Still Just a Mexican

After hours of community testimony, school board teaches a civics lesson many will not soon forget

By Dr. Rodolfo F. Acu??a
Published on LatinoLA: November 2, 1999

Still Just a Mexican

After sitting in the Board of Education Room of the Los Angeles Unified School District for five hours on Thursday, October 28 as the fate of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias was being decided, I was left emotionally exhausted and angry.

At the same time, I was proud of my community, and moved by the display of unity of the Chicano/Latino elected officials who stood behind MALDEF's Antonia Hernandez, demanding that the board respect the Latino community and be fair to Zacarias, a decent man, who has always gone the extra mile for children and taken care not personally to offend people.

In the end most of the board members did what they damn well pleased and what Mayor Richard Riordan had wanted since Zacarias became superintendent two years ago. They dismissed him.

How it happened brought back a lesson that I had learned more than thirty years ago in Texas while a civil rights observer. A large Texas male interrupted my conversation with a waitress, telling me that "meskins" didn't talk with white women. An elderly friend intervened, telling the redneck that I was Dr. Acuna. Upon hearing this, the intruder responded, "Well, he's still a greaser to me."

The board repeated this lesson Thursday. While Dr. Zacarias has spent a lifetime in education and the Latino community has made tremendous strides in this city, in the end we're still just greasers to many people in Los Angeles. I believe that it is fair to surmise that if Zacarias were of another national origin they would not have treated him with such disrespect.

I do not recount this incident to inflame anyone. Indeed, an ugly byproduct of the crass and ugly treatment by the Mayor Richard Riordan-controlled Board of Education of Zacarias is the utterance of retaliatory racist comments by a small minority of the Latino community.

Especially repugnant are anti-Semitic remarks inspired by the fact that Howard Miller, the Board's designee to supplant Zacarias, is Jewish-American. This type of irrational response does not further our cause and damages our moral authority. We must remember that the so-called Riordan cabal has several Chicano/Latino lawyers and even politicos within its orbit, and there are Jews and non-Latinos who are vehement critics of Riordan's privatization schemes.

Surely, commentaries such as the ones that I have made add passion to the debate.
However, the alternative is to say nothing, and this unacceptable since the stakes are too high, and for too long the Chicano/Latino community has suffered from the actions of developers and venture capitalists like Riordan.

I have nothing against Howard Miller as a person. However, from the beginning he has been arrogant. This man is a real estate attorney with no credentials as an educator, capriciously demanding that he be made Chief Executive Officer.

And he got his way.

His words and actions have contributed greatly to the tensions. Miller's response to Supt. Ruben Zacarias's threat to hire a lawyer to protect his employment rights, for instance, was: "I'm saddened that Dr. Zacarias has chosen to make a legal issue out of this. These are issues being raised in the classic bureaucratic obstructionist way and illustrate precisely why the district has never changed and why it continues to be in difficulty." In another instance, Miller and his supporters implied that Zacarias, by fighting the coup, did not have the interest of the children.

This attitude is typical of the arrogance of the city's elite and how they have historically dealt with Mexicans and other Latinos in Los Angeles.

In 1996, I wrote a history of contemporary Los Angeles titled "Anything But Mexican." Admittedly, a cynical title, it is symbolic of how some Angelinos treat Mexicans and other Latinos in the City of Los Angeles. It is not so much that they mean to be racist, it is just that they dismiss them. Nos desprecian.

Yet words hurt, and as my mother used to say, palo dado no se quita (one cannot take back a blow by a stick). The reality is that Miller's remarks are offensive. If Zacarias had made a similar remark about being able to run the police department, Angelinos would have labeled him as arrogantly stupid, or remarked that he was taking affirmative action too far. Or, sued him by invoking Proposition 209.

Miller should know better. After all he is a lawyer who was once a USC law professor. One would assume that he has read the U.S. Constitution and is conversant with federal and state anti- discrimination laws. Just because Miller wants to throw his tantrum and insist that he be called the CEO does not mean that Zacarias or anyone else should be expected to waive their rights. With the decision of the board members to buy out Zacarias, Mayor Riordan and the capricious Miller have gotten their way.

No one denies the LAUSD needs help. The facts alone show that developers in the purchase of the Belmont Learning Center property swindled the district. If Miller had been sincere, he would have helped Zacarias to clean up the mess.

There will be critics of Zacarias for not continuing the battle in the courts. We all love a hero even if it results in martyrdom. I do not know what he is thinking. I do know that he has put a lot of love and devotion into the schools as an institution. Like Father Miguel Hidalgo, when marching on Mexico City during Mexico's War of Independence, decided not to attack the capital, Zacarias may have considered the price to the institution of waging an all out war was just too high.

Still, we are left with the ultimate contradiction. The treatment of Zacarias should tell those of us who believe that we have "made it," that for all of our accomplishment and all of our titles, to some ? like the four members of the Board of Education ? we are still just Mexicans to them.

About Dr. Rodolfo F. Acu??a:
Dr. Rodolfo F. Acu??a is a professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge and the author of several books on Chicanos in the United States.

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