I came home this past weekend because I needed a break after this government shutdown and all the talk of a wall and scary brown people. I find myself wanting to scream a lot. And I feel like I’m losing my sense of humor. But it’s hard to escape the onslaught of race baiting when home is the border town of Nogales, Arizona. You might have seen us on the news lately. Trump used my town as a political football back in November when he ordered the National Guard to install concertina wire on the border fence just in time for the midterm elections.
But of course, my weekend plans of eating chorizo con papa were interrupted by political vitriol. As it turns out, Tom Brokaw, NBC News talking head and liberal darling, has added his voice to the dangerous mix of lies and misbeliefs about immigrants and Latinx.
During an appearance on Meet The Press Brokaw came out to say that the Americans he talks to are afraid of having brown grand-babies and Hispanics (Spanish speakers) don’t work hard enough to help their kids assimilate.
CREDIT: @CNN / Twitter
Specifically, he said, we’re not teaching our kids English.
Later on Sunday he tweeted out a classic non-apology apology—he was sorry if his some of his comments offended us—but then doubled down by saying he’d reported on Cesar Chavez, as though that absolves him of stating lies as fact on national TV. His attempts at damage control were just as insulting as his original comments. This esteemed journalist and sacred media cow never offered one fact one way or the other to support his comments or to support his non-retraction. He missed a very teachable moment. But I won’t. If Tom Brokaw can be so easily deceived, there are probably a lot of people with good intentions who might have things wrong as well.
Brokaw is known for putting a spotlight on courageous Americans. I’d like to introduce a courageous American that most Americans will never have heard of.
Miriam Flores was a Spanish-speaking immigrant mother of two daughters in 1992.
She enrolled her five-year-old daughter in a Nogales, Arizona public school. But since her daughter did not speak English, she was enrolled in English Language Learner (ELL) classes. After two years of what was supposed to be intensive English classes, Flores’ daughter was not adequately prepared her to join the English speaking students. She was going to be kept behind.
The fate that Flores’ daughter was not unique. She was one of 1,700 ELL students in Nogales. And she was one of tens of thousands more ELL students in Arizona over the course of decades who were left to flounder. So, possessed with the awareness of injustice, Flores did the most American thing one can do. She sued the State of Arizona to demand the State meet federal requirements. And she took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and back again.
Flores wasn’t asking for special treatment because she was an immigrant or because her daughter spoke Spanish. She merely asked the State to provide what was required by law; in this case it was the Civil Rights Act Of 1963 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act Of 1974. The later was specifically implemented “in order to establish an educational bill of rights for Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and others who start their education under language handicaps, to make certain that they, too, will have equal opportunity.” Those are Richard Nixon’s words.
Flores’ battle was an uphill battle in many ways. Nogales is a poor border town where 98.4% of students were Hispanic and 28.4% were ELL students. The town is in the poorest and bluest county in what became a whiter and more conservative state. And even though the facts plainly showed that Arizona failed to adequately fund or support ELL education, Republicans in the Governor’s administration and the State legislature dragged their feet and played games, refusing to acknowledge or fix the problem. Republicans drummed up hate with tales of “illegal immigrants” mooching off the system. To show you how much the State objected to doing right by public school kids, they hired Kenneth Starr (the attorney behind President Clinton’s impeachment) and chose to pay him millions rather than educate Hispanic children.
Flores and the Center for Law in the Public Interest persisted. For 23 years.
Her case was used by all sorts of groups for purposes that had nothing to do with helping children. But her case paid off. With the State of Arizona under a microscope, it were forced to do better. Funding improved. Assistance improved. Student outcomes improved. It took holding the State’s feet to the fire for a very long time but things got somewhat better. Flores’ younger daughter benefitted from the changes in ELL education. But, this many years later, things are far from perfect. Even with Flores’ attorneys’ best efforts and decades of asking the State to comply with the law, Hispanic children are still being left behind. Never the less, countless parents and children in this country are the beneficiaries of one immigrant’s inability to accept her daughter being treated like a second class citizen.
Let it never be said that Hispanics don’t work hard enough to help their children assimilate. They enroll their children in school to learn English, and we call them leeches on the system. They fight for their children to get the education required by federal law, and we call them entitlement-seeking troublemakers. They persist for decades and go all the way to the Supreme Court and, still, we call them lazy. Being brown does not make someone any less than other parents all over this country and planet who just want the best for their children. We owe them more than baseless opinions. We need to stop talking at them and start listening to them. In Spanish as well as in English.
But let’s be honest. Well-meaning people like Brokaw can tell us we’ll be accepted as soon as we assimilate and speak English, but nobody really believes they mean it. How do I know? Because of that other ugly thing Brokaw said. Don’t think I forgot. Hispanic kids can speak the Queen’s English with a Midwestern accent in between bites of hot dog and sips of Coca-Cola on a warm Fourth of July and they will still not be accepted by those white folk who are scared of hypothetical race mixing. As long as we are not good enough for their family, we will not be good enough for their country; even if, like my ancestors, we’ve been on this continent longer than any of them. You just can’t reason with stupid.
This episode caught me off guard. I took it for granted that I knew who the good guys are. What I learned is that you can’t take anything for granted. It’s not enough for us to be dignified human beings and upstanding citizens. We have to start running our own campaign to overtake the rhetoric or good people will have no choice but to internalize the lies.
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