The Teacher That Is Silence

In these times, whom do we target, surveil, censor and repress?

By Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: July 8, 2002

The Teacher That Is Silence

I was somewhat taken aback when I learned that Craig Toyama, one of my junior
high school friends, was not Mexican, but Japanese. This was in East Los Angeles in the 1960s. That realization prepared me for "racial distinctions" later in life. My mom displays a photograph of my grandfather, who looks very distinguished and unmistakably Afro-Indigenous. When I moved to Washington, D.C., many people I met thought I was Palestinian, telling me: "Mexicans aren't that dark."

"Strange," I thought, "everyone back home looks like me." I'm usually hassled
by the border patrol "migra" precisely because I look quintessentially Mexican: native, indigenous. It seems as if I should be getting a free pass from the migra because I am indigenous. Yet post-Sept. 11, brown people seem to be prime targets of the Homeland Security homies.

I find myself with these thoughts because of the environment we're living in today. Growing up, I remember having Japanese American friends whose families had been sent to "detention camps" during World War II. Yet their families were always silent about this.

I remember wondering how it is that such a thing could have happened in this country. They were guilty of nothing, but they were branded as "the enemy." (Incidentally, Mexicans were also rounded up and deported en masse during the
1930s and 1950s.)

Our teachers taught us about yellow journalism and its role in stirring up racial hatreds and false patriotism that permitted such roundups. When it mattered most, the Constitution was discarded, yet we were assured that this would never happen again in our democratic country. We were also admonished never to call them "concentration camps." Apparently, we weren't supposed to associate them with the ugly things that had happened in Europe. But what had happened to Japanese Americans had happened here, not in some faraway Nazi or fascist country.

That's why I never understood the silence. It was the antithesis of Black and Brown anger, which was fueled by dehumanization, brutality, discrimination and enforced segregation. But, truthfully, there was no silence among my peers. The name Manzanar (the detention camp in California) was ingrained into my consciousness, as were Auschwitz and the precept of "never again."

I understood the Black, Brown and Red Power movements, but it was the silence that I couldn't understand. Years later, several elders took the time to explain the pain associated with it. It greatly influenced me and, I suspect, a whole generation.

The lesson was: Do not remain silent when government illegally begins rounding up people just because they're coming after others and not you. Never accept the justifications and the appeals to "national security." Otherwise, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights mean nothing.

Enter Sept. 11. Now it's as if the answers to "How could it happen here?" are beginning to unfold before my very eyes. Every day, government officials are proposing or issuing new edicts that take away our rights and freedoms and allow them to operate in complete secrecy. We and Congress are obliging the administration during this undeclared and undefined war to preserve our rights and freedoms. And no one notices the glaring contradiction.

Rather than offer political solutions, how can our leaders instead propose permanent worldwide war -- along with the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons -- and nobody says anything? By associating grief with the right of government to blindly strike back. Then you create the environment where we no longer have the right to question government. To go along is to be patriotic. To question is to give aid and comfort to the enemy. That's how it happens.

How does government secretly round up and indefinitely "disappear" more than
1,200 Middle Eastern men and nobody says anything -- particularly when not one of them has been charged with a crime directly associated with 9/11?

You dehumanize and demonize the enemy. The enemy becomes "them," and all of
"them" become fair targets, whether they live across the ocean or among us. That's how it happens.

In this environment, we not only permit racial profiling, but we also welcome it and demand more of it so that next time, 120,000 of them will be rounded up. But who precisely is the enemy, and whom do we target, surveil, censor and repress? All Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners? When the "war" shifts to Africa, South America or Europe, who do we round up then? Does it matter, as long as it's "them" and not "us"?

Truthfully, people on both sides of the political spectrum are gravely concerned about this madness run amok. Perhaps that silence did teach us something.


About Roberto Rodriguez:
Rodriguez can be reached at r

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