Notes from the Tucsonan Desert: On Dissertations, Critical Race Theory, Operation Streamline, and the alter-NATIVE Spring Break

Life in PhD School

César E. Chávez Building at the University of Arizona

César E. Chávez Building at the University of Arizona

About three months into my doctoral program in Chicana/o Studies at the University of Arizona (UofA), I have finally acclimated myself to the brutal Arizonan weather. As I navigate the city, I have found local restaurants with community connections, such as La Indita, including making early connections with Derechos Humanos, a grass-roots community organization fighting for social justice in Tucson. I still need to find my way to Revolutionary Grounds.

I think that my background and understanding of the discipline of Chicana/o Studies has made the coursework manageable. Its been great also to engage in conversations with students from different backgrounds and disciplines helping me in my overall academic development. For the most part, the challenges I have faced have been at the institutional level with the university’s endless bureaucratic requirements.

Besides the weather, what has also stood out for me and actually been quite revealing is that the UofA is surrounded by a large Chicana/o-Mexicana/o community, yet it is still a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). It is apparent that UofA’s has lacked the initiative to create the necessary conditions for authentic institutional recruitment of Chicana/o-Mexicana/o students, faculty and staff. This reminds me of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) and its failure to recruit en-masse local Eastside students despite the university being located in the heart of Chicana/o-Mexicana/o Los Angeles.

I am currently taking three courses to help me prepare for my eventual dissertation. I have made it an effort to connect with the Chicana/o social justice movement in Arizona. I have made several connections with students and community freedom fighters thanks to my advisor Dr. Cintli, whom I initially sought out to mentor me in order to ensure that my doctoral program and study was not disconnected from the community. It has been the best professional and scholarly decision I have made so far as I continue my journey and education in Chicana/o Studies.

Despite being a member of the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) for several years now, I have consistently and consciously boycotted the Brown Tower that NACCS represents. Yet, in the political climate that finds Chicana/o Studies under relentless assault, I decided to submit a proposal for the upcoming Denver conference in April 2016, mostly because I wanted to locate the origins of Chicana/o cultural nationalism as formulated by the Crusade for Justice, as well as to question why self-determination has been lost and how we ended back to the politics of the Mexican American Generation and the politics of respectability and civility? Let’s see if the proposal gets accepted.

Critical Race Theory Begins in 1492

Columbus and Other Cannibals

Columbus and Other Cannibals

All my Chicana/o Studies courses stand out as being the most engaging and non-traditional classes I have ever taken. I have learned so much from both my PhD colloquium, and Mexican American Cultural Perspectives classes. The third class, Critical Race Theory (CRT) class, uses as its premise the notion that traditional CRT courses continue to offer a Black and White binary, which posits the United States as founded upon slavery. Yet by interrogating that binary, this CRT class is framed through an Indigenous perspective that asserts that the foundation of the nation and the entire continent actually rests on the genocide of Indigenous peoples, land theft, and slavery.

The CRT class, then, begins in 1492 as instrumental to understanding concepts of race, which continue to drive colonial Euroamerican policy in this continent. There have been many readings assigned that help nurture a community of scholars inside and outside of the classroom. Two of the required books assigned were Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack D. Forbes and Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by Steven T. Newcomb.

Pagans in the Promised Land

Pagans in the Promised Land

These two books are highly recommended and I will work on a review of both books for a future post that explains why these two works are important to our struggle for self-determination and highlight the need to question and dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. This class goes beyond the traditional lecture format of most classes. In fact, in this class we are co-equals in helping to create the syllabus, including making recommendations for possible events.

Operation Streamline

I am angry. There are no words to describe the anger I have for AmeriKKKa, especially after having personally witnessed the political policies of AmeriKKKan Exceptionalism in action. I am referring to Operation Streamline. I’ll get to that in a moment.

I have previously written about my father being deported at the beginning of the Repatriation/Deportation campaign of the 1930s. Growing up, I remember hearing my father describe how his parents had no choice but to get their belongings, lose their plot of land in Bayard, Nebraska and “go back to Mexico” even though he and his siblings were all American “citizens.” This is forever etched in my mind.

The positive, assimilationist, consumerist, and neo-liberalist rhetoric of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and other Hispanic/Latino groups who are part of the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) hides their collusion with several right-wing politicians and their right-wing think tanks who legislate laws that create and enforce the perpetual criminalization and dehumanization of our people through poli-migra military-style raids, detention and deportations without due-process.

Having been part of (im)migrants rights work in Los Angeles, I can honestly say that Arizona is the epicenter for the struggle. Nothing compares to the overt anti-Mexican climate that runs rampant in Arizona. The violence enacted upon our bodies, identities, and land since 1492 has been recorded by a number of scholars. And no matter how hard the right-wing politicians and their Hispanic/Latino agents work towards continuing the genocide, we continue to exist.

Doors to Courtroom

Doors to Courtroom

As part of the CRT class, several weeks ago we were given the opportunity to attend and sit in an Operation Streamline court proceeding at the Federal Courthouse in Downtown Tucson. I had previously heard and read about Operation Streamline but it did not completely or adequately describe the horror, tragedy that our people have to go through as well as the dehumanizing aspects of it all.

Operation Streamline is a little known initiative of the Department of Homeland Security with the blessings of the Deporter-in-Chief Obama that began in 2005, which establish so-called “zero-tolerance” zones near the U.S.-México border. Operation Streamline is a fast-track court proceeding (think of a Kangaroo Court, but 100x worse than that) to ensure maximum prosecutions of as many as 70 undocumented men and women in as little as one hour. None of the men and women are allowed to shower and all are wearing the same torn, dirty clothes that they were detained just only a few days earlier. This scene reminded me of my readings on the Sleepy Lagoon Case of 1942 when twenty-two young Chicanos were tried for murder and were not allowed to shower many times during the duration of the trial leading to an anti-Mexican climate and reinforcing the racist depiction of Mexicans as criminals.

In Operation Streamline, the most common federal crime to be charged is “illegal re-entry,” especially if the men and women have been previously deported. Historically, “illegal re-entry” has been a violation of immigration law, and is considered a civil not a criminal matter. Once inside the fortress of injustice that is the federal courtroom, the men and women are paraded in groups of 8-10 (think of an assembly line) in front of a judge who literally reads off a script, which includes basic information such as their name, a federal identification number, and date of detention/arrest by La Migra. All of this translated. This happens daily.

The judge reads so-called charges and tells each defendant that if they plead guilty (pleading innocent and forcing the government to prove that they crossed “illegally” since none of those detained were actually caught crossing at the border, seems not to be an option) they will give up and lose constitutionally protected rights and are subject to fines and jail time (what they’re not told is that they will sit in private prison before they’re deported). Of course, all the men and women plead guilty and are forced to endure psychological violence, including being unable to provide for their families, many of whom are here in the United States, not just in México or Central America.

Inside the Courtroom

Inside the Courtroom

I tried to document and capture the charade, illegality, and inhumanity of Operation Streamline on video via Periscope, but phone service was weak inside the courtroom, I took a couple of photographs, but from the vantage point of where I was seated, it did not lend itself to capturing anything noteworthy. I ended up tweeting about it. Several people tweeted me asking me how I could stomach it, and truth be told, I couldn’t and had to contain the rage I felt inside.

After giving up their rights and being forced to plead guilty, the men and women were escorted out of the courtroom and as they walked out the door, you can’t help but see into their cold-stone eyes and feel their pain, uncertainty, confusion and trauma of what has just taken place.

I doubt they could explain any of this without a moment of self-reflection. And neither could I. In the larger scheme of things, it is not just 70 random men and women who are being tried, jailed, and deported, they are our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends. Our mere existence as a people today is being criminalized by the same system whose legacy is built on genocide and colonization.

I couldn’t stomach any of this three weeks ago. I can’t stomach any of it now. It is only now that I am able to reflect on this. I am angry, and we should all be angry. More than that, we should be organizing and resisting against this system of imperial justice.

It made me even more angry when I saw Judge Pyle yawn his way through this proceeding of so-called American Justice. It doesn’t help that there are Chicana/o attorneys who fail to challenge the system. As far as I know, no attorney has ever encouraged their client to plead innocent. Likewise, no judge, as far as I know, has ever recused her/himself from Operation Streamline. The Private Industrial Complex looms large in all of this, especially the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, which are profiteering from the criminalization and misery of our people. These groups feed on the fears and pocketbooks of White America.

When the politicos and their Hispanic/Latino agents get on their podium and say that we need comprehensive immigration reform because the “system is broken” they clearly are either stupid, naïve, or both. Or worse, they think that we are. Most likely they know they are bullshitting all of us, but news sound bites in the age of the 140 character tweet are all the rage. And these folks know how to sell and maximize a sound bite for corporate donations.

So what can we do?

There have been several actions in Tucson that have worked towards shutting down Operation Streamline, including one action that took place on October 11, 2013 when in the midst of a so-called government shutdown, La Migra continued to do business-as-usual, but determined Tucsonan activists commandeered and blocked two buses that were transporting over 70 migrants to be processed, jailed, and deported.

In the Spring of 2016, there will be several major conferences to be held at the UofA from the MEChA Nationals to the National Association of Ethnic Studies. Each conference is providing opportunities for merging theory with praxis. These conferences are being dubbed the alter-NATIVE Spring Break because they speak about the political urgency to commit to social action, especially because Arizona is at the frontline of anti-Mexican hate that eventually finds its way to the nationwide discourse (see Donald Trump). These conference represent pedagogies of resistance to the current political climate. There is more to come.

I will try my best to document Operation Streamline in this space to help bring it to an end. Of course, we need on-the-ground actions. Without a doubt that is to come. Join the struggle throughout Aztlán and Beyond. See many of you here in Tucson in March 2016.


cultural sovereignty


Editor’s Note: The official name for the doctoral program that I am currently in at the University of Arizona is Mexican American Studies (MAS). At one point, the department was known as Raza Studies to symbolize the solidarity with the community and students. The name was changed to MAS as a pre-emptive move to counter right-wing attacks who saw the name Raza Studies as a threat. The name change did not spare the department from political and budget attacks.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexicans in the United States began asserting their right to self-identify as Chicanas/os in order to counter a legacy of genocide, colonialism, erasure and misrepresentation. There are countless arguments about the problematics of imposed identities on people of Mexican descent, especially when labels such as Hispanic and Latino with roots in colonization are used to disempower and de-Indianize us.

That I use the term Chicana/o Studies to identify my discipline, research interests, area of study, pedagogy, epistemology, theoretical framework, and community work speaks to my political ideology as well as to remind us of a time when Chicanas/os were courageous and unafraid and the goal was self-determination by any means necessary were not just empty words. Chicanas/os have never been apologists. The origins of how Chicana/o Studies came be have been largely forgotten or romanticized as some kind love affair between the administration and the students, when this opposite of what really happened.

The title “Mexican American Studies” connotes the politics of assimilation, accommodation and respectability of the Mexican American Generation. As I have observed, there is a fear to be targeted for espousing a politics of self-determination. Granted, not many push for an end to white supremacy and colonialism to begin with. The violent police attacks, the government and media attacks against the students of the successful MAS program in the Tucson Unified School District have internalized a fear that its better not to rock the boat.

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