Joe Barrera: After the Celebration

We just honored the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the right thing to do as it is every year. But now that it’s over the time for sober reappraisals is here. Not about the holiday itself, but about our understanding of it. Did it make any real difference? Did we truly grasp its meaning? The truth for me in terms of MLK Day is “No.” This failure is true not just for the King holiday, but for almost every other commemoration meant to improve our individual and collective lives. It can be a sad catalogue.

Urban Farming

Christmas comes and goes but we don’t appreciate the descent of heaven to earth (even if we are not religious, we want to see the miracle of the season). Veterans’ Day rolls around and we are no closer to restoring a normal life to returning combat veterans, what we crave more than anything else. On Labor Day, we think that nobody works, which makes us forget the millions who work but don’t make a living wage. We congratulate ourselves because we are free, but when the 4th of July explodes, liberty and justice for all (let me repeat, “for all”) are just as evanescent as the fireworks. We decorate soldiers’ tombs on Memorial Day as we prepare for more war and more tombs. At Easter we celebrate the triumph of life over death, as the opioid epidemic, mass shootings, gun violence, and the teen suicide rate undermine our hopes. “But wait,” you say, “we are making progress on all these fronts.” True, but not good enough. Not for me. My dissatisfaction has deep roots.

In the summer of 1963 I was working at a Rio Grande Valley fruit packing shed in 100-degree heat. It was August 28, and I left work because I didn’t want to toil anymore for $1.05 an hour, which even then was not enough. I went home, turned on the little black-and-white TV and watched Rev. King deliver his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In that moment King became my hero. What this meant for me was that I expected him to very soon come and lead the oppressed Mexican Americans of south Texas into the Promised Land — democracy, civil rights, equality, non-discrimination. Just like he was doing for Black folks. King would join forces with Cesar Chavez, the fellow disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, and with Chavez save the Chicano farmworkers from the slavery of the fields. He would do all of this with God on his side.

In 1967 the farmworkers in Starr County, the poorest county in the nation, went on strike for higher wages. The growers called in the Texas Rangers, little more than hired goons at their beck and call. Ranger A.Y. Allee, the Bull Connor of south Texas, led the effort to suppress the strike. I expected Dr. King to descend on Starr County at any moment and defeat Allee with nothing but moral force. It didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened. I was and still am bitterly disappointed. It would have meant so much to us if he had come to Starr County. But that’s in the past. I am unhappy because the present-day guardians of his legacy have not learned what he taught. They ignore the grossest violation of human rights that we commit now, the mistreatment of refugees seeking asylum. Dr. King would not ignore that.

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

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Joe Barrera: Do We Still Have a Conscience?

This is the season when we celebrate the voice of conscience. This celebration is unique in the world, and springs from our spiritual inheritance. As we understand our history, we were founded by people of conscience, dissenters who fled the oppression of church and state in order to remain faithful to their beliefs. We honor this inheritance of freedom of conscience. It has a name. We call it American Exceptionalism. We feel that it makes us better than other nations. The vision has faded but so powerful is the legacy that there is still a memory of it, still a twinge of conscience which prods us to pay homage to our founding ideals. Heroes of conscience continue to spring up in this country. They are Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” born to fight the dark forces of fear and discord. We are perpetually torn between conscience, the insistent voice of reason and light, and the devil of fear, which for us always takes the form of racism and xenophobia. It is the eternal war in our souls. The battle manifests in our belief that our purpose in the world is to be “a light unto the nations.” To be this light is to bear a heavy burden, which we carry willingly. But it can be self-destructive. We are torn by repeated struggles, the endless cycles of progression and regression in our history. These occur when we perceive to have either succeeded or failed in our mission of enlightenment. At the moment we have failed. We are caught up in the cycle of regression. We are moving backward.

Martin Luther King

In their latest visitation, progression and regression have been ferociously fighting since the 1960s. The ebb and flow is ceaseless. The decisive battle has not yet been fought. In the titanic struggle a better angel appeared. The darkness killed him, but his life continues. Because of him we know that regression will give way to progression. The hero said this about conscience: “Cowardice asks the question, Is It Safe? Expediency asks the question, Is It Politic? And Vanity comes along and asks the question, Is It Popular? But Conscience asks the question, Is It Right? The Ultimate Measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy.”

This would be one more moment of great crisis for him. If he were alive today he would be down on the Mexican border, rescuing the 13,000 children torn from their parents’ arms by the U.S. government and caged like animals. “We are responsible for that atrocity,” he would say to us. “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” He would condemn the racism he knew so well, still directed against his own people, and at the same time non-violently lie down and stop the latter-day slave ships, the dangerously overcrowded vans ferrying desperate immigrants to slave-like jobs. He would stand in front of the wall of shame and intone, “Tear down this wall!” He would fearlessly defend the asylum seekers, reminding us that we have laws granting them the right to seek refuge in the land of the free. He would call all of us, Whites, African Americans, Latinos/Chicanos, to stand with him in conscience. And we would respond, knowing that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just a hero for Black folks but for everyone of us.

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