Left Field

Renegade Town, Bush Beat and No Touchdown Jesus


Buscando Amèrica

“Will El Cenizo’s present be America’s manana?” That should be mañana, but the headline editor for the Financial Times of London let one slip by. The paper actually sent a correspondent to Webb County, Texas, to write a story about a town that “consigned English to second-class status.”

“Town” is an overstatement. El Cenizo is a border colonia of 1,700, situated some ten miles south of Laredo. Since August, when the three-person city council voted to conduct meetings in Spanish, the world has come to El Cenizo, to examine what a Washington Times reporter described as “a renegade town.” The Boston Globe sent a reporter to look at “A War of Words in a Texas Town.” The Spanish newspaper El Mundo’s southwest correspondent filed a feature-length story that ran under a bilingual headline “El Pueblo del only Español.” Papers that didn’t send reporters wrote editorials. The Chicago Tribune editorialized (against), as did Georgia’s Augusta Journal (also against). Complementing the editorials were op-ed pieces, such as a Boston Herald piece by a writer whose maternal grandfather had immigrated from Eastern Europe, and of course had learned to speak English.

“We’ve had a lot of reporters,” said City Secretary Elsa Degollado. “But more than reporters, we have had a lot of hateful phone calls.” According to Degollado, the council voted to conduct official meetings and government business in Spanish so they could be understood by the residents of the town. “Everyone speaks Spanish here,” she told Left Field (speaking in Spanish). Degollado said she was stunned by the international attention and the public response. “We’re just a little town with a volunteer city council and mayor and one employee.”

El Cenizo’s official decision to refuse to cooperate with the Border Patrol attracted far less attention than its Spanish language policy. (On the day Left Field visited El Cenizo, the Border Patrol seemed to be working, despite El Cenizo’s lack of cooperation. On the highway, several miles east of town, five officers and three vehicles had stopped all traffic in a routine search for undocumented immigrants.)

With all of the attention from the press, it was inevitable that the El Cenizo story would find its way to American hate radio. In late August, city commissioner Flora Barton got a call from Don Geronimo and Mike O’Meara, who broadcast the nationally syndicated “Don & Mike Show” from WJFK in Baltimore.

The show was set up with an introduction, as Don dialed.

Don: Here’s a story about a city in Texas, El Sneeze-O. Somebody threw pepper in my face, I have to sneeze-O. A little community, fifteen miles from Laredo … where they made Spanish their official language. I cannot be more pissed off.

The program progressed, through the following excerpts:

Don: Hola.

Barton: Hello.

Don: Hola, señorita. Hola.

Barton: Yes.

Don: Hello, this is the Don and Mike Radio Show.

Barton: Uh-huh.

Don: And you’ll notice the language I am speaking to you with…..

Barton: English.

Don: All right. Let me give you a Spanish lesson right now. Porque, listen to this. I got some Spanish here. Let’s see if you know it. What I am saying here. Spanish Lesson. Spanish. Spanish commands. I’m going to give you some commands now, okay. [prerecorded sounds are heard]

Barton: That’s not you talking.

Don: Eat me.

Barton: That’s not you talking.

Don: This is our language tapes. Listen. Eat me. Cómeme. Cómeme. How do you like that? Cómeme.

Barton: Go call the sheriff so he can listen to this, please, they’re out there.

Don: Go get the sheriff. When you get the sheriff, will you speak to him in English or in Spanish?

Barton: You’re going to be in bad trouble.

Don: Eat shit and die. How am I gonna be in big trouble? Cómeme (bleep) y muérete.

Don and Mike are not in big trouble yet. But by September, Hispanic protesters in Albuquerque managed to get the show pulled off the air there. The program, which is syndicated by Westwood One in New York and is produced at WJFK-AM in Fairfax, Virginia, is still carried by sixty stations. After the plug was pulled in Albuquerque, Don & Mike’s unofficial website cried foul. “Does the first amendment not exist in some states?” Of course it does. As Don told his listeners, after Barton hung up on him: This is a great country. This is the United States of America.

For additional information, contact New Mexicans for Responsible Broadcasting, 11919 Central Ave SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87123, (505) 299-8308)

Bush In Manhattan

“This campaign raises money from white people and holds events for black and brown people.” Don’t wait for an announcement from Karl Rove or Karen Hughes; this is an unofficial campaign observation picked up from a road-weary reporter, several weeks out on the Bush Bus and eager to go home.

“This,” the reporter said, “is the minority event.” That much was evident, even to someone not accustomed to following presidential candidates from one staged event to another. We were standing in the basement gym of the Sisulu Charter School in Harlem, waiting for George W. Bush and Governor Pataki to arrive. The school was new, the Bush Campaign was white, and the students and staff were black.

Bush was in Harlem to make the case for charter schools, a concept so new to New York that one of the children he used as a campaign prop told reporters that “the Sisulu School is the first charter school in the world.” That might have gotten by Dan Quayle, but Bush caught it and smiled. Bush has gotten used to kids in this campaign. He spends so much time reading aloud in elementary school reading circles that one begins to wonder if he’s making an attempt to catch up. Six weeks earlier, a schoolchild had asked the Governor for the title of a book he had read when he was a child. Put on the spot, he mentioned a sports biography, said his mother “used to make him read,” and finally admitted that he couldn’t recall a specific title.

But there was no reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar today. Nor was there an opportunity for children to ask questions. Readers of The New Republic might recall, as reported by John Judis, that a child at a Baltimore summer program for inner-city children asked Bush if he would support an increase in the minimum wage. Bush was caught by surprise and gave the child a dumbed-down lesson in Chicago School Economics, saying he feared a minimum wage would “price workers out of jobs.”

In Harlem, Bush praised charter schools. Pataki did the same. Reverend Floyd Flake, a New Yorker by way of Houston, praised charter schools and thanked “his homeboy” for coming from Austin to Harlem to lend his support. Charters are different from Alliance schools and voucher programs. Voucher programs (which take tax money and give it to students to use as tuition in private schools) are rare. Cleveland and Milwaukee host the two biggest experimental voucher programs in the nation. Alliance schools are labor-intensive attempts to improve existing public schools by providing additional funding for teacher training, enrichment programs before and after school, and extensive community involvement. Not surprisingly, they are the most successful educational innovation in Texas – and the most demanding on parents and teachers.

Bush tends to favor charter schools, mainly because of their strong appeal to the religious right. Charters are non-profit corporations that apply for state funding. In Texas they are remarkably easy to set up, which perhaps explains why $350,000 of taxpayer money was lost at one Waco charter, while another took the state money it applied for and never got around to opening its doors. This is the first year for charter schools in New York. Reverend Flake said that, as a black man, he had crossed a line and supported Governor Pataki because he had vowed to implement a charter program.

The principal spoke. The first grade teacher did a teaching demonstration. Those in the back of the room, meanwhile, were treated to the sound of fresh spin at the moment of creation. Bush media man Mark McKinnon laid it on with particular finesse for someone who could appreciate it: former Clinton spin-doctor-cum news analyst George Stephanopoulos. The diminutive Stephanopoulos must have seen something of himself in the equally short and smooth McKinnon, and he appeared to like what he saw. Left Field began to understand why the road-weary reporter wanted to go home.

“This is a white event,” the same reporter said after a hundred-block descent into mid-town Manhattan, where Bush was delivering an education policy speech to the Manhattan Institute – the right-wing think tank that has provided part of the intellectual ammunition for “compassionate conservatism.” The crowd in the Sheraton ballroom was very white, and just badly enough dressed to be easily identified as part-time public policy intellectuals. The food and service were stunning, with waiters scrambling about with roast pork and potatoes on silver serving platters. It did seem cheesy to make the guests from the Sisulu School sit at the back of the room and eat at hastily set-up tables, near the reporters who ate box lunches (chicken Dijon sandwiches on croissants).

Bush’s speech was a bit flat, by his standards. But it was new and it was about policy – not his strong suit. He borrowed a page from his 1994 campaign, when he swore to shut down the Texas Education Agency. (It’s still open.) In this case, his target was the educrats at the federal Department of Education. He laid out something that sounded like a voucher program, in which federal Title I funds would be taken from schools with a failing record and given to parents to pay for their children to attend private schools. And he took a page from Ronald Reagan, with an anecdote about big government. “The Department of Education recently streamlined the grant application process for states. The old procedure involved 487 different steps, taking an average of twenty-six weeks. So, a few years ago, the best minds of the administration got together and ‘reinvented’ the grant process. Now it takes a mere 216 steps, and the wait is twenty weeks.”

He even recognized Mayor Giuliani for bringing “order and civility back to the streets – cutting the crime rate by 50 percent.” He didn’t mention the pratfalls along the road to civility, such as Giuliani’s police officers shooting an innocent African street vendor nineteen times, thereby knocking the mayor off the short list for the vice presidency.

Bush did take a few swipes at his own party, for its focus on “the national economy, to the exclusion of all else,” and for “speaking a sterile language of rates and numbers, of C.B.O. this and G.N.P. that.” And he said that too often on social issues, his party has painted an image of America “slouching toward Gomorrah.” After the speech, reporters pressed McKinnon for the source and meaning of the line, “slouching toward Gomorrah.” McKinnon wasn’t sure where it came from, but suggested that the reporter take it at “its face value.” Again, I understood why the road-weary reporter wanted to go home.

The “big white event” was a fundraiser scheduled for the same Sheraton ballroom later that evening. More than two thousand people drank good wine, ate at a buffet line, and waited for Bush to speak – after a short biographical video backed by a triumphalist sound track with lots of brass and a home-movie feel. Backed by Governor Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, and a spectral looking Alfonse D’Amato, Bush delivered his standard stump speech – his real forte.

It was familiar material, the lines about “prosperity with a purpose,” compassionate conservatism that “leaves no willing heart behind,” and a military plagued by “low morale and aging weapons systems.” He also promised “to re-arm America.”

His delivery was great and the crowd – most of whom had contributed $1,000 to 0the campaign – loved him. “I think we did $2.7 million in three days here,” Pataki’s chief aide said. He wanted to know how Pataki came across in his speech. I began to understand why the road-weary reporter went home.

– Louis Dubose

No Touchdown Jesus

When Santa Fe Superintendent of Schools Richard Ownby was notified by a group of citizens that they planned to protest his decision to continue with school-sponsored prayer at Santa Fe High School Indian football games, he was not amused. According to Will Ellsworth, a Houstonian who helped organize the October 8 protest at Santa Fe’s homecoming game against Texas City, Ownby told him that Ellsworth’s request for a permit to march on Warpath sidewalks would probably be approved, but that Ownby would first check with local Baptist ministers, and then talk to the mayor and police chief, to “get a feel” for how the community might react. Ownby told Ellsworth, “I cannot guarantee that they won’t take your signs and burn them.” (They didn’t.) In addition to that helpful lesson in tolerance and civics, Ownby insisted on reciting to Ellsworth in full a series of school facility rules, including provisions against obscenity, libel, rude language, and “material that depicts or describes sexual acts, masturbation, bestiality, excretory functions, or lewd exhibition of the genitals in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards of the community.” Ellsworth assured the superintendent that wouldn’t be a problem.

In the end, more than fifty people of various beliefs, including some Christians alarmed by the school district’s sectarian position, marched outside the stadium in defiance of hundreds of football fans, and in opposition to the school district’s insistence – formally seconded in court by Governor Bush and Attorney General John Cornyn – that a football game is the type of solemn community occasion befitting public, school-sponsored prayer. They were met by counter-protestors, including one who waived a well-received “Honk for God” sign. The original lawsuit, prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union, was brought by Catholic and Mormon parents whose children had been subject to unwelcome proselytizing from schoolteachers. When the Fifth Circuit Court ruled against the Santa Fe I.S.D., the school district appealed, and the case is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, districts around the state have been left to decide how to handle the issue. Responses range from the stubborn, as in Celina, where the school board voted to continue praying whatever the consequences, to the creative, in Iowa Park, where a radio station agreed to broadcast a prayer just prior to kickoff, so that devout fans could bring their radios to the game and pray along from the stands.

Back in Santa Fe, Federal Judge Sim Lake has granted the school a temporary injunction to allow prayer to continue through the end of the season. Senior Marian Ward, daughter of a local Baptist minister, began the game with a prayer to her Lord, beginning, “Dear Heavenly Father, I pray that your presence is in the stadium tonight.”

Designated Prayer Ward was theoretically selected by a vote of school seniors, although it turns out she was the second choice (after the winner withdrew) in an election in which fewer than a fifth of the 250 seniors participated. The turnout suggests that the school’s new reputation for sanctimony (at least among students) may be overrated. And judging from the final score, the visitors from Texas City may have been praying harder: Texas City, 50 – Santa Fe, 0.