The Politics of La Memoria
BY BARBARA RENAUD GONZALEZ
tarch, corn tortillas, and a pencil. My first day of school. A mexicanita in a blue puffy-sleeved dress blooming with Texas wildflowers made from the twenty pound bags of white flour they used to sell back then, remember? Blue as the Niagara starch my mother used to make my dress shine— poor but clean, you understand. A tablet of Big Chief paper fresh as my crinkling petticoats, and two pencils so thick and fat they felt like butter in my hand. My story is not so different from many other educated Latinos in Texas—like Alberto Gonzales, I was fortunate to have parents who cared in their pobreza about my education. But now I have to wonder: What has happened to la memoria de Gonzales, the first Latino to be appointed Attorney General, the man from San Antonio and Houston—Harvard Law graduate, friend and legal counsel to President Bush. Has he forgotten where he comes from? According to his biography, Alberto R. Gonzales had working-class parents, and like me, he was a stellar student who attended the best schools in the country. We comprise the generation of Latinos who were admitted to schools like Harvard because of the civil rights movement—a civil earthquake of protests and riots and Vietnam that forced this country to confront its history of racism and injustice. It is a history that many would like to forget. Now Alberto R. Gonzales has been charged with enforcing the civil rights that brought us to the table. And the president who charged him with this responsibility is a man who has done everything possible to deny those civil rights. (It’s all done with paper and pencil these days instead of rocks and ropes.) My mother sold Chiclets on the streets of San Luis Potosí, and she taught me to never forget what it was like to be poor. But for many of us who were able to get a college education because of the civil rights movement, let me tell you—it is very easy to forget. The rewards in this country are for those who put the past behind them. If you work hard and don’t remind your bosses too much of where you came from and how much still has to change, you get invited to the mansions. I’ve been there. And when your brown carita is at the table surrounded by the powerful and wealthy and famous, you are so proud knowing that your parents sacrificed all their lives for this. Look at me! And with all the compliments and invitations that come your way because your presence makes the powerful feel less guilty for what they have done to people like our parents, you begin to imagine that you really are more beautiful and brilliant—not just lucky—to be at that table. Poco a poco you begin to forget. When Alberto Gonzales was counsel to then-Governor Bush in Texas, he helped Bush conceal a misdemeanor drunk driving conviction from his dark past—by helping the governor lie when he was called for jury duty. You and I could go to jail for this. Others could be deported. But that was nothing compared to the indecencia Gonzales demonstrated in advising Bush, who denied clemency in questionable death-row cases, contributing to a death-row culture that the U.S. Supreme Court has recently rejected as unjust and illegal. A total of 128 executions occurred in Texas during the six-year tenure of Governor Bush; 36 of them happened on Gonzales’ watch as Chief Counsel. In his role as legal counsel to the President, Gonzales was central to White House policy to slow-kill affirmative action and to fast-freeze the issue of voter disenfranchisement. He was also central to policies that blur religion with government, taking us on a slippery road back to the Inquisition. Another policy with Gonzales’s footprints—one more you won’t hear much about—in effect punishes Spanish-speakers by neglecting federal enforcement of regulations recommending the translation of bilingual documents for all government agencies. So this is what you have to do to be embraced by the powerful in this country? Has the historic denial of civil rights taken our souls too? Perhaps this is why Gonzales played a central role in the White House’s inner circle shaping anti-terrorism policies denying the most basic civil rights for prisoners of war. Even if we started the war. Even if we can’t speak the enemy’s language, understand their history. Even if we—as Latinos—come from a people who know what it is like to be so forgotten that our lives are one long remembering of what others have done to us. We are victims of violence unleashing violence in a merciless circus, says the Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco. With the featured attraction being Abu Ghraib. Followed by Guantánamo and Afghanistan. I can’t help but think that Alberto R. Gonzales has forgotten. Or maybe he can’t forget? But I have paper and pencil too. The bluest sky, corn tortillas soft as my mother’s kiss on that first day of school. Two fat pencils. So that I would give one to the other little brown girl who smelled like corn. No te olvides, mijita. De donde vienes. Bárbara Renaud González is a writer in San Antonio. She is working on a novel, Gonlondrina, Why Did You Leave Me? A Texas Story. This article was adapted from an earlier version, published in Spanish in RUMBO (San Antonio), November 4, 2004.