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Opinion: Arizona Teacher's Letter is Sleepy Lagoon All Over Again

“When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they found an organized society composed of many tribes of Indians ruled over by the Aztecs who were given over to human sacrifice…. This disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population, which of course is well known to everyone.”

These vicious sentiments were written in 1942 by Edward Duran Ayres of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office after the indictment of close to twenty Mexican American teenagers during the so-called Sleepy Lagoon murder case. Sixteen were convicted on various charges related to the murder of one person in early 1943. Later that summer U.S. sailors, aided by police and white citizens, attacked mostly Mexican youth in the “Zoot Suit Riots” of Los Angeles.

Now flash forward to March 2011 in the Arizona state capitol, where Republican state senator Lori Klein read a letter written by Anthony Hill, a substitute teacher in the Phoenix area, that had this line: “I have found that substitute teaching in these areas most of the Hispanic students do not want to be educated but rather be gang members and gangsters.”

Almost seventy years later, politicians, supposedly representing the white majority, are still attacking their darker-skinned brothers and sisters during war, chaos, or economic uncertainty. They are spreading fear by lies and innuendo to turn Americans away from tackling the very real joblessness and home foreclosures spreading across the land (and afflicting people, regardless of race).

As a child I was punished in school for speaking Spanish. I read textbooks where Mexicans were nonexistent or only mentioned as bloodthirsty people—although in reality Aztecs, who are really called Mexicas, had the most beautiful orderly cities with gardens, astounding architecture, and menageries along with deep ties to nature, mathematics, and cosmology.

And despite the Zoot Suit Riots, Mexican Americans fought heroically during World War II, garnering more congressional medals of honor than any other ethnic group. They’ve played leading roles in wars in Korea and Vietnam as well as other military engagements, including the most recent ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more than 150 years their labors have helped build whole industries, including in agriculture, railroads, steel, auto, garments, canneries, construction, and more.

Once again, politicians are spreading hate at a time of war and financial distress, and once again Mexicans and other Latinos respond by giving their all to this country, including their most precious sons and daughters.

Of course, soon after Lori Klein read her letter, the school district where Mr. Hill briefly taught refuted his observations and State Senator Steve Gallardo stated, “(Hispanics) do not have dreams of being gang members… These are good kids.”

In fact, in my work among the most gang-ridden neighborhoods in this country and elsewhere I’ve found that the majority of youth are not in gangs. And those that are usually join them when they are poor in material matters as well as cultural and spiritual ones.

How long do we have to keep saying this, defending our place in this country and in its history? I’m convinced we can solve the economic mess we’re in by drawing on our common hopes, common aims, and common energies—and not at the expense of the most vulnerable or easily targeted among us.

What have we learned in all this time but that hate only begets hate, and in the end everyone loses.

Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of fourteen books in poetry, fiction, children's literature, and nonfiction, including the best selling memoir "Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A." His website is www.luisjrodriguez.com.

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