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Latino Children Wonder About Their Future

We have a friend in Albuquerque, NM, 7-year-old Jose Miguel Acosta, who, after saying the pledge of allegiance, adds: "and God bless Mexicans too."

Jose Miguel already notices that a lot of people in his barrio get stopped b police. He says it's because they are brown and not because they are all bad. So he prays "that God can take care of us too." It's instructive what children are surmising from the grown-up world.

The National Day of Commitment to Children on June 1, organized by the Children's Defense Fund, focuses on the needs of children. And these are no healthy times, particularly for the poor.

Latino children--who represent a third of their community--are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as white children and have the greatest number of high school dropouts. Most people would argue that the antidote to poverty is education, yet Congress seems to think the solution is increased military spending and more prisons. These policies are detrimental to all children, but they are particularly harmful to Latino youth because of the anti-immigrant hysteria currently prevalent in the country.

Some of the most vulnerable members of our community are not undocumented immigrants, but legal residents--many of them children--who are being attacked via proposed congressional legislation that would ban them from receiving federal financial assistance to attend college. This, despite the fact that more immigrant children tend to go to college than second generation Latinos.

Under the various legislative proposals, some children who are legally residing here might be deported if they receive federal services for more than 12 months within the first five or seven years after their arrival. These services range from child care to college financial aid. Children would also be denied various services even if they are U.S-born children of undocumented immigrants. States would also have the option of denying publi education to undocumented children, which would require checking the immigration status of all children.

Listen to 11-year-old Marialma Montes-Gonzales who was afraid to go outside her Daly City, Calif., home and play. She feared police would stop and question her because "they could think I wasn't born here."

Marialma had heard the adults talking about California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which would deny undocumented children schooling and would have required students to turn in their parents. Many of the provisions wer later thrown out of court. But Marialma was concerned she would have to wea an identification necklace. "I won't have any pockets. Am I going to wear tag around my neck?" she asked.

Magaly Lavadenz, a professor of bilingual education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, says the anti-immigrant hysteria will create long-term negative effects on Latino children's self esteem--whether they're immigrants or not.

Children around the country share similar fears to Marialma's, says Bibi Lobo, of the National Latino Children's Agenda (NCLA). While 95 percent of the Latino population is here legally, young Latinos are aware that the entire Latino population is considered suspect, says Lobo, who conducted focus groups with numerous youths in the past few months. And they are awar that provisions echoing Proposition 187 are being nationalized.

Children speak of wanting teachers who understand them, of the need for sufficient school funding so that there are enough books to take home for homework, says Lobo. Youths from Austin and Dallas spoke of being encourage by school staff to drop out of school and just take the GED. One Austin tee was told by a staff member at a magnet school that he didn't belong there because the school was for "white people." When asked in the focus group if a Latino would ever be president, one student replied, "No--That's why they call it the White House."

So, in support of Latino youth, the NLCA is asking children to make milagros (miracles). An ancient tradition of wishing for miracles, milagros are pictures with prayers written on them, representing the wish that a son will return safe from war, for example, or tin charms representing a hurt arm or sick mule--something that needs to be cured. They are found on church walls and near the statues of saints. Milagros hold special meaning in Mexican/Latino culture--the idea that miracles can happen, that no prayer goes unanswered.

The NLCA hopes that by placing the milagros in Washington's mall of monument that the wishes of Latino children will be answered too.

Puerto Ricans--U.S. Citizens in Limbo

At the end of 1995, the U.S. Department of State agreed to recognize the petition of Juan Mari Bras, 68, of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

Bras claimed that U.S. citizenship is an imposed foreign citizenship, and declared that he was "Boricua" first. (Boricua is the Taino word for Puerto Rican). He did this, in part, to buttress the claim that Puerto Rico is a separate nation.

Since then, at least 500 other Puerto Ricans have also renounced their U.S. citizenship, says Jose Lopez, director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago. Prompted by this pro-independence fervor, Puerto Rican leaders across the country say it is time for Puerto Ricans to reflect upon what it means to be a U.S. citizen. And they have called for the celebration of "Boricua First"--a National Puerto Rican Affirmation Day--on March 29 in Washington D.C. This gathering will bring to light the concerns of Puerto Ricans both on the island and on the mainland.

Puerto Rico became part of the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War in which Spain ceded the island. In 1917, the Jones Act made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. "Puerto Ricans didn't choose to be Americans," points out Howard Jordan, managing editor of Critica, a publication of the New York-based Institute for Puerto Rican Policy (IPRP).

Puerto Rico's commonwealth status means that island residents cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. Yet, Puerto Ricans have repeatedly voted against statehood (the last time, in 1993) partly because many fear that statehood would mean they would be forced to assimilate and would lose their Latin American culture.

Many Americans view Puerto Ricans as immigrants and newcomers, says Jordan. And they are often treated accordingly. It is not unheard of for U.S. immigration agents to ask Puerto Ricans for foreign passports, and for Puert Ricans to suffer discrimination in the workplace as suspected "illegal aliens."

Confusion over Puerto Rican identity is rooted in Puerto Rico's colonial relationship--political, cultural and linguistic--to the rest of the United States.

There are approximately 6.5 million Puerto Ricans in the United States, who make up 2.5 percent of the total U.S. population. However, when the island is excluded from the Census count--which is standard practice--the percentage decreases to around 1 percent.

When the residents of Puerto Rico are counted as part of the U.S. Latino population, Puerto Ricans make up 24 percent of all Latinos, but only half that when Puerto Rico's population is excluded.

This intentional miscount reinforces the notion that Puerto Ricans are not part of the United States, leaving them in a political twilight zone. "It relegates them to second class citizenship," says Angelo Falcon, IPRP president. As a result, government officials virtually ignore the concerns of Puerto Ricans--a population that has the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the country.

The Census also slights the Puerto Rican community through its creation of the generic "Hispanic" category. Lumped together under this one heading, specific Latino communities become invisible. So, while the different groups must assert their uniqueness, they must also be willing to unite when all Latinos are being attacked, says Falcon.

Another identity issue for Puerto Ricans has surfaced in Philadelphia. There, the police department has infuriated the Latino community by deciding to follow federal guidelines and recognize only black, white, Asian and Native American racial categories. This policy forces Latinos to accept official U.S. government definitions of race--which essentially do not recognize races that are mixed.

"All Latinos are mestizos (of mixed race). We have a little bit of everything," says Lizette Ortiz, president of the Latino American Student Association at West Chester University, Pa. The U.S. government has taken Latinos' land (Puerto Rico and half of Mexico); through legislation, politicians are trying to take away our language (Spanish); and now the federal government is attempting to impose an identity upon us, says Ortiz. "That's where we draw the line."

Angel Ortiz, a Philadelphia city councilman, says that once Latinos are forced to accept the official U.S. definitions of race, census bureaucrats and other government officials "will inject us with their virus of racism." The U.S. Census generally does not acknowledge race mixture, instead reinforcing historically racist and dangerous concepts of "racial purity." As a result of the councilman's intervention, the police department is reviewing its new policy.

The purpose of "Boricua First," says Jordan, is to focus Washington's attention on the specific political and economic agenda of Puerto Ricans and to get Puerto Rican bureaucrats in Washington to be more responsive to their communities.

Thousands from around the country are expected to participate in the bipartisan event. "Boricua First" activities will commence at the Vietnam Memorial and will highlight the historical role of Boricuas in defending the United States in wars throughout the nation's history. (There are, for example, 2,000 Puerto Rican names on the Vietnam memorial wall.) The day will end with the presentation of petitions to the President for the pardon of 15 Puerto Rican political prisoners--who are in prison because of violent independence-related activities against U.S. military installations in Puerto Rico and corporate targets on the mainland. Most were charged with committing "seditious conspiracy," highlighting the old adage that "one man terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

The leaders also hope to link up with the October 12 Latino march on Washington--as equal partners, they say; not simply as supporters.

False Patriotism Fosters Incivility

When we attend spiritual ceremonies presided over by Native American elders, we never hear a word of hate. The elders pray for a better world, thank the Creator for all the good in life and apologize to Mother Earth for what we are all doing to her.

It is also what one hears, or used to hear, in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

When we leave this circle and step into the political realm, we also look to leaders who speak with wisdom, work toward solutions and walk with compassion. Instead, we generally find pols who like to blame our society's problems on the most vulnerable. We used to hear this only during election years, yet, because of incessant campaigning, it now permeates our everyday life.

In a nation that cherishes the division between church and state, we nonetheless long for political leaders with a moral and spiritual center--yet we settle for elected officials whose infectious opportunistic practices have spread in all directions, creating an uncivil society.

We are thinking about this subject in the aftermath of the Fourth of July when we were personally bombarded by a nasty pseudo-patriotism. We received a rash of anonymous hate letters. One of them said: "If you do not like White America, our culture, our language, I ask, why do you choose to stay?"

We stay because we belong here.

Another letter writer stated: "We love our country, leave us alone."

We love it too--leave us alone.

Still another one read: "I have never known of any Hispanics who have bowed their heads in silence and say a little prayer for all the soldiers who lost their lives protecting our country in order that the Hispanics have a better life."

Perhaps that individual has never been inside of a Mexican American or Puerto Rican home; has never seen the countless medals and photos of sons in uniform and has never heard the countless prayers for their dead soldier sons.

In one Texas border community, in discussions in the media, the question of patriotism was gauged in terms of how many households were flying Old Glory as opposed to how many voted in the previous election (about 5 percent), or how many people participate in volunteer organizations.

Additionally, a couple of nationally syndicated columnists decried the increase in new citizens and called for rules to make naturalization more difficult and create greater distinctions between citizens and noncitizens.

Incidentally, most of those new citizens are brown and had been previously condemned for not being citizens.

One columnist decried the flying of Mexican flags during a protest two years ago, calling it a "violation of basic respect and protocol" and "an assault on the democratic process in America."

The most patriotic thing people can do in the United States is to fight for their rights. And the right to protest--in whatever manner dissenters choose--is guaranteed, both by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That is the democratic process in America.

The other columnist called for a new "Americanization" movement. We wondered whether it will again include Mexican Americans, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans--whose cultures predate "American culture." In this climate, people speak of God and patriotism, but speak like no one we have ever prayed with, or that we have seen behind a pulpit. They wrap themselves in the flag, invoke love of country, and call for keeping the brown hordes out and the black hordes in (prison). Then they sing "God Bless America."

"America-love it or leave it." That's not a '60s slogan but what our communities are subjected to on a daily basis today.

It dismays us that this hate is masked in patriotism and that this pseudo-Americanism is being defined in its most narrow and superficial forms.

Recently, we have observed people rudely condemn mariachi music, ballet folklorico dancing, bilingual education and speaking Spanish in public as unpatriotic.

Ultimately, all this can be traced back to politicians, both Democrats and Republicans alike. It is they who pick on "Jose" and who assure us that kicking little brown children out of schools will solve all of America's problems. This is best illustrated by the current flap regarding the recent Democratic and Republican campaign ads, which make Willie Hortons out of Mexican immigrants.

For those who believe that protest is unAmerican, then indeed, we must be living in the wrong America. But we don't condemn them. We pray for them.

by Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez

These Articles are Reproduced with Permission from the Authors.

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