Middle School







 

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I gave this speech at the Brownsville City Commission meeting last Tuesday.  The city was honoring my students for their recognition as part of the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest.  One student, the one who had spent the most time on her essay, gave a great speech to the Commission, advising them to fight the fence and support increasing the legal ability to immigrate.  So during the public comment’s section, I gave this speech.
Jesus often called the young people to him by saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  He also quoted Psalms 8:2 which states, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, thou hast perfected praise.”
Although I can’t quote these lines to my students while teaching, they have helped guide my thinking as a teacher.  Among other things, they alert me to listen to the wisdom and insight that children often have naturally, some of which, we as adults miss.  These children here today have taught me so much about tenacity, faith and life, and for that I thank them.
My only admonition for the City Commission is that you fully consider, and not disregard, the “perfected praise” that has come to you “out of the mouth of babes.”  “Let no man despise [their] youth.”
Furthermore, knowing these students as I know them, I believe that we as adults must do everything we can to be as courageous, active, and tenacious as we can, just to keep up with them.  In light of that, I ask the members of the Commission to join The Border Ambassadors, LUPE, CASA, Proyecto Azteca, Southwest Workers Union, and most importantly the students, by supporting the March Against the Wall and any other peaceful, grassroots, direct-action event supporting the preservation of La Frontera and preventing Segregation.

Today, I gave this speech to the Brownsville City Council Meeting during the public comment portion.  The Brownsville Herald ran an article on Sunday that said that the Mayor was betrayed by the City Council who went behind closed doors to allow the Army Corps of Engineers onto city land to survey for the wall.  It is in response to that that I wrote this speech-on the back, and in the margins of the agenda.   

Yesterday, Princeton University recognized five of my 8th grade students for essays they wrote on the topic “What would Martin Luther King say and do about immigration?”  Princeton opened this year’s essay contest to my students because they used my blog, nonviolent migration, as a resource for their contest.  These five students, Melissa Guerra, Yessenia Martinez, Abigail Cabrera, Vanessa Trevino, and Blanca Gonzalez were the only five students who had the faith to submit an essay and all were recognized by Princeton. 

I asked the rest of my 121 students to speak honestly about why they had decided not to write for the contest.  The overwhelming number of students responded that it wasn’t worth trying because they felt that because Princeton is in the North, they would prejudge their work since they live on the border.  This experience reminded me once again just how excluded these children feel.   Even though this wall will be South of most of my students, my students are smart enough to know that the same motive behind this wall is also shouting at them, saying, “You are not us; keep out!” 

These students, who started with such enthusiasm when the contest was announced, lost hope and they let their fears overcome their faith.  This broke my heart because I love my students, but your capitulation is something other than heartbreaking because you are no longer 8th graders.  We expect you to hold out hope.  We expect you to keep the faith.  We expect you to work for us, and let us fight this fight. 

At this time, we want to express our love… and forgiveness… to all the members of the commission.  However, as a result of your action, we must now find a legal way to undo what you’ve done so that my 8th graders don’t come to learn that you prejudged them too. 

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Late last week, one of my students told me about the “mojaditos” being arrested in her neighborhood, still wet from the Rio Grande.  She is a popular girl, is on the dance team, and earns straight A’s.  She is writing an essay for the Princeton University Martin Luther King Essay Contest about Martin Luther King and immigration, and her use of the word “mojaditos,” sounding in my ears, created an ambivalent emotion. 

In Spanish, Mojado means wet.  Like the dehumanizing use of the English adjective “illegal” as a noun, mojado, when used as a noun, means “wet-back.”  Mojado is the word Antonio tells me he hears spit from the angry lips of Border Patrol officers.  This is the word I hear a few students use to ridicule their classmates who, fresh from Mexico, speak so little English.  Like the words joto and stupid, mojado is one of the many ways that my adolescent students, trapped in an age desperate for acceptance, exclude each other.

Mojadito, however, is a different kind of word.  The suffix –ito means little, and often is used with fondness.  While living in Monterrey, my darling Mari would affectionately call me her guerito (little white boy).  Pobrecito is a fond way of saying, “my poor little baby.”  Mojadito, while derived from a racial slur, was being used by my student in a tender way.   Her language and even her thoughts were confined by racial segregation, but at least her emotions were freely empathetic. 

*          *          *

 

Before being thrown into Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King made the hard decision to break a city law in order to be imprisoned.   He wrote about that decision in the chapter “A New Day in Birmingham”:

 

“I intended to be one of the first to set the example of civil disobedience.  Ten days after the demonstrations began, between four and five hundred people had gone to jail; some had been released on bail, but about three hundred remained.  Now that the job of unifying the Negro community had been accomplished, my time had come.  We decided that Good Friday, because of its symbolic significance, would be the day that Ralph Abernathy and I would present our bodies as personal witnesses to this crusade.

“Soon after we announced our intention to lead a demonstration on April 12 and submit to arrest, we received a message so distressing that it threatened to ruin the movement.  Late Thursday night, the bondsman who had been furnishing bail for the demonstrators notified us that he would be unable to continue.  The city had notified him that his financial assets were insufficient.  Obviously, this was another move on the part of the city to hurt our cause.

“It was a serious blow.  We had used up all the money we had on hand for cash bonds.  There were our people in jail, for whom we had a moral responsibility.  Fifty more were to go in with Ralph and me.  This would be the largest single group to be arrested to date.  Without bail facilities, how could we guarantee their eventual release?

“Good Friday morning, early, I sat in Room 30 of the Gaston Motel discussing this crisis with twenty-four key people.  As we talked, a sense of doom began to pervade the room.  I looked about me and sat that, for the first time, our most dedicated and devoted leaders were overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness.  No one knew what to say, for no one knew what to do.  Finally someone spoke up and, as he spoke, I could see that he was giving voice to what was on everyone’s mind.

“‘Martin,’ he said, ‘this means you can’t go to jail.  We need money.  We need a lot of money.  We need it now.  You are the only one who has the contacts to get it.  If you go to jail, we are lost.  The battle of Birmingham is lost.’

“I sat there, conscious of twenty-four pairs of eyes.  I thought about the people in jail.  I thought about the Birmingham Negroes already lining the streets of the city, waiting to see me put into practice what I had so passionately preached.  How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community?  What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning sacrifice and then excused himself?

“Then my mind began to race in the opposite direction.  Suppose I went to jail?  What would happen to the three hundred?  Where would the money come from to assure their release?  What would happen to our campaign?  Who would be willing to follow us into jail, not knowing when or whether he would ever walk out once more into the Birmingham sunshine?

“I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room.  There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself.  I was alone in that crowded room.

“I walked to another room in the back of the suite, and stood in the center of the floor.  I think I was standing also at the center of all that my life had brought me to be.  I thought of the twenty-four people, waiting in the next room.  I thought of the three hundred, waiting in prison.  I thought of the Birmingham Negro community, waiting.  Then my mind leaped beyond the Gaston Motel, past the city jail, past city lines and state lines, and I thought of twenty million black people who dreamed that someday they might be able to cross the Red Sea of injustice and find their way to the Promised Land of integration and freedom.  There was no more room for doubt.

“I pulled off my shirt and pants, got into work clothes and went back to the other room to tell them I had decided to go to jail.

“‘I don’t know what will happen; I don’t know where the money will come from.  But I have to make a faith act.’”

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Today I received a news alert with the question, “Who will be the immigration movement’s Martin Luther King?”  I really think hundreds of people have asked themselves this exact question in the past two years.  I don’t have an answer, but the passage I just quoted highlights, for me, the qualities as well as the quandary.  Princeton University is asking a very similar question to middle and high school students right now. They essentially ask the question, “What would Martin Luther King say if he were to attend an immigration rally today?”  (http://www.princeton.edu/mlk/essay).

When Dr. King faced himself in an instant of introspection instigated by the loneliness of leadership, he realized that his life led him to the decision he was making.  And he realized that he could make no other decision than to trust in God, in his sense of history and morality, and choose to act in faith. 

What made this decision so difficult for Dr. King was the fact that no bail could be provided for the three hundred in jail and that unless he stayed out of jail and tried to secure funding, they would likely remain in jail for a significant period of time.  This is perfectly applicable to our situation with unjust immigration restrictions because arrested immigrants are not given bail.  Not only that, but they aren’t often given jail sentences; they are most often deported. 

Undoubtedly, the act of turning oneself in to an ICE agent as an unauthorized immigrant in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience requires a greater courage and a greater conviction than even the greatest generation of Americans—the civil rights activists struggling nonviolently against segregation—faced.  Will my thirteen-year-old student, newly empathetic for the mojaditos, find the kind of courage that Dr. King found?  Will any of my students?  Will their lives lead them to a similarly defining moment where they even have the tools to ask the questions Dr. King did? 

While writing this, I see, for the first time, the potential for the level of heroism of my friend, Marlene Flowers, in my students.  She was about the same age as my 8th graders when she was first arrested for violating a city bus segregation statute.  I met Marlene as an energetic grandmother with a résumé that included fifty-four such arrests.  Her powerful presence makes it difficult to imagine that first arrest.  Even harder for me is to imagine her before that first arrest, before the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience first germinated in her brain and resonated in her soul.  But I now wonder if she looked a little unsure, excitable, and even scared, like so many of my students.  Resolving to civilly disobey an unjust law is certainly distinct from changing the way we feel about some other law-breaker, but moving our hearts from mojado to mojadito might mean a heart agape enough to eventually find morality and courage and charity (agapé) enough to bring about a new era of human rights in the United States.  Today my hope is that it represents a new day in Brownsville, for at least that one student.

 

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Today I bought Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox’s book, Revolution of Hope, and started reading it.  At this point, I know almost nothing about President Fox.  Just 9 pages of his book have taught me more than I knew beforehand.  Before today I knew he was generally in favor of immigration.  Little did I know.

President Fox’s grandfather is from Ohio and never spoke a word of Spanish, even after immigrating to Mexico.  He left Ohio for Mexico in his search for the American dream.  I know the feeling.  Last spring I started searching for housing in Matamoros.  In a solo trip driving through neighborhoods, a sentimental feeling came over me and I put in one of my Simon and Garfunkle CD’s I keep in my car.  I found the track and let Paul Simon’s familiar humming hypnotize me into that often felt longing for an elusive something I’ve long sought.  “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.  I’ve got some real estate here in my bag,” the singing began.  “Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.  I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.  Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” the song concluded.  I realized right then that the sentimental, even nostalgic feeling I was experiencing was that same familiar searching for what America ought to be that I have been doing all my adult life.  I felt this same way as I was walking down the darkly lit stretch of Dyer Street that connected the Logan Heights portion of Ft. Bliss, where my barracks were, to the gritty Northeast section of El Paso where I bought the only lottery tickets of my life at a Circle K.  This was the feeling I felt during my first tour of duty to Saudi Arabia when I opened my family’s Christmas gift of a box of cold cereal.  A family of eleven children, and living in poverty, we had started a family tradition of each child receiving a box of cold cereal for Christmas–a luxury not experienced during any other season.  It was that same feeling that I felt as a non-traditional student in college trying to shrug off poverty’s psychological effects and accept a view of myself that included a bachelor’s degree.  What I felt, listening about the search for America in my car in Mexico (and these other times), was a heart agape and emptied of everything but hope, but longing.

President Fox put it this way:

South of the Rio Grande, which we call the Rio Bravo, we consider the entiere hemisphere to be the Americas.  America is the New World, where ancient civilizations like the Maya and the Aztec mingled with the bold and the enslaved and the desperate from Europe, Arabia, and Asia.  In this sense we are all Americans, and from Canada’s Yukon to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego we all share the dream of a better life.

It is from this expanded understanding of America that President Fox sees immigration.  “Hungry and desperate, seeking refuge from disease, war, persecution, and poverty,” Fox says, people are uprooted by “the four hoursemen of desperation who drive immigrants to the gates of hope.” (Why don’t we acknowlege poverty at home and a willing employer abroad as a valid reason to classify someone as a refugee?)  These immigrants’ “dreams belong to all of us, becaues needs that basic, values that common, and a hope that divine simply cannot be limited by borders.  America is in this way not so much a country but an ideal.”  The American dream, Fox says, “remains the last, best hope of mankind on earth.”

If you are a Besteiro Middle School student writing about Dr. Martin Luther King, you might notice the similarities between Dr. King’s dream of a world where black and white, north or south of the Mason Dixon Line would share in a common humanity, a true community, and President Fox’s dream for the same for Latino and Anglo, north or south of the Rio Grande.

President Fox continues,

The world needs this dream of the Americas, now as never before….  Most of all we pray for a revolution of hope to restore the founding spirit of our hemisphere, where the Statue of Liberty once welcomed the eager dreams of the poorest, bravest, and most desperate people of the earth.

I know very little of the Americas outside the United States.  Ultimately I did not move to Matamoros.  I could not find a roommate and although I found an excellent apartment, I couldn’t afford it on my own.  My total experience in Latin America is limited to roughly 10 weeks living and studying Spanish in Monterrey.  But it is this sense of hope and opportunity and this idea of equality, combined with a lifelong commitment to public service, that has led me physically from the Mountain West to the Midwest, to the Middle East,  the West Coast, and the Texas Border.  This hope, this faith, this love, and this commitment led me intellectually and spiritually here to the border–to the limits–of that hope and equality.

There is more Martin Luther King to come on Sunday.  There is more Revolution of Hope comming too.  My prayer tonight is that with them will come more readers, more believers, more optimists, and more searchers.
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Well I have a story about one of my mom’s friend that lives here in Brownsville. She lives alone here in Brownsville with her 2 kids. One of her kids is 13 years old and the other is 12 years old. But she wants to go to Mexico because she has a son over there. He is 18 years old. He can’t come over here because he doesn’t have his papers either. So now the both of them can’t see each other. I think that is bad because they can only see themselves in the pictures they send each other. Well her other two kids do have papers because they were born in Houston and they have their papers. I always wonder why can’t the U.S.A. get together with Mexico. I hope the rules change and that somebody could do something for all the illegal people.

The student who wrote this story wants to remain anonymous, but has given me permission to publish the story.
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