To My Fellow Latinx

There are still a lot of people reacting to this week’s election results. I’m not going to say there’s a simple solution, or that everyone should just focus on solutions, because many people are rightfully afraid. If nothing else, I’d just like to add my voice to the (thankfully) many people who have said “I’ll be there for you.” Also, apologies for the fact that my vocabulary in Spanish is not what it is in English.

Dear Fellow Latinx,

You are beautiful. I know that statement may seem hard to believe after Tuesday’s election, but it’s true. No amount of hatred, bigotry, or votes otherwise can take away your inherent beauty and value.

I’m writing because I’ve seen many of you over the past few days. Whether you’re carrying a briefcase, a backpack, or nothing at all, there’s an uneasiness in your face. I get it; I can’t hide it either. The fundamental belief that people from everywhere are welcome in America has been undermined. There is no need to wait for the first draft of a new draconian law or the first brick in “The Wall” to believe that. If you’ll indulge me, I want to share a story.

Years ago, my sister worked at an ice cream restaurant. An elderly latinx man worked there, washing dishes. He was packed homemade food by his wife, which he would dutifully bring to work, heat up in a tupperware, and eat. In many ways, he reminded me of my grandparents. Also, he understood very little English. One day, some workers, many years his junior, began to make fun of him and laugh at him. Others joined in and laughed as well. The man, not knowing what they were saying but only reacting to their smiles and laughter, joined in to the laughing. The others, encouraged by this, only laughed harder at the mockery they made of this man.

I think about this story because it was one of the first times I thought about myself in a political way. I was heartbroken to think that someone who is trying to make his life better would be picked on like this. I was angry that people could find genuine pleasure out of demeaning another human being. I know situations like this have occurred ever since; but now, years later, this kind of behavior has been validated by the election of a monster.

What’s perhaps most infuriating to me is the nonchalance of people in the days following the election. The repeated claims of “We’ll be okay”, “It won’t be so bad”, or “We’ll see what happens” tend to come from well-off white men, often in the presence of working class people of color. Others ignore the inflammatory statements and focus instead solely on what the election means for them. Working latinx people have gone from being looked down upon before the election to being invisible afterwards. Our experiences, the threats raised (and now increasingly followed through) against us, our fears: none of them raise concern for some people in this country. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this when a mantra like “Black Lives Matter” received such a negative response from White America. We should not accept this as the new reality. We are not here to serve; we are here to live.

It’s okay to be stunned, or scared, or even really angry. The threat is by no means equal to all of us. No one knows for certain what kind of nightmare we’ve empowered for the next four years. That being said, it is also true that no one knows for certain how powerful we can be if we come together and fight back. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we need to realize we are not alone in this struggle. We are a patchwork majority of various backgrounds, passions, beliefs, and ideas. Our diversity, even within the latinx community, is an asset, not a weakness.

I believe in your beauty, your power, and our collective capacity to fight against what is to come. It’s because of this belief that I have something we all need right now: Hope.

Solidaridad,
Armando

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Pokemon, Innocence, and Idealism

Unless I’m the only target to a very consistent marketing campaign, people are being made aware of the fact that Pokemon is turning 20 this year. There’s even a Super Bowl ad coinciding with this milestone. While its been some time since the last time I played a Pokemon game (Gold, in case you are wondering), I couldn’t help but recognize that there’s still something special about Pokemon as a larger narrative and why it, at least to me, still seemingly has an importance today.

Of course, this could all just be wistful nostalgia, but let’s see where the rabbit hole leads.

The first place to start would be with the Super Bowl ad itself.

What’s particularly striking to me about this commercial is how little of it is actually connected to the content of the Pokemon franchise. The repeated mantra of “I can do that” calls back to the driving force behind Pokemon’s original narrative. For anybody who watched the original show back in the late 90s, the not-so-subtle inclusion of “Like No One Ever Was” is a direct reference to the lyrics of the theme song for the television show.

Aside from the obvious nostalgia angle, the decision to focus on these components of Pokemon is significant because it reinforces the open-ended nature of the protagonist’s (or the player’s) ultimate goal: to be the very best. The commercial shows people running, playing chess, gearing up for a football game, and engaging in a stadium-style Pokemon battle. How are all of these things connected? They aren’t, and that’s precisely the point.

The Pokemon television show back in the 90s introduced a protagonist, Ash Ketchum (because puns were funnier back then), who was driven towards being a “Pokemon Master”. Given that this is the character’s primary motivator for the first couple seasons, you would expect some specificity as to what conditions need to be met in order to become said master. You would be wrong. Between the two broad goals of capturing as many of the various types of Pokemon in the world and winning Pokemon battles, there is a whole lot of time dedicated to efforts that directly go against even these two enormous feats. On top of that, the show’s protagonist DOES NOT win all of his battles. He DOES NOT capture all the Pokemon ever, to the potential chagrin of completionists everywhere. But that’s okay. The goal of being of “Pokemon Master” is still out there, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his prioritization of his human companions, his Pokemon, or the world at large.

What’s equally enduring about Pokemon is that it’s not afraid to show us that world and, with each new generation of Pokemon introduced, seemingly expand it out further. The primary goal, of being the very best, takes on new significance when you realize just how big the world can be. However, the response by Ash (as well as the player in the Pokemon games) is to go out and engage that every growing universe. While there’s a certain level of naivete that comes along with a show predicated on a bunch of pre-teens wandering the world with nothing but what amounts to fighting pets by their side, 1) it’s a children’s TV show and 2) the lesson to be drawn from this messaging is that it is better to go out and see the world than to be afraid or averse to what it has to offer. If it strikes people as idealism, it is; but what would the world be like if we didn’t raise children to think they could be anything?

“Being the very best” is an open-ended goal that is largely defined by the person who takes it on. That was demonstrated in the TV show, the 20th anniversary ad, and is important when considering the population of people who grew up with Pokemon (myself among them). There are certainly a number of idealists out there who are pushing and fighting to achieve their dreams. Whether it is to be self-sufficient or to make the world a better place, they are out there, engaging the world, being their very best. Where I suppose this becomes “problematic” is when that aspirational and idealistic drive runs up against the realities of the world. The world of Pokemon is certainly not the real world. There are a multitude of dangers, threats, and crises that would, when taken collectively, scare anyone from ever leaving their bunker of a home. However, these dangers are more a product of the world we live in than they are necessary constants. The world as we know it now has always been changing, and those changes are often driven by those who aspire to change it.

It is worth reiterating that Ash lost most of his high-stakes earlier tournaments (it’s possible he became an unstoppable winner in later seasons but I doubt it). In spite of those early and narratively significant losses, he learned from his shortcomings, strengthened his bonds with those closest to him, and moved forward as a better person. What made that growth possible wasn’t just a robust support system, but a constant yearning for self-improvement. While I can’t speak for every idealist out there, I understand that “being the very best” is a long and challenging prospect. I can imagine plenty of people are working through some significant challenges right now and still maintaining their belief in a better future for themselves.

It’s important to think about where we come from collectively as a people, what forms our values, our fears, and our scope of imagination. When it comes to the idealism of the young, I think we were collectively well-served by the hopefulness, the determination, and the idealism that Pokemon presented. Whether that role is still filled by that franchise or another, it is important to our development as a people to never stop pushing for that level of excellence that seems just outside the realm of possibility.

How Not Talking About Religion or Politics Made Us Worse At Both (Pt. 2)

Politics can be a beautiful thing. As the Supreme Court this week just upheld critical components of the Affordable Care Act and ruled on the constitutionality of banning same sex marriage, there is a great deal of excitement and discussion going on. One can only imagine just how historic this weekend’s NYC Pride Parade will be as it celebrates a tremendous achievement in the advancement of gay civil rights.

That all being said, it’s unfortunate that excitement, let alone discussion, of political issues comes after major decisions are made. Significant efforts had to be made to get the ACA case up to the Supreme Court. Years of organizing and jockeying outside the Court similarly elevated the importance of gay marriage. Admittedly, one can make the argument that to discuss gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act would be unfair, especially as it seems that, out of this week’s decisions, the greater focus is on former rather than the latter. While the ruling on gay marriage is, in fact, an historic achievement for the gay community, its scope really only falls within the (admittedly large and growing) gay community (unless you are one of those straight people who believe that gay marriage in some way will personally affect your marriage or relationships).

By contrast, the Affordable Care Act is an enormous document that completely changes the playing field for people who want or need healthcare. In other words, just about everybody. While the scope of the Court’s decision on the ACA is tremendous, I imagine the predominant narrative out of this week will be primarily on gay marriage, a decision that will not directly affect nearly as many people as the protection of the ACA. This also says nothing of the fact that with this fresh surge of ‘good’ news, it will only encourage the media, and by consequence, the general public, to move past the ‘bad’ news of racially motivated violence and inherent racism in this country (but we’ll get back to that in a moment).

The comparison between the ACA and gay marriage rulings isn’t meant to belittle the significance of one issue or the other. However, it does seem to illustrate a problem with how people in general address political issues. By and large, we don’t like talking about politics. Similarly to religion, we expect our beliefs and values to be respected for what they are. Unlike religion, however, the practice of politics is inherently between people; one can practice religion in a vacuum as they only need connection to his/her god(s). A person practicing politics by him/herself is just a person with ideas.

This distinction matters because while there can be some limitation to the challenging of one’s religious beliefs (example: you can worship that pancake that came out in the form of the Virgin Mary all you want), there are considerably less limitations to the challenging of one’s political beliefs (example: your political beliefs lead you to believe that people of color are inferior and we should establish laws to keep them to their rightfully lesser place). A person in the former example is pretty much harmless in a political discourse; a person in the latter is a serious threat to a free society.

The coupling of religion and politics has caused people to look at the values and beliefs in either to be treated exactly the same. In other words, my religious beliefs AND my political beliefs are sacred; to criticize either is an affront to my spiritual being and direct challenge to who I am. This is absurd and breaks down the possibility of being able to have an intelligent conversation about either.

In a time of social media and sharing of everything, this mindset is on full display whenever someone makes a ridiculous post. Luckily, such posts are not difficult to find in the immediate aftermath of the gay marriage ruling

gay marriage

Aside from the immediate frustration at the contents of the meme being shared (which itself could be a pretty sizeable blog post), the statement made by the poster is pretty childish in and of itself. “This is just my opinion. I’m not open for a debate so don’t bother commenting if you have something negative to say.” To voluntarily take up a hot-button issue like gay marriage but then request to only take feedback from people who are being positive is ridiculous. I can understand that people like to live in a bubble, but in case you haven’t noticed, a lot of people use facebook and the internet as a whole. If you want to live in an echo chamber where everyone agrees with what you say, you’re not using the right medium. If you don’t want to get into a discussion (let alone a debate) on serious issues, don’t post about serious topics.

The reason for sharing the above picture is that people who fall into this type of category, the “Here’s my opinion but don’t respond to this unless you’re going to agree with me” crowd are the unfortunate byproduct of narcissism, social media, and a lack of engagement on political issues. The priority for these people isn’t to engage in discussion of political issues, it’s to project their feelings of these political issues, to the point that the priority is their emotions, not the issues. Granted, there are plenty of people who are celebrating the decisions by the Court who have worked hard on getting to this point (and they certainly should be celebrating). However, not every person who is either celebrating or condemning the Supreme Court this week is willing to engage in dialogue on why this issue matters. Posts like the one above illustrate that clearly.

While people like the one above don’t wish to engage in politics at all, you then of course have your “socially-liberal-but-fiscally-conservative” people who will raise the alarm at the first instance of social injustice but shy away from the deeper discussion that necessarily follows any discussion on how to implement social changes. For a real-time example of how this happening, look at how the broader discussion that could be happening on systemic racism and whitewashed history in the US has become concentrated into a campaign to take down the Confederate flag.

Discussion of politics from a perspective based solely in social issues is the equivalent of saying that you’re swimming when in fact you’re just wading at shallow end of a pool. (For more on this issue, I’d highly recommend reading this great piece from Greta Christina).

In essence, we need to roll up our sleeves to engage in discussions of religion and politics. Without intelligent conversation on religion, we will repeatedly demonize, distance ourselves, and fail to reach common ground with those who are different from us. Without conversation on politics, the essence of our discourse becomes nothing more than another place for people to talk about “me, me, me” and less about what is actually going on in the world. We can’t do either of these without engaging with each other on the issues. And that means first opening yourself up to the possibility of being wrong (or right!).

How Not Talking About Religion or Politics Made Us Worse at Both (Pt. 1)

We’ve all heard the expression at one point or another: “Don’t talk about religion or politics”, “Religion and politics aren’t things you talk about with company”, or something along those lines. It’s generally passed along as one of those social norms that we hear from our parents or caretakers. The idea, that bringing up such topics could potentially be offensive or excessively personal, is one that guides us towards getting along with others as opposed to being a controversial prick. However, given that a great deal of the voices in both the arenas of religion and politics could fit that description depending on who you ask, I think we might be approaching these topics incorrectly.

Simply put, maybe not talking about religion and politics has made us worse at understanding or navigating both.

Before we dive down this rabbit hole, let’s get some things out of the way. I’m not proposing that religion and/or politics are not important enough to be above normal or casual conversation; quite the opposite: because religion and politics are so important to individuals and groups as a whole, it is critical that that we, as individuals and society as a whole, have a solid understanding on both so that we can engage one another on the things that really matter in an intelligent and well-informed fashion. Second, this isn’t a rant about political correctness. While there are plenty of people upset at how “political correctness” has stifled public discourse and the efforts by some to ensure that no one gets offended (see “the War on Christmas”), consider this a rant about combating ignorance, not hurt feelings.

When it comes to religion, we’re generally born into a particular faith and go from there (a similar case could be made with politics, but we’ll get there later). Granted, some folks may find their particular flavor of religion later in life, but by and large we don’t exactly have the opportunity to shop around for religions growing up. Simply put, we get a biased opinion of which religion (or lack thereof) is “right” and which are “wrong”. This shouldn’t be an overly controversial claim.

What’s maybe not as immediately intuitive is the fact that when you factor this alongside the fact that we don’t engage in conversations about religion, especially with people who have different religious backgrounds, we eventually go from coddled and protected children to being coddled and ignorant adults. To make matters worse, whenever the topic of religion gets brought up, people are hesitant to engage on the topic due to the fear of offending someone else or getting offended themselves. It also doesn’t help that since we haven’t spoken on the topic before, we might not feel prepared to engage in a conversation about religion with people from different backgrounds.

In the absence of actually learning about the varieties of faith, we’re quick to pick up whatever is suggested by those in positions of authority. You can thank our elected officials, media figures, and even some religious leaders for that. (There’s a reason the term is “talking heads” and not “thinking brains”). Anybody remember the American perception to Muslims immediately following 9/11? How about the perception that still persists in certain areas of the US towards Muslims? The explanation of the “evil Muslims” provided a simple explanation for a horrific event. It also was a widely spread piece of propaganda that was largely unchallenged (and continues today). In other words, without actually have any understanding of Islam prior to 9/11, it was very convenient for Americans to accept the first piece of spoon-fed information on this strange and foreign faith that was provided. The well-informed, obviously, knew better.

The enemy wasn’t (and isn’t) Islam or any one set of religious beliefs; it was (and continues to be) ignorance. Just this week there was a great story of a bigoted protester converting his perception of Islam after actually seeing and talking to a group of Muslims. It shouldn’t be a huge stretch of the imagination to imagine how much better we would handle religion if we openly engaged in educated conversation about it on a regular basis. Instead, you have the engagement of different religious backgrounds through the context of protests and aggressive action (you may have never been to a protest or rally, but it’s hardly the kind of place where you go to patiently hear the opinion of your opposition…which again underscores the impressive nature of the above story).

There are a lot of people who place a great deal of stock in their religious or spiritual beliefs. However, it’s inevitable that all of those people do not have the same beliefs. Without having a way to calmly and intelligently communicate with people who believe a different set of ideals, we’re bound to have more cases of anti-(insert religion) rallies or protests. What’s most unfortunate about the news story of the man who had a change of heart when it came to his intolerance of Muslims is that it was news at all. A story like that is the exception when in fact it should be considered normal for people to engage in dialogue and learn from each other.

Of course, the blame can’t be placed entirely on our lack of discussing religion. Politics, which extends and affects every person whether we want it to or not, is a far more pervasive topic and therefore, a bigger crime is committed for every opportunity we pass up to discuss it honestly and intelligently.

Holiday Caroling I Can Get Behind

In case you didn’t know, I can be particularly political from time to time. However, since it is the “happiest time of year”, it should be no surprise that holiday cheer and political action can overlap.

In case you didn’t already know, there’s no correlation (none) between one’s credit and their ability to work or their propensity to commit fraud. And yet, almost half of all employers use credit checks when hiring people. In New York City, we’re working to stop this practice from continuing. At this time of year, we take the tradition of caroling and apply it to the great cause of banning credit check discrimination (while also having an absolute blast).

Enjoy!

(For those looking to learn the words, I’ll be posting a few pieces over the next few days)

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Our Broken System

dyingjusticeJust a few days ago, I was inspired and hopeful from the protests that broke out after the grand jury’s decision on the killing of Michael Brown. I never thought body cameras would be enough to address the larger problem of police-community relations, but I thought they would be a small step in the right direction.

After hearing the recent decision of the grand jury to not indict in the killing of Eric Garner, whatever inspiration and hope I had left has been replaced with shock and rage.

Plenty of critics have pointed out prior to the grand jury’s decision that President Obama’s body camera initiative was a small step in the right direction, but with the grand jury deciding to not indict the man who killed Eric Garner, it seems more like the body camera initiative is just a monumental waste of money. Why? Because having video evidence of police misconduct is not enough to even get an indictment.

The whole idea behind getting body cameras on police is it would bring an unbiased third person perspective into any interaction between the police and the public. If there were police cameras, the thinking goes, we would be able to pause, rewind, and re-watch interactions between police and the public, thereby creating a direct form of accountability to the police departments that serve our communities. But all anybody needs to do to realize that this is a complete farce is watch the video of Eric Garner’s arrest and murder and then recall the decision of the grand jury.

Forget that the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Forget that Garner had done nothing wrong on the occasion that police stopped him. Forget that it was in fact Eric Garner who had broken up a fight before police arrived on the scene. Forget all of that. You have video evidence of a man raising his hands in surrender, being slammed to the ground by police who used an illegal choke hold that served as the primary cause of death. You have audio of Eric Garner begging to be released because he can not breathe.

And yet a grand jury fails to indict the police officer who clearly is performing this choke hold? What kind of country are we living in?

I understood that the solution to the disconnect between police and communities of color would require a larger discussion and reformation on police militarization and institutionalized racism, but having seen police smile and laugh in the face of people who are deeply mournful and angry at the loss of another innocent black person makes me realize that such conversations and structural changes are in and of themselves bandages of a much larger problem. The system is broken. When the voices of political institutions themselves are surprised and looking for ways for justice to be implemented through alternative means, the system is not working. When priority is given to tourists who gathered to watch a tree light up instead of to the residents of a community who are demanding justice for a family and people that are suffering, the system is not working. And finally, when society at large is more concerned with maintaining the charade of holiday cheer while many families across this country are accommodating one less seat around the table this year, it is painstakingly clear that the democratic, free, and transparent rule of law is nothing more than an orgiastic frenzy of consumerism, corruption, and self-congratulation.

I have often considered myself lucky to live in New York City, to be at what many consider the Center of the World, the heart, if you will. However, I have never been more disgusted with my city than tonight. The side by side displays of mourning and holiday amusement, the misapplication of justice, and the recognition that there are people above the law makes me seriously question New York’s role as a progressive or liberal beacon for the rest of the Northeast, let alone the country. Said in another way, this heart of the world is rotten.

In the days before the grand jury’s decision on the Eric Garner case, Public Advocate Letitia James spoke to media after meeting with community leaders in Staten Island on how to prepare for the decision and potential public reaction. While she specifically said that “Staten Island is not Ferguson”, I think it would be safe to assume that she would apply that sentiment to the rest of the city, which is to say, ‘New York is not Ferguson’. I would agree entirely. New York is not Ferguson; it is worse.

Ferguson had a history of racial tensions between police and minorities. It was easy for many of us in “liberal” New York City to look down upon the circumstances that happened so far away. After all, we have a strongly progressive City Council, our Public Advocate ran on the Working Families party line, and we’re lead by the liberal champion of working New Yorkers himself, Bill de Blasio, whose ascent to the mayor’s office was written through his narrative of ending the “Tale of Two Cities”. And yet, for all of those credentials and accolades, New York City failed to indict a man who was filmed choking a man to death while his hands were up and he begged for the ability to breathe.

It was Glaucon in Plato’s Republic who said “the extreme of injustice is to seem just when one is not.” By that characterization alone, it seems quite clear that New York City is at the center of the extreme of injustice.

At this point, one must wonder what truly can be done to fix our broken system. In truth, no reform, no matter how well-conceived, will result in any changes so long as any class of people is above the fair application of the law. There are many who are desperate to see this issue resolved, even if they do not know exactly what should be done at this moment. It should not be a surprise that people are marching through the streets of New York, blocking traffic and shutting down bridges and tunnels. These actions disrupt everyday life and call attention to these larger issues. As the crowds evade police and go from one landmark to another, one can make a depressing analogy to our current state of affairs. Society as a whole is a disorganized mob wandering from one place to another, hoping to find a solution to the same problem that keeps surrounding it from all angles. Nobody really knows where we’re going, but we’ll try any direction if it means we just might get it right this time.

Not quite the regularly scheduled program

If you’ve read my most recent posts, you’ll notice I diverted a bit from the usual poetry of this blog and took a moment to address the issues coming out of Ferguson (as well as the larger US). While I apologize for being a bit lax as of late (which is apparently becoming a bit of a habit), I felt it’s important that I keep this blog true to its purpose: a creative outlet for me to share my thoughts, reflections, and beliefs.

By and large, the posts on here will continue to be poetry (and I’ll be making a happy return to utilizing the Daily Prompt for insight). That being said, there will be times where the expression of my ideas comes out in a non-poetic way. My post on Ferguson is one such case. For those who have already come to enjoy my poetry, don’t worry; that will continue. For those who are looking for something a little more overtly political and/or philosophical, be sure to keep up on my posts categorized under Reflections.

But now, as you’ve taken the care to read this unnecessarily long informational post, a poem:

What I am and what I’ve been
What I see and what’s within
No matter goodness or cruelest sin
My mind is wildly known to spin.

Here I’ll write the words for you
Come back tomorrow for something new
For if indeed that’s what you’ll do
You’ll see insights come into view.