By Fidel "Butch" Montoya
In all of this debate surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama, there is one interesting issue that some Latino religious leaders have failed to do and that is to raise their collective voices once again. Once again it seems we are comfortable sitting in the balconies of the 50’s and 60’s and watching the action.
During the early days before the Civil Rights Movement, I often heard stories about how we Latinos were mistreated as an ethnic group. How we were forced to use different bathrooms, drinking fountains, denied the use of our native language, and had to read the ugly signs posted around town “No Mexicans or dogs allowed.”
The personal burden of having to carry the perpetual battle of hate and discrimination and yes, open racism were no doubt emotionally and deeply felt pains and sorrows our parents and their parents had to endure.
I remember the turmoil around our country, reading the headlines, watching the Huntley Brinkley report on black and white television. We would watch the images from the South, we would see the Black ministers leading the fight and I watched in horror how law enforcement treated people as they beat them with batons, shields, and little lead weapons encased in leather called saps.
Yes, and who can forget the local fire departments using their water hoses to blow protestors off their feet with high water pressure hoses.
Yes, those were the days of the Civil Rights Movement. Very rarely did you see a Latino pastor or religious leader joining Dr. Martin Luther King or the Black Clergy in the streets. I have often thought about that as I grew up. Where were we in that movement? Why did our clergy not participate in an era when Civil Rights were needed in our country?
It took Dr. Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson to push through the 1965 Civil Rights Act through one of the most prejudiced and mean spirited members of Congress. Imagine to pass the 1965 Civil Rights Act giving people who had been denied the right to vote, "the right to vote". How was it necessary to legislate Federal Legislation just to open more doors of greater opportunity for Blacks and Latinos and other minority groups just some 40 plus years ago??
But did we lift a hand in that battle? I mean do you remember seeing many if any of the pioneers of our movement or other significant role models in the streets?
Recently we met with a group of Black ministers in a Black/Brown Dialogue to see if we could find common ground on which to begin to work together.
Almost immediately early in the first meeting, a very well respected and well known Black minister asked, "Butch, where were your people when we fought in the streets of Alabama, Los Angeles, and other cities across this country?
Do you even understand the pain and agony we have had to carry in our hearts for generations, even from the days my people were brought over in slave ships, and treated with the indignity and hate of the white slave owners?
Do you know what it is like to trace your family tree to a slave ship and slave owners? This is the pain and sorrow we carry, even till today."
Those comments came back and are very real to me in light of the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as his sermons are being scrutinized and still being taken out of context even though he has asked the reporters to listen to the whole sermon...not just selected voiatile sound bites. While the Gospel of Jesus Christ covers our pain, our agony, and our anger, does it mean that we have forgotten our history, our heritage and what may have happened to the blessed people in our past?
From our family’s perspective, I have heard the hateful stories of how Latinos or “Latins” as we called ourselves in those days were treated and how my parents had to endure the hate, the racism, the prejudice, and hateful people.
As I was growing up in elementary school, I always had the misfortune of attending schools where I was about the only "Mexican" in class. I always came from “the wrong side of the tracks” as they used to say.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and I mean sit back and think about the past for a moment.
This country as wonderful as it is, has not always been kind to our “ancestors,” my parents, to my generation, and certainly to my children. It is still a country with work in progress when it comes to race relations, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
There are times when I have spoken to a group of people when I have voiced these views along with the feelings of humiliation, anger, despair and hopelessness at the state of race relations in our country. And I always spoke the truth.
The one term I literary hated for people to yell at me was “to go back where you came from!” I have researched our genealogy along with the assistance of a professor who foot noted his work. We can trace our family ancestors back 17 generations to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and Spain to Northern New Mexico.
And guess what? I am where I came from right here in the Southwest.
On this land along with the Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico we lived together. Yes, there was conflict and rebellion on both sides. But look at the names of some Indians who hold Indian governmental positions within their tribes and there names are Romero, Rael, and other Latino last names.
When one looks back at the injustice of how this nation treated our people, how can we forget that history when there is still plenty to be angry about?
When a Tancredo demands that we be deported back to Mexico, just don’t forget, that this country has deported our people, some USA citizens many times in the past. The green INS vans of the early 30’s, Operation Wetback in the 50’s, and now the random raids and deportation of the 21st century, still detaining USA Latino citizens.
How can we not accuse this nation of injustice, land theft, mistreatment of our people, despised and forced to the “work no other American wants to do?” How can we judge Rev. Jeremiah Wright for his outrage and indignation of how the African Americans were treated?
In the Book of Deuteronomy in The Song of Moses in Chapter 32, Moses knew his time was near. He assembled the Elders of the Tribes and all the people and begins to recount the history of the nation’s journey through the desert.
At one point he admonishes his people “to remember the days of old: consider the long generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, they will explain to you. When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind” To remember their history and how the Most High was always there to lead them and protect them.
There are times when I write, speak, or preach and I may use some of the examples of what this nation has done to our people. How we were mistreated even when our fathers went to war to defend this land. How when they came back from the war, they were no long “American heroes” but now just plain “ old dirty Mexicans.” These are stories my father used to tell me.
How can we not remember these indignities? How can we not recount this injustice to my father to my own children? Who will tell our churches to stand up for justice when we see it is needed. Rev. Martin Luther King said, “when there is injustice against one, it is an injustice against all.”
Remember your days of old? How then can you accuse Rev Jeremiah Wright of being un-American or a traitor because he preaches truth and justice and clearly has not forgotten his past?
Fidel "Butch" Montoya
H. S. Power & Light Ministries - Latino Faith Based Initiative
Denver, Colorado 80212