News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occupy movement could be a glimpse into future Latino turmoil

As I watch the Occupy movement make national headlines, I see the foreshadowing of another potential political upheaval on the horizon – one that will put Latinos at the center of the turmoil. Let me explain why. 
The Occupy phenomenon spreading across the U.S. underscores an often-ignored fact about political movements: Revolutions are rarely instigated by the downtrodden. They are usually created by affluent, educated young people.

Examine political upheavals present and past and the trend is inescapable. This year’s Arab Spring… China’s democracy movement culminating in Tiananmen Square… the overthrow of the Shah of Iran… Castro’s revolution in Cuba… In all of these diverse societies, and many others, the rebellions were led by disaffected young people motivated more by ideology more than personal need. Fact is, the poor are usually too concerned with survival to worry about abstract notions like justice and equality. My personal history bears testament to this insight. 

My father was a young man with roots in Cuba's working class, the first of his family to attend college. The education his parents worked so hard to provide for him opened my father’s eyes to the inequity and corruption of Cuban society during the reign of strongman Fulgencio Batista. Ironically, my father’s role in Castro’s revolution led to his divorce from my mother and brought me to the United States.

How does all this connect with Latinos? I think by now you may be getting the picture.

One of every four children under age five in the U.S. today is Hispanic according to the Census Bureau. By the time this cohort reaches their late teens, most will be fluent in English and well steeped in U.S. ideals. Many will have grown up seeing their parents struggle to make a living in a nation that tells them anything is possible. If present trends continue, these young people will also reach their teens in a political climate that puts all Latinos in the crosshairs thanks to a backlash against illegal immigration – and the thinly veiled racism that movement has engendered.

Will these young Latinos reach their volatile late teens meekly accepting their fate? Or will they follow a pattern seen in scores of other cultures and lead a rebellion? One thing is certain. We will not prevent this turmoil with repressive laws that alienate Latinos like those adopted by Arizona, Alabama and other states.

Illegal immigration is an issue that conservative politicians are using to pander votes from the ignorant, the fearful and the bigoted. But this short term political gain may have long range consequences. The Occupy movement may one day be seen as the harbinger of a much more turbulent future.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez


Elliot Kennel said...

As I see it, the central flaw of the "Occupy" movement is that up to this point it is a campaign for publicity that seeks to avoid realistic solutions for any of the problems that it seeks to promote.

One the one hand, I feel certain that Latinos will seek to avoid the mistakes of, say, Castro in Cuba.

I think that Occupy will eventually be replaced with something that is more concrete, and as you say it is unlikely that people being failed by the system will meekly go away.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Elliot. I agree the Occupy movement is more about reaction than reason. Nonetheless, its rapid spread has unearthed a vein of discontent that many see as parallel to the Tea Party movement. Will either be a catalyst for wider turmoil? Events this complex are impossible to predict. However, there are a number of other volatile elements at play today and in the near future. The surge of Latino youth is one of them. The rapid growth of armed right wing fringe groups is another.

tony yaniz said...

Revolution has been averted in this country primarily because of a substantial middle class. Because there was a strong labor movement in the beginning of the 20th century--which provided the working class with the aspiration, if not the actual goods, to better their lives with the material goods the wealthy had--there was no extreme class polarization. Now that gap is widening.
Historically, at a certain point the have-nots get fed up with NOT HAVING! That is the spark that ignites the remaining young intellectuals, and what is left of the middle-class to take to the streets.
My experience in Cuba was similar to Raul's; my father was a well-known journalist who was part of that very small middle class. He was an idealist, who as a writer got to see many facets of Cuban situation. He could have stayed in Batista’s favor, but chose instead to cast his lot with Fidel and the Revolution. The rest is history. Many years ago, before he passed away I asked him if he would have chosen a different path. He told me that although Fidel had betrayed the Cuban people, Batista has robbed and "raped" the Cuban people of their opportunity to better their lives. He told me that had it not been would have been someone else. When I asked him why, he replied that Cubans had lost the hope to make a better life for their families.

We should pay heed to this cautionary tale. If the axiom that the rich get richer...comes more into play, and the working people lose faith that if they work hard they could better their life, then it's only a matter of time. We should not make the mistake to think that we are immune to social upheaval and revolution!

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Tony, you and I both know firsthand from our experiences in Cuba how fragile a government can be. The legitimacy of a government exists primarily in people's minds. Once that mental switch is flipped, there are never enough police or soldiers to keep order. Let's hope our political leaders (and the people who elect them) see the perils of injustice. A society that only looks after the interests of the privileged is one that will be in constant turmoil.

Anonymous said...

Once the Occupy movement settles and concrete ideals are made, I can see actual change, however I do not see Latinos having any significant influence spawning from the movement. In the future, when Latinos have a larger number of educated, abstract-minded ideals, only then do I forsee influence. Unfortunately, we are a decade or two away from that

Jesse Luna said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "Latino turmoil." Do you mean turmoil that is thrust against Latinos?

I think Latinos are at the center of the Occupy movement even if they are not the face of it. Let me explain. Much of the Occupy movement is a result of the incredible wealth disparity in the country. Latinos are always the first to get the short end of this stick when it comes to wealth disparity. So even if they are not the ones leading the General Assembly meetings or camping out, this movement is about something that Latinos are going through.

Also, the movement is about the deterioration of decent jobs. For many Latinos, a good union job -whether it is public service job or construction or even teaching - used to be enough to sustain an entire family. My father was a Teamster, a custodian for over 25 years, and was able to feed a family of 7. The family income put us below the poverty line but we were still able to eat and have our own house. Now, austerity measures are slashing salaries, benefits, and pensions and many of those cuts come from Latino workers.

So we're at the forefront of this movement whether we like it or not. We do however have a chance to participate in the conversation and the direction of protests and the push for social change. The more involved we are, the better.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Jesse, the exploitation and income disparity being protested by the Occupy movement has indeed hit Latinos hard. No question. My point is that working class people of any ethnicity are not the driving force behind the Occupy movement. What I mean by the "Latino turmoil" that lies ahead is idle and alienated youth taking to the streets in protest as we have seen recently in France and England. Thanks for sharing your family's experiences. They are illustrative of the growing chasm between economic classes in the United States today.

Yael said...

Raul, thanks for a thought provoking piece. At the general strike in Oakland on Wednesday I saw a lot of young Latino intellectuals, including some up on the stage, speaking. These were not the infamous "anarchists" who hogged the press coverage, but a fration of the tens of thousands of peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators. In fact, Dia de los Muertos was a theme of the strike amongst the Chicano (second generation Mexican-American) youth, with decorative Occupy Oakland quesadillas being handed out by performance artists called The Great Tortilla Conspiracy and youth holding signs with Guadalupe Posada-style calaveras on them. My read on these leaders is that they are the generation you are referring to, kids of working class parents who themselves are going to college (be it community college or a 4 year institution). From the stage they urged a boycott of Wells Fargo for funding private immigration detention centers. Some of these college-going youth have parents who have been deported or are in detention (over 1,000 deportations in our county this year alone). Their frustrations are very real.

However, the extremely small group of violent protestors, in my estimation, is overwhelmingly white, I would bet that won't change any time soon. College- bound Latino youth -- to overgeneralize -- are too loyal to their families and are struggling too hard for their own survival to risk such irresponsible behavior.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

Yael, thanks for sharing your firsthand perspective of the Occupy movement in Oakland. With Oakland's diverse community and the huge Hispanic presence in California, it's no surprise that educated young Latinos would be among the Occupy protesters. Moreover, I'm personally proud to see these young people stand up for their elders and themselves. At the same time, my essay is not about these young people in Oakland but a coming generation of young Latinos who will likely grow up alienated by prejudice yet believing they are citizens with full rights. Unlike today’s Latino youth, the next generation will grow up with less traditional values and may be less likely to see their actions as a reflection of their parents. Indeed, they may even rebel against what they see as the passivity of their parents. This is a phenomenon common to every culture. As a result, we could see a generation of young Latinos frustrated with the outside world – and at home. If our society does not provide a productive outlet for their energy and stop demonizing all Latinos under the guise of punishing the undocumented, I fear we will see a volatile generation -- especially if we have an economy where jobs are scarce and many of our young people are idle. I don't believe this is the only possible future. But without being aware of the possibility and attempting to prevent, the risk for this tragedy increases.