see.

There are some families that are holding on, but there is wariness in their eyes and when there has been discussion about the changes within the neighborhood, I have heard the old residents say “We don’t know these people!” There does not seem to be a connection between the old residents and the new. Long term residents are used to family and even when they do sell their property, many times it is to a family member because “keeping it in the family” is very important here. Of those who have sold outside their family, it has been because of great financial need. Oftentimes, when a home was sold to someone who was not a family member, they witnessed that it was promptly put back on the market and sold to a transplant for almost double the price. This practice has left the neighborhood struggling to retain some semblance of community in what looks to be a losing battle.

To bridge this gap, community organizations such as the Backstreet Cultural Museum and members of Jazz in the Park are working together. In 2015, the first Tremé Festival was held to bring members of the community and surrounding areas together. There was song and dance, and they opened up St. Augustine Church and provided tours for many of the newcomers in the neighborhood so they could really learn about the history of Tremé. It was a gathering to get people on committees and share backgrounds. Jazz in the Park is held on Thursdays and is a family-oriented event with music, a farmers’ market, and activities for children. There are always people on hand to discuss ways in which those who attend can become active in the community with one of the main goals being the discussion of the history and culture of the area.


Where Has Our Culture Gone?

As previously written, Tremé is a place that was filled with a distinct culture which is now eroding. With the transplants come lofty ideals that in some ways make a mockery of old traditions by putting a subtle twist on them. French-Marcelin, who is a twentieth-century historian of urban policy and planning, wrote:

In the years after Hurricane Katrina, cultural commodification has been extended to the business of rebuilding and preserving the city’s unique customs. Transplant communities, exemplified most conspicuously by Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s younger sister), have effectively taken up the mantle of a grassroots cultural reclamation: renovating historic shotguns, opening stores with local wares, and engaging the tradition of second lines for private events. (4)

These events, these trends of usurpation, are not particular to Tremé or to New Orleans in the way they are being presented and they are not being met with open arms.

One of the things that I see happening as a result of gentrification and cultural change is that many of the long-term are closing ranks to preserve whatever they can of their culture. When I moved here it was pointed out to me that much of what transpires among the locals is handled by word of mouth. I found this out because there were a number of times that I was searching for something and could only find the most cursory bits of information. When I finally asked someone why I was told “That’s just how it’s done here.” Transplants, such as myself, are accustomed to finding out about what is going on by using the internet. It is just the way we think things work. Here, if a local is looking for an apartment, she is relying on word of mouth and those she knows. If something is being sold, it is not advertised in the paper or online, it is offered by word of mouth. It is the transplants who want it online, at their fingertips, and do not have the time to ask around. For employment, you have to know someone who knows someone. “Who are your people? Are they here? How long have they been here? How long have you been here? I knew you didn’t come from here” While I initially found this somewhat surprising I have come to realize that it is one of the ways local people are trying to maintain what little control they still have over their neighborhood.

While the local people try to keep things “in house,” the transplants are coming to either work in the new University Medical Center or they are entrepreneurs who arrive with wads of cash and a view of success which includes being a busy, productive member of society and a “hurry up and wait’ mentality. Someone recently told me that visiting somewhere is far different than living there and they were, of course, right. Some of the newcomers have a difficult time taking that philosophy into account. When you are on vacation, you have a different perspective than when you live in a place. You may not mind the wait, that people are moving slowly, that there is music in most of the places you go, that people are trying to hustle you for a couple of dollars, that the homeless approach you not only for money, but for your leftovers. When you live there, many of the same things you did not mind before becoming an issue. Second lines (brass band parades) are not viewed with the same fondness when those same parades are going past your house “making all that noise.” You do not have time to leisurely wait while the cashier catches up with someone while you are waiting in line and you get sick of people “hustling” you because they are trying to make, in your estimation, a “fast buck.” After all, good money was paid for the piece of property you own, and you do not need to get to know your neighbors other than making sure they keep up the property.

Ultimately, there is a clash between the old and the new, north and south. For example, a story in The Times-Picayune recounted that on:

Monday, at about 8 p.m., nearly 20 police cars swarmed to a Treme corner, breaking up a memorial procession and taking away two well-known neighborhood musicians in handcuffs. The brothers…were in a group of two dozen musicians playing a spontaneous parade for tuba player Kerwin James, who died last week of complications from a stroke he had suffered after Hurricane Katrina. The confrontation spurred cries in the neighborhood about the over-reaction and disproportionate enforcement by police, who often turned a blind eye to the traditional memorial ceremonies. Still others say the incident is a sign of greater attack on the cultural history of the old city neighborhood by well-heeled newcomers attracted to Treme by the very history they seem to threaten (Reckdahl 1).

Funerals here are often followed by second lines because, in contrast to the somber traditional funerals many are used to, traditionally it is a time of celebration here. I have seen many second lines after a funeral here because there is a funeral home near my residence. I have even seen a coffin taken from a hearse, carried on to the family member’s porch, and actually danced on before proceeding to the funeral home. It is nothing new here. Sometimes the procession may be comprised of a hundred people, but people, heretofore, were respectful. Cars caught in the procession would wait, there would be no honking. It was accepted as something that just was, something that needed to be done to honor the dead. There are times now when others do not see it that way, they see it as an encroachment and no longer care to accept or understand the culture or tradition.

This was the case when the brothers were arrested during the second line procession. Now, there is no spontaneity on this side of Tremé. You must procure a permit. “They want to live in Treme, but they want it for their ways of living. ‘Curry said.’ For newly arrived neighbors, Curry sometimes serves as a cultural interpreter. But to those neighbors dismayed by the noise or the crowds that come along with those brands, Curry is stern. “I say, ‘You found us doing this—this is our way” (Reckdahl 2).  No matter, the newcomers win: cross that interstate and you must have a permit or face arrest if an irate neighbor calls the police. To them, this is not a necessity and like many other traditions viewed as something “other,” it should be wiped out. To me, it becomes a cultural genocide; a dismantling of a culture that is foreign to the newcomers. Yet, if the housing and rental costs continue to rise and more of my long-standing neighbors are forced out of the area it may become a moot point.


Climbing Rents and Home Prices.

          Prior to Hurricane Katrina there were quite a few public housing units dispersed throughout the community, now, those units are gone. “In the months that followed, many of the city’s poorest families got even more bad news: The public housing units they called home would be knocked down, even if undamaged by the storm…The goal was to deconcentrate poverty and give lower-income residents a better place to live” (Fessler 2). There were many people who were not pleased with this because most would be lumped into one area away from their known neighborhoods. The new units were built anyway. As Fessler underscores, “At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families lived in public housing; today [2015], there are only 1,900. Other poor families have relocated to places like Houston and Atlanta or moved elsewhere within New Orleans” (Fessler 2). Many of the residents who reside in these aesthetically appealing units state that while the units are nice, safer, and offer some amenities their former units did not (pools and up-to-date kitchens). It is also adjacent to Walmart. “It’s hard to explain,” ‘Jennings says.’ “There’s something missing, and you miss it every day. You miss your neighbors for one. Like we used to sit on the steps and conversate with our neighbors, and it’s not like that anymore” (Fessler 4-5). There are also new rules that prohibit or restrict gardens, parties, etc. In some ways, looking at it from the outside it is hard not to find the idea of greater safety and less drugs a better scenario, but my culture is different. When you’ve lost your sense of community after having lost so much already, I can understand why some people would not like it.

Out of curiosity I visited one of the new apartment complexes that have gone up in the area. A two bedroom begins at $2,400 and goes up to $2,650. The penthouse rents for $6,500 per month. It has some nice amenities, plenty of restaurants, and an upscale grocery store right next to it. While I thought it was a very nice place, I could not help but think about what a person would have to make to live there, and the woman who was assisting me was quick to provide the answer. A person must make approximately $90.000 per year for a two bedroom. The local minimum wage here is $7.50 cents per hour, most people make approximately $8 to $10 per hour! “Before Katrina it was possible for people to find housing they could afford, and that’s become virtually impossible for people finding housing in the city” (Woodward 2). The information on the apartment complex helps to explain why. In fact, rents have gone up by over 81 percent since Hurricane Katrina and housing costs have gone up by 46 percent.

Sayre states that “The average house sold for $339,743 in New Orleans in the first half of this year, which amounted to an average of $166 per square foot – up from $114 per square foot just before the storm and $151 per square foot last year. That’s up 46 percent since 2005, or an average yearly gain of about 4.6 percent” (2). Couple this with the fact that many of the new homeowners are evicting tenants or raising rents after buying units and making repairs or moving them out to use units as Airbnb and you have even more displaced people. Many of those making lower wages and are forced to live on the outer edges of town, facing, in many instances, an unreliable transit system to get them to and from work if they do not have a car.


Starbucks and Consequences

Another common thing that is lost in the process of gentrification is the local store. For the most part, the French Quarter is made up of locally owned shops and restaurants. In a tourist environment people expect that. They want to stroll down the streets popping in and out of one cutesy place after another. I think many of us like these types of shop when we are on vacation. Yet, this is changing. The French Quarter and Magazine Street (a more upscale shopping area) have also become home to stores like Starbucks and Whole Foods. There is even a Trader Joe’s. Some may consider this a step in the right direction; some locals do not. The interesting thing is that many locals, in a display of civic pride and cultural deference, do not just give up and say, “I can get a better deal at this chain store.” It is a matter of principle and homage to their culture. So, many of the locals remain true to their community stores. There are a variety of reasons for this, which are inclusive of the fact one or more family members own or work in these stores, they live in a food desert and that corner grocery is sometimes the only place they can get to on a regular basis ‘to make groceries,” and they want to keep it local because “their people been going there for years” and they are not going to give their money to some stranger even if they have to pay a bit more sometimes! The motto is “Keep it local.”

Let me be clear, it is not the case that local people do not ever frequent stores like Starbucks or Whole Foods. But most of the time, it is seen as a matter of loyalty and duty to go to the local coffee shop, Rouses grocery store, the local hardware store. Why? Because each dollar spent outside of a community store puts it one step closer to closing. It is also a way for locals to express their disapproval of the gentrification taking place and they are fighting to keep more places like Trader Joes out! Yet, there are plenty of transplants who do not understand this, and they want convenience over local loyalty, and will pay more to get it.



          Overall, there is a difference between making a place your home versus making a place your own. Some may not see it that way. However, I believe that when you decide to relocate to a different state and arrive with the idea that you “own” not only your dwelling, but the city or town in general, that “they” should adapt their ideological beliefs to yours, not yours to theirs, you may be missing something in the translation. Unfortunately, this seems to be part of the process with western assumptions about how things should be done: take no prisoners, ask no questions later because you do not need to.

Some people may think that this is progress. I would have to disagree because with the supposed benefit of gentrification has come further marginalization of a group of people that were already oppressed. In fact, considering some of the tenets of intersectionality, Tremé is a perfect example of why this concept cannot be examined separately. It is a community where oppression is an everyday occurrence that hides behind no false pretenses, but is instead displayed with intolerance of difference and disdain.

Am I part of the problem or will I be part of the solution? Will the education that I am pursuing provide me with more of the tools I will need to be effective in any way here? I believe it will, but in order to do so I must be vigilant in my exploration, what I hold to memory, what I learn, what I impart from what I learn, and how I use it.

In “Souls of White Folk” Du Bois wrote:

But when the black man begins to dispute the white man’s title to certain bequests of the Fathers in wage and position, authority and training; and when his attitude toward charity is sullen anger rather than humble jollity; when he insists on human right to swagger and swear and waste – then the spell is suddenly broken and the philanthropist is ready to believe that Negroes are impudent… (24)

In a conversation with a recent transplant, I got a hint of this sentiment when the person said, “I don’t understand why they don’t like us! I mean, after all, we’re making things better for them. We’re cleaning up the neighborhood and making it safer. They should be thanking us. They should be grateful!” I still have no idea how I should have responded to this. In fact, I was so stunned that while I know I did reply along the lines of inquiry, asking why people should be thankful for the cleanup of a neighborhood they have been displaced from, I could not find the words to express the measure of my disbelief. I also knew that was one more facet in the notion of paternalistic guidance that western assumptions bring with it; the sense that the marginalized should not only be accepting of the so-called hand being offered to them, but should welcome and learn from it by ‘seeing’ the benefits of the hand being offered. Very rarely does it seem to be seen as oppression, but instead, as the missive “We are bringing you the light!”

What are the detrimental consequences of patriarchal views like that? By the same token, what are the detrimental consequences of simply closing ranks and shutting yourself off? In order for something positive to come out of gentrification, in order for there to be progress people must work together. Since there seem to be two sides to the community, what may be necessary is a collaborative effort versus a community effort. If the two groups remain separate and not collective, in fact, if a collaborative effort does not occur and remains community based, moving beyond Tremé and into the city-at-large, continuing to divide and conquer other neighborhoods, then I believe the heart and soul of New Orleans will be gone. However, if the two groups can find common ground and work together to create a mutual dialogue there just may be the chance to move with common purpose toward collective progress.





Works Cited

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward. New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 1996.

Britannica, Encyclopedia. “Plessy v. Ferguson.” 2016. Encyclopedia Brittanica, Inc. http://www.britannica.com/event/Plessy-v-Ferguson. 9 May 2016.

DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of White Folks.” Darkwater. Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York: Dover, 1999. 23-37.

Fessler, Pam. “After Katrina, New Orleaans’ Public Housing Is A Mix of Pastel and Promises.” NPR, 17 August 2015. npr. http://www.npr.org/2015/08/17/431267040/after-katrina-new-orleans-public-housing-is-a-mix-of-pastel-and-promises. 28 November 2015.

French-Marcelin, Megan. “Gentrification’s Ground Zero.” Jacobin (2015): 1-10.

Gehman, Mary. The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction. Marrero: Margaret Media, Inc., 2014. Book.

Jervis, Rick. “New Orleans neighborhood boasts rich history.” USATODAY. USATODAY.com, 2 February 2012. Web.

Johnson, Chevel and Stacey Plaisance. “New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood turns 200.” Associated Press (2013): 1-6.

Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightment?” Mary j. Gregory, Trans. Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 1-7. Book.

Museum, State of Louisiana. “Reconstruction I: A State Divided.” 2016. Louisiana State Museum Online Exhibits The Cabildo: Two Centuries of Louisiana History. 14 July 2017.

New Orleans, Online. “Treme Neighborhood in New Orleans.” 2015. Treme: America’s Oldest African American Neighborhood. 25 February 2016.

PBS. “Banneker’s letter to Jefferson.” n.d. Africans in America. 2 February 2016.

Reckdahl, Katy. “Culture, Change Collide in Treme.” The Times-Picayune [New Oleans] 2 October 2007: 1-4. Web.

Sayre, Katherine. “New Orleans home prices up 46 percent since Hurricane Katrina; suburbs more modest.” The Times-Picayune 11 August 2015: 1-6. http://www.nola.com/business/index.ssf/2015/08/new_orleans_home_prices_up_46.html .

Spring, Joel. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004. Book.

Staff. “Summary of Church History.” 2007. St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans. 12 December 2015.

Staff, History.com. Hurricane Katrina. 7 March 2009. <http://www.history.com/topics/hurricane-katrina>.

Woodward, Alex. “New Orleans one of the worst U.S. cities for renters.” 30 March 2015. www.bestofneworleans.com:Gambit. Web. 12 December 2015.

“Welcome Home Sisters!”: A Personal and Political Education

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For Rebecca in Barter on the occasion of our 1st Michigan Womyn’s Music festival. by Caroline (and Monika) from Montreal, Canada August 16, 1987

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast

I’d never seen

womyn walking nude

hand in hand

very simple

but I’d never seen it

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

thirty Amazon mud wrestlers

or womyn

whose breasts

held worlds of their own


creating crafts

for womyn only:

purple velvet

silver labyris

clitoris in pearl

I’d never

walked alone in the woods


of rape


before Michigan

I’d never seen

so many stomachs, thighs,

breasts, buttocks,

so many colored

pubic hairs

made public

with ease



I’d never seen

so many Lesbians

I’d never had the chance

to love so openly

to stand pressed to my lover

outside our tent

orgasms still coursing through us

flute or bongos in the background

womyn stiring, womyn moving,

womyn loving

like us

near by

Before Michigan

I knew diversity

could be respected

amongst womyn

but I’d never

lived the reality

like this…..

womyn of colors, white womyn,

sober support, over forties,

DART, young womyn

interpretation by voice or hand

I’d never seen

children growing

with the education I missed

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast.


[1] From Voices From The Land http://www.michfestmatters.com/


The above poem was written for a breast cancer survivor as trade for a velvet treasure bag at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival barter market. Every August since 1976 women from around the country and around the world have gathered in rural Michigan for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michigan). More than ten years ago, when I first learned of this annual gathering in celebration of lesbian feminist culture, I knew that I wanted to attend Michigan. As a lesbian feminist who loves music and nature, six days deep in the woods surrounded by other lesbian feminists and some of my favorite musicians, comics, and spoken-word artists seemed like a little piece of heaven on earth. For ten long years I heard the distant drumbeat of my tribe but there was always some reason I couldn’t go; I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the vacation time from work, I didn’t have anyone to go with, I was at residency for graduate school, I was afraid of the reaction from my activist communities due to controversy over trans inclusion at the festival .  When I learned that 2015 would be the 40th and last Michigan I knew I had to make the pilgrimage despite my fears. I couldn’t let this, my last opportunity, slip away.

I had no idea at the time that Michigan would prove to be more than a camping trip, more than a simple music festival, more than a series of workshops, but a full-fledged educational experience.  It may be unusual to think of a music festival as a school, but in his essay “Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology?” Laurence Cox (2014) writes, “Much of the knowledge now treated as unproblematically academic, including some of its highest status products, has roots in the efforts of popular movements to contest the status quo” (p. 957). I was already steeped in feminist theory and knew quite a bit about the lesbian feminist culture responsible for shepherding in birth and abortion rights, the equal rights amendment, rape-crisis centers, and women’s shelters, basically the culture celebrated at Michigan. With that background, I certainly didn’t expect to leave Michigan with a whole new perspective on both my role as a feminist activist and my personal identity as a “fat butch dyke”. I didn’t expect Michigan to be as much or even more about education than it was about entertainment. Even today I struggle to articulate both my actual experiences of the festival and the depth of meaning this six-day excursion in the Michigan woods has had on my life.


[1] I will not devote space in this essay for this twenty-year controversy. For more information, see:

  • Official festival statements: http://michfest.com/community-statements/
  • Myths and truths about Michigan: http://www.michfestmatters.com/myths-and-truths-about-the-michigan-womyns-music-festival/
  • History of camp trans: http://eminism.org/michigan/faq-protest.html

When I think of education in the most technical sense there are three words that come to mind—curriculum, pedagogy, and community. Michigan was not only a space for women to live, even briefly, outside the confines of capitalist heteropatriarchy, but it also held space for lesbian feminists to share their culture and language. The curriculum at Michigan was vast and varied; from singing circles to writing workshops, from anti-racism dialogues to herbal medicine demonstrations there was something for everyone. Michigan was a model of “how kindness might produce pedagogical relationships that sow the seeds of possibility for the transformation of … lives” and was an answer to the questions “how might we imagine a feminism that uses kindness as a pedagogical strategy? And what might feminist kindness in the classroom do to the lives, bodies, experiences, and identities that inhabit these spaces” (Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen, 2014, p. 1). Finally, a safe and supportive community was at the heart of everything that transpired on the festival land.

After two days of driving the 900 miles across Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan my partner Dena and I arrived at “The Line”. Thousands of women were lined up for over 8 miles in RV’s, SUVs, trucks, minivans, and compact cars. Some with nothing but a backpack, some with automobiles overflowing with gear. As I lowered my window I began to hear the the refrain, “Welcome home sisters!” What started out feeling kitschy, soon gathered meaning and started to feel real. On the line women of all shapes and sizes and colors, all smiling and waving, greeted us as if we were family. In her entry in Voices From The Land (2016) festival attendee Artemis writes, “My partner walks The Line with the girls and explains, quite plainly, that everyone they see here is female. That one with the beard? Female. That one with the tie and coat? Female. Those two women over there, with the kid just learning to walk? That is a family. Us, here together? We are a family too.” This was the first lesson I began to learn even before entering the gates, I was part of a global tribe of women, of feminists and lesbians. I had a culture and a community, and here I had found a whole new family. For the next 8 hours, as afternoon turned to dusk and dusk turned to evening, we started to get to know this new family while we slowly made our way to the festival gate.

My partner and I finally entered the gates at 9pm as darkness was beginning to settle over the festival grounds. Some of the festival crew suggested we might want to park and spend the night in our car, but having just spent two days in my compact Mazda3 the last thing I wanted to do was spend another minute in its too small confines. Little did we know that we still had hours to get through orientation, pick out our work shifts, load and unload our gear, and figure out how to set up camp in the pitch-black darkness of the rural Michigan woods. You must understand that the land where this festival was built is almost entirely untouched forest; there were no designated campsites pre-cleared of forest debris. Somehow we picked a spot and hung our meager lantern on a branch. I briefly regretted getting the two-room Taj Mahal of tents as we struggled to untangle impossibly long tent poles and what seemed like miles of incomprehensible nylon in almost complete darkness. It was after 1:00 AM when we finally—gratefully, despite the cold temperatures and a leaking air mattress—settled into our first night of much needed rest.

The first morning on the land brought a wave of lessons. Professor Bonnie Morris (1999) describes some of the sensations felt by first-time attendees in her book Eden Built By Eves where she writes, “Forget structure and hierarchy for a moment, the first shock for festival virgins is the plethora of breasts. This is women-only space, folks— which means the freedom and safety to go without a shirt in the soft summer air. It means for many a woman the first day of being at home in her body and the first sensation of sun on her bare back since babyhood. There is no need to cover up here; there is no need for shame” (p. 67). I was immediately in awe of women of every age, size, color, and gender presentation all seeming comfortable and safe in their own skin, clothed and unclothed. It didn’t matter if a topless woman was 350 or 120 pounds, we still looked each other in the eye as we passed, no sneers, no cat calls, no judgments. Even though I felt the heavy burden of a lifetime of female socialization and body shame lifting slightly the hardest part of the second day for me was the showers!

Michigan didn’t have any indoor facilities. There were several shower areas like the one pictured below. They were simply ten shower heads, five on each side of a wooden structure with one curtained shower on the back, referred to as the “shy shower.”

Figure 1:https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/07/fe/48/07fe488822751a8e4274937a886cb889.jpg

After such a long day on the line and setting up camp the night before, I was in dire need of cleansing. As I stood in line waiting for a free spot I got more and more nervous about being so vulnerably naked in front of so many other women. When the first shower opened, I froze. I couldn’t do it. My partner took that first open shower. When the next opened I still couldn’t do it. I waited for the shy shower. As I cleaned off the dust and sweat of the day before I vowed to myself that I was going to somehow overcome this paralyzing fear built on body shame. This became my personal goal for the week; I would walk the land naked at least once before I had to leave it behind.

For the week 6,609 women came together as a family, cooking together, cleaning together, loving together, playing together, showering together, and even fighting together. In short, collectively doing all the things needed to make any home or community a functional place. Safety was the number one priority and collective actions of this makeshift family ensured everyone’s basic needs were met. A kitchen staffed with a mix of festival worker crew and many attendee volunteers cooked hot vegetarian meals three times a day over wood fired cooking pits kept burning overnight for the entire festival. DART, the Disabled Access Resource Team, provided a special centralized camping area, shuttle services around the festival grounds for people with mobility issues, wheelchair accessible showers, and ASL interpreter services at all shows and requested workshops. The Oasis was a place to find any kind of emotional or addiction support. Basic health services for all attendees could be found at The Womb. Outside of the official festival services, women helped each other whenever a need was seen.

I was thrilled to live in a land where “feminist” was not a dirty word, where capitalist heteropatriarchy was not the predominant belief system, and where it was safe to be anyone I wanted to be. A friend of mine recently wrote a Facebook post about some of her Michigan experiences and the loss we share at the closing of the festival:

Michfest, above all else, was a place for womyn to heal from patriarchal trauma and abuse. Approximately 80% of womyn at Michfest were lesbians or bisexual, and many were also differently abled, womyn of color, sexual abuse survivors, butch and gender non-conforming womyn who experienced a lot of discrimination, Deaf or hard-of-hearing, economically disadvantaged, closeted for safety, and/or in recovery. Michfest was our one safe place, maybe the only 650 acres on Earth where womyn were free. That is why all the vitriol against Michfest is such a punch to the gut. Trans activists paint us as a “hate group,” when in fact we are a hateD group, trying to heal. Michfest was, for so many womyn who had survived girlhood, a place of healing from spending our whole lives dealing (to various degrees) with misogyny, abuse, and oppression in patriarchy. There were multiple, daily Sacred Singing Circles, recovery meetings, healing workshops, sweat lodges for abuse survivors, and so on and so forth…and these healing circles and rituals were frickin’ intense. I will never forget the intensity of both the joy, of womyn and girls dancing naked and giddy and free in a circle of sisters, and the pain, the unbelievable pain that surged out of womyn in the form of screams, moans, gagging, tears, gasps, fists pounding the dirt. That literal, physical purging of pain and oppression was often what it took in order to begin healing. It may have been the only place in the world where that purging and healing was possible at that level and with that level of safety…. We had *no time or energy* to put towards oppressing trans people, as trans activists claim, because all our time and energy was required for healing ourselves and each other. AND WE WERE NOT DONE (Gabrielle, 2016).

Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for a big butch woman to parade in a tutu. Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for 30 nude women of color to march in the center of town chanting, “Naked and safe is beautiful.” Never, before Michigan, have I seen girlhood in all its diversity so genuinely celebrated. From archery and hatchet throwing to hula hoops and stilt-walking, dressed in bowties or fairy wings, at Michigan girlhood mattered.

Throughout the week I had a lot to learn from this community of women. Before I could keep my personal promise of walking the land naked I had to learn some hard lessons about me as a fat woman, as a feminist, and as a butch dyke, as well as lessons about the safety and compassion of a community built on a foundation of radical feminist idealism. Fortunately, the loving community of Michigan was just the first aspect of its educational potential. In retrospect I see that there was also an astounding curriculum that was delivered through a powerful pedagogical model that encouraged active participation through its emphasis on kindness, compassion, and safety.

An unspoken but clear commitment to kindness toward each other and the planet at the heart of Michigan made it a place where curiosity and accountable relationships were formed even where there were strongly divergent positions. In 1991 a transwoman, Nancy Buckholder, was asked to leave the festival which sparked a 24-year controversy over trans inclusion and the festival intention as a place of celebration of women and girls who were born female. Despite the festival organizers’ repeated denunciation of the 1991 incident as a mistake, as well as the simple fact that transwomen were always present at the festival, many queer activists have targeted Michigan as well as performers and attendees with boycotts and even extreme threats of violence (see https://terfisaslur.com for examples). Although I had read all about the controversy from outside the festival, I was very curious to see how the topic of trans inclusion was discussed within festival. I was surprised to see that, not only was the topic of trans inclusion discussed but, even in its very last year, several workshops in different formats were dedicated to facilitating the challenging conversations around the controversial topic. I chose to attend two Allies in Understanding workshops and one Imagining an Inclusive Festival workshop.

Early in the first workshop we discussed the practice of radical listening. Radical listening is the startlingly simple idea of listening closely to whoever is speaking instead of thinking about what you want to say next. It seems simple, but it turns out to be more difficult in practice than one would expect. After practicing radical listening and modeling communication techniques that allowed for expression of controversial and even upsetting differences of opinion, the workshop leaders asked everyone to line up along a spectrum depending on how they felt about the idea of trans inclusion in the festival. The line was then folded in half and we were partnered with our ideological opposite in the spectrum and asked to share our feelings and radically listen to the feelings of our partner. I talked about being in what I termed the “Michigan closet,” not feeling safe in my community because I planned to attend the festival and how that was such a shame because so much of the hatred was based on misinformation. The woman I shared this with reflected similar feelings and together we wondered how we could tell the story of Michigan in a way that could be heard by these people we care about but who don’t understand the intention of the festival.  Obviously, I was not on an extreme end of the spectrum and the woman I was partnered with in this exercise was open to a creative dialogue. I don’t know that anyone’s views were significantly changed because of the exercise, but after the workshop one woman who had a more extreme position on the topic said that she thought the respectful conversations that she had over the two days allowed for a deeper level of understanding, if not harmony, than could ever be achieved in the flame wars of social media.

Another example of understanding across difference came from my partner Dena who is a Jewish Palestine solidarity activist. She met several Zionist women at the “Jews Choosing Justice Despite our Fears” workshop for Jewish-identified women.  Although the conversation they had was difficult and uncomfortable, she later told me that the experience allowed women from opposite ends of a heated spectrum to hear each other in ways that had not previously been possible. Later in the day we sat with one woman from the workshop who told her “I can hear it coming from you here in this space.” Unlike anywhere else in my experience, within Michigan people from opposite ends of extremely emotionally charged issues came together to talk through and learn from each other with respect. The feminist ethos of radical listening, unconditional love, and deep mutual respect built into the Michigan foundations and maintained even when we vehemently disagreed, created a space where discussion could occur between different modes of knowing, ultimately creating new knowledge and better understanding.

In a recent Feminist Teacher article, “Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness” Shoshana Magnet, Corinne Lysandra Mason, and Kathryn Trevenen (2014), describe “curiosity [as] an emotion necessary to learning and discovery, one that thrives more easily in an environment where students feel safe to try out different ideas and to dialogue with one another. In this way, a pedagogical commitment to kindness also helps to foster curiosity, an essential feature of education” (p. 8). They go on to describe a pedagogical method they call “thinking with” where “kindness is understood as a pedagogical strategy to rearrange our engagements with texts and each other, so that ‘thinking with’ rather than ‘speaking to’ or ‘arguing with’ is central to the classroom objectives” (p. 11). In retrospect, I can see that the pedagogy of Michigan was exactly what these teachers were experimenting with in their classrooms, a feminist pedagogy of kindness. At the time of the Allies in Understanding workshop I thought it was crazy and perhaps even a little bit dangerous to “fold the line” and open discussion between the most ideologically opposite participants in the workshop, but now I see that the underlying pedagogy of kindness supported that dialogue in a way where curiosity and the possibility of deeper understanding resulted in conversations that were more geared toward thinking with rather than speaking to or arguing with each other.

The Michigan curriculum incorporated countless subjects that are not available in traditional mainstream educational settings, or even in most social or activist spaces. Some of the topics covered included radical acceptance, feminist history, lesbian culture, and sexual and gender identity. As much as Michigan was a place for affirmative learning, it was also a place for unlearning racism, classism, ageism, ableism, and body shame. This is a radical learning. In her dissertation, Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance At The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (2011) Lisa Higgins describes Michigan as a place “where women strive to revise regressive models of community and unlearn the negative ‘–isms’ that permeate the larger patriarchal culture. … At Festival, this large gathering of women creates intersections from a range of races, classes, communities, and backgrounds where even this feminist institution is questioned, targeted, and criticized by its own participants” (p. 36). In academia we learn about joining the academic conversation which sometimes means questioning the foundations and separations of disciplines. Similarly, Michigan provided a safe place to not only celebrate lesbian feminist culture, but to seriously question, debate, and expand the beliefs at the heart of that culture. Michigan could serve as a model for education that asks important questions like: What are valid ways of knowing? Whose knowledge is valuable? Whose voices are being left out? How do we communicate across difference?

In their essay, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians (1970) wrote:

To the extent that she cannot expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female, she can never truly find peace with herself. … Those of us who work that through find ourselves on the other side of a tortuous journey through a night that may have been decades long. The perspective gained from that journey, the liberation of self, the inner peace, the real love of self and of all women, is something to be shared with all women – because we are all women. (p. 1)

The radical feminist values at the core of Michigan made it a place where women could, even briefly, expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female to do the work, individually and collectively, of getting through to the other side of this tortuous journey. The legacy of Michigan is the perspective, liberation, inner peace, and love gained by all of us who have lived and loved and learned on that sacred land and in that truly feminist educational tradition. Michigan will be remembered as a community where the lives and culture of women, regardless of race, ability, size, gender expression, age, religion, or sexual orientation were validated and celebrated. Michigan was a model for education that incorporated a curriculum built according to the needs and desires of all who came through the gates rather than the interests of capitalist heteropatriarchy. Michigan was a place where a pedagogy of kindness made possible true curiosity and radical understanding even where disagreements seemed insurmountable.

With this I am brought full circle to the poem included as a preamble to this essay “Before Michigan / I knew diversity / could be respected /amongst womyn / but I’d never / lived the reality / like this… / I’d never seen / children growing / with the education I missed.” I am profoundly grateful to have experienced a taste of the education, community, curriculum, and pedagogy found at Michigan. Though I regret all the years I missed, I hope to share the fundamental lessons of radical acceptance and feminist empowerment far beyond the gates of Michigan and into the wider world where those lessons are so tragically needed.

As women filed out of closing ceremonies on the final night of the final Michigan I still hadn’t kept my promise to myself. I had managed to take a few showers outside of the “shy shower” under the cover of darkness, never looking up, and with my towel close at hand for a quick cover-up for the return to the tent. I had one last chance. Had I learned any of the lessons of Michigan? Had I let go of any of the emotional baggage from a lifetime of oppression and female socialization? Had I learned to trust? It was time to find out!

Elizabeth Ritzman’s Voices From The Land entry echoes my own sentiments about that last shower and living in the safety and shelter of womyn’s land, she writes, “I remember finding the courage to go shower in the moonlight, and how I never wanted to leave. That safe feeling sheltered by the trees, pebbles beneath my feet, the giggling girls in the trees, that moon, womyns bodies of all sorts wet and glistening, murmuring to each other in the night. This is what it must be like to live in a world created and defined by women. The night is an intimate friend, no longer a threat to be managed.” I stepped out from under the water and walked, cleaner and lighter, for the first time on that sacred land wearing nothing but moonlight.  This final lesson I learned at Michigan was both the most challenging and the most personally and politically rewarding. Body shame is ubiquitous in our culture and has played a particularly destructive role in my life as a fat butch dyke. It took a whole week, the cover of darkness, and the courage, compassion, and radical acceptance of over 6,600 women in sacred community to loosen the bonds of body shame in myself. The bonds are still there today, but for a brief moment, I was able to see what the world might be like without them, and it was phenomenal!





Cox, L. (2014). Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology? Sociology, 48(5), 954-971.

Magnet, S., Mason, C. L., & Trevenen, K. (2014). Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness. Feminist Teacher, 25(1), 1-22.

Morris, B. J. (1999). Eden built by Eves: The culture of women’s music festivals: Alyson Publications.

Radicalesbians, Ÿ. (1970). The woman identified woman: New England Free Press.

Voices From The Land. (2016). Michfest Matters.  Retrieved from http://www.michfestmatters.com/

Correcting Capitalism: King’s Critique of Economic Injustice

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King’s concept of the beloved community formed his ideas about American capitalism, whose excesses he saw as related to the racism and violence he fought against. King embraced Frederick Douglass’s passion to correct economic injustice, as well as the fierce self-reliance of Booker T. Washington, both of whom were King’s role models. The dignity of every man, woman, and child is the nucleus of King’s “beloved community,” a concept whose genesis can be found in the works and teachings of Christian theologians Walter Rauschenbusch, Henry George, Henry Fosdick, Howard Thurman, and Paul Tillich, all of whom critiqued the excesses of capitalism that demand the labor of the many to supply the luxuries of the few. It was King’s Christianity that led him to believe the God of the Universe had endowed the Earth with enough resources to provide every person with enough to eat, thereby freeing them to use their God-given talents to pursue happiness and live with dignity.

King scholars have identified and developed a framework to meet the burdens of racism, sexism, and sadism, as well as to provide insight into the harm of militarism versus the promise of nonviolence (Burrow 2006). Many studies on King have focused on his attempt to heal the nation of racism, his insistence on remaining nonviolent in the midst of personal threats and intimidation, and his call for pursuing peace between the United States and the Soviet Union and Vietnam (Nemeth 2009; Branch 2006). Thus, historians have noted his contributions to ending racism and the Vietnam War but, for the most part, have neglected his contribution to economic justice, limiting his role in the struggle to the last four years of his life. Thomas Jackson (2007) is the exception. He traces King’s interest in economic justice to the beginning to his ministry. Although Jackson fills a tremendous void, he fails to provide the context of King’s position on capitalism. King believed that capitalism must be disciplined by a beloved economy that each community member must be treated with dignity and respect. For King, the benefits of capitalism were not the privilege of a few but rather for everyone to enjoy. King sought to end poverty through guaranteeing a minimum annual income for everyone willing to work.

In this article, I use a chronological approach to examine King’s critique of the economic exploitation inherent in capitalism. King’s critique of economic justice and the flaws of capitalism evolved as he dug deeper into the roots of social injustice and worked to eradicate poverty. This brief study identifies the salient ethical statements made by King on economic injustice, demonstrating contrary to the prevailing understanding of most scholars that King, from the outset of his ministry, concerned himself with the injustices caused by an economic system that privileges a few to the detriment of the majority. In fact, the twin missions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were to save the soul of America and to end economic exploitation, racism, and militarism. This article, then, retraces how King, by extending the virtues of a beloved community to economic realm, developed his deepening understanding that capitalism needed some type of correction in order to improve the lives of all people.

King’s reformist sentiments about capitalism can be found in his sermons, speeches, articles, and other communications, both to organized labor organizations and to other audiences as well, and was inherent in his concept of the beloved community, where all regardless of their economic station are treated with dignity. Existing scholarship places the beginnings of King’s modifying capitalism agenda just four years before his assassination. But in his 1950 reflections on his journey to a Christian ministry, King relates that seeing the Great Depression’s soup lines as a child first ignited his interest in economic exploitation (King, Papers, vol. 1, 1992, 359). Accordingly, King already expresses concern about income and wealth inequality in the early 1950s, as evidenced, for example, in his sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” (King, Testament, 1986, 416). Throughout his work, King offered a valuable ethical analysis of prevailing economic theories that continues to be relevant. The mounting challenge of overcoming economic exploitation eventually led to his “Poor People’s Campaign,” announced in December of 1967, which demanded the implementation of public policy toward the goal of ending this portion of triple evils racism, militarism and economic exploitation. King was assassinated on his way to seeking redress in Washington; however, the economic reforms that he campaigned for in Memphis, Tennessee, provided cornerstones for the “beloved economy” he sought to build (Young 2009, 6; Wood 2005, 85). In retracing the development of  King’s economic theory, this article seeks to contribute to the intellectual discourse about King by broadening our understanding of the scope of his radical social reform agenda, as well as about the economic theory that emerged during a period of crisis in American society. King’s persistent attempt to structurally reform capitalism demonstrates that he believed there can be no beloved community without a beloved economy.

King’s concern with both the economy and the community is related to his desire to establish a beloved relationship among all human beings. It is from this overarching premise of the beloved community that the necessity of a conceptual framework that embraces all Judeo-Christian believers and nonbelievers becomes noteworthy, for the triple evils persevere in America and around the world. Examining King’s early ministry in the context of reforming capitalism yields concrete evidence that the civil rights movement’s leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., were concerned about the economic conditions of all people throughout the world, and in particular those dwelling in the richest nation in the world.

Early Influences

King’s concern for economic stabilization went beyond African Americans. His work on the Connecticut Tobacco Farm taught him more than how to harvest tobacco; it gave him first-hand knowledge of the economic privation faced by laborers of all races, none of whom were compensated fairly for their labor:

During my late teens, I worked two summers against my father’s wishes – he never wanted my brother and me to work around white people because of the oppressive conditions – in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice first hand, and realized the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negroes. (King, Strength 1963, 77–8)

King also understood the link between economic exploitation and racism, which he expounded on in his speech “God Marches On,” delivered following the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965 – much earlier in his civil rights work than previously understood. His criticism of capitalism’s flaws was ongoing throughout his journey from Montgomery to Memphis. King began building the framework of his economic analysis of America in the summer of 1955; he began with the African American community’s fragile economy. King’s insights were prophetic, his speeches poetic:

[The economic problem] radiates in our communities like the rays of the beaming sun. In every community people are hungry, unemployment is rising like a tidal wave, housing conditions are embarrassingly poor, crime and juvenile delinquency are spreading like the dew drops on an early fall morning. (King, Papers, vol. 4, 2000, 220)

Here King is building on a theme that Walter Rauschenbusch taught and Harry Fosdick preached, namely, the necessity of religious leaders to concern themselves with people’s social conditions in this world rather than (or in addition to) their well-being in a future world. King lamented,

[h]ow we can be concerned with the souls of men and not be concerned with the conditions that damn their souls? How can we be concerned with men being true and honest and not concerned with the economic conditions that made them dishonest and the social conditions with the economic conditions that make them untrue? (Ibid., 222)

Similarly, King appropriates the pericope of Dives and Lazarus from Luke 16:19–31, a parable of sin and evil, to discuss American capitalism’s failure to provide for laborers. King notes in an October 1955 sermon that Dives – who was rich on Earth – went to hell, and Lazarus – poor and ill during life – went to heaven: “There is nothing more tragic than to find a person who can look at the anguishing and deplorable circumstances of fellow human beings and not be moved. Dives’ wealth had made him cold and calculating; it had blotted out the warmth of compassion” (Ibid., 236). King returned to the same theme on March 18, 1968, in his speech “All Labor has Dignity,” in which he spoke about individuals so selfish and indifferent to the plight of others that they accumulated wealth at the expense of others. King did not condemn wealth per se; rather, he condemned the failure to share the economically generated wealth with the poor: “Dives is the American capitalist who never seeks to bridge the economic gulf between himself and the laborer, because he feels that it is the natural for some to live in inordinate luxury while others live in abject poverty” (Ibid., 238). He believed that wealthy people must pay those who work for them a living wage. He saw economic equality as spiritual prosperity.

Building the Beloved Community

Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, King became a sought-after speaker and was called upon to aid in desegregation efforts elsewhere. In 1956 he first introduced the idea of the beloved community to the Diaspora; it would prove to be one of his most enduring legacies, the pinnacle of his efforts to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation (Fairclough 1987, 32). King was inspired by Walter Rauschenbusch’s interpretation of the beloved community, which had been inspired by Josiah Royce. Royce was a philosopher who first coined the phrase the beloved community.

The SCLC, with King at its helm, incorporated the beloved community into its fight against segregation, and it became the backbone of the civil rights movement as a whole (Wood 2005, 95). The concept was hardly foreign to African Americans; it has deep biblical roots, and permeates the book of Ephesians (Young 2009, 2) – a text King (and the entire civil rights movement) leaned upon heavily. In it, King’s imaginary Paul argues that the church is the beloved body of Christ. He uses the term “beloved” in the first chapter after saying that believers are adopted into the family of Christ in the fifth verse:

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us…. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:1–9)

A large segment of Christians in America particularly in the South did not heed the teachings of the scriptures at that time. The interpretation of the preceding passage that would argue against segregation in Ephesians holds that everybody, regardless of race or beliefs, has Christ’s blood. King often lamented that the most segregated time of the week in America is Sunday mornings (King, Testament, 1986).

The terms “beloved” and “redemption” can also be found in King’s sermons as early as August 1956:

We will have to boycott at times, but let us always remember that boycotts are not ends within themselves. A boycott is just a means to an end. A boycott is merely a means to say, “I don’t like it.” It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is the re-creation of a beloved community. The end is the creation of a society where men will live together as brothers. An end is not retaliation but redemption. (King, Papers, vol. 2, 1998, 344)

In 1956, at the age of twenty-seven, King already possessed a coherent vision of the beloved community and followed the Pauline definition of the new age and the purpose of humanity. His interpretations of the Bible were explicitly relevant to the civil rights movement.

King and Capitalism

King’s most in-depth analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of capitalism is in Paul’s “Letter to the American Christian,” a sermon he delivered on November 4, 1956. King noted capitalism’s strengths: that various goods and services can be delivered rapidly, efficiently, and abundantly, strengths that made the United States a wealthy nation. However, King appealed to the nation to understand that with great blessings come great responsibilities, such as ensuring dignity and respect for all, regardless of their economic station: “[Capitalism] can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life” (King, Papers, vol. 1, 1992, 416). King knew that a person is more than the sum total of his or her material possessions, and warned about a society that valued individual wealth over the collective good. King’s activism aimed at correcting capitalism in order to realize a beloved – and therefore just and truly Christian – community.

King, through the imaginary Pauline letter, wanted well-heeled capitalists to use their power and influence to promote better distribution of resources for everyone.  King’s vision was not limited to correcting capitalism solely in the United States: “You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth” (King, Papers, vol. 2, 1998, 344). King understood that the ability existed to eliminate poverty across the world, but the moral will of the majority of people to do so was lacking. King gave this analysis of wealth inequality:

God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth. (King, Papers, vol. 2, 1998, 344)

King sought the help of the affluent to work against income and wealth inequality so that each of God’s children could live a quality life. King’s desire to correct the excesses of capitalism – specifically, the exploitation of the poor by materialistic individuals – stretches back to the first few years of his ministry, and his opinions about capitalism are consistent with his positions on violence and racism:

The misuse of capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one-tenth of one percent of the population controls more than 40 percent of the wealth. Oh, America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. (Ibid., 416)

By underscoring that the poor are just as worthy as the rich in the eyes of God, King confronted an issue that resurfaces again and again in American history, the inequality of wealth. King’s Poor People’s Campaign addressed the lack of capital available to the poor (Young 2004); the concentration of wealth, he knew, leads to exploitation, and luxuries for the few were obtained at the expense of necessities for the masses (Bellamy 2009).

King’s critique of capitalism continued in his ministry and public statements. He called upon capitalist leaders to use the democratic government to improve the distribution of resources for the masses. King displayed a faith in capitalism and democracy.  King, through the imaginary Pauline letter, wanted well-heeled capitalists to use their power and influence to promote better distribution of resources for everyone. King’s vision was not limited to correcting capitalism solely in the United States. He understood that the ability existed to eliminate poverty across the world but the moral will to do so was lacking.  King gave his analysis of wealth inequality. “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth” (King, Papers, vol. 2, 1998, 344). King sought the help of the affluent to work against income and wealth inequality so that each of God’s children could live a quality life.

King discussed the immorality of inordinate wealth existing among a sea of poverty. Similarly, he provided what Baldwin (1991) describes as the core of King’s beloved community in discussing God: The belief that God is impartial, that God created each person unique, but that God created no one human better than the other. Second, it reveals a sacramentalistic idea of the cosmos as echoed by the psalmist: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof – the world, and they that dwell therein; each human being only has a finite interest in land because life is mortal” (Burrow 2006, 172). King’s correction of the misuses of capitalism involved clarifying to whom the world really belongs – to the masses, not the top one-tenth of one percent who at that time controlled 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. In King’s view, this correction could reconcile the historically fragile relationships between the rich and the poor, blacks and whites, Jews and Arabs.

At his first speech at the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957, King addressed American citizens, but his message was for Congress:

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will, by the power of our vote to write the law on the statute books of the South, bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of blood thirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. (Ibid.)

Pluralism as envisioned by James Madison, King underscores above, was unachievable as long as poll taxes, literacy tests, and other obstacles impeded African Americans from exercising their franchise. Through the ballot box, they could elect legislators and judges who would protect their interests; without access to it, African American contractors could not work as government contractors despite paying taxes to the very government that oppressed them. And governmental disenfranchisement promoted hatred rather than love, keeping a beloved community of men and women of all races beyond reach.

King and Organized Labor

King’s critique of capitalism sharpened in his speeches to labor unions in the early 1960s. He spoke about the effects of technology on American workers. King’s keen analysis of social conditions was reflected in “Change Must Come to the United Neighborhood Houses of New York,” a speech he gave in the early 1960s: “It is an economic truism that the more we create miraculous instruments of production, the more we create both material surpluses and human surpluses” (King, Morehouse

It appears to me that this is just as true today: we suffer not from a lack of consumable goods but from too few consumers who are able to purchase those goods without incurring debt. Although the United States is the richest nation in the world – indeed, King would say, because the United States is the richest nation in the world – there is an income crisis affecting the poor and middle class traceable to high unemployment rates, underemployment, wage suppression, outsourcing, and a minimum wage outpaced by inflation (Dobbs 2006, 116; OSU 2012). And those factors are tied directly to discrimination. One of King’s concrete political solutions was a “guaranteed income” for all Americans through which he envisioned eliminating poverty (King, Testament, 1986, 615):

We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we rather widely acknowledge that dislocation in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrusts people into idleness and bind[s] them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our consciousness today by branding them as despised and incompetent. We also know no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate poverty (King, Morehouse,

The poverty rate for African Americans in the 1950s was 22.4 percent. It had declined to 12.3 percent by 1973 because of public policy changes such as the Civil Rights Act and the “War on Poverty” made during the 1960s, without which the poverty rate would likely have increased instead. Even so, it was nearly 8 points higher than the national average of just 4.78 percent. Clearly, racism in the form of policies like “last hired first fired,” which affected blacks disproportionately contributed directly to that phenomenon. King believed that the resources to wage a “War on Poverty” were too limited to effectively eliminate poverty.

It was often remarked that “a rising tide lifts all boats” a quote made whenever Republicans wanted to justify tax cuts and attributed to President John F. Kennedy and actually made in 1963. Apparently, the poor may not have had many boats to put into the great oceans of economic opportunity in the world because we have had plenty of tax cuts and the rich have gotten much richer since the 1980s. The rich have bigger yachts but the poor’s tug boats are sinking. The amount of poor in the nation has not dipped under 12 percent since 1978 (Morgan 2011). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 the unemployment rate for African Americans was approximately double the national rate; the poverty rate among blacks was twice that of whites (Macartney, Bishaw, and Fontenot 2013).

The King collection at the Atlanta University Center holds primary source documents that evince King’s deep interest in economics and contradict general perceptions that he concentrated his efforts on race issues and nonviolence (Young and Sehgal 2010). According to Andrew Young, to avoid being labeled a “socialist” or a “Communist,” King tended to curtail his discussion of economics or address them cryptically: “We said we just want the same thing everybody else had. Martin’s decision not to talk economics put the country very much at ease” (Young and Sehgal 2010, 65). This explains why King never gave a speech that addressed economic conditions in the United States comprehensively until the Poor People’s March in Washington in 1968 (Bretz 2010). But a close examination of King’s speeches and writings makes clear that economic opportunity was at the heart of his understanding of the aims and goals the civil rights movement (Young and Sehgal 2010, 61). Although he frequently addressed economic issue in veiled fashion, King consistently throughout his career professed that the economic inequities in the United States result directly from capitalism’s inability to meet the needs of the working poor.

As early as 1961, King spoke to labor union gatherings about the history of organized labor and the economic challenges confronting workers. He addressed the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO in Miami. (King, Morehouse, He spoke in Detroit in April 1961 about the similarities of the economic conditions facing blacks and whites and the need to raise the minimum wage, then just $1.25. He sprinkled economic analysis into speeches to local unions. He told the United Packinghouse Workers of America on May 21, 1962, that racism within the union itself was undermining its bargaining position with the Minneapolis-based meat-packing union (Jackson 2007, 95). In October 1963, King reminded attendees at the thirtieth anniversary gathering of District 65 of the AFL-CIO that the suppression of the voting rights of Southern blacks would yield congressional delegations from Southern states that opposed workers’ rights (King, Morehouse,

King did not speak solely to labor unions about economic inequality. He expounded on housing and employment discrimination to the National Press Club in July 1962 in Washington DC (Ibid., Following his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, King lectured in New York City, voicing his opposition to tokenism within the struggle for economic justice. He addressed the need for fair housing policies before the United Neighborhood of Houses of New York in his speech “Change Must Come” (Ibid., And King spoke forcefully on behalf of the poor and the disenfranchised at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in 1964, where he argued that white laborers suffered from income suppression as a result of slavery and segregation, too, in the form of depressed wages, and he called for G.I. Bill–type legislation to address those ongoing inequities:

Few people consider the fact that in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all three hundred years robbed of the wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. (King 2008,

King’s speech at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that same year addressed the voter suppression caused by the party’s refusal to recognize Mississippi’s delegation to the convention. In 1965, King appeared in Atlanta before the Hungry Club to deliver “A Great Challenge Derived from a Serious Dilemma.” Indeed, King wrote and spoke many times prior to 1964 on the economic conditions of poor people and how to ameliorate their plight.

King also delivered many sermons touching on his concern with economics. His topics included comparisons of Communism and its incompatibility with Christianity, and how the materialism of the United States outpaces its ability to pay consumers enough to consume items and the immorality of greed. In November 1961, King addressed the Fellowship of the Concerned, a part of the Southern Regional Council, delivering the sermon “Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience” (King, Testament, 1986, 43). In it, he described Communism’s fatal flaw: its tenet that the ends justifies the means, thereby opposing Lenin’s reliance on violence, which was unacceptable to Christians. King consistently attacked wealth for wealth’s sake, as on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral, when he lamented, “The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually” (Ibid., 620). And in 1967, he explained why greed is sinful in the sermon “Why Jesus Called a Rich Man a Fool,” relating a story of a rich farmer building a bigger barn for his abundant harvest rather than distributing the extra food to the poor. The rich man’s soul was required of him that very evening.

King the Labor Organizer

The aid of advisers Stanley Levison, Ralph Helstein, Ella Baker, and A. Philip Randolph ensured King was always well-prepared for his speeches to labor unions (Jackson 2007, 71). In his 1961 speech to the United Auto Workers Union, King spoke of labor’s history of struggle – and triumphs – gaining their confidence by demonstrating his knowledge of their tactics and tenacity:

I would like to open by saying that organized labor has come a long, long way from the days of the strike-breaking injunctions of federal courts, from the days of intimidation and firings in the plants, from the days that your union leaders could be physically beaten with impunity. The clubs and claws of the heartless anti-labor forces have been clipped and you now have organizations of strength and intelligence to keep your interest from being submerged and ignored.

An admirer of the social gospel crusader Walter Rauschenbusch, King understood the role the church could play in organizing labor in New York (Ibid., 15). But he also understood the value of organizing directly. Both the church and labor could employ economic boycotts and non-violent protest to pursue social and economic victories. He told the 1961 AFL-CIO convention in Miami:

Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They deplore our discontent, they resent our will to organize, so that we may guarantee that humanity will prevail, and equality will be exacted. They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table. (King, Testament, 1986, 202)

Furthermore, King underscored the shared values of the labor movement and the civil rights movement by unmasking their common foes:

A duality of interest of labor and the Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you a crisis from which we bleed….Whether it be the ultra-right wing in the form of Birch societies or the alliance which former President Eisenhower denounced, the alliance between big military and big industry, or the coalition of Southern Dixiecrats and Northern reactionaries, whatever the form, these menaces now threaten everything decent and fair in American life. Their target is labor, liberals, and the Negro people. (Ibid., 203)

It was the same economic forces – and often the same political bodies – that opposed both desegregation and a living wage for labor, and went to great lengths to block the representation they sought in Congress.

King knit together the triple evils of militarism, racism, and economic exploitation, and saw the equivalence between racist tactics to exploit African Americans and anti-labor tactics to exploit white laborers: both resulted in financial gains exclusively for the wealthy and privileged. And he believed the power of combining non-violence with economic boycotts – the strategy that brought the segregationist bus company to its knees in Montgomery, Alabama – could affect change for blacks and whites alike.

In his speech before the United Packinghouse Workers Union in 1962, King challenged innovators to find a moral, dignified alternative for American workers being displaced by technology:

As machines replace men, we must again question whether the depth of our social thinking matches the growth of technological creativity. We cannot create machines which revolutionize industry unless we simultaneously create ideas commensurate with social and economic reorganization which harness the power of such machine for the benefit of man. (King, Morehouse,

King remained critical of innovators who displaced American workers but remained unwilling to employ their inventiveness to create alternative jobs or to use their wealth to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Today’s kings of industry behave similarly, outsourcing American jobs with no concern for the effect on the American economy and the displaced workers.

King and Human Dignity

For King, civil rights were human rights: “The struggle for civil rights is a fight for human dignity in its broadest dimensions,” he said to the labor union in Chicago (Ibid., Industry was relying more and more on technology and less and less on human labor. King knew that the dignity of those subsequently idled had to be preserved or many would wind up in jail or become addicted to drugs and alcohol:

The economists have prophesized of the tragic effects of automation and cybernation: educators warned of the lapses in our system of education, but no member or groups within the power centers of our society are prepared to face the drastic reforms which will be necessary to deal with these situations. (Ibid., 2)

King was prescient in identifying the social upheaval that would result from the loss of American manufacturing jobs, although he did not foresee how the growth of the service industry would offset that job loss somewhat.

The right to respect and human dignity – the enemies of segregation – was a core principle in King’s beloved community. Absent it, he showed blacks and labor the power of economic withdrawal. And King differentiated between desegregation and integration. Desegregation was the removal of legal of barriers to inclusion. Integration was based on agape love, enabling people of all races to work together, shop together, live together, and invests together because they see themselves as woven together in a single garment of mutuality.

In conclusion, King foresaw a need for a beloved economy to overcome the vast shortcomings of income and wealth economy. He understood the need for every individual to be able to participate in the marketplace regardless of their race, religion, nationality or their social class membership. He embraced the poor, the rich, the black, the red, the white and the yellow people.

As Andrew Young has noted, King understood that having capitalism without access to capital for everyone was as meaningless as having a democracy without everyone having the right to vote (A. A. Young 2009). King did want a global economy and talked often of how interconnected each individual on the planet were. However, King was against the exploitation of one group of people for the benefit of a few people. The Poor’s People March on Washington came after King realized the contribution of government policy toward displacing farmers and laborers in favor of paying people not farming at the behest of major agricultural companies (Ibid). King knew that government policy must be equally intentional in cultivating an economy to embrace all the people as it had been in sustaining inequality. King envisioned democracies around the globe possessing love, power and justice working together to correct economic injustices.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Lewis V. The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics, and Religion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2002.

– . There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1991.

Baldwin, Lewis V., Burrow, Rufus, Jr., Holmes, Barbara A. and Winfield, Holmes, Susan. The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Boundaries of Law, Politics and Religion. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward 2000-1887. London: Signet Classics, 2009.

Brawley, Benjamin. History of Morehouse College. New York: Cosimo, Inc., 1937.

Bretz, Brenda. “The Poor’s People Campaign: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Movement.” University of Virginia Lifetime Learning Site. April 10, 2010.

Burrow, Rufus. God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King Jr. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.

Dobbs, Lou. War On the Middle Class: How the Government, Big Business and Special Interest Groups Are Waging War on the American Dream and How to Fight Back. New York : Viking Group, 2006.

Fairclough, Adam. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Quest for Nonviolent Social Change.” Clark University PYLON 1986: 1-15.

– . To Redeem The Soul of America. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Jackson, Thomas F. From Civil Rights to Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Kennedy, John F. “Alliance For Progress.” Anniversary of Alliance of Progress. Washington, March 1962.

Carson, Clayborne. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

King, Jr. Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Ed. James Melvin Washington. New York: Harper Collins Publishing Company, 1986.

– . All Labor Has Dignity. Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

– . Strength to Love. Cleveland: Collins, 1963.

– . Strive Toward Freedom. New York: Harper Collins, 1958.

The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. Atlanta, Georgia: Unpublished Material.

Moore, Daniel. Sweet Auburn Street of Pride. Charleston: Apex Museum, 2011.

Wood, Virgil. In Love We Trust: Lessons I Learned From Martin Luther King. Silver Spring: Beckham, 2005.

Wood, Virgil, interview by Greg Bailey, April 6, 2010.

Wright, Gavin. “The Civil Rights Revolution as Economic History Author(s): Gavin Wright Source.” The Journal of Economic History 59.2 (Jun., 1999), 1999: 267-289.

Young, Ambassador Andrew, interview by Gregory Bailey, October 31, 2009

Young, Andrew & Sehgal, Kabir. Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legen and His Godson on the Journey Ahead. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Young, Andrew. An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Yunus, Muhammad. Creating a World Without Poverty. New York: U.S. Policy of Public Affairs, 2007.

Yo Protesto! Puerto Rican Anti-Vietnam War and Pro-Independence Protests

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The American sphere of interest, per the Monroe Doctrine (1823), arguably inducted several Latin American countries into the United States’ habit of interfering with other countries when U.S. interests were at stake. Paradoxically, as Historian Michael Parenti points out: “Not many Americans could put together two intelligent sentences about the histories of Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, or Cuba…” (qtd. Lockhard 269). This sobering and embarrassing admission concerning the United States’ general lack of global intellect toward the cultures and histories of countries in which it invests millions of dollars or, at the very least, spend millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. A broad base of historians, such as William Applebaum Williams and his “revisionist” followers, contend that “empire is as American as apple pie”; America likes to spread its influence and democratic ideals to areas of the world where this influence is, frankly, often unwanted (Williams qtd. Lockhard 244). Walter Hixson’s thesis in his controversial book The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy echoes this ethos, declaring:

[N]ational identity is both culturally constructed and hegemonic. Foreign policy flows from cultural hegemony affirming “America” as a manly, racially superior, and providentially destined “beacon of liberty,” a country which possesses a special right to exert power in the world. Hegemonic national identity drives a continuous militant foreign policy, including the regular resort to war. (Hixson 1-2)

The average American does not actively pursue this hegemonic, aggressive point of view, but it is ingrained into American national identity. Average Americans want what is best for the United States, a desire that often excludes, in some instances, considering the point of view of their opponents.

This national identity insists that political arguments regarding foreign policy decisions rarely result in solutions that negatively affect the United States’ interests, which can be interpreted as a further extension of U.S. imperialism. The Vietnam War serves as one strong piece of evidence regarding Hixson’s argument for the United States’ cultural identity as an aggressive, “manly, racially superior” nation. The United States is often criticized for what appears to be an ignorant attitude toward the impact of its foreign policy, and the nation’s behavior in Latin America remains key testimony in the argument that the supposed “beacon of liberty” acts imperialist – often. The United States’ interventions in Latin America under the banner of anti-communism follow the same pattern of behavior Hixson discusses in The Myth of American Diplomacy. Just a forty-year slice of the country’s history (1954 – 1990) reveals that the

list of Latin American governments, some of them democratic, that were actively destabilized, overthrown, or replaced directly or indirectly by the United States is long and sobering: Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1963), Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Jamaica (1980), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Nicaragua (1990). (Lockhard 252)

Following this “long and sobering” behavioral pattern, U.S. war efforts in Vietnam, political scientist Craig Lockhard argues, were “hardly unique” (252). What was unique about the Vietnam War, however, was the historically significant amount of Americans – over half the population – who opposed it (Carroll).

This article examines the unique role Latin Americans played in the movement against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. I explore new scholarship and personal narratives, as well as the music and art of the era, to map the intersections between the civil rights movement, anti-war effort and Puerto Rican independence agenda on the mainland and in Puerto Rico.

Latin American Minorities & the Vietnam War

The larger reaches of the civil rights movement in American history remains largely glossed over in historical texts; the movement was far reaching, and included the resurgence of Native American cultural recognition, migrant politics of the Chicano movement, and the resurgence of nationalism among Americans of Puerto Rican descent. These aforementioned groups – who also contributed lives to the Vietnam War effort – became emboldened by the rhetoric of the various factions of the civil rights movement. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations responded by monitoring perceived “terrorist threats” from within these communities. Those who were targeted for surveillance included the Puerto Rican Young Lords, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizations with which he had been affiliated, and the Black Panthers, to name a few.

Contemporary historians recognize that the chaotic Vietnam War era’s story cannot be told without acknowledging the links between the anti-Vietnam War movement to the various factions of the civil rights movement. George Mariscal chronicles the Chicano-American experience of the Vietnam War in 1999’s Aztlán and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War, interspersing literature from and about the war with historical and cultural accounts, such as veteran’s war memories, of the many Mexican Americans who fought in the Vietnam War. He asserts that Latin Americans, despite their large contribution to many U.S. war efforts, are left out of the larger dialogue about the war:

Two of the surnames that appear most often on the wall of the Viet Nam [sic] Memorial in Washington D.C., are Johnson and Rodriguez. These two names tell us something about the composition of the U.S. military during the war, especially the combat units […] histories of the war and cultural representations of the war have yet to hear the voice of “Rodriguez.” (Mariscal 3)

The cultural history of the Vietnam War, through the voice of “Rodriguez,” appears similar to that of some African-American accounts of their experience during the Vietnam War era. General feelings of “otherness” or “separateness” dominate journalist Wallace Terry’s book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War, a collection of war memories from African American Vietnam veterans; similar expressions of cultural distance are expressed in Puerto Rican veteran accounts. Chicano, Puerto Rican, African American, and Native American veteran remembrance of the Vietnam War all include testimonies of the conflicting feelings they had as soldiers; it was difficult to fight for the freedom of another country when one perceived one’s own freedoms as citizens of the United States were compromised, suppressed, or non-existent.

While several Puerto Rican Vietnam War veterans have been awarded high honors in the U.S. Military, including the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, and the Distinguished Service Cross, many veterans of Latin American descent remain passed over in favor of Caucasian soldiers. On February 21, 2014, President Barack Obama announced that he would award the Medal of Honor, retroactively, to nineteen “discrimination victims,” seventeen of which are classified as “Hispanic” (Wilson). It is worth noting that, even in 2014, Jesse Erevia, the son of one Hispanic recipient, Santiago J. Erevia, remarked that his family “wondered why [Santiago] didn’t receive [the award] the first time and thought it may have been because of his name” (Wilson). Tensions between the Latin American community and the United States government have unfortunately been a predictable object of consternation in U.S. history for the majority of the country’s past and present.

Despite the racial strife that dominated the Vietnam War era in the United States, all “races” of the country appeared in the U.S. armed forces during the conflict, just as they did in every previous conflict in the country’s history. The hastily and purposefully timed 1917 Jones-Shafroth Act allowed the United States to draft Puerto Ricans into World War I, and Puerto Ricans have consistently served in every U.S. conflict and in its armed forces since the first world war. Like every other American “group,” Puerto Rico made a large contribution to the Vietnam War. An estimated 48,000 Puerto Ricans served in the armed forces during the conflict, and hundreds of Puerto Ricans died in the Vietnam War, either killed in action or taken as prisoners of war (Avilés-Santiago, n.p.). Many Puerto Rican soldiers returned to the U.S. with anti-American sentiments and anger that would stoke the fires of Puerto Rican protests against the war in Vietnam and for independence of Puerto Rico.

Anger and Action

A wave of visible Puerto Rican pride emerged in part because of the televised marches and Sit-Ins of the civil rights movement. Echoing sentiments George Mariscal describes in Aztlán and Viet Nam, Yasmin Ramírez notes:

Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, as well as African Americans, joined forces to demand civil rights reforms throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The induction of thousands of young Chicanos and Puerto Ricans into the Vietnam War added Latino voices to antiwar protests. (Ramíerz 10)

The Latino artists joining in anti-war protest voiced their feelings in many ways, including art, social work, and music. Ramíerz’s research of graphic art pieces made by Latin American artists during the Vietnam War era reveals several links connecting the Civil Rights Movement to anti-Vietnam War protests. One distinctive anti-war poster, designed by Cuban native Tony Evora, titled “Cero Plebiscito / No Vietnam” (Zero Plebiscite/No Vietnam, 1966), combines civil rights issues on the mainland and the island with a distinct anti-Vietnam War stance. The poster, according to Ramíerz,

[r]elates to events in 1966, a year when the Puerto Rican government proposed holding a plebiscite to decide the island’s political status. The U.S. Congress, however, advised the organizers that they would not recognize the plebiscite as legally binding. Consequently, the pro-independence supporters lobbied the public to boycott the process. An additional cause for alarm at that time was the fact that Puerto Ricans, [denied] voting rights in U.S. presidential elections, were being sent to Vietnam in droves. Evora’s screaming figure conveys outrage at the injustice of men being enlisted in battles that they had not chosen. (Ramíerz 11)

The basic right to vote – especially on a ballot that related to your home’s political status – serves as only one example of the many social injustices faced by both island and mainland Puerto Ricans. The “screaming [in outrage] figure” in Evora’s work remained silent in poster form, but his figurative voice found a literal mouthpiece in the Young Lords, a group that acted, loudly and purposefully to engaged Puerto Ricans on the mainland to demand social change.

In 1969, in a predominantly Puerto-Rican neighborhood in el barrio of East Harlem, New York City, a group of young Puerto Ricans “piled garbage on Third Avenue and set it ablaze” (Lee). This bonfire was arguable the first noticeable action of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican revolutionary organization “of mostly Puerto Rican students from SUNY-Old Westbury, Queens College and Colombia University” (Lee). These revolutionaries living in many major U.S. cities were the children of Puerto Ricans who, en masse, migrated to the U.S. between 1948 and 1958, as U.S. citizens, “in search of stable jobs and decent housing” (Lee). These citizens did not receive the same treatment of their fellow citizens; racially marginalized, Puerto Rican immigrants “faced filthy and dangerous tenement housing and a school system that denigrated their language and culture and offered little opportunity for higher education” (Lee). Dissatisfied with their situation, young Puerto Ricans on both the island and mainland began to revolt during the Vietnam War era. Even though Puerto Ricans sent their children to fight the war in Vietnam, they continued to fight a war against inequality on their own streets.

Inspired by a group called the Young Lords in Chicago, Illinois, who “were a former street organization that gained national attention when they took over a local church in order to provide child care, a breakfast program, and other community-oriented programs,” Young Lords groups across the United States began to develop similar community-based projects (Lee). The Young Lords’ original ethos was a bit more militant and revolutionary, but eventually they channeled their “attention-grabbing strategies to draw attention to social inequality”; the groups took their cues to action from the communities they lived in, though a few members pursued an agenda concerned more with Puerto Rican Independence and cultivating Puerto Rican nationalism. One of the more aggressive advocates for Puerto Rican independence was Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), a separatist organization with roots in Puerto Rico. In the 1970s, FALN became known for guerrilla fighting tactics, such as bombing government areas and then publicly taking responsibility for them in order to bring awareness to the movement for Puerto Rican independence. Many FALN members were arrested in the early 1980s on charges of “seditious conspiracy” (Pérez). Protests against military action in Puerto Rico and the inequality of Puerto Ricans living on the “mainland” appear, in retrospect, extremely just causes, but the bombing of buildings makes the FALN’s actions appear far too militant and, frankly, scary, to promote real social change. The Young Lords’ community-based projects respected all citizens and strove to help people in need, but, in contrast, the FALN’s projects were more incendiary, as they followed the Black Panthers’ modus operandi as a blueprint for successful social protest. While dramatic and violent action inarguably drew attention to the Puerto Rican independence movement, the lines delineating a clear difference between a “terrorist” and a “nationalist” often became blurred.

Bernard Headley discusses the paradox of nationalist fervor and terrorist activity in his article “Who is the Terrorist? The Making of a Puerto Rican Freedom Fighter.” Headley’s brother, Oscar López-Rivera, was imprisoned in the United States in 1981 for “seditious conspiracy” (162). While he participated in Young Lords’ activities, he never joined the group, preferring to cast a wide net of civic activism that included founding cultural centers and alternative, Puerto-Rican-centric schools in the United States (Bennett). López-Rivera was alleged to have been a FALN leader and faced “two counts of exporting arms and explosives in interstate commerce” (López-Rivera and Headley 162). Evidence from López-Rivera’s trial revealed the “extended and sophisticated government activity [that attempted to connect] Puerto Rican prisoners of war and their outside supporters of criminal activity” (162). Furthermore, López-Rivera alleges that this U.S. government activity encourages the “arrest and subsequent incarceration” or “ordinary citizens [who support] Puerto Rican independence” (162-3). López-Rivera admits his links to FALN, but does not claim responsibility for any deaths associated with FALN actions.

López-Rivera argues an important and ignored position of U.S. history – the position of “a freedom fighter and a prisoner of war” who believes himself to be wrongly incarcerated as a “terrorist” (López-Rivera and Headley 163). Oscar López-Rivera maintains that he was “born a colonized subject” of the U.S. and that one of his duties, as a patriot, “is to fight, by any means necessary, for the liberation of Puerto Rico, so that, as a nation, [his] people can exercise their right to self-determination and national sovereignty” (163). Reflections of this attitude can be found in much of the FALN’s rhetoric, but the Young Lords did not try to achieve Puerto Rican liberation from the U.S. or national sovereignty. Instead, the Young Lords focused on community projects, mostly in a non-violent, civic-minded way. López-Rivera personifies Tony Evora’s screaming figure in Cero Plebiscito; his outrage over being unjustly enlisted in the Vietnam War reshaped itself into outrage over being unjustly enlisted in propagating an idea of America that he disagreed with, and his civil work supports his alternative idea of America – one that includes and celebrates Puerto Ricans as part of America’s fabric. He is a patriot in that he has unfailingly fought for freedom, but specifically the freedom of Puerto Rico.

Arguing that “self determination, democratization, and military occupation are favorite topics of U.S. politicians and the news media,” López-Rivera points out that discussions of these topics are limited to Europe and Asia and do not extend toward Puerto Rico. After condemning the U.S. for criminal colonization of Puerto Rico under the laws of the United Nations, he recounts Puerto Rico’s tumultuous history with the U.S., beginning with U.S. history indoctrination in Puerto Rican schools, and the “destruction” of Don Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations (166). López-Rivera paints Puerto Rico as a police-occupied state under a campaign to “stigmatize and criminalize the entire patriotic movement”; 1950s Puerto Ricans were scared to wear the colors of the Nationalist Party or show outward support for the movement (167-8). López-Rivera’s first grade classroom became a forum for anti-patriotic propaganda,” where “leaders in the patriotic struggle were called bandits, terrorists, lunatics, and criminals” by their U.S. overlords (167). The “freedom fighter” recalls his family’s forced move to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, due to “Operation Bootstrap,” a U.S. initiative that urged “emigrants [to help] stabilize the economy by sending money they earned in the United States back to their families” (168). The “dehumanizing…degrading…and demeaning” police violence López-Rivera experienced in Chicago soured him to the U.S. Despite feeling as though he were a marginalized individual, López-Rivera decided to serve in the Vietnam War in 1965, believing “firmly that [he] was there to fight a communist invasion, and that [his] mission was to help the Vietnamese forces liberate their country” (171). The heightened anti-communist rhetoric could not be escaped in the United States, and López-Rivera’s sympathies were in line with the idea of a free Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, López-Rivera found the Vietnam War a living comparison to the nationalist struggles of the Puerto Rican independence and patriotic movements. The Vietnam War was the first “televised” war, and thus protests against it – and civil rights demonstrations – were seen. One could find a compatriot in their living room, even if it was just a blurred televised image. Many Americans who did protest – for Civil Rights, the end to the Vietnam War, women’s rights, etc. – found solace in that their views were not only shared but also vocalized, televised, and part of a national cultural dialogue. The Vietnam War revealed the horrors of combat, often in color, on the evening news. Citizens of the United States were forced to reconcile their own views against the violence on screen. For those fighting in the war, especially soldiers of marginalized cultural backgrounds, the inequalities and injustices they may have passively noticed at home became magnified during the war, and, for many, more amplified upon their return from service.  López-Rivera calls his time in Vietnam a “political baptism” where he learned the fundamentals of colonization by U.S. standards (Headley and López-Rivera 171):

[I now realized] what an earlier generation of Puerto Rican patriots meant when they said that we and our African American brethren were being used as cannon fodder in the white man’s wars […] I was trained to be a terrorist; and my role in Vietnam was to bring terror and havoc to the Vietnamese. I was there shooting and trying to kill people who had not done anything to the Puerto Rican people […] I was sent to Vietnam to do what good colonized people do: protect the economic, military, and political interests of the colonizer. (López-Rivera and Headley 171-2)

Though awarded the bronze star for his service in Vietnam, López-Rivera returned to the U.S. in 1967 to devote himself to organizing activism and social protest in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. This new dedication to public service stemmed from López-Rivera’s belief that the “real terrorists were the Chicago police who broke bones, cracked heads, and drove fear into the hearts of citizens” (173-4). However, this Vietnam veteran’s actions eventually led him to be branded a “terrorist,” a label that rankles López-Rivera and convinces him that he has been wrongly imprisoned; López-Rivera believes his incarceration – and many others’ – results from his Puerto Rican nationalism (173-4). The “wrongful imprisonment” of Puerto Rican “nationalists” remains one of many matters spurring new activists for Puerto Rican independence, and recent films like Iris Morales’ 1996 documentary of the Young Lords, ¡Palante Siempre Palante!, highlights the U.S.’s rejection of Puerto Rican nationalism through the lens of 21st century colonialism.

López-Rivera finds comfort in the idea that, despite his incarceration, the decorated war veteran’s “body can be imprisoned but [the American authorities] cannot imprison the spirit of Puerto Rican nationalism” (López-Rivera and Headley 174). He recalls a poem composed by Ho Chi Minh, who he identifies as a “revolutionary compatriot” (174). The poem centers on the idea of “sowing a peach seed and observing it grow into a fully developed tree,” which López-Rivera sees as a metaphor for his vision of an independent Puerto Rico. He ends his treatise of nationalism with the musing “each generation of Puerto Rican patriots has sown a seed to keep our ideas and ideals alive” and that he “can only hope that the newer generation of Puerto Ricans will not fail to sow another seed for the generations yet to come” (174). The testimony of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States as personified in Oscar López-Rivera, an imprisoned man, true, but also a community activist, an American citizen (or perhaps a “colonial subject”), and an American war veteran, serves as an extended metaphor of Puerto Rico as a suppressed entity. The insistence of Puerto Rican independence and assertion of its nationalism lives on in the stories and legacies of the Young Lords, a revolutionary group dedicated to helping ordinary, often marginalized people. The activities of Puerto Rican social activists like Oscar López-Rivera during the Vietnam War era are simultaneously courageous and conflicting. How is a Vietnam War veteran turned social activist now a jailed “terrorist?” When Puerto Ricans spoke out for their independence or their wish to have cleaner neighborhoods during the Vietnam War era, the U.S. government responded with FBI infiltration and police action. But the activist spirit endures, though much of that activism manifests itself within the mainstream; many former Young Lords now hold positions in government and media (Lee).

While Oscar López-Rivera fought for Puerto Rican rights in Vietnam and in the United States, the young singer/songwriter Roy Brown Ramírez used his music to fight for social justice and an independent Puerto Rico.

Roy Brown’s Yo Protesto!

Puerto Rican songwriter and political activist Brown was writing material for his album Yo Protesto! during the tumultuous Vietnam War era. Brown, whose mother was a native of Poncé and whose father was an American naval officer, grew up in Florida. His early memories reflect on an acute awareness of American racial inequality. He remembers wondering “why blacks had to go to the back of the bus” while he lived in Florida (“Estas brasas de aquellos fuegos”). While studying at the University of Puerto Rico in the late 60s and early 70s, the inequalities and social injustices he saw and his passion for music pushed him to explore a whirlwind of social and political struggles of the 70s (“Estas brasas de aquellos fuegos”). Brown was not a member of the Young Lords on the mainland, though he has played at least twice (‘66, ‘88) for Chicago’s Fiesta Boricua, a long-standing Puerto-Rican festival rooted in civic activism popular with López-Rivera’s early work and efforts of the Young Lords (Flores-Gonzalez 19). Brown was more closely aligned with an “evolution of protest music” named nueva canción, which

utilized popular rhythms and modern instruments (electric guitar, drums, percussion, etc.) together with traditional instruments (cuatro, Spanish guitar, güiro, tiple, etc.) to create a musical genre based on both modern and folk music that would reach homes through the radio and television and their social message of reform is heard by a majority of the public. (Vázquez)

Nueva canción songs, unlike much of American anti-Vietnam War music, are not loud or brash. Melodic and boasting heavy Catalan guitar influence, nueva canción songs reflect a conglomeration of European and Caribbean sounds. Yo Protesto! features melodic Spanish guitar playing instead of the folksy harmonies (CSNY, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, etc.) or amped rock (Country Joe and the Fish, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, etc.) that most anti-Vietnam War American musicians performed during the era. Brown’s songs from 1969’s Yo Protesto! “stoked the fire that burned rebellious picket lines and student demonstrations of the time” (“Estas brasas de aquellos fuegos”). The refrain of “Monón” “Fire, fire, fire/ the world is on fire!/ Fire, fire/ Yankees want fire!” became the adopted battle cry of Puerto Rico university protesters in the 1970s, and Yo Protesto! appropriately sought distribution with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party’s record label, Disco Libre. The era was hard on Brown but also inspirational. In a 2006 interview, Brown said of the Yo Protesto! era:

The hippies, the Vietnam War, [I was] a twenty-year-old who didn’t know who he was […] The police followed and pursued me. They said that I was a terrorist and wanted to fight the governor. My friend was in jail because he didn’t want to fight Asians… My life was such a disaster and the context for songs like… “Monón,” “Con Macana,” “Hablando,” y “Dime Niña” (Frese)

The songs on Yo Protesto! carry a strong theme of resistance against a complex imperial power. Brown’s lyrics suggest this enemy is as destructive in Puerto Rico as it is in Vietnam. Exploring his songs’ lyrics reveals a new perspective on the United States during the Vietnam War era.

The popular song “Monón” also admonishes a metaphorical United States as “a man without equal/you are a man of God/fruit of evil/[you] walk dropping bombs/ [you go] digging graves/ [your] mind is nuclear/ release bombs in Vietnam” (Brown). Much like the shadowy figures in Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (1963), “Monón” is careless and heartless regarding the havoc he wrecks around the world. In the song, “No Me Sulfuro Mas” the narrator recalls, “back in Santo Domindo/Haiti and Vietnam/there are thousands of others [who] also suffer… [but] we who know who to stop” (Brown). The U.S. is the enemy of not only Puerto Rico, but all those who suffer under its oppressive actions. And, far from the hippie messages of peace and love, Brown’s lyrics for the song “Páco Marquez” seethe with violent intention: “With a revolver in hand/the friend of my brother/ is finished… Men of an ideal/ fighters against an evil/ that has a people chained” (Brown). The overt imagery of slavery, paired with the image of a semi-concealed “revolver,” implies the encouragement of Puerto Rico against its captor, the United States.

Yo Protesto!, for all its protesting, is still very much an album of 1969. Athough the album has two different covers (one for the Vanguardia label’s release and another, the first, for its release on the label Disco Libre), both show protest occurring. The Disco Libre cover includes slap-dash, graffiti-style lettering over a scene of protesters marching in a line next to gun-toting guards, echoing many of the evocative images of social protest seen in the media during the Vietnam War era. The second cover for Vanguardia shows a seated Brown holding a protest sign (depicting himself, playing the guitar) with the same lettering style of the first cover. Both images reference protest, befitting the title, but the second cover, featuring Brown, utilizes the guitar – music – as the primary mode of protest. This cover is more indicative of the gentler tone of social reform not only taken by nueva canción songs on the island, but also from the Young Lords on the mainland. Roy Brown’s protest music, even while often boasting stirring and provocative lyrics, approached protest with a more peaceful stance than that of the FALN, and thus is more indicative of most common protest demonstrations (but not necessarily all) occurring in Puerto Rico during the Vietnam War era.

Roy Brown found political inspiration from celebrating nature (also a trait of nationalist songs). In several of his songs, he intertwines compliments to the “beautiful island” with social commentary. The U.S. military’s use of the “little sister” island of Vieques for bombing and artillery testing has long rankled the Puerto Rican public, and the ravaging of Puerto Rico’s islands for commercial use is a recurring theme in several of the songs on Yo Protesto! The charming floating ballad “Dime Niña” is a love song to the people of Puerto Rico. “Tell me, friend, if you seek the gloom, loneliness,” he sings. “And tell me brother, why not fight for your love, your dignity? [Why not] tell people, of the glory…father of freedom.” Brown renders Puerto Rico as a homeland even for those who never called it home that is, “home” for Puerto Ricans living in America and who are unable to reconcile their perceived dual nationalities. The lyrics of “Mr. Con Macana” lament that a fallen comrade will “die without knowing why/ and you will be nothing/ without knowing the Borinquen/ the bright jungle” (Brown). The “bright jungle” gives a Puerto Rican “something” to live for, a “why” that demands to be answered.

The Young Lords brought the issues of el barrios to the news outlets, and the FALN made sure that everyone was aware that some Puerto Ricans preferred independence from U.S. oppression. These cornerstones to Puerto Rican anti-war and social protest present a historical reality long overlooked and underrepresented in the telling of the historiography of the United States and the Vietnam War. Roy Brown’s Yo Protesto! protests that Puerto Rico’s side of the Vietnam War era story may be a small piece of a larger narrative of American history. Roy Brown continues to compose and perform his music of protest and pro-Puerto Rico, partly abiding by the work of the FALN, the Young Lords, and Oscar López-Rivera, but also enduring as his own voice, carrying his own protest signal – his guitar. Brown remains an approachable and beloved figure in Puerto Rico – many people I spoke to in San Juan were delighted to talk about him and many suggested that I call him or drop by his house. Like his pro-Puerto Rican Independence compatriots, Roy Brown remains one of the many voices of “Rodriguez,” and he, like many others, has made a life-long commitment that his voice, and his protests, continues to be heard.

Works Cited

Avilés-Santiago, Manuel G. Puerto Rican Soldiers and Second-Class Citizenship Representations in Media. Palgrave-Macmillan. eBook: n.p. 2014.

Bennett, Hans. “Book Review: Puerto Rican Independentista Oscar López Rivera’s 32 Years of Resistance to Torture.” UpsideDownWorld.org. 29 May 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2014.

Brown, Roy. Yo Protesto! Roy Brown. Rec. 1968. Disco Libre, 1969. MP3.

Carroll, Joseph. “The Iraq –Vietnam Comparison.” Gallup.com. 15 June 2004. Web.

“Estas Brasas De Aquellos Fuegos.” Para Imprimir. El Nuevo Dia, 18 Mar. 2008. Web.

Flores-Gonzalez, Nilda. “Paseo Boricua: Claiming a Puerto Rican Space in Chicago.” Centro Journal. CUNY. Vol. 13, 2. 2001. Web.

Headley, Bernard. “Who Is the Terrorist? The Making of a Puerto Rican Freedom Fighter.” Social Justice: Racism, Powerlessness, and Justice 16.4 (1989): 160-74. JSTOR. Web.

Hixson, Walter L. The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Lee, Jennifer S. “The Young Lords’ Legacy of Puerto Rican Activism.” City Room: Blogging From the Five Burroughs. New York Times, 24 Aug. 2009. Web. Lockhard, Craig A. “Meeting Yesterday Head-On: The Vietnam War in Vietnamese, American, and World History.” Journal of World History 5.2 (1994): 227-70. Journal of World History. University of Hawai’i Press, 1994. Web.

Mariscal, George. Aztlán and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Berkeley: University of California, 1999. Print.

Pérez, Gina M. “Fuerzas Armadas De Liberación Nacional (FALN).” Fuerzas Armadas De Liberación Nacional (FALN). The Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Web. Ramírez, Yasmin. “Parallel Lives Striking Differences: Notes on Chicano and Puerto Rican Graphic Arts of the 1970s.” Pressing the Point: Parallel Expressions in the Graphic Arts of the Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements, 10–13. New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1999.

Vázquez, Doris M. “La Nueva Canción En Puerto Rico.” Music of Puerto Rico – Essays. Evan Bailyn, 2005. Web.

Wilson, Scott. “Obama to Award Medal of Honor to 19 Overlooked Minority Service Members.” The Washington Post, 21 Feb. 2014. Web.

Conquest Narratives and Social Activism in Latin America

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Modern scholars find ample opportunities to critique the work of their predecessors, and in many ways this reflects the mission of the academy: to build upon current knowledge by not only seeking voids but also by designing methods to fill them. At times, in the pursuit for truth it is easy to forget that contemporary social scientists also view subjects through a specific set of lenses. The modern paradigm by its nature sets present-day scholarship in opposition to that which preceded it. A more balanced empirical approach would not seek deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction, but rather to learn from mistakes of the past in order to move forward constructively. It argues in favor of an alternative narrative of the conquest, one that reduces the focus on friars as conquerors and oppressors, and redirects attention to their possible role as activists and social advocates. In the process of exploring this alternative perspective, another pertinent question emerges: Are modern day anthropologists and other social scientists engaged in social advocacy and activism doing the same thing that the friars of the conquest period were doing, in intention at least? If so, have modern scholars studied the mistakes of the past and integrated alternative models into their methods of action?

It seems a researcher’s foremost responsibility is to protect the interests of his subjects; however, what that means exactly is not clear. Those who promote activism assume several things: that today’s scholars know what is best and previous scholars – either the early anthropologists with whom contemporary ones try to disassociate or the Catholic friars, priests, and nuns who preceded them, with the intellectual paradigm no longer recognized as scholarship – were not also seeking what they saw to be best for indigenous populations. This essay seeks to address these issues with emphasis on the latter assumption. It is my belief that both are intricately woven into the temporal fabric of the academy and society at large. The paradigm, reflecting a particular zeitgeist, often makes little sense outside of its own context. It is the responsibility of the scholar to evaluate each movement on its own terms, which is not to suspend judgment but rather engage in a more critical analysis.

I discuss this in three parts. Do social science scholars know what is best and furthermore what responsibilities are associated with that knowledge? Secondly, I attempt to unravel some criticisms waged against previous scholars, i.e. Spanish Catholic friars who have come to be regarded as colonizing forces. Included in this will be a general discussion of paradigms. Lastly, I use the Virgin of Guadalupe as an example of mediation between two colliding cultures.

The Crystal Ball

Matthew Restall begins with an intriguing question: “Were the Mayas of colonial Yucatan actually Mayas?” (“Maya Ethnogenesis” 64). Grant D. Jones, who ironically dedicates his work “to the memory of the Maya whose lives were transformed or cut short,” believes from a linguistic perspective there exist “deep historical affiliations” within the Yucatan, but admits that the early history is “too poorly understood” (3). This raises the question of indigeneity and how the term is applied and used. Over time ethnic identifications fluctuate, and further obfuscation results from political conflicts rallying around these terms. Today’s scholar, considering humanitarian responsibilities toward cultures studied, must face Restall’s own answer to his question: “In terms of both the identities they claimed and those assigned to them, they were not [Mayas]” (64). He says the evidence confirms his idea that the group of people currently identified by scholars as Mayan “did not consistently call themselves that or any other name that indicated they saw themselves as members of a common ethnic group” (Ibid.).

This raises several flags and forces one to question whether scholars, as suggested by Restall, have not invented these categories. What would that mean for today’s scholar? Victor D. Montejo, focusing on self-identification, provides a reply by appealing to public heritage – a collective sense of self, based on perceived connections with a common ancestral set and viewed as a valuable indentifying factor to be preserved for future generations. A self-labeled “Mayan anthropologist and writer,” Montejo wants to help advise researchers in “dismantling the stereotypes and images created by early anthropologists” (123-4). Claiming his people must reassert its “Mayanness,” he hopes to “dispel the political amnesia of the majority of Maya” (125); the goal “is to ignite a stronger desire to empower ourselves and promote our identities for the future” (Ibid.). Inevitably the cultural memory critique emerges, complicating the discussion: When memory is counterbalanced by social amnesia does it hold any value at all or is it a socially-constructed stuffed shirt?

Montejo’s preemptive strike against critics of collective memory is well-intended but is not without weaknesses. He addresses Fischer and Griffin’s idea that the Mayanness movement seeks to revive “ancient patterns of Mayan culture as essential relics to be worshipped” (Montejo 128) and fields Hobsbawm’s criticism that such revivalist movements use ancient material to invent tradition and consequently cultural significance. He admits the Maya are continually “creating and recreating their Mayan culture and redefining themselves” (129), but denies he is creating a “romantic past.” He says the Maya are not inventing themselves “to the same degree as Western cultures” and that “for us, the Maya, cultural heritage is clearly visible, and its roots are still strong and firmly embedded in Mayan soil” (Ibid.). Here the argument loses steam, gets sidetracked, and the conclusions suffer. His concluding remarks hinge on the idea that Mayans are the true Mayans. They should be recognized as such “because there are elements that strongly link them to the millennial history and tradition of their Mayan ancestors” (144). The argument is questionable.

The idea of heritage, however, makes the case credible and compatible with Edward Fischer’s model. In a cultural memory study, Larry Griffin and Peggy Hargis offer an opening line which rivals Restall’s in wit: “This much we know; the past is not really, can never be, past at all” (42). History in this sense becomes organic and is compatible with the argument for authentic indigeneity. Adopting this model eliminates the need for empirical data definitively mapping a direct lineage from today’s Maya to those of the ancient world. This historical approach, the study of memory, Griffin and Hargis say, “is not exactly the academic study of history” (43); however, they admit “the exploration on collective and social memory, has proffered new questions about the interpretations of how collectivities and individuals are both constituted by the past and mobilize it for present-day projects” (Ibid.). The past is an efficient way to deal with the present, reinforcing Montejo’s point about self-identification, which is what may be referred to as heritage. Truth aside, one’s story about oneself becomes true on its own terms; the representation provides a true account of how a person or a people view themselves in a wider context. In the case of Montejo, one is sure that he sees himself as Mayan but may wonder if Mayans (the wider group) accept Montejo as one among equals. Would his indigeneity be questioned because of his decision to enter what another “Mayan” might consider as colonial?

Scientifically proven links with a past is near-impossible in terms of heritage and memory is not to adopt a radically relativistic approach. Viewing history organically requires a shift in paradigm. It is not a denial of a true past but the acceptance of a historical present. We are forced to see through packaged periodization and evaluate knowledge of the past as knowledge from the past forming an individual or collective consciousness of the present. In addition to thinking critically about the methods and actions of scholars who have come before, today’s researchers have a greater responsibility. Each generation has one generation’s worth of successes and failures more than the previous of which to be critical. Additionally, this generation of scholars has learned to be critical of its own practices.

The basic responsibility of social researchers is to the people and cultures they study, which includes working with the person or group’s best interest in mind, avoiding situations which might cause them harm. The American Anthropological Association notes that researchers must consider the potential social and political repercussions resulting from their findings before disseminating that information. On these terms, recording, documenting, interpreting, and ultimately preserving cultural and material artifacts to the best of one’s ability are ethical duties. These fulfill the scholar’s obligations to hosts, informants, interviewees, performers, etc. by helping to save the stories, emotions, pains, and fortunes, which are perceived to be integral to a group’s heritage – for present and future generations.

Must every social researcher be an activist? This hinges on another question: Is the scholar committed to truth and confident that he or she possesses it? Many have come bearing truths before and countless classroom hours are dedicated to their deconstruction. Has the researcher thought critically about past truths, learned from them, and made adjustments? Has he or she considered what future critical analysis may reveal about his or her activism? One cannot predict the future, or be sure of universal truths; however, one can hope to get close. Activism requires due diligence. Advocating aggressive activism is risky business, but turning a blind eye to human injustices is inexcusable and is outside the boundaries of moral relativism.

According to the American Anthropological Association, advocacy on the part of the researcher is “an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility.” Here too, in terms of ethical certainty, an empirical decision is difficult; Bentham’s “utilitarian calculus” cannot provide a reliable answer.

The Oppressive Forces of a Western God

As Montejo has argued, a Mayan identity is like a Western one in terms of social construction. Each is constructed in relation to the other. Otherness is inherent in any self-identification; without it, there is no need for identity. The unity of opposites is as old as philosophical inquiry itself, yet it is often forgotten. Before the West’s current aegis and the nationalist (imperialist resulting) period preceding it, homogenization was religious in nature. Rather than rallying under a flag, the West, prior to the end of the eighteenth century rallied under a different religious symbol – the cross. Regardless of the symbol it is imperative to focus on the struggle to learn from the past.

Citing Hegel and Foucault, Matthew Liebmann concludes: “Power and domination are not one-way streets. The very concept of power asserts the mutuality of the relationship between the dominant and the dominated” (2008, 142). This dynamic relationship is reiterated in Julianna Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman (2007), where it is claimed that Spanish images of the Virgin helped mediate relationships between the natives and conquistadors. She says in their gendered hierarchy, the image represented a peaceful embodiment and the Spaniard had the option of resisting their interpretation or making accommodations. Neither party, however, is a stranger to cultural accommodation. On both sides of the Atlantic, icons and rituals, myths and images, pantheons and chapels were bought, sold, and traded. New Spain was no exception.

Restall says “the Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and building a colonial church” (2003, 9). He provides several stories attesting to the effectiveness of the friars. On the Incan siege on Cuzco in 1537, he claims “accounts…by both Spaniard and Andeans…credit the intervention of Santiago and the Virgin as important explanatory factors, if not the deciding factor” (133). He claims further that Franciscans and Dominicans promoted the idea of divine providence as the reason behind God’s interference in the Conquest (133). Victories, especially among recent converts and groups allied with the conquistadors, were interpreted as miracles. Evidence seemed to indicate that the Spaniards were destined to dominate the native populations, and although the ideological religious victories reverted to hands of secular domination, those friars – the original ethnographers (15) – saw themselves as the first activists among the indigenous population, building missions, chapels, hospitals, and schools.

Anthony Grafton says friars believed the natives might become better Christians than the Europeans and further: “Friars were trained…to observe and investigate. The tools of the Inquisition… provided them with a set of questions to ask about beliefs and rituals in the Americas” (Grafton 1992, 93). Seventeenth century Jesuit, Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora, wrote about professed women in the Conceptionist convent of Jesus Maria, in Mexico City, regarding them as “efficacious venues of divine favor,” and claiming that “God’s distribution of His bounty had been made among all people regardless of gender and race” (Lavrin 1999, 233-4). A half century later, in a letter to Phillip IV, Juan de Palafox, bishop of Puebla, recognized spirituality as a natural Indian trait, praising “their great piety, devotion, innocence, humility, and other exemplary qualities” (Ibid., 237).

The natives may have sensed a positive change in the new regime, and a scholar today may interpret this as building a false consciousness on the part of the friars, but it is difficult for researchers to ascertain motives on either side. The friars were fulfilling their vows by converting the world, and may have intended to usher in the second coming of Christ; the native allies of the Spanish saw an aggressive overlord overthrown and perhaps anticipated a new era of peace. Most post-colonial researchers, especially those who advocate activism in Latin America, would shudder at the idea that Spanish friars were engaged in the same work, and that they too shared the vision of a better life for oppressed masses. William Taylor calls this period “the ‘spiritual conquest’ … not so much the conversion of native people to Christianity as the place of religion in the formation and maintenance of colonial rule” (1996, 10). The idea of a “spiritual conquest” is itself zeitgeist-dependent terminology, grounded in the post-enlightenment thinking which convinced Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers (1983) to claim the Christians “conquered” the Roman Empire. The water is muddied further in the present case. In a post-enlightenment/post-colonial/post-modern world, which is worse, ending imperialism or using religion to do it? Perhaps definitions of “better life” and our socio-political paradigms have shifted in tandem. Modern thinkers may feel that humanity is better prepared this time to handle the disentanglement of world powers, that we might avoid descending into another “dark age” (another paradigmatic term). This is not to suggest that we model ourselves on the work of the friars but rather learn from their successes and mistakes, in addition to those of secular authorities, early social scientists, and governments and their armies. Cultural collisions have happened since time immemorial and Latin American history can provide today’s student of cultural history with some valuable insight; it provides clues about the context of cultural change in the unrecorded annals of western history and ideas about the our present conditions and the future of our society.

Lavrin’s “Indian Brides of Christ” provides historical and ethnographic insight on the role of the friars during Taylor’s “spiritual conquest.” Lavrin asks: “Could an Indian woman become a nun?” and wonders why it took it took two centuries and “a passionate exchange of contradictory opinions” to accomplish this feat (225). She argues, “during the first years of evangelization, friars tinkered with the idea of conventual life for indigenous women, but they soon abandoned it in favor of religious indoctrination and education for life” (225). For her this is an exhibition of the society’s “biases regarding race, gender, and class,” noting that “male Indian nobles began to receive indoctrination and education to facilitate a rapid religious and cultural adjustment” (226). The first convent, Nuestra Sra. de la Concepcion (1550), was built for women of Spanish descent. Lavrin points out that included were “two mestiza daughters of Isabel de Moctezuma” (229). Around then Franciscans backed off convent building. The First Mexican Council in 1555 and the Third Provincial Council 1585 rejected Indian ordination (230); however, Lavrin makes it clear that the “Vatican toned down its language to a statement that such ordination would demand great caution” (Ibid.).

This case may be interpreted in several ways. It is feasible to suggest that the Church epitomized racism, seeking to reproduce the hierarchical society which served as the foundation for its wealth and power in Europe, or that it had a sexist agenda designed to perpetuate the Old World’s rigid patriarchy. It is equally plausible to suggest that the Vatican, having well-over a millennium’s worth of experience in the religious conversion business was skeptical about pre-Columbian religious practices – in some ways like those which it had experienced in rural European communities, but in other ways unlike anything they had seen before. The question was left to the discretion of the local bishops. It may be suggested that the hospitals, churches, and schools aimed at “education for life,” although seen today as tools of colonization, were not viewed that way in the sixteenth century, and furthermore that these friars were engaged in many of the same kinds of activism which is promoted today. In terms of sexism and racism, one must wonder how much power the friars had regarding the dynamics of the socio-political structure of New Spain. More importantly, who should be considered the “Church” there: the friars, the politically entrenched secular bishops, or the noblemen bearing the symbol of the crucifix?

Cultural Resilience and Social Capital

Contemplating the cultural diversity – language, ritual, ethnicity, etc. — among the native population and the clash of civilizations upon Spanish arrival, one is struck by the possibilities in a romantic sense, and the seemingly insurmountable difficulties in a materialist sense. Lavrin notes: “Race and spirituality made a strange and potent mixture in the New World. European Christianity confronted a tough situation when the issue of admitting a new race to the elected body of the brides of Christ was posed in the sixteenth century” (1999, 255). The “tough situation” was more than simply a gender issue; it involved a “shift from hesitation and doubt to an approval that, while not shared or felt by all, was at least a sincere acknowledgement of the natives’ capability for living the faith as fully as any true “old Christian” (Ibid.). Matthew Liebmann has effectively argued that both individual and group identities are “recursive, constantly shifting, negotiated strategies of alliance building…they constantly shape and are shaped by perceived similarities and differences” (133). The examination of identity involves the analysis of “ethnicity, gender, class, faction, race, etc.,” which adds to the difficulty because it makes identity a “malleable concept” (Ibid.).

Malleable identities and cultural reciprocity is exciting for the curious and scary for the entrenched. It is seldom a quick process and it is never finished. It is reasonable to that political structures on all sides would be suspicious of contending ambitions. It is also clear why some natives would readily accept the new powers and their religion while others would dig in their heels against the perceived enemy. Lastly, it seems clear why the friars would be willing to embrace the diversity in their pursuit as “fishers of men” and equally evident why the Vatican would issue a word of caution on the ordination of natives.

Liebmann adds weight to this interpretation. After the Pueblo rebellion in 1680, natives adopted a return-to-tradition strategy in order to eradicate the Spanish influence upon their tribes. Archaeology and ethnohistory collected data to support the theory that during the decolonization years (1680-92), the Pueblo continued to use “Christian imagery and material culture” (132). While some see this as evidence the natives refused to disengage from the Catholic faith, remaining subordinate to Spanish domination, Liebmann takes a different approach. He says this interpretation “denies agency to Pueblo peoples” and makes the assumption that “Christian symbols meant the same thing to all people at all times” (133). In this sense, the objects and images reflect the agency of those who embrace them. For Liebmann, they were used in ways the Pueblos understood as not contradictory with their own traditional beliefs, such as the use of halos and concentric circles in artistic representations. He also implies intentional manipulation of objects which speak out in opposition to Spanish Catholicism; he notes the use of Christian imagery on traditional katsina figures which missionaries believed to be “devils” (138).

Two ideas emerge from Liebmann’s discussion. Cultural conversion is ongoing, and the use of Catholic imagery as either a component of traditional, pre-colonial ritual, or as an antagonistic tool adds to the richness of reciprocity. Intentional or not, adoption of the imagery became part of Pueblo vernacular. Despite any resistance to the perceived inappropriate use of these objects on the part of the missionaries, they too became ever more aware of the progressively blurring lines between their cultures.

An accord was struck and it is aptly captured in the title of Julianna Barr’s work: Peace Came in the Form of a Woman. In the first book published (1648) on the Virgin of Guadalupe, Imagen de la Virgen María, Miguel Sánchez writes: “Guadalupe bestowed many favors on the native peoples of Mesoamerica…in order to ‘inspire, teach, and attract them to the Catholic faith’” (Matovina 2009, 61). Sanchez drew comparisons between the image of the Virgin and the woman described in Revelations 12:1-2: 1: “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.” This birth was the new Christian world and Matovina suggests that Jesuits began to “postulate in Neoplatonic terms that her image authentically depicted the divine concept of Mary” and that:

Mary was sacramentally present in the perpetual miracle of the Guadalupe image…. Christ evangelized the Old World through the apostles’ preaching of the word, while Mary of Guadalupe effected the evangelization of the New World through her miraculous image, a visual means of communication highly suited to the indigenous psyche. (72)

According to Matovina, Sanchez “professed Guadalupe as ‘a native of this land and its first “Creole woman’ …. Benedict XIV assigned as the epigraph for the office of her feast day: ‘God has not done thus for any other nation’” (73).

Scholars have not universally accepted this interpretation. Jeannette Peterson (1992) said by the time of the First Mexican Council in 1555 the Church hierarchy was forced to accept its “failure to eradicate paganism” and acknowledge “Indian resistance to domination” (40). She then indicates that friars began to incorporate native beliefs by substituting “Christian saints for old gods,” and concludes “the Virgin of Guadalupe was one such fusion of a European mother of God with native mother goddesses” (ibid.). She cites a complaint by the Franciscan Sahagun in 1576 that “pilgrimages to Tepeyac were only a continuation of pre-Hispanic practices and that natives consistently referred to Guadalupe as Tonantzin” (Ibid.). Her allusion to the friar’s complaint actually bolsters the case of those with whom she takes issue. It stands as evidence of the cultural give-and-take, exposing the resilience and power of cultural continuity. Her discussion of “fusion” adds nothing to the conversation. The method she highlights is well-known throughout western history. In Acts 17:23, Paul tells the Athenians that their altar to “the unknown god” is intended for the Judeo-Christian god which encompasses all the rest. While this allusion may seem tenuous and perhaps specious, one can find specific, documented use of Christian/Pagan reciprocity in the sixth century “Apostle of England,” Augustine of Canterbury who overtly encouraged it and was renowned for his success. These methods were no secret. The Jesuit, Juan Uvaldo de Anguita, established a mission in the early eighteenth century explicitly for this purpose. According to Lavrin:

[Uvaldo de Anguita] established the first link between the new and the old world and the new and the old Christians. East and West had met …. He juxtaposed the symbols of the old deities and the Christian ones to prove to his audience that it was possible to build Christian life on the foundations of pagan gods and festivities. (258)

In short, finding commonalities and negotiating differences between colliding cultures is the ongoing story of civilization. Hugo Nutini has argued that after Catholicism became the dominant religious system in Mexico it was aggressively challenged by the eloquent preaching of Protestant missionaries. He notes that in the last fifty years both of these formidable organizations face the rising challenge of what he calls “Native Evangelism” (2000, 51).

Peterson continues: with her “humble attitude and pious gesture, the Virgin of Guadalupe conveniently reflected the colonial church’s image of the native population that it sought to bring under its control” (40), adding that it was “a lucrative source of income for the church…[and] was still paternalistic and exclusionary” (45). Bias aside, Peterson brings some helpful information to light. She claims that the Virgin’s apparitions happened several times over the centuries and points out the association between the Virgin and pulque, the ritual drink of pre-colonial priests made from the maguey plant dating back at least two millennia. She notes that the Virgin is still called “the Mother of Maguey” in parts of Mexico (Peterson 1992, 45 and Taylor 1987, 19). Astutely, Peterson points out an ambivalence about the Virgin using various examples of material culture concluding that “the Virgin is still seen as both a symbol heralding freedom and a signifier of submission” (47). William Taylor supports this: “The idea that one symbol [Guadalupe] can stand both for submission to authority and liberation will not surprise most students of the history of religions” (1996, 161).

Matovina says most scholarship has “examined the Guadalupe image, apparition accounts, and its historical context as a means to explore the collision of civilizations between the Old and New Worlds and the ongoing implications of this clash for Christianity in the Americas and beyond” (62). He also agrees “her relation to the historical process of mestizaje (racial mixing) and nation building” (65) adds to her complexity, as she has become associated with both the struggle to overcome the negative effects of the conquest of the Americas and the hope for a new future of greater justice […] (66). This interpretation is not as clear cut as it seems. Hidalgo’s use of the image on the path toward Mexican independence, and the increase in such use in later years helped create a blurred line between religion and politics. This effected self-identification and lent itself to the paradox described by Peterson.

The feminist critique goes a step further, claiming the image was a tool not only for conquering a race, but subjugating women in the process. Althaus-Reid argues that a “Marian false consciousness” stretches back to the conquistadors:

Mary is a concept which comes to the continent at the same time as the concept of Indios. The presence of the icon and its nativisation produces a sense of continuity which is false, unmasks the oppressive role of the foreign religion of Christianity in the continent and keeps endorsing women with boundaries, aspirations and ideals which are imperialist in nature and ideological in method….[it is an illusion] under the heavy weight of a metaphysical and logical conquest. It is an ethical victory for the colonisers, under the banner of Mary, the icon which shows women why they are not real women. (Althaus-Reid 2000, 49)

She says artistic representations of the Virgin introduced to the native populations were de-sexualizing Mary, and asks: “What does the Guadalupana have under her skirts?” She argues while Mary’s “womb” is constantly discussed, it is never depicted: “Unfortunately, the Virgin seldom shows her vulva in her numerous apparitions… the womb is the area of words, of seminal speeches while the vulva is that shocking pink swollenness which speaks by its mere presence” (63).

Her ideas of “logical conquest” and “ethical victory” are interesting because they indicate ideological, intellectual, and psychological warfare. The goals of this sort of battle are political, economic, and spiritual. Matovina says the Virgin “provides hope and inspiration for Mexican Americans … called to embrace their identity as mixed-race mestizos, synthesize the richness from their parent cultures, and lead the way in constructing a society in which the barriers between peoples are broken (81). This conflicts with Althaus-Reed’s critique; however, it need not be considered an opposition to feminist theory. “For the Chicana feminist theorists,” argues Pineda-Madrid, “a liberative interpretation of Guadalupe needs to create space and support for Chicanas as speaking subjects, needs to heal and transform Chicanas so as to deepen their self-esteem, and needs to enable Chicanas (and others) to know even more deeply the inter-connectedness of all humankind and of all creation” (2005, 3).

Activists are not new to ideological warfare. When cultures come together, each is subject to change. Whether we are engaged in nationalizing, capitalizing, socializing, democratizing, secularizing, de-marginalizing, or idealizing indigenous identities, we are involved in political, economic, and spiritual battles aimed at a “logical conquest” and an “ethical victory.”

Concluding Remarks

Roberta Rice, in a review essay of several books on the indigenous rights movements in Latin America (2007), says that the “flurry” of organized political movements has been the impetus for “a veritable explosion of scholarship” in those regions (210). She concludes that indigenous groups are not only “questioning the legitimacy of the nation-state,” but are also “contesting the very terms of democratic citizenship” (214). Two key questions emerge from her essay: “What are the implications of the legal and institutional gains of indigenous movements for the pressing development demands of the region’s indigenous peoples?” Secondly, “would indigenous movements be more effective in advancing their agendas without participating in formal political processes?” (214).

These questions penetrate the heart of the discussion. As scholarship seeks to identify and eliminate the problems causing untold atrocities against humanity, it must also realize the implications of its activism. One chooses a side in a wager with high stakes and little certainty. History has shown that earlier forms of advocacy have gone wrong and are met with severe criticism and even animosity. The intentions of the friars in Mesoamerica may not be determined but their actions are debated. While some see them as spiritual conquistadors working to subjugate natives, others observe that by promoting the adoption of Christianity and mediating between Catholic and pagan ritual – Guadalupe for example – the preachers did not “justify or abet the Spanish conquest but broke the cycle of indigenous victimization and subjugation…. [It] not only converted the indigenous peoples from practices like human sacrifice but also demanded that Spanish Catholics repent of their ethnocentrism and violence” (Matovina 2009, 90). Some have argued that veneration of the Virgin reinforced a European social structure (Althaus-Reed and Peterson), while others saw it as “a critique of the existing social order, a rejection of Spanish values and a guide to action… the opposite of structure and of everything hierarchical, paternalistic, and Hispanic” (Taylor 1987, 20).

In the wake of post-modernism, anthropologists have responded in a couple of ways. According to Shannon Speed they have either resorted to “retrenchment in the realm of the theoretical and the textual” or have engaged in “activist approaches” (Speed 2008, 66). Latin America has become a hotbed for such activism through both grass roots campaigns and NGOs. Susanne Jonas highlights a “National Dialog” which was initiated by the Catholic Church in 1989 to bring influential members of all groups in Guatemala. While those in control – the government, military, and business leaders – boycotted the discussion, “[it] expressed a clear consensus by the other sectors of society in favor of a substantive political settlement” (Jonas 1996, 150). These kinds of strategies appear to be examples of best practice in humanitarian activism. Civil disobedience only becomes a moral mandate when legal and legitimate options for resistance are exhausted. The National Dialog and the idea that religious mediation may help in the fight toward social justice is emerging throughout the region. Nuti notes revitalization efforts in Mexico, namely the community development group Acción Catolica (2000, 52). Edward Fischer endorsed this type of activism in his work on civil society, which he says “allows the expression of will, of hopes and aspirations for the future, along with a sense of choice, self-determination, and empowerment” (2007, 2). He says:

The complexity of civil society resides in its quantum-mechanical aspect: simultaneously a point of resistance and of hegemonic collusion, civil society is formed from a contradiction that cannot be reconciled. The ethnographic challenge, then, is to represent this complexity without trying to force a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis. (2)

Indigenous movements are the clear result of violations against humanity. Poverty, exploitation, and political and economic experimentation created an unstable environment which is driving the indigenous rights movements. These civil society organizations build international relationships which Fischer claims can “help pressure the state from without, just as grass-roots action applies pressure from within” (2007, 3-4).

His definition of civil society is vague, but helpful for this discussion; it is what it is not. It is “not of the government, not of the private sector.” He continues: “While at its broadest it can encompass everything from knitting circles to the Catholic Church, in practice it most often refers to organized NGOs” (4). These groups serve the movements, through regional development, mass media, and international networks, by utilizing local economies and socio-cultural capital to “bring economic thought and market forces to bear on governance and governmentalities” (7). This capital need not be purely economic. Heritage, as identity spiritually mediated through objects, or as wealth mediated though memory (as in Elizabeth Ferry’s work).

The friars, like the Mexica warriors before them, and the nationalists, capitalists, socialists, and anthropologists who followed, were engaged in ideological, intellectual, and psychological warfare. This is not intended to be a negative commentary. It should teach, inspire, and motivate twenty-first century researchers, professors, preachers, officials of both NGOs and governments, and activists. There is an important and active role to be played by today’s social researchers in Mesoamerica; they provide “on-the-ground diversity” (Fischer 2007, 1), and record, interpret, and disseminate data which, in the right hands, may help alleviate tensions in the regions they study. Civil society, in the form of NGOs, churches, or public media require the knowledge acquired by these researchers. World powers should consult the academy and anthropologists and other social scientists should play a consultative role in military operations.

This prescription does not come without its warnings. Heritage is real despite questions of its empirical legitimacy. It has been argued that memory is not knowledge of the past, but knowledge from the past, and that knowledge can become blurred over time. The researcher’s responsibility is to tell the story embraced by the people and to offer insight regarding the social improvements they desire. Fischer makes it clear: “[T]here can also be a heavy-handedness of good intentions that can become oppressive, even racist, in visions of indigenous futures built on distant moral projects and romanticized dreams” (3-4). The discretion is ours. Proceed with caution.



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