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COLUMN: Exposing America's marginalized and unrecognized civil rights issues

By: Joe Barrera
January 28, 2018 Updated: January 28, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Now that MLK Day has come and gone, we can afford to re-evaluate the new era into which Dr. King led the nation. Many of us remember what America was like before he appeared. We recall the racist treatment of black people, the segregation, the separation of whites and blacks.

In 1955, we drove from New York to California. We had returned from my father's tour of duty with the Army in Germany and were excited to see the USA.

My dad had just bought a new car, a beautiful blue-green four-door Plymouth sedan. We took the southern route, heading for Texas, and then on to Fort Ord, Calif. In Alabama we stopped at a roadside diner. We children ran out, glad to be out of the car. I put my hand on the door of the place. Then I saw it. The sign said, "No N******allowed." I stopped dead in my tracks. My light-skinned younger brother who could pass for white went in. I stayed outside.

I was only 9-years-old, but I already knew the rules of race.

I am not African American, but racism has always been real for me. I look like my grandfather, who was a copper-skinned full-blooded Campacuas Indian from south Texas. But the genetic lottery determined by centuries of mestizaje, the mixture of Indian and Spaniard in Mexico and the Southwest, gave my siblings a much lighter coloration. Because I am conscious of this, Dr. King has always meant a great deal to me. I was liberated because of him.

I know the huge difference he made, and I would never want to return to the America of the 1950s.

At the People's Breakfast on Jan. 15, I listened to beautiful songs and inspiring rhetoric. The program is always good at this event. I never cease to marvel at the power that King has to bring out the best in all of us.

But as I always do, I listened for the recognition that I know is long overdue. And once again I was disappointed. This recognition is what I mean by "re-evaluation." I would like to hear a new narrative about civil rights. Specifically, civil rights for who?

At the annual event, I looked around at the audience. I saw three or four other Latinos, or Chicanos, as I call myself and others of my ethnicity. That's all. Three or four. Chicanos don't show up for this event or anything else like it in Colorado Springs. Why? Maybe for the same reasons that working-class whites don't show up. Too busy working, trying to make it.

But there is another reason. Chicanos, long-established Mexican Americans, like their white working-class brethren with whom they identify, are left out of the narratives, the stories that define celebrations like the annual MLK Breakfast. No one even remembers the 60 million U.S. Latinos, who are not immigrants, at these events. No one remembers the untold millions of poor whites.

But we, the U.S. citizens born in the U.S., the Chicanos whose ancestors settled these lands long before the whites arrived, we need our civil rights. We number at least 150,000 in El Paso County, but we are invisible. We remain marginalized, largely out of the mainstream.

We are invisible in the media, in the pop culture world, in the professional world. But we are very visible in entry-level jobs, in the failing schools, and in the jails. We share this situation with blacks and poor whites, and this means that it is a class issue, perhaps not so much a race issue. But it is still a civil rights issue.

We have not achieved equality of opportunity, especially in education, and this is a civil rights issue as much as outright discrimination.

I have not even mentioned the immigrants. The reality is that Mexican immigrants are a class of people in this country who live in a state of semislavery for all intents and purposes. These people have no rights. We may pretend that they do but this is one of the lies that comforts us. We benefit from their labor, the economy cannot function without them, but this means nothing to us.

We can deport them, break up families, keep the Dreamers in agony for years, it doesn't matter.

But it does matter. It's all about civil rights. Dr. King would want us to say something, do something. And yet no recognition at the MLK Breakfast of these realities.

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Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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