Thursday, November 1, 2007

For the love of Chavez!

Over the last few weeks, I've been watching a situation play out here in Portland that is a shining example that the immigration issue in this country is a many-splendored thing. It's not just about who is here illegally, or who's taking a job from who. It's also about how those who are here to stay impact their new communities.

A few weeks ago, a push was made to re-name Interstate Avenue, located in North Portland, after Cesar Chavez. In recent years, other roadways have been re-named: Union Avenue became Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and Portland Boulevard was recently named after Rosa Parks. Residents of Portland Boulevard were not asked if they wanted their street re-named -- the mayor and city council simply decreed it so. This upset residents and local business-owners, as name changes can be costly -- not to mention that city code requires that the re-naming be approved by voters.

Interstate was once, a long time ago, the only road Oregonians could take to leave the state and head into Washington. It has its own history in the context of the city in which it resides. Previous re-namings, done to honor civil-rights leaders, met with little resistance, however, the fact that Portland Boulevard was re-named without a vote upset some people. In this instance, when a group of citizens proposed naming Interstate after Chavez, Mayor Tom Potter and the City Council seemed poised to do it again, and this time all hell has broken loose. Residents are angry that they were not going to be consulted. Advocates of the name change are outraged at what they perceive to be racism. In the end, the process has been halted and a compromise is being sought. Some are recommending that another street be named, one in a part of town where more Hispanics live and, therefore, the name would actually represent the residents. Others are suggesting that we could re-name a park, instead, since that affects less people and less businesses. The advocacy group that brought up the suggestion to honor Chavez with Interstate Avenue is not considering any compromise: now, it's a matter of principle.

And there we have it. At the center of it all is race. If any issue involves a minority, race finds a way to overshadow all debate. Even Mayor Potter suggested that those against re-naming Interstate had racist motives at heart. Of course, this further incensed those opposed to the re-naming, because all their reasons were tinged with nefarious motives, ones that they vehemently denied had anything to do with anything. But those who do see racism feel that just because you don't think you're a racist, it doesn't mean you aren't one.

I confess I've sat here, reading about the controversy, with my mouth (figuratively) hanging open. Race has become this huge monster that devours everyting in its path. Why? Because we're scared of it. Not in a racist, I-hate-people-who-are-not-like-me kind of way, but because the topic has become so delicate, that even broaching it leaves you open for misinterpretation and politically-correct landmines. Some are so scared to appear un-PC that they go too far in the direction of supporting anything as long as it's tied to a minority, perhaps because of guilt, or of fear of being called the r-word. Others are so overwhelmed with these landmines that they rebel in the other direction, and refuse to acknowledge that race is still an issue we have yet to work out.

I feel somewhat embarassed for the non-Hispanics who are vehemently defending the name change. I feel like they are glomming on to this as a way to show all of us that They Are Not Racist. I feel embarassed even for the Hispanics involved in the name-change committee, because they are now convinced that by not wanting to change the name of a street, Portland is virulently racist and A Point Must Be Made. And, of course, I feel embarassed for anyone who may oppose the name-change for racist reasons.

The thing is, the vast majority of the arguments against the change seem reasonable to me. Proper process should be followed. When you don't, you leave the door open for abuse, and for discontent. By assuming that everyone would shut up and be compliant with random name changes because a Hispanic was the honoree, Mayor Potter made things exponentially worse. The whole pitch is that re-naming the street is meant to honor Hispanics in Portland. But I, personally, question the wisdom of assuming that by honoring one man from one particular Latin American country, you are honoring all Latin Americans. Once again, I feel like in this town Hispanic = Mexican. We're all the same, right?

As a Hispanic in Portland, I don't need a token street. I need for the city to provide resources for Hispanics to get ahead. All this brouhaha, and, really, is it doing anything for Hispanics? All attention that could go to "Latino issues" is being devoted to some street. It's maddening. And what's worse is that it's a group of Hispanics actively fueling this fire. We can't see beyond our own race issues; it's not helping our communities, and it's not helping us forge a place in this city.

So what happens, then, when immigrants move in in enough numbers to make themselves felt, and to make a home for themselves in a new place? What is the line you draw between recognizing them and welcoming them, and maintaining the city's own identity? I think part of the unease that Americans may feel is that with new nationalities may come a loss of identity and history. As newcomers, we may want to start thinking about how to co-exist, how to set up shop and make our presence known, but still respect the history and integrity of our new homes. We're not here to take over -- we're here to live our lives. It may be easier said than done, but I think it's essential to do so if we hope to ease tensions. It's not just white people who have to be "tolerant" -- we're all bunking together now and we all need to make it work.

1 comment:

Candace said...

I think this entry needs to be sent as a letter to the editor, my friend. :)