By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
The European invasion of this continent, intent on exploiting its lands and peoples, made it imperative for the inhabitants and their complex, rich cultures to be treated as inferior, odd, downright savage. The narrative established in the 16th and 17th centuries has changed little, even with recent efforts to institute cultural celebrations designed to uplift not just Hispanic but also this continent’s African American, Asian and Native cultures.
Take Latino Heritage Month, an invention of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, a moment in recent history in which some progress appeared to be made. As was demonstrated when the 45th President of the United States came along, Latinos are still being made the villain — as in calling rapists and drug dealers — and can be punished for trying to seek a better life for their offspring, as when their children were snatched at the border and intentionally lost as an immigration deterrent. In sum, token celebrations like proclaiming a month of this or that culture mean nothing when the profound changes we want are slow in coming.
I’m writing this apropos of an opinion piece that Karla Hernández Cárdenas wrote for us a few weeks ago and that Voices is running this week.
Karla and I met through a mutual friend who confided in me the deep hurt she was experiencing after a reporter and the editor of the Monterey County Weekly tweeted their reactions to “Mexican music” reaching their ears on June 24, the day Roe v. Wade was overturned. The music came from Karla’s house as she was celebrating her birthday and her recent graduation from UC Berkeley. People were having a hard time understanding why she felt so hurt, but for me, the reason is perfectly clear.
Although not named, Karla felt personally attacked in one of the most sacred things she possesses: her identity as a musician and as a Mexican. It’s a pain that’s difficult to understand by those who have never felt it. And if you are a member of the dominant culture, chances are you will have a hard time relating. After all, it takes decades of living under the many layers of oppression we people of color experience — colorism, sexism, racism — to really understand what we are talking about.
And after being under siege for decades, carrying not just our pain but that of our parents and grandfathers, all it takes is a moment of heightened feelings — a celebration, perhaps — and a reversal to feel the blow of devastation. Is this ever going to end? Will we ever be accepted as full members of this society? Of this country?
The times we are living now are unprecedented, not just because it is us going through them (we all want to feel special) but because human actions over the past two centuries are finally catching up to us. We can’t look away from the destruction we are causing to our planet, be it through carbon emissions, indiscriminate razing of forests, or the pollution of our oceans. Scientists are not exaggerating when they predict currently populated parts of the earth could become uninhabitable within the next 100 years.
So what do we do in the face of these dire predictions? As has been my motto lately: We examine ourselves and our behaviors at all levels. How does our behavior contribute to a narrative of exploitation, of anti-collaboration — both crucial for much-needed change. What do we do to change? When we see hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee their homeland due to climate change, will we help them or dismiss their plight because “they’re Mexican”?
Yes, it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when we celebrate the accomplishments and culture of people of Latino descent living in this country. Will the celebration be confined, as usual, to watching parades, to congratulating our Latino-surnamed neighbors and drinking margaritas? Or can we expect a deeper examination of the benefits enjoyed by the so-called “mainstream” culture and how deep-seated biases continue to place my brothers and sisters of any non-Anglo background at a disadvantage?
In the book “We are the Middle of Forever,” Potawatomi professor Kyle Powys Whyte concludes the environmental challenges we are facing were brought about by a lack of kinship.
“Kinship refers to relationships of mutual responsibility, where we care for each other, and we create bonds with each other that make it so that, regardless of what the law says, and regardless of how severe a problem is, or regardless of what our rights are, we have an abiding sense that we need to care for others,” Whyte told book authors.
Caring for each other means that we need to be mindful of how our actions affect others. The pandemic demonstrated to the entire world that many people in affluent white communities did not care about Latinos or African Americans, as evidenced by their push to open up the economy — restaurants, for example — when it was minority communities who were taking on the heaviest burden as essential workers. That’s the lack of kinship that Whyte is talking about, a lack of kinship that’s endangering our ecosystems and our planet.
Kinship is what’s needed for Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian Heritage Month, and Native American Heritage month, every single day of the year, with all cultures of the planet. Kinship is realizing we, inhabitants of industrialized nations, have a responsibility to those who are bearing the brunt of our carbon-emitting rich lifestyle, like the Pakistani survivors of recent floods. Kinship is examining our behavior, our language, the way we behave toward one another. Kinship is thinking before opining on social media, especially if we are public figures, or face the consequences.
I reached out to Monterey County Weekly Editor Sara Rubin to get a comment for this column. If I’m going to ask for kinship, I better offer it, and explaining to her what was coming felt like the right thing to do. She said that, at the time of the tweet, she invited Karla through a third party to talk and visit the Weekly’s office and hear what her concerns were. Karla declined the invitation.
“I am happy to hear all kinds of music at all times. That’s part of what makes Seaside Seaside. I would encourage readers to reread the tweet in the context of the day. A reporter in grief about the news observed a disconnect between the celebratory music and the feeling that day — it is a reasonable response for someone to feel that and to tweet that, and no harm was intended, nor any judgement of the music or the celebration. I thought that was clearly conveyed. I regret that a neighbor did not interpret it that way.
“We at the Weekly are very interested in maintaining positive relationships with all of our neighbors, and the invitation to Karla to come meet our team, have a conversation and tour our office still stands.”
I’ve known Sara for a few years as a colleague, and I believe her to be a fair and honest journalist. Also, I believe we in the media acquire a certain level of entitlement that’s really difficult for us to face up to. We, like any other human being, are products of our upbringing and our environment, and have massive blind spots. Is that the case in this instance? I don’t know. I don’t want to judge.
What I do know is that we live in a world that’s dominated by European views of what’s good and bad, what’s acceptable and what’s undesirable, and that those views permeate all facets of our lives. It’s a world that many of us want to transform and it’s mighty difficult to do.
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