Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Education of a Chicano : The Encampment for Citizenship Part I by AntonioSolisGomez

I always knew I would attend college, probably because my biological father whom I met for the first time when I was twelve was a college grad and a detective with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s. He inspired me in absentia because he was never around and didn’t give my mother a dime for support. But he was self made, leaving us in El Paso with not even a high school education and eventually getting a masters in psychology. Instead I grew up with a stepfather with a third grade education who was literate and who threw me out of the house when I was fifteen.

I was a good student and followed a college prep course, taking as much math and science as possible at Lincoln High School. The Chicanos I grew up with weren’t interested in book learning, really nobody who was Chicano did, the norm was to stay with the group not to be ambicioso. I know that this was not universally true among Chicanos but it was within my group of friends, many who were gang members and on the same football team as I.

Author on the left with the stoic look. on the right my friend Arturo

I attribute that lack of respect for learning to the fact that the teachers didn’t respect us or our cultural roots, setting some dynamics in place that led students to sabotaging any learning that might have taken place such as coughing in unison, dropping books on the floor in sequence, sneaking out the back door while the teacher wasn’t looking, laughing inappropriately. There was always a way to disrupt. It was as if we were in a battle for survival; teachers wanting to erase our identity by berating us and wanting us to acculturate. I once had a history class with a wealthy female teacher, with a handsome face and lithe body, that supported her assertion that she ran hurdles in the Olympics. She wanted the class to see a wall map of Vietnam and after she pulled it down from its case that was hung above the blackboard, turned toward the class. Without warning the map suddenly sprang back into its case. The class snickered and she glared at us, as if daring us to continue. She went back to the blackboard, pulled down the map and again faced us. Wouldn’t you know it, the map with a loud sound rolled back up into its case. Now we laughed out loud and she began to berate our low brow sense of humor and made it known that she and her kind would never laugh at something so stupid.

We, Chicanos, fought back with what we had at our disposal, our inattention. We didn’t know how to stand up verbally to that sort of abuse, compounded by the fact that we didn’t know anything about our history or our past cultural achievements. Nevertheless we wanted to be Chicanos and our role models were the pachucos, the tirilones, the zoot suiters, the vatos locos. We learned to be stoic, to garner a vacuous look and to dress in our own style, shunning current Anglo fashion of Ivy League button down collars and Levis or pegged pants. We wore Khakis and plaid shirts from Sir Guy or Pendeltons and brown leather jackets.

 There was no effort to disrupt my science or math college prep classes as most of those students were non-Chicanos. One of those students was Ben Chu, the only non Chicano in my group of friends and with whom I often studied. I was living a dual existence and I would hide the fact that I took books home for homework. Eventually my close friends came to know that I studied at home and they respected that other side of me.

My clica consisted of Reuben, Fernando, Arturo and Ben. Reuben lived in a tiny house with his mom and five siblings. His mom worked in the garment district but probably also received some welfare. Arturo lived with his mom and dad and three sisters and was the only one that had access to a car, an old 49 Buick that we would cruise in after we siphoned gasoline from the Bell Telephone Company vehicles parked on the perimeter of our barrio. Fernando lived with his mom who received welfare and by all standards was the poorest of our lot. Ben, the lone Chinese was the wealthiest, his dad a butcher who supported six children. I lived with my grandmother who didn’t speak English and worked as a maid at a Sheraton Hotel in the west side. She had managed to buy a small two story house with a basement that became the defacto hangout. The unscrupulous Chicano realtor didn’t explain that her mortgage had a $5000 balloon payment that if not paid within five years would forfeit her purchase and so she eventually lost her home.

During those high school years I read a lot of pulp fiction paperbacks, left by guests at the hotel, that my grandmother would give me, not knowing about the racy sex scenes. But she did find a few good books such as Studs Lonigan, The world of Susie Wong and Marjorie Morning Star. Nevertheless when I graduated from Lincoln and enrolled at East Los Angeles College, I quickly learned that I was deficient in English and History, the classes where little learning took place. In Science and Math I was right up there. I sought to rectify my deficiencies by reading many of the one hundred books Clifton Fadiman recommended in his Lifetime Reading Plan. I read voraciously, carried a book with me wherever I went and angered family because I always had my nose up a book. I enjoyed reading and learning. It not only opened up a world much beyond the barrio where I lived but I began to grow inside, becoming confident and overcoming a natural shyness with Anglos that stemmed from feeling inferior, a condition of oppression best described by Franz Fanon in his book Wretched of the Earth.

My friend Rudy Salinas who made possible the trip to NY with his frien Darlene Leyba in Toledo Spain

There were two highlights in college. One was a class in world literature where I was introduced to Greek Literature and Drama including Sophocles, Aeschylus and Homer. The other was a class in Latin American History where I first began to discover the perverse role the United States had and continued to play in that region. Dr. Helen Bailey, our professor was one of the truly great friends of Chicanos, not only because she pushed so hard for us to learn about our history but also because she helped us financially through a scholarship that she managed. In her class I was introduced to Carey McWilliams and his book North From Mexico and also Ernesto Galarza and his books on farm workers such as Merchants of labor.

At the end of the 1961 spring semester my friend, Bobbie Salinas told me that she was going to New York to attend a summer educational program that her brother Rudy had attended the previous year. Dr. Helen Bailey was responsible for obtaining scholarships to the Encampment for Citizenship and I was assured of getting one for the tuition. The catch was that we needed to pay our way to New York. Getting there was not a problem Bobbie told me because her brother Rudy was going to Poland on a student exchange program and he was going to drive a truck from an agency that needed it taken to New York. Sy Villa also a student would be the fourth member of our crew, everyone agreeing to pitch in for gasoline and to take turns driving.

We set off one morning in early June. The pick-up we were driving had been retrofitted to visit construction sites to sell food for lunch breaks. It had small side panels that ran the length on either side of the bed where eventually sandwiches, soda, cookies, bags of chips and candy would be stored and displayed and in those panels we took turns sleeping for we were to drive non stop for three days. Driving across the United States from one coast to another was an amazing adventure. What struck me the most was the vastness of the country, the open spaces where little development had taken place and that radio stations used the same formats and played the same music in every city.

MLK on left, Pete Seeger, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. The young girl Charis Horton, Myles' daughter

The Encampment for Citizenship conducted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture was started by Algernon Black and modeled after the Highlander School of Tennessee started by Myles Horton. The Highlander School is one of the least known aspects of the Civil Rights Movement but among those that attended were Rosa Parks, Julian Bond, Pete Seeger, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and even Eleanor Roosevelt. Started in 1932 in a small Tennessee town the mission was to provide rural folks training that would help them better their condition. The school stressed embracing local culture and music as well as literacy training to pass the citizenship tests. It was an anomaly back then because it accepted everyone that wanted to attend, including African Americans.

The 1961 Encampment for Citizenship had 120 young people from many parts of the USA and from nine countries. There were a hand full of Chicanos and Native Americans and as many African Americans. Most of us were from urban areas but there were some from rural areas and farming communities. We were using the classrooms of Fieldstone School in the Bronx as dorms, men on the first floor and women in the second and as one can imagine there was lots of use of the staircase after lights out. In the morning we all had chores either in the kitchen preparing breakfast or kitchen clean up, sweeping, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms and shower stalls. It was a very communal set-up and everyone was expected to pitch in. After clean up there was a lecture on some topic that had a social and or political impact by staff or by a visiting lecturer. Thus we were visited and interacted with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., or visited someone such as Eleanor Roosevelt at her home in Hyde Park or a staff person at an agency working with youth gangs. These sessions were very eclectic and quite liberal, many of the topics focused on the issues of inequality here in the USA and abroad.

Author on the right. My friend Bobbie Salinas in the middle. On the left a young man from MT. whose name i have forgotten

 In the afternoon after lunch we each had to sign up for a seminar and I chose the one on group dynamics. We had to select a topic to explore and as it turned out the members decided to follow the suggestion of my fellow traveler Sy who suggested the stigma attached to Chicanos because of gang bangers. The evenings before and after dinner were left for music and we sang to the accompaniment of a banjo player all of the songs that became popular during the Civil Rights Movement such as We Shall Overcome, and folk songs such as Kumbaya. We also learned folk dances from around the world, many of them Jewish circle dances. Late evenings were taken up by free ranging intellectual discussions of the sort young college students might engage in. Because the drinking age in New York was 18 some of us climbing out a window after lights out and visiting a local pub.

The impact on my personal and intellectual life during the two months of that summer lasted a lifetime. I came to know and interact with a group of people that saw the world very much as I was seeing it, acknowledging the oppression perpetuated on people of color, on women, on less developed nations and the need to fight for justice. I cried openly when the encampment came to an end, a first for me the stoic Chicano from Lincoln Heights.


Daniel Cano said...

Antonio, an insightful piece. It should remind us that to become a productive American only takes a generation or two, unlike the naysayers who claim Mejicanos/Latinos never acculturate.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing your story dad!