A Colonized Christmas Story

Revolutionary JesusIn the colonized land of Judea, poor marginalized shepherds abided in the field, watching over flocks belonging to others.  When suddenly, a messenger of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of God shone forth.  They were filled with great fear.  But the messenger said unto them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you, and all peoples of the world, good tidings of great joy.  For onto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Liberator, who is Christ the Lord!  And this will be a sign to you, you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling-clothes lying in a trough located in a filthy, manure-filled barn.”  Suddenly there appeared with the messenger a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards humanity” (Lk. 2:8-14).

The Christmas story has been retold so often, through sermons, church plays, popular literature, and movies that a false memory, detached from all reality, has been constructed.  This memory romanticizes the birth of Jesus, thus masking the radical political implications of the event.  Today, under our Christmas trees, we usually place a nativity scene among the multitude of conspicuous gifts which we cannot afford to give to recipients who seldom needs what we bought on credit.  The baby Jesus, usually white with blue eyes and blond hair, rests comfortably in a wood-frame crib as angelic cows and donkeys gaze upon the miracle.  The proud parents survey the sanitary scene as regal kings and peasant shepherds come to worship.  Winged white angels surround the scene as if singing the glories of this event. And yet, stripping through the mythology we are left with a tale of the liberator of people being born in a dirty, grimy barn.  Barns are smelly soiled spaces were animals, and the malodourous manure they produce, and the flies attracted to the manure create unsanitary conditions.  In addition, a young maiden, either a teenager or someone who is not much older, goes through the bloody and messy process of childbirth.  María was forced, like any other barn animal, to give birth amidst the unhygienic surroundings of an outbuilding.

We do not know if a midwife was present for the actual birthing event.  The text is silent on that matter.  But if there wasn’t one, the birthing process could only be considered to have been scarier and more traumatic.  Upon the birth of Jesús, a place was needed for him to rest.  Proper furniture did not exist.  The text tells us that he was placed in a manger (Lk. 2:7), which our Christmas nativity scene interprets to be some type of crude crib.  In reality, a manger was either a wooden box or a hole on the cave wall.  The purpose of the manger was to place animal feed from where cattle ate.  If the barn itself was not septic enough, the newborn was placed in an animal trough.  In a very real sense, Jesús physically entered this world homeless.

The radicalness of the Gospels, usually missed by those who are privileged by houses within empire, is that the Jesús narratives are anti-colonial literature about a native resident displaced by the invading colonial power.  The opening words of the Gospel of Luke set the stage.  Luke begins by stating that in those days, an imperial decree was ordered from the colonial center of Rome by Cesar Augustus.  To increase the revenues flowing toward the colonizer, all within the empire would be taxed.  This revenue thief occurred when the Roman aristocrat, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius served as governor of Syria.  To facilitate the taxing, with no regard to what hardship it might cause to the colonized, everyone had to return to their city of origin.  So José left the city of Nazareth located in Galilee, toward Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, for he was of the house and lineage of a once heroic and mighty king. This descendant of royalty now made his living as a laborer, a carpenter.  To Bethlehem he traveled with his espoused wife María who was great with child, in order to be taxed (Lk. 2:1-5).  Remembering Jesus, all too often ignores the destitution of Jesús caused by the colonization process, missed when the scriptures are read from the center of empire.

The Gospel narratives depicts a careful dance which takes place between Rome the colonizer and Jesús the colonized.  Not far from the story-telling surface is the real world dynamics and consequences of colonization.  We see it throughout Jesús’ everyday experience and how he responded to the circumstances brought about by the economic and political occupation of Judea, as made evident by questions posed concerning paying tribute to Caesar (Mt. 22:20), constantly facing danger for preaching of another reign or kingdom more powerful then the one to which Jews were subjugated (Mk. 1:15), or given a death sentence under the charge of being “king of the Jews,” hence a rival sovereign (Mk. 15:2).  Even the very audience that first heard the words of Jesús was fellow colonized compatriots, many of who held an abiding hatred toward the Roman oppressors.  From this colonized space, the Gospel message is shaped and formed, and ignoring this historical reality leads to false remembrance, if not pure illusions.

We are told that among Jesús’ entourage was Matthew the tax collector (Mt. 10:3), and Simon who was called the Zealot (Lk. 6:15). Tax collectors and zealots were deadly enemies.  Given an opportunity, zealots or revolutionaries were known for ramming their blades into the backs of any tax-collecting collaborator upon whom they could lay their hands. And yet, these politically sworn enemies, the one colluding with the colonizer and the one violently rebelling, were counted among Jesús’ disciple.  What held them in fellowship?  Could it be that Jesús modeled a new strategy between the two extremes represented by Matthew and Simon?  If so, what is this reconciling praxis?

Jesús tells us to render to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s (Mt. 22:21).  Although Jesús is specifically referring to the colonizer’s tax when he states what to render to Caesar; it seems that this imperial tax as sign signifies some deeper meaning.  The tax to the empire underwrites the very structures that makes the colonization of Judea possible.  Without the tax, colonialism would be useless.  Such taxes, as illustrated by Cesar Augustus need for a census, create devastation for the colonized, i.e. having to return to one’s city of origin and a greater financial tax burden leading to greater poverty.  Yes, we are to give Caesar his tax, not because it is a civic duty, as many modern Euroamericans Christians would argue in regards to filing their own IRS tax returns, but because failure to do so only provided the colonizer with the excuse to send the full force of the empire’s military to domesticate the people with the threat of obviation for the sake of compliance.  This is not some hypothetical possibility, it actually occurred in 70 CE which concluded with the destruction of the Temple.

To render unto Caesar what is Caesar may mean to pay the imperial tax as an act of survival (not civic duty), but also, it could encompass returning all of the misery, pain, and despair that colonial rule engenders. The issue raised by Jesús’ call is how to render unto Caesar what Caesar deserves without bringing about the iron fist of Caesar while still planting liberative subversive seeds that may, in some distance future, blossom into salvation from evil powers, including colonial powers.  The questioned raised for us by Jesús, the colonized man, is how to display compliance for survival’s sake while disrupting the very social structures that creates, forces, and demands compliance.

This op-ed is derived from my book The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology

– Miguel A. De La Torre

AGAINST SYNCRETISM

All religions are syncretic, that is, all religions are transformed by the different cultures through which it passes just as those cultures are also transformed by the new religions that traverse sycretismits lands. Both the culture and the religion must change so that both can coexist. At times, the changes to the religion and/or the culture are dramatic. At other times, these changes are modest, even unnoticeable.  Regardless as to the degree of change that occurs, one thing is certain, both the religion and culture never remain the same, both become new expressions of being.

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When Hollywood Gazes at Latino Male Bodies

Latino men demanding to be treated as an equal risk being dismissed as “aggressive” (if not dangerous), “emotional” (lacking intellectual rigor), and/or “too passionate” (if not overly sensual). But how are these negative depictions of Latinos encoded upon the Latino male body? How are the stigmata of these cultural wounds enfleshed? Members of the Euroamerican dominant culture, male and female, are privileged with whiteness, creating a tendency to perpetuate the myth that the rules, traditions, institutions, and language of Euroamericans are legitimate and normative. Rejecting this naturalness, we turn to systems of encoding and decoding signs. Semiologist Roland Barthes is helpful here. Relying on the methodology he employs in his book Mythologies, this article turns its attention to exploring what Latino male bodies signify to the dominant Euroamerican culture.

Mythologies consists of a series of brief essays examining common features within popular French culture (i.e., world of wrestling, soap commercials, steak & chips, and striptease) in order to reveal how every cultural phenomenon, regardless of how normative or natural it appears, undergirds ideological assumptions. Norms are naturalized even though they can be construed as the unconscious propaganda of those who benefit from constructing myths. The myth succeeds, not because it is able to mask, but rather because it distorts the glaring contradictions existing within the social system so that they can appear both normal and natural.

The Latino male body as a mental notion ceases to be a symbol, but rather becomes the very ideology defining the Hispanic man who is represented through the signs: 1) greasers, 2) dimwitted, and/or 3) Latin-lovers. Still, the former linguistic sign represented by the Latino body becomes a new “depoliticized” signifier within a new system of meaning, and hence, creates a myth. Emptied from its original meaning, the multiple signs of the Latino male body become new signifiers to a myth, a myth so entrenched within the Euroamerican mindset, that its usage becomes second nature. These new signifiers, within this second-order semiological system, now signify Latino men as aggressive, stupid, and sensual. Creating these myths about Latinos has the power to connote a larger sign system that misconstrues society and its intra-relationships.

To understand how Laino male bodies are seen within Euroamerican culture, we turn to motion pictures where for over a century, Euroamericans have gazed upon Latino bodies depicted on big silver screen. Popular movies entertain us; but more importantly, they reveal society’s ethos, a reflection of contemporary Euroamerican culture. Filmmakers impose upon the viewer what interests them, interests based on their worldviews. How Hispanic men are seen on the big screen provides a unique opportunity to analyze how the dominant culture sees Latino men in the everyday.

Popular movies depicting Latino male bodies exist transhistorically, as intentional signs, as symptoms regulated by something done or by what someone else does. Still, the inherent social structures behind visual art are products of the same social location in which the filmmaker finds him or herself, for they do not exist in a social vacuum. They too are shaped by the socio-historical space that they occupy, a space influencing their works. Movies serve as historical documents expressing the social life they know, including its hopes, its struggles, its disappointments, its joys, and its tragedies. Watching movies allows us to see the constructed reality of the dominant culture. Upon blank film, the filmmaker transforms empty space into ideas, ideas that constructs reality through the normative gaze of those with the power and privilege to make films.

Movies becomes a document which reveals how reality is understood by the dominant culture – male and female – planting in the minds of the viewer the seeds which will eventually blossom into creating an overarching definition of what is a Latino man. Film, as a sign, contains within it the meanings given to it by the dominant culture from where it arises. Consequently, the reality by which we measure a film becomes the recognized referent of a shared illusion. Yet, this illusion becomes a self-contained whole subordinate to its own order and structure. Through the filmmakers’ rendition, the inner structure of the movie is capable of surpassing the power structures of reality, transforming those structures by providing a new vision; but all too often it simply creates and reinforces the prevailing normalized gaze and discourse. Consequently, our aim in contemplating popular movies is not to offer insight or feelings about any particular piece, nor is it to provide a critique on story plot.

Relying on the documentary The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood, we will “see” Latino men on the big screen so that we can glimpse a reality so familiar that its depictions of Latinos are unquestionably believed, even by those who are being depicted. A major contributor to the colonization of Hispanic minds are the movies and television shows that taught those of us who are Latino/as how to play the part of a Hispanic, in effect, constructing our reality. Latinas like Carmen Miranda, Rita Heyward, or Rita Moreno, portrayed as “spicy” or “hot tamale,” also deserves our attention, especially if we want to understand how Latinas’ bodies are defined to ensure easy appropriation. Unfortunately, for now, our focus will be on how Latino men are portrayed.

Hollywood - greeserConstructing the Latino Greaser: Greaser is a derogative 19th century slur for Mexicans whose origins is associated with the labor practice of greasing one’s body to facilitate the loading and unloading of cargo and hides. The term soon referred to the Mexican skin tone, connoting the greasy hair associated with being unkempt, unwashed, and unclean. The slur became a common insult for Mexicans during the Mexican-American War. An element of danger was added to the term as demonstrated by the new Anglo invaders of California in their 1855 state statute called the Vagrancy Act, better known as the Greaser Act. The Greaser Act was a so-called anti-vagrancy law which defined vagrants as “all persons who are commonly known as ‘greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood . . . and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.”

Hollywood embraced the greaser early during the silent era with such films as The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908), Tony the Greaser (1911), The Girl and the Greaser (1913), The Greaser’s Revenge (1914), Bronco Billy and the Greaser (1914), and simply, The Greaser (1915). These movies created a neat dichotomy between the good guys, whites, and the bad guys, Mexicans, who were murderous banditos and have no qualms in kidnapping white women. The greaser image waned due to a 1922 Latin American boycott of Hollywood films due to how Latino bodies were being portrayed, and the 1930s so-called “Good Neighbor Policy,” which acted as a counter to Nazi diplomatic advances in Latin America. The greaser made a comeback in the 1960s as the cowboy’s anti-hero, best illustrated by actor Alfonso Arau in the 1969 film The Wild Bunch. Greaser evolved to spic as it made its way from westerns to urban jungles in such movies as West Side Story (1961, where the leading lady is an Anglo playing a Puerto Rican) and Scarface (1983, where the leading man is an Italian-American playing a Cuban). The greaser, spic, becomes a criminal on the run, both repulsive and yet strangely attractive, always looking for trouble. The depiction found in such films as Boulevard Nights (1979), Zoot Suit (1981), Colors (1988), America Me (1992), and Mi Vida Loca (1994) portrays the Latino man as aggressive and dangerous, someone to fear.

A century of Hollywood depicting Latino bodies as knife wielding, gang-banging, terrorizing greasers created a myth in the Euroamerican imaginary that unconsciously (if not consciously) constructs how Latino are seen by both white men and women. Such men are a menace, more so because they lack the intellectual sophistication to control their passions. A neat dichotomy is created by the cerebral characteristic of white men that occupy an elevated evolutionary space from the less advanced passionate Latino.

Hollywood - Dim witConstructing the Latino Dimwit: While conservatives usually question the level of civilized sophistication (i.e., the greaser/spic) of male Hispanics, liberals usually question their level of intellectual prowess. What makes Latino men more dangerous is their lack of the higher powers of rational thinking needed to control their lower base emotions. Not surprisingly, the portrayal of Latinos as dimwitted became a normative depiction on the big screen. Probably the earliest depiction of the clownish Latino was the portrayal of Pancho Villa, by actor Wallace Beery, as savage and animalistic in the 1934 film, Viva Villa. Chis-pin Martin typifies the roly-poly, corpulent, comic stereotype, playing the buffoon role of Poncho in the 1943 flick, The Ox-Bow Incident. It is important to note how the Latino body signifies the dangerous elements associated with the greaser construct coupled with a philistine persona. Latino’s intellectual short-failings are also in need of white messiahs – be they men or women. And yet, while the Latino body may be backward, under the surface exists a subdued threat (attraction?), especially for white women. The Latino body may be viewed as the stereotypical domesticated gardener; but one must fear this gentle keeper of our lawns least his true lustful nature erupts.

Hollywood - Latin LoverConstructing the Latin Lover – Thanks to over a century of blockbuster movies, Euroamericans have historically been taught that Latino men are overly sexualized beings invoking both fascination with and fear of their sensual prowess. Hollywood’s construct of the hot-blooded Latin lover, and his sexual exploits created a desire to “go slumming” by some white women, as best illustrated by Maye West in the 1933 movie She Done Him Wrong, which gave us her now famous description of Latino bodies: dark, handsome, and warm. Latino men’s foreign accents are a threat to other men even though they are alluring to “bad” women, as Latino bodies became a commoditized entity for white women consumption. The construction of race and its eroticization is so woven into white America’s identity that it has become normalized in the way many whites have been taught by their culture to see Latino male bodies. To question this mind-set as racist only produces an incredulous response of innocence from those who have been socially taught to signify the Latino male body as the receptacle of aggressiveness and carnality.

The construction of the Latin lover came during the era of Rudolf Valentino. Antonio Moreno in The Spanish Dancer (1923) and Ramón Novarro in The Pagan (1929) were introduced (mainly as a response to the 1922 Latin American boycott of greaser movies) as the first Latin lovers. Probably the most famous Latin lover actor of that time was Ricardo Cortez, aka Jacob Krantz, an Austrian Jew (by now the reader might begin to notice that those who best play Latina/os, according to Hollywood, are usually non-Hispanics).

The image of the Latin lover was heighten during the 1940s and 50s, mainly as a result of America’s “Good Neighbor Policies” with Latin America. Actors like Ricardo Montalban, especially his 1953 movie Latin Lovers created the enduring mode for the stereotypical Latin Lover. Based on the popularity of the literary gene of modern plantation, the “bodice ripper” novels projected white women forbidden desires onto darker bodies, allowing them to engage in sex with these darker bodies, absolved of any culpability. Those viewed as being evolutionarily closer to the heat of the jungle were held responsible for compromising the virtues of whites, due to their so-called seductive nature. To engage in sex with Latino male bodies, white women are given an opportunity to lose themselves to primitive urges, heightening their momentary sexual experience while reinforcing these darker bodies’ subjugation.

Over a century of being constantly and consistently harangued by depictions on the silver screen to embrace a naturalized and legitimized Latino male identity has caused psychological damage, as our very minds become sodomized. Movies, as cultural signifiers of the Latino male body, have been used to normalize Latino bodies for U.S. domestication. We have come to accept as truth that the closer one can be to the white male ideal, regardless how much one might protest the oppressive social structures constructed designed to privilege white supremacy, the less struggle for survival takes place. That which is repulsive ironically becomes for many the path toward liberation, even though said liberation is but illusionary. Nevertheless, becoming white, assimilating, not questioning how our minds have been colonized becomes the easiest and most damaging path many people of color to take. Whatever liberation looks like, it must begin with liberating our colonized minds that continue to see our bodies through the eyes of the dominant culture, rejecting assimilation to the dominant white culture.

Miguel A. De La Torre

Building the Beloved Community

Rev. Dr. Miguel A. De La Torre’s video is up! Start your week by watching his talk on the role of the Church in embracing marginalized communities and cultivating the true spirit of multiculturalism.

We invite you to share your thoughts and questions in the discussion section of the page. Then join us on Wednesday at 9pm ET (8 CT, 7 MT, 6 PT) for a live Q&A with Dr. De La Torre!

http://gcorr.org/church-building-beloved-community

The Rev. Dr. Miguel De La Torre discusses the role of the Church in embracing marginalized communities and cultivating a true spirit of multiculturalism. Join us online at gcorr.org and on Twitter (‪#‎GCORR‬) for a live web chat with me answering your questions.

Happy Columbus Day

columbusWomen were raped. Children were disemboweled. Men fell prey to the invaders’ swords. Within a generation, the lives and cultures of the indigenous people of the Americas were forever changed. Avarice for gold and glory took its course and decimated the population. The original inhabitants of these lands suffered cruelly at the hands of their conquerors, who happened to be my forefathers. Yet, I find it somewhat surprising that we “celebrate” what is believed to be the start of one of the largest acts of genocide ever recorded in human history.

As some of my Native American friends inform me, to celebrate Columbus Day is as morally repugnant to them as it would be for Jews if we as a nation chose to celebrate Kristallnacht, the start of the Nazi-driven Holocaust.

Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailor, was hired by my ancestors to expand the emerging empire of Spain. His European eyes were among the first to gaze upon what would eventually be called the Americas. Seeing the Taíno people, Columbus’ first reaction was not the lack of political organization of the island’s inhabitants or the geographical placing of these islands within the world scheme. Rather, by eroticizing the naked bodies of these inhabitants, visions of Paradise were conjured up, with Columbus receiving the indigenous peoples’ awe and love.

Columbus and his men felt themselves invited to penetrate this new erotic continent, which offered herself without resistance. “Virgin” land and the bodies of indigenous women merged so that the conquest of one became a prelude to the conquest of the other. Columbus men exercised their “right” to take indigenous wives and daughters by force, without respect or consideration of their honor or matrimonial ties. In fact, Columbus’ diary records indigenous accounts about an island called Matino believed to be entirely peopled by women. Rather than visiting it, Columbus returns to Spain, possibly indicating that he and his crew have had their fill of native, “erotic” women.

But when the native population protested rape, Columbus had the noses of all who refused to submit to his authority cut off. In other instances, the indigenous people were castrated and forced to eat their own dirt-encrusted testicles. Or they were simply thrown to the dogs.

Bartolomé de Las Casa, an eyewitness to these events wrote, “[The Spanish soldiers] would test their swords and their macho strength on captured Indians and place bets on slicing off heads or cutting of bodies in half with one blow.”

While on the island which the inhabitants called Cubanacan, Las Casas recorded the death of 7,000 children within three months because their overworked mothers were so famished they were unable to produce any milk to nurse them. Babies were also used for target practice. Rather than seeing their babies suffer, mothers resorted to drowning them out of sheer desperation. As disturbing as these sadistic acts are, what is worse is that this genocide was committed in the name of Christ. The Spaniards proclaimed their intentions to an indigenous population unfamiliar with the conquistador’s foreign language, not understanding what was about to befall them.

While the Spaniard talked, the Taíno listened to the following: “God the Lord has delegated to Peter and his successors all power over all people of the earth, so that all people must obey the successors of Peter. Now one of these popes has made a gift of the newly discovered islands and countries [in America] and everything that they contain to the king of Spain, so that, by virtue of this gift, their majesties are now kings and lords of these islands and of the continent. You are therefore required to recognize holy Church as mistress and ruler of the whole world and pay homage to the Spanish king as your new lord.”

When the Taíno failed to agree, the requerimiento continued by stating: “I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of Their Highnesses. We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as Their Highnesses may command. And we shall take your goods, and shall do you all mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey and refuse to receive their lord and resist and contradict him.”

HatueyYet, wherever there is oppression, resistance exists. In eastern Cubanacan, a cacique (a chieftain) named Hatuey created a loose confederation of Taínos to resist the invading colonizers. For three months he carried out a style of guerrilla warfare against the Spaniards. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the first Spanish governor of the island led an expedition in 1511 to capture the renegade chieftain and pacify the people. Once apprehended, Hatuey was condemned to death, to serve as an example for others. As Hatuey was about to be burned at the stake, a Franciscan friar attempted to convert him to the Christian faith with the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. Hatuey is reported to have asked if Christians went to heaven. The friar answered in the affirmative, to which the condemned Hatuey retorted that he did not want to go to heaven where he would see such cruel people.

Today, Hatuey is a modern symbol of resistance, specifically against foreign powers, such as Spain and later the United States. More importantly, Hatuey can also function as religious symbol, a non-Christian example of Christ’s mission for those residing on the underside of history. Those supposed Christian invaders who claimed allegiance to the God of the Bible while ignoring the Bible’s basic call for the justice were not the true representatives of Christ. The violence they unleashed witnessed to their disregard for the very mission of Christ whom they claimed to represent. Ironically, Hatuey, the so-called heathen, best depicted Christ. Like Christ, Hatuey cast his lot with the persecuted and suffered death for the cause of justice at the hands of those desiring to enslave him and his people.

In the name of Christ, butchery, enslavement, thievery and genocide was justified. The Christ proclaimed to the so-called “heathens” was not the Christ of the oppressed, but the Christ of empire, the Christ of militarism, the Christ of power and privilege, the Christ of the dominant culture. Refusal to deal with this conquering Christ, upon which the “Christian” nations of the Western Hemisphere are based, only condemns us to continued the worship of this Christ in our dealings with other nations today.

Our actions as a nation only confirm that this conquering Christ remains alive and well, justifying present-day foreign policies. What then, is to be done? Definitely not making saints out of their oppressors. Where do we begin? Saying “I’m sorry” to Native peoples is simply not enough. Many Native Americans reject the argument that their dispossession from their tribal lands was some past event. Although several Christian denominations have apologized to indigenous people for the conquest of their land, there is a lack of recognition that the taking of Native lands constitutes an ongoing theft.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you take my pen, what good does an apology do, if you still keep my pen?”

Native people continue to live out the consequences of over 500 years of colonialism. Apologies cannot fix the problem, but we can at least begin the long road toward healing by honoring their request not to celebrate the start of their genocide and the man who began the process. So, let me ask, when you claim the love of Jesus, which Jesus are you professing? Jesus the conqueror or Jesus of the marginalized? And when you express a desire–based on your faith–to struggle for peace, justice and reconciliation, how will your words be manifested in deed this Columbus Day?

Miguel A. De La Torre

Why So Shocked that the Pope is Anti-LGBT or Pro-Conquest?

Kim DavisMy Facebook feed has lit up like a Christmas tree. For some, the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis reveals his hypocrisy, advising American bishops not to insert themselves in the middle of cultural wars while at the same time inserting himself in the midst of what might be the last gasp of the religious right’s homophobic crusade. According to the Pope’s apologists, he was tricked in meeting with her, had no idea who and what she represented, and/or is being used to sully an otherwise triumphant U.S. visit. Unfortunately, what this current give-and-take ignores is that the Pope, along with the hierarchal religious organization he represents, continues to officially be anti-LGBT and unaware of indigenous sentiments.

To be clear, and speaking as a Catholic (yes – you read that right and more on this in the next posting), this is probably the best Pope since Pope John XXIII. I too was swept up in Popemania during the visit, excited about most of his pronouncements. I really like this Pope, specifically his preferential option for the poor, his care for the environment, and his contribution in bringing about reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba. But those who are scholars, and not ideologues, have a responsibility to apply critical analysis even to subjects with whom we agree.

So, in spite of all the good will generated from this Pope, why are we so shocked that he remains anti-LGBT? Even if he never met with Kim Davis, his past praxis and current writings continue to discriminate against our queer brothers and sisters. While serving as an Argentine Cardinal, he was a political rival to the president who was moving to establish LGBT civil rights. In a book he co-wrote with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (2010), he defines homosexuality as transcending religious doctrines, and instead being an “expression [of] ‘anthropologic regression,’ a weakening of the [marriage] institution that is thousands of years old and that was forged according to nature and anthropology.” While homosexual unions can be of “a private nature,” it becomes destructive when a third party is involved, as when “the union is given the category of marriage and they are given adoption rights, there could be children affected.” And of course, they would be negatively affected because “every person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity” (116).

So the Pope can respond to a question concerning homosexuality with “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” But in his mind, such relationships must be kept closeted and can never be recognized as a marriage or be able to raise children. His approach to homosexuals – by saying “who am I to judge?” – may appear refreshing, but in his mind homosexuality remains a sin to which the church’s response should be pastoral and aimed at restoring the “sinner’s” fullness of life. In his book Open Mind, Faithful Heart, the events at Sodom and Gomorrah remain “a sin of the flesh” (p. 220). Hence, his approach to homosexuality is not that different from other conservative churches who encourage “hating the sin while loving the sinner.” Pope Francis best expresses his views on homosexuality when he writes in Evangelii Gaudium “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will” (2:I:66). So does it really matter that he met with Kim Davis? They do agree that believers should fight the legalization of same gender marriages.

Just as troubling as his anti-LGBT views was the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, an insult to both indigenous people and U.S. Hispanics. But then again, why are we shocked with his romanticization of missionary conquest? His world view, as expressed in Open Mind, Faithful Heart, is one where “The first evangelizers [of South America] gave Native Americans knowledge of why they should engage in struggle . . . we should help people to learn the real reason for their struggle” (p. 31). Yet Indian scholars believe Christianity is the real reason for their struggle, a struggle against the physical and cultural genocide implemented by the evangelizers. Nevertheless, the then-Argentine Cardinal credits symbols of the Virgin for the spiritual unity of Latin American nations, bringing as one “Spaniards and Indians, missionary and conquistador, Spanish colonization and racial assimilation” (p. 102). Problematic is the lack of nuance in his view of the Church which he describes as “glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifices, of hopes, of daily struggles” (p. 96); a history unrecognizable to many on the underside of Christendom, specifically the Indian, the conquered, and the assimilated.  Yes, the Pope did apologize to Native People. But what good are apologies if you then make one of their first oppressors into a saint? Such acts nullify any apology offered.

As I said before, I really like this Pope and his agenda, but I cannot ignore when he – or anyone else I admire – remains complicit with structural sins that expands institutionalized violence. I am less concerned with whom the Pope met and instead hold him accountable for his oppressive dogmas and world views that remain detrimental to queer folk and Indian people.

Miguel A. De La Torre

Reviewing the Pope’s Encyclical

laudato siThe award-winning poet Alice Walker writes: “Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.” She goes on to elaborate:

“It is perceived, ironically, as other, as alien, evil, and threatening by those who are finding they cannot draw a healthful breath without its cooperation. While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the earth is enslaved, none of us is free. While the Earth is a “nigger,” it has no choice but to think of us as all as Wasichus. While it is “treated like dirt,” so are we” (1981:147).

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis I captures Walker’s sentiment early on when he writes, “We have come to see ourselves as [the earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (par 2). Thus the Pope is correct to equate the degradation of the earth’s integrity with sin (par 8).

We live in a world where the overwhelming evidence concerning global warming exists, upon which 99.9% of scientist are in agreement, and where the world’s richest nations are spending billions to limit their own risks from rising sea levels and drought. And yet, while the earth is poisoned, we ignore our complicity, as the church, both Catholic and Protestant, remain asleep in the light. Those located farthest from the equator, specifically the industrial North is responsible for most of the global warming, will be affected the least. For example Africa, which accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, faces the greatest risk caused by drought and the disruption of water supplies.[1] The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population, some 2.6 billion people, will experience “a future of diminished opportunity,” as they bear the brunt of climate change.[2]

Pope Francis’ encyclical has much for a liberationist to love. Because wealthy nations are mainly responsible for the current climate changes they are thus obligated to help poorer nations deal with the crises (par 195). He condemns transnational profit-making centers for weakening the power and ability of nation states to deal with the ecological crises (par 175, 196). He elevates water from a capitalist commodity upon which to profit to an essential universal human right (par 30). He critiques the neoliberal quest for quick and easy short-term gains as a major contributor to the planet’s ecological challenges (par 36, 184); redefines the very concept of private property (par 67) by insisting on a “social mortgage” (par 93); and rejects solutions based on market approaches (par 109) such as the buying and selling of “carbon credits” (par 171). Finally, he unmasks how foreign debt is employed by rich countries to control poor countries (par 52). In short, he centers the encyclical upon the crucified poor (par 241).

Crucial to the encyclical’s main thesis is linking the exploitation of the earth’s resources with the exploitation of the earth’s marginalized, making it difficult, if not impossible, to speak of one without mentioning the other. One cannot help but notice the Pope’s “shout-out” to Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (par 49), whose writings ironically elicited a formal Vatican inquiry that eventually lead to a one year silencing. Even though Boff is not mention in the encyclical, he was among the first liberationist thinkers within the Catholic Church to give voice to the cry of the oppressed, connecting it with the very cry of the earth. He insists that the logic and justification that lead the powerful and privileged to exploit and subjugate the world’s marginalized are the same logic and justification that plunder the earth’s wealth and lead to its devastation.[3]

While an intimate relationship exists between the global poor and the fragility of the planet (par 16) we must still ask, how does this link manifested within the United States? Missing from the encyclical is the role that race and ethnicity play in the equation. Race, according to a growing body of empirical evidence, continues to be the most significant variable in determining the location of commercial, industrial, and military hazardous-waste sites within the U.S. For example, using 2000 U.S. Census data, people of color represent 56 percent of the population living less than 1.8 miles from one of the 413 commercial waste facilities.[4] This means that of the nine million Americans living in neighborhoods hosting one of these commercial hazardous waste facilities, more than 5.1 million of them are of color.[5]

The poorer the community, the greater the risk of environmental abuse, because those economically privileged are able move away from such sites, a privilege not available to the poor, who are mostly people of color. Between 1999 and 2009, the National Academy of Science produced five environmental justice reports showing that “low-income and people of color communities are exposed to higher levels of pollution than the rest of the nation and that these same populations experience certain diseases in greater number than more affluent White communities.”[6] Black ethicist Emilie Townes has said that the effects of toxic waste on the lives of people of color who are relegated due to their poverty to live on ecologically hazardous lands are akin to a contemporary version of lynching a whole people.[7]

Until now, environmentalists from the dominant culture were mainly concerned with issues of clean air and water and the protection of habitats of endangered species. Robert Bullard observes that:

“The environmental-equity movement is an extension of the social justice movement. Environmentalists may be concerned about clean air, but may have opposing views on the construction of low-income housing in white, middle-class, suburban neighborhoods. . . . It is not surprising that mainstream environmental organizations have not been active on issues that disproportionately impact minority communities. . . . Yet, minorities are the ones accused of being ill-informed, unconcerned, and inactive on environmental issues” [8] (1994:128–29).

When those racially and ethnically marginalized compare the environmental quality of life of where they live with that of the larger white society, it becomes all too obvious that a link exists between polluted sites and disenfranchisement. Few white environmentalists seriously consider this link and consequently fail to understand a major reason why pollution occurs disproportionately in certain areas. The failure of the environmental justice movement to come to terms with the inherent racism that relegates those on the margins to the greatest ecological health risks prevents fostering a truly global, holistic approach to the environment. Continuing to mask environmental racism limits, if not frustrates any attempt or hope for the liberation of humans and creaturekind alike.

Although there is much to celebrate concerning the Pope’s encyclical, we must avoid the temptation of simply participating in a love feast. Hence, my concern is that the Pope’s romanticization of Natural Law (par 155) leads to problematic theological claims and a worldview disjointed from reality. His optimistic hope is incongruent with the ecological devastating future many will face, regardless of summoning us toward solidarity and having a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters (par 158). A call to a “change of lifestyle” (par 206) will simply not occur because the Pope calls for a “global ecological conversion” (par 5). The Pope fails to conduct a power analysis that recognizes the pursuit of short-term gain will not be abandoned just because the Pope calls all to embark on a new paths to authentic freedom (par 205). The power of profit will prevent the rich from moving away from their earthly treasures. The Pope’s claim that only by cultivating sound virtues (par 211) will people commit to ecological change ignores that those benefitting from oppressive structures will employ whatever means necessary to maintain their privilege at the expense of the ecology. Neither an encounter with Jesus (par 217) – especially for non-Christians, nor learning to recycle is enough (par 211). Those privileged by the current social arrangements will never willingly give up their power regardless of the cries of the earth. I argue that by embracing a theology of hopelessness, where there is nothing to lose, radical praxis becomes the necessary possibility that might push us to change.

                                                                                    Miguel A. De La Torre

______________________

[1] Andrew C. Revkin, “Poorest Nations Will Bear Brunt as World Warms,” The New York Times, April 1, 2007.

[2] United Nations Development Programme, 2007/2008 (UNDP), Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World (New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan, 2007), 2.

[3] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, trans. by Phillip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), xi.

[4] Dolores,Acevedo-Garcia, et. al. Unequal Health Outcomes in the United States: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care Treatment and Access, the Role of Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, and the Responsibility of the State (New York: United Nations, 2008), 27-28.

[5] Robert D. Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: A Report Prepared for the United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries (Cleveland, OH: Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, 2007), 46.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Emilie Townes, In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 55.

[8] Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), 128-29.

Being Brown While Black Lives Matter

Sergio Adrian Hernandez-Guereca - Age: 16; Shot in Mexico while agent was in U.S.

Sergio Adrian Hernandez-Guereca – Age: 16; Shot in Mexico while agent was in U.S.

Yes – black lives matter. But for centuries they haven’t. Killing black folk was considered sport, as documented by early twentieth century souvenir postcards of lynchings, where good Christians looked into the camera as that “strange fruit” swung from the trees behind them. The police, with a history to “protect and serve” whites from the menace of blacks, could always kill blacks with impunity. Black lives never mattered in this country, nor do they now – a point made clear as I read of the latest young black man shot in the back by law enforcers who feared for their lives. I believe that it is probably safer for a black man to be in a combat zone in whatever war we are currently engaged, than to be stopped by the police in this country. Because black lives matter, I totally support as an ally, in word and deed, this grassroots movement.

Valerie Munique Tachiquin-Alvarado - Age 32, mother of 5 suffered 14 gunshot wounds by Border agent

Valerie Munique Tachiquin-Alvarado – Age 32, mother of 5 suffered 14 gunshot wounds by Border agent

But whites want to create a counternarrative – all lives matter. This disingenuous attempt to diminish the revolutionary cry for justice masks the height of the dominant culture’s hypocrisy. If indeed, all lives mattered, then those who benefit from the prevailing social structures would have been at the forefront in dismantling the human rights violations committed against blacks before Trayvon Martin’s life was ever threatened for the suspicious act of wearing a hoodie and carrying a box of Skittles, a site that strikes fear, according to presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, for open-minded white people. The current social structures are undergirded with the recognition that only white lives matter. And while only the idea that white lives matter has been normalized and legitimized, it has become politically correct, within the racist colorblind motif, to argue with righteous indignation that all lives matter. Yes, all lives matter, but for now, the focus is on black lives.

Anastasio Hernandez Rojas - Age 42, beaten to death while handcuffed by dozens of border agents

Anastasio Hernandez Rojas – Age 42, beaten to death while handcuffed by dozens of border agents

And yet, as I observe the black lives matter movement, I am struck by the absence of brown lives’ participation. Our absence is deafening, even as it continues to be ignored. What does it mean to be brown while black lives matter? I do not want to fall into the trap of diminishing the importance of the movement, as in the case of whites insisting that all lives matter. But I also feel uncomfortable in the continuous black/white dichotomy that has predominately shaped the discourse of U.S. conversations concerning race, and which continues to ignore the largest minority group in the U.S. who, thanks to our immigration laws, now also represents the largest group in federal prisons. On a side note, I can’t help but wonder if the reduction of federal prison sentencing to counteract the 1980s tough-on-crime hysteria is just an attempt to make more room for more brown bodies.

José Antonio Elena Rodriguez - Age 16; Shot 7 times in the back while in Mexico by agent in U.S.

José Antonio Elena Rodriguez – Age 16; Shot 7 times in the back while in Mexico by agent in U.S.

How then, do I stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement without ignoring that brown lives matter too? While I read of blacks being killed by law enforcement, brown lives barely make the news. One is hard pressed to find media coverage concerning the 28 killings of undocumented immigrants by border patrol agents between 2010 and 2014. Patrol agents have kidnapped and raped the undocumented, including brown girls as young as 14 years old. Agents have beaten unarmed brown men to death. Undocumented federal prisoners have been killed while incarcerated, either at the hands of prison guards or through the denial of life saving medicine. Boys have been shot while in Mexico by border patrol agents on the other side of the wall who justified using deadly force with the excuse that they feared for their lives. And every four days, five brown undocumented lives are lost while crossing the desert.

Roberto Pérez Pérez - Age 63; died while in U.S. detention for lack of medical care after being beaten by guards

Roberto Pérez Pérez – Age 63; died while in U.S. detention for lack of medical care after being beaten by guards

While in custody, several face unnecessary abuse, as was the case with a 27 year-old Guatemalan named Jorge. For ten years he has lived in Santa Monica California and was making his way back to his family. Interviewed by the organization No More Deaths, Jorge shared a familiar story that unfortunately is not the exception, but the norm. In fact, over a two-year period, No More Deaths documented over 32,075 incidents of abuse during short-term Border Patrol detention. Jorge­, along with nine other migrants, were walking the trails of southern Arizona when Border Patrol agents on motorcycles and horses surrounded them. He was thrown to the ground face first and hit with the butt of a gun while agents hurled insults. For three days he was held at the Tucson processing center where requests to see a doctor for the injuries attained during his arrest were ignored. The food he was carrying (along with $100 U.S. and a birth certificate) were confiscated and never returned. He was only given saltine crackers (after days in a desert which contributed to dehydration) during his incarceration. The border Patrol also confiscated his clothes, except for a t-shirt and pants, and then turned on the air conditioning at full blast. Today Jorge suffers from chronic stomach pains resulting from days without eating.

Carlos Lamadrid - Age 19; Shot three times in the back while crossing the border into Mexico.

Carlos Lamadrid – Age 19; Shot three times in the back while crossing the border into Mexico.

Jorge’s life matters, brown lives matter. But how do I make this case without taking away from the importance of black lives? And as I say that brown ignored lives matter, I am keenly aware of the other lives of color, and the trans lives that are also being taken. Maybe the real question is why must it be an either/or? According to most demographic studies, whites will represent less than 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2042. In many of our metropolitan cities today, and in several states, whites already represent the minority population. This means that in most urban and industrial centers, where communities of color are predominant, the essential American perspective IS of color. But as U.S. demographics change to the detriment of whites, how is the whiteness of economic, social, and political power fortified? What will a future minority white apartheid America look like? The answer is as old as political maneuvering: divide and conquer. As long as communities of color fail to build the necessary coalitions to combat the prevailing reality that all nonwhite and nonstraight lives live in peril, the social structures protecting white privilege will remain intact. Yes, some politically correct cosmetic changes might occur, but over all, the structures that privileges one group over and against another group will continue unabated.

Ramses Barron Torres - Age 17, Shot and killed while in Mexico by agent in the U.S.

Ramses Barron Torres – Age 17, Shot and killed while in Mexico by agent in the U.S.

And while it is easy to simply blame whites for just being whites who, for the most part, ignore what it means to be of color today in America by insisting that all lives matter, communities of color must wrestle with their own complicity. Communities of color are partially at fault for accepting a zero-sum mentality that assumes any advances made by one marginalized group is at the expense of other marginalized communities. Like a four-leaf clover, our separate racially or ethnically distinct cul-de-sacs operate side-by-side with few of us ever venturing into the adjoining community. Solidarity may occur from time to time, but it usually happens with little long-lasting effects. More disturbing is when communities of color are oblivious to how they are locked into structures that cause oppression to other communities of color. How is white racism and ethnic discrimination different from the racist and ethnically insensitive comments emulating from our own communities of color? For example, when black leader Al Sharpton fails to recognize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. If many of us are content to remain within our own racial or ethnic niche, how can we, then, with any integrity, hold whites to task for not engaging in the liberation of our own community, when we too seldom accompany our neighbors in the adjacent cul-de-sac?

Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza - Age 36; Killed while at a barbecue in a Mexican Park with wife & daughters by Border agent in the U.S.

Guillermo Arévalo Pedroza – Age 36; Killed while at a barbecue in a Mexican Park with wife & daughters by Border agent in the U.S.

Neither black lives nor brown lives will succeed in the crucial work of dismantling the racist and ethnic discriminative institutionalized structures undergirding law enforcement until brown folk stand in solidarity at Ferguson, and black folk stand in solidarity on the border. Fighting with each other for the crumbs that fall from the master’s table only reinforces our subservience and focuses our energies against those who are more our allies than our competitors. I refuse to enter meaningless debates as to who has suffered more in this country, blacks or browns. It’s not a numbers game, for if just one black or brown life is lost due to institutionalize violence, then that is one life too many, and all our resources must be committed to fight full force to prevent the death of another life, regardless of skin pigmentation. “Black lives matters” must continue. “Brown lives matters” must develop further. And just as important, black lives and brown lives must begin a conversation and strategize together for the liberation of all lives from oppressive law enforcement structures that, ironically, see no difference between blacks or browns.

Miguel A. De La Torre

Plagiarizing the Poor

Photo: Vincent De La Torre

Photo: Vincent De La Torre

A few years ago, I shared a not-yet-completed manuscript with my class of doctoral students in an effort to receive feedback on some concepts I was developing surrounding the theme of indecent ethics. When I eventually presented those theories at a conference, I discovered that one of those students was passing off my work as their own, without proper attribution. As could be imagined, I was enraged. Some time passed before I began to realize that there is nothing new under the sun. I was forced to deal with my own arrogance that somehow my ideas were constructed in ex nihilo, as if from some vacuum. No concept that I can imagine, regardless as to how unique it may appear to be, can be solely attributed to me. I have often heard many colleagues state that they stand on the shoulders of those scholars who came before. But if I am honest with myself, the shoulders upon whom I stand are mainly those of the oppressed and the activists placing their bodies in the same space for the cause of justice.

One of the foundational principles of those who align themselves with liberative thinking is that our concepts are simply a reflection of what the marginalized and their allies are doing and saying. For some, this tenet is but rhetoric; but for me, I truly believe this with all my being. And if I really do, then I should not have been annoyed with my former student, for all of the ethical concepts that I, and other liberative thinkers, are constructing have already been developed by those on the margins of society. And if they have not arisen from the grassroots, then they really cannot be liberative because of their disconnect with the oppressed. The job of the scholar is to translate this grassroots praxis for a more general audience in an accessible matter (oblique writing does not equal brilliance) so as to raise the consciousness of society. We fail as academics (including those of us who are liberationists) because we treat the production of knowledge as private property.

Many of us in the academy have been highly influenced by the capitalist concept that commodifies even our thoughts, presenting recycled perspectives and ideas as if they have never before existed. And yet, for the true liberative thinker, there must be a move away from developing thoughts in the seclusion of our ivy towers toward recording the creative conversations already taking place on the streets located away from “good” neighborhoods by those who lack abbreviations after their names, and at times, lack even formal schooling. Could it be that a true liberative thinker is a plagiarist of what the disenfranchised are doing and saying? Not exactly. While it is crucial for scholars to maintain academic integrity and attribute thoughts and concepts to those who helped develop the conversation, I fear that all too often we are attributing the wrong people. We are quick to quote another scholar with academic credentials, and if we are honest, we just quote our academic friends while totally ignoring those scholars of whom we are jealous or simply don’t like. But in our rush to fill a footnote, we often ignore the true source that launched our creative thinking, those from the margins of society.

So here is the true ethical dilemma for the scholar. At what point are we simply appropriating the stories of the oppressed and of the activists standing in solidarity with them for our own purposes, i.e. getting an article or book published, getting tenure or promotion, developing a reputation among our peers as an expert in the field? As Stacey Floyd-Thomas reminds us: If you are going the appropriate, you have to reciprocate. In a postscript to womanist allies she writes, “The intentional and concomitant effort of others to participate in solidarity with and on behalf of Black women who have made available, shared, and translated their wisdom, strategies, and methods for the universal task of liberating the oppressed and speaking truth to power.”[1]

What do I owe those on the margins when I tell their stories or use their concepts? A simple attribution or footnote is not enough. How do I use the benefits I received by appropriating their labor to then move our liberating task closer toward justice? If I don’t reciprocate, then I become a plagiarist of the worse form (not that there exists any plagiarist of the right form!). To be a liberative thinker means that I too must accompany the oppressed in their struggle. I too must at times put down my pen and notepad and place my body in the same space that they occupy. For only then can I do this thing we call scholarship with integrity. Just to be clear, every concept, thought, strategy, or idea I’ve ever developed should be attributed to the disenfranchised and the many who stand with them fighting for justice. Being grateful to them is not enough: I must learn to be ¡Presente!

When I am present, I quickly discover that they are having a very different conversation than those who simply rely on cable news programs for their information. For example, anyone can write or talk about the current immigration dilemma. Anyone can have an opinion. But how do we move beyond the sound bites that seem to dominate the conversation and instead move to the difficult task of exploring the historical, economic, and social structures that conspire to create a crises where millions of brown bodies suffer injury, incarceration, death, or if they are lucky to succeed, a lifetime of living in the shadows? Many articles, books, and news accounts focus on the plight of the undocumented, but few try to understand why they come. Many writings exist that present us with the object of our discourse, rather than show how we can stand in solidarity with the undocumented and their allies, accompanying them in their struggle.

This month I began writing a new book on immigration, tentatively titled: The Immigration Crises: An Ethics of Place. All too often, we do ethical analyses from the comfort of our cushy armchairs. From the safety of our religion departments we gaze at the misfortunes of the undocumented and paternalistically describe their dilemma, denying them subjectivity by making them the object of our discourse. It becomes easier to talk about them as opposed to listening and learning from their stories, their testimonies. This book, which I just began to write, is made possible because of the many undocumented immigrants who took a risk to chat with me about their experience. The actions these immigrants take so that their families can have life are inspiring. But so are the actions of their allies who chose to occupy the same space as the dispossessed to accompany them in their struggle for justice.

I recognize that even liberative-minded scholars have fallen into the trap of claiming the importance of social location without being present, as if the exercise of thinking can lead to understanding, even if one’s body is physically miles away, teaching in some classroom. A danger exists for us academics who present ourselves as experts, but fail to occupy the same space, the same location in where the object of our gaze resides. An ethics of place[2] recognizes that the physical location in which the oppressed reside is crucial in understanding which ethics, which praxis, needs to be engaged. Not to be presente questions the ability to truly understand the dilemma under investigation. Physically engaging in consciousness-raising praxis leads to understanding the causes of oppression, from which a spiritual response flows that can lead to better informed theories or doctrines. In the doing of liberative acts (ethics), theory (theology) is formed as a reflection of praxis.

This book will be an example of employing an ethics of place, recognizing that as an organic intellectual, I reflect on the praxis of those who are actually crossing deserts as a response to the injustices forced upon them and those who are documented who place their bodies on the line so as to be in solidarity with the dispossessed. My job as a scholar of ethics is to reflect upon the praxis in which those seeking justice, either as or for immigrants, engage. I dishonor them when I try to fit their actions into some predetermined theory that neatly orders my worldview. Instead, I should seek to give voice and a language to what already is occurring – even when the voice given is as messy and contradictory as the actions they are taking. What I, and my fellow liberative scholars do in the classroom is not praxis. After all, we get paid to do this in relative safety. This is not to dismiss or degrade what we do, for it is important work, helping to highlight issues that are usually lost in the static of the everyday; but we should never delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we are engaged by simply reflecting on what “those poor immigrants must go through.”

An ethics of place insists that the scholar be present, to also occupy the space of the undocumented and their allies. Absence denies the scholar of any gravitas. Only when I am in the moment, seeing what they see, can I better understand in what actions to accompany them. How can I write about the immigration dilemma if I do not walk the migrant trails, or sit in court while they are being processed, or worship with them at the church where they are seeking sanctuary? If I refuse to be presente, I simply will be another clueless ignoramus who somehow believes that my academic credentials are all what is needed to know and understand. An ethics of place is what makes me an ethicist, what provides seriousness to my voice, not because I am somehow smarter, but because I chose to learn from the undocumented and their documented allies.

This book that I began this month will attempt to place the reader in the place of those struggling for immigration justice. This manuscript will be possible not because I took time to write it, but because so many took time to stand in solidarity with the disenfranchised undocumented immigrant. Although it will be my express purpose to help the reader better grasp the complexity of the immigration dilemma by inviting them to join us in the place where oppression systematically and unnoticeably occurs, my ultimate goal is to invite the reader to leave their comfortable space and join the undocumented and their allies in the continues struggle for justice. In other words, to be ¡Presente!

 Miguel A. De La Torre

______________________________

[1] Stacey Flyod-Thomas, Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society (New York: New York University Press, 2006) 250.

[2] I am aware that scholars such as Mick Smith have used the term “an ethics of place” as a means by which to re-engage the moral and ethical concerns of radical ecological theories; that J.K. Gibson Graham uses the term “an ethics of the local” in a Marxist analysis grounded in the necessary failure of the global order; and that John Inge uses the term “a theology of place” to stress taking seriously the importance of place which contributes to the creation of the identity of community, and vice versa with both endangered by the effects of globalization responsible for the erosion of people’s rootedness. I am using the phrase “an ethics of place” somewhat differently then how others have used the term. For me, an ethics of place means that praxis must be developed in the place of oppression, in the midst of the effects of institutionalized disenfranchisement in the hopes of creating an ethical response. When I use the term, ethics of place, I mean that ethical analysis, to be contextual, must also pay close attention to the physical local of the on doing the analyzing.