Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Ed Maya's Primer for Peace Movement

Michael Sedano

Ed Maya. Memories 1971-1986. Pasadena CA: MS.

Experienced activists know activism is often its only reward. They likely remember the highs that come during early organizing efforts, and the lows and bitterness that can follow. For these leaders, and newer organizers of today's fast-growing but nascent peace movement, Ed Maya has written an oral history of the early Pasadena movimiento that offers encouragement along with a cautionary tale.

In 1971, Maya was hired to teach high school Chicano Literature in a Pasadena school system roiled by forced busing, ethnic politics, internal strife, and sour community relations. He was the MECHA adviser during student walkouts and several other confrontations. Later, he was a board member of a razacentric community services agency, El Centro, during a period of rapid budget growth that enhanced community services.

Punctilious tipos might question Ed's historiography on grounds that participant observers have axes to grind. Ed's not sharpening any edges, that I can see. His agenda fully reflects the title: Memories 1971-1986. Maya let a few years pass, then talked to leaders he worked with. He let a few more years pass before compiling those conversations into this self-published manuscript in 2005. To call the manuscript a nostalgic memoir is to miss Ed's critically important agenda: to identify the motives, memories, and pitfalls of a movement that rose to key peaks, attained success, then consumed itself and people's careers.

El Centro, a political backwater in Pasadena's black-white agon, rose to influence through dedication, labor, and a stroke of luck. El Centro had been housed in a small building that city fathers announced they would raze. Centro researchers discovered the structure was a cultural landmark designed by the revered Craftsman architects Greene and Greene. The City was forced to refurbish the structure, giving El Centro a secure organizing base.

After a series of successful efforts to reverse city attempts to urban renew people out of their homes, El Centro was gaining influence and had begun to attract "establishment" grant money. For instance, El Centro's leadership reached out to the United Way, then saw the budget grow from tiny to six figures. Then, internal problems led to the dismissal of several staffers. The staffers launched a bitter campaign against El Centro, writing letters to funding sources accusing El Centro's leadership of all manner of unethical and illegal behaviors. The matter was resolved only after El Centro filed a successful libel suit against the embittered former staffers. Although emerging the winner in the pedo, the activist director was burned out and, disheartened, abandoned her post. The cautionary tale for today's activists: El Centro's internal strife originated from diverging personal interests and loose organizational control that allowed competing strategic approaches to reach an egregious critical mass.

Three of Ed's interviewees were middle school kids who spoke of how the high school MECHistas didn't treat them like kids but as Chicanos who needed information. It's an important lesson because organizers of such key groups as Latinos for Peace and Latinos Contra La Guerra en Irak are senior citizen veteranos of the 60s movimiento who cannot carry the load without support from school age youth. If today's movement is to grow, it needs consistent and unrelenting commitment from youth. That, Maya's book illustrates, is nothing to count on.

In Pasadena schools, MECHA teachers found to their disappointment that succeeding generations of students valued the student organization less for its political activism than as a social outlet. Intially, the social aspect has a political payoff. Ed recounts the history of the 5 de Mayo celebrations. School administrators sought to dilute the event by creating a pan-ethnic celebration. As a counter, MECHA kids and teachers organized a 5 de Mayo dance and celebration. It was during this time that an administrator told Ed his Chicano Studies classes would have to go on without textbooks. The 400 plus kids who went to the dance told an important story to the blustering adminstrator, whom MECHA invited to the dance. The next week, the administrator called Ed and asked what titles he needed. Money had miraculously appeared to buy the texts. Ed notes wryly the adminstrator didn't want to see those 400 kids and parents crowding his office to demand the books. The walkouts and confrontations had given them leverage.

Not that extreme tactics always work out. Ed interviews three middle school students who used confrontation disadvantageously. Confronting the Spanish-surname school Superintendent, the kids ask him if he's Chicano like them. The Superintendent denies the identity, offering "Mexican American". One of the kids calls the Superintendent a "tio taco," permanently alienating the man. Not that the Superintendent was anti-Chicano. Ed recounts how the conservative, anglo-dominated School Board had tied the adminstrator's hands and describes how the Superintendent used nonverbal communication to urge Ed and a group of protestors to ramp up their pressure tactics.

Unfortunately, extremism is often in the eyes of the beholder. The woman who would become El Centro's founding executive was invited by MECHA to speak to a school assembly about ethnicity. Describing what she saw as facts about brown-white relations upset the son of a school board member who thought she was race baiting. A Vice Principal shared the boy's perception. During the woman's speech, the VP sounded the evacuation alarm, stopping the assembly by emptyinig the hall. This was the same administrator who demanded students use a bullfighter on a 5 de Mayo poster. Raza packed a series of school board meetings that illustrated the vast space between administrative fiat and what Chicanas Chicanos wanted from their schools. Some positive change came about, but the woman was permanently banned from stepping foot on Pasadena school grounds.

Resources for organizers include the theories of Freire and Alinsky, but no primer on the nuts and bolts of doing movements. This is one reason why I look for Maya to fine tune and update these recollections, or at least, give it a life on the world wide web for others to share. If there's a major flaw to be found in Maya's manuscript, it will be akin to the critic's complaint "show me don't tell me." Ed allows his oral informants to tell a reader that events occurred, not how. Contemporaneously, a high school teacher at LA's Roosevelt High is organizing an Opt-Out movement initiated by MECHA. Memories 1971-1986 will be inspiring for them. It could be more. I'm sure I'm not alone in hearing rumbles about a "chicano renaissance" afoot. I don't know about that, but for sure, raza and others face the beginnings of a peace movement growing from the grass roots. For hangers-on from the 60s, a reminder of the errors of the past may be preventive action. For people stepping into the limelight, a nuts and bolts movimiento memoir may be just what the movement needs.


Anonymous said...

A REAL history book about Chicanos? One that closely examines tendencies and mistakes? How refreshing!

Part of the problem in being Chicanos is not admitting our fallabilities. Maybe it's another part of that macho thing. Even females manifested their victimization aspects of it, back then.

This one I will have to read.

But then, there's a lot more that needs to come out. One day.

Thx, Sedano, for a solid review.

Anonymous said...

What a very interesting and educational post!