One of the great figures of Mexican-American history is Ernesto Galarza. The son of an immigrant family who worked his way out of poverty and racist schools in the early 20th century, he became one of a small group of Latinos to attend college and one of the first Latinos to earn a master’s degree (Stanford) and a Ph.D. (Columbia).
But Galarza did not disappear into the ivory tower. Instead, he chose to use his education to serve the community that had produced him. He became a leader in the struggle for educational opportunity and for the rights of migrant farmworkers. He wrote novels and scholarly studies that had a direct impact on federal legislation designed to protect Mexican-American working families.
In 1972, Galarza was asked to imagine the future for Latinos and Latinas who by that time had begun to enter U.S. colleges at a higher rate because of the Chicano movement and militant youth activism.
Galarza’s remarks are worth considering in light of the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for U.S. attorney general.
Galarza said: “These people must go back into the community understanding that their superior knowledge and training puts a proportionately higher responsibility on them, which means helping the community to understand the situations that it finds itself in and to bring to the community information that is not available to them.”
And then he described the dangers of the Horatio Alger story for ethnic minorities: “The Mexican moving into American urban society is moving into an extremely complicated culture. The community needs people who know their way around in it, but if you learn your way around a complicated culture you can easily be tempted to exploit it on your own behalf and to make a career out of it. Careerism is one of the temptations and pitfalls that face the Mexican graduate student.”
The biography of Gonzales is not much different than that of Galarza. Born poor, he beat the odds by making it to Rice University and Harvard Law School. Befriended by George W. Bush, Gonzales found himself elevated to positions of power in both Texas and Washington, D.C.
Traditional Hispanic organizations such as the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Council for La Raza (NCLR) have hailed the nomination of Gonzales as an advance for Latino civil rights. NCLR’s press release called Gonzales “a thoughtful, reasonable public servant, a man of his word.”
While he may be all of these things, Gonzales has failed to meet the standard set by people like Galarza. Rather than helping us to understand the current crisis, Gonzales put loyalty to his bosses above his obligation to serve the cause of justice. Instead of using his confirmation hearing to provide information that could clarify the origins of the torture scandals, he was evasive and shifty.
Clearly, Judge Gonzales has learned how to succeed in the halls of power – a “man of his word,” perhaps, but also a yes-man for one of the most reactionary presidents in U.S. history. Apparently, Gonzales could not escape what Galarza called the pitfall of careerism.
When non-Latino friends ask why some of us object to the term “Hispanic,” we struggle to explain its meanings. The Hispanic is proud of his or her ethnic background and is no less “authentic” than any other person of Mexican descent. But the Hispanic chooses to align himself with the status quo, basing professional decisions on what those above him want to hear and caring more about his boss’s approval than the common good.
So let us remember Ernesto Galarza for his commitment to social justice. And let us congratulate Alberto Gonzales – the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general.
(Jorge Mariscal is director of the Chicano/a-Latino/a Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California-San Diego.)