Innovators 2008

People moving ideas and actions in 2008.

By Colorlines Staff Jan 07, 2008

In our second annual installment, ColorLines profiles a selection of people
of color working for justice—and doing it with creativity, passion and humor. We
feature among them an urban farmer who wants to feed the world, a journalist taking on racists with satire, a playwright whose monologue sears our collective memory with the experiences of Katrina survivors, and a team of organizers who pulled off an amazing feat of logistical coordination and political discipline to hold the first U.S. Social Forum. Read on for these stories of hope and patience, and enjoy.

Gustavo Arellano
Subverting racism with humor

Gustavo Arellano writes a nationally syndicated column about Mexican culture for the OC Weekly in Southern California’s ultraconservative Orange County,which alone is a subversive act. Except that the satirical column is called “Ask a Mexican,” and in it, readers submit queries about Mexico, Mexican culture, and Mexicans. Questions range from the sincere to the ribald, and Arellano’s responses are poker sharp, skewering the racism that underlies many of the inquiries while dishing out statistics and history lessons at the same time. “Ask a Mexican” has even inspired a host of other writers with similar intentions (but less successful results), including “Ask a Cuban American,” “Ask a Chola,” and “Ask a Korean.”

Arellano is writing a bold kind of critical resistance: satire to silence racists.

What were your goals with the column when you started?

It actually started as a joke, as a commentary on the twisted immigration debate in Orange County. My background is as an investigative reporter, and for years I’ve been covering Orange County, the Mexican-hating capitol of the world. We’re the home of Prop 187, the Minutemen, and sheriffs and a mayor who proposed making police deputies into immigration officials. I’d been doing more serious pieces on these people, but we wanted to figure out a different angle. The column is a satirical commentary on how crazy the debate is.

So we created a fake column, where Mexican people are such a mystery that we need a Mexican to explain things to everyone else. And there were people who thought it perpetuated stereotypes, plus those who thank us for taking on these things.

Right, because you do get a lo of very sincere questions about
Mexican culture.

Yes, and I will answer those questions, but my second motivation is to debunk stereotypes. My philosophy is the racist questions where people cannot stand them [are fair game], but when someone asks something like, “Why do Mexicans use the word “ojala,” which means “hopefully”—is it just because we can’t give up our Arabic roots?” I mean, where the guy wanted to know the answer to a simple etymological question, I will answer him honestly.

Has the mixed response from other Latinos surprised you? Not everyone embraces your column.

More people do than don’t, especially when they realize the intentions behind it. I completely agree with some of my critics if you read just one column. It seems like all it does is prop up these stereotypes, especially with the logo of the Frito Bandito, a sombrero-wearing, mustachioed Mexican man, an image Americans have been familiar with for about 115 years. But I’ve had many what I like to call “conversions.” People tell me, “I never realized you were this in-depth.” For people who are turned off, I tell them to read the column for a month.

How much do Orange County, the political climate and the local immigration debate influence your column and your voice as a writer?

The column is influenced by two things in particular. One, my personal story, the son of immigrants, one who came to the U.S. illegally in the back of a Chevy. And myself, my first language is Spanish, yet here I am speaking in English, the recipient of a Master’s degree. Yet so many people don’t want to believe that Mexicans can go to college.

Second, it’s influenced by the visceral reaction that I have to people I call anti-immigrant All-Stars who insist Mexicans are ruining the country, they are waging the Reconquista on American soil. As an investigative reporter, by this point, these people are beyond parody. I’ve exposed anti-immigrant activists through a lot of different formats—investigative reporting, first-person perspectives—but really the only way to deal with these fools is to make fun of them. By making fun of them, what I’m saying is, “I’m not going to allow your hatred of my ethnic group to affect me. Not only can you throw stereotypes at me, but I will take them, patch them up and throw them back at you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” 

I went to school in Orange County and read your column there. I actually feel like living in Orange County and being exposed to suburbia and extreme conservatism really radicalized me. It feels like “Ask a Mexican” is a uniquely Orange County column.

I think you’re right. I always make the joke that the only publications that would run this kind of column would be the OC Weekly and a neo-Nazi publication. It is very much an Orange County thing, where the best way to confront it is through this radical perspective. As opposed to East L.A., where, in some ways, they’ve been fighting it much longer, the debate is different in Orange County. This is oversimplifying it, but in L.A. there is much more of a Chicano identity, whereas in Orange County it is much more of a Mexican community. In L.A. they’re insulated from some of the real, real racism that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Why do you explicitly use the term “Mexican,” instead of “Chicano” or “Latino”?

Because growing up, that’s what I was taught I was. That’s what my parents would say: “You’re not Latino, what the hell is that? You’re definitely not a Chicano, because that’s American.” Go to any high school with a large Mexican-American population, and I guarantee you, the overwhelming majority will call themselves Mexican. If you tell most people “Chicano” or try to explain it to them, they won’t get it. I don’t think people have problems with Chicanos, they have problems with Mexicans. If you say “Mexican,” you have a very clear image of what that person is. Mexicans are viewed as an invading force, a sinister mass, here to inflict harm on good, upstanding Americans.

Do you still go on the Al Rantel show on KABC? Why do you go on conservative talk shows? And what’s it like? I would imagine it’s completely draining.

Far from it being a drain, it energizes me. I don’t want to operate in an echo chamber, only working with people who agree with me. I want to jump into the belly of the beast. I need to be able to know how people are thinking to help [me know] how to write. And I don’t just go on conservative shows, I’ll go on Kevin and Bean and other stations and field questions, but I love conservative talk shows because a lot of these people, they’re the audience I want to go after. Liberals are good-minded people—they don’t have these questions, their questions are more innocuous. They don’t need to hear these put-downs. But it’s conservatives who need to be put in their place. I think they’re a blast. One question I got [on a conservative talk show] was, “Why do Mexicans rape people so much more than whites?” And my answer was, “Well, no, that’s not true. And if you look at the statistics like I have, you’d see that the opposite is true. Whites actually rape others at a rate double that of Mexicans. What about you? What are you going to do after this? Are you going to rape someone right now?” And frankly, having to confront wackos like that helps my writing. It keeps me on my toes and helps me sharpen my arguments.

I know you maybe didn’t start writing the column withvery lofty goals, but how many minds do you think you change? I don’t have any statistical information—”Changing 50 billion minds a year since 1963” or anything—but I do have anecdotal evidence, where people have told me, “I actually do have a better appreciation of Mexican culture after reading your column.” This is the goal that I have: I want to show people [that] Mexicans are just as American as everyone else, maybe even more so. And the one thing I can do, I can put the truth out there—the statistics I quote are always real—and let the truth fall where it may.

Julianne Ong Hing

Sandra White Hawk
Advocating for American Indian orphans.

In the 1890s, the U.S. government began removing American  Indian children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools. At the same time, missionaries began adoption services, and American Indian babies were placed with white families. It’s believed that 25 to 30 percent of children were removed through adoption during the decades that followed, and the policy didn’t stop until 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, giving tribes control over child custody cases.

Sandra White Hawk was one of those children taken from her home on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in the early 1950s and placed with a white family. She found her way back home literally and spiritually in 1988 and learned that seven of her siblings had also been adopted.

White Hawk now dedicates herself to helping others return home.

In 2001, she founded First Nations Repatriation Institute (formerly known as the First Nations Orphan Association) to be a resource center for adoptees, their families (both of origin and adopted) and workers in the child welfare system. Over the years, White Hawk has worked with hundreds of adoptees.

She’s led about a dozen community forums throughout Minnesota and also in South Dakota, Maine and California. She finds that adoptees like herself in the past “have this sense of not being understood, not having talked to others who have had their experience.”

Last October, White Hawk led a gathering for adoptees from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. It’s believed that about one in four American Indian children were adopted out of their families in Minnesota. A social service worker there reached out to White Hawk because she was receiving so many calls from adoptees trying to track down their families of origin. Out of the 72 people that came to the gathering, 14 were adoptees.

White Hawk says that the removal of children from their families has long-term consequences, including depression and alcoholism. But, she quickly adds, “All of this ugliness  and emptiness can be washed away by connecting. We can heal each other through nurturing and sitting in that circle  with our relatives and just to hear the word ‘relative’ and know it means you.

Daisy Hernández

Growing Power
Expanding food justice.

Will Allen, a former professional basketball player turned farmer, educator and activist, means it when he says that his goal is to make sure “everybody in the world has access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food.”

Does he really mean everybody in the world, and is
such a thing even possible? “Everybody,” Allen says firmly. “Of course it’s possible, but people have to take responsibility to make sure that happens. It’s going to take a huge grassroots revolution
to make that happen. It’s starting to happen, but it’s gonna take a long time. We gotta be patient, but we gotta keep moving forward.”

From their base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Allen and his daughter Erika have been pioneering this work toward food justice through Growing Power, a unique organization that models how to grow and distribute ecologically and culturally appropriate food, as well as training communities locally and worldwide in sustainable
food production.

Growing Power consists of an urban farm, along with a store that sells organic and affordable Black Southern foodstuffs, food from the local Hmong and Oneida Indian communities, a “Market Basket” program that delivers $12 bags of organic produce and has become a national model for linking inner-city consumers with organic farmers, youth training programs, and ongoing innovations for urban agriculture.

For instance, they developed an “aquaponics” system to raise tilapia fish in simply constructed tanks where vegetables both filter the water and get fertilized by the fish waste. One low-tech, cheaply produced system yields a complete source of protein and fresh produce.

“It’s about reinventing the way food is grown, showing people that we could do it in urban areas, too,” Erika Allen says. “We’re working to provide the fertility and systems so that you can grow anywhere from rooftops to parking lots and containers, so that people can be self-sufficient in their food needs.”

In a world where millions are being displaced and living in overcrowded, expanding cities, the need for year- round, sustainable urban food production goes beyond America’s inner cities. At the time of this interview, the Allens were giving a tour to a group of farmers from Macedonia and getting ready to travel to Kenya and Ghana to help establish aquaponic projects.

Next for Growing Power is to launch a “Growing Food and Justice Initiative” that will bring together a network of social justice groups to explicitly address a “food system that is unjust and very racist,” explains Erika. “We just see food as a really powerful organizing tool. It deals with land, housing, transportation, economics, everything. For us, it’s really a tool of transformation.

Tram Nguyen