Monday, May 22, 2006

Humanity Lost

I grew up during a transition of racial ideology in America. It was a time when our heroes were Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Luis Muñoz Marín who fought for civil rights of American minorities. It was a time of terrible battles fought in courts, in the streets and at the dinner table. While there was a war being fought in Vietnam, there was another moral war being fought at the home front. The question was whether a man of color or a woman in general had the right to be called equal with the rest of white America?

It really didn't affect me much. I am Latino and back then, at least in my immediate view, I wasn't mistreated. I can't remember hearing any of the derogatory labels that some used to describe a person of Latino heritage. All I knew was how to treat everyone like I would want to be treated. If they screwed it up, they lost my trust. But it was never a question of color; just behavior.

The battle raged on in the 70's with shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons and my all time favorite, Good Times. All these shows dealt with racial issues in one form or another. Being a Puerto Rican child in NYC, I guess it was a fight between those two groups of people over there. However, those "in between the line" messages were being stored in my young mind. They secretly helped mold my character.

As I became a young man, I moved to Puerto Rico. There I was hit square in the face by prejudice. My own people denied me a job because I spoke English. It was weird and hurtful at the same time. I was one of those people over there and not one of the native islanders. Knowing I would never be allowed to work, I took a jet plane and landed in the South.

Some will argue that Florida isn't really considered the South like Georgia and Alabama. But prejudice is just the same anywhere we find it. It was in Florida where I had my first run in with racism and the Klan. It was the first time racial labels were directed my way. And it was the first time I saw hate in the eyes of people that didn't know me and wanted me dead anyway. Why? Simply because I was darker then they were. I don't feel ashamed to tell you that I cried in anger. How stupid can people be? Hating someone because of a natural pigment called melanin. That, to me, is like hating someone for having toenails or a liver. They didn't know me. They didn't care if I liked all kinds of music, was artistic or that I never stole a thing in my life. They didn't see me a fellow human being. They just saw me as a rabid animal that needed killing.

After eleven years in the South, I moved to the Mid-West. After a while, I began to notice racial prejudice again. None of it was directed at me, mind you. I was Hispanic. According to the racists, we worked hard, unlike those other lazy minorities.

Let me tell you what I saw. I witnessed poor folk with families working their fingers to the bones, in mills, in steel plants, on farms and in department stores. I saw people struggling and sweating to make sure there was food on their tables, and clothes on their backs. They worked hard to pay rent for a two-bedroom shanty that leaked when it rained and was bone cold in the winter. Yet instead of complaining, they thanked God because they had a roof over their heads one more day. Heck, they even thanked God for toilet paper. Listen, if you ever been without toilet paper and had to wipe with pieces of newspaper, you'd be thanking whatever deity you believe in when the real deal came around your way.

Yes, there were a few that were lazy. But they were people of any color who thought that government owed them a living. However, I couldn't see how racist could paint all minorities with broad strokes on account of a few. Sometimes, those broad strokes were deadly. Because of these broad strokes, I saw police practicing racial profiling and other things I rather not say.

I have traveled through many states in my life and I've seen plenty of injustice. I've seen people starving in the Appalachian Mountains. I have been through small towns where the only running water is the creek that passes though it. I've seen children running around dirty and without shoes. I've seen people who have worked 30 years in a factory only to loose their pensions when the company moved overseas. I've seen seen old widows lose their homes because of foreclosure and had to move to the local homeless shelters. It's a shame that happens in a country as rich as ours. But it does.

So, today we have desperate human beings crossing US-Mexican border in hopes of a better life. To them, despite the prejudice and the injustice that exists in here, America is a slice of heaven on earth. These are people that have it even worse than our homeless. There is no opportunity at all where they live. They have nowhere to turn to ask for medicine. They have nowhere to to turn ask for food. They have nowhere to go to ask for jobs. They have nothing but the flies infesting their wounds and the dimmest of hopes.

Now what would you do? What would you be willing to do? Look at your children, your wives and your husbands. What would you be willing to for them. Cross a desert? Cross a river? Put your life on the line for them dodging the bullets shot at you by "concerned citizens" waiting for you at the other side of the border? Would you do if your little girl were crying because her belly is hurting from lack of food? What, pray tell, would you do if your boy was dying and all he needed were 10 dollar antibiotics?

Let me tell you what I would do. I'd do whatever was necessary. Period. And whether or not you admit it, so would you. Just like the pilgrims and just like the scores of other immigrants of old. Just like The Irish who came here during the Potato Famine and like the Italians that came to America to escape Benito Mussolini's fascist dictatorship.

I remember something taught to me in Civics class. It went something like this:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!**

What happened America? When did we be become so despicable that we dared toss the welcome mat that welcomed out ancestors? Have we become so full of ourselves that we have forgotten our past? Have we forgotten how to be decent and caring human beings? Have we forgotten about mercy and compassion? Have we become a nation of well-fed savages?

Dear God, I pray not.

**"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, mounted plaque on the inner wall of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

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