An Open Letter to Arizona’s Tom Horne, John Huppenthal, Russell Pearce, Joe Arpaio and Jan Brewer: An Appeal to Your Conscience and Your Humanity
Some people say that as Arizona’s top leaders, you are actively engaged in an unprecedented ethnic cleansing campaign against the red-brown peoples of this state.
No doubt you not only disagree, but you take umbrage because you perhaps consider yourself part of a movement that is concerned primarily with national security, with sealing the porous U.S./Mexico border, with mounting campaigns against illegal immigration, and lastly, with promoting the virtues of U.S. culture, a culture that you fear is being eroded daily by invading and uncontrolled hordes from south of the border. On top of this, you most likely believe that this invasion is bankrupting the nation, financially, culturally and spiritually.
And yet, I’m sure you are aware that on Dec 31, one of you, outgoing state schools superintendant of schools, Tom Horne, is set to declare Tucson’s K-12 Mexican American Studies program to be out of compliance with HB 2281, Arizona’s anti-ethnic studies law that goes into effect the very next day.
Despite this, you cannot see how this can be interpreted as being part of an ethnic cleansing campaign? Let me offer each of you a pair of huaraches or mocatzin. This might permit you to understand why many of us believe this is so. You have no interest in wearing huaraches or mocassins? That’s OK. Keep your boots on while I offer an explanation.
Part of the problem in debating these issues is that we utilize different vocabularies and we also live different realities. Yet the problem is actually beyond language. You need to walk in our shoes or you need to have the experience of being singled out because of our red-brown skin to be able to understand why we view the world differently and why we interpret your movement to be inimical to our very existence.
Let me offer alternative terminology for what you are doing. I would argue that what you are engaged in is not so much ethnic cleansing, but a continuation of the colonial policies of reducciones – a project carried out by the Spanish empire in the Americas during the 1500s-1800s. This included the region that is today called the U.S. Southwest.
Never heard of it? They were akin to this nation’s Indian Removal policies of the 19th century. Tied to them were the Indian Boarding Schools. Indian Removal either constituted outright genocide or forced migrations. This resulted in land loss and the de-rooting of peoples that had been living in what is today the United States for many thousands of years. The philosophical foundation for the boarding schools was: “kill the Indian, save the man.” Translated, it amounted to both Christianization and Americanization. It was predicated on the idea that American Indians were savage and godless and needed saving.
The policy of reducciones was something similar: “Kill the Indian; create a Christian.”
This project was also predicated on the idea that Indigenous peoples were savage, godless… and demonic. A debate raged throughout the 1500s as to whether Indigenous peoples had souls, whether they were actually human and whether they were entitled to full human rights. Not coincidentally, the debate is reminiscent of the one we hear today about “illegal aliens.” The stark difference was that then, most Europeans taking part in it were convinced that the culture(s) of the peoples of the Americas were literally derived from the devil.
Along with genocide and land theft, the primary objective of the reducciones was to generally wipe out all vestiges of Indigenous culture, history and memory and convert the people into Christians. This included physically destroying temples, schools, murals, libraries etc. It also included massive book burnings – because books, along with knowledge of the calendars (math, science and astronomy), plants and foods, were thought to be “things of the devil.”
From this sordid history came a system of European jurisprudence that determined what was legal/legitimate, what constituted knowledge, who was human (even who/what was beautiful) and who was entitled to full human rights. Despite rosy accounts written by Europeans, the same or similar dynamic has been in play on this continent for these past 518 years, involving: who is entitled to full human rights and who is welcome. At different times, the answer has been Christians, Europeans, Caucasians, human beings, the civilized, the pure bred, those with reason/intelligence, literate peoples and nowadays, citizens. Those cast outside of this net have been: Indigenous peoples, so-called pagans, savages and mongrels, non-Europeans, the uncivilized, the racially, culturally and spiritually impure, the “illiterate” and always the “foreigners.” It is these peoples whom have historically been denied their basic human rights and freedoms.
Unlike those who think that what has been happening in Arizona is an aberration, it is actually in line with the history of the continent over the past 500 years.
Racial profiling? That is the history of this continent. Denial of history and culture? That too is the norm.
Embedded in the memory of Mexican Americans (Central and South Americans also) is always the continual need to prove our humanity. In the eyes of the law, we have never been human enough. Not American enough. Not loyal enough. Not pure enough. Not legal enough. Not legitimate enough. Even in the realm of language, neither our English or Spanish have ever been good enough.
And how can we forget; despite our color, and despite our 7,000-year maiz-based culture that can be traced to this very continent, we neither are Indigenous enough.
So when you enact laws that require us to prove our citizenship, when you enact laws that forbid us from learning our thousands-of-year cultures from this very continent, then you give us but one clear message: the need to once again prove our humanity. You also send out another message: not welcome. But you seem not content with sending that message either. Next is the Arizona nullification of birthright citizenship and the 14th amendment. And subsequently, you now want children to also turn in their own parents.
You question our humanity? Step back and examine what it is you are doing. Your attacks are relentless, but very much in line with what we are accustomed to. You want our souls? You can’t have them. You seem to be obsessed with completing that imperial project begun some 518 years ago. But not even a thousand laws can wipe out our memories and no amount of demonization and no amount of misinformation or miseducation can sever our connection to this land. And thus we see the frustration in your faces and hear your message about trying to get rid of as many of us as possible and about keeping our history and culture at home.
We already did that for many hundreds of years. What is it about knowledge that you fear? Do you fear another narrative – a narrative much older than the Pilgrim story? Why do you fear us and our ancient Indigenous knowledge?
Do you fear the maiz-based philosophical concepts of In Lak Ech, Panche Be and Hunab Ku?
Do you actually fear that we teach our kids to see themselves in everyone else – a philosophy that promotes love, justice and equality, not hate and inequality? Do you actually fear that we teach kids to pursue the truth – critical thinking – as opposed to blind acceptance of oft-repeated myths about this continent and this country? And do you fear that we teach our children that they are no less or no better than anyone else – that we are all created equal – as opposed to teaching them that they have savage and demonic roots?
Why indeed do you fear this program? Because it graduates 97.5% of all of its students? Do you fear that if this success is replicated nationwide, that there will be no one left to pick the crops? You seem to want us in a permanent state of subservience, if you want us at all. You seem to want us to lose our memories and to lose our identities and our connection to this land as the price of admission to this society. You seem to want us, fear us and despise us all at the same time. And still, we love this land. Does this puzzle you?
I appeal to your conscience and your own humanity: Why not welcome us as peoples with open arms. And why not embrace this program; it creates top-notch students and beautiful human beings. Is that not the purpose of education?