Thursday, January 19, 2012

Trying to Connect the Dots

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

This morning, walking around Downtown Fullerton, I passed a real estate office whose windows had been scratched by “taggers.” Window scratching is a particularly aggressive form of tagging, because it cannot merely be painted over. The windows must either be replaced or sand-blasted, which is quite expensive. I know, because I have had the windows of my business scratched.

This real estate office’s windows had been scratched more than I had ever seen. Every window was covered with scratches, some of them very deep and extensive. The windows of the neighboring businesses remained unscratched. I wondered, why were these windows scratched so extensively? I stared at the window for a while, and noticed that, near the bottom, were these words, “Equal Opportunity Housing.”

I don’t know much about real estate, but I do know that, until the 1970s, before the passage of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, it was often impossible for minorities (particularly Mexican-Americans) to get housing in Fullerton. This was because of racial “housing covenants” which explicitly excluded non-whites. This practice led to the housing segregation we have today, where most of the Mexican-American population in Fullerton live on the “other side of the tracks.”

Housing exclusion, coupled with job discrimination, led to the formation of gangs. Young Mexican-Americans, having had door after door closed in their faces, turned to gangs, where at least they could assert their solidarity and survive in a very racist place. This is not to excuse the violence and crime of the gangs, only to attempt to understand them.

Thinking about all of this, housing discrimination, job discrimination, gangs, real estate, I looked at the scratches on this real estate office and at the words “Equal Opportunity Housing.” It began to make sense, in a way. I have been reading the book Cry, the Beloved Country, which is about the segregation and social problems in South Africa at the middle of the 20th century. The crime and poverty of the African population in that book was often a direct result of the racist policies of the whites.

And then, this morning, getting my coffee, I glanced at the New York Times, and saw an article entitled “Mexico Drug War Bloodies Areas Thought Safe”. The article reads, “The Mexican drug war that has largely been defined by violence along the border is intensifying in interior and southern areas once thought clear of the carnage, broadening a conflict that has already overwhelmed the authorities and dispirited the public, according to analysts and new government data. Last week, two headless bodies were found in a smoldering minivan near the entrance to one of the largest and most expensive malls in Mexico City, generally considered a refuge from the grisly atrocities that have gripped other cities throughout the drug war. Two other cities considered safe just six months ago--Guadalajara and Veracruz--have experienced their own episodes of brutality: 26 bodies were left in the heart of Guadalajara late last year, on the eve of Latin America’s most prestigious book fair, and last month the entire police force in Veracruz was dismissed after state officials determined that it was too corrupt to patrol a city where 35 bodies were dumped on a road in September.”

And I thought of a short film I often show my classes called “Powder Keg”, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which is about a US photo journalist shot in a war-torn Latin American country. As he is dying, he says, “What are we doing to this country? All this so that our yuppies can have their weekly lines of cocaine.”

And I thought about all the vicious anti-immigration rhetoric that is so common here in conservative Orange County, and the constant fear of deportation that many of my undocumented friends live in. And I thought, we are all more connected than we suspect. What we do here in America has ripple effects. I don’t claim to have the answer to these things. But they are worth considering.

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