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The Alienation of Postmodern Geographies: Reflections on Southern Californian Suburbia

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 31, 2015 at 12:10 AM

When I made the decision to leave New York, I wanted to test a hypothesis: does geography play a role in one’s happiness?

If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say that the motivation to leave Gotham was based on a multi-layered amalgam of ambivalent feelings, much of which was deeply embedded in urban alienation.

Like many New Yorkers, I had a bipolar love-hate relationship with the place: it never felt like a unitary totality that could ever be home in a traditional sense. A city in constant metamorphosis, it can be home one day and someone else’s turf the next.

In my case, my impetus to leave Gotham was driven in large part by a need to un-jade myself—that is, to keep myself from falling further along this precipitous decline I felt myself on, one that felt like a free fall towards the inevitable end of the “jaded old queen.”

Another reason was existential. I developed my roots in Brooklyn, and as much as I came to love my cosmopolitan, working-class immigrant neighborhood, I also had a profound sense of what it meant to live in a truly fragmented and atomized neoliberal playground–one where the constant battle for space and time lent itself to a paradoxical sense of loneliness amid human congestion. My ties to family and home were both strange and estranged.

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Mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn


I can’t think of my years of experience in New York now without recalling sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), in which he links the overstimulation of the built environment with the “blasé attitude” of the metropolitan human.

Similarly, I conjure up the characterizations of heartache and existential turmoil that afflicted the black protagonists of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote beautifully at length about structural oppression and alienation in the big city of late capitalism.

As the queer, bookish son of two, working-class immigrant parents, witnessing the enigmatic health complications of my brothers, and personally living through the nightmarish consequences of autoimmunity and the cold indifference of the biomedical industrial complex, the urban terrain acquired a distinct set of meanings for me.

While I had numerous positive coming-of-age experiences in Brooklyn, it almost feels redundant to say that painful memories became etched into the physical environment as well.

A multidimensional mental map of the city is littered as much with tokens of joyful, ecstatic and almost-sublime experiences as it is with recollections of the solitary long walks, the spells of disappointment and wistful yearnings.

A quarter century of existence is legible in landmarks and streets: The overshadowed, gray-and-yellow playground under the Gowanus Expressway; the sooty, humid 59th St Subway Station in south Brooklyn; the silver, razor-like currents of the Hudson from a Battery Park City bench; the giant, moveable black cube on Astor Place near an old workplace; the striking emptiness of the Christopher St. Pier on a very cold, winter morning.


Two memories jump out at me as I think of my motivations for considering leaving.

The first was seemingly rather innocuous: a date with a friend to “catch up.” My friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that we both had ties with, an organization with unique, well-articulated politics that engaged queer youth of color around issues like gentrification.

As it turned out, the fundraiser was directed at alumni (such as myself) and our social networks, and it was taking place at a rooftop bar in downtown Brooklyn I had never heard of.

Unexpectedly, this time with my friend ended up sparking unease as I found myself surrounded by a conspicuously, upwardly-mobile coterie of queer men of color and white “allies.” The surrealness of the experience was highlighted by the fact that I was at a rooftop bar—something unheard of during my many years in Brooklyn—and my sickliness that evening in the gay meat market showroom.

More alienating than that, however, was the larger environment that surrounded us: a 360° panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn.To be sure, all those years of living here had never given me this level of access–the opportunity to see my home turf from an eagle-eye vantage point.

All around me were reminders of the changing topography of an early twenty-first century neoliberal city—an ever-emergent, postmodern cityscape. An insidiously spatial warzone.

Having spent my freshman year of high school near downtown Brooklyn, the micro-level changes were all-too-dramatic: a spate of new high-rises (including the development of Brooklyn’s then-tallest building, the Brooklyner), the mammoth Barclay’s Center, countless ritzy restaurants and bars, and in the distance, the multi-million-dollar Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

The second memory is rooted in a more sweeping experience of the city at the ground level.

It was the archetypal overcast, gray, late fall day, and an unhappy line-up of medical, personal, and work-related appointments forced me to make pit stops in four boroughs (and Long Island) within a short time period.

Driving around the traffic-clogged Belt Parkway became stressful not because I was running late all day, but because sitting for hours in a mobile, metal capsule forced me to marinate in melancholic memories.

As I drove all around the city, I was bombarded with movie reel-like scenes for each passing landmark and place.

I tried to hold it in, to think positively of what was to come, but it jumped out from an invisible crevice inside of me: so many memories


Now that I’ve lived in “America’s Finest City” for a full year, I’ve been given a number of things to think about.

As one can guess, it is much more complicated than a “thumbs up, thumbs down” evaluation of San Diego. But my situation has forced me to pause and consider how multiple layers of alienation can operate socially and spatially.

There’s suburban alienation. Academic alienation. The geographic alienation of living far from community.

Being economically compelled to live in the cheap graduate housing that lies within the super-wealthy, super-white neighborhood in which UCSD is situated—La Jolla—my life is more than just physically situated in a borderlands space.

It is filled with stentorian, everyday reminders of where I am, a fact that was striking during my first month in which I felt I was experiencing in La Jolla a selectively orchestrated bundle of the worst, Hollywood-infused stereotypes of southern California: suburban cul-de-sacs with breathtaking ocean or canyon views; limitless, box-model shopping malls and plazas that house uniform chain stores, cafés, and restaurants; a hegemonic car culture that reproduces (sub)urban sprawl; and a prevailing cult of self-fixated bodily perfection centered around the “beach body.”

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

As I understand it, the concomitant, hyper-individualistic consumption ethos that is both cause and effect of this catastrophe is intimately intertwined with a long history of white supremacist dominion over colonized space—a fact that stands out more prominently in the U.S. Southwest in general, where a strong, spatially-segmented Red and Brown presence makes the artificiality of it all more ostensible.

I’m learning, through one of the most extreme examples possible, what it means to suffer through suburban alienation (something I see as linked to contemporary neoliberal gentrification for numerous reasons).

It is this notion of owning or occupying a private space of “your own,” the emphatic American ideal of home ownership, that marks what race scholar George Lipsitz calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness.”

It is an investment that produces clear spatial consequences: gated communities on one end, criminalized black and brown communities on the other. As we see in cities around the world, these ‘othered’ urban spaces are increasingly targeted as domestic threats under national security policing.

The surrealness of having been transplanted from the Brooklyn barrio to this ultra-ritzy beachside suburbia is one that never escapes me, for I am constantly reminded of the ways in which I don’t belong.

For instance, my beat-up, used 2001 Honda Civic garners the attention of police in a neighborhood where new sports cars and militarized BMW’s are the norm. (To say nothing of my first six, car-less months, during which I experienced street harassment simply for waiting at a bus stop or walking on the sidewalk.)

In a similar vein, as a low-income graduate student paradoxically living in an affluent area, I frustratingly find that my nearest options for food and services (like haircuts) are incredibly overpriced.

The signs are both subtle and not-so-subtle. The environment makes it clear that I don’t belong here.


Whether we speak of suburban, academic, or neoliberal alienation, the same holds true with respect to geography: spaces can become alienating and confining, even carceral, in the absence of community and genuine social ties.

If there is something that my experience has foregrounded, it’s the nature of the way postmodern geographies can be alienating and surreal in numerous ways: whether it takes a cosmopolitan, suburban or exurban form, there are simply exponential ways in which one can feel excluded and distanced.

It is a reality that also brings me backs to my former ethical reflections on resistance vs. acceptance: Up to what point should we continue to fight to shape our local spaces, fight to build and sustain geographies of radical democracy and freedom (in a spirit similar to geographer Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the ‘right to the city’)?

On the other hand, at what point must the atomized self relinquish designs on radical reconstruction of space in order to seek out a path of radical acceptance? Or is the question of resisting/accepting alienating geographies merely reproducing a tautology of sorts?

Finally: Can one find home anywhere? If a homeland can’t be reclaimed in a physical geography, how useful and necessary is it to search for home internally (mentally, spiritually, psychically)?

To seek, in other words–in the tackiest of terms–a home at heart?

James Baldwin on the Nature of Dreams

In Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 2, 2013 at 5:15 PM

baldwin_criticism_america
Today, on the anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth, I felt a need to say something about a man who is indisputably one of Amerika’s most influential writers. Although he was a queer black Amerikan who was so disaffected with Amerika that he expatriated france, his writings have had mass global appeal–a fact that speaks to his incredible finesse at capturing the struggles and hopes of black lives. For better or for worse, his writings still resonate with the racialized Amerika of today.

Since he’s one of my favorite fiction writers, I don’t think I can do any justice speaking for or about him. His novels, and his life more generally, encompass too many themes to adequately address here. But as someone who’s recently reflected a lot on the meaning of dreams, the necessity of dreams, I was particularly moved by an excerpt from one of his novels. As always, his wisdom diffuses past the page and into your soul, revealing the this ineluctable, blurry wall between fantasy and reality, hope and unease.

The world he describes is almost too real to bear. But that’s just how it is.

“The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters. He encounters, because he must encounter, those people who see his secrecy before they see anything else, and who drag these secrets out of him; sometimes with the intention of using them against him, sometimes with more benevolent intent; but, whatever the intent, the moment is awful and the accumulating revelation is an unspeakable anguish. The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.”
– from Another Country (1960)

Lest We Forget: Why I Still Can’t Support Obama

In Class Politics, Decolonization, Identity Politics, Racial Politics, The Revolution on July 26, 2013 at 8:30 AM

obama_souls_earching_bombing

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal, the several rallies and marches in cities across the country , and even an unexpected speech by President Obama that has gotten much praise by a liberal Left, many perspectives have arisen regarding the state of racial politics in today’s Amerikkka. Is it striking that the trial of a murdered, unarmed black teenager should cause such bitter reflection of the country’s dismal history? While I’m sure many argue to the contrary, I’m actually of the opinion that we haven’t done anywhere near enough to counter racial violence in this country.

Forget the rhetoric that things are at least ‘better’ than they used to be—such talk, even among liberals, simply minimizes the ever-present urgency faced by people of color, particularly black and indigenous communities, a half-century after the so-called civil rights era (nee black liberation struggle). Implicit in these optimistic conclusions of “betterment” is a subtextual belief in a linear historicity and movement towards “progress.” This allusion towards an improved prognosis for the country’s ills is remarkably resilient given the financial collapse in 2007-8 and the globe’s estimated movement towards climate catastrophe. It is, after all, optimism that helped propel Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, to victory when he used public relations slogans of “Hope.”

To be clear, none of this is meant to suggest that room for optimism is impossible. Rather, it is meant to add to a minority throng of voices calling for imminent change—or else, suffer the consequences that threaten our species’ very livelihood. But I am skeptical. Very much so. It is definitely not a skepticism against those of us who have taken to the streets, who are doing what we must do in order to survive. It is, however, a skepticism pertaining to the prospect of true change before empire crumbles. It is a skepticism that emanates from seeing a liberal agenda being commodified and perverted under an accomodationist regime, purporting to be democratic while still calling undocumented immigrants “aliens” and corporations “citizens.”

It is a skepticism that emanates from listening to a Commander-in-Chief with a Nobel Peace Prize who’s green-lighted mass surveillance and drone warfare on innocent civilians. A skepticism of an African-descended leader who has failed to acknowledge the violence of “free trade” and militarized policing on people from indigenous communities and the global South. It is a skepticism, not a nihilism, that responds to this capitalist usurpation of Chicana activist Dolores Huertas’ “Sí Se Puede” with a “No, We Can’t”* (*that is, not unless we topple the corporatocracy that deforms our schools, poisons our food, profits from prisons, and raises our rents).

That a white-Latino vigilante with a gun could walk away, a free man, after shooting an unarmed black youth is testament to the state of our racialized world. Fact is, recent events notwithstanding, race has always been a part of the united states of amerikkka. Have we forgotten how race was/is a fiction imported by European colonizers, fortified under independent statehood, and used to legitimize inestimable genocides and atrocities that continue today? Undoubtedly, race today is a social reality that defines lived experience in Amerikkka, a factor that shapes and re-shapes how one is conditioned to see the world and sense of self. It is absolutely heart-wrenching to see black youth feeling threatened by the Zimmerman acquittal, knowing full well the implications of a ruling made by five white women and one presumed Latina in Florida: black lives don’t mean shit.

Obamashit

After hearing Obama’s impromptu speech to the nation last week, I was perturbed, not so much by the content of his speech, but by the popular response to it. Almost immediately the world of online social media was inundated with liberal cries of adulation for a president who, not too long ago, has been made culpable for such atrocities as: prolonging never-ending wars begun by Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan; the authorization of indefinite detention (NDAA) as well as the prolonged torture of prisoners in Guantanamo; and an inaction with respect to the criminalization of bankers and taking steps to end the troublesome trade liberalization policies wrecking global south economies. So although I see the significance of having a u.s. president acknowledge, at long last, the existence of racism and the limited opportunities faced by  youth of color, in effect criticizing the Zimmerman acquittal, any enthusiasm for this was tempered by an acknowledgment of the ongoing devastations throughout the globe for which he is directly complicit. In other words, I cannot be silent while racialized bodies elsewhere in the globe are being tortured, surveilled, and bombed. (I also can’t help but wonder: where are the “Never Forget” chants now?)

When it comes to the state of affairs for people of color on the streets and various communities across the country domestically, there has been no substantive change—with the possible exception of a somewhat more radicalized public. But I’m not holding my breath. After all, even while activists marched for Trayvon these past weeks (myself included), we’ve continued to see the same discourses of race repeat themselves—albeit with new examples, in a new year. Instead of Emmett Till, Rodney King,  Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, or Oscar Grant (not to mention the various black and POC trans- and cis- women and men we have not heard of), we have Trayvon as our martyr in what is a seemingly endless war against our colonizers. And the same, shamelessly naked expressions of racism online (facilitated by our anonymizing communications technologies) makes it certain that our challenges ahead will be Sisyphean in nature.

So as we grapple with how to “reform” racist laws in this country (as opposed to revolt), we will need to also confront an ever-growing threat that is impregnably tied to white supremacy. That is, what we’re witnessing is a configuration of violent institutions (the military, prison, and security-industrial complexes; academic institutions; popular media; and “food” manufacturers) merging in what is unmistakably the synthesis of a neoliberal imperial project. We are seeing an unprecedented level of market-driven mastery over human life, not to mention all forms of organic and ecological things, that has prompted ominous transformations in our climate. (Note: it is the united states of amerikkka that is at the forefront of this “progress.”)

And within this mastery lies an ideology of white supremacy that is internalized, largely unvoiced, complicit in an incredible tyranny of racialized bodies. And, as many have noted for far too long, (colorblind) racism in Amerikkka has evolved in sinister ways, becoming especially fine-tuned and strategic, invisible to the untrained eye, and like a tiny scalpel that has replaced a wooden bludgeon. As such, it is much deadlier.

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Just two months ago, Obama was heckled by an anti-war activist from CodePink, in opposition to his prolonged extension of Gitmo (and the ongoing torture of detainees) at Guantanomo Bay. This Democracy Now! clip also mentions his use of unmanned drones, I would take special note his concessionary language.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/3FaIMropdOM]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FaIMropdOM

Obama_yeswecan

Bring Them Home: Plight of Undocumented Youth

In Decolonization, Educational Justice, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Racial Politics, The Revolution on July 23, 2013 at 11:06 PM
educationnotdeportation

The various links between the school-to-prison pipeline and immigration policy are astounding. Rather than investing in our underfunded public schools, jurisdictions throughout the country have been putting money into building new prisons and expanding law enforcement agencies.

A group of undocumented Mexican-Americans decided to showcase the need for a humane immigration policy by making a trip to Mexico–and then trying to cross back into the united states.

The eight activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA)–dubbed the “Dream 8”–were almost sure to get arrested despite the applications they brought to re-enter the u.s. on humanitarian grounds. Yesterday, as they attempted to cross through a Border Patrol station by Nogales, Mexico, they were detained and sent to Arizona’s Florence Detention Center.

Although the youth from NIYA did not explicitly target the DREAM Act, I’m sure their courageous efforts resonate with many undocumented youth looking for an opportunity to “naturalize,” go to college, no longer live in fear. (The DREAM Act, first introduced to the Senate in 2001, would provide permanent residency to undocumented youth who grew up in the united states for an extended period and complete two years of college or military.)

Currently, after twelve years of activists and politicians fighting for approval of the DREAM Act, it seems as if some important congressional ground has been traversed. The DREAM Act was embedded in the  S. 744 Border (in)Security Act passed by the Senate last month (read more about S. 744 from my previous post). And after several debates within the House of Representatives, with strong pro-immigrant leadership from Chicago’s Luis Guitierrez (D-IL), Reps are now wrangling over whether undocumented immigrants who are not covered under the DREAM Act should receive amnesty.

For some activists, this has been an exciting as well as nerve-wracking period as immigrant amnesty seems, for the first time in a long while, possible. Others are cautious, wary of of the attached provisions and stipulations, or completely furious about the potential hazards immigration reform (as it exists right now) can unleash. I definitely fall in the latter group, fed up as I am with congressional-statist politics as well as the lethal implications of border militarization that congressional Republicans are demanding.

Lulu Martinez, an undocumented youth activist, discusses her decision to travel to Mexico:

Having worked around a number of immigrants’ rights campaigns in New York and Rhode Island, not to mention my steady passion May Day immigrant-labor solidarity, I usually have much to say about the politics of immigration to the united states. As the son of Latin American immigrants, having grown up in a large immigrant neighborhood in a multiracial metropolis, working for immigrant justice was intuitively appealing. And as a college student at Brown, I became involved with a group that worked on policy and legislation. I’ve since come to disdain electoral and statist politics, having been inspired by anarcho-communist activism, but I very much understand the impact of laws on peoples’ livelihoods.

Investigating immigration history and reading about these latest DREAMers, I’m also reminded of the fascinating politics that surround this bill.  Acknowledging this bill as dreadfully reformist,  a growing number of leftists are voicing an opposition to it for creating a stratification  of merit and arbitrating who has good “moral character.” By giving youth the option of becoming naturalized through military service, it essentially incentivizes matriculation into the country’s large war machine, particularly for youth with limited success in academics. And by selectively  deeming which undocumented youth are “worthy” of naturalization (i.e. those with good grades, with no criminal record, etc.), it also promotes a meritocratic myth that is simply harmful for youth trying to overcome life obstacles. Personally, I would be glad if the DREAM Act passed (it’s just common sense), but I would temper that optimism with an acknowledgment of those immigrant youth who are not eligible under the  arbitrary legislative measures. 

Once again, I am left sighing about the unfortunate state of immigration policy. It is one of the most conspicuous examples of how the state adjudicates who a belonging member “citizen,” who is in and who is out. Focusing the public’s attention on distracting issues, such as the question of who has a right to reside in this country, mainstream politics succeeds in diverting us from thinking about the more fundamental questions. Why, for instance, do we have borders? Why do we have countries, and why are millions of people immigrating to the u.s.? And why is it that we give special privileges to citizens, as opposed to acknowledging the humanity of every global civilian?

racist_xenophobic_patriotic_ad

Patriotic, nationalist fervor typically goes hand in hand with xenophobia. This flyer is truly fascinating, if misleading: whites were the original colonizers, the first “aliens” to steal land on Turtle Island.

Articles on the Dream 8:

Washington Post

Buzzfeed

Lizbeth Mateo:

no-nations-no-borders-and-no-gods-no-masters

My sentiments, exactly.

Study: High-Stakes Testing Increases Incarceration Rate

In Class Politics, Educational Justice, Racial Politics, The Revolution on July 16, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Diane Ravitch's blog

A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that high-stakes testing leads to an increase in the incarceration rate.

Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang conclude that the use of high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement leads to a lower graduation rate and a higher incarceration rate.

Anthony Cody has an excellent column about this study here. As he puts it, “exit exams boost the school to prison pipeline.”

The recent NAEP Long Term Trend report showed almost no test score gains from 2008-2012, the era in which high-stakes tests were ubiquitous.

Please, someone, remind me why Congress and Secretary Duncan and President Obama and every governor and legislature is obsessed with testing. Is it confusion, incoherence, indifference, ignorance, or something else?

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